WJT Mitchell, Want Pictures Want?

Mitchell, WJT  What Do Pictures Want?


In What Do Pictures Want?, Mitchell challenges the reader to move beyond conceiving of pictures as mere representations or mirrors of the world to conceiving, as Nelson Goodman claims, “ways of worldmaking” (xv). Mitchell distinguishes between images, objects, and mediums and divides this texts into sections on each.  He argues that what we should be asking about or of images is what they want, not simply what they mean or what they do, or in other words, asking what they desire rather than how they are vehicles of meaning, instruments of power, projections of ideology, or technologies of domination  (xv and 36 and 47).  Mitchell analyzes how and in what ways imagees have a life of their own.  In pointing out that images have a social life, he reminds us that “images live in genealogical or genetic series, reproducing themselves over time, migrating from one culture to another” (93).   He argues that what pictures want is to be seen as complex agents with equal rights to language that have the agency to both establish new and change existing societal values.  In terms of objects, Mitchell focuses on the social role that found objects, offensive objects, bad objects, fetishes, idols, totems, and fossils play in society and in the building of empire in an era of globalization.  In terms of media, Mitchell urges reader to address media as an environment in which images inhabit and  . 


Questions of Inquiry:


“What do the images want from us?  Where are they leading us?  What is that they lack, that they are inviting us to fill?  What desires have we projected onto them, and what form do those desires take as they are project back at us, making demands upon us, seducing us to feel and act in specific ways?”  (25)


“How are traditional attitudes toward images—idolatry, fetishism, totemism—refunctioned in modern societies? (32)


Key Terms:


Image—any likeness, figure, motif, or form that appears in some medium or other

Object—material support in or on which image appears, or the material thing that an image refers to or brings into view

            Found objects—ordinary, unimportant, neglected and overlooked objects that are accidentally                                                     found, not sought out after

Medium—the set of material practices that brings an image together with an object to produce a picture


Key Quotes:


“It may be time to rein in our notions of the political stakes in a critique of visual cultures, and to scale down the rhetoric of the “power of images.”…This problem is to refine and complicate our estimate of their power and the way it works.  That is why I shift the question from what pictures do to what they want, from power to desire, from the model of the dominant power to be opposed, to the model of the subaltern to be interrogated or (better) to be invited to speak” (33).


“Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language.  They want neither to be leveled 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” (47).


“What pictures want, then, is not be interrupted, decoded, worshipped, smashed, exposed, or demystified by their beholders, or to enthrall their beholders.  They may not even want to be granted subjectivity or personhood by well-meaning commentators who think that humanness is the greatest compliment they could pay to pictures….What pictures want is the last instance, then, is simply to be asked what they want, with the understanding that the answer may well be, nothing at all (48). 


Images “form a social collective that has a parallel existence to the social life of their human hosts, and totto the world of objets that they represent.  That is why images consititue a ‘second nature.’  They are , in philosopher Nelson Goodman’s words, “ways of worldmaking” that produc new arrangements and perceptions of the world” (93). 


“Images are active players in the game of establishing and changing values.  They are capable of introducing new values into the world and thus of threatening old ones” (105).  


1 Comment

Filed under visual rhetorics exam

One response to “WJT Mitchell, Want Pictures Want?

  1. Pingback: Image is alive | [...] VVVR

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