The Right to Look

A Counterhistory of Visuality

The Right to Look

Book Pages: 408 Illustrations: 75 illustrations (incl. 11 in color), 2 tables Published: November 2011

Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Cultural Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In The Right to Look, Nicholas Mirzoeff develops a comparative decolonial framework for visual culture studies, the field that he helped to create and shape. Casting modernity as an ongoing contest between visuality and countervisuality, or “the right to look,” he explains how visuality sutures authority to power and renders the association natural. An early-nineteenth-century concept, meaning the visualization of history, visuality 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—and explains how, within each, power is made to seem self-evident through techniques of 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. Encompassing the Caribbean plantation and the Haitian revolution, anticolonialism in the South Pacific, antifascism in Italy and Algeria, and the contemporary global counterinsurgency, The Right to Look is a work of astonishing geographic, temporal, and conceptual reach.


The Right to Look demonstrates how visual culture scholarship can enrich critical and historical understanding of very tangible realities. Mirzoeff’s text successfully argues the magnitude of this project. It is a breathless and staggeringly detailed book, which overwhelms so as to inspire in all of us the right to look. The plea is imminent; the duty appointed.” — Sara Blaylock, Invisible Culture

The Right to Look offers the fledgling discipline, and the thriving interdiscipline [of visual studies], a historical narrative against which it must now measure its claims to grasp the present. It marks a coming of age that has brought cultural studies past the variability and the enchantments of its postmodern moment. It highlights the need for responsibility toward actual pasts, and toward the actual demands of contemporary realities. These are significant achievements.” — Terry Smith, Public Books

“[V]isual studies will no longer be the same before and after this book. . . . Mirzoeff's work does it all: offering new perspectives, blurring the boundaries between disciplines, disclosing what had been hidden, and shooting trouble.” — Jan Baetens, Leonardo Reviews

“This volume advances and enhances Mirzoeff's reputation as one of the intellectual leaders of visual culture studies. Highly recommended. Graduate students, researchers, faculty.” — C. J. Lamb, Choice

“[T]his monograph functions as an important historiographical intervention, revealing how the field of the visual has been constituted as modernity’s central epistemic field. Providing detailed historical analysis, this book is a valuable and important addition to the emergent field of visual cultural studies as well as to visual anthropologists seeking to understand and teach how the visual methods they deploy or theorize are circumscribed within a larger historical context of the visual.” — Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan, Visual Anthropology Review

The Right to Look is a brilliant book—original, ambitious, and constantly surprising. Nicholas Mirzoeff is at the center of the most advanced thinking in visual culture studies, and The Right to Look is a very important project within the field. It is a genuinely postcolonial text that places visual culture studies on broad historical and political footing for the first time.” — Terry Smith, co-editor of Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity

“Nicholas Mirzoeff’s The Right to Look is a passionate and magisterial intervention in the field of visual culture studies. Emphatically arguing that the human visual experience, with all its technical prostheses and metaphorical extensions, is a fundamentally ethical and political domain, Mirzoeff ranges over amazingly varied historical and geographical terrain. From the administration of the colonial plantation to missionary and military adventurism, to drone attacks and counterinsurgency flowcharts, to the latest tactics of spectacle and surveillance, everything is analyzed with a sure sense of the crucial detail and the revelatory anecdote. This is a brilliant contribution to visual culture studies, one that sets a very high standard for this emergent discipline.” — W. J. T. Mitchell, author of Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present and What Do Pictures Want?


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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.

Table of Contents Back to Top
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
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Winner, 2013 Anne Friedberg Innovative Scholarship Award, presented by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies

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