Symposium Introduction

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.

Andrew Prevot


Prosoponic Likeness

Running throughout Carnes’s beautiful and powerful book is a flexible structure of thought or rough set of conceptual guidelines that I, as a Catholic theologian who has read my fair share of Erich Przywara, would tend to call “analogy,” at least as a shorthand, though I would by no means insist that others use this term. I find this flexible structure somewhat helpful regardless of how it is named. Carnes employs her own version of it to argue, in various concrete cases, that a visible image bears both a likeness and unlikeness to an invisible excess (see pp. 7, 22, 52, 95, 123, 168, and 182). For his part, Przywara would say that such an excess resides both “in” and “beyond” the image—or in his more abstract, ontological and theological terms: essence is present “in” and “beyond” existence, the infinite is present “in” and “beyond” the finite, the Creator is present “in” and “beyond” the creature. In a move which calls to mind John Betz’s impressive two-part article in Modern Theology, “Beyond the Sublime: The Aesthetics of the Analogy of Being,” Carnes transposes such a conceptual apparatus into a largely aesthetic register (though, to be clear, her theory of images encompasses more than the aesthetic, in the narrow sense which pertains exclusively to the work of art). In short, she thinks the presence of the invisible “in” and “beyond” the visible.

According to Carnes, one stays within bounds so long as one holds the visible and the invisible together in the tension of their likeness and unlikeness. One goes out of bounds as soon as one attempts to eradicate either side of this polarity (that is, the visible or the invisible) or either mode of their relation (that is, their likeness or unlikeness). This set of conceptual parameters disqualifies any absolute iconoclasm that would disregard the value of the visible as well as any absolute iconophilia that would stifle desire for the invisible. It renounces any single-minded fixation on likeness, which would amount to idolatry, as well as any obsessive concern with unlikeness, which would leave one with an empty apophaticism. It demands an intrinsic, mutually conditioning relationship between iconoclasm and iconophilia, in which negation of the image is shown to be a necessary part of the experience of desiring that which the image represents. An ardent, non-arrested desire is really the key here. The image propels desire forward both through what it posits visually and through its self-negating act of pointing beyond itself.

Barthians who are wary of the analogy of being need not be overly trepidatious here, since Carnes’s argument is emphatically christocentric. As “the image of the invisible God” (181; see also Col 1:15), Christ grounds and perfectly exemplifies Carnes’s theory of the image and its self-negation. A biblically and doctrinally specified Christology guides the entire discussion. Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant theologians will all find much to appreciate in Carnes’s ecumenically sensitive project, which uses the anonymous trappings of (what I would call) analogy in such a thoroughly christological manner that few, if any, will judge it to be an extrinsic philosophical imposition.

At the same time, the basic principles of this analogical thought-form in Carnes’s work are communicable to a somewhat secularized and in any case largely non-Christian modern culture that must engage iconoclastic and iconophilic possibilities in its interactions with various religious and nonreligious images. Carnes’s book is both an exciting work of constructive Christian theology and a critical intervention in the interdisciplinary field of “visual studies” (xi) and warrants a careful reading by participants in both conversations. Without identifying excess with the Christian God, a secular or non-Christian reader may still recognize Carnes’s formal point, resonant with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bruno Latour, that images possess their own intrinsic iconoclasm (157, 163).

Reading through the text, I found myself not only agreeing with its central christocentric-and-analogical claims about the status of the image but also being energized by particular nuances and details that emerge within this framework.

I was especially struck by Carnes’s innovative appropriation of the distinction between hypostasis (individual person) and prosopon (individual self-expression or face) to formulate a theory of the “prosoponic likeness” of Christ in the poor and oppressed, whom she tends to call “the least of these” (see Matt 25:40). She argues: “As the risen Christ can be present to the icon through his hypostatic likeness to it, so Christ can be present to the least of these through his prosoponic likeness to them” (132). She continues:

Like hypostatic likeness, so, too, prosoponic likeness is Spirit-given. Even so, it is not identical to hypostatic likeness, which has the Spirit’s work in deification as its model. Prosoponic likeness does not require that the least of these have been incorporated into Christ’s very hypostasis, to be united with him in everlasting glory. The least of these may or may not have that kind of likeness as well, but they do not have it by virtue of their status as the least of these. Prosoponic likeness signifies, instead, that God has chosen to share the divine face with the least of these, whether or not they are members of the body of Christ. (139)

Carnes contends, in keeping with her Orthodox Christian tradition, that there is a kind of union with Christ’s hypostasis that is given by the Holy Spirit to faithful Christians who are being divinized through their participation in the church and that is similarly manifest in the epicletically blessed icons used for worship in Orthodox churches. What she adds—in order to clarify the meaning of biblical passages such as Matt 25 and in order to retrieve lost insights in certain Eastern patristic exegeses of such passages by commentators such as Chrysostom, Basil, and Nyssa (127, 133)—is a claim that there is another kind of union with Christ through his prosopon, or outward self-expression, which is given definitively to the suffering and downtrodden of this violent world regardless of their level of virtue or religious belonging. “The least of these” look like Christ in their misery and make him present in a real way through their bodies even if one cannot presuppose, on this basis alone, that they are united with him hypostatically through deifying faith and grace. Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, but “the least of these” are distinctive insofar as they prosoponically image Christ in their suffering.

Who are “the least of these”? A few examples appear very clearly in Carnes’s text. Others hide in its margins. There is the pregnant woman and her unborn child, witnessed by Margaret Ebner, who were burned to death as punishment for stealing the consecrated host (108). There are the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean who seem, to Bartolomé de las Casas’s horrified eyes, to be “Jesus Christ, our God, scourged and afflicted and buffeted and crucified, not once but millions of times” (93). There is the black teenager Michael Brown shot dead on the streets, commemorated in Mark Dukes’s icon Our Lady of Ferguson (150). There are the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, whose precious lives were senselessly destroyed over a work of satire (10). There are the Muslims who not only find their religion mocked but also their human rights violated by Western, Islamophobic societies (11).

There is also Maria Florencia Onori, the female model on Playboy Mexico’s controversial “Marian” cover (20). I would argue that hers is the face of Christ not despite the fact that the pornographic industry oppressively attempts to reduce her presence to that of a consumable object but precisely because of this fact. And there are also the survivors of John Howard Yoder’s (99) sexual abuse who go unmentioned. These last two examples are the ones I suggest are “hiding” in the text. They are present yet absent—or at least not emphasized to be prosoponically Christic in the ways that I think, according to Carnes’s logic, they could be.

An open question I have about Carnes’s theory of prosoponic likeness is whether we want to say more about the presence of Christ in “the least of these” which would take us beyond the conceptual restrictions of the prosopon, namely beyond the idea of Christ’s outward self-expression. In brief, my worry is that such a prosoponic emphasis may reinforce a sense of exteriority, non-subjectivity, or instrumentality-for-another which are traits already widely associated with such persons because of their historical circumstances. The risk is that “they” become outwardly Christ for “us,” while their intrinsic personhood—their hypostases (perhaps augmented for us moderns by notions of personal agency and selfhood)—remain not only obscure but also dissociated from the person of Christ.

To be clear, I do not want to engage in any presumptuous speculation about the state of the souls of the “least of these,” as if such a “state” could be safely generalized without threat of misapprehension, prejudice, or romanticization. I acknowledge the importance of some distinction between union with Christ through a life of intentional, divinizing participation and some other kind of union, important to affirm for biblical and ethical reasons, which does not presuppose so much at the interior level. Carnes helpfully marks such a distinction using the terms “hypostatic” and “prosoponic.” My question, however, is a theological one about what we think God is doing in the minds and hearts of those who are at a minimum prosoponically Christic. What mysterious sinews, what acts of divine grace, connect those bearing the face of Christ with his very person? Can his personhood and face be divided? What does appearing as a living image of Christ’s prosopon do, not just for the observers called to respond, but also for the living image herself, the abject one, the one treated as nonperson?

These are open and genuine questions occasioned for me by this wonderful book, questions to which I do not possess ready-made answers. Let me say, in closing, simply that I am grateful for this opportunity to think about the nature of the image and specifically about the many ways that Christ is both image and imaged in this suffering world. I am grateful for the illumination of certain conceptual parameters which guard against futile efforts to decide absolutely between iconoclasm and iconophilia and for the many historically subtle interpretations of specific images that Carnes develops within such parameters. The book gives me hope, not only for a more ecumenically holistic, intellectually compelling, and artistically enriched practice of Christian theology, which this text skillfully represents, but also for the often largely unimaginable promise of a new, convivial life transfigured by resurrection joy.

  • Natalie Carnes

    Natalie Carnes


    Sinews of Grace

    Andrew Prevot focuses his essay on the distinction between hypostatic and prosoponic likeness. More precisely, he raises questions about elaborating connections between them, and the weightiness of the concerns he articulates made me reflect again on how to approach those terms. He does other work in his essay, too. Like Martin, Prevot also identifies some powerful resonances of my image theology with analogy, but since I have already addressed those similarities in my response to Martin, I’ll only reaffirm my agreement here. I’ll use the majority of this space, then, to think with Prevot’s concerns about how to articulate the connections between hypostatic and prosoponic likeness.

    I identify hypostatic likeness with the likeness to Christ’s hypostasis (person) born by those who are united with Christ and characteristic of the likeness shared by icons and their subject. Prosoponic likeness is the likeness to Christ’s prosopon (role, countenance) shared by what Matthew 25 calls “the least of these.” Before proceeding, I want to clarify two points at the outset of this conversation.

    First, I acknowledge the idiosyncrasy of my use of terms. I am working out of the tradition of the Cappadocians and their invocation of prosopon in their glosses on Matthew 25 in their famine sermons. Many iconographers do not operate with this distinction. In fact, the iconographer whose icon is reproduced before the fourth chapter of Image and Presence and another described in an episode in my epilogue are principal members of an iconography school called The Prosopon School. So I want to qualify that my position is a minority one, even as I remain convinced the distinction is helpful.

    Second, Prevot does some important work in his essay naming people in Image and Presence who could be included among “the least of these” yet are not named as such. Specifically, Prevot names Maria Florencia Onori, the model for the cover of Playboy Mexico I discuss in chapter 1 and the survivors of Yoder’s sexual abuse, who remain abstractly referenced. To both of these cases, I want to say emphatically and in different ways, yes. Both Onori and Yoder’s victims image Christ in significant ways. Like Christ, they are reduced to a violent desire to possess them, a literalized desire. Christ was reduced to the Roman Empire’s violently consumptive desire; Onori to the pornography industry’s; Yoder’s sexual victims to Yoder’s. In this way, these victims of literalized desire become images of Christ. It is ironic that what I call a non-literal desire emerges from the attempt to literalize desire for a human. Or, to put it more theologically, it is exemplary of the riven and riving image of Christ that any attempt at literalizing desire for a human evokes the presence of Christ, who comes both in solidarity with the victim and as judge of the perpetrator (the twofold movement Matthew 25 itself describes). I appreciate Prevot’s work to name explicitly these further christological presences in Image and Presence and so to display, on the one hand, the important work Christology does with desire, and on the other, how the work Image and Presence begins can go on.

    Prevot’s larger point is not to mark particular absences in my naming of the least of these, but to raise a concern that the hypostatic/prosoponic distinction might “reinforce a sense of exteriority, non-subjectivity, or instrumentality-for-another,” making them Christ for us. Prevot is subtle in his critique here because he recognizes a danger to the other side: that conflating the prosoponic to the hypostatic poses its own problem of collapsing multiple forms of union with Christ. So he articulates his question with nuance, “What mysterious sinews, what acts of divine grace, connect those bearing the face of Christ with his very person?” The question is so beautifully put, so evocative of the delicacy of this relation, that I couldn’t resist finding the title for my response in it. At the same time, I found myself struggling to offer a satisfactory answer, for, as I see it, the risk of conflating the two runs into yet more dangerous territory than Prevot discusses.

    Before developing that claim, I want to clarify what the hypostatic-prosoponic distinction is not. It does not map onto an inner and outer or interior and exterior contrast.  The hypostatic likeness, after all, can be found in icons, which are quite literally surfaces. And prosoponic likeness speaks to the way the least of these are Christ’s monuments here on earth, as the honor given them passes through to Christ. In the way that the Eucharist and words have both been wielded as sites of Christ’s presence that obviate the need for images, so could one point to the least of these in developing an aniconic justification for Christianity. We already have Christ’s own face in the least of these; why do we need other images? So both hypostatic and prosoponic likeness, like all images, have surfaces and depths, and I think the inner/outer distinction obscures more than it illumines. However, I do take Prevot’s larger point that the prosoponic likeness seems to make the materially disadvantaged “for us.”

    The dilemma Prevot identifies is deep. On the one hand of the hypostatic/prosoponic distinction, there is the risk of instrumentalizing the poor, of seeing them as sacrifices of kindling that allow us to bask in the glow of their Christ-bearing poverty.1 This is Prevot’s principal worry, and it is significant. But on the other hand is another great risk. It is the risk that tracing a connection between prosoponic likeness and hypostatic likeness might sentimentalize poverty and the devastating damage it can wreak on a person’s spirit. Part of the horror of poverty, I take it, is the way it can corrode a person’s soul (through chronic anger and anxiety, for example) as well as her body.

    So is this it? Are we simply stuck in this dilemma, doomed to problematic relations with the ones who bear Christ’s own face? This question is one that has haunted me for some time now, and among my perennial sources of inspiration for finding a path through it are Gregory of Nyssa’s famine sermons. There is much to say about them, but for now I want to focus on how they provide a way to think about the danger of instrumentalizing those who bear Christ’s face. In his sermons, Gregory identifies the place of beauty, of grace, and of healing, as the place where the famine-starved and the sated ones meet for mutual healing. The hungry ones receive material healing from the sated, and the sated receive spiritual healing (of their greed) from the formerly hungry ones. And so in this meeting of those bloated by greed and those wracked by hunger, both parties perform acts of charity, and both are caught up in a beauty more powerful than anything the rich might own.2 The prosoponic likeness thus becomes an occasion for both those prosoponically like Christ and those who are not to enter into hypostatic likeness with Christ. From their position as Christ’s monuments, they condescend (consent) to allow the sated to give materially to them, and in their act of condescension, both they and the wealthy have the opportunity to enter into hypostatic likeness. We the materially advantaged need the least of these, and so their prosoponic likeness is, in a way, “for us,” but it is not for us without also being for them. To go further, I think there are ways we could identify those prosoponically like Christ as entering into hypostatic likeness through their prosoponic likeness even without the sated, though this would take more time and space to work out. I wonder if it might look something like honoring their own bodies and needs—despite the neglect of others—as a way of honoring Christ.

    I have thought about Gregory of Nyssa on these questions before, but Prevot’s question provoked me to seek out new sources, to think still more deeply about the potential sinews of grace connecting prosoponic likeness more deeply to the person of Christ. Is there something about prosoponic likeness itself, not as a threshold for hypostatic likeness, that speaks to Christ’s personhood? My thoughts drifted to Jesus’s sermon of blessings and woes in Luke, especially Luke 6:20–21:

    Blessed are you who are poor,

    for yours is the kingdom of God.

    Blessed are you who are hungry now,

    for you will be filled.

    Blessed are you who weep now,

    for you will laugh.

    The woes mirror these in the reverse, in Luke 6:24–25:

    But woe to you who are rich,

    for you have received your consolation.

    Woe to you who are full now,

    for you will be hungry.

    Woe to you who are laughing now,

    for you will mourn and weep.

    I wonder if there is something about longing for food, consolation, and laughter that can both signify and tutor a person into deeper longings for fulfilment, intimacy, and joy fulfilled in Christ. I wonder if the desires for nourishment, life, and company that poverty and marginalization make chronic, in their very urgency, strength, and orientations toward good material things can signify God’s very desires. Perhaps in this way Luke’s Sermon on the Plain is connected to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.

    That is the best I can do, though. I’m afraid the desires poverty breeds can also destroy a person, that their very urgency more often makes it more rather than less difficult to arrive at the non-literal desires the literal desires are supposed to signify. But Christ does bless the hungry, the poor, and weeping. And that suggests that there may be more sinews of grace to be identified here, so I invite others to help me see what I cannot.

    1. I explore a very similar problematic in similar terms in my essay “Embracing Beauty in a World of Affliction,” Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts 5.1 (2017) 1–14,

    2. Charity, of course, is not always constitutive of these encounters, which does not make them valueless. In cases of vast disparity, even when money is given without charity, the act expresses justice, however meagerly. Justice is much more perfectly expressed in when the act also expresses charity.

Kathryn Reklis


Stuff Colonial Christian Moderns Love

Even before I finished reading Natalie Carnes’s beautiful, richly layered book, I assigned it in a graduate seminar I am teaching this semester on “Aesthetics, Religion, and Modernity” as one of two constructive works by contemporary scholars. The other is Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. I can hardly wait to discuss the work with my graduate students, most of whom are systematic theologians (I am not). I hope it can serve (among other things) as a model for the kind of theology that does not just dabble in other disciplinary formations, but allows them to enrich and vivify the theological project. I can’t wait to see what kind of conversation we get started by reading Crawley’s work right after Carnes. The version of that conversation that is already unfolding in my own head forms part of my response in this forum.

I also finished reading Carnes’s book at the same time I was watching the new Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I am raising two kids in a small New York City apartment, so I admit I’m a sucker for a yearly KonMarie purge and reorganization. But watching the show I was struck by how little Kondo cares how much stuff her clients keep and how much she wants to transform their relationship to objects themselves. Her clients in the show are palpably confused by this part of her project: they are vexed and embarrassed by their relationship to things but equally baffled by her suggestion that they cultivate a deeper spiritual and emotional connection to their stuff. They embody toward their huge piles of stuff the relationship W. J. T Mitchell describes about Modern Western confusion about images, as discussed by Carnes: they know they have been seduced, commanded, and ensnared by their stuff but they also intuitively know that their stuff isn’t supposed to have this kind of power over them (159).

I share these insights into the idiosyncratic nature of my own thinking as I approached this book, because they illuminate the questions I bring to the text. Those questions might be categorized as questions about how Carnes understands the relationship between Modern Western formation and Christian theology, how she thinks about the relationship between image and object, and encompassing both of these concerns, what might be added or shifted in Carnes’s analysis of iconophilia and iconoclasm (or iconoclasms of fidelity and temptation) by naming colonialism and slavery as the foundational events of modernity.

Very early on, Carnes names the three levels of argument about images at work in her book: that “iconoclasm is generally intrinsic to iconophilia, as negation is to revelation and presence. The second identifies a peculiarly modern thorniness to the entanglement of iconoclasm and iconophilia, generated by the institutions and cultural forms that shape image relationships in modernity. The third articulates the intertwining of iconoclasm and iconophilia represented by Christ the Image that is determinative for the Christian imagining tradition and echoed at some level in all images” (15). She states clearly that she will spend most of her time with this third level of argument (Christ the Image as determinative for Christian imagining) “for it is this third level that helps make sense of the other two.”

I am intrigued by the suggestion that getting our theological heads on straight with regards to christologically oriented image-experience will untangle the modern thorniness regarding presence/absence or iconophilia and iconoclasm. This could mean something like modern confusion about images is itself the result of bad theology or modernity (as a form of thought/practice) is itself really just a form of Christian heresy. I don’t get that sense from Carnes’s work, but I would welcome her thoughts on this.

Rather, I took this “making sense” to mean that Modern Western Christians are caught inside the same vexing formations that make Modern Westerns so confused about images in general. So Carnes’s theological proposals for reoriented or re-formed imaging will be salutary for those who are oriented toward Christ the Image. Indeed, it is her explicit ecclesial and ecumenical commitments that make clear she is speaking to Christians across theological formations, but speaking to them as “moderns” caught up in paradoxical image-relationships that are both the product of weird Christian confusions and weird modern confusions, which are sometimes part of the same histories and sometimes not.

At times I wanted more insight into how she saw these entanglements, but I am not sure it matters if we can sort out where Christian theology’s complicity in the projects of modernity begins and where it might one day end in order to engage her theological project. But the questions remain: who are these modern Christian subjects, what made them, and how might they be remade by more faithful devotion to Christ the Image (via Carnes’s iconoclasm of fidelity)?

And this is where I felt the absence of colonialism and slavery as definitive for modernity most acutely. It is not, of course, completely absent in Carnes’s work. It emerges in fleeting ways, suggesting its presence even when it is not named explicitly. If we turn back to her discussion of Mitchell in chapter 5, we can see the presence of the colonial mission field. We moderns, Mitchell argues in Carnes’s words, “deny our duplicity by projecting the commitment to the aliveness of images onto some Other, locating animism in childhood, or far-off cultures, or distant times, while claiming for ourselves a rationalism that knows these images not to be alive” (159).

I could not stop thinking of Webb Keane’s discussion of early twentieth-century Dutch Calvinist missionaries in Indonesia in Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter as a detailed anthropological history of this process “on the ground.” In those encounters, the central concern was getting relationships to materiality “right”—to correcting fetishistic attachments, to securing the proper free agency of the subject by circumscribing the agency of stuff. But as Keane insists, it is not a simple story of “Christians” meeting their “Others” and trying to police their attachments to stuff. Indonesian Christians joined this debate sometimes against the missionaries, sometimes on their side against other Javanese groups or a Muslim majority. On the one hand, we could read this as a kind of proof of Protestant entanglement with the duplicitous relationship to images/objects/materiality that Mitchell is diagnosing. Except that the Indonesian Christians Keane is studying are also modern, Christian subjects with different, competing relationships to things than the one Mitchell (and maybe Carnes?) is charting. Where do they fit in the story about Western (Christian) Moderns? (Here is where I can’t stop thinking about Marie Kondo again and the criticism that she is importing an “Eastern woo-woo” into a “rational West” despite Kondo’s own formation both in Shintoism and Christianity. Maybe I just want to watch Netflix with Carnes?)

The colonial field lurks in the background of chapter 1 as well, both in the invocation of Talal Asad’s work (and to a lesser degree in Wendy Brown’s read of modernity’s Protestant character) and in the discussion of museums and secret museums and their contemporary instantiations in fine art and pornography/advertising (respectively). I loved Carnes’s use of these histories to diagnosis with historical particularity the confused mess moderns have made of desire and how we have worked out our confused desires in our relationships to images and objects. But these are not (solely, primarily) histories of Western Europe figuring out its relationship to images and things. Rather, Western Europe worked out its relationship to images and things on the colonial frontier (understanding colonialism as fundamentally driven by slave capital for at least its first four hundred years). There is a robust scholarly literature tracing the intimate relationship between the formation of museums, colonial administration, and the emergence of anthropology that would deepen Carnes’s analysis. And this history applies not only to vast repositories of pillaged “things” (like the British museum), but also to the history of the fine art museum (as Simon Gikandi argues in Slavery and the Culture of Taste). Even more, focus on the history of slave advertisements, brothels that catered to (forced) sexual fantasies across bondage and race lines, and the fetishization of African sexuality would provide Carnes with a direct link between “fine art” and “high taste” (“museums”) and pornography/advertising (“secret museums”) (as you might find in Marcus Wood’s book Slavery, Empathy, and Pornography or in more wide-reaching ways in Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection).

We might push this line of inquiry even further and say that it is in grappling with slavery as the foundational event of modernity that the tension between image and object is felt most clearly and the tension Carnes is charting between iconoclasm and iconophilia reaches its breaking point. Here I am thinking of something like Fred Moten’s book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition that takes as its fundamental problem how to think about the “inner life of a commodity” when we remember that there were just such commodities: objects who could be bought and sold who defied fetish-logic by also thinking and feeling. Would this reorienting (historically, theoretically, theologically) provide new purchase on how to think about the relationship between “image” and “object,” iconoclasm and iconophilia?

I should pause now to state explicitly that this line of discussion is not meant to be a “gotcha moment.” I am not trying to enact “a Baconian iconoclasm” (her term) and upbraid Carnes for not reading the right books or writing the right book. I offer these thoughts in the spirit of a “Wittgensteinian iconoclasm” (also Carnes’s term), a “yes and” to her analysis that wants to know what would be added, deepened, layered to her work if we turned our gaze to the presence of colonialism, slavery, and their aftermaths as central to the vexations Carnes has so rightly named. And by “central” I mean the story that both haunts and funds the other philosophical, theological, and theoretical discussions Carnes engages with such breadth and insight.

One obvious (to me) added layer to her analysis would be in her ecumenical aims. If she is clearing the ground for a way to think images in Christian theology beyond the tired old tales about who loves them (Catholics), who fears them (Protestants), and who has too narrow a view of them (Orthodox)—and if that is all this book did it would be a monumental service to the Christian world—what do we do with the many, diverse, rich, and deep Christian traditions that don’t easily fit into this tripartite division? What about those modern Indonesian Christians who embraced Dutch Calvinism and then turned it on its head? Or what about Mexican Apostolicos who defy easy stories about Catholic and Protestant love or suspicion of images (I am thinking of Lloyd Barba’s work)? Or looking forward to my own graduate seminar discussion, what about the groan, the shout, the faint of Blackpentecostalism as ways to think about Christ the Image and to enact an iconoclasm of fidelity that knows intimately the tension between the absence and presence of the spirit in the body that was once objectified (most literally) and vessel for the fleeting presence of the divine?

Perhaps more obliquely to these questions about what defines modernity and who answers to the call “modern subject” are questions about taste and judgment, so central to the problems of aesthetics and beauty and imagining and yet also mostly absent in Carnes’s work. Absent, that is, in terms of explicit discussion, but present on every page in the objects/images and texts Carnes chooses to engage. Again, my curiosity is not to police Carnes’s own aesthetic affections. Indeed, she works on every page to curate a wide-ranging, ecumenical (in all senses) collection of images/objects/experiences so that her theological claims cannot be foreclosed as applying only to “that kind of art” or another. But her tastes are present nonetheless in the images/objects that she presents for analysis.

I realize that she is primarily offering a “formal aesthetics” (not her term) in that she wants to discuss something true about images in general, irrespective of content—that intertwining of christological iconophilia and iconoclasm that is “echoed at some level in all images” in her third argumentative claim. But even leaving aside the return to my first question above—how does this echo work?—this kind of formal analysis leaves by the wayside so much of what aesthetic experience does in creating sociality through consensus and contestation. So much of the “work” of the image (object/experience) is in arguing with others about the responses it evokes. There are new lines of intimacy or antipathy drawn when one realizes your new office buddy really loves Maroon Five but cannot talk to you about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It may be that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, if subjected to careful reflection, would yield iconoclasms of fidelity or figure forth the twin-movements of absence/presence that Carnes discusses as inherent in all images. But that is certainly not what matters to me when I want to talk about “The First Penis I Saw” with a new friend who turns out not to share my aesthetic tastes.

For me, these contestations of taste—the long, good arguments that can be generated trying to explain your love of Cardi B or to get someone to consent to watch all three seasons of Deadwood or to ask someone to defend their love of Drake over Kendrick—return us, again, to the question of who the Modern (Christian) Subject is, how she is made, and how she might be remade by Christ the Image (and in what ways she needs to be re-made in the first place).

This book was one of those objects that generated the desire for good, long arguments. I would love to debate Cardi B with Carnes or watch Marie Kondo with her. But she has also given us more than enough fodder for genuine aesthetic contestation in this beautiful, layered, enriching book. I cannot wait to discuss it here and with my graduate students and with everyone else I will try to persuade to read it.

  • Natalie Carnes

    Natalie Carnes


    Pope Rihanna and Other Matters: A Response to Kathryn Reklis

    In photographs from the 2018 Met Gala, themed “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” Rihanna gazes out from under her sparkling mitre with an expression of authority. In addition to her episcopal headwear, she dons a robe, matching minidress, and stilettos. Her stance in many photographs is open, one leg cocked to the side. She could have interpreted her role in this outfit playfully or sexily, but instead she projects power. Robed in jewels, crowned with symbols of religious hierarchy, black flesh exposed, eyes defiant, Pope Rihanna is a striking image.

    I mention this image not just to flag my shared affinity with Reklis for pop culture, but also to begin reflecting on her question about how my formal aesthetics relates to concrete aesthetic experiences, which “creat[e] sociality through consensus and contestation.” Shortly after the Met Gala, I wrote a blog post on the contestations of judgment regarding these gala images, in which Rihanna presents her flesh as no less precious than that of the pope himself.1 Pope Rihanna seems to me a powerful repudiation of the colonial legacy in the Americas through a celebration of the very bodies the church abused for centuries. Rihanna, after all, is herself from Barbados, once ruled by Anglican Christians, who used the words, symbols, and images of Christianity to attempt to legitimate their conquest. And so, responding to those wringing their hands over Pope Rihanna’s “blasphemy,” I asked, “In a world where blasphemy masquerades as piety, will not some attempts at piety appear to us as blasphemy? How can we distinguish acts of blasphemy from those confronting us with difficult truths about the state of our piety?” I discerned, in short, a salutary christological reversal in Pope Rihanna.

    The fact that some Christians interpreted and reacted to Pope Rihanna very differently is not incidental to this reversal, nor my own appreciation of her. The images I find most compelling are those prone to just such controversy, just such contestation, precisely because they enact iconoclasms of fidelity by working against the idolatries of our time. (If one thing unifies the images I spend the most time with in Image and Presence, it is this.) Because of this iconoclastic work, they are more susceptible to misinterpretation. One answer to Reklis’s question about how the Modern (Christian) Subject might be remade by Christ the Image is through developing a taste for christological reversals of power, which means learning to welcome having one’s own and one’s religious community’s anti-Christ tendencies exposed. It is to acquire a taste for images that may tempt a person to cast a stone, and in that feeling of temptation, reveal the log in one’s own eye (to mix images). Successful art, I think, makes a claim on the viewer, and the reversals of Pope Rihanna work by leveling a compelling one. This may not help develop a thick account of the aesthetic success of “The First Penis I Saw” or even “Tidying Up,” but I wonder if the way those shows engage viewers by revealing and challenging something about who we are echoes my more formal aesthetics.

    Pope Rihanna seems an appropriate image to open with not only because she is exemplary of a christological reversal that binds my formal aesthetics to a concrete one, but also because as a mash-up of religion, nonreligious Christian appropriation, Modern Western pop culture, and the legacy of colonialism and slavery, that image also speaks to three questions central to Reklis’s own engagement with Image and Presence. First, at a structural level, what is the relationship between Modern Western formation and Christian theology? Second, what are the implications of the instability and internal diversity of the categories I name—categories like Catholic, Protestant, and Christian—for the ecumenical hopes of the project? Third, how is the argument nuanced or altered by engaging more deeply with colonialism and slavery as modernity’s foundational events?

    Christianity and the Modern West

    Throughout her essay, Reklis raises a number of illuminating questions and complicating insights about the relationship I’m construing between formations into the Modern West and Christian theological claims. I want to try to do justice to the multiple layers of her question, beginning with the structural. What I meant in my claim that attending to Christ the Iconoclastic Image can help make sense of the entanglements of iconoclasm and iconophilia in the Modern West was to suggest two different levels of analysis. A deeply rooted historical and anthropological analysis of image controversies can help us see the way iconoclasm is often entangled with iconophilia and the way images are caught up in our own destructiveness. Foregrounding the christological, to me, helps describe why the entanglement was not itself something to be overcome and provides tools to analyze how and under what conditions images can become damaging (idolatrous, illusory, etc.). In other words, Christ the Image gave the project a normative frame, while the (de)formations of the Modern West gave the project a historical or contextual one. Had I made that frame more determinative, a different, vibrant project could have emerged, which I will say something about in the following two sections. But I did not mean (or at least, I do not want to claim) that sense could only emerge from privileging one frame above the other; just that foregrounding the christological frame could help me get at the particular type of sense I was after in Image and Presence, i.e., making theological claims about who Christ is, how Christ might be found, and why the structure of imaging evokes Christ.

    When Categories Don’t Fit

    As she elaborates her question about how reflecting more deeply on the colonial encounter might shift the terms of Image and Presence, Reklis points to a number of moments where categories like Modern West, Christian, and Catholic suggest an internal diversity that my tripartite ecumenism doesn’t quite capture. I appreciated the particular examples Reklis brought to this question, especially Webb Keane’s discussion of the encounters between Dutch Calvinist missionaries and Indonesian Christians. Their encounters trouble attempts to conflate Christianity to formations of the Modern West and complicate easy narratives about a Christian relationship to images, and so Reklis wants to know: Where do the Indonesian Christians fit into the story I’m attempting to tell?

    I’m grateful to Reklis for this example because I’m interested in the way just such encounters, while expressing different cultural expectations, myths, and commitments, can also express an image ambivalence internal to Christianity itself. In other words, the work I hope my theology of the image does is to mark a path beyond expired narratives casting the Indonesian Christians as syncretistic in contrast to the purer Christianity of the Dutch Calvinists. The Christian image relation, I want to say, can move in more atheistic or animistic directions, or, to put it in less extreme terms, toward the presence or the absence of the imaged. I want to claim both impulses as expressing theological concerns internal to the Christian story. A more fine-grained theological analysis of the situation would of course require attention to more fine-grained anthropological description, but this, broadly, is the reframing I would want to give this story.

    I love, too, the example Reklis raises also of the Mexican Apostolicos, who elude the binary of Catholic iconophilia over and against Protestant iconoclasm. I have no doubt such examples could proliferate so copiously as to question the point of my characterizations of Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, which are enormously broad. I do think those categories yet have some purchase, though, especially in ecumenical discussions, which take place at a necessarily broad level. At the same time, I realize “Catholic” and “Protestant” function in Image and Presence as ciphers for more complex realities on the ground. My hope is that the analysis of how images, iconoclasms, and iconophilias work might yet have analytic power for on-the-ground realities, even if they show up in unexpected ways (iconoclasm or image anxiety in a Catholic traditions, for example).

    Colonialism and Slavery

    Finally I arrive at Reklis’s deepest level of critique, the one in some sense driving the others. How might my analysis or categories look different, Reklis wants to know, if I had grappled more extensively with colonialism and slavery as the foundational events of modernity? I want to say at the outset how much I appreciated her Wittgensteinian mode of critique, in which she extends and deepens the work I do even as she points out major realities of modernity I might have more richly engaged. I am also grateful to her for the sources she recommends, which tell complex and important stories I will no doubt learn a great deal from.

    One way of casting Reklis’s question is to ask what happens if I reverse my frames? What if, in other words, the Modern Western frame were more determinative, such that colonialism and slavery were pushed to the foreground, and the Christian theological one more secondary? As it stands, Image and Presence wants to speak into the Modern West, but it remains uncommitted to a sustained excavation of it, running through historical periods from Byzantium to the present and attempting to span Christianities centered in various geographical locales. That expansiveness derives from my desire to reflect the breadth of Christian writing on the image and the diversity of the Christian inheritance regarding the image. However, the limitation of that approach is that in its breadth, it does not go deeply into the events that have formed the Modern Western vexed relation to images. It shows up in almost every chapter except the second, though as Reklis mentioned, in fleeting ways.

    A thorough examination of the colonial encounters referenced or alluded to in Image and Presence would require a textured analysis that would lead to the kind of complexities of identity Reklis raises in her second point. For example, Franciscans tending the chapel in Tepeyac housing the Virgin of Guadalupe balked at the image, worrying that it was idolatrous and superstitious. The Dominicans, however, supported the image, and the local archbishop (a Dominican) intervened and passed the custodianship of the chapel on to the diocese—and then built a still larger church to celebrate the image. There is a complex story here about how the image is perceived as a threat, why it is more threatening to some Catholics than others, what is suppressed as the image is brought more thoroughly into the Church, and how it’s integration into the Church changes the Christianity of the Mexico, the Americas, and the colonial powers. To tell this story—and the subsequent long, complicated history of the Virgin of Guadalupe—would likely yield deeper insight into the Christian relationship to images today, the formations of the Modern West, and the contestations of Catholic identity in the Americas. I didn’t do this level of historical work because, those questions, as important as they are, were not the ones driving Image and Presence.

    But I take Reklis’s point to be more challenging than asking for a defense of why I didn’t cover colonialism more deeply. She accepts the scope of Image and Presence and then presses a more difficult question: How might dwelling more with slavery and colonialism alter how I think about the major categories of the book—image, object, iconophilia, iconoclasms of fidelity?

    I hope to hear more from Reklis about precisely how she sees these realities pressuring my categories. From my own vantage, I see slavery, not as altering the categories I offer so much as providing the most stunning, tragic, and absurd example of the literalization of desire and the damage such literalization wreaks. Consumptive desire is more perfectly exemplified in slavery than in pornography. The case of slavery, particularly in Moten’s analysis, makes clear both the way “object” and “image” name relationships negotiated by the beholder and also the way images, objects, illusions, and commodities can defy the relations by which we try to capture them. Bringing Moten’s analysis together with Gikandi’s, Wood’s, and Hartman’s history of taste, performativity, and art could yield a picture of the museum as an institution that emerges to conceal our own consumptiveness. Through this history, we could trace the bifurcation of erotic desire and contemplation to the events of colonialism and slavery. That would be a different story, an important one I would like to explore further, but I don’t see that it yields different categories or fundamentally alters the ones I’m using.

    One thing telling that story could yield is still more resources for appreciating the triumph of Pope Rihanna, who presents herself as a spectacle for consumptive desire, draped in wealth, covered with symbols of power, and exposing her flesh. If slavery and colonialism mark the bifurcation of desire and contemplation, Pope Rihanna presents their togetherness. She represents, in fact, an apotheosis of multiple desires that she also, with her defiant stance and iconoclastic gaze, manages to negate. And in that negation, the image of Pope Rihanna evokes the historical trajectories that she at the same time refuses and, if only for the moment she commands our attention, puts to rest.

    1. Carnes, “The Charge of Blasphemy and Pope Rihanna,” Church Life Journal, June 15, 2018,



Absenting Power, Generating Violence

On the Christian Theological Production of Images

Natalie Carnes’s Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia is an attempt to engender a generative rather than oppositional account of the relationship between iconoclasm and iconophilia. Through close, christological examinations of the different senses of image-breaking and image-making that course through theological debates, questions of desire, and readings of various icons and images, Carnes hopes to show how a multiplicity of images can be produced by the play between presence and absence, image and its negation, that is at the heart of both iconoclasm and iconophilia. Aiming to break down what she reads as trenchant divisions in Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) and between Secular Modern West and Religious, Carnes takes the absence or the negative that is a part of every image as a way of gently undoing the supposed ease with which iconoclasts and iconophiles have been identified. The iconoclast often breaks images because of their desire to affirm the true image. Conversely, the iconophile produces a wide array of images that suggest the inability of the image to capture that higher meaning which their literality gives shape to but never exhausts. What results is a book that weaves together the harmonious and discordant senses of iconoclasm and iconophilia. Rather than these different groups getting reduced to an identity as iconoclastic or iconophilic, Carnes complexifies the picture, providing a deeper rendering of images and their multiplicity by the stories she highlights, the shadows that she draws attention to, and the play of light and dark in what is meant to provide a mutually edifying education. Still, for a book that does so much complexifying, there is a significant amount of categorical distinctions between the true image and the false image, good desire and bad desire, order and disorder, temptation and fidelity, which quickly became tiring. It became tiring primarily because, over the course of the book, it becomes clear that the book never subjects itself and the image it renders to questions that would situate its conversation anywhere real. Just as a negative at the heart of the image enables its generativity, the negative—the unthought—at the heart of this book generates its claims of novelty, beauty, and reconciliation that remain, in my view, inadequate for attending to the existence of anyone who is not straight, white, and Christian. This is not, necessarily, for a lack of trying, though it may be for a lack of trying hard enough.

Power and the Production of Christian Theology

I am not of the mind that everything in theology ought to be reduced to a power analysis, but in its absence the presence of Christian theology’s mystifying, rather than mystical, imagination becomes unavoidable—unbearable even. The inadequacy of an approach that neglects to attend to questions of power is felt early in the book, when Carnes distinguishes art and pornography. This distinction works in order to reveal how artistic and pornographic images can either fail to allow desire to emerge in relationship to the image or literalize desire to the point that it becomes static, illusory. By rethinking the image and desire through Christ feeding from the Maria lactans, Carnes seeks to show how the image of Christ in the painting educates the viewer in the proper ordering of desire by “press[ing] a non-literal interpretation of desire” (47). It is on such a reading that Carnes critiques pornography as insufficiently critical and stuck in the literal, such that it produces an illusory and purely consumptive image. Here, in accepting the narrative of power that distinguishes the production of art from the production of pornography, the museum from the secret museum, Carnes depends on too easy narrations of the differences between the two. At the same time, this assumption of the distinction between art and pornography also assumes a moral primacy of the former and a perversity of the latter. If Carnes is trying to make a critique of the heteropatriarchal power structures that produce straight porn, it ought to be named as such. Otherwise, these kinds of statements ignore the radical critical, political, and yes gratifying and pleasurable work of feminist, queer, black, trans sex workers and porn creators. Otherwise, such analyses of pornography depend on the fear of sexual desire unmanaged by Christian authority that has led to various forms of sexual and gender oppression.

Yet Carnes never seems to feel the need to name who controls the production of dominant visions of pornography and how that dominance is not unrelated to white heteropatriarchal dominance over the means of production in general, including theological production in the Modern West. Carnes neglects to attribute disordered pornographic relationships to the white supremacist heteropatriarchal structures of power that produce them and so situate theological production as generative in the production of the museum and the secret museum. The book thus neglects to recognize how the divisions between art and pornography work to naturalize the production of one domain as disordered and both as in need of a higher order. This theological narration repeats the dividing and dominating impulses of the modern West (including Western Christianity) and calls Carnes’s analysis into question for its detachment from the actual situation of how art and pornography and art-porn are produced. This also misses the serious organizing that sex workers, queer and trans and poc porn producers and pornstars are doing to name what would actually provide them with well-ordered relationships, which is not the trinitarian economy, but things like decriminalization, universal healthcare, the undoing of antiblack and anti-fat protocols in porn casting, and a host of other concrete demands. Rather than dealing with the complex production of images in pornography as actually occurring, Carnes abstracts from their situatedness in order to narrate the proper ordering of desire and the image within Christianity. Yet this vision of Christian desire and subjectivity is decidedly straight in its orientation.

The primary problem with Image and Presence, it seems to me, is its reconciliatory investments which result in a tendency toward the common Christian theological procedure of making categorical distinctions in order to narrate them as reconciled in Christ.1 In this way, it preserves the image of Christian reconciliation as desirable by effacing the material violence that this vision of salvation in reconciliatory terms enacts. It is the lack of insight into the problems of power that emerge within a narrative of reconciliation that leads to an odd dismissal of Yoder’s sexual violence toward women as emerging from the “the anti-Christ imaging of Yoder’s own life” rather than the theological productivity of his vision of Christian theology as a project of radical reconciliation. Of course, such a recognition of this reconciliatory engine of Christian unity here would call into question the very mode of perception and terms of enunciation that Carnes is here invested in. But, the problem of perception is so crucial to the problems of enunciation here, where Yoder’s violence can only be read as a failure to image Christ rather than as a violence that was, in many ways, generated and justified by not only his theological investments, but institutional theological investments in a christological narrative of reconciliation which provided the theological armature for, not only Yoder’s, but a widespread scholarly and ecclesial dismissal of the victims and survivors of his actions. These kinds of oversights of power may be forgivable for some readers precisely because their cumulative affect is not evenly felt.

Racial Absence and the Generation of Christian Unity

Neglect of the uneven distribution of feeling, of suffering, and power extends throughout the book. Carnes seems to be attempting subtle commentary about racism, colonialism, and theology in multiple parts of the book, but these fleeting attempts function merely as images that communicate the feeling that the book is wrestling with the real difficulties of life when it actually wrestles with an absence of significant engagement. When I was studying for exams in Christian theology, I began to notice this mystifying power as it worked in much contemporary theology after James Cone. I began to notice when glimpses of blackness, slavery, and colonialism would emerge in white theological works. I began to notice how blackness and slavery, especially, were often evoked as a way of communicating without saying. Blackness works in these texts to image a totalizing sense of oppression, a total opacity, and a sense of total strangeness. This is a problem that I found in Image and Presence, too.

In Carnes’s reading of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, the silent Negro is a sign of the dimness with which we perceive grace in the world. The protagonist of Percy’s novel watches the Negro, while his white gaze communicates the Negro as lacking an existence or meaning for himself. This black reader of Image and Presence watched Carnes’s reading of this novel, waiting for a reflection on the problems of using blackness to image grace for the edification of the white gaze. But Carnes resonates with Percy’s image of blackness and its depiction of the dazzling dimness of grace in the world. Similarly, the black Christ on Carnes’s reading is a sign of Christ’s riven and riving presence. “Under the tree, a darker tree,” Carnes writes, referencing Christopher Wiman’s poem. But where someone like James Cone elaborates on the historical and political correlations and identifications he sees between the cross and the lynching tree to reveal how such violence is also repeated in the Christian theological production of inattention to blackness for its own sake, here we get no real analysis. Rather the theological works to abstract from the concrete violences and antiblackness in order to make meaning from blackness. Where, for Cone or Kelly Brown Douglas, the black Christ draws attention to not only the shape of black life but black theological production, here the black image appears, but never as a way of attending to blackness for itself. It is always on the way to some other point that blackness is called upon.2 There is no actual engagement with black thinkers, with black theology, let alone black studies. Instead blackness works to conjure the sense that the author needs to generate—the appearance of significance or a depth of feeling where actually there is none. The absence of blackness produces the presence of white theology.

A resonant absence carries through the text in its readings of indigenous people’s relationships to colonial Christianity. At one moment, the colonial situation registers as the violence that Christ breaks, in the next, Aztec peoples are abstracted from their violent situation within colonial Christianity to be read as providing hospitality to colonial Christianity. Reading Pope John Paul II’s words from the beatification of Juan Diego, the Aztec man to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe appears, Carnes’s analysis identifies with this beatification to reconcile the powerful and the lowly. Carnes goes on to note that, although he is not of significant stature on earth,

Juan Diego nevertheless ushers millions into the church with his gift of the acheiropoeietic image the Virgin gave to him. And Mary herself comes as one of the least of these, as an indigenous girl rather than a powerful queen. To receive this image, the authorities of the church (the bishop) had to yield to the authority of the least of these. (143)

Here, the indigenous are put to work as “doorkeepers” for the salvation of the church (which sounds like unpaid labor, to me), while Carnes narrates this as an inversion of power and authority. Yet, to claim this inversion requires an abstraction from the concrete situation in which power plays out. Indeed, the various means of managing and asserting control that the bishop holds includes the power to legitimate this apparition. In so doing, Juan Diego comes to figure for the Catholic Church, as the power of indigenous devotion is directed to fund the authority of the church. Missing power’s shaping influence in the production of these theological images results in missing the complexity that these images of colonial life hold when read from the underside. It is unclear what power and meaning the Virgin of Guadalupe holds when not read in terms of white reconciliation. For such an exaggerated sense of the difference between Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox, and the need for complexity in generating unity from the three, the sense that indigenous people or black people can just be assimilated into the Christian imagination without attending to these differences of power reads as deeply negligent.

These moments of inattention and negligence made my head spin as the whole book seems concerned with diagnosing such inattention and negligence in contemporary relationships to images as a problem. When I reached moments in Carnes’s argument where she elaborates on how christological senses of the image halt the objectifying and tokenizing operations of wrongly order relationships to images, I couldn’t help but screw up my eyes at the disjuncture between the theological claims of this book and its actual function in relying on tokenizing and objectifying images of black and indigenous people. The narrative arc of this book is certainly generative. It generates an image of Christ and a feeling of Christian unity that depends on covering over the antagonistic senses of theological meaning that black and indigenous people make for themselves. Those images and sensibilities that aren’t predicated on or governed by reconciliation with whiteness in Christian unity. In this way, Image and Presence’s imagination of Christian unity depends on the absence of a solidarity that would exert a shaping force on the structure of theological thought.


In narrating Las Casas’s shifting position against indigenous genocide and black enslavement, Carnes notes that he “decides that his people did not bring Christ. They crucify him anew” (93). Yet deciding whether they brought Christ or not is not up to him. Although they came in the name of Christ, bearing the cross and images of Christ, these actions are separable from the same theological productions that determine the orthodox images of Christ that shape Carnes’s reflections (after all, she’s not drawing on, say, gnostic theologies of Christ to reflect on the image). Like Las Casas, Carnes attempts an adjudication of the violence done in the name and image of Christ. A revised attempt at Yoder’s “vulnerable enemy love,” but this time made generative rather than rendered as iconoclasm of temptation, leads to this claim:

We do need to be vigilant for anti-Christ imaging. There are forms of imaging that point to worldly power rather than to Christ. There are images—more fittingly called idols—that attempt to obliterate the cross. Even cross images are not invulnerable to the temptation to idolatry. When they are identified with wealth, power, and war, cross images cease to point beyond themselves to Christ, for they deny their own logic of riving rivenness. . . . But this is difficult to discern. For, simply because one person (say, Constantine) has once identified a version of the cross with war, it is not the case that all crosses have become idols. . . . Images and idols always name relationships that are negotiated and renegotiated in particular places and times. Even Christ the ruler and judge can be an image of vulnerable enemy love. (109)

But isn’t Carnes’s mode of reading the violence of aligning the cross with wealth, power, and war here precisely the failure of the Christian image that enables Christian theology to announce itself as desirable anew regardless of its persistent violence? Never mind the fact that Constantine and what he represents, like imperial Christian formations in the New World, are not just one person but institutional and individual investments of images of Christ with power over black and indigenous flesh through the cross. This is this perverse generativity in the Christian imagination and its practices of inscription. Like the police investigating themselves after another murder of a black person and announcing the transformation of their department, Christianity’s supersessionist ability to perpetually read itself as new while embedded in the same habits of thought becomes the evasion of accountability, figuring solidarity with no concrete change.

But, what sense could these distinctions between Constantinian or colonial images of Christ and true images of Christ possibly make for those of who enter—are inscribed into the Christian imagination—through capture and genocide? For those who undergo what Hortense Spillers has accurately named the “transubstantiation” of the slave ship—the conversion of black flesh and its literality into the higher meaning of chattel? For those baptized into the image of the savage under the sign of the cross and into the image of the slave under the waters of the Atlantic Ocean? Marked and made over as a mirror by whips and chains and crucifixes and censers to secure and sacralize the sense of redemption that whiteness images, what could such a distinction between Christic and anti-Christic images possibly mean when given in the reconciliatory terms of white theology? For those who were claimed, had their names changed, were abducted from kith and kin, how can such a wound in the archive be riven simply because white theology wants to announce that it is? Wants to claim that it is taken up into the trinitarian economy and so even that absence can be redeemed? Yet it is lived as a wound still, today. That theologians continue to make an idol of these narratives of division and reconciliation in order to produce Christian unity speaks to the white theological investment in unthinking how such narrations and the images they produce are also signs of the real material investments and operations of theological power. There is still a white Christian desire to manage the terms in which theology is enunciated while attempting to assimilate and thus reconcile those figures who would indict these theological claims as reproducing violence. For taking seriously the demand of the irreconcilable figures would call the whole ruse of white theology into question. The fact that so many in theology continue to find these words, images, and figures of speech adequate to black suffering, indigenous suffering, suffering in general, says volumes.

  1. This is a problem I’ve written about elsewhere. See

  2. Hortense Spillers magnificently diagnoses this problem in “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’ Revisiting ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35.1/2 (2007) 299–309. “What I saw happening was black people being treated as a kind of raw material. That the history of black people was something you could use as a note of inspiration but it was never anything that had anything to do with you—you could never use it to explain something in theoretical terms. There was no discourse that it generated, in terms of the mainstream academy that gave it a kind of recognition. And so my idea was to try to generate a discourse, or a vocabulary that would not just make it desirable, but would necessitate that black women be in the conversation.”

  • Natalie Carnes

    Natalie Carnes


    Power and Damage: Response to Armstrong

    Armstrong critiques Image and Presence for what she calls its reconciliatory investments, which rely on distinctions that she finds unhelpfully made and even more unhelpfully overcome. According to Armstrong, first the distinctions are made with insufficient attention to the power dynamics that produce them. Then they are overcome in a hastily claimed reconciliation in which particular bodies—queer bodies, black bodies, Aztec bodies—are sacrificed so that white, straight Christians can theologically police their sources of power and cast anew the illusion of Christianity’s attractiveness. By Armstrong’s judgment, Image and Presence not only fails its irenic aims; it generates violence.

    I believe the differences between Armstrong and me are significant, and at the same time, I share some of the commitments motivating her critiques. For example, I, too, believe in the importance of attending to dynamics of power without reducing phenomena to power analysis. In what follows, I describe how I see our divergences, both over what my work does and over what theological work should do, through three loci. These are: first, the distinction between art and pornography; second, the question of production and agency; and third, the perils of theology in a damaged world.

    Before I parse these differences, I want to say that I appreciate Armstrong’s willingness to engage my work given her bleak assessment of it. Conversations like this one can be difficult for all parties, but I believe the future of theology depends upon our willingness to risk them. My response here is a bit longer than is normal for Syndicate because I want to do justice to the seriousness of her critique.

    The Distinction between Art and Pornography

    I interpret my distinction between art and pornography differently than Armstrong. Where she sees the contrast as asserting the “moral primacy” of art, I see Image and Presence distinguishing the two in order to trace the damages done to desire through these institutional divisions. Most of her analysis concerns the control of production, which I will treat in the section that follows. Here I want to clarify how both art and pornography catechize beholders into inadequate forms of desire. The purpose of the genealogical reflections I offer is to underscore the contingency of their separateness and the loss entailed in the estrangement of the erotic and the contemplative—a loss felt on both sides of the institutional divide. After all, early literary pornography had a manifestly political and philosophical sense, just as the Maria lactans images—which precede the disciplinary formations of modern art—exhibit an overt eroticism. The concern of Image and Presence is to show how the institutional division between art and pornography today trains us into ways of responding to images in which desire is either literalized (as in the denial of contemplation and reduction of desire to its consumptive forms) or denied (as when contemplation is supposed to displace literal desire).

    The distinction between art and pornography is, I try to show, vexed. It is vexed, first, because images are complex, second, because desire is slippery, and, third, because certain pieces actively try to undo the pedagogies of desire advanced in the institutions that mediate them. To the first and second points, I repeatedly emphasize the way the anxiety to manage sexual desire frequently gives rise to what I call iconoclasms of temptation. To the third point, I offer examples of art working to arouse an erotic response. But I do not show the reverse in Image and Presence, and I see how that creates an imbalance that could be seen to moralize art over and against pornography. I do in the book raise the possibility of non-literalized desire in pornography, and one respondent at an AAR panel on Image and Presence invited me to expand on that possibility.1 The panelist raised multiple examples that suggested how pornography, particularly LGBTQ pornography, might elicit non-literalized desire. In our conversation, we discussed the way LGBTQ desires have been for many years denied and held out of sight. Some pornographic forms render the humanity of these bodies visible, thereby doing, interestingly, political and philosophical work similar to that of early literary pornography, in which literal desire is meant to open to non-literal possibilities.

    I affirm this possibility for pornographic images, not because I am as sanguine about the possibilities of the pornography industry as Armstrong is. Neither, however, am I sanguine about the art industry. I say this because I believe images can elude their disciplinary formations and because I want to emphasize the main concern of this section of Image and Presence, which is not to impugn eros, sexual desire, nor even pornography, but to decry the separation of the erotic and the contemplative, the literal and non-literal. When the erotic is evacuated of the contemplative (where pornography tends), desire is literalized. When the contemplative is evacuated of the erotic (where certain trajectories of art tends), the literal is denied. Both are impoverished relationships to the image.

    The Question of Production and Agency

    I have not yet addressed what is perhaps the most important aspect of Armstrong’s critique of my discussion of art and pornography. I have saved her concerns about the conditions of power in and by which images are produced because her point extends beyond that particular section. In the case of LGBTQ pornography, Armstrong wants to valorize it for its positive, potentially salutary conditions of production (in contrast, at least, to the heteropatriarchal power structures of straight porn), which could become more salutary through policy measures like universal health care. In the case of the Virgin of Guadalupe and El Cristo Negro, she claims these images are caught up in histories of colonialism such that the politics of their production vitiates any possibility of their meaning. As Armstrong writes, “It is unclear what power and meaning the Virgin of Guadalupe holds when not read in terms of white reconciliation.” That Armstrong’s deployment of the politics of production occludes for her the power and meaning of the Virgin of Guadalupe—a power and meaning so patent to millions of Latinxs in the Americas—signals its inadequacy for a robust interpretation of images. I’ll elaborate three reasons why I eschew a totalizing politics of production. Before I do, I want to note that Armstrong does voice a desire not to reduce theology to power analysis, but in her actual analysis of images and the arguments of Image and Presence, she does not allow for the possibility of images that exceed the power dynamics constitutive of their own production, as exemplified in her statement about the Virgin of Guadalupe.

    At one level, Image and Presence is an intervention in a conversation in visual studies that finds allies with picture theorists like W. J. T. Mitchell. Mitchell’s paradigm of reading an image iconologically is an approach that treats an image as exceeding the intentions of its makers. It’s a way of attempting to move past a tokenist or Kantian paradigm of imaging that has proven in visual studies to be exhausted, toward a more fecund model. So Image and Presence is elucidating in a theological key the way images do work in the world that cannot be reduced to the politics by which Armstrong defines them in her response. History can no doubt mark an image, but the interpretive strategy I am employing is to read an image through “what it wants,” which can exceed the historical conditions of its making. An image can still want terrible things, but its wanting is not exhausted by its producers.

    At another level, Christianity has as its heart a commitment to an image that exceeds the intentions of its makers: the cross. If we see the powers of production as determinative of the cross’s meaning, then we are left with a cross that means no more than a torture implement created by the Roman Empire’s violent quest to maintain power. But Christians believe the image of the cross means much more than that, that it is primarily an image of God’s love for us that goes all the way through torture and death without being determined by them. In the cross, the powers of production are eclipsed by the love that defeats death. If images must be reduced to or ultimately determined by the politics of production, then the cross can only mean death, violence, and despair. If the meaning of the cross is determined by the politics of its production, what is left of Christianity?

    I am not sure whether either of these levels of argument is persuasive or interesting to Armstrong. But there is still another level that should be, given the terms of her argument. It is this: to make the politics of production determinative in the case of images like the Virgin of Guadalupe is to deny the agency of the countless Latinx Christians across time who have made her central to their piety. The canonization of Juan Diego and elevation of the Virgin of Guadalupe came as responses to movements of popular piety that long preceded their institutional acceptance. The Virgin of Guadalupe has for centuries been embraced as a sign of divine presence to the people of Americas and particularly of Mexico. She, like El Cristo Negro, testifies to them that Christianity does not belong to Europeans, that Mary and Christ are their own, that they can be Christian without becoming European. Evidence of this dynamic can be seen in any Latinx parish in America. The Virgin of Guadalupe will be there, often with flowers and other gifts at her feet. On special feast days, groups like the Guadalupanos dance in her honor. Are all these people venerating her simply deluded in a way that Armstrong is enlightened? What of their agency?

    Armstrong criticizes Image and Presence for “covering over the antagonistic senses of theological meaning that black and indigenous people make for themselves.” But that, I think, is precisely what a totalizing politics of production does and at the heart of my concerns about its limitations as the exclusive interpretive lens for images. What I try to trace in my analysis of these images are the types of meaning found by black and indigenous peoples in these images, over and against colonialist histories. I want to highlight the way images like the Virgin of Guadalupe and El Cristo Negro are framed both as a rebuke of colonial Christianity and as a claim on Christ. Image and Presence seeks to articulate the antagonistic theology of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose stories I have myself received from the Latinx parishes I have been a part of; and from El Cristo Negro, the piety to which I have witnessed in the people of El Salvador and Guatemala. These are the concrete conditions in which these images live and have meaning. What modes of analysis abstract from these conditions, and what seek to honor them?

    Perils of Theology in a Damaged World

    In the concluding section of her essay, Armstrong references the story I tell of Las Casas claiming the indigenous people were Christ crucified anew by the Spanish, of whom he was one. She writes that “deciding whether [the Spanish] brought Christ or not is not up to him.” I am not sure precisely what Armstrong means about the responsibility of Las Casas to determine the presence of Christ. If she means that Las Casas does not sit on the throne of final judgment, that he does not have the vision of Christ, that he could be wrong, then of course she is right. However, the scandal of Christianity is that we are yet always discerning the presence of Christ on earth, that rendering these provisional judgments is part of the call to faithfulness, and that receiving Christ among the marginalized is one of a Christian’s most important callings. This, of course, is perilous work, and it can go wildly awry. Armstrong writes in acute awareness of how it has gone devastatingly awry, how “reconciliation” has been leveraged to consolidate political gains for of white supremacy. Too easily Christians can and far too often Christians have betrayed what reconciliation names and who Christ is. That cannot mean that we give up on reconciliation or naming Christ in the world.

    There is no reprieve from the perils of judgment. Even rejecting Christianity does not enable us to evade this responsibility. For the Christian work of naming Christ is a particular instantiation of the work we all have to do as humans. There is no escape from the burden of discerning whether this half-dead person on the side of the road is our neighbor. Being human in the world entails such risk. This Christian work of naming Christ is the human work of meaning-making, and repudiating Christianity will not relieve us of the dangers and temptations the work entails. In this way, it is up to Las Casas to name Christ’s presence in the scourged before him, in the way it is up to all of us. On who else can such responsibilities fall?

    Further, it obscures something important about Las Casas’s judgment to narrate it as a “reconciliatory investment” that identifies him with Yoder, as Armstrong does a couple sentences later. (I will not prolong this essay by expostulating my position on Yoder, except to say that I agree with Armstrong that he is an example of someone articulating a deeply problematic theology of reconciliation. To me, the difference between Las Casas and Yoder displays the importance of a differentiated approach to theological reconciliation.) Las Casas’s claims are not ones that augmented his power here on earth or materially helped the Spanish mission in the West Indies. After all, he was calling into question its entire economic basis. His claim of Christ’s presence certainly did not announce any eschatological victory at hand. It named his own complicity in damage and identified the way he felt called to change his life and enter into the suffering of humans he had afflicted. He’s naming himself as anti-Christ. There is no announced reconciled reality here that circumvents the path of suffering or the need for processes of truth-telling, repentance, and justice; rather, Las Casas’s announcement is the description of damage necessary to begin breaking with a violent past. I don’t mean to claim Las Casas was in all ways admirable. He was not. But his way of naming Christ, as a way of naming his own sinfulness and his own farness for Christ, seems to raise the possibility for real reconciliation, rather than the decoy version of it that worries Armstrong.

    All around us is damage. At every moment is the possibility we are deeply wrong about ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, our world. This knowledge should chasten us, tutor us into the provisionality of our determinations. But it should not paralyze us. If we let a quest for moral purity detain us from the risk of judgment, we don’t just give up on Christian theology. We give up on our humanity.

    1. Sean Larsen raised these concerns in his paper “Avoiding the Mirror,” given on November 17, 2018, at the American Academy of Religion in Denver, Colorado.

    • Avatar

      Amaryah Armstrong


      Armstrong Reply to Carnes’ Response

      I appreciate Natalie Carnes’s extensive response and that she took many of my questions as serious questions and endeavored to reply to them. I also appreciate her elaboration on the Maria Lactans and her critique of pornography as I think her recognition of how the uneven amount of attention might signify beyond her intentions or the actuality of her thought is important to me. As a whole, Carnes’ response illuminated how we disagree on theology and its responsibility to account for power in its production, but also helped me locate places where perhaps I was unclear in my original response or where its strong wording meant the message was understood as primarily concerned with whether Carnes’ account is “helpful or unhelpful” to including the Queer, the black, the indigenous, etc., within its account. Rather than helpful or not (as I would surmise that Carnes’ account is helpful depending on what one is trying to do with a theology of the image), my primary concern is one of theology’s adequacy to the demands of those figures and the authorial decisions in their arrangement within the text, which are also pedagogical and instructive, which depict an image by what it attends to or not. These authorial decisions confront all of us, and so my primary concern is whether the image of Christianity and the theological sense-making generated by Carnes’ argument, in part and as a whole, is adequate to the level of thought that her use of black and indigenous figures or the survivors or Yoder’s sexual assaults, etc., demands. This is because, with Carnes, I take an account of images as instructive and the agency of the enslaved, indigenous, and their descendants very seriously. Which is why the absence of scholarly engagement with them, as a necessary part of accounting for how figures circulate in theology and the meaning drawn from them, struck me as deeply amiss. If one makes the decision to include these figures, how one gives a theological account of them matters.

      Rather than an attempt to corner Carnes into admitting a totalizing view of power and the production of theology, my response to Image and Presence was not very far off from Prevot’s question of how the book constructs a particular reading audience as ‘us’ in its account of the least of these’s prosoponic likeness to Christ, or Reklis’ question of how the structure of thought in Carnes’ book would have to change to give an adequate account of slavery and colonialism in the generation of the modern image.  It is unclear to me how my asking for such an account of these theological distributions of power strips the agency from those living in the crucible of a catastrophe created by the Christian imagination. As Sylvester Johnson illuminates in his work, the agency of black Christians in the Americas, for instance, has often become a vehicle for extending imperial Christianity through the missionizing of Africa and the acceptance of Christian assumptions that denigrate African religions and Islam. My concerns about how meaning is derived from the appearance of blackness and indigeneity in particular is a question of theological accountability to the invocation of those figures precisely because Christian theology is the means by which they are inscribed into the West as abject, as figures that mean for a Christian narrative of redemption rather than themselves. My critique of Las Casas and Carnes’ Christological account of the image, then, was meant to raise question of whether the poison can also be the remedy? If so, how? And, if not, how might theology proceed accordingly? My concern, then, is that if theologians continue to arrive at the scene of these crimes against the flesh, as Hortense Spillers might put it, with a Christian story already in tow, how does such an arrival break with the production of meaning that is extracted from these figures? On my reading, the situation is bleak and without honesty about this bleakness, about the crisis that Christianity installs for black and indigenous existence in particular, Christian theology will continue to valorize itself at the expense of those it purports to do justice to. Is this not the exigency that black and indigenous theologies raise to the fore? That everything about how Christian theology has been done must become adequate to the demand of black and indigenous existence or be given up? It is precisely because I assume that Carnes is able to think more adequately to this demand—if she so desires—and because it is a demand that I make of myself as a theologian, that I put the question to her.

    • Natalie Carnes

      Natalie Carnes


      Reply to Armstrong’s Response

      I appreciate this provoking turn of phrase Armstrong has introduced into the discussion: of being “adequate to” the figures invoked in one’s text. I appreciate it, and I have to say, I find it rather chilling. I couldn’t help thinking: Am I ever adequate to the figures and texts I invoke?

      I wonder how to measure one’s adequacy to the figures and texts one engages. What criteria do we have for discerning whether that task is done well or poorly? If adequacy is assessed in terms of extended historical or contextual recounting, can a project that strives for ecumenism in geography, ecclesiology, and historical temporality ever be adequate to any of its objects? Can different types of projects and different types of engagements with texts and artifacts call for different criteria for assessing adequacy?

      There was another phrase that caught my attention in Armstrong’s reply. Her question in response to the Las Casas discussion about whether the poison can also be the cure made me think about the end of the 14th century poem Piers Plowman. The sacraments, it is discovered, are laced with drugs of enchantment that inure communicants to the violence of the world rather than awakening them to it and fortifying them against it. In other words, the poem poses a slightly different question, one closer to how I would describe the story of Las Casas. What happens when the cure has become the poison?

      We are left at the end of Piers Plowman with a character called Conscience, who walks out of the besieged fort that signifies the church to seek Piers (Peter). The ambiguity of the ending could speak to the different options Armstrong and I are proposing and struggling through. Has Conscience left the church behind as irredeemably damaged and damaging? Or is Conscience embarking on a quest to seek the renewal of the church? When the cure is poisoned, how does one find healing? I believe a response can only be negotiated in particular moments of history by particular individuals and communities, and yet I take the redescription of poison and cure to be a important reframing for Christian theological work.

Jennifer Newsome Martin


On the Impoverished Image

Ontology, Analogy, and Kenosis

If I have understood her correctly, the fundamental argument of Natalie Carnes’s Image and Presence is an effort to complicate the concepts of iconoclasm and iconophilia by pointing to the nature of images as themselves operating by a kind of internal negation. That is to say, because images signify by donating “more” than themselves and in so doing mediate a particular kind of “presence-in-absence,” images themselves bear a fundamental structure that Carnes designates as “iconoclastic” (4). Such a claim implies, then, that iconoclasm(s) and iconophilia(s) are not at all mutually exclusive but can, and indeed ought, to be understood in a mutually generative dialogue (184). Throughout the text, this persistent paradox of presence and absence in images is grounded theologically in a christological (and, more specifically, an incarnational) register (183), as she moves elegantly through the chiasm of arriving presence (“Born of the Virgin Mary”), abiding presence (“Came Down from Heaven and Was Made Human”), “riven and riving” presence (“Crucified, Died, and Was Buried”), abiding presence (“Rose Again on the Third Day”), and arriving presence (“Will Come Again in Glory”). Her concise conclusion returns more systematically to the theme of confounding binaries, appealing ultimately to the radical freedom and mercy of God to be present in a panoply and plurality of image forms.

By nuancing the relationship between presence and absence in images, whether religious or nonreligious, a secondary but no less important goal of the book is its own somewhat iconoclastic effort to dismantle caricatures of image-reception among different confessional groups, primarily Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians, and, to a lesser extent, Jews and Muslims. (With respect to the last, I was especially compelled by her discussion of the Charlie Hebdo shooting on pp. 10–12 of the introduction). Carnes’s clear ecumenical motivation that seeks to avoid the too-easy binary of “us” and “them” is utterly commendable and absolutely refreshing in a cultural and popular climate that too often capitulates to and indulges such a narrative. Indeed, the book succeeds well in its balanced treatment of images and figures drawn from all quarters. It is impressively wide-ranging in its scope, including discussion on images both sacred and profane, with commentary on such varied topics as St. John of Damascus, apophaticism, religiously provocative Playboy covers, Christian Wiman’s poetry, Nestorius, desire in Sigmund Freud, Bruno Latour, Gregory of Nyssa, modern erotic fiction, the Isenheim Altarpiece, Marina Abramović’s MoMa performance “The Artist Is Present,” Wittgenstein, Francis Bacon (the English philosopher, not the modern painter), Flannery O’Connor, John Howard Yoder’s notion of “vulnerable enemy love,” Margery Kempe, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Eastern Orthodox iconography, pornography, Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology, Piss Christ, and toy animals from a religious education classroom, just to name a few. The book also represents a genuine recovery effort and welcome popularization of some of the perhaps lesser-known images in the Christian intellectual tradition like the Maria lactans.

As a Catholic and a Balthasarian, I—like everyone else—am bringing a whole complex of assumptions and categories to my interpretation of texts. Though I want studiously to avoid the reviewer’s trap of saying, “This is not the book I would have written!” I do wonder what Carnes might say about the benefits and limitations of some of the categories that Hans Urs von Balthasar is able to provide, all of which I read as fundamentally christological, and all of which share the same commitment to the paradoxical structure of presence-in-absence, similarity-in-dissimilarity, revelation-in-hiddenness, infinitude-in-finitude, etc., that Carnes draws out so well in her book. These foci include the ontological, the analogical, and the kenotic.

Balthasar lays out the contours of a religious epistemology perhaps most systematically in his Theo-Logic: Theological Logical Theory, volume 1, Truth of the World. In a section called, “The World of the Images,” he describes the curious case of images in terms that seem consonant with Carnes’s general account if it is not exactly synonymous in its deployment. Images “simulate something that they themselves are not: a world” (TL 1:133), and the possibility of signification rests upon the capacity of an image to point beyond itself to something that exceeds it but is somehow also not outside of it (c.f. TL 1:153–54). So, similarly to Carnes’s discussion, for Balthasar the significance of any given image rests almost entirely on the non-identity between the image itself and the invisible, hidden content which is expressed in it (TL 1:139), which can roughly be mapped onto the more well-known distinction he makes in Glory of the Lord I (following Aquinas and also Goethe to some extent) between “form” and “splendor.” This simultaneity, inseparability, and equal necessity of the double signification of visible and invisible, external and internal, hidden and revealed is crucial for Balthasarian aesthetics. Both elements are required and neither can be surpassed or abandoned, since truth and beauty emerge in their dynamic and organic interplay. According to Balthasar, the signification of an image’s meaning comes not from the appearance of the image itself, nor from the invisible absence “behind” the image that remains “unveiled,” but rather in “a floating middle between the appearance and the thing that appears” (TL 1:138). Images can convey depth but are not themselves identical with the depths of being they reveal. Indeed, this non-identical relationship is for Balthasar the condition of the possibility for images to be images. (For example, he writes that “it is precisely what the image is not—being’s power to give an image of itself—that enables the image to be an image in the first place” (TL 1:140)). It is thus quite clear that Balthasar understands images to have the capacity to bear an ontological depth, to be expressive of Being itself. And the failure to account for this ontological depth dimension is for Balthasar fatal for signification (“As soon as we cut off the living world of signification from the ontological root that sustains it, it withers and dies” [TL 1:144]).

Furthermore, what is especially interesting to me is the way that Balthasar actually locates the sense and meaning of images not exclusively in the domain of what the images themselves donate, but just as readily in the domain of the apprehending subject. The way Balthasar talks about images in this context is in certain respects tantalizingly similar to Carnes’s description of W. J. T. Mitchell’s picture theory in What Do Pictures Want? wherein we have the habit of simultaneously claiming that “images have no vitality and act[ing] as though they do” (159). That is, on the one hand, images are marked by an extreme kind of poverty. Alone, they make no sense and can reveal no sense, Balthasar says, “any more than the letters of a book can say themselves what the words they form together mean” (TL 1:133–34). On the other hand, Balthasar attributes something like the language of desire to images when he writes that they “crave” a “double interpretation” supplied not by themselves but rather by the subject, which lends them that which they cannot ever possess themselves: essence and existence. For Balthasar, the hyperbolic “manifestness” of images’ non-sense is precisely that which suggests that sense can be found, if not there, then somewhere. This sense gets supplied by the structure of the human mind which sees the world of images in terms of coherence, mystery, and depth. Images do confer a certain presence-in-absence, but the role of the apprehending subject is in part to “nourish” and bestow meaning and a sense of interiority upon the image.

Here, then, is occasion for me to pose a first set of question to Carnes: what value, if any, does she see in more systematically bringing in the category of the ontological to the discussion of images and the manner in which they both are and are not themselves? How might it inform her discussion of the idol (following Balthasar’s claim that to cut off the ontological root of significance transforms that which is living into that which is dead)? I am also curious about how Carnes might elaborate further upon the complex interactions of appearing images, the apprehending subject, and the ways in which the apprehending subject cooperates in the conferral of meaning, significance, and presence. How might Carnes account for the donation of an image’s interiority and depth not from the image itself but rather from the direction of the apprehending subject? What precisely is it that signifies? What precisely gives images power to signify?

The second set of questions concerns what Carnes might think of the value of the analogical as a category for thinking about how images operate (obviously crucial for Balthasar and Erich Przywara upon which he depends). Carnes articulates the coincidence of sameness and difference throughout her text, especially with respect to Christology, in order to launch a strong case for imaging that is grounded in the “ambivalences” of Christ in whom, she argues “the seemingly competing impulses of iconophilia, iconoclasm, and icon veneration are all affirmed, the differences separating the ecclesial families—on this one issue, at least, dissolved. Christ negates to reveal” (13, italics added; cf. 55, 82, 116, 183). The Son is God, but is not the Father, and so on. In the context of clarifying divine simplicity and the trinitarian relations, Lateran IV famously offered its classic definition of analogy as signifying simultaneously both similitude and difference: “Between the Creator and the creature so great a likeness cannot be noted without the necessity of noting a greater dissimilarity [major dissimilitudo] between them.”1 Balthasar will later identify the Incarnate Christ as the concrete analogia entis (c.f. Theo-Drama, 3:220–29), who is the very condition of the possibility for aesthetics and images to signify both themselves and beyond themselves. How, then, does the category of analogy, which performs the paradoxical task of signifying similarity but an ever-greater difference, fit into Carnes’s discussion of iconoclasm or negation at the heart of imaging that is “neither an eradication nor an erasure” but prevents images from becoming idols (7)? Are they roughly tantamount, or does she see any significant differences between the analogical and her own productive “iconoclasms of fidelity”?

Third, though I understand and admire the persuasive reasons Carnes provides for preferring the language of the iconoclastic to name this non-absolute negation in the operation of images, I do wonder whether it is salutary to prescind from the language of “kenosis” (8), especially given the strong christological pull of her text, wherein “the Son recedes—minimizes or negates himself—to reveal the Father. The Son’s negation does not erase himself, for in effacing himself to reveal the Father, the Son ultimately reveals himself” (13). For Balthasar, as we have already suggested, both images and essences are poor and make themselves poor; appearing phenomena give themselves away, presenting themselves as images not as assertions of power but rather as renunciations of any possibility of counterfeit versions of it. Essences deign to appear in and be conscripted in images. The image has “to reveal by stepping back, by making itself superfluous, by effacing itself, in order to direct attention, no longer to it, the appearance, but only to the essence itself’ (TL 1:147). These mutual dispossessions, in a way, mirror and participate in the kenotic modality and self-effacement of the eternal relations within the trinitarian God, in creation, and in the incarnation and passion of Christ. Kenosis in Balthasar’s accounting is, however, not a bare negation or lack or dispossession or destruction (what I might correlate with at least a commonsense reading of “iconoclasm”), but rather constitutive positively for both divine and human personhood. Balthasar’s radical kenoticism can, I think, open his aesthetic up to the possibility of revelatory disclosure in hiddenness, silence, interruption, distance, flesh, vulnerability, abjection, and poverty without collapsing into nihilism. Given the content of Carnes’s book, especially in the chapter on the crucifixion, death, and burial of Christ, could this version of the kenotic (which decisively manifests presence in the mode of absence) be included in a fuller cartography of negation?

Finally, I’ll end with a question that is more of a footnote and born from personal curiosity. I noted with great interest Carnes’s discussion of the “paradox of resurrection imaging” (123–25), which suggests around the resurrection a certain “imagelessness that invites iconoclasm” (123). Having read her treatment of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in the previous chapter, though, I wondered as I read what Carnes might have to say, if anything, about the striking resurrection image on the far-right panel that becomes visible when the Isenheim Altarpiece is opened in the second position? How might Carnes interpret this “hidden” image, or the fact that it remains covered or closed most of the time?

  1. DS 432, 171.

  • Natalie Carnes

    Natalie Carnes


    Balthasarian Translations: Response to Martin

    At the end of Martin’s essay, she asked what I might say about the image of resurrection on the far-right inside panel of the Isenheim altarpiece.1 I confess that prior to her question, I had not thought much about that image, primarily because I found it unappealing. It presents Jesus as pale to the point of ghostliness; his expression distant and a bit smug; his hand wounds eerily similar to his eyes, as if his hands are staring at me, or his eyes are violent punctures. It seemed to me, in short, an uncompelling attempt to imagine Christ’s resurrection. But at Martin’s prompting, I looked again, and new aspects of the image opened for me—so many that I began to wonder whether Grünewald’s panel really is an image of the resurrection.

    Of course, in one sense, it is obviously an image of the resurrection. Soldiers lie collapsed in front of an opened tomb as something like abandoned grave clothes flow out of it to cover the risen Christ above. But then, why is he “above?” Jesus seems already to be departing here; his feet have left the earth, as if he is ascending. Or is he descending? Maybe this Jesus is the one coming again in glory, as his wounds and body radiating light could suggest. But that light haloing his head might reference another episode in Jesus’s life, the Transfiguration, when the disciples, like the soldiers in the painting, fall down in fear. Once I began to see these layers, I couldn’t stop. The circle of light in the darkness even struck me as a reference to creation. What does it mean to call this multilayered panel an image of the resurrection?

    I suggest this Isenheim panel images the resurrection by interpreting it together with the Transfiguration, ascension, and return. It destabilizes any temporal framework imposed upon it, an instability only amplified by the reference to creation, an act for which there is no prior moment because it names the gift of time itself. The panel presents the resurrection, in other words, only by disavowing the resurrection as a moment to be depicted. By signaling to the beholder that it makes no attempt to represent a moment of resurrection, it remains faithful to the paradox of resurrection imaging, though in a way different from the iconographic tradition. While that tradition maintains silence about the resurrection, depicting the harrowing of hell and myrrh-bearing women but no resurrection moment, Grünewald’s panel suggests in its own visual language the imagelessness of the resurrection, which I find potentially harmonious with the iconographic tradition.

    This analogy between the different modes of fidelity to the paradox of resurrection imaging, in the iconographic tradition and Grünewald’s altarpiece—the way they employ different languages to explore similar theologies—is perhaps a helpful way to frame my relationship to Balthasar, whose image theology seems more similar to my own than I imagined prior to reading Martin’s essay. It seems Balthasar and I want to make similar claims about the image, though we’re working with a slightly different set of concerns and conversation partners, and in a different philosophical and political time. Through the three foci Martin names of the ontological, the analogical, and the kenotic, I’ll elaborate the way I see my differences with Balthasar as ones of emphasis and practical purpose more than substance.

    The Ontological

    The first question Martin presses is the value of “more systematically bringing in the category of the ontological,” and to that end, she asks for clarity about the contribution of the apprehending subject. She asks, incisively, “What precisely gives images the power to signify?”

    In Image and Presence, I approach the question of signification by identifying the word “image” as naming a relationship. To call something an image is to say that I relate to something as an image—something that I could also relate to as an idol, object, token, or illusion. “Image” does not pick out an intrinsic quality, nor is it meant to convey ontological status—though it does embed an ontological commitment mostly buried in Image and Presence, that the world opens to a fullness that is more than the world. Without this fullness, the image eventually collapses into an illusion because it cannot give more than itself, can yield no excess; nothing can. The world is entirely literalized.

    I take my approach to be a different way of making Balthasar’s point that an image alone can neither make nor reveal sense, that the apprehending subject “nourishes” its meaning. But where Balthasar’s way of putting it begins with the ontological claim of what something is, an image that awaits a beholder, mine begins with the apprehending subject, who relates to something that then becomes an image to her. From opposite ends, we both suggest contributions from the subject and the image, though as Martin notes, I am more reticent regarding ontology. This reticence comes from two convictions. First, I believe the ontological commitments a robust image discussion requires are thin. Second, thematizing what is distinctive about those commitments is more complicated in today’s critical landscape.

    With regard to the latter, Balthasar and I are writing about the image in different philosophical environments. His elaboration of the stakes of ontology seems energized by a polemic that has a diminished target in today’s academic world. He writes against reductive materialism and scientism as major theological threats. In those philosophical frameworks, the human capacity to detect surplus meaning in objects suggests nothing beyond itself, and given such commitments, the image must indeed wither and die (to parrot Balthasar’s vivid language). But I don’t think that type of materialism is particularly dominant anymore, not in the humanities at least, which is where I place my intervention into the image discussion. It probably does dominate the sciences and continues to have currency in some intellectual circles, but in the humanities, it has been replaced by movements like the New Materialism and Object-Oriented Ontology, which provide alternative ways of describing the fullness of material life while eschewing traditional understandings of transcendence. For the proponents of these theories, the choice is no longer between reductive materialism or traditional transcendence, and so the contrast between them cannot fund an approach with the same kind of vim it did for Balthasar. Foregrounding ontological contrasts, in this theoretical milieu, becomes a muddier way into the conversation about images. It also closes the boundaries of the image conversation before the deep agreements between a Christian theology of images and these new philosophical movements can be identified, and it is particularly unproductive for engaging the currents in visual studies I hoped to discuss. So I prefer to take a path similar to the one Rowan Williams takes in The Edge of Words, to identify an excessiveness to images that is analogous to and suggestive of the divine—though I recognize the power of Balthasar’s approach and its compatibility with my own.

    The Analogical

    In Martin’s second set of questions, she wonders about the resonance between my “iconoclasms of fidelity” and Balthasar’s analogy, which emphasizes dissimilarity as framing any similarity between Creator and creation. She sets up, in short, an analogy with analogy, and I think it works. Both are defined by both likeness and unlikeness. Both run into danger when unlikeness is overrun or forgotten. And analogies, like images, can occlude the difference or negation they presuppose. This is where iconoclasms of fidelity become important. These work, perhaps, less like analogies than like apophatic speech that reminds us of the analogical or metaphorical character of all speech about God. In fact, I might describe apophatic speech as a type of iconoclasm of fidelity, meant to protect us from conceptual idolatries. The question I would have about analogical speech and its similarity to images concerns the question of presence; how, if at all, do analogs bear the presence of what they signify? I am not sure I can puzzle through that question yet.

    The Kenotic

    For her third focus, Martin asks about the language of kenosis, whether it might be problematic to abandon it, and whether it could be incorporated into my language of negation. She offers a gently phrased critique: “Kenosis in Balthasar’s accounting is, however, not a bare negation or lack of dispossession or destruction (what I might correlate with at least a commonsense reading of ‘iconoclasm’), but rather constitutive positively for both divine and human personhood. Balthasar’s radical kenoticism can, I think, open his aesthetic up to the possibility of revelatory disclosure in hiddenness, silence, interruption, distance, flesh, vulnerability, abjection, and poverty without collapsing into nihilism.” I take Martin to imply an anxiety about the language of negation and iconoclasm, even as she also understands the ecumenical reasons for it. In its most forceful version, the worry, I think, is that iconoclasm and negation suggest destruction, erasure, and, ultimately, threaten nihilism, even if I don’t want them to, so why risk those associations when kenosis seems to do the work I name negation so effectively? The milder version of her critique is to commend the more explicit enfolding of the kenotic into my elaboration of negation.

    I do think the language of kenosis can be included among different ways of describing negation. It can be a more precisely theological way of naming what I describe as Christ’s self-effacement, echoed in images. But I want to foreground the language of negation and iconoclasm, not only for reasons of ecumenism and maintaining an association with other ordinary invocations of iconoclasm (iconoclastic gestures, iconoclastic art, iconoclastic act of Pope Francis washing the Muslim woman’s feet). It is also because I want to underscore the instability of images, the way they cannot secure themselves and so can slip from their status as images. For Balthasar, according to Martin, images present themselves “not as assertions of power but rather as renunciation of any possibility of counterfeit versions of it.” To agree with him, I translate his words in my own language to say, “To relate to something as an image is to relate to it not as an assertion of power, but as a renunciation of any possibility of counterfeit versions of it.” But I want to emphasize that renunciation of power is not simply a given. An image is an achievement as well as a gift, and the admittedly more aggressive language I employ of negations and iconoclasms identifies the practices of vigilance that fidelity with images requires. It is sometimes difficult to discern the poverty of an image—Bernard of Clairvaux worries about distractingly sumptuous images in abbey churches, for example; others worry about the political power some images seem to claim; and any image can be received as an idol—and these may be received as counterfeits of what they are supposed to image. In other words, I agree with Balthasar than an image renounces counterfeiting rather than asserting power, but I don’t see that renunciation as secured by the image itself; it names what it means to relate to something as an image, though that relationship can yet slip into idolatry, illusion, or any other degeneration of the image relationship. I see my difference with Balthasar here (as elsewhere) as one of emphasis, where I am looking to affirm not only images but also our suspicions of them.


    I am grateful to Martin for this side-by-side comparison she began with Balthasar, which helped bring out the subtleties of my argument rather than flattening them—and provoked me to think more deeply about my own project. After reflecting on the rich set of questions Martin posed, my own assessment is that I’m expressing a very similar theology of the image to Balthasar, though in a different critical world, to some different audiences, and from a slightly different set of concerns. But I am also aware how meager my knowledge of Balthasar is and am open to other perspectives from those no doubt better informed.