Theology’s Icon and its Idol

The following is largely excerpted from my upcoming talk on icons:

The icon has, from a very early time, marked a central trope in theological thinking about Christianity’s God. From Paul’s formula of Jesus as “icon of the invisible God” springs the icon as perhaps the paradigmatic object of thought for figuring representations of the divine in the finite, whether in terms of names, images, or concepts. In addition to an object for thought, the icon names a practice: the “writing” and the “veneration” of painted images, particularly on wood, of devotional figures in Orthodox Christianity. For theological thinking, these ‘icons’ have been thought as mirrors of each other: the icon as an object of theology legitimates and theorizes the icon as venerated image, while the venerated image provides specific content by which theology knows that it does not—when it speaks of the icon—speak in vain.

Insufficient attention has, I claim, been given to the distinction between these two icons; indeed, the linkage between the two is precisely a source of significant currency for the icon of theology, even in traditions in which the veneration of images does not figure significantly. Typically, the phenomenological engagement with the icon—schematized according to a looking “through” or “beyond” the icon to that which lies behind it—is compared analogically with religious speech. The structure is always one of a word, a picture, or a concept that stands in; the unique experience of seeing-through becomes the basis on which intelligible God-talk is possible without the reduction of that God to an entity given to metaphysics. It is in part this uniqueness that I wish to challenge.

The icon as I’m considering it here is primarily the icon as an object of thought; an object for theology and for philosophy of religion. To give an account of writing and veneration would always require a specificity of place, of material, of power and practice unavailable to theology’s presumed self-sufficiency to think the icon.

A Competition of Phenomenologies

Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being will serve as my model of theology’s use of the icon. Marion frames his account of the icon in terms of two competing visibilities. Eikōn is necessarily opposed to eidolōn; both are only available to traditional theological discourse as they are approached in their mutual antagonism. Rather than a conflict between, say, pagan and Christian art, the idol and the icon manifest “a conflict between two phenomenologies”[i] An object that manifests as an idol in one time and place might manifest iconically for another and vice versa. Thus, the distance between idol and icon is not a question of the choice of referent, which is why you can find Jewish and Christian prohibitions of “idols” of even the “correct” God. Both idol and icon are semiotic; their ability to take one or the other position depends on their ability to refer to something other than themselves. Each takes up a different relation to the gaze, and each ‘signs’ differently as a signifier of some signified.


The idol is, from the perspective of sense, primary for Marion. This is in large part because of the special relationship the idol holds with sense as such. The idol does not, strictly speaking, lie. It is not a question of an object that prevents one from seeing what is, or that shows one something that strictly isn’t there, but of perfect visibility; the currency of the idol lies in its ability to exhaust sense, to give sense perfectly, to construct the visible for the subject and (it follows) to construct the subject herself.

The gaze, then, “precedes” the idol; an object’s ability to exhaust visibility derives from the gaze that gives it sense. The idol is that object which “catches” the gaze, or which falls into the structural hole already opened by the gaze as the representation of sense. Rather than precipitating or suggesting a beyond, (as, we will see, in Lacan) the gaze cuts off a beyond for Marion, fixing on an object that renders all other thing visible; in other words, available to sense.[ii] The idol “concretizes” the gaze’s stop; its entry into full vision. Before the idol, the gaze does not strictly see, but ‘transparently transpierces’ the visible. Without the idol as the object that falls into the gaze and concretizes its arrival into the visible, no seeing—no sense—is possible. “The idol thus acts as a mirror, not as a portrait.”[iii] The idol gives the subject herself as constructed by the aims of her gaze. The idol is thus a model of perfect ideological interpellation: “If the idolatrous gaze exercises no criticism of its idol, this is because it no longer has the means to do so.”[iv]


How, then, is the icon’s visibility to be figured, in contradistinction to the idol? “The icon does not result from a vision but provokes one.”[v] The visibility of the idol is inverted in the notion of the icon. In the idol, the distinction that arises is between seen and not seen (or sense and nonsense), and what is not seen is figured as precisely unseeable; it’s simply not there; disqualified. Conversely, in the icon, the invisible is rendered as invisible; the invisible is figured as present but behind—or more correctly beyond—visibility. The invisible (nonsensical) manifests as excessive in the sense of an addition to­—or transcendence of—the visual field.

“The icon,” Marion writes, “lays out the material of wood and paint in such a way that there appears in them the intention of a transpiercing gaze emanating from them.”[vi] The gaze as figured in the icon then, is precisely the gaze from the icon. It is a gaze that manifests as emanating from the icon and apprehending the viewer, enjoining the viewer to peer beyond or behind the icon, towards the origin of the gaze. As we are seen, we see that we do not see.

Theology’s Icon and Ideology

The icon, in the traditional account, depends on its idol. The coherence of this form of the icon is guaranteed only by its distinction from an object that is strictly cut off from any gaze that is not identical with the look of the viewer. In this respect, one might note that the idol is structurally homologous with the panopticon of screen theory; it perfectly constructs the visibility of its viewer, leaving no indeterminacy. The idol is the enemy of uncertainty, of any indeterminacy on the part of the visible. On might pose a rather simple question, then, to this panoptic model of power: if the discourses that construct the subject construct her perfectly, then how do these discourses themselves arise in history? If the only terms for figuring the world are those already given, then the emergence of new regimes and new figurations cannot be accounted for; perfect construction leaves no room for the emergence of constructive discourses in the first place.This is not, on the face of it, of a problem for the idol/icon distinction, however. It is, in fact, precisely the argument that this icon depends on for its legitimation: if vision produces (only) vision, if sense produces (only) sense, then under the traditional argument, it follows that one needs a transcendent condition or outside provocation to figure the encounter with the gaze. The mechanism for any possible novum must come from beyond.What I want to suggest then is not that, in the duality of the idol and the icon, the icon is formally impossible. Rather, I want to suggest that it is the idol that is is formally incoherent. If the structure of vision as such depends on the interpenetration of sense and nonsense—if (as Lacan would tell us) vision is always-already haunted by definition by the play of light—then an object that functions as an idol in the traditional sense simply cannot exist. An object which refers to and makes sense of a thought world without the gaze of the Other—in other words, without some dimension beyond bare representation, an image—could not occupy the idol’s constitutive role as an infuser of sense into the surrounding world. The only way to maintain this division would be to divorce vision from its dependence on sense. Without this dependence, however, the traditional distinction between idol and icon again collapses; the whole phenomenological distinction by which an object might manifest variably as one or the other disappears. Without the idol to infuse the icon, we are left in the domain of the gaze, in which the icon as figured by the traditional account corresponds with the gaze as a means of control.[vii]

[i] Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being : Hors-Texte, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 7.

[ii] The concept is the privileged form of the idol in modernity for Marion. Art objects can’t, for the modern subject, as readily occupy this space as they once did.

[iii] Ibid., 12.

[iv] Ibid., 13.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., 19.

[vii] I have in mind here a distinction that Gilles Deleuze highlights in the work of Michel Foucault; whereas disciplinary society reaches a zenith in the 20th century, “control” names the way formerly institutional sites of subject-formation (the school, the factory, the hospital, etc) that make up disciplinary society de-materialize into simultaneously differential and generalized forms under late capitalism. “The different internments of spaces of enclosure through which the individual passes are independent variables: each time one us supposed to start from zero, and although a common language for all these places exists, it is analogical. On the other hand, the different control mechanisms are inseparable variations, forming a system of variable geometry the language of which is numerical (which doesn’t necessarily mean binary). Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point.” Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 4-5.


9 thoughts on “Theology’s Icon and its Idol

  1. Well done; this is a very well-articulated distinction of Marion’s idol and icon. What I would suggest, however, is that the idol should perhaps not be conceived as a *perfect* idol, that is, the far extreme of a non-icon, bearing in it nothing that an icon bears. By my reading, the idol is not always and perfectly closed to the Other but is constituted beginning as phenomenon that *necessarily* encounters alterity. Where the idol draws its radical distinction from the icon is that, unlike the icon which remains open, the idol ‘stops short,’ fixes and freezes.

    I believe this is why Marion describes the idolatrous gaze as ‘resting’ under ‘the weight of upholding the sign of an aim without term, rest, or end’ (God Without Being, 13). And why Marion admits, even urges, the possibility that the idol marks an encounter with the divine: ‘The fact is that the idol registers, as a low-water mark signals a rise in the water level, a certain advance of the aim at the divine, to the point of certain reflection and deflection’ (27). The idol presumes a hearing of the Other speak but becomes an idol precisely because it *casts* the word that it hears, closes and silences it.

    • When I say ‘perfect,’ it’s in reference to the fact that the idol makes possible any sort of stopping, fixing, or freezing. Regardless of what exactly gives that which it freezes (bracketing, for instance, the question of a divine here, in good Husserlian spirit) you’re left with two modes of presentation for that given: [1] a mode that manifests the fact that more remains, unseen, even in the act of seeing (and thus renders a certain sort of sense to the visual field on behalf of that given) or [2] a mode that allows the seer to close their eyes to the fact that something remains hidden, withdrawn. It’s this sense-without-nonsense that I’m referring to as a perfect construction of sense; perfect in the sense of perfect discursive construction of the subject in Foucauldian variants of screen theory. It’s not perfect in the sense that there is nothing withdrawn, but rather perfect in the sense that it’s capable of fixing or freezing; of giving the illusion of a lack of withdrawnness. My claim is that the way sense (visual or otherwise) actually functions doesn’t, in fact, allow for this second mode of givenness.

      • Sorry, I didn’t mean in using the word ‘perfect’ to critique the word perfect where you’ve employed it, as in ‘perfect visibility.’ That was a misstep. I believe I understand what you mean there. I believe my point still stands, however, since one still receives ‘it gives’ in order for one to manifest the given the idol. Does that not answer the question of how the novel can arise? It is smuggled in by givenness before one ‘sees’ the idol.

          • That it is not to say that it does not freeze. Givenness freezes in one ‘seeing’ the idol. My point is that Marion’s idol does not depend for its meaningfulness on its having precluded the possibility of exteriority. The idol presupposes this possibility. The idol is meaningful because it *closes* the possibility that preceded it. The other speaks in the givenness of the phenomenon, a givenness which is intuited under the constraints of possibility, and one then ‘sees’ the idol by closing off the possibility of more than what was first disclosed in the first seeing. The idol is not negated by ‘the Greeks’ having experienced ‘something,’ because it’s meaningfulness derives from the fact that thereafter they experienced *only* that same appearance.

            • Well, it *is* to say that it does not freeze. I’m suggesting that concepts/visions never close in in this way, that one never sees *only* some same appearance and that *semiotic sense itself depends on this fact.* I’m sorry if I’m simply repeating myself, but I take this as fundamental to the very approaches to language that Marion’s account depends on. One could have that kind of fixation if sight *isn’t* semiotic; but then it’s nonsense to talk about it in terms of concepts, or in terms of ways of signing.

              • No, that’s helpful, but I think it does displace the question I see you to be initially posing on the possibility of the idol being seen qua idol (and maybe I’m merely misreading you here, so forgive that) to the possibility of holding a gaze on the idol, of the idol lasting. We might then simply disagree whether there’s a problem. I don’t understand Marion’s idol (as phenomenological) to depend for itself on its ability to endure any length of time but merely to appear, and it appears when envisioned without possibility of being more than its appearance.

                I’ll take our dialogue getting squeezed quite literally into the margins as a cue, though, and let you correct me if I’m misreading you and let it stand there.

  2. Brian, I’m responding here because the nesting layout would make this unreadable otherwise. I’m thinking that we should maybe just get rid of it.

    Anyway, no, my issue isn’t about duration, but about the ability of a signifier to ever operate in the way the idol describes. The semiotic account presupposed by Marion doesn’t allow for that kind of fixedness to a signifier; the signifier simply couldn’t function *as* a signifier if it was doing that–you wouldn’t get sense at all, excessive or otherwise.

  3. Theologies I-con and I-dol is always the ego-“I” that does the theology or creates the tower of babble/babel.
    Put in another way the ego-“I” is the center pole around which all of the babble is created.
    It is all a hedge around ones fear, an impenetrable fortress, a sign that one is refusing to surrender to that which Always Already IS, prior to one’s babbling.

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