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Iconoclasm, Byzantine and Postmodern: Implications for Contemporary Theological Anthropology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Christopher Denny
St. John's University, Queens, NY


Medieval Byzantine debates regarding icons included fine distinctions between image, prototype, and symbol as these terms related to personhood. Iconodules and iconoclasts differed regarding the ability of art to represent the person. Must artistic representations of a person, to be justified, be consubstantial with the person represented and thus circumscribed, as iconoclasts believed? Or is it sufficient to refer to artistic representations as being symbolic of their human subjects? Embracing the victorious iconodule distinction between a person and artistic representations of the person raises questions regarding the manner in which an image can reveal a human being. Post-structuralist philosophers Maurice Blanchot and Kevin Hart have inverted this problematic. They begin the interpretation of icons and personhood not from the traditional understanding of the honor or worship paid to Christian icons. Instead, they examine the icon's deconstruction of the viewer. What results is an iconodule defense of a post-Cartesian “anthropological iconoclasm.”

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2009

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1 All biblical quotations in this article are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

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24 Lévinas, , “Reality,” 89.Google Scholar Contrast this passivity with Lévinas' later commendation of passivity in Otherwise Than Being, 109–13. The difference between the two passive stances is that passivity before the image leads to apathy, while passivity before the “other” is a responsible willingness to love the “other” and undergo expiation on its behalf. Such interpersonal passivity is not founded on the order of things, but upon the encounter of two subjectivities.

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36 Marion, , “Le Prototype de L'Image,” in Nicée II, 470Google Scholar. In his recent work, Marion's descriptions have moved away from the mutuality between the icon and the viewer stressed in his earlier theological writing. By the late 1990s, demonstrating the influence of Jacques Derrida's ruminations on the concept of gift, Marion's philosophical works began to privilege the heuristic priority of the phenomenon over the beholder. The best representations of this shift are Marion's, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, trans. Kosky, Jeffrey, Cultural Memory in the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002)Google Scholar; and In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena, trans. Horner, Robyn and Berraud, Vincent (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 82103Google Scholar. A new book by Marion interprets Augustine's theological anthropology as an explication of the idea that the human self is fundamentally a gift. See Au Lieu de Soi: L'Approche de Saint Augustin (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008), 89–148. These moves by Marion move his theological anthropology somewhat in the direction of the anthropological iconoclasm described in the next section of this present article, but there remains a significant difference between what Marion describes as the cataphatic counter-experience of the self given in phenomenal encounters and Blanchot's apophatic non-experience of selfhood through mortality.

37 Hill, Leslie, “After Blanchot,” in After Blanchot: Literature, Criticism, Philosophy, ed. Hill, Leslie, Nelson, Brian, Vardoulakis, Dimitris, Series, Monash Romance, ed. Nelson, Brian (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005), 1.Google Scholar

38 See Blanchot, Maurice, “After the Fact,” in The Station Hill Blanchot Reader, ed. Quasha, George, trans. Davis, Lydia, Auster, Paul, and Lamberton, Robert (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1999), 493–95.Google Scholar For Blanchot's other major non-fiction works in English translation, see The Space of Literature, trans. Smock, Ann (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 254–55Google Scholar; The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Smock, Ann (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995)Google Scholar; The Infinite Conversation, trans. Hanson, Susan, Theory and History of Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992)Google Scholar; The Unavowable Community, trans. Joris, Pierre (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1988)Google Scholar; and The Blanchot Reader, ed. Holland, Michael (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995).Google Scholar A series of essays by Lévinas on Blanchot can be found in Lévinas, Emmanuel, Proper Names, trans. Smith, Michael B. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 127–70.Google Scholar

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41 Blanchot, ibid., 258. Blanchot is here indebted to Heidegger's exposition of what Heidegger calls “being towards death [Sein zum Tode]. See Being and Time, [46–53] 279–311, along with Savage, Robert, “Between Hölderlin and Heidegger,” in After Blanchot, 149–67.Google Scholar

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43 For a literary example of how Blanchot describes this duplication of the self in death, see the description in Thomas the Obscure, in Station Hill Blanchot Reader, 109–10, in which the protagonist describes a corpse as follows: “Alas, all that prevented her from being distinguished from a real person was that which verified her annihilation. She was entirely within herself: in death, abounding in life. She seemed more weighty, more in con trol of herself.”

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54 Among his publications relevant to this present article, see Hart, Kevin, The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred, Religion and Postmodernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 2249, 105–32Google Scholar; Clandestine Encounters: Philosophy in the Narratives of Maurice Blanchot (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming 2010); and “The Counter-Spiritual Life,” in Hart, Kevin and Hartman, Geoffrey H., eds., The Power of Contestation: Perspectives on Maurice Blanchot (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 156–77.Google Scholar Hart's theological transformation of Jacques Derrida's deconstructionism can be found in his earlier The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology, and Philosophy, 2 nd ed., no. 13, Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 1989).

55 Hart, , “The Profound Reserve,” in After Blanchot, 35Google Scholar; also, see Hart, , “Encyclopedias and Other Things: Some Recent Theology,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 6/3 (Fall 2005): 5557.Google Scholar

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57 Hart, , Dark Gaze, 132Google Scholar; also, Hart, , “Le Troisième Rapport,” trans. Garet, Sandrine, in Blanchot dans Son Siècle, ed. Antelme, Monique et al. , (Lyon: Parangon, 2009), 2540.Google Scholar

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60 For a helpful delineation of three possible definitions of transcendence used in contemporary philosophies of religion, see Desmond, William, Hegel's God: A Counterfeit Double? (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 24.Google Scholar

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62 See Ward, Graham, “The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ,” in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, ed. Milbank, John, Pickstock, Catherine, and Ward, Graham (New York: Routledge, 1999), 163–81.Google Scholar I thank Christopher McMahon for this reference.

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66 I thank Kevin Hart and the members of the 2005 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar, “Religious Experience and English Poetry, 1633–1985,” held at the University of Notre Dame, for the conversation and fellowship that helped bring this article to fruition. I also thank the anonymous reviewers of this manuscript for their helpful suggestions.