The Disappeared in my viewfinder

Andrew Higgott and Timothy Wray. Camera Constructs: Photography, Architecture and the Modern City. London Ashgate 2012

Nicholas Mirzoeff. The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. Chapel Hill NC Duke University Press 2012

Jenny Edkins. Missing : Persons and Politics. Ithaca NY: Cornell Univeristy Press 2011

Andrew Higgott and Timothy Wray, in their edited collection of essays on photography and architecture notes that In Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilem Flusser (review in progress) argues that humankind has been fundamentally altered by the advent of photography:

‘man forgets that he produces images in order to find his way in the world; he now tries to find his way in images.’ (Flusser p.7) Everything in the world now desires to be recorded, ‘to flow into this eternal memory, and to become eternally reproducible there. The result is that every event or action loses its proper historical character; tending to becomea magic ritual, an eternally repeated motion.’ (Flusser p.18) Photography and the modes of discourse that it institutes pervade contemporary architectural practice. At its most profound, the conception and practice of architecture has been fundamentally altered by the mode of seeing instituted by the camera. At its most superficial, much contemporary architecture can be seen to be conceived of, designed and then evaluated almost solely in terms of photographic imagery, whereby through digital imaging, buildings are designed around photo-realistic simulations of how they will eventually be made to appear in almost identical photographs.’ (p.3)

Nicholas Mirzoeff, in The Right to Look develops a comparative critical (“decolonial”) framework for visual culture studies, a field that he helped to create. As many others such as Jonathan Crary have argued, visuality as a surveillant, controlling gaze, has been central to the legitimization of Western hegemony. Mirzoeff identifies three “complexes of visuality”: plantation slavery, imperialism, and the present-day military-industrial complex. He shows how, within each, power is made to seem self-evident and natural through visual techniques that underpin classification, separation, and aestheticization. At the same time, he shows how each complex of visuality has been countered —by the enslaved, the colonized, and opponents of war, all of whom assert autonomy from authority by claiming the right to look.

All of these authors emphasize that visual experience is a matter of ethics and politics. This has become even clearer in the context of drone warfare, cyberbullying and the visual worlds of Instagram, Flickr and Facebook posts. It is less clear how the oppressed and colonized achieve countervailing effects against the colonial, surveillant, dominating gaze. While oppressor and oppressed might meet, eye-to-eye, other technologies supported the dominant gaze, such as representation through mapping, photography and plans, or spatializations that dispersed the suppressed Others by spreading them out or shipping them into Gulags and hidden concentration camps.

The paradox identified by Fanon in Black Skin White Masks is that dominant modes of looking come to be adopted by the colonized. This alienation from ones own sensorium is an embodied false consciousness, a false “face” for Fanon and a fake body, describes the condition of being colonized.

The alter- to this book on cases of dominant lookers (conquerers, prison guards, overseers…) are not only the women, proletarians and conquered who stage general strikes or events to attract media attention and thus regain visibility. They are also the “disappeared”, the invisible and those sent off-stage.

This is precisely the focus of Jenny Edkin’s Missing picks up to point us to the ineluctable quality of the person. The colonized are doubly ineffable, both present as bodies but absent in the sense of their subjectivity being not only invisible but unrecognizable and unpronounceable to the dominant order.

A Namibian friend once told me how he had narrowly escaped being arrested and likely shot as he crossed an airport frontier. A guard so poorly mis-pronounced his non-white name he genuinely did not recognize himself in the vocables and passed through the net only to later realize he was the intended victim.

Edkins identifies the possibility of a politics of those who are displaced, go missing, or are disappeared which offers a counterpower based on such absences and ungraspability.  This goes some way to including the invisible in visual culture, as I have called for in a study of all forms of making-visible: visualicity. A politics of the person-as-such is always a politics that i

‘open to the way in which in some sense we are all “missing persons.” The person-as-such can never be fully known, completely specified, or tied down… in the stories….of those who went missing …or who were abducted as childre, and those who tried to trace them years afterward, there is always something imponderable, some lack or gap in our grasp’ (197)

A lack despite the photographs of the disappeared, another strategy for reaching again for visibility and presence, folding the moment of the snapshot into the time-space of the present.

Rob Shields, University of Alberta