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What is an Image: Cultural memory and the archive

What is an Image?

"There have been times when the question“ What is an image?” was a matter of some urgency. In eighth-and ninth-century Byzantium, for instance, your answer would have immediately identified you as a partisan in the struggle between emperor and patriarch, or a conservative iconophile seeking to preserve traditional liturgical practices. The conflict over the nature and use of icons, on the surface a dispute about fine points in religious ritual and the meaning of symbols, was actually, as Jaroslav Pelikan points out, “a social movement in disguise” that “used doctrinal vocabulary to rationalize an essentially political conflict.” In mid-seventeenth-century England the connection between social movements, political causes, and the nature of imagery was, by contrast, quite undisguised. It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to say that the English Civil War was fought over the issue of images, and not just the question of statues and other material symbols in religious ritual but less tangible matters such as the “idol” of monarchy and, beyond that, the “idols of the mind” that Reformation thinkers sought to purge in themselves and others. If the stakes seem a bit lower in asking what images are today, it is not because they have lost their power over us, and certainly not because their nature is now clearly understood. It is a commonplace of modern cultural criticism that images have a power in our world undreamed of by the ancient idolaters."

Iconology, Image, text Ideology, by W.J.T. Mitchell. p. 7