The Broken Image/L'image brisée

Event Date: 
15 Nov 2012 to 17 Nov 2012

Conference description and elements for a problematic

Situated strategically at the meeting point for several of the IRCL's key research axes for the coming four-year period, this conference will explore from various angles the theme of the “broken image”. Much valuable work has been carried out on iconoclasm in its positivistic dimension (see for example the work of John Walter, Margaret Aston for England; for France, that of Natalie Zemon Davis and many other historians). By choosing as our title The Broken Image, thus deliberately avoiding the term iconoclasm, we invite the researchers participating in this event to rethink the frame and broaden the field of reference. By privileging both the synchronic and diachronic aspects of the question, cross-fertilising several cognate fields (historical, literary, philosophical, theological, even psychoanalytical), it is expected that the enquiry will bear both on the very act of breaking an image and what results from it — what becomes of the fragments.

This conference thus proposes an analysis of the issues raised both before and after the act of destruction, and explores answers to the following questions:

What exactly is involved when one breaks an image? Taken literally, the act of smashing introduces a discontinuity (cubes, tesserae, shards, tokens, vestiges) from a preexisting totality. Breaking form and perspective constitutes in effect an attack against the imperative of unity, the integrity of a whole. Is there always an impulse of violence involved, a violence resulting in a gesture that seeks to found, and in effect to clear away, a pristine space: to create its own ground, even if this can ultimately be recognized as illusory?

Is there a typology of the targeted image? Is there always a question of authority embodied in it in one way or another? Of the utopian desire to bring low and finally annihilate that authority? Is there, further, inextricably threaded into this, a question of paternity, or even of "paternality", this term being understood as indicating the sometimes indirect and diffuse means of cultural, aesthetic, theological filiation.
And if one breaks the image, from which stance? What does the image breaker do with the shards of the broken image? Does he bury them, cover them, as he invents substitutive rites and ceremonies to eliminate every trace of the past? For the image thus broken can remain as a stigmatum: as a deteriorated, partial object, it is emblematic of loss, absence, incompleteness. It survives as a broken-off piece that stands in for a fixed totality (as from a mosaic, a figure of marquetry, or even a puzzle) and thus holds forth the tantalising possibility of acting as a regenerative catalyst.

Whether negatively or positively, there is a great difference in the way in which the violent act of breaking — source simultaneously of ruin and liberation — can be appreciated.

Inasmuch as the image is necessarily caught in the web of representation, is there an attempt by the image breaker — here once again, illusory? — to escape from that web by “blasting open the continuum of history”, to use Walter Benjamin’s terms?

And finally, for the individual or the group that destroys the image, is there not always a price to be exacted, that is proportional to the success of the act undertaken? What is the nature of such a debt?

Within the chronological limits indicated, and in the light of these suggested interrogations, participants will have full liberty to explore material from the corpus specific to their field of scholarly expertise.

Please send expressions of interest in participating in this event to Agnès Lafont (, Nick Myers (

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