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«1 The Image and the Gaze. On the ‘Logic’ of Iconic Structures Dieter Mersch AMBIGUITY OF THE IMAGE It is not always easy to decide whether ...»

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The Image and the Gaze. On the ‘Logic’ of Iconic Structures

Dieter Mersch


It is not always easy to decide whether something is an image or not. Some objects are images

without revealing themselves as such, while others are not images at all, and only appear like

them. Design objects for instance have a genuine image-like quality, as their iconicity

conceals their materiality, while the actual value of the object is assessed according to its form, its exterior appearance. On the other hand – especially in the context of science and technology – we are confronted with iconic textures like maps, blueprints and diagrams which cannot be subsumed under the category of the pictorial, as they are much closer to writings which have to be ‘read’ than to images which have to be viewed. This does not mean that one cannot talk about ‘the image’ in general, just because only particular images and objects exist, and their singularity leads beyond the scope of any unified term – although it appears to be problematic to speak of ‘the image’ in an all-encompassing singular way, in order to gather and collect the characteristics of ‘all’ images. In contrast, the pictorial is to be understood in the sense of a special ‘mediality’, the structure of which is to be examined here. On the one hand, this structure participates in a structure of mediality itself; on the other hand, it preserves a characteristic order in this structure. It can be deciphered as an order of ‘showing’.1 It cannot be deduced solely via the structure of representation, or via the symbolic contents of the depiction, or via the techniques of visualization – the methods of making visible and being made visible. An examination of the close interplay of the gaze and the image must be included in the analysis of the pictorial. It is possible to differentiate between at least three levels of the iconic in this context, (a) the actual depiction or representation which, on occasion, may also turn up blank, (b) the methods of visuality with their specific aesthetic and technical strategies as well as (c) ultimately those conditions which cause the eye to be fettered by a visible object and allow vision to become aware of a visible in the first place.

This last relationship, however, proves to be extremely tricky and conflicted. Its complexity begins with the fact that the image requires the gaze, while gazes do not inevitably generate images. As Merleau-Ponty points out, the image is primarily connected to invisibility,2 requiring a particular gaze to initially see something as an image – a gaze that one can identify as a ‘double vision’. This ‘double vision’ becomes the subject of the interplay between visibility and invisibility in multiple ways. If one wants to decipher the mediality of the pictorial and its structure, then one needs toproceed from this double gaze and its multiple interlacing between ‘withdrawal’ and ‘excess’.


Initially, to see an image means to perceive something ‘as’ an image as well as to perceive the things shown by the image. The phrasing alone alludes to an instance of duplicity: the ‘image as image’ as well as the ‘image as a thing’ that makes ‘something’ visible or brings it into view, regardless whether it is an object, a figure, a colour or a simple division of a tableau.

Thus, a gaping difference exists between pictoriality and the creation of visibility, which nonetheless remains invisible ‘in its quality’ as a difference, because that which becomes visible only does so by virtue of the images themselves creating this visibility. This difference ‘marks’ the pictorial, as it is constitutive – as a difference – for the visibility of the image itself, as far as it represents the prerequisite for the possibility of iconic visuality. That is: an instance of invisibility constitutes a visibility, with a rift running between the visible and the invisible, not right through the image, but rather across it – in another dimension, so to speak.

It does not split the image, it does not divide it, but separates it into image and ‘likeness’ (AbBildung), or medium and representation – in this context, the terms ‘likeness’ and ‘representation’ are to be used in their general meaning, from depiction to indication, from symbolization to that which ‘offers’ a view to the gaze.3 Of course, this difference leads to a number of consequences. First of all, to see an image therefore means to perceive it as an image – and not as something else. This finding also allows for an inversion: A thing that can be perceived as an image may alternatively not be seen as such. Accordingly, seeing an image permits a change of attention, the literal ‘reflection’ of the image as a thing, its construction, its usage, its hanging or its materiality. We are not able to perform this change intentionally, we cannot employ it freely to shift back and forth between perspectives; in fact, complicated medial strategies are necessary at times to carry out this inversion, and art has developed numerous practices to blur and irritate the gaze.

While we do not control the gaze and thus the image, it is not unusual for the image to control us, to captivate us and to force its direction upon us, making ‘other’ means of detachment and distancing necessary to disentangle ourselves from its illusion and its powers of deception.

The other aspect of this difference results in images being less expressive; they are not so much disposed to impart something to the observer, instead, they rather – as has been suggested above – show. Images are certainly quite able to ‘tell’ something, but where they represent or intimate something, they represent or intimate in a mode of showing This showing, or indication, differs from observation and also from comprehension because it opens up a view; but the visible generated thus – even if it is the visibility of a thing – is different from merely seeing a thing. René Magritte coined the apercu that pictures are viewed differently than objects in space. 4 This suggestion hints at the special medial status of the image, namely the difference between the visible, which is constituted by it and the visual that we encounter. It implies that the visible of the image is different from the visible of the non-image that we face in our visual experience – even if the image itself belongs to the things which exist in space and can be experienced as such. This also means that the gaze towards the image differs from the gaze in normal perception, even if they both relate to each other. Apparently, some quality must be added so that something can be seen in the image, just as, inversely, something normally pertaining to the object is not enough to turn it into an image; in point of fact, the pictorial quality is experienced first and foremost due to a specific ‘kind of perception’, which turns something into an ‘image of something’, just as the image has a quality which turns the thing, that one can experience visually, into a ‘representation’.

The aforementioned difference is not always easy to spot, particularly since many things which ostensibly do not perform as images can turn into an image if one observes them through the lens of the iconic gaze. This gaze, on the other hand, only exists where images have already been experienced: the view of a landscape, a look through a window, mirrors, photographs, monochrome canvasses, masks, patterns on a wallpaper or geometric figures and simple, colored rags nailed to a wall. It is their ‘framing’ which turns these sights into images – although not necessarily, as they can be perceived differently or even not at all.

Consequently, the perception of a frame appears as the quality, which has to be added to the gaze, to perception itself, in order to turn it into an iconic experience. At the same time, framing does not automatically refer to that thing which surrounds an image and separates its interior from the exterior, but rather to the dispositif – meaning the system of material and non-material conditions which mark a ‘border’ in numerous possible ways, be it via a real or imagined frame, a certain format or a material medium, like a plate which transforms what is displayed on it invariably into a surface, just to name one of many possible examples. Even images that technically move their edges out of the field of vision, like projections in IMAXcinemas or Fulldomes, are characterized by this border, at least by the edge of the screen, the dome, the spatial arrangement and the rows of seats which fix the gaze, and so on: they facilitate the viewing of something as the viewing of an image, while they limit the viewing to this function at the same time; their restriction bears comparison with the framing that forces the visual to turn into the iconic and trains or disciplines that which can be tentatively called ‘iconic vision’.

All categories of technical illusionism, which can be addressed as the ‘immersiveness’ of the image, find the source of their dynamic – but also of their futility – in this structure. Its aim amounts to a paradox: the effacement of that which constitutes the viewing of an image – and thus the effacement of pictoriality as a medium. The logic of technological progress exists due to this telos: ‘a medium that negates its own mediality’.


It is, however, the framing dispositif that initially turns the image-like into an image and produces the duplicity of ‘viewing something as an image’ and ‘observing something in the image’. Every border is marked with a difference, and it constitutes itself along this difference. Here, it can be designated as ‘iconic’. Therefore, we encounter a variation that concerns Gottfried Boehm’s topic of the “iconic difference”5, which originally turned pictorial studies into a philosophical discipline. This also denotes precisely the difference that constitutes the quality of the image as a medium. Consequently, its framing or difference has two results, which coincide directly with the duplicity of the gaze introduced above. (a) First of all, it sets something apart from its surroundings as an image and thus emphasizes it. (b) Secondly it makes something visible ‘as a representation of something’, i.e.: it shows something ‘as’ something. Therefore, along with the pictoriality of the image, it characterizes the representation of something ‘as’ a specific representation and consequently generates that which can be denoted as an ‘iconic as’ as distinguished from the ‘apophantic’ or ‘hermeneutic as’. It signifies, even if it generates this significance not in the medium of the sign, but in the medium of the image. Accordingly, ‘framing / difference’ indicates that which both makes an image possible, and also generates the pictoriality of the image that allows it ‘to show’, ‘represent’, ‘display something’ or make it visible ‘as something’. Because this occurs in the visual medium which is subject to other laws than discursive media like scripts and numbers, it still has to be differentiated from the ‘hermeneutic’ and thus from the ‘semiological’ and the ‘discursive as’ – but initially, such a separation points out nothing more than the necessity of making a distinction between the registers of the ‘sayable’ and denotable on the one hand and of the iconic on the other, while its characteristics as a distinction still have to be gauged. In turn, this is the distinction that characterizes the medial peculiarity of the image in contrast to text, script and mathematical structures, as well as bestows the image, its distinct ‘logic’, which does not conform to the ‘logic’ of the symbolic or the discrete and cannot be reduced to them.6 It reveals that the particular mediality of the image cannot be reduced to a grammatical, semiotic or rhetoric mode; in fact, we are dealing with a systematic incompatibility, which simultaneously raises the question of its describability, which as a discursive description has to remain inadequate with regards to iconic processes.7 As an additional consequence, any attempts to reduce ‘visual strategies of staging’ to rhetoric, and thus to figures which can be traced back to speech, or to simply conceive the image as a metaphor or a method of allegorization appear obsolete.8 To put it differently: semiotics, hermeneutics or ‘iconology’ prove to be inadequate approaches for a theory of pictoriality, because they disregard precisely the key aspect that would have to be denoted as the mediality of the image in the proper sense. Moreover, the image resists a thorough discursive analysis, as is shown by the failing of ekphrasis, which, by interminable utilization of terminology only shifts and enlarges the gap between discourse and pictoriality instead of closing it. If, alternatively, a discursive analysis is at all possible, if the image can be completely transformed into language, then it would be nothing but a readable text and its observation a continual reading.

In contrast, the approach presented here insists on a fundamental untranslatability, an incommensurability of images and other medial modalities. It suggests taking the gaze as a starting point for deciphering the peculiarity of the pictorial; and thus to place the pictorial in the spectrum of perceptions, which originally don’t have a seamless relation with terminology. Consequently, this approach insists on the intuition that the relation between image and gaze defines the specific format of the medium, which requires other means than those borrowed from sign theory or literary studies and linguistics. The precise examination of this intuition leads to the discovery of a series of divisions that structure the relation between image and gaze; the use of the plural form is meant to underline the fact that this structure consists of a system of differences, of aporias and chiasmi which evoke varied series of ‘perforations’. And the task of a philosophy of the pictorial that bases itself on the gaze has to be committed to reconstructing the mediality of the image and the specific scopophilia it evokes from this inherent system of differences. At the same time, this approach also highlights manifold traces of invisibilities that organize the complex interplay of ‘withdrawal’ and ‘excess’ in the image.


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