‘Visual Methodologies’, again

I wrote the first draft of my book Visual Methodologies very quickly – it took about six months, all in all, working in the National Library of Scotland from the outline of a course I’d been teaching on interpreting visual materials at Edinburgh University’s Social Sciences Graduate School.  I’ve just received the proofs of the third edition, which will be out from Sage in November 2011.  Given that this third edition still contains some of the text of the first edition, I guess I could say that the third edition has taken over a decade to write…

So what’s changed?  Well,  quite a lot.  There’s a fair bit now on digital media, for example, although the book is still organised around methods, not media.  There’s bits on online gaming, and YouTube, and digital photography; I found very useful essays on Wii Fit, and on World of Warcraft.  And I worked my way through some of the recent work on affect, or on what Nigel Thrift calls the nonrepresentational.  Although that’s not a term that seems to have spread much beyond Thrift’s own discipline of geography, it was useful to me revising the book because the first and second editions (and the third, still) start with a long quotation from Stuart Hall about representation.  The third edition delves a bit into the posthuman (with Katherine Hayles) and the affective (with Mark Hansen and Laura Marks).  But with the affective,  a funny thing happened: the most recent theory seemed to offer a return to some very traditional methods.  Both Hansen and Marks visit art galleries and watch videos, and theorise about what visual objects do from how they make them feel.  Which seemed to me to be rather similar to how many commentators have defined – and condemned – connoisseurship as an approach to images.  How odd, I thought.  Comforting, then, to find Ruth Leys arguing something similar recently (and thanks to Clive Barnett for alerting me to her essay).

The third edition still has huge gaps, of course.  There’s nothing on graphic novels, for example, though I always browse the ones my son brings home from libraries.  I’d like to read more of Neil Gaiman’s work, for one.  I first came across his writing in a book for young children called Wolves in the Walls, with wonderful illustrations by Dave McKean; a young girl hears noises coming from the walls of her family’s house, and the darkly obscure images perfectly capture the possibility that she might really be hearing wolves living in the gaps between the house’s walls.  (There are wolves there, of course.)  Gaiman’s recent episode of the tv series Dr Who was fantastic too, I thought.  There’s remarkably little academic work on how visuals and text work together in graphic novels (or cartoons, come to that).  If I had time, though, I’d love to think about how the graphic novel might work as an analytic tool for visual methods researchers.  I think visual methods for social science researchers just have to have some text, to anchor what the researcher wants to convey (as much as meaning and effect can be anchored); the graphic novel seems to be a genre that can do that effectively because it explicitly depends on both images and text (unlike photographs, some sorts of which apparently don’t need captions).

One thing I hardly changed for the third edition, though, was the chapter on psychoanalysis and film theory.  Freud and Lacan have been routed by Deleuze in film theory land, it seems (sorry – I’m finding myself strangely addicted to George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books at the moment and I’m seeing castles and battles everywhere); but I still think the attention Freud paid to human subjectivity remains an extraordinarily valuable project.

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