IMAGES Journal for Visual Studies

events: Visual studies today: The power of images

Krešimir Purgar
Towards new objects of cognition: what is visual studies?

One of the thesis explored here states that visual studies is interdisciplinary hermeneutics of the new era, occuring as the consequence of the pictorial turn at the time when postmodernism, as the only comprehensive theoretical paradigm still in existence, is losing its credibility and methodological vitality. The problems related to the pictorial turn will be discussed a bit later; for now it will suffice to note that all authors included in the discussion, from those highly influential, like W. J. T. Mitchell to Gottfried Boehm, Keith Moxey, Mieke Bal, James Elkins, Marquard Smith, Lisa Cartwright, Michael Ann Holly, James D. Herbert, Margaret Dikovitskaya, Nicholas Mirzoeff to many others as well, are more or less agreeing that the pictorial/visual/iconic turn is a set of symptoms which we can notice in the western postcapitalistic societies, and which are characterised by domination of the image and the visual communication in everyday life. Every theoretician mentioned above deals with the practical and theoretical implications of the pictorial turn in a different way (hence many disagreements regarding the disciplinary definition of visual studies and its research objects), but the belief they share is that the old language paradigm has been replaced by the new image paradigm .

This was heard many times during the last two decades, but the real question is what it really means: is it that the domination of image, television screens, advertising messages, YouTube, the sharing of the images through social networks and the availability of video contents in contemporary societies are indeed in opposition to the textuality and language experience, or those two are only being put to balance through the pictorial turn, as Mitchell suggests, and the real change of paradigm takes place not because ˝I’m looking at you, someone else or something else˝, but because ˝you are looking at me˝, that is to say, I becomes an image looked at by someone else. This psychoanalitical version of the pictorial turn is equally interesting for its implications to the objects of visual analysis, i.e. the physical objects we observe, as it is for the important insight stating that images and image observing techniques are now bound beyond separation. Nicholas Mirzoeff argues that the theme of visual studies is precisely a ˝new visual subjectivity˝, equally defined by the fact that the subject is observing something and that his subjectivity is distorted because the subject himself is being observed: ˝They are looking at me and I see I am being looked at˝. (…)

The psychoanalysis played an important role in the short history of visual studies, primarily in defining the studies’ methods and only slightly in the description of themes: the older discipline showed to the younger that the object of analysis does not need to search for its privileged scientific discipline which would deal with it exclusively, but that the discipline, as a specific worldview, should create its own object. In a reverse case, that is to say, when for instance Caravaggio’s Medusa seduced us by its narrative aspect which encourages primarily the iconographic model of interpretation, the drama of the Medusa’s look would remain at the level of a two-dimensional plan as a mere tautology of the image and text. Psychoanalysis, semiotics and later filmology, have showed to visual studies that its object has yet to be created through different viewing and different interconnection of visual facts. The founders of the new theoretical direction, like Mieke Bal, believed from the very beginning that visual studies can differentiate itself only if it points out what its ˝new objects of cognition˝ are; or Elkins’ statement that visual studies does not know apriori what the objects of its research are, but is discovering them through preoccupation and a wide interest in the visual . What, therefore, distinguishes visual studies from most other disciplines within the humanities (and relates it to open concepts of psychoanalysis and semiotics) is that the topics it is involved with ˝have the potential to create new objects of interest which do not need to be and most often are not known in advance˝.

Unlike many academic disciplines, with which it comes to contact and from which it overtakes parts of its specific knowledge on a daily basis, visual studies, even if we do not proclaim it as an independent discipline, or at least a movement – does not possess its own exclusive objects of analysis or its own methodology which would differentiate it from other disciplines. It is at the same time interdisciplinary and non-disciplinary. There is no longer the need to list the reasons for its interdisciplinarity; we can find those reasons occuring, like a fashionable political correctness, almost all over the humanities . However, there is a difference, insofar as the takeover of special interests of other, especially new disciplines – such as postcolonial or racial studies, feminist or queer criticism – done by visual studies, and their application in the interpretation of visual phenomena, is primarily of an operative nature, meaning that visual studies does not present an underlying political agenda. It does not have a defined social programme, vocation or a higher goal except the one aiming for a better understanding of images and for the study of the mechanism of the visual construction of reality. We could say that just as it does not consider an artwork a superior form of human production, it does not consider, for instance, the gender specificity as a qualification sufficient per se which would differ one visual statement from another. Not depriving those disciplines of the need and the right to define the objects and the methods of their own vocation (that particularly refers to the problematic relation to the history of art , as we shall see later), visual studies remains focused on images, regardless of what historical, political, sexual, artistic or profane, textual or extratextual context it is set in.

Alongside the interdisciplinarity, which we simply expect from the contemporary study of images, the question of ˝non-disciplinarity˝, as Mitchell describes the original concept of visual studies, brings about much more interesting insights. Visual culture encompasses an area of non-disciplinary cognitions at which we arrive both throught common observation of everyday life and through complex observational techniques involving optical devices, tools, technologies of sight, and of course, various theories of visuality. According to Mitchell, the non-disciplinarity of visual studies is primarily a consequence of the epistemological turn, that is to say, of a simultaneous different need for knowledge and the need for a different knowledge of images, as well as the result of turbulencies and ambivalencies at the external and internal boundaries of the established disciplines. In his opinion, the ambivalency occurs when the predominance of the textual theory and the comprehension of culture, primarily based on the linguistic turn comes across the visual, that is, pictorial turn which cannot be reduced to discursive models . As we can see, visual studies does not have an apriori attitude towards any phenomenon which can appear in the (visual) culture domain, except, probably, the attitude to apriori refuse any apriority and thus – being a “non-discipline” – it brings disorder to political and cultural systems of visuality. As a new way of viewing the world, visual studies has the future only if it is aware of the different disciplinary histories which overlap within it and if it knows how to creatively shape them towards the acquisition of new kind of knowledge. The ˝old˝ epistemology that visual studies has already started seriously reshaping includes three key areas: 1) relation to the pictorial turn as the newest and still very open theory of visuality; 2) relation to the history of art as its ˝own unconscious˝ and 3) relation of an artwork to non-artistic products of the material culture. (…)

A fragment from the book by Krešimir Purgar Images in T ext – Italian and American L iterature in the P erspective of V isual S tudies (Slike u tekstu – talijanska i američka književnost u perspektivi vizualnih studija); Durieux and HS AICA, Zagreb 2013; pp. 29-34