Appel à communication : Visual Skepticism: How Images Doubt

Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, La Raie, 1728, huile sur toie, 114 x 146 cm, Paris, musée du Louvre.

Type : Appel à communication

Date limite de l’appel : 30 septembre 2017

Date de l’événement : 11 – 12 décembre 2017

Lieu : Hambourg, Kunstgeschichtliches Seminar and Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies, Universität Hamburg

Today, images as media of knowledge production play a more prominent role than ever before. But this flood of images, e.g. in the new media, makes them seem problematic in relation to this function. Increasingly important in the situation is the question of how images are to problematize their own status as media of knowledge production – to exhibit this status on the one hand, and to call it into question on the other.

If, for example, we see the texture of a cracked glass in a landscape photograph, the disruption makes us aware of the material constraints of photography – in this case the glass negative. Only in this way does the photograph cease to appear as an equivalent of reality, is it revealed instead as an image that is bound to a particular medium, a carrier. Emerging now is a paradoxical amalgamation of two structures– landscape and glass plate – that exclude and cancel one another, which are able to converge only within the medium of photography, and as a consequence of its technical conditions, yet which ultimately remain irreconcilable in their visual impacts. This example demonstrates how images can develop specific strategies that take advantage of internal contradictions in order to generate insights. As the above-mentioned example shows, this form of knowledge production can take place on a purely visual level.

To date, confrontations with skeptical positions in art history have taken the form of attempts to relate philosophical movements of a certain timeframe to the iconography of images. The few publications which address skepticism at all are mainly restricted to the question of how specific philosophical texts are reflected in paintings or prints. The planned conference adopts a different approach. Explored explicitly will be visual discourses that cannot be traced back to translations of skeptical positions into images. Asked instead will be how images, due to their particular medial structure, become sites of performative processes that are comparable to the dialogical strategies of skepticism. A central thesis of this project is that contradictions and negations will inevitably occur here that have the character of a medial self-interrogation. A major role is played by the image’s capacity for negation, an issue that has been a topic of debate and controversy in relation to certain propositions by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The aim will be to demonstrate how images generate internal tensions, and how they are able to operate with dialogical structures that unleash knowledge. One of the core questions is therefore whether visual skepticism can be regarded as a capacity of images, as an active power, a form of agency that is inherent to them and which is founded in their medial structure, e.g. in their iconic difference. Pictorial skepticism is understood here as an examination that renders internal structures visible through contradictions and deliberately displays them. Many images work with fractures through which they display the limits of their own artistic strategies by setting limits to themselves. This is a form of negation that is enacted within the image itself. Relevant in this context is Wittgenstein’s insight into the negation of the image: « Can one negate a picture? No. And herein lies the difference between an image and a sentence. » (Diaries, Nov 26,

1914) Proposed here with recourse to this argument is the hypothesis that visual doubt affects only partial aspects of the image, and can never call the image into question as a whole. The work can never oppose itself as a non-work. The category of the work can be questioned, split up, broken up into interminable processes, but the image can never cancel itself completely without simultaneously sacrificing its status as a work of art. In this context, the working hypothesis deliberately adopts a broad definition of the image, one that will hopefully be concretized during the course of the project, since one of our larger objectives is to pursue and explore ideas in the realm of image theory, and to contribute to a history of the image that reflects upon its ontological status.

The conference will have the character of a workshop at which a variety of forms of visual self-interrogation are addressed. Theses related to visual skepticism will be examined in relation to images from different epochs. The temporal framework is intentionally broad, allowing us to do justice to the heterogeneity of the phenomena and to ensure a historical contextualization of visual skepticism. Presented in the form of case studies will be preliminary forays into a history of visual skepticism, something hitherto lacking in art history. The concept of skepticism is intended to serve as a heuristic category within the framework of the workshop, and will be differentiated in relation to specific historical image contexts. Since no general, ahistorical definition of skepticism exists, moreover, the category of visual skepticism is seen as useful only where it is strictly tied to concrete historical case studies. The workshop is intended to provide initial points of reference that will hopefully lead toward subsequent studies that will do justice to the historical multiplicity of visual manifestations of skepticism.

The conference is being organized in cooperation with the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies, Universität Hamburg, and will take place on December 11 – 12, 2017. Please submit your proposal in English or German (abstract: 200-300 words and short CV) by September 30, 2017 to:

Margit Kern (