I have chosen, for now at least, not to watch Diamond Reynolds’ live feed video of the brutal murder of her boyfriend Philando Castile at the hands of the police with her child as witness in the backseat. Chosen may not be exactly the right word as reasoning has nothing to do with either my aversion to viewing this video or the horrific acts recorded therein. For now, let’s say…I just can’t watch.
However, I have chosen to write about it here. This is less because I feel compelled to join the fray of discourse that surrounds, reproduces, and amplifies the video I have not yet seen, and more because I have found it to be personally useful, during this immensely stressful and disturbing time, to turn and contribute to reasoned academic discourse about video and its viewing. My choice, I find, is to let cool analysis or scholarly distance temper my relations to the surfeit images of black death and racially-motivated violence currently saturating our screens and airwaves.
We come to this cultural, political and media onslaught as individuals but, it is my contention that each of us must take responsibility for our own acts of looking. When we look (or write) we engage in the regimes of visibility—complex networks of power, ownership, and access that frame our viewing and knowing—that surround and inform violence. Accounting for our place, our needs, our actions in the face of viral videos of murder is one within a constellation of necessary ethical and political acts. This is particularly true because it may feel like our current media conditions of onslaught and abundance allow us no choices at all.
Even though I haven’t watched the actual video, it would be quite a feat not to have seen it, or not to know it, given how discourse about it—or any viral video—becomes so quickly omnipresent across all media forms. This is what the new media scholar Henry Jenkins has called convergence: something that starts in one medium—in this case one woman’s poignant, desperate live-feed activist recording of police abuse—and readily spreads across platforms and formats as more words, videos, and images (like these here). Given that media convergence drives virality, would it really be possible for me to choose to not see this particular video at all? And regardless of what I see (or do not), as an anti-racist, white woman scholar in these charged and catastrophic times, I find that I need to account for the particular political and personal resonances of my choice to (not) look. In fact, this lengthy introduction takes the time it does, rather than moving on internet speed—jetting to the list of four rubrics for looking (Don’t Look, Look Askance, Look at Death, Look at Death’s Platforms)—to demonstrate a kind of care and attention that I suggest is necessary at this volatile time.
Our “choice” to look or not at any viral video is one I find both paradoxical and imperative. Much of my career as a media scholar/activist has been organized around a “politics of visibility,” where seeing the experiences of under-represented people and points of view is our goal. For decades the choice of visibility seemed an obvious strategy. Today, the personal and political ramifications of visibility have proven to be more nuanced, as the gaining of visibility comes with its own, often irrevocable and irrational consequences. Reynold’s astute choice to record and broadcast a record of police violence, made as it was in a time of acute crisis, should be understood to be one of the only rational acts in this sordid, morbid, criminal affair. I salute Reynolds for her wisdom, courage and political precocity.
However, here I will not consider the rich history and theories of shooting video as a form of political witness or activism, or as a system to manage trauma, nor will I consider what must be done in the face of this gruesome record (I have turned to the theorists and organizers of anti-black violence campaigns for this). Instead, I will briefly share some frameworks for (not) looking. This thinking—about what Visual Culture and Media Studies scholars Lisa Cartwright and Marita Sturken have called “practices of looking” and Nick Mirzoeff has named “the right to look”—has served for me, and I hope might for others, as rational rubrics for looking—or not— in this time of madness.
My home fields of Cinema, New Media, Critical Internet Studies and Visual Culture articulate histories and theories establishing how every look at video is circumscribed by frameworks and frames: those of the filmmaker and always also those of the technologies that record and then share these images. But other frames prove harder to see: regimes of looking that include the artist’s and viewer’s long personal histories, psychology and current emotional state, their stand-points physically, politically, and intellectually, and also larger systems like racism and sexism that condition us all in ways of looking and knowing. In some cases, we are forced to look, and this is an extreme and violent condition of punishment. In others, human beings are denied the ability or right to see: an equally brutal form of discipline. But when we have the choice to look, we are bound ethically and politically to what we witness and what we do with all we have seen. Below is a brief primer of ways to understand how or why we might (not) look.
There is an abundant and significant body of critical race scholarship currently developing about the psychic and political ramifications of seeing and sharing images of black death.1 In a recent editorial, Sherri Williams sums up this body of thinking:
As a black scholar I want the injustices against black people to be recorded and shared in the interest of justice and history. But as a black woman I’m also worried about the mental and emotional health of my people as we continue to consume these videos. I’m equally concerned about the system that creates the violence that leads to these images.
As a white scholar and viewer of contemporary internet culture, I support and supplement Williams’ concerns from my stand-point in this economy as one sheltered-horrified white witness to injustice against my black friends, family, and fellow citizens. Theorists like Susan Sontag help us to consider not only the pain we are personally subjected to in witnessing such brutality but also its possible, impending, disenabling opposite: the deadening effects of over-exposure to images that were perhaps once meant to move us.
“Images of war have always had an irresistible allure for the camera” writes Alisa Lebow in her essay about what she calls the “unwar film.”2 It is my contention that the appalling if necessary video records of black people being killed by our police are a contemporary form of war, or perhaps unwar film (more on this below). When any video goes viral3 this is in part because it is generically familiar and competent, satisfying the rules of production and reception from cinema or other media while introducing noteworthy content. War films have shaped how we see and know war; viral videos of violence do the same.
Although generic conditions rule dominant and familiar systems of seeing, there have always been alternatives. “The drama, the emotion, the action easily translated the ‘theater’ of war into the cinema of war” Lebow explains. Given that we are comfortable, as well as titillated with the pacing, tropes, drama, emotions and thrills of war cinema, she looks to documentaries that rupture “the generic spell that binds us” to such images: “we need to look to films that look awry, in the Zizekian sense of looking askance or even away from the action, as it were, to that which is happening just outside its purview.”
I believe that this looking awry would not be a closing of one’s eyes to the actual and ongoing brutality against black people in our society and its ever-increasing video record, but rather to also look carefully elsewhere—away from documents of the act of violence itself—to do the harder work of seeing the “causality, responsibility, and impact” that often (or must) go unseen, even as (or so that) violence is made increasingly visible.4 Perhaps this explains some of the power of Reynold’s video: it looks at, and away; it shows both violence and its contexts; and it does so in what is at once a new and also a familiar form (viral live feed video).
Look at Death
In her forthcoming book on the history of filmic representation of death, Dying in Full Detail: Mortality and Digital Documentary (Duke 2016) Jennifer Malkowski argues that only a small number of the internet’s overabundant images of death become viral. In her analysis of two online, activist videos of death (Oscar Grant’s murder at the hands of Oakland transit police and Neda Agha-Soltan’s shooting by Iranian government-allied Basij militia) Malkowski asks “how did the Agha-Soltan videos from Iran generate such broad interest among the Western public while the Grant videos remained more nationally, and even regionally, bound?” She details how both political and aesthetic dimensions allow some pieces of activist raw footage to gain and sustain popular appeal: “multiple angles, dramatic blood flow, immersive audio, and the subject’s appearance.” In a similar vein, Jennifer Terry has studied how and why some of the vast body of footage of war shot by American soldiers and shared on YouTube goes viral. She argues that raw footage that takes on a first-person shooter logic of video games often “succeeds,” at least if your rubric is audiences, rankings, and numbers.
Accounts of Reynold’s video (and stills that I have seen) suggest that it is the uncanny professionalism of her raw, unedited, activist video, aligning as this does with its record of the cruel force of police brutality, that produces its particular power and poignancy. Here we see how conventional genre expectations laced onto new uses of technology and desperately critical content produce the contours of our current looking system. I have read about the video’s remarkable narrative, playing out in almost stand-alone scenes; Reynold’s clear, pointed and at times emotional voice over; her expert framing and camera movement; and the video’s steady sequencing of emotions, information and reveals. These formal conditions, aligned with its horrible record, make this piece of video so watchable, sharable, and also so powerful.
Reynold’s video aligns a story of abuse and terror that must be told and witnessed, a story-teller who is both politically, personally and aesthetically skilled to do so, and a medium that can deliver it to a hungry albeit shocked audience (constituted of a huge number of diverse viewers, as is true for any viral experience, who hold a spectrum of beliefs about what this video “proves.”) In my own writing on the Neda YouTube phenomenon, I worry that what I have called the “video slogans” of YouTube—“pithy, precise, rousing calls to action or consumption, or action as consumption”—may function to produce quick and even strong affective responses, but may be counter-productive to the larger ethical and political needs of movements for social justice.
The relations between viral images and on-the-ground social movements is itself a fertile field of contemporary scholarship and activism (see the select JSTOR reading list below 5). Rather than debate this here, however, I ask us to consider another worthy investigation: do these tragic images by way of new formats feed ways of looking and knowing that are familiar—if dramatic and emotional and political? do they make connections to new frameworks for seeing, knowing and acting? The choice to carefully consider how these videos allow us to see is one way to look at how black death contributes to the birth of a new technological and industrial condition: live feed video.
Look at Death’s Platforms
Like Reynolds, we, the everyday users of video technologies within our web 2.0 economy (some of us anti-black racism activists, some of us soldiers, some of us unwitting bystanders to atrocity), can be important producers of some of the images of violence and death that saturate our screens. But, it is critical that beyond accounting for our viewing of these images, we also observe, and ask for accountability from the platforms that deliver and re-frame these images for us. Currently, the vast majority of us watch viral, and really almost all video, through platforms owned by corporate entities with for-profit mandates that have little to do with the ethical and political scrutiny that I have been suggesting is core to a media politics in a time of viral black death.
In my work on YouTube and the feminist internet, I have suggested that the technologies we have been “given for free,” like Facebook Live, come with real albeit usually hidden costs and underlying structures. All people-made-video is relayed to us through platforms that frame our images within their own ethical and political concerns: through commercials, analysis, links, suggested videos, and templates for viewing. Corporate platforms, like YouTube and Facebook, are organized around logics of censorship, ownership, profit, ease and pleasure of use, and other powerful forms of political and algorithmic control. Ethical viewing considers not just our own looking at viral videos but at the broader political-economic and technological structures that produce, hold, and frame the videos that we see and share.
I have not used this opportunity to consider the merits of Reynold’s powerful video—its use for activists and movements or the culture more broadly—or the feelings and actions it has and might continue to motivate. Rather, I ask us all to take a pause from the video-onslaught to look askance, and to consider the stakes of looking, or not, at this critical time.
1. At my discipline’s yearly conference, the meetings of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, I attended the panel “Black Images Matter: Contextualizing Images of Racialized Police Violence,” featuring the work of critical race and media scholars Safiya Noble, LaCharles Ward, Roopali Mukherjee and Ellen Scott. A packed room of media scholars listened to, and then discussed, the ramifications, histories of, and contexts for looking at images of black protest, violence and death. See: “Teaching Trayvon: Race, Media, and the Politics of Spectacle,” Safiya Umoja Noble, The Black Scholar Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring 2014), pp. 12-29 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
2. Alisa Lebow, “The unwar Film,” in Juhasz, Alexandra and Lebow, Alisa (eds.) A Companion to Contemporary Documentary Film (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2015).
3. Most videos do not go viral or anything like it, as YouTube holds millions of videos of everything; most are seen by infinitesimal numbers of viewers. In my born-digital videobook, Learning from YouTube (MIT Press, 2010) I call this “NicheTube: The vast sea of little-seen YouTube videos that are hard to find given YouTube’s architecture of ranking and user-generated tags.”
4. In her forthcoming book, Gendered Tropes in War Photography (Routledge 2016), Marta Zarzycka details the iconographic simplicity, often gendered, that enables photographic war images to circulate quickly, globally, virally.
4. See Manuel Castells, “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance,” Jane Gaines, “The Production of Outrage: The Iraq War and the Radical Documentary Tradition,” Ronald Delbert, “DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media,” and Craig Wilse, “Magic Versus Neoliberalism: Riots Against Everywhere.”