No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites


Chicago : University of Chicago Press , 2007 .

In No Caption Needed, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites challenge the idea prevalent in public sphere theory and ideology critique that images subvert deliberative rationality. Maintaining that public culture and political identifications are “inescapably and rightly tied up in arts, artistry, and aesthetic norms” (302), they suggest that photojournalism, comprising one such artistic practice, produces images that simultaneously relay and exceed ideological codes. As a result of this dual capacity, photojournalism contains the possibility of “constituting an intermediate zone between hegemony and resistance” (10) that is influential in creating a deliberative public sphere or democratic citizenry. Iconic photographs, Hariman and Lucaites suggest, provide one gallery of images occupying this intermediate zone.

No Caption Needed describes the rhetorical content and remediation of nine iconic images influential in U.S. cultural history, including Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, Alfred Eisenstaedt's Times Square Kiss, and John Filo's Kent State University Massacre, among others. Such photographs are powerful, the authors argue, as they put social institutions on display, on the one hand, while framing tensions embodied within liberal democratic culture, on the other. By combining both emphases, iconic images “coordinate ‘beautifully’ a number of different patterns of identification” (34–35) and offer “performative guides for public judgment and action, although not on behalf of a single political idea” (12).

Iconic photographs function as performative guides, in part, by metonymically linking individuated experiences with social constructs or ideals. For example, when we look at a photograph, we see not only the people, institutions, and social gestures embodied within its frame, but we also see “ourselves as we are citizens, consumers, imperialists, [and] dissenters” (33), among other social categories. This idea that iconic images both document and reflexively mirror public culture leads Hariman and Lucaites to suggest that they conceptualize life in the form of an “individuated aggregate” (88), a social formation that results when “the necessary combination of individual sympathy and collective agency” (89) is induced to motivate public response to a widespread crisis or cultural contradiction. While iconic photos offer persuasive or motivational guides, however, their modes of appeal are open-ended. Hariman and Lucaites write that rather than “calling for a specific action, the iconic photo models and evokes a powerful emotional bond between citizens that supposedly will motivate right action while leaving it undefined” (154). Iconic images may, for instance, proffer citizenship as an ideal while at the same time enabling a variety of public responses to constitute the enactment of this ideal.

Additionally, as iconic images performatively mirror tacit social knowledge and “display the public to itself” (12), Hariman and Lucaites argue that senses of polity may grow out of visual self-recognition. While this idea is reminiscent of the notion in public sphere theory that mass media can contribute to the incarnation of imagined communities, Hariman and Lucaites remind readers that public sphere theory and ideology critique both contain “a deep-seated suspicion of the relationship between imagery and power that, ironically, leads to a misrecognition of common resources for political action on behalf of the common good” (20). By recognizing that images provide “resources for thought and feeling that are not registered in the norms of literate rationality” (14), they argue, theorists might embrace the idea that deliberative polity can be created through visual as well as print media as “part of a third way to understand and nurture public life” (20).

For Hariman and Lucaites, this mode of understanding takes seriously the impact of the iconic photograph's “visual eloquence” (12) and broad circulation. “Easily referenced and, due to the proliferation of digital technologies, easily reproduced and altered,” they write, “the iconic image offers a means to tap into the power of circulation and the rich intertext of iconic allusiveness for rhetorical effect” (12). As they are reproduced on T-shirts, posters, and websites, for example, iconic images connect current-day publics with historical structures of feeling. In this way, rather than diminishing the aura of an original photojournalistic artwork, Hariman and Lucaites posit that reproductions of iconic photographs draw upon and sustain the appeals of the original.

Additionally, as iconic images become altered through stylistic and rhetorical remediation in paintings, placards, and political cartoons, they serve as public sites for creative manipulations that strengthen democracy. Even “if an icon became the leading image of a propaganda campaign,” the authors write, “it would at the same time be pulled through circuits of appropriation that quickly distort and criticize its intended effect” (304–305). As iconic images are reproductively modified to contain an array of rhetorical appeals, their various adaptations may underwrite different ideals and present publics with multiple versions of what is imaginatively possible. Recognizing that public culture “is defined in part by a range of attitudes that runs from civic piety to public cynicism,” Hariman and Lucaites argue that variety in the imaginative appropriation of images “across the attitudinal spectrum is an important demonstration of how the iconic image can be a resource for democratic advocacy and identity” (117). Indeed, they find that in the digitally mediated social environment of the Internet, the volume of appropriation, alteration, response, and debate can help to break up, if not break down, political spectacle. “Democracy is alive and well,” they write, “on your desktop computer” (304).

While Hariman and Lucaites do not openly argue that what is imaginatively possible in digitally mediated environments may be curtailed in sites of journalistic production, their descriptions of journalistic images are less optimistic and more forewarning than their descriptions of the possibilities for digital re-visioning in online circulation. For instance, they suggest that iconic images emerging from visual journalism within the United States over time reflect a historical shift from liberal democracy to democratic liberalism. This shift manifests through a decreased pictorial emphasis on egalitarian norms, civic activity, and senses of collective solidarity, as well as through an increased emphasis on individual liberty, commercial activity, rationality, neutrality, and universality. They caution that “the icons of U.S. public culture increasingly underwrite liberalism more than they do democracy” to such an extent that “this imbalance threatens progressive social and economic policies and ultimately democracy itself ” (19).

The authors' acknowledgment of this threat further underscores a tension within their text. Although on the one hand they argue that iconic photographs currently underwrite a dangerous form of liberalism, on the other hand they suggest that such dangers are mitigated when individuals inevitably alter them in processes of circulation and remediation. While they suggest that iconic remediations can help build democracy and break down liberal political spectacle, in establishing this spectacle as a “threat” to democracy, they do not always seem convinced that such a task is possible. Nor do they fully acknowledge the ways in which it may already be occurring. It seems at times that despite their moral alignment with democratic values and against what might be more specifically described as neoliberal values, Hariman and Lucaites theoretically occupy the same “intermediate zone” as do the photojournalistic icons they write about.

Ultimately, Hariman and Lucaites's most persuasive arguments are that images constitute “viewers as citizens capable of intelligent deliberation and political agency” (40) and that accordingly, room should be made within public sphere theory and ideology critique to acknowledge such functions. While such acknowledgment might result in more comprehensive theorizations of democratic polity, anthropologists can further engage Hariman and Lucaites's insights by examining how public sphere theory itself may inadequately account for the social and political processes through which democracy is enacted. Recognition of how institutions, structures, and individuals contribute to iconicity, for example, could complement or challenge phenomenological and rhetorical understandings of how iconic images constitute the publics that inhabit a larger democratic nation.