A Minute for an Image

Rosalind Krauss’s 1984 article “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral” restates the problem of image critique in an interesting way. She starts by describing a film series by Agnes Varda, Une minute pour une image, where a photograph is projected on the screen and a lay observer offers commentary on that image. She moves to Bourdieu’s critique of photography as a “middlebrow” art and Barthes’ response, and then discusses Cindy Sherman’s self-deconstructing work. She finishes with Arthur Penn’s aesthetic response to advertising photography, as a type of “reading” which uses the genre conventions of advertising to promote critical method. Ignoring the center, her close refers mainly to these extremes.

These two examples, we could say, operate at the two opposite poles of Photography’s relation to aesthetic discourse. But transecting the line that connects these two practices is the socio-discourse of the Varda experiment with which I began. Une minute pour une image, with its system of presenting the isolated photograph as an invitation for the viewer to project a fantasy narrative, and its abandonment of the notion of critical competence in favor of a kind of survey of popular opinion, occupies a position as far as possible from the rigors of serious criticism. But in taking that position it raises the possibility of the utter irrelevance of such criticism to the field of photography.

The specter of this possibility hangs over every writer who now wishes to consider the field of photographic production, photographic history, photographic meaning. And it casts its shadow most deeply over the critical project that has been engaged by a growing number of writers on photography as they try to find a language with which to analyze the photograph in isolation, whether on the wall of a museum, a gallery, or a lecture hall. For, they must ask themselves, in what sense can this discourse be properly sustained, in what sense can it, as critical reflection, be prolonged beyond the simple inanity of “a minute for an image”?

I wonder about that every time I read yet another inane critical piece about the underlying (hidden) cultural conditions of examples of visual rhetoric.

Technology and the Teaching of English

Written by Walter Ginsberg, instructor in the teaching of English at Teachers College, Columbia University. This paper was read in connection with the 1938 annual Thanksgiving convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, at which the Committee on the Applications of Technical Advances to English held a meeting on the theme, “Teaching English by Electricity,” and published in The English Journal Vol. 28 N. 6. (June 1939).

The striking recency and rapidity of scientific advance may be realized if we recall with Dr. M. Llewellyn Raney,distinguished director of the University of Chicago Libraries, that, although we are about half a million years removed from our simian progenitors, the beasts of the trees (notwithstanding the barbarism observable in certain parts of Europe today), the record of man's culture does not exceed four figures in years. To visualize the short span of our recorded culture, compress the 500,000 years to fifty. On this scale the printing press is just a few weeks old, Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared this morning, and the motion picture, the radio, and the photoelectric cell are matters of the last few seconds. Indeed, the scientific developments subsequent to the discovery of the electric impulse are still in their early dawn.

Only the dawn-but we are excitedly aware of technological advances already affecting the great expressional and interpretational areas of life with which our English teaching is concerned. And here we recognize that science provides us not only with the background materials so needed in the service of the present program’s contents; what is far more significant, it opens completely new spheres of experiences. We must therefore attend to the development of abilities as demanded by the new mediums of expression and comprehension —these new instruments of scientific advance.

. . .

In the field of photographic reproductions English teachers undoubtedly are familiar with the photostating of library materials and the photo-reprint method of reproducing textual and pictorial material in quantity. In 1936 the English Journal described the photo-reprint method of producing the school paper—a method that has in many places given new life, if not life for the first time, to the school paper. And in the spring of 1938 the Teachers College Bureau of Publications had occasion to make available to English teachers full-size photographic reproductions of rare illustrative Shakespearean materials. But here let me tell you about the most recent and most thrilling development of photographic reproduction— a development for our purposes really of only the last two years. Let me tell you about microphotography !

What is microphotography? It is a young genius in the miniature camera family, related to the candid camera so much in amateur vogue in that it uses the same size film, 35 mm.—also the size of the professional movie film. Books, charts, manuscripts, pictures of all kinds, are photographed on the microfilm in the form of minute stills, each occupying a "frame" of space. Eight to sixteen frames occupy a foot of this film. Thus eight to sixteen pages of a book can be placed on a foot of film at a cost varying with the library or laboratory where the work is done from about one to three cents a "frame') or page.

An entire book in microfilm literally can be carried in that much-stuffed vest pocket! Recently I inquired at the New York Public Library's newspaper division for a certain September day's copy of the New York Herald-Tribune. The attendant handed me a small container no bigger than four and one-half inches in diameter and two inches high, and said, “Here is the Tribune for the whole month of September, Sunday editions, too.” It was on microfilm, and he showed me to the nearest reading machine.

. . .

What can microphotography do for us English teachers? For one thing, it makes library walls disappear. The magic microfilm camera has penetrated the great repositories of recorded culture. Materials we could not even dream of having—the rare, the inaccessible, the cumbersome-now we can have them, arranged in proper sequence for vivid presentation to the class with the projector, and for re-examination by the individual student after class with the reading machine. Using 35-mm. strips or rolls of safety film, the libraries will copy their books and manuscripts on your demand, for your permanent possession, at a cost almost negligible.

. . .

Precursive H. G. Wells, contemplating the development of microphotography and what it means for the preservation, release, and exchange of information, exclaimed:
“It . . . . was the beginning of a world brain . . . . a sort of cerebrum for humanity . . . . which will constitute a memory and also a perception of current reality for the entire human race. . . . . In these days of destruction, violence, and general insecurity, it is comforting to think that the brain of man-kind, the race brain, can exist in numerous identical replicas throughout the world. . . . “
Mr. Wells’ imagination was excited by the possibilities of microphotography for intellectual progress. Let your own imagination play a bit upon the possibilities, if not for the intellectual progress of all mankind, then for the progress and enrichment of the work in English teaching. Let your imagination play, and soon you will be fashioning applications that will excite you tremendously. How can we achieve the fullest values of the remarkable development in photographic reproduction? I propose that the National Council of Teachers of English—perhaps through the Committee on the Applications of Technical Advances to English—explore needs, prepare materials, co-ordinate efforts of specialists, and perform all the functions of leadership in a co-operative service to English teachers.

Alert English teaching, with its active awareness of radio and motion pictures and other scientific developments, seems far from the danger of becoming out of date. However, any cognizance of the applications of scientific advances to the teaching of English surely must include the tremendous possibilities of microphotography.

Good Pictures

Chapter IX from The Science and Practice of Photography by John R. Roebuck, Ph.D. (1918).

124. A picture is a representation of a three-dimensional on a two-dimensional plane. It is a representation, not the thing itself, and as such it is necessarily a counterfeit or an imitation. Truth or untruth in a picture has therefore a very special meaning, in fact truth is determined by how far the picture fills the purpose of the worker. A photographic surveyor desires pictures which shall be accurate geometric projections of the subject showing every detail near and far. For him the truth is determined by how far his pictures fulfill these requirements. On the other hand a portrait of a familiar person has to represent for us a variety of changing attitudes and expressions, and a detailed delineation of one momentary condition may satisfy this desire to some extent, but the probabilities are very much against it serving well as a picture in which the rendering is less complete because the delineation is then not so sharply one mood and because we do not remember the fine details as a rule so well as the general effect. There is hardly a professional portrait made which is not retouched. That is a portrait is to be judged on the basis of suggestion of the person pictured. (195-196)

I am becoming increasingly attracted to comparing the structures asserted in the writing on photographic composition with language. This is a very unpopular stance, critically. But it just seems a more productive approach than insisting that language and visual materials are inherently incompatible in structure and function. While the match is far from perfect, I think there are more congruencies than significant differences, especially if the definition of language is broadened to encompass non-verbal structures. Following Saussure, the distinction asserted by Roebuck can be mapped on the axis of relative motivation and arbitrariness. It seems pertinent to me, though somewhat tricky. According to Saussure, to match these aspects to general characteristics in language is sound in principle:

In one sense—this must not be pressed too far, but it brings out one aspect of the contrast—a distinction could be drawn between lexicological languages, in which the absence of motivation reaches a maximum, and grammatical languages, in which it falls to a minimum. This is not to imply that “lexical” and “arbitrary” are always synonymous, or “grammar” and “relative motivation” either. But they go together in principle. There are, one might say, two opposite poles towards which the whole system is drawn, or two contrary currents sweeping through it. On the one hand there is a tendency to use lexicological means which favors the unmotivated sign. On the other hand, there is a tendency to use grammatical means, which favors regular construction. (Course in General Linguistics 183)
Though it may seem counterintuitive, it seems to me that the “geometric rendering” alluded to by Roebuck is arbitrary in nature. Though they are concrete, photographic “elements” constructed through purely optical correspondences (resemblances) are founded on a complex series of chemical and optical responses which have been arbitrarily designated as “accurate” within the parameters of a system. They are perhaps best compared with “lexical” elements of a photographic “language.” The second type of photograph is relatively motivated in that it seeks to promote a similitude with psychological and social components. To say that this aspect of photographic language is “grammatical” in nature assumes that the individual and social character it plays upon has a structure. Relatively motivated signs, according to Saussure, are derivative of other components in language. Saussure uses the example of etymologically derived words whose meanings can be traced to prior meanings within the language system. Languages are never completely arbitrary, for they have derivational elements. But derived elements always reference a necessarily arbitrary sign structure.

Roebuck’s “two classes of pictures” seems to effectively describe the relationship between arbitrary and relatively motivated signs— between resemblance and similitude:

125. In a general way pictures may be divided into two classes:

(a) Record Pictures, where the aim is a geometrical rendering of the subject. Pictures of this class are of the very greatest importance, particularly in all scientific work. The purpose makes this class include the great majority of amateur photographs taken as records of persons and places, and also the great majority of portraits. There is no doubt that this purpose is the predominant one in the vast majority of pictures, and the world could much better afford to lose the second class than this one.

(b) Pictorial Pictures, where the essential purpose is to attract, arouse, and generally please the beholder, not so much by the particular scene pictured as by the idea suggested. As such they appeal to the imagination, and to attain their purpose it is not at all necessary that the object forming the actual subject be suggested by the finished picture. In this class are to be placed many paintings and a small proportion of photographs. Any liberties with geometry, with the lighting, with the color, are justified by aiding toward the object sought. It must be noted however that such liberties must be handled in a masterly way or they have an effect very different from that intended.

While these two purposes should be clearly distinguished and acknowledged in their extreme examples, there are relatively few pictures which come only in one class. The first ideal of the young photographer, and also of the early school of photography, is the record photograph, and so well understood is this ideal and so useful that only a few unbalanced “Art” workers try to belittle it. But the worker soon observes that while equally good records, some of his photographs are more pleasing, are turned to oftener, and are exhibited to his friends. He begins to work for these effects as well as for the original record purpose, and he hence begins to include the ideas of the second class. The great majority of workers never give-up precedence of their first purpose, and a study of the mass of pictures of those who have makes it seem well that it should be so. Very few of us have the temperament or time to be artists, but we can often recognize and appreciate good imaginative work; while botched work of this kind is an even more serious offense to the ordinary man than to the artist who sympathizes more readily with its aim and who understands its difficulty. This chapter is written for the ordinary worker who is progressing sufficiently with the straight record work that he desires to include as far as possible more of the somewhat more intangible features which make some pictures more pleasing than others. (196-198)

The progression marked by Roebuck is a progression from the concrete to the abstract, from resemblance to similitude. However, it is also a move from the arbitrary rendering of a scene to the more grammatical social construction of “Art.” In a sense, it is a move from a basic language to a more sophisticated one. The language model seems to match the pattern of photographic instruction in the early twentieth century quite well.

Robert Capa, A Russian Journal, 1948.
There was one woman, with an engaging face and a great laugh, whom Capa picked out for a portrait. She was the village wit. She said, “I am not only a great worker, I am twice widowed, and many men are afraid of me now.” She shook a cucumber in the lens of Capa’s camera.

And Capa said, “Perhaps you’d like to marry me now?”

She rolled back her head and howled with laughter. “Now you, look!” she said. “If God had consulted the cucumber before he made man, there would be less unhappy women in the world.” The whole field rolled with laughter at Capa. (78)
Robert Capa, A Russian Journal, 1948.

This usage of photographs seems to me to demonstrate what Saussure termed “relatively motivated” signs. The presence of the photographs, while not essential to the text, are clearly motivated by it. The way that the photographs are “read” is certainly motivated by the textual component. We impose an order on them which matches the text. They are not arbitrary.

Everything which has to do with language as systems needs to be approached, we are convinced, with a view to examining the limits of arbitrariness. It is an approach which linguists have neglected. But it offers the best possible basis for linguistic studies. For the entire linguistic system is founded upon the irrational principle that the sign is arbitrary. Applied without restriction, this principle would lead to utter chaos. But the mind succeeds in introducing a principle of order and regularity into certain areas in the mass of signs. That is the role of relative motivation. . . .

There exists no language in which nothing at all is motivated. Even to conceive of such a language is impossible by definition. Between the two extremes—minimum of organization and minimum of arbitrariness—all possible varieties are found. Languages always exhibit features of both kinds—intrinsically arbitrary and relatively motivated—but in varying proportions. (Course in General Linguistics 182-183)

Robert Capa, A Russian Journal, 1948.
The young girls danced together. They wore bright print dresses, and headcloths of colored silk and wool, and their feet were almost invariably bare. And they danced with fury. The music had a rapid beat, accentuated by drum and cymbal. The bare feet beat the floor. The boys stood around and watched.

We asked a girl why she did not dance with the boys. She said, “They are good for marrying but there are so few of them since the war that a girl only gets into trouble when she dances with them. Besides, they are very bashful.” And then she laughed and went back to her dancing.

There were so few of them, young men of marriageable age. There were very young boys, but the men who should have been there dancing with the girls were dead.

The energy of these girls was unbelievable. All day they had been working in the fields, since daylight in fact, and yet after one hour of sleep they were prepared to dance all night. The men at the chess tables played on, unmoved and unbothered by the noise that went on around them.

John Steinbeck Russian Diary 98-99 (1948)

Rules of the Game

Capa’s photograph seems relatively uncalculated when compared to Steinbeck’s prose. The awkward framing, and its slight dissonance from the description that adjoins it does not amplify the prose as much as it provides a sort of center from which Steinbeck’s prose launches more assuredly in a calculated series of moves. First, there is the description. Then, an offered explanation. Next, the political reflection. And finally, the emotional punctuation which marks the difference between men and women. Saussure compares the structure of language with a game of chess:

The language is a system which admits no order other than its own. This can be brought out by the comparison with a game of chess. In the case of chess, it is relatively easy to distinguish between what is external and what is internal. The fact that chess came from Persia to Europe is an external fact, whereas everything that concerns the system and its rules is internal. If pieces made from ivory are substituted for pieces made of wood, the change makes no difference to the system. But if the number of pieces is diminished or increased, that is a change which profoundly affects the “grammar” of the game. Care must none the less be taken when drawing distinctions of this kind. In each case, the question to be asked concerns the nature of the phenomenon. The question must be answered in accordance with the following rule. Everything is internal which alters the system in any degree whatsoever. (Course in General Linguistics 43)
The presence of the photograph on the page alters the reading of the text in subtle ways here, but as the proliferation of images in printed material has become a given, the ability of the image to substitute for the description is perhaps the first alteration of the language system. Considered in this aspect, images do not follow their own internal “logic and affordances” as Kress claims, but rather the grammar and structure of the language they supplement. They cease to follow their own rules, but rather adopt the rules of other discursive games.

It seems productive, in my opinion, to consider the presence of images on the page as an internal rather than external aspect of language.

Language and Vision

Language and vision, it seems, are intimately connected, an idea promoted by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who argued that the process of differentiation at work in the act of looking occurs with the emergence of language itself. Language is not a mould into which pre-existing ideas or concepts fit but a system of signs that actually constructs these ideas, dividing them up and attributing a sound to them. There are, then, no values outside of language but only those constituted by the system itself, in a signs negative difference from every other sign. Thus, we recognize a dog as a dog because it is not a cat, a bird, a jellyfish, and so on. Without language, Saussure asserts, ideas as well as sounds would be an indistinguishable continuum. And so with vision. Biologically, one might have the capacity to look, just has one has the ability to make noises, but this is different from the ability to make things intelligible, to make meanings. We have to learn to see because otherwise we could not make sense of the visual; the specular field would be the undifferentiated continuum described by Saussure.

There is a sense, therefore, in which looking is always a type of reading because it involves interpreting what is seen. (Julia Thomas, “Introduction,” Reading Images, 2001)

I find little in Saussure to support Julia Thomas’s reading. It is not so much that I disagree with her assertions, it’s just that Saussure seldom talks about vision at all. I’ve been going through the Course in General Linguistics in great detail hoping to see where such support might be marshaled, but it doesn’t appear to be there. I wish she would have referenced specific passages where she sees this connection. Instead, I am left with other distinctions in Saussure that seem more pertinent to my perception that applying his structuralist approach uncritically misses important distinctions between language and vision.

The parallel which Thomas seeks to expose is a concept of the visual as a form of “code”—the same distinction wrestled with by Roland Barthes, which he ultimately answered in the negative. Barthes claimed that images are “without code,” all the while proceeding to decode them in terms of their socially constructed denotations. The difference, I think, according to both Barthes and Thomas, is more a matter of degree. It is this aspect that Saussure deals with extensively in his lectures on the arbitrary nature of sign systems, as well as his distinction between motivated and unmotivated signs.

Saussure disputes the view taken by an American linguist, Whitney, who “regards languages as social institutions on exactly the same footing as other social institutions . . . Man, in his view, might well have chosen to use gestures, thus substituting visual images for sound patterns” (26). The definition of “language” offered by Saussure circumscribes and severs language from considerations of sensual apparatus. Language is “a system of distinct signs corresponding to distinct ideas” (26, emphasis mine). Saussure rapidly expands this into considerations of articulation and therefore, the sequential nature of language processing. The inevitable connection between language and institutions is elaborated on in successive lectures, but the central concern of Saussure is the separation of the “code” of language from the surrounding contexts of sensual processing and social currency as the most proper area of inquiry for linguistic study. The relationship between linguistics and sensual apparatus is such that linguistics cannot inform physiology (as Thomas suggests by saying “we have to learn to see because otherwise we could not make sense of the visual”), but rather physiology informs linguistics. The social relation, however, is reciprocal. This, according to Saussure, is what makes any inquiry into language difficult from conventional perspectives:

In the first place, there is the superficial view taken by the general public, which sees language merely as a nomenclature. This view stifles any inquiry into linguistic structure.

Then there is the viewpoint of the psychologist, who studies the mechanism of the sign in the individual. This is the most straightforward approach, but it takes us no further than the individual execution. It does not even take us as far as the linguistic sign itself, which is social by nature.

Even when due recognition is given to the fact that the sign must be studied as a social phenomenon, attention is restricted to those features of language which they share with institutions mainly established by voluntary decision. In this way, the investigation is diverted from its goal. It neglects those characteristics which belong only to semiological systems in general, and to languages in particular. For the sign always to some extent eludes control by the will, whether of the individual or of society: that is its essential nature even though it may not be obvious at first sight. (34)

The nature of inquiry into language is, in Saussure’s view, necessarily separate from considerations of sensual apparatus, separate from a purely psychological inquiry into reception, and separate from an inquiry into social phenomenon. Distinctions regarding the arbitrary nature of signs made by Saussure seem to be quite important to me, particularly the difference between motivated and unmotivated signs. But that will have to be continued in another post.

The main thing I struggle with is a means of separating the inquiry into visual sign systems from psychology and sociology in some meaningful way. In the case of photographs, they do not neatly map out as an “articulated” sign system. Images preserve components of social articulation, but are not by necessity articulated in and of themselves. This is the same problem that Barthes wrestled with, and I do not think it has been resolved so that it might be neatly explained, or productively reduced merely by saying that “language and vision” are intimately connected. The elusive nature of the sign is not easily reduced.

The color of Christmas is beautifully captured by means of Kodachrome Film (Type A) and a few well-placed lights. How to Make Good Pictures, 1943.


There is no interpretive practice without theory, and the more sophisticated the theory, the more precise and perceptive the reading it makes possible. (x)

Catherine Belsey “General editor’s introduction” Reading Images (2001)

I’ve been puzzling over this bit for a while, partly because of discussions with Amy. The truth of the assertion pivots on the definition of “interpretive practice.” Belsey’s claim cannot be applied to ordinary language. We do not, in my opinion, walk around with theories in our head in order to interpret an utterance as simple as “ignore me.” While a sophisticated theory can assign multiple values to a simple assertion, in order to interpret the meaning of this statement we need no recourse to theory. There is a presumption in the application of theory that we are talking about value rather than meaning. Utterances carry with them a social currency (value) that is contingent on meaning.

However, the terms are interdependent. Meaning, in terms of a concept which may be interchanged with a word assigning it “proper” meaning, exists within a system of values. As Saussure puts it:

If those other values disappeared, this meaning too would vanish. If I say simply that a certain word means this or that—going no further than identifying the concept associated with that particular sound pattern—then what I am saying may in some respects be accurate, and succeed in giving a correct picture. But I fail inevitably to capture the real linguistic fact, either in its basic essentials or in its full scope. (Course in General Linguistics 116)
It seems possible to speak of a certain presumption that words mean what they say (interpreted necessarily by a person who hears or reads them), and a slightly different presumption that the network of meanings which surround them should be interpreted more carefully through the lens of theory. I interpret the “correct picture” alluded to by Saussure in this way. In the case of ordinary language interpretation, words are often translated into action without the intervention of theory—If I understand the imperative, then I will act. “Ignore me” is of course counterfactual. Few readers would stop at that point and cease to continue. Instead, they read the statement in context with the rest of the assertions. To do so is not to apply a “theory” as much as it is to construct a more complex model of the “message” which lies beyond the constraints of that particular moment in discourse. The relation between word and action is not reducible to the specific “meaning” of any particular word, but its essential value assigned to it relative to a larger discourse, often arrived at without the interference of theory.

Identifying the “full scope” of a particular meaning necessarily involves a paraphrase which implicates theory. The sum of these paraphrases do not constitute the meaning either. There is a surplus which evades explication. They merely isolate particular values within the discourse, generally from a presumed position mistakenly taken as objective. I think it is erroneous to hypostatize this position as being a particular “site” of interpretation. Like the ordinary language example, this position is relative to a presumed response from the interpretation constructed to fit a model of discourse. Without models, we are paralyzed, in either case. Language without action is meaningless. But the models we construct are dynamic. Theories are formed, aggregated, and discarded in an overwhelming desire to make meaning.

I think models are central to interpretive practice. Theories, well, I’m not so sure. Can sophisticated theory be more precise? I think it can only be precise when compared to a very specific model. As Thomas Sebeok describes it:

All organisms communicate by use of models (Umwelts, or self-worlds, each according to its species-specific sense organs), from the simplest representations of maneuvers of approach and withdrawal to the most sophisticated cosmic theories of Newton and Einstein. It would be well to recall that Einstein originally constructed his model of the universe out of nonverbal sings, “of visual and some of muscular type.” As he wrote to a colleague in 1945: “The words or the language as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play a role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in my thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined.” Later, “only in a secondary stage,” after long and hard labor to transmute his nonverbal construct into “conventional words and other signs,” was he able to communicate it to others. (Signs 23)

To position theory as essential to interpretation seems to be a mistake. However, the way that theories proliferate surrounding models— as presumptive interpretive practice— seems fascinating.

Elemental and Elementary

I’ve been looking at an anthology called Reading Images edited by Julia Thomas (2001). I ordered it by mistake. It mostly contains material I’ve read before (Foucault on the panopticon, Barthes from Camera Lucida, etc.)— pretty elementary stuff in contemporary approaches to visual theory. Reading Images is part of the “Readers in Cultural Criticism” series whose general editor is Catherine Belsey. I hadn’t encountered her before. The first line in the “general editor’s preface” stopped me in my tracks:

Culture is the element we inhabit as subjects (ix).
Belsey goes on to explain what she means by “subjects” pretty clearly, but she leaves the term “element” mostly undefined. It made me think—a lot.

Usually, I think of “element” as something physical with an irreducible component—the chemical definition. Obviously, Belsey doesn’t really mean it in this sense because the process of cultural criticism is to tease out those “elements” present in culture that interact and convey meaning. She doesn’t write culture is an element. She writes culture is the element. The usage seems to be quasi-metaphorical; some properties or implications of the term “element” are projected upon the subject “culture”—a form of source-target mapping. If this is the case, then what properties or implications of “element” are involved? While it would be easy to say that culture is elemental it is harder to say that culture can be nominalized as the element we inhabit.

However, to nominalize culture seems exactly what Belsey goes on to do. “Culture is the location of values, the study of cultures shows how values vary from one culture to another, or from one historical moment to the next.” Here, culture is a site which dynamically varies over time. “Culture does not exist in the abstract”—it is concrete and textual. However, this is paradoxical if one transfers another set of implications from the term elemental that she encourages by emphasizing the transitory nature. The “element” of culture can also be mapped as analogous to the concept of weather—the wind and rain are elements as well. Though they exist in nominal form, their true definition is one of transition or action. This, I think, fits Belsey’s usage better than a chemical definition.

”Culture is the atmosphere which we inhabit that acts upon us as subjects” is yet another metaphor that might be offered as paraphrase. I think it matches fairly well with her group of assertions:

If culture is pervasive and constitutive for us, if it resides in the documents, objects, and practices that surround us, if it circulates as the meanings and values we learn and reproduce as good citizens, how in these circumstances can we practice cultural criticism, where criticism implies a certain distance between the critic and the culture? The answer is that cultures are not homogeneous; they are not even necessarily coherent. (ix)
I think that the metaphor of cultural criticism as a sort of meteorology is fairly productive. What meteorology doesn’t study is why we like some types of weather and don’t like others. Though cultural criticism studies values in transition, it does not offer much to establish why those values might be preferred beyond a sort of comfortable look out the window at the landscape beyond being bombarded by changing values. The homogeneity and comfort of the viewer’s position is fixed from their room with a view—the place from which they write.

This seems like an elementary proposition.

Theory, Gender, Blah Blah

I’ve become increasingly reclusive online and discussions like this one are one reason why. I’ve never done a gender breakdown on my data sample (hundreds of blogs listed here, hundreds looked at occasionally through bloglines). Mainly, because I know my preferences. Most of the “academics” I read regularly are women—in fact, the percentage is probably something like 90%. Most of the men I read are ex-academics. Overall though, on the average I’d probably guess that the blogs I read most often are probably about 75% women. I haven’t got a clue what the real percentages out there are, and I don’t really care. I do know, however, that I like women. I’ve never thought of it as a gender bias per se, but more a matter of “thoughtstyle.” Most men are boorish, although many women are too. I know that my perception is probably based on skewed life experiences and doesn’t really reflect an real and accurate appraisal of “data”—that’s why they call things like this opinions.

Calling yourself an “academic” doesn’t mean you automatically lose opinions and gain objectivity. The abstract speculation that George’s post cites is part and parcel of constructing theoretical models. It doesn’t create facts; experiments or data collection are done to further abstract speculation, otherwise, what would be the point? Imagining that you enter into a study with no opinions is pretty pompous and arrogant if you ask me (but no one did). However, drawing conclusions based on abstract speculation is worse than that—it’s downright stupid. Blah blah blah.

There, I’ve said it. I have always avoided saying anything about the “gender gap” stuff as it flies around incessantly. I want no part of the “boy’s club” and I lack the requisite equipment to be part of the “girls club.” Ultimately, I would be seriously suspicious of any club that would have me as a member. I find gender theory fascinating because of the way that it deals with issues of representation. I think it makes a really strong contribution to theoretical modeling. Such theories automatically abstractly speculate that there is a difference, otherwise the theory wouldn’t exist at all. But theory doesn’t impact the choices I make in writing or reading in any meaningful way— though it does impact the things I choose to study. I read people I like. Of course, that’s just an opinion.


I’ve been trying to process a lot of material from a variety of sources and theories lately. My natural tendency is to want to sort of smooth the rough edges and make them fit together in a meaningful way. I’m forever trying to compose. What usually happens is that when I try to fit things together into a meaningful argument, I find that the edges don’t really fit and I have to force them. The last few years have left me well convinced of a few things, and it is so frustrating trying to translate what I see in all this into something that I can write.

It’s easier to be creative. You don’t have to worry about answers or rebuttals. What you’ve done is simply present in the world of things. People can read as much or as little as they like into the underlying structure. Creation isn’t totally centered on communication—it’s about making things, not describing or explaining them. You don’t have to convince, you only have to persuade people to look.

When I was a kid, and perhaps all the way into my thirties, I would get a particular phrase stuck in my head: “I thought I saw something.” It was like a bit of a poem that I just couldn’t let go of, and the line never turned into anything meaningful for me in either prose or poetry. But I’d wake up in the night and think, “I thought I saw something.” I feel that way again, but now it’s different. I read and re-read essays and books, and think that I’ve seen something in there that caught me like a flash. It seems to take the form of a necessary connection that no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to get to work. When I just talk about it, I can be really persuasive. Some people seem to think I’m going somewhere with it. But then it just sort of drifts away when I write and get lost in the minutiae of it all. For the last two years, it’s seemed like a definitional problem.

I was more than a little surprised to find out two years ago that they had given a name to the pudding I wrestle with—they call it visual rhetoric. There are only two problems with that label—the visual part, and the rhetoric part. What I am most interested in are images which have a “reference” rather than a purely symbolic value. Visual is too broad a word to describe the relatively narrow field of images that interest me. I couldn’t call it photography either—because the work of most photographers doesn’t interest me. It’s a very narrow subset that I’d like to talk about—not necessarily amateur, not necessarily artistic, not necessarily scientific either. I have in my head a certain “model” of the features that matter most to me. “Language photography,” as Chris Sullivan names it, comes closest.

Then there is the rhetoric part. While the term most often interchanged with rhetoric is persuasion, I’m actually most interested in what C.S. Peirce labeled “speculative rhetoric” or methodeutic. He classed this under the normative sciences rather than the humanist pursuits. It is the aspect of science that studies interpretation rather than reference. But it is not interchangeable with hermeneutics. The aim of Peirce’s methodeutic is to know how meaning is constructed through interpretation, rather than the humanistic goal of hermeneutics to describe and explain how meaning is constructed. I want to know how some images can convince us of things rather than purely persuade. This can also be labeled as visual argument, though I’m not entirely sure if that fits well either.

This distinction which I can’t really describe well is built from an innate resistance to “cultural studies.” I feel like they have their place, but if I read one more article that purports to reveal the hidden “base” or ideology behind a particular image (especially amateur or documentary ones) through a pointless exercise in materialist hermeneutics I think I’ll cry. Or, if I read one more utopian proclamation about the ability of the visual to transcend the limits of language, I’ll probably hurl. It’s far easier to just make images than to talk about them in any really meaningful way. I mainly want to know how images work to communicate things that we can’t really communicate any other way.

I don’t see an intractable gulf between word and image. Instead, I see a generative space where things happen in fascinating and miraculous ways. It seems strikingly similar to what Grice called “implicature.” Implicatures are not entirely relative or arbitrary. We read things into images because we are predisposed to. There is inevitably a social and contextual component to this as well as a perceptual one. None of these parts are reducible to the others and they do not explain each other. There are also preferred interpretations which are dependent on both of these factors. The perceptual, in the sense that I use it, is intensely personal and not reducible to the circumstances of an image’s production.

Marguerite Helmers and Charles Hill introduce the essay collection “Defining Visual Rhetorics” by saying, regarding the definitional terms:

Our own assumptions behind this approach are two-fold: First, any discussion of definitions from which one is operating is necessarily post-hoc; that is, one discovers such definitional assumptions through the work, rather than explicating them (even to oneself) before approaching a scholarly project. Second, at this very early stage in the contemporary study of visual rhetoric, we assume people are more interested in writing about or reading about specific scholarly projects than in lengthy arguments about definitions. (x)
I have several problems with this. First, in deciding what one will research, one has already picked a set of data that they want to look at. This is a definition of sorts. To talk meaningfully about a particular data-set, one must have some sort of “model” of what the data represents to construct theories about it. That is also a form of definition. I also wonder what planet they are from if they think that the inquiry into visual rhetoric is new? The only thing new about it is the terms, and the cluster of concepts around those terms (largely inherited from cultural theory) that most rhetoricians choose to write about.

I’ve been intensely querying my own definitions for several years now. The data-set I have chosen is too broad, at this point. As my definitions narrow, so will my data-set. It seems positively ludicrous to think otherwise. But I’m getting tired of thinking and writing about definitions. Simply put, “I think I see something.” It would be easier to make more pictures. Arriving at a meaningful way of talking about what I see is the hardest part.

About Me

Weekly Archives

Recent Comments
My Research Sites

Research Notes

check it out

More Links


Technorati Profile
Movable Type 5.01