April 2016

Louise Fabiani

nonfiction

How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More by Nicholas Mirzoeff

What we are looking for is what is looking.
-- St. Francis of Assisi

More than 70 percent of the information the human brain receives from the outside world comes in through the eyes. Unlike our other five senses, vision can be turned off at will: just drop the eyelids. I, for one, wish it could be done retroactively. A whole rogue's gallery of photographs, from horrifying to merely unpleasant, is now seared into my brain, and I didn't ask for any of them to be there at all. A large proportion of the most recent ones include self-portraits performed by people with nothing better to do than inflict their near-nakedness upon the world. Of course, I speak of the celebrity version of the ubiquitous "selfie" (the Oxford dictionary's Word of the Year for 2013).

In a single year (2012-13), the number of selfies loosed upon the world's devices increased by 17,000 percent. According to communications professor Nicholas Mirzoeff in How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More, his study of contemporary visual culture, the selfie is the defining element of our already image-heavy era.

Why should that be? More and more of the world's people live in cities, so perhaps the press of so many other human beings compels us to draw attention to ourselves, to avoid being another face in the crowd. Is personal identity more tenuous than in other times in history, or do we just care more than previous generations about being "unique"?

The selfie resonates not because it is new, but because it expresses, develops, expands, and intensifies the long history of the self-portrait. The self-portrait showed to others the status of the person depicted. In this sense, what we have come to call our own "image" -- the interface of the way we think we look and the way others see us -- is the first and fundamental object of global visual culture. The selfie depicts the drama of our own daily performance of ourselves in tension with our inner emotions that may or may not be expressed as we wish.

Thanks to social media like Facebook and YouTube, and to smart phones in almost every pocket (full disclosure: mine excluded), opportunities for liberally plastering digital versions of our own physical manifestations have never been greater. It is a socially permissible sort of narcissism, yes, but Mirzoeff says it is also a yearning to establish a sense of group-mediated identity. "Despite the name, the selfie is really about social groups and communications within these groups." As E.M. Forster pleaded, "Only connect." But pointing camera lenses at our faces and bodies, and sharing the results with both friends and strangers, hoping to garner that elusive mark of approval -- the "like" -- is a poor substitute for building identity through old-timey concepts such as reputation.

Mirzoeff emphasizes the various ways we register personal, social, and environmental change in his engagingly written examination of visual culture, past and present. Change -- usually of the blink-and-you-miss-it rapid kind -- informs every aspect of the industrial era. Trains, he says, are both paradigm-shifting technology and potent symbols (for Karl Marx, "the human mind was a train running on a set of economic tracks"), skilled cartography rewrote the rules of warfare in the eighteenth century, Paris is a twenty-first-century tourist destination largely if not exclusively on the strength of its nineteenth-century version, and the concept of climate change needs an image make-over (it is now much too abstract).

Images cause as well as monitor/record the rapid changes in the world, a world "too enormous to see but vital to imagine." A major example would be political upheavals, but environmental uncertainty is a close second. "Deep time is changing in front of our eyes. If we don't take into account the worldwide situation, we will constantly be caught by surprise." Given our priorities, surprise is the least of the problems ahead.

An obvious sidebar discussion about both social and environmental events would include bearing witness, but Mirzoeff talks around the idea, perhaps because it occurs in a human brain. It doesn't require a machine to capture it, certainly not to give it significance. An excellent point he explores at length is how images help reveal and broadcast underrepresented causes and identities to the mainstream. "The transformation of the arts and humanities since 1968 has been the result of a succession of groups pointing out that they have been overlooked and that their interests need to be taken into account." (Logos is not enough -- especially in a polyglot global village.) What would the Arab Spring have been without images flashing around the world almost in real time, or the Occupy movement for that matter? The revolution might not be televised, but it is likely to appear on Instagram.

Of course, activists have long depended on the image to change minds and hearts. The 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing still resonates, more than a quarter century later, as a snap of a lone protester facing down a tank. These days, photos of this or that movement deluge us 24/7 -- and this time, it is courtesy of twenty-first-century devices harder to escape than TV ever was. Visual culture shapes the way we think. People in power (government, industry, religious leaders) know this all too well.

Even in these times of rapid change, some things have been immutable since the beginning of recorded time. That doesn't mean, of course, that we should turn a blind eye. Read this book and start framing reality differently.

How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More by Nicholas Mirzoeff
Basic Books
ISBN 978-0465096008
352 pages