Idolatry & Iconoclasm (was Re: Some aspects of the technic ofVisual Realism, the persona, a cult persona etc.)

Doyle Saylor djsaylor at
Wed Dec 27 21:46:57 MST 2000

Greetings Comrades,
    There is a great deal of interest to me in the essay that Yoshie posts
on this subject of the idolatry & Iconoclasm in religion and elsewhere.  For

Reid Heller, In Honor of Eugene Kullman,
Less than 70 years following
Bacon's essays on idolatry, Spinoza reinterpreted the Bible's polemic
against idolatry as reason's first struggle against superstition.

Which I think a quite interesting way of understanding what Spinoza was
aiming at.  Reason in that context is language like, as one would expect of
writing that Europeans were familiar with.  How words can have a sense of
being detached from passion.  Reason of course rests upon words rather than
images.  And images while enticing in some ways don't explain much in a
language like way.

The enlightenment heirs of Bacon and Spinoza who sought to break
decisively with the western legacy of revelation and biblical
authority, transformed idolatry from a sin against God into a sin
against reason.  The great political/moral works of the
enlightenment, Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico et Politicus,
Rousseau's Emile and Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, can be
seen, in part, as an enlightenment program to redefine idolatry in
terms of modern rationality and decisively overcome it.

What is being argued against here in the Enlightenment thought is the
accompaniment to words of elements in images that convey for example
emotion.  Or perhaps salience (meaning importance of the image) as well.
What I would point out though is that the means of production did not allow
printing to be heavily illustrated until the twentieth century, so the value
of images in communications was not clear to Kant for example.  And
certainly they would have not understood how television could have such a
powerful effect upon the masses.  They could not have imaged showing motion

...represent the most recent entries in the ancient
western search for a permanent solution to the problem of idolatry in
political life.

But the problem of idolatry is not removing words from the visual, but in
using pictures in a language like way.  What the ancients were overcoming is
not so much superstition but the ties that immediate human contact generates
through the visual cues of conversation between people.  The bible is
interesting in this sense.  According to Leonard Shlain in his book "The
Alphabet Versus the  Goddess", Penguin Arkana, 1998, the Jewish community
invented the alphabet in the shadow of Egypt, and then made that simplified
writing system available to all males in the tribes.  They would have had a
tremendous means to unify their tribal networks through the common means of
reading and writing transmitted at a distance in time and place.  They would
have been the first mass literacy in a community.  This unification could be
carried out invisible to the Egyptians who mostly were illiterate, and would
have not understood the Jewish writing system anyway since it was a complete
departure from the Egyptian scripts.  This invisible unity could be played
against the idols of the time which could not "talk" back.  And the writing
system seemed to be most about the Father Like God instructing the whole
community upon the common behavior for all to follow.  This would have
facilitated emotional stabilizations around pastoral tales of good behavior.

If we can assume that the enlightenment program to rationalize the
moral and political realm is not wholly reducible to atheism, then
perhaps it is worth puzzling over certain assumptions that underlie
our modern identification of idolatry with unreason....

How silly!  An idol is a communication function accompanying speech acts.
What has that got to keep it separate from atheism?  Or make pictures about
unreason?  The unreason is normally passions or emotions, but what is
unclear to this sort of thinking is how emotions cannot be removed from
words.  What is not understood is how emotions are always present and make
meaning happen in all words.

The People were led to belief and confirmed in belief by
virtue of images, not law.  Thus Halevi teaches that idolatry is not
the opposite of monotheism, but is, in fact, a necessary aspect of
the human condition including monotheistic societies.  The Jews are
the first but by no means the last monotheists who will wrestle with
the persistence of idolatry.

Images persist where it is not easy to convey kinds of information.  Icons
of Christ and apostles have a power that a word cannot convey.  That power
is related to the facial image conveying information about how we feel.  A
Christ would show things that words can't easily convey.  In part because
language itself is not directly a carrier of emotions.  These emerge in
parallel with words through the body, primarily the face, but hands
contribute and body posture also.

Finally, Halevi assesses the sin of the golden calf.  But he chooses
a philosophical ground for assessing the sin and only mentions Jewish
law in passing.  The sin, as he describes it, is identical to the
Guide's later assessment of idolatry.  It is a political sin, a
usurpation of the prerogative of worship in a manner not expressly
commanded by God.  Aaron, the political leader at the time, is the
one responsible for the usurpation.  But when examined with respect
to all the prevailing conditions, Aaron's behavior appears
statesmanlike.  He delayed the sin for as long as possible, insures
that the sin unites the People rather than divides them and repents
when it is politically possible to do so without creating civil war.
By implicitly arguing for Aaron's political wisdom, Halevi appeals to
the King's political understanding, without hypocrisy or flattery.
The pagan King's situation, so close to Aaron's, will inevitably lead
him to identify with Aaron's political wisdom.  Halevi's argument
makes clear that the only means of avoiding idolatry, whether pagan
or monotheist, is through obedience to Divine Law, which returns the
King to the subject matter of his dream.

Heller is pointing at the principle of community unification that the
writing system allowed.  Authority at a distance could speak rules that
everyone would get and follow if the whole community is united behind the
"moral" force of the commandments.  It is critical of course that this God
be a "passionate" God since the problem with writing systems is the
ambiguity of writing that conveys emotions.  The peasant people of course
would have vast experience with their local community and the dangers of
divorce between words and emotions was slight for them.

Idolatry and illusion are among the permanent problems in every human
collective.  The political task has been and remains the wise
balancing of idolatrous tendencies with the means of overcoming them.
The Torah shows us a path for living in a world of illusion without
succumbing to it.  It teaches us that overcoming idolatry, like
redemption, itself, is an unending human task.  It is the most
essential human work.  Or, to put this in Torah's own language, the
persistence of idolatry should be seen as an extended response to
Korach's unanswered question 'Is not the entire People, holy?'  No,
the People is not holy, but it may become holy, each of them.

Posing writing against images has to do with the fight against pantheism,
and the difficulty of producing images that function in a language like way.
Doyle Saylor

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