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Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction
Routledge, 2003, ISBN: 0 415 96681 7
No single textbook can hope to satisfy the devoutly interdisciplinary field of visual culture, but each is helpful in its own way. Elkins’s Visual Studies is no exception, and in fact, it goes a whole step further. As a ‘skeptical introduction’, this book marks an intervention urging a more ambitious and rigorous field to emerge. Elkins takes visual studies as the title of his book, referring to a field of enquiry still to come. Visual studies, he suggests, denotes ‘the field I think that visual culture might grow to be: the study of visual practices across all boundaries’ (p. 7). He begins with some steadfast librarianship, cataloguing the range of people, places, publi- cations and events that are associated with visual culture. This provides a useful overview of what this burgeoning subject actually amounts to in practical terms, and sets the scene for mapping out the future(s) of the field.
Stepping into the debates over visual culture’s purported interdisciplinarity, Elkins accounts for two main positions. First, he argues, there is the largely ‘uninteresting’ attempt at interdisciplinarity. Here he draws our attention to three key models: (i) a magpie theory that simply ‘cobbles methods, subjects, and texts from various disciplines’ (p. 27); (ii) a more dynamic transdisciplinary mingling of disciplines, out of which all sorts of trouble spots emerge; and (iii) W.J.T. Mitchell’s notion of a ‘de-disciplinary’ operation whereby visual culture ducks out of the realm of disciplines to discover what is usually passed over or bracketed out. The suggested problem with any of these modes is that ‘as long as you know what you’re doing, you are likely to be operating in a way that can be described as disciplinary, even if it is a rogue disciplinarity’ (p. 29). However, it should not then follow that the achievements of ‘rogue disciplinarity’ are necessarily so ‘uninteresting’.
Second, there is the ‘interesting’ kind of interdisciplinary visual culture that ‘does not know its subjects but finds them through its preoccupations’ (p. 30). In this case, disciplines are largely to be ignored; instead, you are prompted to follow your nose. And so for Elkins, although it is predominantly art history that provides the initial base from which he claims to be able to go elsewhere, the underlying principle is to break out of the strictures that the ‘codification of knowledge’ enforce. (Just to be clear, it is only because Elkins is principally schooled in art history that it becomes the primary locus of his research – no disciplinary agenda is at work.) Elkins is attracted to the idea of certain disciplines working together, but equally he does not wish to prescribe any specific form of collaboration. Overall, ‘interesting’ inter- disciplinarity remains hazy but it is surely an appealing tactic, and I surmise an accurate description of much of the research that actually goes on (if only because research, at least in the humanities, remains largely privately moti- vated). What gets left unresolved, however, is whether there are genuinely satisfactory ways of conceiving work that combines methodologies, rather than simply offering conventional approaches to multiple themes, objects and histories.
Of course, despite interdisciplinary aspirations, there is growing evidence to show visual culture fast coalescing as a discipline in its own right, and regrettably, one that is not necessarily evolving intellectually. Elkins points out that scholars are sticking to a ‘canon’ of writers and, whilst most visual studies programmes will focus upon methodological and ideological critique (which can be applied across all interests), in practice it rarely means an expanded range of images being encouraged. In fact, a relatively narrow interest in popular 20th-century Western objects and phenomena is maintained, and this has generally meant that the debate over high/low culture is being ignored or greatly simplified. Elkins’s own response is generally to favour a deconstuctive approach, to retain the high/low problematic as a ‘constitutive disagreement within the field’ (p. 58).
Elkins is wary of independent visual culture programmes since these risk ‘becoming conventional specialized disciplinary programs like many others’ (p. 41) (for those working outside of the USA, where fully fledged independent programmes have really yet to establish, these concerns might seem premature). As an alternative, Elkins advocates a visual studies ‘that would be even moregeneral, welcoming scientists from various disciplines, moving beyond premodern Western visuality and into non-Western art, archaeology, and the visual elements of linguistics’ (p. 41). A highly commendable and exciting definition, but one seeming to suggest a huge faculty (perhaps even an entire university?) within which there would be various specialized personnel. When Saussure laid the foundations for semiology, he considered it might actually become the master ‘science’ under which would be sub-areas of research (including linguistics). In the espoused ‘visual turn’, is visual studies likely to become such a master category? I suspect not, but, like language, I wonder if the excitement over the visual will temper and be better sustained as an underlying interest or condition, rather than as a discipline. For those familiar with Elkins’s work, it will come as no surprise that he hopes visual studies can become ‘more ambitious about its purview, more demanding in its analyses, and above all more difficult’ (p. vii). As centrepiece to the book he offers 10 ways in which this might be achieved. These proposals, presented as short case studies, range over three main concerns, that of the quality, scope and resonance of the field.
With regards to quality, Elkins urges re-assessment of the way theory is applied (and implied), and the way the main tenets of the subject matter are taught. So for example (in Case 1), he queries the adequacy of visual culture as a form of ideological critique suggesting that, whilst there are genuine gains in awareness of issues over class, consumerism and globalization, etc., the result is more often a contained form of analysis that perhaps works in one illustration, but is not then taken to any logical (and radical) conclusion. Further problems arise where there is a misplaced or over-determined appeal to the visual, or where indeed visual culture is simply self-evident (Cases 2, 3). For example, it need not follow that the images of an event such as the death of Princess Diana are somehow integral to the globalization of the media. In fact, Elkins goes so far as to suggest that visual images ‘may not always be the optimal place to look for signs of gender, identity, politics’ (p. 83). Conversely, a mistake can be made in not appealing enough to the visual materials themselves (Case 8). Here a good many examples can be made of media and film critique, where too often the analysis might just as well come from the reading of texts (such as the novels, scripts or screenplays), than from viewing actual screened materials.
Finally, in terms of its resonance, Elkins espouses greater depth to the history of the discipline (Case 7), raising similar concerns over the range of theorists and their ‘canonized’ texts. Added to this, he lays down the challenge of ‘writing ambitiously’ (Case 10). Here, for example, he reminds us of the enduring inspiration of John Berger’s writing, and asks why ‘no historian or specialist in visual culture writes anything like Berger’ (p. 121). It is a provocative question, and one that is inspirational in itself; as he puts it: ‘there is no penalty for paying attention to writing itself’ (p. 121). Additionally, an intriguing feature deserving mention is a ‘photo-essay’ subtly embedded throughout the main chapters. This uses the kind of interplay of image and legend found in Barthes’ later writings (and more recently the novels of W.G. Sebald) to pose thought-provoking, and at times jarring, comments on issues covered in the main text.
In the final chapter, Elkins explores the paradoxical sounding concept of ‘visual literacy’. This he generally equates with the idea of ‘competence’ (itself a problematic term). An underlying interest is the practical implementation of visual studies as a subject that students could come to from all manner of disciplines in order to develop visual-related skills. One very inter- esting entry concerns getting students involved in making images themselves (especially those students who would not normally do such a thing). I wonder why in fact this is not one of the 10 proposals for improving visual studies.
Unfortunately this final chapter brings into focus a number of key concerns – problems which are bound to surface when attempting any such pragmatic formulation of an ‘off-the-shelf ’ visual culture. There is the inherent spectre of iconophilia. What is proposed as a general course of visual studies fails to come back significantly to the primary questions of just why an interest in images is so important, and why, for example, students should ensure their place on an elementary course. As Elkins notes in the preface, his is a love for the visual world, in other words, the vast world of pictures that can be looked at, filmed, painted, picked up, copied, manipulated and destroyed. Subsequently, what can appear to be missing is a love of other kinds of images from a broader ‘family of images’ (Mitchell, 1987: 9–14), including, for example, literary images. This is one reason why perhaps image studies might make a more appropriate and inclusive umbrella term. However, with interested parties coming across to visual studies from a growing number of subject areas, there can be no such simple solution. Indeed, I suspect this is again something which must simply remain constitutive of the field.
A more niggling concern is a non-Western/Western dichotomy. Elkins is very adept at alerting us to obscure visual artefacts (and pointing out their obscurity as political), yet these materials do not always take debate further, and can appear only additive. More problematically, they can come across as isolated, reified objects (of course their very obscurity perpetuates this problem). Despite the overriding concern to broaden the cultural horizons of visual studies, an aim which is surely right, the argument is really lost in light of an all too cursory discussion of postcolonial studies. And, besides, a more practical problem is simply who’s really equipped to teach this wonderful array of visual studies? Where the discussion moves towards the implementation of whole new programmes of study and of institutional change awkward practical queries are bound to follow. As a result, this ‘skeptical’ introduction can get cornered at times into being a utopian one. When the book first made its appearance as a ‘Preface to an imaginary book’ (in the inaugural issue of this journal), I felt the tone was, productively, a little more obviously contrarian and perverse (Elkins, 2002: 93). As a real book, one wonders whether it is more a manual of best practice or indeed a critical introduction.
What is best in this book is the bold and challenging ‘road map’ for working through visual studies, one with many side roads left open for further exploration and dialogue. I hope it will be widely consulted, not because I agree with everything it has to say, but because I think it begins a long overdue process of asking forthright questions, and making pragmatic decisions about what we can hope to achieve under the banner of visual studies. As well as presenting an excellent case for the need of a more ambitious and difficult field of study, Elkins as much reminds us that the debates we need to have are, in themselves, not necessarily so hard. Visual Studies is surely required reading for all engaged in the teaching, learning and researching of visual culture; not only is it instructive (and constructively disruptive) on many issues, but it is also thoroughly energizing. Perhaps then, we can get on sooner with interdisciplinary work of an ‘interesting’ kind, the variety we all thought visual culture was about anyway.
Elkins, James (2002) ‘Preface to the book A Skeptical Introduction to Visual Culture’, Journal of Visual Culture, 1(1): 93–9.
Fuery, Patrick and Wagner, Kelli (2003) Visual Culture and Critical Theory. London: Hodder Arnold.
Howells, Richard (2003) Visual Culture: An Introduction. London: Polity Press.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas (1999) Introduction to Visual Culture. London: Routledge.
Mitchell, W.J.T. (1987) Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rose, Gillian (2001) Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. London: Sage.