The Appearance of Black Lives Matter by Nicholas Mirzoeff

Nicholas Mirzoeff. The Appearance of Black Lives Matter. 2017. eBook - PDF, 187 pgs.

Nicholas Mirzoeff. The Appearance of Black Lives Matter. 2017. eBook - PDF, 187 pgs.

Nicholas Mirzoeff’s The Appearance of Black Lives Matter is a call to enact social and political practices that reconfigure "the visual commons” as gathering spaces toward the creation of abolition democracy. In The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, theory emerges from activism and produces pedagogy. He writes that it is in such spaces “where you and I can appear to each other and create a politics” (17). Published as a free e-book through Name Publications, Mirzoeff intends for the book to be as accessible and far reaching as possible. It is part of his larger and collective efforts to “empty the museum, decolonize the curriculum, and open theory” (Mirzoeff 2017). The project intervenes in the visual culture of contemporary life-rife with public killings of black people, children in cages, and “a capitalized circulation of data-sets, rendered into ‘visual’ form on personal devices” (Mirzoeff 2017). In Mirzoeff’s invocation of previous activism and historical moments to provide context for the contemporary era, the book is in conversation with recent works on activism, performance, and racial/social/political imaginaries by KeeangaYamahtta-Taylor, Ronak Kapadia, Soyica Colbert, and Judith Butler. In The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, theory emerges from activism and produces pedagogy. The book’s insights are developed on the streets of protest, in classrooms, lecture halls, and, as he writes, are part of the collective wisdom of Black Lives Matter and other decolonial movements.

Borrowing Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “space of appearance” as “the space where politics happens,” Mirzoeff reconfigures the concept to develop political strategies and analytical tools that do not codify whiteness in the process of appearing. Instead, he calls for the decolonization of the space of appearance as practices of “anti-antiblackness” (20, 24). Noting the countless racialized spaces in the settler colonial state where people are being killed—hallways in housing projects, in parks, returning from convenience stores, in parking lots, on the streets—Mirzoeff documents and theorizes the work of Black Lives Matters protesters to “reclaim spaces of connection” (18). He roots these interventions and reclamations of Black Lives Matter protestors in different historical moments, beginning with an examination of the space of appearance in two earlier revolutionary moments, the Haitian Revolution and Black Reconstruction in South Carolina (arguing that this is the most revolutionary period in U.S. history). “In the revolutionary space of appearance,” he writes, “abolition democracy prefigures the commons” (39).

While theorizing the space of appearance as it prefigures abolition democracy, Mirzoeff also notes its counterpart, “the space of nonappearance” created by the state. The spaces of nonappearance are sites where police violence and other forms of state power reproduce antiblackness and unfreedom. “Located between private and corporate property,” Mirzoeff writes, “this space of nonappearance has become a featureless killing zone. This zone is an index of state violence without making a spectacle of the deaths that are and have always been the gross product of the settler state” (118). They often take the form of machine-generated visuals of police killings, from police dash-cams, surveillance videos, and closed circuit television that are recorded and repeated in public life.

Mirzoeff poses the question, “How can we (not) look at these images and the seemingly endless stream of videos of police killings in another way” (117)? Through sustained and close readings of accounts of black deaths at the hands of the police and through visual strategies in which he edits photos and video stills of the scenes of state violence by cutting out the fallen or those about to be wounded from these machine-generated visuals, he aims to make “the space of nonappearance” visible. He endeavors to map spaces of state violence and then to use to these maps to make social

In one of the most effective and affecting parts of the book, Mirzoeff offers a sustained reading of Diamond Reynolds as she documents the murder of her partner Philando Castile by a police officer during a traffic stop. Mirzoeff closely reads Reynold’s acts of recording Castile as he breathes his last breaths, while speaking to the office about what he has just done. She documents and narrates the killing of Castile as the officer who has shot him stands near the car. She tells the officer that Castile has complied with the officer’s orders; it is the officer who has veered from what the law claims as procedure. But Reynold’s visual account, along with the litany of other visual documentation of police violence, also makes clear that officers can violate such procedure without recourse in encounters with black people. Comparing Reynold’s actions to those of Antigone’s efforts to bury her brother. Recall Antigone asks of her sister, “Will you take up that corpse along with me?” Antigone refuses to allow the state not to properly bury her sibling. Mirzoeff writes, “Like Antigone, Reynolds’ speech act has not prevented the law from its enactment of death.” Instead, as he writes, her video captures loss. “It expresses the fundamental separation and antagonism of white supremacy and opens a space of appearance in order to claim justice. The flaw is not within the characters but something rotten within the state, something that cannot be corrected without changing the very nature of that state: white supremacy” (126).

The Appearance of Black Lives Matter imagines a world past, present, and future where people can show up in practices of recognition, what he calls a “freedom of appearance” in which “people make themselves visible to each other” (93). It is a world that requires us to show up for each other and to take up the call to meet each other in the streets and elsewhere.

Nicole R. Fleetwood is a professor in the Department of American Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is the author of two books: Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, which was the recipient of the 2012 Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize of the American Studies Association, and On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination (Rutgers University Press, 2015). She is the author of two books and numerous articles. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from NYPL’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, American Council of Learned Societies, Whiting Foundation, Schomburg Center for Scholars-in-Residence, and the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.

Works cited

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. 2017. “‘Theory is not just words on a page. It’s also things that are made’”. Interview with Nicholas Mirzoeff. June 2017.