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Visual Culture

The Visual Turn, Visuality, Historical Emergence Of The Field Of Vision As A Site Of Power And Social Control

While visual culture has certainly been around as long as culture itself, the phrase visual culture used to denote a specific component of culture in general, a set of visual practices, or an academic discipline is quite recent. James Elkins, one of this emerging field's leading scholars, dates the term from 1972, saying that it "was used—perhaps for the first time …—in Michael Baxandall's Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy" (p. 2). The recent provenance of the term visual culture is important because it indexes a historical shift in the importance of vision itself that has led to an ongoing reconceptualization of the visual and what has been called, in another neologism, visuality. Elkins locates the origins of visual culture as an emerging academic discipline in the cultural studies movement that started in England during the late 1950s, and sees visual culture as an American (U.S.) extension of that project (with an emphasis on the visual that did not really get off the ground until the 1990s). What is visible, how it appears, and how it affects nearly every other aspect of social life is suddenly of paramount concern.

The emergence of an idea called visual culture surely implies the emergence of a set of urgent problems for which the idea should enable some kind of answers. At a certain moment in the late twentieth century, a new consideration of the role of the visual, of perception, of images, and of the technologies and subjectivities that are embroiled in these relations became an urgent matter for scholars. This moment, which may be identified with what has been called from various corners and with differing emphasis as poststructuralism, the information age, media society, postindustrial society, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and/or globalization, is marked above all else by a new degree of saturation of social space by visual technologies, and, one must assume, a related shift in their social function and significance.

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