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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.
Mitchell argues that we are experiencing a “pictoral turn” which is actually a return to pictures as an interplay between people, institutions, and looking. It is the realization that spectatorship is as important as reading, and that images are not subservient to text. He believes that the best way to combat growing surveillance and propaganda images is with critique, and so his book is an attempt to explore the specifics of that critique: the nuances of pictures and how they relate to words, power, and surveillance. There are no “pure” arts, and pictures and words, while there are important distinctions between them, words and images are almost never totally separate. The only issue is that we still don’t know what pictures are, and how they affect the world. His initial definition of the picture is a concrete object that contains images, but as he admits throughout the book, the category can be much more complex.
Most of the middle of this book is taken up by defending the ability of images to function as importantly as text has usually been thought to. Pictures can create their own theory, as in pictures that show images being created like Las Meninas. If pictures can theorize their own nature, they can also help us to undiscipline ourselves and stop separating words and images. The importance of images as theory (as opposed to visual language that posits the truth as imageless) can be seen in the work of William Blake, as well as in photo essays that separate word and image and in doing so make sure that one is not seen as subservient to the other.
In this chapter on essays, he troubles “the aestheticizing response to what after all is a real person in desperately impoverished conditions”, in reference to Evans’ photos of people in the Great Depression. This strikes the same note as Sontag’s thoughts on war photography. However, Mitchell thinks this problem can be subverted by the way image and text are separated in Evans’ essay, preventing the reader/viewer from completely internalizing the subject and is in fact an ethical stance that gives its subjects privacy. Another essay he looks at in this section is Camera Lucida, which he argues is a rare example of an essay on photography that is also a photo essay. This is because Barthes’ images are not illustrating the text, but are given co-equality, sometimes not receive textual commentary, and even when they do not being reduced to examples for the text. Barthes is not mastering the photos, and he can’t take them; he’s an observer.
The last part of this book brings together Mitchell’s theory of images with his perspective on modern power dynamics. He expresses image power through two terms: illusionism, which is the power of suggestion or deception towards a subject, i.e. the spectacle (an ad), and realism, which is the power of surveillance directed at an object or a subject made “objective”, and which relies on an interchangeable “normative” subject, i.e. capacity (bureaucracy).Spectacle is an ideological form of realism, and realism is spectacle’s bureaucratic and disciplinary manifestation. The telescreen of 1984, and by extension the television, brings together illusionism and realism, offering propaganda and convincing arguments while also acting as a tool of surveillance. As he says in his first chapter, “[technologies] are altering the conditions under which human vision articulates itself” (24). This eliminates the boundary between the public and private sphere and decreases the resonance of usual oppositions (mass market vs avant garde, art vs camp, etc.), foreclosing possibilities for resistance. There is also a new “transparency” to images, as seen in the Rodney King beating and footage, which is made of “accidental” or non-professional images, as opposed to the smooth scheduling of other television, which is not opposed to transparency but helps enable it. He argues that this is a sign that we are moving from interpreting visual images to changing them, establishing a similar shift to that Denson identifies from cinema to post-cinema. This new visual culture has the potential to be used in service of “soft” fascism, but it might also be used for more critical images of the public sphere (369).
One main way he sees modern art creating this critical space is through destructible art, which is made to be destroyed or to be unmarketable. Although a lot of art resists this, and even more fails at it, there is the potential for self-destroying art to bring back the lost oppositions and re-organize the public vs. private issue. As he reminds us, the public is built on its exclusions, even when it is aesthetically inclusive (i.e. the statue of liberty in a country that disenfranchises women). Public art, while it has been said to be intrinsically violent, is based in either doing or representing violence; often it obscures the violence it is doing by appearing passive or static, while television foregrounds and exaggerates it. In addition, public art aspires to cinema; it wants to be photographed. This leads into a discussion of the contrasting visuals of the Vietnam War and Operation Gulf Storm, which were on the one hand focused on the human body and on the other focused on computerized images.
Mitchell describes his stance in the conclusion as a “de-disciplinary effort”: if literary studies wants to deal with media and mass culture, it can’t simply add it on to the existing framework. Instead, we have to find a new way of looking at images. He ends with the statement, “though we probably cannot change the world, we can continue to describe it critically and interpret it accurately. In a time of global misrepresentation, disinformation, and systemic mendacity, this may be the moral equivalent of intervention” (425). This is a pretty good summary of his stance towards contemporary media. Like Sontag, he is concerned about the potential for new media to disseminate misinformation and propaganda, and (to a limited extent) commercialization. However, he is much more interested in the importance of critique: if we can critique images, we can learn from them. He does not believe that we gain power over pictures by understanding what they are doing, but does believe in the investment in a “negative critical space” that reveals how little we still know about pictures and how they are ultimately, for most people, uncontrollable– which is why determining how they are used as an expression of power is vital.
I am really excited about this article, because it brings together several things I want to write about more: labor, ecological/material viewpoints on literature, and affect. This essay’s project is to examine the poetics of this commissioned manual, “On Husbondrie”, and how its translation into Middle English from Latin affected its affect (ha). Cooper argues that this translation is rooted in affects that are material, visual, and often non-human, and that its “affective ecology” makes it an ideal place to explore the interconnectedness of humans and plants in medieval literature. Moving from Latin to English has increased the affective force of this poem, and allows the translator to do different things than the original poem: center the experience of Duke Humphrey, but also aiming to turn practicality into “fruyt” as a poem.
She begins by identifying a central issue in affect studies, the tendency to not specifically define what “affect” is when you refer to it. She argues that agronomy manuals (and this one in particular) contain what Sianne Ngai identifies as “tone”, the tenor or orientation of a work that slips between the reader’s feelings and the text’s feeling and ends up constituting a “web” (or, for Connor, an ecology) of affect between different people or things. In going through the poem, she identifies moments when this web is most present, for instance the recurring theme of poetry’s meter that is pulled from the “prosis black” or the arrangement of colored text on the last page that looks like a prepared garden. (She also cites Sarah Kay on animal skin as part of her argument about the text being intrinsically connected with agriculture in a material way). The text ascribes feelings to plants, refers to them as children, and generally makes humans and plants interconnected.
She also says something that reminds me a lot of Carol Rawcliffe’s note about astrology requiring extremely specific information in order to be successful: agronomy is “taking the right action with the right tools at the right time” (79). While it is obvious from Connor’s argument that literature and agriculture are both “affective labor”, that they are being compared in the text, I see a way that medicine can be included here too, or at least personal well-being. If plants and people are inextricably tied up with each other, then their well-being is dependent on each other (and the well-being of the person is dependent on ensuring the well-being of the plant, in that it needs particular conditions to be “happy” and thus produce food for people).
I appreciated her nod to the difficulty of determining what affect is, but I was still shaky on what she meant by affect even after her lengthy explanation. I guess my best summary of her stance is that affect is an “ecology” that is between the reader and the text and occasionally in both, and it generates feeling (something which she does ascribe to the medieval period, unlike others like Boquet who do emotions history, because of its potential to communicate materiality as well as medieval definitions of fele (many, or inquire into). Using Ngai’s concept of tone, “an artifact’s disposition”, between the reader and the text, she argues that the text’s affect represents the ecology between humans, plants, and animals, and that the Middle English text (in the language and linguistic choices, and its centering of Humphrey’s role as a figure shaping the text) increases this affective force. I am more and more interested in Humphrey as someone who Hoccleve, Lydgate and this anonymous translator were all working for, and I wonder if there is a collection of the things he commissioned over his lifetime or if anything has been written about his collection as a whole.
Sontag’s essays on photography revolve around the question of what photography is, and what it does. While photographs seems like reality, they are actually more like paintings: they don’t reflect reality, they reflect the “real”, or the interpretation of reality that their photographer has shaped and captured. Unlike other forms of art, photos are only enhanced by the passage of time; their effects (like bloom, shadow, etc.) are less important to their overall effect than distance and time, which are what make a photo truly “surreal”. However, surrealist photos that rely on their content for effect are not actually surreal; or rather, every photograph is surreal, because every photo is creating an artificial world.
Photography as a way of making the world more available to us, going along with making others’ suffering and lives in general more available, feeds into the function of photos as consumable objects. Photos can be aesthetic or they can be informative; either one can be used to serve capitalism by making peoples’ image consumption make them believe 1) that images and reality are the same, and 2) that their choice between images is actually freedom. While Sontag does not think photography is art, she does think that it makes what it photographs into art, which is its unique quality. However, even as a legitimate aesthetic technology, it carries with it the problem that photos subvert reality, a process she thinks is getting worse over time. If we consume too many images, the implication is, we will no longer be able to distinguish reality from images, and will live entirely in the image-world.
I found her essay titled “Melancholy Objects” most interesting. Building on her discussion of Surrealism, which relies on assemblages of objects that produce meaning (or alternately, dispassionate photography that gives everything equal meaning), she argues that photography in America makes everything into a relic. Giving examples including the photographing of native tribes’ dances which were staged for the camera, she notes that the act of photographing something is often artificial. She argues that inventories of America are suffused with loss, because they are anti-scientific efforts to take specimens that stand in for the whole, but in taking specimens they (their authenticity, and therefore their power) is destroyed. In turning the past into a “consumable object” (68), it’s made into a fantasy. The Surrealist taste for fragmentation makes photographers into collectors interested in the past, photographing what will be (and already is) gone and can’t be preserved. I am very interested in her idea of an inventory of objects as making up a collection of loss, which I see as connected to the “too-muchness” of Burton’s writings on melancholy and to a certain extent other approaches to writing about melancholy like Avicenna. The sourcing of multiple different explanations that contradict, cross over or bleed into each other gives the illusion of a reality, while in Burton’s case it just makes the reader go through a reenactment of melancholy, and in Avicenna’s it does… something else.
In The Melancholy Assemblage, Drew Daniel claims that melancholy in the early modern period constitutes an epistemological-affective assemblage, a collection of factors that is always plural; it emerges in individuals and yet is also a “social and material assemblage of bodies being together” (15). In being both interior and exterior, melancholy can be recognized but not explained, faked but not verified. Being melancholy occurs when it is recognized; “one signature from someone”, the self included, can make it happen, but can’t prove it.
Daniel begins with an outline of the landscape of melancholy in Early Modern England, arguing that it was a back-and-forth between two approaches; the Galenic, which diagnoses melancholy as an illness and a medical condition, and the Aristotelian, which is associated with scholarly seriousness and treats melancholy as an affectation, orientation, or gift. The attempts of writers like Richard Burton to synthesize these two approaches, and the lasting tension between them, help to explain why there is such an interest in verifying melancholy, and why melancholy is still so present now.
He goes on to note that melancholy is cumulative: Hamlet is a collection of actions and feelings that make up a melancholy person, a melancholy assemblage in one individual. I am also compelled by his prompt to consider London itself (30) a melancholy assemblage, fashioned by plagues and print-capitalism. His point is that there are many ways to express melancholy as catalogues of symptoms, collections of social, physical and political factors. This squares with premodern disability theory and the social model: there is not one unified experience of disability, but many individual, localized experiences made up of social and political and medical factors. In summary, melancholy is:
- the melancholy body as a legible site for interpretation
- the social network that makes the melancholy body available for diagnosis
- a text (like Burton’s) that puts fragments together to create the affect of melancholy, or force the reader to read melancholically
- A community or audience that participates in the feeling or knowledge of others, identifying with and also being skeptical of the melancholy they see.
Melancholy assemblages can be bodies, symptoms, texts, communities, and relationships between them. It is made of too-muchness, overproductions of social knowledge which can then become subject to scrutiny.
Melancholy is always in danger of being faked; each time we encounter someone exhibiting the signs of it, they are subject to scrutiny. In a similar way, anyone claiming to be melancholy has to be verified to make sure their melancholy is genuine. When Hamlet claims “that within which passes show” (with Daniel claiming the “that” is melancholy), others see his outward form and diagnose it as misplaced grief; he, and the audience he shares his asides with, are the only ones with access to the truth, and the audience’s access is only partial.
Taking a cue from object oriented ontology’s claim that anything (thoughts, or faked thoughts) can be matter, melancholy is “matter” in the early modern period because it depends on something which doesn’t literally exist (black bile) but which is an important, literal part of experience. Melancholy is a “fugitive matter” which is a medical reality, a social fake, and a modern fashion all at the same time (240). In early modern thought, it is an epistemological effect that cannot actually be seen but which is constantly felt and identified. This helps to explain its current power: because melancholy can’t be located, it persists and currently defines a sorrow at the world’s transience, or a social commodity, or a scholarly affectation, or….
Melancholy is an interplay between depth and surface. It is also a profoundly social emotion, because it requires being recognized, by the self or by another person (or in the case of a play, by the audience). The melancholy subject has an affect that can never be completely known, but can be seen. He covers melancholy posturing/propping as a convention signifying melancholy, which prompts the viewer to decide if the emotion is genuine; the use of (melancholic) asides in Hamlet to allow audiences special insight into melancholy without revealing it (despite the implied association of the aside with truth, and that of melancholy with untrustworthiness) and asserting that melancholy comes between the public and the private; and reads Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy as a text that uses “melancholy structure” to curate “too much” and make the reader follow along by “melancholizing”, i.e. making the experience of reading the work mirror the experience of melancholy. In all these cases, a reader or author is given some amount of perceptual experience with melancholy, an “intimacy with the unknown” (154) that then has to be unpacked.
Daniel is especially useful to my project because he provides me with a foundation from which to assert that medieval melancholy as an aesthetic does, in fact, exist. He briefly goes into an investigation of contemporary styling of early modern melancholy, which he identifies in the Lars von Trier film Melancholia and in black metal “melancology” (a theory connecting melancholy to extinction and to an earth hostile to life, which is very useful for my interests in apocalypse fiction and the imagined medieval, as is the note on p.72 that melancholy is associated with the center of the earth). This investigation is brief and never quite explains why these are specifically resonant with early modern melancholy, although it’s clear why they are connected to humoral theory. However, he specifically stops short of identifying other modern melancholies that are especially connected to his subject material, or of asserting that the relationship between the contemporary and the early modern is melancholy itself. The closest he gets is the note about “the ambivalent terms of survival offered to the past by the present” (235); i.e., when we look back at the past, it is tempting to either try to assert dominance over it or use our contemporary outlook to change it. While this is a judgement about our relationship to the past, it stops short of claiming anything about the affect of melancholy and its relationship to the early modern period.
There are also several collections of affect that I want to track as I begin my project, including his idea of accumulative “melancholy structure”, and his compelling question “how does melancholy speak?” (i.e. can melancholy participate in discourse?). I am most interested, though, in continuing to investigate the transmission of ideas about the medieval period through the lens of melancholy, and feel more confident in asserting that melancholy has had affective potential even in the medieval and early modern period, in addition to its Galenic, humoral status.