Picture This: Literary Theory and the Study of Visual Culture

An address delivered at La Sapienza, Rome, Italy, March 2000

In my remarks this afternoon I want to raise some questions about how we have historicized the concept of the visual in visual culture studies. I will be arguing that how we historicize visual culture is inextricably linked to how we theorize the visual and visuality. Visual culture studies has developed around the idea that postmodernity is dominated by the visual representation of meaning, and that this marks its fundamental break with a modernity dominated by textuality. In my view, this formulation relies on an overly narrow definition of the “visual” as “pictorial,” and it tends to see the rise of visual culture as coincident with (and limited to) the production and dissemination of images generated by mechanical and electronic means -- still photographs, film, video, digital images, etc. However, the visual (and visualization) have always been integral to culture, and broader definitions of visual culture that include architecture and other built and decorative forms linked to everything from advertising and interior design to landscaping belie the idea that visual culture is a postmodern phenomenon. Viewed more expansively, visual culture has a long and complicated history that undermines the idea its evolution is rooted in a paradigm shift involving a break with textuality. This historical argument also looks tenuous when viewed from a theoretical perspective. A deconstructive analysis of the visual and the textual, for example, reveals that the two terms depend upon one another for their meaning in a structure of differences that are largely illusory when viewed in the context of everyday experience, where visual objects are read and textual objects are visualized. If the visual and the textual are connected to a historical break, that break has less to do with differences between the two mediums than with their connection to a much more pervasive crisis in the history of representation itself, one that has shifted our attention from how words and images mirror reality to how they construct it. Ultimately, visual culture studies has to be understood not as the product of a historical rupture between the visual and the textual, but in connection with broad disciplinary changes in the humanities and social sciences driven by the combined forces of poststructuralist, cultural, materialist and feminist theories. These theories have forged a new, post-foundational, global culturalism that has transformed the conventional practices of literary and art history. In the wake of these changes, the visual and the textual have not been sundered from one another. They are linked as never before.

Nick Mirzoeff opens his immensely valuable Introduction to Visual Culture by writing that “modern life takes place onscreen” (1). I don’t want to argue with this point. It’s certainly the case that we live in an age where screened information and entertainment are ubiquitous, an age that has nearly made a fetish of the mechanical reproduction of visual information and all of the paraphernalia and paranoia that go with it. What I want to do is use his observation as a point of departure for questioning the equation of screen culture with visual culture. While such an equation is tempting, I think it leads to the mistaken notion that visual culture begins in the postmodern period, and that it represents a radical break with the essential textuality of modernity.

At the risk of being overly reductive I want to suggest there are two ways to conceptualize or categorize visual culture, one that I think is overly narrow, another that is much broader. The narrow approach to visual culture conceptualizes it strictly in relationship to technologies of visual reproduction, the still, movie, and video cameras, TV, digital and other forms of electronic media. Visual culture, conceptualized from this point of view, corresponds to life onscreen in the sense Mirzoeff is invoking, that form of the “pictorial” that morphed in the late modern and postmodern periods into the hyperrepresentational, simulated, virtual modes of image production that increasingly command our attention and disseminate knowledge in our culture. If we theorize the visual in visual culture this way, we are led inexorably to the kind of historical argument Mirzoeff and others have made: that visual culture is an essentially postmodern phenomenon marking a break with the discursive and textual orientation of modernity. From this point of view, as Mirzoeff neatly puts it, “the world-as-a-text has been replaced by the world-as-a-picture” (Introduction, 7).

However, if visual culture is defined more broadly than this, the argument that it marks a historical break or a paradigm shift becomes much more problematical. If we don’t reduce the “visual” to the pictorial, but instead think of the visual more broadly to encompass everything from architectural facades and interior design to landscaping, advertising signs, store fronts, monuments, and built spaces including streets, piazzas and squares, in short, the whole range of visual objects we experience in everyday life, then the category of the visual in visual culture becomes much more complicated, much less easily reduced to historical arguments about breaks and paradigm shifts. Modern life, to a significant degree, does take place onscreen, but it also takes place in this broader visual landscape of everyday, even banal objects and signs. For example, I would argue that, measured simply in terms of built space, Chicago has a fundamentally different visual culture than Rome. The verticality of Chicago contrasts jarringly with Rome's horizontal layout, the largely secular, homogenous steel and glass structures of Chicago laid out on a strict grid create an entirely different cultural space than do the buildings and streets of Rome, which are characterized by a dizzying interplay of historical periods and vernacular styles, and which contain both a monumentality unseen in Chicago and a maze of small, winding streets that violate the homogeneity of the modern grid. Construed in terms of the relationship between built space and visual experience in this kind of way, our whole concept of what constitutes visual culture gets radically expanded.

My point is simply that if we construe visual culture broadly by defining the “visual” in terms not limited to forms of pictorial representation, then the whole question of paradigm shifts and historical breaks gets usefully complicated. Even if we were to limit the concept of visual culture to pictorial representation, visual culture seems to me to have a long history that makes the idea of a clear break between the modern-as-textual and the postmodern-as-visual quite problematical. Pictorial representation in the West begins in the flat, inert surfaces of Medieval religious art, shifts in the early Renaissance with the depiction of perspective, emotion, and the body, develops further around a fascination with the increasingly intricate depiction of built spaces that first competes with, and then nearly overwhelms the focus on religious drama, and then begins a kind of inexorable march toward realism and the secular depiction of everyday life, first in painting, photography, film, and then in video and digital technologies. From this point of view, it is hard to see how a fascination with the visual per se can be isolated as a postmodern phenomenon. Indeed, Martin Jay (no relation) has made the opposite argument in his work on the “scopic regimes of modernity,” insisting that the Renaissance was “ocularcentric” and that “it is difficult to deny that the visual has been dominant in modern Western culture” all along (Reader, 66, my emphasis).

So far, in questioning the idea of a break or paradigm shift between the textual and the visual, I’ve been making a historical argument. But the argument can be made just as strongly in theoretical terms. While it may be possible to distinguish visual objects from textual objects (the obvious difference, say, between pages of print in a book and a series of scenes or images on screen in a film) it’s much more difficult to distinguish, in cognitive terms, between visual and textual experience (that is, between seeing and reading). Ella Shohat and Robert Stam make this point in their essay on taking a polycentric approach to narrativizing visual culture. “The visual,” they write, “never comes ‘pure,’ it is always ‘contaminated’ by the work of other senses . . . touched by other texts and discourses . . . . It is not now a question," they continue, "of replacing the blindness of the ‘linguistic turn’ with the ‘new’ blindnesses of the ‘visual turn.’ To hypostasize the visual risks of reinstalling the hegemony of the ‘noble’ sense . . . . The visual," they finally argue, "is ‘languaged,’ just as language itself has a visual dimension” (Reader, 45).

The American literary critic, W.J.T. Mitchell, renown for his work on images, iconicity, and the visual, makes much the same point when he insists on the “inextricable weaving together of representation and discourse” with images, what he calls “the imbrication [overlapping] of visual and verbal experience” (83). Mitchell goes so far as to insist there are no “purely visual and verbal media, pictures without words and words without pictures” (95). Mitchell takes a classically deconstructive approach to the binary opposition between image and text, or the visual and the discursive, insisting that neither image or text can be construed as a pure entity standing free of the other. As I noted earlier, the terms visual and textual derive their meaning from a linguistic structure of difference that does not transfer very well to everyday life, where visual objects are read and textual objects are visualized in cognitive and interpretive operations that can be quite similar.

Mitchell's deconstructive approach to the visual underscores the role of literary theory in developing the connection between visual objects, ways of seeing, and cultural studies. We can observe this as well in Irit Rogoff’s essay on “Studying Visual Culture.” Rogoff draws on Derrida’s concept of différance and on ideas related to intertextuality and reading from literary theory to argue against the notion that visual objects and visualization itself can be separated from textuality and the act of reading. Drawing on Saussurian linguistics and Derridean theory, she insists that “visual culture . . . encompasses a great deal more than the study of images,” that it “opens up an entire world of intertextuality in which images . . . are read on to and through one another” by uncovering “the free play of the signifier” in a way that, like writing, “provides the visual articulation of the continuous displacement of meaning in the field of vision and the visible” (Reader, 14-15).

If the idea that we’ve shifted from a modern paradigm rooted in the textual to a postmodern one rooted in the visual doesn’t hold up very well from either a historical or a theoretical perspective, what does that suggest about the relation between the visual and the textual in our own time? Are we, to recall the title of Frank Gillette’s book on video art, simply “between paradigms?” I don’t think so. I’d argue, rather, that the kind of analysis I’ve sketched out here suggests we’ve come pretty close to deconstructing the difference between the visual and the textual altogether. It seems to me the task ahead is not to spend a lot of time differentiating the visual from the textual and privileging one over the other (especially if it leads to constructing visual culture studies as simply a modified and expanded version of media studies), but to follow critics like Rogoff and Mitchell in drawing on literary and visual theory to explore the complex interrelationships between the visual and the textual as they work together to determine the shape of our cultural experience.

Having developed this argument, I don’t want to reject altogether the idea that our engagement with visual representation isn’t connected to a significant historical moment in Western culture. However, I would argue that what Mirzoeff and others are looking at when they posit a historical break between the textual and the visual has less to do with our orientation toward these two mediums per se, and more to do with what Michel Foucault called an epistemological break. Earlier I argued that there has always been visual culture, and that only a narrow definition of the visual grounded in mechanical, electronic, and digital reproduction onscreen can justify linking visual culture specifically to postmodernity. For this reason, I don’t think the rise of photography, cinema and television mark the beginning of a new form of visual culture. I think they mark the end of an old form of visual culture, one largely grounded in the representational or mirroring illusion these images create. Mirzo

eff and others are certainly right in pointing out that with the development of film editing techniques such as collage and cut-away shots in the 1920s and 1930s we began to move inexorably toward an insight we now take for granted: that photographic, video and digital realities are highly constructed fabrications of the real. The self-consciously constructed nature of contemporary film, video and digital images, which constantly call attention to the centrality of simulation and duplication in our own visual culture, underscores how far we’ve come from an earlier belief in the representational quality of the pictorial. However, I don’t think we ought to view this shift as the beginning of visual culture. Rather, it ought to be seen as a significant moment in the long and complicated history of visual culture in the West. If Mirzoeff is right that we can mark a historical break in the rise of 20th-century visual culture, I would insist that the break isn’t between the textual and the visual per se, but between the naïve assumption that visual representations accurately represent the truth (what Rogoff calls “the illusion of transparency” (Reader, 22) and the recognition that visual representations, like all other representational forms, are always constructed.

Ever since Benjamin's landmark essay on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, we have become increasingly aware of the role reproduction and simulation play as constitutive elements in the construction of what looks like “reality” in visual culture. We can't think in theoretical terms about the visual without linking our investigation to the radical epistemological changes over the course of the 20th century that have transformed our thinking about representation. We live in a time, to evoke the American philosopher Richard Rorty, when philosophy, language, and visual images are no longer thought of as mirroring nature, but as constructing reality. Contemporary visual culture is thoroughly dominated by this realization. Indeed, it is committed to documenting it at every turn. In this sense, contemporary visual culture participates in the central epistemological transformation of the 20th-century: a shift in our thinking about both philosophical claims and literary and pictorial representation away from the notion that they can produce a transparent “picture” of reality toward a focus on the constitutive role that philosophical and aesthetic forms of representation have in actually constructing the realities they represent. One of the things linking literary theory and visual culture studies is the extent to which they are both informed by a move away from foundational or essentialist theories of meaning to post-foundational, post-essentialist theories of meaning. The critique of meaning in philosophy from Derrida to Rorty, which has transformed literary study in the West, has now carried over to the study of art history and the media. With the marriage of this philosophical critique to the theories and methods of cultural studies initially propounded at the Birmingham School, we have witnessed the development of a wonderfully hybrid discipline we now call visual culture studies.

In institutional and disciplinary terms, then, there is a remarkable similarity between the transformation of art history into visual culture studies and the transformation of literary studies into cultural studies. Visual culture studies’ displacement of the field of art history through a systematic opening up of the field beyond careful study with a “good eye” of the canonical paintings and painters of Western art has its parallel in the opening of the field of literary studies through a systematic displacement of the formalist, close reading of canonical works which used to be its central enterprise. While our attention in literary studies to canonical imaginative writing has broadened to include film, television, and video, the study of art narrowly defined as painting and sculpture in art history has given way to a reconceptualization of the visual that incorporates these same mediums. In both fields, the cumulative effect of deconstructive, feminist, Marxist, and cultural theory has been to shift the ground of attention away from the canonical aesthetic object and the institutions which defined and supported it to the study of forms of representation produced outside the narrow strictures of traditional Western aesthetic theory. Literary studies has turned from a narrow fixation on the text as a sacrosanct canonical aesthetic object to a more general focus on writing that cuts across the divide between high culture and popular culture, interrogates racial and gender categories previously developed to exclude whole populations from an engagement with what high culture called "literature," and incorporates popular representational and narrative forms such as film, television, video and hypermedia within an increasingly transnational or global framework. The same shift has taken place in the study of visual images, for under the rubric of visual culture studies we have witnessed the same critique of the work of art as a sacrosanct canonical aesthetic object, a critique which has had the effect of folding the study of canonical painting and sculpture into a more generalized study of visual representation that includes forms traditionally restricted to the field of media studies and produced in areas and by people that undermine traditional distinctions between high and popular culture.

These institutional and disciplinary changes suggest it makes little sense to see the study of visual culture as something separate and distinct from the study of textuality and the discursive construction of meaning. I want to conclude, then, by reiterating the importance of folding the history of contemporary visual culture into the longer and more complicated history of visual culture defined less in narrow terms grounded in pictorial representation and more in the broader terms I outlined earlier. Indeed, it seems to me that the radical possibilities visual culture studies offers actually get blunted if we define visual culture too specifically in terms of the postmodern and in relation to the mechanical, technological and digital reproduction of images. I think visual culture studies can only benefit from broadening its scope to include analyses of the relationship between built and designed space and the visual experience of culture, work which moves beyond the study of our fascination (and paranoia) about visual simulation to think about how visual and spatial locations associated with off screen experience shape both our realities and our identities. This would require us to focus the study of visual culture on everyday life and the seemingly mundane and passive elements of visual experience much more than is currently the case in our fascination with screen culture. I have in mind in particular work on our visual experience of built spaces, an examination of forms of cultural style derived from the visual look of buildings, public spaces, and advertising, and their impact on the construction of personal identity and our sense of social belonging. If what we see, and how we look at things, help to define what culture is and how it shapes personal and social identities, then it seems to me we ought to broaden the scope of what we define as visual culture -- so that it includes what we see off screen, as well as what we see onscreen.

- Paul Jay/Dept. of English/Loyola University Chicago

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