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18 Mar 2021 / by Beng-Lan Goh

The Quicksand of Knowledge Production

Three vertically oriented illustrations in a row. The illustration on the left depicts a woman kneeling down next to a labrador-like dog. A black and white rectangular graphic of a dog’s profile is imposed over the middle of the scene. The illustration in the middle depicts a person holding up their hand in the air, displaying three fingers with their thumb and little finger folded in. Their face is obscured by a black and white rectangular graphic of a hand displaying a hand in the same position. The illustration on the right depicts a person in black holding a black umbrella. Their face is obscured by a black and white rectangular graphic of the Guy Fawkes mask.

Illustration by Furze Chan

In 1996, the journal October published the Visual Culture Questionnaire—four questions about the study of visual culture—alongside responses from art and architecture historians, film theorists, literary critics, and artists. These four questions have been republished in Chinese and English by M+, with October’s permission, to reflect on how the understanding of visual culture has changed since this 1996 enquiry. Below is Beng-Lan Goh’s response.

In my understanding, the October Visual Culture Questionnaire, published in 1996, represents one of the earliest texts that establishes visual culture as a new inter-discipline seeking to revise, if not replace, a supposedly limited field of art history.

Yet such politics of disciplinary progressivism was endemic in the humanities and social sciences during the post-structural and postcolonial turns of the 1980s and 1990s.[1] Indeed, both the disciplines that I work in, that is, anthropology and Southeast Asian studies, were similarly engulfed by such academic politics. As fields studying cultural otherness, they were challenged by newer interdisciplinary practices geared towards decolonising knowledge of the non-West. Anthropology’s main adversaries were postcolonial and cultural studies. While Southeast Asian studies was also contested by these two fields, it faced additional rivals from newer fields advocating for unbounded visions of a post-Cold War world such as international relations, strategic studies, global studies, and so on.

Nevertheless, anthropology and Southeast Asian studies survived these disputes by making themselves relevant to debates of the time. Anthropology’s resilience has been attributed to the development of an ‘indiscipline’,[2] which has produced far more differentiated and adulterated practices than the field’s standard conventions. As for Southeast Asian studies, pronounced a failure in North American settings, its survival took the form of an ‘afterlife’ within the region of its study.[3] However, even its regional revitalisation could not escape the politics of disciplinary progressivism.[4] Regional efforts to revive Southeast Asian Studies were castigated as mere reproductions of a colonial paradigm by Inter-Asia Cultural studies, an offshoot of cultural studies fostering intra-Asian comparisons, which sees itself as the radical replacement of area studies.[5]

Two illustrations side by side, with a diagonal split in between them. The illustration on the left depicts a man holding his hand straight up in the air, displaying three fingers with the thumb and little finger folded in. Three people surround him and hold him back. A man in a suit stands behind a microphone on a tall white podium in the background. The illustration on the right depicts a crowd of people holding their hands straight up in the air, displaying three fingers with the thumb and little finger folded in. Some people hold signs with messages such as ‘No coup, free Thailand’ and ‘No more dictatorship’.

Illustration by Furze Chan

Such vicious polarisation of opinions over disciplinarity may be misplaced. The progressive intent of newer disciplines is defeated if they compel the destruction of their Others. Rather, critical openness is required at an era when the world is heading into unchartered waters. Rather than pitting against each other, there is an urgency to bring competing disciplinary practices into mutual enrichment to build multi-directional understandings and ethical interventions in a complex, divided yet interconnected world. Hence, it is as a disciplinary outsider yet fellow traveller on the quicksand of academic politics that I will revisit the October Visual Culture Questionnaire.

As an observer, I would say that over the past two decades, visual culture has flourished as a productive field of inquiry, even though questions about its disciplinary coherency may not have totally disappeared. Beyond the October Visual Culture Questionnaire, the field is now supported by many other definitive texts, not to mention its firm establishment as an academic discipline in universities all over the world.[6] To put things in context, visual culture’s tension with art history as reflected in the Visual Culture Questionnaire was and still is a predominantly North American academic discourse. This is because visual culture was born out of criticisms within art history in North America, even though subsequent engagements with cultural studies, literary studies, and critical theory helped consolidate it into an established field by the late 1990s.

Beyond the North American model, there are other models of visual culture. Parallel to the initial configurations of visual culture in North America, another variant of visual studies was also in the making in the United Kingdom. Visual culture in Britain sprang from cultural studies (a product of the Birmingham School of Culture Studies that dates back to the 1960s).[7] This origin puts English Literature as visual culture’s competitor. In part, this explains British visual culture’s strong focus on consumer, mass, and immigrant cultures that were fast transforming traditional English culture.

Illustration of a crowd of people dressed in black holding up their hands with five fingers splayed out. Each person in the crowd is wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.

Illustration by Furze Chan

Elsewhere, in Latin America, visual culture is closely related to critical theory, philosophy, communications, and semiology.[8] In Asia, the popularity of visual culture in Hong Kong is clearly linked to widespread interests in Inter-Asia cultural studies, film, and literary studies, mirroring trends in the neighbouring countries of Taiwan and Korea. Visual culture does not have a strong disciplinary grip in Southeast Asian academes. Nonetheless, the popularity of Inter-Asia cultural studies, new media studies, art history, and visual anthropology—all of which take visual objects and visuality seriously—points to equal interests in visual culture but under different disciplinary labels in this region.

Going back to the October Visual Culture Questionnaire, the high-low distinction between visual culture and art history—a high moral ground for their contentions—has become less tenable today. Visual culture, a field supposedly studying the proliferation of visual objects in mass culture outside artistic domains, has back pedalled into traditional art spaces such as museums; the establishment of M+ being a case in point. All these eclectic developments point to a confident visual culture (inter)discipline today when compared to its ambiguous origins.

Yet, visual culture’s nemesis, art history, if we are referring to North American experience, has not remained stagnant. Over time, art history has become more self-reflexive and social-culturally relevant given the collapsed boundaries between art, popular culture, capitalist commodification, and the virtual and social worlds in general. Indeed, both visual culture and art history have become useful interfaces for other disciplines, including anthropology and area studies, in the explorations of image and visuality in contemporary societies. Such cross-disciplinary developments have enriched knowledge. For example, recent synthesis between continental philosophy, visual culture, and art history has produced newer ideas on the power of image/aesthetics to emancipate thought and action.[9]

Illustration consisting of six separate images, separated from each other by diagonal splits, each depicting a different person next to a dog. From the top left to bottom left, the images show: a small dog in the arms of someone, a woman with dark curly hair hugging a husky with a red neckerchief, a smiling woman in a hijab holding a long haired chihuahua, a smiling woman in a hijab petting a golden retriever, a person’s hand reaching down to pet a white medium-sized dog, and a small child sitting next to a labrador-like dog.

Illustration by Furze Chan

Hence, two decades after the October Visual Questionnaire, visual culture and art history stand on par today even as they continue to transgress into each other’s terrains. Visual culture has established itself as a forerunner in the study of image and visuality. Likewise, art history has remained at the forefront of debates on contemporary art/aesthetics and visuality. Against this situation, the quest for disciplinary hierarchy and distinction no longer makes sense. Rather, the urgency now is to consider how both fields can contribute rigour to critical thinking on human diversity and possibility at this uncertain juncture of human history.

In this respect, visual culture and art history bear unique relevance to the rethinking of the future of radical politics in contemporary Southeast Asia, if not also for the world. Against deeply divided civil societies in the region, nascent public spheres bearing distinct visual, virtual, and atypical political expressions are quietly in the making.[10] There is an imperative to comprehend the complex visual-cum-virtual ecology of regional resistance and their bearing on cross-cultural political thinking. Both visual culture and art history are needed and relevant to this enterprise. Their overlapping epistemologies which privilege the visual, sensory, tactile, transient, and interactive bear promise for uncovering and integrating alternative modes of being, seeing and doing to advance critical renewal in a divided world.

Note on images: Loose citizenry initiatives that take on politics in a silent or indirect way by creating provocative events, whose images are then reproduced on social and online media, create an alternative public sphere and offer other social-political commentaries. In Thailand, the salute seen in the Hollywood movie The Hunger Games has been adopted by citizens in protests against the military junta, which banned the gesture—a prohibition not unlike the banning of masks in Hong Kong as a result of the city's anti-ELAB movement. In Malaysia, the images reproduced and serialised from the ‘I Want to Touch a Dog’ event staged at an urban park near Kuala Lumpur in 2014 became a potent challenge and expansion of the official registers of Islamic discourse on the proscribed dog, which served to open up a space for public debates on a taboo subject—Beng-Lan Goh.

This article was originally published on Podium, M+ Stories.

Beng-Lan Goh is an adjunct professor at the Department of Area Studies, Faculty of Humanities, Universitas Indonesia. She previously taught at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and is now an independent scholar. Her research interests on Southeast Asia include urban spatial and cultural politics; intellectual histories; ethno-religious nationalism; and the creative production of interculturality.

  1. 1.

    For a quick background on this phase of academic politics, see: Louis Menand (ed.) The Future of Academic Freedom (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996); and Amanda Anderson and Joseph Valente, Disciplinarity at the Fin De Siecle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

  2. 2.

    John Comaroff, ‘The End of Anthropology, Again: On the Future of an In/Discipline’, American Anthropologist 112 (4) 2010, 524–538.

  3. 3.

    Masao Miyoshi and Harry Harootunian, Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), 14.

  4. 4.

    See Beng-Lan Goh (ed.) Decentring and Diversifying Southeast Asian studies: Perspectives from the Region (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian studies, 2011), 1-59.

  5. 5.

    Beng Huat Chua et al. ‘Area Studies and the Crisis of Legitimacy: A View from South East Asia’, South East Asia Research, 27 (1) 2019, 31-48.

  6. 6.

    For some examples: Ian Heywood and Barry Sandywell (eds.), Interpreting Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 1999); W.J.T. Mitchell, ‘Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture’, Journal of Visual Culture, 1(2) 2002, 165-181; James Elkins, Visual Studies: A Sceptical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2003); and Richard Howell, Visual Culture (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2003).

  7. 7.

    See: chapter 2 in James Elkins, Visual studies: A Sceptical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2003); and Stuart Hall, ‘The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of Humanities’, October 53, 1999, 11-23.

  8. 8.

    See Alejandra Uslenghi, Latin America at Fin-de-Siècle Universal Exhibitions Modern Cultures of Visuality (United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

  9. 9.

    For two provocative ideas, see: Alain Badiou, Being and Event (tr. Oliver Feltham) (London and New York: Continuum, 2005); and Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. (tr. Gabriel Rockhill) (New York: Continuum, 2004). A useful interpretation of Badiou’s ideas is offered by Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

  10. 10.

    See Beng-Lan Goh, ‘Uncertainties, Perils, and Hope of an Asian Century: A view from Southeast Asia’, Cultural Dynamics, 27(2), 2015, 203 –213.

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