Why visuality? Why now? The rapid rise and accompanying volatility of Visual Studies as a field of study invites commentary in its own right, even before one stakes out a scholarly position relative to it. W. J. T. Mitchell has described the purpose of Visual Studies as an interdisciplinary attempt to “show seeing.”1 As such, Visual Studies is not the study of images in a “high culture” tradition such as Art History, nor does it, as Semiotics permitted us to do, circumvent “high art/low art” distinctions by viewing everything as a sign. By thinking of Visual Studies as “showing seeing,” we hint at its two most salient features: dynamism, something that is moving even as we study it, and meta-visual analysis— not what something looks like, or appears to be, or signifies, but how it can be said to be visible at all, and to what extent it “looks” as we look, or is “seen” only because of the particular way it empowers or disempowers us to “see.”
The implications of this cross sociological, anthropological, economical and literary boundaries and might genuinely be regarded as “transdisciplinary.” Visual Studies is also, and at the same time, the study of how things become invisible, or how things become “things” at all—how they can be differentiated from their surroundings in order to be seen as distinct from them. Who looks? Who is observed? Who witnesses? Who spies? It was Foucault who told us power is everywhere and nowhere, but it is Visual Studies that offers a way to anatomize this observation further. How do we designate “background” from “foreground” at all? What are the political implications for the way we do so? The social? The psychological? The economical? Visual Studies is trans-disciplinary because it “shows” us how we see in order to show “seeing” as a social construction. But as Mitchell also warns, the “social construction of the visual field has [End Page 78] to be continuously replayed as the visual construction of the social field, an invisible screen or lattice-work of apparently unmediated figures that makes the effects of mediated images possible” (166). In other words, what must remain unseen in order for something to be seen? Under what condition will this “unseen” become visible? With what effect on the previously “seen”? The emphasis is not on the claim of “seeing” or “the image” we claim to have seen, but on the conditions of possibility that underlie what allows something to be comprehended as “visual” at all.
As we move on from the particular concerns of Visual Studies, the notion of “visual culture” challenges the idea of “seeing” as a series of isolated encounters between a discrete subject looking, and a discreet object being looked upon. As Irit Rogoff notes, “in the arena of visual culture the scrap of an image connects with a sequence of a film and with the corner of a billboard or the window display of a shop we have passed by, to produce a new narrative formed out of both the outer experienced journey and our unconscious.”2 Of course, this description betrays its reliance on the historical context of technology developed in modernity to bestow the very visual complexity that makes Visual Studies necessary (film, billboards, window display). The sense of the visual as always circulating, always in constant motion, suggests why Visual Studies is different from art history, cinema studies, or semiotics: it is an attempt to anatomize the kinesis of differentiating visual phenomena from the equally ceaseless flux of visual stimulation in urban modernity.
Everything in modernity circulates, so what does it mean to say the visual circulates? Merely that a pattern of visual circulation is discernable, but only from the presumable fixed point of view of the presumably coherent subject. Perhaps the arc that Visual Studies seeks to chart is the one from undifferentiated and competing visual stimulus to the moment of awareness of an “image”: in other words, the “moment” the mind is arrested in the presence of something that differentiates itself by virtue of having arrested the mind. It was the pioneering...