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Article

Frank Serafini

Visual literacy was originally defined as a set of visual competencies or cognitive skills and strategies one needs to make sense of visual images. These visual competencies were seen as universal cognitive abilities that were used for understanding visual images regardless of the contexts of production, reception, and dissemination. More contemporary definitions suggest visual literacy is a contextualized, social practice as much as an individualized, cognitively based set of competencies. Visual literacy is more aptly defined as a process of generating meanings in transaction with multimodal ensembles that include written text, visual images, and design elements from a variety of perspectives to meet the requirements of particular social contexts. Theories of visual literacy and associated research and pedagogy draw from a wide range of disciplines including art history, semiotics, media and cultural studies, communication studies, visual ethnography and anthropology, social semiotics, new literacies studies, cognitive psychology, and critical theory. Understanding the various theories, research methodologies, and pedagogical approaches to visual literacy requires an investigation into how the various paradigm shifts that have occurred in the social sciences have affected this field of study. Cognitive, linguistic, sociocultural, multimodal, and postmodern “turns” in the social sciences each bring different theories, perspectives, and approaches to the field of visual literacy. Visual literacy now incorporates sociocultural, semiotic, critical, and multimodal perspectives to understand the meaning potential of the visual and verbal ensembles encountered in social environments.

Article

Michelle Brown

Visual criminology emerges from a call to rethink the manner in which images are reshaping the world and criminology as a project. The mobility, malleability, banality, speed, and scale of images and their distribution demand that we engage both old and new theories and methods. Visual criminologists pursue a refinement of concepts and tools as well as innovative new ones to tackle questions of crime, harm, culture, and control. Concerned with how ways of seeing are foundational to social orders, visual criminology gives close attention to the production of crime’s power and spectacle in the visual field and relies upon emergent conceptual terms and vocabularies to do so. It insists that it is no longer possible to understand crime and control separately from how they are represented. Visual criminology is born as an alternative academic space that is neither supplementary nor secondary to mainstream social science; rather, it calls us to understand the power of crime and punishment beyond the written and numeric registers of reports, studies, and research. The concerns of visual criminology are numerous. Visual criminologists are interested in the role of vision and the visual in the historical foundations of criminology as a discipline. They push crime and media scholars to investigate more deeply the role of the image itself, beyond conventional studies of crime and media. Using a growing and sophisticated set of theories, methods, and concepts, they track how the various optics of criminology and criminal justice (defined by disciplinary, institutional, and epistemological boundaries) are produced, culminating in popular and scientific perspectives that inevitably bring certain principles, claims, and possibilities into the line of vision and omit others. They also give attention to how these optics are contested and transgressed. Focal points of this work span a variety of media and artistic modes that continue to grow at an unprecedented rate: photodocumentary, photoethnography, new and social media, interactive and social documentary, architecture, data visualizations, design, conceptual and performance art, mixed media, theater, embodiment, spatialization, surveillance and aerial/satellite/drone technology, graffiti and urban aesthetics, ruins and dark tourism, models, exhibitions, and imaginative interventions to envision crime and punishment otherwise. Even as this visual focus expands the disciplinary tools and insights of criminology, it also broadens the field’s boundaries, drawing from a rich theoretical terrain of interdisciplinary studies.

Article

In their so-called “Golden Age,” from the late 1890s to the 1920s, picture postcards probably were the most prominent visual mass medium, worldwide, including South America. Many people collected postcards, which were quite affordable, and pen pals exchanged postcards from all over the world; dates were arranged via postcards, just as happens today via phone, email, text, or instant messaging. Although most South American postcards were published and sold in urban areas, the broad availability combined with their postal function brought postcards a vast social and geographical diffusion. To use a common term, they are “travelling objects.” Postcards of South America could cross the globe many times before becoming part of a private album or an archival collection. For instance, the German entrepreneur and photographer Guillermo Grüter (1871–1947), who had come to Paraguay in 1893, published some of the most popular Paraguayan postcards. The images stemmed from photographs he took there. In his early years in Paraguay, before he imported printing machines and produced postcards on his own, Grüter sent some of his photographs to a manufacturer in Europe who produced postcards. These were shipped back to Grüter in Asunción, where he sold some of them to European immigrants and travelers, who sent them back home to relatives and friends across the Atlantic. Similar stories can be told about postcards published by the German Eduardo Pollack from Lima, Peru, by Austrian Roberto Rosauer from Buenos Aires, Argentina, or by one of the many German publishers in Valparaíso, Valdivia, and other Chilean towns. Picture postcards are interesting objects of study for investigations of global cultural history in transatlantic and other transnational entanglements.

Article

Historians have extensively explored the topic of water control in Mexico City. From the relationship between political power and hydraulics to detailed studies of drainage and other large-scale infrastructure projects, the epic story of water in this megalopolis, constructed over a series of ancient lakes, continues to captivate people’s imaginations. Securing potable water for the fast-growing city is also a constant struggle, yet it has received comparatively less attention than drainage in historical research. Moreover, until quite recently scholars have not been especially concerned with water control as a process of representation—that is, a process shaped by, and shaping, visual culture. Yet, potable water brings together many stories about people and places both within and outside of the Basin of Mexico. As such, the history of potable water is communicated through a diverse array of objects and modern infrastructures not limited to the idea of waterworks in the traditional sense of the term. A more expansive view of “infrastructure” incorporates more than the commonplace objects of hydraulic management such as aqueducts, pumps, wells, and pipes: it also involves architecture, photography, and narrative history, official and unofficial. Built in the first decade of the 20th century as a response to acute water shortages, the impressively modern Xochimilco Potable Water Works exemplifies a system that delivered far more than fresh drinking water through its series of modern electric pumps and aqueduct. The system was a result of a larger modernization initiative launched by the administration of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911). It wove together an official history of water, which included the annexation of Xochimilco’s springs, through its diverse infrastructures, including the engineering of the potable water system as well as the significance of the structures themselves in terms of locations and architectural elaboration in neo-styles (also known as historical styles) typical of the period. Demonstrably clear from the sheer investment in making the Xochimilco waterworks appealing to the public is that infrastructure can possess a rich visual culture of its own.

Article

Elke Anna Werner

In the mind of Martin Luther, images were first and foremost adiaphora and, as such, neither good nor bad. However, Luther spoke out firmly against the worship of images, as did other reformers. Based on his own anthropology, he countered the misuse of images by suggesting correct ways of using them, on the basis that man could only discover true faith through the mediation of images. For many years, researchers emphasized Luther’s negative attitude to images as a medium and highlighted the shift from a pre-Reformation culture of piety to the reformatory emphasis on the Scriptures. However, more recent examinations of liturgical practices and the link between art and politics, involving innovative methods, as well as some degree of imagination, have not only traced the development of a specific visual culture in Lutheranism but also highlighted their identity-creating function in denominational conflicts. What follows is an overview of the major image and media categories as portraits, allegories, altarpieces and epitaphs which influenced the visual culture of the Reformation. Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472–1553) and his youngest son Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586) were at the very center of this activity, together with their productive Wittenberg workshop. From the very beginning of the Reformation right through to the 1580s, both liaised with Luther, Melanchthon, and other Wittenberg reformers, respectively accompanying and decisively shaping the development of Protestantism with their pictures. What is more and of equal importance, the influence of their work is reflected in the popularity of their style in Protestant territories throughout the Empire during the 16th century.

Article

Zazil Reyes García

Political cartoons are rhetorical artifacts where journalism and popular culture intersect. Through the use of images and words, facts and fiction, political cartoons provide their readers with a point of view: a single frame loaded with vivid images and condensed meaning. Political cartoons perform several political and social functions; the main one is to provide political commentary on current events and social issues. Additionally, cartoonists often see their work as a weapon against the abuses of power. Thus, they seek to expose and ridicule the powerful. The result is not always funny, but it is often surprising. Political cartoons are valuable objects of study for many disciplines, such as art history, journalism, and sociology. Studying political cartoons can give us information about past and present political processes and social imagery; it can also serve to understand how visual elements are used to communicate; but most importantly, it provides insight into the cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes of the societies that produce them. Political cartoons are a form of communication with extraordinary rhetorical power. In order to construct meaning, and in hopes of persuading their audience, cartoonists use different rhetorical strategies, such as the use of metaphors and widely known cultural references. Like other rhetorical artifacts, political cartoons are not a straightforward form of communication. To understand one cartoon, people require multiple literacies, and often different people have different readings. Although the influence of political cartoons has diminished in some parts of the Western world, they continue to do political work around the world.

Article

After a long void in scholarship, literature on US/Central American art began to emerge in the decade of the 2010s. As this new body of literature emerges it is important to consider the politics of visuality and visibility as it informs production and reception of contemporary art by US Central Americans. During the years of US intervention that fueled Central American conflicts (1970s–1990s), the United States produced a visual discourse on Central Americans for US audiences, especially evident in photography, political posters, and Hollywood films. This visual discourse relied on a what I call a “solidarity aesthetics” for Central America, in which images and representations of Central Americans were made, selected, disseminated, and framed to produce empathy and encourage action with the region across the globe. Yet, this solidarity aesthetics entailed optical codes—imagery on poverty, violence, and tropical landscapes—that subsequently established a reductive visual trope about Central America still used today. This visual discourse not only objectifies a Central American subject, but further enables the erasure of US/Central American creative practices as it implies the region produces violence and not art. In the context of such visual discourse, art by Alma Leiva, Muriel Hasbun, Beatriz Cortez, Jessica Lagunas, and Óscar Moisés Díaz exemplifies a disruption of dominant visual discourse by US Central Americans artists. They create art and images that counter historical erasure and the visual tropes that propagate violence while offering alternative visual narratives that reflect on the legacies of war, US intervention, and the consequential displacement and mass migration of thousands of Central Americans.

Article

The study of visual culture in imperial China is a young and heterogeneous field that encompasses a large and shifting array of visual materials and viewing practices. Because of the many political and social changes over the course of roughly two millennia, scholars have generally focused on specific forms and shorter periods, often defined by dynasty, instead of proposing comprehensive theories or all-inclusive overviews. The most recent dynasties, Ming and Qing, have received the majority of the scholarly attention to visual culture as such, but much research on earlier periods also sheds light on the roles of the visual and visual experience. In contrast to scholarship on modern and contemporary Chinese visual culture, which typically draws upon European and American theoretical models, studies concerned with the imperial era more often use methodologies and interpretive frameworks from art history and anthropology. Major foci of interest, whose relative importance varies by period, are the imperial court and its projects to perpetuate and project imperial authority, concerns with and techniques for creating auspicious environments in earthly life and in tomb contexts, structures and practices associated with Buddhism and Daoism within religious institutions and in lay communities, uses of writing and representational images to embody the values of the Confucian-educated elite, woodblock illustration and consumerism in urban culture, rural forms of visual culture, vernacular images and erotica, and the assimilation of elements of foreign visual culture.

Article

Across the last 25 years, digital projects on the visual culture of Latin America have begun to shape, ever more fundamentally, both research and teaching environments. To be sure, books and journal essays remain the dominant mode of publishing (and significantly so), but digital projects—made possible in part because of increasingly accessible databases and less expensive editing platforms—are becoming widely recognized as key elements in the visual and intellectual landscape. The visual culture of Spanish America (also known as colonial visual culture or viceregal visual culture) extends across three centuries, dating from roughly 1520 to 1820. Yet its history, which embraces both the physical traces of everyday life and ephemeral experiences, is arguably the least familiar of Latin America’s artistic and material legacies, especially outside Latin American Studies. Nonetheless, the period has inspired a suite of projects that, considered together, highlight the current potentials (and limits) of digital work, provide useful models for future research, and open onto debates relevant across the digital humanities (as they are currently called). If this is the basic landscape, then what are the important issues when it comes to the intersections of digital technologies and colonial visual culture? This question is considered here along three avenues. First, what can be achieved with existing software, particularly imaging software, and the inherent epistemological assumptions imbedded in software commonly used? This topic receives the most attention because future research depends so heavily upon our perceptions and understandings of present technological capabilities. The second theme considered is accessibility. Given that institution-driven projects, most often online ventures sponsored by a museum or a library, have opened certain collections to an online public, what are the implications of the accessibility they offer, and how might such databases shape the parameters of research—both in the data they provide and in the kinds of questions their technologies make it possible to pose and answer? Finally, consideration is given to the possibilities and potentials for collaboration that the online environment offers in the study of visual culture of Latin America. To set a framework for discussion, this article begins with a broad view, “The Object(s) of Visual Culture,” and then turns to examples of scholar-driven projects currently online. Typically, these are generated by scholars working at universities and dependent upon both internal and external funding. The sections “Seeing Images, Knowing Landscapes” and “Epistemological Assumptions” not only describe examples, but also explore the modes of interpretation that digital environments enable and the habits of viewing that are produced as a result. Because scholar-driven projects do not exist in isolation, the article turns to institution-driven projects, represented primarily by digitized museum collections and archives, which have become central components of the research environment. Many projects in this vein are well-described elsewhere—our focus therefore rests on the effects on the larger research landscape, in a section called “Accessibility, Canonicity, Finance.” Lastly, issues related to collaboration are dealt with, in order to both address ideas that are being explored through digital work in other fields, but which have not yet surfaced with much force in the field of colonial visual culture, and to ask why.

Article

The Laboratorio Audiovisual de Investigación Social (Social Research Audiovisual Lab, or LAIS) at the Instituto Mora in Mexico has worked in both audiovisual production and the study of the visual world in which we live today. Constructing research sources from photographic images and audiovisual materials constitutes its fundamental purpose. Research methodologies that incorporate images are its plan of action and reflection, and along with the ongoing construction of alternatives, they are put into practice in diverse types of products that result in human resource training with specialized courses and workshops. With the ultimate goal of promoting research that uses and disseminates images and audiovisual materials, LAIS has numerous research documentaries in its collection, a Website with photographic libraries, projects with an array of public interest products, publications in both digital and print format, and information technology development for the online publication of research tools, as well as specialized workshops and courses on the subject. An important reference at the Latin American level for years, the Instituto Mora’s Social Research Audiovisual Lab drives the expansion of each of these resources.

Article

This chapter analyzes the representation of homicide in contemporary television drama series. The chapter draws upon critical analysis from the fields of criminal law, criminology, law and literature, and cultural studies to provide various analytical frameworks and perspectives through which to understand and critique specific dramas and the portrayal of homicide drama generally. If criminology is an effort to understand crime and criminals, then crime dramas including homicide television dramas can be considered a form of popular criminology that can and should be analyzed in terms of cultural representations of crime and criminal justice. Theorists have proposed that crime fiction can be categorized as mystery, detective fiction, or crime fiction. This framework provides a means for analyzing homicide drama, including the possibility of resolution and justice, geographic and temporal settings, the portrayal of the murder, and the construction of the three stock characters of crime fiction (the victim, the detective, and the murderer). The chapter concludes with a presentation of theories about the impact of media portrayals of crime upon public beliefs about crime, criminality, and the criminal legal system.

Article

Mixed-race Asian Americans have long been a part of the visual culture of Asian Americans, yet, like the wider culture, in Asian American studies the figure of the mixed-race Asian American is rarely recognized or acknowledged. This absence is notable given the field’s sustained interest in representations of Asian interracial romantic relationships in both print and visual media. The simplest explanation would be that mixed-race Asian Americans are difficult to recognize visually as Asian. This explanation locates the source of under-representation in the bodies of mixed-race Asian Americans and their failure to signal race correctly. Within that causal logic, some bodies push viewers to categorize those bodies incorrectly as monoracial or as confoundingly ambiguous. Since race is a social fiction, however, it does not simply exist in specific bodies waiting to be read. Instead, the ambiguity of mixed-race Asian representations resides in the exchange between the viewer and the viewed. The study of visual representations of mixed-race Asians intervenes in this racial narrative. While the visual apprehension of race may appear to bypass culture, the study of representations of mixed-race Asians makes apparent the ways in which the visual is constantly mediated by cultural codes. Race appears to exist on the surface of the body for the viewer to scan. On the contrary, the features that signal racial difference are socially determined, and people are trained to prioritize those features as they enter into culture. Representations of mixed-race Asians often fall outside common racial coding, slowing the process of assigning racial meaning to fetishized features. These bumps in the road open up a space for scholars to denaturalize visual racialization and to begin to unravel the cultural codes that inform readings of racial categories. Rather than looking for a solution to the problem of mixed-race Asian representations, scholars writing on mixed-race Asian Americans focus on visual representations to trouble racial categories and to question what it means to look—or not look—Asian. By tracking the shifting racialized reading of images of mixed-race figures such as Hollywood star Merle Oberon across time and genre, it becomes apparent how cultural context rather than mixed-race bodies shapes the visual apprehension of racial difference.

Article

South Asian American visual culture is a diverse field of visual art, created by artists who are first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, among other diasporic locations (e.g., Kenya). South Asian American artists work in a range of media forms, including photography, sculpture, installation, video, painting, and drawing. Collectively, these artworks are frequently exhibited in museums and galleries as depictions of contemporary South Asian immigrant life. However, a close reading of individual works produces a more dynamic picture. Instead of viewing South Asian American visual culture solely in terms of artists’ own immigrant biographies, scholarship and museum practices have begun to focus on how its aesthetic and political contributions have been central to the representation of racialized, gendered, and sexualized immigrant bodies in the United States since the turn of the millennium. Drawing across archival collections, aesthetic histories, and digital media forms, artists create works that link the colonial documentation of “native” bodies on the subcontinent with the surveillance and documentation of immigrant bodies by the US state. Alongside artists, academics and activists also work to produce curatorial interventions through exhibitions that generate feminist and queer critiques of the relation between nation-state and diaspora. Emphasizing the transnational ties of capital and labor that bind together the subcontinent with the United States, South Asian American visual culture creates new frameworks for the relationship between race, visuality, and representation.

Article

During the American Civil War, Union and Confederate commanders made the capture and destruction of enemy cities a central feature of their military campaigns. They did so for two reasons. First, most mid-19th-century cities had factories, foundries, and warehouses within their borders, churning out and storing war materiel; military officials believed that if they interrupted or incapacitated the enemy’s ability to arm or clothe themselves, the war would end. Second, it was believed that the widespread destruction of property—especially in major or capital cities—would also damage civilians’ morale, undermining their political convictions and decreasing their support for the war effort. Both Union and Confederate armies bombarded and burned cities with these goals in mind. Sometimes they fought battles on city streets but more often, Union troops initiated long-term sieges in order to capture Confederate cities and demoralize their inhabitants. Soldiers on both sides were motivated by vengeance when they set fire to city businesses and homes; these acts were controversial, as was defensive burning—the deliberate destruction of one’s own urban center in order to keep its war materiel out of the hands of the enemy. Urban destruction, particularly long-term sieges, took a psychological toll on (mostly southern) city residents. Many were wounded, lost property, or were forced to become refugees. Because of this, the destruction of cities during the American Civil War provoked widespread discussions about the nature of “civilized warfare” and the role that civilians played in military strategy. Both soldiers and civilians tried to make sense of the destruction of cities in writing, and also in illustrations and photographs; images in particular shaped both northern and southern memories of the war and its costs.

Article

The Black Arts movement heralded an important turn in the history of African American literature. Between 1965 and 1975, a loose confederation of African American poets, playwrights, artists, and intellectuals set out to remake the world in their own image. Fed up with what they considered to be the oppressive logic of Euro-American cultural standards, these practitioners theorized and executed a program of black aesthetic self-determination. Contemporary critics followed suit, emphasizing Black Arts’ conjoined investments in nationalist politics and radical poetics—the discursive level at which the movement reshaped African American letters. That remained the dominant way of understanding the movement until the early 21st century, when scholars began examining Black Arts’ publishing networks and institutions, or the material conditions for creative expression. Since then, scholars have shown how the movement’s effort to redefine the black voice was achieved through a concomitant effort to redesign the black text. Their research has pointed to the need for historicizing the politics of design in this moment of literary transformation. For Black Arts publishers, the work of photographers, illustrators, and graphic designers was important not only for bringing specific literary texts to life but for inviting everyday readers into a robust, race-affirming literary culture.

Article

Asian American queer performance indexes racialized, gendered, and sexualized forms and modes of performance created by, for, and about Asians in an American context. Since the 1980s, queer and ethnic studies have conceptualized performance not only as object of study (e.g., staged performance, visual art, film) but also as a method of critique and hermeneutic for troubling knowledges of Asian American encounter and subject formation. Performance in this sense can be understood as Asian American and queer in its engagement with and critical rescripting of histories and ideologies of empire, nationalism, war, globalization, migration, missionizing, white supremacy, and cis-normative heteropatriarchy that constitutes themes of Asian American studies. The interdisciplinary field of performance studies offers quotidian performance, racial performativity, and gender performativity as discursive tools with which to consider social conventions and scripts that render Asian American queer formation legible and dynamic toward future rewritings.

Article

As we begin to think about the United States as a carceral state, this means that the scale of incarceration practices have grown so great within it that they have a determining effect on the shape of the the society as a whole. In addition to the budgets, routines, and technologies used is the culture of that carceral state, where relationships form between elements of its culture and its politics. In terms of its visual culture, that relationship forms a visuality, a culture and politics of vision that both reflects the state’s carceral qualities and, in turn, helps to structure and organize the society in a carceral manner. Images, architecture, light, presentation and camouflage, surveillance, and the play of sight between groups of people and the world are all materials through which the ideas of a society are worked out, its politics played out, its technology implemented, its rationality or common sense and identities forming. They also shape the politics of freedom and control, where what might be a free, privileged expression to one person could be a dangerous exposure to another, where invisibility or inscrutability may be a resource. In this article, these questions are asked in relation to the history of prison architecture, from premodern times to the present, while considering the multiple discourses that overlap throughout that history: war, enslavement, civil punishment, and freedom struggle, but also a discourse of agency, where subordinated peoples can or cannot resist, or remain hostile to or in difference from the control placed upon them.

Article

How do we account for the place that the Nuremberg trials have come to occupy in American popular memory, culture, and discourse? For some observers, the Nuremberg trials, conducted at the end of World War II, represent an exemplary, and thus to be celebrated, first effort to establish international norms of conduct between nations in the wake of unimaginable atrocity. Rather than exercising arbitrary or indiscriminate retribution, the war’s victors turned to law for redress against Germany and in the process laid the foundation for a normative framework that might subsequently be employed to adjudicate global conflict. Little appreciated in such legal-centric accounts of the impact of the trials or explanations of their lasting importance is the role of visual texts in the proceedings and, more specifically, the prosecution’s use of concentration camp liberation footage to provide evidence of Nazi criminality. In the context of the trials, these texts established a certain regime of truth, fortified a particular moral position, and fixed as self-evident Nazi lawlessness. Significantly, they have since come to securely anchor what people believe animated the trials’ legal arguments and thus what the trials were about. To understand, therefore, the place that the Nuremberg trials have come to occupy in popular memory, culture, and discourse, one must consider how the prosecution incorporated and used visual texts and how these texts then helped shape not only popular renderings of the postwar proceedings but an enduring belief in the magically transformative nature of law to counter (Nazi) evil and reestablish humanity’s common bonds.

Article

Criminal justice is a perennial theme in modern comics published in the United States and United Kingdom, with dominant narratives revolving around the protection of the innocent from crime and harm or the seeking of justice outside the authority of the state. The history of the comics medium and its regulation in the mid-20th century, particularly in the United States, shows how the comics medium itself—not just its popular content—was embroiled in questions of criminality, in relation to its perceived obscenity and fears that it caused juvenile delinquency. Indeed, the medium’s regulation shaped the way it has been able to engage with questions of crime and justice; the limitations on moral complexity under the censorship of the 1954 Comics Code in the United States, for example, arguably led to both a dearth of critical engagement in crime and justice concerns, and an increased evil or psychopathy in criminal characters (because more nuanced motivations could not be depicted under the Code). From the 1980s onwards, the restrictions of the Code abated, and a broad “maturation” of the form can be seen, with a concurrent increase in critical engagement with criminological questions. The main themes of comics research around crime and comics after the 1980s include questions of vigilantism and retribution, seen as the dominant concern in mainstream comics. But other leading questions go beyond these issues and explore comics’ engagement with the politics of crime and justice, highlighting the medium’s capacity to question the nature of justice and the legitimate exercise of state power. Moreover, stepping back and considering the general relationship between comics and criminology, comics can be seen as important cultural forms of expression of moral and social values, as well as potentially alternative orders of knowledge that can challenge mainstream criminology. From free speech, juvenile delinquency, and vigilantism, to politics, culture, and disciplinary knowledge, there are significant interactions between comics and criminology on a variety of levels.