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The Future of the Image, Part 1: Jacques Rancire

Im finally getting around to posting notes about The Future of the Image, a lecture panel at Columbia University last week featuring visual theorists W. J. T. Mitchell and Jacques Rancire. For an academic lecture, the place was packedI arrived 15 minutes early and got one of the last seats. Many people were forced to stand just outside the auditorium and watch. Aside from the fact that Rancires English made him difficult to understand (and moderator Jane Gaines kept calling Tom Mitchell Tim!), it was a great event. Below is the first part of my notes, paraphrased from what I understood of Rancires talk. Jacques Rancire said There are two catastrophic opinions about image and reality that are popular today. The first says that nothing is real anymore, because all of reality has become virtual, a parade of simulacra and images without any true substance. The second says that there are no more images, because an image is a thing clearly distanced or separate from realitybecause we have lost the distance that enabled us to discern between images and reality, the image, as a category, no longer exists. Actually, these opinions are different readings of the same phenomenon: the distance between images and reality has collapsed. To understand what any of this means, its important to figure out what an image actually is. Artistic images give us two things: they give us their status as a copy (their relationship to reality) and their particularly visual materiality (rather than discursivity or textuality). As copies, they are capable of both enhancing and dismissing anxiety [presumably via subject matter, then knowledge that they arent real]. They themselves are empty of meaning or feeling, but function as a set of displacements and substitutions in the minds of viewers. So we must think of them in terms of the operations they perform. In particular, we must remember that representation was never about the realistic reproduction of anything. Instead, representation has always been governed by a set of rules, about what is or is not appropriate to represent. New images always take the form of a new regime of the representable and unrepresentable. The future of images seems to be a regime in which nothing is unrepresentablewhich doesnt mean that images or reality will disappear, but simply marks a new kind of imageness. We might think of this in terms of looking at past examples of new imagenessfor instance, the rise of photography. Photography carried out a new form of representation framed by literature itself, capturing the aesthetic of the prose poem. While Baudelaire is famous for denouncing photography, his prose poems appear to anticipate its eventual function in their early verbal version of the snapshot. Photography [like one of Baudelaires prose poems about people in a window that Rancire read] leaves the look mute and allows space for a multiplicity of meaning. The phrase the end of images originates in a positive modernist strategy of replacement, a desire to take the images of the past and put something better in their place. That approach didnt work, but the phrase still hangs in the air, and now it evokes something scary. [Namely, the two catastrophic readings the speech opened with.] The future or fate of the image shouldnt be

understood as a narrative with an end point, but rather as a realm of different possibilities; this speech (and Rancires book, The Future of the Image) is an attempt to chart a topography of the possibilities of imageness, and thereby avoid dour (and false) proclamations about the end of images and reality.

The Future of the Image, Part 2: W. J. T. Mitchell


I realize its taken a while to catch up with the second part of my write-up. Mitchell was as engaging a speaker as he is a writer, but Im omitting some of what he said in this paraphrase. He spent some time explicating a few image categories that Rancire outlines in The Future of the Image, and he closed with a discussion of two recent artworks, Mark Wallingers State Britain and Tania Brugueras Tatlins Whisper No. 5. I only have so much space here, and I felt that those two aspects of his speech werent crucial to understanding his more general points about the future of the image. So, without further ado, and as best as I can summarize it: W. J. T. Mitchell said To represent the historical trajectory of images, its helpful to use specific examples. As an example of the past or origin of images, we can take the drawings of animals in the caves at Lascaux; as the future of images, take the digital dinosaurs of Jurassic Parkin particular, a film still in which a Velociraptor has broken into a screening room and has the image of its DNA code projected on its face. Both images are technical productions in a cinematic control rooms. The drawings at Lascaux functioned as ritualistic teaching scenes, a form of Platonic cinema or rehearsal that uses images to project and control an immediate possible futurein particular, the outcome of the hunt. The Jurassic Park image is literally an image of a cinematic control room; it is also designed to be viewed in a cinema. The images share a number of other odd echoic relations. They both focus on animals, and prehistoric animals at thatalthough the futuristic animal image depicts an animal that is in fact far more ancient than the animal in the prehistoric image. Significantly, one of the major differences between the two images is the inversion of the predator/prey relationship: at Lascaux, man is the predator hunting an herbivorous animal image; in Jurassic Park, the image is the predator hunting man. Before we explore that inversion, a more basic question presents itself: why are both of these images animals? Animals have a long-established relationship with futurity in the human mind. Since civilization began, animals have been used for purposes of divination, augury, etc. To paraphrase John Berger, whatever is done to humans is done to animals first, from agricultural slavery to medical testing. More generally, animals go before humans: they precede us in the laboratory, they preceded us in evolution, and they run before us in the hunt.

Images go before us as well. In fact, the future itself is an imageit exists as nothing more than a projection of the human mind until its realized. To talk about the future of images is to talk about a metapicture, an image of an image. Images dont just HAVE a future, they ARE a future. The future of images is always viewed by means of the most recent development of the image, because its the closest we can come to the next development; as such its the best medium (or image) through which to understand or imagine the next image. The primary difference between Mitchells conception of the image and Rancires is that Rancire refuses the image life. By choosing to see images as desireless machines that perform operations at the border between the visual and the textual, he rejects the vitalism of the image. Mitchell sees images as the subject of an animist tradition since their inception; even Rancires language in The Future of the Image contains animist descriptions of images performing actions. In fact, it is virtually impossible to talk about images without slipping into an animist vocabulary of wanting, saying, doing, etc. This animist tradition is most vividly visualized in the futuristic image of the Velociraptor in Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park expresses the cultural fear that, with new technology, images will finally be able to come alive, and we will lose whatever control we may have had over them. The real-world manifestation of this phenomenon is the clone, which is the scientific realization of the living image. At the moment, only animals have been cloned (more images of animals), but weve already seen how animals go before man The other fundamental difference between Mitchell and Rancire is their understanding of the relationship between images and text. For Rancire, it seems literature precedes images, as in Baudelaires anticipation or creation of the photographic aesthetic. For Mitchell, images always precede and surpass words, defying complete explanation and often relating an idea or concept before the vocabulary has been created for its expression. As animals go before humans, images go before the word, and language is always playing catch-up.