How To See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More
(Basic Books, 2016)
How To See the World is like a set of jumper cables for the eyes, jolting us out of our image glut. Nicholas Mirzoeff, a visual culture theorist and professor of media at NYU, continues the democratizing work of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) by expanding the scope of image studies to phenomena as diverse as 19th-century battlefield maps and astronaut selfies in space. In accessible, incisive prose, Mirzoeff underlines the political and ethical stakes that connect us and our images inextricably.
Central for Mirzoeff is an argument against linguistic leaps. “Seeing is not believing,” he writes. “It is something we do, a kind of performance.” Today this “performance,” which separates a physical process from a psychological one, is increasingly multifaceted, as digital processes predetermine and shape our visual understanding and interaction with the world.
It’s all unmistakably political, so Mirzoeff’s compelling narrative goes, and it’s all tied to a tradition of tactical aggression. “Visualization,” for Mirzoeff, began with ancient generals, who rose to positions of leadership for their ability to see beyond the immediacy of an infantryman. These generals, like Alexander and Napoleon, merged physical sight with knowledge and intuition to form a composite image of the battlefield that lay outside their tents. It was this “image” that allowed them to conquer.
With the turn of the 20th century and the First World War’s planes and long-range cameras, visualization became a technological service aiding the military elite. Battles were now waged in deference to information gleaned from an image—the aerial photographs that incited the Cuban Missile Crisis, Colin Powell’s slideshow of a “chemical munitions bunker” in Iraq. From here, one can see the progression to unmanned drones and targeted executions. “There is no longer a battlefield,” Mirzoeff writes, “only zones of surveillance.”
Fittingly, an image of Alfredo Jaar’s The Eyes of Gutete Emerita graces the book’s cover, a work by an artist for whom the paradox of violence and blindness has engendered decades of questioning the capabilities of sight. There’s still much to interpret in these image-saturated times, and Mirzoeff’s work makes essential progress.