Seeing the Visual in U.S. History

J. W. Cook
2008 Journal of American History  
Seeing currently occupies a paradoxical position in the new sensory history. On the one hand, it is the most familiar of the five senses, the perceptual register that comes to mind most readily and easily. It is also the sense with the longest and deepest historiographical paper trail. Whereas smells, touches, tastes, and sounds have only recently begun to emerge as explicit topics of historical analysis, visual images now constitute a thoroughly conventional evidentiary resource (and not just
more » ... urce (and not just in the highly circumscribed sense of images as illustrations). Starting in the 1970s, moreover, major scholarly debates on the dynamics of gazing, the proliferation of surveillance, and the production of spectacle made it easier to appreciate that the province of seeing extends well beyond images. By the early 1990s, this innovative but still-fragmented body of work had coalesced into a recognizable field of historical inquiry. No longer was seeing something that could be taken for granted as a mere condition of sentience or treated in vaguely universalist terms. The act of looking, we had come to realize, varied considerably across eras, institutions, media, social groups, and even nations. 1 One might thus expect seeing to occupy a privileged place in a broader history of the senses. After all, vision was the acknowledged starting point, the perceptual register that generated the first questions about context and change over time. Yet it is precisely vision's privileged status that has come under attack in much of the best recent scholarship. In his 2006 book, How Race Is Made, Mark M. Smith argued, "We have lost sight of other ways to understand beyond vision and, in the process, have quietly endorsed the long-James W. Cook is associate professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan. For their help with this essay, he would like to thank
doi:10.2307/25095628 fatcat:6aoeqpu5wjdfvhiqfas5b236ty