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.