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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Lag and Impact in Visual Studies

Published Web Location Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting on my porch with a friend and my partner, trying to explain just what visual studies is. My friend, a historian, and my partner, who teaches in an English department, both listened patiently as I muddled through my usual preambles:

It’s like art history, but with a more politicized vision… Some people approach visual studies as a means to think about perception and technologies that have literally changed vision… Others use it as a means to explain how what is made (or allowed to be) visible is a tool of consolidating and maintaining hegemonic power… Some people see it as a development of art history; others define it as a radical rupture.…

I listed examples of potential objects of study. I began with the obvious: art, posters, film, advertisements, maps. I then listed more totalizing, which is to say less concrete, examples: systems of representation, discourse, the use of space, the commons. I inventoried the range of theoretical tools at my disposal: Marxism, feminism, critical race studies, indigeneity, postcolonialism, and queer theory… My historian friend nodded generously. “Yes,” she said, “people in my discipline work on these issues, as well.” My partner, more than a bit familiar with this intrigue of mine, acknowledged that his classroom and writing practice also welcome a variety of methodologies and source materials. So, what then, I proceeded to ask, is it that makes visual studies a discipline when its approach—that is to say, its methodology of interdisciplinarity—is being practiced (and seemingly welcomed) across the humanities?

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