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The Invisible Truth: An Ecclesiastical View on Visual Culture (if you will excuse the pun)

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

An Ecclesiastical View on Visual Culture (if you will excuse the pun)

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So it's been a while since I posted anything. If any of you are disappointed, I apologize. Sometimes the lemonade that life throws you can't be turned into lemons. Anyhow: busy is busy.  Here's something I wrote in 2009 about the "new" academic field of Visual Culture. Trigger warning: academic language ahead.


The Insufficiency of Linguistics in the Age of the Machine

Visual Culture is a discipline that tries to put in a comprehensible framework images, which are visual data that have been interpreted, endured in memory, become represented, and have accrued significance in the processes of interpretation, remembrance, and representation. It is somewhat analogous to Saussure’s seminal work on linguistics, but rather than focus on language as language, it analogically expands analysis of the structure of the communicable into the field of images, and their manipulation through techniques and technologies of seeing and looking. As culture is a way of life, as well as shorthand for organized and intentional sensual experience in the form of various arts, Visual Culture’s object is how visual data inform the practice of culture. How do configurations of visual data cohere as signs through structures of meaning? What kind of strategies do encoders use to enframe interpretation and to what ends? What strategies do decoders use to interpret, with what motivations, and to produce what results?

On the other hand, an image is fully communicable in language. Ezra Pound’s poem “In the Station of the Metro” or William Carlos William’s poem “The Codhead” are proof positive of this. Furthermore, in literate society the visuality of language irrevocably changes its use, as scholars from Eisenstein, Havelock, and Ong to Innis and McLuhan have noted. In Visual Culture, then, the problem emerges of the insufficiency of linguistics to interrogate visual data and its tendency to collect significance like a magnet collects iron filings. This metaphor is apt both because a sign, a certain distillation of sensory – in this case visual – data, starts off as many disparate parts, but in the process of encoding or decoding it joins parts into a whole, a whole which is greater than simply the sum of its parts. The magnet is consciousness. The extrapolation of linguistic concepts into a wider field of sign production, observation, and interpretation, such as that accomplished by Barthes, is the essential act of Visual Culture, and it is predicated on the irreconcilable hybridity of human, machine, and perception.

Is Visual Culture new, emergent, or any of the other modifiers that reveal the coy imbrications of academia with the market (new and improved!)? Emphatically no. The political cartoonist extraordinaire of enlightenment England, Cruikshank, in the process of observing politics and culture through various degrees of mediation – which necessarily implies representation – must have employed some of the same strategies, or at least trod in similar cognitive footsteps, as contemporary cultural critics have in their analyses in order to draw his cartoons in the first place. One must interpret visual aspects of culture at large in order to consolidate visual data and subsequently encode such a complex but simple-seeming formulation as a cartoon.


For example, in this cartoon, Cruikshank depicts people from various classes working together to export orphans to the colonies. In the nineteenth century, children were not guaranteed the same rights as they are now. Corporal punishment was the norm, and orphaned children were a social problem that warranted, to some, an easily solution: ship them out to the far reaches of the empire. It was common practise also to ship unwedded and pregnant women to the colonies in the interests of "social hygiene." With a nod to Jonathan Swift's satirical essay "A Modest Proposal," Cruikshank here lambastes the practise as dehumanizing. The top hat and erect stance of the man in the centre emblemizes "polite society," that of refined gentlemen. The other man's stance, slightly stooped, and his raggedy bowler testify that he belongs to the working classes. A woman, in the background, also pitches in. This cartoon shows the co-operation of different social groups, often in conflict in other arenas, all working together to rid their society of a group beneath them all -- unwanted children. The tension between the emblems of civilization and an obviously barbaric act -- shoveling children into a cart -- shows the active nature of Cruikshank's "reading" of his visual environment, and then redeploying its parts for persuasive purposes.

With regards to "newness," I usually side with the author of Ecclesiastes, who laments “there is nothing new under the sun.” To claim there is something new is at the same time to claim complete and total knowledge, an act of arrogance, and further, of ignorance of one's own ignorance. However, the pixilated milieu of contemporary existence, especially with regards to communication, has made it such that these liminally conscious processes should be brought into the foreground and conceptualized, following Marcuse’s notion that the image and its superabundance militates against conceptual thinking.

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