AN INTRODUCTION TO VISUAL CULTURE BY NICHOLAS MIRZOEFF PDF

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To browse Academia. Skip to main content. By using our site, you agree to our collection of information through the use of cookies. To learn more, view our Privacy Policy. Log In Sign Up. Risco Raluca. Mirzoeff N. An Introduction to Visual Culture. Life in industrialized countries is increasingly lived under constant video surveillance from cameras in buses and shopping malls, on highways and bridges, and next to ATM cash machines. More and more people look back, using devices ranging from traditional cameras to camcorders and Webcams.

At the same time, work and leisure are increasingly centered on visual media, from computers to Digital Video Disks. Human experience is now more visual and visualized than ever before from the satellite picture to medical images of the interior of the human body. In the era of the visual screen, your viewpoint is crucial. For most people in the United States, life is mediated through television and, to a lesser extent, film. The average American 18 year old sees only eight movies a year but watches four hours of television a day.

These forms of visualization are now being challenged by interactive visual media like the Internet and virtual reality applications. Twenty-three million Americans were online in , with many more joining in daily.

In this swirl of imagery, seeing is much more than believing. It is not just a part of everyday life, it is everyday life. Let's take a few examples from the constant swirl of the global village. The abduction of the toddler Jamie Bulger from a Liverpool shopping mall was impersonally captured by a video surveillance camera, providing chilling evidence of the ease with which the crime was both committed and detected.

At the same time, despite the theory that constant surveillance provides increased security, it in fact did nothing to help prevent the child's abduction and eventual murder. The bombing at the Atlanta Olympic Figure 1 A still of the abduction of Jamie Bulger Games was captured for endless replay by a casual interface of visual technology involving an amateur camcorder and a German cable TV station interviewing American swimmer Janet Evans.

Someone is nearly always watching and recording. Yet no one has been prosecuted to date for the crime. For the visualization of everyday life does not mean that we necessarily know what it is that we are seeing. Their accounts differed so widely that the FBI ended up crediting only the least sensational and unembellished accounts. In , the FBI released a computer animation of the crash, utilizing materials ranging from radar to satellite imagery.

Everything could be shown except the actual cause of the crash-that is, the reason why the fuel tank exploded. Without this answer, the animation was essentially pointless. Even more strikingly, the world watched in as the American armed forces replayed video footage from their "smart" bombs as they homed in on their targets during the Gulf War.

The film seemed to show what Paul Virilio has called the "automation of perception," machines that could "see" their way to their destinations Virilio But five years later it emerged that while the weapons certainly "saw" something, they were no more accurate than traditional munitions in actually hitting their intended marks. In September , American cruise missiles struck Iraqi anti-aircraft defenses twice in two days, only for American planes to be fired at by the Iraqis several days later.

Did the Gulf War never happen, as Jean Baudrillard has provocatively asserted? What are we to believe if seeing is no longer believing?

The gap between the wealth of visual experience in postmodern culture and the ability to analyze that observation marks both the opportunity and the need for visual culture as a field of study. While the different visual media have usually been studied independently, there is now a need to interpret the postmodern globalization of the visual as everyday life.

Critics in disciplines ranging as widely as art history, film, media studies and sociology have begun to describe this emerging field as visual culture. Visual culture is concerned with visual events in which information, meaning, or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology. By visual technology, I mean any form of apparatus designed either to be looked at or to enhance natural vision, from oil painting to television and the Internet.

Postmodernism has often been defined as the crisis of modernism. In this context, this implies that the postmodern is the crisis caused by modernism and modern culture confronting the failure of its own strategy of visualizing.

In other words, it is the visual crisis of culture that creates postmodernity, not its textuality. While print culture is certainly not going to disappear, the fascination with the visual and its effects that marked modernism has engendered a postmodern culture that is most postmodern when it is visual.

Postmodernism is not, of course, simply a visual experience. In what Arjun Appadurai has called the "complex, overlapping, disjunctive order" of postmodernism, tidiness is not to be expected Appadurai Nor can it be found in past epochs, whether one looks at the eighteenth-century coffee house public culture celebrated by Jurgen Habermas, or the nineteenth-century print capitalism of newspapers and publishing described by Benedict Anderson.

In the same way that these authors highlighted a particular characteristic of a period as the means to analyze it, despite the vast range of alternatives, visual culture is a tactic with which to study the genealogy, definition and functions of postmodern everyday life from the point of view of the consumer, rather than the producer. The disjunctured and fragmented culture that we call postmodernism is best imagined and understood visually, just as the nineteenth century was classically represented in the newspaper and the novel.

That is not to suggest however, that a simple dividing line can be drawn between the past modern and the present postmodern. As Geoffrey Batchen has argued, "the threatened dissolution of boundaries and oppositions [the postmodern] is presumed to represent is not something peculiar to a particular technology or to postmodern discourse but is rather one of the fundamental conditions of modernity itself" Batchen Understood in this fashion, visual culture has a genealogy that needs exploring and defining in the modern as well as postmodern period Foucault For some critics, visual culture is simply "the history of images" handled with a semiotic notion of representation Bryson et al.

This definition creates a body of material so vast that no one person or even department could ever cover the field. For others it is a means of creating a sociology of visual culture that will establish a "social theory of visuality" Jenks This approach seems open to the charge that the visual is given an artificial independence from the other senses that has little bearing on real experience. In this volume, visual culture is used in a far more active sense, concentrating on the determining role of visual culture in the wider culture to which it belongs.

Such a history of visual culture would highlight those moments where the visual is contested, debated and transformed as a constantly challenging place of social interaction and definition in terms of class, gender, sexual and racialized identities. Interdisciplinary study consists in creating a new object, which belongs to no one".

As one critic in communications studies has recently argued, this work entails "greater levels of uncertainty, risk and arbitrariness" than have often been used until now McNair xi.

There would be little point in breaking down the old disciplinary barriers only to put up new ones in their place. To some, visual culture may seem to claim too broad a scope to be of practical use. It is true that visual culture will not sit comfortably in already existing university structures. It is part of an emerging body of post-disciplinary academic endeavors from cultural studies, gay and lesbian studies, to African-American studies, and so on, whose focus crosses the borders of traditional academic disciplines at will.

In this sense, visual culture is a tactic, not an academic discipline. It is a fluid interpretive structure, centered on understanding the response to visual media of both individuals and groups. Its definition comes from the questions it asks and issues it seeks to raise. Like the other approaches mentioned above, it hopes to reach beyond the traditional confines of the university to interact with people's everyday lives. Visualizing One of the most striking features of the new visual culture is the growing tendency to visualize things that are not in themselves visual.

Allied to this intellectual move is the growing technological capacity to make visible things that our eyes could not see unaided, ranging from Roentgen's accidental discovery of the X-ray in to the Hubble telescope's "pictures" of distant galaxies that are in fact transpositions of frequencies our eyes cannot detect. One of the first to call attention to these developments was the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who called it the rise of the world picture.

He argued that "a world picture…does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as a picture….

The world picture does not change from an earlier medieval one into a modern one, but rather the fact that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age" Heidegger Consider a driver on a typical North American highway. The progress of the vehicle is dependent on a series of visual judgements made by the driver concerning the relative speed of other vehicles, and any maneuvers necessary to complete the journey. At the same time, he or she is bombarded with other information: traffic lights, road signs, turn signals, advertising hoardings, petrol prices, shop signs, local time and temperature and so on.

Yet most people consider the process so routine that they play music to keep from getting bored. Even music videos, which saturate the visual field with distractions and come with a soundtrack, now have to be embellished by textual pop-ups. This remarkable ability to absorb and interpret visual information is the basis of industrial society and is becoming even more important in the information age. It is not a natural human attribute but a relatively new learned skill.

For the medieval philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas, sight was not to be trusted to make perceptual judgements by itself: "Thus sight would prove fallible were one to attempt to judge by sight what a colored thing was or where it was" Aquinas According to one recent estimate, the retina contains million nerve cells capable of about 10 billion processing operations per second.

The hyper-stimulus of modern visual culture from the nineteenth century to the present day has been dedicated to trying to saturate the visual field, a process that continually fails as we learn to see and connect ever faster. In other words, visual culture does not depend on pictures themselves but the modern tendency to picture or visualize existence.

This visualizing makes the modern period radically different from the ancient and medieval worlds. While such visualizing has been common throughout the modern period, it has now become all but compulsory.

Quesnay in effect expresses the principle of visualizing in general-it does not replace discourse but makes it more comprehensible, quicker and more effective. Visualizing has had its most dramatic effects in medicine, where everything from the activity of the brain to the heartbeat is now transformed into a visual pattern by complex technology.

Computers are not, however, inherently visual tools. The machines process data using a binary system of ones and zeros, while the software makes the results comprehensible to the human user. Early computer languages like ASCII and Pascal were resolutely textual, involving commands that were not intuitive but had to be learned. The operating system promoted by Microsoft, better known as MS-DOS, retained these technocratic features until challenged by Apple's point-and-click interface.

This system, relying on icons and drop- down menus, has become standard with Microsoft's conversion to the Windows environment.

As computer memory has fallen in price and with the arrival of programs like RealPlayer and Shockwave, often available free over the Net, personal computers can play real-time video with full-color graphics.

It is important to remember that these changes were as much consumer as technology driven. There is no inherent reason that computers should use a predominantly visual interface, except that people now prefer it this way. Visual culture is new precisely because of its focus on the visual as a place where meanings are created and contested.

Western culture has consistently privileged the spoken word as the highest form of intellectual practice and seen visual representations as second-rate illustrations of ideas.

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THEORY: "Nicholas Mirzoeff: An Introduction to Visual Culture" (1999)

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Nicholas Mirzoeff

An Introduction to Visual Culture provides a wide-ranging introduction to the now established interdisciplinary field of visual culture. Mapping a global history and theory of visual culture, An Introduction to Visual Culture asks how and why visual media have become so central to everyday life. This new, completely updated second edition has been adapted to match the challenges of interpreting globalization since the publication of the first edition a decade ago. Improved text design and colour images throughout make it an even more valuable teaching tool. Brand new features in the second edition include Key Image studies from Holbein's The Ambassadors, to Blade Runner and the Abu Ghraib atrocities; and a Key Words section in each chapter, discussing vital critical terms and the debates that surround them. He is author and editor of several books including Watching Babylon and The Visual Culture Reader, also now in its second edition An Introduction to Visual Culture.

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