Interpreting Visual Culture: Explorations in the Hermeneutics of the Visual

By Ian Heywood; Barry Sandywell | Go to book overview

4

DURKHEIM'S DOUBLE VISION

Chris Jenks

[M]ost sociological research involves the visual domain, because in large part we theorise what we see: social contexts, spatial arrangements, people's appearances and their actions; although the huge visual dimension of the social world and the fact that we transpose this into words are not so much remarked upon.

Chaplin, Sociology and Visual Representation

At around the turn of the nineteenth century Durkheim opened up a new landscape for our attention. Philosophical, political and economic paradigms extending back to the pre-Socratics had cast their gaze upon the ordered relations between people but Durkheim originally maps, through his science of ethics, the social 'world'. This is an ontological space, a source of causality, and the primary context for the functioning of all previously considered theories of human conduct. What Durkheim achieved at a more analytical level than merely founding a discipline (though this is achievement enough) was an awakening of vision and a cognitive commitment to a new perceptual territory. Many previous nineteenth-century explorers revealed whimsical sights fit for the new tourist, be it traveller or taxonomer, but Durkheim's 'social' was hard, factual, contested and burgeoning with the propensities to both change and explode. This was no space for the tourist, but rather a battleground for the social scientist qua moral scientist. So compelling were the images in interlocking constellations he laid before us that their existence, though not their interpretation, has gone without challenge until the end of the twentieth century. This latter-day assault on the social world has emerged as part of a Western manifestation of egoism in the form of retro eighteenth-century economic theory, and also as a dimension of de-traditionalisation in Baudrillard's conception of the postmodern. Both of these challenges were, incidently, anticipated in Durkheim's corpus of work through his concepts of 'forced' and 'anomic' divisions of labour.

the potential to reopen modernist closure is not found in the lax pluralities of many 'posterities' but in the rather more awkward constraints of Durkheim's notions of solidarity and the normative. The impulses of much postmodern theory are too ironic, too ready, like

-74-

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