Arabic translation available here.
INTRODUCTION: As the questions of this interview were being written around the end of October 2023, 8,000 Palestinians were already killed in Gaza by the high-tech Israeli war machine. The number tripled as we published the interview in January 2024. What do we make of this? Of the images disseminated in real-time by both the victims and the killers? Why are many of us unable to stop following the news about the war? And most importantly, how do we ‘see’ the war?
To answer these questions, we reached out to Nicholas Mirzoef, author of ‘How to See the World’, ‘Watching Babylon’ and ‘The Right to Look’, to learn more about “watching war”, an activity and curious phenomenon to which we have become accustomed since the rise of global television. Of all viewing experiences, Mirzoeff describes it as “the most intensely “live,” in that it exists to witness the extinction of human life.”
His area of expertise is visual media rather than political or military policy. As defined by Mirzoeff, the discipline of Visual culture concerns itself with visual subjects: “people defined as the agents of sight (regardless of their biological capacity to see) and as the objects of certain discourses of visuality.” In “Watching Babylon”, Mirzoeff sought to establish the possibilities for visual subjectivity in everyday life under the prolonged and permanent state of “war on terror”, exemplified by the US-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq. His book examines “what it means to watch images of the exercise of power on a global scale from specific localities”. He defines certain perceived realities as ‘White sight’, not to refer to what a white person sees, but to ‘a learned cultural system’ which sustains a dominant white reality. And as the image becomes information, “it loses the associations of remembrance and becomes nothing more than a tool of war”. This, according to Mirzoeff, is a confirmation of the weaponized status of the visual media. He proposes visual activism as praxis to strike the catastrophic ‘White sight’.
Since 7 October, the war that most of us continue to witness from behind the screens - except for the people of Gaza - has been predominantly a visual event. Many chose not to see or were unable to. And by many we mean individuals and organizations whose area of expertise is ironically visual media. Some would even create their own misleading visual information to weaponize the media and legitimize the massacre. And while many people did engage in this relentless pursuit of information, others found it impossible to sustain the commitment to accuracy in the face of the relentless flow of weaponized images. Visual culture aims to respond day to day in its effort to understand change “in a world too enormous to see but vital to imagine”. Visual thinking, as Mirzoeff calls it, is the way to do it. It is something “we do not simply study as academics; we have to engage with it ourselves.” Echoing Marx’s theses on Feuerbach, Mirzoeff asserts: “Once we have learned how to see the world, we have taken only one of the required steps. The point is to change it.”
In September 2023, one month before the war in Palestine started, Mirzoeff, published a research article in an attempt to trace the ways of seeing the Nakba through the eyes and words of Western and Palestinian literary and cultural figures. In this interview, we try to trace modes of visual thinking about the war during the past 500 years of settler colonialism and everyday resistance in the empire of camps.
(This is an edited transcript of the interview conducted on November 5th, 2023. The interview was edited for length and clarity.)
HOW TO SEE THE WAR
1- Neurology sees the body and mind as integrated systems and people as communal, social beings connected by empathy. From this perspective, we learn how to become individuals as part of a wider community. Can watching the war through a medium like a Facebook newsfeed connect us at the human level through empathy? If not, is there a formula or a transaction that allows “empathy” to come out of the act of “seeing”?
Nick Mirzoeff: I don't think watching war through social media creates empathy, unfortunately. I think that the process that neurology is talking about is a face-to-face one rather than the person-to-media encounter. So what I've talked about elsewhere is the idea of what I call the “right to look”... an encounter primarily between people where I consent to you to invent me. And as I look at and you look at me, there's an exchange that goes between us that I don't own and you don't own, it's common to both of us. And in that moment, we can come to know something of each other. What that moment does not do is erase inequality or hierarchy, but it can make it visible. It can make it palpable in a certain way.
2 - “Seeing is something we do, rather than something that just happens naturally. What we used to call an image is now known to be a computation, even in the brain.” This looks like phenomenology, the study of objective reality through subjective experiences by employing ‘intentionality’. Yet now a lot of what we see is somehow wired to a machine or provides a stream of information. How much of what we “see” comes from the visual information we capture in the present moment? How much information from the past or “context” contributes to the visual synthesis?
NM: My work is mostly concerned with the effects of visual media and their encounters among people. What we see evokes past histories, sometimes we're very aware of that. Sometimes we’re not. This is a condition that I've called following Frantz Fanon the “cultural unconscious”. And this is a massive residue of images, references and so on that can be evoked without us even knowing it (as is the nature of the unconscious) and this is something that builds up very much in childhood as we encounter many things for the first time and store them. So for example certain things that one can't say in an adult conversation or an adult life are still possible in childhood cartoons.
The cultural unconscious is always there even if we're not aware of it. It very much structures our encounters with people. Those histories are palpable. We have been discussing them in the US very broadly through the removal and taking down of racist and colonial monuments and this has been one of the ways in which we have been able to make that cultural unconscious visible. And it does change a geographical area when a statue of that kind is removed. And then there's a conversation about what should go in its place. And in those conversations, then, we engage in “consciousizing” consciousness (also Fanon’s term). In other words, we resurface things and talk about them. And I think that's extremely important for working through the circulation of imagery in the present.
‘THE BANALITY OF IMAGES’
3 - Borrowing from Hannah Arendt’s “Banality of Evil” who tried to get a sense of the holocaust, you announce the “banality of images” as the viewer's attempts to create meaning and a response to what they are seeing is weakened. You stress that “the banality of images is no accident, but the result of a deliberate effort by those fighting the war to reduce its visual impact by saturating our senses with non-stop indistinguishable and undistinguished images.” Does this theory that you presented after the invasion of Iraq still apply to content uploaded by users on social media networks today?
NM: The war in Iraq happened before social media. Now obviously we live in a world that is absolutely saturated with social media whether it's video on YouTube or Tiktok or whether it's still images on Instagram. But actually social media exacerbates what I might call this “banality of images” because with so many images in circulation, it's very difficult to make one image stand out or to use it as a representation of what is really happening because someone will then say “oh but look, here's something else”. There’s always another image to respond to it. One of the things we've also seen is a circulation is imagery on social media driven by the algorithms not users. And the algorithms select and conceal certain kinds of images in particular. That means that a certain kind of optimism that had existed in the 1990s about the internet’s democracy of visual images had already vanished by 2005. By 2023, there's no democracy online.
4- You borrow from Walter Benjamin one means of restoring meaning from images of violence by thinking of them as being within a certain mode of history, namely “the epic”. You argue that Benjamin’s blend of historical research, theoretical argument and critical memoir can act as a guide through the inferno of contemporary everyday life. How is this relevant to a citizen journalist documenting life in Gaza while being bombarded by Israeli warplanes?
NM: I suggested this formula in “Watching Babylon” as being a way of thinking for those of us who were watching the war but not involved in it. So now I am sitting here in New York very aware of what's happening in the Middle East, but of course, it's all coming at me through screens. It's an extraordinarily different thing to be present. And it's not my place in any way to offer advice to a journalist trying to work in the unimaginable conditions that we see now in Gaza. I want to say how grateful I am to people who are willing to do that kind of work because when this moment comes to some kind of end, we will look at their work to piece together what has actually happened. We will find as we did with the end of the war in Iraq, that actually what appeared to be happening was not always the case, particularly for those of us who are watching English language or European language media to get our information.
THE INVISIBLE IN THE EMPIRE OF CAMPS
5- In what you describe as “The Empire of camps”, which is very relevant to Palestine, you dig deeper into the practice of watching within a new model of globalized power in action. You suggest that the Empire of camps makes the Others invisible in a closed-circuit society and under control through security or military checkpoints, total surveillance, and physical separation using walls. What makes the exercise of power different in a camp compared to globalized power exercised in other societies?
NM: It's an important question and it has made me think about the Third Edition of my book “Introduction to Visual Culture”, which was just released in July 2023. I argued that the checkpoint used in the West Bank is now the paradigm visual image for contemporary surveillance. We used to talk about something called the “panopticon” which was a prison imagined by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century and then adopted by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in the 1970s. The point of the panopticon was that everyone was always visible. But Bentham’s goal was very clear. His goal was to reform people in the panopticon to make them again as Bentham would put it “useful citizens”. What we see in the checkpoint regime now is that the function is simply detention not reform. And in the first version of this book, I talk about “Detain and Deport” being primarily focused on migrants. And we see that again, right now, in New York right, and in Britain where detainees are once again being kept in floating ships as they were in the 18th century when Bentham came up with his scheme to try and come up with something less violent, less intrusive. But in the case of Gaza and the West Bank we're seeing the unfolding of settler colonialism. And in his analysis of settler colonialism, the Italian scholar Lorenzo Veracini argues that what the settler colonist says is “You go away”. and this is what I think we're seeing in Gaza right now. A statement to go away. Where are these people going to go? That can't be answered because it's a camp in the most literal sense that there is a Wall all the way around, there are two exits both of which are closed. Gaza is rightly being called the world's largest open-air prison. But a prison at least contains the possibility that one finishes their prison sentence. In this version of the Empire of camps, this is detention without end and detention that has no purpose other than to detain. So I think that in the last 20 years, we've actually seen a very striking intensification of the checkpoint regime which was just beginning in the early 2000s and is now everywhere. I've experienced it personally. At the very first moment before the events unfolded on the 7th of October, you saw the bulldozers go through the fence. And that was a very striking image, which really made palpable the extent to which the camp is a prison.
6- You state that every locality is also a part of the global. Yet, as Edward Said’s Orientalism reminds us, all localities are by no means equal. This view depends very much on the media you might have been able or willing to watch, “which are no longer limited by national boundaries. Therefore there is an infinite number of viewpoints”. One of these localities belongs to the citizen journalist, formally trained or just learning from experience to actively see and document their world, documenting everyday life in Gaza during the Israeli army’s shelling. In moments of despair, this journalist, subject and object at the same time, asks and tweets: “Are we inferior? Why the world doesn’t see us?” …. “We are watching our own death…”. What makes this person invisible to the world?
NM: So I think this follows very much what we were just discussing which is the nature of the Empire of camps. If a person is seen as a detainee or as a convict in some sense, then they are necessarily in the viewpoint of the Empire of camps in the carceral system, a second-class person. They become as if they were not equivalent to the person who is not incarcerated - the person who is at liberty. So any action taken by the incarcerated person simply often confirms the prejudice of the person who is not incarcerated. So, the peculiarity of the carceral system is that it reinforces this invisibility at every step. As the more you try to make yourself visible in a certain way, the more that the outside world responds by saying “there's nothing to see here. We refuse to see this”. I think here of the moment in 1857 when Indian soldiers and ordinary people rose against the British Empire in what is now called the “first Indian Revolution”. The British call it the “Indian Mutiny” which is to say that soldiers who had been working for them revolted against their Rule. And there was a tremendous shock amongst the British administrative and colonial classes: “ How could this be happening? How could these people be so ungrateful?”. The British responded with extreme violence in 1857. They responded by reinstating direct rule from London so that there's no local control. But less than a century later India became fully independent in 1947. So here I'm remembering a passage, which has often puzzled me in Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” because towards the end of that book he says something that “in a century, we will see a new kind of human emerge” in what I would call Palestine. And obviously right now It seems impossible to imagine that. But if we think he's writing that in 1952, we have time between now and then, in 2050. It seems to me that the overreach that we're seeing in the war now, the use of 2,000-pound bombs, the devastation that we're seeing may finally cause a reaction that makes the Empire of camps in Palestine really visible and people decide that it's no longer tolerable. I'm not saying that I imagine this in weeks or months, but over the next several decades, we may find that Fanon’s prediction comes true. Obviously, that's not a consolation, I don't wish to hold it out as one to people who are suffering unimaginable violence right now. All one can say is that perhaps it offers some tiny consolation at some level, that one might be able to hold on in the midst of the suffering that's very hard to imagine from a distance.
‘BELIEVE WHAT YOU SEE’
7- How should we react when the “Police” in its broader meaning tells us that “there’s nothing to see”, “nothing to be done”, or “keep calm and carry on”? On the other hand, Westerners who visit the West Bank for example, repeat a striking observation: “I only needed one week to see and change my mind about everything.” How efficient are the “police” across borders in controlling how we experience visual culture in a globalized world?
NM: Just to speak for where I am, not to speak for other parts of the world, In the United States, what was very noticeable was that after the murder of George Floyd and the black lives matter movement in 2020, was a very thorough going and wide-ranging conversation about precisely what you just described: the sense that “once seen you cannot go back”, that having finally realized the extent to which there is an Empire of camps here, the system of mass incarceration, and that the spectacular but kept-invisible violence of the police suddenly became knowable and seeable. At the trial of the killer of George Floyd, very strikingly, the prosecutor said simply “Believe what you see”. The video was taken by a 17-year-old woman who has really changed the balance between surveillance and what we call “sous-veillance”, which is the watching of the police from below.
In the United States, we've gone through (and we'll continue to go through) three years of very radical political turmoil between those who are desperately trying to reinstate a “move on there's nothing to see here” regime and those of us who are continuing to want to discuss and to think about how we could move past such a regime. What we've seen in the beginning of the war is something similar. But, as much as these algorithms are trying to control what we see, as much as the awareness of what's happening on the ground can only be partial. Nonetheless, over time as we're seeing, as we saw previously in Iraq and Afghanistan, the perception is shifting. So the question to the Police often is: what is their function? Their function is to sustain and support the Empire of camps, to support the neoliberal order as it has come into being over the last 40 years.
I think that we see collectively, over a longer period of time, and you mentioned this too, I think here of the Caribbean philosopher Sylvia Wynter. In the 1990s, The acronym “NHI” was used by the Los Angeles police. It stood for “no human involved” when referring to a violent incident that involved African Americans. This is what we've seen in a different context with the incursion into Gaza when we have heard people living there described as animals. We have heard them being described as savages. We have heard that everything in Gaza must be erased. You can only say that if you believe that “no human is involved”. And we look back over 500 years of colonial history and we're not surprised because we see Europeans seeing the people they encountered in the Americas as having tails or being not fully human. And we've heard that rhetoric, case after case, in the last 500 years of settler colonialism. What we haven't had in the past is the possibility of having a conversation across borders (despite commercialization, extraction, and algorithmic-based advertising-supported digital culture). There is still a margin between the extraction that they want to do and the space that they have to give you in order for you to be willing to have your attention extracted. Obviously, Google doesn't make this Google Meet software that we are using right now to have this kind of discussion. It makes it for the purpose of business meetings. But at the same time, it cannot but enable this crack in the edifice and I think there may be sufficient cracks for the edifice to collapse, and then we get to start to build again. We have to have to start building again.
8- You explain that in the context of the Iraq War, someone watching al-Jazeera is going to have a very different experience of the war in Iraq than the habitué of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. As I witness the war through visual media online, I can sense that the shock and awe strategy being executed now in Gaza is mostly seen on social media, while mainstream media attempts to conceal the scale and frequency of destruction, which is the opposite of what happened in Baghdad where the US army claimed the smart bombs performed “surgical” attacks. What is happening now in Gaza has become a prolonged version of Shock and Awe. People who watch around the world are horrified. Palestinians being bombarded non-stop in Gaza are terrified. Yet, despite, and against the intended purpose of the Shock and Awe strategy, some individuals and communities, in Brooklyn or in Barcelona, decide to take action, shouting “cease fire now” or “Not in our name”. Are these people seeing more freely, imagining and changing the world (at least in the political sense, “What truly matters in modern war is the political result.”)?
NM: It’s a great question. I think when people protest here they shout “Whose streets? Our streets.” And they do this on both sides of the political spectrum. David Harvey has argued that we need to actively contest “the right to the city”. Who has the right to the city? And that's what these social movements that you're seeing now in Brooklyn are actively doing when protesting for Palestine. This is building more than a decade of work from the beginnings of Occupy Wall Street, which was again a reclaiming of the city. By being visible we did create a counter-narrative. One of the things that Neoliberalism in particular always said was in the words of Margaret Thatcher: “There is no alternative”. And there were times in Britain after she had defeated the miners union where you felt maybe this was true. The discourse on the right is all about catastrophe. And there's a certain irony, because they're not echoing deliberately Nakba, but there is a sense in which these discourses are coming together now. They can't imagine a country or a community that isn't a settler colony. Some people who were hospitalized due to COVID during the pandemic of 2020 were willing, to an extraordinary extent, to deny that they had COVID because they say it was a hoax. Then they became terminally ill as a result of refusing to get treatment. For a certain kind of white settler colonists, it matters more to them that they remain white settler colonists than anything else, including their own life. Those people have been able to tap into a wave of anger and hatred that seemed almost without end. But there is an end to it.
9- Fanon writes: "...for if equality among men is proclaimed in the name of intelligence and philosophy (qualities and domains that the Western civilization claimed ownership for a long time), it is also true that these concepts have been used to justify the extermination of man." The strategy of “embedding” reporters with military units provided a means of identification for the American television audience with the live images, even when there was very little to see. In contesting this visual narrative, it is necessary to begin by refusing this apparently transparent link to the remote site of warfare. On October 10, 2023, the Israeli army took a group of international journalists to the Kfar Azza kibbutz. The field visit has led to the proliferation of the “40 beheaded babies” headline on the front pages of media worldwide (The claim is yet to be confirmed and was retracted several times by US and Israeli officials as well as media). How much does the embedding of globalized western reporters, as well as their consequent coverage of “what happened”, contribute to the justification of the ongoing bombardment and siege of Gaza?
NM: So there are a number of layers to this question that I want to unfold because it's very important. So the first thing is to think about the impact of violence, its saturation throughout the last 500 years. But certain kinds of violence are more spectacular and visible than other kinds of violence. There’s a book called “Gore Capitalism” with the idea that capitalism always expropriates blood and sweat. You think of the diamonds that come from the Congo, you think of the violence of the US-Mexico border, and the immense loss of life that takes place through the circulation of drugs. So it is not that we are never in a context of extreme violence. Extreme violence is a daily constant. But certain moments seem to “catch”. We used to think of global media as widely disseminated but we have a very limited number of media companies worldwide: News Corp, the social media platforms that are now really centralized (Meta, X, Amazon, Google). Very few. so one of the ironies here is that the older analysis by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri about “Empire” is that there's a conspiracy because the same effect is being produced everywhere. It’s not an actual conspiracy in the sense that the leaders of those small numbers of media channels are sitting down and having a secret meeting. But because they are very similar people, because their interests are very similar and because they draw on the same extractive philosophy, then it's logical for them to come to the same decision. So yes, we've seen immense circulation of this violence online, but what is it about these headlines of the alleged beheaded babies? We saw many similar stories before in the Iraq War when Iraq was accused of taking babies out of incubators… Exactly the same kind of story again. One of the things I think we had to understand as critics, and also as humans, is the way that over the last 75 years we've come to normalize watching bombs. When we see a bomb, we can even watch the explosion of a nuclear bomb.
I remember in 1991 when the Gulf War took place. I remember the first film that we saw on the so-called smart bombs. These are weapons that target themselves to their supposed enemy target. Later we discovered that they were no more accurate than bombs that are just dropped out of the back of a plane. But it seemed at the time that these weapons had a form of intelligence flying themselves. And you would see this moment of impact when the film would abruptly stop when the bomb reaches its target and then there will be a blank screen, and that somehow made it very palpable to people. And that would cause, as you described, tremendous shock amongst people when that happened. I had a colleague who was a historian of 17th-century science who stayed up all night watching these videos of the Gulf War and here we are somewhat 30 years later and the sight of those targeted bombs has become an everyday thing. It has become natural.
I've also seen for example the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken describe seeing some video of alleged Hamas operatives going into a kibbutz and shooting some people and then they took something out of the fridge and somehow this was “unimaginable” to Blinken.
What I think we're beginning to experience and we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan is that you can control and disseminate that kind of shock moment for a week, maybe even months. But over a period of time, it fails. And it fails because other humans start to move around to tell their stories and to report what they've seen and describe what they've seen.
Now there have been marches and protests. The point of those marches ultimately is not to convince the other side but to show that the outside still exists, that we didn't go away. And that had been important. Before the Iraq War in 2003, millions of people marched in New York, in London, and couldn’t stop the war. But later when it became clear that the war had been for nothing, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, then people did remember, they looked back and said “No, it wasn't that nobody knew.”
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