This essay analyzes the ways in which images are over- and under-estimated, from idols that signify the highest value and demand human sacrifice, to empty signs that are worthless, hollow illusions. It then shows how these disparate estimations of "the surplus value of images? lead to the perception of perception of images as living agencies that play crucial roles in social conflicts.
Up Make us idols, which shall go before us.--Exodus 32.1
Image is nothing. Thirst is everything.--Sprite commercial
Everyone knows that images are, unfortunately, too valuable, and that is why they need to be put down. (1) Mere images dominate the world. They seem to simulate everything, and therefore they must be exposed as mere nothing. How is this paradoxical magic/non-magic of the image produced? What happens to an image when it is the focus of both over-(and under-) estimation, when it has some form of "surplus value"? How do images accrue values that seem so out of proportion to their real importance? What kind of critical practice might produce a true estimation of images?
The relation between images and value is among the central issues of contemporary criticism, in both the professional, academic study of culture, and the sphere of public, journalistic criticism. One need only invoke the names of Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, Guy Debord, and Jean Baudrillard to get some sense of the totalizing theoretical ambitions of "image studies," iconologies, mediology, visual culture, New Art History. A critique of the image, a "pictorial turn" has occurred across an array of disciplines--psychoanalysis, semiotics, anthropology, film studies, gender studies, and, of course, finally, cultural studies--and it has brought with it new problems and paradigms, much in the way that language did in the moment of what Richard Rorty calls a "linguistic turn" (263). On the side of public criticism, the rule of mass media makes the dominance of the image obvious. Images are to blame for everything from violence to moral decay. The popular version of the pictorial turn is so obvious that televi sion commercials have their own metalanguage for reining in the image. Sprite soft drinks can tell us that "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything," a saying worthy of Lacan.
The relation of images and thirst is perhaps the first way we might think of the relation of images and value, particularly in the way that images themselves are consumed, or "drunk," and the way they seem to consume their spectators. Images are, notoriously, a drink that fails to satisfy our thirst; their main function is to awaken desire, to provoke a sense of lack and craving by giving us the apparent presence of something and taking it away in the same gesture. We might interpolate in the Sprite slogan, then, a logical connective: It is because image is nothing that thirst is everything.
Between the all-or-nothing choice of images and thirst, there is the acknowledgment that images are not mere nothings and thirst is not everything. This between has historically been occupied by that refinement of thirst known as taste. The application of "good taste" to images, the critical separation of true from false, baneful from beneficent, ugly from beautiful, seems like one of the fundamental tasks of criticism. Insofar as the very word criticism implies a separation of good from bad, the problem of images seems immediately to settle on evaluation, and even more urgently, on a crisis of value that makes true criticism seem almost by default to present itself as a kind of iconoclasm, an effort to destroy or expose the false images that bedevil us. Gilles Deleuze argued that the very foundations of criticism as such reside in the Platonic effort to separate the false image or semblance from the true form, and that this means that "philosophy always pursues the same task, Iconology" (260). Most of the p owerful critiques of images in our time, especially of visual images, have (as Martin Jay points out) been iconoclastic in character. (The title of Baudrillard's The Evil Demon of Images gives us some sense of the currency of iconoclastic rhetoric in contemporary theory.) They approach images as subject to a discipline, an axiology or criteriology that would systematically regulate judgements of value. They think the key question about "images and value" is how to evaluate images and expose the false ones.
Unfortunately, I have neither a system nor a praxis to offer on this front. I generally leave the job of image evaluation to art critics or connoisseurs. When it comes to evaluation of new art works, I console myself with Leo Steinberg's wise remarks on this issue:
One way to cope with the provocations of novel art is to rest firm and maintain solid standards. [...]A second way is more yielding. The critic interested in a novel manifestation holds his criteria and taste in reserve. Since they were formed upon yesterday's art, he does not assume that they are ready-made for today; [...] he suspends judgment until the work's intention has come into focus and his response to it is--in the literal sense of the word--sympathetic; not necessarily to approve, but to feel along with it as with a thing that is like no other. (63)
I take this "yielding" approach to evaluation as a cardinal principle. And I would just note two other features of Steinberg's criteria that will concern us here. The first is the claim that criteria are not arrived at independently, prior to the encounter with images, but are "formed upon" yesterday's art. "Formed upon" is a very precise and delicate phrase, suggesting a mutual shaping of values in the encounter with works of art, as if art works were the anvil on which one's values were tested and hammered out, or a mold in which they were cast. The second is the hint of animism in Steinberg's claim that we must "feel along with" the work of art.
What I am calling a "yielding" practice of evaluation was put in more militant terms in Northrop Frye's "Polemical Introduction" to Anatomy of Criticism some years ago. Frye argued famously that "systematic" literary criticism had to renounce the temptation to engage in value judgements. "Value judgments," said Frye, "are founded on the study of literature; the study of literature can never be founded on value judgments" (20). Frye believed that literary criticism could attain the status of a science only by adopting "the hypothesis that just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is not an aggregate of 'works,' but an order of words" (17). "The history of taste," says Frye, "is no more a part of the structure of criticism than the Huxley-Wilberforce debate is part of the structure of biological science"(18, emph. Frye's). Frye praises the practice of this kind of "systematic" criticism in the work of Ruskin (ridiculing Matthew Arnold's provincial confidence in his evaluati ve powers). Ruskin, says Frye, "learned his trade from the great iconological tradition which comes down through Classical and Biblical scholarship into Dante and Spenser... and which is incorporated in the medieval cathedrals he had pored over in such detail"(10).
Frye's suspicion of value judgements and his use of naturalistic and scientific analogies for criticism have themselves become the objects of suspicion in our age, with its emphasis on scholarly commitment to certain specific political and ethical values, and its ingrained suspicion of both nature and the images that are sometimes thought to imitate it. And we are surely right to be wary of naturalism at a time when Darwinism is once again the reigning ideology, and Freud and Marx are dismissed in middle-brow culture (i.e., The New Yorker and The New York Times) as dinosaurs. Nevertheless, Frye's insistence on linking systematic criticism, and specifically iconology, to a rigorous suspension of value judgements is worth remembering, if only because it makes possible a critique of images as sources of value, rather than objects of evaluation. In a remarkable turn, Frye equates evaluative criticism with ideology, an imposition of a decorum, a …