You can scroll the shelf using ← and → keys
You can scroll the shelf using ← and → keys
To search the library use the A-Z index below. Alternatively scroll horizontally using the arrow keys. Items have been placed on the shelf in chronological order to give a sense of an evolution of the subject area. Listed below are also a series of journals and online materials specific to the study of visual culture and image studies.
Imaginations – Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies
ImageTexT – Interdisciplinary Comics Studies
Invisible Culture – Electronic Journal of Visual Culture
Images Re-vues – Histoire, anthropologie et théorie de l’art
Photomediations Machine – Curated space for process-based image making
Text & Narrative – Online journal of the Visual Narrative
A-Z Title Index
Bombay Cinema (Mazumbar, 2007)
Iconology (Mitchell, 1987)
Images: A Reader (Manghani, Piper & Simons, 2006)
Images: Critical & Primary Sources (Manghani, 2013)
Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Manghani, 2008)
Image Studies: Theory & Practice (Manghani, 2013)
Picturing Berlin (Manghani, 2003)
Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction (Elkins, 2003)
What Do Pictures Want? (Mitchell, 2006)
Image Studies: Theory & Practice
Routledge, 2013, ISBN: 978-0-415-57340-5
Image Studies offers an engaging introduction to visual and image studies. In order to better understand images and visual culture the book bridges between theory and practice; asking the reader to think critically about images and image practices, but also simultaneously to engage with image-making processes. Looking across a range of domains and disciplines, we find the image is never a single, static thing. Rather, the image can be a concept, an object, a picture, or medium – and all these things combined. At the heart of the book is the idea of an ecology of images, through which we can examine the full ‘life’ of an image – to understand how an image resonates within a complex set of contexts, processes and uses.
Each chapter includes a series of key features, which include:
(1) The use of extracts from key texts in the field, and/or short entries written specifically for the book by a range of authors.
(2) A wide range of illustrations.
(3) Keywords which link to the online glossary (see Intertext).
(4) Creative tasks with accompanying questions and commentary (see Create).
An entry on Image Theory appears in the revised multi-volume Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, edited by Michael Kelly (published by Oxford University Press). The entry is divided into 7 main sections: Philosophical precedents; Image and power; the Pictorial turn; Image as thought; Image analysis; Image domains; and Image studies.
Read Entry: Image Theory.pdf [PDF]
The following excerpts are taken from the beginning and end of the entry:
‘A much-cited line from Raymond Williams’ Keywords (Fontana, 1988) is that the word ‘culture’ is ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’. Although he does not state what those other complicated words might be, we might readily include the word ‘image’. Williams himself offers only a short entry on the concept of the image, but like the word ‘culture’ we could equally point to its varied historical development (in different contexts), and also, importantly in how the term is adopted across a range of distinct intellectual disciplines and in a variety of ways that are not always compatible.’
‘Image Studies. In defining ‘Image Studies’ we can ask the deceptively simple question: ‘What is an image?’ – which we soon acknowledge is no simple matter. If anything, the image does not exist in any singular sense, but is always a plural term (Elkins and Naef, 2011). It is perhaps not surprising one of the central concerns of writers has been to categorize images into different groupings that attempt to account for the full range of visual and non-visual images. W.J.T. Mitchell’s (1987) canonical essay, ‘What is an Image?’, proposes a family tree of images (to include graphic, optical, perceptual, mental and verbal images), while James Elkins’ Domain of Images (1999) puts forward a diffuse genealogy of image types. In both cases, these taxonomies are an attempt to give an inclusive account of what might be included in an expanded understanding of the image. Hans Belting (2005) offers an explicit development of Mitchell’s account of a ‘family of images’, arguing: ‘Images are neither on the wall (or on the screen) nor in the head alone. They do not exist by themselves, but they happen … They happen via transmission and perception’. In consolidating these accounts, Images Studies (Manghani, 2013), seeks to establish an interdisciplinary approach to the study of images, which looks across a range of domains and disciplines. The approach it sets out is to think both critically about images and image practices, and simultaneously to engage with image-making processes. At the heart of the book is the idea of an ‘ecology of images’, through which we can examine the full ‘life’ of an image as it resonates within a complex set of contexts, processes and uses. Elsewhere, under the banner of Bildwissenschaft [image science], and notably through the prolific work of the publicly funded Eikones project (at the University of Basel), a broad consortium of researchers has been brought together to plot new pathways, including the intersection between science and visual culture. Overall, image studies seeks to offer critical frameworks within which interdisciplinary research can take place. In the last decade or so, alongside developments in visual culture studies, image studies – if not fully established in institutional terms – has taken up its place within intellectual debates and scholarship.’
Images: Critical and Primary Sources
Sunil Manghani (ed.)
Berg, 2013, ISBN: 9780857850843
Images: Critical and Primary Sources is a major multi-volume work of reference that brings together seminal writings on the image. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, the essays range across the domains of philosophy, history, art, aesthetics, literature, science, anthropology, critical theory and cultural studies. The essays reveal a wide set of perspectives, problematics and approaches, helping to frame a rich, encompassing view of what we can broadly term ‘image studies’. The four volumes are arranged thematically, each separately introduced and with the essays structured into specific sections for easy reference.
Volume 1: Understanding Images establishes conceptual, historical, ideological and philosophical framings for understanding and defining the image; followed in Volume 2: The Pictorial Turn with a focus on the most enduring and constitutive question of the image: its relationship to, with and against text and textuality. Volume 3: Image Theory offers representative materials covering key theoretical approaches for analyzing, interpreting and critiquing the image. Finally, Volume 4: Image Cultures examines a wide range of social and cultural contexts of the image, which covers aspects of visual evidence, image and memory, visual methodologies, scientific imaging and the practical engagement of image-makers.
Images: Critical and Primary Sources offers a major scholarly resource for any researchers involved in the study of the image and visual culture.
Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials
Sage, 2011 (3rd Edition), ISBN: 978-0857028884
See: Companion Website
Table of Contents
1. Researching with Visua Materials: A Brief Survey
2. Towards a Critical Visual Methodology
3. How to Use This Book
4. ‘The Good Eye’: Looking at Pictures Using Compositional Interpretation
5. Content Analysis: Counting What You (Think You) See
6. Semiology: Laying Bare the Prejudices beneath the Smooth Surface of the Beautiful
7. Psychoanalysis: Visual Culture, Visual Pleasure, Visual Disruption
8. Discourse Analysis: Text, Intertextuality, Context
9. Discourse Analysis II: Institutions and Ways of Seeing
10. To Audience Studies and Beyond: Ethnographies of Television Audiences, Fans and Users
11. Making Photographs as Part of a Research Project: Photo-Documentation, Photo-Elicitation and Photo-Essays
12. Ethics and Visual Research Methods
13. Visual Methodologues: a Review
What is an Image?
James Elkins and Maja Naef (ed.)
Penn State University Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-271-05064-5
What Is an Image? raises the stakes for writing in art history, visual studies, art theory, and art criticism by questioning one of the most fundamental terms of all, the image or picture. This innovative collection gathers some of the most influential historians and theorists working on images to discuss what the visual has come to mean. Topics include concepts such as image and picture in the West and outside it; the reception and rejection of semiotics; the question of what is outside the image; the question of whether images have a distinct nature or are products of discourse, like language; the relationship between images and religious meanings; and the study of non-art images in medicine, science, and technology.
Among the major writers represented in this book are Gottfried Boehm, Michael Ann Holly, Jacqueline Lichtenstein, W. J. T. Mitchell, Marie-José Mondzain, Keith Moxey, Parul Dave Mukherji, Wolfram Pichler, Alex Potts, and Adrian Rifkin.
A General Theory of Visual Culture
Princeton University Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0691147659
What is cultural about vision–or visual about culture? In this ambitious book, Whitney Davis provides new answers to these difficult and important questions by presenting an original framework for understanding visual culture. Grounded in the theoretical traditions of art history, A General Theory of Visual Culture argues that, in a fully consolidated visual culture, artifacts and pictures have been made to be seen in a certain way; what Davis calls “visuality” is the visual perspective from which certain culturally constituted aspects of artifacts and pictures are visible to informed viewers. In this book, Davis provides a systematic analysis of visuality and describes how it comes into being as a historical form of vision.
Expansive in scope, A General Theory of Visual Culture draws on art history, aesthetics, the psychology of perception, the philosophy of reference, and vision science, as well as visual-cultural studies in history, sociology, and anthropology. It provides penetrating new definitions of form, style, and iconography, and draws important and sometimes surprising conclusions (for example, that vision does not always attain to visual culture, and that visual culture is not always wholly visible). The book uses examples from a variety of cultural traditions, from prehistory to the twentieth century, to support a theory designed to apply to all human traditions of making artifacts and pictures–that is, to visual culture as a worldwide phenomenon.
Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall
Intellect Books, 2008, ISBN 9781841501901
[Available in Kindle]
‘Required reading for all those in visual culture’ – Nicholas Mirzoeff, New York University
Taking the fall of the Berlin Wall as a key marker in recent history – a period in which increasingly we find ourselves watching ‘instant history’ unfold live on air – the book presents a new critical concept of image critique: a double procedure of both a critique of images and the use of images as a means to engage with our contemporary mediated culture for new critical purposes. The book, then, is not so much about the fall of the Berlin Wall in itself, but rather about the recent and lively theoretical debates about visual culture. How do you attend critically to visual culture and how do we appropriate visual culture for critical purposes?
Thus, whilst much has been written about Berlin and the Berlin Wall (mostly in the context of WWII or German reunification), the book focuses specifically on the media angle of the event, to use it as a case study to think more broadly about the development of politics and political rhetoric vis-a-vis media and visual culture. The book can also raise questions about how we might approach an analysis of other moments of what can be termed Instant History – events captured on film that range from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, from the Landing on the Moon to the Beijing Olympics, or from the Gulf War to September 11 and so forth. Whilst all of these events differ greatly from one another, and need their own differing treatments of analysis, we can understand them all as part of an ever more mediated culture, frequently based upon the dissemination and consumption of images.
Barber, Stephen (1995) Fragments of the European City. London: Reaktion Books.
Barnard, Peter (1999) We Interrupt This Programme… 20 News Stories That Marked The Century. London: BBC.
Baudrillard, Jean (1995) The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Indiana University Press.
Boorstin, Daniel J. (1992) The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York: Vintage Books.
Bordo, Susan (1997) Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O.J.. California: University of California Press.
Borneman, John (1991) After the Wall: East meets West in the New Berlin. New York: Basic Books.
Brussig, Thomas (1997) Heroes Like Us, trans. by John Brownjohn. London: Harvill.
Buck-Morss, Susan (1994) ‘Fashion in Ruins: History after the Cold War’,Radical Philosophy, 68 (Autumn), pp.10-17.
Buck-Morss, Susan (2000) Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Buhl, Dieter (1990) Window To The West: How Television from the Federal Republic Influenced Events in East Germany. The Joan Shorenstein Barone Center, Discussion Paper D-5, pp.1-9.
Burgin, Victor (1996a) In/Different Spaces: Place And Memory In Visual Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chomsky, Noam (1997) World Orders, Old and New. London: Pluto Press.
Cormack, Michael (1992) ‘Opening the Wall’ in Ideology, London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., pp.45-55.
Dayan, Daniel and Katz, Elihu (1992) Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Deluca, Kevin and Peeples, Jennifer (2002) ‘From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the “Violence” of Seattle’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19 (2), pp.125-151.
Derrida, Jacques (1993) ‘Back From Moscow, in the USSR’ in Mark Poster (ed.)Politics, Theory, and Contemporary Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.197-235.
Fukuyama, Francis (1989) ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16 (Summer), pp.3-18.
Fukuyama, Francis (1992) The End of History and the Last Man. London: Penguin.
Fukuyama, Francis (2002) ‘Has History Started Again?’, Policy, 18 (2), pp.3-7.
Fulbrook, Mary (2000) Interpretations of the Two Germanies, 1945-1990. London: Macmillan.
Grant, R.G. (1998 ) The Berlin Wall. Hove: Wayland.
Hilton, Christopher (2001) The Wall: The People’s Story. Stroud: Sutton Publishing.
Ladd, Brian (1997) The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Manghani, Sunil (2003) Picturing Berlin, Piecing Together a Public Sphere / ベルリンをイメージする、公共圏をデザインする (Bilingual English/ Japanese edition). [Originally published in Invisible Culture, Issue 6, 2003].
Mirzoeff, Nicholas (2005) Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture. New York and London: Routledge.
Simons, Jon (2000) ‘Ideology, Imagology, and Critical Thought: the Impoverishment of Politics’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 5 (1), pp.81-103.
Whybrow, Nicolas (2001) Street Scenes: Brecht, Benjamin and Berlin. Bristol: Intellect Books.
Zelizer, Barbie (1992) ‘CNN, the Gulf War, and Journalistic Pratice’, Journal of Communication, 42 (1), pp.66-81.
Zelizer, Barbie (ed.) (2001) Visual Culture and the Holocaust. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Writing With Images: An Art Symposium (with moderated discussion of ‘Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall’). University Galleries, Illinois State University (ISU Center for Visual Arts Building), 22 April 2011.
Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City
University of Minnesota Press, 2007, ISBN: 978-0816649426
Given the importance of the Bombay film industry as both an immense economic and cultural force, serious scholarly engagement remains somewhat diffuse. There are of course numerous popular non-fiction titles which provide readers variously with the history, stories and performers of so-called ‘Bollywood’. The finely illustrated Bollywood: Popular Indian Cinema (Dakini Books, 2002); Indian Popular Cinema: A Narrative of Cultural Change(Trentham Books, 1998); and the comprehensive Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (BFI Publishing, 1999) are noteworthy publications. There are generally two dominant readings of the Bombay film industry. The economics of the industry the frequently frames analysis, which is not without reason since it is the largest film industry in the world in terms of sheer output of films per year and in terms of audience figures. Equally, the melodramatic nature of mainstream Bollywood film is foregrounded, being that which makes the films so distinctive and ‘exotic’ (to a foreign audience). Yet, whilst undoubtedly a defining aspect of Bombay cinema, it is not the whole picture (as Talat Ahmed shows in his essay on ‘Realism in South Asian Cinema’, Film International, Issue 24, 2006); or at least what is often missing is consideration of the deeper social and cultural resonance of this specific form of cinema.
Ranjani Mazumdar’s Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City is a refreshing contribution of a more sustained, critical study. It sits well alongside various edited volumes, such as Raminder Kaur and Ajay J. Sinha’s Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema Through A Transnational Lens (Sage Publications, 2005), which considers the globalization of Indian cinema; Ravi S. Vasudevan’s Making Meaning in Indian Cinema(OUP India, 2002), which examines the political and ideological implications of Bombay cinema, and to which Mazumdar herself contributes an essay on violence and masculinity; Ashis Nandy’s The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema(Zed Books, 1999), which considers issues of national idenity, class and gender (and is a key source for Mazumdar). A useful companion to Mazumdar’s book is Preben Kaarsholm’s edited volume City Flicks: Indian Cinema and the Urban Experience(Seagull Books, 2006), which similarly considers the relationship between cinema and modernity in the Indian context in order to trace an evolving concept and significance of the city.
Whilst film production in India dates all the way back to 1896, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City focuses upon a more contemporary frame, looking at the politically charged and culturally vibrant years of the 1970s through to the present. The book examines how the crisis in postcolonial nationalism of the early 1970s gives way to greater cinematic interest and imagination of urban life. As Mazumdar explains, the ‘city as a concept remained a crucial absence in much of Indian nationalism’s history’ (xviii). Up until the social protests in the 1970s, rural life and the village as ‘secure sites of citizenship’ had been at the heart of nationalist ideology. A dramatic shift, then, takes place with greater emphasis upon urban life and its ensuing subjectivities, which is then further compounded by the onset of globalisation in the 1990s, which in turn gives rises to an ‘urban delirium’ (xxii) of increased migration, inequality and destitution mixed with the postmodern spectacle of conspicuous consumption and media and celebrity-driven entertainments.
Mazumdar is concerned with a discontinuous sense of history. Resisting the ‘desire to trace an overwhelming national history through the cinematic form’ (xxviii) she seeks to give life to the more fragile and complex ‘tissue and texture’ of cinema and urban life. Whilst the concept of modernity has shaped much of the writings on cinema and city, Mazumdar stresses the need for ‘a deeper understanding of the uneven and complex articulation of modernity across different cities across the world’ (xxxi). What she takes to be distinctive about the city in South Asia as opposed to the West ‘is the continuing presence of a large countryside where the majority of the population lives’ (xix). The ‘footpath’ – a connecting line between city and village – becomes a recurring motif throughout the book, which is shown not simply to be a spatial, architectural concern, but a temporal, historical one too.
Within the shards and fragments of the cinematic city space Mazumdar brings to light an underlying pattern. The book opens, for example, with an examination of violence and anger found in revenge narratives. Contrasting two cult films, Deewar (made in 1975) and Baazigar (made in 1993), the urban landscapes reveal a clear shift from a socially-oriented vision of the former to ‘a world of seemingly unrelated individual obsessions’ (2) of the latter. Similarly in a chapter on female representation, she demonstrates how the westernised ‘vamp’ was originally setup as a divisive, illicit figure to challenge nationalist ideals, but later in the 1990s was to merge with that of the mainstream film heroine. This conflation is attributed to growing levels of conspicuous consumption brought about by globalisation, though interestingly examined with reference to the fragmentary and fleeting ‘window-shopping’ experience that Benjamin and others associate with the figure of the flâneur. The forces of global consumer culture are also shown in a subsequent chapter to give rise to a new and virtual interior space. In analysing the ‘family film’ of the 1990s, Mazumdar identifies a dislocation of the real, whereby the ‘space of the Bombay street, the chawl, the train, and the crowds’ (110), which were so central to popular cinema, become marginalised. Instead, the hallmark of the family film becomes a ‘play with lavish interior spaces’, which demarcates a new ‘surface culture’ (110). Mazumdar also interrogates a cinematic underworld of Bombay which shows the city ‘marked by violence, terror, claustrophobia, and the uncanny’. Bombay, she suggests, ‘becomes a gangland, a disenchanted city haunted by death, darkness, and ruin’ (151). Yet, in keeping with a discontinuous history, an earlier chapter in the book shows, through the marginalised figure of the tapori (vagabond), how Bombay is paradoxically both the safe-keeper of Hindustani as much as it is a cosmopolitan, hybridised city (41-78).
Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City looks through what Mazumdar terms an ‘allegorical gaze’, here making explicit reference to the writings of the cultural critic Walter Benjamin. As an ‘act of reading fragments’, she explains allegory as the ‘recurring desire to compensate for an awareness of loss through saturated and fragementary experiences’ (xxix). And importantly, the ‘allegorical gaze reorders its objects to offer a new reading embedded within the surface reality of what is available at “first sight”’ (xxix). Her closest, contemporary influence is Ashis Nandy, whose ‘allegorical invocation of the slum as a metaphor for cinema’ (xxx) is similar to Mazumdar’s willingness to ‘construct’ her arguments through both metaphor and analysis. In a sense, then, she creates a cinematic city of Bombay, as much as she unveils it through her analysis.
What comes through is the critical imperative to shore up the archive of Bombay cinema’s recent history, to keep to mind the transformations of both the physical and mental landscape of India’s recent past. All of which is threatened with extinction from the banal forces of economic globalisation. Mazumdar is suggestive of holding out for an emerging ‘fringe cinema’, but set against her own acute analysis of an implosion of ‘real’ urban space and experiences, it is hard to be optimistic. Strangely, perhaps, Mazumdar chooses to explore postmodern city experiences through the lens of modernist writers such as Walter Benjamin, Sigfried Kracauer, Georg Simmel and Charles Baudelaire. This does cause a certain disjuncture in the analysis. At times more contemporary concepts such as ‘hyperreality’ are invoked, but these lack sufficient underpinning. In his Skeptical Introduction to Visual Studies, James Elkins questions the value of Benjamin’s own project in respect to contemporary late capitalism. Similarly, and perhaps more significantly, Elkins questions the application of Western ‘methodologies’ (as developed for example from the work of Benjamin et al.) to non-Western material, so raising the fraught spectre of the postcolonial condition.
There is undoubtedly a tension between the theoretical passages of Mazumdar’s book and the analyses of the many films examined. What is apparent, however, is an overwhelming sense of the films’ inherent vibrancy and otherness (to academic discourse). Mazumdar is evidently right in wanting to lead us through a deconstruction of the cinematic city of Bombay, but at times her theoretical sources appear inadequate. Bombay Cinema is ambitious in its purview. It is not a book solely for those interested in Indian film, since it is equally a book open to the theory and study of cinema in much broader terms. Mazumdar has a great capacity to discuss Indian cinema, with a brilliant grasp of its political, historical and aesthetic developments, but equally she is well attuned to the interests and ruptures in the academic discourse of film and cinema studies. One feels she has really only just begun something of great magnitude. Perhaps then, in the vein of Giuliana Bruno, we might expect Mazumdar to go on to produce further important studies, to engage the ‘allegorical gaze’ without needing to look back over the shoulder at those who could never have even imagined the wonders and complexities of other kinds of cinema.
What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images
University of Chicago Press, 2006, ISBN: 978-0226532486.
What Do Pictures “Really” Want? W. J. T. Mitchell, October, Vol. 77. (Summer, 1996), pp. 71-82. [PDF]
Review: In his engaging and only partially ironic titled book What Do Pictures Want?, Mitchell explores the life of visual culture in our individual and social lives, providing a comprehensive and integrated discussion of the historical, cross-cultural and theoretical implications of the power of images and pictures. Long our major iconographer, Mitchell is Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, and editor of the interdisciplinary journal, Critical Inquiry… SEE MORE [PDF]
Images: A Reader
S.Manghani, A.Piper & J.Simons (eds.)
Sage, 2006, ISBN: 978-1412900454.
Images: A Reader makes for a useful companion to Image Studies, with a selection of over 80 key entries taken from writings ranging across the domains of philosophy, art, literature, science, critical theory and cultural studies. Many of the original sources are cited in Image Studies (where the entries appear in the bibliography they have been highlighted in bold to help cross-reference between the two books).
Images: A Reader is divided into three parts:
(1) Historical and Philosophical Precedents sets the background for contemporary debates about images.
(2) Theories of Images provides key texts of the major approaches through which images are conceptualised.
(3) Image Culture introduces some of the more recent debates about images and today’s visual environment.
The selection of over 80 key readings, across the domains of philosophy, art, literature, science, critical theory and cultural studies tells the story of images through intellectual history from the Bible to the present. By including both well-established writings and more recent, innovative research, the Reader outlines crucial developments in contemporary discourses about images.
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.
Picturing Berlin, Piecing Together a Public Sphere
Pécuchet, 2003 (Bilingual edition: Japanese / English)
“Only in the light of the public sphere did that which existed become revealed, did everything become visible to all” – Jürgen Habermas
The long and fraught process of re-establishing Berlin as both the capital of a reunified Germany and the seat of its government made the city host to a fifth distinctive political regime within just one century. With such fits of political domination and new beginnings the changing face of Berlin’s public sphere has undoubtedly carried with it changing fortunes, giving rise to a panoply of myths, symbols, and images. Picturing Berlin, Piecing Together a Public Sphere explores the city’s rich visual culture in an attempt to understand role of images can play in thinking through political responsibility and the marking out of a contemporary public sphere.
[Updated version of an essay originally published in Invisible Culture, Issue 6, 2003]
The Domain of Images
Cornell University Press, 2001, ISBN: 978-0801487248
In the domain of visual images, those of fine art form a tiny minority. This original and brilliant book calls upon art historians to look beyond their traditional subjects–painting, drawing, photography, and printmaking–to the vast array of “nonart” images, including those from science, technology, commerce, medicine, music, and archaeology. Such images, James Elkins asserts, can be as rich and expressive as any canonical painting. Using scores of illustrations as examples, he proposes a radically new way of thinking about visual analysis, one that relies on an object’s own internal sense of organization. Elkins begins by demonstrating the arbitrariness of current criteria used by art historians for selecting images for study. He urges scholars to adopt, instead, the far broader criteria of the young field of image studies. After analyzing the philosophic underpinnings of this interdisciplinary field, he surveys the entire range of images, from calligraphy to mathematical graphs and abstract painting. Throughout, Elkins blends philosophic analysis with historical detail to produce a startling new sense of such basic terms as pictures, writing, and notation.
Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation
University of Chicago Press, 1995, ISBN: 978-0226532325.
Online Review: In analyzing the “pictorial turn” in his book Picture Theory, Mitchell begins with the important assumption that although it has been established that we are living in a culture of spectacle and surveillance, we still do not have a clear understanding of the essential nature of pictures, their relation to verbal language, the ways in which they have effect on their viewers and the world, their historicality, nor their future implications (13). Rather than being a cultural phenomenon in which images have come to play a more exigent and meaningful role in 20th and 21stst century cultures, the “pictorial turn” is a pressingrealization that visual literacy is more complicated than way may have previously perceived and that the current model of textuality employed to understand and study images is not sufficient considering the complexity of visual culture (16). Mitchell suggests that we begin to look to pictures themselves for answers to their nature, function, and historicality. [SEE MORE…]
Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology
University of Chicago Press, 1987, ISBN: 978-0226532295.
Online Review: In Iconology, Mitchell explores the ways in which the idea of imagery in relation to notions of picturing, imagining, perceiving, resembling, and imitating is discussed in various discourses in attempt to discover what an image is and what the difference is between word and image. Mitchell, in other words, explores the rhetoric of imagery, otherwise known as iconology, the “logos” (words, ideas, discourse) of icons (images, pictures, or likeness)—a tradition that essentially studys what images say (by persuading, telling, describing, etc) (1). His proclaims rhetorical purpose is “to show how the notion of imagery serves as a kind of relay connecting theories of art, language, and the mind with conceptions of social, cultural, and political value” (2). What he uncovers through an exploration of various theories forwarded by Gombrich, Goodman, and Burke) is that iconology is also a study of the “political psychologicy of icons, the study of iconophobia, iconophilia, and the struggle between iconoclams and idolatry” (3). As such, Mitchell uncovers how “the notion of ideology is rooted in the concept of imagery, and reenacts the ancient struggles of iconoclasm, idolatry, and fetishism” (4). [SEE MORE…]
Ways of Seeing
Penguin, 2008  ISBN: 978-0141035796
‘It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.’
John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is one of the most stimulating and influential books on the image in any language. First published in 1972, it was based on the BBC television series about which the Sunday Times critic described as ‘an eye-opener in more ways than one’.
BBC TV Series:
Episode 1: Reproductions
Episode 2: The Nude
Episode 3: Possessions
Episode 4: Language of Advertising
Kate Abbott, ‘How we made: John Berger and Michael Dibb on Ways of Seeing‘, Guardian, 2 April 2012.
Sukhdev Sandhu, ‘Ways of Seeing opened our eyes to visual culture‘, Guardian, 7 September 2012.