Thursday, September 27, 2007

Abstract of "Seeing Beyond Believing"

Abstract of “Seeing Beyond Belief: Cultural Studies as an Approach to Analysing the Visual” by Martin Lister and Liz Wells

Abstract by Diane Neu

I. Description of Article

Lister and Wells divide their article up into the following five sections: “Introduction,” “Analysis,” “Looking: Form and Meaning,” “Looking: Recognition and Identity,” and “Conclusion.”

Lister and Wells begin by describing what Cultural Studies is before moving into a more detailed analysis of photographs. They describe their process for analyzing photographs and their reasons for analyzing photographs. The importance of asking certain questions about the photograph is stressed. After analyzing photographs from a more social angle, Lister and Wells attempt to look at photographs as more isolated images. The question of what an image means by itself is raised. They then discuss the role of the viewer in greater detail. The viewer can be seen as voyeuristic, and the creator of the image can be seen as catering to that voyeurism in order to send a specific message or to evoke a certain feeling. Lister and Wells conclude by remarking that “the photographic image, is, then, a complex and curious object” (90). Using methods of Cultural Studies can only help one in the process of analysis.

II. Comments and Questions


The introduction begins by describing what exactly Cultural Studies is. According to Lister and Wells, Cultural Studies analyzes “the forms and practices of culture” (61). They take care to note that this study looks at more than just obvious artifacts of culture – it also studies the relationship and power dynamic that these “forms and practices” have in relation to society. They also note that the “culture” in Cultural Studies refers to “everyday symbolic and expressive practices” (61). It is not merely concerned with the study of high culture. Essentially, Cultural Studies must look at society and culture as a whole in order to understand it. Relationships must be studied, understanding the role of institutions is key, and attempting “to separate the cultures of everyday life from practices of representation, visual or otherwise” is futile (61).

After explaining the timeframe which Cultural Studies mainly concerns itself with (“mainly those of the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries”), the article explains that one of the main features of Cultural Studies is “the search to understand the relationships of cultural production, consumption, belief and meaning, to social processes and institutions” (61). Looking at how everything in culture is intricately connected and how those connections lead to distributions of power is a key component of Cultural Studies. Cultural Studies also seeks to challenge the idea that those distributions of power are something that just naturally exists. There is no “just because” or “that’s just how it is naturally” in Cultural Studies.

Lister and Wells talk about two areas of study related to Cultural Studies: Media Studies and Visual Cultural Studies. “The study of advertising, popular cinema and television” are all examples of Media Studies, while Visual Cultural Studies seems to be primarily interested in the study of images (photographs) and how these images relate to everyday life and experience (62). This actually confused me a little, since the two seemed so similar and linked. In some ways, Visual Cultural Studies and Media Studies seem like the exact same thing, especially since media today is so visual. It was hard for me to discern the exact differences as Lister and Wells don’t go into the methodology of Media Studies in great detail. Media Studies is apparently more concerned with the Communication Studies aspect of thing.

They were also very clear that while Media Studies and Visual Cultural Studies are related to Cultural Studies, they are not just sub-fields of Cultural Studies. They are their own distinct fields of study. This also kind of confused me sine I felt that the Cultural Studies that they described on the first page of the article could easy be an umbrella for these other two fields of study. I’m not sure if I agree that Visual Cultural Studies in particular is wholly separate from Cultural Studies. Later on in the article they refer to Cultural Studies and Media Studies as a “compound field” (63). That is, the two are interdisciplinary and related. So, which is it? Are they separate or are they merged? Are they just related like how anthropology and sociology are related or are they part of the same field like mechanical engineering and civil engineering?

Lister and Wells then explain the methodology that they will be using to analyze photographs in the rest of the essay. They seek to analyze the photographs “without separating them from social processes” (64). They then provide a list of the seven main features that they will employ in their analysis (I will not repeat it here). These main features of their analysis serve to clarify their interest in the photograph and the methods they will use in studying the photograph. Many of the points are “recognition” points. Essentially, they are recognizing the human element of their research. They can never be entirely neutral or without bias.


When looking at an image, we must first ask the location of the image. Answering this question “will tell us much about how we meet or encounter the image” (65). We must then ask why the photograph is being looked at. What is the viewer seeking to get out of the viewing process? Lister and Wells use an example of a Marlboro cigarette advertisement. The advertisement exists in two forms: on a billboard and as a smaller ad in magazines and newspapers. This change of format impacts the viewing experience of the ad. The billboard is forced upon them, while the viewer selects the magazine ad (via them selecting the magazine). There are different questions to be asked in both contexts. I understood the basic concept here, but I disagreed with it a little. I don’t necessarily see the magazine ad as being “selected” by the viewer. They have no control over the ad material in the magazine. On the same side, you could argue that the billboard viewers could simply decide to not drive past the billboard. Of course, all this brings us back to questions of structuralism. Can we just decide to not look at the billboard or not read the magazine? I’m not sure that we can.

The production of the photograph must also be analyzed. How the image arrived at its location is a question that must be asked. Was the photo staged? Candid? What was the motive behind placing it in its current location? The Marlboro ad is clearly part of “the Philip Morris company’s wider marketing and advertising strategies” as this ad is “a response to the early 1990s ban on advertising cigarettes on British television” (69). So part of analyzing the photograph or advertisement entails understanding the process behind the photograph. What kinds of strategies have been employed? What shifts in cultural understanding is the photograph addressing?

Looking: Form and Meaning:

In this section, Lister and Wells address the issue of looking at an image by itself – without thinking about where it came from, etc. What does the image say on its own? Lister and Wells admit that attempting to do this can raise “difficult and vexed questions about the boundaries of an image” (70). Interestingly, at this point the image is also referred to as a “text.” They then explain five main ways of looking at a photograph unto itself that they refer to as types of conventions:

1. Pictorial conventions
2. Semiotics and codes
3. Photographic conventions
4. Social conventions
5. Power and photographic conventions

I didn’t really see these conventions and codes as being distinct from each other (and Lister and Wells don’t seem to intend them to be), but rather as building upon and relating to one another.

Looking: Recognition and Identity:

This section discusses looking from the viewer’s perspective. How has the artist cued the viewer to look at the image? Where is the viewer in relation to the image? Lister and Wells posit that in photography these visual cues are given through the use of camera techniques, different lenses, etc. They create the viewing experience for the viewer. These photographic techniques were “developed and adjusted in order to take on perspectival conventions already established within Western art” (83). Lister and Wells then go on to discuss some of these techniques in greater detail. The role of the viewer as voyeur is also discussed. What kind of pleasure does the viewer derive from the viewing experience? Was that pleasure intended on the part of the creator? I personally found this to be really interesting. I think that a lot of people tend to think of photography as a more “pure” art form. They think of it as a true representation of an image occurring in real life, but photography is capable of cultural distortion. We see it everyday in magazines and advertisements. There is no such thing as “what you see is what you get” in photography. For instance, the photograph of the biscuit-cutter sheep may be trying to appeal to “those of use who draw rural England into our sense of national identity” (88). The creator of the image may be trying to appeal to the viewer’s personal memories, sense of things lost, appreciate for rural landscape, etc. It’s the British meets Betty Crocker version of the Paris Match cover.


Lister and Wells call on Barthes in their conclusion. They credit Barthes with drawing “our attention to the fleeting nature of the moment captured in the photograph” (89). Therefore, we must acknowledge that the photograph does not tell the whole story. The picture is not complete. We must aim to thoroughly analyze the photograph in the aforementioned ways in order to gain a greater understanding of the image. The essay then ends with a sort of defense of Cultural Studies. They admit that Cultural Studies is a field that borrows liberally from other fields, but they argue that while this is “a point of criticism,” it is “simultaneously its strength” (90). I didn’t really understand the point of begging their case again at the end, since I felt they had done that pretty thoroughly in the introduction.

III. Key Terms

Cultural Studies
Media Studies
Visual Cultural Studies
Viewing position

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