The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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DEC 21-JAN 22 Issue
Editor's Message

Sounding the Idols

“Today our idols are not eternal but transitory, temporary, untimely, contemporary, urgent, emergent, a state of emergency.”

Portrait of W.J.T. Mitchell. Pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui
Portrait of W.J.T. Mitchell. Pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui

Idolatry and iconoclasm are evil twins. They need each other, feed on each other. The idol is said to demand human sacrifice. The iconoclast responds by sacrificing idolaters, or (more likely) exterminating them without the dignity of sacrifice. See Exodus 32, in which Moses melts down the Golden Calf, forces the idolatrous Israelites to drink it, and massacres half his people. When Poussin paints this scene, he cannot help himself. As a painter, he must glorify the Calf and its maker, and shroud the furious Moses in darkness. Why does Aaron, the artist who made the idol, get away scot-free? Was Milton a true poet, and of the Devil’s Party?

Nietzsche intervened in this perverse dialectic by substituting a tuning fork for the destructive hammer. Don’t destroy the idol, he said. Make it sound. And test its sound against that of the tuning fork in the hand of the iconoclast. How do they resonate? Harmony or discord? Do they re-sound with the “ear within the ear?”

Is this what we used to call deconstruction? Critique, excavation, desedimentation without destruction? Listening to our language, ourselves? Acoustic archaeology? Forensics of sound?

Nietzsche’s idols were eternal. They belonged to philosophy: cause and effect, free will, moralism, reason, God, Socrates, Kant. All worthy opponents. His enemies survive to fight back.

Today our idols are not eternal but transitory, temporary, untimely, contemporary, urgent, emergent, a state of emergency. What are their names? The following list is culled from the headlines, from the echoes of words, images, and their magical effects on masses of people. They are not all evil, or empty. Or perhaps emptiness (which is the precondition of their sonic potential) is not necessarily a defect. What is the difference between an idol and an ideal? Faith and Reason? Falsehood and Truth? What happens when an idol is confused with a totem or a fetish?1

I have my idols, and try to serve them faithfully. I reject the notion that all idols are hollow. It is we who hollow them out. But our default notion is that idols are invariably evil, false, deceptive, and they must be exposed or destroyed. That is where Nietzsche comes in. He interrupts iconoclasm. By putting a tuning fork in the hand of the iconoclast, the striking of the idol may disclose resistant noise, or an unsuspected music or both. I urge a qualified respect for idols; I want to hear them out. The talking cure is a sounding cure. Was Nietzsche of sound mind when he wrote Twilight of the Idols? Is it time for the divine madness of prophecy?

Freedom. It rings louder than ever, more insistently. A cacophony of selfishness and hatred. A death cult around a deposed tyrant. The First Amendment and the Second Amendment come together in the threats and executions, the mobilizing of militias. The Freedom to choose actions and inaction that threaten public health; that deny the freedom of women to control their own bodies, while asserting your freedom to spread the plague. OK, I hear you. Now shut the fuck up. Go away. Grow up. Get a life.

White Supremacy. As its monuments fall, its voice gets louder. No more dog whistles. No more winks and whispers. Shouts, cries of outrage, threats of death, now carried out. Where? Charlottesville, VA; El Paso, TX; Kenosha, WI; Minneapolis, MN; Washington, D.C.; the list is growing. Listen to the anger, fear, resentment, stirred into a toxic brew. Now the hammers are linked to firing pins.

Media: Communication as anti-community, a @Metaverse of Fabrications: Lies, Games, Fake News, Propaganda, Disinformation, Alternate Realities, QAnon. Time for a meta-media critique of the metaverse, with all available tools: satire, parody, forensics, fictions, counter-fabrications, metagames, comics, weaving, tuning forks. (Here is a link to the MetaMedia conference at @UChicago).

Capitalism: Moloch, the devourer of children, now devours its mother, the planet Earth. The immunity of the stock market, setting records amidst plague; disaster capitalism thriving on climate change.

Data: the cult of information, its fabric of in-formation. How do we picture data? What Metapictures surround information? How does disinformation work? Why is it stronger than “true” information? How does it make money? “Falsehood flies; the truth comes limping after.” —Jonathan Swift

Democracy: hollowed out, it joins the endangered species list. The four -demics, of which the infodemic is the worst. Pandemic (Covid), Infodemic (Facebook), Ecodemic (Climate Change), Endemic (Racism). Convergence as a DemoDemic—with Infodemic silencing the other three, drowning them out. Threat to species. Extinction as a visible possibility.

Race: the Endemic, ever necessary, always disavowed core of the matter, circulated as caste, nation, class, ethnicity, culture; the culture wars; cancel culture; affirmative action. Tribalism, re-segregation.

Victims: always crucial to idol worship. The subjects of sacrifice, cruelty, slavery. Mere Zoe, not even worthy of sacrifice. The cult of victimage. Wound as identity. Hurt feelings as the Judgment Seat. I suffer, therefore I am.

War: the American defense industry’s relative share of the national budget: 50 percent of expenditures. Why not declare climate change a national emergency, a threat to freedom, and put it to work on the environment, infrastructure, and mitigation-resilience? Warming planet threatens to heat up a Cold War. Put war machines to work on cooling.

God, of course, lurks behind all these idols, as always. That old-time white religion; patriarchy; heteronormativity; identity sans transition. A good time for Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., William Blake, Freud, Marx, Darwin.

Science: Dr. Fauci is God. A sure sign of that is his role as the Devil to the trolls. A religion of uncertainty, inquiry, investigation, experimentation, sounding.

Art: The U.N. tapestry of Guernica has retired, with little notice. Digital files soar in Bitcoin value. The spinners and weavers continue to fabricate our world, for good and ill. Craft. Craftiness. MetaMedia. Comics. Laughter. All our idols should be carved in sand. Melville could not understand why South Pacific islanders threw their idols into the fire. “Art is not eternal.” –Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Hunter-gatherers are happier than us.

The Human and the Humanities. I cling to my fetish, a fading, marginal idol that was provided to me many years ago by William Blake. It is the vision of an emancipated humanity, “the human form divine,” living in a realm of “Sweet Science” and “Wars of Intellect.” If it can be imagined, Blake tells us, it can be realized. Humanity will have to awaken from its slumber, however, and this will be accomplished by the improvement of sensual enjoyment, a fierce desire for truth, and a dethroning of Urizen and Nobodaddy and Monotono-Theism. Why teach literature and art? What’s the point? Perhaps just a viable future for our species? The four Demics are all grounded in this mythic concept of the Demos. And what is the Demos? A fiction? A fabulation? A fabrication. Let’s stick to fabric—and the spinning and weaving. These are the absolute metaphors, not idols, but forms of time and space, totemic operators, woofing warps. No posthuman for me. We are pre-human, pre-post, pre-posterous. The relation of humans and our fabrications is our subject. Are we weaving our own shroud, our winding sheet? A security blanket? Is our species a danger to itself and others, the legal condition for confinement by reason of insanity? Who will enforce the law protecting humanity from itself?

I asked these friends to write their thoughts on sounding idols with tuning forks, and here is what they came up with:

Lawrence Abu Hamdan: RFK assassination: what an ear witness saw.
Mieke Bal: Kyriarchy: the idol of immigration systems.
Charles Bernstein: the echo chamber of moralism.
Jonathan Bordo: moving whiteness into the community of colors.
Seth Brodsky: is music able to quiet the idols?
Luca Del Baldo: painting idols before, during, and after destruction.
Tanya Jayani Fernando: against dimming the sun to cool the planet.
Peter Goodrich: sounding the Law to see if it is sound.
Hannah B. Higgins: the American Flag and the Singing of the National Anthem.
Omar Kholeif: Idols are not chosen, they prickle you.
Janice Misurell-Mitchell: Resistant Noise, a piece for chorus and orchestra.
Marjorie Perloff: a fallen idol, and the endurance of John Cage.
John Paul Ricco: extinction and Stoic listening to silences.


  1. See “Totemism, Fetishism, Idolatry” in What Do Pictures Want? (Chicago, 2005).


W. J. T. Mitchell

W. J. T. Mitchell teaches literature, art history, and cinema at the University of Chicago. He is the author of numerous books on image theory, including Iconology, What Do Pictures Want? and Image Science. His most recent book is Mental Traveler: A Father, a Son, and a Journey through Schizophrenia.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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