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Pictorial versus Iconic Turn: Two

Gottfried Boehm & W. J. T. Mitchell
Published online: 21 Dec 2009.

To cite this article: Gottfried Boehm & W. J. T. Mitchell (2009) Pictorial versus Iconic Turn: Two
Letters, Culture, Theory and Critique, 50:2-3, 103-121, DOI: 10.1080/14735780903240075
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Culture, Theory & Critique, 2009, 50(23), 103121

Pictorial versus Iconic Turn:

Two Letters
Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T. Mitchell

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& Critique
2009 (online)

Antony Gormley, ORIGIN OF DRAWING IX, 2008, the


Abstract In this exchange of letters, Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T.

Mitchell explore the intellectual paths that brought them to simultaneously
advocate an iconic turn and a pictorial turn respectively. They trace the
emergence of the study of images through art history and philosophy and
consider the diversity of images and the array of issues and ideas that come
together under the topic of iconology and pictoriality. On the way they
discuss the use and treatment of images in the human and natural sciences,
the history of aesthetic styles, the possibility of a physics of the image, the
status of iconoclasm, and how the idea of a turn might equate to a paradigm
shift in Western philosophical thinking.

Dear Tom,
Has the science of images begun to write its own history much too early,
before it knows what it is or what it can be? One could misunderstand Hans
Beltings Viennese Colloquium, which sought to take stock of the field, as
such an attempt. There, however, the matter was one of unwritten and future
books, rather than an observation on what had already been achieved. Nevertheless, the ominous talk of the pictorial and/or iconic turn is nearly unavoidable when we discuss our own work. Indeed, although the terms refer back to
the beginning of the 1990s, they designate more generally the attempt to
gauge the legitimacy of our own work in actu. It therefore seemed appropriate
to direct questions at the two of us as the coiners of these terms questions
received with mixed feelings, given that there is no lack of turns; they belong
to the jargon of the science and to its marketing.
Although quickly proclaimed, it is yet to be determined how much this
new kind of scientific questioning whether related to materials or also to
methods is actually worth. The turn vacillates between what Thomas S.
Culture, Theory & Critique
ISSN 1473-5784 Print/ISSN 1473-5776 online 2009 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/14735780903240075

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104 Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T. Mitchell

Kuhn termed a paradigm and the attitude of a rhetorical twist that recalls
last falls fashions. Given this situation, it might prove useful to follow
through on the request for information and to respond in two letters, from
Basel to Chicago and back. I do not associate this undertaking in any way
with quarrels over chronological priority, since at this point it is quite obvious
that we agree, despite our differing intellectual presuppositions and scientific
goals, with the assessment that the image question touches on the foundations of culture and poses quite novel demands on the field that are not to be
haphazardly satisfied. For the image is not simply some new topic, but
relates much more to a different mode of thinking, one that has shown itself
capable of clarifying and availing itself of the long-neglected cognitive
possibilities that lie in non-verbal representation.
propos chronology: this epistolary exchange will also serve to show that
we have operated with a very large degree of independence from one
another, one that in the early years was sustained by mutual ignorance. Once
I finally read your works and got to know you personally, I gained the
impression that two wanderers in a forest had met, wanderers who had
traversed the same, scarcely-known continent of pictorial phenomena and
visuality, laying surveyor points here and there in order to open up the
terrain for scientific discovery, before as is apt to happen in this type of
Leatherstocking tale going their own ways again. Luckily, we are not alone
on this journey; other pioneers have left behind their tracks, but the days of
pioneer work have long since passed: the fascination with new horizons has
set many heads thinking in the meantime; it nurtures the talk of theory or
science that can only prove itself through dialogic and interdisciplinary

The attempt to make progress on the subject of the image was at first, i.e. in
the late 1970s and early 1980s, very lonely work for me indeed; I will return to
these beginnings with a few comments later on. After having achieved sufficient security, I attempted to break out of my isolation by compiling an
anthology, Was ist ein Bild? (What is an Image?), that was finally published in
1994 by Fink Verlag in Munich. I had been working on the anthology since the
late 1980s and it was initially planned as a volume of the Edition Suhrkamp
series, where it had already been scheduled to appear in 1991. I wanted to
show that in philosophy especially, but also in works of modern art, a cryptic
image debate was taking place that I hoped to interpret in order to lend
validity to my own intentions. This debate comprised positions by Maurice
Merleau-Ponty, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hans Jonas, Bernhard Waldenfels,
Michael Polanyi, Max Imdahl and others.1
However, conceiving of the image as paradigm was not possible without
outlining in one way or another its relation not only to language itself, but
also to the dominant philosophical position. This position, incidentally, was

Contributions by Jacques Lacan, Meyer Schapiro and Kurt Bauch were also
published from the older discussion.

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Pictorial versus Iconic Turn: Two Letters 105

shared in different ways by analytical as well as continental philosophy and
had been termed the linguistic turn by Richard Rorty in his reader of 1967.
The linguistic turn seemed to undermine all attempts to make further
progress with the image, unless one was attempting to show that images are
themselves linguistic occurrences, or that they participate in a universal
system of signs. This route (one that had been presaged by C. S. Peirce and
Nelson Goodman, but also by French semiotics) was fascinating, but left me
unconvinced in the end; less because Jacques Derrida had proffered his interesting criticism of logocentrism, under which an attempt like that of the
linguistic turn to employ language as the ultimate verifier of knowledge
could undoubtedly be subsumed. Rather, I was more concerned with the
fissures in that positions argument, which, although it ascribed everything to
language, was not sufficiently able to establish the source from which
language itself could derive the stability of a theoretical foundation. Was this
source also rooted in language? Or could the origins be traced back to another
external reference, one that allows for the fact that language is embedded
in social, cultural, or anthropological processes? If so, it should be possible to
demonstrate the inherent pictoriality of language, which Ernst Cassirer had
earlier reflected upon in employing the concept of deixis (1964: 129).
In the philosophy of the 20th century one finds repeated attempts at a
criticism of language, related to one another in the way that they locate the
generation of meaning in acts of viewing (Husserl), in processes of existence
(Heidegger), or in vague familial similarities of the concepts, which emerge in
the practice of language play (Wittgenstein). In other words, the iconic turn is
not based on a fundamental opposition to the linguistic turn, but rather takes
up the argumentative twist therein and pushes it further. The turn towards
the image is a consequence of the turn towards language; it adheres to the
insight, possessed of a sophistication I did not want to forfeit and that references the turn of all turns, namely to that of Copernicus, as taken up by Kant
in the Critique of Pure Reason and which he had taken as the foundation of his
own critical work.2 I am referring here to the insight that reflection on the
conditions for knowledge is an indispensable premise of any science that does
not wish to subject itself to the reproach of a lack of intellectual rigour, e. g. to
that of a nave objectivism.
The place of the Kantian transcendence of consciousness had long ago
been supplanted by that of language, which in light of the iconic turn had to
expand in order to address the conditions for representation in a broader
sense. It turned out that the structural thought of linguistics or the continual
reference to the communicative superiority of verbal language had led to a
narrowing of what classical philosophy had termed logos. This was a broad
and complex concept that, while not yet encompassing the image, already
included numbers in addition to speech, and was in general moving towards
opening itself to meaning-generating processes. Understanding the image as
logos, as a meaning-generating process, this vision of a non-verbal, iconic
logos was in short my motivation for ascribing paradigmatic meaning to the

For the genesis of the Copernican world formula, see Blumenberg (1965) and
my attempt at transferring it to visual art (Boehm 1995).

106 Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T. Mitchell

growing interest in the image (or, to be more precise: in pictures) and for
speaking of the iconic turn as a project with a longer perspective. How do
images create meaning? This question serves as my guide, and although the
interaction with the observers is always considered in light of the conditions
of each context, initially, the visible emphasis was certainly placed on the side
of the artefact.3

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And thus I have outlined the theoretical aspects of the project. For the philosophically-educated art historian I understand myself to be, it was not primarily a matter of intervening in academic philosophical debates, but rather of
formulating those questions to which I had been led by an intense exposure to
art and by the practice of art history itself. Those who are fascinated by
images in the most fundamental way, those who have thoroughly examined
and analysed great numbers of them and possess what one could call an
image-sense, know with certainty that there is such a thing as an iconic intelligence that the artist restores in order to free himself from the demands of
language, from canonical texts, or from other mimetic instances, and to
establish evidences of a unique type, also and especially in cases involving
e.g. traditional historical images that re-tell the time-worn content of the bible,
mythology, or history.
It was not abstract art in the first instance that brought forth meaning for
which there is no model in reality although it does so irrefutably and
which goes as far as to surpass the known Real. Independent of language,
how does this exposition of meaning succeed? What are its objective foundations and what comprises its mechanisms? We know as yet much too little,
and the little we do know lacks the desired exactitude. The best point of
departure for further research seems to me to lie in the immanent order and
reflexivity of images themselves, whose riches, whose historical and cultural
potential for change offer unrelenting resistance against premature generalisations. I can imagine that you had something similar in mind when you
spoke of immanent representational practices (Mitchell 1994: 14/15). The
recognition of such genuinely iconic meaning is, however, completely uncontested on a practical level. Millions of people would not be visiting museums
to look at pictures if they were only being fed what they already knew or had
heard at some point. The desire to recognise is indeed a strong and satisfying
human urge, but the same can also be said for curiosity, which can only be
satisfied when the boundary of what is already known has been transgressed.
On the other hand, appreciation of this image-sense has been a tricky matter
on a methodological level and for art history in general, and has remained so
to this day. Contradictions have emerged over the course of its history, beginning with the opposition of connoisseur and antiques dealer, then of Wlfflins
visual operations and Panofskys pre-textual methodologies, through to

For contributions in which the emphasis is on the side of perception see Boehm

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Pictorial versus Iconic Turn: Two Letters 107

positions held today, in which the struggle between the visible and the
speakable is fought out.
Essentially, the name icono-logy would be the comprehensive methodological substitute for what art history is supposed to achieve: the
understanding and interpretation of the logos of the image in its historical,
perception-oriented and meaning-saturated determinedness. Panofsky
(whose authoritative reformulation of the term retains validity to this day)
adopted the ancient concept of iconologia, and in so doing caused this balance
to shift to the side of textuality, as you yourself have shown in your contribution on the pictorial turn.4 When the iconic is invoked, it never implies a
withdrawal from language, but rather that a difference vis vis language comes
into play. The image is as far from innocent or immediate as is the eye;
instead, it is multifariously connected to the contexts of thought, sex, culture,
ideology, and speech which of course does not mean that it could ever
simply be deduced from these contexts. My turn is, thus, a criticism of the
image rather than one of ideology.
It is therefore the history of images that motivates the question, what and
when is an image? and presumably also your question, what do pictures
want? This history has changed dramatically in two ways and set the
processes in motion that made a paradigm out of the image in the first place.
The first aspect concerns the fact that the work of modern artists from the
middle of the nineteenth century onward incorporated the attempt to continually re-define and create the conditions of their own work in very different
ways. Following the end of a binding system of genres accelerated by the
invention of photography and motion pictures, a system that formerly
defined the co-ordinates to which images were to refer, which contents of the
world they should thematise, and which cultural mission they were to fulfil.
Now, what images should be and how they should look was to be explored
anew by each author. Image criticism and image negation, taking leave of the
image, its end, and the emphasis on a continually new beginning have ever
since belonged to the work. These reflections on the image were driven
forward by the artists in their acts of creation in the great laboratory of the
modern, into which the individual ateliers had integrated themselves.
The diversity of the pictorial in all its forms in the twentieth century
lends the question what is an image? irrefutable legitimation as well as a
particular urgency. This urgency was heightened once again when, towards
the end of the century, a new practice came about in the form of digital technology that equipped the image with a never before seen flexibility, omnipresence, and usefulness. It has acquired ever greater importance in
communication processes and thus also partially remedies the deficiency for
which it had so often justifiably been taken to task: although capable of
representing meaning, it lacked the ability to function as a medium of
discourse on meaning, i.e. to function as a meta-entity. What is completely
new is an emergence of image-generating processes that have led to cognitive

Panofskys is an iconology in which the icon is thoroughly absorbed by the
logos (1994: 28), and to explore the way that pictures attempt to represent themselves (24).

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108 Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T. Mitchell

processes at the heart of the hard sciences being driven by the iconic, and the
fact that the image now plays a role in the day-to-day business of science,
which even a generation ago would have been utterly unthinkable.
Thus, the aesthetic realm, which the image had largely been thought to
inhabit, was broadened to encompass the discursive and the cognitive. Was
this not a betrayal of art? Over the last few years, this concern has triggered a
certain amount of polemicising. From my vantage point, it is not at all a
matter of collapsing e.g. technical into artistic images, or of dissolving the
eminence of aesthetic experience into the banality of an image-production
centred on application. Quite the contrary: whoever is seriously interested in
criteria of differentiation cannot avoid exploring the aesthetic locus of experience from the inside as well as out, including its historical and cultural
contexts. How else could one determine a boundary or begin to differentiate?
This is exactly what the major artists of the twentieth century have demonstrated for us. I gladly concede that the iconic turn has up until now hardly
contributed to the analysis of aesthetic differences, but I refute emphatically
that it is incapable of doing so. Other aspects have come to the fore, such as
the rediscovery of the history of science as a history also of images, or the
chance, via the image, to re-open a dialogue between the faculties thought
long dead, not least between the humanities and the hard sciences. This
change in perspective is a most significant effect of the iconic turn. Here, the
concept of the iconic acquires the universality that it did not previously
possess. It is true that the German language does not differentiate between
picture und image the words Bild (image) or bildlich (pictorial) open up a
very broad semantic field. The neologism ikonisch (iconic) emphasises this
generalisation even further; the image is simultaneously marked as an object
as well as a process, and thus a name is given to the theoretical claim that
associates itself with turn.
The words ikonisch (iconic) or Ikonik (the Iconic) Max Imdahl took
up the latter and made it his theoretical trademark therefore have no relation to the icon introduced by Peirce as a pictorial sign. This is probably
worth noting for an American reader acquainted with it. However, in the
German-speaking realm, Peirces concept is, if not unknown, then not particularly prevalent either.5

These matters were discussed in the anthology Was ist ein Bild? from 1994, in
which older sources and preliminary works were involved that themselves

The concept Ikonik was introduced in Zu einer Hermeneutik des Bildes

(Boehm 1978). Imdahls programme is most clearly outlined in: Giotto. Arenafresken.
Ikonographie, Ikonologie, Ikonik (1980: esp. 84, 99). C. S. Peirce (2000) has always
returned to the designation icon, whereby the differentiation between the icon on the
one hand and index and symbol on the other was always of great significance. See
e.g. Kurze Logik, Kapitel I. In Regeln des richtigen Rsonnierens, this differentiation of the icon from index and symbol is itself defined (2000: 429). In the same
passage: Ein Ikon ist ein reines Vorstellungsbild, das nicht notwendig visuell ist
[An icon is a purely imaginative image, one that is not necessarily visual].

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Pictorial versus Iconic Turn: Two Letters 109

touched upon art history and philosophical questions. What they had in
common was the attempt to trace the way in which images create meaning
and convince us, the observers. This fact is generally taken for granted, but
requires further clarification. One could view the following case study as
taking on this difficult (in that it is all too easily overlooked) problem:
Published in 1985 under the title Bildnis und Individuum: ber den Ursprung der
Portraitmalerei in der italienischen Renaissance (Image and the Individual: On
the Origin of Portraiture during the Italian Renaissance), the first draft had
already been completed in 1972 and was approved for my Habilitation in art
history at the University of Heidelberg in 1974 (Boehm 1985). The work takes
as its main thesis the idea that a new type of portraiture emerged in Italy
between 1470 and 1510 that depicted the subject as a sovereign entity. One
spoke in the secondary literature of the autonomous portrait and it thus
seemed appropriate to also ascribe autonomy to its subject. What seemed
significant here for the history of images was the fact that real people were
being represented, but now with the instruments of a newly invented logic of
representation that conspicuously avoided reference to external texts. Part of
the significance of the individuals depicted by Antonello da Messina,
Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and others is that
they presented themselves in certain roles and attitudes, but never as the
representatives of a meaning external to themselves. Why? Because there is
no single concept, no verbal expression sufficient to define the autonomous
individual but it is possible to show, with the means available to the iconic,
what each individual is. The portrait thus becomes the true explication of a
new historical concept of human beings. In any case, at that particular point
in time, the peculiarities mentioned above posed great difficulty to art history,
not least to the iconographically oriented branch of research that was accustomed to using external pretext as a key for accessing meaning and did not
reckon with the immediate clarity and meaningfulness of the image itself.
However, it appeared that the invention of a new type of the pictorial
presence of individuals was in myriad ways embedded in the historical
context of the time. The difference between this method and that of iconology,
as well as that of cultural studies, lies in the analysis of making pictorial logic
the point of departure, now by way of its intrinsic order, for rendering the
specific context accessible. Consequently, I would initiate the complex
interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies and
figurality (1994: 16), as you describe the pictorial turn, at the order of the
visible so as to concentrate on the historical difference that the image opens
up. Rendering it as a criticism of ideology or counter-reading Panofsky with
Althusser, as I have found in your conception, seems to me personally to be
too broad an approach.
The above-mentioned study fueled my ambition to further pursue the
logic of images on a theoretical level as well. I was encouraged in this undertaking by Hans-Georg Gadamer, who had mentored me in the craft of philosophy, and who contrary to widespread belief never intended to restrict
hermeneutics to a linguistic basis. This seems to contradict the often-cited
passage from Wahrheit und Methode: Sein, das verstanden werden kann, ist
Sprache (Being, in as far as it can be understood, is language) (Gadamer 1986:
478). For Gadamer, language was an entity that encompassed manifestations

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110 Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T. Mitchell

of meaning like those achieved by music, the symbol, dance, or, for that
matter, the image. Gadamer did make some progress towards an elaboration
of these translingual aspects, even if he never ultimately reached that goal.
His own passion was unquestionably channeled into the interpretation of
poetry; he did not consider himself competent enough in other arts. I was
therefore sure that an attempt at a hermeneutics of the image, as it then
appeared in a jointly-edited volume, did not provoke resistance on his part,
but rather his critical interest.6
That text is a sort of snapshot of the beginning of those attempts, which
then later solidified around the iconic turn. Many problems, perhaps too
many, are touched upon there, and suggestions for solving them are hinted
at. My fundamental motive was, of course, the challenge of protecting images
from linguistic heteronomy, whether by way of iconological references or of
ekphrases, which themselves do not illustrate the difference between the
speakable and the visible. At the same time it was not at all a matter of
completely demarcating images from language. The point of departure was
much more one of demonstrating that linguistic communication is indeed
capable of deciphering images. For this purpose, I have employed the model
of a mutual translation that not only aims at talking about images, but that in
return is able at any time to verify whether a word has struck home by
proofing it against the original, i.e. the image (Boehm 1978: 455). Thus it has
become clear that images themselves already possess their own light and do
not function merely as mirrors of the external meanings that they reflect. Just
as a side note, I would like to mention that I was concerned even then with
investigating language with an eye to an implicit deictic power, a pictoriality,
which later fueled my resolve to shift the linguistic turn further towards the
iconic (Boehm 1978: 451, 455, 468).
At the core of these considerations was the intent to understand images
in view of an implicit processuality, of an iconic difference, with whose help
meaning can articulate itself without borrowing from linguistic models (such
as that of syntax) or from rhetorical devices (Boehm 1978: 461).7 Giving this
visual and non-verbal logic a verifiable argumentative form, without falling
victim to the alternative of either a general science of the image (such as one
of a semiotic character) or of a conceptually blind close reading, has remained
a leading aim ever since. The intelligence of images lies in their respective
visual order, but the question remains open as to how this order is to be
understood, which rules it follows, and how much concrete individuality it
possesses. What was always helpful at the time was the critical comparison of
the model of the image and the model of the statement. One finding resulting from this comparison was that, in the case of images, their facts or
contents can never be differentiated from the modalities of their appearance
in the way that a sentence is able to differentiate the changing characteristics
of a stable subject, to state them (Boehm 1978: 450). Images enter into the
most intimate relationships with processes and potentialities, such that one

See note 5 (Boehm 1978: 44471).

On the concept of iconic difference, originally in Bildsinn und Sinnesorgane
(Boehm 1992: 50).

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Pictorial versus Iconic Turn: Two Letters 111

gets the impression that the prevailing conceptual oppositions with which
science and criticism have hounded images, such as e.g. form and content,
signified and signifier, inner and outer, the sensory and the concept, etc.
always came too late, as if the image had established itself in another
logical world that we do not know according to its rules. How could we?
Given that traditionally, Western thought did not conceive of images as
capable of their own power of illumination, the question regarding their
order was superfluous.
A final remark on this essay concerns the latter-mentioned consideration
of the image-blindness of older European science, which naturally does not
imply that Europe would not otherwise have developed a rich culture of
images encompassing various logics of production and reception. If one
analyses the way in which the constitution of meaning was assigned to
speech or to signs, it becomes clear that up until Ferdinand de Saussure and
beyond it is the rule-bound relation of the elements to one another that brings
about an inner realm, as it were, of linguistic meanings, against which even
writing itself remains something superficial that basically does not participate
in this meaning (Boehm 1978: 447). Here, the image retreats even further from
the self-reflexivity of language into a completely external realm in which
meaning is absent, unless language or perception places it there from
without or bestows the image, moonlike and inextricably melded with its
material matrix, with solar lucidity.
Seeing through the Paragone being fought out between the twins of image
and language, or in other words, understanding the intrinsic reliance of the
linguistic turn on the iconic turn was thus already a dominant theme in this
phase. I freely admit that in at least one place, this essay took off on certain
tangents that I could not yet avoid at the time. The nature of these tangents
involved conceiving the iconic order following the pattern of Ferdinand de
Saussures lateral phonemic organisation, and consequently of a linguistic
model, in which I had been encouraged by Maurice Merleau-Pontys
ventures.8 In any case, I hope to have remedied these deficiencies with the
theory of iconic difference.
You see, then, how one remains the prisoner of once-conceived fundamental ideas. Looking back, one is inclined to ascribe an objective consequence or even a necessity to its development. The best treatment for this type
of blindness is dialogue, of course, and I await with bated breath the medicine
that will reach me from Chicago.
March, 2006
[Translated by Jennifer Jenkins, Pacific Lutheran University]

Boehm, G. 1978. Zu einer Hermeneutik des Bildes, in H.-G. Gadamer and G. Boehm
(eds), Seminar: Die Hermeneutik und die Wissenschaften. Frankfurt am Main:

See Boehm (1978) sections V and VI. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2003: 11175).

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112 Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T. Mitchell

Boehm, G. 1985. Bildnis und Individuum. ber den Ursprung der Portraitmalerei in der italienischen Renaissance. Mnchen: Prestel.
Boehm, G. 1992. Bildsinn und Sinnesorgane. In Neue Hefte fr Philosophie und Sehen.
Hermeneutische Reflexionen, in Internationale Zeitschrift fr Philosophie, Jahrgang 1.
Boehm, G. (ed). 1994. Was ist ein Bild? Mnchen: Fink Verlag.
Boehm, G. 1995. Eine kopernikanische Wende des Blickes. In Sehsucht. ber die
Vernderung der visuellen Wahrnehmung. Gttingen: Ed. Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 2534.
Blumenberg, H. 1965. Die Kopernikanische Wende, Frankfurt/M.
Cassirer, E. 1964. Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. 2nd edition. Darmstadt: Band I.
Gadamer, H.-G. 1986. Wahrheit und Methode. In Hermeneutik I, Gesammelte Werke. Last
edition. Tbingen: Band 1.
Imdahl, M. 1980. Giotto. Arenafresken. Ikonographie, Ikonologie, Ikonik. Mnchen: Fink
Merleau-Ponty, M. 2003. Das mittelbare Sprechen und die Stimmen der Schweigens.
In C. Bermes (ed), Das Auge und der Geist: Philosophische Essays. Hamburg: Meiner.
Mitchell, W. J. T. 1994. Picture Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Peirce, C. S. 2000. Semiotische Schriften. Volume 1. Edited by C. J. Kloesel and Helmut
Pape. Frankfurtam Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Rorty, R. (ed). 1967. The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.

Dear Gottfried,
Thank you for the generous spirit of your letter. I think you are absolutely
correct that the relation of the pictorial versus iconic turn is not one of
priority, but of a parallel wandering in the forest. Now that we have strayed
into the same clearing and have a chance to compare our itineraries, perhaps
we will both have a chance to re-orient ourselves. I want to respond to five
themes that I see in your letter the question of image-science, the figure of
the turn, the nature of our respective intellectual formations, our convergences on the same concepts and theorists, and the divergences in our
1. Image science: I agree with you that it is too early for image science to write
its history, in the sense of reaching its end. But it is not too early to write a
history in medias res, or at least to record our respective itineraries through
this labyrinth. We are clearly, not at the beginning, but somewhere in the
middle of things, uncertain at this point what sort of science a science of
images would be. The very word science has such different connotations in
English and German that we would need to head off possible confusions
right at the outset. In English, the historical and interpretive disciplines are
rarely granted the honorific title of science, which is reserved for the exact
or hard or experimental sciences, where proof, demonstration, and
quantification are essential criteria. Of course there are intermediate cases,
historical sciences such as paleontology, which involve a strong emphasis on
I suspect that, for you, the relevant science is hermeneutics, the study of
the way images make meaning in human history. But there would be other

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Pictorial versus Iconic Turn: Two Letters 113

sciences: semiotics and the formal conditions of meaning; psychology,
phenomenology and cognitive science, and the study of conditions of perception and recognition of images; rhetoric and media theory, focusing on the
circulation and power of images, as well as the technical innovations in media
that transform the very conditions under which images appear to us. And
then there are what in English we call the hard or exact sciences mathematics, physics, and biology. You remark on the fact that the image now plays a
role in the day-to-day business of science, which even a generation ago would
have been unthinkable. I would like to hear more about this claim, because
my intuition would have been rather different. I think images have always
been crucial to science, but then we would want to specify which kinds of
images (models, diagrams, perspectival pictures, photographs?) and which
kinds of science (physics, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, biology and
medicine, geology, paleontology?). It strikes me that images have always
been critical to mathematics, at least since the invention of geometry (think of
Socrates demonstration of the Pythagorean theorem to the slave boy in the
Phaedo). And surely chemistry has always worked with scale models of
molecules, astronomy with charts and maps. The discovery of the structure
of DNA would not have been possible without a combination of microphotography and sculptural modeling.
More fundamentally, I wonder if you would agree that images might not
just play a role of subservience or instrumentality within the exact sciences
(as illustrations or models), but themselves might be seen as targets or objects
of these sciences. I think we need to ask, in other words, not only what
specific image of science we are working from, and not only how images
serve as instruments in the work of science, but also what mathematics, physics, and biology might contribute to the science of images.9 Is there not a
mathematics of the image that links it to questions of form, symmetry, and
quantification of intensities? Doesnt the emergence of new forms of the digital image produce a new relation of iconicity and numeracy in our time?10
And isnt the mathematics of the image in fact as old as measurement,
perspectival representation, and notions of formal resemblance, congruence,
and repetition in ornament?
Shouldnt we also ask whether a science of images could also be a physical
science, attentive to the materiality of images, the chemistry and even (according to James Elkins (2000)) the alchemy of paint? (Could it be that some of the
traditional hostility to images in science has to do with the powerful role of
imagery in pseudo-scientific thinking, not to mention superstition and magic?)
The whole domain of the photographic image is currently undergoing a technical and physical transition from a chemical basis to an electronic and computational support, with numerous implications for the ontology of the image.
Some observers believe (mistakenly, in my view) that the claims of realism,
truth, and naturalness of the chemical-based photograph are irretrievably
compromised by digitisation. But even if this argument is incorrect, it seems

See my essay Image Science in Huppauf and Weingart (2007).

I would want to insist, at the same time, on the antiquity of the digital image in
graphic technologies that precede the invention of the computer, in practices such as
the art of mosaic.

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114 Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T. Mitchell

clear that something has changed as a result of the technical revolutions in
image production and circulation.11
A physical science of images already exists, of course, in the long
tradition of forensic connoisseurship and archaeology. But a physics of the
image (like the physics of matter and energy proper) would surely have to
engage with the peculiarly immaterial character of the image, the way images
circulate across media, transcending any single material support while at the
same time never appearing except in some material support, even if it is
nothing more than embodied memory. That, I take it, is why iconoclasm is
such a paradoxical and impossible project, why the destruction of an image
is almost never successful in making an image disappear. On the contrary, the
physical destruction of an image, like the splitting of an atom, seems to have
the result of unleashing even more image-energy, beginning with the spectacle of destruction itself.
I have also, as you know, been involved in trying to think through the
implications of a life science, or biology, of images. In what sense are images
like organisms? Why do figures of vitalism and animism continually haunt
the discourse on icons, so that they seem not only like imitations of a life that
is somewhere else, but themselves something like life-forms? Why do our
metapictures or images of images tend to treat them as if they were coevolutionary organisms like viruses, capable of reproduction, mutation, and
evolution? Why do images seem to have a life of their own? Shouldnt we be
exploring the implications of a vitalist art history? Would it go back to
the work of scholars like Henri Focillon and Bergson, as well as forward to
the work of a neo-vitalist such as Deleuze, and beyond itself into the lifesciences proper, where the phenomenon of cloning has made all the
ancient myths about the creation of living images now seem like real technical possibilities?
So as you can see, I completely agree with your sense that, whatever the
pictorial turn involves, in our time it certainly must mean a new relation with
science and technology that will expand the field of hermeneutics, and
perhaps burst it open.
2. Turns: I share your mixed feelings about the fashionable repetition of the
turn as a received idea that, like last falls fashions, can be accepted without
question. The notion of the pictorial turn as a straightforward replacement of
language by pictures, books by television, is the sort of reductionism that
produces bad history and aesthetics. But I wonder if you could clarify your
intentions in putting the case as a preference for the turn as Kuhnian paradigm shift as opposed to the rhetorical design. I think the difference
between a change of paradigm and a change of rhetorical design or trope is
not quite so sharp as you are assuming. My sense is that a paradigm is, as
Foucault argued, a trope, or figure of knowledge within a discipline. But
there is no doubt that a pictorial turn has also occurred at the level of popular
perception, in relation to new technologies of production, distribution, and

See my article, Realism and the Digital Image, in Baetens and van Gelder

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Pictorial versus Iconic Turn: Two Letters 115

consumption of images. That is why, as a student of mass culture and
technical media, I have wanted to treat the fashion version of the pictorial
turn with some measured respect, as an object of historical investigation, and
not just as the ephemeral jargon of marketing. Or, more precisely: isnt it the
case that marketing, along with fashion and style themselves, is a legitimate
concern of art history, and of image science, as theorists from Adolf Loos to
Roland Barthes have taught us?
So I have consistently treated the pictorial turn, both as a contemporary
paradigm shift within learned disciplines (one that treats non-verbal representations with a new kind of respect the movements in philosophy and
language theory that you document), and as what I call a recurrent trope that
occurs when a new image-repertoire, or a new technology of image-production
creates widespread anxiety, a kind of iconic panic usually accompanied by
hand-wringing and iconoclastic gestures. As I put it in Picture Theory, the pictorial turn involves both the disciplines of the human sciences and the sphere
of public culture (1994: 11). This is why I have argued that pictorial turns have
occurred before, and have invariably involved some interplay between the
worlds of learning and the public sphere, from Plato and Aristotles reflections
on the arts of image and opsis, to the invention of oil painting and perspective,
to the invention of photography. (I have also suggested that a pictorial turn
may not necessarily depend upon a new technology, but could be the product
of a social movement based in the fear of a new image. Pictorial turns, in my
view, are often noticed first by iconoclasts who express alarm and horror over
the onset of a threatening world picture, as is notably the case with Heidegger
(2002), who equates the onset of the world as picture with the dominance of
modern technoscientific rationality.) Again, if I may quote from my original
essay on The Pictorial Turn:
What makes for the sense of a pictorial turn, then, is not that we have
some powerful account of visual representation that is dictating the
terms of cultural theory, but that pictures form a point of peculiar
friction and discomfort across a broad range of intellectual inquiry.
The picture now has a status somewhere between what Thomas
Kuhn called a paradigm and an anomaly, emerging as a central
topic of discussion in the human sciences in the way that language
did: that is, as a kind of model or figure for other things (including
figuration itself), and as an unsolved problem, perhaps even the
object of its own science. (1994: 13)
My sense is that one fruitful area for continued discussion, then, would be the
relation between the scientific and the popular versions of the pictorial
turn. What precisely is the difference between a paradigm and a rhetorical
trope, between a changing episteme and a change in fashion (or better, in
style, which traditionally has been given a more respectable status than the
ephemerality of mere fashion, and which has played an absolutely central
role in art history). Are the emotions of iconoclasm and iconophilia confined
only to the popular, mass-culture version of the pictorial turn, or do they also
appear within philosophical discourse itself, from Platos suspicion of the
arts, to Wittgensteins anxiety over the picture that held us captive?

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116 Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T. Mitchell

3. Formations: I am interested that you describe your early work in this field as
lonely. It makes me realise just how sociable and widely supported my
research has been from very early on. One of my mentors in graduate school
at Johns Hopkins was Ronald Paulson, the great Hogarth scholar who had
made his own pictorial turn from literature to the visual arts. Another
mentor was Jean Hagstrum, whose classic text, The Sister Arts (1987),
provided a wonderful primer on the many twists and turns that govern the
relations between verbal and visual expression. The community of scholarship around the poet and painter William Blake, who was the subject of my
PhD dissertation and first book, Blakes Composite Art (1978), was resolutely
interdisciplinary, linking not only literature and art history, but the history of
printing, engraving, and etching, emblem books, illuminated manuscripts,
and traditional iconography. My apprentice work with Blake gave me a
strong sense of the practical, material aspect of both the verbal and visual arts,
along with an appreciation of the way images circulate across periods and
media, acquiring new forms and meanings.
Perhaps your sense of isolation stems from your starting point in philosophy and hermeneutics, where the attitude toward art and image research was
less welcoming. My entry into philosophy was more belated, and was
preceded by a long apprenticeship in the philosophically-minded art historians, Panofsky, Wlfflin, Focillon, Meyer Schapiro, and Gombrich, and (later)
Norman Bryson, as well as pioneers of studies in media and visual culture
such as Marshall McLuhan, William Ivins (Prints and Visual Communication,
1969), and Rudolf Arnheim. When I came to philosophy proper, it was by a
very oblique route, through Derrida, Foucault, and post-structuralism, and
through Anglo-American philosophy in the work of Nelson Goodman and
Charles Sanders Peirce. Only later did I begin to engage with German philosophy, and then primarily by way of Wittgenstein (on the one hand) and the
tradition of Marxist Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School, on the other. At
the same time, my sense of the stakes of literary and cultural research more
generally were being formed by figures such as Northrop Frye (whose
writing style remains a model for me), as well as by Roland Barthes, Edward
Said, and Fredric Jameson.
The other crucial event in my formation was my arrival at the University
of Chicago in 1977, where I found a welcoming group of scholars interested in
working across the boundaries of literature, philosophy, and the visual arts.
We organised a research collective known as The Laocon Group in homage
to Lessings pioneering text. The Laocon group included such scholars as the
prodigious medievalist Michael Camille; the Byzantinist Robert Nelson (with
whom I taught courses in Image and Text and Art Historiography); the
theorist and historian of photography Joel Snyder (we co-taught courses in
Style and Representation and American Photography, and he still provides
critiques of every word I write). I also worked with Beth Helsinger, a scholar
of nineteenth century British literature and visual art (with whom I taught a
seminar on the English painter J. M. W. Turner); Margaret Olin, an expert in
German art historiography, and in photography, monuments, and memory;
and Elizabeth OConnor Chandler, with whom I organised a conference on
Landscape and Power that later became the focus of another whole field of
research for me. Many other distinguished scholars passed through this

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Pictorial versus Iconic Turn: Two Letters 117

group at various times, including Gayatri Spivak, Tom Crow, Joe Conners,
and Barbara Stafford. This group, long since disbanded, continues to live in
spirit at Chicago, enabling conversations between the social and natural
sciences and the humanities. Above all, it continually staged for me very
concrete and theoretically sophisticated versions of turns from words to
pictures, the sayable to the seeable, and back again.
This interdisciplinary atmosphere, when coupled with my editorship of
Critical Inquiry, made it impossible for me to feel isolated in my work. Nevertheless, I think I know what you mean in saying that the topic of images was
very lonely work, especially in the kind of single-minded attention we have
given to it. The topic of imagery was very definitely out of fashion in the literary world when I turned to it. When I edited The Language of Images in 1980,
and published Iconology in 1986, I felt as if I had embarked on the intellectual
equivalent of Ahabs search for the White Whale in Melvilles Moby Dick.
Iconology opened, in fact, with a confession of failure: I had to admit that a
book which began with the intention of producing a valid theory of images
became a book about the fear of images (1986: 3). Even as late as 1994, just two
years after I had published The Pictorial Turn in ArtForum an essay which
began, by the way, as a review of Jonathan Crarys Techniques of the Observer
(1991) and Christopher Woods translation of Panofskys Perspective as
Symbolic Form (1992) I began to explore a totally new and unexpected question, namely, what do pictures want? This question, which still feels a bit
bizarre to me, even while I am convinced of its pertinence and necessity, definitely had an isolating effect, and I still remember early readers at October
magazine (like Hal Foster) telling me that this was the wrong question to be
asking (though Annette Michelson was much more reassuring). Lately, a few
kind souls have been telling me that perhaps I was on to something after all.
4. Intersections. Perhaps this is the appropriate point to comment on some of
the places where we have crossed paths in our intellectual wanderings.
Certainly Rortys linguistic turn (1967, 1979) was a crucial common reference
for us, and I am inclined to agree with you that at least one version of the
pictorial turn is a direct outgrowth of this development. It was inevitable that
when language became the paradigmatic object of philosophy, replacing (as
Rorty summarised it) ideas and things, that images would soon be on the
horizon as well. We are I think firmly on the same ground in thinking that it is
the role of images as a significant other to language that most often provides
the master terms for a pictorial turn. For you, it is primarily a question of
language (and images) as philosophical concepts; for me, it is philosophy plus
the visual arts and cinema, popular belief, mass culture, politics, and ideology. The word-image relationship had, in addition, become for me a kind of
professional identity, first in my work on Blakes poetry and painting, and
later in a more generalised form that found a congenial home in IAWIS (the
International Association for Word and Image Studies) and its journal, Word
& Image. For you, I gather, the turn from words (in philosophy) to the image
was occasioned primarily by an engagement with modernist painting, an
encounter that for me came somewhat later, and by an oblique route through
the writings of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, and the works of the
first generation Minimalist artist, Robert Morris.

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118 Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T. Mitchell

The fact that Rortys account of the linguistic turn was accompanied by
his own version of iconoclasm and iconophobia, his well-known argument
against mimetic and pictorialist epistemology in Philosophy and the Mirror of
Nature, was therefore what struck me most powerfully about Rortys position.
The appearance of Martin Jays Downcast Eyes in 1994 confirmed my growing
sense that philosophy as such had a deeply engrained suspicion of the image.
Gilles Deleuzes casual remark in The Logic of Sense (1993) that philosophy is
always an iconology struck me as a highly ironic recognition of this fact,
which surely would be denied by most philosophers. (I think your remarks,
Gottfried, on the openness of Gadamer to the visual arts are highly significant
in this regard, and I have recently been reading his 1992 essay on Art Works
in Word and Image).
I am struck by one common intellectual space that you have visited, and
where I have taken up a kind of residence, and that is the work of Nelson
Goodman and C. S. Peirce. You characterise their work as attempts to show
that images are themselves linguistic occurrences or that they participate in a
universal system of signs. I have a somewhat different take on their work, in
fact, precisely the opposite. What fascinated me about Peirce was his placing
of the icon in the position of firstness in the world of signs (with indices as
secondnesses and symbols as thirdnesses). In other words, it was Peirces
resistance to taking the symbolic (or the verbal) as the foundational moment
of semiotics, and his insistence on the phenomenon of the qualisign, the sign
that signifies by virtue of its inherent sensuous qualities, that attracted me.
Similarly, although Goodmans major work on the theory of symbols is entitled Languages of Art (1988), I was struck by Goodmans denial that language
in the sense given it by Saussure or Chomsky was the master paradigm for his
aesthetics. Instead, if I understand Goodman correctly, he was urging a theoretical reflection on signs and symbols that began with their non-verbal, nonarbitrary, and even non-conventional qualities, most notably the properties of
density and repleteness of inscription, and the semantic structure of exemplification (as a kind of inverse denotation). In short, I was attracted to Goodman
and Peirce because I thought they had gone well beyond the linguistic turn,
and were providing the foundations for a positive science of the pictorial
turn. When I return to Saussure in the light of Peirce, I am struck by Saussures need to characterise the signified in pictorial terms in the famous
diagram of the sign. Your own wish to demonstrate the inherent pictoriality
of language with the aid of Cassirer (whose concept of symbolic forms was
always inspiring for me as well) strikes me as an important common thread in
our efforts to locate the pictorial turn but perhaps as a kind of pictorial
return of the repressed.
I note that Derrida is another common reference for us, but I suspect
once again that we read him in very different ways. You characterise him as
participating in the linguistic turn to employ language as the final instance of
knowledge, a position which, although it ascribed everything to language,
was not sufficiently able to establish the source from which language itself
could derive the stability of a theoretical foundation. My introduction to
Derrida was through Of Grammatology with the Laocon Group and Gayatri
Spivak in 1978, and it was a thoroughly anti-linguistic Derrida that we read.
My sense was (and still is) that Derrida is a philosopher of the graphic version

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of the pictorial turn, that the spacing of writing, inscription, and the graphic
trace, and the early history of writing from pictograms to hieroglyphics was
his foundational archive. Later Derrida has been, for me, the philosopher
of mediality and spectrality, from Spectres of Marx (1994) to Echographies of
Television (2002), his colloquy with Bernard Stiegler. The deconstruction of
logocentrism, in other words, was for me another way of exposing the hierarchy of language over images in philosophy, and of overturning that hierarchy
in the most dramatic way. (One could note a similar turn in Goodman from
language issues to questions of inscription, tracing, marking, and the humblest
forms of exemplification in things like carpet samples. Derrida also led me
back to Blakes wondrous art of writing as a scene of the graphic-iconic turn).
I am sure you are right, by the way, that Max Imdahls concept of the
iconic (to which you trace your use of the word) has no relation to the icon
introduced by Peirce as a pictorial sign. Or at least no relation in the sense of
historical influence, especially if you are right that Peirces concept was (or is)
unknown in the German-speaking realm.12 But I wonder if there is not a
hidden conceptual resonance between Peirce and Imdahl on the icon as a
firstness, a phenomenological apprehension of immediate sensuous qualities as the foundational moment in aesthetics, epistemology, and semiotics,
not to mention in Panofskys version of the first stage of iconological interpretation (the pre-iconographic moment of sensuous encounter). I dont know
Imdahls work very well, but I gather that his concept of the iconic is based in
the direct phenomenal experience of the plastic/formal structure of an
artwork, a notion that is remarkably similar to Peirces iconic firstness.13
Perhaps you were put off by Peirces elaboration of the icon as a sign by
resemblance, which seems to lead directly to notions of pictorial realism,
mimesis, and iconography. But its important to note, then, that the icon can
only work as a sign in this way when it has become associated with the other
two sign-functions, namely the index and the symbol, which link it to deixis
and language. It would also be crucial to reflect on Peirces insistence that
iconicity of this latter sort is not exclusively visual or pictorial, but can occur
across the media and sensuous modalities. Algebraic equations, for instance,
are icons in Peirces sense.
5. Divergences. I have already gone on far too long, but it might be useful to
conclude with a few remarks about the differences in our approach to the
iconic/pictorial turn. You have already signaled this by saying that your
turn is a criticism of the image rather than one of ideology, and that my
counter-reading of Panofsky with Althusser is, for you too broad an
approach. This strikes me as an accurate assessment of your own hesitation
about treating the pictorial turn in the expanded field of social and political
issues. But I think the difference is more complex than simply a broad

My impression is that the neglect of Peirce is now ending for some German
scholars. I have been especially impressed with the work of John Krois of Humboldt
University in Berlin, who provided a short seminar on Peirce to our Bildwissenschaft
Group at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in January and February of 2005.
E-mail correspondence, 30 May 2006 with Whitney Davis, chairman of the Art
History department at the University of California, Berkeley.

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120 Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T. Mitchell

approach to the subject as opposed to a more restricted or focused approach.
My aim in bringing together Panofsky and Althusser, iconology and ideology, was definitely not to subject the study of the image to pre-fabricated
ideological criticisms. My aim was rather to show the mutual constitution of
iconology and ideology, by tracing the conceptual history of ideology from
Destutt de Tracys science of ideas in the French Revolutionary period, to
Marxs figure of the camera obscura of ideology, to Walter Benjamins elaboration of the camera and photography as the pictorial turns of modern mechanical production of images and homogeneous commodities.14 When I staged
an imaginary meeting between Panofsky and Althusser around the recognition scene in my essay on The Pictorial Turn, it was not with the idea of
producing only an ideological critique of Panofsky, then, but also an iconological critique of Althusser, a demonstration that the very notion of ideology
was grounded in a specific image-repertoire. My aim was to explore the
common space occupied by Panofsky and Althusser, namely the scene of
recognition as the link between ideology and iconology that shifts both
sciences from an epistemological cognitive ground (the knowledge of
objects by subjects) to an ethical, political, and hermeneutic ground (the
knowledge of subjects by subjects) (1994: 33). Little did I know when I wrote
that sentence that I was already asking the question, what do pictures want? a
question which is modeled on the intersubjective encounter, on scenes of
acknowledging as much as of knowing, and above all on the intuition that the
problem of understanding the image is deeply linked with the understanding
of the Other. Perhaps this hermeneutic ground is the place where, finally, our
twists and turns through the world of pictures come together.
In any case, thank you again for the opportunity to compare notes on
our respective wanderings through the labyrinth of images and image
science. I hope this is not the end of our dialogue, but just the beginning.
Very best wishes,
Tom Mitchell
June, 2006

Baetens, J. and van Gelder, H. (eds). 2006. Critical Realism in Contemporary Art. Leuven:
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Crary, J. 1991. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth
Century. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Deleuze, G. 1993. The Logic of Sense. New York: Columbia University Press.
Derrida, J. 1994. Spectres of Marx: State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New
International. London: Routledge.
Derrida, J. and Stiegler, B. 2002. Echographies of Television. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Elkins, J. 2000. What Painting Is. London: Routledge.


This genealogy is sketched out in Mitchell (1986: 160208).

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