Sunday, August 16, 2015

Visual Culture by Richard Howells and Joaquim Negreiros

Visual Culture by Richard Howells and Joaquim Negreiros (Second Edition), Polity Press 2012

I suspect I should really read this book every year whilst I am studying. There is a lot to take in and not all of it makes complete sense to my ageing brain... 

It provides an intro to analysis of visual culture, by seeking to increase visual literacy. "It does not aim to provide solutions to the meanings of specific visual texts, but instead to equip students with the means to discover for themselves what and how such texts communicate."

"A primer for the practice of looking."

The book tackles theories of visual analysis and aggregates a variety of approaches.

The first half provides strategies for the analysis of visual texts.

1. Looking at the content of a work of art - the practice of iconology
2. Looking at the form rather than the content of a visual text
3. The usefulness and limitations of art history in reading visual texts
4. Art interpretation via ideology; gender-based film study and sociological models for cultural texts
5. Semiotics
6. Hermeneutics

The authors call for "an interpretative and multilayered approach to the discover of meaning in visual texts.

The second half of the book moves from general theories to an analysis of specific media: 

7. Fine art
8. Photography
9. Film
10. Television
11. New media

Considering the breadth of the information and the complexity of some of these ideas, this book is quite palatable. It is well laid out with a summary at the beginning of each chapter to help with orientation. Each section ends with a 'Key Debate' topic and plenty of suggestions for further reading.

The Film chapter discusses the connections between film and reality, specifically focussing on time and space. It compares film with theatre and with the novel (with which it has much more in common). The authors then go on to break film down into basic grammatical units (the shot and the edit), showing how editing allows it to break loose from worldly constraints, contributing to its narrative complexity.  Film can move us from physical state to psychological insight instantly.

"...because it appears to free the viewer from the constraints of both time and space, which are so fundamental to the physical world, film at the same time appears to free us from reality altogether."

"Film is an artificial medium that goes to considerable lengths to conceal its own artifice."

"If we fail to notice the way in which real-life time and space have been left behind, the director's work has been professionally accomplished."

What may first appear to be the most realistic of media turns out to be the opposite. "We are drawn into a fantastically crafted construction and, while always intellectually cognizant of its artifice, we are still emotionally manipulated by its apparent realism."

"Among the pioneers of film semiotics are Christian Metz and Peter Wollen who argue that film communicated with three different types of sign: the icon, the index and the symbol."

"Where film particularly lends itself to Geertzian hermeneutics is in its narrative form. If cultural texts are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, then explicitly narrative forms (which, like film, benefit from the added dimension of time) are likely to be especially rich in cultural meaning.  And because hermeneutics acknowledge ambiguity and layers of meaning beyond the literal, it is possible (for example) to interpret twentieth-century films about an alien invasion of the earth as metaphors (whether intended or not) for Western fears about communism and the former Soviet Union. The content and the meaning are never necessarily the same thing."

Marc Auge, French anthropologist created the terms 'espaces quelconques' to refer to homogeneous and anonymous spaces (such as airport terminals, metro stations) that rob people of their individuality.  Translates as 'any-space-whatever'. Gilles Deleuze sees these same places not as de-singularizing but as spaces whose apparently homogeneous universality opens them up to the emergence of all sorts of singularity.

Examples in Antonioni cinematography - "urban waste ground where buildings have been demolished, and rebuilding has not yet taken place, provide the sense of indetermination and openness that is central to the Deleuzian notion of 'any-space-whatever'. Just as the determined spaces of classical cinema allow for an ordered development of the narrative, the sense of indetermination conveyed by 'any-place-whatevers' contributes to put it in crisis, creating an instability that contaminates the identity of the characters and the rational coherence of the plot."

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