Expansions of Critical Visuality Studies: Marine Biopower

Slave Ship

[This is the first in a series of live blogs done in class for Visual Research Methods (hence the category), where we are assigned a reading from the week to write rapidly about, and ideally, in a manner that is open to a scholarly audience but which doesn’t hold a PhD as a prerequisite for being interesting or comprehensible. The essay that I worked with for today was Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “The Sea and the Land: Biopower and Visuality from Slavery to Katrina”]

Mirzoeff’s essay takes representations of the sea in 19th century painting and in modern cinema as his visual object in this article. Specifically, he’s looking at Joseph Turner’s painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying, Typhon Coming On (1840) and Spike Lee’s film “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” (2006.) The author uses a variety of academic approaches, including art history and cultural studies, in order to talk about the two objects. He begins from a Foucaultian theoretical perspective joined with historical research focused on ownership of the sea and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The writing is theoretical in form, but Mirzoeff is very clear when he makes references to complex theoretical concepts and he does a good job of giving them contextual explanations within the body of the article.

Through his starting point of marine biopower, Mirzoeff notes the manner in which the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was crystallized by early concepts of imperial ownership over large expanses of water, which became naturalized as the commons of imperial England. Specifically Mirzoeff is interested in how the sea was rendered into representation through discourses of ownership and ideas of “the natural”– where the sea started out as res nullius, or representationally formless (form of the natural), and then later became naturalized as the property of the state. Mirzoeff uses Turner’s painting as a way of showing this in how traditional England started to think differently about capital and slavery in the late 19th century due to ideas about the sea– and he then uses these images as a cross-over for talking about Lee’s film.

The Turner painting he is most interested in is based on a real slave ship named the Zong, which was trapped in a hurricane. In order to keep it from foundering, the captain of the ship ordered his crew to throw overboard all of its “cargo”, which included 132 African slaves. The ship then later filed an insurance claim of “cargo loss” upon returning to port. The perspective of the painting is important because it deliberately immerses the spectator into the waves of a tumultuous ocean as the ship recedes into the distance. This is what Mirzoeff is terming “visual immersion” in this essay.

Lee’s film, according to Mirzoeff also uses this technique, where long takes of the destruction of the lower wards of New Orleans stretch for significant expanses of time unaccompanied by any auditory commentary. Similar to Turner’s painting, the idea is to literally put the viewer in the water through the medium of film. Mirzoeff then very cleverly links images of the water to other forms of destruction, such as the market crash– frequently described as ‘a sea of debt.’ The article is in part so effective because Mirzoeff never loses sight of the relationship of the sea (the multitude) throughout the entirety of his analysis– he does this all while juxtaposing this dialogue with images of Katrina victims huddled in their attics trying to wait out the rising of the gulf, which, as he points out, is highly reminiscent as an image-memory of slaves moving across the middle passage.

Mirzoeff then returns to images and concepts of biopower when he talks about the aftermath of Katrina through Lee’s film, whereupon the port of Louisiana was moved further inland from New Orleans (which, significantly, has strong unionized black labor) and north to the new Port of South Louisiana– where large powerful multinational corporations wait to draw profit from the sea. The reader can’t help but be reminded by Naomi Klein’s theory of The Shock Doctrine.

Part of the suggestion (which Mirzoeff draws from Spike Lee), is that though professional opinion might suggest that the Levees were not deliberately blown, they might as well have been. Here biopolitics manifests as the need to kill and destroy life in order to remake life– or rather capital. If there is any confusion with regards to what Mirzoeff intends by this, he he clarifies it with a brilliant passage near the end of the essay, where he once again connects the argument to representations of water in the aftermath of Katrina:

“The government Minerals Management Service report found more than 100 accidents leading to a total of 743,400 gallons of oil spilled throughout the Gulf region during Hurricane Katrina and Rita. To put that in perspective, 100,00 gallons is classified as a ‘major spill’ and this quantity amounts to half that of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Crude oil is toxic and burns the skin. The spills resulted from the failure of the oil companies to withdraw their tankers efficiently despite the long-range forecasting of the storm. Nonetheless, it was the impoverished mostly African-American urban population who were castigated for failing to evacuate, not the all but invisible refining companies (Mirzoeff 145.)”

Again, the passage draws attention to an organization of the sensory field in connection with water, where water functions as a force of nature– but that it “behaves” differently, “of its own accord”, depending on how the capital of the state views the capital of one’s body.


2 thoughts on “Expansions of Critical Visuality Studies: Marine Biopower

  1. I’d like you to think about how you, and Mirzoeff, working in a similar form (the articulate academic essay) but with slightly different styles (he’s more overtly political than you), yourselves do or do not draw “attention to the organization of the sensory field … depending on how the capital of the state views the capital of one’s body.” What is seen in your absence?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah I think I see what you mean now after reading back over this again. My arguments and interests in the piece sort of drop in the last sentences and they get occluded by focusing on the theory from Foucault and Mirzoeff’s stuff on immersion. That’s the focus of his argument, but it’s not really where the political comes out in his essay, which I agree is much more overt. Reading back through the rest of the post with that in mind, points to some things that I wish I had made a little stronger in the post.


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