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).


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