Seeing Beyond Belief: Cultural Studies as an Approach to the Study of the Visual
Martin Lister and Liz Wells
The study of visual culture cannot be confined to the study of images, but should also take account of the centrality of vision on everyday experience and the production of meaning. (Mirzoeff, 1998; Rogoff, 1988)
We approach images as part of what has been described as "the circuit of culture"(du Gay, 1997). Each one can be thought of as "passing" through a number of moments and its passage through each contributes to the meanings – plural, not singular – which it has and may have. In short, they are socially produced, distributed and consumed; within this cycle there are processes of transformation taking place and also of struggle and contest over what they mean and how they are used.
Main check list of the main features of the analysis in the article:
- We are interested in the image's social life and its history.
- We look at images within the cycle of production, circulation and consumption through which their meanings are accumulated and transformed.
- We pay attention to an image's specific material properties (its "artifactualness"), and through the "medium" and the technologies it is realized (here, as photographs).
- While recognizing the material properties of the images we see these as intertwined with the active social process of "looking" and the historically specific forms of "visuality" in which this takes place.
- We understand images as representations, the outcomes of a process of attaching ideas to the giving meaning to our experience of the world. With care and qualification, much can be gained by thinking of this process as a language-like activity – conventional systems which, in the manner of codes, convey a meaning within a sign using community.
- We temper point 5 with the recognition that our interest in images and other visual experiences (and, indeed, lived in material cultural forms) cannot be reduced to the question of "meaning" and the intellectual process involved in coding and decoding, As human beings and as the members of a culture, we also have a sensuous, pleasure-seeking interest in looking at and feeling "the world" including the media that we have put in it.
- We recognize that "looking" is always embodied and undertaken by someone with identity. In this sense, there is not neutral looking. An image's or thing's significance is finally its significance for some-body and some-one. However, as points 1 to 6 indicate, this cannot be any old significance, a matter of complete relativism.
- Context of Viewing
- Context of Production
- Looking: Form and Meaning
- Pictorial Conventions
- Semiotics and codes – Pierce: arbitrary and indexical signs; code – an extended system of signs which operates like a language
- Photographic conventions – framing, gaze, lighting, context, camera position
The size of the photograph and the rituals of looking at photographs in galleries are likely to distance us from or bring us close to the actual object.
- Social Conventions
- Power and photographic conventions – the frame, depth of the field, quality of the light; the moment chosen by the photograph - can add a narrative element to the picture: something happening outside of the space and the moment of the photograph to which it nevertheless alludes.
- Looking: Recognition and Identity – the viewing position as voyeuristic; the viewer exercises a controlling gaze: the way tourists look at non-Western worlds, the way men look often at women! – pleasure in looking was constructed around the active male look (Mulvey, 1975)