Visual and Verbal Critique: Feminism and Postmodernism
Sociology and Visual Representation
In the spatial and visual dimensions of our lives, the most developed form of the capitalist commodity is the visual image. It has become increasingly common for micro-level community organizations to distribute a critique of the postmodern through visual representation. These community organizations are most successful when their work is carried out in a collective manner. This critique represents shared interests, and therefore is an excellent means for individuals to represent their social circles, construct narratives, and present pressing modern issues. However, there is an issue that arises with local outreach work in these micro-communities. In a post-modern world, these organizations must continually counterbalance the tendency to accept institutional funding and become mainstream. Every truly radical collective faces the inescapable dilemma of walking the tightrope between their core values or remaining profitable enough to avoid economic collapse. When these community organizations maintain focus on collective social issues and adhere to their core values, they lay a solid foundation for the future of artistic visual representation.
Lyotard maintains the position that radical potential lies in visual art. In Driftworks he argues that critique is based off of verbal or discursive dialogues. This critique has the authority to shift ideological positions, but is ineffective when confronting our political system. Lyotard believes that we need to deconstruct capitalism. Deconstruction can only be achieved through primary processes, such as art. Art can be used as a tool to allow a different kind of sociological seeing, because it can expose the gaps in dominant ideologies. This type of sight challenges our understanding of reality and exposes the truth of our social relationships. Instead of presenting or shifting an ideology, it reveals space for development.
Lyotard argues that capitalism uses desire for profit, and paradoxically the power of capitalism prohibits unrestrained desire. The artist has the power to deconstruct the reality of capitalism through the visual representation of reality. However, the production of this visual representation must originate in desire itself.
Chaplin intervenes at this point of the discussion to state that, “... critique in the form of visual art cannot be and is not ‘separate’ from verbal critique in any metaphilosophical or even more ‘fundamental’ sense (126).” She says that all mediums of representation construct our reality as we know it. Visual, verbal, and written discourse all contribute to our perception of the world we live in. Without them, a critique of our society through art and science would not be possible.
A conflict that capitalist societies face in the postmodern era is that reason has lost much of its authority. Baudrillard draws much of his inspiration about modern dilemmas in our society from Marxism. He points out that in both capitalism and Marxism, man assumes the role of the producer and the economic doctrine of homo economicus.
We are moving increasingly away from capitalism and towards a sign system. When we consume objects, their meaning becomes a piece of our individual identity. In this relationship between consumer and goods, objects ideologically lose their foundation in use-value or utility. They become a simulation. Baudrillard defines simulation as, “an object or discourse which has no firm origin... It emits its own meanings, extracted from the social, but now deployed as its own ‘floating signal’ (128).” The distinction between object and representation dissolves. This is achieved largely through the proliferation of messages we receive through television and internet media.
The media generates a world of simulations which are meant to simulate our desire. Our options as consumers in this situation are to receive and respond to these messages, or to mindfully ignore signals from the media. As Americans, we are losing this battle. In the United States, we watch an average of seven hours of television each day and this number is increasing. The visual image has become extremely potent and widespread in the world of advertisements and consumer goods. This rapid growth poses a particular challenge to social and cultural theory.
“... if the cultural space is autonomous, as he maintains, and we now inhabit a world in which the various aspects of our lives have been ‘hyperrealised’ by cultural forces, then theory cannot any longer distance itself from its object: they are collapsed into one (131).”
A logical solution to this dilemma would be to expand the field of visual sociology. Visual mediums of representation are necessary to study, so that we can more effectively educate the public about the social forces present in this hyperreality.
Lash argues that there has been a significant cultural shift away from modernism. “We are living in a society in which our perception is directed almost as often to representations as it is to ‘reality…. And/or our perception of reality comes to be increasingly by means of these representations. Even much of our perception of representations comes via representations (132).” The proliferation of these representations of reality indicates the new, postmodern era.
In modernist ideology, discourse is an autonomous regime of signification. This is to say that reality can be truthfully described with discourse. In the modern world, differentiation occurred as a result of autonomous development through signification. Some of the distinctions that have developed in the discursive realm include the social and the cultural, the secular and the religious, and the sociological and artistic.
The postmodern is defined through regimes of signification in contemporary culture, such as dedifferentiation and the figural. This means that the modern world underwent a shift in the cultural paradigm from the discursive to the iconic. The transition to the iconic established the merger between autonomous discursive disciplines. Figural signification began to resemble referents to a larger degree than words.
What does that mean for us? Chaplin writes, “Our everyday life becomes pervaded with a reality which increasingly comprises representations in which the space of the signifier is invaded by the referent, and where the signifier invades the place of the referent (134).” The postmodern world changes our experience of reality. It becomes more crucial for individuals in this type of society to reflect on their perceptions and develop reflexive habits. We need to question the real.
Dedifferentiation does not banish differentiation. It problematizes the real, the symbolic, and the subject. It allows for the radical construction of the political fields, such as the meshing of culture and commodity. This is possible only because we have allowed culture to pervade our lives as much as natural facts. So much so that in our perception of reality, the real and the iconic have achieved hegemony.
Jameson argues that we have reached a point in history where creation is now valued less than representation. An emphasis has emerged in our psychology on the the way that reality is presented to us. He writes, “... with that pure and random play of signifiers which we call postmodernism, and which no longer produces monumental works of the modernist type, but ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production, in some new and heightened bricolage: metabooks which collate bits of other texts (137).” While the paradigm of representation has shifted to reflect a more collaborative ideology, there has been a retreat from the social collective. Jameson calls this retreat the ‘schizoid’ experience. A unified social personality has dissolved, and with this individuals are beginning to experience a deterioration in the personal ego of space and time. Our reality has become depthless. History has become less relevant to the ways that we live, and has begun to recede.
The reflexive nature of our society has begun to deteriorate. During the modernist era, language was the dominant form of representation. Language is reflexive, and so facilitated a reflexive society. Does visual representation have the ability to be self-conscious? In postmodern times, Jameson argues that the capital of culture naturally resists analysis or critique. He states that society needs to rekindle our ability to image difference in a system that has become increasingly homogenized. The visual needs to adapt reflexive qualities. We need not just to consume, but question and interrogate reality.
Time and space are critical historical variables that, as experienced in the postmodern world, become increasingly restricted by economic, political, and cultural conventions. In the past, society was active in nature. It was always veering towards a new paradigm. This philosophy of ‘becoming’ has transformed into the notion of ‘being.’ Even though we live in a world where the very nature of our existence is temporary, we strive for permanence.
The examples that David Harvey uses to illustrate this point are periods in history when countries have undergone capitalist overaccumulation. During times like these, the crisis of overaccumulation compresses time and space. We are inundated by incentives to spend more because of advertisements and visual product placement in our everyday lives. This visual stimuli overwhelms the human psyche with the values of instantaneity and disposability. Hence the proceeding search for permanence.
Harvey defines capitalism as a nexus of money, space, and time that forms substantial clusters of social power. This power varies depending on the value of capital and the organization of space and time. In order for society to combat this formidable power, the education of the public would need to be enhanced through the construction of a new sign system. While visual images can serve to promote and strengthen consumer capitalism by creating desire, they can also be used as criteria for revolution. This revolution can be defined as an action taken with the purpose of creating political, social, or economic change. A new sign system would need to redefine the public’s understanding of space and time. This could be accomplished by collapsing public spaces into a series of images. This action would change the symbolic understanding of capitalism, and could therefore shift social relations. This framework can change how individuals understand their role in society and diminish the power that simulacrum have to stir desire. Harvey believes that the postmodern is a reaction to the historical and geographical condition created by modernism. This condition can be tackled through the narrative of the image. The postmodern is a collaborative enterprise of becoming, instead of being.
“This is a fascinating tour de force, a masterly summary of contemporary debates but it leaves the reader feeling the package has been wrapped too well. Yet again the narrative of the white male establishment has been recentered (144).”
Linda McDowell argues that the postmodern is a time to combat the visual with the visual. It is a time to convey visual critiques of alternative moral and political values from the margins of society. She states that visual representation has not permeated our everyday life this thoroughly since medieval times. In response to this, culture has reached an even playing field with both politics and ideology. The focus of academia is shifting to local economies, political groups, and artists. The study of these micro-communities, allows sociologists to examine shifting postmodern global autonomy and cultural territory.
Chaplin believes that the discipline of sociology is being transformed by the study of gender. She states that, “Feminism must not be compromised by an alliance with male-dominated ‘disciplines; or by an overly theoretical approach (152).” Sociology is undergoing dedifferentiation by refusing the former ideas of a white, masculinist field of study. In order for this transformation to be complete, however, sociology must incorporate both visual and verbal critiques of feminists and other minority groups.
“A visual critique which contributes to the feminist reshaping of sociology will have analyzed those visual idioms which current visual communication uses; its visual representation of reality will rework those idioms and part of its long term project will be to reshape them (153).” The visual mediums that have the power to most effectively spur social change are electronic media and photography. (I would argue that videography should be included in this, as well).
The power of truth in documentary film and photography has been degraded by the public’s constant exposure to a simulated, visual reality. Chaplin argues that this can be both positive and negative. The power that representation has on our perception of the real has been diminished. However by returning to the basics, the power of these visual mediums can be restored. As human beings, we attach importance to inherited ideas and objects. Iconic and indexical images that connote reality and remind society of a time when values were longer lasting have the power to combat sensory overload. Chaplin argues that by using the tool of recollection and recognizing the value in our emotions, we have the power to restore a truthful perception of space and time.