It is perhaps inevitable that the question of images, that is, the question not only of their value but their power to simultaneously represent and conceal, to seduce and to deceive, to make holy and to profane, would emerge as a primal locus of both theological and philosophical reflection in recent decades. Indeed, we (post)moderns live in an age which is, perhaps more than any other, saturated by and fascinated with images. Enraptured by our screens we increasingly inhabit a world of mediated immediacy, where the virtual is interwoven with the real so thoroughly and so intimately that the line separating these two poles of experience becomes ever harder to distinguish. Nonetheless, the questions which arise out of our peculiar contemporary relationship with images are themselves hardly new (as any reader of Plato is likely to observe) and have served as persistent points of theological controversy and confrontation for centuries, especially within Christianity, a fact reflected by the historical upheavals of Byzantine iconoclasm and the Reformation. The resulting divisions between those who would name their opponents “idolators” and those who would name them “iconoclasts,” suggests an incommensurable opposition between two utterly contradictory ways of conceiving the possibilities of imagining (and imaging) the Divine, and of how images in general operate. They either tell the whole truth or they lie.
Natalie Carnes in Image and Presence insists on the other hand that this familiar either/or is ultimately but a Manichean binary which misunderstands the phenomenality of images in such a way that occludes a proper understanding of their very efficacy altogether. In place of this false dichotomy, Carnes offers a conciliatory both/and, pressing in on an uncomfortable paradox at the very heart of images themselves: images only tell the truth when they admit of their own falsity, and they only lie when they purport to be identical with the truth. That is, the very difference between a true image (an icon) and a false image (an idol) is marked by whether or not the image admits of an excess beyond itself through its own self-negation (iconoclasm), or whether it occludes this excess by deceptively insisting upon its own comprehensiveness. Ultimately then, an icon is differentiated from an idol only insofar as it bears within itself a moment of iconoclasm which manifests precisely the excess which the icon analogously depicts. In Carnes’s own words, “The negation at the heart of imaging is not an eradication or an erasure . . . it is a breaking open that leads to greater revelation, it is a way of saying images mediate presence-in-absence and likeness-in-unlikeness. When absence and unlikeness are elided, the image becomes an idol” (7). Far from being incommensurable, Image and Presence instead supposes that iconoclasm and inconophilia are rather two dialectically interwoven expressions of fidelity which must be held together in revelatory tension.
While this rather radical thesis about images and their paradoxical nature is developed with a stunning multivalence which considers everything from political cartoons, pornography, to religious art, the central axis of this rewarding and challenging book is fundamentally ecumenical and explicitly christological. Indeed, Carnes prepares a veritable feast for the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic “iconophiles” as much as for the Protestant “iconoclast” which is sure to simultaneously delight, scandalize, and provoke all parties into revisiting (and rethinking) a central locus of differentiation across the plurality of Christian traditions (and indeed, across Abrahamic faiths more generally). Drawing on the classical Chalcedonian formulation of the union of Divine and human natures in the person of Christ, Carnes overcomes the oppositional dichotomy between seen and unseen, by recovering a view of Christ himself as the prototypical icon, the visible form which manifests the invisible God.
In the coming days, this symposium will continue to probe and to challenge the boundaries of Carnes’s project, bringing it into conversation with a variety of perspectives. Andrew Prevot wonders about the potential and inherent limitations of encountering the suffering and the oppressed as embedded within an analogical relationship between the face of Christ and the face of the other. Both Kathryn Reklis and Amaryah Shaye Armstrong seek to challenge the hidden power relations which underly not only much of our modern fascination with images and aesthetic categories but also the limitations of the Christian tradition itself for confronting the legacies of coloniality, slavery, and the oppression of indigenous communities. Jennifer Newsome Martin interrogates the relationship between an ontological conception of the image and the constitutive role of an apprehending subject in order to further elucidate the philosophical dimensions of the theological-aesthetic claims at the very heart of Image Presence. Taken together, this cacophony of voices, each with their own concerns and insights, as well as Carnes’s own thoughtful engagement with them, undoubtedly reveals the rare richness and complexity of this exciting book which surely invites ever greater conversation.