Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 11, 2013
Ariella Azoulay Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography New York: Verso, 2012. 288 pp.; 64 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (9781844677535)

Ariella Azoulay’s Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography encourages readers to imagine a new discourse for the study and treatment of photography. Expanding upon ideas found in her book The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008) (click here for review), Azoulay proposes to consider photography as an ongoing public event that began with the emergence of photographic consciousness in the early nineteenth century. Ever since, she asserts, the existence of photography and the awareness of its omnipresence have normalized and conditioned the physical and psychic behaviour of human beings to comply with the moral codes imposed by hegemonic apparatuses of power. Most notably, Azoulay thinks of those manufactured by the modern nation-state. Nevertheless, as she explains (after Walter Benjamin), photography has opened up the possibility for people to encounter their fellow human beings and the physical conditions of their life circumstances, beyond time and space, as well as outside the domains of photographic expertise. Thanks to photography, individuals can display and consider themselves, other human beings, and the forms of existence they share. This, Azoulay argues, has allowed them to draw attention to the worlds created and fostered by themselves, and therefore to imagine visible worlds that exist beyond the constraints of the ideological political realm. The alleged ability of everyone to act independently within this intersubjective photographic public sphere constitutes what Azoulay names “the citizenry of photography.”

Throughout Civil Imagination Azoulay helps readers to understand what historical and material elements could be used to think about photography outside of conventional disciplinary debates and within the non-specialist civil domain. To allow for such a discourse to emerge in readers’ imaginations, Azoulay explores various potential encounters with photography through a consideration of Hannah Arendt’s compartmentalization of the vita activa (the life of action) as described in The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). For Arendt, the vita activa consisted of the realms of “labor,” “work,” and “action.” She understood the category of “labor” as referring to activities necessary for the survival of human beings, such as the provision of food and shelter, and the reproduction of life. The category of “work” comprised activities intended to create products, which may support the existence of some human beings. Yet, activities within this category are not necessary for the endurance of life. Examples include the making of tools and systems of organization. While “labor” and “work” gather within themselves activities whose end results are preempted, Arendt defined the category of “action” as a textual, verbal, or physical deed presented within the public domain, bringing something new to the public, something unforeseen even by its own creator.

In this light, Azoulay portrays the notion of the gaze as one that mirrors Arendt’s division of the vita activa. Due to its role in human activities carried out for survival, for the creation of knowledge and its organized distribution, and for the formation and regeneration of unforeseen perceptions, Azoulay understands the human gaze as closer to the life of action. Within the life of the gaze Azoulay further coins and counts three categories: “the orienting gaze,” which is related to “labor” as it supports human survival by visual recognition and identification; “the deliberate gaze,” which Azoulay links to “work,” as it belongs to professionals and experts who use it purposefully to organize and control the visible world, and thus to regulate its understanding by others; and, finally, “the practical gaze,” which she less clearly defines as “the gaze that tarries over its object in order to transcend it and to reveal the truth behind the visible” (68). This third category of the gaze parallels Arendt’s category of “action” in that it is neither used as a means to an end, nor is it conditioned by any authoritative products of knowledge. Rather, it is carried out independently by any inquisitive observer. Therefore, the new, unforeseen, and uninformed perceptions of the visible world accumulated by “the practical gaze” are not privileged over those arrived at by other observers. “No one,” Azoulay writes, “has exclusive authorship over her own gaze” (68).

“The practical gaze” and the ability to negotiate the perceptions that it yields within the public sphere have only become possible since 1839 with the public announcement of photography’s invention. This, according to Azoulay, is because photography has given rise to the possibility “of sharing a certain space with other people and objects without having to be physically present beside them in the same place” (68). Seeking to foster this gaze is the pivotal condition for the accumulation of uncontrollable civil knowledge. Thus it is also a condition for the emergence of a photographic civil discourse within the realm of the civil imagination, and separate from the authoritative political domain.

While Civil Imagination presents a theoretical argument whose purpose is clear, it contains some disconnected deliberations, unsupported claims, and some laborious theoretical discussions, often unnecessary for the development of Azoulay’s argument. For example, the second chapter of the book delves into an analysis of the difference between “the political” and “the aesthetic,” intending to highlight the ideological constraints these two categories constitute when used to evaluate the significance of visual imagery. Whereas the impact of categorical spectatorship on the perception of photographic images is already covered by Azoulay’s argument regarding the function of “the deliberate gaze,” this discussion leads her to launch an unfounded attack on art-historical studies for allegedly being one-dimensional, judgmental, and authoritative, imbued with an “ahistorical approach to visual culture” (62). Such a claim is misleading, discarding the many dynamic sociological, cultural, and other methodological developments that have characterized research in art history for at least the past four decades.

Most frustrating from a research perspective is the consistent lack of attention to the writing of many scholars whose work no doubt inspired Azoulay’s position: John Tagg, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Allan Sekula, and others. Surprisingly, there is also no mention in Civil Imagination of Martha Langford’s edited volume Image and Imagination (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005) nor of Blake Stimson’s The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006) (click here for review). Both Langford and Stimson delineated key ideas that appear to be mulled over in Civil Imagination. Langford took upon herself the task of investigating the role imagination plays in photography, ultimately arguing that photographs materialize themselves only “in the spectatorial mind” (3). Stimson rigorously studied and critically assessed the mythical democratic promise of photography to bypass monolithic authorities and national ideologies, to establish imagined communities of spectators who perceive themselves as freed of nation-state politics and as universally united human beings. Another notable absence is Georges Didi-Huberman’s Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) (click here for review), which explicitly considers photography as an event that extends beyond the photographic frame, equating photographic images to injurious gazes that require the viewer’s ethical response. Citing such literature would have acknowledged the lineage of Azoulay’s theoretical position, allowing for readers to consider her thought in relation to other scholarly accounts essential to the social history and critical theory of photography today.

Civil Imagination’s main strength lies in its capacity to assist researchers in the broader field of photography to at least imagine an activist discourse for photography, emancipated of any authoritative restrictions. As opposed to the work of other politically engaged researchers in the field of photography studies, Azoulay strives to generate an applied theoretical framework for the use of photography, through which those deprived of formal political agency would be able to create a critical mass of resistance to sovereign institutions of power. Indeed, the possibility of achieving this is embedded in photography as a “potentiality,” and one could think of some specific and successful, yet momentary and local, examples.

To put her theory to practice, Azoulay features some case studies related to the Israel-Palestinian struggle, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and to acts of violence and dehumanization carried out against the Palestinian population mainly by Israeli soldiers in the name of the Israeli nation-state. In line with her theoretical outlook, Azoulay considers these images as ongoing events whose meaning and implications alter every time a new spectator returns their gaze. “Investigating the scope of the gaze,” she writes, “creates wider perspectives for recognizing the disaster as a form of ongoing domination rather than as a discrete temporal event” (154). Entering into a dialogue with the visual information these photographs provide, Azoulay imagines what other violent acts and violations of human rights they might be testifying for. Azoulay also imagines photographs of the rape of Palestinian women by Jewish soldiers, based on texts accounting for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. These are “not photographs that have been lost, but photographs never captured” (231). Here, following her understanding of photographs as partial and inconclusive images that are open to interpretation and manipulation, photography becomes an integral extension of the human mental faculties. This allows Azoulay to engage with imaginary yet plausible visual depictions of atrocities that haunt the more innocent historical narratives about the establishment of the State of Israel and about its political ethics and conduct in the past and present.

Shaping imaginary images out of ambiguous textual information and narrating possible realities that have been left out of materialized photographic records, Azoulay demonstrates the necessity to suspend “the orienting gaze” and “the deliberate gaze” as a matter of ethical urgency. Achieving that would allow one to increase one’s own critical abilities and motivate the consideration of the human condition of others, beyond the information delivered to citizens and non-citizens by authoritative channels of communication. However, rarely is photography seen as capable of permanently suspending either of those gazes to the universal level contemplated by Azoulay. One reason for this is the overpowering mobility of the socio-cultural and political doctrines—or “the deliberate gaze,” which one can understand in terms of political ideology—that inescapably dominates the human existence within any social environment.

Admittedly, imagining the possibility of a civil, non-specialist discourse becoming prevalent is all that Azoulay explicitly asks for (1). Perhaps this is due to her understanding that the citizenry of photography has not emerged organically or democratically, that in order to foster “the practical gaze” one needs to posses knowledge of critical theories and histories of photography that conceive of it as a continuing event extending beyond the photographic frame. Indeed, Azoulay’s delineation of the criteria for citizenship status within the citizenry of photography attests to its exclusive ideological radicalism. On the one hand, “anyone who stands in any relation whatsoever to photography has membership in the citizenry of photography” (69). On the other hand, one who thinks of photography in line with “the first two configurations of the gaze remains entrapped within a form of visual disorder that excludes her from the province shared by all-the-citizens . . . and removes her from the citizenry of photography” (76).

In Civil Imagination Azoulay’s citizenry of photography cannot but replicate the dichotomy of power relations and the politics of control prevailing within any hegemonic apparatus of power. Her political commentary as regards the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is necessary as it increases the visibility of their precarious living conditions. Yet Azoulay’s own political views dominate the discourse that she presents, leading her to utilize the idea of photography to visualize (rather than to imagine) the Palestinian people as the dependent victims of the Israelis, and the Israelis as the criminalized victims of their own state. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that Azoulay’s conceptualization of photography appears apt at a time when control over this medium and over individual transmissions of privately captured visual imagery has been seized and appropriated by authoritative institutions to promote their own supremacy and credibility. In this respect, Civil Imagination acts as a necessary yet cruel reminder that an uncritical relationship with the social idea of photography could easily determine whose life is not worthy of living.

Gil Pasternak
Senior Lecturer in Photography, School of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Huddersfield