“Visuality” is “an old term for an old project,” Nicholas Mizroeff claims (Right to Look 2). Originating in the discourse of military theorists in the eighteenth century who needed to imagine mastery of a complex battlefield, the term was coined by historian Thomas Carlyle in 1840 to describe a great man as one who could “visualize history as it happens” and maintain his authority through imaginative rather than material means (Mizroeff, Visual Culture Reader xxx). More recently, visuality studies has moved toward more explicit interrogation of “that which authority wishes to conceal” and the pursuit of activism at local and global levels (xxx). Mizroeff’s identification of three major “complexes of visuality”—the plantation complex, the imperial complex, and the military–industrial complex—along with the diverse examples of global visuality studies in the third edition of The Visual Culture Reader (2013) further mark the distance between “critical visuality studies” and the study of art history.1
Located at the intersection of the “old project” of exposing coloniality and ongoing decolonial projects that approach images and visual media as rich archival material for shaping new western futures, “visuality” has become a keyword in Western American literary studies because it specifies a flexible and interdisciplinary method for exploring the geopolitical, social, cultural, and aesthetic dimensions of vision. Visuality operates as an interface between theoretical and political concepts of place and the many visual cultural practices that have shaped these concepts; as it provides a critical means of linking aesthetic and ethical concerns, it raises a series of questions vital to the field: Can attention to the politics of vision and spatial representation accomplish “a shift in the geo-and body-politics of knowledge” (Mignolo 92)? How could we (re)locate [End Page 91] practices of seeing in place and in the body and thus “insist on the embodied nature of all vision” (Haraway 356)? How do visual forms of expression wield affective power?
Engaging visuality as a critical practice in western American literary studies means, first, contending with colonial ways of seeing time and space. Our collective work has investigated histories of image production, circulation, and reception in relation to the spatial imaginaries of settler colonialism, paying close attention to the gaps, distortions, and discontinuities between image and reality, “timeless” claims and historical contingencies. If imagining any place requires integrating “information, images, and ideas,” as Mizroeff describes the process of visualization (Right to Look 2), critical interventions into regional imaginaries require disaggregating those elements. Amy T. Hamilton and Tom Hilliard’s Before the West Was West, for example, investigates the deep cartographic and conceptual roots of the West prior to the nineteenth century, the time when the “American West” took shape; this important collection of essays reveals how the West “is a triangulation of a place of earth, a moment in time, and an act of visualization” (11).
Scholars in our field continue to recalibrate the concept of visuality along many spatial and temporal scales, exploring how it works in between and in conjunction with local and global networks. Many recent studies expose and interrogate imperial and colonial practices of mapping at macro and micro levels: along vast stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border (Irwin; Cox); beyond the confines of the grid system (Campbell, “Critical Regionalism”); across and beneath the Great Plains (Maher); within the network of acequias in northern New Mexico (deBuys; Lynch); throughout the tribal lands seized and renamed by white settlers (Goeman). Such located scholarship puts practices of visualizing the US West in relation and in motion, unsettling their origins and revealing social and environmental crises otherwise overlooked.2
“Pop culture immediately raises questions of mobility and assumptions about mobility” Krista Comer has argued, and recent critical work in television and film studies asks which visual Wests circulate and how widely. Morta Las Vegas by Nathaniel Lewis [End Page 92] and Stephen Tatum spins a single episode of CSI into a series of questions about the nature of western identity and postregional space, working at the interface between screen and city. Joanna Hearne’s Native Recognition shows how Native directors, actors, and writers have worked to reclaim the power of visual media and...