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Image Studies

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Images in the Net: Media Ecosystems and Visual Culture


Immagini nella rete. Ecosistemi mediali e cultura visuale
[Images in the Net. Media Ecosystems and Visual Culture] is a book by Elio Ugenti which examines the impact of social media on contemporary visual culture. With reference to the notion of an image ecology, it show the radical transformations of subject and image as part of a new media ecosystem. In the following article, Elio Ugenti outlines the key ideas and themes of the book.


To investigate the current role of the visual experience entails – additionally and in particular – comprehending what kind of dispersion dynamics are at work in the many images that constantly cross the media and institutional boundaries within which they have been historically produced. It means, therefore, cross disciplinary borders, keeping track of the movements, intersections, and exchanges happening between images. As Jacques Aumont wrote in his book L’image, «no single category of image could be studied in isolation without taking into account all the others».

At the same time, it is increasingly difficult to disregard the interactions among technological devices that can vary widely one to another. It is those very interactions that seem to determine not only an increase in contents so great that images feel ubiquitous in our everyday life, but also – and this is what I believe is the most interesting aspect to dwell on in this book – their own transformation in terms of quality, which has produced a broad range of new forms of interactions that end up redefining their own function through the use – or re-use – of images.

It becomes of pivotal importance not to view the new visual media merely as a complex set of technical and technological instruments, but rather to focus on the processes of mediation through which they act. As such, I need to expose the object of my study – that is, contemporary visual culture – to the relational and dynamic logics that regulate the way it works, in an attempt to study it in situ, in its dynamism, in a place where objects tend to fuse and blur together, that is, the Net. Understanding the logic behind this is my main concern.

In a very short time span, the apparent endlessness of content aggregators such as YouTube or Google Images, alongside the viral spread of visual and audiovisual content throughout the Web, has determined our (natural, almost unconscious) familiarity with the form of the archive, and specifically of the digital archive.

Although the definition of “archive” attached to these platforms is not unanimously shared and is often debated, I am in complete agreement with Catherine Russell, who acknowledged the existence of a predominant cultural form founded on the reassessment of the primary importance of the canonical forms of linear and consequential consumption, in favour of non-linear and fragmentary forms. In this context, according to Russell the digital archive constitutes a new expressive medium, which leads to such a new way of looking at the world that it becomes a new language.

Oxymoronically, it could thus be argued that the digital archive is the only possible medium in the post-media age, or at the very least that, because of certain characteristics it has (fragmentation, non-linearity, interactivity, content heterogeneity), it is more likely to surpass media specificities.

The methodological necessities that come with such a definition of the problem prompted an in-depth investigation of the issues that – starting from the second half of the Nineties – were raised in the field of the visual studies. The first chapter will take into consideration the premises that are at the root of the research of several scholars in this field, which seems – in many ways – still profoundly heterogeneous and hard to delineate clearly. These premises, after all, seem to only partly address the needs imposed by the contemporary media and visual scene: attention to popular culture and forms of visual, non-artistic representation; attention to the social practices that are connected to the spectatorship and – in a broader sense – to vision? reveal? (or “display practices”, as William J. Thomas Mitchell would define them); the relationship between text and image or, in other words, the interconnection between forms of visual communication and forms of textual communication.

Starting from a ,close theoretical, examination of the study models that allow us to assess the ways the socio-cultural context connects with the production, consumption and circulation of the images, I will try to reflect upon the criticism levelled against visual studies as well as on the answers that have been provided over the years and will even be able to point out the existence of the different (and not always aligned) currents of thought and research running through the studies on visual culture, which will enable me to analyse the premises underlying the several disciplines that converge in visual studies.

The core of the chapter will contemplate at length the subject of this inter-disciplinary research area, questioning the relationship established between “visuality” (in a broader sense) and the image. Thoughts regarding the meanings of the very concept of image will follow, stressing the need for it to be conceived as a concrete visual element that can be expounded and observed. While pondering these aspects, a comparison between Anglo-American and European (chiefly German and French) visual studies will be drawn briefly, and ultimately I will try to identify the tools which are most suitable for a study of the image in the post-media context.

In the second chapter, the attention will shift more specifically to the mechanisms regulating the circulation of images throughout the Internet, as a means to problematize the necessity for a dynamic and relational theoretical model that is able to account for the coexistence of numerous images (varying in typology, content or media source) and numerous individuals that similarly connect through them, all within the same media environment.

The debate surrounding the study of visual culture will emerge once again through mentions of the concept of “Pictorial Turn” as theorized by Mitchell, in order to probe its possible theoretical and methodological implications in an environment built on what Lev Manovich defined as “database logic”. The disruption of linearity deriving from this logic makes room for interactions with visual and audiovisual contents, which seem to be made possible by a new condition of existence of the contents themselves in a fragmentary form determining certain interaction modes between images that are very distant in origin.

Using Sunil Manghani’s observations about “image ecology” as a framework, a reflection on the relationship between visual and media environment will be attempted while taking   the subject’s activity,into consideration as well as the tactics (intended in a very similar way to those of Michel De Certeau) governing that activity, and what the subject’s actions entail with their shift in front of the images and within a consumptive context marked by hypermediation.

The third chapter,, will then focus on the changes that have occurred in the uses and functions of amateur photographs in the passage from the analogue to digital age and, more specifically, after the interconnection that arose between the devices producing the images and those allowing them to quickly spread on a large scale.

The image will here be considered less as a visual object and more as a complex socio-cultural phenomenon, which – once again – cannot be fully understood without reflecting on the medium.

The theoretical considerations carried out in the first chapter will, at times, be shown in a new light in the following chapters, in order to test the effectiveness of both the analyitical tools and the methodological approaches discussed in the first part of this book.

Elio Ugenti


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