Visual Culture

Level 3

Sturken, Marita & Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking. An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford University Press, 2001
S.Hall (ed.) Representation, London, Sage, 1997
Articles and optional readings (on shelf in library)
Optional readings (on shelf in library)

In this course you will learn to analyse and interpret the increasing visualisation of contemporary culture. You will develop specific visual and verbal skills for observing, analysing, describing and critiquing (audio)visual imagery from a range of diverse theoretical perspectives.

In the course you will learn about the following aspects of visual culture:

For each class you are asked to read a chapter (or two) from Practices of Looking and/or Representation (which are both very accessible), and one (or two) theoretical article (which you may find more challenging). Don’t get discouraged reading difficult texts, but try and come to terms with complex ideas. Please bring your questions to class; together we will make sense of complicated theories. Also, you are requested for each class to bring a sample of an image that you think illustrates the theory you have read. This may be any kind of image: photo, video, or computer image. In class we will discuss those images together so as to make theories more concrete and practical.
Assignments have to be handed in before class on max. 1 A4, typed and printed.

Tips on how to tackle difficult texts:
After reading the article once, take note of the concepts and / or foreign terms that you do not understand. Read a second time following the advice below:
Look up for words you don’t know in dictionaries and/or encyclopaedias
Summarise the text’s main argument in one sentence
Make a list of what, in your opinion, are the main characteristics of the text and explain why
Think about the elements that, in your opinion, constitute the cornerstone of Visual Culture
Try and discover the inter-textual references present in the text
Identify issues in the text with which you don’t agree and explain why
Choose one aspect you are particularly interested in within the field of Visual Culture and prepare a list of questions relating to this aspect
Think whether you can come up with any material (from the field of journalism, digital media etc.) that has any relation at all with what you are reading, which are the similarities?
Consider carefully the style, tone and rhythm of some sentences that attract your attention take note of them and explain why they stand out from the rest of the text

Above all be proactive, creative, critical and open minded: try and establish connections among the diverse issues you come across and make explicit the reasons on which your evaluations are based. In matters of culture there are no easy answers, but that is no reason to stop asking questions!

Hand in final assignment (17/1/04)
For your final assignment, please choose any of the topics discussed in the Programme making use, whenever appropriate, of the articles you have read in class and of the Selected Bibliography below. You are obliged to use at least one theoretical perspective that has been discussed in class and apply it to an example of visual culture that you analyse.
Dutch students are advised to write in Dutch; should you wish to write in English, please consult the instructor in advance.
Advice as for writing good essays is available, for Dutch speakers ‘de ACW-schrijfwijzer’;
for English speakers at ‘How to write good essays’:
and MLA Essay writing Guidelines:

The final paper should be:
Between 3000-4000 words (excluding bibliography, notes, and appendices); longer papers will not be accepted
Typed, printed, double spaced with enough margin for comments; two copies (one for archive)
For essays returned 1-2 days after deadline 1 mark is detracted, from 3 to 5 days delay, 2 marks are detracted, essays handed in 5 days after deadline are no longer accepted. Extensions are granted only after authorization by teachers and only for serious reasons
If you return the essay late, you won’t be able to rewrite if it is unsuccessful
If your essay has been returned on time, but it is insufficient, then you can rewrite it and return it by the first teaching day in period 4 (11/4). Same rules as above apply for late essays
In case the essay that you have rewritten is still unsuccessful, then you will be required to attend the course again next year


10/11   1. What is Visual Culture?
The aim of this session is to think about the notion of Visual Culture: What is it? How does it differ from art history and cultural studies?
Literature: please read from Practices of Looking:
Ch 1, ‘Images, Power, and Politics’
Ch 2, ‘Viewers Make Meaning’

Assignment: Please bring to class an image that you find very striking, disturbing or moving. In class we will ask students to comment on their choice. The image may be taken from any medium: a picture, fashion photo, advertisement, videoclip, movie, television or website. Make sure your image can be immediately and easily shown in class; all the equipment is available.
Film Screening: none

12/11   No Session. Afternoon trip to the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF) in Rotterdam. Web Site

17/11  2. Gaze
This class examines how power and desire work in visual culture, from the perspective of psychoanalysis.
Literature: please read and study:
Practices of Looking: Ch 3, ‘Spectatorship, Power, and Knowledge’
S. Freud, from Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, New York: Basic Books, 1905: 22-23
S. Freud, from The Interpretation of Dreams, New York: Avon Books, 1965 (1900): 289-292 and 294-299
Freud, ‘Female sexuality’ (1931) pp. 194-208 (laatste deel niet!)
J. Lacan, ‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience’ Écrits. A Selection, New York: Norton, 1977 (1949): 1-7
Optional reading: P. Adams ‘Father Can’t You See I’m Filming? in T. Brennan & M. Jay (eds.) Vision in Context, pp. 203-217 (refers to film Peeping Tom)

Assignment: Take an example from visual culture and apply psychoanalysis by concentrating on perspective: who looks, who is being looked at, how is identification produced, can you recognise oedipal desire, etc.? Because of the number of pages to read, you don’t have to write this assignment up or hand it in. Bring your image to class. In class we will ask students to present their case.

Film Screening (in the morning): Peeping Tom, Michael Powell, GB 1960

19/11   3. Sign
This class deals with the question ‘what is a sign?’ from a semiotic perspective.
Literature: please read and study:
Practices of Looking: Ch 4, ‘Reproduction and Visual Technologies’,
Ch 5, pp. 138-144 (on semiotics)
Stuart Hall, Representation, pp.30-41 and Reading C and D by R. Barthes, pp.68-9

Assignment: Do Activity 6 and the one connected to Reading D in Representation, pp. 40-41

24/11   4. Photography and the Multiplying Image
This class deals with the question how technology has changed the nature of representation.
Literature: please read and study:
Practices of Looking: Ch 5, ‘The Mass Media and the Public Sphere’
Walter Benjamin, (1935) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, reprinted in: Benjamin, Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1968: 217-251
(optional) M. Jay ‘Photo-unrealism: the contribution of the Camera to the Crisis of Ocularcentrism’ in S. Melville & B. Readings (eds.) Vision & Textuality, Duke UP, 1995, pp. 344-360
(optional) Susan Sontag, On Photography, London, Penguin pp. 167-180

Assignment: choose one from the following:
Refer to S. Hall, Representation, pp.81-87 and bring to class two photographs, one which reflects documentary as objective representation and another that reflects documentary as subjective interpretation
Bring to class an image that is mechanically reproduced or digitally manipulated. Analyse how the technological process changes the nature of the visual representation.
Film Screening (in the morning): The Man with the Movie Camera (1929, Sovjet Union: Dziga Vertov)
26/11   5. Visualising Gender

This class looks at the notion of gender, in other words at cultural constructions of femininity and masculinity.
Literature: please read and study:
Practices of Looking: Ch 6, ‘Consumer Culture and the Manufacturing of Desire’
S. Hall, ‘Exhibiting Masculinity’, pp. 291-322
L. Mulvey (1975), ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’. In R. Stam & T. Miller, Film and Theory, an Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000: 483-494

Assignment, please choose on of the following:
Do Activity 7 and 8 in S.Hall, Representation, pp.52-54 and Reading F, pp.71-74
Do Activity on p.319 related to Reading A, pp.331-333 in S. Hall Representation       

1/12     6. Visual Culture and Everyday Life
This class discusses how postmodernism is mostly a culture of pastiche and simulation.
Literature: please read and study:
Practices of Looking: Ch 7, ‘Postmodernism and Popular Culture’
Jean Baudrillard, Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983: pp. 1-13.

Assignment: Please bring to class an image that is clearly a pastiche of another image and analyse, in writing, how the pastiche works: irony, parody, repetition, simulation?
Film Screening (in the morning): eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)
This film also fits in to the next class on Friday!

3/12     7. The Cyborg
This class considers how the figure of the cyborg (a cybernetic organism) informs contemporary visual culture.
Literature: please read and study:
Practices of Looking: Ch 8, ‘Scientific Looking, Looking at Science’
D. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the1980s’ (1985) in Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. London, Free Association Books, 1991: 149-181.
Available online at:

Assignment: Please bring to class an image of a cyborg. Determine whether you find this image liberating or not. You might find useful to visit the ‘History of the Cyborg’ web page at

8/12     8. Visualising Race
This class assesses the effects of globalisation on popular culture, from the perspective of race and ethnicity.
Literature: please read and study:
Practices of Looking: Ch 9, The Global Flow of Visual Culture’
Stuart Hall, ‘Contesting a racialized regime of representation’, in Representation. London: Sage, 1997: 269-277

Assignment: Do Activity 12 in S. Hall, Representation, p. 275
Film Screening (in the morning): Métisse (Mathieu Kassovitz, Frankrijk, 19??)

Extra: hand in one page with the subject of your final paper, including your name; title; short description of the problem or question you want to research; hypothesis; a few lines on theoretical background; proposed methodology; and short bibliography.

10/12   9. Visual Power: Surveillance Culture
In this session we will address the positive and negative aspects connected to the use of video cameras.
Literature: please read and study:
J. Fiske, ‘Videotech’ in N. Mirzoeff, The Visual Culture Reader, pp. 153-163
Foucault, M. ‘Panopticism’ in Discipline and Punish at
Explore the Panopticism web site at

Assignment: choose one from the following:
Rent and view The Matrix. Before and while watching the movie, think through the following prompts:
Locate specific instances in the film where Foucault’s theory of panopticism plays an influential role. Think about how particular characters relate to Foucault’s essay. Describe the roles that different characters play. While writing his essay, Foucault most likely had types of people in mind: Who performs the surveillance? Who is being watched? Who, therefore, possesses the power and authority? What do they do with that power and authority? Think about the power structures in the film. Who has power? Why? How did they get it? How did they keep it? Who wants power? How do they plan to get it? Do they get it? What will they do with it if they have it? Explain, in writing, the connections you can make between Foucault’s notion of panopticism and The Matrix.
2) Research the Rodney King Incident by visiting the web sites below. Try and answer the following questions: what are the main reasons, to your mind, why this incident had such a huge impact on American public opinion? What is the role that video technology played in highlighting racial tensions in American society? Try and explain what J. Fiske means when he says: ‘Technology may determine what is shown, but society determines what is seen’ in N. Mirzoeff, The Visual Culture Reader, p. 156. Report, in writing, your findings to the class:

The Rodney King incident: click on the ‘Introduction’ video at
‘From Rodney King to Clinton, Video Images Help Galvanize Public Opinion’,2933,40763,00.html
‘The Video Tape that Marked History’ at
View excerpt from the R. King Video at
(click on ‘George Holliday Video of King Beating’)

15/12   10. (No) logo
This class assesses the effects of globalisation on popular culture, from the perspective of branding; it also evaluates whether the logo is a visual image.
Literature: please read and study:
Naomi Klein, Ch 2, ‘The Brand Expands’, from No Logo, London: Flamingo, 2001: 27-61

Assignment: Please wear clothes with a logo. Analyse who made this piece and where; how did this piece of clothing travel across the world; you may also want to reflect on the relationship between branding and fashion design. Try and establish a connection between your own reflections and today’s readings. Write a 1 page report with your conclusions and expect to share your findings with the whole class.

17/12   11. Fashion I
We will discuss visuality in relation to fashion.
Literature: please read and study:
Bruzzi & Church Gibson, Fashion Cultures. Theories, explanations, and
Routledge, 2000, extracts
Brydon, & Niessen, Consuming Fashion, Berg: 1998 extracts

Assignment: choose one of the following:
1) Please bring one of your own designs (or favourite designers) to class and prepare an oral presentation in which you bring one or two theoretical points to bear on that particular example of fashion.
2) From
Read Sections ‘Lenore Dembski’, ‘History of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders textiles’, and do the following Activity:
Discuss the cross-cultural use of textile production techniques
Identify the advantages of study tours in another country included in the section ‘Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander textiles’

22/12   12. Fashion II
Literature: please read and study:
Rebecca Arnold, ‘Fashion’, in Fiona Carson & Claire Pajaczkowska, Feminist Visual Culture, London: Routledge, 2001, pp. 207-220

Film Screening: none
Instead, teachers will receive students individually (10 minutes each) to discuss progress of final paper.

24/12   No class

17/1     Hand in final assignment by 17.00 hours

Selected Bibliography (by subject, in alphabetical order)






Reading Images: Psychoanalytic Approaches

Representing Race

Reading Images: Semiotic Approaches

Surveillance Culture

Visuality & New Media

Visual Culture (general)