Following from our seminar last week, where we discussed the term visuality, here is a text that could be useful to position the term in its proper historical and discursive context. Visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff (2006) wrote the essay On Visuality (downloadable here: Mirzeoff-on-visuality), Journal of visual culture, Vol 5(1): 53–79, 2006. This essay scrutinises Hal Foster’s (1988) edited book Vision and Visuality,(700.1 VIS in the Harrow LRC) that researched visuality in the context of emerging art and media theories of the 1980s and goes beyond it by researching its genealogy in the earlier writing of Thomas Carlyle.
Visuality has become a keyword for the field of visual culture. However, while many assume that it is a postmodern theoretical term, the word was coined by the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle in his lectures On Heroes (1841). The centrality of Carlyle’s discourse of visualized heroism to Anglophone imperial culture was such that any claim to subjectivity had to pass by visuality. Here lies the contradictory source of the resonance of ‘visuality’ as a keyword for visual culture as both a mode of representing imperial culture and a means of resisting it by means of reverse appropriation. Reading Carlyle in the imperial context leads to a distinction between Visuality 1, which is proper to modernity, and a Visuality 2 that exceeds or precedes the commodification of vision. This tension was played out in the work of Carlyle’s admirers Oscar Wilde and W.E.B. Du Bois and in the politics surrounding the abolition of slavery.