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  • Zoe McDonald

HoTE Preview: Ariella Azoulay “Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism”

Thursday Feb. 13 5:30-7 pm, Sheldon Museum of Art, Ethel S. Abbott Auditorium

Free and open to the public

The spring 2020’s first Humanities on the Edge lecture brings Brown University Professor of Comparative Literature and Modern Culture and Media Ariella Azoulay to the Sheldon to deliver a talk, "Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism” based her 2019 book of the same name.

Azoulay’s photography and scholarship often focuses on using photographs to understand political conflicts, specifically Israel and Palestine. The Israeli Palestinian conflict often dominates headlines. Recently, the United States officially recognized Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv, as the capital of Israel. Other headlines tell of ongoing violence. And yet, text is only one way to tell the story of Israel and the occupied nation of Palestine. Ariella Azoulay argues for a way to resist imperialist ideology to call for making the case for justice.

According to Potential History’s website, Azoulay calls for resisting imperialist ways of thinking through tracing case studies of people who lived under imperialism including in the Belgian Congo and Palestine. In an interview with the website Jadaliyya, Azoulay argues that the case study figures should not be understood as creating a counter history but as counter to history. This emphasizes that history itself is a social construct. The objects in museums are curated. Central to resisting imperialist ideology, Azoulay calls for practicing “potential history.” Azoulay explains:

Potential history refuses to take imperial sovereignty or the institution of the museum as a fait accompli and tries to highlight the ongoing struggles with which they are entangled, against non-imperial and worldly formations of political organization and making art.

Instead of stopping with such a critique, Azoulay proposes the alternative “world sovereignty” that becomes “constitutive of people’s rights and mode of being in the world.”

This worldview also fits into the goals Azoulay hopes readers take away from Potential History. Azoulay told, “I wish that anyone who is interested in imagining a possible life outside of racial capitalism and imperialism would take this book in her hands and will work with it to continue this kind of work.”

Potential History’s ethical focus is a continuation of Azoulay’s earlier work. The theorist and creative writer Sarah Sentilles praises Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography (2008) for altering the ways viewers understand suffering in photographs, writing for Azloulay “It’s not empathy she’s after; she wants action. Images can transform the world, she argues, and the only reason they haven’t yet is because we don’t know how to look at them. The problem isn’t images; it’s us.”

Azoulay embodies Humanities on the Edge’s cross-disciplinary focus through a body of work that includes 10 books, articles in academic and art journals, and teaching classes on revolutions and media culture. In 2002 the International Center of Photography awarded her its Infinity Award for her 2001 book Death’s Showcase. More recently, she won the Igor Zabel Competition for innovative approaches and theoretical research in contemporary visual arts. Through this wide-ranging corpus of art, scholarship, and activism, Azoulay blends theory and practice.

Expect Thursday’s lecture to combine in-depth critiques of imperialist ideology, analyses of photography, and a call to action for resisting capitalism and racism.

Plan to recommend this lecture to friends, students, and mentors.

Check back at Watershed Tuesday February 18 for Joshua Renner‘s review of Azoulay’s lecture. The next Humanities on the Edge lecture will be “From Gore Capitalism to Snuff Politics: The Body as Mass Media” delivered by Sayak Valencia, Professor of Cultural Studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, on March 5th.

Humanities on the Edge is a cross-disciplinary lecture series organized in conjunction with the Department of English and other departments in the UNL College of Arts and Science in collaboration with the Sheldon Museum of Art.

Find out more about Azoulay here and more about Humanities on the edge by visiting and emailing Professor Marco Abel at

Contact Watershed if you’re interested in previewing or reviewing future Humanities on the Edge Lectures.


Sarah Sentilles reflection in Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography

Azoulay’s Brown University CV

Potential History’s website

Azoulay Potential History interview for

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