Revolution Lullabye

March 29, 2009

Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want

Mitchell, W.J.T. What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

In this book, Mitchell draws from many modern cultural, artistic, and scientific phenomenons to show how pictures, images, objects, and media create life instead of merely reflecting an outside world. The picture makes, not mirrors, the world. By treating images as living entities, Mitchell asks what they are doing, what they are articulating, and how they might want us to respond. Mitchell argues that people need to have a sense of visual literacy, a way to understand that images introduce new values and ideas in the world instead of responding to the values and ideas of individual human beings. In the third section of the book (sections focus on the image, the object, and media), Mitchell articulates his medium theory, which sees media as material social practices, entire ecosystems.

Quotable Quotes

Pictues are living organisms: “They change the way we think and see and dream. They refunction our memories and imaginations, bringing new criteria and new desires into the world. When God created Adam as the first ‘living image,’ he knows that he is producing a creature who will be capable of the further creation of new images” (92).

“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. For better and for worse, human beings establish their collective, historical identity by creating around them a second nature composed of images which do not merely reflect the values consciously intended by their makers, but radiate new forms of value formed in the collective, political unconscious of their beholders. As objects of surplus value, of simultaneous over-and underestimation, these stand at the interface of the most fundamental social conflicts” (105).

“A medium is more than the materials of which it is composed…[Instead it is] a material social practice, a set of skills, habits, techniques, tools, codes, and conventions” (203).

A medium is an “ever-elastic middle” that does not have boundaries. “The medium does not lie between sender and receiver; it includes and constitutes them” (204).

Notable Notes

Images form “a social collective that has a parallel existence to the social life of their human hosts, and to a world of objects that they represent” (93) – creating worlds through design

idol, fetishes, totems – controversy and “bad” objects: “They are the objects of ambivalence and anxiety that can be associated with fascination as easily as with aversion” (158).

people love, hate, want to destroy images because of their power.

problem with the pictoral turn because the image is simulaneously everything and nothing

digital new media is nothing new – the reason to study visual literacies is because human communication is multimodal, not just because of the internet

contraversial images as “condensed world pictures” and “sites of struggle over stories and territories” (195)

10 theses on media (theory) on page 211


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