Nicholas Mirzoeff’s The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (2011) presents a “decolonial genealogy” of visuality and countervisuality by exploring three “complexes of visuality” and their relationship to modernity (p. 8). Each of the chapters is dedicated to exploring these complexes in their “standard” and “intensified” forms, taking specific historical and geographical moments in each chapter as metonyms for larger social processes. Mirzeoff calls these three major complexes the plantation complex, the imperial complex, and the military-industrial complex.

Central to Mirzoeff’s project, then, is his distinction between visuality and claiming the right to look, or countervisuality. Visuality is the process of making authority “self-evident,” or normalizing hierarchies of power. Mirzoeff speaks of visuality as if it were itself a social agent: “visuality classifies by naming, categorizing, and defining […] visuality separates the groups so classified as a means of social organization […] it makes this separated classification seem right and hence aesthetic” (p. 3). The right to look, on the other hand, “claims autonomy from [the] authority [of visuality], refuses to be segregated, and spontaneously invents new forms” (p. 4). To provide a brief illustration of these terms per chapter five, visuality was at work when English missionaries sought to colonize the Maori of New Zealand. The missionaries sought to legitimize their power over Maori land, resources, and governing systems by claiming they were bringing “Christianity, commerce, and civilization” to the “blank spaces of the map” (p. 198-9). Papahurihia, a Maori religious leader, resisted colonial rule and claimed the right to look by forming an indigenous countervisuality. Paphurihia took the missionaries’ religious texts and used them to claim that the Maori were Jews, a claim that resulted in many Maori coming together in opposition to colonial rule.    

As an academic speaking to other academics, Mirzoeff is concerned with the interpretation of authority and how this interpretation serves either neocolonial or decolonial ends. Ultimately, he argues that academics (and the government actors they influence) need to have more faith in countervisuality as a strategy for imagining and thus enacting a decolonial future. The pursuit of the right to look by thinking against visuality will result in the democratization of democracy: “the choice is between continuing to move on and authorizing authority or claiming there is something to see and democratizing democracy” (p. 5). 

Discussion Questions

(A rough draft of my facilitation questions for chapters five and seven.)

1.       Chapter five is titled “Imperial Visuality and Countervisuality, Ancient and Modern.” In this chapter, Mirzoeff looks at how the hierarchy that separated the “primitive” from the “civilized” played a central role in the imperial complex of visuality. He explains that imperial visuality
understood history to be arranged within and across time, meaning that the “civilized” were at the leading edge of time, while their “primitive” counterparts, although alive in the same moment, were understood as living in the past. This hierarchy ordered space and set boundaries to the limits of the possible, intending to make commerce the prime activity of humans within a sphere organized by Christianity and under the authority of civilization. Imperial visuality imagined a transhistorical genealogy of authority marked by a caesura of incommensurability between the “indigenous” and the “civilized,” whether that break had taken place in ancient Italy with the rise of the Romans, or was still being experienced, as in the colonial settlement of Pacific Island nations […] The classification of ancient and modern cultures, overlaid with that of the “primitive” and “civilized,” designated a separation in space and time that was aestheticized by European modernism. Despite the seemingly arbitrary nature of such formulae, the result was suturing of authority to the newly centralized modalities of imperial power. (p. 196-7)
What connections do you see in Mirzoeff’s exploration of the “primitive”/”civilized” hierarchy under imperial visuality and Deloria’s analysis of non-Indian expectations of the “modern” and the “indigenous”? What can Mirzoeff’s theories of visuality and countervisuality contribute to Deloria’s project of questioning the unexpected? How can Deloria expand or challenge your reading of Mirzoeff?

2.     Chapter seven focuses on global counterinsurgency as the intensified form of the military-industrial complex. One tactic used in counterinsurgency efforts is the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones. The use of drones ties in to Mirzoeff’s discussion of necropolitics, deciding who should live and who should die. In this last presidential election, I was particularly disturbed by the invisibility—in the debates and in media coverage of the election—of drones and the Pakistan and Afghanistan civilians that the U.S. murdered with this technology. Is it accurate to characterize the use of drones as a colonial act? If so, what does the use of drones reveal about the role of technology in contemporary colonialism?

3.     I’m really interested in Mirzoeff’s discussion of maps as tools for visuality or countervisuality. How might maps be used to claim the right to look in the current context of counterinsurgency?  

4.     In the last two pages of his book (p. 308-9), Mirzoeff asks if it is possible that “we construct a countervisuality to counterinsurgency.” He suggests that yes, academics in higher education can construct a countervisuality if they consider “combining democratization issues with education and sustainability in the institutions of education.” However, Mirzoeff does not provide us with specifics about how this might be accomplished. All of us in class teach in higher education. Assuming that you agree with Mirzoeff’s argument and call to action, in what ways could you participate in forming a collective countervisuality to counterinsurgency? What are some of the obstacles or challenges of reaching this goal? What might countervisuality look like and how do we move in that direction as teachers? 

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