Bro­phy, Sarah and Jan­ice Hlad­ki, edi­tors Embod­ied Pol­i­tics in Visu­al Auto­bi­og­ra­phy. Toron­to: Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Press, 2014. 308pp. Paper $22.00. ISBN: 978-1-4426-1609-7

Video still from Worth (Rebec­ca Bel­more, Sep­tem­ber 11, 2010. Pho­to cred­it © Hen­ri Robideau Cour­tesy of the artist.

Embod­ied Pol­i­tics in Visu­al Auto­bi­og­ra­phy is a unique and diverse col­lec­tion that puts the act of see­ing and the need to the­o­rize visu­al auto­bi­og­ra­phy on the intel­lec­tu­al scene in Cana­da and beyond. It is a book that left me feel­ing for­tu­nate to have such a resource; one wrapped in provo­ca­tion while plac­ing me in the mid­dle of a rich and var­ied set of artis­tic prac­tices, polit­i­cal events, and schol­ar­ly ref­er­ences. This col­lec­tion brings visu­al cul­ture alive in the telling of dif­fi­cult sto­ries.

These sto­ries include auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal desire as it con­tacts the preg­nant male body; anorex­ia; fat­ness; trans­sex­u­al appear­ances and dis­ap­pear­ances; indige­nous ways of know­ing as they inter­act and col­lide with muse­um rep­re­sen­ta­tions; peo­ple with intel­lec­tu­al impair­ments remak­ing images of dis­abil­i­ty-degrad­ed; het­ero­sex­u­al and het­ero­nor­ma­tive mas­culin­i­ty brought to scruti­ny as a way to bring into view both dom­i­nant and alter­na­tive ways of being; and more. The read­er will encounter the body brought to its wits end via suf­fer­ing, ill­ness, dis­ease, hatred, racism… geno­cide. All of this is wit­nessed through auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal moments on the visu­al plane.

Of this book, the edi­tors Bro­phy and Hlad­ki (6) say that not only do “Visu­al auto­bi­ogra­phies elic­it vis­cer­al response to mul­ti­ple embod­i­ments”, they also remind us that there are “modes of visu­al­i­ty that allow and dis­al­low forms of embod­i­ment to appear in pub­lic venues.” Embod­ied Pol­i­tics in Visu­al Auto­bi­og­ra­phy embraces the risk that there is a ped­a­gog­ic pos­si­bil­i­ty in vis­cer­al respons­es to these modes of visu­al­i­ty; and var­i­ous authors invite us to “see” these ways of see­ing. It is this "dou­ble vision" that I turn to since this book unique­ly rais­es the press­ing issue of the pol­i­tics of vision as well as the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a more respon­si­ble visu­al pol­i­tics.

This col­lec­tion ques­tions the role, place and pow­er of vision in the mak­ing of mean­ing for life, death and all that lies between. While vision is a self-pro­claimed Truth Teller and, while this may be one of the great lies of moder­ni­ty, it still remains the case that vision is used to assert many pow­er­ful “truths.” Wendy Kozol’s (211) chap­ter, “Wit­ness­ing Geno­cide in Cam­bo­dia,” puts the mat­ter this way: “we do more than just ‘look’” and so any sense of visu­al respon­si­bil­i­ty is com­plex. We do more than just look since we can nev­er just look. Any gaze can­not be con­trolled by an iso­lat­ed sov­er­eign self but finds that it is sit­u­at­ed with­in, and even behold­en to, the gaze of oth­ers. This sit­u­at­ed char­ac­ter of vision includes the mul­ti­tudi­nous “cat­e­gories that under­gird the sta­tus quo of gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty” (Fung, 97), as well as “white­ness and the on-going cap­i­tal­ist recon­struc­tion of the econ­o­my” (Iriv­ing, 112), and also the pow­er of com­mon visu­al prac­tices “when you have had absolute­ly no con­trol over how you are rep­re­sent­ed” (Schor­mans and Cham­bon, 171).

Yet, part of the pow­er of vision is to deny pre­cise­ly these inter-sub­jec­tive grounds of its own pos­si­bil­i­ty. The per­spec­tive of blind­ness can dis­turb this denial since blind­ness demon­strates that there is com­pli­cat­ed work behind the appear­ance of the seem­ing­ly sin­gu­lar nat­u­ral­ness of a “sight­ed world.” Blind the­o­rist Rod Michalko (1998: 39) sug­gests that, "Unless we are artists or blind per­sons, see­ing is easy. We typ­i­cal­ly do not dis­tin­guish between the sight we have and the sights we see… [Nonethe­less] The one –I – desires to look, while the oth­er – eye – desires to see… Look­ing requires a sub­ject in that it is nec­es­sar­i­ly steeped in deci­sion".

In this col­lec­tion, we encounter, again and again, such deci­sions made obvi­ous; deci­sions, no longer tak­en for grant­ed. Deci­sions to see are sit­u­at­ed in the midst of the dif­fi­cult task of fig­ur­ing out how we came to see what we did as we did. This kind of artistry could be imag­ined as a form of blind-per­cep­tion since it rep­re­sents an uneasy see­ing. That is, Embod­ied Pol­i­tics in Visu­al Auto­bi­og­ra­phy pro­vides a per­spec­tive on visu­al cul­ture that does not take for grant­ed that see­ing is social­ly accom­plished. Artists and the­o­rists of visu­al auto­bi­og­ra­phy pro­voke us to encounter our gaze as it is orga­nized by val­ues and assump­tions of the var­i­ous ways West­ern cul­ture desires us to see.

This col­lec­tion con­tains many lessons on how to sit­u­ate the act of see­ing in its social com­plex­i­ty. Such an edu­ca­tion seems all the more nec­es­sary when we con­sid­er how some gazes orga­nize what lives will been seen to mat­ter and what lives not. See­ing does seem easy; too easy espe­cial­ly when we “see” some gazes lead­ing to the demise and degra­da­tion of peo­ple. It has, for exam­ple, been easy for some to see that a police choke hold that kills Eric Gar­ner sim­ply wasn’t so. Police and oth­ers eas­i­ly see some­thing else when they see Black peo­ple killed by police; some­times they even see hulks and mon­sters, but still do not see unjus­ti­fied lev­els of vio­lence and thus can­not see an unwar­rant­ed death. This “easy-see” is accom­pa­nied by an equal­ly easy hear­ing of use­less breath as when Gar­ner said, “I can’t breathe.” And, still see­ing seems easy and some peo­ple rec­om­mend it as a pow­er­ful line of pro­tec­tion, sug­gest­ing that racism will be beat­en by mount­ing cam­eras on police offi­cers – per­haps then we will real­ly see…?

This col­lec­tion reminds us oth­er­wise; it is a time­ly polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion into the state of vision as an unques­tioned pow­er. It does not rec­om­mend that vision sim­ply should be uti­lized dif­fer­ent­ly. Nor does Embod­ied Pol­i­tics in Visu­al Auto­bi­og­ra­phy let us rest easy in the act of the visu­al with­out encoun­ter­ing some of that which lies behind our desire to see, name­ly, our deci­sions and their inter-sub­jec­tive orga­ni­za­tion. More­over, this book does not par­tic­i­pate in a pro­lif­er­a­tion of the visu­al as some­thing assumed to speak for itself. Instead, every chap­ter demon­strates that eyes do not just see and images do not just show.

We are returned, then, to our vis­cer­al respons­es to how peo­ple have visu­al­ly depict­ed their lives as a way to re-encounter the com­plex­i­ty of mean­ings made. There are many provoca­tive terms through­out that reflect this return or re-fram­ing -- the polit­i­cal con­tes­ta­tion of vision; visu­al knowl­edge prac­tices; dis­rup­tion of placid visu­al rela­tions; visions at the thresh­old of the flesh; wit­ness­ing a trou­bled hero­ism; new prac­tices in spec­ta­tor­ship; active look­ing that impli­cates us in the gaze; eth­i­cal spec­ta­tor­ship; etc. These terms can be read, in Bro­phy and Hladki’s (244) words, as a “sum­mon­ing of the spec­ta­tor.”

This is an impor­tant book for those who wish to answer the sum­mons of an uneasy rela­tion­ship with one’s gaze and what is looked at so that we might reen­counter the nar­ra­tives, the biogra­phies, that have enabled us to see what we do and per­haps come to per­ceive our sto­ries dif­fer­ent­ly. Such dou­ble vision is indis­pen­si­ble.

Cita­tions:
Harkin­son, Josh. Aug. 13. 2014. “4 Unarmed Black Men Have Been Killed By Police in the Last Month: From New York City and LA to Ohio and Fer­gu­son, MO, they all died under dis­put­ed cir­cum­stances.” Moth­er­Jones http://​www​.moth​er​jones​.com/​p​o​l​i​t​i​c​s​/​2​0​1​4​/​0​8​/​3​-​u​n​a​r​m​e​d​-​b​l​a​c​k​-​a​f​r​i​c​a​n​-​a​m​e​r​i​c​a​n​-​m​e​n​-​k​i​l​l​e​d​-​p​o​l​ice [Accessed May 13, 2014].

Michalko, Rod. 1998. The Mys­tery of the Eye and the Shad­ow of Blind­ness. Toron­to: Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Press.

Review­er Biog­ra­phy:

Tanya Titchkosky is Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Social Jus­tice Edu­ca­tion, in the Ontario Insti­tute for Stud­ies in Edu­ca­tion of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, Cana­da. She is author of The Ques­tion of Access: Dis­abil­i­ty, Space, Mean­ing as well as Read­ing and Writ­ing Dis­abil­i­ty Dif­fer­ent­ly: The Tex­tured Life of Embod­i­ment as well as Dis­abil­i­ty, Self and Soci­ety. Her teach­ing and schol­ar­ship draw out the mean­ing made of nar­rat­ed per­cep­tions of embod­ied dif­fer­ences by rely­ing on phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal and hermeneu­tic ori­ent­ed approach­es of social inquiry with­in crit­i­cal Race, Gen­der, Queer the­o­ry and Dis­abil­i­ty Stud­ies. Tanya is inter­est­ed in trac­ing out the cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion of nor­mal­cy as it makes for high­ly exclu­sion­ary forms of (appar­ent­ly) inclu­sion­ary prac­tices and beliefs.