DeLuca visit

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The CRS and CCR programs here at Syracuse hosted a talk on Wednesday by Kevin DeLuca, and I've been meaning to throw my notes up here before I get too far away from it to do any good. Kevin's at the University of Georgia, and is the author of Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism. Given that visual rhetoric is one of those things that I try to keep abreast of, I was pretty interested to hear what he had to say.

His talk was pitched at the level of an overview, which was cool by me. There were a number of undergrads in the audience, and I thought he did a nice job of meeting the citational expectations of the faculty while making it accessible to the whole audience. He began with an overview of the various ways that rhetoric has approached images:

  1. Not at all.
  2. Reading them as texts and denying the qualities that aren't textualizable.
  3. Domesticating them through the same vocabulary and frameworks that we use to write about textual rhetorics.
  4. Taking images seriously as images.

Obviously, he was more interested in the last of these options, and he cited Cara Finnegan and Robert Hariman & John Lucaites as some of the scholars doing this kind of work. He was particularly interested in work that examined how images appear in context, that offered close readings of various images, and work that didn't simply study "serious" or "aesthetic" images. A key distinction, repeated throughout, was that it was important to focus on what an image does, not just what it means.

Some of the issues that may be keeping us from this kind of work are an overreliance on context as a knowable factor. Our tendency, he argued, is to reduce the complexity of context into something that we can grasp, and this tendency can turn contexts into fiction. He was also critical of the kind of iconophobia that still persists today, particularly in academia, as typified by Sontag's now-classic critique of photography. Finally, he was a little critical of the work of Finnegan and H&L, for offering what he described as transcendent concepts, critical terminology that erases the singularity of the images under consideration.

His answer to these issues is twofold. First, he believes that the shift to focusing on what images do rather than what they mean is crucial. And second, he called for a new mode of criticism, one that was more appropriate to an image-saturated society. This latter is a little difficult to pin down, but Kevin offered several pairs of binaries that captured what he was after:

  • from gaze to glance
  • from public sphere to public screens
  • from a focus on originals to the possibilities of reiteration
  • from attention to distraction

This notion, of an image-based criticism, was pretty provocative, and he cited Barthes, Benjamin, D&G, and others throughout. His close, though, ended up turning in a different direction. He did finally make the turn towards creating images as an important critical practice, and he shared his experiences with the Warbus.

Part of this may have been the audience, so I'll be gentle. For me, there was a real disjunct between the theoretical tenor of the first part of this talk and the emphasis on advocacy in the conclusion. For example, Kevin was somewhat critical of H&L's concept of iconicity (images that are widely recognized, historically significant, reproduced broadly across multiple media, and that evoke strong emotion), and yet, it's hard not to see the images on the warbus as selected and presented precisely for their iconicity.

My other qualm was that Barthes' Camera Lucida was being used in an unusual way. Kevin never mentioned the term punctum and yet constantly referred to the excess, the ex-stasis of the photograph. For my part, I take Barthes' punctum to be singular and personal, and this makes that quality exceptionally unsuitable for public advocacy. In some ways, the punctum is the polar opposite of iconicity, and while this made sense in terms of the theoretical vector of the talk, it falls short in the application, and far shorter, I would think, than a text like Debord's Society of the Spectacle might. The one example of a punctum-based reading is Finnegan's claim that the "migrant mother" Depression-era photos "oozed sexuality," and Kevin was pretty flip in dismissing that reading, while I would have argued that F's response is exactly what RB is after in Camera.

Hey, but that's my take. Both pieces of the talk were clear and engaging, but I left really feeling the tension between them. My guess is that Kevin would have dealt with that in more detail for a more strictly academic audience. As it was, he made me think during the talk, and for a couple of days now afterwards. I can't ask for much more.


I just now added 2+2 and figured out that this is the person who I've been meaning to read for a while. Glad to know a bit more about his take. Cool. Have you read the book, C?

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on March 24, 2005 10:56 PM.

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