For those to whom I’ve done a poor job explaining what I study in grad school, I quote from W. J. T. Mitchell’s essay “Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture:”
Critique: myths and counter-theses
Ten myths about visual culture
Visual culture entails the liquidation of art as we know it.
Visual culture accepts without question the view that art is to be defined by its working exclusively through the optical faculties.
Visual culture transforms the history of art into the history of images.
Visual culture implies that the difference between a literary text and a painting is a non-problem. Word and images dissolved into undifferentiated ‘representation.’
Visual culture implies a predilection for the disembodied, dematerialized image.
We live in a predominately visual era. Modernity entails the hegemony of vision and visual media.
There is a coherent class of things called ‘visual media.’
Visual culture is fundamentally about social construction of the visual field. What we see, and the matter in which we come to see it, is not simply part of natural ability.
Visual culture entails an anthropological, and therefore unhistorical, approach to vision.
Visual culture consists of ‘scopic regimes’ and mystifying images to be overthrown by political critique.
Eight counter-theses on visual culture
Visual culture encourages reflection on the differences between art and non-art, visual and verbal signs, and ratios between different sensory and semiotic modes.
Visual culture entails mediation on blindness, the invisible, the unseen, the unseeable, and the overlooked; also on deafness and the visible language of gesture; it also compels attention to the tactile, the auditory, the haptic, and the phenomenon of synesthesia.
Visual culture is not limited to the study of images or media, but extends to everyday practices of seeing and showing, especially those that we take to be immediate or unmediated. It is less concerned with the meaning of images than with their lives and loves.
There is no visual media. All media are mixed media, with varying ratios of senses and sign-types.
The disembodied image and the embodies artifact are permanent elements in dialectics of visual culture. Images are to pictures and works of art as species are to specimens in biology.
We do not live in a uniquely visual era. The ‘visual’ or ‘pictorial turn’ is a recurrent trope that dispels moral and political panic onto images and so-called visual media. Images are convenient scapegoats, and the offensive eye is ritually plucked out by ruthless critique.
Visual culture is the visual construction of the social, not just the social construction of vision. The question of visual nature is therefore a central and unavoidable issue, along with the role of animals as images and spectators.
The political task of visual culture is to perform critique without the comforts of iconoclasm.