Sturken and Cartwright (2009) teach us that all knowledge is not created equal, and what we seem to know as a culture is largely based upon the representations and images that surround us because these representations help us make sense of our social world. Visual culture is the “symbolic realm” through which people attribute meaning to representations of reality, and then live within such representations (Fiske, 1992).
“Culture” is generally understood as, “The set of privileged activities, texts, and rituals—ranging from the highly valued to the common—through which people express complex relations to the world in which they live” (Barker, 2002). As such, studies of visual culture discuss the concept of “power,” and attempt to teach us that power is like oxygen—although you can‟t see it, it‟s everywhere. Sturken and Cartwright (2009) further teach us that there are “practices of looking” that can help us better understand how power is essentially circulated through all of the images that comprise our visual culture. This is significant to address because it implies that the visual images and external representations that permeate our social world serve to help us to understand that world. Therefore, if these images help people make sense of their social world, then we should critically examine these images and representations to better understand how certain cultural ideologies and dominant norms are able to pervade into the public consciousness and remain unchallenged.
This paper will briefly discuss the historical roots of visual culture as an interdisciplinary area of study, and examine how power is inherently involved in the circulation of images that exist in our social world, as well as discuss how these images
serve to reinforce existing ideologies and generally remain unchallenged.
Visual Culture is an academic interdisciplinary field that is rooted in Marxist critical theory, combining a variety of essential assumptions from sociology, cultural anthropology, semiotics, philosophy, communication, art history, art criticism, social theory, and film/video studies (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009). Due to its Marxist foundation, the scope of visual cultural studies was originally limited to investigating power in images and representations as it related to concepts of social class, ideology, and nationality (Barker, 2002). Stuart Hall is a Marxist scholar who played a vital part in expanding the scope of visual cultural studies to additionally address the role and intersections of race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender in the production of cultural knowledge (Barker, 2002: 19). Current studies of visual culture are primarily concerned with examining the place and intersections of ideology, social class, gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity as represented in visual culture, and how we come to learn the “knowledge of culture” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009).
Antonio Gramsci came up with the notion of “cultural hegemony,” which he defined as the process whereby one social group in a culturally diverse society dominates over another, in which the ideals, values, and beliefs of the dominant (i.e. ruling) group come to be accepted as the social norm (Barker, 2002). As such, it is this passive acceptance and embracement of social norms that serve to explain how and why the views of the dominant class come to be misleadingly perceived as universal ideologies that represent all social groups. We can therefore understand how the values and ideals
affiliated with dominant groups as represented through visual culture serves to reinforce cultural knowledge. It is interesting to note that dominant ideologies are inherently subjective and can change as they are challenged over time—“they vary across people and cultures, and in many ways are aligned with beliefs and belief systems” (Brooks, 2007: 45). This is significant because it rejects the notion that dominant ideologies are universal and objective, which is what members of elite groups would like us all to believe. Relating this to Gramsci, “cultural hegemony” is therefore inherently concerned with an individual‟s position and the allocation of power as it pertains to social control over the masses in a society. Gramsci further acknowledges that the ability of the ruling class to impose norms and essentially control the masses furtively escapes criticism because, as these norms circulate throughout society, they are perceived as “universal ideologies” and not necessarily as a cultural discourse that solely support the interests of a ruling elite (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009).
Visual culture helps us to understand that the images we see in popular culture are all related to notions of power, and that no image exists in an independent external world (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009). Power, as circulated through the images that comprise our visual culture, plays a significant role in reinforcing dominant (i.e., “universal”) ideologies and norms, which are supposed to help us better understand the social world in which we live. This relates to Gramsci‟s concept of cultural hegemony (as discussed above) because it reveals that the images that flood our social world—whether pictures in magazines, commercials on television, advertisements, billboards, movies, shows, etc.all represent reality from the perspective of dominant social groups. To make this seem
less abstract, take for example, the fact that an overwhelming majority of the commercials that are aired on mainstream television don‟t feature families of Hispanic descent. Sure there are some commercials that feature Hispanic people, but these are few and may also represent this group in a certain way. Most commercials we see feature Caucasian actors and actresses, which paints a picture of our social reality as predominantly populated by white people. However, statistics indicate that by the year 2040, Caucasians will be outnumbered by Hispanics—and yet this is not the representation we see across our visual culture. Take, for another example, representations of women that circulate throughout media—women are often sexualized and portrayed dressed in certain ways in magazines, television shows, movies, in advertisements, etc. It is important to understand the role of power in the visual representations of women as described above. These images serve to reinforce stereotypes that women are physically inferior to men, for example, and as such we don‟t question the patriarchal society we live in and the fact that men are supposed to be the head of the household. This demonstrates how power is able to go unnoticed because we come to accept that men are generally the head of the household and are supposed to wear the metaphorical pants in a relationship within American society. In addition, as members of U.S. society we seem to understand that women are “supposed” to be ladylike, for example, and when any woman does not conform to this norm, she is understood to be deviant. We can therefore understand that by being constantly subjected to these representations of women across visual culture, norms are consequently formed within society about women that generally go unchallenged because they seem natural (such as women being pretty, behaving like a lady, wearing certain kinds of clothes and
dressing a certain way, etc.).
Within studies of visual culture, “the politics of the image” refers to the presumption that media images and representations are forms of resources that present versions of reality that audiences attempt to identify with (Fiske, 1992). Studies of visual culture reveal that it is important to “interrogate the image,” which refers to an investigation in which any media representation is thoroughly scrutinized and examined in an attempt to gain insight related to the ways the images that comprise our visual culture help us to make sense of the world in which we live (Fiske, 1992).
Images portrayed through mass media can problematic for a variety of reasons: mass media serves to keep audiences pacified through the notion of “false consciousness,” it helps maintain social order, and it tells us which individuals should (or shouldn‟t) have power (Brooks, 2007). “False consciousness” is an identity issue, whereby conditions of inequality create and reify ideologies that confuse people about their goals, loyalties, aspirations, and purpose as an individual in a particular cultural context (Brooks, 2007). Most commercials we see on mainstream television within the U.S. feature a male-headed household, women cleaning and tending to household needs, and men as the heads of businesses/corporations (i.e., the boss), for example. It is important to acknowledge that these commercials illustrate how power is an essential part of the images we see, which in this case serves to privilege men in our society as the more dominant, and stronger being.
The media‟s ability to keep audiences pacified through “false consciousness” reveals the pervasive power and influence media representations have in essentially shaping the social realities of individuals in society. The extent to which media are able to keep audiences in a “false consciousness” depends upon the existence of a “passive audience,” in which dominant ideologies and cultural texts exist unchallenged by those who it concurrently serves to marginalize. Sturken and Cartwright (2009) discuss the concept of “reflexivity” as it relates to understanding how certain images serve to maintain social norms and encourage us all to be reflexive. This concept exists in opposition to a “passive audience” because it views members of society as active agents who are capable of consciously understanding one‟s place in the social structure of society through the interrogation—not passive consumption—of images.
Sturken and Cartwright (2009) critique views of universal knowledge and notions of “representationalism.” Critiques of representationalism argue that we cannot know what something „is‟ when „is‟ suggests either a metaphysical universal truth or an accurate representation of an independent world object (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009).
This is significant because it suggests that an accurate representation of reality is actually impossible. A thorough critique of representationalism should address the relationship between “truth” and actual events that exist in the world and are subsequently portrayed in the media. It is important to understand that people are generally not exposed to a vast majority of all the events that occur and images that exist in the world, except for those that the media depicts (Barker, 2002). As a result, the imags that media “re-represents” become the “ontological starting point” for the attribution of meaning because without
these representations (or misrepresentations), people wouldn‟t have access to any information surrounding actual events, regardless of whether its quality may or may not be reliable, biased or accurate reflect our particular social world (Barker, 2002).
Individuals and social groups attempt to make sense of representations that the media produces and attribute meanings that are contextually bound and depend upon one‟s particular historical, social and political circumstances. As such, Sturken and Cartwright (2009) emphasize that knowledge and the tools of its production are always contextually bound, and we should understand that our cultural knowledge stems from the images and representations we are constantly exposed to.
As members of this culture, we must always remain consciously aware of the fact that the media packages information in such a way that it represents dominant social discourses and ideologies, which are consequently perceived as universal norms that therefore manage to avoid criticism. This significantly suggests that people attribute meaning and formulate their own opinions and attitudes from exposure to media representations that go largely unquestioned in society and portray “reality” as it pertains to the discretion of dominant social groups. The media representations that comprise our visual culture essentially shape what knowledge is understood as “true.” Once we understand this, we can critique the “realist ontology” of representationalism because it assumes that some real thing is out there and we can know that this is the truth (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009).
Studies of visual culture are important because they paint a picture of society in which our social world is structured by invisible influences that serve to create widely accepted cultural discourses and ideologies. Sturken and Cartwright (2009) teach us that culture always allows for change—it is not permanent or unvarying but rather, evolves over time as history has written and rewritten itself. Studies of visual culture are therefore successful in raising awareness of the role of power in images, as they are primarily concerned with “describing and intervening in the ways in which texts, discourses, and other cultural practices are produced within, circulate through, and operate in the everyday life of human beings and the institutions of society (Barker, 2002).
Power is always present in everything we do. Power influences our personal development, the development of our social world, and even our cultural ideologies and norms. Throughout their book Practices of Looking, Sturken and Cartwright (2009) strive to raise awareness regarding the relationship between cultural knowledge and power, in an attempt to create a “reflexive” audience that is capable of critically examining visual culture and all that it encompasses. If an examination of visual culture has taught us anything, it is that power is always present in the images and representations we come across in our social world, and that only after critically examining the collection of images can we understand why our collection of cultural knowledge exists as it does.
Barker, C. (2002). Making sense of cultural studies: Central problems and critical debates. London: SAGE Publications.
Brooks, A. (2007). Reconceptualizing representation and identity: Issues of transculturalism and transnationalism in the intersection of feminism and cultural sociology. In Edwards, T. (Ed.). Cultural theory: Classical and contemporary positions. London: SAGE.
Fiske, J. (1992). Cultural studies and the culture of everyday life. In Grossberg, L., Carey, N., and Treichler, P. (Eds.), Cultural Studies (154-174). New York, NY: Routledge.
Sturken, M., Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of looking: An introduction to visual culture. Oxford University Press.
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