Elkins, Visual Studies

James. Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction. New York: Routledge,

Elkins presents a "skeptical introduction" to the field of visual studies,
an emerging discipline he estimates to be ten years old (c. 1992). In
addition to presenting visual studies in the context of visual culture, cultural
studies, and art history, Elkins issues a call to make visual studies more
. Making it harder, he contends, will also make it more
. Elkins attributes the label "visual studies" to W.J.T.
Mitchell, whose Picture Theory explained a "pictorial turn."
Pushing his argument for rigor and risk as needed changes for visual studies,
Elkins also argues for six competencies (c. 4). Visual studies, in
Elkins’ view, takes root in the humanities and tends to be interdisciplinary,
but it can do much more to include sciences and non-art images
(173). The "conceptual disarray" and programmatic confusion in
visual studies is cause for concern, no matter how well we understand its
multiple causes. The kind of visual studies that Elkins favors for standalone
academic programs assumes a vested interest in methods (in addition to
) and moves beyond the common dichotomy in visual culture between
and avante-garde art.

Elkins explains that the high and low designations well-known in
studies of art present problems for visual studies (solutions: 45-62). The
most common figures for the field are Barthes, Benjamin, Foucault, and Lacan
(33). In his list of conundrums (or precepts for making visual studies
more rigorous), he lists casual citation as a concern (33, 101). In his
discussion of visual literacy (c. 4), he says that writing and pictures must be
kept separate, as names for different and that visual literacy involves a
"reflective sense" (128).

Elkins also makes the cogent point that methods in the humanities tend
to seek out complexity or, that is, prefer complexity and hybridity in
research (112).

Ten conundrums (program notes for making visual studies more difficult,

  1. The Case of the Calvin Klein Suit: In What Sense is Visual Culture
    ? (66)
    Marx; problem of unveiling as a desirable end.
  2. The Case of the Poor Schoolteacher: When Visual Studies Is Self-Evident
    Adorno’s "hidden meanings," "how hidden are the hidden meanings scholarship
    uncovers?" (73).
  3. The Case of the Ill-Conceived Essay on 9/11: When Visual Studies Is
    Not Helpful (76)
    Limits of visual studies; Elkins didn’t write an essay on 9-11 after much
    consideration (77).
  4. The Case of the Neglected Crystal: Visual Culture and Non-Art Images
  5. The Case of the Ghost of C.P. Snow: Taking Science Seriously (87)
  6. The Case of the Benjamin Footnote: Issues Involved in Citing
    Benjamin, Foucault, and Warburg (94)
  7. The Case of the Unclaimed Inheritance: Seeing Deeper History of the
    Discipline (102)
  8. The Case of the Mexican Soap Opera: Visual and Nonvisual in Film and
    Media Studies
  9. The Case of the New Guinea Bird-watcher: Can Visual Studies Be Truly
    ? (110)
  10. The Case of the Writing Itself: The Challenges of Writing
    Ambitiously (120)

Six competencies:

  1. Art History as a Kind of Visual Literacy (140)
  2. Non-Western Visual Competencies (147)
  3. Unrecoverable Visual Literacies (152)
  4. Visual Literacies that Involves Making Images (157)
  5. Visual Literacies in the Sciences (159)
  6. Special Effects and Digital Images (177)

Key terms: visual studies, visual culture, cultural studies (1), Mitchell’s
pictorial turn (5), image studies (7), non-art images (12), art history (21),
transdisciplinary (28), core competencies (30 and c. 4), canon of visual culture
(34), methodology (37), gaze (38), media (42), collapse and single visuality
(43), informational images (45), aestheticism danger (48), high art’s project of
negation (50), commercial culture (50), high-low problem (45-62), wild writing
and wild theory (65), VS is too easy (65), program notes (66), Adorno’s "hidden
meaning" (71), stupefaction (73), graphic design and ideographic writing (84),
unconsciousness (92), Foucault’s "bureaucratic eye" (99), hybridity (113),
visual literacy (125), flaneur (129), postocular theory (133), Hirsch’s cultural
literacy as asterisked knowledge (138), Fourier transform (161), tags (172),
graphics (180), Euclidean geometry and logic (192), studium and punctum (193),
uncertainty (200).

"It is exactly that apparently unconstricted, unanthropological interest
in vision
that I think needs to be risked if the field [of visual studies]
is to move beyond its niche in the humanities" (7).

"Visual studies growing from mathematized theories of communication is
very different from visual studies in North America, where visual communications
tends to be a more varied and less semiotically informed practice that includes
design studies and graphic design" (10).

"In my experience, visual studies grows wild in studio art
departments and art schools
, where it is a standard accompaniment of studies
in postmodernism" (14).

"Visual studies emerges from these books as a set of overlapping concerns
united by a lack of interest in several subjects–older
cultures, formalism, and canonical works of art
" (17).

"Or to put it more soberly, from an art-historical standpoint, visual
culture can appear lacking in historical awareness, transfixed by
a simplified notion of visuality, careless about the differences between
media, insouciant about questions of value, and sloppy in its eclectic choice of
objects and methods" (23).

"What matters here is that the decision to emphasize a general
methodological approach
has two practical consequences, neither of them very
desirable: it means that visual culture looks increasingly like an ordinary
, specializing in television, advertising, and other popular
imagery; and it means that visual culture courses attract students who are
interested mainly in popular art
of the last fifty years" (42).

"When I propose that visual studies needs to become more difficult,
part of what I have in mind is a balance; the texts would have more
lasting interest, for example, if the innovative subject matter were balanced by
theoretical or ideological innovation" (63).

"Sometimes the images are there just because the writers are invested in
, not because images are needed to make the arguments work" (83).

"The further you go into the fascinating hinterland of image practices–and
it is a direction I love to go in, and that I wish more scholars would take–the
less there is to say about social construction, commodification,
and the making of the viewing subject, and the less hope there is of also
being able to talk about political history, patronage, contemporary literature,
or the host of subjects that can make art history and visual culture so
absorbing" (85).

"If there is an analytical limit to these interests, it is the assumption
that the demonstration of what I am calling hybridity is itself
sufficient; the idea is to work upward from known states and dichotomies that
are taken to be relatively pure toward an interesting and complex impure
" (113).

"Departments such as the one I teach in offer many opportunities to
discuss the meaning of digital images, cyberspace, and the
, but they do not require competence in any particular
programs or assume that knowledge in their teaching" (179).

"My emphasis in this book has been on the reactive side for two
reasons. First, in universities–my principal concern in this book–the
confluence of disciplines includes only a minority of critical practices
that are intended to affect the state of affairs outside of academic
. Second, an overconfident activism based on an
underinterrogated discourse is a recipe for uninteresting work. What
matters is uncertainty in ‘what history, whose history, history to
what purpose,’ and for me that uncertainty is deepest in the theoretical ground
on which the field is built" (200).

Related sources:
Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and
Modern Culture
. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
Drucker, Johanna. "Who’s Afraid of Visual Culture?" Art Journal
58:4 (1999): 36-47.
Stafford, Barbara. Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.
Wolff, Janet. Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture.
Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1990. (Feminist critique of flaneur)