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Zrcher Hochschule der Knste Departement Kulturanalyse und Vermittlung MA in Transdiszliplinaritt Spezialwissen Transdisziplinaritt Kunst - Praxis - Vermittlung II

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Journal of Visual Culture


http://vcu.sagepub.com Responses to Mieke Bal's `Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture' (2003): Nine Modes of Interdisciplinarity for Visual Studies
James Elkins Journal of Visual Culture 2003; 2; 232 DOI: 10.1177/14704129030022006

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On the other hand, if it is in fact the case that the emergence of visual culture as an object of knowledge corresponds to or is part of the tentacular and capillary advance of a generalized regime of visibility, there is no reason to suppose that absorption or capitulation need be the only outcome. As Bals essay argues, visual culture is an area of critical negativity and negotiation: because seeing is an act of interpretation, interpretation can influence ways of seeing, hence of imagining possibilities of change. The study of the structure and operations of visual regimes, and their coercive and normalizing effects, is already one of the defining features of visual culture as distinct from traditional art history; and to the extent that this is so, it is an area in which sites and occasions for cultural analysis, resistance, and transformation are bound to proliferate and multiply, in tandem with the regimes own expansive tendencies. Reference
Van Winkel, Camiel (2003) On Visibility, presentation to the Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, The Netherlands, 24 March.

Norman Bryson Slade School of Art, London

Nine modes of interdisciplinarity for visual studies


Visual studies, visual culture, image studies, Bild-Anthropologie, Bildwissenschaft: the unnamed field is expanding very rapidly, and it is growing differently in different parts of the world. German Bildwissenschaft, as that term is used by Horst Bredekamp (forthcoming), refers to an outward expansion of art historys resources to encompass the full range of images. Bild-Anthropologie, the title of a book by Hans Belting (2001), is an experimental blending of anthropological, philosophic and art-historical concerns. In Mexico City, visual studies is growing from semiotics and communication theory.1 In Copenhagen, visual culture is a combination of American art history and English cultural studies, with a nearabsence of French influences.2 Visual culture, postcolonial studies, film studies, and cultural studies are blended in courses in places as far-flung as Bergen, Taipei, Delhi, Buenos Aires and Bologna (Elkins, forthcoming). Given the multiplicity of classes, courses, departments, names and languages, it is effectively impossible to keep track of the emerging genealogies of the discipline if that is what visual studies, as I will call it, turns out to be. In this very productive cacophony I think there are several discernible voices. Let me put these in a schematic form at first: afterward I will deepen the argument. 1. There are those art historians who would prefer to go on researching and teaching the established periods and works, however those might be construed in any given instance. In my experience, art historians will not say this openly: after all, in the current political climate they would only sound conservative. At the same time, I doubt that among the art historians who are content with their specialties there are

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too many who would mind if the discipline expanded. Most are not actively conservative, but immersed as specialists in all fields properly are in their subjects. Such historians are like stylites, perched on pinnacles of sheer knowledge. I would propose Charles Dempsey as an example: he is, for practical purposes, unapproachably well informed on several canonical artists of the Renaissance in central Italy, from Botticelli to the Carracci. It wouldnt be possible for a generalist ever to approach what a scholar like Dempsey (2000) has accomplished. 2. There are those who wish, as Horst Bredekamp has proposed, to make use of art historys methodological resources to illuminate a range of new objects, usually beginning with film and photography. In this model, art history as Bildwissenschaft moves outward, bringing its expertise and the density of its contextual analyses to bear on increasingly broad ranges of material. Bredekamp is primarily a specialist in 17th-century art, but he has written widely on the history of science, on the historiography of art history, and on art from the Renaissance to the present. From an historiographic point of view, German art history in particular has long had an interest in the subjects that now preoccupy visual studies beginning with Riegl and Warburg, and including both Benjamin and Panofsky. It follows that a productive path for the future is to continue to expand art historical inquiry to cover new kinds of objects. 3. There are those who want to recast art historys sense of itself by projecting onto it methodologies that come from the outside. One of the most interesting recent examples of this is Georges Didi-Hubermans Limage survivante, a monograph on Warburgs sense of images.3 The book can be read as an inquiry into the ways that psychoanalytic readings, coupled with Warburgian obsessions, can re-animate art historys sense of the history of images. Warburgs Pathosformel, the concept of Nachleben, and Freuds interest in the relation between the unconscious and images, combine to form an alternate model for the genealogies and patterns of influence that continue to justify art historical interests. Didi-Hubermans book has not yet been translated into English, and it is not clear what kind of influence it will have on a community of scholars whose methodological preoccupations are increasingly diverse. In making this abbreviated schema, I am trying to name only contemporary art historians: but if this were an historical listing, E.H. Gombrich would be preeminent in this category if only for his lifelong interest in psychology, and his consistent assertion that he was not an art historian. 4. There are those whose work entails a re-imagining of art history in the light of a more powerful explanatory principle. Ellen Dissanayake is an example: she is interested in finding the biological bases of art, and to the degree that she succeeds, she re-explains art historical phenomena with the same subsumptive effect that B.F. Skinners (1995) theories had on earlier models of animal behavior. A similarly powerful and entirely different program was pursued by Pierre Bourdieu (1994). In theory, his Marxistsociological interpretation of the desire to own and trade in art would provide a master narrative for art history, turning the existing art historical literature into a secondary phenomenon, an inadequate reflection of incompletely realized desires. As far as I know neither Dissanayake nor Bourdieu ever had it in mind to subsume art history as a discipline, but for those who find their writing persuasive, art history is necessarily an epiphenomenon of more fundamental ideas.

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5. There are those who want to bring together several fields to create a meeting place of disciplines, a kind of bazaar or collage of simultaneous and kaleidoscopically alternating disciplinary fragments. If visual studies were constituted in this way, art history would be one among several disciplines (or pieces of disciplines), with no special preeminence. Bruno Latours recent exhibition and book Iconoclash (2002) is a good example. Latour is interested in finding an inclusive, democratic space for what he calls iconophilic scholars of all kinds. The intellectual space of Iconoclash is somewhere between and among religious studies, science studies, and art history. Ill call this the Magpie Theory of interdisciplinarity, because it works at least initially by hoarding. It is generous, unruly and optimistic, and its only enemies are those iconophobes, icon fetishists, or iconoclasts who cannot bring themselves to participate in a broad iconophilic forum of ideas. 6. From here things become more complicated. There are those who want to bring together fields, but without producing anything that could be called a new discipline or even a set of known disciplines. There are many different hopes for this more elusive interdisciplinarity. In one version, the interdisciplinary space is exactly that: a void between disciplines. Bits of darkness from the darkness of interdisciplinary space, according to the literary theorist Robert Hodge, can be introjected into the white of mixed disciplines.4 For visual studies, a central example here would be Jacques Derrida, in the sense that his forays into visuality have been made intentionally without recourse to a home discipline. Derridas Memoirs of the Blind does not interrogate disciplines, or even make its incursions explicit: but a full listing of the fields Derrida assays in that text including linguistics, phenomenology, classics, ontology, art history, conservation, religious studies, and literary theory would show that much of the work takes place between such nameable locations. 7. Another conceptually challenging version of the desire for genuine interdisciplinarity has been articulated by Stephen Melville. It is not clear to me, he wrote in the 1996 October questionnaire on visual culture, that visual cultural studies is in any interesting sense interdisciplinary, nor that it can give rise to anything I would take to be interestingly interdisciplinary (p. 53). A true interdisciplinarity in Melvilles sense could occur if the new field will allow its very conceptual order or disorder to locate the object it studies. To think of things the other way around, where visual studies is a new configuration of existing interpretive methods bent on objects that are already identified (as in my number 5), is to seek the safety of conventional interdisciplinary thinking.5 If Im reading Melville right, it would also not be genuinely interdisciplinary if visual studies constituted itself as a moving void between known disciplines, because the very existence of a conceptual map colored white and black for disciplines and voids would vitiate the genuine conceptual interest that could only come from an ongoing uncertainty regarding the force and purpose that disciplines might be said to possess. 8. Another kind of interdisciplinarity for visual studies would be one that sinks below disciplines, and occupies a kind of subbasement outside of normal intellectual habitation. Tom Mitchell (1996: 178) has suggested as much by

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proposing that visual culture be a kind of de-disciplinary operation. We need to get away from the notion that visual culture is covered by the materials of art history, aesthetics, and media studies, he writes. Visual culture starts out in an area beneath the notice of these disciplines the realm of non-artistic, non-aesthetic, and unmediated or immediate visual images and experiences. It is about everyday seeing, which is bracketed out by the disciplines that conventionally address visuality. It is an intriguing idea; if there is such a thing as a demotic de-disciplined way of thinking about everyday seeing it will have to emerge very gently between the many disciplinary, anti-disciplinary, and trans-disciplinary initiatives that currently constitute the field. 9. The last few of these are mobile models, where visual studies would have to be in continuous motion, Deleuze-fashion, in order to find its subjects. A final and most radical position is the disavowal or critique of borders as such. Richard Johnson (19867) argues this way when he complains about the codification of knowledge, which runs against some main features of cultural studies including its openness and theoretical versatility, its reflexive [and] even self-conscious mood, and especially the importance of critique (p. 38). One of the things Mieke Bal argues in Visual Essentialism is that some borders, and some of those who want to keep them closed, need to be removed if visual culture is to develop in the most interesting possible way. Hers is an exemplary position, as fully thought through as any so far in the field. It is also an endgame text, because beyond it beyond the practices she exemplifies in her own writing, which negotiate borders in several different ways there could be nothing but shapeless writing, formed according to choices made independently of disciplines and their borders. Now the very interesting thing about theorizing disciplines, I think, is that putting any one of these theories to work involves inhabiting other options both those I have named and the many others I havent. It is not possible to take up any one of these without also working from within at least one of the others. The restriction on theorizing interdisciplinarity applies not to the coherence of the theories themselves, but to the possibility of actually enacting any one of them except the first, which continues to exist as a defining term, in isolation from this problematic. Even Bals approach, which I think is the most concerted and vigilant critique of the very concept of disciplinarity, depends as she herself knows on the persistence of disciplines. It follows that it is impossible to makes choices from this list, or from any similar list. This is the only sense in which I disagree with Bals essay, and it is just a question of the emphasis she puts on avoiding essentialism. I do not want to police disciplines, or keep art history pure (far from it!), but I find that the existence of texts that depend on disciplinary purity is itself crucial for the possibility of a truly innovative interdisciplinarity. Without resistance, resistance is useless. A perfect example, too often neglected in current debates, is Barbara Stafford. For decades she has been writing between, among, and around a large number of disciplines, and yet her work never settles for a single approach to disciplinarity. At times she writes as if disciplinary police are the most annoying impediments to good work, and at other times she writes from deep within specializations. There is resistance, within her work, to the de-skilling that so often accompanies the relaxation of disciplinary boundaries, and she writes happily and with confidence

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on the most arcane subjects. At the same time, there is a sense that out of the constellation of shards of obdurate specalized knowledge, a pattern will emerge a sign, as Mallarm says, projected on some vacant surface. Stafford was one of my dissertation advisors, and as a student I spent the better part of two years puzzling over her writing and its sources of coherence (Elkins, 1992: 51720). Leopardi once described his own scholarship as peregrine. It is an even more wonderful metaphor than Leopardi knew, because falcons have two maculas in each eye: one for focusing forward, in stereo, and a second for sharp-eyed looking to either side. Four maculas, three points on the earth in focus in quick succession. Why not write in such a way that it takes years to find the foci? What is good writing, if it isnt a concerted challenge to the reader? So I agree with Bal that disciplinary policing is inimical to what visual studies might hopefully achieve, but I would also like to conserve some borders, some purities, and some competencies, just in order that they can provide hard-edged resistance to the acid of the open spaces of interdisciplinarity. Even the most conservative retrenchment into disciplinary skills such as the one I named first on the list is necessary and desirable for the theoretical and practical development of visual studies. I have tried several of the nine theories myself, sometimes as a believer and other times as a visitor. The second theory, in which art history tries out its interpretive tools on non-canonical objects, was largely the strategy of my book Domain of Images. To the extent that that book made use of linguistics, archaeology, and anthropology, it was also an example of the fifth theory (the Magpie theory). In the context of that project I would defend both strategies. The reason why it continues to make sense to think of art history as a source for a wider visual studies (as in the second theory) is that art history has one of the richest and deepest histories of encounters with historically embedded objects. That is why it is such a temptation to throw it aside, and to critique some art historians interest in having a broader visual studies grow from their own discipline. The reason why art history, linguistics and other disciplines need to come together (as in the fifth theory) is because their particular competencies produce a productive iconoclash, in Latours term. And so forth: there are arguments, I think, in favor of each of the nine and many others besides, and those arguments can be made from the point of view of a radical experimentalism that has no allegiance to disciplinarity. The genuine challenge for visual studies, I think, is to find itself in places where all workable theories of interdisciplinarity and disciplinarity can still be enacted. I very much agree with the tenor of Bals essay, and her exemplary insistence on the lability of boundaries. I would just add that there is also good reason to mend the fences between neighbors: the existence of borders, and the competencies they enclose, are what give sense to our peregrine scholarship. Notes
1. The Universidad Nacional Autnoma de Mxico (UNAM) is the principal source of theoretical activity in cultural studies, but the Tec de Monterrey, a technical university with a large humanities program, offers courses in visual studies, divided between the Humanities Department and the Department of Communication and Technologies of the

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Elkins Responses to Bal Image. A third university, the Universidad Iberoamericana, offers visual studies courses in its Art Department. In the fall of 2002, the University of Copenhagen began offering an MA in Visual Culture. Niels Marup Jensens Billedernes Tid: Teorier og Billeder I den Visuelle Kultur (The Time of Images: Theories and Pictures in Visual Culture), an unpublished manuscript (c. 2000), stresses semiotics, theories of time, and Derridean meditations on context and framing. Jensens course on Visuel Kultur includes readings by Raymond Williams, Martin Jay, Rgis Debray (Three Ages of Looking), W.J.T. Mitchell, William J. Mitchell, Svetlana Alpers, Jonathan Crary, Susan Sontag (In Platos Cave), John Taylor (from Body Horror), Roland Barthes, David Freedberg, Robert Nelson (Appropriation, from Critical Terms for Art History), Hal Foster, Claudine Is (To be Primitive Without Culture), three essays from the Routledge Visual Culture Reader, Paul Virilio, and Lev Manovic (The Automation of Sight). Didi-Huberman (2002): a translation is planned by the Pennsylvania State University Press. Hodge (1995) also subscribes to the previous theory (my number 5) because he says it is possible to create transdisciplinary fields by mingling discipline with discipline in a promiscuous mix and at the same time mixing disciplinarity with non-disciplinarity. He also mixes metaphors, talking about taking bits and bringing them back into disciplines his Manicheism is arguably a little conflicted. Melville puts this as the difference between the scientific (Panofskian) line and the disciplinary line represented, for the sake of his abbreviated argument, by Wlfflin and Riegl.

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References
Belting, H. (2001) Bild-Anthropologie: Entwrfe fr eine Bildiwssenschaft. Munich: Wilhelm Fink. Bourdieu, P. (1994) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Bredekamp, H. (forthcoming) Art History as Bildwissenschaft, Critical Inquiry. Dempsey, W. (2000) Annibale Carracci and the Beginnings of Baroque Style. Fiesole, Italy: Edizioni Cadmo. Derrida, Jacques (1993) Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Nass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Didi-Huberman, G. (2002) LImage survivante: Histoire de lart et temps des fantmes selon Aby Warburg. Paris: Minuit. Elkins, J. (1992), Review of Barbara Staffords Body Criticism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), The Art Bulletin 74(3): 51720. Elkins, J. (forthcoming) Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction. New York: Routledge. Hodge, R. (1995) Monstrous Knowledge: Doing PhDs in the New Humanities, Australian Universities Review 2: 359. Johnson, R. (19867) What is Cultural Studies Anyway? Social Text 16: 3880. Latour, B. (ed.) (2002) Iconoclash! Karlsruhe: ZKM. Melville, S. (1996) Response to Visual Culture Questionnaire, October 77, Summer: 53. Mitchell, W.J.T. (1996) Showing Seeing: Response to Visual Culture Questionnaire, October 77, Summer: 38. Skinner, B.F. (1995) Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. New York: The Free Press.

James Elkins Art Institute of Chicago

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