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The visual iconic

A long-standing argument has been conducted by scholars of public argumentation over the specific power exerted in public life by visual images.  No one denies that the brain’s responses are viscerally shaped by visual stimuli in ways that vary from and sometimes exceed the role of rational thinking or emotional reaction.  But there has been a tendency to disparage the role of the image in public life, as always subverting critical thought and deliberation, such as when the evocative appeal of a picture leads viewers to rush to judgment.

These arguably pernicious consequences for careful political reaction may be at work even when it otherwise seems like powerful images (of, say, Katrina or tsunami aftermath photos, or images of protesters being firehosed back or beaten) evoke positive responses, like a rush to donate blood or money or food, or to a sense of righteous indignation (as occurred when the Abu Ghraib photos were first circulated worldwide), since even in those cases a disproportionate reaction may be set in motion.  Audiences are thus moved to allocate resources in finally indefensible ways, expending an exaggerated share of their psychic care to erase injustices that can be seen, at the cost of relatively ignoring broader structural inequities that cannot be so easily visualized.  Given such a view, which I think is pervasive not just among scholars of argumentation but in the wider commentariat, pictures are seen as a shallow and shabby substitute for deliberation, truncating and oversimplifying as they often do more complicated issues.

Countering this perspective is one of the central tasks of Robert Hariman and John Lucaites’ No Caption Needed:  Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2007).  Previewing their argument, they note that “Instead of seeing visual practices as threats to practical reasoning or as ornamental devices that may be a necessary concession to holding the attention of a mass audience, we believe they provide crucial social, emotional, and mnemonic materials for political identity and action.”  Certain key images which achieve iconic status shape and reflect the larger motifs of democratic life; the case studies include images such as “Migrant Mother,” “Times Square Kiss,” “Accidental Napalm,” “Raising the Flag on Mount Suribachi” (the Iwo Jima flag photo) and others whose short titles immediately call to mind unforgettable markers of contemporary culture.

The potentially negative repercussions of the wide circulation of such images might be undone, in part, they note, by the capacity of new digital technologies to yield parody and cruder mockeries likely to stymie the aims of propagandists (“The good news [and they also note the bad news side as well] is that the dreaded political spectacle is broken up, fenced in, or otherwise democratically interdicted by digital media.  Even if an icon became the leading image of a propaganda campaign, it would at the same time be pulled through circuits of appropriation that quickly distort and criticize its intended effect” [304-305]).  Interestingly, a review essay in the new Columbia Journalism Review interrogates such potential optimism, by asking (as does its subtitle), “what will become of photojournalism in an age of bytes and amateurs”?  The implication of the essay, which admits of no easy conclusion, is that the same PhotoShop world that can debunk dictators and their propaganda machines also risks undoing the powerful benefits of investigative photojournalism (Alissa Quart, “Flickring Out,” CJR, July/August 2008, pgs. 14-17).

That certain iconic images acquire so many layers of signification as to finally reflect and then shape a wider polity’s sensibilities does not, of course, vindicate the sea of more banal images that course through a culture and which may alternatively distract (if only by their novelty and bedazzlement) or interrupt practices of thoughtful deliberation.  I wonder whether the potentially tighter nexus of socially accumulating signification between iconic images and clearly explicable public arguments is exceptional in the larger context of publicly mass circulating images.

In a lecture that builds on the book, where significant but more mundane images are scrutinized (the version I heard centered on images of boots and hands), a sort of Miller Analogy is made, where gesture is to oration as photojournalistic image is to ??? (deliberation, liberalism, politics, body politic).  The analogy does important argumentative work by suggesting that the integral relationship between gesture and public speaking is duplicated in the second pair.  In some ways the analogy works perfectly (of course, helped along by the fact that in the boots/hands talk the images are of gestures) – both gestures and images are mediated, constitutive, stylistically supplemental, relatively open-to-interpretation signifiers, performative — but the potential limits are also interesting, too, I think, since it strikes me that the disjunction between the two halfs of the analogy might justify a tilt in a direction more skeptical of these images as democratically productive or enabling or even necessary.

I say this for two reasons:

It seems to me that a gestural economy is oriented around emphasis, whereas a photojournalistic/image economy is oriented around attention – emphasis and attention are overlapping functions of course, but are also I think importantly distinctive.  When editors pick photos to accompany an essay, in the process watching perhaps thousands to get the right one, they are arguably making their choices not because they emphasize some aspect of the reportage’s argument or information, but rather, I suspect, because they grab the editor’s attention (and ours) by the collar.  Gestures are thus invariably more closely attuned to the content of (say) a speech than images are to issue coverage.  The main graphic used here in Atlanta to intro news about our ongoing drought is a good example, I think – the local ABC affiliate is using an image of a parched African desert, which has at best a slight substantive connection to the contours of the debate over the water shortage here except that it grabs attention to think that Atlanta might become a wholly parched wasteland.

Another potentially important distinction between a gestural and imagistic economy is that a speaker’s gestures can be directly connected to considerations of that person’s ethos and character, and are thus able to provide information pertinent to judgment.  Even when we’ve never seen the speaker before, how she gestures (if only because we know or think we know that person controls her own body) can signify character within the cultural code useful to making broader judgments about authenticity and eloquence.  That connection seems wholly severed by more fragmentary images – we not only have no idea who took (and framed) the picture, but obviously someone photographing, say, the President can choose to make him tiny or huge, titanic or irrelevant – so we are presented with exceptionally powerful images but almost by definition in ways that are radically decontextualized from aspects of judging “standpoint” or “perspective” that we would normally and almost unthinkingly access were we watching a politician orating or answering questions.

These issues have a widening significance in the humanities, a point forcefully put in a recent essay by Keith Moxey (“Visual Studies and the Iconic Turn,” Journal of Visual Culture 7.2 [2008]: 131-146).  Professor Moxey, the Olin Professor of Art History at Columbia University, writes to counter what has been identified as an iconic turn (in the work of WJT Mitchell this is referred to as a “pictorial turn”).  Referring to arguments advanced by thinkers like Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, and which Moxey sees as also reflected in the wider work of Badiou and Deleuze and others, he writes:

Works of art are objects now regarded as more appropriately encountered than interpreted.  This new breed of scholars attends to the ways in which images grab attention and shape reactions for they believe that the physical properties of images are as important as their social function.  In art history and visual studies, the disciplines that study visual culture, the terms ‘pictorial’ and ‘iconic turn’ currently refer to an approach to visual artifacts that recognizes these ontological demands.  Paying heed to that which cannot be read, to that which exceeds the possibilities of a semiotic interpretation, to that which defies understanding on the basis of convention, and to that which we can never define, offers a striking contrast to the dominant disciplinary paradigms of the recent past:  social history in the case of art history and identity politics, and cultural studies in the case of visual studies.  At their most radical, theories that claim access to the ‘real’ argue that perception allows us to ‘know’ the world in a way that may side-step the function of language. (132)

Moxey sees this move as productive but also problematic – productive because the iconic move (which I think one should note is not being defended by Hariman and Lucaites; one might actually read No Caption as a rebuke to such work) is a corrective against the tendency to read all images as representations of other (often textual) ideologies.  “By contrast, the contemporary focus on the presence of the visual object, how it engages with the viewer in ways that stray from the cultural agendas for which it was conceived and which may indeed affect us in a manner that sign systems fail to regulate, asks us to attend to the status of the image as a presentation” (133).

The implications of such work reach ever more deeply into communication scholarship, sometimes directly inspired by Hariman and Lucaites’ deeply impressive book (not to mention their longer term work on these issues) and sometimes shaped by other intellectual currents, such as interest in the relationship between rhetoric and aesthetics or the now wide-ranging influence of research on visual culture.

I was reminded of this in reading an impressive new essay written by one of my Georgia State colleagues, on the film Brokeback Mountain.  Davin Grindstaff, in the lead essay in the new Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies (“The Fist and the Corpse,” CCCS 5.3 [September 2008]: 223-244), connecting the idea of the image whose significance cannot be put into words to the philosophical/aesthetic category of the sublime, argues that a key potential contribution of queer theory for broader communication scholarship is that outlier expressions (discursive and imagistic) of sexual and orientational difference do more than challenge dominant heteronormative ideologies.  Rather, because they express identities that cannot be finally assimilated to the dominant culture (they thus can never be fully translated), such evocations of alternative orientational attraction actually help form constitutive conditions of possibility for the wider culture.  Fully conceptualizing the relationship of such alternative images (depicting as they seem to radically different modes of being) to the dominant structures of public argument (do they simply undo or reveal the limits of rationality traditionally understood?  when do such sublime or terrifying alternatives constitute the limits of dominant culture, and when do they lapse into mirror image caricature? etc.) provides an important supplement in the attempt to specify the conditions under which circulating images enable or derail social controversy.

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