Iconicity is the reference to the act of making or perceiving in the work
of art. Its appearance, however, always 'calls into question' the role
of the viewer, the artist, and the real status of the work.

iconicity

But, the intriguing matter is one of "iconicity" - the conversion of technical factors that fall between the artwork and audience into poetic elements reproduced in the artwork proper. As Victor Stoichita notes in The Self-Aware Image, reference to the act of looking by the artifact that one looks at raises the deepest of existential issues. Max Nänny and Olga Fischer, in reviving interest in the term "iconicity," have documented the antiquity of this mirroring tradition.

When the audience enters the scene of the work only to find its own fingerprints, a kind of zero-degree level is established from which any and all relationships to the artwork may be extracted. The audience's presence casts a shadow across the point-of-view, the narrator's voice, the salient consciousness we take to be the surface of the work - a shadow out of which we may hear the dry whisper of Hades. It is, after all, the self talking to the self, through the medium of a world replete with all possible characters, all possible situations, all possible settings.

This delayed soliloquy explains how the point of view as a strategy of confinement relies on anamorphosis. The narrator's limitations set up a contrasting profile around the surface of the work - its literal words, images, etc. - against which an ironic algorithm works to materialize a layered background that comes gradually into focus. Again, drawing from Murdoch, this time her novel, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, when Harriet visits the National Gallery:

She had felt very strange that afternoon in the National Gallery. An intense physical feeling of anxiety ahd taken possession of her as she was looking at Giorgione's picture of Saint Anthony and Saint George. There was a tree in the middle background which she had never properly attended to before. Of course she had seen it, since she had often looked at the picture, but she had never before felt its significance though what that significance was she could not say. There it was in the middle of clarity, in the middle of bright darkness, in the middle of limpid sultry yellow air, in the middle of nowhere at all with distant clouds creeping by behind it, linking the two saints yet also separating them and also being itself and nothing to do with them at all, a ridiculously frail, poetical vibrating motionless tree which was also a special particular tree on a special particular evening when the two saints happened (how odd) to be doing their respective things (ignoring each other) in a sort of murky yet brilliant glade . . . .

The figure of chiasmus is important here. Each detail in an anamorphic construction is a crossing or edge that works in two directions. One direction remains within the strictures of the normative symbolic networks that bind the characters (and the audience) within sets of expectations established by culture and convention. The other direction is devoted to escaping these confines and seeking pleasure in the "scandalous" violation of the norm, including the norm that is the audience's own expectation. What is negative for one direction is positive for the other, although the result is not the simple reversal of values but the complex re-integrative return of the exiled elements to the center and origin of the initiating events. In the eyes of Bertie Wooster, the solutions to his imbroglios appear to be his own happy luck or clever action, but the audience knows and sees different. When Arrowby's house fills up with precisely those people he had hoped to escape, the geometry of exile shows off its Möbius-band stylistics. Harriet's tree causes her to "look back, although determined not to look back." Anamorphosis, which can be as evident in irony, a joke, or an isolated sea-side cottage as it is in the blurred skull in The Ambassadors, rules not only the structure of the whole, but the audience's micro-appreciation of each detail. It, in effect, is the audience, and the audience's own isolation is the counterpoint machine that makes it work.

Perhaps the cultural and historical pervasiveness, the structural sturdiness, and the seemingly infinite number of variations on the themes of iconicity, anamorphy, and enthymeme owes their universality to the fact that they are, at its heart, the essence of human looking. Zizek might add that human looking involves a kind of concealment that animals cannot appreciate because, for animals, the inside of the body has no symbolic value as it has for humans. This difference means that humans see the external world in terms set up by the structure of consciousness, by the human body and its structure. There's a visible outside and a volatile, illuminating/disgusting invisible interior. The result is a "recursive" (self-referential) fractal able to expand from any chosen detail a wealth of possibilities whose relationships will inevitably form a mirror of the self. Isn't this the formula that gives us the compact logic of Rear Window, where the immobilized Jefferies makes a kaleidoscope out of his fishbowl courtyard? Each apartment becomes a point of immobility, a monogram fixed by heat and the marriage condition. The one apartment that attracts his special attention is the one that best mirrors his own ambiguous relationship with Lisa. He doesn't want to kill Lisa; he just wants her to stop pushing marriage. But, the Thorwalds' apartment gives this moderated impulse full rein, converting reticence to murder. Jefferies feels responsible for solving the mystery because he "magically" created Thorwald as a projection of his own avoidance of marriage. Thorwald's disgusting interior - concealed actions that take place in an apartment that is, unlike its neighbors, darkened and blinded. Thorwald's blinded interior corresponds to Jeff's sticking point, his sometimes rejected lover Lisa. The small object of desire, the wedding ring, ties together these interiors and ties up the mystery in a scene that combines the ring with the "gotcha" returned gaze of Thorwald when he discovers the identity of his tormentor, viewed by the audience through the rounded vignette of Jeff's telephoto lens. This is the prototype of the suture point, the Möbius band connection that gives the plot its required exciting twist.

© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved