In the Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality, Mirzoeff (2011) examined the how the concept of visuality and traced its various histories within colonialism and its effect on modernity. Visuality, according to Mirzoeff (2011), is “…that authority to tell us to move on, that exclusive claim to be able to look. Visuality is an old word for an old project” (p. 2). Visuality, then, is that which has been framed for us as suitable and “natural” to look upon and functions as a form of hegemonic discourse that perpetuates power for authority figures and disenfranchisement for the proletariat, slaves, unwashed masses. Visuality functions in three ways: to classify, to separate and to aestheticize (Mirzoeff, 2011). Through a decolonial perspective, Mirzoeff (2011) negotiates between points of visuality and countervisuality through three different “complexes of visuality.” These complexes of visuality are: the plantation complex, the imperial complex and the military-industrial complex. Within each of these complexes, Mirzoeff (2011) critically examines instances of visuality while also offering instances of countervisuality, or “the claim for the right to look” (p. 24). Countervisuality is a dissensus, a defiance to look where there is supposedly nothing visible. This dissensus directly challenges the visuality offered by authority, claiming that there is more beyond the frame of reference provided. Throughout the book, Mirzoeff (2011) provides these points of countervisuality and how they relate to, inform and ultimately change the complexes of visuality as dictated by authority.
Part of Mirzoeff’s (2011) conceptualization of countervisuality was the contradictions that could be created by subaltern groups speaking in dissensus. For example, Mirzoeff (2011) gave the following example in regards to the French Revolution:
…the visibility of colonial slavery contradicted the claim that the revolution had created liberty for all. In August 1789, the same month as the Declaration of the Rights of Man was made, a group of the enslaved wrote to the governor of Martinique: “We know we are free.” Those who are “slaves” cannot say “we are free,” except in dissensus. (p. 84-85).
Mirzoeff (2011) detailed other examples of this contradiction through discourse, including an unpacking of a painting of Toussaint where he is seated upon a rearing horse, brandishing a sabre. His analysis of this painting pointed to it being an artifact of countervisuality because it featured Toussaint mastering “…several codes of conduct that were typically held to be beyond Africans…” (Mirzoeff, 2011, p. 107). What is interesting about this is how this aspect of countervisuality can be used as a lens to examine other points of rupture between hegemonic powers and the subaltern publics. After reading this, I was left to think about the points of countervisuality within the gay rights movement—from images of the White Night riots to Anita Bryant being pied on national television, there are these moments of “what should not be” occurring in unexpected places.
While I am still working on the overall framework for my part of the discussion tomorrow, here are a few questions to get us thinking about the first part of the reading:
1. Mirzoeff (2011) spends a good deal of time critically analyzing the different forms of media prevalent during the French revolution, specifically paintings and drawings. Applying his framework of countervisuality to popular culture today, what other forms of specific media (film, television, music, Internet sites) could be complexes of countervisuality?
2. I would like to finesse out the differences between Visuality #2 and countervisuality during my time on the soapbox. Specifically, Mirzoeff (2011) stated that “…Visuality 2 would be that picturing of the self or collective that exceeds or precedes that subjugation to centralized authority” (p. 23-24), whereas countervisuality, is simply “the right to look.” How are these two things different and how do they play out within the three complexes of visuality that Mirzoeff (2011) examined in the book?
Mirzoeff, N. (2011). The right to look: A counterhistory of visuality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.