American studies, cultural studies, and related interdisciplinary fields use the word “visual” to refer to the sensory experience of sight, the cultural practices developed around viewing, and those forms of media that appeal directly or primarily to the eye. Some scholars argue that the historical emergence of a “visual culture”—an era dominated by images circulating through photography, ads and illustrations, film, television, and the internet—has replaced “print culture” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). Others suggest that visual experiences have always been an important part of culture and examine how the strategies of producing, using, and interpreting them diverge and change. Approaches that interrogate the socially and historically constructed nature of objects and spaces designed for visual consumption alongside the practices through which they are engaged have been categorized as “visual studies.” This work is most useful and instructive when it is paired with an appreciation of the complexity and richness of visual experience.
What is the relationship between “vision” and “culture”? Early scholars of American studies proposed the existence of “collective images” or “national symbols” that were often visual in nature. This so-called Myth and Symbol school linked these themes to photographs, prints, paintings, illustration, and the built environment as visual representations encoded with national values such as democracy, reverence for nature, and a commitment to progress (Mumford 1931; Smith 1967; L. Marx  2000; Trachtenberg 1979). American Visions, a 1994 book and television series by the Australian art critic Robert Hughes, typified and popularized this exceptionalist approach, tracing through each generation of US American art a revitalization of the themes of newness and progress.
Opposed to this project of envisioning a national way of seeing is the argument that vision is both more individual and more collective, though in nonnational ways. Educational theorist Howard Gardner (1983) has suggested that some people have “visual intelligence” where others might be more logical-mathematical or interpersonal. Others describe visual intelligence as a kind of literacy that can be learned, either purposefully or through cultural experience (Elkins 2007). This approach is grounded in the belief that visual practices are historically produced, subject to change, and keyed to the social position of the viewing subject. Such an understanding has been central to what the term “visual” or “visuality” means in the field of cultural studies and has led to a proliferation of research that asserts the existence of multiple “visual cultures” that are not reducible to the nation: Black, feminist, queer, Spanish colonial, and Caribbean, among others. In this scholarship, a visual culture might be understood as a collectively shared set of images, iconography, and visual strategies through which viewers come to see themselves, recognize others, and characterize the world around them.
To understand collective visual experience—to see seeing, as it were (Mitchell 1994)—critics have taken up different dimensions of the visual. Some have devoted their attention to investigating visual communication, unpacking how images convey meaning. Is there a visual semiotics in which pictures have a rhetoric akin to verbal language, with icons, symbols, signs, or even style having discoverable meaning (Barthes 1977; Gombrich 1969; Peirce 1991)? “Reading” the visual in this way demands an investigation of things beyond the subject being represented (point of view, style, format of presentation) if we want to understand how a viewer is encouraged to respond emotionally and intellectually. The Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange’s black-and-white photograph Migrant Mother is one example. It invokes Renaissance Madonnas through its pose and iconography, lending the subject, Florence Owens Thompson, a sense of timeless dignity and beauty (Kozol 1988). But the tight framing of the composition also points to a different visual mode, that of the intimate family photograph. Intention and reception, critical concepts in literary studies, apply to the visual as well, since the significance of a work can vary depending on the viewer’s background and visual frames of reference.
Other scholars distinguish visual communication from verbal messaging, focusing on the distinctive nature of seeing. In Ways of Seeing (1972), a seminal contribution to the field of visual studies, John Berger argued, “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak” (cover). Among other things, Berger offered an important examination of how the visual is implicated in the creation of sexual difference through a lengthy exploration of the female nude in Western art and mass culture. Other feminists of this generation centered the visual and extended this focus into the examination of other kinds of social difference. Psychoanalysis, including Jacques Lacan’s analysis of “the gaze” ( 1978), has been an important dimension of this exploration of the power of the visual imaginary, as has Laura Mulvey’s influential exploration of “visual pleasure” (1975). Meanwhile, the concept of “the visual” has structured inquiry in the field of postcolonial studies. In their discussions of stereotypes, both Homi Bhabha (1983) and Frantz Fanon (1967a) focus on the instantaneousness of visual recognition of otherness. As Bhabha put it, “What these primal scenes [or perhaps primal seens] illustrate is that looking/hearing/reading as sites of subjectification in colonial discourse are evidence of the importance of the visual and auditory imaginary for the histories of societies” (28). In these contexts, the term “visuality,” understood as a “historical technique” of looking (Foster 1988, ix), emerges here as a useful way of understanding how looking is caught up with the exercise of hegemonic power.
While one strain of visual studies focuses on the psychological aspects of seeing, another insists that we understand its technological dimensions. These critics focus on how vision is shaped, directed, and given meaning. We might think of the ways the development of visual media such as advertising and film extended the expression of power through visuality further into everyday life. Indeed, the term “visual culture” is often contrasted with “high art” to focus on visual materials linked to the presentation of presumably neutral information or the stimulation of consumer desire. This scholarship explores how visual evidence gained authority in scientific and legal spheres in the nineteenth century (Tagg 1988; Mnookin 1998); how it identified the “integration of the discourses of visual representation and those of the social sciences in the nineteenth century” in ways that masked “the inadequacies and limitations of ordinary visual empiricism” and served the institutional needs of the state (Sekula 1986, 18); and how disciplines such as ethnography, psychology, journalism, and social reform relied on the authority of visual presentations of data in the form of diagrams, charts, and photographs (Stange 1989; Wallis 1995; J. Brown 2002).
A parallel form of analysis that draws on the foundational work of Michel Foucault ( 1995) focuses on the relation between visual surveillance and social control. This work explores how architecture and urban design evolved to privilege the visibility of what might be called citizen-spectators (Bellion 2011); how nineteenth-century exhibitions demonstrate that the interest in the goods on display “was matched or even surpassed by the equally diffuse and distracting spectacle of other people,” whom the viewer could judge in terms of appearance and behavior (Giberti 2002, 213); and how surveillance acts as a visual strategy that goes beyond looking by “constructing the very object of its observation” (Carrera 2003, 53). Other studies have identified persistent visual stereotypes of the savage Indian, the nurturing black mammy, the rural yokel, the deceitful Chinese, and the flaming queen, among others operating in film, advertising, and high art, exploring how such representations mask or manage social conflicts (Fryd 1992; Wallace-Sanders 2008; Johns 1991; A. Lee 2001; Meyer 2002). Still others locate the “visual” as a terrain where power can be contested, drawing attention to the constructed nature of stereotypes and the ways they can be manipulated and undermined. Work in African diaspora studies links black people’s heightened visibility to the prominence of style as a self-conscious choice and source of pleasure instead of an innate expression of identity (S. Hall 1992b) and advances stillness as a kind of performative blackness that offers another strategy of resisting the violence that attends racial surveillance (Young 2010).
All these usages of the term “visual” beg an important question: Is vision limited to what the naked eye can see? Some argue that vision itself changes over time in relation to new technologies of presentation and observation (Crary 1992). Scholars working in this vein link visuality to a modernity understood as organized around the presentation of the world as an image. Train travel, for instance, forced viewers to confront a constantly changing sight, inviting a “panoramic vision” that increases the viewer’s sense of disconnection from the surrounding world, thus privileging vision over other senses (Schivelbusch  1986). Similarly, expanded urbanization advanced what Tom Gunning (1989) calls a “kaleidoscopic succession of city sights, the growth of consumer society with its new emphasis on stimulating spending through visual display, and the escalating horizons of colonial exploration with new peoples and territories to be categorized and exploited” (38). These shifts, in turn, influenced the development of media such as film to meet viewers’ changing needs and desires.
These developments have led some scholars to claim that postmodernity has superseded modernity as the first inherently visual culture, one in which human relationships are fully mediated by virtual representations on film, television, and digital devices (Mirzoeff 1999). Such scholars restrict their analysis to images made specifically in the context of postmodernity. For them, attempts to privilege the term “visual” as a means of interrogating the significance of premodern objects or cultures beyond modern Euro-America stretch the term beyond its utility, as nearly any material object (including written and printed texts) might be said to have visual dimensions. Instead, they focus on an experience mediated by screens that downplays corporeality and severs the visual from other sensory experiences. At the same time and as other scholars have observed, the historical or cultural restriction of the term “visual” could be seen as reinscribing colonial power structures and a teleological notion of history (Herbert 2003).
A different critique of the assertion that the visual has a privileged position in contemporary culture comes from scholars working within affect theory and new materialism. They have argued that making meaning out of visual experience cannot disregard the sensory aspects of the encounter with things seen and that attending to how feeling—both tactile and emotional—intersects with seeing can open criticism to nondominant perspectives (Brown and Phu 2014). One example is the format of Mexican American fotoesculturas (photographs cut and mounted on three-dimensional supports), which mirror qualities of religious sculpture, inviting a kind of physical and emotional response specific to Latinx Catholicism (Garza 1998). Another is the concept of “visual sovereignty,” which has emerged to describe representations that assert the critical presence of the marginalized subject while eluding objectification through a disruption of stereotypes and Western conventions of unified time and space (Raheja 2011). Moving from a notion of biological vision to what might be called the “visionary,” Jolene Rickard (1995) argues that what one sees in such works depends on the viewers’ familiarity with the history and values they embody. These critiques demonstrate that whatever understanding of the term “visual” we use, we cannot get at the richness of visual experience or harness its radical power without taking into consideration much that goes beyond what the eye can see.