Charlie Hebdo

Aniconism [an-ahy-kuh-niz-uhm] is the practice of or belief in the avoiding or shunning of images of divine beings, prophets or other respected religious figures, or in different manifestations, any human beings or living creatures. The term ‘aniconic’ may be used to describe the absence of graphic representations in a particular belief system, regardless of whether an injunction against them exists.

An avoidance and repugnance of holy representations is called ‘iconophobia,’ its antonymic reaction being that of an ‘iconodule’ (one who is in favor of religious images or icons and their veneration). Aniconism can lead to iconoclasm, the destruction of sacred images as heretical. Aniconism can also lead to censorship, which takes place after a representation was already produced, but before, or shortly after, it is made public.

Some parts of the objects subjected to aniconism are more sensitive than others to representation. The eyes and the face are markers of identity for the species and the individual (the iris pattern is a powerful biometric identifier; portraits are the most common art subject; masks appear throughout cultures as means to protect one’s privacy or take a new one). The representation of genital parts are often avoided, usually on moral grounds, because they represent biological, social and symbolic power (suppressed through clothing of statues and paintings or digital blurring and ink blackening of photographs). Aniconism extends to non visual representations as well (e.g. the periods of opposition to figurative music in musical history and criticism and the social marginality of actors—mimes of body and language—in many pre-modern societies). While seemingly trivial to the nonadherent, aniconism has fueled many social unrests and cultural damage throughout history (e.g. Byzantine and Reformation iconoclasm).

Aniconism is often a gradual phenomenon, having appeared at various times in many cultures across the world and within the same culture during its history. It is usually restricted to specific circumstances of space (figurative images are absent from mosques, but not outside their walls), time (synagogues are not painted, but the oldest preserved one [3rd century CE, Dura Europos, Syria] was), object (in Africa the High God has no statue or painting, but lesser deities do), or modality. The intensity of aniconism is characterized by periodicity (the tendency to recur at intervals; e.g. the alternance of iconoclast and image overloaded periods in Christianity).

The fundamental cause of aniconism is embedded in the problematic nature of representation itself. There is an unavoidable need to represent the world since this is how our cognition works, but what is the validity of a representation not perceptible to our biological senses of something outside their reach or immaterial (God, time, ultraviolet)? Furthermore, how to present a general model by a specific occurrence (everybody knows what a human looks like, but everyone will draw him or her in a different way). Because these are inherent and not transitory problems, they generate a perpetual search for solutions, making of aniconism a continuously fluctuating phenomenon.

Although aniconism is better known in connection to Abrahamic religions, basic patterns are shared between various religious beliefs including Hinduism which also has aniconistic beliefs. For example, although Hinduism is commonly represented by such anthropomorphic religious murtis, aniconism is equally represented with such abstract symbols of God such as the Shiva linga and the shaligrama. Moreover, Hindus have found it easier to focus on anthropmorphic icons, because god Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita that it is much more difficult to focus on God as the unmanifested than God with form, due to human beings having the need to perceive via the senses. Sikhism also encourages aniconism: Images or idols of Sikh gurus are not to be worshiped, and actors can’t play the role of Sikh gurus in films.

In monotheism, aniconism was shaped by specific theological considerations and their historical contexts. It emerged as a corollary of seeing God’s position as the ultimate power holder, and the need to defend this unique status against competing external and internal forces, such as pagan idols, critical humans, and mass society. Idolatry is a threat to uniqueness, and one way that prophets and missionaries chose to fight it was through the prohibition of material representations. The same solution also worked against the pretension of humans to have the same power of creation as God (hence their banishment from the Heavens, the destruction of Babel, and the Second Commandment in the biblical texts, or the myth of the golem in Jewish literature).

While politics heavily rely on the representation of governors and pretendants as an instrument of power (the presidents on US banknotes and the stylized portrait of Che Guevara are examples where the power comes from the image of dead persons), there is a very short—yet essential to the political process—moment of aniconism. It is the lapse between the removal of the symbols of an outgoing power and their replacement with those of the incumbent. For example, part of the French Revolution was also the smashing of royal statues, as so often repeated during social unrests. The covering of the head of a Saddam Hussein statue with first the US, then the Iraqi flag during the 2003 invasion of Iraq is a special example where the politically offending is hidden from sight before being destroyed. There are also reclusive leaders who benefit from the absence of their image, such as Taliban leader Mullah Omar, of whom few photographs are known to exist.

In Africa aniconism varies from culture to culture from elaborate masks and statues of humans and animals to their total absence. A common feature, however, across the continent is that the ‘High God’ is not given material shape. On the Germanic tribes, the Roman historian Tacitus writes the following: ‘They don’t consider it mighty enough for the Heavens to depict Gods on walls or to display them in some human shape.’ In Australian Aboriginal culture there is a prohibition and tribal lore and custom contravening the depiction of the newly or recently dead, including photographs, as this is held to inhibit their passage to the Great Dreaming of the Ancestors. This has led some Australian newspapers to publish apologies alongside obituaries.

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