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Rethinking the Image: with some reflections on G. M. Hopkins
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These things, these things were here, and but the beholder wanting…

G.M. Hopkins, “Hurrahing in Harvest”

Consistent with its genesis as a subfield of Enlightenment aesthetics, literary criticism for the past two-hundred years or so has tended to approach images as operating within a complex set of historically-conditioned formal conventions. Whether realized in a visual or textual medium, images are deemed intelligible only insofar as they can be located within—or can be shown to reflect back upon—some pre-established rhetorical or contextual frame. Their axis of meaning thus is construed in exclusively horizontal terms as a distinctive form or Gestalt denoting or mediating some putative referent; and by the latter we are to understand some historically specific event or material constellation deemed susceptible of ‘critical’ articulation and now retrievable in discursive (non-imagistic) form. With the possible exception of the New Criticism, post-WW II programs for literary study took it as axiomatic that images are subject to historical or theoretical ‘paraphrase’ and mastery of some kind. Indeed, for the sake of their own epistemological and disciplinary comfort, they positively had to enshrine that ‘heresy’ as some methodological protocol, be it historicist, deconstructive, cultural-materialist, or something else still. Now, inasmuch as our outlook on images as something to be decoded abides within some such disciplinary matrix, we risk blinding ourselves to the costs of this strictly discursive construction of the image as an object to be held to account by one critical method or another. That is, we find ourselves pledged to a (more or less) Hegelian project that aims to decode, dominate, and ultimately sub-late images as incomplete, unselfconscious, and likely wayward attempts at ‘meaning’ [Meinen], a truth that the medial constraints of images ultimately prevent from being fully realized. Indeed, the relationship of modern critical knowledge to images, which is by definition disciplinary and disciplining in character and aspiration, often appears oblivious to its own distinctively modern etiology. However inadvertently, any formal-historical conception of the image is but a latter-day manifestation of a long iconoclastic tradition that dates back to Old Testament Scripture and which, as James Simpson has argued, constitutes an integral component of Western modernity itself. To understand the limits (and limitations) of our modern disciplinary and methodological approach to images, one ought to begin by recalling some key stages in the story of the image—which in many respects coincides with the history of attempts at containing and quarantining its seemingly unpredictable and irrepressible powers of disclosure.

God having created man “after our image and likeness” [ad imaginem et si-militudinem nostram], it cannot surprise that images should have come to be variously fetishized or feared as living things, as simulacra potentially striving to become isomorphous with the Divine creator. Concern with the image as a simulation of (eternal) life—indeed a living being that early-fifteenth-century Lollards were to find so unsettling—runs through the Old Testament where it fuels anxiety about how to respond to the constant threat of a creation intent on transcending its formal and material constraints as medium or manifestatio wherein God was believed to have affirmed Himself as logos. Haunted by the specter of the image substituting itself for its transcendent source and point of reference, the history of the people of Israel often reads like an extended and violent struggle with the image. As James Simpson puts it, “the story is always the same: national integrity and strength, not to speak of national survival, is primarily dependent on the destruction of the idols of neighbouring peoples.” Driving Mosaic and subsequent injunctions against images is a fear of a medium bent on usurping its source, that is, fear of the charismatic Gestalt of created being supplanting its creator. Indeed, “it is not by virtue of his nature that God is unrepresentable, but by virtue of the relationship he intends to maintain with his people.” In this economy, images or epiphanies are to be taken as “the sign of a presence… not Presence itself.” Unfailingly, then, the Old Testament’s principal objection concerns the image’s susceptibility to what Deconstruction calls ‘phenomenalism,’ that is, the image’s seemingly innate tendency...



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