Observing subjects: Visual culture and the politics of visual representation in contemporary North American women's writing

Angela Marie Laflen, Purdue University


This project identifies literary works by contemporary, North American women writers which intervene in the politics of visual representation by serving as what bell hooks refers to as "alternative texts." As alternative texts, Bobbie Ann Mason's "Third Monday" (1982) and In Country (1985), Margaret Atwood's "Blue-beard's Egg" (1983) and The Handmaid's Tale (1984), Elizabeth Wong's Kimchee and Chitlins (1993) and China Doll (1996), Gish Jen's "Birthmates" (1995), and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's "The Ultrasound" (1995) do not only resist dominant looking relations, but intervene in them and, in doing so, posit various strategies for resisting oppressive images and better ways of conceiving of and representing the conundrums of race and gender visually. I argue that such alternative texts are especially important given the growing role that visual culture plays in shaping reality. These works are contemporaneous with a turn toward visualization in Western culture, what W. J. T. Mitchell has referred to as the "pictorial turn," and each work explores potential interventions into visual culture and means for achieving critical spectatorship. While Atwood advocates "reading beneath" visual images, Mason identifies the important role that artistic production plays in raising consciousness, Wong deconstructs filming and editing processes in order to help her audience recognize these as constructions, and a group of authors writing about medical imaging suggest that interpretive complexity illuminates women's paradoxical position within visual culture and can lead to insight. Although there is more than one way to achieve critical spectatorship, the writers agree on the necessity of a critical perspective on visual culture, especially in light of the pictorial turn and the strong connection that exists between visual culture and ideology. These works are among the forefront of literary responses to the pictorial turn, and, as such, they represent a body of work that will only continue to gain relevance as questions about the implications of this cultural transformation become more and more urgent.




Peterson, Purdue University.

Subject Area

American literature|Canadian literature|Womens studies

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