Undoing “America” as a Way of Seeing: In Conversation with Nicholas Mirzoeff

Nicholas Mirzoeff is a visual activist, working at the intersection of politics, race and global/visual culture. In 2020-21 he is ACLS/Mellon Scholar and Society fellow in residence at the Magnum Foundation, New York. His writing has appeared in Hyperallergic, the New York Times, Frieze, the Guardian, Time, and the New Republic. The Appearance of Black Lives Matter was published in 2017 as a free e-book, and in 2018 as a limited edition print book with the art project “The Bad Air Smelled Of Roses”  by Carl Pope and a poem by Karen Pope, both by NAME Publications, Miami. He has been active in the movement to take down statues commemorating settler colonialism and/or white supremacy and convened the collaborative syllabus All The Monuments Must Fall, fully revised after the 2020 events.

How do we distinguish tactics such as private and publicly commissioned BLM murals in cities, and the removal of confederate monuments as being actual authentic change, apart from being just symbolic/performative
gestures meant to quell national outrage?

At the core of the present movement is the question of making change. Organizers like the Movement for Black Lives had previously seen this as an unfolding series, beginning with common sense reforms like abolishing choke holds and working toward abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Activists today are defining change as “defunding the police,” which can be taken to mean a redistribution of resources away from the police to care and social justice, or to set in motion the zeroing out of policing. When such changes are proposed, many feel nervous, even if they are appalled by police violence. For twenty-five years, the rhetoric and practice of policing and incarceration as the solution to social ills has been all pervasive. Transforming the symbolic understanding of what society means away from punishment and the penitentiary to justice and freedom is, then, part of making change. At the same time, as we have seen here in New York City, the new trend of corporate-sponsored BLM murals and advertising are designed as gestures to white consumers. Such gestures offer white people a confirmation that their consumer is only accidentally racist—when one “bad apple” cop “goes too far”—rather than addressing the systemic racism that underscores racial capitalism as a whole. Removing monuments creates a sense of possibility in segregated cities. Rather than rush to put up the same kind of monument depicting BIPOC leaders, it would be better to pause and think how cities can better serve their people as a whole.

Could you speak a little bit about how the role of visuality within the contemporary BLM movement differs from previous social justice movements?

During the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King and other leaders were explicitly trying to attract mainstream media attention, confident that the spectacle of police violence against unarmed protestors would create change. Marches were organized in places like Selma and Birmingham precisely because there was a likelihood that state violence would result. The pictures were taken by press photographers and TV camera operators. BLM is a popular visualizing of police violence, using cell phone cameras and social media platforms to share on networks designed to promote sensational visual content. Darnella Frazier’s video of the murder of George Floyd is a case in point. The 17-year-old had the presence of mind to capture the event. As the world knows, the casual and contemptuous killing lasted 8 minutes 46 seconds. In 2014, not everyone had a cell phone that could shoot video at that length or a data plan that would allow for an upload of that size. At the same time, Frazier’s video had a second level of impact. Many had seen Ramsey Orta’s film of the murder of Eric Garner in 2014, when the harrowing phrase “I can’t breathe” became part of the national vocabulary. Yet it was not until August 2019, five years after the murder, that the perpetrator was finally fired from the NYPD. Tragically, it took two films of the same kind of slow murder of a Black man to mobilize a cross-cultural movement. Finally, these films are terrible to watch. Many people are deeply affected by them, in part because there is none of the high-resolution and dramatic framing used by professionals. The viewer is confronted with the banality of violence, in which the murderers smile and keep their hands in their pockets.

At the core of this seems to be a division in the way we as Americans visualize our country, our history, our reality—what violence is rendered visible to us, and what violence has been made to appear invisible to us through the affirmative character of culture— how can such deeply entrenched perceptions of American life and culture be

This is the work that now needs to be done. It begins with the persistent recognition that “America” is a violent and genocidal dispossession of Indigenous peoples. That violence continues from the dramatic events at Standing Rock in 2016 to small scale but nonetheless traumatic events of dispossession, such as the building of houses on Shinnecock Nation burial grounds here in New York. Any settler, and I am one, has to reckon with that underlying but ongoing reality. That means that it cannot be said that slavery is America’s “original sin.” But that does not entail setting aside the four hundred years of systemic anti-blackness. It rather means that the “we” so often invoked, as in this question, has to be examined. Here, there is no we. The settler colony is founded on division, whether of genocidal dispossession or forced migration and compelled labor, to which must be added the permanent logics of possession as rape and “sexualized” assault of all bodies that are not securely accepted as “white male.” This is a grim balance sheet, to be sure. But here’s the thing. Each new generation of young people has to be induced to see the world in this way. That’s what all the statues and field trips to monuments and museums are about. If there’s one takeaway from the George Floyd Uprising, it’s that the present coalition of young people no longer accept anti-blackness and Indigenous invisibility as the founding conditions of social life. Some have thought their way to that place by their rejection of patriarchy and their acceptance of trans and other gender identities as given ways to be. More have realized that was said in the 1970s by the Combahee River Collective remains true—until and unless the most oppressed among us become free, none of us are free. Mainstream politics is united in an effort to contain that radicality, whether by offering certain reforms and programs or by redoubling repression and violence. Whatever happens in November, the undoing of “America” as a way of seeing remains my priority. 

You’ve written about the history of “reckless eyeballing” and I was wondering if you could share with our audience what that is and how it connects to our present moment?

This is a specifically United States form of anti-blackness and mass incarceration policing. Under slavery, if an enslaved person looked directly at an overseer or slaveowner, they could be punished for “eye service.” After the Emancipation Proclamation reconfigured the terms of racial hierarchy, “eye service” became “reckless eyeballing.” In the Jim Crow period, it especially meant a look by a Black man at a white woman, which was always taken to be sexualized and always to be punished with spectacular violence. Such was the case of 14-year-old Emmett Till, falsely accused by a white woman of indicating desire for her, leading to his brutal murder. It was in the same year as the Till case, 1954, that the NAACP and Ebony magazine led a campaign to have the concept of “reckless eyeballing” excluded from legal consideration in the case of a man named Matt Ingram. On appeal, the case was won. But “reckless eyeballing” continues to be informally applied within the mass incarceration system. Freddie Gray was pursued and killed by Baltimore police for no other reason than that he looked an officer in the eye. The language of “reckless eyeballing” still appears in court documents, often by a prison guard referring to an inmate. Why does this matter? It shows that there is still, despite everything, a different set of rules about something as simple as how one person looks at another person, according to how white supremacy designates a person’s “race.” 


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