Race & Image in America
Transcript for Student Voices
Matthew Guterl/Jacquelynn Jones
You’re listening to Student Voices, a podcast featuring student-led interviews of Brown University faculty based on the Race & in America panel discussion series, curated by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in partnership with the Office of the Provost.
Jacquelynn Jones: I’m Jacqueline Jones, a PhD candidate in the Department of American Studies, and today I am speaking with Professor Matthew Guterl about the recent panel discussion on Race & Image in America. I have a few questions for you today, thank you for talking with me. So you began your talk with a close reading of an image and continued to provide these readings throughout your talk, can you talk more about where this practice for you emerges?
Professor Matthew Guterl: Absolutely and thank you, Jacquelynn, for doing this. I have always believed that reading an image closely is a kind of intellectual honesty, that if you accept that how we see an image is socially constructed, that we see what is the compilation of our entire lives in front of us and also what we're being asked to see. There's the negotiation between our past history and what power wants us to understand, that it makes sense when you're trying to work with people, with readers, with students, to take the time to explain to them what you see and what you want them to see. That, for me, is a kind of honest practice that I would never produce an image and not say something about it because that has too many assumptions built into it and it rests on what I think is the farcical idea that there's a common text that we all read exactly the same way.
Jacquelynn Jones: Yeah, and I appreciate this sort of move to get us to slow down and spend time with an image. And so I ask you this first question because we are in a moment when we are inundated with images and in your talk you gesture to the endless circulation that shows up in the media on timelines or feeds. Could you talk more about the significance of counter images and how you see this playing out in our daily lives?
Professor Matthew Guterl: I definitely see that there are genres of images that we need to sift and sort through. And a part of what has really motivated me to think along the lines that I was thinking in that talk, and elsewhere, is the desire to really try to analytically understand categories of images and how they come into conflict with one another. To understand that images are like schools of thought, right, that they adhere to one another. They create clusters of representation and those clusters of representation gather gravity and mass and become something like the truth of the thing. That you see enough images of the capital riot and you assume that you understand the truth of the capital riot and the media mobilizes those images as a way to support their claim for what precisely transpired on January the 6th.
At the same time, you know, as these things gather mass and steam and energy, it's also true that other schools of thought, other clusters of representations, can be drawn together and can adhere. If every image is an argument, every argument is a counter and in this particular case I’m always very interested in the way that images displace the lived experiences of African descended or Black populations, as so many of the images of January 6th did. That there were all of these images of the capital riot which would give you the impression that white folks had run amok and that they were basically unopposed that day, and the counter body of images in which we see Black Americans and their allies creatively representing themselves, as claiming space, taking time, mobilizing to ensure that within the broader fabric of representations they’re fully and accurately represented.
Jacquelynn Jones: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. I think that thinking about this truth-telling that is inherent to photography is really important and I also think it's important to think about visual counterpoints. So on campus you teach courses on political thought, in popular culture, as well as race. How has it been teaching and thinking in this current moment and do images play an important role in the classroom space for you?
Professor Matthew Guterl: Well, I will say that it has been both a challenge to teach in this particular moment and we can date the start of this particular moment in different ways. You might date it back to the fall of 2015 when there was a crisis on campus. You could date it back to the election of 2016, particularly to the day after the January 20th, 2017 inauguration. But within that time frame, however you start its origin and whenever you plot its ending, it's been a very difficult time to teach because I feel like students are wrestling with political questions that go beyond the ordinary and the partisan and are increasingly existential, in which students of color in particular confront eliminations of agendas in the classroom. And in our effort to try to teach through this material with them, you know, we end up bringing some of that conversation into the classroom. So the old fashioned notion that a college or university needed to be removed from the tumult of everyday life, located far away from everything, is increasingly impossible to do and has been, really, for some time.
I would argue that the starting point of this very difficult history of teaching in which the world around us just pours into the classroom as if it were a waterfall coincides with the arrival of things like cell phone technology and the capacity of communities of color, marginalized communities, or people -- generally women, trans folk, anyone who’s been oppressed in any way -- to capture on film very easily, without much thought, something that's happening to them. And then to broadcast it so that the gap between the violence of the every day and the work of the classroom is shrunk almost overnight in a decade so that it really does often feel as if something that just happened a thousand miles away is on our screen directly in front of us and that we're having to talk about it in the class minutes after.
Jacquelynn Jones: Thank you so much, Professor Guterl, for sharing your insights with us.
Student Voices is a feature of the Race & in America digital publication series developed by the Brown University Library. Our theme music is “see the unseen” by Butter. Explore the series at DigitalPublications.Brown.edu