Kareem Estefan is a writer, editor, and PhD candidate in Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, currently teaching media studies at the American University of Beirut. His art criticism has appeared in Art in America, BOMB, frieze, Ibraaz, Third Text, and the New Inquiry, among other publications. He is coeditor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books, 2017).

Our Violent Commons: Witnessing the Worldly Within the Imperial Commons

Kareem Estefan

Volume 4Article 14

Our Violent Commons: Witnessing the Worldly Within the Imperial Commons

Kareem Estefan

Volume 4Article 14 Download

Our Violent Commons: Witnessing the Worldly Within the Imperial Commons

Kareem Estefan
Volume 4/Article 14 Download
Kareem Estefan is a writer, editor, and PhD candidate in Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, currently teaching media studies at the American University of Beirut. His art criticism has appeared in Art in America, BOMB, frieze, Ibraaz, Third Text, and the New Inquiry, among other publications. He is coeditor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books, 2017).

Imperial violence is our commons, our form of being together.

– Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism

We invite short responses that engage Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s rethinking of the relationship between violence and the commons in contemporary cultural production and political organizing.


A distinction is often made between the natural and the cultural commons: water, air, and earth on one side, and images, texts, artworks, artifacts—everything that can be digitized and museumified—on the other. Like any proposition to cleave nature from culture, this division is untenable, all the more so in this late stage of what Françoise Vergès has labeled the Racial Capitalocene.{1} I would like to suggest that a more salient distinction be introduced, in parallel to Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s recalibration of major concepts in political theory—including sovereignty, citizenship, rights, and reparations—between an imperial and a worldly commons.{2} Building from Azoulay’s argument that our actually existing commons—whether they are water systems or cultural archives—are constituted by imperial violence, we should ask how to transform imperial public spheres and institutions into worldly spaces of care and interdependence.

Photography has been a key tool for the imperial enclosure and control of worldly life, but it also holds the potential to challenge imperial principles. Azoulay describes the camera as a technology that has legitimized the violent transformation of shared worlds into imperial territories, of people into refugees or infiltrators, and of the past “into a separate time zone, a tense that lies apart from both present and future.”{3} She warns of “(t)he violence of forcing everything to be shown and exhibited to the gaze.”{4} Nonetheless, photography, which Azoulay has long theorized as an event and a relational practice rather than merely a tool for producing documents, also carries a “potential of reversibility.”{5} Interactions with photography can enable the reversal of the camera shutter and the refusal of the imperial classificatory regime, inviting returns to a worldly commons in which forms of life are not extracted and exposed as images but in which images are intrinsic elements of shared worlds.

Uncovering this worldly potential involves reversing what Azoulay calls “the imperial shutter.” For Azoulay, the camera’s shutter is not a mere metaphor for power, but a key element of an apparatus for colonial ordering: the shutter cleaves time, space, and social relations. To reverse this logic would imply dismantling, or simply refusing, the visual orders of empire.{6} I want to anchor this project of refusal in my current thinking around Palestinian visual culture and digital media projects that reject colonial mechanisms of visibility and posit opaque, relational forms of bearing witness.

Consider Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili’s video Hiding Our Faces Like a Dancing Wind (2016). Composed as a screen capture of the artist’s activities on his laptop computer, the seven-minute video juxtaposes two disparate photographic scenes concerned with imperial extraction—of images and artworks, identities and forms of life—from a worldly commons. Khalili’s video obliquely narrates the relationship between these forms of the common in a poetic text slowly typed in a small window at the upper-right corner of the screen. The text reads,

all the masks that disappeared from our lives were not recognized as the faces of our ancestors who came from the faraway shores of our dreams asking us to recognize them as messages from trees looking at us as we feel the pain of not being recognized by the thieves who stole our faces and left us unrecognizable facing the flow of time trying to hide our remains with our hands like a dancing wind not wanting to have our faces recognized by the cameras that keep stealing our souls . . .

In the center of the screen, Khalili plays an iPhone video documenting a young Palestinian woman covering parts of her face with her hands in a careful choreography designed to thwart the camera’s facial recognition algorithms. Simultaneously, on the left side of the screen, Khalili opens a series of digital photographs of indigenous masks and figurines in museum displays, the glares and reflections created by the vitrines visible. Framed by the interface of an iPhone camera and punctuated by the same yellow square that sometimes recognizes the woman’s face, these images provoke a visual analogy between the extractive tendencies of the imperial museum and those of contemporary biometric surveillance—an analogy that culminates, in the video, with the superimposition of cropped images of masks over the woman’s face.

The constellation of imagery in Khalili’s video raises questions about the extent to which imperial techniques of capture and classification connect the histories of museological work, photography, and settler colonialism. The masks and figurines that appear in Khalili’s video have been robbed from the worlds in which they were meaningful—not as objects for display, but as integral elements of cultural and spiritual life. Such acts of imperial appropriation are always accompanied by the partial or total destruction of the worlds to which the creations belonged. Shorn of their social basis, these objects and the worlds they represented were condemned to history, converted into static documents to be interpreted from within the imperial commons—for example, in Israeli state archives to which Palestinians are denied access.{7} Khalili’s video illustrates Azoulay’s critique of the imperial shutter through its portrayal of the Palestinian woman attempting to evade facial recognition technology—a metonym for all the modes of biometric control, data tracking, classification, and surveillance to which Palestinians are subjected, even in humanitarian depictions.

Just as an African statuette in a museum vitrine is forced to broadcast a generic image of a lost past, a photograph of a Palestinian is coerced into circulation as a generalizable image of victimhood (this is when Palestinian identity is not associated with a culture of violence or simply erased from view).{8} In Khalili’s video, the refusal of photographic exposure to colonial classification and control begins with a claim to what Édouard Glissant has called “the right to opacity.”{9} Much scholarly literature has turned to Glissant’s writing on opacity as a theory to apply to practices of counter-surveillance. But, in my view, the more consequential aspect of his thinking is the potential for relation without classification and standardization, which stands in opposition to imperial regimes of visibility.{10} Hiding Our Faces is not merely a rejection of surveillance, but a call to reorient the politics of appearance beyond representation, or beyond those temporalities and identities which the camera has fixed in place. In thus reversing the imperial shutter, Khalili projects a Palestinian image in poetic relation to a world ensnared by settler colonialism and its visual conditions. He implies a solidarity among masked faces—a recognition across time and place that remains illegible to empire.



Title Video: Hiding Our Faces Like a Dancing Wind, Yazan Khalili (2016).

{1} Françoise Vergès, “Racial Capitalocene,” Futures of Black Radicalism, eds. Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin (New York: Verso Books, 2017), 72–82. The essay can be read in full online.
{2} Distinguishing the worldly from the imperial in relation to sovereignty, Azoulay writes, “Worldly sovereignty refers to the persisting and repressed forms and formations of being in the world, shaped by and through intimate knowledge of the world and its secrets, of its multiple natural, spiritual, political, and cosmological taxonomies preserved and transmitted over generations and shared among those entitled and invested to protect them. Imperial sovereignty consists of the massive expropriation of people’s skills so as to transform them into governable subjects in a differential body politic. Worldly sovereignty consists of care for the common world in which one’s place among others is part of the world’s texture.” Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (New York: Verso Books, 2019), 388.
{3} Azoulay, Potential History, 6-7.
{4} Ibid., 5.
{5} Ibid., 368.
{6} Ibid., 5. Because the camera proved an essential technology to nineteenth century imperial powers, Azoulay stresses that the camera shutter is not only a metaphor; but she nonetheless identifies the operation of an “imperial shutter” outside the field of photography as well.
{7} Scholarly literature on the Israeli plunder of Palestinian documents, books, photographs, films, artworks, and antiquities is extensive. Azoulay writes on the looting of Palestinian archives as a key part of the “regime-made disaster” in Palestine in the “Archives” chapter of Potential History, specifically pp. 210-220. See also Nur Masalha, “Appropriating History: Looting of Palestinian Records, Archives, and Library Collections, 1948-2011,” in The Palestine Nakba: Decolonizing History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory (London: Zed Books, 2012); and Rona Sela, “Seized in Beirut: The Plundered Archives of the Palestinian Cinema Institution and Cultural Arts Section,” Anthropology of the Middle East 12, No. 1 (Summer 2017): 83-114.
{8} I take the phrase from the anthropologist Lori Allen, who has written incisively on the impact of NGOization and the rise of a human rights regime on global media representations of Palestinians and on Palestinian self-representation. See Lori A. Allen, “Martyr Bodies in the Media: Human Rights, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Immediation in the Palestinian Intifada,” American Ethnologist 36, No. 1 (Feb. 2009): 161-180.
{9} Édouard Glissant, “For Opacity,” in Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189-194.
{10} As a compelling example of the former tendency, see Zach Blas, “Informatic Opacity,” Journal of Aesthetics & Protest 9 (November 2013): 1-14. For a recent text brimming with theoretical insights regarding the poetics and politics of Glissant’s writing on opacity and relation, see Kara Keeling, Queer Times, Black Futures (New York: NYU Press, 2019).