WJT Mitchell — Notes on Picture Theory

In analyzing the “pictorial turn” in his book Picture Theory, Mitchell begins by raising important questions about how images reference texts and how texts act like pictures and incorporate pictorial practices (4).  Using the "linguistic turn" as a historical and philosphical backdrop, Mitchell operates under the important assumption that culture has reoriented itself around visual paradigms and yet we still do not have a clear understanding of the essential nature of pictures, their relation to verbal language, the ways in which they have effect on their viewers and the world, their historicality, nor their future implications (9, 13).  Rather than being a cultural phenomenon in which images have come to play a more exigent and meaningful role in 20th and 21stst century cultures, the “pictorial turn” is a pressing realization that visual literacy is more complicated than way may have previously perceived and that the current model of textuality employed to understand and study images is not sufficient considering the complexity of visual culture (16).  The pictorial turn is, rather, post-linguistic and looks at the picture as a complex interplay of modes of representation within human society(16).  Mitchell suggests that we begin looking to pictures themselves for answers to their nature, function, and historicality.  Mitchell's approach leads toward looking at images and texts in relationship as second and first order discourses that references eachother.  Mitchell challenges readers to begin conceiving pictures and all media as image-texts; bifurcating writing and image is nothing more than an “ideology, a complex of desire and fear, power and interest” (86).  In addition, he suggests that we begin to conceive of language as a “medium rather than a system, a heterogenous field of discursive modes [“already situated within institutions, histories, and discourses”] requiring pragmatic, dialectical description that then a univocally coded scheme open to scientific explanation” (97 and 98).  Conceiving of language as medium and media as image-text has the potential to frame all language as dialectic.

Questions for Inquiry:

What is the pictorial turn and what implications does it have for the study of visual culture?

What is the relation between text and image?  What is image-text and why is this conception of all media useful for the understanding of language?


The pictorial turn is a “postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality” (16).

The metapicture is a “place where pictures reveal and “know” themselves, where they reflect on the intersections of visuality, language, and similitude, where they engage in speculation and theorizing on their own nature and history” (82).

Metapictures “reveal the inextricable weaving together of representation and discourse, the imbrication of visual and verbal experience” (83).

“All media are mixed media, combining different codes, discursive conventions, channels, sensory and cognitive modes” (95).

“Writing, in its physical, graphic form, is an inseparable suturing of the visual and the verbal, the “imagetext” incarnate” (95).

 “The image-text” is neither a method or guarantee of historical discovery; it is more like an aperture or cleavage in representation, a place where history might slip through the cracks” (104).

“Any picture is a visible mark no matter how simple…is  capable of becoming a metapicture.  Pictorial self-referance is, in other words, no exclusively a formal, internal feature that distinguishes some pictures, but a pragmatic, functional feature, a matter of use and context.  Any picture that is used to reflect on the nature of pictures is a metapicture” (56).

“The questions and answers—the observer’s dialogue with the metapicture—do not occur in some disembodied realm outside of history but are embedded in specific discourses, disciplines, and regimes of knowledge” (48).

“A text is already inside the image, perhaps most deeply when they seem to be most completely absent, invisible, and inaudible” (98).