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On Second Thought:
The Call of the Lost Tribe
a review of James Elkins’ Visual Studies

Also, it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile, even if the lost tribe finds itself. Huh?! What James Elkins does in his book Visual Studies is shake up the field. A favorite theme is “uncertainty,” not surprising for a book with a subtitle A Skeptical Introduction. The last paragraph of the book is the home Elkins hopes the lost tribe of visual studies finds:
“We need to become irritated at our favorite theories and theorists and tired of our usual list of visual objects. Visual studies should be ferociously difficult, as obdurate and entangled in power as the images themselves. Complacency on that score leads back towards the fun house of aimless impressionistic writing about the joys of contemporary consumerism. There is so much more out there waiting to be understood.”

Who should read this book? Anyone involved in a university Cultural Studies program. Who might find this book useful? Anyone involved in Art, whether as analyst or “generator.” Generators, makers of art, might wish to skim certain areas, but, since artists often complain about critics and art writing, this book is very informative of how such folk get their views. More important, the text shows how the understanding of the visual can be broadened from its currently limited parameters

Visual Studies is not a balmy celebration of the visual, but rather a skeptical look at university studies, to “raise the ante. I want to make life harder—and therefore more interesting—for people who love the visual world as much as I do.”

In his opening chapter, “What Is Visual Studies,” Elkins explores aspects of Visual Studies as a university discipline. It is not a light read, but the writing itself is clear, not dense. Sometimes the overview of the intricacies of the dominant philosophy and those ideas Elkins feels are ignored gets a bit difficult.

In surveying the field’s history, the places it is taught, and its publications, the reader realizes that Visual Studies is currently a mish mash.

Some notes about the curious illustrations of the first two chapters: For a book on the visual, the illustrations are washed-out and seem, well, frivolous—or at least random and unfocused. Perhaps this is supposed to add to the uncertainty Elkins wants us to feel. It’s more distracting than helpful. In chapter 2 a photo with a very limited value range shows part of a potters wheel. The author describes the photo incompletely, and comments “The art object may be neither central nor sufficient.” You can imagine a student saying “And this would be about what?"

In Chapter 2, “The Subjects of Visual Studies,” Elkins points out that, coming from Literature and Film departments, much of Visual Studies revolves around identity, class, and gender. Generally, the field uses the theories of post-structuralist social interpretation, and studies the film, photography, advertising, and the internet post-1950. There is some admixture of contemporary fine art, but visual studies mostly looks at popular media. He thinks all this is too limiting.

Very valuable is an extensive look at the High/Low culture debate. Artists, as opposed to writers/theorists/professors, might read this book for a general idea of the intricacies of a foreign world, much as someone who was a citizen of St. Louis in 1804 might try to understand the experiences of Lewis and Clark. Most of the alien territory would not be relevant, but it would be good to get a general idea, whether for threat preparation or possible self betterment.

Chapter 3, “Ten Ways to Make Visual Studies More Difficult,” suggests ways to keep the “sheer disarray” and newness that are the field’s strength, while focusing its methods and subject matter. He observes: The “unmasking” that goes on is often very superficial, stopping, for example, merely at the fact that a desire is created, but not at the deeper ramifications of symbols in an ad. Do we really need to teach that advertising is manipulative? Not all of the world needs Visual Studies to explain it; subjects for this discipline need to be limited. Every image cannot be construed in terms of gender or identity. Beyond popular modern images, what is the full’ domain of images? There are three most important fields for visual studies: cognitive psychology, physiological optics, and neurology of vision. The science of vision should be an important aspect of visual studies. Benjamin, Foucault, and Warburg are over-quoted and often quoted in contexts too optimistic for their melancholia towards consumer culture. Using only a small cadre of 20th century theorists, the field ignores a history that goes back at least to the Renaissance. (He lists an expanded roster of theorists.) He suggests the question “What does the film studies textbook describe that is not in the screenplay or storyboard?” to determine if it really studies the visual, or just text. Current writing is “perhaps one quarter multicultural” because the techniques are mostly western, involving hybridity, and psychoanalysis. The field needs other strategies. He suggests students do not make it easy on themselves by writing in the current vein. He suggests reading everything, not just the past 100 years and just certain sources/philosophies. A writer should engage sources, not just cite them in footnotes. He suggests writing well, by avoiding generalizations, cliches, and the common jargon.

In Chapter 4, What Is Visual Literacy, the author does not want to use the term as it was used into the 1970’s, as an obscure part of literacy in general, nor as freshman level introductory course to other art fields. He wants a freshman education in images that will suit physics, anthropology, cognitive science, engineering—interpretive image skills that will serve as common ground in many disciplines. In higher level and graduate courses, it should be determined what visual competencies are necessary for the discipline under study.

Literacy to Elkins means some commonly shared competencies, not just a set of methodologies. His suggestions for this shared foundation of competencies would go a long way to making art less a Tower of Babel. (The lost tribe can think they are home at Babel, but it is a false belief.) This chapter is a good source for a strong foundation that allows future building.

Yet, the chapter ends with a great difficulty. Elkins writes, “Here, then, is the paradox of visual literacy: it is crucial to begin thinking of the common pool of images that a university-wide program of visual studies might want to share, and at the same time it is entirely misguided to construe such a collection as an emblem of some general visual literacy.” This goes beyond PARADOX! It just makes no sense, and exhibits that Elkins, for all his good attempts at opening up Visual Literacy, still sometimes reflects the limits of deconstructionism.

Splendid is Elkins’ final exhortation “to become irritated at our favorite theories and theorists and tired of our usual list of visual objects... There is so much more out there waiting to be understood.”

It has never been true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Think the Theory of Relativity. Yet, these days the overhead of transporting information is changing. Think about the size of a book vs. the many reels of a theater movie vs. the size of a DVD. As storage/transport continues to shrink, we can afford the overhead of the visual. Visual studies most likely will become more relevant, because more universal, than even the recently founded Black Studies or Women’s Studies programs.

This book helps those lost in the super abundance of visual information by providing ways to make some sense of that abundance. Especially those studying in universities, the book is a fine challenge to the assumed wisdom. One problem is that the author thinks visual literacy “can’t mean anything” (page 128) because it cannot be “read” with any objectivity, a typical postmodernist view. While true to some degree, visual elements such as line, shape, value, color, texture, and composition, and the way our brain receives and interprets them (Arnheim and others of the 1970’s) permit precisely this general, basic “reading,” and should be fundamental to the study..

Although the ideas in this book sometimes overglorify the chaotic, James Elkins’ thoughts are a trumpet in the darkness for the lost tribe of the visual.
©2004 Robert Stanley