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).

Watching “The Clock”

Christian Marclay, THE CLOCK, 2010. Image accessed at

At SCMS ’13 in Chicago this weekend, I noticed a panel entirely devoted to Christian Marclay’s 24-hour, single channel computer program, The Clock. The artwork is a massive compilation of sequences from film history which feature time-keeping and time-breaking: clocks, watches, alarms, bombs and digitized displays as silent witnesses and narrative fulcrums. I missed the panel, as one is forced to do at a conference as massive as SCMS, but I thought I’d use it as an impetus to write some thoughts on the artwork that I had had earlier this year.

I read the glowing portrait of Marclay and the project that Daniel Zalewski had painted in a 2012 issue of the New Yorker, and (contrarian by nature), immediately knew I had to see it for myself. I did so during its run at the MoMA (December 21, 2012–January 21, 2013). I chose the worst possible time: at closing on a Target Free Friday Night. Stomach growling, wait time estimated at one hour, my partner and I shrugged at each other. At least we were getting the full experience.

After a faithfully estimated hour of chit chat and eavesdropping on the decreasingly interesting chit chat of surrounding art goers, we entered the darkened gallery space. By the light of the screen, I saw (much to my loathing and delight) that the vast space was ordered with rows of IKEA KLIPPAN sofas. Is there a better candidate for a penultimate Benjaminian dialectical image/object of the early years of the 21st century?

I thought it was interesting that from its installation concept, Marclay’s Clock seems to place itself more in a history of TV viewing than movie-going (the relatively small size and low placement of the screen, the unraked floor, cushy seating). Several spectators were sprawled out on their backs or stomachs like children in front of a giant set. We sat on the floor in the crowded makeshift theater for about ten minutes, then finally a sofa freed up.

As I had expected, I didn’t like the piece, but I found it fascinating. For a film and media studies scholar (especially one trained in a more conservative fashion) the cinephiliac mode of trying to identify each sequence used was taxing. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t a qualifying exam. As I let myself slide along the endless montage of graphic matches, I started mentally playing with common themes and parallels from minute to minute. We were there from about 9pm to 10:45pm, long after nuclear family dinnertime and too soon for the 2am phone calls with bad news. During this stretch of Movieland night, three principle activities take place: 1.) bodies are discovered. 2.) women get stood up for dates. 3.) people don’t come home, and whomever is expecting them paces nervously.

In this segment of The Clock, Marclay’s army of young, vision-ruined assistants were using overwhelmingly English-language, Hollywood, genre-based films as their raw material. That was disappointing–I would have liked a little armchair tourism with my time travel. Perhaps, I thought, there is something about Anglophone culture (capitalist industrialization its hallmark) that makes its cinema rely more heavily than others on codified and disciplined segments of day for narrative meaning. Productivity, efficiency, quota fulfillment, happy ending!

After an hour, I was restless. For me, the sensation of watching The Clock was one of enervation. I felt mildly depressed at the virtual drain on my nightlife. My partner, however, didn’t want to leave. In fact, relatively few people seemed to leave during the our stay–everyone seemed absorbed, transfixed. By what?, I wondered. Perhaps they, like us, wanted to watch at least as long as they had waited to watch? Of The Clock, Rosalind Krauss writes that Marclay turns to “suspense as the extended dilation of [Hüsserl’s] ‘now effect,’ transforming the reel time of film into the real time of waiting.” (Krauss, “Clock Time,” October 136, Spring 2011, pp. 213–217.) While it makes for a nice pun, I disagree with Krauss–I don’t think The Clock is about the filmic, unless its about film’s afterlife. To me, the piece diffuses suspense and is instead about an ecstatic seriality, endless citation. It is about the soothing pleasure of the familiar unfamiliar. About knowing what will happen next but not knowing how, exactly.

The most rewarding thing about the experience was the walk to get dinner afterward. All of a sudden, every idle gesture of looking at clocks in building facades or at our wrist watches or cell phones had become overdetermined. Like a dramatic kiss or a particularly good insult hurled, the glance at the time was now cinematic for us, part of a catalogue of experience for which moving images condition us. We had never noticed before.

Le décor et son usage

Below: another fascinating anecdote from Günther Anders‘ life, excerpted from Paul van Dijk.

After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, Anders lived in France for a couple of years and then emigrated to the USA in 1936. He stayed in the USA until 1950, sporadically publishing fiction and essays, working odd jobs, adjuncting in the academic system, and putting together his non-fiction magnum opus, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Antiquatedness of Humankind).

For part of his American exile, Anders lived in California, trying (unsuccessfully) to become a Hollywood scriptwriter and making ends meet. Of this period, van Dijk writes:

His job as a cleaner of movie props in the Hollywood Custom Palace thus led him to reflections on the philosophy of history and on the theory of knowledge that are recognizable in his later philosophy on the media. In March 1941, he wrote in his diary:

“Even though I am classified as an enemy alien and as an unskilled worker, I have nonetheless found a job. Although the job is rather odd. For I have become history’s corpse cleaner. Since [sic] one week I belong to the cleaning crew of the Hollywood Custom Palace. The word “custom” has nothing to do here with customs; it refers instead to costumes. The twelve-story colossus, the “palace” where I spend my working days, is a museum of the entire costume past of humanity, an arsenal which rents out everything to the great film companies that our predecessors and our contemporaries, including their slaves, pets and riding animals, ever wore on their bodies and still wear today. From Eve’s fig leaf gadget (in both a see-through and a non-see-through version) to the riding boots of the German attack forces which–oh, such breathtaking optimism–hang next to the footgear of other eras, as if they already are brother and sister to the Greek sandals and the imperial riding boots, past history in other words. If I am instructed to polish these boots, then as an unskilled member of the cleaning crew I can hardly refuse. We flee from the original and then run the risk, a few years later an on the opposite side of the world, to have to clean the duplicates for pay!

Anyhow, we can learn a thing or two from this, even the fundamental truth of the rag philosophy. We human beings do not cover our nakedness to prevent ourselves from freezing to death, but because without cover we would be unable to present ourselves as persons of status, to establish hierarchies, to entice our fellow men or women, or to intimidate others. Surely, there are real needs at the basis of the fantastic discovery that is called clothing, but ultimately those needs are hardly physiological. The pieces that lie around here hardly include any that are strictly meant to keep warm. They are all instruments of dignity or to terrify or flatter, social instruments all. This truth is being whispered into my ear each day as I rub, brush or vacuum these pieces.” (1985, p. 1f)

Van Dijk 10-11

The movie set of Alexandria, constructed in suburban London for Joseph Mankiewicz’s CLEOPATRA (1963) and abandoned six months into shooting. Accessed at

Anders was not alone in finding inspiration in the cinematic industry for his theories on the substitution of illusion for reality. The anecdote above reminds me of the Situationists’ sardonic treatment of a news item about the movie set for Cleopatra (Mankiewicz, 1963) in their 1961 issue of Internationale Situationniste.

The movie nearly bankrupted its Hollywood studio, in part because of the ornate and gigantesque “ancient Alexandria” set which needed to be built twice over the course of the production. The Situationists found this fiasco emblematic of spectacular culture: they believed capital and its images erode history and the present at the same time.