Difficult images

Visual Emancipation In Low Resolution Video

- four chapters -

Www.culturalfarming.com                                                                                                                                                                                 http://Www.culturalfarming.comhttp://www.culturalfarming.com/shapeimage_1_link_0

Forward       Introduction       Explication

       My project, begun in 2004, is called Cultural Farming.  I am dedicating myself to becoming a visual farmer – “subsistence living in a mediated world”, as I like to call it.  In early 2005, I added a video blog called Media Nipple, where every day, for 30 months, I uploaded broadcast video clips ripped directly from my home TV for deconstruction, theorizing, and lampooning.  Along the way, I began to make compilations of my strongest videos and soon realized I could actually tell my own stories using my archived TV clips alone.  It was a revelation.  Throughout my entire life I had watched TV… now, finally, I could talk back to it using its own language and technique. 

        To date, Media Nipple contains approximately 500 daily posts with 2,500+ individual video clips.  All are free for visitors to read, rip or re-mash.  Over two years now, I’ve had well over 600,000 page views from visitors from every corner of the globe.  In a very real sense, Media Nipple is accomplishing that noble academic triad:  Research, Teaching, and Informing the Public.  How does this compare to publishing a typical academic tome?

        Meanwhile, as my corpus of remediated videos grew, I found myself getting bolder, and my pieces growing longer.  Then, in February of 2006 I completed my first long-form 60-minute montage remix to experiment with visual essay construction.  I named the new piece Difficult Images.  It is a multi-modal, inter-textual, inter-weaving of image-word-theory… it has been screened numerous times including the International Visual Sociology Association conference at NYU, 2006.   Difficult Images is only a beginning attempt at writing my research the way I see fit. 

        You will recognize much of the content in these four videos (above) from previously made work located elsewhere throughout Cultural Farming.  With Difficult Images, you can examine, first-hand, my methods of mix and re-mix and how I intend these stories to tell still newer stories. 


First screened, in part, as “FOLK VIDEO: Vlogging and Journalism”

at VloggerCon:  San Francisco  2006


                                 ...and below is an accompanying text...


Forward        Introduction       Explication

Performing Critical Ambiguation --

Difficult Images:  A (contrived) Interview with Four Foundational Texts.

12 April 2007

        The video-paper, below, is unconventionally written.  This should not be seen as reluctance to write formally, or as some rebellion against typical scholarly presentation.  Rather, I intend my paper to be a celebration of the necessary explorations of presentational possibilities within communication studies.


        Here, I “write” about my video presentation, Difficult Images, in an atypical manner reminiscent to the very construction of the video itself.  Doing this, I hope to engage both reader and viewer by blending critical theory with more accessible multimodal methodologies, in a manner of faux auto-ethnography.  I have never attempted a paper, or a 60min. video, like this before; which, in itself, I suppose, is yet another worthy reason for trying both.  Our work must continually go beyond mere philosophy, critical writing and research, it must act; and it must also move others to act.  I care less about inspiring the choir than the congregation.

        Since TV’s inception the public watched, prohibited from direct and active

participation in its creation.  Today, however, we all have a unique opportunity to

create, produce, and globally distribute personal media.  Every citizen with

access to simple digital tools can, in effect, become global broadcasters.  By my

reckoning, this ‘new’ socio-critical potential is still TV -- and TV is this.  All converging into “screen” communication.  But abilities to both broadly and narrowly communicate trans-nationally and cross-culturally come with certain realities, liabilities, and responsibilities.  Moreover, this unique broadcasting opportunity may not last forever (i.e., prohibitive a la cart subscription fees, anti net-neutrality legislation, increased copyright restriction, etc.). 

        Therefore, while we can, it is our privilege, and duty, to enlist these same opportunities to critically examine the historicity of typical news and information (of our world, its people, and their personal stories); and how it is currently being industrially manufactured and presented without direct citizen participation; and how citizens might de(re)construct these modes and techniques in order to decipher our  mediated environment and gain fluency of media practice through participatory production.  This shifts my primary interests away from audience reception concerns and toward issues of individualized media production – particularly how citizens may conceive their personal expression within, and against, the boundaries of big-media controlled communication.

        For those who dismiss or marginalize the growing importance and potential of personal media, we need look no further than YouTube, and its recent $1.65B acquisition by Google.  Conversely, however, what we are creating and seeing to date in these new personal media are less unique forms of expressive understanding and more examples of remediation, point-and-shoot reality, celebrity awareness, mimicry and novelty performance.  Is this simply the result of its newness?  Or, will citizens make their “small” media in the image of big- media?  Will we use these new opportunities and tools for more open discourses that accumulate and combine for democratic hegemonic rebalancing? 

        Coupling these expanding potentialities to my extensive background in visual communication, I am profoundly encouraged to not only produce my own personal stories and my communication research using multi-media modalities, but to also deeply consider how these expressive practices intersect a wide-ranging corpus of classicical scopic scholarship in numerous academic areas: from technological proficiency, to visual literacy, to democratic participation, to hegemonic ideology.  Can theory, democracy and emancipation stand outside communication praxis?

        However, the specific foci I explore within this video-paper will be much narrower.  It will incorporate the primary texts of two communication scholars:

Donald Theall and WJT Mitchell.  Here, I will attempt to converse with these

scholars’ texts in a contrived forum of reverse auto ethnographic surrealism. 

         Faux Premise:  To pretend these two scholars created Difficult Images.

Maybe I can do this, maybe I can’t.  But my purpose for ‘role-switching’ is to re-contextualize their words within specific paradigmatic frameworks of Difficult Images in order to further clarify, enrich, personalize, and ground my video presentation within their critical approach.  It was a difficult task, but also a unique, reasoned, engaging, and enlightening exercise.

         Premise: To position my work (Difficult Images) squarely within other

                           authors’ words.

        Hence, the structure of my paper is fabricated as an interview, or say, coffee klatch, with both Donald Theall and WJT Mitchell.  (I have never met either gentleman, not has either ever replied to my introductory emails.)  Within this wholly fraudulent preposition, both authors will be (re)presented as the creators of my video Difficult Images.  Here I will engage them in "faux" conversation, questioning the thesis, methodology, and technique of my video.  Yes…I can already hear you asking, “Why this?”  Well, first, my graduate studies to date have been necessarily wide-ranging, with readings covering numerous faculties.  But Theall’s book to me stood out above many.  In fact, I felt as if every page spoke directly to me - on my behalf.  I’ve never experienced this kind of out-of-body parallel expression before.  The importance of this should not go unnoticed; for this broaches my second reason.  Most everything I want to say, in this paper, at this time, about his video can be found between the covers of Theall’s Beyond the Word (and almost as equally, within Mitchell’s works).  Could Difficult Images be discussed any better by padding or diluting Theall’s material with other sources or clumsily disguising student pretense by paraphrasing Theall’s concise and revelatory elucidations?  I figure I should simply (re)celebrate their singular achievement.

        Third, this paper is merely, but importantly, a necessary personal reflection upon my own video work.  The heart of my work, to date, can be seen embodied in Difficult Images.  And so, this paper is a kind of clarification, a reflexive apology.  And so, proffered in this light, what incentive remains for writing in typical academic fashion?  Why approach this paper, Theall’s book, or even my video, in the obligatory academic manner, that is: Title-Introduction-Argument-Conclusion-References proffered in APA Chicago Style.  And so, after numerous fits and starts with this paper, I realized I should simply do to Theall and Mitchell what I do to broadcast TV - mash them together for alternative clarification.  Thus, I will use these texts, literally an assemblage of their words, to write my story of Difficult Images; letting their words performatively embody my intentional images.

        This may seem devilishly deviant, profane, maybe heretical, for a graduate student paper.  If so, excellent; for this is the response, I speculate, the authors I ‘interview’ would welcome.  All of communication and culture is changing and so will be my writing.  In response, I intend to research within communication and culture, not around it or after it - because we must, or else something important is lost.  To wit, even Theall, respectfully, chose to write a book of words, with no illustrations, to discuss “beyond the word.”  How much better might I ‘know’ Theall’s visual theorizing if he were also to write proficiently with images?  (Methodo)Logically then, I chose to pirate exact words from these two authors’ books to speak about my video; re-using (appropriating and remixing) their words to frame the kind of rational strategy of democratic visuality I purposefully juxtapose here.




(18)     Theall, D. F. (1995). Beyond the Word: Reconstructing Sense in the

Joyce Era of Technology, Culture, and Communications. Toronto:

University of Toronto Press.

(ic)     Mitchell, W. J. T. (1986). Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago:

University of Chicago Press.

(pt)     Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). Picture Theory : Essays on Verbal and Visual

Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

(wpw)  Mitchell, W. J. T. (2005). What Do Pictures Want:  The Lives and Loves

of Images. Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press.

Forward        Introduction       Explication

Holland Wilde:  Good morning, Dr. Theall and Dr. Mitchell.  Welcome to Calgary, and thanks for this opportunity to discuss your newest project..

Donald Theall:  Thanks for having me.  It’s warmer here than it is in Toronto.

W.J.T. Mitchell:  I’m not even going to mention Chicago’s weather…. ha!  But it

was great flying up from Denver along the Rockies this morning.  I had a left-side

window seat with the mountains glowing in the morning sun.

Wilde: Gentlemen, your newly completed 60 minute video entitled Difficult

Images has met widely mixed reviews.  Can you explain your motivation for

taking this rather novel presentational approach to your visual scholarship… or

should I say to your video synaesthesia?

Mitchell:   Don’s the one who uses big words – I don’t.  I was only invited along

on this project because I always buy the beer.  (All laugh.)  I like to call our

little video project 'Showing-Seeing.’  If we indeed are living in a time of the

plague of fantasies, perhaps the best cure that artists can offer is to unleash the

images, in order to see where they lead us, how they go before us.  A certain

tactical irresponsibility with images, what I will call ‘critical idolism’ or ‘secular

divination,’ might be just the right sort of homeopathic medicine for what plagues

us.  Walter Benjamin concluded his mediation on mechanical reproduction with

the specter of mass destruction.   The dangerous aesthetic pleasure of our time

is not mass destruction but mass creation of new, ever more vital and virulent

images and life-forms (wpw335).  I accepted this new role as videographer – and

I dislike that name too – as simply an opportunity to make seeing show itself, to

put it on display, and make it accessible to analysis (wpw337).

Theall: Frankly, too few have even seen our video yet, so it’s tough to gauge any

response (chuckle).  George Herbert Mead, about a century ago, speculated on

the development of language from gesture in his theory of communication as

symbolic interaction.  He understood that artists and poets were increasingly

exploring the interactive potentialities of communicative action arising from the

body itself.   At the same time as these theories about gesture as the root

communication and of poetic motive developed, the doctrine of synaesthesia also

assumed a new importance.  Synaesthesia  was first recognized as a

poetic device about the same time as the abstract discussions of gesture in

traditional rhetoric occurred.  Increasingly, these provided filmmakers, dramatists,

and synthesizers of new genres – such as the Dadaists – with a further basis for

an integrated poetic practice, whether in light, sound, movement, speech, writing,

celluloid, pigment, assembled objects… or any combination of thereof.  These

arts bequeathed to modernism, and its aftermath, a capacity for dealing with the

new world of cultural production – that is, mass-produced objects, entertainment,

and information.  From these perspectives, the arena of everyday life again

began to shape the mind of the poet and artist (18-19).

Mitchell:  See what I mean?  Don talks a lot.  (All laugh)

Theall:  Now, I should also say, poetic works are bridges between gaps of

understanding; they provide models of communicating in a self-questioning

manner.  The experimental nature of these poetic works involves playing with the

surface of sense, with the multiplicity of meaning and polysemy of language and

machine, and exploiting the thrust towards a transversality of textuality (xvi).  But

they also require developing and refining a concept of the poetic construct as a

poetic machine (xv).

Wilde:  I’m not quite getting this ‘poetic machine’ thing.  Are you referring to

Lessing’s Laocoon?  Are you distinguishing between spatial proximity and

temporal sequencing?

Theall:  We’re hopefully combining both!  By poetic machine I simply mean

designed assemblages of expressive and communicative semiotic elements

(xv)… and what better vehicle than digital video like Difficult Images to attempt

this sort of assemblage?

Mitchell:  You know, I would take an even broader viewpoint of this video.  After

all, what can ‘fit’ inside the domain of visual studies?  Not just art history and

aesthetics but scientific and technical imaging, film, television, and digital media,

as well as philosophical inquiries into the epistemology of vision, semiotic studies

of images and visual sign, physiological investigation of the scopic ‘drive,’

phenomenological, physiological, and cognitive studies of the visual process,

physical optics and animal vision… see where I’m going here?  If the object of

‘visual studies’ is what art critic Hal Foster calls ‘visuality,’ it is a capricious topic

indeed, one that may be impossible to delimit in a systematic way (wpw 339)…

so why not try to express our research in the simplest, most expressive

multimodal manner – digital video.

Theall:  Maybe we should just say Difficult Images is another, humble,

synaesthesia that attempts to explore these traces of complex dialogue that

occurs between poets, artists, and other cultural producers, and technology that

is simultaneously directed towards developing a critical, yet reconstructive,

theory of techno-culture (xiv).

Mitchell:  Exactly.  And to do this, Difficult Images must attempt to overcome the

veil of familiarity and self-evidence that surrounds the experience of seeing, and

to turn it into a problem for analysis, a mystery to be unraveled (wpw 337).

Wilde:  Jean-Paul Satre wrote, “It is one thing… to apprehend directly an image

as image, and another thing to shape ideas regarding the nature of images in

general” (Imagination 1962).   Why did you choose “video mash-up” as your

medium for poetry?  Was it simply to experiment with Stuart Hall’s‘ notion of oppositional reading’?

Theall:  Again, remember, when considering Difficult Images, I use the term

poetry to speak about designed assemblages of expressive elements.  The term

poetic entails the theoretical exploration of this act of assembly itself.  All poetic

assembly naturally involves breaks and disjunctions – exactly like mash-ups (8).

There is a dialectic present in the very nature of this expressive, communicative

activity, which encourages the presentation of a theoretical orientation.  Difficult

Images challenges some of the current academic opinion to the contrary by

asserting that the poet or artist, in his or her practice, can simultaneously be a

theorist.  It explores the process by which cultural productions can also be major

theoretical statements through the intensity and complexity of their implications


Mitchell:  The power of montage, or mash-ups as you call them, is to make

visible the importance of separating the theory from the practice, to give theory a

body and visible shape that it often wants to deny, to reveal theory as

representation.  These techniques are not just about the new significance of

visual culture; they also have implications for the fate of reading, literature, and

literacy.  For instance, literary studies cannot simply ‘add on’ the study of film,

television, and mass culture to its list of sources without changing the whole

discipline.  The very idea of Difficult Images hopefully exposes the sea-change of

relationships between texts and readers (pt 418).  In short, all arts are

‘composite” arts – both text and image, and all media are mixed media,

combining different codes, discursive conventions, channels, sensory and

cognitive modes (pt95).

Wilde:  Excellent.  Also, your mash-up techniques look and feel a lot like hip-hop.

Are you the first to attempt this sort of presentational style?

Mitchell: Certainly not, sampling has always been part of the arts.  Your hip-hop

parallel can however be seen in another important way.  Hip-hop began as an

outcast, antagonistic to more established music genres.  Likewise, one could

posit I suppose, ‘media studies’ is one of the youngest emergent disciplines in

the study of culture and society; it exists in a parasitical relationship to

departments of rhetoric and communication and to film studies, cultural studies,

literature, and the visual arts.  It is often approached as supplemental, or merely

an instrumental technology in the master domain of communicating messages

(wpw205).  All the arts may aspire to the condition of music, but, as Don would

agree, when they set out to argue, poetry and painting hold the stage.  One

reason for this is that they both lay claim to the same territory – reference,

representation, denotation, meaning – that music has tended to renounce.

Personal media, as with music, is somewhat of an outsider in the communication

studies conversation (ic47).  In that way at least, Difficult Images and hip-hop do

jibe nicely.

Theall: I don’t know much about hip-hop, Bill’s younger (both chukle), but I can

say the interest amongst high modernist artists in engineering, that is Duchamp,

Valery, Eisenstein, jazz musicians; and in art and communication, as social

machines, like Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Malcolm Lowrey, can all be seen,

on some level, as practioners of mashing.  This technique is a central importance

to understanding this poetic dialogue.  For instance, James Joyce’s Finnegans

Wake must become one of the more essential documents for communications

studies, along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, Wittgenstein’s philosophy and

Kenneth Burke’s writings on rhetoric and symbolic action.  This helps set a

clearer picture.  Difficult Images began as an examination of the relationships

between the poetic, the deconstructive and reconstructive activity of semiotic

creation, peoples’ erotic and sensory bodies, democratic mass media

communication, and the new techno-culture of time and space (xiv-xv).

Mitchell: Exactly.  Thinking does not, as Wittgenstein puts it, reside in some

‘queer medium’ inside the head.  We think out loud, at the keyboard, with tools,

and images and sounds.  The process is thoroughly reciprocal, particularly in

video mash-ups.  It’s not unlike what we find with ‘call and response’ expressions

in hip-hop street culture music. (xxxx)

Wilde:  Obviously, you spent many hours collecting individual video clips, but

isn’t the entire premise of Difficult Images based on spoofing the power, purpose,

and veracity of visual communication within fast-paced TV?  I mean, certainly, a

lot of your recent work references Susan Sontag and Paul Virilio.

Mitchell: True, and here again, our readings, even of ancient texts and images,

cannot help but be inflected by our experiences with television and cinema.  The

claim that all media are mixed media, all arts composite arts, may actually sound

like common sense to a generation raised on MTV (pt107).  But the approach in

Difficult Images was also to survey some of what Wittgenstein would call

‘language games’ that we play with the notions of images, and to suggest some

questions about the historical forms of life that sustain those games. Difficult

Images is not a template to reduce these things into the same form, but a lever to

pry them open – a site of dialectical, tension, slippage, and transformation – it is

not about fast pacing, but rather a meta-picture of our media.  (pt106-107).

Theall:  I understand your question, but I see fast-paced TV the other way

around.  Everywhere we look we see dramatic changes in conceptions of time,

space, speed, and distance; this has always impacted how artists thought about

communications and how professional communicators practiced their craft.  One

result is this emergence of a new interest in the intermixing of modes and means

of communication, like the exploding realm of artistic citizen media, which arose

naturally from such hybrid media as silent film, then black-and-white sound film,

and later technicolour (5).  You see, artists and writers became engrossed in the

problems of communication, massification, technological reproduction, and

distribution thirty or forty years before social scientists and journalists began

speaking of their contemporary world as the Communication Era.  So, as new

groups of professional communicators emerged into prominence – for example,

advertisers, broadcasters, PR consultants, photojournalists – their activities

necessarily aped those of the modern or popular artist (7).  Hopefully, poetry of

artistic interactivity, like Difficult Images and others, will encourage entirely new

art forms that will further contribute to producing new semiologies (grammars and

rhetorics) by which people will communicate (21).

Wilde:  So then, I get that Difficult Images is a kind of strategic form of ‘suspicion’

for all of visual media, but would you describe this piece more like the art of

theoretical work, or the theoretical work of communication art?

Mitchell: Neither, actually.  The aim was not to produce a ‘media picture’ theory,

but to simply picture theory as a practical activity in the formation of

representation  (pt6).

Theall:  True.  But, this hits upon the very “gap” that personally interests me

most.   For instance, James Joyce created a comic-satiric machine for exploring

distorted communication.  His play with the multiplicities of sense in language –

with communication – deliberately exploits gaps to force the exploration of what

creating paths across those gaps will reveal about our culture and future (27).

And, another kind of gap emerges when aesthetics, the privileged realm of high

art and culture, is confronted by radical interaction of popular culture.  We see

this happening again today with mass media (28-29).

Mitchell: Yeah. Visual culture starts out in an area beneath the notice of

disciplines.  I would call this ‘vernacular visuality’ or “everyday seeing’ – as seen

on TV (wpw356).

Theall:  And these kinds of vernacular gaps in everyday seeing are appearing at

the very time when authority of writing is being challenged and the necessity for

re-examination and redefining the nature of communication and expression has

become critical.  Let’s take a wider perspective of synaesthesia.  The participant

in the Greek forum understood that the speaker supplemented language with the

use of gesture, demonstration, visual illustration, and modification of sound,

rhythm, and movement.  The arts of rhetoric - which together with the arts of

grammar and logic - essentially compose the traditional arts of language (28-29).

Only recently, with the beginnings of photography and telegraphy, a new re-

embodying of the communicating person commenced as people thinking about

the arts began to speak about an integrated and interrelated system of

communication which people used in expressing their feelings, desires, and

visions.  This synaesthetic refocus of sense, or ecology of sense, always

emphasizes gaps (30).  And implicit in such ecology is the idea of difference – a

difference that makes a difference (32)…

Mitchell: …which springs out of a specific domain of research, one whose

fundamental principles and problems are being articulated freshly in our time


Wilde:  For instance, like Ricoeur’s notion of ‘alienating distanciation’?

Theall:  Sure.  What we’ve artlessly attempted with Difficult Images is the

essence of Ezra Pound’s aphorism “make it new” (32).

Mitchell:  And new is not just the social construction of vision, but the visual

construction of the social.  This is never quite engaged by traditional disciplines

of aesthetics or literary criticism, or even by the new disciplines of media studies

(wpw356).  Practice makes perfect!   (chuckle.)

Wilde:  So now we’re talking about Dewey’s pragmatics?

Theall:  Confusing, isn’t it?  I want - we both want - citizens to wake up their

senses because media is not – it must not be - a passive experience.  Joyce,

particularly in his dream work, the Wake, often plays with the word sense in the

very spirit of its duplexity or multiplicity in passages.  It activates participation

because the pun and portmanteau and their relation to metaphor  - like montage

in film, collage in the visual arts, verbal juxtaposition, the layout of a newspaper,

etc. – compose an action or event inviting a general type of interpretive activity

by which people make sense of their world, their society, and themselves.  In this

process, the immediacy of the living body’s experience is joined to the

abstractions of remembered intelligence (34).

Wilde:  Abstractions of remembered intelligence?  Is this part of the

misunderstanding of Difficult Images I’ve heard about?  I mean, I can read your

movie multiple ways.  For instance, on a micro-level anyway, the quick-paced

editing creates a playful pastiche that becomes almost a strategy for discourse or

conversation analysis.  But I can also read it as a free-for-all tirade against

crappy TV.

Theall:  Indeed, many of the techniques, or strategies, in Difficult Images are too

frequently condemned, or at least misconstrued, as being artificial and

mechanical.  However, these play with surface effects to suggest profundity; they

achieve an art of rising to the heights by skimming above the surfaces.  The

close association of the exercise of making sense, which involves the surfaces of

bodies, of texts, and of situations, with the capability of releasing the play of

senses and intellect has long been recognized as critical to communication,

understanding, and the transfer of knowledge (35).

Mitchell:  Parenthetically, the heady days when we were first discovering the

‘male gaze,’ and of the feminine character of the image are now well behind us,

and most scholars of visual culture are aware of this.  Nevertheless, there is an

unfortunate tendency to slide back into reductive treatments of visual images

(wpw351).  For instance, we don’t just watch TV; we also listen to it.  So who can

criticize using any kind TV as research, when so little has been examined

(wpw347)?  In fact it is imperative we use TV for research.  We live in a very

peculiar time in which more media circulate more information to more people

than ever before, and yet the phenomenon of ‘disconnection’ has never been

more dramatically evident.  Crappy?  Walter Benjamin’s prediction that the

human race might be capable of viewing it own destruction as an aesthetic

experience of the first order has come true in an endless run of apocalyptic

disaster news programming (wpw323).   I’d say our tirade is that TV is not utilized

nearly enough to examine itself.

Wilde:  Wasn’t it Marx who suggested that education is disruptive and disturbing

because it works to upset the older order and free us to see things differently and


Theall:   How about this?  I’d like to recite Malcolm Lowry here to make the case

for all video mash-ups like Difficult Images: “It can be regarded as a kind of

symphony, or in another way as a kind of opera – or even a horse opera.  It is hot

music, a poem, a song, a tragedy, a farce, and so forth.  It is superficial profound,

entertaining and boring – according to taste.  It is a prophecy, a political warning,

a cryptogram, a preposterous movie and a writing on the wall.  It can even be

regarded as a sort of machine: it works too, believe me, as I have found out”


Wilde:  Your performative techniques of TV collage - or more accurately,

montage – are hilarious.  The whole video is fun to watch, but there are several,

quite deep, critical ideological messages woven throughout.

Theall:   Let’s call them “Feelful Thinkamalinks?”  That was Joyce’s term for this

kind of technique.  Video collision is dialectical montage.  It triggers a network of

connections; connections in the verbal text, in the music, in the images, in the

cutting.  Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev, takes this to extreme.  He believes

that he is making a new kind of comic dialectic film that uses many of the

strategies of Eisenstein and Goddard.  The thing about editing is that it’s more

polysemic multiplexity rather than simple juxtaposition.  This is the textual

principle of Makavejev’s films.  Difficult Images shares some of these similarities.

You see, there is a complex relationship between dialectical films, fiction,

television, musical form, and the essay (234-235), just as there is with found

objects and collage.

Mitchell:  I recently sent around a brief questionnaire to knowledgeable scholars,

I was surprised at the results.  Everyone knows what a found object is; yet no

one could think of a truly powerful and compelling theoretical account of the

concept.  Hal Foster notes that the ‘shock of the found’ object, especially of the

detritus of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, has been thoroughly co-opted and

commodified by various ‘retro’ fashions.  And he reminds us of Marx’s theory of

historical repetition where comedy is, “a comedic resolution that might somehow

free the subject from delusion and death”  (wpw113).  But, then, I don’t find

Difficult Images particularly all that funny, do you?

Theall:  Not when you frame it that way.  (chuckle) Joyce and Fellini also

expand upon this view regarding the fundamental power of comedy.  Fellini said,

“Humor, just like the dramatic, the tragic, the visionary, is the collocation of reality

in a particular climate.”  A world of folly and madness counterpoints the world of

sacred frenzy.  Christian Metz’s insights into the “mirroring structure” as a doubly

doubled reflection are also important here, because Difficult Images is not only a

video about TV, it is also a video about video that is presumably itself about

television; it is not only a video about Bill and me, but a video about directors who

are reflecting themselves onto their video (252-253).

Mitchell:  If you are seeing deep messages in Difficult Images, great, we’re

doing our job.  But everything, even something as mundane and familiar as the

relative proportion of image and text on the front page of the daily newspaper is a

direct indicator of the social class of its readership - our montage of TV is no

different  (wpw91).  The TV industries’ pretensions of legality and public civility

coupled with their transparent visual representations of soporific dreck effectively

dismember and disarticulate the smooth suturing of television news image-text

(pt373).  It’s pretty obvious that that, right here, is a good starting point.  I just

hope Difficult Images also presents cultural politics in a larger perspective

through its performative techniques- rather than simply reifying contemporary

anxieties about television and media literacy (pt4).

Theall:  And yes, by the way, you are correct to say montage.  The term

“montage” was appropriated by the Berlin Dada group for their application of

collage to photography and later extended into film theory by Sergei Eisenstein.

But now, the term has been extended to include virtually any type of compilation

in any art, even the arrangement of the front page of the newspaper Bill just

mentioned.  Mechanical assemblage is the product of a poetic or communicative

machine.  Walter Benjamin’s analysis of Brecht’s dramatic theories perceived the

importance of montage for this new era: “ the ability to capture the infinite, the

sudden or subterranean connections of dissimilars is the major constitutive

principle of the artist’s imagination in the age of technology.”  Benjamin

understood how the forms of Brecht’s “epic theatre” arose in response to “new

technical forms of film and radio,” which favored a discontinuous and episodic

shaping of the dramatic action which, by the way, paralleled the radio audience’s

new-found freedom of selection by turning a switch on and off, or to a different

item that the photograph and radio had made possible.  (116)

Wilde:  Is that how you stumbled upon, or invented, I guess, that terrific comic

hip-hop style of editing?

Theall:  Trust me, we’ve invented nothing; we are merely encouraging others to

participate, through simple and recognizable techniques, to join the fun and

explore the expressive intelligence in these potentialities (117).

Mitchell:  But comedy - or wit, as I prefer to call it – and intelligence are two

different things.  Burke noted wit as being ‘chiefly conversant in tracing

resemblances, but judgment, on the other hand, concerned mainly with ‘finding

differences.’  But this ubiquitous emphasis within all media today on the witty-

comparative-mode has tended to defect our attention from the foundations of our

own claims as scholars and critics to prefer working in a mode of judgment, of

judicious discrimination and respect of difference (ic48-49).  All this, of course,

goes back beyond Locke, where the distinction between wit and judgment is itself

conceived as a mental version of the contest between word and image (ic121).

When it comes to media, however, let’s just say the ‘shock of the new’ is as old

as the hills, and needs to be kept in perspective (wpw213).

Theall:  But it is certainly OK to be funny!

Mitchell:  And luckily, we don’t have to worry about that!  (all laugh.)

Theall:  Walter Benjamin explains that Brecht realized film enriched our

perception by using particular methods of disjunction – for example, Freudian

verbal slips, dreams, or the notion of Witz, which translates as “jokes and

humor.”  Montage and humor share similar etymologies.  Baudrillard, too,

associated Witz (wit) and the principle of montage.  His particular contemporary

interpretation of wit describes a principle part of the substructure of our society of

simulation, where the products of art and media have become the only reality -

because reality itself has become a product of cultural industry.  Baudrillard’s

suggestion that the play of wit could “make us rediscover an aesthetic force of

the world” describes what has always taken place in the activity of wit (117).  In

writings permeated by pun, paradox, proverb, and aphorism, Barthes, McLuhan,

and later Eco reveal the essential importance of this ambivalent polysemy to

drama.  The complex doubling and redoubling in communication – the repetitive

quick-cutting we use in Difficult Images - involves the poetic work, the symbol,

the sign, and the metaphor, symbolizing the seductiveness of verbal play, play

with sense.  This principle of montage has persisted beyond modernism, for

montage pervades the twentieth-century spectrum of the arts: literature, the

visual arts, film, music, dance, architecture, and computer art.  Montage -

naturally - situates artistic activity in a comic perspective, which does not limit it

since tragedy is itself embraced within the dark laughter of comic vision (119).

Wilde:  So is this why you feel the need to encourage everyone to get into the

“media mash-up act”?   Although I have to say I am not sure I share your

enthusiasm for the social media… at least as far as what’s happening right now.

Mitchell:  Personally, what I would like to see is more personal video along the

lines of Nietzsche’s strategy of ‘sounding the idols’ with the ‘tuning fork’ of critical

or philosophical language.  This kind of video would not be a mode of criticism

that trumpets getting beyond images, beyond representation, of smashing the

false images that bedevil us, or even producing a definitive separation between

true and false images.  I would like to see citizen video be a delicate critical

practice that struck images with just enough force to make them resonate, but

not so much as to smash them.  Barthes’ punctum, or wound, left by an image

always trumps its studium, the message or semiotic content that it discloses.

The whole purpose of Difficult Images is to make this vague conception as clear

as possible.  Scholars have ably explored models of meaning and power.  But it

seems to me that this does not quite capture the paradoxical double

consciousness possible in citizen video.  We all need to reckon with not just the

meaning of images but their silence, their reticence, their wildness, and

nonsensical obduracy.  We need media practice and fluency, in other words, to

grasp both sides of the paradox of the images: that it is alive – but also dead –

but also weak; meaningful – but also meaningless (wpw9-10).

Theall: Bill’s got a way with words, doesn’t he?  (chuckle.)   All I would add is: If

nothing else it’s fun, right?  And it’s participatory.  Media literacy, fluency, and

criticism can all be opportunities to enjoy nonsense, and laugh.  And laughter is

the intellectualizing and distancing factor in the contemporary poetic.  Laughter

involves an intimate relationship between wit (or montage) and the dramatic, and

this reveals why it is embedded in the inherently dramatic nature of the pun itself

(119).   A digression into John Dewey’s pragmatic discussion of the relation

between the arts and the processes of human communication will assist in

understanding why nonsense provides such a powerful model of human

communication.  In Democracy and Education Dewey unqualifiedly called out the

close resemblance between communication and art.  He says, “The experience

has to formulated in order to be communicated.  To formulate requires getting

outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact

is has with the life of another, and then reforming that in such a way so someone

else can appreciate the meaning.  All communication is like art.”  And Dewey

goes on to say that,  “Nonsense, which forces the exploratory intelligence to work

with gaps created by grammar, logic, and mathematics produces a strong desire

to derive intelligibility from a still broader range of sensory interplay with other

gaps and surfaces.  Communication is the process of creating participation.  Part

of the miracle is that it achieves this, even though it is not the function or intent of

art.  It is just a natural consequence of the artistic activity” (45).  I feel this really

speaks directly to my all our video work in, and around, Difficult Images.

Wilde:  I guess I never realized how much nonsense teaches us.  No wonder TV

is such an easy way for you to participate; most of the content on television is

bad comedy.

Theall:  Yes, but there is more to consider here.  The problem presented by

popular media is their tendency to transform “laughtears,” as Joyce would call the

effect, into entertainment or “info-tainment” - by institutionalizing the doubling,

and neutering it.  Therefore, strategies of decontextualization are a necessary

move to counteract the neutering produced by the “info-tainment” industries


Mitchell:  And Don, there is yet another historical dimension to the argument that

needs to be made explicit.  To paraphrase Marx, if people make images that

seem to have lives and desires of their own; they do not always do it in the same

way, nor under conditions of their own choosing (wpw11).

Theall:  That’s right, and we must remember even this is not enough, because

info-tainment again reabsorbs this decontextualization.  It’s a continuum, a loop.

But when you look more closely, critically, there are always gaps, breaks, which

permit the exploration and exposure of info-tainment.  Here’s my point: The

original potential for such unmasking remains within the rhetorical structure of the

pseudo-poetic activity of the media themselves (121).

Wilde:  Ha, almost like pamphleteering via palimpsest?   Maybe that’s why

you’ve included clips from shows like the Stephen Colbert Report?  Once parody

gets on corporate TV it no longer counteracts?  It is just more of the same?

Theall:  Now you’re using big words!  There are very few differences in TV

content.  But remember, first-order parody alone is insufficient, like Jon Stewart’s

Daily Show for example.  The poetic activity is a necessary, but not sufficient,

condition for relatively undistorted, liberated communication.  People naturally

take from advertising – or corporate parody, for that matter - a meaningful way of

semantically packaging their emotions and dreams, which is, inevitably, also a

shadowy mimicry of the intense poetic creativity I’ve been discussing.  As

McLuhan and Barthes’ work on advertising showed, there is still another poetic

potential within the ads themselves; an emancipatory potential that is deeply

distorted and concealed within the advertising activity.  The release of this

process only occurs to the extent that people are able to go beyond the limits of

advertising and “read” it critically in the broader social context (122).

Mitchell:  Along with this, we should also remember that ideology never says ‘I

am ideological.’  It is sometimes hard to see how criticism of these idols, Difficult

Images or any other video published over the Internet, can avoid consuming

itself.  To this point, Baudrillard concluded that the arts and media are so utterly

co-opted by capitalism that not only is ‘reform’ impossible but also all efforts at

dialectical conversion to progressive, liberating purposes.  The only answer, in

Baudrillard’s view, is ‘an upheaval in the existing structure of media.  No other

theory or strategy is possible.’  But…must it be this acute?  Don and I feel this is

where the Frankfort School stumbles as well.  At its best moments, the writing of

Benjamin, Althusser, Williams, Lukacs, Adorno, and others, produced an

embarrassment between Marxism and aesthetics - which itself has been

dialectical and fruitful.  Because if the rhetoric of iconoclasm is to do its proper

dialectical work it must begin in self-criticism, and its obverse.  The notions of

fetishism and ideology, in particular, cannot simply be appropriated as theoretical

instruments for a surgical operation on the bourgeois ‘other’.  Even our usage of

Jon Stewart clips in Difficult Images can be seen as dialectical ideology –

ambiguous syntheses whose ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ aspects cannot be

disentangled (ic203-05).  That said, personal media like Difficult Images are,

indeed, excellent exercises in critical media evaluation and self-critical reflexivity.

Wilde:  Right.  Is it fair to say, then, that the target of your – I think you call them

“parapoetics” - is focused upon the truer forms of TV, like news and information,

instead comedy or fiction.  Why preference one over the other?

Theall:  Parapoetic!  You’ve been doing your student homework.  Let me explain,

many new genres of communication, that is, new forms of literature, like comic

strips and citizen media for instance, are strong examples of, what I call,

paraliterature.  Unfortunately, such conceptions, when related to literature,

certainly still strike many as a “perversion” or distortion” of a serious kind.  It is

important to note, however, that many scholars of literature, art, and cultural

theory now suddenly want to give a name to such activities, which I label as

multimedia paraliterature and/or para-artistic or parapoetic, in order to make

them part of a comparison, a continuum, of cultural production along with the

literary and the traditionally artistic.  Using such terms as ‘paraliterature’ or

‘parapoetic’ exemplifies what Edmond Burke describes as a verbal strategy for

getting a production, which has not yet been legitimated, recognized as worthy of

inclusion with the categories of the “grand” theory of genre and is later used to

disassemble and reassemble the boundaries between the traditional fine arts and

other modes of creative expression.  Umberto Eco, on the other hand, prefers the

prefix ‘hyper’(105-106).

Mitchell:  Oh, good Doctor…there you go again.   Meta-pictures is a lot easier

term; and they both do and mean about the same thing.  Besides, there can be

dangers in these languages.  The key thing, in my view, is not to foreclose the

inquiry into the image-text problem with suppositions that this is one kind of thing,

appearing in a certain fixed repertoire of situations, and admitting of uniform or

interpretive protocols.  The relative value, order, location, and the very identity of

the ‘verbal’ and ‘the visual’ is exactly what is in question (pt90).

Theall:  Touché… but getting back to news and information… Walter Benjamin,

writing about Brecht and the contemporary role of the ‘author as producer,’

observes that contrasts between science and belle lettres, criticism and original

production, culture and politics, now stand apart from one another without

connection or order of any kind.  And today, the newscast is the arena where this

process happens most often.  In news, the major form imposed on its content is

the result of the viewer’s impatience; and behind that smolders the impatience of

the excluded man who believes he has the right to speak in his own interest.

News people, having learned that this impatience binds the viewer to the

newscast, because it demands fresh nourishment every day, develop space

where readers can participate with questions, opinions, and protests (78).

Wilde:  Ha.  Can you say YouTube?

Theall:  Yes, that’s a smart connection.  These kinds of novel media gradually

erode the distinction between author and public, because (para)literature gains

breadth but loses depth (78-79).  Using television news as our focus then, the

camera, as reporter, begins to exploits both ways.

Mitchell:  For instance, that’s the idea behind the ‘cameras or guns’ quote in

Difficult Images, which has been intimated by many others.  Susan Sontag

concludes that photographic images are even more threatening than artisanal

images Plato contended with because they are ‘potent means for turning the

tables on  - reality – for turning it into a shadow’ (ic8).

Wilde:  Who is using what, where, why, for what, and to what effect…?

Theall:  And you see this doubling effect everywhere in news; just as reportorial

video editing employs montage characteristic of filmmaking, techniques of

collage become characteristic of all press layout.  Journalism becomes a

commercial institution, a profession, and a mode of cultural production, by

utilizing a semiotic style and structure specific to the corporate press and media

world.  But these are also producing a cultural work that is a complex network of

interrelated signs which reveal the entire media world as enmeshed in multitude

contradictions between truth and prevarication, profit and disinterested reporting,

dedication to business or profession and commitment to self to concern with

others (81).  That is why the employment of dialectic montage with the poetic is

so vital.

Wilde:  I hate watching the news; and I’m not even sure what journalism is

anymore.  But your notion of dialectic montage - I have to admit - that’s a heck of

a motivational rant, at the very least, to watch news more critically.  “Cameras or

Guns.”  Maybe I should be making my own little videos like Difficult Images.

Theall:  I’m surprised you aren’t already.

Mitchell:  I propose that you – that all of us – begin to create personal media in a

more nuanced and balanced approach located in the equivocation between the

visual image as instrument and agency: the camera - or image tool as a tool for

manipulation - on the one hand, and as an apparently autonomous source of its

own purposes and meaning on the other.  This approach would treat visual

culture and visual images as ‘go-betweens’ in social transactions, as a repertoire

of screen images or templates that structure our encounters with other human

beings.  And this means that ‘the social construction of the social field’ has to be

continuously replayed as ‘the visual construction of the social field,’ an invisible

screen or latticework of apparently unmediated figures that makes the effects of

mediated images possible  (wpw351).  For my money, that’s where news and

social media should intersect.

Theall:  Jean-Luc Goddard believed everything could be put in film; he saw film

simply as discourse, as communication.  Expanding on his remarks about his

interest in news, Goddard emphasized the inclusiveness of film and the

fascination which he had for TV, especially TV journalism.  He said, “During the

course of the film – in its discourse, discontinuous discourse, that is – I want to

include everything, sports, politics, even groceries… Everything can be put into a

film.  When people ask me why I talk or have characters talk about Vietnam, or

about a woman who deceives her husband, I refer the questioner to his own

newspaper.  It’s all there.  And it’s all mixed up.  That is why I am so attracted by

television.  A televised newspaper made up of carefully prepared documentaries

would be extraordinary.  Even more so if one could get editors to take turns at

editing these televised newspapers.”   This conviction that “everything could be

put into a film” appears to echo earlier conceptions of the makers of collage –

whether in words, objects, or paint – just like it was found that the newspaper and

newscast reflected modern urbanism and participated in shaping a new

sensibility (82-83).

Wilde:  You also have words popping up throughout Difficult Images.  René

Magritte said, “Titles must be an additional protection, aimed at discouraging

whichever attempt to reduce the true poetry to a game without consequences.”

Is the idea of news and information parody, then, the reason for your

superimposing these captions?

Mitchell: I wish you could have also brought in Gombrich and Arnheim today.

(chuckle.)   But, Victor Burgin noted that ‘we rarely see a photograph in use

which is not accompanied by language’ and goes on to claim that the rare

exceptions only confirm the domination of photography of language.  Even the

uncaptioned ‘art’ photograph, argues Burgin, is invaded by language in the very

moment it is looked at.  What troubles me with this, I suppose, is the confidence

of tone the assurance that ‘our view’ can be so easily cleared up.  (pt282).  Don’t

you agree, Doctor?

Theall:  Partly, but using captions can also be seen as technique pointing

backward to Brecht’s epic theatre.  He both consciously and unconsciously

utilized the techniques of newspapers and other media and took advantage of

the transformation, which they were bringing about in the relationship between

author and audience  - that is, the ambivalence between producers and

consumers.  At an elementary level, Brecht’s use of titles and screens in the

literalization of the theatre comes from the media world.  He developed his

conception of brief titling devices similar to headlines from journalistic practice,

and probably silent films.  His theories concerning a “theatre of entertainment,”

which also is a “ theatre of instruction,” flow from the need to make the audience

a co-producer, in order to produce consciousness of the structural process

implicit in contemporary society. As early as the 1930’s, Karl Capek in his

science fiction novel The War with the Newts used words from journalism and the

newspaper as an iconic and structure form; and again with Orson Well’s Citizen

Kane in 1941.  Pop Art also reabsorbed the press into art works, picking up on

that historical movement beginning with Kurt Schwitter’s preoccupation with

visual collage in which he made scraps of newspaper print part of a disjunctive,

mosaic-like response to the fragmentary character of modern urbanization.  And

this continued through Picasso’s use of the press as reflecting the vision of

fragmentation that contributed to the anti-fascistic destructive energy of Guernica


Mitchell: Let me just second this comment.  Our use of captions is not coming

from scientific judgments, but engagements in the theoretical praxis of

representation.  The image-text relation in film and theatre is not merely a

technical question, but a site of conflict, a nexus where political, institutional, and

social antagonisms play themselves out in the materiality of representation.

Artaud’s emphasis on mute spectacle and Brecht’s deployment of textual

projections are not merely ‘aesthetic’ innovations but precisely motivated

interventions in the semio-politics of the stage.  The real question to ask when

confronted with these kinds of image-text relations is not, ‘what is the difference

between words and images?’ but “what difference do the differences make?

That is, why does it matter how words and images are juxtaposed, blended, or

separated?  (wpw91)

Wilde:  What about your use of sexually graphic images.  I read that you added

the “17+ warning” at the beginning simply to attract more attention, but I also

read that a lot of the graphic imagery originally in Difficult Images was left on the

cutting-room floor, so to speak.

Theall:  Ha.  The warning was not added to attract attention – but to focus

attention.  The selection and placement of every video fillip in Difficult Images

carries intentional meaning.  But… just as nobody seems to buy boring scholarly

books today, I wasn’t going to make the mistake of pandering too far in the

opposite direction either.  I want this video to play as often as possible, and as

widely as possible - as motivation, instruction, and encouragement.  However,

best sellers do share some specific similarities like: themes, strategies, or

techniques such as carnivalesque travesty of scriptural books, parody of

scholarly wisdom, parodical liturgies, games, travestied prophesies, play with

authority of numbers, ambivalent abuse of carnivalesque intercourse, the use of

grotesque realism in which the body element is deeply positive.  Indeed, much of

Joyce’s humor not only focuses on the body - and consequently sensory

experience and sense - but it is centrally concerned with the body, its orifices like

the anus, the genitalia, female breasts, the mouth; and with the bodily processes

associated with them like eating, drinking, copulating, masturbation, buggering,

urinating, and defecating; all perennial matters for laughter.  It all belongs to the

borderline between art and life.  In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to

a certain pattern of play (50-51).

Mitchell: This claim for the ‘naturalness’ of pornographic imagery raises two

interesting questions, however.  First, what medium is more effective in

producing the appropriate effect?  My suspicion is that, in general, words are

much more powerful than images, and that images have relatively little effect

unless they are verbalized by the addition of narrative fantasy.  If we do have an

‘instinct’ for pornography, words would seem to be the natural sign to gratify it.

The second question is more fundamental.  Is pornography in fact a gratification

of a natural human instinct?  My guess would be that, while some sexual instinct

is innate to human beings of either sex, the taste for pornography is an acquired

one, a highly complex cultural phenomenon riddled with elaborate rituals and

conventions (ic89).

Theall:  Leave it to say, all communication is encompassed within the body of

each person, a body in which female and male, youth and age, intellect and

emotion, all coexist.  Communion therefore becomes coterminous with

intensified, that is deepened and complex, communication (55).

Wilde:  Well then, what about censorship and copyright?  Aren’t they in direct

opposition to your rather free, simplistic, and idealistic artistic notions?  Do you

worry that the man is gonna drop the hammer on these practices?

Mitchell: Copyright?  Marx’s notion of fetishism and commodification are clear

examples of exactly how exploitation, misery, and inequality turn images –

through means of copyright – into bearers of ideological fantasy  (wpw94).  Don’t

get me started! (chuckle.)

Theall:  Fear not, my friend, freedoms of Fair Use continue to stand… although

decreasingly negotiable, I suppose.  Importantly, however, poetic activities must

move beyond the very ideas of censorship because they provide the means to

question the very concept.   In order to prevent dialogue of openness from

coming about, works like Difficult Images must be perceived as not purely

rational, so as to truncate the production of the very energy needed to engender

extensive questioning of such cultural activity.  Openness is essential to

undistorted questioning of such cultural activity.  Censorship of any kind can only

run counter to evolving further in the direction of the “ideal communication

situation” (123).  Poetic communication with its proclivity to generate “feelful

thinkamalinks” cannot develop in the absence of excess.  The objective of

censorship is to suppress the entire operation of those processes on which the

exploratory exuberance of poetic communication depends.  When a culture is

confronted with the obvious embarrassment that can occur when many people

do not wish to extend their dialogue beyond the limits of the present - into the

memory of the past and the unfolding of the future - the issues of censorship, or

other forms of indirect suppression, arises.  The poetic, as the exuberance of

communication, must go beyond the moment, beyond the mediated (263).

Wilde:  We’re running low on time professors, so I will end with this last question.

How far into the future do you think these new forms of communication will carry

us?  Writing has certainly proven itself over centuries.  How do you think new

works like Difficult Images will stand over time?

Theall:  No one knows the future.  But we can infer much by measuring history.

Sergei Eisenstein clearly regarded Ulysses and Finnegans Wake as having

“broken” the “base” of literature, although for him there was no way for the

imaginary, operating through any of the arts other than film, to successfully

achieve integration.  While Eisenstein understood the synchronization of the arts

and the specific power of film for achieving this at the time, he did not foresee a

world that was moving beyond media, in which film culture itself could be

superseded in its rage for integration by computer culture and virtual reality (85).

Regardless, whether or not he fully grasped the significance of Joyce’s project; or

the tendency to develop increasing inclusiveness and comprehensiveness in the

importance of “inner speech’ and its relation to the new poetics of the ideogram;

Joyce’s major works, the visual arts, jazz, among so many others, and today’s

newly developing alternative film and citizen video culture – all these presuppose

a new understanding of communication and expression (85).

Mitchell: What will be learned, over time, from videos like Difficult Images?  I

think they will begin an effect of acting out the method and lessons of a

sharpening curriculum, which is elaborated around a set of simple but extremely

difficult questions:  What is vision?  What is a visual language?  What is a

medium?  What is the relation of vision to the other senses?  To language?  Why

is visual experience so fraught with anxiety and fantasy?  Does vision have a

history?  How do visual encounters with other people  - and with images and

objects - inform the construction of social life.  It is astonishing how much clearer

the Sartrean and Laconian ‘paranoid theories of vision’ become after you have a

few mash-ups under your belt that highlight the aggressivity of vision.  Merleau-

Ponty’s abstruse discussions of the dialectics of seeing, the ‘chiasmus’ of the eye

and the gaze, and the entanglement of vision with the ‘flesh of the world’ become

much more down to earth when the spectator-spectacle has been visibly

embodied and performed publicly through digital video.  This kind of video

“Showing-Seeing’ has great potential as a reflection on theory and method in

themselves.  The approach is informed by a kind of pragmatism, but not – one

hopes! – of a kind that is closed off to speculation, experimentation, and even

metaphysics.  At the most fundamental level, personal media can be an invitation

to rethink what theorizing is, to ‘picture theory’ and ‘perform theory’ as a visible,

embodied, communal practice, not as a solitary introspection of disembodied

intelligence (wpw355).

Theall:  I guess I’ll take the last word.  Difficult Images is not about predicting any

future; all cultural phenomena form part of a complex ongoing everyday

discourse by which media material evolves through the multitude of

interpenetrating modes of communication and expression, which are then

disseminated throughout society as a whole.  But remember, the effect is

discontinuous; flows of meaning are constantly broken down and reassembled.

The movement is an unpredictable zigzag, which is related to a perpetual

becoming.  Difficult Images in some very small way parallels Finnegans Wake,

with its machinic assembling of flotsam and jetsam of an emerging culture

production.  Both embrace contemporary and historical modes of communication

like drum and gesture language, consumption, manipulation, and exploitation

within differing genres like TV, Dada, journalism, urban development, sexuality,

music, and notions of reality (103).  So, hopefully, a video work like Difficult

Images is conceived as a continuum within our social life-world - because it

embraces all aspects of activity; such as the popular expression of jazz, the

everyday use of certain symbols; the ways in which gesture and hieroglyph

operate; and the specific processes of the various modes of poetic and practical

expression and communication.  I hope it is perceived as an exploration of the

ways in which the limitations of perception spawn analyses of exactly what it

means to move beyond media (85-86).

Mitchell: Humm…what could I possibly add to that?

Wilde:  Nicely said, Dr. Theal and Dr. Mitchell, this interview was quite inspiring.

I feel like running out and creating something myself, right now.  Maybe I’ll write a

book and call it… What Pictures Want Beyond the Word!

Theall:  I’m surprised you haven’t written it already.   Good luck to you.

Mitchell: So long.  Thanks for inviting us.  It was fun pretending we made Difficult Images.


May  2006                                                                                                                        1:00:00


Holland Wilde: WHITE

Donald Theall


WJT Mitchell    YELLOW

Holland Wilde: WHITE

Donald Theall


WJT Mitchell    YELLOW


An American, living

in Canada, now spending his life experimenting with new forms of critical media ethnography.


Alternate links:    Chapter 1   Chapter 2    Chapter 3    Chapter 4