Graven images

In a wide-ranging study (L’image interdite, 1994) the French philosopher Alain Besançon has argued that the fear and suspicion of images has influenced the development of religion and philosophy throughout recorded history, and has not disappeared merely because we are now surrounded and distracted by images on every side and at every moment of the day. Indeed, much of what disturbs people in our image-saturated culture is what disturbed the theologians of Islam: namely, that the “graven image,” which begins as a representation, soon becomes a substitute. And substitutes corrupt the feelings that they invite, in the way that idols corrupt worship, and pornography corrupts desire. For substitutes invite easy and mechanical responses. They short-circuit the costly process whereby we form real relationships, and put mechanical and addictive reflexes in their place. The idol does not represent God: it defaces Him, in something like the way pornography defaces love.

Hence we should not be surprised by the rage with which iconoclastic movements assert themselves. The central thought of the iconoclast is that the image has captured the soul of the one who worships it. The idolator has tied himself to a bauble, and in doing so has taken the name of God in vain and polluted the worship that is God’s due. Kemp does not say much about iconoclasm, though it has been a constant movement within the Christian churches, both eastern and western. Nor does he mention the fact that his contemporary “icons,” the Coke bottle included, have been the object of a similar condemnation. The growth of the advertising industry and of the marketable image has been greeted from the very beginning by protests from social commentators, fearing what Marx called “commodity fetishism”—in other words, the diversion of our energies from those free activities that are “ends in themselves” towards the world of addictive desires. Marx took the idea of fetishism from Feuerbach, who believed that all religion involves this state of mind, in which we animate the world with our own emotions, so placing our life “outside” of ourselves, and becoming enslaved to the puppets of our own imagination. In a similar way, Karl Marx believed, the world of capitalist commodities invites us to “animate” it, so that we attribute our desires to the fictitious sphere of commodities, which gain power over us in proportion as we lose real control of ourselves.

— Roger Scruton, prospectmagazine

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