Art of seeing through fog

Journal of Visual Culture - Visual Communication
April 23, 2004

Fred Inglis on two journals with the tools for cultivating a new interdisciplinary field

Launching a new journal takes guts. On the one hand, the editors are trying to break into an established circle of well-known names, all of them fairly secure on the librarian's list, and then to compete with their seniors as the latest voices, talking not about old topics and dead males, but engaged with the new and the difficult. On the other hand, a different editorial commando sets up its standard on an unbroken field, empty of rivals, and declares open a new empire of signs, ignored until now, vital to salvation.

Either way, the adventure is governed by Pierre Bourdieu's iron laws of the intellectual market: youth must superannuate the quiet-voiced elders by its novelty and flair, but can do so only by protesting its adherence to the true and timeless values of common academic pursuit.

When you also consider that the whole business partakes of the business that the university has become, and that new journals must acquire the allegiance and respectability of a star-studded editorial board, a team of obliging referees whose brass plates will be recognised by the research assessment exercise, and must persuade financially desperate library committees that they can afford another 170 quid, then you wonder how anyone at Sage can be bothered with so dicey a corner of capitalism. And yet, as Henry James remarked in 1893, "periodical literature is like a regular train... free to start only if every seat be occupied. The seats are many, the train is ponderously long, and hence the manufacture of dummies for the seasons when there are not passengers enough".

These two journals unfurl their standards over a vast, hardly cultivated field: the terrain, no less, of all the eye can see and the brain interpret. The Journal of Visual Culture has the grander names on its board and several wheelbarrows of lightish but varied gardening tools; Visual Communication trundles onto the empty field with a throng of smaller reputations but a much heavier-duty vehicle for theory construction.

The Journal of Visual Culture addresses the perennial problem of method and subject-matter with an anti-definitional essay by Mieke Bal, recommending that his co-workers, sensibly and impossibly, draw on all the human sciences, and defining interdisciplinary study as the creation "of a new object that belongs to no one".

So far, so postmodern. Bal has his pieties, but it is the admirable Norman Bryson, in his courteous reply to Bal, who best compresses the editorial policy of the Journal of Visual Culture . Bryson makes the familiar point that new academic subjects arise in response to much larger changes in feeling and in production, and the drastic change that these journals and their authors seek to understand is that "imperative to visualise" that now commands the moral imagination of nations. Art history, at present the most dynamic of the humanities, can do its bit, but is cramped by too small and canonical an image base. Visual culture needs an art history of everyday seeing, a historical anthropology of many peoples as they watched, looked and thought.

The Journal of Visual Culture has made a good beginning. Certainly, the medley of articles is such that what one might describe as eclectic can, on a gloomier day, look downright incoherent. There is a more-than-sufficient measure of comical unself-awareness, as must always be the case with the avant-garde. The second number includes an agreeable attack on the very idea of holding an opinion, entirely welcome in the present climate of preposterous opinionation, but when this is followed by 12 foggy photographs of fog, glossed with utter unintelligibility by faux-Mallarme opacities, the unstoppable opinion offers itself that this is a fatuity.

There is an unmistakable seriousness as well as a handsome hospitality in the range of method and morality, topic and topography on show.

Distinguished names flash out from the contents pages - Martin Jay, Mark Poster, Susan Buck-Morss, Griselda Pollock. But one not only notices a non-doctrinaire accommodation of canonicality alongside the fashion system - with Georges Didi-Huberman on the zephyrs blowing through Quattrocento painting adjacent to Giuliana Bruno on the street colourfulness of Havana - one is also first struck and then engaged by a shaping spirit at work on what I take to be the Journal of Visual Culture 's imperial theme.

This is the social contriving of an intellectual framework, with sensibility to match, capable of keeping faith with the promise of happiness held out by great art; of matching the momentary significance of art to the vast, exhilarating and exhausting omnipresence of imagery; and all this in terms of an academic conversation about how we might, as Wittgenstein said, "look and see", and then act upon each.

Visual Communication sets itself to the same task, but in a more doggedly theoretical way. It is less genially free-thinking and, although professing ecumenical purposes across the human sciences, grounds itself in the tradition of pedagogy founded by the London Institute of Education.

That is to say, the periodical has about it a much stronger sense of the classroom than the Journal of Visual Culture 's easy cosmopolitanism. One editor, Carey Jewitt, is herself a star at the London Institute, and a series of articles here tackles with solid traditionality such subjects as children's meaning-making in visual exercises, the reshaping of school English and children as photographers. The worthiness and necessity of these sharply remind us how rare it is for a mainstream academic journal to do its duty for the future by reaching beyond the complacencies and hysteria of the present.

In this brave effort, Visual Communication seems to me mistaken in setting itself to develop a "theory of everything". The curse of Marxism is still spoken by the old boy's spectres, and it consigns those who are so visited to the damnation of theory.

For example, Theo van Leeuwen and Gunther Kress, those two prominent partisans, are much cited in the pages of Visual Communication , as well as being the authors of an article. This latter offers "notes for a grammar of colour", which summons up the symphonic inclusiveness of Hallidayan linguistics, grandly conducted by Kress for many years, and offers to incorporate all communication of value and meaning in a universal semiotics of function. The trouble with this is that its dour abstractions can yield only formulae of calm banality. When theorists come up against things being various, all they can do is dump them in a category marked "multimodality".

This new instrument is much played in these pages, never more extravagantly than by those overexcited about all the high-designing jinks of which new technology is so wonderfully capable, and larking about with which is such a consolatory substitute for hard thought. A couple of essays exemplify this militantism and, while it won't quite do for this reviewer to rest in the cosiness of philistinism and quote instances of their crazily high-pitched and polysyllabic absurdity, it is true that even the grave and scholarly accents of Kress et al cannot move beyond the besetting fault of ever-more prolific categorisation. They count and classify; they cannot explain.

In this they betray their own inheritance. The mentor they need was, until only four years ago, on the doorstep. It was the genius of Basil Bernstein never to theorise too far. He found in the oddities of individual speech and cognition the decipherable imprint of social institutions. His key concepts are thus dynamic: they capture structure as it turns into identity.

This is the momentous task to which Kress and his hearties - and both these journals - should be applying themselves. I do not imply that Visual Communication is a mere testament to theory. It not only reports the news of the world and the facts of life, it does so, as does the Journal of Visual Culture , in search of those configurations of dominant ideas and values enshrined in the spectacles of the day.

In so far as this calls to mind Guy Debord's situationists of 40 years ago, then such an echo might deter both houses from too much whoring after the strange godheads of Lacan, Deleuze, Vattimo and Virilio, and instead seek that "sane, affirmative speech" by such sages of the "gaze" as Michael Baxandall and T. J. Clark. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

Fred Inglis was formerly professor of cultural studies, Sheffield University.

Journal of Visual Culture

Editor - Marquard Smith and Raiford Guins
Publisher - Sage, triannual
Price - Institutions £219.00 Individuals £37.00
ISSN - 1470 4129

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