Visual Culture

After dinner yesterday I met up with my Thai friend Thasnai, who is back in Chiang Mai now doing a PhD in cultural anthropology and development studies (or something like that) while teaching a theory course in the new Media Art and Design program, of which I witnessed an embryonic version last summer when I lectured here at the university. Thasnai used to live in Chicago, and he's really the reason I originally came to Chiang Mai -- first for an art festival and then for last year's stint. He asked me to do a couple of lectures while I'm here. One of them is on a subject he proposed: why is it that "visual culture" became a hot topic in academia at a certain moment? (That moment, I'd guess, is sometime in the early to mid-90s.)

This is a tough question, because we're still living in that moment, even if visual culture as a field, or a subfield, seems a bit past its cutting-edge prime now. Part of what I'd say is that it's an outgrowth of art history that tried to be more inclusive of lots of different kinds of visual media, and to think about them in somewhat more anthropological than genealogical terms (i.e., the "history" of art history is about development through time, and tends to make some assumptions about progress toward something better, while the "culture" of visual culture is more about the range of aspects of culture in a given moment). I might say that "visual culture" as a term for an area of study carries within it the seeds of its own demise, at least as far as art history is concerned, because art history was never just about the eye (the "visual"), but also about the hand, the body, and the other senses. So visual culture seems to lose something that art history possessed. When visual culture first arrived on the scene as a hot new thing in the 1990s (as opposed to its earlier incarnation in the new art history of the 1970s, when it was first coined by Michael Baxandall) many people criticized it for being 1) a facile way for academics to indulge in fluffy explorations of pop culture 2) part of a reduction of everything to appearances, and a forgetting of things that really matter, like relations of production (this would be the marxist view). In an issue of the journal October (in, I think 1996), people criticized visual culture as a symptom of digital media. If I remember correctly, the argument went something like this: digitization destroys the materiality of the image, and with it, history. It makes everything the same, a collection of 0s and 1s.

On the other hand, these same things, or similar things, were said about film and television; so why didn't "visual culture" displace art history then? My optimistic instinct is that part of the difference in the 90s is the potential for digital media to release creative energies in sectors of society that could not, say, talk back to the television. Broadcast media are one-way; digital media are two- or more-way. The image is fundamentally changed when anyone can get ahold of it and edit it. Hence the race on the part of big-money capitalism to prosecute music downloaders, and to claim ownership of digital reproductions of famous art objects (my department is dealing with the consequences now, and it may, at least for a while, have a big impact on how we teach).

I have a sense of why art history started thinking differently about images; it had to do with absorbing theoretical developments from other disciplines, and with the advent of digital media. But I'm not so sure I understand why other disciplines all of a sudden started noticing them. That's probably a chapter for another day.

For today, I might say that it's also a tough question in my own personal context at the moment -- being in a foreign country where I have only a tenuous grasp on the language and culture. I have developed an instinctive grasp of certain things but am constantly surprised by others. (How do you know which dishes in a restaurant are assumed to be shareable? It's still a mystery to me. And does the style of the restaurant sign have anything to do with its pretentions to gourmet status? Tonight we ate at a Vietnamese restaurant in a very chi-chi garden resort guesthouse down a dark soi. I would never have guessed from the sign on the street how fancy the guesthouse was. Style is something I still can't read here.)

This morning I went with my dad and grandmother and Mike to Doi Suthep, a mountain just outside of Chiang Mai where there's a famous temple that has become a kind of Buddhist pilgrimage site. There's a good example of how visual culture is not just visual, but aural, tactile, olfactory too. We were splashed with holy water, listened to bells being rung over and over again, and to fortune sticks being shaken; we smelled incense and watched people taking picture after picture (and took a whole bunch ourselves).

In the afternoon we went to the center of town, which, on Sunday afternoons, is closed to motor traffic and becomes a kind of market -- just like every evening in Luang Prabang (except the version in Chiang Mai is more sophisticated, with many more kinds of products, and many Thai people along with all the tourists). Thasnai mentioned something about how this idea of creating temporary pedestrian streets has caught on in the region in a kind of unreflective way. Every city has to have this practice and it becomes naturalized so people think they've always had it, and nobody knows exactly why. It's nice to get to walk in a slightly more relaxed way in a city where it's pretty dangerous to walk around (because of the traffic hazards and poor sidewalks). But you can't be all that relaxed, because there are people everywhere and there's no relief from all the buying and selling. It turns what could be public space into a shopping mall, not a walking city, though that's what they call it: "Walking City." (Like every other government program here -- Amazing Thailand, One Tambon One Product -- it has to have its slightly off-kilter English name.)

But I suppose that was visual culture too. Perhaps that's the problem with the idea of visual culture; how do you know where its boundaries are?


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