Canadian Journal of Sociology Online July-August 2000

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Ian Heywood and Barry Sandywell, editors.
Interpreting Visual Culture: Exploration in the Hermeneutics of the Visual.

New York: Routledge, 1999, 260 pp. $Cdn 38.99 paper (041515710) $Cdn 119.00 cloth (0415157099)

The present anthology provides readers with an eclectic collection of essays, two of them by the editors, who also give a brief and useful introduction into the emerging field of vision and the hermeneutics of the visual. The area is in its developmental stages and is marked by diverse positions on how visual metaphors and tropes work to organize and structure our understanding of the world, and how recent theory and scholarship has tried to critically deconstruct these visually organized paradigms. The book reflects this diversity.

The text is divided into three parts: theory, practical analysis, and ethics and the visual. Four of the twelve contributors are sociologists, while the remainder are split between philosophers and arts specialists. All save one are males. While the book addresses the issue of the “hegemony of the visual” in contemporary culture, it provides no unitary framework for a critique of what Martin Jay has called “scopic regimes.” Instead, it offers a somewhat episodic and fragmented examination of the phenomena of seeing.

One does not typically associate hermeneutics, a discipline comfortably rooted in texts and speech, with seeing, especially viewing visual art. Yet in the first chapter philosopher Nicholas Davey argues quite convincingly that hermeneutics, when applied to viewing, has always been involved in a creative interplay of “sight” and “insight” the end result of which is often an interpretive language that expands and deepens the experience of seeing. Sociologists Barry Sandywell, Michel Gardiner, and Chris Jenks resume the argument from three different viewpoints in the next three chapters bringing to a close the theoretical part of the anthology.

Sandywell offers a sweeping examination of how modernity required a new way of seeing than traditional society. He provides the intellectual and social historical context for the transition from a “theocentric cosmos to an androcentric world view.” This is a densely argued essay and one would have wished for more clarity and less jargon, but essentially Sandywell is concerned with the enthronement of modern bourgeois culture and the emergence of an European epistemology that celebrates the autonomy of cognitive consciousness. The pivotal thinker in this transition is René Descartes, who is responsible for launching a powerful discourse of the autonomous, all seeing ego. The rise of the modern Western self is rooted in a Cartesian cogito understood primarily through visual tropes and assumes a purely cognitive and controlling relationship to the other. The Cartesian ego is rational and self sufficient, detached and isolated, and its reflective, objectifying gaze is projected from the omniscient vantage point of an Eye that produces and orders the world. It is a domineering, self-inflated ego, disinterested in difference and in the other. Sandywell sees the Cartesian ego as the source of a “specular grammar”--seeing the world as reflection as in a mirror or a speculum-- and he traces its intellectual trajectories as well as its critiques through Hume, Hegel, Marx and Sartre.

While we usually associate Bakhtin with auditory concepts, such as “voice,” “polyphony” and “heterglossia,” argues Michael Gardiner, he used a more nuanced range of perceptual metaphors in order to subvert the privileged hierarchy of sensory modalities. Bakhtin’s dialogic encounter among all the senses can best be seen in Rabelais and his World, where the disruptive and boisterous qualities of pre-modern carnivalesque popular culture place stress on the carnal senses of touch, smell, taste, and hearing. In the grotesque body of the popular carnival, we find a challenge to the abstract, “egological” Cartesian eye. Here the objectifying, detached sight is not neglected or denigrated but made part of a broader sensory gestalt. Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, argues Gardiner, may give us a hint as to what a post-oculacentric paradigm may look like.

Chris Jenks interrogates the role of the visual in the classical sociology of Emile Durkheim. Jenks creates his own binary of the early, young Durkheim of the Rules of Sociological Method (1893)and Suicide (1897), wedded to a positivist epistemology which reduces the the social to a series of transparent, observable facts that have a constraining effect on social beings, and the mature Durkheim of Primitive Classification (1903) and Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) who begins to abandon the mechanist view of the world and causality, and starts to focus on symbols of social life as key figures that structure and interpret social experience. Whereas for the early positivist Durkheim “seeing is believing,” for the later Durkheim believing is the enabling force that allows the social actor to “reflexively see.” Jenks engages in some clever interpretation with regards to Durkheim’s epistemic transition, cast in the tropes of religious conversion. Jenks refers to Durkheim’s shift as an “awakening,” a “new vision,” and a “commitment” to a new perceptual territory, but the argument seems a bit forced, his tropes too obviously strained, and his portrayal of young Durkheim the positivist and the mature Durkheim the hermeneuticist too simple.

In parts II and III, the sociologists cede the ground to mostly art critics and philosophers. Like Tom Wolfe’s send-up of the art establishment in The Painted Word, most of these essays are concerned with the over-theorizing and over-intellectualizing of art. We no longer see pictures but allow esoteric theories to guide our perceptions of what we see. One way to redress the imbalance, writes Nigel Whiteley in his essay, is to revisit Susan Sontag’s criticisms of interpretation and her plea to reawaken all our sensory experiences through what she called an “erotic of art.” Diane Hill also wants to rescue the experience of seeing from the excesses of interpretations and offers, ironically, her own close visual reading of several paintings by two feminist painters. Her analysis is full of authorial assertions such as, “the viewer’s eye moves downwards” or “one eye’s most immediately drawn to,” etc., but frankly, who really knows how other viewers--especially those who are not armed with her art school credentials and visual and critical experience--will “see” these paintings?

The final three essays in part three are broadly about the relationship between ethics and vision. Michael Levin asks if there is a philosopher’s gaze, a way of seeing that does not stereotype, fixate, or reify. Ian Heywood asks the pertinent question whether perception occurs before judgement and if there is a spontaneous moral action that resides outside deliberation and reasoning. He seems to think that a sphere of moral perception is possible but only when rooted in particulars and specifics. Finally, J.M. Bernstein examines modernism’s demythologizing and rationalizing role and its part in destroying the sensuous particularity in art.

There is much that is thought-provoking in this collection of essays, and there is much that is maddeningly opaque. For all its efforts to reclaim the sphere of vision and the “work itself” from the excess of textual interpretation, most of the essays are densely rooted in art discourse and anchored in an “old boy’s “ phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer, etc.). Whatever few gestures are made to race and gender quickly yield to a Quixotic search for an exploration of the visual perception that goes beyond language and linguistically based meaning: it is a useful search but one which, in a number of cases, trembles on the verge of essentialism and idealism.

Joe Galbo
University of New Brunswick, Saint John
July 2000
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