The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (2011) by Nicholas Mirzoeff offers an academic audience a comparative decolonial framework by which to understand historical processes and interpretations of visuality. Mirzoeff claims that visuality is an “old word for an old project” (2). This project is western hegemony. Through his complication of what he calls the complexes of visuality, readers come to understand the fluid mechanisms that have constructed today’s global perceptions of reality—which happens to be rooted in Anglo-French-American colonial authoritarianism. Treating visuality as a “discursive practice that has material effects” Mirzoeff conceptualizes a decolonized methodology and archive by locating the three characteristics of visuality: classifying, separating, and aestheticizing. From the chapters assigned, Mirzoeff traces the fluidity between these various “visualization[s] of history” (2) as situated beginning in the 19th century. Specifically, he compares three frameworks: the plantation slavery (1600-1860); the imperial framework; the contemporary military-industrial complex framework. Respectively, Mirzoeff is invested in complicating visual cultural studies. Making the argument that in order to be real, one must first be able to see, The Right to Look views visuality as a war; more importantly, provides readers with a sense of urgency in coming to grips with modernities’ personifications of what is real leaving to readers a firm idea of who has/and is interpreting our reality, and the social consequences should this realness be maintained by neo-colonial authorities.
Particularly interesting for me was the early conceptualization of “The Modern Imaginary”. Here, Mirzoeff contrasts the early anti-monarchical revolutions as experienced in France and in Haiti. Conceptualizing these pivotal historical moments through a ‘politics of eating’—where a given society guarantees food distribution for those in governance and in populace (94)—Mirzoeff claims that the right to look provides a critique of western glorification of the nation-state. I found the following quote quite interesting:
From the beginning of his public career, Toussaint had asserted that in order to create a modern-nation-state, the revolution in Saint-Domingue needed to be forged from a balance of liberty, meaning freedom from slavery, and responsibility, meaning continued agricultural labor on cash-crop plantations for the majority. His goal was to render the revolutionary imaginary into an “imagined community” of workers and leaders under the control of the army and pursuing Catholic observance. (111)
While I remember learning about the Haitian Revolution as an undergrad in an introductory Latin American survey course, I don’t recall having the narrative complicated as much. As he discerns in his introductory remarks regarding two modes of history, following Chakrabarty, Mirzoeff distinguishes between two kinds of visuality. Describing visuality 1 to be a process that seeks a coherent, structured modality of social reality that “allowed for centralized and/or autocratic leadership” (23), visuality 2, accordingly, is the “picturing of the self or collective that exceeds or precedes that subjugation to centralized authority” (23-24). As I understand, Mirzoeff’ s larger aim is to place Visuality 2 not in opposition to Visuality 1, but as a part of Visuality 1, or authority’s “life process” (24). This is similar to the conversation last week where Deloria’s argument that Native Americans have never been in opposition to modernity, but rather have played an integral part in shaping modernity.
1 – Does Mirzoeff's incorporation of Chakrabarty's notion of History 1 (already "a precondition for capitalism") with History 2 (the not so capitalist-friendly archive) consider neoliberal hegemonic capabilities of appropriating counter-narratives for the continuation of western capitalist purposes?
2 – As I understand Mirzoeff, the “right to look” is the decisive action to reclaim historico-political agency. What might Mirzoeff say regarding hegemonic absorption? More specifically, what if any, are the limitations in this notion of claiming “a right to see”? E.g: The East LA shop were the shirt I am wearing today was purchased receive their daily “eats” by selling counter-narratives—in essence selling material representations as to what a “right of seeing” looks like. However, after taking this class and learning to view binary narratives critically, I wonder: how might we problematize Mirzoeff proclamation that by reclaiming the right to see (interpret vernacular/visual histories) does not necessarily “democracy become democratized”?