Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look

On the first page of The Right to Look, Nicholas Mirzoeff claims that “the right to look is the right to the real”– in other words, looking and being looked at in such a way that the autonomy of both parties is emphasized, and their existence is mutually acknowledged. In explicit dialogue with Frederic Jameson’s statement that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”, Mirzoeff is interested in how the right to look corresponds with the right (and ability) to be seen: for a struggle, person, or goal to be legitimized. An equal response can only happen when there is an exchange between people that is “mutual, each person inventing the other” (1).

The opposite of the right to look is visuality, which is a nineteenth century concept of the visualization of history. Visualization is used as an arm of power. It allows the association of power with authority to appear natural, and forecloses the ability to imagine other realities where power is communal or within the hands of someone else. Visuality has three key steps, which Mirzoeff returns to throughout the book: classifying, separating, and aestheticizing. It operates by categorizing individuals, removing their ability to identify with or cohere politically with each other, and then making this situation seem right or natural– “aesthetic”.

Categorization is key not only in dividing people from each other, but in deciding which categories are legitimate enough to be recognized in the first place. In his fifth chapter on imperial visuality, Mirzoeff notes that classifications of “civilized” and “primitive” originate at the same time as the new science of statistics, which allows for the conception of a normal (c.f. Davis). All subjects excluded from the normal entered the state of “imperial exception”, which legitimized extreme punishment of racialized and colonized subjects under the guise of “exceptional authority” (197).

He expands on visuality’s function as an extension of authority through examining the use of oversight in controlling enslaved people in Haiti/Saint Domingue. Oversight visualizes authority through the drawing of maps, as well as through more immediate forms of surveillance like watching over work processes. It also uses natural history to taxonomize people through racial categories and plants through the lens of “natural” vs “unnatural”, which was subverted by the widespread fear of poisoning among the overseers and plantation owners, whose own knowledge of the terrain and flora of Haiti was often lacking. The taxonomizing, observing, and enforcing of slavery used surveillance to sustain the plantation complex, and continues to shape the military-industrial complex in the modern day.

Aside from the parallels of his sections on imperialism with Davis’s observations about normalcy and disability, Mirzoeff’s work is also in dialogue with WJT Mitchell, whose argument that words and images are not distinct or separable he emphasizes. He mentions this in order to note imperialism’s interest in placing words above images, or making language the greatest mark of civilization and the determiner of civilized vs. primitive (15). His last chapter especially resonates with Shane Denson’s work on previsual reactions to new media technologies and “drone technologies” that exacerbate the separation between an operator’s actions and their results; Mirzoeff notes in his introduction that postmodern counterinsurgency “produces a visualized authority whose location not only cannot be determined from the visual technologies being used but may itself be invisible” (20). In both cases, this results in fragmentation and a continued justification for counterinsurgency. RGT’s emphasis on mutual staring fits in here, too, as they both reach the similar conclusion that for change to happen, there must be a mutually constituted and beneficial look that acknowledges both participants’ autonomy, whether it is a look or a stare. Finally, he mentions Barthes in his discussion of “realism”, which has two parallel definitions: the first, what is literally seen and reproduced via photography and other forms of technology (i.e. the realism of visuality), and the second (countervisuality) which reframes how reality should be understood. For Barthes, reality is an “effect”; for Mirzoeff, reality should be changed in order to delegitimize authority and use our efforts instead to further the survival of individuals and the planet.

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