Gustavo Racy is a PhD Candidate at the Visual and Digital Cultures Research Center of the University of Antwerp (Belgium). He holds a Master in Social Sciences at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. His main areas of research are Anthropological Theory, Critical Theory and Philosophy of History. He has been working with Walter Benjamin’s thought since 2008, first in literary field and presently as a theoretical contribution to the field of visual studies.
Résumé de la proposition
Visualizing Culture: Visual Culture between Philosophy and Anthropology
The visual in Anthropology has never been a problem in terms of interest; the problem has always been what to do with it. Historically, the questioncan be related to the uprising of contemporary culture which, having its genesis on the development of industrial capitalism, put the visual object – through what has been called ‘occularcentrism’ or ‘scopic regime’ – in its center. In other words, with the development of capitalism, visuality became a metaphor of power and as such it ended up serving a specific function to the also modern science of anthropology. That way, images historically served to the manipulation of human categories in order to reinforce colonial power, classification and social Darwinism in general. Nonetheless, despite the problems concerning visuality discussed since the birth of anthropology, it is a fact that visual anthropology offers us not only different ways of understanding, but also different things to understand. By renouncing the visual per se, the discipline opened up to the fact that it could both read the visual as well as using it in order to build researches with a richer sense of the cultures they address. As an independent field, visual anthropology eventually disconnected from a general practice and from its analogous disciplines, to which we assume that a new set of tools must be offered in order for it to regain its connections to different disciplines making itself available as a practice that concerns less with its status than with images themselves, understanding these as phenomena rather than as instruments or tools serving a particular function. Therefore instead of discussing the ways in which images might serve or not to Anthropology – or the other way around – we suggest a reflection on the need of rethinking the boundaries of Anthropology by exposing its indissoluble relation to image. Images, as compositional phenomena of reality, ought not, cannot, be ignored but taken into the ethnographer’s own duty as pieces of a jigsaw to be assembled, reframed, exhausted and perhaps disposed.
This foregrounding for an ethnographic reflection derives not from classic anthropological readings, however, but from the idea of “thought-images” existent on the philosophy of Walter Benjamin an author that, even though dear to the Social Sciences, seldom had his ideas employed in order to concrete a methodology for cultural analysis. Concerned with historical materialism, Benjamin attempted to compose a methodology that would allow to address history and politics overall through culture and, as a Marxist, through the fashion in which economy is exposed through culture. In this sense, his philosophical framework consisted on a strong anthropological perspective by assuming the need for rethinking human culture critically as an ontological category. Assuming the centrality of visuality in modernity, we aim to discuss through Benjamin how we may be able to propose a new anthropological perspective that breaks up with the rigid definitions of “discipline” in order to build up a critical anthropological theory. So that we may achieve this, we will depart from the role of images in Benjamin’s thought, in which they are regarded by their property as writing (Schrift) rather than as functioning as pictorial representation. As a constellation that figures as a third (ein Drittes), images go beyond the form-content relation and stand, ultimately, as the shape in which experiences become cognizable. Building up on that argument, we expect to show that by relating to history images explode the continuum of historical time and transcend the particularity of the interpretation and of the content itself. With that, using diverse unrelated images from diverse areas working with the idea of a Bilddenken (thinking-in-images), the article will allow the emergence of a new perspective on ethnographic theory, once it will present the possibility of, through the use of historical materialism, establishing a study in which images themselves create the methodology, hence creating a new relation to the matter of culture. Economic tableaux, metropolitan photographs, anonymous portraits, any image might serve to the consolidation of a reflection on visual culture and its centrality in the contemporary world.
Keywords: Visual Culture; Anthropology; Philosophy; Historical Materialism; Images.