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REVIEW: Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction

Elkins, James (2003). Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction. London: Routledge.

With its title, I became skeptical of the work. It seems that is appropriate to be skeptical of anyone who is skeptical in order to make sure their criticisms are valid. In this case, they are. Elkins points out many problems with the field of visual studies, from the academy to the research itself, which practically divides the book into two sections. Chapters one and two address the formation of visual studies and discusses its necessary integration into the modern curriculum, while the later portion points to specific research issues that are at fault in visuals, and in many places offers advice to correct those faults. I will explain those in more detail below. Throughout, Elkins cites Walter Benjamin, Michael Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan, calling them the canon theorists of visual studies. While these scholars are not theorists, they are philosophers who produced the major paradigms of visual communication, that is, art, culture, communication, semiotics, and power. Elkins uses the thinking of these scholars to argue for an academic basis and philosophical grounding for the ideas of visual studies.

If you believe Elkins’ introduction, you see visual studies as the half-breed red-headed step-child of art history, English, modern language, anthropology, sociology, communications, film studies, and women’s studies that was conceived after a 1980s’ gang-bang where someone had the misfortune of inviting technology. Elkins’ description makes visual studies seem as if it is composed of the leftover parts of all these academic departments. However, visual culture has a significant place in the digital world, and the “leftover” nature of visual studies is its strength. Visual studies can be poised to understand and embrace digital society because it has ideas and roots in many disciplines (think the strength of cross cultural interaction that comes with globalization, but on a university level).

The trouble with visual studies and visual culture and its separation from its varying parent departments, I believe, is their interpretations of the intent of the visual. Take photography for example: If a photographer captures an image of an event that occurs in time for the purposes of storing and conveying information, then the image should be treated as information and communication; if a photographer captures or creates an image because of its aesthetic, then it is art. Key here, however, is the idea that informational photos are not art, and that photos do not exist as the only visual in visual communication. Elkins on page 41 says he fears visual culture departments will become a place where students will come to study the media. I disagree here. I think that, in modern society, visuals and media are ubiquitous to culture, and the good researcher must consider both visuals and media when trying to understand a visual problem.

The greatest strength of the first chapters is its positioning of visual studies into the larger academy. The major theorists for visuals come from throughout the academic world, and by understanding this history, the modern student can develop an enhanced bibliography of theorists for use in inquiry. (However, Elkins’ list on pages 32-33 is quite exhaustive, including Foucalt, Derrida, Sassen, Appadauri, Mirzoeff.)

In his third chapter, Elkins challenges that the field of visual studies to be better. He begins by stating that scholarship in the field is too easy, and that scholars are not addressing the depth of data and its implications in doing research. I couldn’t agree more. Upon reading this, I immediately thought of James Carey’s work in Communication as Culture and Dave Paul Nord’s “Plea for Journalism History” as challenges to historians to improve their craft, and I think Elkins’ chapter here works in the same way. His opening argument here is that visual studies needs to embrace the depth of the Marxian critique, that is, to understand how the images of a culture explain economic and societal forces. I tend to agree here, but I feel like there is more to economic and societal forces than Marx. While Marx has the root to many of these ideas, understanding of the economy and culture in the 1800s is not necessarily valid in the age of technology and instantaneous communication. Global culture and technology has made us aware of more societies and issues than we ever have before, and understanding is needed to have a functional communication.

Ultimately, this text is a quick, but challenging read. Students in visual studies, and in visual communication, should find it as a challenge for what their research can be, for what it ought to be. Visual inquiry can be a powerful academic tool if used in the standard Elkins prescribes (one of thorough questions and thoughtful answers), and can establish an epistemology and theoretical canon that can stand without an intermingling of many academic departments.

While this book is about visual culture, it certainly includes visual communication. Visual communication concerns the messages sent and received by a culture, therefore, an understanding of a visual culture is a necessary part of visual communication work. While visual communication focuses on messages, visual culture focuses on artifacts and meanings, as well as messages. Both disciplines are concerned with the visual representation and impact on society. This text is not a theory text of visual communication or visual culture, nor could it be, as theories for both disciples are rare. That said, it does seek to be the root of theory in the sense that it tells where the main ideas of the discipline, such as social semiotics, social theory, and globalization, entered the academic world. This text can be used to introduce the major paradigms of visual communication in an effort to understand its underlying theory.

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