Race And Photo-graphics
It is essential here to see that the processes of industrialization and then computerization that produced the new objects and eventually machines for the development of the visual do not occur in some spatio-temporal vacuum occupied by abstract individual bodies all subjected to regimes of visuality in precisely the same manner. Rather, industrialization developed on the laboring backs of specific bodies in tandem with the entire European and American projects of colonization and imperialism. If industrialization was linked to the development of capitalism, the development of capitalism was linked to the conquest of regions formerly on the periphery of capitalism: Africa, Asia, the Americas—in short, the world. Thus one must observe that the development of the various racisms (which are themselves relatively new and certainly not transhistorical) are nothing less than a complementary technology of exploitation—a process of othering that enabled and legitimated the violence done unto populations subject to conquest, genocide, enslavement, and the twenty-first century's continued neocolonialism.
That this racism has a visual component is an understatement. It is indeed ironic that the French critic Roland Barthes (1915–1980), in his celebrated work Camera Lucida, locates what he considers "the essence of photography" in a discussion of a lost photograph of a slave auction. That photograph would indicate the "this-has-beenness" of the abhorrent reality of slavery, and yet Barthes displaces slavery itself in order to talk about photography. The technology, finally, is for Barthes more significant than the social conditions of its emergence. However, one might also think that photography emerges alongside the social need to graph people onto a social hierarchy vis-à-vis their appearance—that slavery haunts photography. Such a graphing via the skin, a process of capture, objectification, classification, and control, defines both slavery and photography. Photography partakes of and intensifies many of the logics of racialization and the violence that is inseparable from it. There are other works, such as Vicente Rafael's work in White Love on census photography in the Philippines, that would support such a line of analysis.
Many black writers have commented on the visual aspects of racism directly or indirectly. Harriet Jacobs's slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1870?), details Jacobs's effective incarceration hidden in the attic of a shed where, for seven years as an immobilized prisoner of plantation society and invisible to everyone, she watches her own children play just below her while being unable to tell them that she loves them, is okay or even alive. This autobiographical passage creates an extraordinary image of the violence of the black/white divide imposed by white supremacist society in which black subjects were rendered invisible in their subjectivity to white subjects. Not only did slave labor produce the wealth necessary to sustain and develop plantation society (its lands, its culture, its wealth, and its dominant subjects), but the objectification of slaves as property, as Other, by whites was essential in order that they not see the consequences of who and what slaveholders and other whites were for slaves.
The consciousness produced by the violence of racism and the mapping of subjects via their appearance is a topic of longstanding critique, lament, and rage. W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) wrote in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) of "a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others.…" In the 1950s, the author Ralph Ellison declared the American black an invisible man. And in France, the political theorist Frantz Fanon, who was born and first educated in colonial Martinique, wrote in a chapter in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), entitled "The Fact of Blackness," of his existential crises of being perceived as black in a French context. What emerges in Fanon's writing is not only the crisis of being perceived to be black and thus other, but the constitutive and universalist racism of France. In response to his experiences, he recalls a moment of being othered while on a train by a child who says, "Look, a negro!" Fanon writes:
I was responsible at the same time for my body, my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slaveships, and above all else, above all: "Sho' good eatin'."
On that day, completely dislocated, unable to be abroad with the other, the white man, who unmercifully imprisoned me, I took myself far off from my own presence, far indeed, and made myself an object. What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that spattered my whole body with black blood? (p. 112)
The violent structuring of the visual field along racial lines, which led to violent critique of this violence by many cultural producers and revolutionaries, remains subject to an ongoing critique by subjects who identify as or with numerous races and/or ethnicities. One of the most important aspects of the study of visual culture in the early twenty-first century is the analysis and unpacking of visuality in terms of race and the allied histories of colonization and imperialism. For the structuring of visuality is tied to the production and reproduction of representations (and erasures) of racialized subjects, and these images, whether through the stimulation of fantasy or the production of perceptions of what is ostensibly reality, in turn enable much of the ongoing violence of contemporary society.
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