Building bridges: NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Manos Tsakiris speaks at eikones

Manos Tsakiris (Photo by Michael Heck for the Volkswagen Foundation)

On May 18, 2018 Manos Tsakiris, professor of psychology at Royal Holloway University of London and at the Warburg Institute, and recipient of the 2016 NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Award, spoke at eikones — Center for the Theory and History of the Image at the University of Basel. Since 2017, eikones has hosted a NOMIS fellowship program for outstanding postdoctoral researchers whose work investigates how images can act as models. The evening lecture and discussion with Tsakiris the following day at the eikones seminar concerned a shared research interest — what we see in an image and what power images have in our society — and marked the beginning of what is anticipated to be a sustained research collaboration among researchers from these two NOMIS projects.

The lecture, titled “’Feeling in seeing’: Embodiment and visual politics,” and seminar discussion focused on the ways in which news images are being perceived. What do we recognize (or think we recognize) in the first few seconds that we apprehend an image and how does it make us feel? The results presented specifically gauged the relationship between neurophysiological and affective arousal, and how such arousal influences our judgments about their realness or fakeness. A point of emphasis in Tsakiris’ research is how embodied affective responses and cognitive processes interact with each other and shape the ways in which we relate to other human beings, including their pictorial representation in our culture. Tsakiris emphasizes that the first judgments a viewer makes concerning an image (what or who it depicts, what we think is happening, whether it is real) significantly influence our interpersonal relationships and many contemporary social and political debates. They can thus have far-reaching consequences; for example, how specific visual frames used in European media during the recent refugee crisis may result in greater dehumanization of the refugees, especially when they are depicted in large anonymized groups. Tsakiris presented recent research from a range of projects currently in development within his BIAS project (Body and Image in Arts & Sciences) at the Warburg Institute that specifically investigate our encounters with photography, and more specifically, photographs depicting human suffering.

Since the work performed at eikones is largely of a nonempirical nature, Tsakiris’ presentation provided a crucial opportunity for the faculty, fellows and graduate students at eikones to encounter a different scientific methodology for working with images and investigating their imaginative and also political force. At the same time, Tsakiris’ background in psychology and the more philosophical approach fostered at eikones are complementary lines of questioning. Common to both projects are very basic questions such as: When and how do children learn to recognize images as such — that is, to distinguish them from what they depict? How can we specify the ways in which images can effect change in the minds of their viewers and the worlds they inhabit? And why is it that we judge photographs to inform us about the real? It has become commonplace to point to the flood of images in our contemporary, digital society, and questions of visual culture and visual politics are becoming more acute across academic disciplines as well. An exchange between philosophical and empirical approaches to these questions are thus not only welcome at eikones, but certainly beyond as well.