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Culture, Theory and Critique

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Do Pictures Really Want to Live?

Jacques Rancire
Published online: 21 Dec 2009.

To cite this article: Jacques Rancire (2009) Do Pictures Really Want to Live?, Culture, Theory and
Critique, 50:2-3, 123-132, DOI: 10.1080/14735780903240083
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Culture, Theory & Critique, 2009, 50(23), 123132

Do Pictures Really Want to

Jacques Rancire

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& Critique
2009 (online)

Antony Gormley, INSIDER IV, 2008, the artist.

Abstract This article seeks to understand what might be meant by the

phrase the pictorial turn. It argues that to speak of the pictorial turn is to
do two things at once: to challenge the metaphysics that underpinned the
linguistic turn and to note the exhaustion of that metaphysics. The article
examines the importance of what the author calls the critique of the critique
of images, and places this within an age of the reassessment of the value of
images, whether positive or negative, and the reaffirmation of their particular consistency. The term pictorial turn would then no longer simply
imply giving images their due against accusations of lack of consistency or
of excessive consistency. This term would denote a real historical turning
point, a mutation in the mode of the presence of images themselves; no
longer the dues paid to images by the observer, but the vengeance exacted by
the new powers of the image against all those who denied its powers. The
article concludes by assessing the possibility of such a turn.

What should we understand by the phrase pictorial turn? It is clear that Tom
Mitchell coined the expression as a response to the linguistic turn. It remains
to be seen, however, what response means in this context. Of course, this
depends on what we take the expression linguistic turn to mean. Now that
Culture, Theory & Critique
ISSN 1473-5784 Print/ISSN 1473-5776 online 2009 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/14735780903240083

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124 Jacques Ranci`ere

expression itself carried many more or less contradictory meanings. It could
mean, in line with pragmatism and analytical philosophy, that the problems
of theory were above all a question of language usage. But the expression also
evoked the semiological practice of reading images as coded messages, on the
model of Barthess Mythologies (1957). The expression could be read as an
assertion of the Lacanian thesis regarding the materiality of the signifier and
the primacy of the symbolic in the constitution of the subject, but it could also
be read as referring to the Derridean thesis which challenged the privilege
accorded to the plenitude of the spoken word in favour of the written trace.
To assert the primacy of the linguistic was thus, on the one hand, to take
away from the image its perceptible consistency, to reduce it to its meaning,
that is to say to the forces which manipulated its specific language. On the
other hand, asserting the primacy of the linguistic was to denounce the
images solidity, to subtract the thought from the consistency of the imaginary which was of a piece with, and which masked the primary work of,
writing or the manner in which the symbolic exerted an effect in the real. The
double denunciation of the consistency and lack of consistency of images
could resolve itself into a single theoretical iconoclasm in which the Marxist
faith in the possibility of setting a world turned upside down back on its feet
rested on a Platonic vision of the separation between the perceptible world of
visible appearances and the intelligible world only accessible through the
practice of dialectics.
According to this logic, images exhibited at once the lack of consistency of
perceptible appearances, which needed to be dissipated, and the consistency
of a world of domination, which could be overturned by the exploited armed
with the dialectic. Images were nothing merely lifeless simulacra and they
were everything the reality of alienated life, the consistency of the world of
social relations founded on exploitation. The procedure which uncovered this
nothingness banked on two things at once. It counted, firstly, on the calm
secured by that knowledge which turns away from the shadows in the cave to
contemplate the intelligible splendour of the true. Secondly, it banked on the
energy of the labouring masses whose force would one day surely end up
crushing the wheels of the machine which produced exploitation and images.
To speak of the pictorial turn is thus to do two things at once, two things
which are logically independent: it is to challenge the metaphysics that underpinned the linguistic turn; it is also to note the exhaustion of that metaphysics, an exhaustion which manifests itself in two forms. On the one hand, this
exhaustion is marked by the uncoupling of the Platonic denunciation of
appearances from the Marxist faith in the destruction of the machine: from
this moment on, theoretical iconoclasm loses its purchase; it becomes the
nihilist demonstration of the illusions of a world in which, since everything is
an image, the denunciation of images is itself deprived of all effectiveness. It
is this disenchantment that was summed up by Baudrillards notion of the
obscenity (1988) of a world of generalised communication in which the real can
no longer be separated from its appearance.
On the other hand, however, we have also witnessed a reassessment,
whether positive or negative, of the value of images, a reaffirmation of their
particular consistency. We can find theoretical testimony to this reassessment
in the development of Barthess thought. Having dedicated such energy in

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Do Pictures Really Want to Live? 125

Mythologies to dissolving images into their message, Barthes set out, in Camera
Lucida (1993), to do the opposite, to make of photography the means of conveying the unique perceptible or sensible quality of a being, a quality irreducible
to anything that could be designated as its meaning or sense. This reassessment
also took a more practical form, however, in the return of a literal iconoclasm,
when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan. In so doing, the Taliban
returned these works of art belonging to the heritage of humanity to their
primary reality as images of divinity, as images of those false gods whose
falsity is manifest in the very fact that they can be represented as images.
In talking of a pictorial turn, Tom Mitchell draws a parallel between the
critique of the critique of images and the declaration of the latters exhaustion.
Now there is nothing self-evident about that parallel. For, even if the exhaustion of the iconoclastic critique is easy enough to observe, closer examination
of that exhaustion can lead to two different conclusions. If the critique of
images has had its day, this may be because the advent of a new era, by invalidating that critiques powers, has revealed the questionable assumptions on
which it had first been based at a time when, precisely, faith in a future of
revolution and of progress had underpinned its practice and had averted us
from examining its premises. And certainly the author of Iconology (1986) and
of Picture Theory (1994) has made a significant contribution to this critique of
the critique of images through his analysis of the presuppositions philosophical, social, sexist which have underpinned the privilege accorded the
word and the discrediting of the visible image from the work of Burke and
Lessing onwards (Mitchell 1986).
In so doing, Mitchell has cast light on the manner in which a certain
modernity was built by privileging, on the two sides of the image, the materiality of both the signifier and of its abstract visible form. He has reminded us,
to the contrary, that the image is not reducible to the visible and that the
powers of the word reside in those condensations and displacements which
make us see one thing in another or for another. He has shown how modern
discourse did not feed off the purity of the signifier or the abstraction of form
so much as off amphibian beings: off monsters like the dinosaur which generated discourse; off historical writings petrified in fossilised form (Mitchell
2005). He has traced the destiny of these amphibian beings through a series of
exemplary interweavings of words and visible forms such as those proposed
by William Blake, who might serve, for Mitchell, as the father of a resolutely
anti-Lessingian modernity (Mitchell 1994).
If we follow the thread of this critique, it may perhaps not be necessary
to speak of a pictorial turn. It may be enough, in a genealogical mode, to
oppose to simplistic notions of the image as insubstantial appearance or baleful reality the actual genealogy of words and forms which constitute the life
of images, a life at once more solid than the life of appearances and less
weighty than the life of baleful powers. But clearly we could assign another
cause to the exhaustion of critique, attributing it to an actual transformation
in the status of images themselves. The term pictorial turn would then no
longer simply imply giving images their due against accusations of lack of
consistency or of excessive consistency. This term would denote a real
historical turning point, a mutation in the mode of the presence of images
themselves; no longer the dues paid to images by the observer, but the

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126 Jacques Ranci`ere

vengeance exacted by the new powers of the image against all those who
denied its powers.
It is this second path that Tom Mitchell has clearly chosen. This means
that he has chosen, first and foremost, to respond to a certain critique of
images, to that critique which declares their lack of consistency: the critique
which yesterday reduced images to being nothing but the vehicle of misleading messages; the critique which today asserts that images have disappeared
in the flow of communication which, in the final instance, consists of nothing
but digits. But responding to that critique necessitates, to a certain extent,
returning to the other form of the critique of images, that which took images to
be powers endowed with a baleful life. For Tom Mitchell, to rehabilitate
images is to insist on their vitality. Images are not reflections, shadows, or artifices, they are living beings, that is to say organisms endowed with desires.
This formulation is clearly problematic since it might encourage certain
commentators in the wholly mistaken belief that Tom Mitchell shares their
conception of the life of images. It is in fact possible to acknowledge the life
possessed by the image in a manner which reduces both life and the image to
a kernel of information. But this is precisely what Tom Mitchell does not want.
His world of images is not a world of genetically coded messages; it is a living
tissue which belongs, like Deleuzes images, to the domain of natural history.
But here again we will need to draw a distinction. Deleuzes natural history
defines images as life forms but those life forms are non-organic (1983, 1985).
The life forms to which Tom Mitchell refers are, on the contrary, clearly
inscribed within an alternative according to which the life which is opposed to
the abstraction of computers and digital communication is an organic life, a
life which is symbolised in the image of an organism. The biocybernetic
universe is clearly for him a universe in which the two terms bios and cybernetics are in conflict, a universe where life manifests itself as the illness
which resists its liquidation into cybernetics. So we could describe the pictorial turn as a return of the repressed. But what returns here is not life as it is
encoded in DNA, nor is it Deleuzes pre-individual life forms. It is an organic,
individual life. There are, however, two principal ways to think this individuality. On the one hand, it can be thought of as an organic body structured by a
logic of lack. On the other, it can be thought of as a proliferating virus.
The life that Tom Mitchell claims for images oscillates between these two
poles. Similarly, the will he attributes to images oscillates between the expression of a lack and a wish and the Schopenhauerian affirmation of a life which
proliferates without end. At one pole, we find a life which manifests itself in
its very lack of life: the image is living precisely because it lacks life, because it
needs us in order to be the organism of which it is still but the emaciated
shadow, as with the poster of Uncle Sam calling for the blood of young Americans. Uncle Sam does not claim this blood as might a father exercising the old
right of the paterfamilias or a revolutionary mother-country exercising the
right of life and death over her children. Our uncle needs this blood precisely
because he is not a father and because his own blood has run dry, because he
is thus unable to symbolise the organism of the community unless by exploiting the blood of those young Americans to give flesh to his emaciated form
(Mitchell 2005: 37). Suddenly this debonair uncle becomes a vampire and the
image as lack begins to approximate to the other figure of the living image,

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Do Pictures Really Want to Live? 127

the image as proliferating virus, taking over the life of individuals in the
manner of the American flag which, in the photograph by Robert Frank, cuts
off the heads of the residents of Hoboken.1 But the virus itself tends to take on
the countenance of the organic individual. Viruses which lodge themselves in
the heads of artists find their originary image in the clouds made of bodies
that William Blake arranges into whirlwinds. And our computer viruses
appear less as artefacts than as the machines misfirings, organic life forms
reclaiming their rightful place over digital coding.
The pictorial turn is thus less a matter of a visual turn in contemporary
thought than of a dialectical reversal of the machine that transforms images
and life into a coded language. The machine that wants to produce life artificially in fact produces a new kind of image which defines a new power of life,
of a life which cannot be separated from its images and its monsters, its
illnesses and its mythologies. This is Tom Mitchells fundamental thesis. At
all events, this is the thesis he illustrates through the figure of the clone (2005).
The life produced by the artifice of scientists is not just any life. It is the life of
a sheep, of the sacrificial animal but also of the animal which symbolises a
God who dies and is born again for the fulfilment of the body of the Church
and the final resurrection of the dead.
In the same way that Tom Mitchell makes of the dinosaur and the fossil
the emblematic animals of Romantic modernity, of a non-modernist modernity, he thus makes of the cloned sheep the emblematic animal of a non-postmodernist postmodernity, of a postmodernity in which the rule of the
communication machine produces, against all expectations and stereotypes, a
new exuberance of images as life forms. According to this logic, even the
forms of denial and destruction of images become so many proofs of their
increased vital power. This is what the analysis of the iconoclastic commercial for Sprite demonstrates, reminding us that it is thirst and not the image
which makes us drink. Tom Mitchell turns the argument on its head: the
denial of the image in favour of thirst is the affirmation of the power that
underpins images, the power of orality. Thirst against the image is in fact a
thirst for images (2005: 7778).
Tom Mitchell can then apply this strategy of turning an argument on its
head to any form of iconoclasm, whether theoretical or practical. Denouncing
the power of images or denying that power comes down to the same thing:
the two actions express for Mitchell the same anxiety in the face of the power
of images, the same recognition of that power. Baudrillards (1983) assertion
as to the definitive lack of distinction between image and reality can then be
taken as an expression of the threatening power of the image, just as the
biocybernetic phantasmagorias of Cronenbergs films can be, or just as
yesterday the analyses of the messages hidden in advertising images could
be. Iconoclasts want to protect others from the danger from which they
believe themselves to be protected. It is always others who are represented as
the victims of the harmful power of images. But, for Tom Mitchell, this delegation of belief merely attests to the power of images. Why would one believe


This is a reference to Robert Franks Parade Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955. [Editors

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128 Jacques Ranci`ere

that others believe in the evil spells cast by images unless one feared them
oneself? The fanatical destroyer of Buddhas and the clear-eyed sociologist of
the inescapable television screen together bear witness to the force of that
which they deny.
This meeting of extremes has had, in our recent history, its privileged
scene, to which Tom Mitchell quite naturally refers (2005), namely the
collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Even if Tom Mitchell
makes no reference to it, we cannot help but think that his analysis is a
response to that offered by Baudrillard. Baudrillard (2002) challenged the
notion that the collapse of the towers should be seen as a return of the real
which refuted the validity of his theses. He highlighted, on the contrary, the
impossibility of distinguishing the event from the circulation of its image:
reality only seemed to have refuted fiction because it had absorbed its energy,
because reality itself had become fiction. And the collapse of the towers was
itself anticipated in their very existence as twins, which made of each the
clone of the other. By their collapsing the towers proved that they truly were
the images to which all our reality today is reduced. The towers bore witness
to the suicidal tendency contained within that reality.
Tom Mitchell, for his part, turns this notion of the equivalence between
image and reality on its head. Terrorism is not the virus of irreality which
provokes reality to confront its own death. It is the destruction of images
which are the symbols of a power, the reality of this domination incarnated
in its image. For the terrorists, the towers were the living and unbearable
image of American power. This line of argument seems more classical and
more reasonable than Baudrillards. But isnt there something dubious in
the very idea of a living image? The life of the World Trade Center was
not the life of its image. It was the life of a centre of real power. And
however significant the symbolic repercussions of its destruction, this does
not mean that it was in its quality as image that it was destroyed. Transforming this symbol into a living image is, in one sense, to give too much
to the image. But, in another sense, it is to give too little to the image, by
taking it to be merely the correlative of a form of anxiety or intolerance.
According to this interpretation, the towers were punished as though they
were human beings because they were an affront or visual insult to those
who hate and fear modernity, capitalism, biotechnology, globalization
(Mitchell 2005: 15).
We might reproach Tom Mitchell here with conceding too much to those
who identify the struggle against the American Empire with the fear of
modernity. Doubtless he would reply that this fear is not specific to the
Islamists, that even harmless little Dolly has provoked panic in modern
America and that the fear of terrorism taps into the same dark wellspring as
does the offence felt in the face of the Twin Towers. He would surely also
point out that the outrage provoked by Chris Ofilis painting of the Virgin
Mary decorated with elephant dung taps into that same dark wellspring as
well. The ancient fear felt in the face of the image, the belief in the images
baleful power, he would argue, is not exclusive to anyone. But this line of
argument, which places primitive peoples terrified of modernity on the
same level as the tough-minded moderns who laugh at their naivety, only
does so at the price of reducing the image in general to the expression of

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Do Pictures Really Want to Live? 129

beliefs and ancient fears which endure at the heart of a world which believes
it has dispelled all such superstitions.
Certainly, it would be foolish to deny the anthropological dimension of
images. Historians of images, from Aby Warburg to Hans Belting, force us to
remember that the objects which we admire as works of art were first of all
objects serving ritual functions, the expression of concerns, or tools to be used
in practices of exorcism. It is nonetheless the case that the benefit of challenging the critique which reduces images to misleading illusions risks being lost
if the life we attribute to images is a life composed of beliefs and fears.
Couldnt we think the independence of images without reducing them to the
status of either illusions or viruses? It is precisely this independence that Tom
Mitchell encounters when faced with Barbara Krugers photomontage in
which a photograph of a marble bust in profile is accompanied, on its lefthand side, by the following words of commentary: Your gaze hits the side of my
face. Mitchell interprets this image as carrying two contradictory messages,
one, a feminist denunciation of the male gaze, and the other a radical assertion of indifference to any gaze (2005: 45).
But this contradiction is surely also the manifestation of the status of the
image as something which cannot be reduced either to the transmission of a
message or to the modernist absorption of an art turned in on itself, as exemplified by Chardins painting of a young man engrossed in making soap
bubbles. An image of any consistency is precisely one which is at once face
and side for the gaze, one which welcomes and wards off the gaze simultaneously. For Schiller, an author from the same century as Chardin, this
tension between opposites was the very criterion of beauty, representing
what he termed the free appearance which permitted the free play of the
gaze. Michael Fried takes the young man absorbed in making bubbles to be
an emblem of a modernist style of painting which turns away from theatre to
become absorbed in itself. Schiller gives a completely different force to the
play of the figure by turning to consider the colossal sculpted head of a
goddess, the Juno Ludovisi of Rome: an idle goddess who wants nothing and
hasnt a care in the world (Schiller 1967: 109).
This also means that this is a sculpture of a goddess who no longer
exercises any imaginary power on Olympus nor fulfils any concrete role
within the City; a statue which no longer serves any function nor inspires
either adoration or fear; a simple image open to the gaze of one and all in the
neutralised space of the museum. If Chardins idle young man comes to serve
retrospectively as the emblem of the autonomy of art, this goddess without
power serves as an emblem of something else: she is the emblem of the paradoxical autonomisation of aesthetic experience, an experience of free play and
indifference open to all. Hegel established the political virtues of this kind of
indifference when he championed the Olympian beatitude of the ragged
children, carefree and idle, depicted in Murillos painting of little beggars
from Seville. To do nothing, that is the paradoxical virtue, the indissolubly
aesthetic and political virtue of images.
Again, it is this virtue of indifference possessed by the image which
endows Barbara Krugers picture with its force. The face of an angry woman,
frowning and casting a dark look at her male aggressor can be effective in
real life. As an image, it loses all its power. Those feminists who seek to

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130 Jacques Ranci`ere

denounce the status of women in the art world quite reasonably choose to
don a gorilla mask rather than to frown or cast angry glances. But the gorilla
masks donned by the Guerrilla Girls function as an emblem and not as a work
of art.2 The marble bust, shot in profile in Barbara Krugers photomontage, on
the other hand, claims the status of a political work of art. But if it can do so,
this is because it conjoins two opposing statuses of the image. The artist has
constructed her image by articulating two ambiguities. There is the ambiguity
inherent to shooting the bust in profile since we do not know whether the face
is meekly turning away from the outrage of the gaze or immediately asserting
its independence in relation to that gaze. There is the ambiguity inherent to
the text since we do not know whether it is denouncing the aggression of a
gaze that continues to strike the profile of a face which is shyly averting its
eyes or whether it is asserting that, whatever happens, that gaze will always
miss its target. But this construction of the image as a double-edged polemical
operation is itself only possible on the basis of a primary level of imageity, of
an indifference, a fundamental idleness of the image. The polemical operation can work because the image neutralises what it is that distinguishes the
woman who is, moreover, almost androgynous from the goddess and
what it is that opposes the flesh which reflects light to the coldness of the
marble. The operation works because the words which explain the conflict are
themselves separated both from any living mouth pronouncing them and
from the normal disposition of sentences, because they are rendered as
autonomous as epitaphs on a marble slab, spatialised by their shadow. The
image is rendered effective by abolishing the normal distinction between the
disembodied abstraction of words and the vitality of bodies.
Already in the 1920s Rodtchenkos posters worked in the same way,
spatialising words to link them to the simplified forms of the objects represented in order to unite both words and objects in the same direction to form
a single arrow pointing towards the conquest of the future. It is also what, in a
completely different way, Alfredo Jaars real images do, the images by
means of which Jaar has chosen to represent the Rwandan genocide.3 These
real images do not provide us with a representation of any of the bodies of
the victims. They only show us the words inscribed on black boxes which
contain photographs of the individuals in question. These words tell us the
identity and the story of the absent bodies, that is to say they give them
another body, a body endowed with a singular history in the place of the
anonymous body of the victim of mass slaughter. What constitutes the image
is the operation which transforms one corporeity into another. And again it is
this kind of metamorphosis that Tom Mitchell (1994) analyses when he

The Guerrilla Girls are a group of feminist activists, founded in 1985, to protest
against sexism and misogyny in the art world by, to cite their website, producing posters, billboards, public actions, books, and other projects to make feminism funny and
fashionable. They assumed the names of dead artists and wore gorilla masks in
public, concealing their identities and focusing on the issues rather than their personalities (, accessed 17 February 2009). [Translators note]
Jacques Rancire has provided a more detailed reading of Jaars work in the
essay LImage intolrable in his recent book, Le Spectateur mancip (2008: 93114).
[Translators note]

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Do Pictures Really Want to Live? 131

studies in Let us Now Praise Famous Men another politics of the equality of
words and visual representations, a politics that plays off the radical independence of the visual series from the verbal series, providing by the same token
political images that are less alive but perhaps more effective than the
dramatic montages of living bodies and concentrated thoughts presented at
the same time in You Have Seen Their Faces.4
Perhaps the sacrificial lamb provides then a misleading image of the
status of images. This was already Platos lesson: the picture of Cratylus is not
a second Cratylus. The reign of the image comes to an end at the point where
a body is the replica of a body in flesh and bone. The cloned sheep is no
longer an image and if the Twin Towers had been nothing but images, it
would doubtless have been enough to destroy them in effigy. To give images
their proper consistency is precisely to give them the consistency of quasibodies which are more than illusions, less than living organisms. To the
question what do pictures want?, we must, according to Tom Mitchell, run
the risk that the answer might be nothing at all (2005: 48).
Perhaps pictures do indeed want nothing at all, except that we leave
them in peace, that we do not force them to be living organisms, a status we
are perhaps too eager to accord to things that never asked for so much. Or, to
put it another way, it is those who fabricate pictures who want to make
something of them, but perhaps they can do this precisely because pictures
themselves do not want anything. And if we like to look at pictures, this
reflects our capacity to endow them with life and will or, simultaneously, to
subtract those qualities from them. The grand narratives of modernity played
off two theologies of the image which are both theologies of anti-representation, of the dissipation of shadows. There is the modernist negative theology
which opposes the autonomous virtue of words and pure forms to the
obscenity of the real and the mirages of representation. And there is the
Romantic positive theology of incarnation, which takes the separation of
words and appearances to be the absolute evil and hence demands a living
body for every image, every word, every sensation. Doubtless we need to
escape this dichotomy in order to think the nature and the metamorphoses of
pictures in their status as quasi-bodies. Pictures want equal rights with
language, not to be turned into language. They want neither to be levelled
into a history of images nor elevated into a history of art, but to be seen as
complex individuals occupying multiple subject positions and identities
(2005: 47). It might be argued that the will to singularise images in this way
again endows them with too much will. But this would be to forget the role
of the phrase as if in Tom Mitchells thought. So lets take the liberty of
correcting Tom Mitchells formulation for him: pictures behave as if they
wanted all this. At all events, this is how we should see them if we want to do
justice to their life without forcing them to be too alive.
Translated by Jeremy F. Lane

Reference is being made here to W. J. T. Mitchells discussion of photographic
essays by James Agee and Walker Evans, and Erskine Calderwell and Margaret
Bourke-White (Mitchell 1994: 281322). [Editors note]

132 Jacques Ranci`ere

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