Is What You See What You Get? – by Sean Sheehan
Viewpoints: Theoretical Perspectives on Irish Visual Texts, edited by Claire Bracken and Emma Radley (Cork University Press, 2013)
You might think visual texts are just flow charts, tree diagrams, bullet lists, colour-coded maps and the like but this collection of essays, rooted as it is in the field of cultural studies, is using the term to mean any cultural object that can be ‘read’, interpreted, made subject to a semiological analysis. A visual text, then, is a cultural object that is looked at and thereby communicates its meaning or message to the viewer by way of its visual content. Such ocular experiences need not involve any words, as in photographs, or include words alongside, and often of secondary importance to, non-verbal images. Irish culture is often thought to best express itself in the written word and we can all list legions of Irish poets, dramatists, novelists and short-story writers. The written word, it sometimes seems, is part of the country’s cultural DNA and this book is refreshingly different by departing from a traditional set of discourses and turning to examine, instead, Irish visual culture.
One should ask what, if any, features of Irish visual culture are there that are not also characteristics of a global visual culture. Corporate capitalism has affected the lives of so many people in so many different countries that one can readily comprehend the impact of globalised images and their exhortations not only to buy this or that product but to have particular emotional or cognitive responses to the world rather than alternative ones, regardless of one’s nationality. The question then becomes, as one of the contributors to Viewpoints inquires, ‘do the Irish see differently?’ Even, given the contention of one writer quoted in this book – ‘the absence of peasant visual art is quite striking. Native Irish culture survived in words and in traditional music’ – is it the case that the Irish have had a problem with seeing when compared to other European cultures.
Perhaps the colonisation of Ireland did adversely affect the country’s exposure to highly visual aspects of Renaissance aesthetics but the essays in this book make out a strong case for thinking that any such handicap has been overcome. The paradox is that some of the contributors cannot hold back from overdosing on verbal literacy, mercilessly banjaxing the reader with academese, but there are enough clearly expressed analyses here to engage your interests and set you off trying to track down some of the material under discussion. An essay by Cheryl Herr, ‘World-Making in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s The Woman Who Married Clark Gable’, may have you searching in vain for a way of seeing the O’Sullivan’s 1985 film, an adaptation of a story by Seán O’Faoláin. Herr’s essay is an exercise in applying Heideggerian phenomenology to a part of Irish life, showing how the sheer being of existence (Dasein) is revealed, non-cognitively, in moments and structures of everydayness.
Another essay, ‘Memory to Film: Reviving The Irish Diaspora in Stephen Fears’ Liam’ by Emmie McFadden, should make you want to see this film if it was missed when it came out in 2001. Another interesting essay looks at the photographs of Joe Duggan, Hannah Stark and John Gerrard; another is a reading of an advertising campaign for Lough Derg that presented it as a therapeutic landscape, a New Age retreat; there are pieces focusing on the television series Paths to Freedom and Fergus’s Wedding and much else as well. There is a lot to read and a lot to see after you have read Viewpoints, though one regrets it is not more of a visual text itself and included more illustrations.
Categories: Book Reviews, Books
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