Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Tim Erwin reviews How To See the World

Nicholas Mirzoeff. How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 343 pp.

Review by Tim Erwin

14 September 2017

Nicholas Mirzoeff’s How to See the World is, like Matthew Arnold’s Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1865), an indispensable sounding of the cultural moment. The book asks the reader to visualize contemporary society through the lens of accelerated technological change, some of it still occurring, and so quite literally to imagine the world as it doesn’t yet appear but soon will. One major difference is that at times like the present, when we are threatened by the return to totalitarianism, by climate change, and by increasing economic disparity, the disinterestedness commended by Arnold becomes an unaffordable luxury. Taking account of new ways of seeing, from the selfie to the drone’s eye view of warfare, Mirzoeff urges an engaged activism in order to support democracy movements and help stave off global disaster.

The Foucauldian argument is made largely on behalf of those inheriting the earth we leave behind, and it begins with a picture taken from the Apollo 17 spacecraft in 1972, the familiar “blue marble” as reproduced on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue. Mirzoeff dates the concept of the global village to the publication of the photo before going on to show just how much has changed in the intervening decades. An analog image that once called for a return to rural and communal nature now bears witness to the expansion of urban centers across the globe, megacities populated in the developing world largely by the young. Digital photography has meanwhile become central to a vast media culture unimaginable even a decade ago, a networked system that is now without question the major player in the performance of social identity and the nearly instantaneous relay of information. Whether still or moving, visual images numbering in the trillions are regularly shared from a variety of platforms by means of what Mirzoeff calls “the first truly collective medium” of the internet (p. 20). Where print culture once molded imagined communities of early modern readers into citizens of the nation-state, digital culture today opens onto mediated forms of global identity. Although it’s difficult to imagine what these will look like, social movements like the Arab Spring uprising that drove Hosni Mubarak from office and the Occupy Wall Street encampment launched by the Adbusters collective are harbingers. In each, new media played a key role: the prodemocracy crowds demonstrating in Tahrir Square were initially mobilized by hundreds of thousands of Facebook likes while the OWS movement publicized their demands for greater income equality via a Tumblr blog called “WeAreThe99%.”

Mirzoeff terms his book an introduction. Indeed, How to See the World may be read as a detailed and accessible guide to a critical approach he articulated earlier in Critical Inquiry (for example, “The Right to Look,” Critical Inquiry 37 [Spring 2011]: 473–96) and elsewhere at greater length. The overarching aim is to redefine visual culture, defined here as “the relation between what is visible and the names that we give to what is seen,” in terms of visual activism (p. 10). A function of “visual thinking,” the approach foregrounds the visual display of environmental and human degradation in ways that allow no going back (p. 244). Two visual activists among the dozens canvassed are the Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso, who creates self-portraits that mock stereotypical Western views of African life, and the South African photographer and filmmaker Zanele Muholi, who creates images of African women that challenge the view that queer people enjoy true freedom of expression. Although it’s not used here, a key term in the ongoing project Mirzoeff describes is the right to look, a countervisual complex of adaptive formations resisting the authoritarian complexes of surveillance, segregation, and subordination enforced by modern visuality.[1] Mediating between authoritarian visuality and its authentic other is the double notion of representation. In ordinary use the term simply means a picture or diagram of something, but Mirzoeff gives it a political dimension aligned with the modifier in the phrase representative democracy. A representation may be said to signify only if it describes a fair and truthful view of things, and fairness is to be decided by the majority of beholders, who are after all also stakeholders. A representation that fails to represent in this dual sense becomes subject to the contestation of countervisuality.

This dynamic informs all seven chapters to one degree or another, each describing a significant modernist shift in the representation of time, of the self, of vision, of warfare, of the cinema and other screen-mediated media, of the metropolis or world city, and of climate change during the era of the Anthropocene. For example, “The World on Screen” (chapter 4) draws an ingenious analogy between the nineteenth-century development of the railroad and the appearance of the world as it flashes by the windows of a moving train, on one hand, and the tracking shot in cinema and the development of motion pictures from the Lumière brothers forward, on the other. Two early films by the Lumière brothers represent, respectively, a train arriving at a station and workers leaving a factory: scenes emblematic of modernist life. The shared trope of proceeding along tracks as seeing from an encapsulated space is ingeniously signaled by the French phrase en train de appearing as an onscreen intertitle during Jean-Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise (1967). During the scene in question a professor and a Maoist student seated aboard a train debate the just means of social reform, the professor advocating a nonviolent course of action and the student proposing terrorist assassination. Insofar as the conversation emerges from ideologically opposed positions, it recalls a conversation about murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), a cold war production reflecting the contemporary hysteria about foreign subversion. Mirzoeff shows how both scenes look forward to the Wong Kar-wai’s  2046 (2004) about an express train to the future from which no one ever comes back, 2046 being the year that China has set for the full return of Hong Kong to the mainland. In different ways all three films thus use a similar metaphor to represent the oppressive determinism and claustrophobia of contemporary geopolitics.

Moments like these veer close to allusiveness and satire, of course, and also invoke aesthetics. Aesthetics in particular, considered as the sustained attention that we devote to phenomena that change while we consider their features and valences together, might yet prove a valuable supplement to the project. Mirzoeff sets these aspects aside in order to place visual activism front and center in an effort to spur recognition of the need for social change. The approach strikes me as wholly timely and cogent, its urgent rationale as undeniable. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention thousands of antiwar demonstrators were heard chanting in the face of violent police action that the whole world was watching. The chant became prophetic when the television networks turned their lights on the sea of protestors then surging across the green spaces of Chicago’s Grant Park. With verve and passion, Mirzoeff shows us how the chant has become immeasurably more appropriate, and also how it might be made more prophetic.


[1] The phrase is drawn from Jacques Derrida. See Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Durham, N.C., 2011).