My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Mirzoeff self-consciously updates the late John Berger’s Ways of Seeing with a new piece of popular Marxist pedagogy on how to read politics and history into images and how to change politics and history through images.
Chapters situating the selfie in the democratizing history of self-portraiture, explaining the three phases of the modern city (imperial, divided, and global) through artistic representations thereof, elaborating the inextricable relation between railroad and cinema (the signal technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively), and expounding on contemporary neuroscience to demonstrate that vision is a process involving the whole body and the whole polis are vertiginous mind-changing narratives in the manner of the best popular nonfiction; they justify Mirzoeff’s claims for the omni-relevance of “visual culture” as a discipline.
On the other hand, chapters that range slightly further afield from visual culture (not that Mirzoeff would see anything in our represented world as outside its mandate), such as those on war and climate change, fit less readily into the overall narrative. Mirzoeff’s conclusion is also compromised: its almost kitschy “we are the 99%” progressive optimism about “visual activism” has been called into question by the political right’s own relatively successful entry into the digital culture war of images since the text’s 2015 publication.
Finally, this book could also use color plates or else just instructions to google the pictures discussed, because its black-and-white and heavily miniaturized image reproductions are often too murky to contribute much to Mirzoeff’s compelling exegeses.