This socialization to some extent predetermines what this text is about and what it is not about. To claim otherwise would be misleading. Such approaches to the study of politics and art as qualitative, interpretive, and episodic, noncausal ones will not always result in generalizable knowledge valid across cases and over time, but they will produce knowledge all the same, limited as it may be.
Furthermore, equating science with the production of generalizable knowledge is one approach to science among others. Likewise, assigning to science—rather than art—a privileged position regarding knowledge production is one approach among others. Knowledge on politics and art, modestly, supplements knowledge generated elsewhere in the social sciences and helps explain what other forms of inquiry cannot explain.
More ambitiously and controversially , it explains the world differently and renders visible what other forms of social inquiry hide for a variety of reasons. Work on politics and art expands the discursive frames within which politics unfolds, thus paving the way to new forms of political activity, and reveals the limitations and biases of established forms of social research. By so doing, it challenges both the knowledge produced elsewhere and the power positions derived from this knowledge within and without academia.
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Social science, seemingly to some extent unaware or ignorant of the limitations posed by its own analytical parameters, 32 frequently understands these very limitations as that which establishes a specific form of social inquiry—one form among many others 33 —as science :. Social science is an epistemically privileged discourse that gives us knowledge, albeit always fallible, about the world out there.
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Poetry, literature, and other humanistic disciplines tell us much about the human condition, but they are not designed to explain global war or Third World poverty, and as such if we want to solve those problems our best hope, slim as it may be, is social science. To privilege a specific way of doing things necessarily means marginalizing, by means of epistemic downgrading, other forms of inquiry; the knowledge thus produced cannot but be limited.
Nor can the processes in the course of which some marginalize others be unpolitical. Social science disregards its over- reliance on specific forms of analysis alleged to be systematic, rigorous, and often quantitative, coupled with verification or falsification of hypotheses and ostensibly decoupled from the subjective position of the person who is doing the analysis. Analysis of politics and art is essentially pluralistic and multidisciplinary, and pluralism and multidisciplinarity come in many forms.
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Poststructuralism and feminism have shown interest in art and visual representation since the s. This is also one of the limitations, because work on politics and art tends to follow wider trends, which can be observed in more established areas of social research and in the social and political world. Surely it would be futile to look for the method of work on politics and art in a research area characterized by creative eclecticism.
Such multidisciplinarity can even be based on incompatible approaches. There are exceptions, however. Critics often focus on what images do not tell their viewers without additional information, but they do not often ask what images do tell them without contextual clues. What it reveals exactly to individual viewers has to be analyzed.
While images should be analyzed on their own terms, such analysis is impossible due to the inevitable involvement of language in any act of analysis translating what can be seen into what can be said; hence approaches to the study of images derived from discourse analysis. Each person operates within larger discursive formations of which the experience of images is only a part, and no one is exposed only to images. As such, discourse analysis offers approximations to images—important ones, but approximations all the same.
Focusing on what can be said or written about an image implies that what can not be said or written about it escapes attention. Emphasis on text reflects tradition, 68 but also the subordination of the visual to the written prevalent in journalism, 69 whereas in art photography, skepticism about verbal explanations of the visual can be very strong. Political analysis of the visual arts includes critical investigation of the connection between what is seen and what is known. However, how do we know what we see?
This form of knowledge production requires reflection on the relationship between words and images in general. Addressing images through language means addressing images in terms other than their own. This may be inevitable, but has to be reflected upon all the same.
Surely the relationship between words and images cannot be reduced to meaning assigned to images by means of words. Having little to say about the image as such, however, discourse analysis cannot show what an image shows. However, exceptions exist and deserve attention.
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However, approaching the photographs as photoessay may make viewers misunderstand the people depicted and their subject positions during the genocide. Spatially separated from the photographs, the biographical sketches do not necessarily predetermine the viewing experience, thus allowing for some degree of interpretive openness on the part of viewers and complicating the viewing experience. Interpretive openness is not always appreciated. For example, photographer James Nachtwey, who regularly publishes photographs of human suffering without explanatory texts, has been criticized for so doing.
The absence of more experimental approaches to images in academic writings reflects not only academic conventions but also profound difficulties in connection with nonverbal approaches to the visual. Furthermore, it reflects that even seemingly purely visual narratives require language to assign meaning to them.
After all, the experience of watching an image cannot be decoupled from language; all media are mixed media. Pure verbal representation does not exist, and pure visual representation does not exist, either. It is arguable that in such cases, connotations and designations of meaning other than those intended by the photographer and the subject have to be marginalized by means of captions or other written explanations.
It is a balancing act trying to reconcile the interests of the subjects depicted—for example, to be recognized as a victim without being reduced to a victim—and the interests of viewers who want to be addressed as autonomous subjects. This is not always unproblematic, but it might also be understood as a platform for discursive engagement with what we believe we see. This engagement should not be limited to the issues artists, editors, critics, or anybody else speaking with sufficient authority wishes to discuss. In the digital age, many more images are being produced than ever before. How does this increase in the number of images affect knowledge production?
How do viewers cope with the number of images they are regularly exposed to? How can they respond to conditions depicted in images when the mere number of images overwhelms them? Writing in , Siegfried Kracauer speculated that there is something wrong with the assumption that the more we see, the more we know.
Few images, it seems, do not pose a problem; many do.
This mistrust is neither entirely justified nor entirely logical, as it emphasizes the quantitative dimension of image production at the expense of qualitative considerations: just because there are more images than individuals can deal with—and there have always been more images than individuals could deal with—does not mean that it is impossible for individuals to engage with selected images; it is a choice, and this choice often reflects the quality of images.
Photographic image production cannot be limited to quantitative considerations, but has to include qualitative assessments as well.
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For photographs to accuse, and possibly to alter conduct, they must shock. Its limitations give rise to a set of politically repugnant temptations—pity, indifference, cynicism and resentment. In another variation, this argument is applied to those viewers who are neither depoliticized nor desensitized as a result of their viewing experience, viewers who do not capitulate in light of the number of images of human suffering seemingly communicating helplessness and hopelessness and who would want to respond to the conditions depicted in images.
These viewers, so the argument goes, cannot, whatever they do, respond adequately to conditions of human suffering depicted in images. This is a very ambitious and ultimately debilitating understanding of adequateness, and there are many possibilities for individuals to respond to conditions depicted in images below the threshold of immediate alleviation of the suffering depicted. The number of images of human suffering reflects the number of people in pain, and no individual can hope to alleviate the suffering of all of them, visually represented or not.
Viewers have to make a choice—one that may be unethical and painful but is unavoidable. Artists representing acts of violence are not immune to committing acts of violence while so doing. This assessment reflects an extended understanding of violence, decoupled from mere physical force and close to cultural violence. No one had asked them whether they wanted their pictures made. They were simply called from the field, the house, the workshop, or the slave quarters, taken into town, and led up the stairs of an unfamiliar building and into rooms with a powerful, dense odor that no perfume could hide….
They were not supposed to be there. However—and this complicates the notion of violence—as was observed at that time by Pearl Cleage Polk when she was photographed:. He would take our pictures and let us see that those who said we were invisible were lying. That those who said we were ugly were lying. That those who claimed we were less than human were lying.