Cause we are living in a material world: on iconic turn in cultural sociology. A Master s Thesis written by Bc. Jitka Sklenářová

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1 Cause we are living in a material world: on iconic turn in cultural sociology A Master s Thesis written by Bc. Jitka Sklenářová MASARYK UNIVERSITY FACULTY OF SOCIAL STUDIES DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY Supervisor: doc. PhDr. Csaba Szaló, Ph.D. Brno, 2014

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3 Declaration I hereby declare that this thesis I submit for assessment is entirely my own work and has not been taken from the work of others save to the extent that such work has been cited and acknowledged within the text of my work. 11 th May 2014 Signature 3

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5 Acknowledgements We are not at an airport; we are at a university. I would like to thank Csaba Szaló for these words, for his inexhaustible support and trust, and for influencing my life in many positive ways. I am also grateful for the international and friendly environment he managed to create at the Department of Sociology. Special thanks go to Werner Binder who spent many hours answering my questions. His enthusiasm and inspirational comments were of great importance for my work. I also appreciate attention, support, and suggestions received from Nadya Jaworsky and Dominik Bartmański. 5

6 Table of Contents Abstract Abstract (in Czech) Introduction: Call for a new sociology Human and social sciences & the visual: History of a complicated relationship Semiotics and the notion of a discursive world Peirce s triad Panofsky s image interpretation Iconology Critique of Panofsky s method Rhetorique of the Image Consequences of the linguistic turn Pictorial turn Iconic turn Iconic difference Iconicity and the strong programme in cultural sociology Strong programme Iconic theory The power of icons Icons as myths 48 6

7 2.5. Achievements & benefits of iconic theory Nobody puts images in a corner (anymore) The problem of two iconic turns Boehm s iconic turn Focus: genuinely pictorial aspects of the image Iconic turn of the strong programme Suggestions Surface & depth is not enough Problem of pre- reflexive experience Bohnsack s documentary method Binder s secular icon Conclusion 71 References Index Number of characters: Reproduction on the cover: La trahison des images by René Magritte (fragment) 7

8 Abstract The strong programme in cultural sociology has recently taken up topics of visuality and materiality and made an effort to include them into one theory. The iconic theory suggested in Iconic Power (2012) pursues two main goals. It aims at overcoming the duality of materialism and idealism, two approaches that have in the sociological theo- ry until now been fully incompatible. The proposed concept of icon combines an aes- thetic surface and a meaningful depth of a cultural object, which are mutually consti- tuted and intertwined. Bringing the elusive experience, the feeling of material objects and their deep cultural meanings together seems to be the right way to go for cultural sociology that has dealt with collective emotions and representations since its birth. The iconic theory also makes possible the emancipation and liberation of images from the textual and discursive dominance typical of the sociological thinking in the 20 th century. The source of inspiration for the new theory was the so called iconic turn in art theory. However, there seem to be some fundamental disagreements between these two approaches. My thesis presents the newborn iconic theory and reflects its benefits and pitfalls. Furthermore, drawing on the background of developments within the scholarly approach to images and on the currently used sociological methods of image analysis I offer possible answers to the questions and puzzles raised by the theory of iconic power. 8

9 Abstract (in Czech) Kulturní sociologie se nedávno začala zabývat otázkami vizuality a materiality, jež se pokusila zahrnout do jedné teorie. Teorie ikonicity formulovaná v knize Iconic Power (2012) sleduje především dva cíle. Prvním z nich je překonání rozporu mezi materia- lismem a idealismem, dvěma nesmiřitelnými myšlenkovými směry, které se doposud v rámci sociologické teorie nepodařilo úspěšně sjednotit. V navrhovaném konceptu iko- ny se vzájemně konstituují a propojují estetický povrch s významovou hloubkou kul- turních objektů. Spojení prchavé zkušenosti a pocitů zakoušených při kontaktu s ma- teriálními objekty a jejich hlubších kulturních významů se zdá být v souladu se směřováním kulturní sociologie, která se již od počátku zabývá kolektivními emocemi a reprezentacemi. Ikonická teorie rovněž umožňuje emancipaci a osvobození obrazů zpod diskurzivní nadvlády typické pro sociologické myšlení 20. století. Zdrojem inspi- race pro novou teorii byl takzvaný ikonický obrat v teorii umění. Mezi těmito dvěma přístupy se nicméně projevily zásadní neshody. Ve své práci představuji nově vytvoře- nou ikonickou teorii a reflektuji její přínosy a problematické aspekty. Na pozadí vývoje vědeckého přístupu k obrazům a na základě v současnosti používaných metod obrazo- vé analýzy v sociologii navrhuji možné odpovědi na otázky a problémy vyvstávající z teorie ikonické moci. 9

10 A book is changed by the fact that it does not change even when the world changes. Pierre Bourdieu quoted in Chartier,

11 Introduction: Call for a new sociology Fourteen years ago, Howard Becker was asked by the Contemporary Sociology Maga- zine, what sociology should look like in the (near) future. In his answer, Becker (2000: 333) took the question literally; by that move he managed to point out the fact that visual materials were neglected by social sciences for a long time and that it was time for us to change such an attitude 1. In fact, the ignorance made explicit by Becker does not exclusively relate to the visual, but applies also to the material in general. Sensual experience never used to be taken into account for the explanation of mean- ing- making processes, since meaning was thought of as emerging in text, language and discourse. Obviously, this is not enough there is more to life than discourses. Such a realization could explain why the relevance of sensual experience, gained by encounter with material things and its importance for how we make sense of the world, has nev- ertheless won further discussion in the last two decades, especially among those advo- cating the strong programme in cultural sociology. The effort to grasp the sensual and 1 As soon as I have engaged in the problem of image interpretation, which stood at the very beginning of my work presented here, I also encountered opinions stating that the topic was not sociological enough. During disputes with professors, colleagues and in interaction with scholarly texts I indeed discovered comments questioning the very idea of the relation between sociology and the visual. I had to conclude that there was a broad range of understandings and conceptions of the role of the visual in sociology, ranging from using it as a mere data- collection or data- presenting method, to qualitative ap- proaches and interpretation of images, to the theoretical stance of cultural sociology. 11

12 material side of social life has resulted in an attempt to establish a theory of iconic power. Dealing with such elusive entities as sensuality or emotionality has without any doubt been always a tricky issue for sociologists. The founding fathers of social sciences strived to avoid everything that had to do with emotions in order to gain an unbiased view of reality. Even the most necessary (in our culture, at least) sense of sight was ex- cluded from inquiring about society. Real scientists were objective and unsentimental, and photographs seemed to make people sympathetic, criticizes Becker sociologists reluctance to use images in their journals (2000: 333). However, the 21 st century has brought about significant changes in sociological research; most notably the strong programme has re- focused sociological attention from analyzing the effects of objec- tive social structures on actors and culture to considerations about autonomous cul- ture itself. The new reading (or re- reading, as the protagonists call it 2 ) of Durkheim s Elementary forms of religious life has provided the new cultural movement with an in- spiring notion of society. Durkheim s vision in the Elementary Forms was of a shared cul- tural system that is internalized within each individual. It trumps the material base by superimposing upon it a universe of arbitrary but deeply meaningful signs, myths and determinations of action. He wrote: (...) Collective representations very often attribute to the things to which they are attached properties which do not exist in any form or degree. Out of the commonest object they can make a very powerful and very sacred being. Yet, although purely ideal, the powers which have been conferred in this way work as if hey were real. They determine the conduct of men with the same inevi- tability as physical forces (Alexander and Smith 2005: 8 9) It was thus Elementary Forms that furnished cultural sociology with a toolbox contain- ing concepts such as collective representations, meanings, symbolism, morality, totem, rituals, dichotomy of sacred and profane etc. But even after establishing the research of 2 Readings proliferate that are unintended and unpredictable, with determinations that go far beyond those that could have been consciously anticipated by the maker of the original text. Time reverses the direction of influence. New contexts of interpretation come to rewrite texts as authors and theories are re- narrated for present relevance. (Alexander and Smith 2005:1) 12

13 collective discourses based on narratives and introducing the concept of performativi- ty, there still was a wish to extend this new understanding one step further (Alexan- der 2008: 9). The broadening of sociological horizons crystallized eventually into icon- ic turn (the term was borrowed from the German art historian Gottfried Boehm), and respectively into iconic theory, which is seeking after an answer to the question how meaning manifests itself through materiality (Alexander 2010a: 12). Becker s call for a new sociology which would get more visual was thus surpassed it has not stuck with vision only and made an effort to integrate the other four senses as well. In short, icon- ic theory promises to combine the sensual and the material in a way that allows us to sociologically grasp both subjective experience and collective meanings and their rela- tionship at the same time. It seems to be a logical step in the development of the strong programme to shift its focus to iconicity recently. The aim of iconic theory continues the cultural sociological line, which has since its birth paid a great attention to the study of collective represen- tations and emotions. The problem with texts is, however, that they cannot raise such strong emotions as other forms of human experience. The main goal of iconic theory was thus the inclusion of sensual experience of material stuff into sociological theory. But why is it important to treat materiality sociologically? How does iconic turn change our understanding of social phenomena? What problems does the iconic theo- ry solve and what problems it brings? These are just several questions and problems that I deal with in this thesis. My argument is developed and divided into three steps: First, I introduce the background of scholarly development in the field of image inter- pretation, which made certain progress despite of the prevailing approach inspired by turn to language and discourse in the 20 th century. It is essential to begin with these developments since they have mostly provided inspiration for current efforts in dealing with iconicity. In the second chapter I introduce the newly born theory of iconic power suggested by the strong programme, highlight its main points and ideas and outline the main benefits it has brought into sociological discourse. In the last chapter I point out the questions emerging from the first notion of iconic theory and the problems concerning its future direction. Drawing on contemporary research based on art- 13

14 theoretical methods of image interpretation I also suggest possible solutions to the unresolved issues in the definition of iconicity. 14

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16 Medium is the message. Marshall McLuhan,

17 1 Human and social sciences & the visual: History of a complicated relationship The search for meaning as well as the effort to understand the processes of its emer- gence was focused exclusively on language for most of the 20 th century. By claiming that all philosophical questions are basically linguistic problems and can therefore be solved either by reforming language or by understanding more about the one we al- ready use (Rorty 1967: 3), the linguistic turn in philosophy was launched. But as Wag- ner rightly observed, the way how one sees the world inevitably changes once one as- serts that all relations between human beings and the world are constituted by language (2008: 252). Rorty s book Linguistic Turn published in 1967 caused a broad paradigm shift that influenced a whole set of human sciences from linguistics, semi- otics and rhetoric to art and media studies and sociology. It resulted not only in asking different questions, but also in ability to find new answers and opening new perspec- tives on social life. Suddenly, society became a text and nature and its scientific repre- sentations discourses (Mitchell 1994: 11). 17

18 1.1. Semiotics and the notion of a discursive world However, the assumption that everyday reality is constituted by language was by no means new in The same position was central also for Saussure s structuralism, one of the biggest inspirations for linguistic turn as well as for the whole linguistics in the 20 th century up to now. The main argument in Saussure s (1996) theory is that signs acquire their meanings from their positions and mutual relations within a sign system, i.e. the language system, which he favored. His semiology, as he called his semiotics, is based on a dyadic sign model. In this model, sign consists of signifier (e.g. a word) and signified (i.e. a mental concept evoked in one s mind by hearing or reading the word). The real object in the world, which the sign points to, is called referent and is not a part of the dyadic model. The crucial assumption here is that the relationship of referent and its sign is purely arbitrary, what accounts for the fact that there are differ- ent signs used for denoting different referents in different languages. Therefore, the meaning of each sign must be conceptualized as context- dependent, i.e. contingent on positions of different signs within the sign system. As a result, language system does not provide people with contact to reality; language is reality, since everything we refer to as reality is just a convention, a result of the process of signification. Nothing can exist without being thought of and we cannot think of any referent unless it exists in language, unless there is a concept for it. Even though such a conclusion might seem extreme today, it has indeed largely influenced the course of human and social scienc- es for decades, Mitchell thus talks about absorption of image by discourse (Mitchell 1994: 28). If there were any attempts to push the image topic further, they would generally con- clude that images were themselves linguistic occurrences or demonstrated that they were participating in the signs systems as well (Boehm and Mitchell 2009: 105). For Boehm, the latter was true for the work of the second father of semiotics, Charles Sanders Peirce. A different reading is proposed by Mitchell who highlights Peirce s re- sistance to taking the symbolic (or the verbal) as the foundational moment of semiot- ics (Boehm and Mitchell 2009: 118). This argument is supported by the fact that Peirce is sometimes considered to be a visual interpreter of language (Pietarinen 2012: 251). 18

19 Peirce s triad For Peirce, sign is a kind of relation; to be exact it is a triadic relation of representation (Buczynska- Garewicz 1979). The elements of his triadic sign model are sign (repre- sentament), object and meaning (interpretant). An object is always represented by a sign, but since representation is always mediation, the central point belongs to the in- terpretant 3. The interpretant is always general, never individual and constitutes the ideal, logical meaning of the sign. Furthermore, Peirce emphasises that the subject s experience of a sign is sensational and irreflexive, while meaning- making takes place during the process of construction of interpretant that makes sense of the relationship between sign and object (Petrilli 1999). The next key assumption of Peirce s semiotics is that sign is always determined by its object. Therefore, he developed a typology of signs based on a triad of firstness, secondness, and thirdness 4 that organizes signs by closeness to their object (Huening 2006). Whenever a sign stands for its object through some quality of feeling (Atkin 2005), it is called icon (or likeness) and belongs to the category of firstness. Icons can represent nothing but Forms and Feelings, wrote Peirce 5 (quoted in Buczynska- Garewicz 1979: 256). Therefore, icon is interpreted as a possibility, i.e. a mental image, typical of its similarity or analogy to the subject of discourse (Lattmann 2012). Indices (or indexes) then stand for their objects through an existential or physical fact (Atkin 2005) and therefore belong to the sphere of secondness. Symbols as thirdnesses stand for their objects through convention, the relation to their objects is therefore purely habitual or defined by rules (Peirce 1998: 5 7). All three sign categories, nevertheless, overlap in actual signs: Consider a photograph: it has properties in common with its object, and is therefore an icon; it is directly and physically influenced by its object, 3 Interpretant, contrary to a widespread belief, is neither an interpreter nor an individual mind (Buczyn- ska- Garewicz 1979). 4 Firstness is a category of quality of feeling, secondness stands for actual, concrete and temporary being and thirdness is general, timeless and independent category independent on subjective thinking (Buczynska- Garewicz 1979). 5 Icon is a possibility, i.e. a mental image, typical of its similarity or analogy to the subject of discourse (Lattmann 2012). 19

20 and is therefore an index; and lastly it requires a learned process of reading to under- stand it, and is therefore a symbol (Huening 2006). Peirce s semiology is important for the study of images exactly because it did not, in contrast to the one introduced by Saussure, assume that language is paradigmatic for meaning (Mitchell 1994). For when one considers Saussure s theory in the light of Peirce, one is struck by Saussure s need to characterise the signified in pictorial terms in the famous diagram of the sign (Boehm and Mitchell 2009: 118). Mitchell (ibid.) therefore acknowledges Peirce s effort to pave the path for a broader scholarly recogni- tion of images, later known as pictorial turn. His writings were also acknowledged as highly inspirational by Erwin Panofsky an art historian whose methods of interpreta- tion of works of art have recently experienced considerable comeback in many disci- plines interested in images. There are barely any texts dealing with the image topic that would not refer back to Panofsky. The fact that they still feel compelled to take a stand on his theory only maintains its significance for contemporary research. Also, considering the lack of interest that sociology has paid to the visual during the 20 th century (cf. Bartmanski 2012b), it is exactly art history that offers us the chance to look for sociologically useful concepts, convenient terminology and methods of interpreta- tion in its field of interest Panofsky s image interpretation The artist knows only what he parades but not what he betrays 6 (Panofsky 2012: 480), could have been the motto of Panofsky s thinking about art and its forms. The central assumption lying in the very core of his theory was that every perspective is historically determined. Notion of historicity thus became his point of departure for every interpretation. Instead of asking what the artist wanted to express, Panofsky tried to find out what she expresses without being aware of it. His method therefore carries certain resemblance to psychoanalysis, for it tries to reveal the cultural uncon- 6 The quote was taken from writings by Charles S. Peirce whom Panofsky considered to be an intellec- tually stimulating American (Panofsky 2012:480). 20

21 sciousness 7 in order to find the unintentional and subconscious self- revelation of a fundamental attitude towards the world which is characteristic in equal measure of the individual producer, the individual period, the individual people, and the individual cultural community (Panofsky 2012: 479). It is exactly the search for underlying cul- tural principles that demonstrate themselves in art, why Panofsky s approach is some- times referred to as hermeneutics of the visual 8 (Binder 2012: 103). Panofsky introduced his method named iconology in 1939 together with a model for interpretation of pictures based on three levels of meaning, i.e. phenomenal meaning, meaning dependent on content and documentary (or intrinsic) meaning. In this classi- fication, the resemblance to Mannheim s three kinds of meaning objective, expres- sive and documentary (1951: 44) is by no means accidental 9. Another inspiration of Panofsky can be traced back to Peirce s categories of firstness, secondness and third- ness based on feeling, reacting and thinking (Peirce 1998). Based on these levels of meaning, the suggested technique was supposed to enable the interpreter to grasp more than just the physiognomic qualities of the work of art, since the aesthetic ex- perience had to be supported, controlled, and corrected by the history of the style, the types, and the cultural symptoms (Bourdieu 2005: 224). To fully understand the character of individual types of meaning, the most convenient way is to introduce them together with Panofsky s interpretative model. Also, since contemporary scholars inquiring about images almost always refer back to Panofsky s thoughts, in order to understand these critiques it is essential to understand his approach first Iconology The method of iconological interpretation introduced by Panofsky stems directly from the notion of three levels of meaning. An important note is that the differentiation of 7 Credits for this metaphor belong to Binder (2014a). 8 Panofsky s work and accent on underlying structures is indeed strongly influenced by hermeneutics of W. Dilthey and F. Schleiermacher (cf. Holly 1984). 9 Panofsky adopted Mannheim s Weltanaschauungsintepretation (Eberlein 2003:179), which can be best translated as interpretation of the world- view and which is known also as the documentary meth- od (for its contemporary use in picture analysis see Bohnsack (2007, 2009)). 21

22 individual meanings used in the model is only theoretical and solely analytical and therefore does not play any role in everyday empirical experience, since people en- counter all of three levels of meaning at once (Panofsky 2012). Figure 1: Panofsky s (1955: 40 41) synoptical table summarizing three independent strata of meaning and their respective identification and interpretation. Object of interpretation Act of inter- pretation Equipment for interpretation Corrective principle of interpretation (History of tradition) I Primary or natural subject matter: A) factual, B) expressional (constituting the world of artistic motifs). Pre- iconographical description (and pseudoformal analysis). Practical experience (familiarity with objects and events). History of style (insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, objects and events were expressed by forms). II Secondary or conventional subject matter, constituting the world of images, stories and allegories. Iconographical analysis. Knowledge of literary sources (familiarity with specific themes and concepts). History of types (insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes or concepts were expressed by objects and events). III Intrinsic meaning or content, constituting the world of symbolical values. Iconological interpretation. Synthetic intuition (familiarity with the essential tendencies of the human mind), conditioned by personal psychology and Weltanschauung. History of cultural symptoms or symbols in general (insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts). The first step in Panofsky s iconological method (see Figure 1) is pre- iconographic de- scription. Its focus is the level of phenomenal meaning, whose source is common eve- 22

23 ryday knowledge and practical experience 10. The interpreter thus describes factual and expressive matters of the image. Although it might seem that at this level of interpreta- tion no special background knowledge is needed, the opposite is true, for it even the pre- iconographical description must already contain certain classifications, for it is not always easy to recognize what is portrayed in the picture (Panofsky 2012: 471). Completing the descriptive step therefore presupposes using a corrective principle of history of styles, which informs us about the kind of expression and representation of specific objects or events that was possible in different historical periods and contexts (ibid.: 480), otherwise we have no means of knowing whether we must apply the norms of modern naturalism or the norms of medieval spiritualism to this suspension in the void (ibid.: 472). In the focus of iconographical analysis, which is the second step of Panofsky s method, is meaning dependent on content. Therefore it is motifs, stories and allegories consti- tutive of the image what the interpreter takes into consideration. Familiarity with lit- erature, narratives and broader historical context are essential knowledge, since in dif- ferent historical periods there were different objects used for expression of certain concepts 11. This knowledge provides the interpreter also with a corrective principle for iconographical analysis, i.e. with a history of types that informs us what was imagina- ble at that time. For Panofsky, a type is a depiction in which a specific phenomenal meaning is so closely connected with the meaning dependent on content that it im- mediately signals that content (ibid.: ). The most generalizing part of Panofsky s model is the last one called iconological inter- pretation. In this step is iconographic meaning as such treated as a cultural symbol, as an expression of specific culture (Bourdieu 2005: 224), in order to find intrinsic (or documentary) meaning of the picture. Documentary meaning is unintentional, sub- 10 The parallel of phenomenal meaning to Peirce s firstness is evident in Panofsky s reference to unre- flected everyday experience. As Peirce noted, likenesses should not be interpreted but presented to the sense (1998:8). 11 Again, there is an analogy with Peirce s indexical signs (secondness) on Panofsky s second level of meaning; indication focuses attention and connects itself with other experience (Peirce 1998:8). 23

24 conscious, and fundamental attitude towards the world, capable of expressesing the Weltanschauung characteristic of the individual producer, the individual period, the individual people, and the individual cultural community 12 (Panofsky 2012: 479). Thus, the focus is not on what the image says but rather how the message is made. In other words, iconology seeks the fundamental principles, deep cultural structures that made the image, i.e. structures that underlie not only the choice and presentation of motifs and production but also the production and interpretation of images, stories, and allegories (Bourdieu 2005: 224). The problem of interpretation of intrinsic mean- ing lies, however, in the fact that its source is the world- view of the interpreter, which is also a fundamentally subjective source of knowledge (Panofsky 2012: 480). Therefore, interpretative violence must be kept within certain boundaries set by both interpreter s synthetic intuition (Panofsky 1955: 40 41) and historically situated factu- ality, i.e. a sense of general intellectual history which clarifies what was possible with- in the world- view of any specific period and any specific cultural circle (Panofsky 2012: 480). In general, Panofsky s iconology can be seen as a movement from surface to depth, from sensations to ideas, from immediate particulars to an insight into the way essen- tial tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts, as Mitchell (1994: 26) put it. In 1951, Panofsky published his Gothic Architecture and Scho- lasticism (1989) and showed that the iconological movement from surface to depth was applicable not only for the analysis of pictorial art. Instead, he used iconology to analyse a whole architectonic style, for he was convinced that there was an obvious and barely random similarity between gothic architecture and scholastic (Panofsky 1989: 8). For Panofsky, his similarity was not a mere result of parallel development of both. He assumed that there was rather a relationship of cause and effect, i.e. it was 12 The unreflected character of intrinsic meaning is reminiscent of Peirce s notion of symbols (thirdness- es) that are also conventional and dependent upon habit (1998:9). Sign as a triad itself belongs to the sphere of thirdness that is general, timeless, and independent of subjective thinking (Buczynska- Garewicz 1979). 24

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