The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 3 (Fall 2015)

Re-enchantment and Iconoclasm in an Age of Images

Anna Marazuela Kim

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 3)

Images are a particularly strong form of enchantment. They captivate us by means of a mysterious double effect, oscillating between visual immediacy and their clear status as illusion. At least since antiquity, the nearly magical, delusional potential of images has been an issue of serious concern. (Perhaps it was so even in the caves of Lascaux, where images of bison sprang to life, animated by prehistoric fire). Before modern societies were captivated by motion pictures, then television, then the ever-expanding array of iPhones, iPads, and computers that now capture our gaze, Plato likened our human condition to imprisonment in a cave of flickering images (eidola): a shadow world of appearances removed from the sunlit reality of the world of true Forms that lay outside.1 In this primal image, Plato seems to have anticipated a significant feature of our contemporary milieu: the thoroughgoing mediation of information and experience through images and image-rendering screens.

Philosophy, Plato argued, was the only means of escape from the delusional enchantment of the image-world. Disenchantment, which could be achieved only through exposure to the potentially blinding light outside the cave, was vital to the welfare of the citizens trapped within.

The Iconic Turn

Many centuries later, in his Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein, who survived both the trenches and a prison camp in World War I, described our epistemic condition in similar metaphoric terms: “A picture held us captive.”2

By picture, Wittgenstein meant the “picture” of language. Our imprisonment was our inability to get outside it, or beyond it, even in our philosophical critique. But the critical task of philosophy was not escape to another realm. It was, instead, to make visible the limits of our rational confinement, as beings inescapably bounded by language. What lay beyond was a domain inaccessible to philosophy: the ineffable realm of the “mystical” (mystisch).3

The reflection upon language as fundamental to the human condition—the “linguistic turn” inaugurated by Wittgenstein and others—was crucial to the intellectual landscape of the twentieth century. In our own century, that ground has been transformed by what has been called the “pictorial turn,” and more recently the “iconic turn.”4 What does this signify? It has been said that the vast digitization and global interconnection of images has created an environment that operates in ancient, iconic fashion. In other words, images increasingly function not simply as visual representations. They also actively mediate distant persons and worlds, rendering them virtually, luminously “present.” Whether as avatars of the self or sites of spectacular display, images have never been more lifelike, more enchanting, than they are today. It would seem, then, that our task is once again to disenchant them: to free ourselves from their grip through a critical, philosophical iconoclasm.

But is there a brighter, ideal world outside the shadow world of images, as Plato argued—or are we inescapably part of the picture?

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  1. Republic, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 747–49.
  2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations), trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, fourth edition (Chichester, West Sussex, England/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 54.
  3. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden, intro. Bertrand Russell (London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1922), 90.
  4. Gottfried Boehm and W. J. T. Mitchell, “Pictorial versus Iconic Turn: Two Letters,” Culture, Theory and Critique 50, 2−3 (2009): 103−21.

Anna Marazuela Kim is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.3 (Fall 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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