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Cultural Studies Program

Courses :: CULS C701 Topic: Images and Critique in Public Culture

The course examines and assesses some contemporary critical thought about images, especially the role of images in politics. Rather than only pursuing various strategies for the critique of images that have become familiar as ideology critique, the course explores the possibility of thinking critically through images. It studies different types of images (in advertising, film, television, history, science and politics) through a variety of theoretical
approaches (Marxist ideology critique, Benjamin’s dialectics, continental philosophy, semiotics, psychoanalysis, visual culture and rhetoric, and neuroscience). The seminar course also serves as a review of the emerging field of Image Studies, in which visual cultural theorist W.J.T. Mitchell is a central figure. A good guide to the range of literature relevant to Image Studies is S. Manghani,A. Piper and J. Simons (eds) Images: A Reader (Sage, 2006).

The course addresses the following questions and issues: whether all types of images can be considered as a category; the relation between the visual and the verbal; the non-visual as well as visual character of images; the pertinence of iconoclastic hostility to images in society and politics; and the potential for critical thought by means of images. The course opens by problematizing the conception of images as only visual, leading to a deeper examination of the relation between words and images in democratic culture. It then examines the view that images are ideological and hence a problem for politics and society, before turning around the opening negative assessment of images by looking at the ways in which media and other images might provide critical insight or induce critical thinking. We also consider the imagistic nature of human thinking by drawing from contemporary history of art, and neuroscience. Scholars whose work you may encounter in the seminar include: Roland Barthes; Jean Baudrillard; Walter Benjamin; Henri Bergson; Antonio Damasio; Gilles Deleuze; Kevin DeLuca; James Elkins; Jacques Lacan; Karl Marx; W. T. J. Mitchell; Jacques Rancière; Michael Shapiro; Barbara
Stafford; Slavoj Žižek.

Student projects will consist of written or creative “image critique”, examples of which we’ll consider through Sunil Manghani’s Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (2008) and my own current research on “images of Peace in the Israeli Peace Movement”.

The purpose of an image critique is to (a) understand the elements and complexities of the cultural-political image of a phenomenon (such as “Obama,” “America,” “the fall of the Berlin Wall,” “peace in the Middle East,”); (b) construct a critical image that questions, resists, undermines, or even replaces hegemonic images; or (c) demonstrate and amplify how an image performs this critical work. (Note that this is quite a different intellectual operation to critiquing visual images).

(Please note that this seminar will complement but be quite different to C617, Rhetoric and Visual Culture, as taught by Prof. Lucaites in Spring 2011. While some of the scholars we read are also addressed in that seminar, we will read different texts by them, with the possible exception of Barthes’ “Rhetoric of the Image.”)


1)         Seminar leadership and participation: 20%.
2)         Mid-semester seminar ‘write-up’: a critical assessment of
the reading for a seminar and the discussion we had about it, of
approximately 1,500 words. 15%.
3)         Paper/project proposal 10%
4)         Literature review 15%
5)         Class presentation 10%
6)         Course paper/project: approx. 6-7,000 words, on any topic addressed by the course that performs an image critique. By negotiation, the paper can include (or even consist of) the production of (an) image(s) and be of shorter word-length. Image production projects may also be undertaken by pairs or groups, by negotiation. 30%