Picturing Catastrophe

The visual politics of racial reckoning

Rizvana Bradley
Man points a camera at viewer, surrounded by papers.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Exposure (_2160212, _2160194, _2160196), 2018. Courtesy the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

The grammar of antagonism breaks in on the mendacity of conflict.
—Frank B. Wilderson III

And we, here, amid a failure of images.
—Dawn Lundy Martin

Now more than a year into the pandemic, with the wheels of atrocity once again turning as they should, one might expect most of the obligatory annual retrospectives on 2020’s so-called summer of racial reckoning to serve as little more than a kind of punctuation, one that might be anxiously folded into various stories of unity and progress. Representation’s injunction saturates daily life to the point of satire: Netflix offers its customers a Black Lives Matter genre, police cars are adorned with historic black political leaders and Pan-Africanist colors for Black History Month, and even the U.S. president implores the American people, citizens of a noble if imperfect nation, not to look away from the spectacle of black death: “We have to look at it—we have to—we have to look at it as we did for those 9 minutes and 29 seconds. We have to listen. ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ Those were George Floyd’s last words. We can’t let those words die with him. We have to keep hearing those words,’” President Biden said.

The trial of Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd, was fashioned as the culminating drama of last summer’s upheavals. Like the final act of a familiar play whose outcome is always known in advance, Chauvin’s guilty verdict was to be the climax of a multiracial saga that had captured our hearts and minds, a cynical reprise of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s declaration that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” President Biden went so far as to pluck words from the mouth of George Floyd’s daughter, Gianna, in his speech on 20 April following the trial: “She said to me then—I’ll never forget it—‘Daddy changed the world.’. . . Let that be his legacy: a legacy of peace, not violence—of justice.” George Floyd’s death would not be in vain; it would be the very lifeblood of American democracy, the fleshly renewal of the social contract, a catalyst for the “healing” we need. “Black death functions as national therapy,” as Frank B. Wilderson III would say.

This vampiric narrativization, of course, stumbled over the conditions of its making, for it was difficult to reconcile the righteous trumpetings of Chauvin’s guilty verdict with the killing of sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant not twenty minutes later, or of Andrew Brown, Jr., the following day. Even as the obligation to repeat these facts marks the fulfillment of a murderous script which is incapable of mourning the life it steals. Even as the recourse to empiricist appeal to common truth or conscience is itself, as Saidiya Hartman might say, “just an extension of the master’s prerogative.”

Indeed, the manner in which the liberal face of empire has scrambled to exploit the politics of representation this past year betrays a latent desperation as much as an appetite for extraction; what else are we to make of this demand to look, again and again, upon the brutalized flesh of blackness? To look, so that a picture of the world might be preserved, so that the world might be saved—from itself, for itself. Because in fact the precipitate turns that characterized the past year tell a story of anything but progress: the “summer of racial reckoning” was followed by a U.S. presidential election that commentators likened to the deadlocked electoral contest of 1876, the “resolution” of which signaled the end of Reconstruction, trammeling over hopes for achieving what W. E. B. Du Bois called “abolition democracy” and paving the way for the revanchism of racial terror commonly known as Jim Crow. The exuberant celebrations of the outcomes of the U.S. presidential and congressional elections as signaling an irreversible, universally awaited tide of “diversity and inclusion” gave way to the white supremacist raid on the Capitol, which shocked the temperate sensibility of a liberal consciousness that has largely managed to ignore the forms of fascistic sentiment and organization that have been gathering force for decades.

The grating juxtaposition of these political scenes amplifies a discordance which was already evident within those representations of last summer that depicted it as an unprecedented swelling of collective dissent against the global color line. Set aside the rehearsals of unity and progress; to attend truly to the depth and extent of the political impasse from which the protracted morass and escalating perils of the present conjuncture emerge requires a different kind of retrospective. We must turn back to the image of the summer we were given, in the hopes that we might see with new eyes. For the task we face is far more difficult and demanding than embracing fresh perspective; what is called for is no less than an interrogation of the racial constitution of perspective itself, and a willingness to turn toward what David Marriott might call the “radically unwritten.” We must trace the Gordian knot of politics and visuality, if only to glimpse the unraveling it would appear to foreclose.

cologne, june 6, 2020: a young black woman appears in the foreground of a photograph, crowning a sea of people gathered along the banks of the Rhine. Undeterred by the wind that blows her hair back, she holds up a sign that reads “SILENCE IS VIOLENCE,” handwritten in black, with “BLM” stenciled in red in the lower-right corner. Marseille, the same day: a close-up shot of the tearful embrace of two black women in the middle of a march, a multiracial crowd blurring behind them. Puerta del Sol Square, Madrid: a black man, suspended above throngs of predominantly white demonstrators clapping in unison, his fist resolutely raised, his body presented as the flag-bearer of the crowd. These photographs, published on the Atlantic’s website during the first week of June, are just a few of the great flood of images that circulated during the protests against antiblackness, racism, and state violence that followed the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020, a calamity painfully shadowed by the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in the United States in the months just before that. Seoul, Dakar, Rio de Janeiro. Edinburgh, Tokyo, Budapest. Photographs upon photographs. Multitudes upon multitudes.

Contrast these with a second influx of images, which were appearing in the media by the end of July. Solidarity against antiblackness had begun to recede. In the United States, attention turned toward the escalating drama of state repression, most visible in Portland, where the Trump administration deployed Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and other Department of Homeland Security forces to quash the ongoing, predominantly white, protests, in a deliberately sensationalist performance of authoritarian power. These political shifts were accompanied by noticeable aesthetic recalibrations. In publications ranging from The New York Times to The Guardian to Al Jazeera, these images showed a republic in crisis: federal agents in military fatigues and riot gear, the incendiary lights of “flash-bang” grenades and clouds of tear gas. And they showed the civic wounding of protestors: a close-up shot of a white man, his T-shirt pulled up to reveal the bruises left by rubber bullets or tear gas canisters; an overhead shot of a young white woman lying on a medical stretcher, her upper arm lacerated, gloved hands urgently attending to her injuries. The reddened, distressed faces of white demonstrators flushing pepper spray or tear gas from their eyes, or kneeling before approaching state legions, shielding their heads. Such visceral imagery was juxtaposed with images casting the tumult in more hopeful tones, even as a family matter, as with the “wall of moms” interlinking arms, some wielding signs that read “GO HOME FEDS: MAMA SAYS SO!” and “I’M SO DISAPPOINTED IN YOU—MOM.”

Black people are held hostage by the visual, whose myriad permutations are only so many entrances into a mortuary.

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of photography and visual media in contemporary political imaginaries, and the Black Lives Matter movement is no exception. Indeed, in his 2016 New York Times reflection on photographs that have been associated with BLM since its organizational emergence in 2013, Teju Cole wrote, “Black Lives Matter as a movement originated in images.” The rallying cry, “Black Lives Matter,” and the diverse forms of political activity to which it has become conjoined are inevitably bound up with the politics of visuality and aesthetic experience. None of these images of collective dissent can be considered in isolation, and not simply because they are all politically and symbolically rendered proximate to the discursive intervention “Black Lives Matter.” Each bears and extends the sediment of centuries, a colossal accumulation of racialized visuality.

What is it about these photographs that continues to transfix us? What terrors and insurgencies do they conceal or disclose? It would be easy to see these photographs simply as documentation of protest and oppression, as authentic representations of political courage and commitment. But we must not abdicate, in Frank Wilderson’s words, “the power to pose the question.” The scale, speed, and ease of the reproduction and circulation of these photographic repertoires and images should direct our attention to the investments and animus undergirding the now global visualization of collective dissent, and of black struggle in particular. If antiblackness is as deep and immeasurable a social antagonism as these vast international mobilizations of solidarity would suggest, then it cannot be presumed that the act of looking has been left untouched by and innocent of the ubiquity and force of racial violence.

Despite their varied locations, the photographs from early June, which inaugurated the summer of 2020 as a moment of “racial reckoning,” share a common representational ambition: to render black life and the brutalities arrayed against it present in ways that elide the structural depth and historical intractability of antiblack violence. By presuming a presence that can only be plotted onto the axes of universality and historical progress, by presuming that antiblackness could ever be exposed or blackness affirmed using the very instruments, maps, and orientations that have been built upon the figuration of blackness as the paradigm for dereliction, these photographs cannot help but eclipse complex, differential expressions of black refusal. The incessant cycling of images of multiracial solidarity alongside intimate images of black grief and pain demands that singular experiences and expressions of black suffering and anger, exhaustion and enervation become sutured to a politics of reconciliation. The viewer is confronted with an image of dissent, but it is a visual dissensus engineered in the interest of social consensus. Whatever fractures divide us, these operations suggest, we are all still at least contemporaries on a common map of political community—citizens of the world, as Kwame Anthony Appiah would say.

The collection of photographs from late July, in contradistinction, involves an almost inverse labor, in which dissensus registers a splintering within a social consensus already presumed—a consensus which is so completely taken for granted that even articulating it as a problem for thought elicits disquietude, if not malice. The prominence and care with which the wounded bodies of protestors are displayed in this set of photographs cannot be simply attributed to an intensification of repressive state violence, for it is precisely the extraordinary character of antiblack violence to which the summer’s mobilizations were a response. Rather, the aesthetic discrepancy between the images from early June and those from late July marks the racial border between those who may be subjects of vulnerability and those who are objects of empathy, between those whose vulnerability marks a violation of bodily sovereignty and an incitement to political redress, and those whose brutalizations can only circulate as social currency within a world which holds them perpetually in arrears. They compose images of bodily vulnerability from which black people are doubly barred, because the injured bodies of the non-black protestors function as synecdoches for the body politic. These are individual bodies, such photographs suggest, which belong to the national body: the “whole body, indivisible although clearly divided, that represents the promise of the nation,” in Lauren Berlant’s words. And if, as Berlant continues, “disruptions in the realm of the National Symbolic create a collective sensation of almost physical vulnerability,” then the visual juxtaposition of the protestors’ injured bodies with the Wall of Mothers reproaching militarized agents of the state as wayward children figures this disruption as a family romance of the nation. These images from late July tilt the narrative arc of “the summer of racial reckoning” toward a riven national kinship, a laceration for which the Biden administration now presents itself as bandage and balm. “This is,” after all, “the time to heal in America.”

Saidiya Hartman’s critique of nineteenth-century white abolitionist sentimentalism in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America and, specifically, her analysis of the libidinal economy of slavery help make clear the imaginative work that both collections of images are doing: they construct seductions of family romance as essential to the fantasy of national belonging. Because, as Hartman argues, “slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship,” the image of black death must be serially produced and relentlessly circulated. The nation mends its “familial rift[s] on the bodies cast out as not kin,” as Christina Sharpe might say. It is for this reason that Biden enjoins us to look, and look again: the image of black death sutures a wounded nation. Black people are held hostage by the visual, whose myriad permutations are only so many entrances into a mortuary.

The volatility which constantly threatens to break through the surface of such images underscores foundational breaches within the social order, chasms that run far deeper than political disagreements among contemporaries. “Apocalypse Now and Then” is how Hortense Spillers figures the sense of protracted, yet imminent disaster that saturates the historical present and overruns the photographic frame: “On this landscape of peril and grief, cracks and fissures are divulged that one did not realize could be broached in the first place; gaps in ourselves and between ourselves and institutions, and this spectacle of ruin unfolding on fragile ground underfoot.” If one rhetorical gesture were to be singled out from the torrents of media commentary on the summer of racial reckoning, it could be the phrase “in this moment.” “What’s different about this moment?” a journalist asks in The Washington Post. “There is an emerging sense that this time is different,” echoes The Guardian. Whether this present was seen as the monstrous descent into a racial state of exception or as the first sign of ascendance toward Du Bois’s “abolition democracy,” the declaration this moment would have us believe that these images of black suffering and resistance represent a shared historical present.

It is clear that this particular photograph, if not this genre of photography, demands the referent (the colonized) be composed for the signifier (the colonizer), fabricated through aesthetic imposition.

If this unspoken pronouncement of contemporaneity held a seductive force a year ago, its allure is considerably diminished in retrospect. For the difficult truth is that those who have been forced to confront what Hartman calls the “afterlife of slavery, whose history is dissimulated in the wake of the non-event of emancipation,” know that here and now are not as self-evident as they first appear. The black diaspora possesses neither spatial anchor nor footing in the forward march of history but instead confronts an interdiction from normative space and time—an interminable displacement of geography and a time without historical arc that renders any simple presumption of present or presence spurious at best and treacherous at worst.

Strikingly, the most prominent visual displays of black “presence” and of the racial present they are meant to index come to us in the form of black suffering. Such representations are not so much opposed to those which emphasize black dignity or perseverance, resilience or triumph but rather their condition of possibility and inverted reflection, which is why the transit between the two forms occurs so seamlessly. Writing in 2014 about the murderous images of black death reproduced and continuously circulated online, Mariame Kaba and Tamara K. Nopper critique the ways graphic videos and photographs are used to generate mass political sympathy and mobilize solidarity around black suffering and black struggle: “One gets the sense that the only way to generate a modicum of concern or empathy for black people is to raise the stakes and to emphasize the extraordinary nature of the violations and the suffering. To circulate repeatedly the spectacular in hopes that people consider the everyday. It’s a fool’s errand.” Indeed, emancipatory rhetoric and representational tools of civil society are necessarily tethered to “murderous anti-Black projections,” as Wilderson points out. The incommensurable difference between the non-black subject who can lay claim to an image of vulnerability and black people who are made the objects of racial empathy throws into relief a deeper structural antagonism. Where this reveals itself as visual discordance, it merely betrays an immanent instability which always already haunts civil society in an antiblack world. Liberal empathy may be regarded as one of countless endeavors to mobilize and contain the antagonism of antiblackness, even if such exertions serially end in failure. Hartman’s critique of nineteenth-century white abolitionist imaginaries, which posits “the precariousness of empathy and the thin line between witness and spectator,” is no less germane to the present. Is the embattled or ennobled black figure ever truly the subject of the images that saturate our vision? Are these images merely ciphers for those subjects who immediately recognize themselves as their audience?

Person moves out of view in a dark area.
Still from Sable Elyse Smith, How We Tell Stories to Children, 2015. Courtesy the artist.

This war unfolding beneath the facade of the visual requires us to reflect upon representation as constituted by more than what is presumed to comprise an image. As Stuart Hall has argued, “Representation works as much through what is not shown, as through what is.” Once we begin to recognize the forces of racial (counter)insurgency undergirding the composition of the visible, we may begin to pay attention not simply to what the photographs visualize but to the racial metaphysics by which they direct us to see—that which creates the conditions for what appears, as well as what is concealed. What is crucial, in other words, is not merely what can be discerned upon the surface of these photographs, but rather, as Calvin Warren might suggest, “the ontological violence the image enacts,” the antiblack metaphysics that undergirds and renders such images legible. These sorts of photographs begin to alert us to a kind of Benjaminian optical unconscious, in which the ceaseless metaphysical annihilation of blackness constitutes what is visualizable through the perpetual displacement of the minor, errant repertoires of black existence. Photographic visuality, in other words, cannot be disentangled from the foundationally antiblack metaphysics of the modern world.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, as Ariella Azoulay describes it, the camera’s shutter has opened and closed “the jaws of history.” What can be rendered legible by the photograph comes to index the shape, boundaries, and directives of the political. Photography is deployed to ensure that the political is everywhere and all the time understood as that which can be rendered visible. The photograph is imagined simply as visual evidence of what must be made present, its universal accessibility and intelligibility presumed as ontological fact and ethical right.

For the “others of Europe,” in Denise Ferreira da Silva’s phrasing, the injunction to transparency, visibility, and legibility has always consummated the union of erasure and morbidity. Directing us to the ways racial violence comes to structure “the protocols and limits” of presence, Hartman argues that “opacity” and “concealment” must “be considered in relation to the dominative imposition of transparency.” What is called for is no less than the onto-epistemological work of “rethinking ‘aesthetics,’” as Sylvia Wynter put it, and it is a call that has been taken up and responded to in countless ways throughout the black diaspora for centuries. Those of us who have always lived within the dark corners of the photograph must constantly remind ourselves that the concealments, interdictions, expulsions, and contortions of the aesthetic are neither incidental nor secondary to the exigencies perpetually figured as present. The historical cartography of the aesthetic is a killing field.

photography is one of the central means by which the modern world is made knowable. The first two decades of photographic discovery, as Susan Sontag points out, “made possible an ever-increasing spread of that mentality which looks at the world as a set of potential photographs. . . . From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects.” If photography’s aesthetics enlist in, or are conscripted into, the project of making the world “frame by frame,” as Zeynep Gürsel notes, the formal mechanics of photography can be regarded as technological abstractions which insinuate deeper investments in political subjectivity, veiled though the latter may be. Put simply, we should not neglect the work photographs do in “appropriating the world,” as Sontag put it.

It is precisely this appropriative modality of visioning which betrays photography’s role in the nineteenth-century world picturing that necessitated its development, as evinced by its earliest forms, from the daguerreotype, to the carte de visite, tintypes, and studio portraits, all of which visually played a role in fashioning hierarchies of racialization and in circulating racial knowledge. As Kobena Mercer notes, such visual technologies were instrumental in making “representation central to the politics of colonialism,” even as the colonized have serially turned these technologies against colonialism’s representational grain. The visual orders of the digital present are no less inflected by colonial and imperial habits of photographic worlding.

The habitus of colonialism requires the myth of origin as much as destiny, a narrational reflex painfully undone in Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. In one instance, Hartman reflects on a photograph from a tourist guide for Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, in which the castle’s infamous dungeon is shown “crammed with boys and girls from the local school costumed as slaves.” The image, which aimed at permitting us “to believe that we could co-exist with the captives, witness their suffering, and remedy their defacement,” was nothing more than a failed romance: “The crowd packed in this room would remain without names and faces. That was the nature of the crime that had transformed persons into cargo. It was now impossible to fill in the blank spaces.” The photograph is a record of the attempt to stage an impossible reenactment, but in the end, “all the photograph really expressed was yearning.”

Hartman’s encounters with the archive reveal that there is more at stake than an ethical, political, or epistemic failure of photographic representation. To be clear, the problem is not with photographic representation per se. The issue that ought to concern us here is rather the phantasmatic production of the something represented, or, more precisely, how this something represented is made to appear as if it has emerged from the inconceivable horrors of the unrepresentable—“the hell holes of the most horrific conditions imaginable.” For Hartman, the violations of history are folded into the extant yearnings of and for those “gone and forgotten,” those continuously absented from the archive, yearnings which cannot find a resting place in this world. Absence, in this context, can only be rendered ancillary to some presumed, prior presence.

There are a host of disorderly subjects, practices, relations, affections, and passions that cannot be captured by the photographic medium’s indexical, iconic function, and which are therefore cast outside of historical memory. But what is cast out of the frame is never altogether excised. In Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe, her study of black diasporic subjects, spanning late-nineteenth-century ethnographic images to early-twentieth-century postwar passport photographs, Tina Campt argues that what the frame of the image would seek to displace in fact remains as “affective residues” that touch us in ways which are not readily transparent. These “affective residues” necessarily complicate the repertoires of feeling that are thought to be endemic to the photographic imaginary—in particular, the medium’s relationship to something like mourning. Thierry de Duve has written that “photography is probably the only image-producing technique that has a mourning process built into its semiotic structure, just as it has a built-in trauma effect. The reason is . . . that the referent of an index cannot be set apart from its signifier.” But what happens to an image when it encounters the traces of what Katherine McKittrick refers to as “black absented presences”: that which “cannot be seen or heard or read but is always there”? What are we to make of photography’s capacity to lay claim to mourning as both a condition and a function of its aesthetic in the face of the submerged histories and aesthetic genealogies of the enslaved, with their absent or negated “referents”?

Dionne Brand’s recent poetic work of criticism, An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading, opens with an encounter with a photograph of herself as a young child. The first page of Brand’s experimental text begins with a peculiar reflection: “There is a photograph of me taken when I was a child. I do not recognize myself, though I seem to remember the day and the event.” She continues:

The little girl, reputed to be me, in the photograph is about three or four years old. It is the earliest and only photograph of this period. They say that I am one of the four children in this photograph; the three others are my sisters and my closest cousin. I recognize them. We are four girls. I am alleged to be second from the left, third from the right. We all have white ribbons in our hair.

The autobiography’s initial scene is, crucially, not one of photographic recognition but of misrecognition:

Everyone says the little girl looks like me. I doubt it. I do not recognize myself. Already I am changed in the photograph, since I leave off being myself to follow the directive of the photographer; already I have changed, thinking of composing myself, for the audience. I now recognize myself as authored, altered. As selected and sorted, from a series of selves for appearance and presentation.

The text enables a return to and a re-inhabitation of a past self, as well as an imaging of a past self, from a critical distance. The point, for Brand, is that the photograph does not yield a pure representation of what Roland Barthes calls “photography’s noeme,” the “that-has-been . . . the Intractable.” Rather, the attenuation of presence and appearance is accomplished by Brand’s tracing and retracing of a self that is at once revealed and obscured by the photograph. Ironically, the reader is given an autobiographical account of a subject whose faltering, protracted, even fitful self-appearance calls photographic presence itself into question.

Gradually, we learn that Brand’s capacity to see (and not see) herself in the photographic image hinges upon a retroactive (re)discovery of the glimpses of life that existed prior to it—figurations of life and existence that are beyond the image. More crucial than the photograph itself is the mnemonic imagination it stimulates. Brand’s quasi-speculative account of this sliver of diasporic history is occasioned by a photographic object which was itself a requisite accessory to an obligatory migration—a fact that draws our attention to the acts of arrangement, selection, and sorting she describes as a social choreography crucial to the making of the photographic mise-en-scène. By alluding to the ways family members, women especially, are conscripted into a general performance of respectability, Brand captures something essential about the deployment of photographic portraiture as a means of managing national allegiances and civic propriety: “When we take the photograph, we are taking it to send to my mother and my aunt, but also to send to England. . . . England is as much the spectator; and for England, standing behind my mother and my aunt, we must make a good appearance.” The picture is stitched to the hope and burden of “making a good appearance” for the metropole. It is clear that this particular photograph, if not this genre of photography, demands the referent (the colonized) be composed for the signifier (the colonizer), fabricated through aesthetic imposition.

As the privileged mediator of the imperial archive, photography has played a critical role in delineating the thresholds and limits of history, as well as of who can and cannot be among its proper subjects.

Brand’s Autobiography does not reproduce the images she describes. The existence of the photograph only points to the impossibility of her presence within its aesthetic structure. The irony of the inversion is of course that the photograph in which Brand is ostensibly, visibly present, in fact rests upon a structure in which Brand cannot appear, or at least cannot appear to herself, not as a self whose appearance presumes the authority of presence. And yet she is “bound to appear,” to use Huey Copeland’s turn of phrase. Hence Brand’s wry riposte: “Whoever I appear to be is simply that: an appearance.”

Those of us who study black radical traditions of experiment and refusal must grapple with the painful fact that every appearance within what David Lloyd calls “the racial regime of aesthetics” is invariably the reproduction of antiblack violence. A radically divergent practice of seeing, an attunement to the fact of black existence cannot be delivered through better or more inclusive forms of representation, as Hartman and Brand show us. Seeing anew necessitates an emergence, as Lloyd puts it, “out of the ruins of representation.” Any critical evaluation of the photographic medium’s role in materializing race—or, more precisely, in fabricating the singular raciality blackness is made to bear—must contend with the way photography’s spatial and temporal logics have been structured by a metaphysics whose aesthetic regime of picturing depends upon the production of violent gaps, omissions, contortions, and eradications. These are the racial orders of being and knowledge that subtend what Azoulay calls “the imperial archive.” As the privileged mediator of the imperial archive, photography has played a critical role in delineating the thresholds and limits of history, as well as of who can and cannot be among its proper subjects.

This is the “violence of presence,” as Frank Wilderson and Patrice Douglas have described it, and it is a violence that carries little hope of reparation or redress. For, as Calvin Warren has argued, “antiblackness as metaphysics” establishes “the instruments and framework for binary thinking, the thinking of being as presence.” Within this antiblack metaphysics, the black can only be “born into absence and not presence.” Thus, because picturing is itself an incarnation of catastrophe, a mechanism for reproducing the violent enclosures of presence, the catastrophe of antiblackness’s annihilative ambition cannot be pictured. Photography is merely one of the most salient mediums for the violence of picturing that is general to the modern aesthetic regime; it is no less central to the ongoing racial-colonial war indicted and refused by the Movement for Black Lives than the police, the military, and the carceral archipelago. Photography, in turn, is no less the domain of police power than the city street, the photograph no less a site of carcerality than the prison cell. “Two fatal instruments,” Azoulay tells us: “The camera and the gun."

the accumulations of images with which this essay opened are not reflections of some objective historical reality which stands apart from the violence of repression any more than the intensified forms of surveillance that have marred the reputation of new visual technologies in recent years. Under the modern aesthetic regime, every visualization becomes a site of enclosure. Yet even as the photography from the “summer of racial reckoning” could not help but play a part in taming and containing the spirit of “the moment,” the visual surfeit brimming from such multitudes will just as surely always overspill the parapets of the frame.

How then do we attend to this visual surplus—as a desire excessive to the image, as an aesthesis that cannot be pictured? How might we begin to recognize its immanent entanglement with the project of abolition, with the collective refusal of every expropriation and enclosure perpetuated by and for the state? The aesthetic discordance gathering beneath the surface of the photographs from the summer of 2020 marks the clash between a symbolic order which presumes to present the world as it is (or at least how it is supposed to be), and a symbolic disorder that cannot appear within this world as anything other than a problem, even as it holds out the possibility of forms of life beyond catastrophe.

Photography’s capacity to glimpse other political horizons is not divorced from its aesthetic regime but a function of them. Photographic techniques of cropping, retouching, and the rendering of perspective, for instance, effectively scale and rescale the world in ways that both expand and reify our sense of the world as such. The question that emerges is: How do we reconcile the radical movement toward abolition—which embraces, but cannot be reduced to, political strategies such as defunding the police; closing prisons, detention centers, and military bases; organizing rent and workplace strikes; and offering mutual aid in the face of structural abandonment—as an ongoing collective project distinguished by a commitment to reimagine and reconstruct social life, if our means of imagi(ni)ng remain bound to a history of photographic representation essential to modernity’s enduring project of worldmaking?

And yet, any contemporary extension of the Heideggerian problematic of the “world represented as picture” is not and can never be even half the story. For how do we attend to the ones who must continually bear the burdens of photographic overexposure, who are continuously tasked with mending political life while suffering the risks and costs of social morbidity, and who remain subject to an image economy whose phantasmatic projections mandate both the erasure and exorbitant visioning of blackness? How do we accompany those who, in Fred Moten’s words, enact a “criminal refusal” of a seemingly totalizing “world picture”? While it is true that we are living in the midst of the terrible culmination of techniques of world picturing, it is also true that those who survive the cataclysms of empire are already, by necessity, fashioning the means of inhabiting what Tendayi Sithole calls “the unmaking of the world.”

Perhaps we don’t need any more retrospectives, for every effort to return us to an image of the past is one which returns us to the image of the present, to the merciless directives of the racial metaphysics of presence. Perhaps we need, instead, to cultivate a kind of anti-retrospective attention which embraces the declivitous underside that undercuts every enterprise of world picturing, the wounding that refuses suture. To linger with/in this “tear in the world,” in Brand’s poetics, is to reinvent what it means to see.

Rizvana Bradley is Assistant Professor of Film and Media at the University of California, Berkeley.
Originally published:
May 25, 2021


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