I’m very excited to announce a new project: Digital | Visual | Cultural. D|V|C is a series of events which will explore how the extensive use of digital visualising technologies creates new ways of seeing the world.
The first event will be on June 28, when Shannon Mattern will give a public lecture in Oxford. Shannon is the author of the brilliant Code and Clay, Data and Dirt as well as lots of great essays for Places Journal. ‘Fifty Eyes on a Scene’ will replay a single urban scene from the perspective of several sets of machinic and creaturely eyes. That lecture will be free to attend but you’ll need to book. Booking opens via the D|V|C website on 23 April. It will also be livestreamed.
So that’s the practicalities. What’s the logic?
The key questions D|V|C will be asking are: Is a specific way of seeing the world through digital visualising technologies emerging? If so, what are its conditions and consequences?
The term ‘visual culture’ first appeared in Svetlana Alpers’s study of visualising technologies in sixteenth century Amsterdam. It was her term for how a certain way of seeing emerged in that city at that time, which was evident across a wide range of image-types and depended on technological innovations in, for example, surveying and navigation as well as the camera obscura. It was an intensely descriptive way of seeing, which saw the world in terms of landscapes and territories. Other scholars such as Denis Cosgrove have been more explicit than Alpers in linking this visual culture to the emergence of mercantile capitalism, private property and, subsequently, to colonial appropriations.
Further discussions of visual culture have been developed in scholarship focussed on the evolution and intersection of technologies, capitalism, and imperialism in the second half of the nineteenth century.As capitalist production industrialised, empires expanded and cities began to grow as never before, once again a range of visualising technologies were invented and ways of seeing enacted. Photography and, later, film were harnessed to makes sense of the world as it was reconfigured economically, politically and culturally. Scholars such as Lynda Nead and Chris Otter have examined European urban experiences. Otter’s discussion of the attentive technologies of illumination and inspectability in industrialised late nineteenth-century London, for example, argues that although was no single dominant gaze. Nonetheless, pervasive perceptual patterns can be discerned which gazed both outwards to the city and inwards to form liberal elite subjectivities.
Significant work has also explored the visual cultures of nineteenth-century colonialism and imperialism. Here, visualising technologies of many kinds were central to the logics of racialisation and exploitation. James Ryan, for example, has explored the role of the camera and the magic lanternin the Royal Geographical Society’s imperialising efforts at the turn of the twentieth century.
The argument that moments of convulsive contradiction in an increasingly globalised, racialised, sexualised and gendered capitalism go hand in hand with specific ways of seeing the world are at the core of Digital | Visual | Cultural.
What then of the present moment? Nick Srnicek, among others, argues that we are currently in another phase of the reconfiguration of social and economic relations. The postwar productivity boom reached crisis point in 2008 and in his review of subsequent developments, Srnicek dubs their new form ‘platform capitalism’. Platform capitalism is profoundly reliant on digital infrastructures and softwares. Platform capitalism also appears to be both generating and depending on particular visualising technologies, which are perhaps less representational and more ‘operative’, to use Harun Farocki’s term. Scott McQuire suggests that the warp and weft of urban experience is shifting because of such networked digital media.
It is also clear, however, that such a broad brush account of the interactions between economic processes, social relations, and visualising technologies does no justice to the complexities of those relations. It risks reducing an account of visual culture to that of capitalism, when it is clear that visualities are central to many other power relations. Scholars such as Simone Browne are pointing to the ongoing complex dynamics of racialisation that are enacted through various forms of digital practices, for example, and there are the specific dynamics of the Anthropocene too. Attention is also being given to the affective politics of much social media. Indeed, a wide range of scholarship on these issues is emerging, driven by the experience of using such media, by concepts such as ‘cognitive capitalism’ and by a turn to a number of philosopher-theorists and their feminist, queer and postcolonial interlocutors.
That notion of visual culture as the visuality that dominates a particular place and time, structuring how it sees both itself and others, should always therefore be contextualised. In part this can be achieved by focussing on specific ‘ways of seeing’. John Berger’s elaboration of a ‘way of seeing’ points to the power dynamics embedded in specific forms of vision. It especially asks us to interrogate who is seeing what, where, and with what effects. Gillian Rose has argued that these questions must be at the heart of any critical visual methodology. And they have been elaborated by a range of critical scholars, not least among them Donna Haraway in her account of the ‘god trick’ of seeing everything from nowhere.
This moment of the profound digital mediation of images and ways of seeing thus gives rise to a range of pressing questions: What sorts of viewers are co-constituted with these complex re-formations of social relations and digital visualising technologies? How are all-too-familiar visions of class, race, gender and sexuality being reaffirmed? What new forms of human life (now perhaps better described as posthuman) are emerging? What does pleasure, fun and play look like? What forms of digital nonhuman life are also seeing, doing and being? What now might be an oppositional gaze, to use bell hooks’s term, and what does it see? And what critical theoretical tools are needed to proffer answers?