The Surplus Value of Images

By Mitchell, W. J. T. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Surplus Value of Images


Mitchell, W. J. T., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


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.

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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). …

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