In this theoretical tour-de-force, renowned scholar Ariella Aïsha Azoulay calls on us to recognize the imperial foundations of knowledge and to refuse its strictures and its many violences.
Azoulay argues that the institutions that make our world, from archives and museums to ideas of sovereignty and human rights to history itself, are all dependent on imperial modes of thinking. Imperialism has segmented populations into differentially governed groups, continually emphasized the possibility of progress while it tries to destroy what came before, and voraciously seeks out the new by sealing the past away in dusty archival boxes and the glass vitrines of museums.
By practicing what she calls potential history, Azoulay argues that we can still refuse the original imperial violence that shattered communities, lives, and worlds, from native peoples in the Americas at the moment of conquest to the Congo ruled by Belgium's brutal King Léopold II, from dispossessed Palestinians in 1948 to displaced refugees in our own day. In Potential History, Azoulay travels alongside historical companions—an old Palestinian man who refused to leave his village in 1948, an anonymous woman in war-ravaged Berlin, looted objects and documents torn from their worlds and now housed in archives and museums—to chart the ways imperialism has sought to order time, space, and politics.
Rather than looking for a new future, Azoulay calls upon us to rewind history and unlearn our imperial rights, to continue to refuse imperial violence by making present what was invented as “past” and making the repair of torn worlds the substance of politics.
“A remarkably rich and evocative history on the problem of violence and the importance of engaging aesthetics.”
“Ariella Azoulay takes on the seemingly impossible task of teaching us how to unlearn: unlearning imperialism, unlearning the archive, unlearning our complicity with regimes of violence, domination and exploitation, and most importantly for this ambitious volume, unlearning photography and its capacity to foreclose ‘potential histories’ that must urgently be realized and reclaimed. The monumental implications of unlearning are revealed with dizzying effect through her rigorous analysis, lucid writing, and vivid examples. In Potential History, she once again delivers a work of breathtaking scope that challenges us to reconfigure both what constitutes history, as well as what it means to learn from and unlearn toward its radical potential for living otherwise.”
“Compelling … As in her previous work, the tools Azoulay proposes are powerful precisely because of the way they implicate the faculty of imagination as a challenge to seemingly incontrovertible histories.”
“An important read on the topic of museums, colonialism, and their clear relationship.”
“Potential History is not only about the past, but about the enormous possibilities of the present.”
“Azoulay has produced a unique handbook for the 2020s that details how, why, when and where to say no in the affirmative. Her greatest achievement is that, against the foreshortened horizons of a despoiling barbarism, she makes all our tomorrows thinkable.”
“A magisterial call to reorient our relations to objects, archives, art, and plunder.”