Iconomy: Towards a Political Economy of Images

Iconomy: Towards a Political Economy of Images

By Terry Smith

Anthem symploke Studies in Theory

Exploring viral imagery of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Presidents Trump and Biden, Black Lives Matter, as well as the rise of a “black aesthetic” in white artworlds, this book shows that iconopolitics—especially constellations of visual images—has become pervasive within contemporary life. It questions the implications for critical thought and political action.

Hardback, 236 Pages


July 2022

£80.00, $125.00

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About This Book

Iconomy: Towards a Political Economy of Images argues that imagery of all kinds—from visual icons in social media, advertising, news broadcasting and political campaigns, in architecture and art through to more private realms such as dreams—has become a definitive force in the shaping of contemporary life. It has become a vital part, often a primary medium, in most of the many economies operative within contemporary societies, in commercial exchange, public politics, cultural contestation, and subject formation. They have become, substantially, iconomic. Yet this imagery is generated and flows, accretes, shifts, and swops, runs free or is managed, according to its inherent potentials and limits—that is, for all its immersion in wider economies, however much it saturates them, it is an economy of its own, an iconomy.

Part I traces conceptualizations of links between seeing and planning, images and economies, through Plato’s cave allegory, medieval iconoclasm, Marx’s theories of commodity, and Debord’s spectacle society, up to interpretations of the systemic saturation of contemporary imaginaries by images (mostly visual), ostensive performances, and exhibitionary exchanges deployed through widely shared yet intensely managed screen and surveillance technologies. 

The implicit politics of this economy become explicit in Part II, which explores the iconopolitics of (i) the (mis)management of imagery associated with SARS-CoV-19; (ii) the ubiquity, retreat and possible resurgence of the image regime centered on Donald J. Trump, along with the Biden response; (iii) the nature and impact of the video of the murder of George Floyd; (iv) the similarities and differences between the videos of the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the killing of George Floyd in 2020; (v) BLM ignition of imagery around intersectional struggle; (vi) the war of images within the current civil war in the United States; (vii) the potentialities for building community while image wars rage; and (viii) the recent rise of “black aesthetics” within predominantly white artworlds. The book concludes with a reflection on usefulness, and the limitations, of iconomic analyses of contemporary societies. Having arrived at the term “iconomy” in the years just prior to 9/11, and tracking its growing relevance since, Smith argues that its study does not require a discipline serving nation state and globalizing capitalism but, instead, a deconstructive interdiscipline that contributes to planetary world-making. 


“A well documented and welcome history of the genesis of a new concept: iconomy.” – Peter Szendy, David Herlihy University Professor of Comparative Literature and the Humanities, Brown University, and author of The Supermarket of Images.

“Charting the image economy’s historical and current coordinates with model perspicuity, Smith reveals timely political insights.” – T. J. Demos, Patricia and Rowland Rebele Endowed Chair in Art History, UC Santa Cruz, and author of Beyond the World’s End: Arts of Living at the Crossing. 

“Unparalleled historian and theoretician of the visual articulations of contemporaneity, Terry Smith provides an erudite and highly useful conceptual framework and historical background for understanding and criticizing the economies that images inescapably form part of in today's cultures. Iconomy is a must-read for anyone who wants to engage critically with contemporary regimes of imagery.” – Jacob Lund, Associate Professor, Aesthetics and Culture, Aarhus University, author of The Changing Constitution of the Present.

“Iconomy gathers forceful evidence that images are indeed capital today. In Post-Fordist societies, as Terry Smith makes clear in this important book, the exposure value of images inaugurates a new political economy we are still struggling to understand : an eye-conomy” – Professor Emmanuel Alloa, University of Freiburg, Faculty of Philosophy, Fribourg.

Smith's Iconomy is unabashedly about the present: it tracks the author's shifting perception about the political role of circulating images in contemporary society over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the Donald Trump presidency, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Part 1, comprising six brief, roughly chronological chapters, delves into the history, theory, and politics of the image as a form of social currency, surveying ideas proffered by thinkers such as Plato; the iconodules and iconoclasts of Byzantium; and Marx, Benjamin, and Debord. Weighing the value of an amorphous definition of iconomy—a coinage created by theoreticians and marketers alike in recent decades—Smith (Univ. of Pittsburgh) acknowledges that the term is indicative of the essential unknowability and immeasurability of the digital world. The eight chapters in part 2 depart from a genealogy of the image to address the power of digital and video images in the contemporary world. In grappling with the role of image regimes in the wake of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the January 6th Capitol riots, and "Trumpmania," Smith shifts toward an activist methodology. Though new media concepts such as AI, memes, and NFTs are not discussed in depth, the book's juxtaposition of aesthetic theory with critical perspectives on contemporaneity is refreshing —A. Susik, Willamette University.

Author Information

Terry Smith is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, Professor in the Division of Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought at the European Graduate School, and Lecturer at Large in the Curatorial Program of the School of Visual Arts, New York.


Anthem symploke Studies in Theory

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations; Acknowledgments; Introduction: Epidemic Images; Part I A Brief History of Iconomy, 1. A Strange Image: Seeing the Dreaming, 2. Iconoclash in Byzantium, 3. Commodities and Chains, 4. The Image in the Era of Its Technical Reproducibility, 5. Spectacle: Architecture and Occlusion, 6. Iconomy: What’s in a Name?; Part II  Iconoclash, 7. The Spike-Crowned Virus, 8. Trumpmania, 9. Incident at Powderhorn, May 25, 2020, 10. Videodeath 1991 and 2020: King vs Floyd, 11. The Contest of the Images, 12. Image War, Civil War? January 6, 2021, 13. White Artworlds/Black Aesthetics, 14. The Trial: Aggressive Non-violence; Part III  Toward Political Iconomy, 15. Iconomic Value: An Accounting; Index


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