IMAGES Journal for Visual Studies

events: Visual studies today: The power of images

W.J.T. Mitchell
Showing seeing: a critique of visual culture

What is visual culture or visual studies? Is it an emergent discipline, a passing moment of interdisciplinary turbulence, a research topic, a field or subfield of cultural studies, media studies, rhetoric and communication, art history, or aesthetics? Does it have a specific object of research, or is it a grab-bag of problems left over from respectable, well-established disciplines? If it is a field, what are its boundaries and limiting definitions? Should it be institutionalized as an academic structure, made into a department or given programmatic status, with all the appurtenances of syllabi, textbooks, prerequisites, requirements, and degrees? How should it be taught? What would it mean to profess visual culture in a way that is more than improvisatory? (…)

Critique: myths and counter-theses

Ten myths about visual culture

  1. Visual culture entails the liquidation of art as we have known it.
  2. Visual culture accepts without question the view that art is to be defined by its working exclusively through the optical faculties.
  3. Visual culture transforms the history of art into a history of images.
  4. Visual culture implies that the difference between a literary text and a painting is a non-problem. Words and images dissolve into undifferentiated representation.
  5. Visual culture implies a predilection for the disembodied, dematerialized image.
  6. We live in a predominantly visual era. Modernity entails the hegemony of vision and visual media.
  7. There is a coherent class of things called visual media.
  8. Visual culture is fundamentally about the social construction of the visual field. What we see, and the manner in which we come to see it, is not simply part of a natural ability.
  9. Visual culture entails an anthropological, and therefore unhistorical, approach to vision.
  10. Visual culture consists of scopic regimes and mystifying images to be overthrown by political critique.

Eight counter-theses on visual culture

  1. Visual culture encourages reflection on the differences between art and non-art, visual and verbal signs, and the ratios between different sensory and semiotic modes.
  2. Visual culture entails a meditation on blindness, the invisible, the unseen, the unseeable, and the overlooked; also on deafness and the visible language of gesture; it also compels attention to the tactile, the auditory, the haptic, and the phenomenon of synesthesia.
  3. Visual culture is not limited to the study of images or media, but extends to everyday practices of seeing and showing, especially those that we take to be immediate or unmediated. It is less concerned with the meaning of images than with their lives and loves.
  4. There are no visual media. All media are mixed media, with varying ratios of senses and sign-types.
  5. The disembodied image and the embodied artifact are permanent elements in the dialectics of visual culture. Images are to pictures and works of art as species are to specimens in biology.
  6. We do not live in a uniquely visual era. The visual or pictorial turn is a recurrent trope that displaces moral and political panic onto images and so-called visual media. Images are convenient scapegoats, and the offensive eye is ritually plucked out by ruthless critique.
  7. Visual culture is the visual construction of the social, not just the social construction of vision. The question of visual nature is therefore a central and unavoidable issue, along with the role of animals as images and spectators.
  8. The political task of visual culture is to perform critique without the comforts of iconoclasm.

*Note: most of the fallacies above are quotations or close paraphrases of statements by well-known critics of visual culture. A prize will be awarded to anyone who can identify all of them.


If there is a defining moment in the concept of visual culture, I suppose it would be in that instant that the hoary concept of social construction made itself central to the field. We are all familiar with this Eureka! moment, when we reveal to our students and colleagues that vision and visual images, things that (to the novice) are apparently automatic, transparent, and natural, are actually symbolic constructions, like a language to be learned, a system of codes that interposes an ideological veil between us and the real world.This overcoming of what has been called the natural attitude has been crucial to the elaboration of visual studies as an arena for political and ethical critique, and we should not underestimate its importance (see Byron, 1983). But if it becomes an unexamined dogma, it threatens to become a fallacy just as disabling as the naturalistic fallacy it sought to overturn. To what extent is vision unlike language, working (as Roland Barthes, 1982, observed of photography) like a message without a code? In what ways does it transcend specific or local forms of social construction to function like a universal language that is relatively free of textual or interpretive elements? (We should recall that Bishop Berkeley, 1709, who first claimed that vision was like a language, also insisted that it was a universal language, not a local or national language.) To what extent is vision not a learned activity, but a genetically determined capacity, and a programmed set of automatisms that has to be activated at the right time, but that are not learned in anything like the way that human languages are learned?

A dialectical concept of visual culture leaves itself open to these questions rather than foreclosing them with the received wisdom of social construction and linguistic models. It expects that the very notion of vision as a cultural activity necessarily entails an investigation of its non-cultural dimensions, its pervasiveness as a sensory mechanism that operates in animal organisms all the way from the flea to the elephant. This version of visual culture understands itself as the opening of a dialogue with visual nature. It does not forget Lacan’s (1978) reminder that the eye goes back as far as the species that represent the appearance of life, and that oysters are seeing organisms. It does not content itself with victories over natural attitudes and naturalistic fallacies, but regards the seeming naturalness of vision and visual imagery as a problem to be explored, rather than a benighted prejudice to be overcome.10 In short, a dialectical concept of visual culture cannot rest content with a definition of its object as the social construction of the visual field, but must insist on exploring the chiastic reversal of this proposition, the visual construction of the social field. (…)

The pictorial or visual turn, then, is not unique to our time. It is a repeated narrative figure that takes on a very specific form in our time, but which seems to be available in its schematic form in an innumerable variety of circumstances. A critical and historical use of this figure would be as a diagnostic tool to analyze specific moments when a new medium, a technical invention, or a cultural practice erupts in symptoms of panic or euphoria (usually both) about the visual. The invention of photography, of oil painting, of artificial perspective, of sculptural casting, of the internet, of writing, of mimesis itself are conspicuous occasions when a new way of making visual images seemed to mark a historical turning point for better or worse. The mistake is to construct a grand binary model of history centered on just one of these turning points, and to declare a single great divide between the age of literacy (for instance) and the age of visuality. These kinds of narratives are beguiling, handy for the purposes of presentist polemics, and useless for the purposes of genuine historical criticism. (…)

It should be clear, then, that the supposed hegemony of the visible in our time (or in the ever-flexible period of modernity, or the equally flexible domain of the West) is a chimera that has outlived its usefulness. If visual culture is to mean anything, it has to be generalized as the study of all the social practices of human visuality, and not confined to modernity or the West. To live in any culture whatsoever is to live in a visual culture, except perhaps for those rare instances of societies of the blind, which for that very reason deserve special attention in any theory of visual culture. (…)

While there is no doubt that visual culture (like material, oral, or literary culture) can be an instrument of domination, I do not think it is productive to single out visuality or images or spectacle or surveillance as the exclusive vehicle of political tyranny. I wish not to be misunderstood here. I recognize that much of the interesting work in visual culture has come out of politically motivated scholarship, especially the study of the construction of racial and sexual difference in the field of the gaze. But the heady days when we were first discovering the male gaze or the feminine character of the image are now well behind us, and most scholars of visual culture who are invested in questions of identity are aware of this. Nevertheless, there is an unfortunate tendency to slide back into reductive treatments of visual images as all-powerful forces and to engage in a kind of iconoclastic critique which imagines that the destruction or exposure of false images amounts to a political victory. As I’ve said on other occasions, pictures are a popular political antagonist because one can take a tough stand on them and yet, at the end of the day, everything remains pretty much the same. Scopic regimes can be overturned repeatedly without any visible effect on either visual or political culture. (…)

(An excerpt from the book by W.J.T.Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? Chicago University Press, Chicago – London, 2005. )