Three thoughts on visual culture studies

This summer I had a discussion with another scholar over whether our work should be considered “visual culture” or “visual studies.” She tilted her head. “Visual culture has these connotations of material culture, of cultural studies, of nineteenth-century studies,” she explained. “Not art historical or film theoretical enough. I usually say ‘visual studies.'”

I nodded. I understood. Yet, I explained, I consider a rigorous focus on spectatorial environment, historical conditions of reception and/or the materiality of projection methods to be fundamental to my study of the visual. The overarching cultural connection is very important to me.

With Visual Culture Studies (London: Sage, 2008) Marquard Smith has fleshed out an interdisciplinary term that suggests the marriage of perception and its position amidst the social. Here are three perspectives on visual culture studies from the interviews he conducted that I find particularly thought-provoking, whether or not I entirely agree or disagree with them.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

I suspect that the most interesting new questions for visual studies, then, will be located at the frontiers of visuality, the places where seeing approaches a limit and is faced with its own negation, or with some other perceptual modality or medium. That is probably why, in my own ‘general’ teaching, I have shifted from visual culture to media studies. It’s not because I have given up on visual studies, but because the problem of mediation opens the visual onto different phenomenological frontiers (stillness and motion; audition, tactility, and embodiment) as well as technologies and regimes of the visible. This leads me to ask what the digitalization of the visible field means, and to press for answers that would take us beyond the received ideas, e.g. the ‘loss of the real’ posited by so many theorists[…]The current revival of Guy Debord’s concept of the ‘spectacle’ as a tool for diagnosing the war on terror (see Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, the Retort collective) strikes me as deeply flawed in its hostility to technical considerations, and its recourse to iconoclastic remedies for political maladies. If visual studies is going to engage capitalism, politics and war through the medium of spectacle, it is going to require analysis and historical investigation of the spectacular concept itself (36).

the wonderful Vivian Sobchack:

For the most part, I think that what goes by the name of ‘visual culture’ is really ‘visible culture.’ That what gets talked about is not ‘visuality’ but ‘visibility.’ Similarly, instead of talking about embodiment–what it is to live a body, what it is to live acts of seeing not merely with one’s eyes (as if that were possible)–most scholars talk about ‘the body’–positing it as merely a thing, or as a visible object belonging to someone else. This seems to me a continuation of the objectivist project–despite the fat that people writing about ‘visuality’ and ‘the body’ are critiquing that project.


I think the distinctions between visible culture and visual culture are terribly important ones. Although it’s changing, the tendency still is to only talk about the side of vision that is about the visible, not about the visual. But you need both sides to achieve vision. Thinking about visuality links vision to the body and our other senses which are not, to use a phrase, ‘asleep on the job,’ but active in giving the things we see a visible thickness and dimension (124).

Best and last, Martin Jay:

In the critique of the reifying power of the gaze, most extensively explored in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, there was already a powerful ethical moment, which was given added impetus when feminists like Luce Irigaray and Laura Mulvey stressed its gendered character. The Jewish emphasis on hearing as opposed to the Greek stress on sight, which Levinas tied to the relative importance respectively of the ethical and the ontological in each tradition, increased still further the ethical stakes in discussions of visual culture.

Perhaps the real task these days is not so much to rehearse these now familiar connections, but rather to probe the ways in which the sense of ‘looking after’ someone is just as much a possibility as ‘looking at’ them in le regard, and ‘watching out for someone’ is an ethical alternative to controlling surveillance (184).


Handbook of Inner Culture for External Barbarians

A short but sharply thought-provoking bit of Nietzsche, inspired by an excellent classroom discussion about On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874) today:

That well known little people of a not too distant past, I mean just the Greeks, had stubbornly preserved its unhistorical sense in the period of its greatest strength; were a contemporary man forced by magic spells to return to that world he would presumably find the Greeks very “uneducated,” which would, of course, disclose the meticulously disguised secret of modern culture to public laughter: for from ourselves we moderns have nothing at all; only by filling and overfilling ourselves with alien ages, customs, arts, philosophies, religions and knowledge do we become something worthy of notice, namely walking encyclopedias, as which an ancient Hellene, who had been thrown into our age, might perhaps address us. The whole value of encyclopedias, however, is found only in what is written in them, the content, not in what is written on them or in what is cover and what is shell; and so the whole of modern culture is essentially internal: on the outside the bookbinder has printed something like “Handbook of Inner Culture for External Barbarians.”

The Angel of History

Here, four Dürer etchings from the catalogue of a show I saw this summer at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris…

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from "The Apocalypse," of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from “The Apocalypse,” of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

These engravings were part of a portfolio that belonged to collector Jacques-Édouard Gatteaux (1788-1881). They were badly damaged along with other precious artworks and art objects in a fire occasioned by the Parisian communards in May 1871.

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from "The Apocalypse," 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from “The Apocalypse,” 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

The exhibition these damaged engravings were a part of was called “The Angel of History.”   Its curator-in-chief was Nicolas Bourriaud, of “relational art” fame. Bourriaud is currently director of the École des Beaux Arts.

Bourriaud’s newest art conceptual gambit is “the ruin.” The contemporary artists he assembled (among them, Haris Epaminonda, Rashid Johnson, Walead Beshty, Jospehine Meckseper) were, in his view, like Benjaminian angels of history, picking their way through fragmented piles of the past and forming new artistic narratives out of rubble.

Dürer’s singed Biblical images were on the exhibition’s second floor, amongst other artworks and objects from the Beaux-Arts archives and collections. There were models of Greek and Roman ruins, Romantic-era watercolors and sketches of ruins and photographs of destroyed buildings dating from the Franco-Prussian War and World War One.

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

It was moving and naughtily satisfying to look at damaged art, I admit. However, the interest of these engravings went beyond iconoclasm or pathos.

Blackened by revolutionary fire, each of these engravings was the kind of doubly-determined “dialectical image” that Walter Benjamin wrote about in “On the Concept of History.” Like all artworks, they tell a visual story, but they are also material culture. These engravings testify to the era in which they were created as well as the era in which they were damaged.

A pity, then, that Bourriaud and his team didn’t create a space for viewers to ask how their own reception in 2013 might constitute a further testimony of these engravings–can we see the present or the future in these images as well as the near and distant past?

The exhibition missed its opportunity to work dialectically because it enclosed its early modern and contemporary artworks within the limited parameters of universality, atemporality and the picturesque instead of delving into socio-aesthetic and institutional context.

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from "The Passion," 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from “The Passion,” 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

“The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”  – Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI, “On the Concept of History,” 1935

Views from above in A Sixth Part of the World and The Eleventh Year

I’ve recently submitted an article examining the aerial view as a visual modality. Two more film fragments by Vertov that have inspired me to think further on the subject:

The opening of A Sixth Part of the World (1926), in which Vertov juxtaposes omniscient vision from above, the slicing legs of foxtrotters, the powerful magnet of a construction crane and the small mole on the back of a bourgeois neck.

Another aerial view from the ending of The Eleventh Year (1928), where the technological advancements of Soviet aviation link Russia to its Chinese comrades via sight and flight.

This last sequence, with its views from below, from above, and from beside a soaring plane reminds me of Paula Amad’s excellent essay published last year in History of Photography, “From God’s Eye to Camera Eye: Aerial Photography’s Post-humanist and Neo-humanist Visions of the World.” Amad thoughtfully takes on the dialectic between abstracted knowledge in views from above and embodied knowledge in views from below, arguing for a more fluid, less dogmatic understanding of our encounters with this practice of looking.