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Marie José Mondzain: Image, Icon, Economy: the Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary

Lecturer: Robyn Adler

Originally Taught: Winter School 2017

Marie José Mondzain is a philosopher of the image, a Directrice de Recherche at CNRS Paris and daughter of the painter Simon Mondzain.  Her research on the iconoclastic crisis in the Byzantine and translation of the work of the patrist Nikephorus, informs this small book, the only of her works to have thus far been translated into English, which traces the origins of the contemporary imaginary to the Byzantine.  Her work is by no means limited to what she laments in regards to her reception in the US as framed by “The book”.  She has published widely on areas as diverse as cinema, visual arts, mourning, philosophical anthropology, psychoanalysis, politics and fashion.  Whilst this course will be based around this one book as the foundation of Mondzain’s concerns, I hope that we will avoid this indiscrimination of her work in the English speaking world and to stretch the logical implications of her work particularly as they apply to the political.  Invoked by figures as diverse as Agamben and Kristeva, Mondzain’s work has not received the attention it deserves in Australia.  This course will be of interest to a broad range of people-from those interested in visual culture and cultural production; to those interested in the production of culture within the economy; to those interested in theological conceptions of the trinitarian economy; to those interested in psychoanalytic questions of the image and the body; to the very fundamental questions of philosophy around mimesis-putting into question the cogito as an “I think” through an image; to those thinking political change.

The iconoclastic crisis in the Byzantine may seem far from contemporary questions regarding the image and the status of the imaginary today but Mondzain demonstrates that the seeds for the current crisis of the domination of visibility, or Debord’s ‘spectacle’, have their roots in economic articulations figured discursively during the second iconoclasm.  Far from being reduced to a communicative tool, recreational and therapeutic amusement or commodity, the image is inseparable from the symbolic and puts into question the very semblance of discourse and the very operations of the economy.  Indeed it was through philosophical discourse and a return to Greek thought that the iconophiles eventually succeeded over the iconoclasts and the artificial image commenced its reign, simultaneously subsuming the natural image through an economic conception of their living relationship.  The icon visibly manifested the invisible image of the divine economy itself rather than any specific sensible object of perception.  In particular reference to the work of the patrist, Nikephoros, Mondzain outlines the intricacies of ontological speculation about doxa, mimésis and the phenomenon that enabled the formulation “an economic conception of the natural image founds the artificial image, and an economic conception of the artificial image, in turn, founds temporal power” (IIE: 2).

What is at stake in the image is the very nature of thought and liberty-whoever manages to to master both the natural and the artificial image draws together all possible benefits between faithfulness and unfaithfulness to guarantee both power in the visible and authority in the invisible.  The crisis persists today as a crisis of authority and a crisis of recognition-now that god is dead, his visible icon is paraded everywhere, but now unhinged from any métron, just measure, and hinged only to the insatiable demands of the market to enjoy without limit, relying in turn on rendering invisible, as exceptional, the other half of the world’s population who are literally without resources. 

This course will endeavour to get through this one small book without too many detours,  however inevitable ones will be the problematising of the mimetic relation against/with Plato; connections to Lacan’s conceptions of the gaze and the image; a comparison to Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory; and Kojève on the notion of authority.

  1. Introduction: Why is this important? Who is Mondzain? Who was Nikephoros?
  2. A semantic study of the term economy:  the Trinitarian economy; the christological economy; temporal management; comparison with Agamben time permitting (what does Agamben miss by not considering the image?).
  3. The Doctrine of the Image and Icon: the natural image and consubstantiality; the iconic economy and the mimetic relation (mimésis-skhésis); the line, the void and the virgin’s body (graphè-périgraphè); the voice and homonymy (épigraphè); the body of the Emperor.  The dual nature of the image, contained in the body of Christ, is here considered not as a duality that opposes body and soul nor matter and spirit but as the union of the Word with humanity.  In the iconic doctrine, the body is no longer considered a tomb for the soul, but as the economic instruments-putting Word and flesh together in a living relation of formal (homoiôsis) and material (homoiôma) resemblance.  The enigma is produced as the perceptible manifestation of the mystery; a crypt for the gaze; the cradle of the imaginary.
  4. Sacred Precinct and Profane Space: hiéron/hagion; written and non-written traditions
  5. Summary and contemporary relevance to art, thought and politics:

Principal themes: economy; rhetoric; crisis; authority; image.

A semantic study of the term economy: before the church fathers (oikos/polis)

Iconic Space and Territorial Rule-a theocracy of the visible: coins and seals; the icon of the mother and son.  Because the invisible has a universal value, the legitimization of iconic hegemony is produced through dogmatically sanctioned means of making it visible.  The visible image of today’s economy borrows from the theological constructions of the image in its territorial reign, prevailing over all other modes of communication.  The monopoly of the production of the visible image betrays the invisible enigma of the image in the name of economic glory, sovereign power and universal territorial rule.

The paradigmatic exception-The Jew, Frontally and in Profile

Pasolini’s Teorema as site of catastrophe and redemption; the operator of the stranger as the invisible in the visible and organiser of desires.

What is to be done?  Rethinking the notion of authority and the exception in relation to the capitalist discourse and the temporality of crisis.

Reading list:

Preliminary Reading:

Debord, G. (1994). The society of the spectacle. New York : Zone Books, 1994.

Mondzain, Marie-José. 2004. Image, icon, economy : the Byzantine origins of the contemporary economy. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Articles by Mondzain available in English:

Mondzain, Marie-José. 2010. "What Does Seeing an Image Mean?." Journal Of Visual Culture 9, no. 3: 307-315.

Mondzain, Marie-Jose, and Sally Shafto. 2009. "Can images kill?." Critical Inquiry no. 1: 20-52.

Mondzain, Marie José, 2003. "Matthew Barney ou les noces menaçantes du paganisme et du sacré / Unanimous Acclaim." Art-Press no. 290: 64-66 (this is in French and English).

Selected bibliography (in French):

Discours contre les iconoclastes / Nicéphore, Klincksieck, coll. « Klincksieck esthétique », no 52, 1989, (trad. du grec, présentation et notes par Marie-José Mondzain-Baudinet)

L’image naturelle, Le Nouveau commerce, 1995

Image, icône, économie : les sources byzantines de l’imaginaire contemporain, Seuil, 1996

Van Gogh, ou La peinture comme tauromachie, Épure, 1996

Cueco dessins, Les Éditions Cercle d'art, 1998

Transparence, opacité ? : 14 artistes contemporains chinois, Les Éditions Cercle d'art, 1999

L’image peut-elle tuer ?, Bayard, 2002

Le commerce des regards, Seuil, 2003

Texte de Jean-Toussaint Desanti, avec Marie-Josée Mondzain, Myriam Revault d'Allonnes, Patrice Loraux, et al., Voir ensemble, Gallimard, coll. « Réfléchir le cinéma », 2003, ouvrage coordonné par Marie José Mondzain ; [publié par] L'Exception, Groupe de réflexion sur le cinéma

Art grandeur nature (avec Catherine de Smet, Michel Gaillot, Mario Perniola, Collectif), Éditions Pyramyd, 2004

L'arche et l'arc-en-ciel : Michel Ange, la voûte de la chapelle Sixtine, Le Passage, 2006

L’Énigme du deuil (avec Laurie Laufer), Presses universitaires de France, 2006

Homo spectator, Bayard, 2007

Qu’est-ce que tu vois ?, Gallimard, 2008

Images (à suivre) : de la poursuite au cinéma et ailleurs, Bayard, 2011

L'image peut-elle tuer ?, Bayard Culture, 2015

Confiscation : des mots, des images et du temps, Les Liens qui libèrent, 2017