The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality

The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality

by Nicholas Mirzoeff

NOOK Book(eBook)

$15.99 $26.95 Save 41% Current price is $15.99, Original price is $26.95. You Save 41%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822393726
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 408
File size: 15 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Nicholas Mirzoeff is Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. He is the author of several books, including An Introduction to Visual Culture, Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture, and Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews, as well as the editor of The Visual Culture Reader.

Read an Excerpt


By Nicholas Mirzoeff

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4918-1

Chapter One


The Ordering of Slavery

The deployment of visuality and visual technologies as a Western social technique for ordering was decisively shaped by the experience of plantation slavery in the Americas, forming the plantation complex of visuality. If it has often been claimed that modernity was the product of slavery, there has been insufficient attention to the ways in which the modern "ways of seeing" also emerged from this nexus. What one might call the received genealogy of modern visual culture begins with the major change in the mid-seventeenth century in the European division of the sensible. It created what Foucault called "the division, so evident to us, between what we see, what others have observed and handed down, and what others imagine or naïvely believe, the great tripartition into Observation, Document, and Fable." In this new formation, there was a gap between things and words, a gap that could be crossed by seeing, a form of seeing that would dictate what it was possible to say. As the seeing preceded the naming, that which Foucault called the "nomination of the visible" (132) was the central practice. He emphasized that this was not a question of people suddenly learning to look harder or more closely, but a new set of priorities attached to sensory perception. Taste and smell became less important, now being understood as imprecise, hearsay was simply excluded, while touch was limited to a series of binary distinctions, such as that between rough and smooth. This new "order of things" was itself produced by the necessities of European expansion and encounter, above all in the plantation colonies. As W. J. T. Mitchell has cogently put it, "An empire requires not just a lot of stuff but what Michel Foucault called an 'order of things,' an epistemic field that produces a sense of the kinds of objects, the logic of their speciation, their taxonomy." Empire thus claims objectivity. What we need to insist on here, at the risk of seeming blunt, is that the primary "thing" being ordered was the "slave." The "slave" was first classified by natural history, which created a relevant modality of "species," then separated from "free" space by mapping, while the force of law embodied in slave codes that sustained the logic of the division, enforced it against challenge, thereby making it seem "right," and hence aesthetic.

This transformation has been clearly summarized by David C. Scott: "The slave plantation might be characterized as establishing the relations and the material and epistemic apparatuses through which new subjects were constituted: new desires instilled, new aptitudes molded, new dispositions acquired." Such changed relations were not uniform among the European colonizing powers but were enacted primarily in British and French colonial space by the Barbados slave code (1661) and the Code Noir (1685) respectively. In Spanish America, a violent visual transformation had begun as early as the sixteenth century, seeking to transform the "idols" of the indigenous into "images." While that history is far from irrelevant here and indeed will keep insisting on being included, it has not been within my powers to include it throughout and retain coherence within the compass of a manageable book. On the sugar islands of the Caribbean, the colonizers were more concerned with slaves than with the indigenous, whose genocide was all but complete by the time that the seventeenth-century "sugar revolution" shifted emphasis within the "plantation complex" from Dutch Brazil to the French and British possessions in the Caribbean. It was not by chance that these were the locations that influenced Carlyle's formation of the discourse of visuality. So the slavery under discussion in this book is not a metaphysical condition of servitude (as in Hegel, for example), but the legally regulated, visually controlled, hyperviolent condition of forced labor in Atlantic world cash-crop plantations. What results is therefore not that which Foucault has called the classical order of representation, derived from the great image of Spanish absolutism, Velazquez's Las Meninas (1651). The ordering of slavery was a combination of violent enforcement and visualized surveillance that sustained the new colonial order of things. I call it here "oversight," meaning the nomination of what was visible to the overseer on the plantation.


Oversight was the product of the interaction of the universalizing frames of Christianity and sovereignty in the context of the drama of "race" and rights created by seventeenth-century expansion and the beginning of the plantation system. It created a regime of taxonomy, observation, and enforcement to sustain a visualized domain of the social and the political that came to be known as "economy." It maintained a delineated space in which all life and labor were directed from its central viewpoint because the production of colonial cash crops, especially sugar, required a precise discipline, centered on surveillance, while being dependent on spectacular and excessive physical punishment. While this may appear as a contradiction between traditional spectacular punishment and the discipline that Foucault argues succeeded it in the modern period, the modernity of oversight was precisely its combination of enforcement and discipline. Indeed, as we shall see, the planters in Saint-Domingue attempted to modernize the colony within the plantation system. This effort failed because the enslaved had created a "counter-theater" to the system of surveillance and discipline from natural history to mapping and law. For planter and enslaved alike, the frame of the local plantation as the sovereign space of oversight was broken by conflicting desires for autonomy from both the enslaved and the plantocracy, meaning the ruling classes of the plantation colony. The enslaved aspired to self-regulation, but so did the planters, who hoped to create a colonial republic supported by slavery. Indeed, Saint-Domingue imported more slaves and produced more goods in the years immediately preceding the revolution than ever before.

In the plantation complex, the overseer was the surrogate of the sovereign, entrusted with power over many life-forms that were not his (gender intended) equal. The monarch was superior to ordinary people, even aristocrats, by virtue of having been anointed in coronation, making him or her in a certain sense divine. By the same token, the overseer dominated those classified as different, spatially displaced, and without legal personality or standing. The power of sovereignty was in the last instance the power to give and take life, surrogated to the overseer in the colony as a regime that Achille Mbembe has called "commandment" (commandement). Commandment is a "regime of exception" in which the slave-owner or colonist takes on the attributes and rights of royal power itself. Central here was what Foucault saw as the principle of all Western judicial thought since the Middle Ages: "Right is the right of royal command." This command had not always reached to the New World, as one scandalized French traveler reported from Brazil, in 1651: "Everyone leads a lascivious and scandalous life—Jews, Christians, Portuguese, Dutch, Eng lish, Germans, Blacks, Brazilians, Tapoyos, Mulattos, Mamelukes and Creoles—living promiscuously, not to speak of incest and crimes against nature." The ordering of slavery that began soon afterward was therefore intended to restrain planter and enslaved alike. The extravagant consumption of the planters was matched only by their excessive punishment of the enslaved. In one sense, the notorious violence of slave plantations mimicked the minutely prescribed ceremonies of execution and punishment that Foucault described as "spectacular." At the same time, as Kathleen Wilson points out, "given that penal remedy for the enslaved was transmitted through performance and custom, rather than statute, slave punishments did not enact a prior law but were the law performed." In the regime of oversight, even the abstraction of the law was made visible and performative.

This order of colonial things was itself visualized in the practical guides for the practice of planters published in the period. Books of this kind were not just produced as a form of travel literature, or as an entertainment for those remaining in Europe, but as practical manuals for plantation and colonization. To give an example that maximizes time and distance, the British officer Philip Gridley King wrote to the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, resident in London, describing the progress in cultivation and botany being made in the new colony of Australia in 1792. He detailed his success in planting indigo, guided by Jean-Baptiste Labat's account, in 1722, of the process in the French Caribbean. From this example, one can see that oversight was temporally and spatially complex, crossing presumed divides such as those between the Atlantic and Pacific worlds, Anglophone and Francophone colonization, and different models of forced labor. What one might call (with a pinch of the proverbial salt) the Las Meninas of oversight were the plates to the missionary Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre's history of the French Caribbean, published in 1667 (see plate 2). These images have remained part of the cultural memory of the region and were incorporated into an installation entitled The Indigo Room, by the Haitian artist Edouard Duval Carrié, in 2004. In fact, the first plate of the volume concerning natural history illustrates the workings of indigo cultivation. Eleven enslaved Africans are shown working at all the stages of this complex process, while at the precise center of the plate stands the outlined figure of a white overseer in European dress (see fig. 13). He is posed with a lianne, the rod used to discipline the enslaved, but posed here as if it were a cane or walking stick. The overseer's cane was as thick as a man's thumb, described by the English botanist Hans Sloane as "lance-wood switches." Ironically, lancewood was a species native to the Caribbean, used to punish its forced migrants. This incongruous scene is not a literal depiction of indigo production, although it depicts each stage of the necessary work and its resultant division of labor, but its schematic representation, which makes visible both the process and the power that sustained it. This was a drama of culture and cultivation enacted as work, strikingly codified after only twenty-five years of French colonization. While the overseer is present as sign of the compulsion that ultimately underpinned the labor force, his cane is at rest. It is his eyes that are doing the work. As the only waged laborer in the scene, the overseer's job is to maintain the flow of production. Symbolized by the cane that could wield punishment, his looking is thus a form of labor that compels unwaged labor to generate profit from the land. In Du Tertre's visualization, the overseer is the central point of contradiction in the practice of forced labor. Looking at Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I (1635), the would-be absolutist monarch of Eng land, after thinking about Du Tertre's representation of the overseer is to have a flash of recognition: Van Dyck's calm aristocratic figure standing with one hand on his hip and the other resting on his cane might have served as Du Tertre's model (see fig. 14). Indeed, the sight of a ship at anchor in the sea visible behind Charles I reminds the viewer that the source of monarchical power was Eng land's naval empire. Portraits of seventeenth-century European monarchs often showed them carrying a cane, rod, or even a scepter, the ultimate source of this symbol of domination. In visual representation and plantation practice alike, the overseer was the surrogate of the sovereign.

Even the landscape attests to the transformation wrought by European oversight on the indigenous condition of the land, which Du Tertre called "a confused mass without agreement." The mountains and indigenous wilderness visible in the background of his image give way to the regularly divided and organized space of plantation. This change was represented as what later colonists would call the "civilizing process," but it was in fact evidence of the emergent environmental crisis caused by plantation. Sugar in particular required so much wood to heat the boilers of the sugarcane juice that islands like Barbados had become deforested as early as 1665, causing soil erosion and depletion of water sources. In a striking phrase, the historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals has described the plantation itself as a "nomad entity." Planted as a monoculture, sugarcane exhausted even fertile soils more rapidly than they could be replenished by manuring or other fertilization techniques of the period. With the conjunction of soil depletion and the deforestation caused by the processing of the sugar, it was estimated at the time that a mill could remain in one location for a maximum of forty years before environmental exhaustion set in. By way of tracking this destruction, it can be seen that whereas in 1707 Hans Sloane noted that in Jamaica "their Agriculture is but very small, their Soil being as yet so fruitful as to not need manuring," by 1740 Charles Leslie remarked that the necessity of manuring required double the number of workers than "while the land retain'd its natural Vigour." By 1823 John Stewart reported that the accessible land was "almost denuded of timber trees," forcing the importation of pine timber and coal to burn in the mills. The practice of the plantation destroyed its own conditions of possibility and forced it to move physically and conceptually, a movement that it was ultimately unable to sustain.

For the technicians of oversight, surveillance and the management of time and labor were the key functions of the practice. The Jamaican planter John Stewart held that "the duty of an overseer consists in superintending the planting or farming concerns of the estate, ordering the proper work to be done, and seeing that it is duly executed." By means of such ordering, the overseer produced slavery itself as a mode of labor and value generation. It began with the cultivation of plants, requiring the coordination of a network of labor, transport, and supplies that utterly transformed its environment. In the plantation economy, art and culture were techniques to generate increased biomass of cash crops without regard to other considerations. The imperative for the overseer was, therefore, as one Saint-Domingue planter put it, "to never leave the slave for an instant in inaction; he keeps the fabrication of sugar under surveillance, never leaving the sugar-mill for an instant." For all its implied and actual violence, being an overseer was a complex task of time management and asset allocation. As befitted and defined a capitalist enterprise, the labor force was also divided because the multistage operation of sugar (or coffee, indigo, or cotton) production could not be carried out or supervised by one person, as the naturalist Patrick Browne observed in Jamaica: "The industrious slaves, frequently undressed, are obliged to watch by spells every night, and to engage with equal vigour in the toils of the day; while the planter and the overseer pass the mid-night hours in uninterrupted slumbers, anxious to secure the reward of their annual labours." Note the sense that the enslaved were industrious, that is to say, disciplined, even if naked, while the overseer slept on. While modern European labor resisted time management, plantations were (at least in theory) in permanent production. With the expansion in demand for sugar in the eighteenth century, it became standard plantation practice to suggest that a minimum of two hundred enslaved people was required to maintain a sugar plantation, thereby making competent overseers in great demand. Oversight became a career path open to people of all literate backgrounds, which is to say, of the middling classes and up.


Excerpted from THE RIGHT TO LOOK by Nicholas Mirzoeff Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface. Ineluctable Visualities xiii

Acknowledgments xvii

Introduction. The Right to Look, or, How to Think With and Against Visuality 1

Visualizing Visuality 35

1. Oversight: The Ordering of Slavery 48

2. The Modern Imaginary: Anti-Slavery Revolutions and the Right to Existence 77

Puerto Rican Counterpoint I 117

3. Visuality: Authority and War 123

4. Abolition Realism: Reality, Realisms, and Revolution 155

Puerto Rican Counterpoint II 188

5. Imperial Visuality and Countervisuality, Ancient and Modern 196

6. Anti-Fascist Neorealisms: North-South and the Permanent Battle for Algiers 232

Mexican-Spanish Counterpoint 271

7. Global Counterinsurgency and the Crisis of Visuality 277

Notes 311

Bibliography 343

Index 373

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews