1. Autonomy: First and foremost, the intention of the study of Iconomy by Peter Szendy is to understand and formulate the economy of the iconosphere. An economy that is integral and unique to the iconosphere. In other words, the laws that ensure the autonomy of the iconosphere. In the scope and scale of the study it lends itself to be comparible to Freud’s study of Metapsychology, with Marshal McLuhan’s study of The Laws of Media, of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida? Or, Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 1 & 2 (which one of the key works on which Szendy is constructing his study), George Battaille’s General Economy. It is a study that wants to locate the autonomous laws of an iconomy -that may in many ways be even beyond human conception. One of the interesting and key term introduced in this course is acheiropoietic -that which is not produced by human hand. 
  2. Iconomy: The term iconomy was coined by Jean-Joseph Goux in his essay Art and Money. Towards a New Iconomy.[i] In the essay Goux speculates and asserts that with the detaching of currency from the gold standards, money has lent itself to all kinds of speculations. These speculations have rendered money as an unreliable exchanger. Painting, for Goux, has taken the place of money as a more stable form of investment and a better guarantee of stability. As Goux would argue, painting has become money. However, this does not tell us much about the status of other forms of art with respect to money. We do not learn anything about the capacity of other art forms, including images, to become money or their capacities to exchange. We also do not learn what are the general or particular mechanism of this so called iconomy. 
    1. Cult and Exhibition Value: In order to understand the mechanisms of iconomy we can consider looking at two ideas of exchange of images. One found in Walter Benjamin and another in Gilles Deleuze. 
      In Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction we find that a work of art has two intrinsic set of values: Cult Value and Exhibition Value. As Benjamin notes: 

      Cult value as such even tends to keep the artwork hidden: certain statues of gods are accessible only to priest in the cella; certain images of the Madonna remain covered nearly all year round; certain sculptures on medieval cathedrals are not visible to the viewer at ground level… The exhibitability [Ausstellbarkeit] of a portrait bust that can be sent here and there is greater than that of a statue of a divinity that has a fixed place in the interior of a temple. The exhibitability of a painting is greater than that of the mosaic or fresco which preceded it.”

      Notice Benjamin’s use of the term exhibitability. The ability of the work of art to be exhibited. We can even use the opposite term to those works of arts or images that resist exhibtability as perhaps cultabiltiy. In other words, Benjamin is saying that the two polarities intrinsic to all works of art is their capacity to be invisible and visible. What Benjamin is also hinting at is that certain kinds (formats) of works of art have a greater exhibitability than others. Which leads him to make an argument (at one end) that the technological reproducibility of works of art have drastically increased their exhibitaility. One can think in early 1900s the technoligcal reproduction of photographs, lithographs, music, etc. Benjamin also notes, curiously, that the value of the work of art does not remain fixed but can fluctuate between cult value and exhibition value depending on the context or era. This is beautifully illustrated in his example of the statue of Venus: 

      The uniqueness of the work of art in identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition. Of course, this tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for instance, existed in a rather different traditional context for the Greeks (who made it an object of worship) than that in which it existed for the medieval church father (who viewed it as a sinister idol). But what was equally evident to both was its uniqueness –that is, its aura.” (pg 16) 

      This capacity of reversibility or invertibility is not only limited to works of art but also to mediums themselves. As when Benjamin writes: 

      “In photography, exhibition value begins to drive back cult value on all fronts. But cult value does not give way without resistance. It falls back instead to a last entrenchment: the human countenance. It is no accident that the portrait is central to early photography. In the cult of remembrance of dead or distant loved ones, the cult value of the image finds its last refuge. In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time. This is what gives them melancholy and incomparable beauty.” 

      In other words, we can also say that works of art, or in our case all images, can also have this intrinsic capacity to oscillate between visibility and invisibility. 
      Even though the cult and exhibition value in intrinsic to the work of art, what we get in Benjamin is that this spectrum of cult and exhibition value is more dependent on the context within which a particular work is located in. It depends on who is reading (or not reading), where and when. But we do not necessarily understand the mechanism of this intrinsic capacity. Here, we can turn to Deleuze’s treaties on images to get a sense of the mechanism. 
      One of the key ideas in Deleuze’s ontology is that of actual-virtual. Which in turn are terms for divisible and indivisible aspects of things -which in turn are other terms for spatial and temporal aspects of things.[ii]
    2. For Deleuze, the process of formation of image has two sides: actual and virtual. There is the image that we actually see in front (limpid and visible), and that image exists in space. Then there is that part of the image that always escapes (opaque and shadowy), virtual, which always exists in time. Which is another way of saying that there are aspects of the image that are quantitative (actual and dividual) and then there are those that are beyond quantification and are qualitative (virtual and in-dividual). While the actual is always present (optical image) the virtual range from recollection-image, dream-image, world-image and so on, and is always shadowy. Equally important for Deleuze, every image finds its true genetic element when actual optical image crystalizes with its own virtual image, on the smallest internal circuit.[iii]

      The crystal-image (mutual image for Bachelard) a coalescence. A multi-faceted reflective image where it is difficult to discern the actual from the virtual. Indiscernibility of real / imaginary, present / past, actual/virtual is one of the key characteristics of images -which are always by nature double. Distinct but indiscernible. As Deleuze writes “When the virtual image becomes actual it is then visible and limpid, as in the mirror or the solidity of finished crystal. But the actual image becomes virtual in its turn, refused elsewhere, invisible, opaque and shadowy, like a crustal barely dislodged from earth. (pg. 70) 

      This means that images are formed or crystalized by this constant reflective (mirrored) exchange between the actual the virtual sides of the same image pushed to its limits. Yet, at the same time, the actual image of any other thing can also relate to the virtual image of any other thing and create a chain of exchange. One of the clearer examples of this process that Deleuze offers is when an actor renders “virtual” characters as “actual”. However, in rendering the virtual character the actual actor disappears, becomes opaque or shadowy. 

      However, in order to understand this mechanism more thoroughly, we need to also understand one of the key operative terms in Deleuze, and that is capacity. Just to recall the example from above; we can say that the actual actor should have the capacity to render the virtual actor actual or visible. What this simply means is that entities carry with them two limit conditions: 1) internal limit: that which is the capacity of their genetic element or smallest internal circuit that dictates one side of their process of crystallization; 2) outer-most limit: the capacity of the environment, world, universe, to be crystalized. There are three beautiful passages where Deleuze illustrates this aspect of capacities or abilities which I will quote one after the other: 

      “In fact, the seed is on the one hand the virtual image which will crystalize an environment which is at present amorphous; but on the other hand the latter must have a structure which is virtually crystalizable, in relation to which the seed now plays the role of actual image.” 

      “We do not know in advance if the virtual seed will be actualised, because we do not know in advance if the actual environment enjoys the corresponding virtuality.” 
      “The little crystaline seed and the vast crystalizable universe: everyting is included in the capacity for expansion of the collection constituted by the seed and the universe.” 

      Notice in all three poetic passages there are always two aspects, the virtual capacity of the seed -that which “we do not know in advance” to crystalize the environment (borrowing multiple elements and aspects of the environment to expand and grow) and the virtual capacity of the environment (world or universe) to be crystalized. Which means that capacities of the see and the universe have to be mutually compatible. In other words, capacities of things are relational and “we do not know in advance” what relationships things (images) actually enjoy. 
      But more importantly, to return to the idea of visibility and invisibility, notice that not all that is virtual or actual can form an exchange with everything else in the universe. Which also means, that there must be things that do not get mirrored; there must also be things who not only do not cast shadows, but also there must be things that would lose their shadows, shadows that are also detachable. The universe, no matter how crystallizable, cannot be all encompassing, as even it must be able to see / crystalize only some actuals and some virtuals and then not be able to see / crystalize so many others.    

      Another way to understand the idea of the virtual in Deleuze is to understand his idea of time. Time for Deleuze is perpetual and outside consciousness -non-chronological. But more importantly time for Deleuze is a series of moments or series of presents. As Deleuze writes: “Time has to split itself in two at each moment as present and past, which differ from each other in nature…(further) it has to split the present in two heterogenous directions, one of which is launched towards the future while the other falls into the past.” In that sense the virtual can be seen as two aspects of the same thing -the split past-thing in the previous moments and the split future-thing of all the moment to follow. Each of these moments escape optical presence and gain a shadowy presence that are constantly in exchange with the actual thing (even images) in the current moment. “It is time that we see in crystals.”
      This should clarify in many ways, a model of the mechanisms of exchange, or money, that is intrinsic to images. 

      What we have seen in these three authors is a movement from painting (images) being money to money or value being an intrinsic aspect of images themselves and that this exchange has a mechanism which gives the image its individuality.
  3. Transformat: Following Deleuze we can argue that an image is never one but always, at least two. Yet, at the same time, what we see as an image, is always the crystalizing image, or what Deleuze calls the interface between the actual the virtual image. In that sense images are the differentials (differentiating entities) between the actual and virtual image. 
    1. Origins of Paintings: This puts an interesting twist to the idea of the origins of paintings, or art in general. The classical argument has been that paintings originated by tracing the outlines of the shadow of the loved ones. This outline can then also be used to make detailed paintings and also to make sculptures. What we are also essentially seeing this argument is that it is possible to change the format[iv] of an image: shadow, painting, sculpture, frescos, and so on. If we follow our above-mentioned idea that images are differentials, then we can say that the origins of paintings was in neither of the formats but always in between them. In other words, the origin (if there is a clear one) would always be in the transformat. 
    2. Speed: An interesting possibility that the format of images brings with it is the question of speed of circulation of images. A painting can circulate faster than let’s say a sculpture, and most certainly than a fresco on the vault. This idea of formats enabling varying speeds is ever more plausible in the development of formats in contemporary media: JPEG, MP3, low-res, high-res, etc. Each of these formats are designed to enable ever faster circulation of media. This means, to the discussion of exchange, intrinsic to images, we can even add a condition of speed of exchange as informed by the format theory or even media theory. 
  4. Migration of Images: Now that we have established that not only do images have an intrinsic mechanism of exchange, but also have a speed of exchange, we can try to think about how do images move around? Or how do images migrate? On the one hand we know by now the planetary scale of the infrastructure of telephone exchange established during the late 19th century, and that this infrastructure has become the backbone on which the planetary installation of optical cable enabling the world wide web of the internet. On the other hand, we also know how the radio frequencies have become the infrastructure on which contemporary mobile-phone frequencies are built and proliferated across the globe. Both these forms of infrastructure are certainly the conduits or infrastructure necessary, today, for the hyper-circulation of images, across the world. 
    Yet, as we learn from Deleuze, as much the infrastructure can circulate images, the images themselves must also have a mutual capacity to be circulatable. What can we say about these capacities then? 

    One of the things that we can say is that perhaps the infrastructure in itself must have uneven capacities within its own map. Like the various climatic zones of the planet, perhaps this planetary infrastructure must also have various temperature zones: Hot and humid, hot and dry, cold and dry, cold and humid, and so on. In that sense, it can also then have a thermodynamic mechanism of dissipation of energy: from hot to cold and so on. Depending on their planetary location, images may circulate slower (in colder regions) or faster (in warmer regions). As for the images themselves, we can say that the format of the images equally enables their circulation through the infrastructure. A low-resolution image may circulate relatively faster than a high-resolution image in either of the climatic zones. 
  5. Ecology of Images or Images at the universal scale: Having established the intrinsic mechanism of exchange in images, the capacity of formats for variable speeds of circulation, and the capacity of the infrastructure to circulated images on a planetary scale, we can ask, can we push the idea of the economy of circulation of images to even larger scales? Scales that may perhaps elude the human conceptions? 
    1. From Economy of exchange to economy of excess: Here let us take the help of George Battaile’s idea of excess in his work on the general economy. As Battaile notes, economy in general has been concerned with exchange. More importantly, it is concerned with the usefulness of the exchange of things. Usually, this idea of usefulness is concerned with the usefulness to humans -that is, it is concerned with the anthropocentric idea of exchange: profits, gains, returns, accumulations by and for humans. On the contrary, Battaile argues that the life processes of the world seem to work with the idea of the excess or of non-reciprocity of giving. For instance, the Sun gives the most abundant form of energy without ever receiving anything in return. Similarly, animals and living creatures consume excess energy for the purposes of growth and non-useful activities. Humans particularly, according to Battaile, dispense their excess energy in building gigantic monuments -which are technically use-less. Similar things can also be noted in the early use of tools to produce ornaments as much as they were meant to hunt, break, or cut things. This is even particularly noted in the exchange of beautifully crafted stone-tools meant purely for gifting between communities[v]. In the same vein Battaile also argues that wars are also the dispensation of excess of energy. 

      By pushing the question of economy to the planetary and even the scale of the solar system, Battaile poses an interesting question to the idea of economy and ecology. Considering that the general economy is about the laws of movement of energy at the planetary scale, what is then the difference between economy and ecology. One can say that at a planetary scale economy becomes ecological. In another sense, one can even say that the general economy, as does the question of deep ecology, cannot be necessarily limited to the anthropocentric conception of economy, but primarily with the autonomous laws or mechanisms of the economy beyond humans.
    2. Ecology of Images: Now that we have seen that economy at the planetary or let’s say a universal scale becomes an ecological question, what can we say about the ecology of images? 

      The term ‘ecology of images’ is considered by many was first coined by Susan Sontag in her book On Photography (Ross, 1994). Although Sontag does not develop it further, it was taken up seriously for the first time, since Sontag, by Andrew Ross in his 1994 essay of the same title. Ross distinguishes this idea in two ways: ecology of images and images of ecology. Ecology of images as Ross argues belongs to the side of the industrial and social production of images and their circulation. Whereas, as one might easily guess, images of ecology are a genre of photography or images in general.[vi] However, neither Sontag nor Ross helps us expand the term “ecology” with respect to images -baring a reference to Kodak as one of the largest polluters in United States of America in the 1990s. In a sense, it appears that they limit themselves to the ‘economic’ idea of the circulation of images rather than their link to “ecology” per se. What can we speak of the ecological with respect to the planetary scale of circulation of images today? If we link back to the idea of non-anthropocentric laws of deep ecology, we can even say that at the ecological scale images too might have an existence, life, laws which are only for themselves, beyond human use or human correlation. Images with for no one. 
  6. Images for no one or Reassessing the Cult and Exhibition Value: The idea of images for no one, pose an interesting question to Benjamin’s idea of Cult and Exhibition value. As noted earlier, the spectrum of Cult and Exhibition value is also a spectrum of invisibility and visibility of images. It is not as simple as use value (tactile / invisible) and exchange value (optical / visible). Remember, that for Benjamin, like for Deleuze, what makes the use value of something tactile or affective (that which precedes language or representation) is habit: 

    “Tactile reception comes about not only by way of attention but also by way of habit. The latter largely determines even the optical reception of architecture, which originally takes the form less of an attentive observation than of a casual noticing. For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points cannot be accomplished solely by optical means-that is, by way of contemplation. They are mastered gradually – guided by tactile reception-through habit.”[vii] 

    If we overlay this spectrum of invisibility and visibility with the spectrum of speeds of circulations and that of the various temperatures in the infrastructure, then we can argue that towards the Cult side we would have slow speed (frescos, gothic griffins, etc.) which can even be considered as colder belts and towards the Exhibition side we would have fast speed (photos, paintings, record players, etc. ) which can even be considered as warmer or hotter belts of the infrastructures. However, at the extreme ends of exhibition value, where one would expect the maximum speed (say like the speed of light) would images still be visible? Like in Italo Calvino’s The Light-years we would have a condition where certain images, travel so fast that they may even exceed the speed of light, and hence rendering them utterly invisible to humans. Similarly on the opposite end of this spectrum, where the circulation of images is extremely slow, say at the deep evolutionary timescale of species spanning hundreds of millions of years, images also escape human conception and thereby also remain invisible at the extreme end of slowness of circulation. One can say that certain images cross the threshold of human conception of space and time at the extreme end of this spectrum and gain an autonomous existence. One can even say that images truly become acheiropoietic. 
  7. Further connections and Questions: 
    1. Visible / Invisible: As mentioned earlier, in Szendy’s account images become invisble at the two extremes of the spectrum of Cult and Exhibition value – i.e. when images are literally not meant to be seen by humans (but in a way haunt human thought) and when images gain extreme speed of circulation. If we follow the philosophical interventions of Graham Harman, then perhaps we can add to this discussion that every image is both visible and invisible at the same time. Not only are they visible or invisible for humans, but they are visible and invisible to everything else that they relate to, including other images. In Harman’s terms every object is always a pair: real (RO) and sensual (SO) object; and every objects have a pair of qualities: real (RQ) and sensual (SQ) qualities. Once again in his terms, RO always withdraws from all relations and is always remains invisible. Whereas what we always experience is SO and more importantly through SQ. The quality that ensures an integrity of the RO and that which distinguishes one RO from another is what Harman refers to as RQ -which also is hidden from everyday sensual experience and requires some mental effort to get at.[viii] 

      In that sense, those images that we do experience (optically or otherwise) can be considered as visible images and, (as it very well established) for every visible image there must also be an obverse side which remains invisible, not only to us but to any other thing that image renders itself visible to. For instance, a Magritte on my phone screen renders the painting visible, yet at the same time my perception and the quality of the phone screen allow me to only see certain colour ranges and textures in the painting -not to mention the digital code behind the image- which will evade my perception. The same can be said about the computer devices which only read the digital codes of the image and exchange only codes -like the camera lens once impressed the celluloid film with exposure to light bouncing from objects and not the objects themselves.

      In many ways this reads like the actual and virtual in Deleuze reading of images. However, in many ways this reading is also the inverse of the actual and virtual in Deleuze. Let me try to show this in a comparative table below: 
 Walter BenjaminGilles DeleuzeGraham Harman
VisibleExhibition Value = OpticalExchange ValueActual = LimpidSpaceSensual Objects/ Qualities=Relational Time 
InvisibleCult Value = TactileUse valueVirtual = ShadowyTimeReal Objects / Qualities= Beyond relationsEssence 

Perhaps, this intrinsic aspect of visibility and invisibility of the image to one another could be of some value to the current scope of the study. 

  • Hyperobjects[ix]It might be worthwhile to consider the following passages to speak about this thingcalled as iconosphere. In some sense this may seem like a low hanging fruit to compare a massive and humanly infinite object like the iconosphere to the idea of hyperobjects that Timothy Morton has coined. Yet, one of the impulses to point in this direction is also to think of ways of speaking about the massively distributed objects and their autonomous existence beyond human consciousness. 

    Iconosphere as a Hyperobject:  
    “Hyperobjects are not just collections, systems, or assemblages of other objects. They are objects in their own right, …Least of all, then, would it be right to say that hyperobjects are figments of the (human) imagination, whether we think imagination as a bundling of associations in the style of Hume, or as the possibility for synthetic judgments a priori, with Kant. Hyperobjects are real whether or not someone is thinking of them. Indeed, for reasons given in this study, hyperobjects end the possibility of transcendental leaps “outside” physical reality.”[x]

    Certainly, it would be difficult to reduce the iconosphere to simple collection of parts, a system with an all-encompassing law, or an assemblage of images, image producing and image-processing objects. Iconosphere has to be actually more while being ontologically less than all the part, systems and objects that constitute it. 

    Iconosphere has agency:

    “Hyperobjects are agents. They are indeed more than a little demonic, in the sense that they appear to straddle worlds and times, like fiber optic cables or electromagnetic fields. And they are demonic in that through them causalities flow like electricity.”[xi]

    “Hyper- objects are nonlocal.”[xii]

    Considering the tremendous grip and retroactive influence that the iconosphere has on human lives and the lives of several machines and objects in the world, the causal capacities of the iconosphere can only be acknowledged as “demonic” -in the sense of an invisible electromagnetic field nudging things in the world. As we have also seen with the images floated in the galaxy, one can also imagine the iconosphere straddling worlds and times

    This also makes the iconosphere non-local. Like the remains of plastics found inside migratory birds and aquatic species; like global warming; like the light of sun and the dark of night and the shimmer of stars; like the corona virus; the traces of iconosphere engulf a planetary imagination and embodiment of several human and non-human entities. Imagine the cameras and geotagging trackers on animals, birds and aquatic organisms. Imagine the camera relaying the feedback to a server and computer screen, which is further relayed to your YouTube stream in a John Oliver show. 

Always Formatted:

“Images “captured” with a lens conjure single, solid, independent-seeming things. A hologram can’t be seen directly, but is a mesh of interference patterns created by light waves bouncing off the object and light waves passing through a beam splitter. When you pass light through the interference pattern, a three-dimensional rendering of the object appears in front of the pattern. Cut a little piece of hologram out, or shine light through a little piece of it (same thing), and you still see a (slightly more blurry) version of the whole object. Every piece of the hologram contains information about the whole.”[xiii]

“And this tells us something about design. Humans can do it. But nonhumans also do it, all the time. Think about evolution. It’s design without a designer. And in a larger sense, nothing is un-designed. There is no such thing as unformatted matter, waiting for someone to stamp a form on it. That’s an ecologically dangerous fantasy of so-called Western civilization. In truth, anything at all is in part a story about what happened to it. My face has been designed by acne. A glass has been designed by glass blowers and cutters. A black hole has been designed by gravitational forces in a gigantic star. And in particular, things are definitely not unformatted surfaces that can only be formatted by human shaping or desire projection.”[xiv]

In the earlier part of the essay we have seen that following the Deleuzian distinction between the actual and the virtual an argument can be made for the idea of images as always transformat -neither original nor copy, neither one or many but always in-between, in the difference. However, if we consider for a moment that there is no unformed matter, in other words there are only forms, then perhaps we can also consider Morton’s provocation in a manner to consider that perhaps there are no unformatted images. In other words, there are no images without formats. The corollary to this argument will also be that there are no copies but only different images?

[i] Goux, Jean-Joseph. “Art and Money: Toward a New ‘Iconomy’?” In The Supermarket of Images, edited by Peter Szendy, Emmanuel Alloa, and Marta Ponsa, 65–72. Paris: Gallimard, 2020.

[ii] Manuel Delanda even argues that for Deleuze actual and virtual are not just aspects of things, but in fact even two kinds of substances. Substances that can be grasped and substances that escape any grasp whatsoever. Refer to DeLanda, Manuel. “Space: Extensive and Intensive, Actual and Virtual.” In Deleuze and Space, by Buchanan, Ian, and Gregg Lambert, eds., edited by Ian Buchanan, and Gregg Lambert. Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Edinburgh Scholarship Online, 2012. doi:10.3366/edinburgh/9780748618743.003.0005.

[iii]  Refer to Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement Image. A&C Black, 2001.

———. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Athlone Press, 1989.

[iv] Sterne, Jonathan. “Format Theory.” In MP3: The Meaning of a Format, 01–31. Duke University Press, 2012.

[v] Refer to Jarzombek, Mark M. Architecture of First Societies: A Global Perspective. John Wiley & Sons, 2014. and Colomina, Beatriz, and Mark Wigley. Are We Human?: Notes on an Archaeology of Design. Lars Mul̈ler Publishers, 2016.

[vi] Ross, Andrew. “The Ecology of Images.” In Eloquent Obsessions: Writing Cultural Criticism, edited by Marianna Torgovnick, 185–207. Duke University Press, 1994.

[vii] BENJAMIN, WALTER, and MICHAEL W. JENNINGS. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility [First Version].” Grey Room, no. 39 (2010): 11–38.

[viii] Harman, Graham. The Quadruple Object. Zero Books, 2011.

[ix] Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. U of Minnesota Press, 2013.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] ibid.

[xiv] Morton, Timothy. All Art Is Ecological. Penguin UK, 2021.

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