Images want our sanity

What follows is a totally subjective riff only loosely inspired by a few W. J. T. Mitchell remarks, which very well could be totally misunderstood.

It is intriguing that Mitchell, the premiere current theoretician of the visual in the modern culture, the man who flirts with giving an image a voice (“What do pictures really want”?) at the same time unleashes an attack at the abstract as if wanting to lessen its cultural power.

In his lecture “Seeing madness. Insanity, media and visual culture” Mitchell presents a claim that, well ... we all may be mad. How come? He starts with Kant. Kant opens his Critique of Pure Reason with a chilling sentence: “Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.”

So we are doomed to be dumb. At least we know that the tool we got for making sense of the world is insufficient for the task. Yet the human hubris prevails and the madness thrives. The madness resulting not from chaos and disorder, but rather from having birth in actions of pure reason. Both madness and pure reason as expressions of our minds are hard edged on logic, order, causality. It is just that somewhere early on in their reasoning a fatal step of a wrong assumption takes place and then there is no escape from disastrous results.

For Prof. Michell madness seems to be a cultural tool defined to a large and perhaps decisive degree by those who decide what’s the norm and what’s madness. Therefore it can easily become an instrument of politics. That was the case with the mathematical findings of John Nash’s principle of equilibrium, which in addition of getting him a Noble Prize was also the base for the cold war philosophy with its doctrine of Mutually Assured Distraction (M.A.D.) Madness is therefore the result of reductionistic tendencies of the flowed reason coupled with our insane strive for order and clear answers.

In a world where mathematics supports insanity, where pure reason has to fail by its own definition, where images are aloof and mysterious in their desires ("What pictures want in the last instance, then, is simply to be asked what they want, with the understanding that the answer may well be, nothing at all" - as Mitchell finishes one of his early drafts of the theme), the power goes back to the discerning eyes and the minds and the souls of you and I. It is you and I and everyone who wants to make an effort of being clear, present and honest that could and should stand up against madness. It is us who are capable of restoring sanity by embracing images in their totality and learning from them not to reduce them by logic, interpretation, agendas or our petty "visions". Images are saner than us. They show us how to be more human. Let's learn from them.

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