Despite being rooted in a biological practice that most of us take for granted, visual experience is complex. The challenge of tracing how we consciously and unconsciously make sense of what is in front of our eyes has been exacerbated by the proliferation of mass media. Television, print media, film, and the Internet, all of which appeal primarily to the eye, using color, form, and narrative to convey messages more swiftly than the printed word, have displaced the central position of text in modern society, demanding the development of skills to analyze the nature and significance of the visual (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). In academic circles, the term “visual” is often paired with “culture” or “studies” to indicate an interrogation of the culturally and historically constructed nature of objects designed for visual consumption and the practices through which they are engaged. If the number of sessions indexed under the category “visual culture” at the annual meetings of academic and professional organizations is any indication, the investigation of the visual is firmly entrenched within American studies and cultural studies. At the same time, there is little consensus about the meaning of the word “visual” or the specific critical skills needed to engage in its analysis.

Cultural historians have long worked with visual materials. Before North American art was considered seriously by art historians, literary and historical scholars praised painters such as John Singleton Copley and Winslow Homer for creating work that expressed the directness and honesty of a distinctly national character by depicting unpretentious subjects in a bold, simple pictorial style (Isham 1905). A generation later, forebears of American studies such as Lewis Mumford (1931) and Henry Nash Smith (1967) focused attention on art, architecture, photographs, prints, and illustration as conveyors of broadly held attitudes about nation, community, and race, establishing a broad scope of materials worthy of cultural analysis. This scholarship has been critiqued not only because it supports a problematic notion of American exceptionalism but also because it presents visual material as a simple conveyor of unified meaning. As W. J. T. Mitchell (1994) has argued, interpreting visual imagery is as complex as interpreting the written word (though it requires different skills). By the 1970s, scholars could recognize the complex nature of the visual as something that draws meaning from both material details and the imagination. Building on the work of Smith, Leo Marx (1964/2000), and other members of American studies’ “myth/symbol/image” school, Alan Trachtenberg developed a sensitivity to visual experiences, from walking the Brooklyn Bridge to the need to manipulate the mirrored surface of a daguerreotype in the light in order to reveal the image, demonstrating that meaning is not singular and absolute but is dependent on the viewer and the context of viewing (Kulick 1972; Trachtenberg 1979).

Many of the spaces celebrated and critiqued by American studies and cultural studies privilege acts of viewing: the long avenues of Washington, D.C., designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, which create sight lines between the president and the legislature; Frederick Law Olmsted’s winding paths of Central Park, which reveal new vistas at every turn; the overwhelming spectacles of progress and empire visible at a World’s Fair (P. Scott 2002; Sears 1989; Leja 2004). Each of these sites contributed to the development of a specifically modern visuality. Earlier European visual cultures had nurtured a vision adapted to supporting the authority of the church and the monarchy. The modes of exhibition used by nineteenth-century U.S. museums such as those organized by Charles Willson Peale and P. T. Barnum invited viewers to assess the significance of often unfamiliar or fantastic objects by appearance alone. As Wendy Bellion (2011) and Neil Harris (1973) have argued, this invitation helped cultivate viewers’ capacity to navigate the increasingly complex political and economic reality of the industrial republic, which implicated citizens in networks of goods and people that extended beyond the familiar. New technologies of transportation and display created new visual experiences that in turn affected the viewer’s sense of self (Crary 1992). For example, the experience of viewing a landscape through the window of a fast-moving railroad inspired the development of a new kind of “panoramic vision,” based on the development of new apparatuses that articulated the viewer’s disconnection from his or her surroundings (Schivelbusch 1977/1986). A visuality of alienation can be traced through other artifacts of the spread of industrial and consumer capitalism, such as the department store, the urban park, and the cinema (Friedberg 1993).

Alienation is, of course, a key concept in Karl Marx’s theory of capitalist modernity, and the role of the visual in structuring a modern subject for whom the world exists as a consumable image cannot be overstated. As Tom Gunning has explained, “expanding urbanisation with its 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 all provoked the desire for images and attractions” (1989, 38). Building on Michel Foucault’s research on surveillance as a key strategy of modern social control, many scholars suggest that these institutions cultivate both an increased orientation toward the visual and an awareness of being seen. While analyzing how emerging strategies of display in the sites of modern life “privilege the visual,” Bruno Giberti notes that contemporary accounts demonstrate that the exhibition of goods “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 (2002, 213).

The visual assessment of people is reinforced by the media, which circulates images that help solidify perceived links between appearance and identity. This burden is borne in particular ways by viewers whose gender, race, ethnicity, or body marks them in a way that stands out from normative standards of healthy white masculinity. The critical examination of the politics of visual representation might be traced to John Berger, who argued in 1972 that the visual depiction of women routinely disempowers them by showing them in states of undress; positioning them reclining, looking away, or in a similarly passive pose; and emphasizing beauty over action. Berger emphasizes the psychoanalytic dimension of the visual, using French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s notion of the gaze to explain how visual pleasure is produced through the inscription of difference between viewer and viewed that masks or naturalizes the viewer’s power. Berger’s work also marks one origin for visual studies; it draws examples from both high art and mass media, enabling the audience to see the interdependence of seemingly disparate spheres of culture in maintaining unequal social relations. Scholars have subsequently linked the objectifying gaze and the creation of a sense of empowerment or disenfranchisement along lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and sexuality. The deconstruction of stereotypes is essential to this work; scholars of American studies have unpacked persistent images such as the savage Indian, the nurturing black mammy, the rural yokel, and the deceitful Chinese operating in film, advertising, and even high art and linked them to the social realities they mask (Fryd 1992; Jo-Ann Morgan 2007; Johns 1991; A. Lee 2001).

While stereotypes circulating in popular media encourage the visual assessment of types, the proliferation of photography encouraged a confidence in the ability to see individual character. Over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, photography revolutionized the notion of legal and sociological evidence, allowing for visual documents to serve a powerful role alongside written texts (Tagg 1988; Mnookin 1998). Distinctive visual paradigms mixing photography with text and other graphic forms such as charts and diagrams emerged to support the authority of emerging disciplines such as ethnography, psychology, journalism, and social reform (Stange 1989; Wallis 1995; J. Brown 2002). Allan Sekula has 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” as tending to serve the institutional needs of the state to believe that such things as criminality could be perceived (1986, 18).

Official images influenced private visual practices as well. Shawn Michelle Smith (1999) has demonstrated how the visual assessment of deviance was reinforced by the creation of the family portrait album as a record of normative—that is, white, middle-class, patriarchal, and domestic—“American” appearance, again grounding this practice in a belief in the visibility of the “truth.” While the important role of visual imagery in consolidating and exercising institutional power cannot be denied, the constructed nature of stereotypes also allows visual authority to be manipulated and undermined, as postcolonial theory has shown (Bhabha 1983). Within African diaspora studies, black people’s heightened visibility has been related to the prominence of style as a self-conscious choice and source of pleasure instead of an innate expression of identity (S. Hall 1992b). This can even lead to self-representation that emphasizes the unreliability of images such as the “black acting school” in Robert Townsend’s satiric film Hollywood Shuffle (1987).

These types of scholarly and artistic interventions into conventional modes of visuality do the important work of unmasking or critiquing ideologies that might otherwise go unnoticed. They are most useful and instructive when they are paired with an appreciation of the complexity and richness of visual experience. One important strain of visual cultural studies focuses on thinking through the way viewers make meaning from what they see, with many scholars drawing on poststructuralist literary theory to describe this process. Roland Barthes (1977) argued that images have rhetorical value akin to verbal communication, with pictures conveying both denotative (or surface) and connotative (or implied) meaning. “Reading” an image demands an investigation of other things beyond the subject being represented to understand how a viewer is encouraged to respond emotionally and intellectually: we must consider point of view, style, and format of presentation. For example, mid-nineteenth-century representations of the North American landscape made from an elevated standpoint have been read as positioning the viewer as in control of the vast territory being surveyed and conveying a sense of presence and confidence (Boime 1991). Sometimes an image gains rhetorical power by referencing other images or manipulating color palette. The Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange’s black-and-white invocation of Renaissance Madonnas lends a sense of timeless dignity and beauty to her photograph Migrant Mother; the format of Mexican American fotoesculturas (photographs cut and mounted on three-dimensional supports) shape viewer response by mirroring Catholic religious sculpture (Kozol 1988; Garza 1998). Intention and reception, critical concepts in literary studies, apply to the visual as well since the significance of a work can be even more complex if it is designed to express an artist’s creativity or to move a viewer aesthetically, and the response to visual material can vary depending on the viewer’s background and visual frames of reference.

Certainly the visual remains a vital subject for cultural analysis, especially given the increasing predominance of digital media, which entail different forms of visuality. For some scholars, postmodernity is the first inherently visual culture, in which human relationships are fully mediated by virtual representations on film, television, and digital devices (Mirzoeff 1999). For them, privileging the term “visual” as a means of interrogating the significance of a premodern object or one made outside the influence of modern Euro-American culture stretches it beyond utility, as nearly any material object (including written and printed texts) might be said to have visual dimensions. At the same time, the restriction of the term “visual” could be seen as reinscribing colonial power structures and a teleological notion of history (Herbert 2003). Even as we acknowledge the dominance of U.S. global media as the result of a longer history of using the visual to establish and contest power within Euro-America, we can use an exploration of the diversity of visual practices globally and historically, or even of the differential ways in which a hegemonic visuality has played out across time and space, as a means of destabilizing its overwhelming force. As more groups gain access to digital media for the purpose of not only consuming but also disseminating visual images, the challenge of interpreting the visual will only become more complex, demanding the development of new strategies for assessing the significance of an image in ways that may push us beyond the modern concern with truth and value into as yet untheorized territory.

Disciplinarities, Histories, Methodologies
Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay