Visuality and Security
- Axel HeckAxel HeckDepartment of Political Science, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel
The term security has its origins in the Latin word securitas, which could be translated as “without care” or “without worries.” Security as a concept used in social sciences indicates a specific political condition or social constellation under which an individual, larger group, or state routinely exists without the worry of being physically harmed, attacked, or otherwise injured. In times of crisis, where civil wars threaten the stability and the security of whole regions, where terrorists aim to kill civilians and millions of refugees leave their homes searching for more secure places, it is no wonder that the concept of security has gained much attention and is debated in political and academic circles.
Taking a closer look at the academic debates in political science and communication studies reveals different ontological understandings about what “security” is and a variety of epistemological approaches how to study it. While positivists take security as a fact and an objective condition that can be measured and clearly defined, critical approaches question that security is an objective or given fact. In critical security studies, security and especially insecurity are understood as social and discursive practices. If security and insecurity are not taken as objective facts, but as the result of social constructions, the question arises of how, and under which conditions, security and insecurity are socially constructed and who or what contributes to these discourses in a meaningful way.
While the significance of language for the discursive construction of security is well researched in social sciences, the visual dimension of security discourses has caught particular attention in the last decade in political and communication studies. This has occurred because where, what, and how we see (media reports, pictures of catastrophes and war, street crime, violence, suspects, terrorists etc.) significantly shape our understanding of security and insecurity. Alternatively, or more precisely, security discourse is hard to imagine without reference to some sort of visual communication.
Communication studies and political science (especially the subdiscipline critical security studies, or CSS) have focused on the nexus between visuality and security for many years now—but in interdisciplinary coexistence rather than in exchange. This article intends to bridge this gap between the disciplines by introducing theoretical concepts and paths in literature of both research traditions. In particular, the concept of visual securitization might be an interesting toehold, as it sheds light on the question of how visual communication (media images, television, films, and other media) contribute to the discursive construction of threats, dangers, and insecurities, thereby enabling extraordinary political measures (from public surveillance to so-called enhanced interrogation techniques and military interventions) to secure the endangered referent object.