Looking Through Images: A Phenomenology of Visual Media is an English translation of Emmanuel Alloa’s Das durchscheinende Bild: Konturen einer medialen Phänomenologie, which was first published in German in 2011 after having been presented as the author’s doctoral thesis in 2009. The range and breadth of Alloa’s knowledge of thinkers and views from different periods in the history of western philosophy is impressive, ranging from Ancient Greece through the early modern period and into the twentieth century, and including thinkers from different philosophical traditions, engaging with analytic philosophers of art such as Nelson Goodman and Richard Wollheim as well as the phenomenological and ‘continental’ philosophers in relation to whose ideas Alloa’s own account is mainly situated. However, due in part to the number and diversity of figures covered and the space required to present even a cursory account of their views, the book’s wide-ranging discussion ultimately fails to come together into a single—or even a coherently conjunctive—focus, with at least three aims being discernable that are never fully realized in a way that fulfills the initial promise of Alloa’s introduction.
One thing that this work aims to do is to analyze and give a theory of what it is for something to be an image—the ‘image-ness’ of images, as it were; their ‘pictoriality’—which Alloa contends remains largely unexamined in academic discourse despite the recent popularity of image-centric inter-disciplinary fields such as ‘visual studies’ and ‘media studies.’ Connected with this first concern, Alloa is also interested in explaining how images operate, or their distinct place in human experience and their importance within our socio-cultural world, and is guided by a phenomenological approach in investigating both concerns. “Th[e] book is conceived,” he notes upfront, “as a phenomenology of the way we deal with visual media and as a rehabilitation of images as irreplaceable agents of our everyday opening up of world” (3).
In particular, Alloa seeks to present an alternative to the widespread understanding of images as just, or primarily, representations, arguing that although an image is always an image of something, an image’s nature qua image goes beyond anything that could be called its ‘content’, where he calls this transcendence of (re)presentational content “iconic excess” and insists that this excess is itself “genuinely visible or phenomenal” (Ibid.). Rather than subordinating images to what they are images of, as secondary (i.e., ‘re-‘) presentations or copies of an original, and rather than understanding pictorial expression as derivative of verbal expression, which he thinks the currently dominant approaches to theorizing and understanding images are guilty of doing, Alloa wants to attend more to how things are presented in images than to what is presented. This distinction between what an image is of and the image qua image—including how the images presents, or is of, what it is of—might seem at first to mirror the two directions in visual studies that Alloa calls the ‘transparency’ and ‘opacity’ paradigms, respectively. His concern with images qua images rather than what they are of does not take the form of an interest in images as ‘opaque,’ since the latter involves an interest in the thing that bears an image—a painting, a photograph, etc.—qua material object—e.g., as a canvas of a certain size, shape, and weight with coloured pigments applied to it surface, or as a strip of celluloid containing arrangements of grains of silver halide—, and since Alloa takes both this approach and the ‘transparency’ approach, which looks past an image-bearing object’s materiality and pictorial surface to what is depicted therein, to overlook how something exists and operates qua image in the first place.
There are some claims that Alloa makes when introducing the basics of his view of images that seem odd or paradoxical at first glance. For instance, he claims that he takes images not to be phenomena themselves, strictly speaking, but rather to be media in which things appear, writing that a central part of the nature of images is that “they do not themselves appear but in them show something other than what they are” (5). One might wonder how a phenomenological approach can be usefully taken toward something that is not itself a phenomenon, and how what one can come to understand by taking such an approach will be the nature or operation of images, if they are not phenomena, instead of the related phenomena that are claimed to be shown through images. One might also wonder whether Alloa is right to say that images “do not … appear,” which seems to entail that we never perceive images, only what they are of and the objects that bear them. To claim that images are not perceived raises the question of just what is meant by ‘images’ here, since it would seem to go against most ordinary uses of this word.
This apparent difficulty may be resolved by noting that another of Alloa’s aims in the book is not only to apply a phenomenological approach to the study of images but to propose a new kind of phenomenological approach, which he calls ‘medial phenomenology,’ as an alternative to Husserlian ‘transcendental’ or ‘eidetic’ phenomenology. Framed against his claims that all phenomenal appearances are mediated, his own account might be understood as taking images to be media for appearances themselves rather than for independent objects that appear ‘through’ them. However, whether this view of images as media for appearances, rather than appearances themselves, is convincing, and so whether this helps resolve the difficulty, must be seen by considering how Alloa develops his twin concerns with pictoriality and mediation.
The book is divided into five chapters, with each chapter containing ten sections, although the reason for this uniform number of sections is not obvious. The division seems to be arbitrary at best: with some chapters, the inclusion of ten sections feels unnecessary and seems to be done for the sake of symmetry rather than from any organic need; with others, the division of some sections into further sub-sections (e.g., 3.4a–f; 5.7a–j) suggests that more than ten sections may have been warranted given the topics covered in the chapters. Although they are meant to follow one another in a thematic progression, for the most part each chapter can be read on its own, with the connections between chapters often being loose or general.
Chapter 1 focuses on the place of images in early Greek philosophy, centring on Plato’s dispute with the Sophists over the ontological status and value of images. Alloa contends that this question of the image has an important place in the ‘foundations’ of western philosophy itself, with the role that Plato’s answer to this question plays in his refutation of the Sophists setting the agenda for the subsequent course of metaphysics and epistemology. Specifically, Alloa sees Plato’s suspicion of images to be at the root of what he claims is philosophy’s ‘iconophobia,’ which explains what Alloa claims is a relative lack of philosophical accounts of, or engagements with questions about, the nature of images qua images. As well as containing a survey and explication of the ancient debate over images and their relation to truth and knowledge—or what we might call their cognitive significance—this is the chapter in which the dual paradigms of transparency and opacity are introduced and the ancient roots of the present forms of these paradigms are traced, with the transparency paradigm being linked to the notion that images make objects present to us so that, for instance, when we see a painted portrait of a family member or public figure, we are given access to something of that person’s essence through a kind of metaphysical ‘participation’ or methexis of the person (or object) in the painting. The opacity paradigm, on the other hand, holds that images are just marked surfaces, so that when one sees, for instance, a painting of some object, what one sees is only a flat material surface bearing an arrangement of coloured pigments that in some way resembles that object, where this resemblance can arouse thoughts of that object but where one does not perceive this object itself in any sense ‘through’ the painting. Early versions of each paradigm can be seen in the debate between Plato and the Sophists with, e.g., sophistical claims for the broad expertise of artists grounded in their ability to represent a wide variety of subjects being linked to the transparency paradigm, and the platonic denial of this expertise, with the reduction of images to ‘copies of copies’ doubly removing them from the proper objects of knowledge, being aligned with the opacity paradigm.
Chapter 2 stays with Ancient Greek thought but shifts the focus to Aristotle and his account of perception as being necessarily mediated, with Alloa reconstructing and attempting to rehabilitate a notion of ‘the diaphanous’ as a general medium of perception through which phenomena of all kinds appear. Chapter 3 looks at how this idea of the diaphanous as a medium for perception was taken up and used by thinkers after Aristotle, presenting a survey that ranges from later Hellenistic and early Medieval philosophers such as Themistius, Plotinus, and Aquinas up to early modern philosophers such as Descartes and Berkeley. Because the book’s initial concern with images takes a back seat in these chapters to a discussion of mediality and of perceptual appearance in general, it is not immediately clear how these chapters are meant to relate. Fortunately, the latter half of the third chapter ties together the central topics of the first two by framing various thinkers’ appeals to the idea of ‘diaphaneity’ in terms of the transparency and opacity paradigms. However, these ideas are still mainly applied here to ideas of a transparent medium, with a discussion of images only coming into play at the end of the chapter. As a result, the relevance or importance of some of the figures discussed in the third chapter is not clear, apart from their being thinkers who make some mention of the diaphanous. To be fair, this may be an artifact of the book’s origin as a doctoral dissertation, a genre for which literature reviews and demonstrations of a broad knowledge in the history of philosophy are expected. Nevertheless, the number of thinkers and ideas covered in this chapter does not allow for the more in-depth explication or analysis that might have helped tie these ideas together and show their relevance for Alloa’s overall project.
Chapter 4 puts the focus back on images and traces a different history involving a different period in philosophy: that of the place of images and the idea of a perceptual medium in the phenomenological tradition, running from Brentano and Husserl up through Sartre to Fink, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida. This chapter helps to connect the initially disparate ideas discussed in the previous chapters, with the first six of the ten sections focusing more on images—especially in relation to Husserl and Sartre—and sections seven to ten discussing the idea of perception as being mediated. It also sets the stage for the last chapter by leading us to see Alloa’s proposed medial phenomenology and its application to an analysis of images’ pictoriality as both part of a strand of thinking running through the phenomenological tradition and a continuation of the twentieth century development of these ideas. The discussions in this chapter of image-consciousness in Husserl and Sartre, and of Merleau-Ponty’s late ontology of ‘flesh’ (chair) as itself offering a kind of medial account of perception and experience, are particularly interesting and are worth the consideration of students and authors who are working on these topics.
These discussions, however, are not given enough space to do more than scratch the surface of the elements of these phenomenologists’ theories that are relevant to Alloa’s project—e.g., the discussion of Merleau-Ponty is only given a six-and-a-half page section at the end of the chapter—, where expanded discussions of all three thinkers would have been more valuable and would have helped to flesh out, and add depth to, the original positions that Alloa develops in his next and final chapter. The feeling that this chapter’s discussion of phenomenological thinkers has been given ‘short shrift’ to some degree increases when one notices that the thinkers and ideas discussed in the first three chapters do not directly tie into or set up the views in this chapter, leading to a feeling that the book’s chapters remain somewhat disconnected, despite each dealing with one or both of the two central topics. Because the discussions in the first three chapters, interesting though they are, are not strictly necessary to lead up to the discussion of twentieth century phenomenologists in this chapter, it is difficult not to think that an expansion of this chapter into two, or even three, chapters, along with the final chapter—possibly also expanded—would have worked better as a self-contained book, or at least if accompanied by a shorter discussion of the historical background in Plato and Aristotle in a single opening chapter. (Again, one wonders if this is largely an artifact of the book’s origins as a doctoral dissertation.)
Chapter 5 is the core of the book in both its length and substance: here, Alloa presents his original positions on the topics that have been discussed in the previous chapters. These primarily consist in (i) a medial phenomenology (or ‘diaphenomenology,’ as he also calls it) that is meant to offer an alternative to existing approaches to phenomenology, especially the eidetic and transcendental phenomenology of Husserl and those influenced by him, and (ii) an account of iconicity—i.e., of what it is for something to be an image—that is framed, after Nelson Goodman, as a ‘symptomatology’ rather than a definition framed in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. With respect to the latter, Alloa’s account features ten ‘symptoms’ that paradigmatically characterize images, viz.:
(a) ellipsis, by which Alloa means that images are always of a fixed aspect of an object and never the whole object, and are always specific rather than general;
(b) synopticity, which involves the simultaneous rather than sequential presentation of an image’s components as well as a phenomenal, if not always a literal, two-dimensionality or flatness;
(c) framing, as a way of both structuring the visual space of an image and marking it out from the rest of the phenomenal world;
(d) presentativity, meaning just that an image presents something to view by showing it rather than by ‘telling’ us about it or presenting it discursively;
(e) figurality, where exactly what this is is not entirely clear, but which Alloa ties to the evidentiary potential of images as well as to the idea that an image is always more than a sum of its individualizable ‘parts;’
(f) deixis, or depiction, which Alloa differentiates from both reference and representation;
(g) ostensivity, which has three forms: exemplification—where there is no distinction between the surface or bearer of an image and what the image shows—ostension—involving presenting something by pointing to it—and bareness—which refers to the possibility of an image not showing anything other than what it is as a material object, and which Alloa explains by talking of images “externalizing themselves” (262);
(h) variation sensitivity, which combines what Goodman calls ‘syntactic density’ and ‘relative repleteness,’ and, briefly put, is a matter of any change to one part of an image also making a change to the image as a whole;
(i) chiasmic gazes, which involves the image being a locus or meeting-place for two points of view, with the image both standing out to the viewer and drawing the viewer’s gaze inwards, where this is expressed in the metaphor of an image ‘looking back’ at those who look at it;
(j) seeing-with, which is Alloa’s addition to the categories of seeing-in and seeing-as that are familiar in philosophical discussions of images, whereby images are taken to mediate our seeing of their objects rather than our literally seeing images as what they are of, or our being limited to seeing the object in the image.
It is understandable that Alloa should want to avoid formulating an essence of pictoriality by giving necessary and sufficient conditions for something being an image, due to current suspicions of this kind of definition. However, it is not clear how gathering together these ten ‘symptoms’—i.e., features or characteristics that images of various kinds often have—adds to existing understandings of the nature of images since, with the exception of ‘seeing-with,’ each symptom picks out an already familiar feature of many types of image. If the claim were that all of these symptoms together, or some majority of them, is sufficient for something to count as an image, bringing together these otherwise independent features might be useful. Alternately, if more than the last symptom were novel, it would more clearly enhance our understanding of what it is to be an image. But with it being possible to be an image without having any of these features or symptoms (because none is necessary), or to have any number of them without being an image (because none is sufficient), this list does not obviously help us understand the nature and function of images as such, or what in virtue of which something is and functions as an image. In contrast, the symptom-based account of art that is found in Nelson Goodman’s aesthetics, which Alloa takes as the model for his own symptomatology, gives us insight into the nature and function of artworks qua art by highlighting features of art that had not often been thematized as such, and by letting us treat possession of all of the features or symptoms as being practically sufficient for something to count as art, and possession of at least one symptom as practically necessary for arthood, without any strictly logical entailment.
Aside from this worry about these symptoms giving us a useful account of pictoriality, there are further questions that can be raised about the individual symptoms on the list. For one thing, the difference between the three symptoms that Alloa calls ‘figurality,’ ‘presentativity,’ and ‘deixis’ is not made clear, and these could likely be presented as one symptom. For another, the second symptom, ‘synopticity,’ seems to contain elements that are distinct from one another and so would be better if presented as two symptoms, viz., the simultaneous rather than sequential presentation of an image’s ‘parts,’ and an image’s flatness. It is not only unclear what these features have to do with one another (consider: a large mural might be flat, but its flatness does not allow a viewer to take in its components in one glance), but it is not clear that the parts of an image are not commonly—or even perhaps necessarily—experienced in some sequence or other by the percipient, even if no sequence is specified by the image itself (but, then again, techniques of composition typically allow for a painter or photographer to lead viewers to attend to various parts of an image in a certain order). Further worries might be raised about the three characteristics that Alloa brings together under ‘ostensivity:’ one might wonder whether objects that exemplify certain properties are properly considered images (e,g., paint samples are not ‘images’ of the colour they exemplify); what Alloa calls ‘ostension’ seems, from his examples, to be more a matter of an image depicting an act of pointing than of an image itself pointing; and what he calls ‘bareness’ is, like exemplification, not clearly a characteristic of images per se, but rather would seem to apply to anything that appears—and one might wonder where the medium is through which the appearance appears when the appearance is a ‘bare’ one in Alloa’s terms. (It is also not clear how ‘bareness’ is a case of ostensivity, unless one takes every visible object to be ‘pointing to’ itself—but if one does, the notion of ‘pointing’ would need to be revised at risk of becoming otiose.)
The final symptom, ‘seeing-with,’ links Alloa’s account of pictoriality to his concern with mediation since it positions images as media for seeing things ‘through,’ i.e., via, them, and thereby to the theory of medial phenomenology that he aims to develop as this chapter’s other main focus. However, how exactly Alloa conceives of this medial phenomenology qua phenomenology or method, and why it should be accepted or seen as preferable to other approaches to phenomenological investigation or analysis, is unfortunately not made clear. The main idea seems to be that every appearance is an appearing-through something else, which is to say that every appearance is mediated by that through which it appears, but a case is not made for why this claim should be accepted. At one point (223-24), Alloa seems to be arguing that Husserl’s insistence that we only perceive an adumbration or aspect of an object at any one time entails that our perception of things is mediated through these adumbrations or partial views. However, this is not a case of our perceiving one thing through another thing, since the adumbration is an aspect of the object that we perceive and not a separate object: we perceive a table, for example, by seeing one side of it or one angle on it at a time, where any perception of a side or an angle just is a perception of that table, and where each side or angle—i.e., each adumbration—is not itself an entity distinct from the table and so cannot sensibly be said to be one thing that the table, as another thing, is seen ‘through.’ In Husserlian terms, what seems to be going on here is something akin to a confusion of part of an experience’s noetic content with an additional object over and above the object intended in the experience (i.e., the noema). However, a way of experiencing something is not itself a ‘thing,’ or at least not a thing in the same ontological sense in which the thing experienced is, and so it is not clear how any conclusion about the mediated nature of all appearing follows from this, or why this apparent ontological doubling is warranted.
Without making a case for why one should accept that every appearance appears through something other than itself, the grounds and motivation for adopting a medial phenomenology as one’s approach to studying all phenomenal appearances, or experience more broadly, would seem to be lacking; and this is in addition to what exactly ‘medial phenomenology’ involves not being outlined clearly. Alloa does state that “[t]he research domain of medial phenomenology would … concern above all the medial difference between that which appears and that through which it appears” (224), but little indication is given of how this difference between medium and appearance is to be investigated. If this chapter’s discussion of images as one type of appearance is meant to demonstrate how this medial phenomenology will work when applied to some other type of appearance or phenomenon, more could be said to make the methodological principles in this discussion more explicit, and to address the question of whether these principles would apply beyond a particular concern with images. More could also be said to clarify how what Alloa is proposing is distinct from, and why it is preferable to, existing approaches in phenomenology that might also be called ‘medial,’ especially Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy of ‘flesh’ which positions what he calls flesh as a kind of medium in and through which perception occurs, with flesh mediating our access to and awareness of objects.
Aside from the question of just what medial phenomenology involves as a phenomenology, one might think that an approach to investigating phenomena in terms of their mediation and the medium through which they are mediated would make sense—or at least be more plausible—when applied to images rather than to all phenomena that ‘appear.’ Still, there is some confusion over what exactly the medium is here. In most places, Alloa explicitly takes the image itself to be the medium (see again the remarks from p. 5 quoted at the beginning of this review), but in other places it seems more plausible to interpret his remarks as taking the image-bearing object, or ‘image-surface,’ to be the medium. On the first understanding, taking an image itself to be a medium raises the question of what it is mediating or allowing us to encounter through it. Images, in general and as such, are not plausibly media for the perception or appearing of what is referred to as the ‘image-subject,’ i.e., the thing in the world that an image is an image of, since it is not, for example, the person herself who appears in a painted portrait of her—although, arguably, the subject of a photograph is seen through the photograph as per Kendall Walton’s photographic transparency thesis, which gets a passing mention on p. 149. Moreover, in some cases—e.g., drawings of unicorns—what an image is ‘of’ does not exist and so cannot be itself perceived or appear, whether through the image or in any other way. On the other hand, if it is the ‘image-object,’ i.e., the phenomenal figure encountered an image that may or may not represent a subject or depict some kind of thing by having a certain shape or appearance, that is what appears through a medium, this would seem to make the image-surface the medium. It is unclear what else, apart from these candidates, could be the medium here, and the second interpretation seems more plausible with the image-bearing object—a paint-covered canvas, paper marked with ink, etc.—being the medium through which the image-object appears. It is, after all, most natural (at least in English) to talk of the image-object as an appearance, where this is a way of appearing of the image-bearing object, not in the sense that it is what makes the image-bearing object visible but in the sense that it is a ‘look’ that this object ‘has’ when marked, arranged, or otherwise organized in a certain way. However, more needs to be said to show why this could not be explained adequately with the notions of ‘seeing-in’ and ‘seeing-as,’ and why it is necessary to appeal to the further notion of ‘seeing-with’ that Alloa introduces.Although the last several considerations have been largely critical in tone, I do not want to give the impression of having a wholly negative assessment of Alloa’s book. The breadth and scope of Alloa’s knowledge of different thinkers, eras, and philosophical traditions, and of the range of views on images that are discussed, is impressive, and there is much to interest scholars working on theories of perception or visual aesthetics in one of the thinkers, traditions, or time periods (e.g., Ancient Greece) that are covered here. Also, many of Alloa’s individual points about the nature and function of images are insightful and worth engaging with, especially the points he makes in connection with the many examples he discusses, and to the ten ‘illuminations’ that he intersperses throughout the main text which are extended analyses of specific examples that touch on or are tangentially related to, but do not always directly tie into, what is being discussed in the sections in which they occur.
Nevertheless, there are some significant issues that detract from the value that this book might have had, most notably the lack of a clear focus or aim throughout. Is the main aim of the book to give a theory of the nature and function of images, or to develop a medial phenomenology, or to give a genealogical account of the concepts that still feature prominently in our thinking about images? The chapters and sections jump back and forth between each of these three aims, resulting in not enough space or attention being devoted to any one of them to fully and clearly develop a novel theory of pictoriality, or a medial phenomenology, or a comprehensive history of ideas about images and visual appearance in western philosophy. The genealogical aim is the most successfully realized, although certain thinkers whom one would expect to find included in such a history, such as Spinoza, Hume, and Kant, or Bergson and Deleuze, are conspicuously absent. This gives the book an unfocused, somewhat disjointed feel that never quite gets resolved by having these strands of inquiry get tied together in the final chapter, where this leaves some intriguing and promising ideas underdeveloped. While a longer book that had space for a fuller development of each focus and an ending that brings them all together would not have been ideal, simply due to considerations of length, all of this might have been accomplished better in two books, one being a history of thinking about images leading to an original ‘symptomatological’ account of image-ness or pictoriality, and the other being a history of thinking about perception as mediated, leading to a novel—and a more clearly explained and defended—form of medial phenomenology.