In the so-called “Pictorial Chapters” of Moby-Dick, the narrator Ishmael discusses “monstrous,” “erroneous,” and “true pictures” of whales, while shifting the meaning of representation and the meaning of truth from modern European to a-modern and non- European notions. Unmoored in his existence, floating between North America and Oceania, Ishmael’s articulations not only antedate the “practical turn“ in art history, but also outline a stunning critique of pictures, which founds representation in non-representational forms of mimesis, like attachment. Here, chains of operations connect human and nonhuman actors (like whales and whale bones), while the notion of a non-representable and undecipherable “inscrutable thing” points to the unfathomable ground of all representation. Linked together, the elements of this critique form the rudiments of a theory of art as cultural technique.
Bernhard Siegert is 2016 International Visiting Research Scholar and Professor of History and Theory of Cultural Techniques at Bauhaus University Weimar, Germany, and Co-director of the International Research Center for Cultural Techniques and Media Philosophy (IKKM). He is hosted by Prof. T'ai Smith.