Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s new book, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, is a magisterial call to reorient our relations to objects, archives, art, and plunder. Addressing multiple, intersecting histories of exploitation and expropriation, and exploring possibilities for their reparation and restitution, Azoulay disentangles the power structures in which we are implicated while eschewing easy escapes or disavowals.
Azoulay’s text is a complex one, ranging fields and posing difficult questions in a multi-form book that spans seven thick chapters. We invited a group of artists, scholars, and critics to respond. Robert Yerachmiel Sniderman meditates on the political timelines and trajectories Azoulay illustrates; Gil Hochberg situates Azoulay’s project in existing academic and political contexts while questioning its form and reach; Zoé Samudzi draws attention to the figure of the camera and offers a liberal reading that embraces refusal and impossibility; and Joshua Simon sketches a personal engagement and notes Azoulay’s own institutional positioning. To be sure, Potential History is a text that deserves to be engaged as much as it deserves to be challenged.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s new book, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, is massive yet simple, so that you might, despite its 643-page enormity, carry it around with you wherever you go, ever intending to study it further. For Potential History reads with both the relentlessness and generosity of an influential zine. The book envelops and emplaces the reader, engrossed in its unfolding. At the same time, the book’s perpetual attempt to visualize, hand over, open up, people, and story its terms allows one to scan at will messages vital to the worlds in and between which one lives. When I carry it, pushing my sleeping daughter in a black stroller with the hovering winter mist of stolen Xwlemi territories, I feel light; actually, I feel like there is time. “Is it too late?” Azoulay asks in her fifth and last call to “imagine going on strike.” “No,” she answers, “justice, reparations, redress of the world can never be too late.”
Potential History is a fierce and liberatory exposé of how “world-destroying violence,” for example looting, has been transformed into respectable “scholarly, curatorial, and professional procedures.” It is an “attempt to make impossible the transmutation of this violence into history.” The book’s name and thematic delta is not itself a form of history — nor is it a theory of history — but rather a drop of collectivizing venom let into history’s imperial body, for “historicizing the world is an imperial gesture.” Through criticism, story, and image, the book formulates civil practices out of what Azoulay early on calls an “onto-epistemological political imaginary” of refusal. If the work of history is to engineer our emplacement in time, these practices “pulverize” the presence of history in us “to retrieve, reconstruct, and give an account of diverse worlds that persist despite…forces that suffocate them, outlaw their different modes of organization, cut their energies and sources of livelihood, and represent them as obstructions…”
The contours of Potential History emerge, amidst five hundred years of “regime-made violence,” from the conditions of Azoulay’s own unstable, ancestral archive, manifesting a dynamic negation of her Israeli citizenship’s claim to cultural, familial, and Jewish continuity: “Being an Israeli means being entitled to stolen lands and the property of others.” In this “rehearsal of disengagement,” which attempts to “regenerate a discourse of rights from the ground of imperial violence,” al-Nakba is not only the continued destruction of Palestine but also the projection of over 400 Palestinian villages and several million people into the imperial logic of irreversibility. This latter claim Azoulay lineates to the convergent expulsions, genocides, and confiscations of 1492 and its aftermath: “the destruction of the Taínos’s cultural and political formations in 1514; the destruction of the nonfeudal cocitizenship system of the Igabo people;…the destruction of Judeo-Arab culture in Spain, and later in Algeria with the Crémieux Decree in 1872,” the consequent auto-destruction of Europe, “and beyond.”
Within this trajectory, al-Nakba appears the destruction, replacement, and projection of Azoulay’s own body into world-destroying violence; cultural, familial, and Jewish continuity is replaced with the empty node of imperial time and its criminal specters of irreversibility. It is only because “potential history hypothesizes that those who were involved in the destruction of others’ cultures unwittingly destroyed their own” that Azoulay’s disarming first lines can read: “I would have loved to have been part of an identity group. I wish I could have been able to say that I belong to ‘my community.’ But there is no community to which I truly belong. Here is my proof.”
Proof is inscribed in materials and the significance in their absence; the objects and artifacts Azoulay inherited, none of which “were handed to me as a recognition of my belonging.” Proof is also inscribed in the immaterial, the languages, like Ladino, that her mother did not speak with her and “the nothingness that I know about the Algerian origin of my father.” Proof is what she must do to history to name this nothingness, taking on her paternal grandmother’s Arabic name, Aïsha, which she learned from reading her father’s birth certificate after his death.
Consequently, Potential History is Azoulay’s first book that announces and performs this claim. “Embracing Aïsha as my name,” she says, “is an attempt to hold on to the potential preserved in it, a potential that survived a long history, from before the Crémieux Decree (1872) to the present form of Zionism and the Israeli state.” In an essay that extenuated these circumstances as a sort of prelude to Potential History, Azoulay concludes, “When the mother tongue is contaminated, when the father tongue is punctured, one can imagine a civil charter only if one recognizes that this is the hour of what has been erased as a viable possibility, the hour of what is now becoming possible.”
If 1492 is the “distant point in a linear timeline from which things have followed as they should have,” the attempt of potential history (“the hour of what is now becoming possible”) makes 1492 the very “marker of reversibility” (“the hour of what has been erased”), the “synergetic machine…under the guise of neutrality” that must be unlearnt. The arc of subversion with which Potential History envelops us, the venom it can spontaneously drop into our bodies — its calls for strikes, restitutions, reparations, limits, traditions, reversals, and returns — vacillates between these hours of the possible and the erased, from the radical intimacy of a dead father’s birth certificate to the macrocosmic susurrus of racial capitalism. “My refusal doesn’t try to dream up a new category,” Azoulay writes, “It is rather a refusal to accept that our predecessor’s dreams—not necessarily our parents’, but their parents’ or grandparents’—can no longer be ours…”
Robert Yerachmiel Sniderman
Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism is a passionate call for radical change: change in how we think, imagine, and live. This book, a massive 634-page volume, asks of us no less than to unlearn everything we know not only about modern citizenship, sovereignty, and human rights but also the rights of objects and the entire system put in place to preserve, collect, possess, exhibit, and produce them. That includes art, archival documents, photographs, and various other objects, looted and stolen, re-circulated and colonized through imperial violence.
The strongest and most appealing aspect of Potential History is found in the simplicity and clarity of its main argument, that the “millions of objects looted by imperial agents” are inseparable from the “millions of people, stripped bare of most of their material world.” People and objects, Azoulay convincingly illustrates, share the same long history of violence and displacement, a history of forced migration, slavery, colonialism, and plunder. The creation of institutions and systems to govern and regulate these people and objects meant to redirect attention away from these violences and towards a reality presented as both “new” (part of the “New World”) and inescapable, natural.
Museums, archives, and the discipline of History (capital H) fulfill an important role in relegating violence to the past and naturalizing the new world order as “progress.” As a means for combating this manipulation, we are called upon to “unlearn the archive,” to unlearn the “modern formation of art,” to unlearn the “false stories about museums as vehicles of the democratization of art, and to unlearn the “genre of narrative known as history.” This difficult task of unlearning is coupled in the book with an invitation to transform “violence into shared care for our common world” through a practice Azoulay calls “potential history”: a modality of thinking that refuses the structural distance we are trained to assume between actors “in time, space and body politics” and a “form of being with others, both living and dead, across time, against the separation of the past from the present, colonize people from their worlds and possession, and history from politics.”
But how does one unlearn imperial violence, the very violence through which we are all glued together, both victims and perpetrators? Azoulay doesn’t offer a simple formula or list of “to-do’s” for achieving this task, but she does highlight the centrality of imagination in this process. We are thus invited to imagine a different reality and to imagine several strikes — a museum workers’ strike, a historians’ strike, a photographers’ strike, and a general strike that lasts “until our world is repaired.” In short, the key to unlearning is “dar[ing] to imagine.” One could say, then, that Potential History is a utopian project; that it is invested in envisioning a dream-like reality in which “all those who are implicated in imperial violence — victims and perpetrators alike [become] cocitizens,” and in which “violence is transformed into shared care for our common world.” But if “the condition for utopia is exclusion,” as Frederic Jameson convincingly argues in Archaeologies of the Future, then the kind of utopia elaborated in Azoulay’s book is more akin to what Avery Gordon has recently called, in The Hawthorn Archive, “the utopian margins,” described as “a collective intelligence gathered from struggle.”
Indeed, Azoulay’s voice is performatively a collective voice made of, among the rest, the intelligence gathered from the struggle of women, including Audre Lorde, Sylvia Wynter, Hanna Arendt, Saidiya Hartman, and Houria Bouteldja. The only striking absence in this otherwise great lineage is the voice of Ella Habiba Shohat, whose contribution to thinking the connections between the imperial violence that took place in Palestine in 1948 — and earlier moments of imperial violence, including Egypt in 1798, Algeria in 1830, and, of course, the Americas in 1492 — ought to be recognized.
Azoulay laid much of the theoretical foundations of Potential History in her earlier work on photography and in subsequent work on citizenship, revolutions, and human rights. Thinking of imperial violence in terms of the mechanism of a camera shutter (“the camera’s shutter” separates and divides in a split second “a before and an after,” “who is in front and who is behind,” “those who possess and those whose labor is extracted”) allows Azoulay to underscore the rapidity and naturalization through which this violence becomes invisible to us. In fact, this violence is the very dividing mechanism that separates “before” from “after,” the “us” from “them,” the citizen from non-citizen, those with rights from those without.
Azoulay’s emphasis on looting and plunder and her mistrust of museums, collections and archives situates her project in the context of a growing collective of activists, scholars, and artists, from Decolonize This Place to the Monument Removal Brigade to Museum Detox, committed to the process of decolonizing the “New World” by demanding financial reparations, return of stolen objects, demolition of colonial monuments and museums, and, above all, the rethinking and reordering of institutions responsible for preserving imperial violence: museums, archives, universities, private collections, and more. Twenty years ago, Linda Tuhiwai Smith opened her now classic book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research And Indigenous Peoples, with the sentence: “Research is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.” In the two decades that passed between the publication of Smith’s Decolonizing and Azoulay’s Potential we have witnessed a steady growth in studies and political movements dedicated to decolonization, not only institutions (states, museums, archives) but also and above all “the mind,” to borrow Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s phrase. To decolonize the mind is what Azoulay means by “unlearning.”
If there is one thing I find regrettable about Potential History it is its form. Tucked away in this monumental manuscript are four short sections written as manifestos, each a “call for strike.” I love these sections and wish more of the book would have been presented in this straightforward and actionable style. I found the otherwise dense text’s form, heavy with theory and packed with historical information, somewhat in contradiction to its overall revolutionary and anti-imperialist message. Indeed, as I was spending many long and admittedly enjoyable hours reading this magnum opus, I could not help but ask myself: who has, or how many of us have, the time and leisure to read and enjoy such a long and dense book? And I couldn’t help but think that while I myself greatly benefited from reading this book, I was also taking part in a kind of “reading” that is a privilege reserved for very few. After all, “the book,” and the act of “reading,” no less than the museum, the archive, and the practices of collecting and preserving, also have long histories of imperial violence.
Potential History is a very important text, packed with crucial information and radical ideas. One only hopes that these ideas will reach readers across disciplinary, geographic, and class borders. One hopes that the book’s academic form and size will not restrict its potentiality and will not limit its circulation to the privileged Western circles of imperial academic institutes, libraries, museums and archives — which the book criticizes and yet which ironically remain likely its most receptive patrons.
Ariella Azoulay begins her new text with an intervention that simultaneously indicts photography, both an artistic and scientific method, and curatorial practices. She describes the camera’s shutter in purely technical terms: a “subservient element of the photographic apparatus.” It is simply the means to the ultimate end; photographic capture renders permanent a moment and place and people in time. But the camera, in its larger symbolism, and photography, as a recording practice, are not so easily reduced to the merely technical. While the first permanent photograph was created by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1825, Azoulay attributes the origins of photography to as early as 1492.
The camera can be analyzed as a piece of equipment in its aggregate totality. Or, it can be understood through its constituent parts, using the Hegelian dialectic. Within technology, there is a modeling of asymmetrical interaction described as “master/slave” where the deployment of the master device controls that of the slave. Such a method of interaction exists in the camera as a piece of technology named the slave flash, or slave lighting function, triggered by a preceding master function. The slave unit is not deployed until the master unit triggers it, just as the socially dead slave has no community outside that of and by the master. Inherent to the functioning of the camera, this tool of colonial image-making, is a technical-ideological logic of domination. (It is the racist metering of light, one that used fair-skinned white women as its models, that led to a visual biasing against dark skin in color film. The camera was literally unable to simultaneously capture a darker and lighter skinned person side by side without the use of extraneous light. The irony is not lost on me that in the construction and use of the camera, a technological innovation that perpetuates the ontological flaw and non-recognition of blackness, a racism described by the language of master/slave relation inheres.)
The year 1492 was an epoch-making moment of newness, marked by an irreversible violence. “New” is not simply a fallacious descriptor of Columbus’ genocidal, cartographic error. It is “an accelerator of violence, constitutive of its naturalization and essential to its power to continuously ‘discover’ new worlds” to be exploited (italics my own). The violence through which subaltern forms of political life are destroyed is processual rather than singular and discrete, Azoulay narrates. In Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger describes how the camera showed that “the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual…What you saw depended upon where you were when.” The violence of the archive is always processual; the photograph within the archive reveals an understanding of time and the (re)definition of persons or peoples through time. And with this understanding of time, we might also consider Saidiya Hartman writing on photographs of the proverbial Black slum (another ghetto) and on its so-called reform: “The social worlds represented in these pictures were targeted for destruction and elimination.” The archival photograph is a time-stamped, carceral text.
The camera’s photographic capture is a part of colonial enclosure that, as Azoulay describes it, has been excised from standard historiography and relegated to the realm of art history. A division of labor “differentiates historians from art historians, which enables historians to relate to art as a phenomenon outside their field of expertise.” But, she notes, there is no distinction between looting (which connotes a theft and the illegitimacy of an acquisition) and the methodical process of collection (the way we understand the proper and scientific curatorial processes of institutions like, say, the British Museum or the American Museum of Natural History): the banditry of looting is the banditry of imperial dispossession.
One remedy Azoulay seems to offer is a political correction that, rather than attempting to think from within the archive and expand its political possibility, refuses — and seeks to obliterate — the ontological premises upon which the archive is founded. She describes the creation of a “potential history” that exists as “a form of being with others, both living and dead, across time, against the separation of the past from the present, colonized people from their worlds and possessions, and history from politics.” The more progressive sibling to the agenda of diversity and inclusion is decolonization, the institutionally defanged and assimilated buzzword du jour. Azoulay articulates a fundamental incompatibility between hegemonic historical record and this insurgent one. Potential history is not an alternative history, because the notion of “alternative” simultaneously belittles the subaltern position and reifies the primacy and centrality of hegemony. It is, rather, a “non-imperial grammar,” which one can only practice by unlearning the imperial grammar. Archival coexistence seems like an epistemic impossibility to Azoulay; to me, this feels like a relief.
A liberal reading of Azoulay’s book (like my own) might lead one to the conclusion that the archive (including the museum and archives like it) cannot be decolonized. It is a container of the materials and knowledges and ephemera of colonized peoples that have themselves been erased from a regime of knowledge production. The archive as a material assemblage of colonial logics must be liquidated and the materials within it appropriately repatriated so that they might be assimilated into the ongoing processes of self-determination for those from whom they were stolen. But if one desires to hold onto the archival photograph, one form of possible relation lies in what Tina M. Campt offers as a methodology (a heuristic, even!) of listening to images, where images are “conduits of an unlikely interplay between the vernacular and the state,” an interplay that allows for the piecing together of previously and presently fragmented histories in ways that offer emancipatory potential. From “non-imperial grammar” emerges a politic of relation that resists colonial enclosure and the aspirational legibility of colonial taxonomies: a new vernacular archival form, an assemblage that foregrounds the self-fashioning of the excluded and dispossessed.
It is practice not theory that is offered here.
I remember my realization, when standing in a small, privately-owned art college gallery in Tel Aviv at the opening of the first “Act of State” (2007) exhibition, curated by Ariella Azoulay, that this is no longer theory, critical or any other, that she was developing. This is practice. At the time, when asked to speak, I said it shows a move towards historical research, but it was much more than that. Since then, Azoulay’s work has moved more and more towards a proposition for practice.
Azoulay’s newest book, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, has been in the making for the last decade. The historical particularity and conceptual lucidity that the book conveys is a great achievement. This book teaches us to be more. It activates Jean-Luc Godard’s sense that “you need to be two to see an image,” meaning that an image does not simply exist but is made by our active looking at it. Godard also asserts, “You think with your hands,” which he relates to the editing of films. Azoulay beautifully represents this tactile process of thinking by sketching images that she cannot show: copies made from archived photos that she was not permitted to print in the book.
A friend recently told me that the 2020 US census will divide the “White” category into two separate, supposed races: “European” on the one hand and “North African and Middle Eastern” on the other. This friend encouraged me to fill in the “Middle Eastern origin” for my race, in order to take advantage of diversity requirements when applying for a job. Coming from Israel, with my specific family history, I realize that whatever the official scheme of races is in the US, I cannot find myself in it. I mean, I accept that I pass as white American as long as I don’t speak. Once I do, my accent makes me a foreigner, at least on the level of inter-relational performance. On a cultural level I am Jewish, which where I come from is established as an ethnorace and even here in the United States is also generally considered something with which you are born. On a more state-bureaucratic level, my migration from Israel makes me more amenable to federal authorities than, say, people from other places in the Middle East or from Central America.
And so I was captured by the opening statement in Azoulay’s book. This volume of 634 pages opens with a declaration: “I would have loved to have been part of an identity group. I wish I could have been able to say that I belong to ‘my community.’ But there is no community to which I truly belong. Here is my proof.” I feel pretty much the same, but I think it is me moving to the United States from Israel that puts me in this position more than anything else. When writing about her family background and the ways it informed the book, Azoulay does not give much room to discuss where she is now — a professor at Brown University. This professional background comes with its own set of demands and expectations, and I wonder how these demands and expectations inform her expressed position.
Azoulay’s addition of her grandmother’s Arabic name Aïsha as a middle name, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, stands for an attempt to undo the erasure of Arab identity of Jews in French-ruled Algeria and the erasure of such identities by Zionism. With examples from India and Palestine, the United States and Germany, the specter that informs this book to a large extent is the logic of erasure that has determined the lives of those, like the author, who come from Israel. What Israel offered and ordered its Jewish citizens (and forced on its Palestinian subjects) is erasure — not knowing their parents languages, being brought up by non-native speakers in a language that was supposed to become, within a generation, a mother tongue (a language that was not any mother’s actual tongue). This pathology is somewhat unique to Israeli Jews, and the book reads as a particular counter-project to it.
At the same time, this unique erasure mechanism is but a variation on something that corresponds to what Azoulay names “imperialism” in the book. As it is both personal and methodic, the book is rich in historical references and genealogies of gestures that suggest techniques for unlearning imperialism. This imperialism is a two-fold movement of the dispossession of peoples and the valorization of expropriated objects. Rather than engaging with images as sealed representations, Azoulay’s proposition, which has been developed previously in From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950 (2011) and Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (2011), makes active, interpretational viewing a form of unlearning itself. This compelling drive attempts to reconstruct the conditions that enabled or disabled an image to appear. This book, then, crystallizes Azoulay’s approach to archives, through which we encounter glimpses of possible futures. One gets access not only to “what was,” nor simply to “what if,” but to the set of imaginaries an image conveys through those it depicts. Azoulay’s formulation of photography as a relation enables us to access historical trajectories that were never materialized and therefore never explored. Through her interpretation, these become potential histories.
The book thus does not simply engage with theory but rather deploys interpretation itself as a practice for unlearning imperialism, what Azoulay calls “unlearning with companions.” This charismatic proposition involves co-citizenship in which we do not look for the “new” (an imperialistic trope) but unlearn the “new” in order to study precedents: “a partnership with whoever acted in her life or enacted in her writings a nonimperial ontology, regardless of when the writer lived…” And so, the practice that is developed in the book is concerned less with theoretical structures and more with histories and futures we can activate. The book ends with an interpretive reading of an image that summarizes this move: “The camera made the potential for freedom visible. The potential is there.”