- On Violence, Seen Remotely
On Friday, June 5, amid protests of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the District of Columbia Department of Public Works painted two blocks of 16th Street by Lafayette Square, across from the White House, with the words black lives matter. The block letters stood thirty-five feet tall, yellow paint on black asphalt, followed by a DC flag, three stars in a row above two horizontal lines. On the same day, Black Lives Matter DC decried the mural on Twitter, calling the mural a "performative distraction" from the necessity of defunding the police. The following day, activists added to the mural. They painted over the three stars, leaving the two horizontal lines, and added another phrase so that the mural read: "black lives matter = defund the police." Over the next two weeks, dozens of similar murals appeared on city streets across the country. Drawing both critique and celebration, the murals have stirred a robust debate as to whether these murals are symbol without substance or a challenge to authority.
What is striking about the murals is the impossibility of seeing them all at once from the ground. Photographs taken on the ground show only fragments of the murals. One must squint to decipher what letters the people in the photos are standing on. From the ground, you cannot read the whole phrase, let alone fit the entirety of one letter in the camera's frame while also including enough scope in the photo to identify landmarks or storefronts around the murals that might distinguish one city from the next. On social media, people share [End Page 1047] photos taken from above obliquely or vertically, thanking the photographers for climbing on top of a roof or flying a drone overhead to take the photo. Two weeks after the DC mural's appearance, Google maps updated the satellite imagery near the White House in Washington, DC, revealing the newly painted mural with both its sanctioned and insurgent halves. This perspective is also how we are asked to make sense of militarized police violence against Black lives: at a distance, from above.
What does this remote mode of seeing reveal about how we relate to imperial and colonial state violence? How has the aerial perspective been normalized as way of seeing? How do militarized modes of seeing generate a structure of feeling such that we can sense from a distance? This review essay considers three recent monographs by Ronak Kapadia, Caren Kaplan, and Roger Stahl, all of which take on these questions to reckon with how war infiltrates contemporary ways of seeing, knowing, and being in the United States. All three books further situate themselves within a genealogy of scholarship on violence and visual culture, drawing from such scholars as Paul Virilio and Nicholas Mirzoeff. They build on and initiate conversation with scholarship from critical geography, media studies, and critical surveillance studies. These books ask how militarized technologies such as satellites, aerial photographs, drones, and biometrics shape not only how we look but what we look for, and suggest how we might expose the blinders these technologies erect.
Kaplan's Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above traces the history of the aerial perspective as a tool and project of war. Kaplan's archive spans four centuries and four continents. With chapters arranged chronologically, Kaplan examines mapped military surveys, the technology of the hot-air balloon, the development of the panorama, aerial photography, and other aerial imagery to demonstrate how the aerial view-from-above is a "world-making visual culture" (26) that generates ways of knowing and structures of feeling. While Kaplan states that she began the project with an understanding that "aerial observation is...