digital | visual | cultural
Is a specific way of seeing the world through digital visualising technologies emerging? If so, what are its conditions and consequences?
Digital | Visual | Cultural aims to explore these questions by engaging a range of scholarship that takes visual culture to be a fundamental mode of mediating the world, and one which produces particular kinds of subjects, objects, and relations.
The term 'visual culture' first appeared in Svetlana Alpers's study of visualising technologies in sixteenth century Amsterdam. It was her term for how a certain way of seeing emerged in that city at that time, which was evident across a wide range of image-types and depended on technological innovations in, for example, surveying and navigation as well as the camera obscura. It was an intensely descriptive way of seeing, which saw the world in terms of landscapes and territories. Other scholars such as Denis Cosgrove have been more explicit than Alpers in linking this visual culture to the emergence of mercantile capitalism, private property and, subsequently, to colonial appropriations.
Further discussions of visual culture have been developed in scholarship focussed on the evolution and intersection of technologies, capitalism, and imperialism in the second half of the nineteenth century. As capitalist production industrialised, empires expanded and cities began to grow as never before, once again a range of visualising technologies were invented and ways of seeing enacted. Photography and, later, film were harnessed to makes sense of the world as it was reconfigured economically, politically and culturally. Scholars such as Lynda Nead and Chris Otter have examined European urban experiences. Otter's discussion of the attentive technologies of illumination and inspectability in industrialised late nineteenth-century London, for example, argues that although was no single dominant gaze. Nonetheless, pervasive perceptual patterns can be discerned which gazed both outwards to the city and inwards to form liberal elite subjectivities.
Significant work has also explored the visual cultures of nineteenth-century colonialism and imperialism. Here, visualising technologies of many kinds were central to the logics of racialisation and exploitation. James Ryan, for example, has explored the role of the camera and the magic lantern in the Royal Geographical Society's imperialising efforts at the turn of the twentieth century.
The argument that moments of convulsive contradiction in an increasingly globalised, racialised, sexualised and gendered capitalism go hand in hand with specific ways of seeing the world are at the core of Digital | Visual | Cultural.
What then of the present moment? Nick Srnicek, among others, argues that we are currently in another phase of the reconfiguration of social and economic relations. The postwar productivity boom reached crisis point in 2008 and in his review of subsequent developments, Srnicek dubs their new form 'platform capitalism'. Platform capitalism is profoundly reliant on digital infrastructures and softwares. Platform capitalism also appears to be both generating and depending on particular visualising technologies, which are perhaps less representational and more ‘operative’, to use Harun Farocki's term. Scott McQuire suggests that the warp and weft of urban experience is shifting because of such networked digital media.
It is also clear, however, that such a broad brush account of the interactions between economic processes, social relations, and visualising technologies does no justice to the complexities of those relations. It risks reducing an account of visual culture to that of capitalism, when it is clear that visualities are central to many other power relations. Scholars such as Simone Browne are pointing to the ongoing complex dynamics of racialisation that are enacted through various forms of digital practices, for example, and there are the specific dynamics of the Anthropocene too. Attention is also being given to the affective politics of much social media. Indeed, a wide range of scholarship on these issues is emerging, driven by the experience of using such media, by concepts such as 'cognitive capitalism' and by a turn to a number of philosopher-theorists and their feminist, queer and postcolonial interlocutors.
That notion of visual culture as the visuality that dominates a particular place and time, structuring how it sees both itself and others, should always therefore be contextualised. In part this can be achieved by focussing on specific 'ways of seeing'. John Berger's elaboration of a 'way of seeing' points to the power dynamics embedded in specific forms of vision. It especially asks us to interrogate who is seeing what, where, and with what effects. Gillian Rose has argued that these questions must be at the heart of any critical visual methodology. And they have been elaborated by a range of critical scholars, not least among them Donna Haraway in her account of the 'god trick' of seeing everything from nowhere.
This moment of the profound digital mediation of images and ways of seeing thus gives rise to a range of pressing questions: What sorts of viewers are co-constituted with these complex re-formations of social relations and digital visualising technologies? How are all-too-familiar visions of class, race, gender and sexuality being reaffirmed? What new forms of human life (now perhaps better described as posthuman) are emerging? What does pleasure, fun and play look like? What forms of digital nonhuman life are also seeing, doing and being? What now might be an oppositional gaze, to use bell hooks's term, and what does it see? And what critical theoretical tools are needed to proffer answers?
The Digital | Visual | Cultural series of events will explore these issues over the next two years.
As a supplement to the event series, the Digital | Visual | Cultural website aims to be a resource for scholars, artists and activists interested in these issues.
Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. London: John Murray, 1983.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC with Penguin, 1972.
Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. London: Duke University Press, 2015.
Cosgrove, Denis E. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. London: Croom Helm, 1984.
Farocki, Harun. “Phantom Images.” Public, no. 29 (2004): 12–22.
Haraway, Donna. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium: FemaleMan©_Meets_ OncoMouseTM. London: Routledge, 1997.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
McQuire, Scott. Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016.
McQuire, Scott. The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space. London: Sage, 2008.
Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Nead, Lynda. Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Otter, Chris. The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800-1910. London: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. Fourth. London: Sage, 2016.
Ryan, James. Visualising Empire: Geography, Empire and Photography. London, 1997.
Srnicek, Nick. Platform Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016.
Gabrys, Jennifer. Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Georgiou, Myria. Media and the City: Cosmopolitanism and Difference. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.
Gordon, Eric. The Urban Spectator: American Concept Cities from Kodak to Google. 1st ed. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010.
Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Mattern, Shannon. Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Mattern, Shannon. Deep Mapping the Media City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How To See The World. London: Pelican Books, 2015.
Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. London: Routledge, 2002.
Steyerl, Hito. The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012.
Verhoeff, Nanna. Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012.
Withers, Deborah. Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015.