View the H-German Discussion Logs by month
View the Prior Message in H-German's September 2006 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
View the Next Message in H-German's September 2006 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
Visit the H-German home page.
Johannes von Moltke, Department of Germanic Languages and Literature, University of Michigan To anyone with an interest in a historically grounded understanding of the visual, these three essays mark a welcome intervention. Each contributing distinct--but complementary--insights on the topic, Betts, Crew, and Wandel all stake a fundamental claim that can stand as the underlying premise of this forum: given the amount of serious and sustained reflection on the role of visual culture in recent historiography, the merely "illustrative" use of visual material in historical scholarship can no longer go unchallenged. In Betts's apt phrase, "to be effective, the integration of visual materials demands much more than ‘just add images and stir.'" Rather, serious consideration of the ways in which visual forms operate within, if not define, specific historical junctures will require the adoption of research practices, analytical methodologies, and theories that allow for the specificity of the visual in its own right. Only to the degree that we begin "thinking with images" in this strong sense can we speak of a "visual turn" in the study of history. With this assumption as their more or less explicit starting point, the three authors raise a number of highly pertinent questions: to what degree has a "visual turn" begun to inform historical research in general, and work in German history in particular? What difference does it make if we bring questions--let alone theories--of visual culture to bear on pre-modern and early modern histories, as opposed to the modern era through which these questions and theories tend to be framed? What particular aspects of social, cultural, or political life does a focus on the visual help to illuminate--and can such a focus help to illuminate these aspects better than other approaches? And how do we distinguish between different types and functions of the visual--whether in terms of the different visual arts (painting, photography, film, architecture, etc.), of different modes (documentary or fictional) or of different "pragmatics," i.e. the various uses of the visual (in museums or compilation films, as evidence or propaganda, for the purposes of social or religious "distinction," etc.)? Some of these questions are more implicit than others, some remain unanswered in the context of these initial considerations. My goal here is to pinpoint the questions that I happen to consider the most promising, to indicate what other questions might need to be asked, and thereby hopefully to initiate a broader discussion on how we should frame the historical study of visual culture as an interdisciplinary project. Not all of the authors agree on how much has "visually turned" in German history to date. Paul Betts, in particular, sounds a somewhat skeptical note in his reflections, pointing out that "visual sources are still noticeably absent from larger historical accounts of twentieth century Germany, or Europe for that matter." David Crew likewise finds that "when most historians think about images, they tend to see only illustrations for the arguments they have already derived from the documents in the archives." Curiously (why this should be curious is part of her argument), it falls to Lee Wandel to diagnose a bona fide "engagement with ‘visual culture' for early modern central Europe" and to map the considerable excitement that questions of visuality, vision, and representation hold for research on early modern Germany, as well as for our understanding of the historical role of visual culture itself. Her sketch of current work on Jesuit art, on the ‘conquest of reality,' and on cartography convincingly suggests ways in which close attention to early modern forms of visuality has the potential to redirect our gazes, not only at the social uses of (religious) images, but at the shifting pragmatics of the visual as it plays out across early modern and modern contexts. In this regard, I found particularly compelling her assertion of "key distances" between the early modern and the modern in questions of visuality. For if images "were understood to function differently [in early modern contexts] than modern visual theory, psychology, or cognitive studies might posit," then this strongly implies the need to carefully historicize those very theories. While some of the latter already come "equipped" with a certain degree of historical self-consciousness (e.g. Benjamin's notion of the "optical unconscious," which is formulated within the context of a historically grounded, critical theory of modernity), others obstinately lay claim to ahistorical universals that Palmer's perspective can help to dislodge. I am thinking here in particular of cognitivist appeals to fundamental human perceptual schemata, which in some instances have been invoked precisely to counter broad claims--among them Benjamin's--regarding a fundamental shift in human perception with the onset of modernity. Where the cognitivist position hopes to establish incontrovertible scientific evidence through appeals to biology, neurology and the longue durée of human evolution, Wandel usefully reminds us (following Lindberg) that the scientific models to which we appeal are themselves historically variable, and that "modern constructions of ‘perception' itself rest upon a biological model of the body which achieved a kind of cultural predominance only towards the end of the seventeenth century and a model of human psychology that has been located in the twentieth century." Now, despite Betts's and Crew's caveats, it would obviously be misleading to suggest that all historical work on this side of the modern divide remains trapped in the bad, old habits of using the visual in purely illustrative fashion. On the contrary, both Crew's extensive discussion of photography in the context of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and its aftermath, and Betts's highly suggestive examples of how the visual turn might serve to "explore aspects of history that more conventionally-based textual histories ignore or discount" clearly point to the vitality and promise of this field. Crew compellingly demonstrates the centrality of the visual to our understanding of German history by reminding us not only of the power of images in the mise-en-scène of the Third Reich and in the ways we have come to understand Nazi Germany and the Holocaust (whether through the media of exhibition, film, or photography, or through scholarly and critical writing); pointing to the work of Kracauer and Benjamin, Crew also reminds us that, in the German context, reflection on the power of images is part of the historical record. As he points out, the work that he reviews (and, I should add, that which he himself contributes) does suggest "that academic historians of Germany are increasingly prepared to think seriously about the possibilities and problems of images as historical sources and about the ways in which photographs have been used by Germans in the past." It is this category of "use" that defines some of the most important insights offered by both Crew and Betts. For Crew, this means to inquire into how photographic images were produced and used in both public and private spheres of the Third Reich, how they were used differently by perpetrators and victims, but also how they were subsequently used to implicate or exonerate, as evidence or as political instrument. In a similar way, Betts draws our attention to the way visual material has been used to assert, maintain or "disseminate" power, how it is implicated in the social construction of truth and how everyday forms of (self-)representation tend to operate first and foremost on a visual level. These "uses" of photographs, images, and visual forms of display--what I would call the "pragmatics" of the visual--provide an enormously rich archive for studying the history of everything from official forms of representation at the level of institutional politics to the minutiae of everyday life, from the construction of state power to the construction of subjectivity. This emphasis on "use" and its historical contexts, in other words, seems both promising and appropriate for an exploration of the visual anchored in history as a discipline. However, we should be careful not to confine ourselves to such a pragmatics of the visual at the expense of other ways of studying visual materials and modes of display. Perhaps for reasons of space, but presumably also due to disciplinary protocols, the three contributions by Betts, Crew and Wandel pay far less attention to the aesthetics of the visual than to its pragmatics. To be sure, my own inclinations on this issue are themselves disciplinary in the sense that I consider myself a film scholar with a sustained interest in (German) history, as opposed to a trained historian. But by the same token, I would hope that my interest in exploring also the formal conventions, the stylistic histories, the aesthetic dimensions of any given visual material is not construed in any way as opposed to the emphasis on pragmatics that I've identified in the three historians' contributions. Rather, I consider attention to aesthetics to be complementary with the emphasis on pragmatics within the overarching project of studying visual culture historically. The goal in this discussion, as I see it, should be an increase in interdisciplinarity, construed as a genuine dialogue among disciplines. To the degree that this goal does not (yet) emerge already from the original contributions, this may have to do as much with the term "visual culture" as with any disciplinary commitment to history on the part of the authors--for there is a sense in which the very notion of visual culture (much like the term "early modern," as Wandel points out) operates a certain leveling effect on the distinctions that fuel it: narrative media such as film become folded into the same category as non-narrative visual forms, such as painting, architecture, or even photography; photographic media and their specific relationship to the "real" stand alongside the digital, etc. To gain any analytical purchase on these distinctions, in other words, we should draw on the specific expertise, methods and theories developed in different disciplines, bringing them into conversation with each other and with history, rather than forfeiting that expertise by implicitly asserting the homogeneity of heterogeneous visual forms. To take a straightforward, and probably uncontentious example from my own research and teaching in film, we should be prepared to link considerations of Leni Riefenstahl's role as the Third Reich's leading visual propagandist with considerations of the way she manipulated cinematography and editing in her films; within a history of the visual, reconstructing the ways in which Riefenstahl's films were used should be one side of a project that also considers the relevance of such seemingly minute aesthetic choices as the deliberate blurring of the "Führer" in oddly off-centered shots (see fig. 1 and 2 < http://www.h-net.org/~german/discuss/visual/ visual_index.htm >). Similarly, considerations of the uses of photography in the Third Reich such as those traced by David Crew might be amplified by placing them within art-historical trajectories that map the changing formal conventions of portraiture or amateur photography. Or--to offer a less straightforward example--we might want to allow for considerations of the historicity of a given medium itself, asking how the cinema's relationship to notions of temporality not only inflects the way we perceive cinematic images but also parallels (or not) historiographic practices. This is not to say that such distinctions and connections are lost on the contributors who, at various junctures, signal a keen awareness of the stakes involved. In his considerations of framing, shot composition and the odd smile of an ostensibly humiliated photographic subject, David Crew, in particular, pays close attention to the formal logics of individual images, as well as to the specificity of photography as an aesthetic form. Betts likewise emphasizes questions of style and genre alongside those of origins, intentions, and audience. And Wandel, following Belting, crucially posits the distinction between a medieval conception of the image as icon and modern constructions of images as aesthetic objects. But I would argue that these distinctions can be honed still further. Let me offer two final examples of what I mean by this. The first is methodological (even if it appears, on the surface, to be merely terminological): in keeping with the other two contributors, who also ask us to consider the visual always in relation to the textual, Crew rightly asks, "What theories and what methodologies do we need to ‘read the visual' that are different from the instruments we utilize in ‘reading texts'?" But perhaps even this question needs to be revised for a rigorous consideration of how images function within history; for as David Bordwell has justifiably insisted, the notion of "reading" an image (a legacy of semiotics and structuralism in literary studies) may already skew our vision by importing the metaphor of a natural language; referring to film spectatorship in particular, Bordwell argues that viewing "is synoptic, tied to the time of [a film's] presentation, and literal; it does not require translation into verbal terms" for the viewer to grasp an image (though it certainly does for a critic to analyze it).  What we need to account for, in other words, are the specific forms that "viewing" might take in any given instance. My second suggestion relates to how we might locate that specificity. There is surprisingly little discussion in these contributions of the _media_ of visual culture--that is, of the forms in which images reach (are mediated for) their viewers, of the particular aesthetic properties and histories of these media, and of their distinct historical roles. Again, this may be a matter of space as much as of discipline, and again the term "visual culture" may conceal as much as it helps to reveal. But clearly, it makes a difference whether a human likeness appears as painted religious icon, as photograph in a family album, or in moving images on film or television. Here, again, I would advocate drawing together different forms of disciplinary expertise as they have developed in the study of the various arts-- including their histories. Sven Kramer's volume, reviewed by Crew, perhaps represents the closest approximation of what I have in mind here. The anthology brings together historians and art historians, scholars in cultural studies, the social sciences, literature and film to investigate the audiovisual history of the Shoah from the 1940s through the present. Crew justly highlights the originality of Jörg Friess's contribution to that volume, which is devoted to so- called "compilation films" about the Holocaust. Friess' article, I would suggest, can indeed serve as a highly specific example for ways to bridge between the historical pragmatics and the formal aesthetics of visual forms. Focusing on the various uses and re-uses (and even what has more recently been called "remediation") of photographs and film footage in such films, Friess's approach combines attention to the pragmatics of the image with detailed considerations of the rhetorics, aesthetics and politics of the compilation film. The broader implications of this specific example, however, are ultimately again of a methodological nature. An interdisciplinary approach to the visual requires careful consideration of how to "frame" a given image, a film, a museum exhibit, or aspects of the built environment for the purpose of analysis and interpretation. If, as Steedman has argued "an archive is not only a way of knowing, but also a way of seeing" (quoted in Betts), then we should stop to consider how entering the archive with different disciplinary dispositions might produce different ways of seeing--how the same archive of visual material, in other words, may reveal different things to the trained historian on the one hand and the trained art historian, film scholar or architectural critic, on the other. Our goal as scholars must be, I submit, not to erase these differences by asserting the primacy of a particular discipline or by sweeping them under the rug of "the visual," but to bring them into interdisciplinary dialogue with one another. In this spirit, I look forward to the discussion in this particular forum. Notes . This said, we probably should not overstress the methodological divide between studies of modern and early modern forms of visuality. A recent essay by Helmut Puff on sodomy in Dürer's "The Death of Orpheus," for example, convincingly demonstrates the usefulness of frameworks drawn from discourse analysis, arguing that "visual images take up, reflect, connect with, comment on, ridicule, and reformulate existing discursive formulations. To view images through the lens of discourse allows us to locate them within a field of references that are both visual and textual--a field that also testifies to the process of image-making with its tensions and contradictions." Helmut Puff, "Visual Translations: Albrecht Dürer's ‘The Death of Orpheus' (1494)" in _Dead Lovers: Erotic Bonds and the Study of Premodern Europe_ ed. Basil Duffalo and Peggy McCracken (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, forthcoming). . For a good summary of the debate on the "modernity thesis," see Ben Singer, _Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts_ (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001). . Scott Spector issues a similar plea in a different, yet related discussion: Scott Spector, "Was The Third Reich Movie-Made? Interdisciplinarity and the Reframing of ‘Ideology,'" _American Historical Review_ 106 (April 2001): pp. 460-484. . As Julia Hell, who has been working on the device of blurred vision in paintings by Gerhart Richter, pointed out to me, images such as the ones I identify here function not only in the context of Nazi Germany, but are part of a larger "history of blurriness" that is directly pertinent to the questions broached by this forum. Wolfgang Ullrich, _Geschichte der Unschärfe_ (Berlin: Wagenbach, 2002). . For two very different ways of thinking about the relationship between cinema and history in this respect, see on the one hand Robert Rosenstone, _Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to our Idea of History_ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), and on the other hand, Philip Rosen, _Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) and Mary Ann Doane, _ The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive_ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002). . David Bordwell, _Narration in the Fiction Film_ (Madison: Wisconsin University Press, 1985), p. 30.