5. Black Visuality
Published: 08.08.2018
in the series Black Visual Frequency: A Glossary
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Visuality is an old word for an old project. It is not a trendy theory-word meaning the totality of all visual images and devices, but it is in fact an early nineteenth-century term, meaning the visualization of history. This practice must be imaginary, rather than perceptual, because what is being visualized is too substantial for any one person to see and is created from information, images, and ideas. This ability to assemble a visualization manifests the authority of the visualizer. In turn, the authorizing of authority requires permanent renewal in order to win consent as the ‘normal’ or everyday because it is always already contested. The autonomy claimed by the right to look is thus opposed by the authority of visuality.” – Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Right To Look”

I’d like to begin my final blog post by invoking a prerogative that in many ways has served as its unarticulated guiding principle: the right to articulate an unfinished thought. It’s a prerogative I insist upon as core to my own practice of intellectual inquiry. This blog was intended to function as precisely such an exercise in generative open-ended thinking. I claim my right to an unfinished thought in an oblique dialogue with what Nick Mirzoeff rigorously interrogated in his eponymous essay and monograph as “the right to look,” which he defines as a right not “based on freedom or liberty,” but instead “an autonomy based on one of its first principles: the right to existence.” 1Nicholas Mirzoeff, "The Right To Look," Critical Inquiry, 37, 3 (Spring 2011), 473–496, here 477. It is a right to existence that, he insists, adamantly affirms “the irreducible autonomy of all persons, prior to all law.” (478) It is a state of autonomy Mirzoeff defines in stark opposition to the fundamental authority he ascribes to its antithesis: visuality. 

This final entry in my glossary returns full circle to my initial point of departure. As I wrote in my introductory comments, the glossary of black visual frequency I have assembled over the past eight weeks has explored a series of keywords that help us understand the multiple frequencies of black visuality that resonate across different domains of the sensorium, in particular through the affective registers of the sonic, the haptic and the visual. It is a glossary that allows us to articulate a vocabulary commensurate with the complex affective registers of black visuality, and enables a more robust dialogue around its impact and implications. While there are a number of other keywords I would have liked to include and several I have considered ending with, I’ve decided to conclude with the term that possibly vexes me most: visuality.

“The autonomy claimed by the right to look has thus been, and continues to be, opposed by the authority of visuality. […] A given modality of visuality is composed of a series of operations that can be summarized under three headings: first, it classifies by naming, categorizing, and defining […] Next, visuality separates the groups so classified as a means of social organization. Such visuality segregated those it visualized to prevent them from cohering as political subjects, such as workers, the people, or the (decolonized) nation. Finally, it makes this separated classification seem right and hence aesthetic.” (476)

Mirzoeff’s astute parsing of the stakes of visuality captures some of the most significant possibilities and limitations of this term. These possibilities and limitations intertwine at the inflection point of authority – the authority of visuality Mirzoeff sees in direct opposition to the right to look. Yet this binary requires us to ask whether the authority of visuality is universally shared by all. Put another way, what happens when we understand the tension between the autonomy of the right to look and the authority of the visualizer in relation to the very different set of affects, frequencies and haptics I have explored in this glossary? More specifically, might the “authority” of a black visuality register at a different frequency – one that patently does not require permanent renewal to win consent as normal because it never can nor ever will be considered the norm, as it is always simultaneously, both contested and the very terrain of contestation?

What my questions are asking and implying is both straightforward and complex. By affixing the modifier black to a term so many believe we understand, I am directing our attention to what it means to rethink the term visuality itself and to think it differently. Doing so requires us to engage a necessary corollary, or what Derrida defined as the necessary supplement, to Mirzoeff’s ‘right to look’ – one that is crucial to understanding the intervention of black visuality I have urged us to explore in my previous posts. That supplement is the right to look away.

The ‘right to look away’ is a perplexing assertion I find myself confronting more and more in our current moment of intense violence against black, trans, queer and gender-non-conforming individuals, and people of color more broadly. It’s a perplexing assertion often invoked indirectly or surreptitiously as a right to personal autonomy, albeit not in the sense of Nick’s studious parsing of this term. It is asserted instead as the autonomy to avoid or be exempted from the affective labor of witnessing, and exposing oneself to the harm inherent to witnessing harm done to others, and to black and brown bodies in particular. It is an assertion that seems to be proliferating more recently due to our increasing capacity to visually archive and disseminate such acts of violence and harm through the pervasiveness of our personal technologies of capture, particularly the preferred contemporary modality of capture: cell phones.

It would be naive to frame this practice as solely the product of recent technological innovations. For the right to look away from black suffering is arguably the foundational optic of western modernity. Yet as this glossary has demonstrated, what compels my own interest and imagination are the ways black artists are challenging the assertion of this prerogative through their recourse to what I call on us to recognize as black visuality.

The artists and works I have engaged in this glossary enact practices that mobilize the right to look as a modality of witnessing contemporary assaults on blackness, and marshal these witnessing practices to create a black visuality that reappropriates the classifying, segregational aestheticism Mirzoeff identifies as authoritative complexes of visuality. Black visuality turns them on their head by refusing the very authority of visuality that functions to refuse blackness itself. Their visual practice refashions the authority of visuality as a redeployment of the right to look which lays bear the unreducibility of all persons (read: some persons) – prior to a law that designates this ‘right’ selectively for some, while refusing to recognize others as worthy or eligible to claim such rights.

It is a practice that is neither utopic nor autonomous, neither pessimistic nor futuristic. It functions through its relationality, and to return to my previous post, their adjacency. The power of this practice lies in its ability to engage negation as generative. In doing so, black artists are creating forms of black visuality wherein the black body is catalyzed as both subject and subjected; destroyed and resurgent; abject and resplendent.

The frequencies of black visuality I have catalogued in this glossary demand, and at the same time, create modes of witnessing that challenge our right to look away. It is a challenge that creates complex links of affective kinship – links that are differentially embraced or rejected, though not as family in any conventional sense. It is a kinship produced through the negative affect of embracing the joy, beauty, horror and pain that is the afterlife of slavery. It is affective labor marshaled as a practice of refusal – a refusal to capitulate to the right to look away.

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