Posted by: glue | May 24, 2009

Icon Relay

The history of religious icons is a relay for understanding the  subject-self-avatar relationship.  The universal (the god-position) is empty today.  The relational network remains:  God-Christ-Church = Subject-Avatar-Cyberspace.

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The icon in Byzantium functioned at the opposite pole of the Eucharist, to convey the absence of God from the world.  The institutional “economy” of all emblematic modes, in any case, share a structure made most explicit during the iconoclastic controversies of the Byzantine era in the defense of religious imagery authored by Nikephoros.  The special relevance for us in Marie-Jose Mondzain’s account of iconophilia is that the doctrine relied explicitly on Greek philosophy.  St. Paul made the connection between Christ as the incarnation of God on earth and the work of the Church to extend this visibility (appearance).  God appeared as revelation (epiphany), the event of the universal given in an instant of time.  The icon mode was invented to negotiate the difficult relationship between the visible and the invisible, the apophantic and the kataphantic, through which “enigma” was used to think “mystery.”

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The icon was considered to be a practice of prudence in several respects:  1) as the “guile” of God for extending globally the authority of the Church into the realms controlled by the political power of the Emperor; 2) truth should not be expounded coldly, but with the rhetorical vividness of the orators in order to seduce the flesh; 3) the teachings of the church must be adapted to the prejudices and human limitations of the audience (Mondzain, 48, 59).  Greek concepts of space were used to theorize the doctrine of incarnation, beginning with chora in Plato’s Timaeus, the receptacle wherein being and becoming could interact.  “The Virgin’s clothing is as beautiful as heaven and earth, as vast as the universe.  The space (khora) of the virginal body where Christ finds the form of his carnal periphery, the membrane that defines his terrestrial place, and the space of the consecration of the ecclesial body are all simultaneously identified with each other”  (161).  The icon, the Virgin womb, and the Church have a relational rather than a representational connection.  “The icon reiterates and perpetuates in turn the implantation of the Word within the virginal border, a uterine khora traversed by divine breath, sustained by the voice of the herald” (101).

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Nikephoros also made use of the Greek notion of kenosis (void) in this theological context.  The incarnation is kenotic, not only because it opens the place of God in the world, but that this place appears under the sign of dereliction and death.  The Son is in self-exile from God who is outside the world.  Kenosis is used to theorize this presence of an absence.

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The meaning of this cannot be understood without examination of the doctrine of kenosis, which I take to be a system of thought concerning an emptiness that makes place for the light of real, natural, and transfigured matter.  Only then does it become possible to glimpse that element that has the ability to become imaginal flesh rendered visible in iconic flesh. Kenosis has often been interpreted solely from the aspect of divine condescension as referring only to the humility, poverty, and nudity of the Messsiah.  The “form of the slave” of which Paul speaks would in this sense be nothing but terrestrial exile, far from the Father’s glory.  But in the debate over the image, the question of the incarnational emptiness takes on a whole new amplitude, because it perpetuates the emptiness of the Parousia in the very form of the iconic memorial (95).

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The kenotic nature of the icon has been secularized in our era by Lacan’s object (a), Laclau’s hegemony (the empty universal) and Heidegger’s aletheia (truth as unconcealment).  It is the structure of an opening in imaginal space-time created by the withdrawal of the Real, with some object as placeholder being promoted to the status of “thing.”  Mondzain also generalizes the lessons of the icon to all art.  “The greatest western pictorial works of art also necessarily concern an existential relation to the presence of an emptiness, although in a place where this is not always perceived. By this we mean that in their secret emptiness, they remain faithfully indifferent to representation, in order to maintain a skhesis, a pros ti, where mimetic polarities are linked together, between the spectator and their invisible center.  All great art is kenotic” (92).

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The point is useful for our extraction of an image category from the tradition of prudence.  The formal functioning of the icon, as explained by Nikephoros, was never mimetic or representational in the way feared by the iconoclasts, who rejected any limitation on the divine.  The icon is an abstraction, precisely a proportional relationship, that Nikephoros modeled on Aristotle’s categories, to think the icon as being to line and color what definitions were to words (83).  The icon was a pictorial eidos, delineating the face of the divine accessible to humans.  The icon is not itself the “image,” since the latter is a prototype or archetype, akin to a Platonic form. The icon is an attractor, but not only to seduce the human eye.  It attracts the divine gaze upon us as well (the uncanny event in which the world looks back).  “What is at issue is the specification of something in the foundation of the imaginal gaze that always necessarily  involves a problematic of  withdrawal and vacuity.  It is this that is also undoubtedly the  ‘secret’ of the image, by which I mean that which it both  secretes and hides, and which Paul gave voice to in his formulation of the specular enigma.  What is an enigma?  The providing of meaning to hidden words, a cryptic word that suddenly exposes what was until then a pure mystery” (81-2).

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The icon, in short, figures a meaning, and is another version of the oracular sign that neither shows nor hides, but intimates.  The continuing lesson is that even the images intended to support historical flash reason were designed using literate categories.

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