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  • Painting and Plurality
  • Christopher S. Wood (bio)

The images: can we picture to ourselves, when we hear of a plurality of images, not a collection of discrete individual images but an abundance unsurveyable and without internal differentiation? Just as one hears in so many languages of the waters: die Wässer, les eaux. . . . In the flux of experience it may be no more possible to isolate a singular “image” than it is to isolate a singular “water.” The waters, according to Roberto Calasso in his meditation on Hindu mythology, Ka, symbolize the glittering flow of inner images, the ceaseless proliferation of specters and simulacra, that constitutes consciousness.1

Nevertheless, in the most prevalent theories of images developed by theology, by classical epistemology, by the academies of art, premodern and modern alike, and by anthropology, the image is paradigmatically still, framed, and graspable. The image stands alone, outside time. Whereas in experience, which is a flow of images in time, every image is in the process of becoming another image, for percepts, memories, and dreams are images generated and coordinated by the body. According to Henri Bergson, perception is nothing other than an aggregate of images “referred to” one particular image, the body.2 The body itself is an image insofar as it receives movement, and in [End Page 116] turn produces movement. For an embodied subject, the body is a privileged image, for it is an image that is apprehended from within. The body filters the stream of images. There is no way to still the flow of perception and fix any particular image.3 And yet the fiction of a temporally simple, isolated image remains the basis for most image theories. The framed image is the usable image.

Plato posited images in the mind that corresponded to the perfect ideas in heaven. He stabilized the mental image in order to compare it, unfavorably, to an ideal form. The stable mental image is stamped into the history of Western thought. But that image is an artifact of philosophical discourse. Powerful is the fiction that consciousness orients itself by a repertoire of stored pictures constantly replenished by new perceptions. John Locke described the mind as a dark cabinet stocked with pictures:

The understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without: would the pictures coming into such a dark room but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them.4

One imagines a pile of dusty canvases, portraits by Peter Lely, perhaps, or weak exercises in the Bolognese manner.

The history of art has a role to play in this story, for the philosophical fiction of the stable interior image has been reinforced by the material images made by artists. The fabrication of paintings outside the body is a clumsy repetition, even a parody, of the selection that the body has already performed. The work of art is a massive reduction from the infinite to the merely multiple, from the multiple to the merely singular. The painting, the statue, the theatrical tableau, the photograph, even the poetic image are motionless cross-sections of experience that show us what internal images are supposedly like. Thinking about images has run in that direction: the fabricated image, in the world, serves as the model for the generated image, in the body. The fabricated image is easier to understand, for it was made outside the body, with hands and tools. The internal image is more mysterious. It is not made but generated; it has no origins but is emergent; its boundaries are blurred. In order to render it usable for philosophy and for everyday talk, the internal image had to be given edges and flatness. This readied it for use as a signifier, [End Page 117] that is, as an artifact that will not work unless it can be copied, and recognized as a copy.

The fabricated picture has been such an effective model that the term “image” has...


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pp. 116-139
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