“IMAGINE an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.


To see is to retain — to behold. Once vision may have been given — that which seems inherent in the infant’s eye, an eye which reflects the loss of innocence more eloquently than any other human feature, an eye which soon learns to classify sights, an eye which mirrors the movement of the individual towards death by its increasing inability to see.”

STAN BRAKHAGE Metaphors on Vision1

          For the first several months of our lives, we see only light. Or, rather, we cannot see in the way that you are seeing as you read this paper. From birth until about four months, our optic mechanics are not developed enough to translate the visual world into colors; instead, we see in black, white, and scales of grey until our rods learn to identify color.2 The same goes for objects: infants see the world first as light and shadow, then as distant blobs, and finally as distinguishable objects. They also, in their youth, understand best in proximity, seeing most clearly 8-15 inches away from the objects or subjects upon which they gaze. This advantages children to see their parents or caregivers, as they lean into cribs or breastfeed their children, before they can truly see, by the adult metrics of understanding, anything else in the world. But, before those 8-15 inches come into focus, we perceive the world in grayed, morphing auras of light and dark.

            We might understand from an infant’s visual development that we must learn to see. Only after we have mastered those delicate optic mechanics may we learn to see socially. With focus, the visual world takes on universes of meaning; that set of light and dark becomes articulated into mother and father; those modes of identification expand into man and woman; racial category; hierarchies of value; and eventually, they become a marked distinction between self and other. There is a moment when the world, as perceived from a child’s eyes, slips from being an amorphous, unidentifiable, alogical zone where no object, subject, permanence, color, or proximity is distinguishable, into being a world of and about binaries: self and other, man and woman, inside and outside, good and bad, safe and dangerous. As people far past that delicate moment of coming into our visual capabilities, and as participants and students of that social world — which takes the Manichean dramatics of binaried looking from the personal to the global, and reinforces them into social meaning — it becomes our duty to identify and reconsider which elements of our sight truly contribute to individual universes of meaning, and which ones participate in a global theatrics of binary, hierarchy, and ultimately, of the visual politics of violence.

            As an image-maker, I consider unlearning those binaried politics of the social, visual world integral to the ethics of my work. One space in which I feel especially capable to examine and better understand visual politics is in the darkroom, where the logics of light and visuality in the normal world are flipped on their head. Here, in the black and white darkroom, where images are born, they must first be flipped upside-down. Light produces the darkest points in an image, and darkness, in turn, produces the whitest points in an image. Images are quite literally inverted on multiple planes. Darkness becomes a necessary condition; light becomes a material which has the capacity to spill and overflow. It is in this split from the logics of the visual world that I find a crack, from which a new method of thinking and understanding might flow. Over the course of this glossary, we will jump from different kinds of media — performances, and photographs, and installations, each which employ logics of photographic viewing. We will occasionally return to the darkroom, written here as a literary architecture in which we might be able to use the power of darkness, inversion, and the illogical to better understand those artworks’ contributions towards the notion of a black gaze. I will write in the logic of the darkroom to produce my own definitions of the terms gaze, affective labor, refusal, hapticity, and black gaze. You can identify sections in the paper that occur in the darkroom by their visually inverted nature.

            A note on language: Blackness or black experiences, in this glossary, are not tethered to visual assessments of blackness such as skin tone, hair texture, or bone structure, as these definitions of blackness rely too heavily on the construction of blackness as a scientific and eugenic project. Although I will focus heavily on what I will refer to as “black experiences,” I also do not posit that blackness should be defined by a certain set of predetermined experiences. Instead, I will refer to blackness through the lens what Kevin Quashie’s calls preparedness. In his unpacking of aliveness as relation, he states that aliveness is a “term of relation where the focus is on one’s preparedness for encounter rather than on the encounter itself.”3 This concept, in combination with the notion of gratuitous violence, produces my mapping of blackness as one’s preparedness to encounter gratuitous violence as a consequence of their raced existence. I hope this will separate blackness from a particular visual association or experiential “authenticity” while maintaining the specificity needed to articulate the conditions of a black gaze. I will actively note when I am using another author’s definition of blackness rather than my own.

gaze | ɡāz |
verb [no object, with adverbial of direction]
look steadily and intently, especially in admiration, surprise, or thought: he could only gaze at her in astonishment.4

4 The New Oxford American dictionary (Second Edition). “Gaze.” New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Rather than occupying or replicating fully the qualities of three-dimensional space, seeing eyes are tasked with forming a characteristically flat simulation of three-dimensional space. By looking, we are effectively image-ing the world — rather than fully encountering it as a dimensional reality. Nearsightedness, farsightedness, the optic capacity of infants, and even blindness expose the fissure between the perceived world and the actual world. We can see inaccurately; therefore, seeing alone cannot accurately articulate our dimensional reality. Our moment of encountering the world through sight is not what makes it dimensional or actual. Sight cannot not reflect, represent, capture, or produce the actual world.

Instead, on the precisely flat zone of our irises, we render the world in three or four dimensions, but represented on a two-dimensional plane. We must understand a particular order of seeing to be able to image / visually encounter the world as a dimensional space. This order of sight includes understanding proximity through focus, foreground and background; brightness through color, lightness, and darkness; shape through shadow and reflection. Beyond the comprehension of space around us (perception and visual proprioception), seeing imbues the world with meaning, or “classif[ied] sights,” as Stan Brakhage calls them. This logic translates easily into photographic practice and visual analysis, where are able to take advantage of the image as an image; where we can understand the mechanism of a camera to produce inaccuracies that we might be hesitant to identify in our own, natural processes of seeing.

I invite you to imagine the particular influence of sight over our understanding, making, and encountering of the world as gazing. While seeing space does not constitute its actuality, the gaze has the power to transfer social formations of meaning — whether that be role, category, or quality — into reality, projected upon the subject of one’s gaze

A prime example of the immense power of the gaze to shape reality, especially in the overlap of social hierarchy, category, and human experience, is Frantz Fanon’s encounter with a little boy who vocally named him as the other on a train. This moment of being gazed upon triggers a series of bodily, mental, and chemical reactions that change the physics of Fanon’s bodily world. “Look, a negro! [...] I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects [...] the glances of the other fixed me there, in the sense in which a chemical solution is fixed by a dye,” 5 (Fanon 82). Just as the mechanics of both sight and photography function by flattening the perceivable world into an image which we then understand dimensionally, the mechanics of the boy’s overpowering gaze work to flatten Fanon into a dialectic: he is both both the subject of a gaze and an “object in the midst of other objects.”6 He is also transformed via this flattening from a person to a set of schema: his body (“corporeal schema”), his race (“racial epidermal schema”), and his ancestors (“racial historical schema”7). This flattening reduced Fanon to a figment of the visual plane; simply an object in the eye of the viewer, rather than a dimension being capable of producing meaning on his own.

5 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks; (London: Pluto Press, 1986), p.82.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid. p.84.