Book review: White Sight, Nicholas Mirzoeff

Nineteenth century civic statues are so boring. Colourless, elevated, obscure, pompous, they have, for a very long time, eluded questioning. To topple one of these monuments, to go so far as to dump one into the sea, is to make the whatever bronze idol, appear to us fresh, and in disgrace. If there is such a thing as mere symbolism, this is not it. Reading White Sight by Nicholas Mirzoeff, the debasement of a statue is a noisy tear in the very fabric of society: a good thing, because the society we live in is racializing and racist on so many levels.

After Black Lives Matter, we should no longer support the infrastructure of dull, sober, weathered, white men like Colston. Their grotesque pasts – and it’s a past shared by all westerners – are commemorated globally from South Africa to the Americas, in the UK and around Europe. When statues fall, they become visible. As they become visible, we see the involvement of their subjects in colonisation, slavery and rape. Mirzoeff likens it to a power cut; one does not see electricity but without it we are at a loss. Same with racism.

Vision is the key element here. The statues are potent because they are largely invisible. If we can accept that objects have agency, specifically works of art, these do. They look at us. They look down on us. They embody the form of ‘white sight’ which is eponymous to this revelatory book. Mirzoeff describes white sight as the Operating System of white supremacy. The concrete and bronze network of slave traders, plantation owners, racist prime ministers legitimise a global system of discrimination in which, at the sharp end, Black people are murdered by white police.

How has this OS come to exist? It has arisen because in the history of race relations, white people have assumed positions of surveillance: those above deck on slave ships, as overseers on plantations. White artists have ordered the world as such that it appears to funnel its contents into a static waiting eye, and the resulting authority and omniscience, assisted by the invention of perspective is not so different from that of today’s drone pilot. The area below the camera on a reaper drone, which fans out like a Florentine cityscape, is known as a kill box.

The machinery for this lethal viewpoint was developed in the renaissance and Mirzoeff cites a subgenre of worldmaking landscape paintings in which Italian artists depict a heavily perspectival ‘ideal city’. Most notable is his reproduction of a Utopian vision by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, (c.1490 -1500). This empty colonnaded scene, in which paving leads the eye down to the waterside at Livorno, directs our attention to two distant islands: Capraia appears dead ahead as a navigational aid for ships heading to newfound lands; the other island is Gorgona, once said to be the home of the Gorgon, a mythical being of terrifying repute whose gaze would turn you into a statue. Connecting the Gorgon to Colston is a mindblowing detail.

It is alarming to realise from the pages of this book, how deep and longstanding are the forces of colonialism. Mirzoeff has a rare ability to join dots in this way. In 2020, he was able to observe a number of the so-called Trump caravans on the streets of his neighbourhood on Long Island. He saw, ‘long lines of F-150 trucks, SUVs, and other cars taking over the roadways’. These menacing, slow moving motorcades appeared in defiance of the pandemic shutdowns and in support of the then president. In this instance the author connects several more indications of prevalent white sight: the ‘fossil-fuel intensive vehicles’, the ‘summer of climate-change driven wildfires’, and the destinations chosen (more memorials, yes, but also a Trump-endorsed pizzeria), all combine to ‘reinforce white reality’. Facts are stranger and stronger than fiction. With great acuity, Mirzoeff’s book unpicks the weave of the existing social fabric.

White Sight ranges across many spheres of contemporary discourse, from mass extinction to modernist poetry, Islamophobia, covid masks, the Suffragettes and prehistoric archaeology. Personally I was captivated and yet devastated by his conclusions. This presumed great civilisation which I benefit from, is rotten to the core. And still the rhetoric continues. UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s language is nothing new. Queen Elizabeth I claimed in the late sixteenth century that the country was being overrun by “blackamoors”. Sad.

White sight is a collective way of seeing, not a biological inevitability. My outtake from this comprehensive counter-surveillance operation, is that white sight is that mode of perception which allows humans to intrumentalise one another and the planet. Racialisation, capitalism, and the eco crisis are all one.

Decolonising your viewpoint is a huge challenge for white people everywhere, to realise they (and I include myself) have become white over the years thanks to conditioning and self-interest. Only then will those deathly civic statues become interesting, intolerable, unmissable targets for all humanity.

White Sight by Nicholas Mirzoeff (2023) The MIT Press, 339 pages. Available from all good bookshops.

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