I realize it’s taken awhile to catch up with the second part of my write-up. Mitchell was as engaging a speaker as he is a writer, but I’m omitting some of what he said in this paraphrase. He spent some time explicating a few image categories that Rancière outlines in The Future of the Image, and he closed with a discussion of two recent artworks, Mark Wallinger’s State Britain and Tania Bruguera’s Tatlin’s Whisper No. 5. I only have so much space here, and I felt that those two aspects of his speech weren’t crucial to understanding his more general points about the future of the image. So, without further ado, and as best as I can summarize it:
W. J. T. Mitchell said…
…To represent the historical trajectory of images, it’s helpful to use specific examples. As an example of the past or origin of images, we can take the drawings of animals in the caves at Lascaux; as the future of images, take the digital dinosaurs of Jurassic Park–in particular, a film still in which a Velociraptor has broken into a screening room and has the image of its DNA code projected on its face. Both images are technical productions in a cinematic control rooms. The drawings at Lascaux functioned as ritualistic teaching scenes, a form of Platonic cinema or rehearsal that uses images to project and control an immediate possible future–in particular, the outcome of the hunt. The Jurassic Park image is literally an image of a cinematic control room; it is also designed to be viewed in a cinema.
The images share a number of other odd echoic relations. They both focus on animals, and prehistoric animals at that–although the futuristic animal image depicts an animal that is in fact far more ancient than the animal in the prehistoric image. Significantly, one of the major differences between the two images is the inversion of the predator/prey relationship: at Lascaux, man is the predator hunting an herbivorous animal image; in Jurassic Park, the image is the predator hunting man.
Before we explore that inversion, a more basic question presents itself: why are both of these images animals? Animals have a long-established relationship with futurity in the human mind. Since civilization began, animals have been used for purposes of divination, augury, etc. To paraphrase John Berger, whatever is done to humans is done to animals first, from agricultural slavery to medical testing. More generally, animals “go before” humans: they precede us in the laboratory, they preceded us in evolution, and they run before us in the hunt.
Images go before us as well. In fact, the future itself is an image–it exists as nothing more than a projection of the human mind until it’s realized. To talk about “the future of images” is to talk about a metapicture, an image of an image. Images don’t just HAVE a future, they ARE a future. The future of images is always viewed by means of the most recent development of the image, because it’s the closest we can come to the next development; as such it’s the best medium (or image) through which to understand or imagine the next image.
The primary difference between Mitchell’s conception of the image and Rancière’s is that Rancière refuses the image life. By choosing to see images as desireless machines that perform operations at the border between the visual and the textual, he rejects the vitalism of the image. Mitchell sees images as the subject of an animist tradition since their inception; even Rancière’s language in The Future of the Image contains animist descriptions of images performing actions. In fact, it is virtually impossible to talk about images without slipping into an animist vocabulary of “wanting,” “saying,” “doing,” etc.
This animist tradition is most vividly visualized in the futuristic image of the Velociraptor in Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park expresses the cultural fear that, with new technology, images will finally be able to come alive, and we will lose whatever control we may have had over them. The real-world manifestation of this phenomenon is the clone, which is the scientific realization of the living image. At the moment, only animals have been cloned (more images of animals), but we’ve already seen how animals go before man…
The other fundamental difference between Mitchell and Rancière is their understanding of the relationship between images and text. For Rancière, it seems literature precedes images, as in Baudelaire’s anticipation or creation of the photographic aesthetic. For Mitchell, images always precede and surpass words, defying complete explanation and often relating an idea or concept before the vocabulary has been created for its expression. As animals go before humans, images go before the word, and language is always playing catch-up.
Jurassic Park poster from the Movie Screenshots.