What is Radical Writing in Visual Studies?

James Elkins


From its North American beginnings in the late 1980s, its German beginnings in
the 1970s, and its prehistory, going back to Derrida, Benjamin, and before, visual
studies has taken as part of its mission the breaking of disciplinary boundaries.
Visual studies has always pictured itself questioning conceptual domains and
hegemonic identities, inhabiting margins, rethinking received ideas of cultural
inquiry, identity, and place. Refraction, the theme of this issue, is one such
boundary formation.


Especially in its prewar incarnations as visuelle Kultur, visual studies had
broken with art history in its interest in film and photography, and later in
animation, gaming, advertising, the digital, and alternative media. And yet one of
the founders of visual culture studies, Michael Holly, was wistful and perhaps a
little regretful when she remembered the original promises visual studies had made
to itself in Rochester in the 1980s, in comparison with the discipline it became.
(This is in the book Farewell to Visual Studies.)

Visual studies had promised itself the
daring juxtaposition of previously unstudied theoretical methods with previously
unstudied art practices from all times and cultures, but it had solidified into a
definable academic practice centered on contemporary firstworld visual
production, a reasonably predictable roster of theorists, and a consistent politics.
Holly herself decamped to a position at the Clark, at the very center of a
disciplinary allegiance that the founders of visual studies had avoided

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