The Misogynist Aesthetics of Visuality

“All hitherto existing visuality becomes aesthetic by being misogynist.” This is the necessary update to my past claim that “the right to look…is very much a feminist project.” Visuality is not just “masculine” or “heroic” but actively depends on misogyny for its ability to claim legitimacy. Its permanent crisis is a condition of its patriarchal possibility, evoked through nostalgia. As imagined in Blade Runner 2049, for instance, the sequel to the visual culture classic Blade Runner (1982).


Before beginning this rewrite, let’s take a moment to say that I’m aware that this is not just any modulation of an analysis. It’s an admission of past failing that has been made glaring by present conditions. It’s up to you, the reader, to decide what to make of that. This is me beginning to try to do better by working it through.

In The Right to Look, the patriarchal authority to visualize is set against collective, democratic forms of countervisuality, yes. But I’m a little bit surprised looking back at it now to see that the feminist/gender/sexuality analysis is not well worked out. Why? I’m male identified, so that probably doesn’t help. There was a foregrounding of a masculine seriousness about war in the period I was writing (2003-10). I think, too, that I wrongly assumed the gender dimension of the ridiculous hyper-masculinity of the Heroic tradition to be both well established in visual culture analysis and so obviously reactionary that it did not need as much focus. And I was wildly wrong. Let’s start again.

misogynist visuality

“Visuality” is the specific technology of coloniality formed on the plantation by the overseer, generalized as a technology of colonial war, and later named in English by Thomas Carlyle (1840). All such misogynist visuality is the property of the Great Man or the Hero. To understand what this means, it is only necessary to know that present-day alt-right considers Trump to be such a Hero.

Colonial visuality operates in complexes, which classify (free from slave, for example) and then separates the classified orders. That order holds because it produces an aesthetic, that which Fanon called the “aesthetic of respect for the established [patriarchal] order.” This aesthetic is always nostalgic, always bound to what Carlyle called “Tradition,” always haunted by the fear of its imminent disappearance. Which is to say, it is always violent.

In the era of neo-colonial war in Iraq and Afghanistan, enabled by the drone, there was a return to overt ideology of “commander’s visualization,” to quote the US Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual. It also seemed as if that visualizing was not hegemonic. The “aesthetic” of permanent war (in movies like The Hurt Locker) felt unfinished and thereby contestable because there was no way to make it feel necessary and right. 

That analysis underestimated the necessity of unfinish to the neo-imperial masculine aesthetic, the need it has to feel threatened and on the verge of being overwhelmed, to sustain and reproduce itself. “Chaos” is visuality’s always feminized other in Carlyle and in all subsequent claims to Heroism. The opposition to Heroism was, according to Carlyle, “the female Insurrectionary force,”  always already racialized as “black.” Carlyle did not even bother to consider the possibility of a female Hero,  which would (in his view) produce monstrous forms like Amazons and Maenads. “Female force” is Heroism’s internal challenge to be overcome, as a constitutive, embodied part of itself. This ideology is phantasmatic, even ridiculous, to be sure, but it has had very real effects.

Indeed, coloniality has now created a new form of heroic masculinity for the aftermath of the conquest of (M)other nature.  Surviving in the midst of climate disaster is the new heroism visualized in Blade Runner 2049, in ways that bear little resemblance to lived experience. Today’s self-proclaimed Heroes embrace the earth system crisis as their chance to wage permanent misogynist war.  Real men eat GMO, use pesticide, burn coal and master the resultant chaos because mastering (female) chaos is what Heroes do. What follows is the spectacle of Trump minions advocating for coal at the climate conference, while only 8% of college-educated Republicans “believe” in climate change, as if it is a branch of theology. In this view, faith rests in the Hero, who welcomes climate chaos as a test of his strength.

2049 is now
Blade Runner 2049

This misogynist coloniality has created its own nostalgic aesthetic, such as that deployed in the self-consciously epic film Blade Runner 2049. It failed at the box office but so did Trump. For my generation of visual culture, the first Blade Runner was canonical, taught over and again. So its return was nostalgic for me too. Like Bertolt Brecht siding with the cowboys during Westerns–as he admitted he did–I can’t deny enjoying watching it, both for its intense cinematic experience of sound and image and for the postmodern Proustian resonance of rediscovering past media time.

But this film not only visualizes the white supremacist masculinity that is making the world toxic, it takes active pleasure in the toxicity of the world. It is now the visible analogy of the hidden-in-plain-sight violent, abusive, misogynist Hollywood system evoked by the name “Weinstein.” Everywhere you look in this extended exploration of white masculinity there are available, conventionally attractive, young, white female bodies, floating on the side of buildings; or activated as software when the Man returns home to his miserable apartment; or standing on the street waiting for sex work. In this future, a wish fulfillment if there ever was one, no one is trans or queer, and hardly anyone isn’t white.

In Blade Runner 2049, the new white male hero, known only as K,  is literally a machine. K (Ryan Gosling) embodies the Heroic interface of the corporation and the police, which Gramsci called Caesarism. K marches through the orange desert in post-apocalyptic Las Vegas in search of the lost original Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford). It’s radioactive but he doesn’t care because he’s a machine. If such orange effects usually result from desert winds, recently seen in the U.K., the hyper-smog today enveloping Delhi and Lahore is a suffocating grey that locals are actively comparing to Blade Runner. Without the “conquest of nature” anaesthetic to make it palatable. Unlike Blade Runner, helicopters can’t even fly in the dense, gritty air mass.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog

K’s wandering through radioactive Vegas is a digital upgrade of the industrial-era Romantic fantasy of the conquest of nature. In Caspar David Friedrich’s much-reproduced painting, the wanderer–perhaps Josef K but known only through his bourgeois suit–is colonial master of all he surveys, like Keats’ Cortés, “silent on a peak in Darien.” What lies beneath him is said to be fog but most such precipitation in the period was coal-induced smog. It’s not so far from the Wanderer to K, except that the “human” (which is to say “white” masculine) gaze is now automated.

the machine gaze
Opening shot Bladerunner 2049

How does the machine visualize? The first shot of BR 2049 fills the screen for a second: an all-seeing blue eye, with blond eyelashes. It is that of a replicant, an artificial person. Nowhere else in BR 2049 does this combination of blue-eyed blonde appear, so it is not the eye of a character. It is the ideal of machine vision, the machine as Hero. In the next instant, blink and you miss it, we zoom into the eye, into swirls of blue, and emerge in a giant solar panel array, converting the tomb-like sky into power.

The Solar Eye

All puns are intended by director Denis Villeneuve: the replicant’s eye is replaced by the solar “eye,” where neither is an “I.” Power is all, electric and social. If “we,” the spectators, are, as it were, in the eye of the machine, in their mind, then where are we? And who are “we,” when people are not always human?

A primary classification of visualizing is at work here, creating a distinction between the “human” and the machine, or replicant. Any such classification is a displacement of the colonial hierarchy of the human, in which most people do not achieve the fully human status that is reserved for “whiteness.”

In Blade Runner 2049, all the major characters are machines. The only human that plays a role is the police officer Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), desperate to keep “order,” meaning the separation between human and machine. It’s already too late. She’s killed by a replicant. The fully human “humans” are elsewhere in the place the film calls “off-world,” the new interstellar colony.

Luv’s Eye

The replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), who kills Joshi, achieves perfect machine visualization, sublimely reflected in her sunglasses that act as her remote screen vision. Like a machine-Medusa, Luv directs a lethal missile attack to protect  K in his hunt for the natural-born replicant. In the animation of her cyber-eye, Luv embodies all the current dreams of power, such as the wide-angle drone apparatus named The Gorgon Stare. What Luv cannot do, the film suggests, is love. She is all war, the female counter-insurrectionary force machine, the necessary counterpart to the heroic drive of corporate leader Wallace (Jared Leto).

wish fulfillment

The sardonic displacement of “love” into Luv acknowledges the misogynist violence at the center of the storyBlade Runner 2049 centers around the pursuit of a child born to the replicants Rachael (Sean Young) and Deckard (Harrison Ford). In the first Blade Runner film (1982), Deckard falls for Rachael. When he tries to kiss her, she pulls away. He slams the door, pushes back into the blinds and makes her say “I want you.” Then she acts out the kiss. Did she love him? Or Luv him, as directed by her software? Deckard doesn’t care.

The YouTube post of Deckard’s assault on Rachael (labeled a “love scene’)

Deckard, we learn in BR 2049, was programmed to desire Rachael (meaning that he is himself a replicant, as everyone except Harrison Ford has worked out long ago). So the first film literally engenders the second with the birth of their child, which conveniently causes Rachael’s death. In BR 2049 we discover Deckard living out a bro-noir life of mourning and drinking in ruined Las Vegas hotels. Captured,  he again causes the death of a newly re-replicated Rachael. Like Wallace’s casual murder of a newly-created replicant, this misogynist killing has no other function than to continue the wish fulfillment that violence is power.

For Deckard’s assault plays out the elemental pornographic fantasy that whatever a man wants, a woman does too. In the recent HBO series The Deuce, the sex worker turned porn film director Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaall) keeps reminding everyone it’s “fantasy.” It’s as if she’s speaking out of character here in this sadly misogynist and racist series–beautifully staged and shot, just like BR 2049–as the present-day actor addressing the audience.

Only it never really was only a fantasy in the minds of assaulting men, but a justification. Women’s words play no significant role in this justifying narrative. Yale students chanted “no means yes, yes means anal” in 2010, so this is (by the hierarchy’s own standards) a rot that spreads from the head. Maybe now Sean Young’s claims to have been abused by a studio head and Warren Beatty might be finally believed.


In BR 2049, K doesn’t bother with complicated replicant Luv. He has an A.I. called Joi (Ana de Armas) instead, a software construct designed to meet his every need. Joi makes home dinners for him and then changes into vampy outfits, the digitized remake of the 1950s every MAGA man needs. The fetish she offers K is the siren call of whiteness: “You’re special.”

Joi “believes” this–or, more exactly, has been programmed to say it –so that K continues to do his work. In just the same way, the “wages of whiteness” like racist statues, the national anthem, and not being shot by police compensate for the not so perfect lived experience of actually being “white.”

Only K finds out that, despite his fantasy, he isn’t special, he’s not a naturally-born replicant, but just another shop-bought off-the-shelf model. Rather than give up his fetishism, he transposes it into the “noble death.” The rebel replicant leader suggests to him that such a death is the most human thing he can do, like Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities–whose 1935 movie ending was oddly watched in The Deuce as a form of sex work. K dies happily at the end, the first time he has smiled during the entire film.

But why would a machine that can see what humans have done to the world want to be human? There’s no reason that makes “sense” within the narrative, it’s just the old colonial fantasy that what “they” want above all is to be like “us.” And it’s the job of the Hero to stop them. Within the film narrative that doesn’t quite make sense but the real Hero is, in the cinematic fantasy, the male spectator, now aspiring to be a machine, a metaphor that also saturates sports fantasy.


K does achieve one notable visual first. Freud imagined Western male (hetero)sexuality  to revolve around the (m)other/”whore” classification. These roles must then be separated to feel right and, goodness knows, a whole lot of “aesthetics” has followed from that separation. In a world where, according to the New Yorker of all places, incest is the top-rated theme in porn, such distinction seems more than a little quaint.

In BR 2049, K manages to have it both ways by inserting his eroticized (m)other Joi into the body of a replicant sex worker Mariette (Mackenzie Davis). The resulting not quite perfectly overlapping three-way was a tour-de-force of animation and white male peculiarity. What does the white (machine) man want? To fuck (with) his own software. Apparently.

white supremacy

What does machine visuality want? To sustain the separation between the human and the enslaved. In the first Blade Runner, the replicants are to be pitied as they are hunted down. Now the replicant capitalist Wallace demands the production of an enslaved machine labor force, creating a new hierarchy between the human machine and the enslaved machine.

The enslaved machine will be known to be enslaved in the same way that the United States knew its enslaved to be so: because they were their mother’s child. An enslaved person could be of many phenotypes and genealogies. But there was no gainsaying partus sequitur ventrem, literally “the offspring follows the womb.” Control of the womb is, as United States politics amply demonstrates, central to all coloniality. As Saidiya Hartman puts it, “the master dreams of future increase.” Androids may dream of electric sheep but the ones in charge dream of primitive accumulation.

In the imaginary of Blade Runner 2049, the ever-more perfect replicant can defeat the test as to whether it feels. But it cannot refute being its mother’s child, although that “kinship loses meaning,” as Hortense Spillers argues in the context of slavery, when “one is neither female or male.” Enslaved or machine, the meaningless of the non-human condition continues. The patriarchy wins on both sides of the film: the replicant natural-born child lives (win for Wallace’s slave patriarchy). Deckard lives, and like a latter day father of the Horatii, gets to claim the same woman as “his” child, free of both her mother and K, her potential love interest (win for replicant patriarchy).

the end of patriarchy. or the end of the world?

It turns out that it is not the end of capitalism that is impossible to imagine over that of the end of the world. It is that of patriarchy. Worse, for patriarchy to continue, it now imagines that its conquest of nature must continue, whether in the machine body, the transformed planet, or the racialized hierarchies of the human and the enslaved.

Monuments, Looking, Lynching and Gender

In the past week,  the ubiquitous Confederate monuments have suddenly become visible as monuments to genocide and white supremacy. It’s important to continue to show their systemic role in making and sustaining white supremacy. In particular, the monuments form a network that connects seeing, unseeing, lynching and gender in ways that I for one had not previously understood. 

seeing and unseeing

The sheer numbers are astonishing. Over 13,000 Civil War memorials. 700 Confederate monuments on public land, including Arlington National Cemetery and the US Capitol. Statues of Robert E. Lee at universities like City College, New York, and Duke. That’s a system, an infrastructure of white supremacy that has been hiding in plain sight across the US. Now begins the process of learning to unsee the unseeing of them.

But the statues were always watching. In the Vice documentary on Charlottesville, one African American woman comments that the statue of Robert E. Lee seemed to watch her wherever she went. The monuments are racialized CCTV, placing those designated “not white” on notice that white supremacy is watching.  They materialize the mystical power of “oversight,” once embodied in the plantation overseer, and now part of segregated public space.

material mourning
Ad for the McNeel Marble Company in 1913, peak of the monument boom

The monuments convey that power not by artistic skill or visual creativity but by sheer mass. These were mass-produced objects, made by companies like McNeel Marble. They had massive height and weight. When Louisville, Kentucky, decided to take down its monument, nearby Brandenburg put it back up. It’s 70 feet tall, 100 tons of granite and now re-mounted on 80 tons of concrete. In and of itself, this materiality dominates. By its simple presence it makes a statement as to who “counts” in America, who is grievable, and who is not.

Via the monument, the materialized power of (over)sight forms specific sites within the matrix of white supremacy. Take the thirty-four foot high monument in Pensacola, Florida, paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1891.  At the time, the city was majority African American. It had been been captured from Native Americans and free Africans by Andrew Jackson in 1817.

Confederate Monument Pensacola, FL

The monument dominated the local landscape when first installed (as in the 1907 postcard above). A year later, Leander Shaw, an African American man accused of assaulting a white woman, was lynched nearby. Over 2000 bullets riddled his corpse, after he was hanged from an electric pole (yes, there’s a picture; no, I’m not posting it). When the local high school was “integrated” in 1975, a race riot ensued and attracted a major KKK rally to the monument.

In the past week, the mayor has called for it to come down, only to meet determined opposition from the local Republican congressman and a 5000-signature petition. Which in turn generated 2300 signatures supporting removal (possibly to a nearby cemetery). Now a weekend rally has been called in support of the monument.

Here, then, is a metonymy of what these monuments stand for: the conquest of Indigenous populations; the subjugation of African Americans; white supremacy and the myth of white womanhood; the former Republican “Southern strategy” of electoral domination; and now the metonymic conflict over the monument.

the site and sight of lynching

In other cases, as in Brooksville, Florida, and Hot Springs, Arkansas , lynchings actually took place at the site of the Confederate monument. Take the case of Caddo Parish, Louisiana. It was the second largest site of lynchings nationwide. In 1903, the UDC put up a Confederate monument. Six months later, three people were lynched at the site on November 30, 1903, from the tree visible in the photograph below.

Caddo Parish Confederate Monument. Three men were lynched here in 1903 from the tree.

A typical “Silent Sentinel” monument, the Caddo Parish example is thirty feet tall, dominating its locale. The woman in front represents Clio, the muse of history and the inscription reads “Lest We Forget.” The site could better serve as a memorial to Phil Davis, Walter Carter, and Clint Thomas, the lynched men.

In general, it’s noticeable that there is a rough correlation in the incidence of lynchings and the numbers of Confederate monuments.

Tuskegee Institute table of lynchings per year.
SPLC chart of Confederate monuments per year

Both “peak” in the decade after 1890, as Jim Crow became fully established in the South, with an upturn again in the 1920s with the revival of the KKK. I do not think that the monuments “caused” lynchings or vice-versa. Rather, both were interactive instruments of violence in instituting and sustaining white supremacy.

This interaction can be called the “sight of lynching.” As in the case of Leander Shaw, many lynchings resulted from the testimony of white women, often without other evidence. In the common instance of “reckless eyeballing,” (which I’ve written about here) the accusation was that an African American person had looked at a white woman with sexual intent, as in the case of Emmett Till.

There is, then,  a relay to be explored between the oversight materialized in the Confederate monument; and lynchings based on embodied perceptions of being looked at. The white gaze was at once surrogated through the monument and expressed as the power to remain unseen (in the case of the monument) and unseeable (in that of white women).

What was both seen and unseen was the spectacular and appalling violence of lynching. In 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative will open the Memorial to Peace and Justice, the first prominent memorial to the 4000 victims of lynching. Yet as many exhibitions and publications have shown since the groundbreaking Without Sanctuary exhibit (2001) [caution: very distressing images], lynching itself was intensely mediated. There were postcards, photographs, newspaper stories and public events. Nonetheless, only one white man was convicted of lynching in its eighty-year heyday.

white mythology

Further, the Confederate monuments were, as has been widely noted, often paid for by the UDC or other Confederate women’s organizations. Fundraising for the Pensacola monument was failing until the UDC became involved. Perhaps unexpectedly, white women’s activism made the network of monuments possible. Women are even active in today’s white supremacy movement, despite its visible misogyny.

In her 1952 memoir, UDC leader, Dolly Blount Lamar claimed that the monuments expressed:

in permanent physical form the historical truth and spiritual and political ideals that we would perpetuate.

This “truth” was very specific. When a historian at the University of Florida expressed the view in 1911 that

the North was relatively in the right, while the South was relatively in the wrong

members of the UDC drove him out of his job. When we hear the call to respect “history” on all sides, it is such falsified and white supremacist history that is at stake.

segregation forever

These monuments remain active today. One instance of the work they do for white supremacy is to act as “border” markers in segregated cities. It’s not just in the former Confederacy that this happens. The statue of the appalling J. Marion Sims, who performed medical experiments on enslaved African women without anesthetic, does this work in New York City today.

Statue of Marion Sims, 103rd St NYC

To the North of Sims is so-called “Spanish” Harlem, a diverse area of Black and brown people, dotted with housing projects and schools offering free meals to anyone under 18. South is Central Park and Museum Mile, where white people play whiffle ball and look at the monuments of white “civilization.”


I have not been to the mountain top. I do not know what comes after white supremacy. I continue to be engaged in the work of anti-antiblackness which means negating the regime of white supremacy by making the monuments and the work that they do visible: and thereby removable.