Scenes from the History of the Image: Reading Two Millennia of Conflict

July 28 - August 9, 2013
National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA

Summer 2014 dates TBA


Thomas Pfau
Thomas Pfau
Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English & Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Duke University
David Womersley
David Womersley
Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, St. Catherine's College, Oxford


The purpose of this seminar is to explore primary and critical writings related to the history of the image. It should be said at the outset that this discussion is not an attempt to run a seminar in art history. Rather, the objective is to trace how, in the course of Western history, images have functioned (and how their role has been conceptualized), first in religious practice and philosophical theology, and more recently in literature, philosophy, aesthetic theory, and phenomenology.

At this time in history, Western culture is arguably awash in images to a degree never before experienced. Digital culture has made every image and visual artifact virtually accessible to a vast number of individuals in the developed and developing worlds. Elaborate databases such as ArtStor and Oxford Art Online, as well as general-purpose search engines (Google Images) facilitate the retrieval of visual materials with very little censorship or accountability interposing itself on the part of the provider or end-user, respectively. At the same time, the capacity of images (cartoons, photographs, paintings) to unleash public controversy by tapping into otherwise submerged religious, political, or cultural energies and antagonisms seems undiminished. More than most textual forms—whose impact is typically attenuated by the hermeneutic demands that their linear and propositional presentation makes on readers—images seem uniquely capable of bypassing or suspending a more guarded and reflexive interpretive appraisal.

The traumatic force with which the images of the falling Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 impacted and shaped the political imaginary of an entire generation of people in the United States and the Western world, or similarly iconic moments such as Robert Capra's famous photo of a soldier's death during the Spanish Civil War, Nick Ut's photo of a young Vietnamese child burned by napalm, Charlie Cole's 1989 snapshot of a young man in a white shirt blocking the advance of tanks in Tiananmen Square, Kurt Westergaard's 2005 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed—all attest to the image's undiminished capacity for concentrating and unleashing vast reservoirs of moral and political energy. It thus does not surprise us to find political and religious establishments from around the world that are far more preoccupied with controlling (or even expunging) images than with articulating a coherent message or rationally engaging their perceived opponents. Among the more egregious instances of such practice might be the Afghan Taliban's March 2001 decision to detonate the early sixth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan, or the G. W. Bush administration's ban on releasing photos of the coffins of dead soldiers flown back from Iraq.

So as to understand the deeper histories that resonate in such controversies, and indeed set the formal and moral parameters for them, this seminar will seek to undertake an archeology of the image in its various dimensions: viz., as material object, as a medium (often in close competition with text), as formal-aesthetic artifact, and as the correlate of a distinctive kind of human intentionality. To that end, the 2013 SIAS seminar will successively explore five historical and/or formal ways of considering the image—each time through a mix of primary and secondary literature.


PART I addresses premodern discourse on the image in pre-Christian thought (Plato, Plotinus), Old Testament scripture, and philosophical theology up to Aquinas. The objective here is to highlight paradigmatic positions, such as St. Augustine's use of imago as a central feature of his later theology, or the early debates over iconoclasm in Western and Eastern Christianity (Gregory the Great, St. John Damascene, St. Theodore the Studite) and early Islam. We will also take a brief leap into the modern era to consider the (ironic) reappearance of iconoclastic fervor in T. Mann's short story "Gladius Dei."

PART II will concentrate on the era beginning with the Reformation. We shall focus on connections between modernity's quest for self-legitimation and its philosophical, legal, and material attempts at expunging images (and image-based sacramental practice) from religious culture and public life. At the heart of this cluster is the question to what extent early modernity may be understood as a struggle between a textual, abstract, and increasingly anthropomorphic conception of knowledge with the image's persistent and uncanny ability to realize transcendent meanings in materially concrete and vivid form. This deepening struggle between a sacramental and a conceptual mode of knowledge dominates a variety of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writings, such as the legally defined and state-enforced iconoclasm of Henry VIII and Edward VI, or the philosophical and theological arguments of Cramner, Zwingli, Calvin, Bacon, Hobbes, Milton, et al. Along with selections from Fox's Actes and Monuments, our discussion will also draw on select readings from recent critical work on modernity's underlying iconoclastic logic (Simpson, Duffy, Aston, et al.).

PART III will take up the partial rehabilitation of the image during the Enlightenment. Here our attention will shift toward the emergent fields of historicism and aesthetics (in Vico, Shaftesbury, Reynolds, Lessing, Herder, and Kant). The genesis of these new modes of inquiry arguably correlates with the rehabilitation of the image insofar as historicism and aesthetics assist in quarantining images from spiritual or transcendent meanings by foregrounding the image's formal and stylistic role within emergent, class-specific practices and conceptions of "taste." Concurrently, a distinctly vernacular "literary" tradition and canon crystallizes around new types of imagery that seem all but untainted by religious controversy or dogma. A case in point is the agglomeration of classical literary topoi in Gray's "Elegy" or the eclipse of (biblical) narrative in eighteenth-century discursive writing, descriptive poetry, and in the shrewdly "de-sacralized" new genre of landscape painting. Still, traces of the image's forgotten (or repressed) transcendent sources persist, as in the way that the rustic comedy of Gainsborough's The Harvest Wagon (1767) clearly pivots on our recalling the choreography of figures in Rubens' Descent from the Cross. A discussion of Kant's theory of the sublime, in which the image's apparent transcendence and defeat of discursive understanding is ultimately reversed by the second-level reflexivity of Vernunft, will round off this particular set of readings.

PART IV takes up the nineteenth century's growing investment in the image's epistemological status. Hegel's discussion—both in the Encyclopedia (1818) and in his Aesthetics (1822)—of the transition from a symbolic (imagistic) to a textual (prosaic) concept of knowledge will be our point of departure here. At the same time, the implicit secularization narrative at work in Hegel's account is challenged. One instance of such a critique involves Coleridge's account of image and symbol as the unique mediation ("translucence") of a divine logos that cannot be captured in propositional form but, in fact, is always presupposed by the discursive intellect. Another case study will take up an aesthetic of radical mimesis as developed in Ruskin's Modern Painters, pre-Raphaelite art, and in the journals and poetry of G. M. Hopkins. Here we can trace the beginnings of modern phenomenology, which, beginning with Husserl and extending all the way to Jean-Luc Marion's recent work, focuses on the image as a unique phenomenological datum. Some selections from Husserl's 1905 lectures on "Image Consciousness" (Bildbewusstsein) and Jean-Luc Marion on the "absolute givenness" of the "saturated phenomenon" will help us trace how nineteenth-century literary, aesthetic, and philosophical reflection engages the image in its own terms, rather than measuring it (positively or negatively) against a textual and discursive model of representation. This section will conclude with a discussion of Georges Rodenbach's 1892 novel Bruges la Morte.

PART V will sample various twentieth-century theories of the image (phenomenology, existentialism, deconstruction, postmodern culture theory) in order to gauge to what extent our contemporary theoretical landscape is cognizant of (or, perhaps, oblivious to) the deep history of the image as a focal point of philosophical, theological, and aesthetic reasoning. To offer but one instance, might it be possible to read the aggressive textualism of American Deconstruction (as exemplified by de Man, J. Hillis-Miller, C. Jacobs et al.) as a (perhaps unwitting) reenactment of Reformation iconoclasm? Similarly, we will want to explore to what extent other accounts of the image might also inadvertently retrace a two-millennia-old debate regarding the (allegedly illicit) noumenal or transcendent aspirations or pretensions of images. Selections from W. Benjamin's Passagenwerk ("Arcades Project"), E. Auerbach (his essay "Figura"), Heidegger ("The Origin of the Work of Art") will be considered in conjunction with the recent upsurge of philosophical, theological, and aesthetic interest in images (Marion, Besançon, Bredekamp, Freedberg, Latour, Mascall, Mitchell, et al.).


A principal objective of the 2013 seminar will be to lay a deep and richly textured foundation for more specialized types of inquiry and research that we expect participants to pursue during the year following our first seminar. The 2014 seminar meetings would thus seek to devote more time to presentations, more individualized workshops, and to the discussion of further readings—which at that point would be more specifically targeted to the individual work that emerges.

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We offer two methods to submit 2013-2014 SIAS Summer Institutes applications:

Applicants will be asked to provide: a curriculum vitae, a statement of up to 1,000 words (not counting cited references) detailing current research interests and past research and writing related to the institute topic, and two letters of recommendation.

European applicants will find application procedures at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

Candidates should note that they are applying for two summer workshops: one in Berlin, and another in the United States and that successful applicants will be expected to attend both workshops. The working language of the institute is English.

Applications should be submitted no later than February 22, 2013. Candidates selected will be notified by March 31, 2013.


SIAS Summer Institutes
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SIAS Summer Institutes
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Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin
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14193 Berlin, Germany
Tel.: +49 30 / 89001 - 212
Fax: +49 30 / 89001 - 200

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Revised: August 2013