Twenty-Four Hours Of Lecture

Well, two lectures and a seminar over the course of a day, not 24 solid hours (even Jack Bauer isn’t that cruel). I’ll give a capsule summary, and perhaps add details later.
Monday evening I went to W J T Mitchell’s talk about idolatry and the examples of Blake, Nietzsche, and Poussin. I’d been looking forward to Mitchell’s lecture all year; interested as I am in visual communication, I anticipated an illuminating exposition of picture theory. As it turns out, Mitchell devoted the first portion of his talk to his book — forthcoming in the fall — about the role of images in the social construction of the so-called War on Terror. This was mildly interesting, though people who pay attention to propaganda won’t be too startled about most of his conclusions. He did, however, signal his commitment to a point with which I disagree fundamentally (namely, that the images used in the propaganda conflict involved certain intrinsic characteristics that affected their reception).
After he modulated back to the designated topic for the day, he discussed the Second Commandment (against making “graven images”); at that point he began a series of misstatements about the Bible that had my colleagues and me squirming. He suggested, for instance, that the Second Commandment forbids all representational art and commands that everyone who violates this mandate must be killed, and all their children and subsequent generations. A cursory glance at Exodus 20:4-6 (the text he ostensibly was citing) reads as follows:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

(He omitted verse 6.) Now, to be fair to Mitchell, he was using the King James Version, which renders the “image” clause as “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” — but the sense of the Hebrew construction that the KJV renders “or. . . or. . .” is more correctly represented in the NRSV as “either. . . or. . . .” In other words, Mitchell’s reading of the commandment depends on his relying on the KJV rather than the Hebrew or a modern, more precise translation. That needn’t be a problem; the KJV certainly has an important effective-history. But Mitchell leaned on the premise that the KJV he quoted was what the Second Commandment says, which is an inaccuracy at best.
From there, he explored ways that Blake and Nietzsche were idolatry-positive and authority-negative, and the ways that Poussin problematically represented scenes of idolatry. He concluded by proposing a deliberately antithetical reinterpretation of Poussin’s “Plague of Ashdod,” in which the averted gaze of the figure in blue exemplifies a culpable refusal to regard the afflicted mother in the foreground, whose misery was the important feature of the painting.
This is getting too long, so I’ll summarise that yesterday morning’s seminar with Mitchell underscored his commitment to the premise that specific features of images involve intrinsic qualities of meaning. I queried him about this during a discussion of Errol Morris’s documentary on the Abu Ghraib images. His point was that the metadata in the digital image files of the Abu Ghraib photos constituted an element of the image-text that made a connection to reality; the crowning glory of this was his showing a clip from Morris where an investigator compared the metadata from the three cameras used at the scene, and reconciled differences among the dates that the cameras reported (one was off by years, the others differed by hours and minutes), such that one could follow a timeline of the order in which the photos were taken. This, he asserted, showed that digital images have a durable connection to reality.
I asked whether the images were different if one stripped out the metadata; he answered that you couldn’t see the difference, but that the image-text was different. I asked what about the image was different if the image-text was different; that is, what’s the status of the difference-in-an-image that you can’t see? He answered that images are never just images, but are always products in which the elements of the image are interpreted as this-or-that, and the (invisible) this-or-that-ness of the image was a sort of soft version of metadata (I’m paraphrasing; don’t tax Mitchell for my possible misrepresentation of what he would have said differently). I then asked whether that didn’t mystify the interpretive agency of the artist and viewers, who posit certain elements and identities that are not themselves intrinsic in the image. Mitchell was quite firm that (at least some) qualities of the image are intrinsic, not simply ascribed.
It still seems to me that this occludes the role of the interpreter, especially the authoritative interpreter (even an interpreter who places a high value on defiance of authority figures); to return to the Abu Ghraib images, they seem to have “a connection to reality” so long as the expert changes the metadata to fit a prior set of inferences about what it really ought to be. That doesn’t sound to me like the same thing as “a connection to reality” simpliciter, but he’s a Colossus of the critical theory world, and I’m just an idiosyncratic lecturer.
Quick overview of Vattimo’s second Gifford Lecture, which he entitled “Beyond Phenomenology”: he meandered about the topic of Heidegger’s break from Husserl around 1927. Husserl he represented as more mathematical, committed to a single fundamental ontology that unites the regional ontologies of the divergent (Neo-Kantian) spheres; Heidegger stuck to a more (religious) refusal to historicise the Transcendental Subject, so as always to defer closure of any ontological question. That’s an oversimplified summary, but Vattimo was much less cavalier (and rather circuitous and repetitive) in this formal lecture than he was in the casual seminar Saturday. Someone challenged him with the standard anti-realist question about the reality of the Holocaust; in response, Vattimo skated closer to glibness, alas. As someone who wants not to get locked into claims about the “factuality” of this ir that — even the great That of the Holocaust — I’d wish that Vattimo dealt with the question more respectfully, even though it’s a bit threadbare (do we somehow make the Holocaust more “real” by asserting that it’s a fact, not an interpretation? Isn’t it already an interpretive decision to refer to it as a Holocaust rather than simply a massacre or genocide? Do we gain yardage on Holocaust-deniers by saying, “No, the Holocaust is a fact” (as though that will somehow thwart their determined refusal to assent to a matter which most observers regard as beyond doubt)? and so on).
Third Gifford Lecture tonight.

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