4. Visual Culture

Visual Culture
In trying to put visual literacy into pedagogical practice, the field of visual culture has much to suggest about how images can be critically interpreted. As one would expect, visual culture is a highly interdisciplinary field, which owes much to art history, psychology, women’s studies, film theory, anthropology, and a variety of other fields. Nicholas Mirzoeff (1999) has described visual culture as a blend of “the historical perspective of art history and film studies with the case-specific, intellectually engaged approach characteristic of cultural studies” (pp. 12-13). The field of visual culture is more recent than cultural studies, and less rooted in Marx, while being more rooted in semiology and art history (Elkins, 2003, p. 2). Susan Buck-Morss has identified visual culture’s key influences as Barthes, Benjamin, Foucault, and Lacan, while listing the field’s most common themes, “the reproduction of the image, the society of the spectacle, envisioning the Other, scopic regimes, the simulacrum, the fetish, the (male) gaze, the machine eye” (Elkins, 2003, p. 32). It is my observation that many of visual culture’s theoretical tools emerge from the canon of literary theory. It subjects all manner of images and objects to critical interpretation. Examples of things critiqued are parking lots, advertisements, amusement parks, fashion, graffiti, television, board games, furniture, educational materials, souvenirs, shopping malls, fonts, gardens, and video games. After learning how to see the world through visual culture’s interpretive lens, many things never look the same again.
In her book Visual Methodologies (2001), Gillian Rose detailed several methodologies for interpreting visual culture. These methods include compositional interpretation, content analysis, semiology, psychoanalysis, two different types of discourse analysis, and finally a chapter discussing other methods and mixing methods. The first method she introduces, compositional interpretation, owes much to film theory. She cited James Monaco and his descriptions of how aspects of film making, such as shot distance, angle, focus, and point of view, can affect meaning. As an example, she wrote, “The repeated use of close-ups, for example, may produce a sense of claustrophobic intensity, while long shots may imply alienation and emptiness” (p. 49). The next methodology, content analysis, seeks to interpret images by counting items which correspond to certain coding categories. She noted that the categories “depend on a particular theoretical literature about power, race, and history” (p. 54). Under this method of analysis, certain visual materials might be shown to be discriminatory or prejudiced in a variety of ways. Semiology provides another interpretative method. Within visual culture, semiotic analysis seeks to enable the viewer to see the ideology within the representations which works to “legitimate social inequalities, and it works at the level of our subjectivity” (p. 70). This aspect of semiology owes much to the work of Roland Barthes. The psychoanalytic methodology often used by feminist authors concerns itself with the social effects of various paintings, photographs, and films which “produce particular spectating positions that are differentially sexualized and empowered” (p. 100). Discourse analysis is also the basis of two methods. The first type of discourse analysis “refers to groups of statements which structure the way a thing is thought, and the way we act on the basis of that thinking” (p. 136). This can be applied to visuals in terms of the way visual statements can make certain things visible, while obscuring others, thus creating new subject or reformulating existing ones. The second type of discourse analysis owes much to Foucault, and his writings on the panopticon and surveillance. Foucault wrote, “Visibility is a trap” (as cited in Rose, 2001, p. 166). Within this type of discourse analysis, according to Rose, “Visual images and visualities are … articulations of institutional power” (p. 168). The final chapter on mixing methods provides several lists of questions, which are excellent examples of the kind of questioning and interpretation that visual literacy educators should expect their students to ask of the images they see. These questions include:

What technologies does its production depend upon? … What were the relations between the maker, the owner, and the subject? … How are the components of the image arranged? … Who were the original audience for this image? … Have the technologies of circulation and display affected the audiences’ interpretation of this image? (pp. 188-189)

Rose’s list of questions remind me of the closing words to the aforementioned critique of the graphic design industry, Clean New World by Maud Lavin, a work that is very much based in the visual culture field. Lavin wrote, “Using images and words, I want to explore who gets to say what to whom and how to expand the pleasure, democracy, and messiness of communication” (p. 9). Indeed, the visual culture field does make the realm of the visual seem unruly, or at least ridden with hidden or multiple intentions and mixed messages.