Today, it is commonly believed that we are immersed in an image-driven culture unprecedented in human history by the number and diversity of technologies promoting visual apprehension. Cinema and virtual reality systems are two of the most conspicuous examples cited by critics like Barbara Stafford, Anne Balsamo, or Howard Rheingold in claiming that contemporary culture has effected a visual turn in the organization of knowledge. This seminar aims to explore such claims and to challenge the underlying assumption that today’s visuality marks an historic break with the past.

There can be no questioning the pervasive display of visual knowledge in specialized fields of science and in newspapers for general audiences like the New York Times. Nor can one doubt the omnipresence of moving images in film, television, video games, and now even on the screens of cell phones. Nonetheless, this seminar assumes that the practices and technologies driving today’s culture of images did not emerge outside of history. Our goal is to explore that history from its Renaissance roots and to understand its unfolding against the more familiar story of the preeminence of language in the disciplines of the humanities.

Our point of departure, John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), is located temporally about half way between Alberti’s window and the color monitors upon which we write essays and emails. Locke employs the powerful metaphor of a visual technology to argue for the primacy of external sensations in the acquisition of knowledge and the formation of ideas:

External and internal Sensation, are the only passages that I can find, of Knowledge, to the Understanding. These alone . . . are the Windows by which light is let into this dark Room. For, methinks, the Understanding is not much unlike a Closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible Resemblances, or Ideas of things without; would the Pictures coming into such a dark Room but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the Understanding of a Man, in reference to all Objects of sight, and the Ideas of them. ( II.11.17 )

Locke conveniently lays out an ideal schema for the acquisition of visual knowledge: the capture of external phenomena within the camera obscura of the mind; its orderly storage within that darkened closet; and the possibility of retrieving it upon occasion. Locke’s discrete moments of forming visual knowledge--the capture, storage, and retrieval of images--sketch three of the main topics of this seminar. In light of our contemporary situation we propose to add a fourth: the ability to transmit or to distribute such knowledge to our peers and colleagues.

We place the scholarly importance of this seminar within current discussions about the domain and relevance of the humanities in today’s world. From researchers in cognitive behavior to electrical engineers, from medical labs to hospital wards, professionals on the scientific side of C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” have long employed systematic visualizations of data to formulate problems, report on discoveries, and propose new avenues of research and treatment. By contrast, much scholarly research in the humanities still privileges written accounts and is concerned with textual objects. When visual documents are cited, typically they are invoked as illustrations to shore up the written narrative. One exception might be the history of art, but the “linguistic turn” of recent decades had a wide impact in this specialized field and generated a lively internal debate over the relative merits of discursive critical theory versus traditional forms of visual analysis such as connoisseurship and iconography.

Central Questions


A common sense understanding of ordinary experience suggests that to look at the world is to know it. Light patterns register on our retinas and seem to be immediately available to our mind, allowing us to make our way across busy city streets, wander through shopping malls, or drive at high speed down freeways. The eighteenth-century writer Gotthold Lessing was not the first to suggest that visual knowledge differs fundamentally from written forms by this instantaneous accessibility to thought, but he was perhaps the most influential proponent of the idea. Even today, Lessing’s analysis remains central to much critical thinking about visuality and visual forms. By contrast, Locke’s metaphor of the mind as a camera obscura, although motivated by his own agenda of empirical philosophy, denaturalizes looking by underscoring the discrete stages of how optical phenomena become part of one’s storehouse of knowledge. The point of this seminar is not just to study how we process the continuous flux of visual experience--important work actively pursued by cognitive science--but to ask how, in history, that flux has been transformed from immediate sensory stimulus to knowledge that can be shared among individuals.

Language is necessarily the countervailing model, for much of human knowledge is warehoused in linguistic form. Many scholars recognize that description is a decisive moment in the construction of verbal knowledge: capturing phenomena in words inserts them into a highly-developed system for the recording, retrieving, and distribution of data. Locke recognized that such a process was never transparent and that words could never be more than a kind of “mist before our Eyes.” In some branches of science, notably mechanics and physics, mathematics emerged as a powerful alternative to language, but here too the initial description remains crucial. The seminar proposes the term capture to denote how the world enters non-linguistic systems of knowledge. The challenge has been to devise non-human systems of capture, some of which include perspectival projections, optical devices, and mechanical or electronic sensors. The seminar will explore the range of overlapping ambitions and diverging techniques of visual capture.


The second difficulty is how to stock the captured data in a manner that will preserve the information over time. Historically, storage systems have included drawing, painting, time-dependent recording instruments, the entire range of photographic technology, cinema, television, and digitized data bits. Each of these offer specific technological trade-offs between the ideal of complete accuracy and practical feasibility, and many of them employ algorithms--whether implicit to the machinery or explicit within their software--to transform the raw data into a recoverable form. The seminar will investigate the historical evolution of storage schemes and the evolving parameters that have governed the concept of visual accuracy.


Locke posits a system for the retrieval of visual information when he imagines that pictures might enter the dark room of the mind and “lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion.” The key word is “orderly”: what constitutes “order” among visual images? Most image-storage schemes attach tags or labels--usually words or numbers--to individual objects that make it possible for users to retrieve a particular image within a large collection. Yet this useful recourse to non-visual catalog data is no more than an expedient. Are there alternatives? One might be a catalog arranged by iconography that gathers images, for example, of the Virgin and Child; such collections have depended intimately upon curators who analyze thousands of images and sort them accordingly. Current research is exploring the potential of image-recognition software to scan images for salient features and to find matches, more or less as fingerprints are matched by machines. The results can be unusual: imagine a Virgin and Child paired with the photo of a mother and child in war-torn Iraq. Such a match (or mismatch) only serves to underscore the extremely fine-grained visual discrimination of the human sensorium. The seminar will consider the special problems of defining the terms and protocols for retrieving visual knowledge and the new demands of imagery stockpiled in digital form.


Visual objects are certainly storehouses of information. A picture of a Renaissance estate, for example, might help economic historians prepare an estimate of a particular family’s wealth; it may guide an art historian’s account of vernacular architecture; it could be used by historians of agriculture to recover forgotten techniques of raising grapes; it might help an historian of costume to understand the language of fashions in fifteenth-century Italy. But even this simplified example presumes that the object of study can be transmitted as image from one group of researchers to another. Indeed, the concept of “visual knowledge” presumes a disciplinary utility that emerges only when the object is able to be distributed among interested researchers. The final question to be explored by the seminar concerns the transmission or distribution of visual forms.
This segment of the seminar’s inquiry cuts across at least three inter-related histories.

First, the history of visual reproduction from print-making to digital imaging by way of photography, cinema, and television. Each stage in this history foregrounds some aspects of visual experience over others; the seminar will attempt to understand some of those trade-offs as part of a social and ideological matrix, not merely stages in a history of unbroken technical perfection.

Second, the history of vision itself, from an eye that earlier was thought to project rays of sensibilia onto the world to one that passively receives light through its lens and registers the pattern upon its retina. Much of the technical history of visual reproduction--from the camera obscura to the cinematic apparatus--intersects with this model of the eye as a light-focusing device. By contrast, recent technologies of visualization shift attention from the lens to the retina’s light-sensitive field. Ordinary x-rays, the glowing surface of cathode-tube television excited by an electron beam, and all types of digital cameras position a plane of sensitivity--whether a chemical film, earth phosphors, or light-sensitive diodes--analogous to the retinal surface of our eyes. Such a shift makes possible many types of visual knowledge without light, notably the CAT scanners, sonograms, and MRG machines that provide views of our corporeal interior. These technologies introduce, in turn, new possibilities for the capture, storage and retrieval of such knowledge.

Finally, the seminar will study the history of institutions and disciplines that have engaged with the distribution and sharing of visual knowledge: from princely kunstkammern to public museums, from atlases and encyclopedia to maps and charts, from scientific diagrams and architectural renderings to mathematical “objects” that exist in four (or more) dimensions. By framing all of these issues around the concept of visual knowledge, the seminar offers a unique opportunity for a rich discussion across disciplines that asks a simple but profound question: how can I relate to you what I have learned?

Comparative Component

The central questions raised by the seminar are grouped around the stages of producing visual knowledge outlined above. By contrast, the seminar’s discussion of those questions is framed historically and focused upon four eras germane to the definition or inclusion of visual knowledge within established cultural practices. Each of our historical moments witnessed, in effect, a shift in modality of far-reaching consequences within the pervading regime of visuality.

The Renaissance: Foundation of Visual Knowledge

We begin with the Italian Renaissance where, at least for Western culture, the idea of visual knowledge was first articulated by the invention and perfection of perspective. Alberti’s influential treatise on perspective was not simply a cookbook for producing the illusion of space on a flat surface, but a “world view” connecting the external world to human understanding by means of the systematic and geometric operation of the eye. Perspective set many of the terms of visual knowledge, including a theory about the cone of vision, the place and position of the image screen, point of view, rules for determining relations among items upon the screen, and establishing the viewer as an essential component within the overall system of visualization. Manually produced visual objects, notably paintings and drawings, along with print-based media such as engravings and etchings were the primary means of communicating this visual knowledge. Other art forms that employed the power of perspective include the settings for drama, opera, dance, and public spectacle.

Scientific Revolution: Expanding the Visual Domain

Renaissance perspective set the norms of visualization for many centuries, even though science overturned the notion that visual rays are projected from the eye. Among the achievements of our second historical era, which we loosely call “the scientific revolution,” was to study the inner mechanisms of the eye and to understand it as a passive receptor of light. This model of vision gave rise to a host of new instruments--notably microscopes and telescopes--that vastly expanded the range of human vision to things very small and very far away but, in general, the storage and transmission of this information depended on visual schemes unchanged since the Renaissance.

The same model of vision eventually informed the theoretical premises and mechanical tinkerings that produced the daguerreotype, negative film and paper prints, the Kodak camera, and color film. All of these photographic devices mimic the structure of the eye to focus light into a dark chamber upon a sensitive plate or strip of chemically-treated celluloid. That these photographic objects took shape within an apparatus and without human intervention radically changed their status as knowledge, for the images seemed to speak directly and with an implicit truth.

The scientific revolution also engendered new mechanical instruments designed to register non-visible data--barometric pressure, humidity, temperature, among others--and to record it as charts, graphs, and other types of diagrammatic configurations. Several types of lavishly illustrated encyclopedias were produced from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, including the well-known publication of Diderot and d’Alembert in France. These vast projects presented arrays of visual data produced by instruments alongside “optical” visual forms in compendiums where visuality in general played a crucial role in the construction of encyclopedic knowledge.

The Cinematic Turn: The Visual in Time and Motion

Some of the visual forms mentioned above, such as temperature time charts, were capable of capturing a dimension of time but, in general, this was an era of still images. We call the seminar’s third historical period a “cinematic turn” in the history of visual knowledge, for it introduces the dimensions of time and motion. From the early experiments of sequential photography by Marey in the 1870s to the first cinematic projection of the Lumière brothers in 1895, the task was to provide still photography with ability to capture, store, and make accessible the phenomena of movement through time and space. That goal guided later technical improvements in film (sound, color, various screen formats), but the underlying principal of a camera that records light on film remained unchanged.

This was not the case with television, which was at first only a system of capture producing an ephemeral image of glowing phosphors on the inside surface of a cathode tube. Early television was not a storable medium (programs were filmed to be stored and retrieved), but the advent of the VCR brought to television methods of storage, retrieval, and distribution on a par with photography and film. Development of video tape has had far-reaching effects upon every aspect of our daily lives, for the whole world now seems able to enter the domestic spaces of our private life.

Digital Retinas/Luminous Pixels

The seminar will broach the issues of visualization in contemporary culture by locating an historical divide between the technologies of the “cinematic turn” and those of computer-driven visual arrays. In the earlier period, for all its attention to time and motion, the methods of capture remain attached to the optical device as surrogate eye. Digital technology pays attention to a later moment in the visual chain between eye and brain by focusing attention on the retina as a device for transforming light rays into an electrical stimulus. Cognitive scientists are currently exploring this process in detail; their work might one day enable computer scientists to wire chips directly into the brain or to replace defective eyes with electronic surrogates. More significantly, digital technology makes it possible to connect completely non-visual systems of capture, such as MRG or CAT scanner, to networks of data storage and display and to produce retrievable visualizations of information for use by doctors all around the world. This dimension of the digital revolution--the ability to visualize what is essentially non-visual data--marks, in our view, the emergence of a completely new paradigm for visual knowledge, one whose implications for the future this seminar hopes to explore.

Comparative Cultural Perspective

It might be said that the seminar as outlined above suffers from a narrow view of Western culture. We are sensitive to this fact, and propose that the seminar thread consideration of a non-Western cultural model throughout its discussion. Keeping in mind the Renaissance starting point of the seminar, we feel that much could be learned by holding in comparison the example of Japan. Japanese culture offers a long tradition of highly sophisticated visualization that was affected rather late by the introduction of Western perspective. Those early contacts offer a rich field for exploring the cultural give-and-take between tradition and visual novelty. Even more important, Japanese culture has proven to be almost obsessively concerned with recording visual phenomena, from photographic cameras or VCRs to video cell phones. Why and how does this wealth of visual forms find a place in modern-day Japan? How does the instant accessibility of visual knowledge square with the values of traditional Japanese culture? We believe that attending to such questions will help to focus and to clarify our understanding of visual knowledge in general, and will locate the seminar’s findings within a broad and rewarding global point of view.

Thematic Threads

We believe that many of the topics sketched in this proposal intersect with one another across historical eras and technological changes to define a set of recurrent themes that will be important by-products of the seminar. Naturally, we cannot predict all of these in advance, but we list here as simple bullets some of the potential “threads” that strike us as especially valuable.

  • comparative understanding of the interaction between visual representation and its user/viewer/participant
  • historical understanding of the issues of immersion and absorption across a wide range of imaging technologies
  • comparative understanding among several systems of visualizations, including perspective images, maps, schematics, diagrams, computer-assisted-design renderings, virtual reality
  • historical understanding of human visualization from eye to idea
  • historical understanding of electronic visualization from data sensor to digital array
  • comparative understanding of the relationship between human and electronic visualizations
  • historical understanding of data perception produced by instrumentation
  • comparative understanding of the relationship between human and instrumental forms of perception
  • historical understanding of the time and motion components of visual perception
  • an enriched understanding of the status of visual knowledge within the humanities