chapter  3
14 Pages

‘Critical social optics’ and the transformations of audio-visual culture


In this chapter I want to raise some questions about the ways in which images are encountered, perceived, understood and (often) questioned as a result of the radical transformation of visual culture within digital contexts. This will involve attention to aspects of the changing culture of photography since it seems to me that, in engaging with the implications of the digital, television scholarship can benefit considerably from a closer, comparative attention to what has happened to photography as it has become transformed over the last 15 years or so. This transformation has clearly affected its practices of production and has completely reconfigured its modes of distribution, display and consumption. More broadly, it has generated what I think can be seen as a new, critical appreciation of how images mean and of the complexity of the processes both of production and of consumption involved in the production of meaning. Along with other developments, without directly ‘subverting’ the use of images, it has brought about a degree of instability in visual meaning. It has served to ‘unstick’ the image from the world a little – not detaching it completely but pulling it over into the more openly contentious realms of culture and of politics. It is this process I want to highlight in my title term ‘critical social optics’, with its emphases on critical engagement and the sociality (both in awareness and in the terms of their distribution) of emerging modes of the image. Television remains, in most countries, the dominant public medium. Its

versions of mobile visibility, its kinetic (and aurally supported) renderings of the world, have been given expanded reach through the digital applications that other chapters in this book will explore. Whatever the changes it undergoes, its semiotic commitments to flow, sequence, process, action and narrative design are likely to continue, albeit with modifications. However, within this context I want to open up some questions about the revived public profile of the still and silent image, whose distinctive, provocative

ways of setting up relationships of seeing, of brokering between world and subjectivity, of ‘holding’ time and ‘giving’ time, provide, as I have suggested, a useful comparison with television’s characteristic modes of ‘capturing’ the real, and of promising knowledge to viewers. I also want to note here how the cultural contexts of viewing, into which much factual television now ‘goes out’ and works, are also changing, partly as a result of the broader shifts, the new patterns of production, circulation and use, apparent in visual mediation. The new Routledge journal Photographies provides just one indication of

the kind of revised agenda of theory and inquiry generated around digital change and the culture of the image. In the editorial to its first issue, it noted that:

One thing seems certain: there is now more photography, possibly of more kinds, than ever before. We are dealing with a truly expanded field where deep continuities run alongside unforeseen and radical transformation.