J. Kameron Carter has recently posted an extremely interesting piece on the roots of the modern racial and political imaginary in Christian iconography. He draws on Mondzain’s Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, which looks to me to be a must-read. Of course, taking on icons is certainly not an enterprise that quasi-Catholics and Christian Hipsters (also now receiving some renewed attention around the interwebs) will much care for, but it seems to me to be very persuasive. A segment:
To put the central objective of the book in terms of my own work on the origins and unfolding of the racial imaginary that our world yet remains in the throws of (claims to post-raciality notwithstanding) and how the racial imaginary arose from within a certain kind of Christian theological and ecclesial practice, Image, Icon, Economy examines how the economy or logic of the icon entails a logic for the conquering of space and from here time and history. This logic works through the visual, which then gives rise to thought or power as knowledge.
In Mondzain’s own words:
To attempt to rule over the whole world by organizing an empire that derived its power and authority by linking together the visual and the imaginal [or the notion of the ‘image’] was Christianity’s true genius. (151)
Or to put it yet another way, the theology of the icon, as it arose out of late patristic Christological formulations founds an “iconocracy,” an “empire of the gaze and vision ” (152) or what may otherwise be called a political theology of and through the visual. Within this theo-political regime of the visual, according to Mondzain, we find the basic structure of “the Universal,” that is to say, the structure of “Catholicism.” It is this structure that would provide a framework for the modern/colonial world, as founded in European imperialism, and that arguably continues to provide the inner structure of the global/postcolonial present.
Carter goes on to note how the fundamentally ideological move that is created in the icon is the carving out of a visual imaginary of the beautiful that cannot ever lapse into idolatry. The contemporary sentimentality about icons (especially as I’ve observed it among non Eastern Orthodox Christians, though I think the implications are broader) certainly needs a chastening of the sort that Carter offers via Mondvain.
In the same article, Carter has some choice critiques of John Milbank and David Bentley Hart as well, with which, as you might guess, I am in significant sympathy. Carter is very helpful in reminding us of what the recent comments Milbank made about Islam and “lamentably premature” collapse of Western colonialism made quite clear: the deeply Eurocentric and racist logic of the political project offered by radical orthodoxy:
We must remember that it was a form of theology that called itself orthodox (in fact, it was in significant measure Thomist in structure) that gave birth to the modern/colonial/racial world in the 15th and 16th centuries, which then perfected itself in the 19th and 20th centuries when modern knowledges were consolidated as Wissenschaften. How do we explain the rush, then (and this is the real issue confronting theology today), mainly among theologically minded young white males for the most part, to return to this stuff vis-a-vis what Radical Orthodoxy is peddling?
Again, the question isn’t my dear teacher, John Milbank, as such. It’s what he socially signifies at this moment of Empire and what the attraction to him on the part of many who are struggling with all their intellectual might to retrieve “the Christian tradition,” socially and theologically signifies at this moment.
That is the question indeed.