What Does it Mean to “Do” Visual Culture in English?

Cynthia Patterson


When most scholars, students and artists hear the words “visual culture,” I doubt that “English department” is the first academic site readers associate with this term. Yet, as John A. Walker and Sarah Chaplin point out in their 1997 work Visual Culture: An Introduction, “visual culture,” as an emerging field of study, embraces no less than 34 separate academic fields/disciplines, ranging from aesthetics and art history, to anthropology and cultural studies, to film studies/theory and psychoanalysis – including “literary criticism,” a scholarly practice housed, among other places, in English departments.[1]


Thus whether one speaks of visual culture as a broad interdisciplinary field of study or as the object of that field of study, one must acknowledge the cross-disciplinary methods of meaning-making likely to be applied to the visual image, in whatever form it might take. In their introductory text Practices of Looking, Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright use Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall to define “culture” as “the shared practices of a group, community, or society, through which meaning is made out of the visual, aural, and textual worlds of representations.”[2] They offer as sample “objects” of visual culture studies “paintings, prints, photographs, films, television, video, advertisements, news images, and science images.”[3] And, as Mark Sample, new English department faculty at GMU (interviewed in this issue) might add, “literary depictions of visual objects


When the Associate Chair, Devon Hodges, approached me about guest-editing this issue of English Matters devoted to “visual culture,” I already had a “history” – with the English department; with English Matters; and with visual culture. I started teaching for the English department as an adjunct in 1999, while simultaneously teaching for New Century College here at GMU. While dividing my time between both departments, I also joined the New Media Group in English, and contributed to two earlier issues of English Matters – one teaching module and one digital essay with image archives (see Issue 8: Text and Technology). As a doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies (I successfully defended my dissertation April 4, 2005!), my areas of expertise include visual culture and cultural studies theory and praxis. With two other CS colleagues, Lynne Constantine and Ellen Gorman, I had just produced the first annual “Visual Culture Symposium” here at GMU, and my colleagues and I were already planning the second annual event, scheduled for the spring of 2005.


So I had already been thinking quite a bit about how to “do” visual culture in an English department. My own recent project examines the role of a group of illustrated monthly magazines, the “Philly pictorials,” in constructing the boundaries of a new middle class culture emerging in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly along the intersecting axes of race, class and gender. In pursuing this project, I had already become a “collector” of 19th century rare books and bound periodicals.


What continues to fascinate me is the incredible range of projects that fall under the broad rubric of “visual culture.” In this issue of English Matters, we feature a sampling of this kind of intellectual work.


The first three essays – by Krystal Crumpler, Carrie Wright, and Cynthia Fuchs – appeared originally as symposium papers presented by the authors at our second annual visual culture symposium held on March 1, 2005, entitled “Gendered Visualties.” Each essay featured accompanying visual material, and we’re pleased to provide here a small sampling of the visual images presented with each paper at the symposium.


Krystal Crumpler provides a piercing reading of the 1997 Lions Gate film entitled Sick – the Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. The film highlights the efforts of S/M practitioner Bob Flanagan to come to terms with his long-term illness (and eventual death – of cystic fibrosis) through S/M. Bob and his S/M partner, Sharee Rose, “star” in the film, and Crumpler’s reading of the film superimposes the work of author Carol Truscott in offering “reasons” why people do S/M. Finally, Crumpler concludes, Flanagan transcends Truscott’s S/M genealogy.


Carrie Wright draws upon her eight years experience dancing nude at a gentleman’s club in Louisville, KY to understand her new role as an academic in her essay, “Professor Tempest: Exploring Sexualized/Visualized Identities in the Classroom.” Step by step Wright “strips away” the elements of her earlier identity, revealing how she continues to mobilize that identity in her work with students in the composition classroom.


Cynthia Fuchs shares with us a selection from her forthcoming book on Eminem. Her piece, entitled “Whoops, I mean ‘girl’: Eminem, Michael Jackson and Disrespect,” analyzes Eminem’s public performances of both masculinity and femininity, arguing that the performer continues to re-create his public personae in ways that blur his earlier gender stereotyping.


And you won’t want to miss the interview with Mark Sample, newest addition to the GMU English department faculty. Mark’s work forges new bonds between literary criticism, the visual image, and the digital archives. Here’s a young scholar you’ll want to keep your eyes on in the future!


And check out Brandon Wicks annotated links to some fascinating websites where the visual image rules. With this issue we wish Brandon a fond farewell: he recently completed his MFA in English at GMU, and is moving on to greener pastures. We’ll miss his contributions as “tech support extraordinaire” for English Matters over the past several issues.



[1] John A. Walker and Sarah Chaplin, Visual Culture: An Introduction (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997) 3.

[2] Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) 3.

[3] Sturken and Cartwright 4.