Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism

Azoulay can be a challenging photographic theorist, largely because photographs for her are not strictly essential to the study of photography. This decoupling, which she outlined in her last book Civil Imagination, allows for photography to occasion political theory.2 Azoulay builds on this work here, particularly as she develops the camera’s shutter as an imperial operation that instantly “draws three dividing lines: in time (between a before and an after), in space (between who/what is in front of the camera and who/what is behind it), and in the body politic (between those who possess and operate such devices and appropriate and accumulate their product and those whose countenance, resources, or labor are extracted)” (5). To unlearn the operation of the imperial shutter is to insist on seeing past violences resound in the present, the distant “there” in the immediate “here,” and categories of “slave” or “refugee” as necropolitical corollaries of the “citizen.” Azoulay continues to be a provocative media theorist, suggesting that photography has its origins in 1492, the year of Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean. In Potential History, however, the author considerably broadens her scope beyond photography to consider and critique art and its institutions: the work of art becomes “a synecdoche of imperial power”, the museum is founded upon looting, and the knowledge it generates is the basis of sustained violence. More here.

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