Description, the unorphaned eye, and the cultivation of care

Andrews, Jorella G.. 2018. 'Description, the unorphaned eye, and the cultivation of care'. In: Visual Pedagogies: IAVC (International Association for Visual Culture) Conference, 2018. London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, United Kingdom 14 September 2018. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

A research paper by Catharine Morgan and others at Manchester University, recently published in the British Medical Journal, has documented escalations in self-harm among young people in England and Wales, including a 68 per cent increase among girls (13–16) from 2011 to 2014. Indeed, the authors describe self-harm in children and adolescents, which is highly correlated with the presence of anxiety disorders and depression and often progresses to suicide, as ‘a major public health problem in many countries’.

The aim of Morgan et al’s research was not to examine the social and cultural factors influencing these increases but to consider their clinical management. Inevitably though, reference was made to the potential role of social media activity in increased self-harm. We know social media as a terrain used by many individuals to curate and (overtly or vicariously) to validate their lives largely by collating, categorising and evaluating images of themselves and others. But particularly pertinent was the observation that for many young people today, online socialization means ‘becoming exposed to content that encourages or normalizes self-harm as a reaction to stressful events’. Unsurprisingly, dissatisfaction with appearance has been self-reported by teenagers as particularly problematic.

In this paper I argue that becoming skilled in apparently inconsequential phenomenologically-grounded practices of description ̶practices that are best defined as pre-critical ̶may effectively help young people reposition themselves in an image-world (in which they are immersed and which they may also actively disseminate) whose construction and content tend to undermine self-acceptance and respect of oneself and others. I also ask how the insights thus yielded might enable social media users to co-create image-worlds in which information, especially visual information, is not compiled, categorized and judged in accordance with protocols at favour rapid, cursory and non-reflexive acts of judgement but rather where personal iconographies and visual itineraries can be developed, and in which confidence and care for others and for oneself becomes preferential.

Phenomenological description ̶understood, via Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as embodied thought-in-practice ̶is strategic in this regard because it foregrounds perceptual attentiveness, opens up the complex structures of intentionality, teaches the phenomenological art of epoché (or bracketing), and champions both ideographic and intercorporeal realities as fundamental to how we communicate, learn and create. As such, it can empower individuals ̶ however and wherever they are positioned ̶ to eschew two intertwined conceptually- and critically-based obstacles to both learning and (self)respect: first, our propensity to pre-categorise (as it were) the phenomena which we are presented (to make assumptions based on existing systems of classification and indeed to make category errors) and second, our propensity to pre-judge (to make assumptions based on existing but inappropriate systems of valuation; indeed on systems of valuation that do harm).

Phenomenological description repositions learners as engaged observers rather than largely pre-formatted critics or consumers of what-is-given-to-be-learned. It teaches visual discernment in that it opens up reflexive spaces between the (artificially separated-out) domains of perception, thought, desire and action.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Lecture)


visual pedagogy, phenomenology, care, description

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures


14 September 2018Accepted

Event Location:

London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, United Kingdom

Date range:

14 September 2018

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

09 Jan 2019 11:36

Last Modified:

09 Jan 2019 11:36


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