The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2011
408 pp., illus. 11 col., 64 b/w. Trade, $89.95; paper, $26.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4895-5; ISBN: 978-0822349181.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
Nicholas Mirzoeff's new book is one of the few to take to its most radical consequences the new approach of visual culture defended by WJT Mitchell and all those who, to quote James Elkins, want to make visual studies "more difficult". Visual culture is much more than just the study of images and their increasing presence and influence in modern society. If it does not add new questions and new perspectives to the disciplines that have been studying images until now, visual culture is just an update of art history, and there will be a real danger of missing what is really crucial in today's changes, namely the opening towards the other (not as an object to be studied, but as a subject that is looking back) and to the political dimension of the image (and for Mirzoeff the basic political implication of visual culture is precisely the issue of the right to look back). Defined along these lines, visual culture is no longer necessarily about images, but about ways of world making, and it is this shift that occupies a key position in Mirzoeff's thinking, which brilliantly continues and broadens the author's already major contributions to the field.
The redefinition of visuality in The Right to Look offers a good example to this paradigm shift. For Mirzoeff, the notion of visuality actually refers to a set of mechanisms that order and organize the world, and by doing so naturalize the underlying power structures that are replicated and implemented by these (violent) transformations of the real (the author speaks illuminatingly of visuality in terms of the Derridean supplement: it is what makes authority visible, visuality is the expression of the self-authorizing tendencies of hegemonic thinking). More specifically, he connects visuality with three complexes that have, historically speaking, established the Western domination of the word : first the plantation slavery (1660-1860), as a way of reordering the post-colonial reality through management techniques of "visualized surveillance"; second imperialism (1860-1945), as a new system of governance of the overseas empire, mainly through the action of "great men" (Mirzoeff focuses more specifically on the role of the missionaries, but more generally he has in mind the impact of the notion of "hero" as theorized by Carlyle); third the military-industrial complex (1945-present), which is reinterpreted in terms of panoptic visuality (yet no longer the Benthamian version in which the guard wants to be seen by all those already in prison and whom he does not necessarily observe himself, but tries to see all possible insurgents without being seen by them). Countervisuality, then, is not just a different way of seeing or a different way of looking at images, but the tactics to dismantle the visual strategies of the hegemonic system. It is, in other words, "the attempt to reconfigure visuality as a whole" (p. 24) and thus "the right to look", which goes even further than just the right to look back, although looking back is the first step towards countervisuality.
If, as Mirzoeff convincingly argues, the right to look is, finally, the right to the real (for visuality is not only a point of view on reality, but a reshaping of it), one can understand why his approach of countervisuality, although deeply rooted in visual analysis and the political rereading of visual culture, is not about images in the first place, but about political struggle against hegemony as instrumentalized in the three visual complexes that he distinguishes. In all cases, the countervisuality addressed by Mirzoeff is linked with the Gramscian notion of the "south," both as the locus and as the issue (and to a certain extent also the metaphor) of counterhegemony.
The results of this reorientation are extremely challenging, and it does not seem an exaggeration to claim that visual studies will no longer be the same before and after this book. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that visual studies should abandon the analysis and interpretation of material visual documents, for this is certainly not what Mirzoeff is promoting. What changes is the perspective as well as the specific material under scrutiny. From that point of view as well, The Right to Look is highly innovative, as can be inferred immediately from the table of its figures and plates. Mirzoeff is interested in the battle plan of Waterloo, powerpoint illustrations used by the military to frame the "legitimacy" of their operations, the schematic representation of sugar cane production in handbooks on tropical agriculture, which one does not really expect in the traditional visual culture studies, but also on Cézanne's painting of the Negro Scipio, ball scenes by Camille Pissarro or Degas' "Interior of a cottons buyer's office in New Orleans", all works by major artists which are often overlooked by specialists in their respective fields. Mirzoeff's work does it all: offering new perspectives, blurring the boundaries between disciplines, disclosing what had been hidden, and shooting trouble.