What do we mean by ‘Visualising War’?

Katarina Birkedal 

In asking how different representations of war interact across time to form and adjust our understanding of what war is and does, this project invites us to ask what it means to ‘visualise’ war. Given the interdisciplinarity of the project this question is especially important, since different interpretations from different disciplinary perspectives may lead to conflicting views of the very scope and purpose of the project itself. This is the first in a set of pieces dedicated to unpicking the title of the project, so that we may better understand what our research is trying to accomplish. What I’m doing with this thought piece is not creating a lexicon of visual methodologies but rather thinking about visuality in different ways, arguing that for a complete picture to be painted, visualisation must include looking in both the real and imagined sense.

I want to entertain first the notion that to visualise war means to see it before us: that ‘visualising’ necessarily must reflect something ‘visual,’ and must therefore involve sight. If this were the case, we would be focusing solely on things like paintings, photography, murals, reliefs, and sculptures, as well as films and theatre (although these media all involve other senses too). This is an assumption made by many when first coming into contact with our project, hence our decision to unpick the word ‘visualising’! First, let us consider where this rather exclusionary definition of ‘visualising’ gets us: why should we consider adopting this definition?

All of the visual media mentioned above are predominantly pictorial and, as the saying goes, an image can be worth a thousand words. Certainly, these media often evoke strong emotional reactions in the viewer. For scholars of fields influenced by poststructuralist and/or psychoanalytic thought, they may be thought of as aesthetic: as evoking emotional and thoughtful responses in their consumption that are in some way dissonant.[i] An aesthetic moment is one that warps the time around it: put simply, aesthetics make you reconsider. Images may thus be intensely aesthetic because they engender such impact in the viewing. Consider content warnings for upsetting imagery and film, commonplace long before content- and trigger warnings for written text.

For scholars of fields where discourse analysis[ii] is prevalent, there are further reasons why one might consider ‘visualising’ to be restricted to the visual. Methodological tools for the analysis of the visual and the linguistic depend on a key distinction: where linguistic narrative happens syntactically, linearly, continuously over time, an image is one forceful, discontinuous communication. The visual is an impression made first as a whole and then by its parts.[iii]

Yet, for me this does not ring quite true.  In comics, images communicate linearly, and is there not a syntax of film and photography? From across the globe spring artistic traditions that variously combine written text and image; ekphrasis (such as the shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad); kennings (like in the sagas of Snorre); or Chinese calligraphy, where the beauty of words is the visual art. Separating the two – the non-visual and the visual – glosses over the ways in which they interlace and interact to tell the full story.

More to the point, such an exclusion would go against the grain of narrative theory, that humans are storytellers whose stories form from the same patterns regardless of medium. Painting pictures arises from the same habit, whether those pictures are literal or figurative.  Indeed, the study of signs and signifiers – semiotics – is much more complex than a clear distinction between image and language would suggest. As the poststructuralists would insist, everything is text: everything is part of the web of signs by which we make sense and meaning of things. Looking again to aesthetics, a novel, poem, or speech may evoke the same sort of emotional, thoughtful response as an image.

This exclusion of other media also excludes crucial insights from scholars of non-visual disciplines and fields of study, such as literature and languages. It moreover obviously excludes any insight of the un-sighted: a pure focus on the visual privileges sighted cultures, understandings, representations, and experiences of war. In a project that seeks, inter alia, to explore feelings, thoughts, and behaviours on and in war, this is a definite lack.

The analysis of any scene that was restricted to the imagery would make irrelevant the verbal delivery, the textual build-up, and the sound, smell, and physicality of the participants. A narrative affects the whole body: from the tensing of muscles in anxious build-up, via the metres of poetry that form rhythms like drums in the mind, to the sound of fireworks reimagined – all of these are part of how we visualise war, and must thus be part of our study of war. To Leonardo Da Vinci and his contemporaries, battle was considered the pinnacle of artistic endeavour because of the sheer force suspended in the scene.[iv] Similarly, visualisations of war charge us: emotionally, physically, spiritually, and morally.

So where then does that leave us? Let me return to the difference between ‘the visual’ and ‘visualising’. Most obviously, one is a noun phrase and the other is a verb, and indeed here lies the main distinction: ‘to visualise’ is to take an action as a subject; ‘the visual’ denotes an inert object. In other words, in ‘visualising’ we are making something happen. By paying attention to this grammatical difference, we can begin to understand that ‘visualising war’ is not inherently bound up with visual war, but rather with war in the action of thought and creation. That is, in the imaginary. Visualising war entails thinking about war beyond the viewing of it; indeed, visualisation can be removed from sight altogether, in that one does not need to see to visualise.

By adopting this perspective, the focus of our research becomes all possible ways of figuring war in the imagination; figuring, and evoking, by which I mean the ways in which war becomes realised in the mind, whether by images captured in stone or on canvas, or in the mind’s eye through a poem or an article in a magazine, or a story handed on by word of mouth. All of these visualisations become key to the past, present, and future of war: they shape how we understand what it is, what it does and how it can be conducted; and they also shape shared discourses of war, which affect whole communities’ understandings of and responses to war. In other words, visualising war is imagining war, realising war, portraying war, describing war, relating war, and creating war, all in the one phrase.

In understanding ‘visualising’ as encompassing both the visual and the non-visual (under the umbrella of the imagined, figured, related, and realised), Visualising War invites us to examine all the ways in which we narrate, think and feel about war; and how these habits interact with each other in the everyday, in peace and in conflict, in war’s theatre and in its audience.

Postdoctoral Researcher Katarina Birkedal obtained her PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2019. She works on gendered experiences of conflict, manifestations of militarism in popular culture, and the aesthetics of depicted violence. She is using her experience of working across different disciplines and art forms to bring together members of the Visualising War research group who work in very different fields to enhance the project’s interdisciplinarity.

[i] Roland Bleiker, “The Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 30, no. 3 (2001): 509–533, accessed April 25, 2018, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/03058298010300031001. Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2010).
[ii] How discourse analysis is conducted is varied and depends on your disciplinary and theoretical frameworks. See e.g. Kevin C Dunn and Iver B Neumann, Undertaking Discourse Analysis for Social Research (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016). and Carla Willig, Introducing Qualitative Research in Psychology, Second. (Midenhead: Open University Press, 2008).
[iii] Kay L O’Halloran, “Systemic Functional-Multimodal Discourse Analysis (SF-MDA): Constructing Ideational Meaning Using Language and Visual Imagery,” Visual Communication 7, no. 4 (2008): 443–476, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1470357208096210.
[iv] Francesca Borgo, “The Impetus of Battle: Visualising Antagonism in Leonardo,” in Leonardo Da Vinci on Nature: Knowledge and Representation, ed. Fabio Frosini and Alessandro Nova, Volum 11 av Kunsthistorisches Institut ub Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut (Venezia: Marsilio, 2015), 221–242.