Russian History after the "Visual Turn"

Kritika, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Russian History after the "Visual Turn"


No scholar in the humanities in the last 30 years can have remained oblivious to the linguistic and cultural "turns" that are reckoned to have taken place. Rather fewer, however, will be aware of the "visual turn" that was hailed by its theorists in the 1990s. Important early contributions came from W. J. T. Mitchell and Gottfried Boehm, scholars with backgrounds in literary studies and philosophy, respectively. Mitchell's "pictorial turn" and Boehm's "iconic turn" were programmatic expressions of resistance to the perceived hegemony of the written text in humanities scholarship. (1) At the same time, the notion that images needed to be taken seriously as cultural artifacts in their own right was gathering adherents across many disciplines. Positioning itself at the interface between art history and cultural studies, and drawing further insights from literary theory, film studies, anthropology, sociology, and gender studies, a new field of "visual studies" acquired its own university departments, publications, and disciples. (2) Its impact was heightened by a general sense that Western culture was becoming less "logocentric" in the face of an onslaught from the new media of the 20th century--especially those that employed the moving image. Under the conditions of "ocularcentric" modernity, we were all becoming TV-worshipping pagans, and scholarly practice had to adapt to that. (3)

Skepticism is a reasonable first reaction to agenda-setting efforts of this kind. The debate on the relationship between word and image in Western culture is as old as the hills--and approximately as old as debates on the decline of cultural standards. Yet if we take our own discipline of history, it is clear that visual sources have on the whole been underappreciated, whether in the classroom or in scholarly output. With some honorable exceptions, they have been treated as an entertaining backdrop to the serious business of analyzing written texts. Historians do not, as a rule, cultivate their visual sensibility unless they are art or film specialists. Nor is it clear that the new field of visual studies has done much to help, since its practitioners have been overwhelmingly presentist in their preoccupations: the study of media and communications, at least as it has been institutionalized in Anglophone universities, rarely extends back before the middle of the 20th century. The visually minded historian of Russia has a further difficulty to confront: marginalization relative to the European mainstream. The conservative character of the icon tradition, the fact that "Russia had no Renaissance," and the presumed derivative nature of much modern Russian secular art have led to the view that Russian visual culture is less sophisticated and interesting than its Western counterparts. The modernist era is the exception that proves the rule.

In recent times, however, there have been signs that the methods and the sensibility of the art historian have begun to enter common historical practice. The achievements are real even if we limit ourselves to Russian history. A number of publications have brought visual culture to bear on classic issues in our field: the relationship between Russia and the West, Russian national identity, the relationship between rulers and ruled. Just recently, Valerie Kivelson and Joan Neuberger have brought to Russian studies a splendidly produced collective volume that will no doubt help make visual evidence a routine and integral part of university teaching (as well as of historical practice). (4)

The visual turn has technological as well as historiographical aspects. A book or a journal, in the 21st century as before, is a visual and material object in its own right. Its expressive possibilities include not only the printed word but also everything from cover design to typeface. These visual resources notably extend to images: reproductions of paintings, cartoons, manuscripts, maps, photographs. …

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