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Janus (2006-2010) Anno 11 Numero 25 giugno-dicembre 2010

Picturing Healing: Mitchell’s Autoimmunity

Nicola Setari

interviews to W.J.T. Mitchell

anywhere, anytime, here, now


1 EDITORIAL/éditorial



5 art dans la cité. l’art à l’hôpital
ou l’inutilité nécessaire
10 art dans la cité. art in hospitals or the necessary uselessness


19 L’ART à l’hôpital: QUELLE EST L’urgence?





40 FUSION DU VégétAl et du sidéraL









95 DANs l’humeur de l’art

98 in the mood for art
olivier galaverna

PRésence intemporelle
ANTONIO R. Damasio


106 Répresenter la guérison:
l’auto-immunité selon w.j.t. Mitchell

111 Hôpitaux et arts visuels, éléments d’une cartographie européenne




Pedro Cabrita Reis, True Gardens
Giovanni Iovane
n. 24 giugno-dicembre 2008

A question of time frame
Tobias Kokkelmans
n. 23 gennaio-giugno 2008

The Biennale Syndrome
Carolyn-Christov Bakargiev
n. 22 giugno-dicembre 2007

Fotografie erotiche di fantasmi, fate e presenze invisibili
Alessandro Bertolotti
n. 21 gennaio 2007

20100, Milano, (I)
Francesca di Nardo
n. 20 giugno-dicembre 2006

Geografie immateriali
a cura di Giovanni Iovane
n. 20 giugno-dicembre 2006

W.J.T. Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. In 1986 his book Iconology(a) offered a new methodology in the study of images and set the ground for the development of Visual Studies, of which he is the most eminent figure.
Mitchell’s original re-thinking of iconology was centered on the recognition of the theoretical dignity of images.
In his book Picture Theory(b) of 1994 he expressed this clearly by calling for a pictorial turn in the study of culture, quite at the same time as when the Swiss thinker Gottfried Boehm was reflecting on what he called the iconic turn.
Hypericons, metapictures, iconoclasm and idolatry are some of the most interesting concepts Mitchell has been working on while arguing against traditional methodologies within the disciplines of semiotics, aesthetics, art history and literary criticism(c). A discussion around his article Picturing Terror: Derrida’s Autoimmunity was the occasion to reflect upon these crucial themes as well as on those that are currently occupying his mind.
The article Picturing Terror: Derrida’s Autoimmunity was actually the result of Mitchell’s own reflection on an interview of 2003, in which the French philosopher Jacques Derrida used the autoimmune disorder to picture and deconstruct the reaction of the U.S. to international terrorism and in particular to the attack on the World Trade Centre. Mitchell realized that the medical metaphor proposed by Derrida was key in the reformulation of the metaphor of the body politic and resonated with his idea that cloning is a crucial figure of the biopolitical battlefield.
What is essential about Mitchell’s analysis of Derrida’s intuition is that from a theoretical point of view, beyond the concrete political issues, it addresses the question of what exactly Derrida’s metaphor stands for and how it functions as an image.
During our conversation we had a chance to think about the role of art in “healing” the political body, which is the broader theme of the current issue of Janus.
A new intriguing concept introduced by Mitchell in his article was the “bipolar image”, the starting point of our talk.

1) I understand the “bipolar image” as a theoretical development of the notions of hypericons, metapictures and dialectical images that you have introduced throughout your research to describe special modes of functioning of those images that help generate theory. Is this correct and if so in what way are bipolar images different?

The bipolar image might be described as a reversible metaphor: a situation where one domain is continually mapped onto another domain and then it turns out that that mapping also goes the other way. An example of a bipolar image in everyday language occurs when we speak of the computer as having a mind, a brain, and a memory. And then we reverse the valence of the comparison and talk about human memory as like a recording and storage mechanism somewhat like a computer. On the one hand we have a memory machine and on the other we have a computing mind. In architecture a bipolar image arises when we talk about a building as a body or a body as a building. A building, like a body, has an inside and outside, a front and back, a left and right; its windows are its eye; it can have a face or at least a facade; it it can have wings, a capital, a structure that is a body in some way, which is not necessarily human. You have the body of a temple and the temple of the body or the soul. Porches are the ears of the building, and the ears are the porches of the body. These are reversible metaphors or bipolar images. They are, as you suggest, connected somehow to previous terms and concepts I have explored in order to specify the peculiar characteristics of images. I define a metapicture, for instance, as a picture of a picture, while a hypericon is an image of image production, as in the Platonic Cave or the Lockean tabula rasa, or Leibniz’s windowless monads. These are not just pictures, they are philosophical pictures that perform what I call a “picturing of theory,” allowing pictures to reflect on themselves. Often these hypericons concern what we might call the womb of pictures or the facturies where pictures get made. So the hypericon is related to bipolar images. Blake has a scene in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell called the printing house in hell, which I think is a great hypericon because it is the picture of a print shop but it also becomes clear that the printshop is an image of a human mind at work processing information and arranging to produce output.

Hypericons and bipolar images have in common the capacity to reproduce other images. Yeats puts it well in Byzantium when he talks about … those images that yet/Fresh images beget.
When I was first thinking of the hypericon I was thinking of places of production like the platonic cave, not about cloning. The invention of artificial cloning suddenly takes something that was a natural process in the body, its ways of growing through asexual reproduction, cells multiplying, and turns out to be a kind of hypericon of a contemporary complex of religious, scientific, and technical debates.

2) You develop on Derrida’s argument by pointing out that one of the main consequences of the biopolitical metaphor is to involve the figure of the clone. From your article I understand that a healthy functioning immune system will create antibodies that are clones of the antigens and pathogens attacking it. These antibodies will couple up with the dangerous cells, stop them from reproducing and kill them. Allow me to be literally the devil’s advocate: why would your suggestion of infiltrators that join the terrorist groups and clone them as friends in order to then destroy them be a better version of cloning then the choice to act against the terrorist with parallel strategies bombings and killings of innocent civilians, torture and other inhuman practices?

No that’s not right and its the part that I want to clarify. The antibodies are not clones of the antigenes and the pathogenes, they are mirror cells, symmetrical images of them. The analogy that my collegue the great epidemiologist Haio Grundmann proposes is the lock and the key. The pathogen is like the lock, it comes in and its armoured, it has a bunch of weapons on it, attacking the healthy cells. So the body has to produce antibodies, agents designed to defend the body against precisely these invaders, without making the mistake of damaging the body itself, or of friendly visitors and “resident aliens” who are vital to the health of the social body. The old theory of immunity was that the body is like a platonic reservoir of antibodies that are all waiting pre-formed for the invader. So as soon as the invader comes in, the body says we have just the key for your lock. This is not how it is works, the body does not know that much. The most astonishing thing I learned from Grundmann is that in the body there are two systems that can learn: there is of course the nervous system, it apprehends, it adapts, learns new routines. But then there is also the immune system that learns in an unconscious manner, it happens without any intervention of the nervous system. What it does is that when something new comes in it says “I don’t know what to do with this”, so it keeps trying until it finds the key. It is as if it has a whole set of templates, but it does not have the key, so it has to keep adapting, just as in any other evolutionary process. When you catch a cold the body takes a couple of days to figure out the right key to unlock the cold with the right set of antibodies. This is the clonal selection hypothesis, a guy named Frank Macfarlane Burnet invented this and got a Nobel Prize for it.

The misunderstanding occurs when we try to make this into a social political model for the body politic. One of the points I make is that the defenders have to speak the same language as the attackers, they cannot be operating in a completely alien universe. The antibodies are not clones of the pathogenes, they are clones of each other. What is the right word for something that is a mirror image of something else, for something that is symmetrically opposite, a counterpart and yet similar to its counterpart? We have to find an adequate word for this. You have suggested alter ego, and one could also explore the motif of the uncanny double that is often the twin and antagonist simultaneously. Whatever the right term is here, the moral for actual thinking about the problems of democracy, security, and terrorism is going to stress the centrality of precisely focussed human intelligence, and a deep wariness about socially destructive “cures” like war, invasion, and occupaton of foreign countries.

Another aspect of the biopolitical image is the question of the native and alien, what is part of the social body and what is alien to it. The immune system is all about recognition of the alien, and forms of discrimination, so that it is able to seperate friend from enemy, and not to confuse the two. What happens with cancer is that the body does not recognize the cells as alien, that is why a lot of cancer research is working on the immune system so that it is more discriminating, and tagging the cancer cells to make them recognizable as such.

Another key thing is that the immune system has to be able to tolerate certain resident aliens. If it starts attacking every foreigner in the body it loses essential elements of that body. Our bodies are filled with things that are not “us” and that live with and within us. The right kind of attitude? To head off hysterical responses at the level of the central nervous system. Tolerance for difference as well as identification of difference. A return to the centrality of hospitality in relation to aliens and strangers, and a respect for enemies. A new grasp of the logic that makes it clear why the phrase “military intelligence” is an oxymoron.

I should say a final word about this bipolar biopicture that produces analogies between collective and individual, social and corporeal bodies. These are, of course, “merely” metaphors and analogies. I firmly believe that they have limits, but it is difficult to know what they are in advance. I would not presume to pose as an expert on biology or the immune system. What interests me is the incorrigible biopolitical imagery, which of course (as Walter Benjamin would have insisted) could as easily lead to “a processing of data in a fascist sense” as in any kind of progressive direction. For this very reason, this kind of bipolar image requires careful scrutiny, and perhaps a conversation between biologists and humanists. What if we re-defined terrorism as a public health issue, and not as an act of war?

3) In your article you point out the relationship between the central nervous system and the immune system even though their learning processes are independent and you transfer this interdependence to what occurs with the body politic.
The autoimmune disorder can be triggered by malfunctions of the central nervous system when the latter is under severe stress. This occurs in particular when the central nervous system is traumatized. Your understanding is that the collective trauma that triggered the autoimmune disorder called the War on terror was 9/11. The event was immediately transformed into a spectacle and mediatized in the interest of those who sought for an opportunity to suspend civil liberties and rights and to wage a war.
According to you the media played a negative role in this affair and it is interesting that you resort both to Derrida and to McLuhan to explain this dynamic.
In Understanding Media the Canadian thinker stressed the role that artists had to play in short-circuiting the negative effects of media upon us. Art more in general can be considered a detraumatizing activity.
What is your understanding of the role art can play and has been playing in relation to 9/11 and the war on terror and more in general as a form of therapy for the body politic? Is there a border between activism and art?

A lot of contemporary art, and art in general, has been about a kind of resolution or mediation of trauma, to overcome melancholy, depression, to bury the dead, to memorialize them. So the role of art in relation to 9/11 and the war on terror, when it has worked well, has been to hold up a mirror to what the nervous system is doing to itself. McLuhan’s idea was that the media are extensions of our brain. What art can do according to McLuhan is first to play with and on the nervous system, artists are always at the vanguard experimenting with the systems that new media generate and seeing what the possibilities are. There is also then the content, the things that are mediated and represented in that system, which include of course trauma, the shocks. What is to be done with those? One thing is to produce acceptable images that allow the nervous system to calm down, to restore its sense of balance and rationality, and that is the Englightment side of it, and to reconcile itself, to work through the mourning, the trauma in Freud’s sense. One of the things the media did throughout the war on terror was to falsify, basically to hyperinflate threats and dangers and at the same time there was a great effort to minimize and cover up the terrible things we were doing to ourselves and supposed enemies but actually often friends or innocent people. So to restore our sense of reality, the nervous system, with the help of art, is supposed to find its context, as our interface with the real world. The rise of documentary film as a major commercial genre in the period of post 9/11 is one symptom of this new seriousness and straightforward commitment was espressed in this newly vital genre of realism. I would focus this on Michael Moore’s great speech to the academy awards the year that Fahrenheit 9/11 won, he said “we have a fictional president and a fictional war, it’s time for some non-fiction, some truth and realism, we have had enough of romance and fantasy”. I think the challenge for art is not always the same from period to period. This was the time in which an art of the real had to emerge and it did.

But if I think of the visual art field then I am concerned when artists adress political and social topics too directly, without any artistic mediation, the end result seems to me to be much less efficacious then when an artist deals with for example the war in Iraq in indirect manners, sideways, as opposed to simply pushing “truth” into the face of a supposed “ignorant” viewer.

The works of art that I have been most interested in are the ones that take the form of diagnoses of a pervasive condition and recurrent motif that showed up during the war on terror—let’s call it “the face of anonymity.” The figure of the faceless human, masked or hooded, the figure of the acephalic or the headless—the Clone. There is a pair of figures that create a similar situation to the one between antibodies and pathogenes: the hood with and without eye holes. This one little tiny detail makes all the difference in the world. It could be like the symmetry between key and lock. So I looked for artists that intuited this motif, that found the keys to unlock the syndrome of being locked into a war on terror, which is an impossible master image. The idea of the war on terror is the fundemental pathogen here--the name of the disease that the body politic was locked into. Hans Haacke’s great image, Star Gazing, is the master image, a meta-portrait of American citizenry in October 2004. The guy under the hood cannot see in the mirror, but we can see him. It’s a great image of what the nervous system has been doing to itself. Terrorizing itself, torturing itself, and enveloping or veiling itself in misguided patriotic ideology. Veiling itself quite literally with the flag. There is so much packed into this very simple image.

I should also mention Forkscrew Graphics and their iPod/iRaq project. They made silkscreens of the hooded man and inserted it into ipod billboards. The visual rhyme (and contrast) between the immediately legible silhouetted figures, black against colored backgrounds, the one gyrating with pleasure and freedom, the other standing like an ominous ecce homo, and both of them “wired”—the one for sound, the other for electric shock. A bit of subliminal and straightforwardly subversive inventiveness. If there has ever been a smart form of culture jamming this is it.

The Belgian artist Thierry de Cordier made an incredible series of sculptures entitled Crucifix Ornitorincus, which actually anticipated the image of the hooded man of Abu Ghraib as it came out in the nineties.

The reason why the image of the hooded man emerged above all other images of Abu Ghraib and was the main material for artistic work was that it was resonating with the entire history of the Christian crucifix, of the passion. It is quite ironic that the images came out at the same time as the Passion of the Christ of Mel Gibson.

4) Your supplement and analysis of Derrida’s introduction of the autoimmune disorder as a biopolitical metaphor made me think of another classical metaphor that Aristotle proposes in his treatises on Politics and on Poetics: the phenomenon of catharsis. Notably the Greek philosopher took this medical term that meant the purging of the body of its fluids in excess to describe the interior experience of purging the soul of its excess passions of pity and fear. The issue of catharsis is a very complex one and recent studies have shown that the goal of Greek tragedy, the highest form of poetics for Aristotle, is actually not to produce a catharsis in the viewer, but instead to bring the catharsis that the viewer will have experienced in different circumstances to a rational understanding through a narration of universal truths.
Catharsis is actually dealt with much more in the treatise on Politics in relation to the positive effect that certain musical modes that imitate the passions of the soul can have in stimulating them to a point of catharsis.
The collective trauma produced by 9/11 can be described as an excessive stimulation of the passions of pity for the victims and fear that the same could be brought upon us. The overwhelming mediatization of the event can be said to have stimulated a catharsis of those passions, but never generated a discourse that could offer a rational understanding of it.
Paradoxically maybe 9/11 was never transfigured into a tragedy in the sense that Aristotle intended this poetic form, and is still seeking for its adequate representation, just as the building to replace the Twin towers has still to be built. What are your thoughts about this comparison?
I would like to dare a risky one between the figure of the clone and the one of the meme or between cloning and imitating. It seems to me that you are updating a classical aesthetic category, is my claim far-fetched?

Catharsis is very much to the point because it crosses the border between aesthetics, the theory of emotions, the nervous system and the biomedical body on the other hand. Catharsis is also about getting rid of bad humors. I take your point to the connection to politics. The reason why catharsis and the Greek theatre are necessary is to prepare people to go vote, the next stop after the theatre is the agora. In fact you could not vote unless you had shown that you had gone to the theater.

In Aristotle it is about how to create the proper citizen.

Yes, to create the rational citizen who has been freed of excessive pity and fear, someone who continues to feel pity and fear, but is not overwhelmed by them.
The being trapped in those emotions for me corresponds to this image of Ground Zero, in which the artist overimpose to the fumes and dust that are being released by the site, which contain the DNA of the people who tragically died, an actual image of DNA sequences. The fumes are toxic and the volunteers who worked on ground zero were getting the most terrible lung diseases. This is the most literal rendering of what I would call the biopolitical failure to mourn. Breething in the dust of the death rather than letting them lay. This is just a found image.
Cloning is the contemporary biotechnical version of mimesis. I follow Taussig’s modification of the theory of mimesis presented in his book Mimesis and Alterity: mimesis is our adaptive mechanism for using the same to produce the different. You imitate something in order to change yourself.

5) What is your understanding of the role that art can play in detraumatizing individual bodies, for example does it make sense to you to bring contemporary art into hospitals or clinics?

My intuition is to go to an analogy between the hospital and the museum and to say what do they have in common? White walls, sterilization, the production of a sanatorium, of a sanitized space for certain kinds of bodies. In one case the bodies of art works and in the other the bodies of actual human beings. So if the analogy makes sense then it is the patients themselves that are the art works. I am not sure how that resonates with the actual case of bringing artists into hospitals.
It might mean that they have to become part of the artwork the artist decides to make, just as happenings and other forms of interactive art inglobe the viewer. The hospital actually is the place where art works are taken care of most badly. Maybe it’s the sanitorium more than the hospital that we are actually talking about. And aesthetics and anaesthetics. The idea that aestheticization is anaesthecizing the works. You hang them on a white wall in a controlled space, the works are in a state of suspended animation. The museum as a cemetery of the art works.

6) At the beginning of your article you give tribute to the role that Jacques Derrida and Edward Said played in the development of your own theories. Could you explain their importance more extensively and in particular the relationship between deconstruction, iconology and visual studies?

Iconology is clearly indebted to Derrida’s Grammatology.
It just happens to be the case that I was friends with both them, I was more in sympathy with Said’s way of writing, I wanted to write as much as possible classic English prose, I did not want to write as if I was translating French theory. But Derrida’s was also a huge influence in understanding deconstruction as the name of something that is happening. For me it has always been a key observation that deconstruction as an event and not a method. Something that happens in the world, in a work of art, in reading. The moment of the turning or the crisis in the stability of symbolic structure. I wrote an essay called secular divinitation of Edward Said that seeks to find a point of conversion between these very antithtetical authors. I suppose what I want to do is find a mediation between their basic intuitions. On the one hand Derrida’s ability to read with exquisite closeness, listen to the language and push an idea as far as it will go. And on the other hand the attempt of Said to make criticism something worldly, engaged and in touch with its own time.

7) My final questions are about the role of religious concepts in your research. I was intrigued by your footnote about how the “Body of Christ” is a foundational bipolar image because it is both the collective body of believers and the Eucharistic body consumed in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
I also found it very interesting that the last issue of Critical Inquiry was dedicated to the figure of the Saint. Moreover in your work concepts such as relic, icon, idol and above all iconoclasm play an important role. This is probably a structural necessity when dealing with images, but you seem to intentionally stress this bond. I have been working for my dissertation on the exhibition Iconoclash curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel in Karlsruhe. An important effort of that show was to go beyond the image wars in art, science and religion and in particular to place religion on the same level of the others when it came to image making.

Religion is crucial. I don’t think you can talk very long about images without going to religion. I am especially interested, of course, in metapictures of idolatry—scenes in which idolatry and idolatrous practices are staged. The prohibition of images is the central issue, and it is of course a central feature of the three great “religions of the book,” Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. My thoughts on this recently have been turning to Nietzsche, Blake, and Poussin’s scenes of idolatry, The Golden Calf and The Plague of Ashdod.
The latter is a picture of disaster and terror. Mass catastrophe. A scene of panic, people realizing that they have all fallen ill, and linking this with the destruction of their idol by the Ark of the Covenant.

Nancy in his book The Ground of the Image wrote that images are always sacred, and I agree. all images have an uncanny nature, its part of their onthology, being present and absent, visible and invisible, they are ghostly presences and they are capable of becoming sacralized.
This counts also for the most vernacular image. A photo of your mother, for instance. I don’t care how enlightened you are, you just will not tear it apart.

So I am really concerned with thinking of the variety of religious experiences with respect to images, and not to evade this phenomenon by saying
that we are modern now and beyond all that.
Both David Freedberg and Hans Belting have broached this point with their work on images “before the age of art.” I want to look at images in the era of art and beyond the era of art with an attention towards their power and weakness, their lives. My understanding is that these religious feelings and ways of thinking images continue today to survive in other ways.

Would you say they are anthropological univerals?
Yes, we are just as primitive as primitives when we relate to images.
Levi Strauss understood this: the savage mind interests us because it is our mind too.

(a)W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology. Image, Text, ideology,The University of Chicago Press, 1986.
(b)W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory, University of Chicago Press, 1994.
(c)For further analysis see the appendix to this interview.