A History of Visual Culture: Western Civilization from the 18th to the 21st Century. Edited by Jane Kromm and Susan Benforado Bakewell.
New York: Berg Publishers, February 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-1845204938, $119.95; Paper: ISBN 978-1845204921, $39.95. 480 pages.
Review by Kevin M. Flanagan, University of Pittsburgh
Though still in its relative infancy, the interdisciplinary turn from traditional art historical analysis to the more widely inclusive consideration of “visual culture” has produced a good deal of highly influential scholarship. Since this emerging label is often celebrated for its eclecticism, indeed its ability to account for and historicize everything from baseball cards to zoological drawings, the influential books in the field have tended to be diverse edited collections with nuanced and specifically focused pieces, notably Visual Culture: The Reader (1999, eds. Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall) and The Visual Culture Reader (2002, 2nd edition, Nicolas Mirzoeff). The Evans and Hall text largely focuses on selections written under the auspices of other extant fields of study—film, cultural studies, comparative literature—that could together be taken to constitute the foundational texts of the infant field of visual culture. Mirzoeff's book, by contrast, contains a section of this foundational “plug-in theory” but otherwise collects contemporary essays written under the auspices of this new methodology. Jane Kromm and Susan Benforado Bakewell's A History of Visual Culture: Western Civilization from the 18th to the 21st Century seems to have been formed with a mind toward consciously differentiating itself from those earlier texts: at once more explicitly historical (the book is structured as a semi-chronological series of case studies) and comprised of essays wholly original to this collection, the text seeks to capture the vast expanses of the field of visuality (8-9).
A History of Visual Culture is broken into seven organizing clusters, each of which accommodates four or five case studies. Earlier sections like “Revolt and Revolution” (which contains pieces on topics like the visual rhetoric of 19th-century revolutions and the persuasive language of socialist political posters) and “Science and Empiricism” provide the most tightly structured variations-on-a-theme. The extended focus on science, a neglected site for the organization of the rationalistic and technologized modes of looking that were to frame the visual concerns of the 20th century, yields some of the best essays. Kromm's “To Collect is to Quantify and Describe: Visual Practices in the Development of Modern Science” assesses the written and drawn legacy of 18th-century naturalists such as Georg Ehret as they inadvertently worked toward a visual language for the scientific consideration of plants, one which combined a fine art appreciation for decorative ornamentation with the spatial possibilities of the printed page (78-79). Heather McPherson's piece “Biology and Crime: Degeneracy and the Visual Trace” uncovers a disturbing trajectory in French conceptions of degeneracy and the pathologicalization of the body, in which physical traits came to classify mental capacity and potential transgression into the criminal (105-113). Combined with fine essays in the sections “Gaze and Spectacle” and “Acquisition, Display, and Desire,” A History of Visual Culture makes a strong case for the thoroughly systematized ways of seeing—along lines of mobility, material ownership, sexual difference, and scientific classification—which were to characterize the growing pains of urban modernity.
Kromm provides succinct section headings and likewise seems to have written pieces to treat key topics otherwise not explored. While her piece “The Flâneur/Flâneuse Phenomenon” is an excellent primer on this key 19th-century social type, the collection's sole extended treatment of film “Inventing the Mise-en-Scène: German Expressionism and the Silent Film Set” feels perfunctory and reductive. In fact, the collection's pluralistic approach suffers most when it tries to quickly account for whole cultural technologies—namely film, the internet, and the video game—at the expense of specificity. The visual world most immediately relevant to students is therefore handled in a selectively fractured way. For example, Martin A. Danahay's “Feats of Simulation and the World of Video Games” and its companion piece (by Chris Kaczmarek) “What You See Is What You Get, or Reality Is What You Take from It” adequately sum up a few of the concerns of the emergent field of Game Studies, yet their short length and function as surveys also prevents them from having the specific insights of earlier chapters, where extrapolated importance came from the nuanced consideration of a smaller set of texts.
The mix of survey pieces and highly specific essays makes it hard to figure out who this book would best serve. On the one hand, the lack of a totally coherent chronological or historical narrative, as well as the inclusion of only a few pieces of truly broad consideration, would probably prevent instructors from assigning the book as a core course text. On the other hand, the truly staggering selection of writings on offer would seem to prevent the specialist from fully utilizing the text, as only a small sliver of the pieces, as good as they are on the whole, would be of interest at a given time. Thus, the better essays in A History of Visual Culture could be readily adapted for courses on specific aspects of visual culture, as their length (relatively short) and general tone (specialist, but not condescending) would be appropriate to students at a variety of levels.
Brenda DeMartini-Squires's “Now You See It: Disinformation and Disorientation on the Internet” inadvertently provides strong justification for the wide-ranging approach of Kromm and Bakewell's text. DeMartini-Squires recalls her extensive graduate training in the effective uses of the academic library, where knowledge was organized around certain parameters which privileged face-to-face interaction (reading rooms and circulation desks with reserve material; the expertise of field-specific research librarians) and the physical retrieval of information (card catalogs, trips to the far-flung corners of the book stacks), such that effective use meant an informed navigation of the institutional knowledge of the time (337-338). Contrast this with a trip to a large research library in 2007, where the forms of access (electronic) and sites of mastery (online databases, search engines) have changed. Like historical modes of visual literacy, the organization of information demands familiarity with past forms, yet is aided by bold reorganizations which combine contemporary social/cultural concerns with the brave new technologies of the day.