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.

Shameless self promotion…

Hey. Sorry for the low content value of this post after such a great series by Joel, but just a heads up in case anyone is interested. If you’re in or around the southern California area, I’ll be giving papers at a couple of upcoming conferences in Claremont that may be of interest.

On Thursday, February 14, I’ll be participating in the pre-conference seminar leading up to CGU’s 35th Annual Philosophy of Religion Conference. My paper is entitled “We Look for the Resurrection of the Dead: On Hope, Futurity, and Temporality,” and is an attempt to think hope in terms of immanent refusal, couched in a response to Martin Hägglund’s realist reading of Derrida. Hope is this year’s conference theme, and Jürgen Moltmann will be giving the keynote address.

On Friday, February 21 I’ll be giving a paper entitled “The Problem of the Icon” at CGU’s 7th Annual Religions in Conversation Conference. This paper is in large part a critique of Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology of the icon and the idol. Friend of the blog Tad DeLay will also be participating, giving a paper on psychoanalytic approaches to religion. The theme of this year’s conference is “Creating Expressions of the Sacred: The Intersection of Art and Religion”

The annual Religions in Conversation Conference is accepting paper proposals (limited to 200 words) on the general topic of the intersection of art and religion. Seeking to address issues of artistic expression within religious settings as well as the usage of art by religion and the usage of religion by art, the conference is aimed at examining the mutual influence and engagement of religious traditions and artistic expression through transdisciplinary scholarly engagement within the fields.

The conference invites papers in specific topics such as: icons, iconoclasm, religious artistic expressions, religious influences on specific subdivisions of art, artistic expressions of religious ideas (including painting, sculpture, drama, engravings, poetry, film, etc.), religion as art, art as religion, art in religion, iconoclasm, taboos in religious art, religious artists, curatorial decisions regarding religiously themed art, and religious authority’s embrace or denouncement of artistic expression.

Expect posts on both of these topics from me in the near future.

Doxological Theology Part IV: Derridean Objections

Given this play between saying and unsaying, in which the via negativa maintains priority without possessing for itself a kind of “last word,” how is the theologian after Dionysius to respond to the classic Derridean objection: is this not, in some important sense, a bluff? Negative theology, Derrida will claim, “is always occupied with letting a superessential reality go beyond finite categories of essence and existence, that is, of presence, and always hastens to remind us that, if we deny the predicate of existence to God, it is in order to recognize him as a superior, inconceivable and ineffable mode of Being.”⁠1 Negative theology “claims not to do what it nevertheless does all the time,” predicating Being—and the like—of God, and inscribing God back within the frame of what goes by the names “onto-theology” and “metaphysics of presence.”⁠2 Insofar as the via negativa passes again into a saying, is it not an attempt to ground a secure possibility of predicative speech? And does not this grounding re-inscribe God  as ultimately an object or function given for thinking the presence-at-hand of things in the world? Even as we affirm that God is not a being, God still, according to this line of accusation, remains a kind of being who is not a being.  How is this formulation not, in the last analysis, ideological?

According to Marion, “It could be answered that mystical theology obviously does not intend to re-establish in fine what it denied, but to pass, through the way of eminence, from predication (affirmative and/or negative) to a decidedly non-predicative form of speech, namely the prayer which praises (ύμνείν).”⁠3 The objection that remains, however, is that “one always praises with a title… or insofar as…, thus by naming.”⁠4 Marion responds to this in part via the logic of proper names; the proper name is proper to the named precisely by virtue of its impropriety towards the essence of the named. A proper name does not predicate an attribute, but gestures toward what it signifies without predication. Indeed, for Dionysius, God “falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being.”⁠5 Dionysius deals with this at some length in the first chapter of The Divine Names. “Realizing all this, [the independence of God from metaphysical determination] the theologians praise it by every name—and as the Nameless One.”⁠6 Dionysius frequently reflects on the proper namelessness of God alongside necessity of naming. Thus, according to this logic of im/propriety, “as Cause of all and as transcending all, [God] is rightly nameless and yet has the names of everything that is.”⁠7 It is according to this logic that even those most essentially “proper” names are transgressed; thus, echoing Paul, Dionysius argues that the wisdom by which God is named “wise” is a form of foolishness. These names point, in the mode of icon, towards a confrontation that remains unpossessed by the names themselves.⁠8

1 Quoted in Jean-Luc Marion, “In The Name,” in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, ed. John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 21-22.

2 Marion, “In The Name,” 23.

3 Ibid., 23.

4 Ibid., 23.

5 Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology,” 141

6 Dionysius, “The Divine Names,” 54.

7 Ibid., 56.

8 Marion will also refer to this as a “saturated phenomenon.” Marion, “In the Name,” 39-40. A saturated phenomenon is differentiated from two options given for appearance by Husserl: that appearance which is adequate to what appears and that which is inadequate, where appearance fails to measure up to the concept to which it is submitted. Instead, the doxological moment is described as a moment in which appearance exceeds the concept given for it. His phenomenological description highlights both the limitations of phenomenalogical description per se and the necessity of faith; phenomenology can say nothing about whether this confrontation actually happens, since the third moment has nothing more to say after saying and unsaying, but instead listens for what may or may not speak. Thus, while the question of predication can be settled in theory (via the notion of saturated phenomena), the question of ideology remains theoretically undecideable, resting on the side of the confrontation itself.

Doxological Theology Part II: Idol and Icon

Of course, as the trained theologian will not fail to note, to address praise to this God is no mean feat. As Jean-Luc Marion highlights, the conflict between idol and icon is always “a conflict between two phenomenologies.” [1] As such, it is a conflict not between two competing objects with competing referents who otherwise are (have their Being) in the same way, but one between different ways in which these objects may be. That even objects which reference the ‘correct’ God may be idols, and the fluidity with which objects may traverse the divide between idol and icon both suggest this distinction. Rather, what is at stake is two distinct “modes of apprehension [or reception] of the divine in visibility.” [2]

For Marion, the basic form of the idol is not that of illusion or forgery. It is not properly illusory because it consists rather in the recognition of precisely that which cannot help but be seen; the idol stabilizes (grasps) that which captures the gaze, so that it can become a point of reference, given for the gaze’s use. It is not properly a forgery because the fabrication only enters the status of idol in the later, determinative, moment when it presents as “that which will fill a gaze.” [3] “The gaze makes the idol, not the idol the gaze—which means that the idol with its visibility fills the intention of the gaze, which wants nothing other than to see.” [4] The gaze stops upon some thing (the idol), and the idol re-presents that stopping point—the gaze’s own aim. Thus, the privileged metaphor for Marion is the invisible mirror; what the idol presents to the gaze is the gaze in its own intention, but it shows this in a way that masks over—renders invisable—its own operation. [5]

The icon, on the other hand, phenomenally inverts the operation of the idol. The icon is not determined by the gaze, but “provokes” it towards a vision unaccountable within its own aim. [6] In the icon, Paul’s formula rendering Jesus the “icon of the invisible God” becomes paradigmatic; the icon does not present the visible as a means of discerning between visible and invisible, offering an image for the grasp of the gaze. [7] Instead, the icon presents the invisible precisely as invisible; as that which confronts the gaze without becoming an object for the gaze’s determination. The privileged reference here is a face; because the gaze and aim that determine the icon as icon are not those that belong to the one who apprehends the icon, but to the icon itself as presentation of the invisible, the one who apprehends finds in the icon not a thing but an aim alien to herself, by which she is confronted. Thus, while the idol’s reflexive origin admits a fixed point of return, the icon can be submitted to no measure, no aesthetic, but only to its own apocalyptic, abyssal “infinite excessivess.” [8]

What is important here for the student of theology learning to pray and praise with Dionysius is the idol/icon analytic when applied to the conceptual names of God. How are we to address our praise to true God rather than idol?

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

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 10-11.

[5] Note the resemblance of the invisible/invisable distinction here to Althusser’s formulation of the ideological interpellation of the subject as subject.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 20-21.