The Image and the Gaze. On the ‘Logic’ of Iconic Structures

Published by



It is not always easy to decide whether something is an image or not. Some objects are images
without revealing themselves as such, while others are not images at all, and only appear like
them. Design objects for instance have a genuine image-like quality, as their iconicity
conceals their materiality, while the actual value of the object is assessed according to its
form, its exterior appearance. On the other hand – especially in the context of science and
technology – we are confronted with iconic textures like maps, blueprints and diagrams which
cannot be subsumed under the category of the pictorial, as they are much closer to writings
which have to be ‘read’ than to images which have to be viewed. This does not mean that one
cannot talk about ‘the image’ in general, just because only particular images and objects exist,
and their singularity leads beyond the scope of any unified term – although it appears to be
problematic to speak of ‘the image’ in an all-encompassing singular way, in order to gather
and collect the characteristics of ‘all’ images. In contrast, the pictorial is to be understood in
the sense of a special ‘mediality’, the structure of which is to be examined here. On the one
hand, this structure participates in a structure of mediality itself; on the other hand, it
preserves a characteristic order in this structure. It can be deciphered as an order of
‘showing’.1 It cannot be deduced solely via the structure of representation, or via the symbolic
contents of the depiction, or via the techniques of visualization – the methods of making
visible and being made visible. An examination of the close interplay of the gaze and the
image must be included in the analysis of the pictorial. It is possible to differentiate between
at least three levels of the iconic in this context, (a) the actual depiction or representation
which, on occasion, may also turn up blank, (b) the methods of visuality with their specific
aesthetic and technical strategies as well as (c) ultimately those conditions which cause the
eye to be fettered by a visible object and allow vision to become aware of a visible in the first
place. This last relationship, however, proves to be extremely tricky and conflicted.

Its complexity begins with the fact that the image requires the gaze, while gazes do not inevitably generate images.

As Merleau-Ponty points out, the image is primarily connected to invisibility,2
requiring a particular gaze to initially see something as an image – a gaze that one can
identify as a ‘double vision’. This ‘double vision’ becomes the subject of the interplay
between visibility and invisibility in multiple ways. If one wants to decipher the mediality of the pictorial and its structure, then one needs to proceed from this double gaze and its multiple interlacing between ‘withdrawal’ and ‘excess’.


Initially, to see an image means to perceive something ‘as’ an image as well as to perceive the
things shown by the image. The phrasing alone alludes to an instance of duplicity: the ‘image
as image’ as well as the ‘image as a thing’ that makes ‘something’ visible or brings it into
view, regardless whether it is an object, a figure, a colour or a simple division of a tableau.
Thus, a gaping difference exists between pictoriality and the creation of visibility, which
nonetheless remains invisible ‘in its quality’ as a difference, because that which becomes
visible only does so by virtue of the images themselves creating this visibility. This difference
‘marks’ the pictorial, as it is constitutive – as a difference – for the visibility of the image
itself, as far as it represents the prerequisite for the possibility of iconic visuality. That is: an
instance of invisibility constitutes a visibility, with a rift running between the visible and the
invisible, not right through the image, but rather across it – in another dimension, so to speak.
It does not split the image, it does not divide it, but separates it into image and ‘likeness’ (Ab-
Bildung), or medium and representation – in this context, the terms ‘likeness’ and
‘representation’ are to be used in their general meaning, from depiction to indication, from
symbolization to that which ‘offers’ a view to the gaze.3

Of course, this difference leads to a number of consequences. First of all, to see an image
therefore means to perceive it as an image – and not as something else. This finding also
allows for an inversion: A thing that can be perceived as an image may alternatively not be
seen as such. Accordingly, seeing an image permits a change of attention, the literal ‘re-
flection’ of the image as a thing, its construction, its usage, its hanging or its materiality. We
are not able to perform this change intentionally, we cannot employ it freely to shift back and
forth between perspectives; in fact, complicated medial strategies are necessary at times to
carry out this inversion, and art has developed numerous practices to blur and irritate the gaze.
While we do not control the gaze and thus the image, it is not unusual for the image to control
us, to captivate us and to force its direction upon us, making ‘other’ means of detachment and
distancing necessary to disentangle ourselves from its illusion and its powers of deception.
The other aspect of this difference results in images being less expressive; they are not so
much disposed to impart something to the observer, instead, they rather – as has been
suggested above – show. Images are certainly quite able to ‘tell’ something, but where they
represent or intimate something, they represent or intimate in a mode of showing This
showing, or indication, differs from observation and also from comprehension because it
opens up a view; but the visible generated thus – even if it is the visibility of a thing – is
different from merely seeing a thing. René Magritte coined the apercu that pictures are
viewed differently than objects in space. 4 This suggestion hints at the special medial status of
the image, namely the difference between the visible, which is constituted by it and the visual
that we encounter. It implies that the visible of the image is different from the visible of the
non-image that we face in our visual experience – even if the image itself belongs to the
things which exist in space and can be experienced as such. This also means that the gaze
towards the image differs from the gaze in normal perception, even if they both relate to each
other. Apparently, some quality must be added so that something can be seen in the image,
just as, inversely, something normally pertaining to the object is not enough to turn it into an
image; in point of fact, the pictorial quality is experienced first and foremost due to a specific ‘kind of perception’, which turns something into an ‘image of something’, just as the image
has a quality which turns the thing, that one can experience visually, into a ‘representation’.
The aforementioned difference is not always easy to spot, particularly since many things
which ostensibly do not perform as images can turn into an image if one observes them
through the lens of the iconic gaze. This gaze, on the other hand, only exists where images
have already been experienced: the view of a landscape, a look through a window, mirrors,
photographs, monochrome canvasses, masks, patterns on a wallpaper or geometric figures and
simple, colored rags nailed to a wall. It is their ‘framing’ which turns these sights into images

– although not necessarily, as they can be perceived differently or even not at all.

Consequently, the perception of a frame appears as the quality, which has to be added to the
gaze, to perception itself, in order to turn it into an iconic experience. At the same time,
framing does not automatically refer to that thing which surrounds an image and separates its
interior from the exterior, but rather to the dispositif – meaning the system of material and
non-material conditions which mark a ‘border’ in numerous possible ways, be it via a real or
imagined frame, a certain format or a material medium, like a plate which transforms what is
displayed on it invariably into a surface, just to name one of many possible examples. Even
images that technically move their edges out of the field of vision, like projections in IMAX-
cinemas or Fulldomes, are characterized by this border, at least by the edge of the screen, the
dome, the spatial arrangement and the rows of seats which fix the gaze, and so on: they
facilitate the viewing of something as the viewing of an image, while they limit the viewing to
this function at the same time; their restriction bears comparison with the framing that forces
the visual to turn into the iconic and trains or disciplines that which can be tentatively called
‘iconic vision’.

All categories of technical illusionism, which can be addressed as the ‘immersiveness’ of the image, find the source of their dynamic – but also of their futility – in this structure. Its aim amounts to a paradox: the effacement of that which constitutes the viewing of an image – and thus the effacement of pictoriality as a medium. The logic of technological progress exists due to this telos: ‘a medium that negates its own mediality’.


It is, however, the framing dispositif that initially turns the image-like into an image and

produces the duplicity of ‘viewing something as an image’ and ‘observing something in the
image’. Every border is marked with a difference, and it constitutes itself along this
difference. Here, it can be designated as ‘iconic’. Therefore, we encounter a variation that
concerns Gottfried Boehm’s topic of the “iconic difference”5, which originally turned
pictorial studies into a philosophical discipline. This also denotes precisely the difference that
constitutes the quality of the image as a medium. Consequently, its framing or difference has
two results, which coincide directly with the duplicity of the gaze introduced above. (a) First
of all, it sets something apart from its surroundings as an image and thus emphasizes it. (b)
Secondly it makes something visible ‘as a representation of something’, i.e.: it shows
something ‘as’ something. Therefore, along with the pictoriality of the image, it characterizes
the representation of something ‘as’ a specific representation and consequently generates that
which can be denoted as an ‘iconic as’ as distinguished from the ‘apophantic’ or ‘hermeneutic
as’. It signifies, even if it generates this significance not in the medium of the sign, but in the medium of the image. Accordingly, ‘framing / difference’ indicates that which both makes an
image possible, and also generates the pictoriality of the image that allows it ‘to show’,
‘represent’, ‘display something’ or make it visible ‘as something’. Because this occurs in the
visual medium which is subject to other laws than discursive media like scripts and numbers,
it still has to be differentiated from the ‘hermeneutic’ and thus from the ‘semiological’ and the
‘discursive as’ – but initially, such a separation points out nothing more than the necessity of
making a distinction between the registers of the ‘sayable’ and denotable on the one hand and
of the iconic on the other, while its characteristics as a distinction still have to be gauged. In
turn, this is the distinction that characterizes the medial peculiarity of the image in contrast to
text, script and mathematical structures, as well as bestows the image, its distinct ‘logic’,
which does not conform to the ‘logic’ of the symbolic or the discrete and cannot be reduced to
them.6 It reveals that the particular mediality of the image cannot be reduced to a
grammatical, semiotic or rhetoric mode; in fact, we are dealing with a systematic
incompatibility, which simultaneously raises the question of its describability, which as a
discursive description has to remain inadequate with regards to iconic processes.7
As an additional consequence, any attempts to reduce ‘visual strategies of staging’ to rhetoric,
and thus to figures which can be traced back to speech, or to simply conceive the image as a
metaphor or a method of allegorization appear obsolete.8 To put it differently: semiotics,
hermeneutics or ‘iconology’ prove to be inadequate approaches for a theory of pictoriality,
because they disregard precisely the key aspect that would have to be denoted as the mediality
of the image in the proper sense. Moreover, the image resists a thorough discursive analysis,
as is shown by the failing of ekphrasis, which, by interminable utilization of terminology only
shifts and enlarges the gap between discourse and pictoriality instead of closing it. If,
alternatively, a discursive analysis is at all possible, if the image can be completely
transformed into language, then it would be nothing but a readable text and its observation a
continual reading. In contrast, the approach presented here insists on a fundamental untranslatability, an incommensurability of images and other medial modalities. It suggests taking the gaze as a
starting point for deciphering the peculiarity of the pictorial; and thus to place the pictorial in
the spectrum of perceptions, which originally don’t have a seamless relation with
terminology. Consequently, this approach insists on the intuition that the relation between
image and gaze defines the specific format of the medium, which requires other means than
those borrowed from sign theory or literary studies and linguistics. The precise examination
of this intuition leads to the discovery of a series of divisions that structure the relation
between image and gaze; the use of the plural form is meant to underline the fact that this
structure consists of a system of differences, of aporias and chiasmi which evoke varied series
of ‘perforations’. And the task of a philosophy of the pictorial that bases itself on the gaze has
to be committed to reconstructing the mediality of the image and the specific scopophilia it
evokes from this inherent system of differences. At the same time, this approach also
highlights manifold traces of invisibilities that organize the complex interplay of ‘withdrawal’
and ‘excess’ in the image.


The first principle of the gaze’s division is constituted by the framing mentioned above. Not
only does framing situate a difference via pictorial means, by intersecting or separating, but it
is also based upon a material arrangement, which focuses the gaze to the same extent that it
indicates and signalizes – be it via the rim of an ocular, the lens of a projector, a screen or
spatial boundaries and the like. This has always been utilized or reflected upon by the arts –
whether in the form of mirrors that invert or unveil elements not covered by the spatial
arrangement, as in the case of Diego Velázquez Las Meniñas,9 or the pastose and expressive
quality of coloring that exposes as well as suspends the corporeality of the object in works by
Cézanne or Van Gogh. But, at the same time, modernism has pointed out the impossibility of
this endeavor. Take, for example, Maurice Denis’ plain remark that, before it becomes a
“naked woman” or an “anecdote”, an image is “essentially a level surface which is covered by
paints in a certain arrangement”, 10 to which Man Ray adds that “as a form of expression, the
art of painting – as a simulation of matter or of an arbitrary inspiring subject – [is]
characterized by the color and structure of the material, that is by pigments and other
materials that can reduced to two dimensions.”11 If the surface, the materiality of the image –
or its dispositif – happens to be the prerequisite of presentability – a fact which, when applied
to the gaze, becomes the precondition for viewing to literally turn at the borders of pictoriality

– then framing, in turn, evolves into the principle of a reflexivity that draws attention to something which is veiled by the image at the same time: the scene of its visualization. The viewing of the image shifts between these two poles. This is the reason why we referred to a ‘double’ gaze: its viewing, as far as it perceives anything in the image, requires the refraction and inversion of the gaze at the image, in order to make it possible to discern between picture and ‘depiction’ or medium and representation at any time. The viewing of an image is
necessarily reflexive, and this also means that one is able to turn towards the pictoriality of the image itself – and to know at all times that one is viewing an image.

Theoretical possibilities are not real possibilities; in fact other prerequisites are necessary to
turn one into the other. For this does not only concern the reflection of the representation’s
form, but also the exposure of mediality itself; i.e. the appearance of the medium ‘as’ a
medium, which allows an analysis of its structure, just as making it visible includes a paradox.
Therefore, the principle of reflexivity is likewise a prerequisite of viewing the image and of
the discovery of mediality itself. Only because of this principle, a media theory of the image
exists. Art has always capitalized on this – exemplarily in Magritte’s reflections on the image
in Les mots et les images (1929) or the indistinguishability of transparency and opacity in
Marcel Duchamp’s Grand Verre (1923)12, the large window-image which, at the same time
enables and obstructs the view through it; the sites of fracture that are present in this work
anticipate those interferences that later constituted the actual genre of video art. By deceiving
the eyes and other paradoxical strategies it seeks to refract – manifestly as well as latently –
the illusionism of pictoriality, as a way to make the elements visible that generate visibility in
the first place.

But this can be inverted as well, because the conditions of reflection are simultaneously the
conditions of its very negation. The desire for technological perfection in the production of images aims in this direction: in this sphere, iconic reflexivity becomes a tool of illusion.
Thus, framing and deframing refer to each other; just like difference and its annulment via
‘immersion,’ which share a similar connection. Both shift like foreground and background in
an optical illusion and terminate the varied history between art and technology. Their
correlatives constitute the strategies of visualization concerning the mathematical construction
of the image as well as the device-based manipulation of the field of vision and the systems of
optics, which equally direct and blind the gaze. But because reflexivity as the constituent of
image-viewing cannot be completely effaced, they also grow to monstrous proportions and
turn into a synopsis and totalization of the gaze, as demonstrated most notably by the
techniques of illusion prevalent in the 19th century: their enhancement and excess exposes an
‘iconic claim to power’, which Nietzsche and Heidegger have demarcated as a general
characteristic of the technological in the shape of a ‘will to power’.
It is subject to another shift with relation to the digitalization of the pictorial, its
constructability without an index, which photography invariably still left intact. Since this
development, effects have written themselves into the visible, without being visible
themselves, because no residual traces remain. Image and gaze submit to the regime of those
elements that keep themselves unrecognizable as a regime. Accordingly, these ‘imagings’ use
devices and algorithms to install orders of signs that cause the pictorial itself to withdraw,
only to generate it anew as an ‘iconic grapheme’ by means of numerical and statistical
methods.13 But technology does not continue with the classical illusio, insofar as this would
always relate to a mimesis based upon ontology, but as simulatio that proves to be committed
completely to the ‘art’ of the mathematical which proceeds syntactically and therefore
independent of any discrete content. That which is ‘on offer to be viewed’ does not conform
to immersion or illusion anymore, but turns into fictionality. Here, the term of the ‘fictional’
does point to literary forms, but refers to the mathematical term existence, which only denotes
a possibility subject to the restriction of formal coherence, not a reality. This becomes
particularly virulent in the case of digitally generated ‘images in science’, which do not
proceed from mimetic reference, but are based on the computer-aided processing of
probabilistic amounts of data, which are used – often with the aid of ‘smoothing’ and the
truncation of extreme values – to make something visible that otherwise would not submit to
any kind of visibility. This is not the interplay of generating visibility and invisibility that
dominated visualization for centuries, but rather the representation of something non-visual
which only follows a ‘graphemic’ and not a visual ‘trace’.14 As a result, we are dealing with
abstract patterns that – as with scanning tunneling microscopy – are generated by scans of
distances and their statistical extrapolation, and only function as genuine scriptures. Of
course, the explosiveness of an ‘iconic ideology’ lurks within these depictions, which
systematically play with the most prominent characteristic of the image: the power to make
something visible and to feign verisimilitude in the process. The image employed as an
argument in scientific discourse is in danger of succumbing to this ideology.


As the development of the technical generation of images progresses in this manner, from illusio to graphemic simulatio, it simultaneously follows a ‘logic’ in which the division of the
gaze is annuled; a division that appears as constitutive of the image as a medium. Thus a tendency appears that suggests the erasure of the image as such and its morphing into three-
dimensional structures or walkable spaces. But this tendency also exploits the order of
framing or difference to the same extent as it is teleologically guided by the images’ principle
of reflection. Here, the paradox of the endeavor reveals a central feature of the structure of the
medial itself. While images are cut by their framing and their visible elements are raised by
dispositifs and implemented by technical devices, these remain without outline in the image
itself. They do not stand out. The prerequisites of pictoriality thus assert themselves as
something that is irrepresentable within the pictorial. Every image is divided by this
difference between representation and irrepresentability, which can never be effaced or
obliterated by any kind of technical perfectio. In other words: the image withdraws its own
mediality. It keeps its mediality in the sphere of the invisible. This invisibility corresponds to
a ‘dialectics of mediality’ that consists of the medium’s peculiar quality to conceal itself in its
appearance.15 We look by the means of devices, optical appliances or techniques of
visualization, but we do not look at them. We recognize or observe something due to the
manner of its shape, its coloring, due to a specific direction of the image or choice of detail –
but, as modalities of production or enactment, these elements remain merely accompaniments:
they show themselves. Even when we encounter only algorithms which calculate images as
graphs we look right through them. While the medium as a medium allows the possibility of
refraction and thus a reflection at any time, it forfeits its function concurrent to the degree of
its surfacing as a medium: the self-observation turns into a disruption, a dysfunctionality, as
has been the topic of e.g. Nam June Paik’s early television art which addressed the blindness
of the apparatus.

The distinction which thus emerges is preliminary even to the “iconic difference”; it enters
into it as an ‘interplay’ of appearing and vanishing. It would be possible to speak of a
‘difference concerning the difference’, although this is not the distinction between picture and
‘de-piction’ respectively medium and representation, but rather the distinction between
medium and mediality, image and pictoriality. It enters into a relation of negativity towards
the represented and visible. This explains the reference to invisibility: It points to the contours
of a negative aesthetics of the image and the medium. They suggest, that only the image, aswell as its representation, appear – but not the mediality: it remains at the back of visibility as

This finding is characteristic for every medium qua ‘middle’ or ‘mediation’, insofar a genuine
dualism is inherent in this ‘inbetweenness’: to expose itself in the process of representation
while not making itself recognizable. While images are able to express or represent something – and in this they appear “similar to language”16 to the same extent that they refuse language
itself – they cannot represent by what means they represent: this shows itself. The showing
conforms to irrepresentability: it is neither able to show at what it is pointing, nor by what
means it is showing. Instead, it points in a certain direction, uses allusions, displays or parades
itself. Here, the figure of ‘showing / concealing’ can be borrowed from Wittgenstein’s early
work. Language, as is formulated in the Tractatus, can speak only because of its “logical
form”, which, however, cannot be expressed in words. Thus, it is not able to additionally
express its own structural or performative format: This “shows itself”.17 Images direct the
attention in a similar manner, they make something recognizable, they show, but in a way which does not show the modalities of their showing in the process – they elude the visualization of their function where it concerns the creation of visibility.

In the image, showing corresponds to the aesthetic dimension. It points out the duplicity of
semblance and appearance and leads – beyond the legible, the dispositif, the framing and the
‘iconic as’ – to the manner of its specific phenomenality. An image, as it represents
something, must appear in the same instant, which means that it must show itself in the
process of showing and exhibit the means of its representation, its structure as a medium and
its materiality, while these suspend and limit the representation at the same moment. The
whole complex logic of the ‘showable’ and the ‘unshowable (non-showable)’ is linked to this,
in a manner which corresponds to the relation between effable and ineffable present in the
discursive. Concerning language, Wittgenstein came to the conclusion that „one […] [cannot]
describe the nature of language employing language”18: „Language has to speak for itself.“19
He adds: “We are confronted by a kind of theory of relativity pertaining to language.”20 The
philosophy of language fails, because it has to express itself in language about language.
Thus, a withdrawal remains, a “negative mediality of language”21, which was analogously
expressed by Heidegger’s tautological aphorism that language is only language: “Language is
language. Language speaks”.22 This holds also true for the image. “‘What the image tells me
is itself,’” notes Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations: “That is, its telling me
something consists its own structure, its own lines and colors.”23


Whatever an image shows or incorporates, whatever it says or represents, it does so in the mode of showing. Showing has a different format than telling (itself). Converted and brought
close to Nelson Goodman’s difference between “denotation” and “exemplification”24 as well
as the difference between “representation” and “presentation” in the approaches by Susanne
Langer, Husserl and Gottfried Boehm,25 it proves to be fundamental for the analysis of the
aesthetic of the pictorial and its structure. At the same time it indicates another difference,
which intersects the image invisibly and irrepresentably, because it precedes every instance of
constituting the iconic. Additionally, the specific ‘logic’ of iconic mediality becomes legible
here. Images present – despite all the systems of significance and re-consideration, of
symbolization and interpretation which open and domesticate the gaze – and this presentation,
this ‘making present’ also generates their peculiar proximity to evidence. This is the reason
for the abundant presence of pictorial strategies; from illustration to allegedly documentary
photography and the pictorial character of the news up to the use of images in the intrinsically
image-less natural sciences: they all serve a production of evidence which cannot be
generated discursively. The gaze is not only offered something to observe in the image; in
fact, it experiences something non-negatable, as in the literal sense of ‘evidence’ – the true
seeing, including that leap into the eyes which cannot be dis-regarded. Conversely, it is
therefore not knowledge or understanding which is characteristic for the pictorial, but the
force creating such evidence, which also excludes its negation. This exclusion of negation
forms the actual focus of the ‘short media theory of the image’ as set down by Freud in ‘The
means of representations in dreams’, the pivotal chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams.26
The bizarre forms of dream logic proceed from this. „[I]n any event, a painted, or plastic
image, or a film […] cannot present what is not the case”, thus the corresponding assessment – once more from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Inquiries – and the Big Typescript adds: “I am
able to draw an image of two men fencing with each other; but not of two men not fencing
with each other (meaning an image that represents only this).”27 This means – as the first
characteristic of iconic ‘logic’ – that the status of negation in the pictorial proves to be
precarious, as there is no adequate visual correlative to it: “One cannot draw the
contradictorily negative, but only the contrary (in the sense of representing it positively).”28
Above all, showing is not able to withdraw itself; it is unable to negate. This is also due to the
fact that the image lacks a grammatical site for the subject. While self-reference exists, it is
only possible in a very indirect manner and, again, only while employing the means of
visuality, for instance by an image within the image, which refers to the first. This fact implies – as the second characteristic of the logic of the image – an additional format of paradox.
While, in the discursive mode, this is based on a connection between a self-reference and a
negation, which generates the antinomy in the sentence, the image only allows pareidolia, or
metastable interplays between figure and background, as Wittgenstein illustrated with his
example of the “duck rabbit”.29 Here, both facets of the paradox appear simultaneously,
though not in a relationship of affirmation and negation in order to oppose each other; in
contrast, they rather demand a continual shifting of attention, which makes their inverse
orders exclude each other.30 While it is possible to paint contrasts and opposites in this way,
these are of a different kind than negative ‘ipsoflexivities’ like ‘This is not sentence’ or ‘This
sentence is false’. No image is able to demonstrate that it is not an image; at most it can
remove itself like in De Kooning’s erased drawing by Robert Rauschenberg (Erased de
Kooning Drawing, 1953) or resort to cancellations like in Jörg Immendorf’s Hört auf zu
malen (1965), where the traces of deletion or of the annulled painting are retained and are thus
exposed. Even René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1928-1929) requires the
counteracting sentence; but at the price of an instability developing between image and
language, which leaves the observer systematically in the dark about which element has to be
given priority.31 Of course there are ‘manipulation,’ ‘retouching’ or ‘dissemblance,’ and also
‘fogging’ and ‘blurring,’ to make something appear indistinct and vague; these techniques
stick to the history of images like shadows, but they always retain an affirmative momentum –
even when they deliberately intend to deny, denounce or conceal something, they still
demonstrate the thing that was denied and denounced in the first place and thus display it as

As an additional effect – the third characteristic of an iconic logic – the pictorial lacks any capability of restraint, of distancing consideration: in the process of showing it has to position
itself. Accordingly, an equivalent to the subjunctive in language is missing; therefore the use
of images in sciences which debate in the discursive mode appears problematic. The language
of the subjunctive is constitutive for the entire rhetoric of the natural sciences as well as of the
empirical social sciences; it embodies not only the discrete ethos of science, but also the latent
reservations towards one’s own results, the principle of revisability and the parenthetic authority of truth. But because the image is always interlinked with evidence, which becomes
manifest or not, skepticism is alien to the pictorial. Certainly, there are occlusion,
preliminarity and fragmentariness, but they remain in a mode of presence throughout. The
power of pictoriality is based on the magic of such a presence. It imposes itself without
reservation and forces the gaze into a ‘scopophilia’, an inescapable addiction of the eyes.


The lack of negation, metastability, the interplay of pareidolia and an impossible subjunctive
are the ciphers of a different ‘logic of the image,’ not indications of its failures that are
assigned to position it beneath language, textuality and rational discursiveness. Instead, they
delineate the limits of one kind of representability, which provide it with a genuinely
affirmative character. “‘What the image tells me is itself,’” as Wittgenstein put it, but it also
affirms itself. This is the true meaning of evidence: an ‘addiction of the eyes’ and ‘to the eyes’

– the usurpation as well as empowerment of vision. It attracts but also disciplines the gaze. At
the same time, it is based on the evocation of a presence that, to the same degree, amounts to
the evocation of evidence. Therefore, showing the limits of representability and the
production of evidence coincide directly, and consequently define the aesthetic autonomy of
the image. Insofar evidence originates from perception, it contains a perception-that (quod)
before it turns into a perception-of-something (quid), as was already pointed out by Kant.32 It
does not concern the witnessing of a thing as such, but rather the ‘gift’ of becoming visible
itself.33 No kind of seeing may doubt the existence of the ‘that’ without doubting itself in its
role as visual perception, just as – by the way – images are unable to not show something: a
specific kind of ek-stasis is inherent to them. Ekstasis stands for ‘standing outside one’s self’
or emerging. The terms ‘existence’ and ‘appearance’ mean the same: something appears,
something exists. The roots of evidence, especially of evidence as related to pictoriality, can
be found in this connection. It is also interlinked with the ability of the image to cause a
perception and to captivate the eye.

But this evidence, conceived of in such a way, turns out to be a ‘fractured evidence’. It shifts
between the non-negatability of the iconic showing, which reveals a presence that, on the
other hand, is also not present. But it is exactly this gap which forces one to look at the image,
to view it. Jacques Lacan has connected this kind of compulsion to desire, which is a desire
for visibility as well as a desire for the gaze and a desire of the gaze. This matches the
“endowment of the gaze” of the image itself, because, as Lacan made it clear, to create an
image means to bestow a gaze – and this means, in the same breath, to give oneself, to
surrender oneself.34 In the image itself, such a gaze does not possess a donor, and therefore
cannot be answered; it can only be received, i.e. accepted. In a manner of speaking, all
painters, creators, directors or video artists surrender their gaze – and it is this surrender that
characterizes the hazard of their efforts, just as the image links it to a desire that aims at being
looked at to the same extent that it desires to observe seeing itself. It indicates that point that
equally ‘approaches’ and ‘ad-dresses’ the gaze, just as, on the other hand, looking at an
image means paying attention to the gaze’s direction while seeing. This is not a definable
position or characteristic in the image, this is not something that can be deciphered: The
evidence of pictoriality does not possess a decipherable center.

The difference of studium and punctum – which goes back to Lacan and was put into focus by
Roland Barthes in his philosophy of photography – is connected to this: the studium, as an
encoded and thus learnable sphere of experiencing an image, allows the reading of the image,
while the punctum stays uncoded; it denotes the actual irresistible quality, that which,
according to Barthes’ explicit description, is not identifiable in the image and which
approaches and attacks the observer instead.35 Conforming to the invisibility present in the
medium, it both seduces the gaze and forbids it to look away. The captivating quality of the image, this specific intensity, but also power, delineates the characteristic that eludes

understanding to the same extent that it ‘looks’ at the observer and forces him to see. Images and faces share this quality: it is not us who gaze at them, but we are gazed ‘at’ in return and ‘positioned’ as well. Being looked at precedes the gaze; this is why Deleuze and Guattari speak of a “face-like quality” concerning the image36, which always contains – however subtle – the ‘trace’ of the other. Images are equal to such countenances which do not let go and demand an answer, a ‘return of the gaze’.

Therefore it is possible – apart from the refraction of the gaze at the frame and even beyond
the demonstrated duplicity of telling and showing – to detect another principle of the gaze’s
division: the exchange of gazes between image and observer, which presupposes that gazing
at an image always equals answering a gaze. The effects of this exchange point far beyond
the dispositif of visibility, because they do not concern the character of the image as a sign,
but rather its “aura”.37 This also means that, in media theory, no image can be reduced to its
techniques of visualization; instead, it requires the constitution of a theory of the image that
proceeds from the gaze, and the examination of the specific exchange of gazes and its effects,
because only this displays that momentum concerning the image that, in Walter Benjamin’s
choice of words, constitutes the gaze’s impact.


On the other hand this means that a relation to alterity is inherent in every image, insofar as it
is marked by the responsive structure of the exchange of gazes. Hence, the actual subject-
matter of an aesthetics of pictoriality arises. Psychoanalysis, in particular, tried to fathom the
abyssal depth of the pictorial time and again with a string of different approaches. This is
particularly true for that otherness that no gaze can ever perceive, because it constitutes
pictoriality in the first place. Images do not only present something to look at; instead,
because of the process of showing, an other gazes out. Thus, two different perspectives cross
on the pictoral tableau – making it possible to find a third principle of the gaze’s division
there, which configures this crossing, a chiasm which first and foremost determinates the
mediality of pictoriality in all its intricacy.38

John Berger wrote that “[e]very image embodies a specific kind of seeing,”39 thus different
kinds of gaze are necessary to decipher them as such, because one must not forget that each
different gaze perceives different things, as can be exemplarily demonstrated with a look at
Jan Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (1660-70). Because the painter is turning his back towards
the observer, the painting performs a feat that – according to Lacan – is impossible for a self-
portrait: it observes itself ‘in the act of observing.’ Here, two perspectives make themselves
accessible to the observer: that of Vermeer, who is looking at his model and his canvas and
that shows the picture in the moment where he has just started to paint; and, on the other

hand, one’s own, which is observing the painter, while the artist himself is removed from the
gaze. No one is able to observe himself from behind; the gaze onto the back remains rather
disquieting, and thus the extraordinariness of Vermeer’s Art of Painting is based on the feat of
marking the indelibleness of difference by the back view and the double gaze.40
Hence, the chiasm of gazes points exactly to this intrusion of an alterity into seeing: the
observer’s gaze is foiled by a confrontation with an image, just as the gaze of the other, who
is offering himself via his medium, is hit and violated by the observer’s vision. In the literal sense, chiasm means a cross-wise intersection. Things that cross each other normally intersect
in one point; but if one thinks about the directions of the lines forming the cross spatially – in
three dimensions – in the form of ‘skewed lines’, then there is no point in which the lines
intersect. This is pointed out by the way the expression ‘chiasm’ is normally used. It is a
disparity that does not work out anywhere. The ‘chiastic’ would be that which cannot be
aligned, however hard one struggles for identity. Accordingly, a lapse is inherent to it, a fundamental incommensurability.

In this sense, every viewing of an image is a chiastic event, and no construction of the image
will ever be able to get hold of it. In other words: The viewing of the image proceeds from
there, from something that is at the same time indeterminate and open, from a gap, which, as
such, remains irrepresentable, and thus inaccessible as well. It points, again, to an instance of
invisibility, insofar as the gap bestows a gift that cannot be gazed at. It withdraws itself, while
constituting an excess at the same time. The fascination of the image has its source in this
excess: for this reason the image always proves to be more than what can be said or construed; and it is also for the same reason that the image approaches me, imposes itself on
me, entreats my gaze and lures it, as Lacan expressed it, into its “trap”41 – and, once again, it
is art that finds its particular domain, its game of mirrors, in this trap and its literal ‘re-

1 Cf. Dieter Mersch, ‘Kunst und Medium. Zwei Vorlesungen,’ in Gestalt und Diskurs (Schriftenreihe der

Muthesius-Hochschule), Vol. 3, Kiel, 2003; Dieter Mersch ‘Wort, Bild, Ton, Zahl. Modalitäten medialen

Darstellens,’ in Die Medien der Künste: Beiträge zu einer Theorie des Darstellens, München: Fink, 2003, pp. 9-


2 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Das Sichtbare und das Unsichtbare, Munich: Fink, 1986; Bernhard Waldenfels,

‘Spiegel, Spur und Blick,’ in Homo Pictor, ed. by Gottfried Boehm, Munich and Leipzig: Saur, 2001, pp. 14-31.

3 Waldenfels also stresses that this is not only a figure of reflection: “The enigma of visibility lies in the fact that
the becoming as well as the making visible employ the means of the visible” (Waldenfels, 2003, p. 5). This, on
the other hand, gives rise to the question how the constitution of visibility can be become visible in turn.

4 René Magritte, Sämtliche Schriften, ed. by André Blavier, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Vienna, 1985, p. 44.

5 Cf. Gottfried Boehm, ‘Die Wiederkehr der Bilder,’ in Gottfried Boehm (ed.), Was ist ein Bild?, Munich: Fink, 1995, pp. 11-38. Since then the term has had a career in different guises.

6 I have taken a closer look at the hypothesis of the incommensurability between the basic medial formats of

writing, images, numbers and sound in my article ‘Wort, Bild, Ton, Zahl. Modalitäten medialen Darstellens’ in Mersch, 2003, pp. ,

7 Cf. regarding this question cf. Gottfried Boehm and Helmut Pfotenhauer (eds.), Beschreibungskunst –
Kunstbeschreibung, Munich: Fink, 1995.

8 Concerning this tightly employed perspective from literary studies cf. e.g. Bettine Menke, ‘Bild – Textualität.
Benjamins schriftliche Bilder,’ in Michael Wetzel and Herta Wolf (eds.), Der Entzug der Bilder, Munich: Fink,
1994, pp. 47-65.

9 Diego Velizquez’ painting Las Meniñas has brought forth an abundance of interpretations, among others

by Michel Foucault, John Searle, Hermann Asemissen and others. Concerning the non-opening imagination of Velazquez cf. esp. my deliberations in ‘Ästhetischer Augenblick und Gedächtnis in der Kunst. Überlegungen zum Verhältnis von Zeit und Bild’, as in FN 1., pp. 151-176.

10 Maurice Denis, quoted in Werner Haftmann, Malerei des 20. Jahrhunderts, München: Prestel, 1965, p. 50.

11 Andrea Jahn, Katharina Lepper and Hannelore Kersting (eds.), Man Ray (exhibition catalogue), Stuttgart et al.
1998, p. 35.

12 Cf. also Axel Müller, ‘Das ist kein Fenster. Überlegungen zu einer zentralen Bildmetapher bei René Magritte und Marcel Duchamp,’ in Mersch, ‘Ästhetischer Augenblick und Gedächtnis in der Kunst. Überlegungen zum Verhältnis von Zeit und Bild’, as in FN 1., pp. 127-138.

13 Cf. Dieter Mersch ‘Das Bild als Argument,’ in Ikonologien des Performativen, ed. by Christoph Wulf and Jörg Zirfas, Munich: Fink, 2005, pp. 322-344.

14 Cf. Also Dieter Mersch, ‘Visual Arguments: The Role of Images in Sciences and Mathematics’, in: Science

Images and Popular Images of the Science, ed. By B. Hüppauf, P. Weingart, New York: Routledge 2008, p. 181-

15 Cf. also Dieter Mersch, ‘Medialität und Undarstellbarkeit. Einleitung in eine ‘negative’ Medientheorie,’ in Medialität und Performanz, ed. by Sybille Krämer, Munich: Fink, 2004, pp. 75-96.

16 Theodor W. Adorno insisted on the “similarity to language” of music in a similar context, but of course in a way that this similarity would only manifest itself where music departed from language’s function as statement. Cf. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Fragment über Musik und Sprache,’ in Musikalische Schriften III, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 16, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003, pp. 251-256; and Theodor Adorno, ‘Musik, Sprache und ihr
Verhältnis im gegenwärtigen Komponieren,’ in: ibid., pp. 649-664.

17 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus (Kritische Edition), ed. by Brian McGuinness and

Joachim Schulte, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1989, esp. 3.262, 4.022, 4.12-4.1212, 4.126, 5.62, 6.12, 6.36
and 6.522.

18 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bemerkungen, Vienna Edition, Vol. 3, Vienna and New York: Springer, 2000, p. 30,
No. 3.

19 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Grammatik, Frankfurt am Main, 1973, p. 40.

20 Wittgenstein, 2000a, p. 33-34.

21 Cf. Dieter Mersch ‘Negative Medialität. Derridas Différance und Heideggers Weg zur Sprache’ in Journal Phänomenologie, Jacques Derrida, Vol. 23, 2005, pp. 14-22.

22 Martin Heidegger, Unterwegs zur Sprache, Pfullingen: Neske, 1975, p. 13.

23 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1971, S. 175, § 523. (Philosophical Investigations, transl. G.E.M Anscombe, Oxford, 1953, p.143 § 523), German Original: “Das heisst, dass es mir etwas sagt, besteht in seiner eigenen Struktur, seinen Formen und Farben.”

24 Nelson Goodman, Sprachen der Kunst, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995, p. 57 ff.

25 Susanne K. Langer, Philosophie auf neuem Wege. Das Symbol im Denken, im Ritus und in der Kunst,

Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1984, p. 61 ff., 172 ff., 261 ff. On Husserl cf. Lambert Wiesing, Artifizielle Präsenz,
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2005. Cf. also Boehm, ‘Repräsentation – Präsentation – Präsenz,’ 2001, pp. 3-13.

26 Sigmund Freud, Die Traumdeutung, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1961, p. 259 ff.

27 Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Big Typescript, ed. by Michael Nedo, Vienna Edition, Vol. 11, Vienna and New York: Springer, 2000, p. 83 No. 4; Wittgenstein, Bemerkungen as in FN 18, p. 56, No. 5

28 Wittgenstein, Bemerkungen, as in FN 18, p. 56, No. 6.

29 Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen as in FN 23, part II, XI, p. 228 ff.

30 Cf. also William J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 35 ff.

31 On René Magritte see my remarks in Was sich zeigt. Materialität, Präsenz, Ereignis, Munich: Fink, 2002,

p. 295 ff.

32 Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Hamburg: Meiner, 1956, A 225, B 272 f.

33  While the term ‘gift’ has been made a topic by Derrida -tracing it back to Marcel Mauss -, here something completely different is focused upon: the perception of a given as something that is ‘given beforehand’ and not already constructed by perception. For the usage of the term, cf. Dieter Mersch Ereignis und Aura, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2002, p. 47 ff.

34 To show an image thus means to ‘provide’ a gaze. Cf. Jacques Lacan, ‘Linie und Licht,’ in: Boehm (ed.), Was ist ein Bild? as in FN 5, pp. 60-74, 70 .

35 Roland Barthes, Die helle Kammer. Bemerkung zur Photographie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1989, especially p. 60 ff.

36 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Tausend Plateaus, Berlin, 1992, p. 230 ff.

37 Cf. Mersch, Ereignis und Aua, as in FN 33, p. 75 ff.

38 On the crossing of gazes, although understood differently in each case, cf. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Der

Zweifel Cézannes,’ in Boehm, (ed.), Was ist ein Bild?, as in FN 5, pp. 39-59; and Lacan ‘Linie und Licht,’ as in FN 34, p. 64. However, the crossing of gazes in Lacan is developed from the encounter with alterity,.

39 John Berger, Sehen. Das Bild der Welt in der Bilderwelt, Hamburg: Reinbek, 1974, p. 10.

40 On Jan Vermeer cf. my remarks in ‘Ästhetischer Augenblick und Gedächtnis in der Kunst. Überlegungen zum Verhältnis von Zeit und Bild,’ as in FN 1., pp. 151-176.

41 Cf. Lacan, ‘Linie und Licht,’ as in FN 34, p. 61.

Author Profile
Dieter Mersch

Dieter Mersch is Professor for Philosophical Aesthetic at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). He studied mathematics and philosophy at the Universities of Co­logne and Bochum and got his PhD in philosophy at the Technical University Darmstadt. From 2000 to 2003 he was Guest-professor for Philosophy of Arts and Aesthetics at the School of Arts in Kiel, from 2004 to 2013 full professor for Media Theory and Media Studies at the University of Potsdam, in 2006 Guest-professor at the University of Chicago, 2010 Fellow at the IKKM in Weimar, 2012 Fellow at the ZHdK Zurich, Switzerland, in 2013 Guest-professor at the State University Sao Paulo, Brasil. He is also Chair of the DFG Research Training Centre «Visibility and Visualisa­tion – Hybrid Forms of Pictorial Knowledge» since 2010 and Member of the Editorial Board of the Annual Book for Media Philosophy (Jahrbuch für Medienphilosophie) and the Publica­tion Series Metabasis (Trancript, Bielefeld, Germany) and DIGAREC Series, Potsdam University Press. His main areas of interests are philosophy of media, aesthetics and art theory, picture theory, semiotics, hermeneutics, poststructuralism, and theory of language and communication. He has published several books, such as Introduction to Umberto Eco (Hamburg 1993, in German: Einführung zu Umberto Eco); What shows itself: On Materiality, Presence, and Event (Munich 2002, in German: Was sich zeigt: Materialität, Präsenz, Ereignis); Event and Aura: Investigations on Aesthetics of Performativity (Frankfurt/M 2002, in German: Ereignis und Aura: Untersuchungen zu einer Ästhetik des Performativen); Introduction to Media Theory (Hamburg 2006, in German: Medientheorien zur Einführung), Post-Hermeneutics (Berlin 2010, in German: Posthermeneutik) and Ordo ab chao / Order from Noise (Berlin/Zurich 2013).