ISSN 1466-4615  



Paolo Teobaldelli

Seeing and Thinking: For an Understanding of Visual Culture





Ron Burnett

_Cultures of Vision: Images, Media and the Imaginary_

Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995

ISBN 0-253-20977-3

355 pages




Ron Burnett's book, _Cultures of Vision_ , is a dense and rich one. Its main goal is to highlight the relationship between *Vision* and *Knowledge*. Yet this goal is not attempted through a pure strict theoretical treatment, but rather through a large reasoning on the wide net of tropes which are related to that subject. Here lies its richness.


Burnett, as a matter of fact, doesn't choose a mere theoretical platform to discuss the bounds between Vision and Knowledge, rather he prefers to work on the conceptual borders by enlarging them with direct and indirect connections to the *praxis* of visual culture. Thus each specific theme he deals with is approached from many sides and facets, becoming a plastic fluid object that multiplies thoughts and suggestions in a random way, bringing it into the personal luggage of the reader. Therefore I would say that there is food for anybody in his book. The subject of *Vision* sets questions in many areas, philosophy and psychology, communication and media studies, film theory, semiotics of film, digital techniques, postmodern theories and so on. Burnett discusses these questions by deepening each problem with the help of many analyses -- of films, documentaries and experimental videos -- which centre on their formal stylistic features as well as with their *fabulae*, their characters and stories; and both those features are related to the material with a method that I would call *hermeneutic*, since its basic tools are not represented by stiff categories but rather they stem from interpretative argumentation. This wide interpretative walking through the various subjects also deals with a lot of quotations and references.


Burnett's reasoning has a progressive movement starting with the still image, passing through the moving image and electronic image, and ending with the role of images and visual practices within communities. I will try to follow this movement and its main theoretical tropes. Then I will conclude the paper by judging its outcome. In any case this will not be an exhaustive review, but only a trace, a key for reading. The book is hundred times richer than the sketch I present here.


1. Still Images.


Burnett starts the first pages showing the power of images (and of seeing) through the 'Images of Power'. He tells us the story of the decapitation of the statue of one of the founders of the Canadian Confederation in 1992. He compares this act with the similar actions that occurred in the same year in eastern Europe, where the statues of Lenin, Stalin and other local figures were toppled. These facts suggest to him the historical and symbolic linking of images, their being part of an infinite process of appropriation and interpretation where meanings are continuously redefined. He states that with this book he proposes to show that the Western Relationship to images is not 'as dependent on the activities of seeing or listening as we often presume' (3).


Burnett criticises the idea that 'to look means to see', recognising a complexity in the perception of images at a cultural level. Such a complexity escapes from reductive models of mind and consciousness, as well as of perception. He recognises that the debate is part of a broader philosophical and cultural one questioning the relationship between subject and object, and he points out the contradictions existing in the complex relationship between *Vision* and *Knowledge*. In particular Burnett underlines the traditional dualistic setting of the mind, swinging from a flat referring to something material (the brain) to a 'metaphysical notion of consciousness, within which there is no room for the body at all' (9).


Burnett is convinced that there are mental processes at the ground of perception, cognition and comprehension, yet he points out that such processes may not have a 'direct relationship to the experience of seeing or listening' (8). His argumentation is clearly directed towards recognising the active role played within knowing processes by cultural and social factors, and in doing so he declares not to be interested in exploring the mind as the site of rational activity, but rather in analysing what seems to be an: 'almost endless poesis, an eruption of meanings upon which we have to exercise restraint, into which we have to project structure and generate discourse, but from which more is drawn and created than is *present*' (10).


That means first of all an inquiry into the relation between what is seen within images and their related, presupposed reality. Burnett then (in this first chapter titled 'Images and Vision') discusses the case of photography and all the theoretical questions arising from the relationship between image and reality. His reasoning goes through many authors and tropes. For example, he quotes and criticises the principles outlined by Moholy-Nagy (Russian constructivist movement of the 1920s; see Kostelanetz: 1970) according to which photography is the technological empowerment of seeing and thus it is conceived of as a new strong tool for reaching truth and reality. Burnett considers Moholy-Nagy's statement to be nothing but a model of mind as a mirror of the world, [1] a simplistic model that unfortunately 'continues to resonate with some power in present-day discussions of images' (13), and that denies any aesthetic value of images.


Then he discusses two facts that have been at the center of media attention, and that show the dynamics of images within communities: the Waco mass suicide (Texas 1993), inspired by the guru David Koresh, and the Rodney King affair (Los Angeles, 1992). Both facts are analysed in the interpretative processes they were subjected to, with all the social and cultural implications that emerged, from the *fictionalization* of the Waco story by NBC, to the fury of the black community of Los Angeles, which saw in the result of Rodney King's trial the oppressions and injustices of their own everyday life. Once again then, the historical and the symbolic meet each other in the cultural and social consumption of images. This means that:


'The photographic image is not the platonic world of illusions, that place and space within which the real is somehow transformed into a shadow or worse, the shadow becomes the real. Like a theatrical stage, the photographic image foregrounds the *mise en scene* of a hypothetical world, but unlike the stage, everything is reduced until what is left are pieces of paper, flattened, unmoving, which subsist on our yells and screams, on our invocations to the image to speak and on our desire to be heard and to be seen.' (17)


Thus the world that images depict is not flat, simple or transparent, because the subjective and intersubjective perception of that world by human beings is always subjected to interpretative processes of appropriation where meanings are in some way always redefined. This is the main thesis of Burnett's book. Communication is a complex interpretative process, which is not to be reduced to simple transmitting of information, to the 'equation of the visible with the communicative' (45). In the second chapter Burnett discusses this assumption more deeply by criticising Barthes' work _Camera Lucida_. His critique is quite interesting because if on one side, as Burnett points out, Barthes 'resists the idea that images are locked into place by unchangeable meanings' (47), on the other Barthes remains bound to the semiotic idea that *sign* stands for *reality*, an idea that Burnett conceives of in the case of photography as a 'need to search for the origins of meaning in a place *outside* of the photograph' (47). Yet Burnett assures us that he is not looking for the traditional opposition between reality and illusion, rather he is convinced that such oppositions don't seem to be capable of assuming an heuristic role, in what appears not to be a predictable combination of meanings, but rather 'an endlessly transposed and transposable interaction of significations' (47).


Therefore Burnett suggests that the concrete social and cultural context creates an *interpretative circle* which is more relevant to inquire into than the problem of whether the object of the photograph is true or not. Communication is the shifting from one code to another, a shifting that changes meaning continuously within the process of translation. Yet Burnett advises that he is not proposing an extremely subjective view of visual communication:


'This does not mean that every image is different for every viewer. Rather it means that what is shared by an audience, and there is much that is shared, cannot be located outside of the exchange process which in an endlessly circumscribed fashion establishes, denies and re-establishes the limits of spectating.' (65)


He seems then to place himself within a semiotic perspective, but rather he escapes the semiotic idea that signification is *standing for*, and his reflection seems to me to be a good one. As a matter of fact he recognises the reduction of the power of the symbolic that such a view involves. Accordingly signification (and this is at an upper level in the case of photograph) would then be nothing but a reproduction of the real.


In order to show how limited that view is, and to escape it, Burnett suggests thinking of *projection* as a challenge toward a new understanding of Visual Communication.


2. Moving Images.


In the third chapter, 'From Photograph to Film', he tries to ground this challenge by showing how difficult it is to conceive of film as a series of shots or frames. He analyses the textual approach to film introducing the discussion with the example of _Wavelength_, a film by Michael Snow, where a camera locked into a fixed position zooms from one end of a long room to an other. Towards the final shots of this movement a photograph on the wall becomes visible, and 'incrementally, as it fills the frame, the photograph reveals itself to be an image of the ocean taken from a cliff. As the film ends the photograph fills the screen. The waves are still, frozen in time.' (72) Burnett sees this film as an attempt to examine the borders of the relationship between photography and cinema, in terms that go beyond their mere opposition, by recognising the discoursive space which arises from the communicative context of what is seen.


This statement forms the background to his analysis of textual approaches to film. The first he analyses is that of Christian Metz. Burnett points out that the problem with Metz's work is his isolation of sets of discrete units (the shots) so that we are able to analyse the meaning of the filmic as a linear combination of still images. In doing so the textual setting of Metz *reifies* the filmic as an objective whole which is independent from the interpretative process of seeing it:


'The reduction of the cinema to a series of frames from which meaning can be distilled and then extracted collapses image relations into the equivalent of written texts. Cinematic specificity comes to be represented by the manner in which the stills taken from a film can express or exemplify a logical structure with the systematicity of grammar.' (80)


Thus this view implies a metaphor of spectators (as seeing) as if they were scanning with a camera eye. The symmetric equation, text/meaning, confers on the viewers nothing but a passive role. Burnett rightly individualises this perspective as coming from a static model of sign which belongs more to the verbal-oriented semiotic modelling. The matter in hand is the old question of cinema as *language*.


It is, for example, the case of John Carroll's work (1979) that approaches the filmic through the linguistic generative grammar of Noam Chomsky. Film is seen by Carroll as a language having its own precise grammar rules. Montage represents this whole of rules as a linear combination of shots, which Carroll conceives of as analogous to the linear way with which verbal sentences are constructed. Carroll supports his analysis with reference to the Eisensteinian idea of montage. Burnett objects that Eisenstein's idea was not that of cinema as language, but rather of 'cinema as *a* language' (113), since Eisenstein, as Burnett points out, was quite conscious of the fact that montage is a system which is not reducible to a combination of one shot next to the other. Yet:


'Both Eisenstein and Carroll do not distinguish between the staging of an event for the camera (production context) and the subsequent performance of that staging on the screen. There is a difference between, for example a gesture produced in any moment of film production and the transformation of that gesture onto the screen.' (115)


Burnett sees in the strong equation between *editing* and *structure*, such as that of Carroll, an attempt to eliminate any subjectivity in the process of viewing, but this leads to a prescriptive theory of film, a theory that would 'prescribe the condition of acceptability that govern projection and viewing' (115). Thus, once again, the creative use of film as communicative system seems to be denied. [2] Burnett deplores that Carroll, in supporting with examples his ideas, refers only to some type of *rough-cut* commercial cinema as an example of the un-filmic, and avoids any reference to the experimental cinema, such as those of *nouvelle vague*, which would mostly flaw his model.


3. Projection.


Thus film is not a linear combination of shots or frames, nor is it just a technical medium merely depicting reality. In the fourth chapter, 'Projection', Burnett seeks to make the point by setting some basic questions which a *mirroristic* approach as well as the traditional *textual* one do not gain. Such questions regard the relation between subject and object as a mediated one, and concern the gap existing between *seeing* and *thinking*, between *vision* and *knowledge*, a gap which is due to the mediated nature of such a relation. Burnett proposes to think of 'viewing' as a horizon that sets experiences:


'One way of thinking about mediation is to reflect on the storytelling experience. If you have ever listened to a fairy tale being recounted to you, then you will surely remember the rather extraordinary way the words and tone of the storyteller generated a variety of images in your mind.' (131)


This is one of the basic keys of Burnett argumentation. There is a space in between what is seen and our subjective being, a *discoursive space* where *constellations* of meaning are worked out, established, pictured, figured out, and thus the screen is 'an interactive point of contact within which the very drama of projection is worked out' (145).


Then, in order to support this statement Burnett offers us a pleasant interpretation of two films: _The Purple Rose of Cairo_ by Woody Allen, and _Germany, Pale Mother_ by Helma Sanders-Brahms. The first one suggests an opposition between reality and fiction in a way that tends to obscure its precise limits; the mirroring causal link falls into a gloomy area, and, in virtue of this, the relationship itself (between reality and fiction) appears to be clearer: it is an experience of *control* and *loss*.


The latter is the story of a German woman during the pre-period and the post-period of the Second World War. Lene is a victim of that individualism which brought Nazism to power. In her story Burnett sees the conflict between individuals and history, a conflict where 'new and different forms of discourse are created' (153), where reality and history are bound together within the symbolic mediation of representation, and it is thus given the possibility of both a (social and cultural) appropriation and a distantiation of the meanings which arise.


Both the films are good examples to speak of projection as a process of instability. Burnett conceives of the process of spectating as a struggle between 'knowledge and the lack of it' (160). Burnett quotes Iser's model of the space in between as a virtual one, that is to say that the place where meanings are defined and worked out is an area between text and reader/viewer, thus neither the text, nor the reader/viewer is the pole of meaning, but it arises in this discoursive space, that Burnett, by referring for a while to Winnicott's notion (Winnicott: 1971), compares to the *potential space*. [3]


Burnett criticises the semiotic textual model because it suggests a fixed text and a fixed signification. On the contrary, he thinks that the communicative interaction is a process where the spectator tries to get an ordered set of meanings by framing the multiple chaos of what he sees. The struggle then is between order and entropy.


In hand with this comes the question of language within the filmic -- the problem of the relations existing between language and the visual, sounds and images. Burnett doesn't deepen this subject too much. He refers to Bakhtin's dialogical principle to sustain the idea that the verbal language of a film is also subjected to the rules of context, of concrete communication Then once again Burnett objects that meanings are not to be conceived of as being resident within the text, but they depend from the dialogical relationship between the screen and the viewers. Therefore:


'Seen as a social event, the projection of a film reveals a high degree of indeterminacy. The result is a lack of equivalence between screen and spectator, a time and space of contingency and substitution. But this in no way should suggest a viewing process devoid of the self-reflexive capacity to critique, question, and remake the image.' (186-187)


The *body of projection* is thus this embodiment occurring within the concrete interaction, where reality and imaginary are bound into the experience of viewing images that 'create the field within which a whole host of possibilities can be generated' (206). The projection dissolves the traditional opposition between subject and object into the discoursive dialogic space where subject and object identificate and distanciate each other at the same time. This means also a re-thinking of the notion of *truth*: not to fall within a sort of Cartesian idealism according to which the world is only a product of imagination, but rather to acknowledge the role that the social and cultural performing of the symbolic plays in the real experiencing and acting. In this sense Burnett criticises Levin and Baudrillard, seeing their critique of mediation as based upon a mirror-view of empirical truth, where the images of visual media-based communication falsify the *real* world of evidence, by substituting it. Thus it is the symbolic itself that is seen as a falsifying process, and *simulation* is then nothing but a *falsification*.


4. Electronic Image and Postmodern Communities


The latter question is faced by Burnett in regard of electronic image and the notion of *virtuality*. It represents, as a matter of fact, the opposite idea, since electronic technology has been addressed as a revolutionary transformation of culture and society. Electronic imaging and simulating are conceived of as positive practices -- they are not seen as falsification of reality but as an empowerment of perception and natural experience, leading to cognitive development and therefore toward a new knowledge of human dimension.


Burnett analyses the ideas of Virilio by recognising in his statements a new reduction of mind -- the metaphor of mind as technological machine. As a matter of fact the idea of the cyborg, in its being a mixture of human and artificial, seems to flat consciousness fully upon the machine itself: 'Consciousness becomes not only a reflection of the technologies that humans use, but the mind (in this case) evolves into a transparent representation of the machine' (220) Thus this mixture is in reality a new strong technical reduction of mind, where once again the relation to what is seen is a causal one.


Then Burnett discusses of the theories and practices of video activism, i.e. all those efforts to use video practices to change reality by teaching and informing and/or by opening up new dimensions. He tries to value and to re-dimensionate the sometimes too positive assertions of theorists of the electronic image: Burnett insists on his thesis that the context of concrete communication is the basic moment of communication, and he underlines how, on the contrary, most theories of the electronic image set at the center the making processes, and in doing so assign to the technique the realm of meanings. He objects once again: 'The investment of meaning in the image and what we draw from the experience cannot be reduced to the image itself .' (268)


In the last chapter of the book, 'Postmodern Media Communities', Burnett deals with the use of video within communities, and its presupposed role in building the *identity* of a group or a community. The matter in hand is again the power of images and its way of influencing our own view of the world we inhabit.


One of the best parts of this chapter is the one dedicated to the experience of Burnett himself in the field of video ethnography. Burnett analyses the work of the ethnographer Eric Michaels on the impact of video and television on indigenous culture, and specifically on the Warlpiri. Michaels highlighted this relation by studying the way Warlpiri used videoh. Particularly interesting is his analysis of Warlpiri *mise en scene* which reveals a rather different way of doing videos. The Warlpiri videos present a massive static representation of the landscape, which constitutes the place of their stories. Yet Burnett dissents from the assertions of Michaels that conceive of the *static* shots of Warlpiri as a resistance to the Western ways of filming, since he points out there are many examples of static shots in European and American film-making. Burnett sees the basic problem of Michaels work, as well as of ethnography in general, in thinking possible a *translation*, without recognising that 'what is inevitably involved are complex sign systems' which are difficult to interpret, even for people of the same culture, because 'images *seem* to contain within them not only messages but the maps needed to understand those messages' (300). Thus, studying a video of different cultures is a difficult process of intercultural communication, although the embodiment permits this encounter between different cultures as well as between different groups and communities. This fact, then, should to be extended to all types of media-based communications which can be reconceived as the taking place of a discoursive dialogic process, where it is to be recognised that the 'imaginary can ever be enclosed within the various technologies that any culture creates' (334).




I agree with the basic tension of Burnett's book, i.e. the effort to go beyond the traditional reductive setting of communication as an objective opposition between subject and object, and I think that his book opens up a lot of suggestions and thoughts that challenge our understanding of the relationship between media and knowledge.


In the specific field of film theory Burnett's book is in my opinion a first rate one, since he highlights the many actual problems and questions regarding the film/audience couple by referring the discussion to a lot of theoretical works as well as to a lot of videos and films, permitting any reader to enter directly into those problems and questions. He surely communicates then with a wide audience and in this way he also goes beyond the borders of any single discipline, setting the whole reasoning into a wide multidisciplinary discourse.


The only remarks I have to make regard: a lack in recognising film *not* as an image dominated medium; and a lack in exploring the possible use of a concept of text not limited to the traditional verbal notion of it.


I mean, Burnett seems to conceive of film essentially as a visual medium, and the little space he dedicates to the analysis of the relationship between speech and images within the filmic seems to be the sign of a lack which stems from his own experience of video practice. He seems to see it essentially in terms of taking images, whilst the filmic can also be a mixture of images and speech.


I think that, in any case, the notion of text as a particular (social and cultural) way of building significations, is a useful one. I see filmic practice as another way of doing texts, a new kind of textualization that the technology of camera has made possible. This should not lead us back to saying that meanings reside in the text. I agree with the critical analysis that Burnett makes of *textual approaches to film*, yet it seems to me that his stressing mostly on filmic images and his dealing with verbal language only for what concerns the interpretative moment of media-based communication, could suggest a dissolution of the filmic object itself into the interpretative process.


Burnett doesn't take in account the Russian semiotics of culture, for example, and I think it would be very useful to compare most of Burnett's reasoning to the works of this semiotic school. Their view of communication and culture is in many points really close to that of Burnett, although they can be seen as a textual semiotics. [4] They see communication as a cultural activity; and culture as having a double tension, one towards order and one towards chaos, entropy. Yet they suggest thinking of the text as a cultural unity having its own role in this process.


I think we cannot dissolve the *text* within interpretation, because in doing so we will fail to legitimise any science directed to the study of human dimension. And the more basic fact is to recognise that by doing so we will also legitimise the objective view of human knowledge, thus neutralising all our efforts to recognise how great is the *reification* that the objective causal view makes of perception and knowledge.


I think that although on one side the traditional opposition between subject and object is to be abandoned, since it offers only a reductive model of communication, on the other side we should avoid a dissolution of one of the two terms. The relationships between a subject and object exists -- in the case of the filmic there is a viewer but there is also a phenomenal object, the *filmic text*.


Well, the traditional theories of communication exaggerate one of the poles: that of the message, of text, and that is a mistake; but it would be an analogous mistake to exaggerate the other pole. The relation is neither subjective, nor objective -- that means that we have to recognise the existence of both, and the new challenges toward an understanding of communication should start, in my opinion, from this basic assumption.


Apart from these remarks, and the challenges they make, _Cultures of Vision_ stands as a very good book. It isn't easy to find a book that tries to go beyond widely shared conventions and ideas. That testifies to the intellectual honesty and strong tension which characterises this work. Instead of accepting theories and models that do not convince him, both on the theoretical and practical sides, Burnett prefers to enlarge the traditional conceptual borders of the subjects he deals with, trying to furnish us of new interpretative keys. The work of the pioneer is a hard one, but sometimes it can give a full satisfaction.


Cessapalombo, Italy





1. Which is one of the most shared views in regard of the image, in its widest sense. See for example my analysis of this question within Wittgenstein's thinking: 'Signification and Knowledge: A Semiotical Philosophical Analysis of Wittgenstein's Work', published in _Sincronia_, Journal of Cultural Studies for Latin America published by the Social Sciences and Humanities Center at the University of Guadalajara.


2. It is my opinion that this is the worst outcome of any *objectivistic* attempt to ground signification as *what stands for* a reality, i.e. to flatten signification to the mere referring to concrete *real* objects and/or state-of-affairs. In doing so, such theories close the space of *creation* in favour of *reproduction*; interpretation and perception are then conceived of as unproblematic processes, as mere recording ones.


3. In order to evaluate the usefulness of Winnicott's theory in the field of the visual, I recommend the good book of Roger Silverstone, _Television and Everyday Life_.


4. The assumptions of the Russian school differ in many points from the traditional setting of semiotics, suggesting a semiotic modelling that escapes from the stiff categories of the semiotic models criticised by Burnett by taking into account the social and cultural dynamics of signification. See in this regard my forthcoming book (in Italian), _Introduction to Semiotics and Communication Theory_.





Barthes, R., _Camera Lucida_ , New York, Noonday Press, 1981.


Carroll, J., _Toward a Structural Psychology of Cinema_ , The Hague - Paris - New York, Mouton, 1980.


Kostelanetz, R., ed., _Moholy-Nagy_ , New York, Praeger, 1970.


Metz, C., _Essais sur la signification au cinema, Editions Klincksieck, 1968.


--- _Langage et cinema_, Larousse, 1971.


Silverstone, R., _Television and Everyday Life_, Routledge, London, 1994.


Teobaldelli, P., 'Signification and Knowledge: A Semiotical Philosophical Analysis of Wittgenstein's Work', _Sincronia_, Spring 1998 <>.


--- _Introduction to Semiotics and Communication Theory_, Baskerville, Bologna, forthcoming 1998.


Winnicott, D. W., _Playing and Reality_, Tavistock, London, 1971.





Helma Sanders-Brahms, _Germany, Pale Mother_ (orig. _Deutschland, bleiche Mutter_), West Germany, 1980.


Michael Snow, _Wavelength_, Canada, 1967.


Woody Allen, _The Purple Rose of Cairo_, USA, 1985.





Paolo Teobaldelli

'Seeing and Thinking: For an Understanding of Visual Culture'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 15, June 1998


Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998




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