cultural studies and digital culture

hartleyI have just finished reading John Hartley’s hugely entertaining and provocative book on cultural studies past, present and future.  Called Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies, it argues that cultural studies as a discipline has ossified into a field where ‘reading’ after ‘reading’ of cultural texts accumulates to no particular end, and where those readings are based on assessments of value (some form of the ‘how critical is this?’ question) rather than any other methodology.

I’m pretty sure if I was a fully paid-up member of the cultural studies club I would be pretty aghast at the very generalised level of his account… nonetheless, a lot of his argument really got me thinking.  Not least because I am trying to figure out a way to plan the ending of a paper I am writing without assessing the value (ie how critical of capitalism/neoliberalism/national identity/) of the images I am writing about.  It’s a hard habit to break.

His book also has some very interesting thoughts on the methods required to deal with the nature of digital cultural production, which means methods that can engage with the mobility and malleability of digital texts and images, as well as understand the systems through which they circulate.  He suggests that the traditional methods of cultural studies – the close reading of specific texts that usually depends on an unremarked mish-mash of semiology and discourse analysis, with which the question ‘how critical…’ gets answered – is simply inadequate to deal with the cultural work being done by the ‘distributed expertise’ of large populations.  His critiques of the guardians of High Culture in England/English is just great, as is his discussion of YouTube viral dance-off videos as the true descendents of the eighteenth century radical presses: sex, scandal, power and all.

All of which means that the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies is going to need a pretty radical rethink, based as it mostly is on the careful analysis of ‘finished’ images…

visual methods and the nonrepresentational

I’ve just read the latest posting on my Open University colleague Clive Barnett’s blog.  The blog is called Pop Theory and it’s great, basically. Read it!

What caught my attention this evening was Clive’s neat dissection of a widespread assumption in a bit of influential human geography theory: that visual methods are somehow better at capturing/evoking/indicating the affective/nonrepresentational/ineffable.  This assumption has taken hold well beyond the small corner of human geography that Clive is focussing on, in fact.  A lot of discussion of visual methods are based on the claim that if people being researched are given a camera and told to photograph what matters to them, the photographs produced will somehow avoid the pitfalls of the ‘representational’ that dog talk.

I’ve always thought this was a very dodgy assumption.  It’s always seemed to me to be pretty obvious that photographs, of course, can be put to work to show the affective/ineffable; but they can also be put to work to make rigorous arguments, celebrate a birthday or describe cell structures.  They don’t inherently show anything in any particular way.  Conversely, talk and written text can be extraordinarily powerful in evoking the affective/ineffable, as well as making rigorous arguments, celebrating a birthday and describing cell structures.

Clive says, “the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to).” Images still need interpretation if they are to communicate something.  This is true of all photos, for example: family photos have the family talk; art photos have their critical texts; pictures of the ineffable have affect theory, to make them show some things and not others.

I’d also like to elaborate on another of Clive’s points.  Specifically, why, in order to avoid the representational, are cameras so popular in visual research methods?  (Maps, for example, or scatter diagrams, never seem to feature in discussions of the affinity of ‘the’ visual with ‘the nonrepresentational’.)  I wonder if it’s because making photographs is seen as both easy and popular.  Indeed, I wonder if making photographs is seen as easy because it’s so popular.  Which leads me on to one of the most irritating things about current discussions of visual methods: which is that they pay very little attention to the skills and savvy that research participants might bring to the method.  Participants are asked to draw maps and take photographs and make films as if they had never opened an A to Z, seen a family snap or been to the movies.   This uninterest in the visual skills of research participants might be understood, then as another example of what Clive describes as “the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days”.

Now, in fact a lot of visual research methods use photographs as ways of generating informants’ talk – talk about pretty much anything, in fact, which is rather different from the particular body of work that Clive is criticising.  Nonetheless, there is a sense in which visual research methods are being defended as being able to get more and better data for analysis by researchers, while too little attention is being given to the ways in which research participants themselves might use visual images for all sorts of effects, including creating articulate knowledge as well as inefffable emotion.  Perhaps a little more attention to the fact that social scientists are not the only ones creating diverse understandings of ‘the social’ might not go amiss.

reading the ‘situation room photograph’

Just looked at Marco Bohr’s visual culture blog and his commentary on the photograph of Obama watching the attack on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout.

Marco has also a collected a great set of spoofs of this photo on that post.  Here’s one I found:

Private Eye is a satirical magazine in the UK. Here it’s commenting rather cruelly on the fate of the Lib Dems, the junior partner in the current national government coalition, in the local elections held earlier in May this year.  Marco describes these sorts of spoofs as constituting “a wave of creativity (and mockery)”, and he’s right.  But what does that do to how we interpret the photograph itself?

The classic cultural studies approach to a photograph like this would be to isolate specific elements of it and discuss how they relate to wider structures of meaning: a mix of semiology and discourse analysis.  (Although of course one of the very interesting things about contemporary visual culture is that an awful lot of people can do this sort of analysis now, not just tenured profs in cultural studies departments: just listen to a radio phone-in about ‘the media’.)  Marco does something like this when he discusses the implications of how the photo pictures the figures of Barack Obama, Brigadier General Marshall B. Webb (the guy in the uniform) and Hilary Clinton. Looking at Clinton, for example, he suggests that her face is showing “tension, shock, and maybe even fear”, and since she’s the only person in the room showing any emotion, he suggests that the photograph is drawing on and reproducing the idea that women are more emotional and less rational than men.

Well, yes, I get that.  Except… is she looking very emotional?  The more I look at the photo, the less sure I am that she is.  Somewhere in his fantastic book on photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes says that the photograph is “matte and somehow stupid”, and that the more you look at one the less you see in it.  This photo reminds me of that comment; I’m just not sure how to read Hilary’s face and hand.  So, is there a risk that, as good cultural studies scholars, when we read gender stereotypes into images, we are ourselves reproducing dominant discourses of gender?  Moreover, how are we supposed to interpret the sheer silliness of some of the spoofs of that photo?  What are we to make of the hunk pasted into the back of the room, or the one where everyone is wearing the hat that Princess Beatrice wore to the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William recently?

While it’s tempting sometimes to think that the main reason so many cultural studies scholars have now abandoned the interpretation of representation is because that skill is now very widespread — hence to preserve their mystique they now deal with philosophers and theorists far more abstruse than Stuart Hall ever was — thinking about what’s happened to the ‘situation room photograph’ also suggests some other reasons why critiquing the politics of representation can sometimes seem rather tired now.  First, there’s that concern that, in identifying oppressive representations, we are reproducing the power relations they picture, rather than dislodging them; secondly, there’s a sense that ‘dislodging power’ is rather beside the point of the joyful daftness of the spoofs that so many media images generate; and finally, there’s the perhaps rather more interesting issue of all that spoofing going on.  Perhaps the spoofing is the thing to explore, rather than — or maybe as well as — the meaning of the texts it produces.

I mean, just how did whoever made the hat spoof get all those hats at all those different angles?  How to approach the time, skill and energy that’s put into such spoofing?  And what are the effects when such spoofs travel into all sorts of different contexts, including, heaven help them, visual culture blogs like mine and Marco’s?