Détournement as Optic

I’m very honored to have an article published in the excellent Philosophy of Photography. The advisory board of this UK-based journal features a number of scholars whose work has profoundly influenced my thinking on indexical media: Ariella Azoulay, Stewart Martin and Geoffrey Batchen, among others. My article explores the idea that détournement, a strategy of politicized appropriation, might best be understood in diametrical opposition to the strategy of omniscient depiction at work in the production of aerial views. Here’s a link to the article, entitled “Détournement as optic: Debord, derisory documents and the aerial view,” and an abstract below.

For Situationist, theorist and film-maker Guy Debord, the aerial view reproduced the falsely objective world-view he called ‘the spectacle’. To counter its myth of an infinitely expandable, omniscient perspective, Debord reduced views from above to ‘derisory documents’ of the social and the environmental through détournement, as evidenced in the two films he made while the Situationist International was in existence. The films engage critically with aerial photography as a hegemonic mode of indexical media, with the aerial view’s application as information image and ornament, and with the formal phenomenon of ciné-mapping. This analysis suggests that the détournement Debord performs in and across these films can be best conceptualized as a critical optic that constitutes a practice of seeing, a mode of reception and a call to action in the social space beyond its aesthetic employ. The optic of détournement is the contestational counterpart to the optic of the aerial view. This remains the case today, despite the complexity of photographic views from above and their increased abstraction of social agents and spaces. An alternative to the testimonial function of embodied photographic views, détournement as optic represents an indexical civil contract founded upon representational inadequacy.

(The myth of) the science of social space

I’ve just published a review of Jeanne Haffner’s lucid and interesting The View from Above: The Science of Social Space (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013). It’s in the current issue of French Studies, accessible here.

An excerpt:

The myth of social space was invoked in France by Marxists as well as by conservatives, city commissioners, and professors. Utopian in the equilibrium it implied, ‘social space’ referred to ‘space abstracted beyond the chaos of the ground but not divorced from it; not solely geographical or social, it was […] a spatialization of complex social and economic relationships within a particular urban environment’ (p. 82).

The View From Above establishes extremely valuable connections between the high modernist use of aerial photography detailed in the research of scholars such as Paula Amad, and the late modernist disillusionment with aerial photography exemplified by Guy Debord’s texts and films during and after his participation in the Situationist International. It represents a continued invitation to contemplate our view of the city and our right to it.

Three thoughts on visual culture studies

This summer I had a discussion with another scholar over whether our work should be considered “visual culture” or “visual studies.” She tilted her head. “Visual culture has these connotations of material culture, of cultural studies, of nineteenth-century studies,” she explained. “Not art historical or film theoretical enough. I usually say ‘visual studies.'”

I nodded. I understood. Yet, I explained, I consider a rigorous focus on spectatorial environment, historical conditions of reception and/or the materiality of projection methods to be fundamental to my study of the visual. The overarching cultural connection is very important to me.

With Visual Culture Studies (London: Sage, 2008) Marquard Smith has fleshed out an interdisciplinary term that suggests the marriage of perception and its position amidst the social. Here are three perspectives on visual culture studies from the interviews he conducted that I find particularly thought-provoking, whether or not I entirely agree or disagree with them.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

I suspect that the most interesting new questions for visual studies, then, will be located at the frontiers of visuality, the places where seeing approaches a limit and is faced with its own negation, or with some other perceptual modality or medium. That is probably why, in my own ‘general’ teaching, I have shifted from visual culture to media studies. It’s not because I have given up on visual studies, but because the problem of mediation opens the visual onto different phenomenological frontiers (stillness and motion; audition, tactility, and embodiment) as well as technologies and regimes of the visible. This leads me to ask what the digitalization of the visible field means, and to press for answers that would take us beyond the received ideas, e.g. the ‘loss of the real’ posited by so many theorists[…]The current revival of Guy Debord’s concept of the ‘spectacle’ as a tool for diagnosing the war on terror (see Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, the Retort collective) strikes me as deeply flawed in its hostility to technical considerations, and its recourse to iconoclastic remedies for political maladies. If visual studies is going to engage capitalism, politics and war through the medium of spectacle, it is going to require analysis and historical investigation of the spectacular concept itself (36).

the wonderful Vivian Sobchack:

For the most part, I think that what goes by the name of ‘visual culture’ is really ‘visible culture.’ That what gets talked about is not ‘visuality’ but ‘visibility.’ Similarly, instead of talking about embodiment–what it is to live a body, what it is to live acts of seeing not merely with one’s eyes (as if that were possible)–most scholars talk about ‘the body’–positing it as merely a thing, or as a visible object belonging to someone else. This seems to me a continuation of the objectivist project–despite the fat that people writing about ‘visuality’ and ‘the body’ are critiquing that project.


I think the distinctions between visible culture and visual culture are terribly important ones. Although it’s changing, the tendency still is to only talk about the side of vision that is about the visible, not about the visual. But you need both sides to achieve vision. Thinking about visuality links vision to the body and our other senses which are not, to use a phrase, ‘asleep on the job,’ but active in giving the things we see a visible thickness and dimension (124).

Best and last, Martin Jay:

In the critique of the reifying power of the gaze, most extensively explored in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, there was already a powerful ethical moment, which was given added impetus when feminists like Luce Irigaray and Laura Mulvey stressed its gendered character. The Jewish emphasis on hearing as opposed to the Greek stress on sight, which Levinas tied to the relative importance respectively of the ethical and the ontological in each tradition, increased still further the ethical stakes in discussions of visual culture.

Perhaps the real task these days is not so much to rehearse these now familiar connections, but rather to probe the ways in which the sense of ‘looking after’ someone is just as much a possibility as ‘looking at’ them in le regard, and ‘watching out for someone’ is an ethical alternative to controlling surveillance (184).

Citizen Feminist


When Vladimir Putin announced to international media outlets that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich of Pussy Riot “shouldn’t be judged so harshly” and that he hoped the court decision will be “well-founded,” it became clear the women would receive a guilty sentence that would be the most of the least: just long enough to be onerous and just short enough to (hopefully) turn worldwide focus away from their plight.

There are two specific things about the events which have unfolded around Pussy Riot’s arrest that fascinate, provoke and inspire me, and which have been under-examined in reportage I’ve read:

1. The “attack” on Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral was only significant in so far as it supplied the staging and mise-en-scene for the music video which the group created–the one that, according to Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr Verzilov, got the members arrested. (Both versions of the footage here.) The trio was charged with “hooliganism” in name only; in reality, they had proven alarmingly effective counter-cultural advertisers, and were being prosecuted for it.

Although it’s easy to argue that every stage of this conflict (from provocation to show trial to “Free Pussy Riot” web platforms to this blog post) played out in the realm of the virtual, Pussy Riot must be lauded for their courage in allowing this virtual battle to inflict itself upon their own plane of immanence. History proves that this, and only this is the way activism “makes a difference.”

Moreover, in her lucid and brilliantly-engineered closing statement, Yekaterina Samutsevich pointedly connected Putin’s co-option of the Orthodox Church and the national media to Russia’s quotidian plane of immanence, as well:

That Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of the authorities was clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyayev took over as leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be openly used as a flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces, which are the main source of political power in Russia.


Implementing this thoroughly interesting political project has required considerable quantities of professional lighting and video equipment, air time on national television for hours-long live broadcasts, and numerous background shoots for morally and ethically edifying news stories, where the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would in fact be presented, thus helping the faithful make the correct political choice during a difficult time for Putin preceding the election. Moreover, the filming must be continuous; the necessary images must be burned into the memory and constantly updated; they must create the impression of something natural, constant, and compulsory.

Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity. In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia.

Translation from Chto Delat News, n+1

We can read here the clear influence of Guy Debord’s theory on Pussy Riot–indeed, Maria Alyokhina gives him a shout-out in her closing statement.

2. The charges themselves as well as the disapproval voiced against Pussy Riot are tinged with unmistakable gender bias, when not misogyny. Unsurprisingly, the Western press has called little attention to this. Major news outlets in the United States are naturally eager to report on the women as a.) anti-Putin activists and b.) colorfully-clad, winsome young women (just count the number of glamor shots of conventionally beautiful Tolokonnikova alone) but bulk at explaining the group’s larger and more systemic critique of patriarchy.

Witness the barely-veiled misogyny (and the prejudice against Judaism and Islam) in Putin’s less-reported follow-up comment that, had the women performed this act in “Israel” or “some sacred Muslim place,” well, “there are some pretty strong guys there, you know[…]we would not even have time to protect them.” Implicit here is the conviction that it might have been better if the three women had indeed been violently attacked by men–obviously they were ungrateful for the restraint Russian police had shown by not “giving them what they deserved.”

The offenses they were charged with (violating “conceivable and inconceivable rules,” emphatic vulgarity, “deliberately provocative” gesturing, parody and their clothing, “inappropriate in a church”) and the disapproving psychological evaluations they received (“proactive approach to life,” “a drive for self-fulfillment,” “stubbornly defending their opinion,” “inflated self-esteem,” “inclination to opposition behavior,” and “propensity for protest reactions”) are to my mind saturated in historic discrimination against women who dare to make a claim to power. Whores, shrews, slatterns, hysterics, bitches: these are the stereotypes latent here in the language of psychologist, judge, and prosecution.

Wisely, Pussy Riot didn’t make this maddening injustice the center of their closing statements. They had already accomplished the most forceful feminist act of the past several months by becoming for however short a time the sine qua non of vital leftist contestation. For the past several weeks, these women have demonstrated that, in contrast to the narratives put forward by “identity politics” disaffecteds, feminism does not detract from the wider struggle against state oppression, religious hypocrisy and capitalist hegemony, but is in fact a universal synecdoche for it. Importantly, the same can be said of artistic expression. This is at the heart of Maria Alyokhina’s closing statement…:

There is [currently in Russia] no “individual approach,” no study of culture, of philosophy, of basic knowledge about civic society. Officially, these subjects do exist, but they are still taught according to the Soviet model. And as a result, we see the marginalization of contemporary art in the public consciousness, a lack of motivation for philosophical thought, and gender stereotyping. The concept of the human being as a citizen gets swept away into a distant corner.


Today’s educational institutions teach people, from childhood, to live as automatons. Not to pose the crucial questions consistent with their age. They inculcate cruelty and intolerance of nonconformity. Beginning in childhood, we forget our freedom.


An artistic situation can and, in my opinion, must contain its own internal conflict.

Translated by Marijeta Bozovic, Maksim Hanukai, and Sasha Senderovich, n+1

…as well as Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s closing statement:

Pussy Riot’s performances can either be called dissident art or political action that engages art forms. Either way, our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties. The young people who have been flayed by the systematic eradication of freedoms perpetrated through the aughts have now risen against the state. We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [the holy foolishness] of punk.

Translation by Maria Corrigan and Elena Glazov-Corrigan, n+1