Monday, March 10, 2008

Icons and Absolutes

One irony of the postmodern fascination with icons is that the couch and candle crowd would likely be horrified at the theological firmness - the metaphysical guts - necessary to back them up. Rather than providing a break from the rigor of language and doctrine, icons are equally as binding. The Second Council of Nicea (787) insisted that the icon's purpose was,
in accordance with the narrative of the proclamation of the gospel, to ascertain the incarnation of God the Word, which was real, not imaginary.
Icons stand by the gospels as witnesses to objective, actual persons and events. The icon, properly understood, is no friend of ambiguity. Icons then are a trojan horse in the New Age giftshop. Be sure not to tell, but the icons for sale to disgruntled Evangelicals on that book table at the From Fundamentalism to Foucault conference, are smuggled absolutes.

A further irony of postmodern fascination with icons is that few things could be less conducive to the "visual turn" than classic postmodern thought. Consider Martin Jay's magisterial study, Downcast Eyes, a sweeping summary of which can be found in this whopper of a paragraph:
Virtually all the twentieth-century French intellectuals encountered on this voyage were extraordinarily sensitive to the importance of the visual and no less suspicious of its implications. Although definitions of visuality vary from thinker to thinker, it is clear that ocularcentrism aroused (and continues in many quarters to arouse) a widely shared distrust. Bergson's critique of the spatialization of time, Bataille's celebration of the blinding sun and the acephalic body, Breton's ultimate disenchantment with the savage eye, Sartre's depiction of the sadomasochism of the "look," Merleau-Ponty's diminished faith in a new ontology of vision, Lacan's disparagement of the ego produced by mirror stae, Althusser's appropriation of Lacan for a Marxist theory of ideology, Foucault's strictures against the medical gaze and panoptic surveillance, Debord's critique of the society of the spectacle, Barthes's linkage of photography and death, Metz's excoriation of the scopic regime of the cinema, Derrida's double reading of the specular tradition of philosophy and the white mythology, Irigaray's outrage at the privileging of the visual in patriarchy, Levinas's claim that ethics is thwarted by a visually based ontology, and Lyotard's identification of postmodernism with the sublime foreclosure of the visual - all these evince, to put it mildly, a palpable loss of confidence in the hitherto "noblest of the senses."
I think that might be about all of 'em. Small wonder that those who forget how to speak, soon forget how to see as well. If Martin Jay is right, Christians unduly adulating postmodernity might consider doing away with paintbrushes altogether, and pick up the Iconoclast's hatchet instead.

Daniel J. Sahas, Icon and Logos: Sources in Eighth Century Iconoclasm (p. 178).
Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (p. 588).