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.

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 [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.