History, power and visual communication artefacts

The role visual communication plays in disciplining and governing our thoughts, identities and behaviours has seldom been given the attention it deserves in historical investigation. This article argues that visual communication artefacts are a valuable source of historical evidence, particularly for historians who are interested in the interplay of ideology and power. Artefacts are approached from the epistemological position that they cannot be value neutral. The countless artefacts we see and use in daily life constantly reinforce or contradict our beliefs, values and self-identities. It is in reaction to this constant push and pull with the artefacts around us that we form, maintain and re-form our understandings of the world and of ourselves. This article presents a theory of how visual communication artefacts are imbued with the governance ideologies of the time and place in which they were created. It argues that visual communication artefacts disseminate governance ideologies through time and space, in ever lessening degrees of discipline and control. For the historian interested in power, ideological shifts or changing popular attitudes, visual communication artefacts are therefore a rich, largely untapped resource. In order to frame the argument, this article begins by outlining my deconstructionist perspective on the role of historians and histories. This is followed by an argument for the Foucauldian understanding of governmental power and discourse technologies as robust theoretical foundations for a theory of how discourses become embodied in artefacts. It concludes by suggesting the opportunities for using discourse technologies (embodied governance) as a framework for investigating the role of artefacts in power exchanges.