I am about halfway through Marie-José Mondzain’s Image, Icon, Economy, initially brought to my attention by J. Kameron Carter’s post about it. Already it is clear that one of the primary objections made in comments to Halden’s post responding to Carter (which, to be fair, does seem to have been motivated primarily by contrarianism about icons, leading others to be defensive) is easily disproven — commenters remarked that it was an emperor who first embraced iconoclasm, meaning the link between icon and empire is questionable, but Mondzain is clear throughout that the emperor’s purpose was to reserve the power of the icon solely for the empire and deprive the church of that power. At the same time he was destroying religious icons, he was putting out plenty of imperial icons.
That’s not my main point in writing this post, though — what I’d like to discuss is the potential connection between Mondzain’s book and Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory (which I have studied closely). The overlap between the two is considerable, but it seems to me that Mondzain achieves, in a much shorter work, what Agamben struggles to articulate, namely the relationship between “kingdom” (or rule) and “glory” (or spectacle). Indeed, reading Agamben’s book I got the impression that he was potentially on to something that would completely change his research project, which up till then had been too determined by Carl Schmitt’s political categories, and that as such the work was unusually tentative — and even scattered. It was difficult for me to tell what had motivated his organization of the text, for instance, particularly the fact that he buried one of his most powerful points (the link between divine providence and the “invisible hand”) in an appendix.
Mondzain, by contrast, is working with a textual tradition where the question of the relationship between power and spectacle is absolutely central, and specifically with a text, the Antirrhetics of Nikephoros of Constantinople (which she spent five years translating for the Sources Chrétiennes series), where that relationship was articulated with profound philosophical rigor — that is to say, Nikephoros argues that the divine “economy” (or providence, or governance, or management, etc.) issues necessarily in the icon. Power requires display, which also means it requires abstraction, separation, etc.
It appears that Agamben’s bias in favor of the Aristotelian tradition, which led him to Aquinas rather than to the eastern late patristic writers, worked against him here. I was not aware of Mondzain’s work at the time I read Agamben and so do not know whether he cites it, but given his dismissiveness of the scholarly work on the theological concept of “economy,” I’m guessing he did not know of the book. (If anyone has easy access to the text and can clarify whether he cites it, I would appreciate it.)
In any case, Carter is right to characterize Mondzain’s book as the kind you need to live with for a while. After I finish this read-through with the interlibrary loan copy, I will definitely be picking up my own copy — in a strange way, this concept of “economy” (or the themes it brings together) is revealing itself to have been central to my work so far, to be a kind of knot tying together writings of mine that might appear to be more or less randomly juxtaposed.