No singular observer, after Marie-José Mondzain’s ‘Can images Kill?’

Knowing about my fixation with the ethics of photography, particularly when it comes to documentary images, a friend suggested I might be interested in a portuguese edition of Marie-José Mondzain‘s ‘Can images Kill’. As I went searching online, I came across an article, with the same title, that she had published back in 2009, @ Critical Inquiry. As I started to read, it took me a while to understand where she was going. She takes her time. She speaks about the crisis of the visible and traces links between capitalism and the passive role we, as consumers, assume, when we enter the sphere of visual language (in our daily narratives and in the fictional arena). Mondzain also evokes the importance of religious icons, in order for us to better understand what she means about the gaze being the agent that gives visibility to an image, in the sense that the gaze “has” the desire and the passion that empowers images to come into their own. Let me quote from her:

…today there is an additional strange anxiety: the power of images consists in pushing us to imitate them, and the narrative content of images could commit direct violence by pushing us to enact it. Images were once accused of making visible; now they are accused of making us do things. 

However, as she astutely notes, the existence of violence implies the existence of subjects. Without these, there is nothing to gain/nothing to lose. Then when she finally formulates THE question, what I understand is that what puzzles her is who is the agent in an image? Are images subjects or objects? Are they autonomous? Do they act on their own? Who is responsible for what happens when they get to the observer: the maker, the photograph or the viewer? Can images kill? Do images make us killers? she finally asks…

As an object without body, hand, or will, can it [an image] act as a magical influence?” It’s a tricky question, as we all know. I’d say it’s difficult to define the autonomy of an image, what it can go on to do, and in that sense an image has an ethics; an image is not only a mechanism of representation, so what does it manage to create that is beyond the realm of the visibly known?; on the other hand, can its maker be responsible for its path? It’s no easy answer… To try and resolve this problem, Mondzain suggests we look at the dynamics of the images, and not at their “referential content”. In other worlds, Mondzain wants to address the power of images, not particularly in terms of the semiotic language, but in terms of their “magical” power, i.e., that which transforms them into “substitutive objects”. It’s here that I find one of her most interesting ideas: referencing the myth of Medusa and Narcissus, Mondzain states that the potential violence of images derives from identification, meaning:

The violence of the image explodes when it permits the identification of the unrepresentable within the visible; this is the same as saying that the image is only sustained through a dissimiliarity, in the space between the visible and the seeing subject.

And then comes the recipe: “Becoming one with what we see is fatal, and what can save us is the production of a liberating difference.” As I understand it, for Mondzain that critical liberation is only possible when an image incarnates, i.e., not to imitate, not to replicate, not to incorporate, not to simulate, but instead to give flesh:

To incarnate is to give flesh and not to give body. It is to act in the absence of things. The image gives flesh, that is, carnal visibility to an absence in an irreducible distance from its model […] in the incarnated image three indissociable authorities are formed: the visible, the invisible, and the gaze that establishes their relation. The image belongs to a strange logic of the included third.


The manifestation of truth entails the incarnation of the world in the flesh of images. The image becomes a human construction, and what gives value to this construction is not to be found outside of the visible but rather within it. The invisible in the image is the word itself. The image produces neither evidence nor truth and can only show what is produced by the gaze. The image awaits its visibility, which emerges from the relation established between those who produce it and those who look at it. As an image, it shows nothing. If it consciously shows something, it communicates and no longer shows its real nature, that is, the expectation of a gaze. This is why, rather than invisible, it is better to speak of an unseen, of what.


My allergy to any lexicon that addresses The Church has brought me some misfortunes in my academic life. It will one day be overcome, but not today. Mondzain’s constant references to the iconic power of images in a religious context keep taking away my enthusiasm for her arguments. I feel she’s on to something new, but then the references to Christ keep taking me back to a place where the gaze is fundamentally different from that of a spectator’s who’s role, in the “spectacle of visibilities” has a more immediate impact. Mondzain states that “[V]iolence within the visible concerns neither images of violence nor the violence of images as such but rather the violence committed against thought and speech in the spectacle of visibilities.

The question of responsibility is a difficult one. How can we decide if one is absolutely responsible for the images one makes for him/herself? How can we become alert and conscious about everything that constitutes that “spectacle of visibilities”? How can we control the violent actions of our gaze? Can we really choose what and how we give meaning to images? At one point, Mondzain addresses what she calls “objects that resist the murderous erosion of idolatrous appropriations” that she describes poetically with the following words:

These works are all the more authoritative because nothing can exhaust them, as if they invariably escape all fixed and definite meaning. They fully assume a kind of atopia that gives their mortality a semblance of eternity. They operate as incarnations of a dubious and endless freedom. They are real, although they are identifiable not in how they appear, nor in the program they fulfill, nor in the circumstances of their commission. They are real, but free of all conditions. Fictions, semblances, and immaterial shapes have a real goal: to satisfy desire by keeping it unsatisfied.

It’s almost cruel to resume Mondzain’s arguments (I don’t even mention her reflection about ‘the screen’ and I recommend reading the article, of course), but as I understand it, her conclusion regarding violence and responsibility indicates that context is the key and, in that sense, an inclusive and collective effort to address images and meaning as something that is constantly being transformed by the way we relate to them, might be an answer. That’s not to say a singular observer is no longer responsible for not having a critical eye, but, instead, that one’s lack of responsibility in this communal space of images is always our responsibility. In her own words:

Every image signifies a dangerous storm, where we must know how to govern.Weare all responsible for the visibilities that we make available and want to share. In a politics of the visible it is not a question of counting voices but of giving each voice a place where it can be heard and of giving each spectator a place where he or she can respond and be heard. The violence of the visible is no more than the disappearance of such a place and thereby the annihilation of the voice.

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