Refraction: Letter from the Editor

Kate Korroch

Visual studies is a method of looking. Yet, it is a method of looking that aims to supersede what we might frame as ‘visual,’ interrogating hegemonic tropes vested in that which we ‘see.’ Visual studies is a contentious discipline, still preoccupied with defining itself or, perhaps, intent on evading a reified definition. Despite that, dozens of enthusiastic thinkers, including Refract’s editorial board members, enroll in graduate programs annually in the United States, pointing to the value in such an elusive discipline.

Refract’s aim is not to define visual studies, but to allow it to be debated openly through engagement with our contributors and readers. We seek divergent and contradicting perspectives and methodologies and, instead of singularly aligning with one, we highlight the details, which embody a visual studies that promotes our mission. As a journal we do not proclaim one particular strategy, instead we promote visual studies as an accumulation of diverse methods related to what is ‘seen’ propagated by sundry thinkers. Through this and subsequent issues, we seek to enact a visual studies practice of prodding the familiar, stepping outside of boundaries, and bringing peripheries closer to an ever-evasive center.

Refract’s founding members saw a need within visual studies as a discipline, within our own practices, and the scholarship with which we engage, to involve diverse histories and geographies that tend to be the fringe of visual studies practices. The discipline emphasizes contemporary art and predominantly focuses on the United States and Europe, while other locations, cultures, and time periods are pushed to the periphery or completely unaddressed. For our inaugural issue, we received a number of submissions that undertake this quandary and over half of the contributions in the first issue begin to parse this dilemma. Our goal will not be accomplished in one single issue but is one that will be achieved overtime and will remain our guiding beacon through issues to come.

Our inaugural issue is the result of the work and support of many individuals. On behalf of the editorial board, I would like to thank University of California Santa Cruz’s Arts Dean, Susan Solt, and the department of History of Art and Visual Culture chair, Stacy Kamehiro, for their critical engagement and financial support; our advisory board members, Carolyn Dean, Derek Conrad Murray, and Kyle Parry; UCSC’s director of graduate studies (2014-2018) Maria Evangelatou; Ruby Lipsenthal, Vivian Bee Vadakan, and Meredith Dyer; Monica Weston, Katie Fortney, and the team at eScholarship; the “Refraction” outside peer reviewers; and our colleagues and mentors who engage with the visual studies and have encouraged this project from the start.

Refraction: Introduction

Refraction. The word evokes notions of light, optics, wave transmission, energy, and oblique angles. It is used in the field of physics to refer to the way a wave changes direction upon contact with a new medium through which it is transmitted. For instance, when sound waves hit a water’s surface, their frequency changes – you may have experienced this yourself, noticing how noises become muffled when you are submerged in a busy swimming pool. Or this might occur when light waves, travelling through the air, come into contact with a new medium. For instance, you may use a straw in a glass of water and notice the straw looks bent at the point where it crosses the threshold of the water’s surface.

Taking this notion of bending and shifting waves, the inaugural issue of Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal asks how refraction can be a tool for critically engaging with ways of seeing. Refraction can refer to ways in which viewpoints, epistemologies, or discourses can shift direction, so to speak. One could expand this metaphor to ask how changes in “medium” provoke different perceptions of the world. How might scholars, artists, thinkers, or makers manipulate these shifts in order to challenge hegemonic ways of knowing? To refract knowledge is to complicate discursive categories that are largely taken for granted. How can scholarly analysis, artistic projects, dialogues, and reviews refract dominant histories, geographies, cultural attitudes, among other things, and offer different possibilities for “knowing” and experiencing the world? This issue is an initial step into such an inquiry. Diverse in subject matter and methodological approach, the contributions in this issue reconsider existing narratives about the body, gender and sexuality, race, state control, the archive, trauma and memory, the built environment and space, and technologies of seeing.

Jamee Crusan’s “The Double Edge of Visibility and Invisibility: Cassils and Queer Exhaustion”is a tour-de-force exploration of the work of gender non-conforming trans masculine artist Cassils. Cassils often uses their body in self-portraits, videos, and visceral performances in which they appear isolated, fighting, or enduring instances of self-violence. Through two chapters and an epilogue, Crusan expands on the theory of “queer exhaustion,” which the author defines as a constant “negotiation between invisibility and visibility,” a dealing with feelings of self-erasure and self-abnegation that is usually required of “those outside heteronormative constructs to pivot on a dime for their safety.” Like other pieces in this issue, Crusan’s “The Double Edge”discusses how dominant technologies of seeing have historically sought to produce normative bodies. Crusan’s piece is a certain, and much needed, elaboration on trans and non-binary academic visibility, exemplifying how scholars can “refract” dominant discourses by engaging with marginalized issues. Crusan also uses “refraction” as a writing strategy, mingling theoretical investigations with poignant first-person writing, recounting episodes such as being misgendered at age eight, or realizing their own past traumas while bearing witness to Cassils’ jolting performances.

A number of the contributors to this issue use a similar strategy of introspective, first-person writing in order to engage with their subject matter in ways previously considered “off limits” for scholars. For instance, Joshua Nash’s contribution, “Linguistic Spatial Violence: The Case of the Muslim Cameleers in the Australian Outback,” is about the architectural and linguistic traces of some 2,000 Muslim cameleers crossing the Australian desert in the late 19th – early 20th century. However, Nash’s piece is no mere historical account. He writes about his own search for this history in architectural form as well as in place-names littered across the outback. His writing is entirely introspective; he considers himself to be yet another nomadic traveler in this desert space, on a pilgrimage following the same path taken by the cameleers. Nash continuously refers to his field work as a “search,” which is significant for it implies there are still no “answers,” but merely clues, musings, observations, and emotions. His contribution to Refract is one manifestation of this search – it is not the final say. In this way, the article itself and Nash’s writing style are examples of how historical narratives are constantly refracted through time, just as the architectural remnants of the Muslim cameleers constantly shift as they are discovered or lost.

While creating this issue, Refract’s editorial board was struck by the methodological choices our contributors were making, as well as the innovative content their submissions explored. Rather than merely put them side by side in an academic journal, we wanted to take more time to engage with the pieces as well as include areas of transparency in the editorial process. We have therefore included interviews with three of the contributors, including Joshua Nash’s piece. This was partly in order to delve more fully into each submission – journal entries are often left “untouched” and the reader is assumed to make of it what they will. Rather, this issue assumes all submissions are windows into larger discussions where more refraction is always a potential.

In our interview with Joshua Nash, we asked him to elaborate on how he uses strategies such as “spatial writing,” a method not usually applied to architectural history. We also asked about the role of emotion in his writing style and how he views this piece as an example of “sensuous scholarship.” Readers will find Nash’s piece full of interesting editorial details such as moments in which one phrase contains a multitude of meanings: for instance, rather than saying something is “spatially violent,” Nash describes it as “spatial(ly violent).” In moments such as this, something can be simultaneously spatial and spatially violent. It is this multiplication of meanings that evokes the notion of refraction, and the interview with Nash looks more closely at the thinking behind his strategic writing choices.

The Refract team also interviewed Erick Msumanje and Alexis Hithe about the film, Volta Volta (2017), included in this issue. Msumanje’s short film explores the ways in which the Black body moves through “ritual spaces” and “ritual exchanges” and how it functions as a “container” that carries collective memory. While the first half of the film shows people engaged in mundane, everyday activities, the second half switches to a pitch-black, “digital” space. Incorporating documentary practices, the film ultimately subverts the genre of documentary and its voyeurism because the camera captures moments of people looking directly back at the viewer with a sense of knowing. Moreover, the artist statement was written by Msumanje’s collaborator, Alexis Hithe. Hithe wrote the statement after viewing Volta Volta for the first time, and this exchange of authorship challenges the notion of individuality and isolation that is inherent in the artist statement, reflecting instead the “collectivity of the Black creative spirit.”

In the interview with Msumanje and Hithe, Refract asked them to elaborate on the intersections of the Black body, the digital (or, as Msumanje puts it, “digital-ity”), the use of space, and the significance of ritual. The initial questions asked of Msumanje and Hithe led to linking Volta Volta to the traditions of the blues and Afrofuturism. One of the most generative ideas from the conversation was put forth by Hithe: “the Black body is a digital experience,” as Black people represent themselves on online platforms, yet continue to be represented by and projected upon by others. Volta Volta seeks to disrupt and complicate readings of the Black body.

As Msumanje’s Volta Volta exemplifies, one way this issue itself refracts scholarly analysis is by expanding the scope of what is usually in the purview of academic publications. The table of contents includes a wide range of submissions that are not categorized or segregated by medium. Rather, we encourage our readers to look at the artistic projects interwoven between the scholarly articles as strategies for critically engaging with the refraction of knowledge.While Msumanje’s film focuses on spaces of ritual and digital experience, Mark Augustine’s and Joseph Carr’s triptych of drawings depict seemingly quotidian places that are also sites of ritual – the exam table, the dental chair, and the public bathroom. Cough, Spit, Swallow (2018) depicts these ritual spaces in a way that combines the architectural perspective and the comic illustration. The absence of human figures in the images invites viewers to make associations between the work’s title and the three different spatial configurations they see. By looking at the disposition of furniture and its designs, one notices how these intimate, semi-public spaces are carefully constructed as to discipline and control bodies. The actions in the title, Cough, Spit, Swallow, allude to an ironic take on how these spaces’ normalized use can be overturned or subverted depending on the specific cultural or socio-economic associations the viewer makes.

Paula Muhr’s photographic series Double Flowers (2010-ongoing) reinterprets the illusory construction of women’s hysteria enabled by an extensive production of 19th and 20th century medical photographs. By appropriating images published in medical journals of this period, Muhr’s work cites the perverse use of photography to construct medical categories, only to disrupt the objective scientific gaze. Such a gaze, turned towards the female body, was used as “proof” of an elusive combination of symptoms. Muhr intervenes in this site of objectivity by creating assemblages: she re-photographs medical images after placing objects, plants, and animals over them, evoking a still-life painting. As the artist states, this disturbs the medical images’ “epistemic status as ‘factual’ illustrations of pathology.” Muhr’s photographs thus interrupt, overturn, and refract the continuing tradition of objectifying and pathologizing women and their bodies.

Other artistic projects reinterpret seemingly factual, objective data in a way that challenges how we come to “see” and “know” the world. Endangered Data (2017) by Zachary Norman is one such piece that challenges how atmospheric data is stored and visualized. The video comprises of a series of color photographs showing scenic natural landscapes, such as seascapes or mountain views. As the video plays, the natural colors originally registered by the camera slowly transform as parts of the images become highly saturated and shift to bright, psychedelic hues. A clear blue sky changes into a glowing pink and green gradient. Pixels stand out, attracting the viewer’s gaze to the quasi-abstract formations. In the artist’s statement, Norman explains he is interested in scientific data that has become “endangered” due to our current political climate. In the face of conservative, capitalist efforts to deny global warming, scientists working in institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have sought to “save” governmental data by storing it in private computers. For Endangered Data, Norman applied steganography, a cryptographic method through which it is possible to store or hide information within the pixels of a digital image. The shifting colors reveal atmospheric changes such as an increase of methane in the air. The resulting images warn us of a dystopian future, simulating the ultimate dissolving of natural landscapes as we know them. Data – refracted in pixels – becomes a depository of vital information for the planet’s future.

Norman’s contribution highlights and resists government regulation of information. Another piece that engages with the issue of state control is Henry Osman’s “Glitching The State: The Mechanics Of Resistance In Ricardo Piglia’s La Ciudad Ausente.” This essay provides a new reading of Ricardo Piglia’s 1992 novel La Ciudad Ausente by focusing on how the glitch serves as a form of resistance against the military dictatorship in Argentina (1976 – 1983). According to Osman, La Ciudad Ausente is a “post-trauma science fiction” that takes place in a dystopic Buenos Aires under control of the dictatorship. Combining fragmented and polyphonic language, Piglia’s La Ciudad Ausente does not develop a linear narration about the horrors of the Argentine Dirty Wars. Instead, the novel engages with the mechanisms of the totalitarian regime through characters such as Elena, a mysterious cyborg machine that produces small fictions and narratives, often mistranslating foreign stories. While other studies have explored the novel’s relationship to trauma, mourning, and memory, Osman focuses on the notion of “the glitch,” generally defined as a “small, unforeseen computer error.” Analyzing Elena’s mistakes or mistranslations as glitches – more than simple errors – Osman argues that in the novel they act as a form of resistance. While in Piglia’s La Ciudad Ausente citizens live in a constant state of amnesia, “oblivious to the crimes of the dictatorship,” Elena – as a “female defense machine” – produces a counter narrative to the “official” stories of the state.

As a journal in dialogue with the discipline of Visual Studies, one of Refract’s main goals is to present pieces that intervene in the histories of seeing and in discourses around vision, visualization, and visuality. Many of the pieces focus on the notion of refracting vision through technologies of seeing, a broad term for the interaction between actual vision technologies (or as apparatuses that help enhance our vision) and discursive practices. A number of contributions to this issue address notions of vision, visuality, and visualization in their efforts to refract dominant ways of seeing. For instance, Natasha Eves reviews the 2009 film Serious Games III (Immersion) by Harun Farocki that looks at a governmental virtual reality software, called “Virtual Iraq,” used to assist Post Traumatic Stress Disorder patients. For Eves, this virtual software becomes a mechanism for neutralizing and controlling the way military violence is perceived by the American public: “Virtual Iraq offers domestic, controlled environments in contrast to the original sites of trauma. The actual space beyond control becomes a virtual space of absolute control.” Like Norman’s Endangered Data and Osman’s “Glitching the State,” Eves is concerned with the way technologies of seeing are means for both controlling and resisting the state.

Other contributors looked at the potential for technologies of seeing to enable new perceptions rather than as tools of control. Katie Oates, in her essay “‘Tool for Enlightenment’: The Dreammachine’s Effects for Individual Autonomy” discusses Brion Gysin’s Dreamachine, invented in the 1960s, as a tool that enables multi-sensory, perceptual awareness and changes the relationship between observer and participant. Oates situates the Dreamachine in the context of 17th century technologies of seeing such as the magic lantern, arguing Gysin’s invention was supposed to counter the alienating effects of visuality produced by mass media such as television. Through the flickering effect of the object, viewers would have access to visionary experiences and a new “consciousness.”

In the realm of discursive practices, the notion of “technologies of seeing” can be understood in regard to the social constructions that shape the field of visual representation. If one considers how representation is controlled by societal norms, these norms can also be understood as technologies of seeing that need to be constantly challenged in order to open spaces of non-normative visibility. In this issue of Refract, an example of such and intervention is Jamee Crusan’s aforementioned essay on transgender artist Cassils as well as Ingrid Asplund’s challenge to hegemonic categories of knowledge in her essay “Happy Bullish 2011!!!: Olek’s Project B.” This piece discusses Agata “Olek” Oleksiak’s yarnbombing of Arturo di Modica’s Charging Bull (1989), which endures as a symbol of power and masculinity on Wall Street in New York. Project B (2010) was an ephemeral piece, it was taken down shortly after its execution and now only exists in the digital archive. According to Asplund, the yarnbombing of Charging Bull represents the unraveling of various categories: masculine and feminine qualities, public and private spaces, art and craft, sculpture and performance. By positioning Olek’s work beyond yarnbombing, which has been gendered as a “women’s art movement” and dismissed as “craft,” Asplund seeks to complicate an easy reading and categorization of Project B by considering yarnbombing’s legitimacy as an art form, particularly by examining it under the purview of street art. Furthermore, Asplund connects Project B to the Occupy Wall Street movement, seeing both as the literal occupation of Wall Street’s space with the physical presence of Olek and protesters, respectively. In this way, both Olek’s practice and Asplund’s writing refract the way artistic production is arbitrarily categorized.

In addition to contributions discussed above, Refract solicited short meditations from two scholars, Marata Tamaira and James Elkins, who are influential for thinking about the methods and dialogues of visual studies. As Refract takes shape, its intervention is not to align with one single point of view but to provide examples of visual studies’ rich offerings. To this end, we hope each issue will include other voices in the constantly shifting field of visual studies.

Marata Tamaira is a scholar of Māori descent who writes about European representations of Indigenous Pacific Islanders and contemporary art practices that challenge those representations. By using fiction and introspection as part of her analysis, Tamaira complicates histories from angles that are different from the mainstream narratives about the Indigenous Pacific. For this issue, we asked Tamaira if she would contribute a piece that employs her methodology of pairing subjective, first person narrative with critical analysis. She generously agreed, sharing her review of the installation/performance piece “Dashboard Hula Girl” by Adrienne Pao and Robin Lasser (2017). Tamaira’s review is theoretically grounded in the Hawaiian notion of ʻai kai, which refers to the in-between, liminal space where land and sea meet. In a similar fashion, Tamaira’s writing “merge[s] scholarly analysis with embodied first-hand experience” in order to “simulat[e] in written form the enigmatic domain that comprises the convergence zone — that is, the ‘ai kai — of intellectual understanding and felt encounter.”

James Elkins’ mediation “What is Radical Writing in Visual Studies?” offers an account of visual studies, specifically on writing about visual studies, which simultaneously serves as a call to future scholars to “learn the field you’re trained in as well as possible…and then strike out on your own, without looking back.” Implicit in this piece is a concern for a perceived presentism within visual studies. Elkins suggests there is an interesting divergence between the direction of visual studies scholarship and its pedagogy. New scholarship seems to be continuously less beholden to a visual studies historiography, at points lacking an important self-reflexivity. Elkins argues the primacy of the image within the discipline, and the necessity of the image to itself function as argument, has not yet come to fruition within visual studies. He asks to what extent visual studies scholarship is interested in, or capable of, addressing its unrealized proposition to de-prioritize text in favor of images as mechanisms of analysis, pointing to its original claims: “Images were not to accompany textual arguments, but to actually participate in them, steering and modifying what is claimed in texts.”

In this spirit, Refract aims to allow artistic projects to fully participate in these conversations not only through the content of each submission but also in the structure of the journal. As noted above, the films, drawings, and photographs interspersed between the essays, and the interviews conducted with some contributors, are ways we can think with images rather than using them as mere examples of theories and methodologies that lay elsewhere. Elkins, one voice in visual studies, provides a call which is both generative and cautionary and acts as a springboard from which we can complicate disciplinary boundaries and methodologies. We welcome his prod to be self-reflexive and to know our histories even as we begin this project — and are heartened by his challenge.

As Refract’s team began writing the introduction, it was made clear that instead of a linear strategy with set themes, the contributions to this issue create a web of ideas that overlap and diverge in often surprising ways. This issue is not the only collection of works that refract knowledge, it is merely one collection of possible avenues of exploration. Our hope for readers of “Refraction” is that they are able to encounter unanticipated threads that activate, or refract, their expectations. As more issues of Refract are published, we hope to continue the fruitful, experimental, and generative dialogues offered in the following pages.

What is Radical Writing in Visual Studies?

James Elkins

From its North American beginnings in the late 1980s, its German beginnings in the 1970s, and its prehistory, going back to Derrida, Benjamin, and before, visual studies has taken as part of its mission the breaking of disciplinary boundaries. Visual studies has always pictured itself questioning conceptual domains and hegemonic identities, inhabiting margins, rethinking received ideas of cultural inquiry, identity, and place. Refraction, the theme of this issue, is one such boundary formation.

Especially in its pre-war incarnations as visuelle Kultur, visual studies had broken with art history in its interest in film and photography, and later in animation, gaming, advertising, the digital, and alternative media. And yet one of the founders of visual culture studies, Michael Holly, was wistful and perhaps a little regretful when she remembered the original promises visual studies had made to itself in Rochester in the 1980s, in comparison with the discipline it became. (This is in the book Farewell to Visual Studies.) Visual studies had promised itself the daring juxtaposition of previously unstudied theoretical methods with previously unstudied art practices from all times and cultures, but it had solidified into a definable academic practice centered on contemporary first-world visual production, a reasonably predictable roster of theorists, and a consistent politics. Holly herself decamped to a position at the Clark, at the very center of a disciplinary allegiance that the founders of visual studies had avoided.

This paper is a meditation on what might still count as radical or otherwise innovative writing that can still take place under the banner of visual culture studies. I’ll take as my example a book I helped edit, called Theorizing Visual Studies: Writing Through the Discipline. My co-editors were all graduate students, and all sixty-one of the book’s chapters were written by graduate students. I helped out with copyediting and correspondence, and I wrote two of the book’s three introductions, but I never voted on which essays should be included, and I never edited for content or made any suggestions about the book’s organization.

The idea was to create a next-generation visual studies reader, one that could move past the existing anthologies. The publisher, Routledge, had asked me if I wanted to write a second edition of my book Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction (2003). They were hoping, in part, to compete with the two best-selling introductions to visual studies, Nick Mirzoeff’s Visual Culture Reader and Lisa Cartwright and Marita Sturken’s Practices of Looking. This was in 2008. I suggested, in return, that instead of becoming the next “senior” scholar to compile an anthology or introduction to visual studies, it would be interesting to see what the latest writing and thinking looked like. I sent the editor a counter-proposal: I would assemble a group of MA students in visual studies, and we would issue an international call for paper from MA and PhD students around the world.

When we started, the graduate student group that planned Theorizing Visual Studies was about twenty people. As time went on—and some people graduated—the group shrank. The book lists five editors: myself, Kristi McGuire, Maureen Burns, Alicia Chester, and Joel Kuennen. It was an outlandish amount of work, as much as I have put in on any other book. First, the students decided they wanted to organize the book according to unusual concepts. Instead of the usual tropes of visual studies—hybridity, post-disciplinarity, nomadism, gender, and so forth—they invented their own, and planned to write a dozen encyclopedia-style entries that would then be sent to the students in other institutions who were going to contribute the bulk of the book, so that the book would present an alphabetically arranged vocabulary for visual studies—a new dictionary for the field, independent of the usual preoccupations. There was a lot of talk at the time about how old-fashioned Mirzoeff’s and Sturken and Cartwright’s Tables of Contents are. The student group wanted new metaphors and models. But the initial group dispersed and only a few of those essays got written. The remaining editors decided to issue an international call for contributions, still hoping for an A to Z of visual studies on unexpected topics but without the guidance of their original concepts. The initial responses were mixed, and we didn’t have enough submissions to comprise a book, so we sent out a second call, using an email database of 11,000 academics and institutions in over 50 countries.

The book finally appeared in 2012. Over four years of work had gone into it. I myself read every one of the contributions, made thorough copyediting notes, sent it back to the authors, and cleaned up the resulting texts. The student editors did the same. Some of the sixty-odd chapters were edited as many as five times. It was by far the most time-consuming project I have ever worked on, including some large edited volumes in a series called the Stone Art Theory Seminars, several of which involve over 60 scholars.

From a publishing standpoint, the book was a failure (I think we made around $50 in royalties), and as far as I can tell, it has hardly been reviewed and is seldom assigned in classes. I do not think the reason has to do with the content, which is mainly what I want to revisit here. The lack of sales and textbook adoptions probably has much more to do with the fact that teachers naturally prefer to assign texts written by well-known contributors, or single-authored texts that can be read straight through. Theorizing Visual Studies is not easy to read or use.

Of the three introductions, Kristi McGuire’s, tells the story of the students’ ambitions and hopes, and the way the book metamorphosed from an idealistic post-disciplinary philosophic tract into an enormous anthology of brief chapters. One of my two introductions, the longer one, “An Introduction to the Visual as Argument,” is an extended essay on what I still think is visual studies’ central claim in relation to art history: visual studies has intermittently but consistently positioned itself as the discipline that will let images argue, will let images propose their own theories.Tom Mitchell has said this in various ways, and so has Susan Buck-Morss. The idea that the visual is also a form of theory, that there is “picture theory,” has been traced to Benjamin and can be found, in other forms, in Jean-Francois Lyotard and others. Visual studies’ self-imposed brief was to refuse to let images become ornaments, illustrations, or mnemonics, as they so often are in art history. Images were not to accompany textual arguments, but to actually participate in them, steering and modifying what is claimed in texts. That promise has never materialized, even in Mitchell’s texts. This introduction was meant to explain what we all hoped was going to happen in the submissions we were gathering. The call for papers said explicitly that it was important that images should not be used only to illustrate arguments. Images, we said, should participate as arguments: they should sometimes direct or deflect arguments, and should be equal participants in whatever theories and interpretations the authors were pursuing. Only two or three of the hundreds of submissions we received did that. The introduction I wrote became an analysis of how visual studies was, in fact, continuing to use images the way art history does: as illustrations to arguments, as ornaments, as mnemonics.

The shorter introduction, “An Introduction to the Visual Studies That is Not in This Book,” is a succinct bibliographic introduction to the history of visual studies, visual culture, and Bildwissenschaft, including many texts and names, and leading from the early twentieth century to 2009, when it was drafted. It’s a useful essay, I think; there still isn’t another history like it.

We anticipated that the texts in our reader would be easier to understand if we provided the background of the field because, as it turned out, almost none of the submissions made any extended use of earlier authorities. Lacan, Foucault, and Fanon were largely absent. If a reader were to use our book as her first introduction to visual studies, and if she skipped the introductions, she would have almost no sense that visual studies had been practiced before the twenty-first century. As the shorter essay’s title implies, it is an exploration of the presentism of visual studies. I had been surprised by the contributors’ detachment from the history of their own field, and their presentism about theory (their lack of interest in their potential dependence on, say, Foucault), but I wasn’t disappointed. I thought that might be a sign that the contributors were thinking freely and radically in relation to the pasts they had probably been taught in their various institutions. But a close look at the book—and the exercise of repeatedly reading and re-reading for editorial purposes—made me see that most of the essays in Theorizing Visual Studies are conventional in their forms of argument and their politics. There are definitely some brilliant essays in the book, and a few that could easily be models for innovation; and there are a number of essays that explore subjects and art practices that are new to the field. The Table of Contents hints at the intermittent radicalism of the project. It begins:

  • Airborne Horses—Mike Gibisser
  • Anaesthetics—Kristi McGuire
  • Animal—Michelle Lindenblatt
  • Animations—Nea Ehrlich
  • Arial—Arden Stern
  • Ars Oblivionalis—Thomas Stubblefield
  • Artifact—Lucian Gomoll
  • Augmented Reality—Horea Avram
  • Breathing—Vivian Li
  • Collecting—Josephine Landback
  • Decolonial—Lara Haworth and Nicole Cormaci
  • Diaspora—W. Ian Bourland
  • Double-Consciousness—Cara Caddoo

But the majority of the essays are actually conventional in tone, narrative, interpretive strategies, rhetorical forms, and disciplinary allegiances. They are not the cutting edge of the field: they are the products of scholars just beginning to find their way, and strongly beholden to the expectations of peers and instructors. I know this is a harsh judgment, and there are some genuinely amazing exceptions—essays that should be anthologized in the next visual studies reader, and taught as models—but the overall lesson of the book, for me, points in a different direction.

Here are three of the principal conclusions that I think the book warrants. (Please forgive the long quotations: the passages I’m repeating here—modified from their original settings—present positions that have not been addressed within the field, problems that I think are crucial for the ongoing sense of visual studies.)

  1. “Visual studies is presentist in relation to its own history. Here is an abbreviated version of the end of “An Introduction to the Visual Studies That is Not in This Book”:

The contributors to this book are insouciant about visual culture’s disciplinary allegiances and historiography, and I take it that is one of this book’s principal lessons. There are essays here that keep close to their theoretical mentors—one on Jonathan Crary, another on Georges Didi-Huberman, a third on Jacques Rancière—but most are inventive and opportunistic. And few have much to say about visual studies’ sense of itself, at least as that sense can be gleaned from graduate seminars in the history of visual studies, or from journals such as Journal of Visual Culture or the University of Rochester’s Invisible Culture.

The histories and geographies I have briefly sketched in this introduction are largely a picture of what does not matter in this book. At the same time, those histories are increasingly important to the pedagogy of the field, as they are taught in most introductions—so I wanted to make a gesture in their direction. If you are new to visual studies, the sources listed here are crucial for a sense of the historiography of the field. But they may not matter in a direct, causal fashion: they’re more a question of what senses of the recent past are being abandoned in order to make way for new work. The current moment in visual studies is, I think, partly enabled by an insouciance regarding received versions of its own past: hence this introduction to a visual studies that is not, for the most part, in this book.

This presentism has not yet been addressed. Visual studies seminars and curricula continue to teach the same set of several dozen theorists and scholars. They are required reading, but they are not often part of the living discipline. That’s an interesting condition, because it implies visual culture studies feels the need of a sense of its history that it does not use.  

  1. Visual studies has not yet found ways to let images participate as equals in the production of arguments. This is from the end of “An Introduction to the Visual as Argument”:

It may seem perverse to have written such a long introduction focusing on just this one problematic. It may also seem inappropriate to write an introduction criticizing some of the content of the book it introduces. And it may seem unhelpful to have presented this theme as an introduction to the current condition of visual studies, when this book itself makes it so abundantly clear that visual studies is going in many different directions. In fact, my own concerns about the field are in other books; they have only a little to do with what I have written here. Yet I believe that no matter what visual studies turns out to be in the coming decades, it will not really be about the visual until it comes to terms with this most fundamental issue. Images need to be central, and they need to never be fully controlled. They need to be able to suddenly derail or contradict an ongoing argument, or slow it, or distract it, or even overwhelm it. Will we dare to let images control our arguments? Will we pay enough attention to images to see how seldom they simply exemplify the ideas we hope they illustrate?

  1. Visual studies is not often actually visual. This last passage is a version of the opening of “An Introduction to the Visual as Argument”:

One of our principal starting points is the claim that despite its growing complexity and rhetorical sophistication, visual studies remains a field that is mainly engaged with kinds of argument that do not need to make continual, close, concerted, dialogic contact with images. To some degree that is the normal condition of several related fields, including art history and visual anthropology, but visual studies has always had the special brief of extended engagement with the visual world, so its wordiness is significant: the difficulty is in saying what that significance is, and how far its effects reach.

Most of what is in any given book or article is text, and some texts on visual subjects have virtually no illustrations. This is a superficial observation, but also, I think, characteristic. It is probably equally true of art history and visual studies, although that can’t be quantified because when the budget permits, art historical texts traditionally include lavishly printed illustrations even if the argument does not require visual detail. In general, an essay or book of visual studies will be mostly text. A quick look through my bookshelves suggests that the ratio of text to image might be around twenty or thirty to one. This is only a statistical observation: it is not at all easy to know what sorts of conclusions could be drawn from it. I am not suggesting, for example, that visual studies should tend toward a state where images predominate in sheer page count, or that there might somehow be a balance between images and writing. On the other hand, it seems there must be something to be said about a book like W.J.T. Mitchell’s Picture Theory, which is less than ten percent images, even though it is centrally concerned with the proposal that pictures are theory, just as much as exemplifications of theory. I am not exempting any existing practices: my own book, Visual Studies, is one-quarter images, three-quarters text. This book, Theorizing Visual Studies, is no exception: here, too, the pages devoted to text outnumber the pages given to images. There isn’t a clear conclusion lurking here: the notion is just to start by pointing to the appearance of our texts, which must bear some relation to our ongoing interest in the theorization and conceptualization of images, and our concomitant distrust, discomfort, or lack of interest in those kinds of argument that might need images to be in continuous dialectical relation with texts—not to mention our aversion to the kinds of arguments that might let images lead the way.

I hope these thoughts might be helpful for young scholars who want to achieve work that is radical in relation to disciplinary expectations, unexpected in what is understood as interpretation, and surprising in the choice of subjects. A good strategy for writing texts that are strongly voiced, compellingly written, and intellectually and affectively independent is to learn the field you’re trained in as well as possible—its histories and historiography, its senses of itself, its claims and promises, its presentism, its politics, its vexed relation to images, the forms it takes in different countries—and then strike out on your own, without looking back.

James Elkins is E.C. Chadbourne Professor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His most recent book, What Heaven Looks Like: Comments on a Strange Wordless Book (2017), is a commentary on a mysterious manuscript in Glasgow, an anonymous booklet of small, round watercolor paintings with no captions. Other publications include What Photography Is (2011), Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History (2010), Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction (2003), and The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing (1997), among many others.