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Mieke Bal “Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture”

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Bal, Mieke 2003. Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture. – Journal of Visual Culture 2(1): 5-32

[…] the object of visual culture studies can be distinguished from object-defined disciplines such as art history and film studies, through the centrality of visuality as the ‘new’ object. (9)

[…] what happens when people look, and what emerges from that act? The verb ‘happens’ entails the  visual event as an object, and ‘emerges’ the visual image, but as a fleeting, fugitive, subjective image accrued to the subject. These two results – the event and the experienced image – are joined at the hip in the act of looking and its aftermath. (9)

The act of looking is profoundly ‘impure’. […] This impurity makes such activities mutually permeable, so that listening and reading can also have visuality to them. […] vision is itself inherently synaesthetic. (9)

[…] any definition that attempts to distinguish visuality from, for example, language, misses the point of the ‘new object’ entirely. For, with the isolation of vision comes the hierarchy of the senses, one of the traditional drawbacks of the disciplinary division of the Humanities. (10)

For, in the simplest formulation, knowledge directs and colours the gaze, thereby making visible those aspects of objects that otherwise remain invisible (Foucault, 1975: 15), but also the other way around: far from being a feature of the object seen, visibility is also a practice, even a strategy, of selection that determines what other aspects or even objects remain invisible. (11)

[…] the place and conception of visuality is a cultural, historical phenomenon whose transformations implicate sight itself within the object of visual culture studies. (13)

This quality, of offering apparent autonomy of distance and ‘separateness’ to the spectator, is an important feature of vision and, by extension, of visual culture, and it has contributed to the evolution of a structure of subjectivity, with specific consequences for the cultural representation of sexual difference. (14)

[…] visuality as an object of study requires that we focus on the relationship between the seen and the seer. (14)

The most obvious and relevant factor of visual ‘impurity’ is the assumption that objects mean different things in different discursive settings, a staple in art-historical thought, yet not taken to its radical consequences because of the search for beginnings and origins that plagues that discipline. (15)

If visuality is no longer a quality or feature of things, nor just a physiological phenomenon (what the eye can perceive), then it entails questioning modes of looking and the privileging of looking itself, as well as the idea that looking is based on one sense only (vision is not visual perception). (16-17)

[…] culture must be situated, polemically, between global and local, retaining the specificity of each, as between ‘art’ and ‘everyday’, but using that specificity in order to examine the ‘patterns determining the  aetiology of cultural misunderstanding’. (17)

Instead, perhaps we would be better off with a qualifier that deictically points to an undefinable-because-‘live’ domain. (18)

But ‘culture’, like visuality, cannot be pinned down by definitions, however differentiated and subtly intertwined. Instead, it can be mobilized within a number of different discourses, ‘sets of words, things, practices, beliefs and values that provide contexts of use for the construction of meaning’ (Barrett, 1991: 123–9). Hence, understanding ‘culture’ requires understanding the discourse within which the word or its derivatives, synonyms, or affiliates are used. In this view, isolating visuality according to the objects that are visual itself partakes of a strategy of domination. (19)

Any attempt to articulate goals and methods for visual culture studies must seriously engage both terms in their negativity: ‘visual’ as ‘impure’ – synaesthetic, discursive and pragmatic; and ‘culture’ as shifting, differential, located between ‘zones of culture’ and performed in practices of power and resistance. More succinctly, the negativities of our two key terms can be articulated as tensions, and tensions, while not allowing clear-cut distinctions, help specify domains even if none can be delimited. (19)

Rather than describing concrete artifacts and their provenance, as art history would do, or describing whole cultures, as anthropology would, visual culture studies must critically analyse the junctures and articulations of visual culture and undermine their naturalized persistence.40 It must focus on the sites where the objects of a – often primarily but never exclusively – visual nature intersect with the processes and practices that streamline a given culture. This immense task can only be hinted at. (21-22)

1)      […] visual culture studies should take as its primary objects of critical analysis the master narratives that are presented as natural, universal, true and inevitable, and dislodge them so that alternative narratives can become visible. (22)

2)      […] to understand some of the motivations of the prioritization of realism. The goal of the promotion of realism is to stimulate mimetic behaviour. The dominant classes set themselves and their heroes up as examples to recognize and follow, and it is barely an exaggeration to say that this interest is visible in the cult of portraiture.41 This shows the real political  interests underlying the preference for realism. It promotes transparency: the artistic quality mattered less than the faithful representation of the achiever. (22)

3)      […] to understand some of the motivations of visual essentialism, which promotes the look of the knower (Foucault) while keeping it invisible. I can think of three reasons why this task is urgent. The first is because the impervious ‘objects first’ that art history and elements in visual culture studies share distracts from the primacy of understanding; but understanding comes first, followed by the perception it guides. In this view, the relationship between individual looking and interpretive communities changes. The second is because of the gendering of vision mentioned earlier, which results from the primacy assigned to looking. And the third is because of the compelling need to expose the operations of the rhetoric of materiality. (22)

In my view, the key activity that must break through both the problematic legacy of art history and the generalizing tendencies of visual culture studies enthusiasts is  analysis. (23)

[…] the so-called empirical object not exist ‘out there’ but is brought into existence in the encounter between object and analyst, mediated by the theoretical baggage each brings to that encounter. This transforms the analysis from an instrumentalist ‘application’ into a performative interaction between object (including those of its aspects that remained invisible

before the encounter), theory and analyst. In this view, processes of interpretation are part of the object and are, in turn, questioned on the side of the analyst. (23-24)

A second, related consideration qualifies the nature of interpretive practices. In a visual culture studies that endorses – as I think it must – the  critical  task of the movement, such practices are also both method and object of questioning. This element of self-reflection is indispensable, although it is always at risk of self-indulgence and narcissism. (24)

A third principle of method is the continuity between analysis and pedagogy that results from the performative view of the former. Any activity in visual culture studies is simultaneously a moment of visual literacy education, a training in receptiveness to the object without positivistic veneration for its inherent ‘truth’. (24)

A fourth methodological principle is the historical-analytical examination of visual-cultural regimes such as embodied by the key institutions and their still-operating features. This form of historical analysis does not reify one historical state in the past but looks at the present situation as a starting point and searchlight. (25)