15 * Visual CultureThe Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory


From Visual Culture to Design Culture

Guy Julier

Visual culture in forensic science

Glenn Porter

Visual Culture and American Religions

Kristin Schwain

Dear journal of visual culture

L. Berlant

A clash of visual cultures

Nick Hopwood



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This chapter looks at books published in the field of visual culture in 2012.

The works reviewed locate key strands in visual cultures as it focuses on the intersections between aesthetics and politics; issues of temporality and identity; and the ontology of the digital image.

Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism, edited by Meg

McLagan and Yates McKee (MITP [2012]) is a robust volume that is concerned with the material manifestations of political action within the nongovernmental realm. It is particularly concerned with how medial forms make manifest political action and communication, and is clear to disavow the distinction between the political domain and the representations of that domain in visual cultures. Indeed, it is the systems, complexes and platforms through which images are mediated that form the focus of the book, rather than the image itself. The aims of the volume are trifold: to ‘examine the political fields constituted by images, the practices of circulation that propel them, and the platforms on which they are manifest’ (p. 9).

To do so, McLagan and McKee divide the thirty-one contributions into five parts: ‘The Persistence of Photography’; ‘Disobedient Bodies, Circulating

Images, Archival Traces’; ‘Cinema, Documentary, Political Effects’; ‘Expanded Architectures’; and ‘Multiplying Platforms’. Through these five parts the editors foreground the range of research in the field of visual cultures that involves ‘form-sensitive analysis of the specificity of differing platforms that chart the imbrication of aesthetic form, medial practice, and political intent into one assemblage’ (p. 12).

Photography makes visible the interaction between polis and place, bringing to the surface events and manifestations that are covert or imperceptible. Prefacing his examination of Trevor Paglen’s photographs with an apt quotation from John Milton’s Comus—‘Thus I hurl \ My dazzling spells into the spongy air; \ Of power to cheat the eye with blear illusion, \ And

The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, 22  The English Association (2014)

All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com doi:10.1093/ywcct/mbu015 give it false presentments’—Keenan shows how Paglen makes visible the traces of US military and intelligence operations, demonstrating the importance of making visible the operations of power. Keenan argues that Paglen’s project is ‘less one of restoration or recovery than of identifying the mechanisms and the visual texture of disappearance itself’ (p. 43). Ariella Azoulay explores how ‘regime-made’ disasters have become part of the landscape of contemporary politics. With an astute eye Azoulay analyses photographs of displaced people in Palestine, arguing that such images are ‘reframed and enhanced to support the point of view that the army and government tried to establish’ and that ‘critical discourse’ has ‘continued to sort and characterize photographs according to the position attributed to their maker’ (p. 36).

Shifting from people to place, Eyal Wiseman’s project ‘Forensic

Architecture’ analyses the ways in which ‘space enters the legal process a mediatized representation: as images, drawings, films, maps, models, and the remote sensing of built structures, environments and their ruins’ (p. 439). He underlines the importance of cartography in the contested space of Palestine, framing it as ‘political plastic’, a ‘territorial arrangement that is continuously shaped and reshaped by political forces’ (p. 430). The ways in which space can contest legal and political boundaries is central to the ‘Women on Waves’ project that brought obstetric facilities to women in countries with limited or no access to abortion services. Operating twelve miles offshore, outside the territorial waters of countries such as Ireland,

Portugal, Poland and Ecuador, Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts operated under Dutch law to intervene in the ‘preventable pandemic’ of illegal abortions that results in injury to ‘at least two million women’ annually.

Identifying the visual and emblematic power of the mobile clinic aboard the ship rented by ‘Women on Waves’, Carrie Lambert-Beatty underlines the complex interrelationships between ‘activism and representation, physicality and information, politics and media’ in NGO actions (p. 279).

Contested bodies, and their engagement with space, are at the heart of

Judith Butler’s ‘Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street’. Opening with a photograph of the student demonstrations in London in 2010, and references to the manifestations in Tahrir Square, Butler argues that ‘collective actions’ engender a powerful dynamic between agency and space. The demonstrations ‘collect the space itself, gather the pavement, and animate and organize the architecture’ (p. 117). Invoking Hannah Arendt, Butler argues that ‘the bodies in the street redeploy the space of appearance in order to contest and negate the existing forms of political legitimacy’ (p.125). Benjamin J. Young examines Allan Sekula’s photographs of street protests that took place during the meeting of the World Trade

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Organisation in Seattle in 1999. Young argues that Sekula’s Waiting for Tear

Gas (White Globe to Black) (1999–2000) ‘troubles the oppositions between identification and estrangement and between absorption and theatricality that underpin ideology critique and modernist criticism, respectively’ (p. 150).

The contributions to Sensible Politics are pertinent, astute and often provocative. Well-illustrated by images and plates, the focused and succinct chapters combine to articulate a necessary and persuasive position on the importance of understanding the aspects of visuality inherent in the complex interrelations between people and power. With Sensible Politics McLagan and McKee succeed in tracing a ‘broader image-complex whereby politics is brought to visibility through the mediation of specific cultural forms that mix together the legal and visual, the hermeneutic and the technical, politics and aesthetics’ (p. 23).