WJT Mitchell’s What do Pictures Want

For this paper, a 2-page summary is certainly one option; you can also choose to focus on and discuss an idea or two which interests you from the essay below: Showing Seeing From: WJT Mitchell’s What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (University of Chicago Press, 2005.) I want to conclude by reflecting on the disciplinary location of visual studies. I hope it’s clear that I have no interest in rushing out to establish programs or departments. The interest of visual culture seems to me to reside precisely at the transitional points in the educational process—at the introductory level (what we used to call “Art Appreciation”), at the passage? way from undergraduate to graduate education, and at the frontiers of advanced research.27 Visual studies belongs, then, in the freshman year in college, in the introduction to graduate studies in the humanities, and in the graduate workshop or seminar. In all of these locations I have found it useful to return to one of the earliest pedagogical rituals in American elementary education, the show?and?tell exercise. In this case, however, the object of the show? and ? tell performance is the process of seeing itself, and the exercise could be called “Showing Seeing.” I ask the students to frame their presentations by assuming that they are ethnographers who come from, and are reporting back to, a society that has no concept of visual culture. They cannot take for granted that their audience has any familiarity with everyday notions such as color, line, eye contact, cosmetics, clothing, facial expressions, mirrors, glasses, or voyeurism, much less with photography, painting, sculpture, or other so?called “visual media.” Visual culture is thus made to seem strange, exotic, and in need of explanation. The assignment is thoroughly paradoxical, of course. The audience does in fact live in a visible world, and yet has to accept the fiction that it does not, and that everything which seems transparent and self?evident is in need of explanation. I leave it to the students to construct an enabling fiction. Some choose to ask the audience to close their eyes and to take in the presentation solely with their ears and other senses. They work primarily by description and evocation of the visual through language and sound, telling “as,” rather than “and” showing. Another strategy is to pretend that the audience has just been provided with prosthetic visual organs, but do not yet know how to see with them. This is the favored strategy, since it allows for a visual presentation of objects and images. The audience has to pretend ignorance, and the presenter has to lead them toward the understanding of things they would ordinarily take for granted. The range of examples and objects that students bring to class is quite broad and unpredictable. Some things routinely appear: 2 eyeglasses are favorite objects of explanation, and someone almost always brings in a pair of “mirror shades” to illustrate the situation of “seeing without being seen” and the masking of the eyes as a common strategy in a visual culture. Masks and disguises more generally are popular props. Windows, binoculars, kaleidoscopes, microscopes, and other pieces of optical apparatus are commonly adduced. Mirrors are frequently brought in, generally with no hint of an awareness of Lacan’s mirror stage, but often with learned expositions of the optical laws of reflection, or discourses on vanity, narcissism, and self?fashioning. Cameras are often exhibited, not just to explain their workings but to talk about the rituals and superstitions that accompany their use. One student elicited the familiar reflex of “camera shyness” by ag?gressively taking snapshots of other members of the class. Other presentations require even fewer props, and sometimes focus directly on the body image of the presenter by way of attention to clothing, cosmetics, facial expressions, gestures, and other forms of “body language.” I have had students conduct rehearsals of a repertoire of facial expressions, change clothing in front of the class, perform tasteful (and limited) evocations of a strip?tease, put on makeup (one student put on white face paint, describing his own sensations as he entered into the mute world of the mime; another introduced himself as a twin, and asked us to ponder the possibility that he might be his brother impersonating himself; still another, a male student, did a cross?dressing performance with his girlfriend in which they asked the question of what the difference is between male and female transvestism). Other students who have gifts for performance have acted out behaviors like blushing and crying, leading to discussions of shame and self?consciousness at being seen, involuntary visual responses, and the importance of the eye as an expressive as well as receptive organ. Perhaps the simplest “gadget?free” performance I have ever witnessed was by a student who led the class through an introduction to the experience of “eye contact,” which culminated in that old first?grade game, the “stare?down” contest (the first to blink is the loser). Without question, the funniest and weirdest show?and?tell performance that I have ever seen was by a young woman whose “prop” was her nine?month?old baby boy. She presented the baby as an object of visual culture whose specific visual attributes (small body, large head, pudgy face, bright eyes) added up, in her words, to a strange visual effect that human beings call “cuteness.” She confessed her inability to explain cuteness, but argued that it must be an important aspect of visual culture, because all the other sensory signals given off by the baby—smell and noise in particular— would lead us to despise and probably kill the object producing them, if it were not for the countervailing effect of “cuteness.” The truly wondrous thing about this performance, 3 however, was the behavior of the infant. While his mother was making her serious presentation, the baby was wiggling in her arms, mugging for the audience, and responding to their laughter—at first with fright, but gradually (as he realized he was safe) with a kind of delighted and aggressive showmanship. He began “showing off” for the class while his mother tried, with frequent interruptions, to continue her “telling” of the visual characteristics of the human infant. The total effect was of a contrapuntal, mixed?media performance which stressed the dissonance or lack of suturing between vision and voice, showing and telling, while demonstrating something quite complex about the very nature of the show?and?tell ritual as such. What do we learn from these presentations? The reports of my students suggest that the Showing Seeing performances are the thing that remains most memorable about the course, long after the details of perspective theory, optics, and the gaze have faded from memory. The performances have the effect of acting out the method and lessons of the curriculum, which is elaborated around a set of simple but extremely difficult questions: What is vision? What is a visual image? What is a medium? What is the relation of vision to the other senses? To language? Why is visual experience so fraught with anxiety and fantasy? Does vision have a history? How do visual encounters with other people (and with images and objects) inform the construction of social life? The performance of Showing Seeing assembles an archive of practical demonstrations that can be referenced within the sometimes abstract realm of visual theory. It is astonishing how much clearer the Sartrean and Lacanian “paranoid theories of vision” become af?ter you have had a few performances that highlight the aggressivity of vision. Merleau?Pontys abstruse discussions of the dialectics of seeing, the “chiasmus” of the eye and the gaze, and the entangling of vision with the “flesh of the world” become much more down to earth when the spectator/spectacle has been visibly embodied and performed in the classroom. A more ambitious aim of Showing Seeing is its potential as a reflection on theory and method in themselves. As should be evident, the approach is informed by a kind of pragmatism, but not (one hopes) of a kind that is closed off to speculation, experiment, and even metaphysics. At the most fundamental level, it is an invitation to rethink what theorizing is, to “picture theory” and “perform theory” as a visible, embodied, communal practice, not as the solitary introspection of a disembodied intelligence. The simplest lesson of Showing Seeing is a kind of de?disciplinary exercise. We learn to get away from the notion that “visual culture” is “covered” by the materials or methods of art history, 4 aesthetics, and media studies. Visual culture starts out in an area beneath the notice of these disciplines— the realm of nonartistic, nonaesthetic, and unmediated or “immediate” visual images and experiences. It comprises a larger field of what I would call “vernacular visuality” or “everyday seeing” that is bracketed out by the disciplines addressed to visual arts and media. Like ordinary language philosophy and speech act theory, it looks at the strange things we do while looking, gazing, showing, and showing off—or while hiding, dissembling, and refusing to look. In particular, it helps us to see that even something as broad as “the image” does not exhaust the field of visuality; that visual studies is not the same thing as “image studies,” and that the study of the visual image is just one component of the larger field. Political regimes which ban images (like the Taliban) still have a rigorously policed visual culture in which the everyday practices of human display (especially of women’s bodies) are subject to regulation. We might even go so far as to say that visual culture emerges in sharpest relief when the second commandment, the ban on the production and display of graven images, is observed most literally, when seeing is prohibited and invisibility is mandated. One final thing the Showing Seeing exercise demonstrates is that visuality—not just the “social construction of vision” but the visual construction of the social—is a problem in its own right that is approached by but never quite engaged by the traditional disciplines of aesthetics and art history, or even by the new disciplines of media studies. That is, visual studies is not merely an “indiscipline” or dangerous supplement to the traditional vision?oriented disciplines, but an “interdiscipline” that draws on their resources and those of other disciplines to construct a new and distinctive object of research. Visual culture is, then, a specific domain of research, one whose fundamental principles and problems are being articulated freshly in our time. The Showing Seeing exercise is one way to accomplish the first step in the formation of any new field, and that is to rend the veil of familiarity and awaken the sense of wonder, so that many of the things that are taken for granted about the visual arts and media (and perhaps the verbal ones as well) are put into question. If nothing else, it may send us back to the traditional disciplines of the humanities and social sciences with fresh eyes, new questions, and open minds. 27. It may be worth mentioning here that the first course in visual culture ever offered at the University of Chicago was Art 101, which I gave in the fall of 1991 with the invaluable assistance of Tina Yarborough.