If Looks Could Kill Empires

“Seeing comes before words.”   “Seeing is a great deal more than believing these days.”   “During the first days of the NATO attack on Serbia in April 1999, I was watching a CNN live report ...
“Seeing comes before words.”


“Seeing is a great deal more than believing these days.”


“During the first days of the NATO attack on Serbia in April 1999, I was watching a CNN live report from Belgrade.”


“I want to claim the right to look.”


The first entry in the sequence above, a collection of opening sentences, appeared on the front cover of John Berger’s 1972 book Ways of Seeing, which was based on the BBC television series broadcast that same year. The opening scene on television was rather more dramatic: Berger appears to carve a section from a Botticelli in London’s National Gallery while telling us that the mass reproduction of art has changed our relationship to it. The book goes on to tell us that “The child looks and recognizes before it can speak … It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” Next comes an image of René Magritte’s painting The Key of Dreams. However awkward and generalizing these rhetorical moves may be, Berger’s insistence on the fundamentality of seeing while at the same time acknowledging its instability––and the volatility of its relation to all other ways of knowing––is pivotal to locating the object of visual culture studies, and demonstrating just how and why such studies have become critical.

The second sentence in the sequence launches “What is Visual Culture?,” the introductory chapter of the first edition of Nicholas Mirzoeff’s anthology The Visual Culture Reader, published by Routledge in 1998. The resonance of Berger’s key themes, especially his critique of our manipulation by advertising, is palpable. If, for Berger, the culprit was “publicity,” and the required response one of critically comparing claims to reality, by 1998, Mirzoeff was showing us that we are totally immersed in communication systems dedicated to both spectacle and surveillance. One can hear the measured tones in which Berger spelled out his doomsday scenario echoing in Mirzoeff’s conclusion to his opening paragraph: “This is visual culture. It is not just a part of your everyday life. It is your everyday life.”1 To Mirzoeff, the required response arose precisely in “the gap between the wealth of visual experience in contemporary culture and the ability to analyze [the observation of the same].” A new discipline was taking shape: “Visual culture is concerned with visual events in which information, meaning or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology. By visual technology, I mean any form of apparatus designed either to be looked at or to enhance natural vision, from oil painting to television and the Internet.” This is firmly within Berger territory, except, of course, for the addition of “the Internet.” And it is more directed towards the academy than Berger’s public call to arms. Mirzoeff summarizes not only the object of study, but, in rather classic art historical fashion, the components of an adequate analysis: “Such criticism takes account of the importance of image making, the formal components of a given image, and the crucial completion of that work by its cultural reception.”

Any hint of discipline-building blandness disappears by the second edition of The Visual Culture Reader in 2002, also edited by Mirzoeff, and introduced by him with the third sentence in the sequence cited above.  (To be fair, the essays collected in the first edition––especially the introductory “provocations” by Irit Rogoff and by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam––are anything but discipline-bound, or bland.) The 1990s inaugurated our current moment of image war, war at a distance, preemptive war, never-ending states of emergency, and total war against intangibilities such as “drugs,” “terror,” and “crime.” War dominates Mirzoeff’s introduction to this volume, “The Subject of Visual Culture.” He also adds some key essays and transcripts of discussions that bring out the viability of visual culture studies as, in W. J. T. Mitchell’s word, an “interdiscipline”––that is, a critical, interpretive activity that operates between disciplines and at the interstices of learning structures (at introductory, early graduate, and research levels of the academy, as well as in its community outreach).  The scope of the essays is expanded with a major concentration on questions raised by digital imagery, cyberspace, and globalization.2  It is no surprise, after 9/11, that the “visual event” has become the “constituent element” of visual culture’s “practice,” and that it is understood as “the effect of a network in which subjects operate and which in turn conditions their freedom of action.”3

Mirzoeff has provided a powerful explanatory framework that has been sorely lacking in what has become a rather disparate field, marked too often by over-cooked generalizations and by fascinating but disassociated particularities.

These words prefigure the urgent arguments that drive The Right to Look, a very different type of book than the anthologies, yet one that also responds to the every-which-way character of much recent visual culture studies, and to the fragmentation of Visual Culture as a quasi-discipline under duress from the established disciplines, not least from orthodox art history. By offering a periodized, historical account of visuality as a major formation within Western culture––a “scopic regime” in Martin Jay’s terms––along with accounts of historical reactions against it that he names “countervisualities,” Mirzoeff has provided a powerful explanatory framework that has been sorely lacking in what has become a rather disparate field, marked too often by over-cooked generalizations and by fascinating but disassociated particularities. At the same time, by insisting that the face-to-face exchange of gazes is fundamental to any grasp of reality, and thus to all political possibility that would be ethical and democratic, he highlights the core role of the visual in longer-term, not just the recent, history. This combination leads directly to the present, indeed, to the “Occupy” movement, in which he is a very active participant.

At every point, there is a clear gain in precision of usage of the terms in play. “The right to look is not about seeing.” Goodbye, John Berger. “It begins at a personal level with the look into someone else’s eyes to express friendship, solidarity, or love.” Welcome, Emmanuel Levinas. And Jacques Derrida: “That look must be mutual, each person inventing the other, or it fails. As such, it is unrepresentable.” Goodbye, art, and art history. Welcome, Jacques Rancière: The right to look is “the claim to a subjectivity that has the autonomy to arrange the relations of the visible and the sayable.” And welcome back basic dissensus. “The right to look confronts the police who say to us, ‘Move on, there is nothing to see here.’ Only there is, and we know it and so do they.”4

“Visuality” was a term much in currency during the postmodern 1980s, where it was widely taken to mean the social circulation of images, including mental images and projections in the imagination of peoples as much as individuals. A distinction was drawn between it and “vision,” understood as the physical processes of seeing common to us all. Hal Foster’s edited collection Vision and Visuality (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), built on this distinction as a basis for exploring the connected character of all forms of visualization, hi and lo, within Western modernity, along with their history—thus, again, Jay’s “scopic regimes.” But the usage was vague then, and has remained so since. A few attempts to historicize broadscale changes in “ways of seeing” in Western societies have been made, but with little success. Exceptions include Régis Debray, whose theory of “mediology” includes interesting schemas of visualization that are seen as components of significant political change, and whose pioneering thinking might have been acknowledged by the author.5

Struck by Thomas Carlyle’s use of the word “visuality” in 1840 to characterize the capacity of heroic individuals to take broad views of the sweep of history and to act within it, Mirzoeff looked for similar competencies on the part of other leaders. When battlefields became too large to be seen with the naked eye or telescope from a single position, generals such as Napoleon and Wellington developed the ability to visualize dispersed but connected domains, and to anticipate and initiate actions across them in a coordinated way towards the overall end of victory. As European nations pursued their colonizing ambitions, they developed complex structures of visuality that ruled at home and abroad. Mirzoeff names this the “Imperial Complex” and dates its dominance to the years 1860–1945. He recognizes that this ability was first developed in plantation economies throughout the world, where overseers controlled complex, sequential processes of production and large numbers of workers primarily by means of oversight––always, of course, backed up by the exercise of extreme violence. The “Plantation Complex” was dominant from around 1660–1860. Following President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation in 1954, Mirzoeff dubs the third phase the “Military-Industrial Complex.” If we add entertainment to military and industrial, as many do these days, we recognize it as having prevailed from 1945 through the present.

Against these regimes Mirzoeff posits a set of matching countervisualities, that is, resistances to their dominance that also took strong but distinct visual forms. The oversight visuality that prevailed during the plantation years was opposed by “Revolutionary realism” in Europe, and, in Haiti especially, by what he calls “Abolition realism.” Similarly, he suggests, various forms of indigenous countervisuality were developed to evade imperial visuality, and, when imperialism took on fascist dimensions during much of the mid- and later twentieth century, by “Antifascist neorealism,” a battle still being waged in parts of the world. If the military-industrial complex favored “Aerial visualization” during its earlier phase, it was opposed by what Mirzoeff calls “Decolonial neorealism.” Given that this complex has, since 1989, entered a more intensive phase, and favors “Post-panoptic visuality,” opposition to it must take, he believes, the form of an environmentally alert “Planetary visualization.”6

There is some optimism to be drawn from the fact that one visualizing regime after another has eventually collapsed, and is doing so now.

This schematic summary does little justice to the subtlety of Mirzoeff’s argument, and the worldwide range of his examples. He offers a description of actual historical complexes of visuality, and their volatile interaction, not the outline of an abstract system of human visualizing. He nowhere implies any equivalence with regard to power between the visualizing regimes and the many kinds of countervisualizing. The outcomes of the struggles between them are what they are, written in blood, pain, and emotion into the historical record. Yet the overall picture, while it shares none of the optimism of modernist progressivism, is much less pessimistic than the mood that prevails on what is left of the Left. There is some optimism to be drawn from the fact that––albeit at enormous cost of every conceivable kind, and due more to internal contradiction than the force of any opposition­­––one visualizing regime after another has eventually collapsed, and is doing so now.

Which brings us to the current situation. At the time of writing, Mirzoeff could at least allude on his final page to the significance of the Arab Spring as harbinger of a contemporary countervisuality. “The everyday form created in Tahrir Square, Cairo, has been the best example to date of the possibilities of a praxis of the everyday that is not found but made.”7 Eruptions such as these ever since have thrown into confusion what he identifies in The Right to Look as the latest mechanism of military-industrial control: the deliberate creation and maintenance of conditions in which militarized counterinsurgency becomes the overriding task of government. While focused at present in Middle East hot war zones, it has every potential to be used against the citizens of even overtly democratic states. Reviewing the world picture as of 2010, he concludes: “Several outcomes seem possible from this swirling crisis: a new authoritarianism, a perpetual crisis, or, just possibly, a time in which my claim to the right to look is met by your willingness to be seen.”7 This is rather bleak, and its hopefulness is tinged more than a little with the writer’s imperative: conclude with words that echo your opener.

Like almost everyone else, Mirzoeff did not foresee the spread of Tahrir Squares throughout the Middle East, nor their appearance, in distinct forms, throughout the West––in the streets of Spain, Greece, and even Israel, and in the squares of cities throughout the United States, but he has not hesitated to become deeply involved in this unanticipated movement. Indeed, he maintains a blog that is itself is a kind of occupying: he devotes a given part of each day to “Occupy 2012: A Daily Observation on Occupy,” producing a short text that reflects on the potentials and possibilities of occupying as an absolutely contemporary kind of countervisuality.

If the Visual Culture Readers are indispensible aids to the teaching of visual culture studies in universities and colleges (a third is due out later this year), The Right to Look offers the fledgling discipline, and the thriving interdiscipline, a historical narrative against which it must now measure its claims to grasp the present. It marks a coming of age that has brought cultural studies past the variability and the enchantments of its postmodern moment. It highlights the need for responsibility toward actual pasts, and toward the actual demands of contemporary realities. These are significant achievements. Going forward, it is to be hoped that they will be accompanied by a more thorough discussion of what might be meant by “planetary visualization.” It is, for sure, the countervisuality required by contemporary conditions, and we are just beginning to see its lineaments. icon

  1. Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed., The Visual Culture Reader (London: Routledge, 1998), all quotations in this paragraph are from page 3.
  2. Disclosure: One of my essays, “Visual Regimes of Colonization: Aboriginal Seeing and European Vision in Australia,” is included in the second edition. I also wrote a blurb for The Right to Look.
  3. Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed., The Visual Culture Reader, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2002), all quotations in this paragraph are from page 6.
  4. All quotations in this paragraph are from Mirzoeff, The Right to Look, 1.
  5. See his Vie et mort de image: une histoire du regard en Occident (Paris: Gallimard, 1992); articles such as “The Three Ages of Looking,” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 3 (spring 1995): 529-55, and “Socialism and Print,” New Left Review, no. 46 (2007): 5-28; and Transmitting Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). Michel Foucault’s epistemes and regimes of truth are relevant, as are Jean Baudrillard’s stages in the precession of simulacra. In the years around 9/11, I developed some elements of an approach to image economies, or “iconomy.” See Terry Smith, The Architecture of Aftermath (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). There are, of course, many studies of visual regimes meeting each other in imperial contexts, not least Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific, 1768–1850 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), as well as studies of the formation of dominant and contrary visualities in particular places and times, such as the United States in the first half of the twentieth century in my Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993).
  6. See Mirzoeff, The Right to Look, summary diagram on page 35.
  7. Mirzoeff, The Right to Look, 309.
  8. Mirzoeff, The Right to Look, 309.