Books

Nicholas Mirzoeff
How to See the World

A recent story in The Monthly about the sex trade in the Philippines described “Hadrian’s Extension”, an impoverished area not far from Manila that even people living nearby had no idea existed: “Google Street View has never been down these laneways.”

This is remarkable in an age when it seems that there is nothing, from breakfasts to mass atrocities, that is not visually mapped and documented for public consumption. Police monitor citizens via CCTV cameras; citizens monitor police via smartphones. To be undocumented, undisplayed, un-Google-Mapped, such as the young sex workers of Hadrian’s Extension, is not to exist.

What remains unseen in our visually fixated world – and how we can learn to see the unseen – is one of the topics addressed in visual theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff’s stimulating new book, How to See the World. Mirzoeff has previously written on subjects including the television show Seinfeld, the optics of the Iraq War (Watching Babylon) and the human form in modern art. The themes of popular culture, war and art run through this book as well.

How to See the World begins by considering the photograph nicknamed “Blue Marble”. A view of Earth taken by the astronaut Jack Schmitt from Apollo 17 in 1972, “Blue Marble” was Earth’s original selfie. Although it may be hard to imagine today, no one had ever before seen a photographic image of the planet, “whole and round and beautiful and small”, in the words of the poet Archibald MacLeish. “Blue Marble” inspired utopian thoughts of a united world and global connections; it was the iconic cover of the countercultural Whole Earth Catalog. Today, the “tiled” (that is, assembled), colour-and-contrast-enhanced imagery of Google Earth has taken over our collective imagining of the planet. Google itself is part of a process of globalisation that is a far cry from the “whole earth” dreams of the ’70s.

Mirzoeff makes the point that seeing is not just a simple processing of sensory input. It is a complex neurological, psychological and even social phenomenon. If how we “see the world” is radically different from how we saw it just four decades ago, he reminds us that there have been many previous revolutions in visual perception, including those sparked by such inventions as photography and train travel, both of which introduced fresh elements of time and speed to the equation. The velocity and nature of this latest transformation, in which we don’t watch screens so much as live our lives through them, is, however, in Mirzoeff’s words, “confusing, anarchic, liberating and worrying all at once”.

The chapter “How to See Yourself” begins predictably but perhaps inevitably with the “selfie”, which Mirzoeff argues, “expresses, develops, expands and intensifies the long history of the self-portrait”. One element of that history is that of self-enhancement: the artist as hero. He discusses, among other examples, the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez’s famous painting Las Meninas, in which the painter cleverly, if somewhat enigmatically, invests his own image with the reflected majesty of his royal subjects. By the time we get to artists such as Duchamp (The Five-Way Portrait) and Cindy Sherman, self-representation has turned into a kind of performance that offers up an infinite range of possibilities.

Today, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and many other social media sites give everyone the opportunity to represent themselves and to turn that representation into performance. This is part of a process by which “visual culture” is giving way to what Mirzoeff calls “visual activism”. Other examples include the recording and propagation of images of police brutality, the ironic use of colonial imagery by the citizens of postcolonial societies, and the means by which the “99 per cent” from Argentina to Cairo to Madrid to New York and Hong Kong have “asserted the right to look and be seen, online and in city space”.

The same networked technology that excites artists and arms the activist, however, has also given us new ways to wage war. Once, one of the main challenges of warfare was to map or visualise the battlefield, and a goal of war was to redraw national boundaries to the extent that mapping itself could be seen to be “a form of war” – take, for example, the way in which imperial powers redrew the maps of Africa and the Middle East for their own benefit. These days, Mirzoeff explains, the challenge is to control the imagery of warfare itself. Al-Qaeda and Daesh thrive on viral imagery of collapsing towers and severed heads, using the internet to amplify the effects of individual acts of terror.

American drone “pilots”, meanwhile, guided by streams of poor-quality virtual information, drop missiles on anyone who looks as if they might possibly be an enemy. The fact that so many of the people they have killed this way have been innocent civilians – it’s estimated only two of the 607 people killed by United States drones in Pakistan in 2012 were on America’s “most wanted” list – makes drone strikes something of an own goal. In this sense, they are like the infamous photographs of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. The release of those photos into the public sphere in 2004, Mirzoeff writes, “undid the asymmetry of the ‘good’ war being presented by most Western media at that point, in which the coalition were ousting a violent dictatorship in order to create democracy”. Yet he also notes that just 10 years later, his students, “who were children at the time, are unaware of what these photographs are, and say they have not seen them before”.

Andy Warhol gave us a metaphoric “15 minutes” of fame; Vine, a popular internet video site, affords us precisely six seconds. The challenge that Mirzoeff lays out is that of tearing our eyes away from the seductive flow of visual entertainment in order to see what needs to be seen – such as man-made climate change – and then harnessing the available technologies in order to carry out “visionary organising” – in effect, learning how “to see the world” in order to change it.  CG

Penguin, 352pp, $14.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2015 as "Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG

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