The Ersatz Image [1]

As someone deeply invested in the disciplines of art history and visual culture studies, the recent shitstorm over a comment Jeremy Corbyn made in 2012 regarding a mural by Mear One (Kalen Ockerman) keeps flying into my radar range. Because it’s Easter and I’m supposed to give myself a break, I’ll stick working towards my research pro forma on hold for a day or two and wade into this furore.

Firstly, let’s talk about this mural. Yes, it is antisemitic. No, this cannot be watered down into ‘features antisemitic elements’. When you are used to perusing images, you come to regard them in terms of not just what they represent (if anything), but in terms of what they do, and what they want with us. Art (of this kind at least) does not occur naturally, it is fabricated by human intelligence. Furthermore it is publicly displayed, which means it has a claim on us; it is staked upon, motivated by and addressed to our attention. Visuality is a primary modality, perhaps the primary modality (it’s tempting to rank it equal to musicality), in which ideology is propagated and reproduced in contemporary life. Since at least the early 20th Century this was recognised among newspaper editors, who coined the idiom that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’: if you had something to say, say it with a bold image, then append the argument textually. Since that time, among the weaponry of journalists their cameras have taken pride of place and it is often (though not always) the case that it is the securing of an image that will make or break the rationale for a story. No one can doubt the extraordinary impact of images today. However, the powerful ‘speech’ of images, their ability to hail or interpellate a public, precisely by virtue of standing in for or condensing the argumentative impact of ‘a thousand words’, also elides the discursiveness and rational argumentation that those thousand words would have had to present in order to achieve a similar intensity of effect. In other words, the impact of images takes place largely in an affective register; they appeal to the emotionality of their public and not, primarily, to their discursive or critical thinking, which they tend to short-cut. It is this emotive character of images that lends to them a rhetorical, persuasive character. All of this is absolutely obvious of course, but it is necessary to step through it in order to approach the specific image.

Before we begin interrogating the mural, there are some important caveats that would need to be included in any visual analysis. Firstly, whenever I discuss the image in terms of what it ‘does’ or what it ‘wants’, this is in no sense to be taken as an categorical attribution of agency to the image. Taking note of the debate between Mitchell1, Freedberg2, and Wolff3, it is entirely possible to speak of an image being motivated or having motivations without this slipping into philosophical animism. This is possible because we are dealing with the production of an artist or author, and can therefore approach the mural in terms of the process known to Greimasian semiotics as débrayage.4 Rather than having the artist who calls himself Mear One standing before us presenting us verbally with some kind of argument or narration, Ockerman instead delegates his enunciatory power to the expressiveness of the mural and its iconography. It is in this sense of débrayage or disengagement, and in this sense only, that we can speak of the actantial aspect of the image.5 However, this has important ramifications, since it means that the entire background network of cultural assumptions on which Ockerman’s delegated enunciation would have depended are as implicated by the imagery of the mural as they would have been were he himself present.

Furthermore, just as the artist’s function as enunciator is virtualised within the medium by disengagement and delegation to the expressiveness of the medium, so too is the function of any hypothetical enunciatee presupposed and virtualised by the production of his artistic labour. The fictional ‘voice’ of the image (that which is colloquially regarded as ‘saying something’, and whose impact on an audience would be ‘worth a thousand words’) is a virtualised ‘I’ which addresses a no-less simulative ‘You’, just as narrator and narratee are constructed and organised by a text. Both this ‘I’ and the ‘You’ it addresses are actant-delegates,6 in this case not virtualised through strictly textual strategies but via the visual and compositional organisation of the mural itself. Recall that the mural is a public-facing surface composed of symbols which are presupposed as intelligible or bearing semantic freight. The ‘I’ and ‘You’ formed by this visual distribution further presupposes a relationship whose modality is fiduciary. Without an assumption of trust on the part of a public no artificial image would be able to mean anything at all; we are supposed to believe that something intelligible is there to be conveyed to us — not necessarily propositional, but at the very least signifying. More prosaically, the mural can be said to construct or elect an audience, which may or may not conform with its actual publics. An actual public, in regarding the mural, can thus be said to be offered a subject position (which it may or may not be at ease with). For in-depth visual and formal analyses of works of art it is imperative to identify such a subject position, in short to ask: who are ‘we’ supposed to be when this image is addressing itself to ‘us’?.

The second caveat is the following: it is important to clarify the distinction between image and the physical existence of the mural. The physical mural was available purely in terms of its sensual existence — its visual medium (painted mural), its form (delineation, texture, recession, multiplicity, clarity, etc.), its support (the wall of a building), and in its environmental context (its location, not only geographically but socially and historically). Although the original mural has since gone, it has been reproduced many times over in digital form online, through photography. It makes sense therefore to say that the material support of the image still exists, but that its environmental context and its support have altered considerably. As an image, however, the mural is also immaterial, reproducible and reiterated through memory and imagination. As an image it persists in the ‘mind’s eye’, as an artefact not of some specific visual encounter (embedded in physical context) but of visuality as such, as one within countless images we tend to call ‘mental images’. While some mental images can fade and be forgotten, the physical existence of a picture, painting or material artefact in a public arena is not easily overcome without concerted, collective action. This is important because, for a public who encountered the original material and experienced its problematic or offensive nature, the re-encounter with its myriad digital versions in circulation can serve to verify, or perhaps even amplify their experience. It is for this reason I have chosen not to further circulate or recycle the image by posting a photo with this blog post. This is in line with an ethic of not providing a material support for an offensive image. Should anything I write here require confirmation, a search for ‘”Freedom for Humanity”‘ and “Mear One” will bring up plenty of versions.

It is also clear from such an understanding of artificially created images that they can never be regarded as neutral with respect to intentionality; there is no way to reduce the image to its material support, as in the disingenuous arguments of those who would defend it as ‘just some paint on a wall’. To speak of an image is to be already engaged in interpretation; an image cannot exist in an uninterpreted state. The composition, medium, practical history and forms of its material support must already be understood as presenting an image before we were able to designate it as such. The habit of regarding purposive markings on a surface as an image is encoded and presupposed by the action of the artist painting the mural. Its manufacturedness is clearly evident; it didn’t arise by itself but is the product of purposive human action. Therefore it is entirely unreasonable to regard it as anything other than an intentional statement bearing specific human and social weights.

One of the most striking things about this image is its deliberate stylistic crudity, intending it to be situated within a whole series of cartoon-like images, many of which are modern or contemporary, but which are overlapped in part by a tradition of political caricature in print since the late seventeenth century. That tradition is deliberately contemptuous of the human form in particular, and has frequently been used in racist typifications. The figural elements in the mural itself follow this pattern.

The upper part of the mural is dominated by the eye of providence, which has ever since the libertarian-right cyberculture’s embrace of psychedelic fiction such as Robert Anton Wilson’s trilogy Illuminatus! in the early 1990s, been used in online meme culture as a symbol of occult puppet-masters pulling political strings. This symbol needs especial care, as it signifies on several levels and has been especially hegemonised by both counter-culture and mainstream cinema. Historically speaking, the eye of providence as recognisable today comes from the emblematic tradition in engraved works, sometimes alchemical, sometimes purely exoteric and moral. Many guilds and fraternities, such as the order of foresters and the order of operative masons (precursors of Freemasonry) have made use of the symbol, but it is by no means exclusive to any of them. There is no record of its use in Freemasonry before the late 18th century. Much has been made by conspiracy theorists (again, prompted by psychedelic fiction and ‘occult’ literature) of its use in the great seal of America, held to suggest that the founding fathers were, in the main, Freemasons. While a role for secret societies in both the French and American revolutions is acknowledged by historical record, there did not exist at the time anything like the well-organised, regularised systems of Freemasonry such as those which exist today. In addition, Catholic anti-revolutionary propaganda has inflated many accounts. The narrative of a shadowy Bavarian Illuminati masterminding the 1789 revolution, recycled and popularised in early 1990s fiction, has little to no historical basis in fact. However, the lure of the narrative of a clandestine continuity to history has an appeal outside of film and literature. Many enlightenment-by-mail-order ‘mystical’ fraternities still exist, for example. Such bodies concoct their own histories, sometimes claiming the Providence emblem as a symbol for ‘ascended masters’ in some dubious precursor spiritualist society, borrowing much of their mystique from Helena Petrovna Blavasky’s Theosophy and the reactionary theurgic writings of Martinez de Pasqually and Louis-Claude de Saint Martin. The continuing appeal of belonging to such ‘special’ or exclusive communities naturally fuels the paranoia of those who see in them a political influence on global events. In a further manoeuvre, such profit-making ‘mystical’ corporate bodies often attempted to link their initiatic pedigree to whichever floating signifiers still remained enigmatic from antiquity, such as the pyramids, the sphinx, and the Wedjat (eye of Horus). This hermetic quackery and charlatanry has many precedents, perhaps one of the most infamous being ‘polymath’ Athanasius Kircher. Kircher, on whose work some elements of the Western Mystery Tradition is partially based, claimed to have translated Egyptian Hieroglyphs before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. What he produced was a tract of pure gibberish according to modern linguists, but the work was held as deeply meaningful among esotericists, particularly in the occult revival of the Victorian fin de siècle. Although egregious from an academic point of view, lacking anything like scholarly or intellectual persuasiveness, such currents are on the whole politically harmless. What is not harmless, however, is the image of them that conspiracy theorists generate, linking them to contemporary political events and with the idea of a Jewish plot that has persisted in the right wing mind ever since, at the latest, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery.

As always when dealing with conspiracy theorists, ‘secret histories’ and ‘forbidden knowledge’ of this kind we have to tackle the displacement and reduplication of the Big Other. For a conspiracy theorist it’s never simply that everyday language oppresses, but that there is another, secret language behind it. It’s never that everyday social structures and relations effectively stratify society, but that there is another, secret structure behind society ordering it. To the paranoid mind, the psychoanalytic concept of the Big Other (language, society, history) is not enough of an account to explain the way things are; there must be another Other, behind the scenes. It is trivial to demonstrate that the iconography of the eye of providence has changed historically in order to accommodate this particularly postmodern paranoia. While its real origins as an emblem can be found in Christian and Talmudic exegesis, as when God promises to Moses to be ever watchful from the heavens (this explanation was still current within masonic literature of 1877, under which rubric the symbol is known as ‘the all-seeing eye’)7, its present associations with conspiratorial plots and secret histories eclipse this.

Providence is a theological concept that the Church Fathers knew also as dispositio or oikonomia, meaning the ‘economy’ or ‘household rule’ which distributed, within the totality of God, his being or essence on the one hand and his executive powers on the other. For the Catholic church this doctrine was essential to the narrative of a tripartite, yet still unified, godhood: the holy trinity. Thus in time the clouds, from which early renditions of the eye of providence gazed, came to be replaced with the triangle. Within the iconographical traditions of Europe from that time onwards, the eye of Providence symbolised the omnibenevolent omniscience of a three-in-one Holy Family (in which, as feminists have often pointed out, the role of mother became mystified and buried) that help form the ‘nuclear’ patriarchal model of western ‘civilisation’.

Those iconological origins, however, were not intended by the mural as painted by Ockerman / Mear One. Rather, the artist has capitalised on the later meaning given to the symbol by libertarian literature in the late twentieth century, in a reuptake of occult sources such as Aleister Crowley, MacGregor Mathers, and Israel Regardie’s pseudo-Kabbalistic expositions on the symbology of the Golden Dawn and the OTO, all of which circulated freely in internet newsgroups during the 1990s and in the ‘New Age’ literature of the time. In short, we are supposed to see the eye in the pyramid as representing not theological Providence but a shadowy cabal, an unseen — and for the uninitiated, unseeable — influence on world governments. As representations go, the appropriation of the (essentially Catholic) symbol by a libertarian right wing extremely wary of big government and surveillance is easy to understand. An all-seeing-eye would, to the kind of person who supported, say, the Tea Party in America, or who counted David Icke as a source of information, appear every bit as menacing as the lidless eye of Sauron would appear to a hobbit of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. As a symbol the eye connotes a destruction of privacy; no interiority; no subjectivity allowed. In the mind of a libertarian right-winger drunk on the ideal of abstract or formal freedom, all thoughts are laid bare by such an eye, leaving it open to the scrutiny and policing of us bureaucratic leftists who would, it is supposed, like to curtail their freedom. This is not by any means a left wing piece of art.

It is likely that at some point someone will compare the mural, particularly the pyramidal form of its main figures, with the classic anti-capitalist illustration, Pyramid of Capitalist System, disseminated by the International Workers of the World (a legitimate left wing group informally known as the ‘Wobblies’) in 1911.8 There are indeed some minor similarities, but a closer look reveals how superficial those similarities are, and how profound the differences.

The first thing to note is that Nedeljkovich, Brashich, and Kuharich’s poster of 1911, while employing generic or stereotypical figures to represent various social layers (in terms of function: labour, bourgeoisie, military, clerical, executive), none do so in what can be regarded as a malevolent, conspiratorial or pernicious way. There are no gleeful hand-rubbing anti-semitic Shylock figures to be seen. In contrast to the ruling classes that comprise the executive, political-ideological wing and the military, the most malignant thing the social stratum representing the bourgeoisie engages in, in fact, is to eat and celebrate. They are characterised not as insidious evil doers; their ‘sin’, if the image is to be moralised, is largely one of blithe ignorance. The hierarchy is, of course, entirely supported by human labour, but rather than being structured from above by a mystifying emblem ramifying hidden (‘occulted’) political agendas, the whole exists to support the bag of money which, for Marxists, represents not any human group but a social relation: capital. In short, capitalism emerges and is the apex of a system in which abstract labour power and the production process is devalued and the surplus value thus created is placed on a pedestal as the teleological goal of the entire system of relations. There are no ‘elites’ in this picture, just a simplified illustration of the social stratifications on which the reproduction of the system is staked: the class relation which devalues labour. As a pedagogical tool or teaching aid, the illustration is, in some respects, Brechtian: generic roles are presented against the background of their historical contingency, and, perhaps by design, do not appear naturalistic, let alone reducible to any kind of biopolitically racist body morphology.

If we now return to the Mear One mural, and contrast its personalised, mystifying and anti-semitic character with the clarity of the Marxism in the IWW poster, things become much easier to point to. The figures seated around the table are intended to be identifiable individuals, namely (from left to right): Mayer Amschel Rothschild, John D Rockefeller, J P Morgan, Aleister Crowley, Andrew Carnegie, and Paul Warburg. The leftmost and rightmost are actually Jewish people, depicted in full-blown anti-semitic stereotypy — Rothschild, robed and full bearded, is actually counting out money. Indeed, it’s as if the monopoly game is there simply as an alibi for this depiction. Crowley, meanwhile, was an antisemite but was steeped in the Western Mystery Tradition, which in the woolly associationism of a conspiracy theorist like Ockerman (who has actually turned to no less a fantasist than David Icke for defence of his mural) is equivalent to a ‘New World Order’ plot. The foregrounded monopoly game and its players occur against a background of turning gears, linking them to a paranoid vision of predestination, a worldview in which nothing happens that has not been orchestrated by ‘the cabal’. It is not insignificant that this Laplacian, deterministic, world-view, which leaves no room for agency (or indeed complexity), is exemplified by the cogs and wheels of industry, since this condenses on the one hand a legitimate plea against the automatisation of life with a tainted, racist view of commercial industries as being in the hands of Jews and exotic cabals to the extent that the figure of the Jew and the machination of history become indistinguishable. Again, this is a mystification and a displacement.

In part 2, the context of the mural’s reception, and especially the context of the media story generated on the back of Corbyn’s apparent support (or at least, lack of criticism) for the mural in 2012 will be given some thought.

References

[1] Mitchell 1995; Mitchell 2005
[2] Freedberg 1989
[3] Wolff 2012:3-19
[4] Martin & Ringham 2000:47, 58
[5] Martin & Ringham 2000:18, 58
[6] Martin & Ringham 2000:58
[7] MacKenzie 1987:31
[8] Labour Arts 2018

Bibliography

  • Freedberg, David, 1989, The Power of Images, University of Chicago Press
  • Labor Arts, 2018 (1911), ‘Item no. 28201: Pyramid of Capitalist System’, issued by Nedeljkovich, Brashick and Kuharich, Cleveland: The International Publishing Co., 1911, available at http://www.laborarts.org/collections/item.cfm?itemid=428 Accessed 31/03/2017
  • MacKenzie, Kenneth R. H., 1987 (1877), The Royal Masonic Cyclopædia, Aquarian Press
  • Martin, Bronwen & Ringham, Felizitas, 2000, Dictionary of Semiotics, Cassell
  • Mitchell, William J. T., 1995, Picture Theory, University of Chicago Press
  • Mitchell, William J. T., 2005, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, University of Chicago Press
  • Wolff, Janet, 2012, ‘After cultural theory: the power of images, the lure of immediacy’, Journal of Visual Culture, vol 11, no 1, pp 3–19, Available at http://vcu.sagepub.com/content/11/1/3 Accessed 9/03/2015
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