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on May 21, 2009
Review of Barbara Maria Stafford's
Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images

Andrea Juillerat

The book is first and foremost a manifesto, a call to arms for image oriented artists and workers everywhere. She considers her manifesto to be constructivist, a blueprint for building a new kind of "education through vision." The books consists of a series of essays that bring to light and repudiate the assumption in all areas of academia that linguistic information is superior to visual information. She also spends some time unpacking the origin of this prejudice against imagery and why is occurred. Additionally she examines a few possible areas through which the reputation of imagery might be redeemed and improved. Her thinking on the whole topic is decidedly interdisciplinary, reaching often into fields of medicine and natural biology. Throughout the essays there are several threads of commonality; one of them is a comparison that she consistently draws between eighteenth century Enlightenment and the current internet explosion of the digital age. Her corollaries between the two eras are not tenuous, but perhaps rely more on emphasis than overt similarities. Interestingly she tries to show that our current postmodern condition and the popularity of the computational theory of mind are the result of Enlightenment philosophies carries to their logical and most extreme end.
Stafford asserts that the subjugation of imagery began in the eighteenth century when rational philosophies hardened into systems that demoted images to a merely decorative or craft status. The tendency to favor text as the dominant agency of knowledge is evidenced in early twentieth century modernism by the creations of numerous manifestos. Apparently visual aggregates were not enough to ensure the level of response and respect that artists wanted, so they applied written manifestos to the problem and incorporated text and linguistic messages into their work. By the end of the twentieth century there is a shift toward optical information via television, video, internet, performance, advertising, and general media spectacle. Despite this time period being so visually saturated, she insists that we are still "mired in a deep logocentrism...convince of the superiority of writing."
Stafford claims that the 18th century is like the late 20th century, both experienced a revolution in visual apprehension and conceptualization, both were subject to a linguistic backlash. New etching technologies and a penchant for collections lead to new ways of cataloging information, visual objects were much more complete than text descriptions and so optical information was enjoying a lively popularity in the eighteenth century. Those who could afford them kept curio boxes or entire rooms for housing artifacts and specimens of interest to the newly enlightened populace. Most importantly, both of these time periods experienced a "privatization of pleasurable beholding" which allowed individuals to explore information in a solitary manner and for recreation.
Chapter two is mostly devoted to understanding how images got such a bad reputation. She goes all the way back to Plato's discussion of art and imagery as mimesis, or a lesser copy of something real, which is even still a lesser copy than the actual form which exists only in some non-material perfect realm. In effect that makes are a copy of a copy, twice removed from the truth. God's first commandment is not to make "an idol" which is one for of an image. It seems that the fear of images and their power has been with us since the beginning of time. The internet and other digital technologies widely available today, further erode our trust in images. Digital imagery seems especially vulnerable to tampering, and in fact all digital media is susceptible to data theft, corruption, unethical redistribution, and uncontrolled proliferation. As Stafford correctly points out, current "technological craftiness implies that there is something inherently corrupt about pictorially conveyed information..." Even Microsoft and MacIntosh seem to assume that images are for dummies, and that the user-friendly icons created for desktops will have the widest appeal for consumers because they are tapping into a lowest common denominator. For Stafford it is supremely important to create a new theory for visual cognition, and in each chapter she reminds the reader that this is a manifesto and the changes sought will require action. More important than ever before, in the digital era images must be re-examined and revamped to "bring both an ethical and aesthetic dimension to the computer are."
Chapter three takes a deeper look at the eighteenth century and the end of modernity. She explains how the eighteenth and late twentieth centuries both suffered from a "fragmentation" of everything. From Benjamin's point of view this had to do with speed, velocity, and mechanical reproduction. Today's fragmentation comes from the internet and the incredible speed with which information is transmitted, also digital reproduction technologies which further dilute the concept of original or material authenticity. Today's buzz words reflect this paradigmatic revolution, "inter, trans, multi, sub, hyper, cyber, streaming, net, web etc." are all terms which try in one way or another to describe the radical shift in conceptualization.
The loss of enchantment in all areas of academia can be directly traced to eighteenth century Enlightenment battles for rational thought and systems which lead to a spiritless denunciation of everything and the loss of visual appeal. The tide of rationalism lead to a common pastime dedicated to debunking myths, uncovering hoaxes, and reveling in an elitist skepticism. According to Stafford, the result is a disembodied and distanced `gaze' - a loss of real seeing. Enlightenment's critical thought leads to a condemnation and then purging of sensuousness, emotion, animal instinct, color and kinesthetics.
She states, "Enlightenment rhetoric of corruption has become the postmodern discourse of ugliness."
She points her guns toward Guy Debord and Baudrillard, who have debased images with the negative terminologies of spectacle, simulacrum, and meaninglessness in postmodern times. Hearkening to some of Suzi Gablik's sentiment, she calls for a drastic re-enchanting of academia and knowledge in general, and she thinks that imagery can do it. The power of the image is so great that those who feel threatened have done all they can to oppress it, but in fact it is that very power which could revitalize the learning environments and techniques of the next century. How right she is that enchantment is necessary to learning, and I must agree that aesthetics is a wonderful tool for creating enchantment.
Who's going to do all this revolutionary work? According to Stafford the new "expert who does not yet exist" will be the Imagist. The imagists will be concerned with the "pictorialization of knowledge" on the internet and everywhere else. These new specialist are a threat to traditional academic categories because they define a new program that will be vital for the future. They will assess and develop the skills needed to navigate a world of digital information that is presented in hyper-reality, a mixture of virtual, aural and optical forms. Imagists can work on improving the reputation and integrity of images by revealing more about how they are made. This new cadre of thinkers and workers will come from a variety of disciplines, artists, architects, designers, scientists, and historians will all be on board for the impending revolution in cognition. She doesn't let Chapter five end without a stern reminder that "true collaboration does not mean emerging victorious in a clash of power among competing interest groups," rather she is asking for a total restructuring and non-competitive sharing of resources and information between disciplines.
As an example of this ideal and true interdisciplinary approach, Ms. Stafford has actively engaged the scientific community with her interest in medical imaging technology. MRI, CT and PET scans, x-rays, and other highly developed equipment are producing medical images which are ethically irreproachable and pragmatically invaluable to the project of human health and longevity. It is in this arena that she finds one avenue for redeeming the corrupted reputation of images. In 1992 she planned and hosted the Body: Art and Science in Modern Culture symposium. For two years prior she engaged in discussions with the doctors and researchers in the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, and the Center for Imagine Sciences. Chapter six is an attempt to link the eighteenth century interest in laboratories, personal experimentation and commercial science exhibits to the current explosion in mass computer literacy that we see today. In the eighteenth century scientific knowledge and learning became commercialized to an excessive degree, traveling shows and gimmicky lectures turned science into a kind of spectator sport. Chapter eight calls for a true collaboration and restructuring of academic investigation, she invokes medical imaging again and hearkens back to eighteenth century examples of scientific imagery.
Her problems with postmodern aesthetics are further enumerated. She considers the medical world's focus on a "transparent" head to be postmodern in its fragmentation of the body. She also notes that medical scans and specialization "fetishize isolated parts of the anatomy." She also worries that attempts to establish categories of normality in brain scans will have the same negative effect that physiognomy had in the eighteenth century. We will end up judging on appearances, and in Stafford's opinion that is a negative trend whether or not the image is from the inside or outside of the head. Another factor which is influencing the medical world immensely is economics. It is a reality that in today's world, economics dictate many of the decisions that medical professionals must make. Worst of all is what she identifies as a kind of "deconstruction" and fragmenting of the practice of medicine. The myriad of health care agencies have lead to an unhealthy specialization "in which no one wishes to assume responsibility for the totality."
Chapter ten is devoted to an overview of the eighteenth century's attempt to catalog and represent the countless varieties of new life forms that were revealed by microscopic technology. It is filled with interesting prints and drawings from the time period. Chapter eleven carries these ideas forward into an analysis of the "pleasures of viewing pain" and the unique situation created by being able to see the destruction and creation of microscopic creatures through the lens of the microscope. This chapter contends with some of the same kind of issues that Susan Sontag grapples with in Regarding the Pain of Others, however she focuses more on the role of animals and insects. Many of these eighteenth century microscope researchers were surprised to find that "life down under the lens was even more bloody and rapacious than life above it." She admits that this kind of sadistic viewing encouraged the idea of evil images and useless titillation via sensational imagery. She suggests that these negative connotations could be reversed with an emphasis on how seeing is a form of learning.
Her conclusion powerfully reiterates everything the preceding chapters ask for. She wants action, and she wants the new imagists to get with the program and start changing the world. It is a powerful book, but not an easy read, certainly not for anyone who isn't devoted to deep, philosophical analysis of these issues. The text is often over-written and filled with novel vocabulary choices. For some readers this could be interesting, while for others it could be maddening. I found it ironic that someone arguing so persuasively for image based cognition would rely so heavily on rarefied academic linguistics.
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Barbara Maria Stafford, Good looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images, MIT Press [...]
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VINE VOICEon March 18, 2004
Alan Bloom ("The Closing of the American Mind") and Neil Postman ("Amusing Ourselves to Death") are challenged by Stafford's thesis. Not only are they wrong for thinking our image culture is dumber than the text culture of their youth, images have always been a more powerful way to communicate more information to more people. Stafford demonstrates this by showing how art over history has been better at communicating the difficult and complex to a broader audience than text. Text has always been the tool of a limited social class while art has educated the masses. Today with digital art through movies and the Internet web pages even more people can learn more than ever.
My own sense tends towards agreement with this thesis. When faced with students that are not interested in reading but love to watch (in the sense of Peter Sellers' "Being There") I have the clear sense that this is because compared to movies books are boring. Why? Certainly not always, and certainly not for all students, but in general, movies are too compelling a medium to be seriously challenged by a text - (not in the Postmodern sense of "the text").
Stafford's argument lends support to the idea that there is a good reason for this and not just an explanation.
My only critique is that there are no color plates and color should certainly be part of the argument.
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