Re-enchantment and iconoclasm in an age of images

An essay commissioned by The Hedgehog Review, Journal of Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture, for a special issue on Re-Enchantment and secular society. VOL. 17 NO. 3 (FALL 2015).

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Images are a particularly strong form of enchantment. They captivate us by means of a mysterious double effect, oscillating between visual immediacy and their clear status as illusion. At least since antiquity, the nearly magical, delusional potential of images has been an issue of serious concern. (Perhaps it was so even in the caves of Lascaux, where images of bison sprang to life, animated by prehistoric fire). Before modern societies were captivated by motion pictures, then television, then the ever-expanding array of iPhones, iPads, and computers that now capture our gaze, Plato likened our human condition to imprisonment in a cave of flickering images (eidola): a shadow world of appearances removed from the sunlit reality of the world of true Forms that lay outside. In this primal image, Plato seems to have anticipated a significant feature of our contemporary milieu: the thoroughgoing mediation of information and experience through images and image-rendering screens.