Rogoff, Irit, “Studying Visual Culture”

Rogoff, Irit. “Studying Visual Culture.” The Visual Culture Reader, edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff, London, Routledge, 1998, pp. 24-36.


Rogoff sets up a ‘what is’ [and what is not] for visual culture studies. She casts the field as taking up Derrida’s concept of différance and providing “the visual articulation of the continuous displacement of meaning in the field of vision and the visible” (25). Her focus on the reception of images depends on a “curious eye,” the conditions of spectatorship and subjectivities, and historic specificity. As example of visual culture analysis, Rogoff deconstructs the shadow of WWII trauma to illustrate how visual reception can  be leveraged to “affect a form of historical closure” (34). She finds that analysis of publicly and privately functioning visual representations “straddle the spatial trajectory between memory and commemoration” (36) which parallels the intellectual dilemma of “being able to ask new and alternative questions, rather than reproducing old knowledge by asking the old questions” (25) or relying on already established/circulating knowledge.


visual culture, critique, spectatorship, historicizing


  • we recognize that opening up the field of vision as an arena in which cultural meanings get constituted, also simultaneously anchors to it an entire range of analyses and interpretations of the audio, the spatial, and of the psychic dynamics of spectatorship. Thus visual culture opens up an entire world of intertextuality in which images, sounds and spatial delineations are read on to and through one another, lending ever-accruing layers of meanings and subjective responses to each encounter we might have with film, TV, advertising, art works, buildings or urban environments (24).
  • what we have begun to encounter is the free play of the signifier … visual culture provides the visual articulation of the continuous displacement of meaning in the field of vision and the visible (25).
  • Perhaps we are at long last approaching Roland Barthes’s description of interdisciplinarity not as surrounding a chosen object with numerous modes of scientific inquiry, but rather as the constitution of a new object of knowledge (25).
  • ‘It is the questions that we ask that produce the field of inquiry and not some body of materials which determines what questions need to be posed to it’ (Gayatri Spivak, 26).
  • visual culture provides the possibility of unframing some of the discussions we have been engaged in regarding presences and absences, invisibility and stereotypes, desires, reifications and objectifications from the disciplinary fields … theoretical articulations of vision, spectatorship and the power relations that animate the arena we call the field of vision — which first articulated their status as texts and objects. Thereby unframing them from a set of conventional values as either highly valued or highly marginalized or outside of the scope of sanctioned vision altogether (27).
  • the critical analysis of visual culture would want to do everything to avoid a discourse which perceives of itself as ‘speaking about’ and shift toward one of ‘speaking to’ (27-8).
  • the field is made up of at least three different components. First, there are images that come into being and are claimed by various, and often contested histories. Second, there are the viewing apparatuses that we have at our disposal that are guided by cultural models such as narrative or technology. Third, there are the subjectivities of identification or desire or abjection from which we view and by which we inform what we view (28).
  • Are we developing ‘the mean eye, the jaundiced, skeptical eye?’ Is the critical eye the one that guards jealously against pleasure? … I have settled on the notion of ‘the curious eye’ [Laura Mulvey] to counter the ‘good eye’ of connoisseurship (28).
  • To unframe hierarchies of excellence and of universal value that privilege one strand of cultural production while committing every other mode to cultural oblivion … does not mean that one is launching an undifferentiated universalism in which everything is equal to everything else. Rather it opens up the possibilities for analyzing the politics that stand behind each relativist model and of differentiating between those rather than between the supposed value of objects and images … In visual culture the history becomes that of the viewer or the authorizing discourse rather than that of the object (30).
  • [a] discussion in visual culture might venture to ask how bodies of thought produced a notion of vision in the service of a particular politics or ideology and populated it with a select set of images, viewed through specific apparatuses and serving the needs of different subjectivities (31).
  • the field of vision is sustained through an illusion of transparent space (32).
  • To be able to assemble a group of materials and a variety of methodological analyses around an issue that is determined out of cultural and political realities rather than out of traditions of learned arguments, seems an important step forward in the project of reformulating knowledge to deal responsibly with the lived conditions of highly contested realities (33)
  • historic specificity is a critically important part of coming into cultural recognition and articulation. Every movement that has attempted to liberate marginalized groups from oppressions of elision and invisibility has, to all intents and purposes, insisted on having something to say, on having a language to say it in, and on having a position from which to speak (33).
  • discourses of guilt and monumental public commemoration affect a form of historical closure. To begin with they assume that one can replace an absence … with a presence … Second, the protagonists are frozen into binary, occupying positions of victim and perpetrator, both of whom have seemingly come to a miserable end … Finally the historic trauma of the Holocaust linked to the specter of European fascism becomes the index of all political horror and consequence, imposing once again a Eurocentric index of measure and political identity on the very concept of political horror (35).
  • [visual culture collaboration] assumes the form of the practice, of a ‘writing with’ an artist’s work rather than about it, a dehierarchization of the question of whether the artist, the critic or the historian, the advertising copywriter or the commercial sponsor, the studio or the director, has the final word in determining the meaning of a work in visual culture (36).

Citation [or in this case, name-drops. Sadly, there is no further notation in the book):

  • Barthes, Roland
  • Derrida, Jacques
  • Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space
  • Mulvey, Laura
  • Spivak, Gayatri


  • I am curious about how the ‘dehierarchization’ of meaning-making impacts not only reception, but also production. And what about writer-as-artist/artist-as-writer? How does the process of ‘writing with’ shift when the writer/artist embodies multiple roles? How might metacognition/reflection as process rather than end-piece or side-piece [in a log/journal] impact my students’ writing? Or perhaps the better question is how might I teach such integrated reflection?
  • This illusion of transparent space. How does it impact [&/ how is it impacted by] the ‘culture’ component of ‘visual culture studies’? Need to dig into this more. Wanting expansion.



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