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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.

Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse

Knapp argues that bureaucratic identity and scribal labor in the fifteenth century contributed to the literature and overall vernacular landscape. He uses Thomas Hoccleve’s writing, particularly the Series and the Regiment of Princes, to make this argument. Hoccleve is not merely a “genetic” descendent of Chaucer, as he has been treated in the past, but a separate author working to investigate writing’s impact on the body and the relationship of bureaucracy to meaning. When he does revise Chaucer, Knapp argues, that revision is often aggressive– working to change or even subvert the original text.

I focused on Chapter 3, which is framed by Knapp’s contention in the first two chapters that “the contemporary financial anxieties in those offices were a shaping influence on his experiment in autobiography and, on the other hand, [the] growing laicization of clerkly bureaucrats led him into an interest in the more liminal definitions of gendered identity and an attempt to find a source of authority independent of masculine positions within the court and ecclesiastical structure” (77). Knapp is focusing on finding traces of the Privy Seal in the prologue to the Regiment of Princes, and thereby noticing Hoccleve making claims about how the body is impacted by the labor of writing. Referencing the work of John Carpenter, a clerk in London in 1419, Knapp notes “The emphasis here is, however, not on the power of any aesthetically charged virtue but rather on writing as a bureaucratic technology used to battle the passage of time and memory” (85). Writing is important because bureaucracy is important in order to preserve knowledge throughout time. The material substance on which and with which you write also determines how long the writing will last and what it will look like, tying materiality back into time (and in my mind, tying medieval writing practices into, for example, WJT Mitchell’s comments on image and text being indistinct).

Hoccleve’s writing similarly positions writing as a technical and not an aesthetic art, especially in the Regiment. His own writing in this poem and the Series is advised as a way to make up for his financial and mental difficulty, but it comes at a cost in both cases to his body and mind. Knapp here interestingly claims that Hoccleve’s description of wandering outside the city and wading in his own woe is an example of “the allegorical sense of the descriptions (always a sign in Hoccleve of the hyper-activity of thought)” (88). He is walking through space but also wading in his wo, physicalizing thought. I think Knapp’s main service for me in this section is to explicitly encourage looking not only at the very commonly quoted section where Hoccleve describes the pain of writing, but sections earlier in the poem, including his rising from bed and his description of the Privy Seal as the place he “dwells”.

That section on writing reminds me very much of the conclusions Conner draws in her analysis of On Husbondrie. Writing and earthly labor are connected, but not in terms of their service, aims, or aesthetics; instead, their process and end result of pain are what are connected. Knapp describes the disintegration of the narrator’s body here as “the anatomical fragmentation of the self”, which is foreshadowed by the old man’s frail body several hundred lines previous (91). Age and labor mean fragmentation. Writing itself also causes social fragmentation, as the writer is described as a communal “we” (“We stowpe and stare upon the sheepes skyn” (qtd. 92)) but can’t speak or sing while they write.

One thing I was very surprised Knapp doesn’t discuss in this section is emotion and melancholy. He briefly touches on Hoccleve’s anxiety over finances. To be fair, I’m not sure if I can categorize Hoccleve’s feeling at the beginning of this poem as melancholy, either. While it results in sleeplessness and a sense of malaise, it also has a clear reason. Nevertheless, I think that it is inextricable from the laboring and disintegrating self, and I’d like to draw connections between the disintegration of the body in this poem, and the disintegration of the mental self in the Series (which I would argue is happening here too). I would love to have a chapter on writing, labor and connections to earthiness/farming/writing materials, and I think this chapter (along with Sarah Kay and Conner’s work) will be central in forming that. Furthermore, is bureaucracy (what Knapp calls “bureaucratic culture”) an affect? Does it contain one or several (boredom, repetition, etc)?

I also read the final chapter of the book, which focuses on the Series. Knapp argues that “rather than chronicling the recovery of a personal voice, the Series depicts a paradoxical triumph in the dispersal of that voice into the textual world of the Privy Seal” (160). The Series is in parallel with the Regiment in that it treats writing as an affecting force, but writing here is not a solution; it’s a likely problem. Interestingly, he quotes JA Burrow on the Series as self-referential: “the reader must now understand the double nature of the book he is reading. It not only describes the making of a book,but also is that book.’’ (162). The Series is about the process of writing and it is the writing process at the same time.

Here, Knapp makes what I think is one of the most important points made about this poem: that “in this poem madness is never truly surmounted“; a claim which is tied to the secondary point that “the plangent isolation forming the backdrop for consolation in this text is moderated from beginning to end by a series of connections to the social world of the Privy Seal” (163). This is in stark contrast to the many commentaries on medieval sources that place melancholy within a teleological framework (curative time, c.f. Kafer) where it is either happening or it has been overcome. While Knapp is specifically talking about Hoccleve’s madness, the same argument can be made for his melancholy; it is not resolved by the end of the poem and it is not teleological. His arguments about his madness being past are the same as other people’s arguments about it being potentially recurring: it could come back at any moment. Since Hoccleve never refutes this point, Knapp asks, “If the true self is to be represented as that which proceeds andreturns, and both ‘‘memorie’’ and ‘‘seeknesse’’ obey this pattern, how is oneto know which self is in fact authentic?” (167).

I think this uncertainty of the nature of the true self and whether it can be obliterated by madness (or whether it even exists in the first place) is extremely helpful in examining medieval perspectives on chronic conditions, melancholy included. Chronicity is a central concern of this project and so both of these texts– the repetitive and painful/melancholy-inducing writing of the PS, and the potential recurrence of madness possibly caused by writing– are central as well. I also think there is something to the urban street/suburbs of both poems as sites of the public, and the physicalization of melancholy into a natural landscape, that can be useful to me.

The last thing I’d like to note here is Knapp’s insistence that not only is Hoccleve’s madness not teleological, his melancholy does not proceed from his madness. Rather, “These two infirmities should be distin-guished not as cause and effect but as two parallel sicknesses with divergentliterary genealogies and respectively different characteristics” (172). The thogtful maladie, which has characteristics of humoral theory and fin amor romance tropes, is an intrinsic part of Hoccleve that extends to his temperament. I am not sure to what extent I agree that melancholy is Hoccleve’s temperament stretched to an extreme and not a sickness extrinsic to his temperament– it is impossible to know which of these it would be from the text. I do, however, agree that his melancholy extends beyond the boundaries of his madness in a more complex way than cause and effect.

Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics

In Disability Aesthetics, Siebers defines aesthetics as what bodies feel in the presence of other bodies. Works of art that engage with bodies, especially in regard to modern art, are also engaging with disability. Not only is disability representation a factor in art, it has only grown stronger over time. While we tend to subscribe to an ethos of disinteredness when it comes to art, our response to disability is decidedly materialist (it seems less beautiful and more “real”). This provides pushback to the idea that making or appreciating art requires intelligence or taste, and therefore disability aesthetics not only imagines new forms of representation for disabled people but also asks how disability enriches our understanding of art. In his words, “disability operates both as a critical framework for questioning aesthetic presuppositions in the history of art and as a value in its own right important to future conceptions of what art is” (20).

The chapter that was most interesting to me is on vandalism. Siebers argues that vandalism modernizes art, making pieces that have to do with the body into pieces in dialogue with disability. While we are willing to accept art that depicts disability, we are reluctant to name art that has been destroyed or changed as art about disability. These images fail to represent what they represented before, recalling to my mind chronicity and ongoing illness that changes ones life or appearance. Since they were not “about” disability before, “Their content has nothing to do with disability. Rather, their shattered form evokes the idea of disability” (92). This is why vandalism can be described as art about disability. Vandalism returns attention to material aspects of art, making form supercede content. Vandalism also removes art from its association with genius or intelligence, meaning that vandalism’s status as art is always up for debate, but Siebers believes it can be art because it gives old art new meaning. The one critique I have of this argument is that it feels like it slots easily into the idea that disability is always associated with woundedness or brokenness, a theme this book returns to. If I were thinking about RGT, where would the opportunity for positive representation and mutual looking come here?

The last chapter on literature and images of disability is similar to WJT Mitchell’s stance on the distinction between images and words. Siebers is less interested in proving that this difference is fluid, and more interested in using disability aesthetics to reverse the primacy of words over images. He does this by examining examples in literature, most notably Ulysses’ scar, that are moments of detail which are visual in nature, even though they’re written down. He uses Barthes’ punctum to describe the emotional impact of these images. If difference is what pricks us, if the attention of the beholder requires difference, and if disability is difference, than both visual and narrative small differences like pockmarks or scars spur viewers to pay attention and push against sole representations of the healthy body (one not marked by difference).

Like Sontag, Siebers believes we are in an age of public images characterized by opticality, which reduces the importance of materiality and the body in visual perception. While Sontag believes the photograph is accelerating this change, Siebers thinks disability aesthetics in art, including photography, are helping to push back against it. “Disability aesthetics” as a term makes me feel that my investigation of melancholy atmospheres has legs. Siebers manages to argue that disability is a critical framework while not discounting its importance as a lived experience. Similarly, I want to keep melancholy as an extant experience close to me while also seeing where it is used to characterize or expand literary ideas.

WJT Mitchell, Picture Theory

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.

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