Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Visual Methodologies and the Cathedral of Learning as Institutional Space

I find myself in the middle of a three week series of readings on visual methodologies with my Rhetoric and Culture class, in which we slowly plod through Gillian Rose's chapters on compositional, semiotic, and discursive analysis of images themselves, and discursive analysis of images' location within institutional apparatuses. We also read Cara Finnegan's excellent essay on the naturalistic enthymeme and the skull controversy to contextualize what a close, historically located reading might look like that enacts a kind of discourse analysis from a rhetorical perspective. Next week we wrap up by discussing ethnographic practice and field note writing.

Of course, when thinking about the image as a rhetorical process, rather than an ossified product, no one method will do. How is it that one approaches an object, perhaps an image, or an event, or a text, and reads it in a way that reveals its significance without flattening it or smashing its rough edges? How do you make an argument that is revealing, but not too polemical?

It is here that I find Rose's text especially helpful. She describes the process of analyzing the discursive formation in which an object/text/image/event is imbued as something like a concentric process, polishing and addressing the immediately visible components of the object (trying one's best to remember that what they 'see' and don't see is as historically condition and accreted as the object itself) and then from their seeks out the different modalities of address and analysis that formed a historical fabric around the object. In Finnegan's text this was the image of a cow skull taken during the Great Depression, its visual elements, the other trial images that Rothstein captured, the institution for which he was taking photos, the exigency that brought into being that institution, and then the major political and social events that provided the immediate context for the controversy (gasp! he moved the skull from its initial location) including Roosevelt's election, conservative frustration with government spending, and the tapestry of media response including articles, letters to the editor, as well as more private dialogues (communication between Rothstein and his director). So already, here, we have a rich contextualization of the object, both historically and socially. But more is needed. Finnegan then draws on the history of photography and assumptions (as well contradictions) about its realism, pointing to data about how the "mechanical eye" is not at all the same as the physical eye, and yet, the photograph is still believed to be an echo or index of the real on the level of representation, ontology, and mechanical fact. She then tracked these assumptions, references to the "real" in the contemporaneous debates, exposing how even those refusing the controversy did so within the idiom of photographic realism, or, her phrase, the "naturalistic enthymeme." In this text, Finnegan explores the production of the image in particular, the technology of photography, the characteristics of the image, and its complex audiencing to tell a story about persistent biases and epistemologies surrounding the place of photography in our ocularcentric culture. In so doing, she illuminates that an image is never a static product, but is a constantly evolving and multilayered social process.

To the same ends, I sought to get the students thinking about how our institutional environments are their own discursive formations that produce "truth effects," or, rhetorical understandings of what-is, that are powerful, and also contradictory. Our class, located in a bland room on the third floor of the Cathedral of Learning is flanked by some of the Nationality Rooms, rooms "donated" by Pittsburgh's various ethnic group organizations that replicate the classroom styles of various cultures, across time. For example, a 17th century Welsh schoolhouse. Moreover, the Cathedral itself is a curious ensemble of the sacred and the secular, using gothic style to lend gravitas to the combination of bureaucratic, capitalist, and academic activity taking place in its hallowed (and also over and under heated) halls. So, I asked them to walk around and observe the layout of the 1st and 3rd floors, the architectural flourishes that produce different effects in the audiences, the spatial routing in place to control the movement of visitors, and the modes of display that offer a sense of the nationality rooms.

They came back excited, having gathered evidence in different ways. Some took notes. Others merely observed. And yet others took photos of plaques and inscriptions with their phones. One student mentioned the impact of the idea of the "cathedral" a kind of religious implication that lends gravity to the institution. Another pointed out that the nationality rooms function to create a sense of diversity, that all cultures are accepted and contained in the university, and as such, it is a representation of Pittsburgh in miniature, potentially a synecdochic or metonymic space. A fourth read a plaque commemorating the founding of the cathedral, a place for learning and acceptance. She also pointed to another plaque at the entrance to the great hall on the first floor that it is a place for dreams and aspirations, a claim that is supported by the soaring ceilings and the density of departments suggesting that a diversity of goals are possible. And less savory reactions emerged. The common hall, a student pointed out, was actually a panoptic space, where those sitting and working were intensely conscious of their visibility from above and alongside.
Commons room. Panoptic space.

The chairs, although historical and beautiful, in many of the nationality rooms, are uncomfortable and urge the viewer to keep moving, to keep circulating. Taking class in a beautiful but not very functional 17th school house elicits emotions of frustration or disillusionment as one hears the cheery voice of a tour guide gushing about the wonders inside. And the nationality rooms, though homages to the world's cultures, also come with postcards, purchasable oddities, glass display cases telling the visitor "Available in the gift shop!" And so we came into contact with a central contradiction in the institutional heart of the University, a tension between truth effects of learning, the life of the mind, cosmopolitanism and unity, and the ongoing maintenance of these effects through the commodification of cultures, exoticism, and touristic packaging.

Much like the naturalistic enthymeme, which we know to be a construct and yet we still desire and believe in it (think here, perhaps, of the trope of the "I woke up this way" photos wherein one is soothed by images of ostensibly unframed, unmade up women to lessen the pressure of perfection that is brought to bear on feminine bodies by beauty myths and photo shop, and yet, we still seek release and support in the truth of the un-marked image), we live and invest in institutions that are grounded on their own contradictions. Visual methods, at the very least, provide us tools to see the process of construction that makes such institutions seem to generate unproblematic truths. In this sense, it is worth a wander around our own corridors to see with fresh eyes the constraints and possibilities that are just around the corner.

Works Cited:

Rose, Gillian. Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials. Sage, 2011.

Finnegan, Cara A. "The Naturalistic Enthymeme and Visual Argument: Photographic Representation in the" Skull Controversy"." Argumentation and advocacy 37, no. 3 (2001): 133.

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