Review: Potential History: Unlearning Imperalism by Ariella Aisha Azoulay

Azoulay invites us to join her on a journey to unlearn Imperalism by examining the tools that shape it and enact its violence. We will dig deep into the very nature of rights, world sovereignty, the archive of documents, and what history actual is in how it is practiced within imperalism. Each of these topics is dissected, and photographs are used as a guide to assist the reader with examples to further illustrate the points. 

To unlearn something, we must first learn how, and in this book Azoulay does just that. Teaches us ways to unlearn the tools of imperalism, to create instead a shared world, but to do that reparations and repairs of the world is needed. 


"Think of the camera shutter. It is a commonplace in the discourse of photography that an operating shutter is necessary for obtaining a legible, sharp, and precise image out of the flow of light. Understood as a subservient element of the photographic apparatus, a means toward an end, the shutter is discussed mainly in technical terms related to the rapidity of its closure, the ability to control and change its velocity, and the swiftness of its performance. The picture to be obtained is presumed to exist, even if for a brief moment, as a petty sovereign. The petty sovereign is not what is recorded in the photograph (in terms of its final content or image) but, rather, is the stand-alone photograph-to-be, the image that prefigures and conditions the closing and opening of the shutter. The petty sovereign asserts itself at that moment as preceding and separate from the photographic event, from the participants, and from the situation out of which a photograph is about to be extracted. It commends what sort of things have to be distanced, bracketed, removed, forgotten, suppressed, ignored, overcome, and made irrelevant for the shutter of the camera to function, as well as for a photograph to be taken and its meaning accepted. What is suppressed and made irrelevant is excised by the shutter. In the technological and historical discussion of the shutter, the only elements that matter are the quality -- precision, clarity, recognizability -- of the images, the end produce, and erasure of any trace of the shutter's operation. This is an effect on the one hand of the means-end relationship between the camera and the images it produces and on the other hand, the dissociation of the camera's shutter from other imperial shutters. The shutter is synecdoche for the operation of the imperialism enterprise altogether, on  which the invention of photography, as well as other technological media, was modeled. (Azoulay, 2)

Here Azoulay uses the camera shutter to explain how imperialism captures a moment and detaches it from its world and its original origins, where people are made worldless through the act of the imperial shutter that removes, suppresses, ignores, made irrelevant in order to "progress" imperialist society. Imperialism develops ways to "fragment, dissect, and exploit others' words to enrich their own culture," but is there a way to unlearn that and create a new potential history and world?

Azoulay uses photography as a way to dissect how imperialism shutters us and divorces us from our own lived worlds, creating worldless people to exploit. In order to unlearn imperialism, we first need to dissect what it is, the primary components, and how to dissect, dismantle, and reverse the imperial shutter so that we see the full potentiality of the history of that image in its full context -- its full world.

What are the primary components of imperialism?

  • "Transcendental Imperial Art" such as the plunder of objects, art, and people's rights to their own created objects
  • Archives: The Commons, Not the Past -- Timelines, Regime of Classification
  • Master's Tools: Matrix of History, Differentialism
  • Worldly Differential Sovereignty -- Imperialism treats this as a gift to be bestowed only if the country abides by the imperialist regime and uses the "Master's tools"
  • Human Rights: Textual Rights, Imperial Rights, Rights that are disabled by imperialism (but could be re-enabled with reparations)

In each of these chapters listed above (I highlighted a few themes, but there are multiple themes and dissections in each chapter), Azoulay also creates an alternative to imperialism, where worldly rights can be re-enabled and imperial rights disabled, where we can unlearn the archive and recreate potential history as it was and is, where we can undo the imperial enterprise of temporal, spatial, and differential modalities. 

Yes, the book is thick with theory, but it also has beautiful examples of how to unlearn by  using photography, dissection of the lessons of imperialism and ways to undo it, exploring reparations and how to realize it, and how to undo the socialization that we are taught from a young age by examining language used-- by showing what imperialism tries to erase, how imperialism pretends to be "impartial" or "default" and thus all labor is placed on its victims instead of the imperialist perpetrators, and how imperialism seduces citizens into being perpetrators in order to exist within the society. 

Each chapter ends with an essay on what it would look like if Museum workers, photographers, historians, governed people, and the whole world went on strike until our world is healed. 

I won't cover each chapter in depth as it's more important to read it, but if readers would like me to examine some of the ideas above in further depth, I can do so in a different essay outside this review.

Importance of Reparations: Conclusion

In order to repair our world, we need to address the condition of worldlessness that imperialism creates in order to maintain its supremacy in the temporal, spatial, and differential modalities and systems. Where imperialism dictates how we examine and research history (temporal) and relegates the destruction of worlds to the past (temporal and spatial), where worlds are destroyed (spatial) leading to refugees and displaced populations. Where society is structured in a differential mode, as in some folks hold more power and privilege than others (differential) and humans rights are based on what people lack or need (imperial and textual rights) rather than their worldly rights to exist, build community, and share with one another (disabled rights). 

But how do we do that? Through unlearning imperialism. Azoulay shows different ways of doing this throughout the prior chapters, and in the conclusion Azoulay weaves the threads together to discuss the importance of reparations and how to repair our violent world into a non-violent and equitable and equal and sustainable world.

One of the most crucial ways to repair the world is through reparations.

"We should locate the origin of reparations in the moment when this violence is not yet a lingua franca and its reversibility is possible: when that which should not have been possible is at the same time that which could not ever have been possible. For that, rights such as the right not to be a perpetrator or the right to care for the shared world should not be conceived as new rights but rather should be assumed as preexistent rights that were violated when worlds started to be destroyed.

These imperial rights, invented in the late fifteenth century, should still be conceived as new rights that can be revoked since they structurally undermine the care of a shared world, and as the basis of imperial political regimes, define only two possible modes of existing in the world: being a victim of the regime or a perpetrator in its service. In the absence of a closure to these crimes, those who inherited wealth and power through others' dispossession not only continue to occupy positions of authority and privilege, but also continue to rely on the same tropes that render dispossessed people into a "problem" that experts have the right "to solve" -- as in "the refugee problem," the "negro problem," or the problems of a 'high birth-rate" or "progress resistant" culture. No pressure was exerted on perpetrators of imperial crimes to pay for their crimes, seek forgiveness from their victims, unlearn their rights, dismantle the structures that enable them, and step back from their positions. The afterlife of slavery was made the affair of the descendants of slaves, and the destruction of Palestine, Palestinians' affair. Perpetrators are not incriminated, nor did they assume responsibility, despite the wealth of information regarding the violence they exerted. Sparing enslavers and their descendants any accountability is to imply that the abolition of slavery continues to mean amnesty for its crimes. 
Institutionalized violence shapes who people are-- victims and perpetrators alike-- to an extent that only the recovery of the condition of plurality can undo it. This points to the most basic right immanent to the human condition, which imperialism constantly compromises: the right not to act against others; in its positive formulation: the right to act alongside and with one another. Accepting this right in its two forms as fundamental is necessary in order to imagine reparations so the bliss of being active and repairing what was broken can be attained." 

Here the concepts of all the prior chapters are threaded together to reveal ways to actively imagine reparations and repair what is broken by imperialism. It unveils the perpetrators that imperialism has tried to hide. In this last chapter, Azoulay, takes all the prior arguments, and applies them toward what repairing the violent world could look like. How to repair the world through reparations, and then gives us an example of using the skills learned to examine a photograph and unlearn the imperialism that shaped it. 

I highly recommend the book, and it will definitely show up as a resource or quote in further essays.

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