09 Apr

W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm” (1986)

“The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm” appears in Iconology: Image, Text, Rhetoric. This book is not specifically about images, but “the way we talk about the idea of imagery” (1). Mitchell wants to show “how the notion of imagery serves as a kind of relay connecting theories of art, language, and the mind with conceptions of social, cultural, and political value” (2). This is also a book about the fear of images. According to Mitchell, the term iconology “turned out to be, not just about the science of icons, but the political psychology of icons, the study of iconophobia, iconophilia, and the struggle between iconoclasm and idolatry” (3).  This struggle can be seen within our conceptions of images and text. Mitchell recognizes that images cannot be read without text and context. Pictures need words and vice versa. “The recognition that pictorial images are inevitably conventional and contaminated by language need not cast us into an abyss of infinitely regressive signifiers…The history of culture is in part the story of a protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs, each claiming for itself certain proprietary rights in ‘nature’ to which only it has access” (42-43) Thus, historians cannot separate pictures from words in history or in their analyses. Ways of seeing images are socially constructed by texts and language. With this struggle between pictures and words in mind, Mitchell examines the rhetoric of iconoclasm.

Mitchel examines the rhetoric of iconoclasm in Marx’s ideology and fetishism. Marx defined ideology as a false consciousness. According to Mitchell this means “a system of symbolic representation that reflects an historical situation of domination by a particular class, and which serves to conceal the historical character and class bias of that system under guises of naturalness and universality” (4). Since Marx, historians have taken ideology to mean the “structures of values and interests that informs any representation of reality” (4). This meaning loses Marx’s notion of false consciousness, oppression, and criticism.

Marx made his notion of ideology concrete by using the language of imagery. Marx suggested that ideology was the camera obscura. Like the camera obscura, ideology projected false realities. For Marx, the camera obscura was a commodity, a bourgeois amusement that created illusion with images. Marx called for iconoclasm or a break from ideology and false ideas.

Marx also called for iconoclasm, or a break from material things in Das Capital. Marx criticized capitalists’ material objects and concrete practices in his explication of the commodity fetish. Marx applied the European idea of the fetish as a perverse, primitive, religious illusion to the commodity. Marx argued that commodities were fetishes. Commodities to the capitalist appeared to have a “transcendent” being, they were endowed with a “mystical” and “enigmatic” character (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81-96). A commodity to the capitalists “is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81). This mystery, according to Marx, stemmed from a commodity’s abstraction of labor and concealment of labor history: “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of the labor” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 83). A commodity’s material existence seems to have nothing to do with the labor involved in its creation and its value in relation to other commodities. Thus, Marx looked for a category in his contemporary, historical moment that could describe this mysterious power of things.


The parallel he saw was the fetish as Europeans deployed it against West Africans. According to Mitchell, “Marx adopted fetishism as a metaphor for commodities at the moment when Western Europe (and particular England) was changing its view of the ‘undeveloped’ world from an unknown, blank space, a source of slave-labor, to a place of darkness to be illuminated, a frontier for imperialist expansion and wage-slavery. ‘Fetishism’ was a key word in the vocabularies of nineteenth-century missionaries and anthropologist who went out to convert the natives to the privileges of enlightened Christian capitalism” (W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 205).

Marx applied the word fetish to commodity as a critique of capitalism and its perception of magical things. According to Mitchell, “In calling commodities fetishes, Marx is telling the nineteenth century reader that the material basis of modern, civilized, rational political economy is structurally equivalent to that which is most inimical to modern consciousness” (191). In other words, capitalism was a perverse illusion. Capitalists fetishized commodities and money. Money embodied the value of the commodity. Marx argued that money was not a symbol of exchange, but “the direct incarnation of all human labor,” or “the embodiment of their values” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 105, 122). Capitalists ignored the symbolic form of money. They recognized that money was a real, powerful thing and that money begot more money.

Marx called capitalists to recognize their own false perceptions of material things. Capitalists were not idolaters in the sense that they worship the symbolic (money) through a material form (commodity). For Marx, capitalists were like West Africans who recognized things (for capitalists, commodities) as magical objects that contain their value (the abstraction of human labor). According to Mitchell, “Commodity fetishism can be understood then, as a kind of double forgetting: first the capitalist forgets that it is he and his tribe who have projected life and value into commodities in the ritual of exchange. ‘Exchange-value’ comes to seem an attribute of commodities even though ‘no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value in either a pear or a diamond.’ But then, a second phase of amnesia sets in that is quite unknown to primitive fetishism. The commodity veils itself in familiarity and triviality, in the rationality of purely quantitative relations and ‘natural, self-understood forms of social life.’ The deepest magic of the commodity fetish is its denial that there is anything magical about it: ‘the intermediate step of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind’” (W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 193). In other words commodities seem like timeless, ahistorical things with power. The abstraction of labor conceals their production processes and history. Capitalistic economics forgot “the historical character of its own mode of production” (193).  The commodity fetish and money, according to Mitchell, level “all the distinction of sex, age, and skill into quantities of universal labor time in both the exchange and factory” (196).

Protestants charged Catholics with fetishism, or idolatry. “The idolater is naïve and deluded, the victim of false religion” (197). Similarly, Marx accused Protestants of being idolaters and victims of capitalism. According to Mitchell, Marxism “plays the role in modern Western intellectual life of a kind of secular Puritan/Judaism, a prophetic iconoclasm that challenges the polytheistic pluralism of bourgeois society. It tries to replaces polytheism with a monotheism in which the historical process plays the role of messiah, and the capitalist idols of the mind and marketplace are reduced to demonic fetishes. The liberal pluralist complaint against the intolerance of its iconoclastic rhetoric is likely to be met by a Marxist dismissal of petit-bourgeois ‘tolerance’ as the luxury of a privileged minority” (207). The struggle between these two positions, Mitchel hopes, will make “both our love and hate of ‘mere images’ contraries in the dialectic of iconology” (208). Mitchell hopes to show the struggle between iconoclasm and idolatry, between words and images. He also hopes to show how ideology (in the Marxist sense) can be transformed into ideology as reality so that the iconoclast appears to stand above everyone else as the messiah. And the rhetoric of iconoclasm continues between image and text, idolatry and iconoclasm.

09 Apr

Ann Kibbey, “Iconoclastic Materialism” (1986)

“Iconoclastic Materialism” examines Protestants’ discourse and iconoclasm during the Reformation to understand how they thought about things. Kibbey argues that although Protestants destroyed images, they did not categorically oppose all images or icons.


Historians, according to Kibbey, have misunderstood Protestants’ reactions to images. Kibbey argues that “Puritan iconoclasm no less than Puritan rhetoric, granted substantial importance to material shapes” (42). Protestants iconoclasm was about the right use of material objects. Puritans recognized themselves as images of God, or living icons. Moreover, Kibbey argues that Puritans’ opposition to images was “actually a devoted, if negative, act of reverence, and a very self-conscious one at that” (42). Puritan iconoclasts “believed very deeply in the power of icon” (42).  In other words, Protestants did not see icons and images as empty and meaningless. Images, even if they were bad images, held power over Protestants. Puritans recognized that idols compelled humans to believe in them. Visual figures were a threat to humans because they seemed like they could speak, walk, and act. Puritans felt threatened by idols. Idol invoked fear in viewers. According to Kibbey, “Calvin’s reasoning implies that Protestant iconoclasts believed it necessary to attack the visual images in church sculpture, glass, and painting not because they disbelieved these images but rather because they believed quite strongly in their power” (47).  Protestants believed in the power of icons and idols.


Kibbey’s chapter is important to studies of Protestant material culture. 1) Kibbey recognizes that Protestants held a negative reverence for images. Idols held power over iconoclasts and they instilled fear in humans. Protestants did not recognize idols as dead and meaningless. Idols could act on humans. This is important for understanding 19th century Protestant missions in the United States and missionaries’ infatuation with idols. 2) Kibbey also recognizes that Puritans recognized themselves as living images of God, or icons. This is important for future work on Puritan portraits and gravestones which imaged individual Protestants. Scholars have not yet recognized Puritan gravestones as icons. They were images of living icons and worked in a way similar to other icons.  3) Kibbey also recognizes that Marx’s commodity fetish is deeply rooted in Protestantism. Kibbey suggests that Calvin’s analysis of sacramental bread is a precursor to Marx’s commodity fetish. Both have power that resides outside the material thing. According to Kibbey, “Both Calvin and Marx perceive a contradiction between the ordinary use of an object and the value (spiritual or exchange) that it acquires upon consecration/circulation” (52). Marx’s critique of capitalism is also a critique of Protestantism.  Kibbey’s work is significant because it calls scholars to consider Protestant materialism. Contemporary scholars are still hesitant to recognize the power that things have and had over Protestants.

08 Apr

David Freedberg, The Power of Images (1989)

The Power of Images is not a book about the history of art. It is concerned with “the failure of art history to deal with the extraordinarily abundant evidence for the ways in which people of all classes and cultures have responded to images” (xix). It examines the psychological and behavioral responses to images rather than critical responses. Many of the psychological and behavioral responses had been deemed unworthy of examination because they were “popular,” or “primitive,” non-Western reactions to art. The behaviors involved what many Westerners considered irrational, superstitious, or explicable by magic. In fact, many Westerners engaged in this popular understandings of images. Freedberg suggests that he did not set out to provide an explanatory theory of images. “The aim, instead, has been to develop adequate terms, and to set out the possibilities for the ways in which cognitive theory may be nourished by the evidence of history” (xxii). In other words, Freedberg called for scholars to look at images differently by examining humans’ responses to images.

Freedberg argued that examining the responses to images referred to “the symptoms of the relationship between image and beholder” (xxii). This included the “active, outwardly markable responses of the beholder as well as the beliefs…that motivate them to specific action and behavior” (xxii). But, Freedberg also argued that humans’ responses to images depended on recognizing the efficacy and effectiveness of images. In other words, Freedberg called scholars to examine the power of images. This meant examining the vitality of images, what images appear to do, what people expect images to do, and why people expect images to do anything at all. Freedberg called art historians to examine images in terms of phenomenological evidence (what the viewer observers, sees, thinks, and feels about the images), written evidence in terms of documents about the images and their history, as well as contextual evidence in terms of similar images. Examining responses to images involved taking seriously what humans said about images and recognizing the power that images hold over people.

The chapter “Idolatry and Iconoclasm” examines the paradoxes of iconoclasm. The examples Freedberg gives about acts of iconoclasm, or image destruction, highlight the love/hate and fear/infatuation relationship that people have with images. In either case, people recognize images as powerful. Even so, Freedberg argues that Westerners have repressed these feelings about images because they are troubling. Freedberg argues that idolatry and iconoclasm are rooted in polemics of politics and theology. So, images are tied to ideologies. But, they are also rooted in individual psychopathologies of love and fear. This love and fear comes from the fusion of the image and its prototype. But, historians try to explain away this fusion. According to Freedberg, “it is this intellectual failure to acknowledge the logic of the gaze and the needs it engenders that we must still pursue further” (406). Freedberg call historians to examine acts of iconoclasm to understand why people love and fear images. Iconodules and iconoclasts “Both need images and admit to their power, and in so doing need to control them” (427). This control is usually carried out by words. Even so, people are afraid of the power of images. Freedberg urged historians to recognize their “self-deceptions” and fear of images so that they can analyze the “effect, power, and the success or failure of images” (428).