Book review: 'Image Control: Art, Fascism, and the Right to Resist' by Patrick Nathan
When I first picked up “Image Control: Art, Fascism, and the Right to Resist” by Patrick Nathan, I was a little skeptical. It sounded intriguing, but I often find that books on the leftist spectrum will pull punches and refuse to condemn themselves and their participation in society. Instead, Nathan’s ideas blew me away and resonated with me deeply.
When we spoke about his book over the phone, Nathan made it clear this was his intention. He stated that what he has to say is not an either-or situation and that he is not interested in exploring everyone’s feelings. This book is anti-fascist from the first page, and there is no legitimacy in the other perspective.
“Image Control” struck a chord about a particular event in my life. Circa 2014, I tipped from liberalism to full-on leftism. The spark that began during Hurricane Katrina was now burning bright and passionately. As many burgeoning millennials did around the time, I took to Facebook to post about Black Lives Matter, police brutality and the deep injustice against Mike Brown. May he rest in power.
On Facebook, my Aunt Naomi, my mom’s cousin, posted a photo of a young Black man holding guns, with stacks of cash and clusters of beers in front of him. He had a round, youthful face and a shaved head. Maybe, if you squinted, he looked like Mike Brown. I immediately knew he was not and pointed this out to my Trump-loving Republican aunt. We traded comments back and forth, with her refusing to believe it wasn’t a picture of him. Plus, either way, these Black boys were criminals for smoking weed and shoplifting.
I pointed out that I’ve smoked weed. (I also knew she had, but that’s beside the point.) I’ve also shoplifted, because when you’re a broke college student, sometimes you just want that fancy cheese but can’t justify the $8. Her husband, Blake, then decided to step in and told me that I shouldn’t be surprised if what happened to Mike Brown happened to me too. Aunt Naomi hit “like” on that and followed up with a comment that I was lucky she respected my mother.
My mother is white-passing and mixed with Polynesian. I am unambiguously Black.
In “Image Control,” Nathan explains succinctly what is happening in this type of everyday scene. He explains that images by themselves mean nothing. A picture of an unnamed young Black boy, presented without context, was implied to be a photo of Mike Brown. Without that implication, it is simply a picture of another young boy. Just like the school photo typically used of Brown himself, with his chin tilted slightly up and aimed to the viewer’s left, looking at the camera. There is no reason why both of them shouldn’t be protected. It doesn’t matter if they were the perfect victim. Even I myself, who shares blood with Aunt Naomi, am not worth protecting in the face of bias.
My personal loss of a familial relationship, like the images, did not come out of nowhere. Nathan writes extensively in “Image Control” about how, in America, prescriptive memory is extremely selective. Consider the recent 20th anniversary of 9/11: American patriotic recollections were thrown in sharp contrast to the horrific contemporary images coming out of the Taliban overthrowing Afghanistan. Nathan shows that because the “image” of 9/11 has become so memorialized, it is also stripped of any context. Instead, “9/11” has become sacred and untouchable, something we are not allowed to examine further without being deemed unpatriotic; however, that may be starting to change.
Nathan told me he was relieved to see, now, the criticism against the American response to 9/11 and the Islamophobia that came out as a result. “It’s actually a relief to go back and look at the things that were written and said 20 years ago, and find their open hatred and their rhetoric shocking and disgusting,” Nathan said. “And I think watching what has happened over the last 20 years has helped people put into perspective how hideously reactionary the American response to 9/11 really was.”
This very act of demanding 9/11 be apolitical is political. Nowhere in the Ground Zero memorial does it talk about how, in order to have a proxy war with Russia, the CIA funded the groups that would become the Taliban. The war was essentially two major powers devastating a region over differing ideologies, both of them harming their own citizens and Afghan people in the process. What happened on 9/11 has never been static, and the repercussions continue to be felt all over the world today.
When I lived in Texas for a brief time, I learned that every day the students at the nearby middle school stood up for the Pledge of Allegiance, the Texas Pledge of Allegiance, the school motto and then a moment of silence. When I asked why they had a moment of silence, thinking that maybe a student had passed earlier that year, my colleague informed me it was for 9/11. I had never heard of that. The earliest any of the students could have been born would have been 2005.
The moments of silence are for the Americans who lost their lives in the attack, but this performative behavior does nothing for the subsequent deaths of Americans overseas and the tens of thousands of civilians in the Middle East and West Asia who have since died. In America, certain lives have always mattered more than others.
For years after the “war on terror” started in 2001, people were losing their jobs for showing respectful photos of American troops coming back in flag-covered caskets. The same cannot be said for others, who display without thought the bodies of Afghan people clinging to planes or of Haitian asylum-seekers being rounded up by border patrol on horseback. We have seen these images before. The Haitian photos reminded me of the ones in 2011 of deputies on horseback escorting chained prisoners at the Angola prison in Louisiana. Those photos were shocking then, but images mean nothing without action behind them.
Political commentators, for instance, like to use these types of images for their newscasts and talking points. “American life becomes ammunition and an ongoing profit generating a global war,” Nathan said in our interview. “Basically, Americans are more useful to America dead than alive.” It’s the same sentiment that Black Lives Matter grew out of: A person’s life should be worth more than in death. This inherent disparity was recently on display in how Gabby Petito’s disappearance gained national media attention, as opposed to the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The media uses death as entertainment and then profits from it, and a fascist state will put some lives above others.
The aesthetic of grieving something carries more importance than studying its repercussions today, Nathan argues time and time again in “Image Control.” From curated Instagram feeds with similar color schemes to that bleak memorial in New York where thousands lost their lives, the images are static. The people who view them are living.
The right-wing idealogues have learned how to manipulate imagery and aesthetic for its own purpose as well. That image of a young boy, the one who is not Mike Brown, fitted the purpose for Aunt Naomi and Uncle Blake. “In truth, whoever shares the image controls its context,” Nathan writes. The aesthetic of money, a black boy and guns was paired over and over with the word “thug.” Images and words work together in tandem to tell an even deeper story, to give the often-biased context of the author.
Nathan understands his own privilege, which lends credence to his writing. He recognizes that he should not have been surprised white supremacy won the election in 2016. Two years after my aunt broke my heart with her own white supremacy, America was collectively dealing with the after-effects of Donald Trump’s election on 11/9 in 2016, an ironic twist of a date “Image Control” points out and I had never noticed. There were no outsiders to blame, and no foreigners to point fingers at. Instead, our enemies were fellow Americans who cast their votes for a hate-filled bully, and who gave him the platform to reach more followers.
“Image Control” is also swift to point out that fascism shouldn’t be a surprise to Americans. Nathan reminds the reader that this country was founded on concurrent genocides and centuries of oppression, of which capitalism was a major motivator.
“Fascism trades in death,” according to “Image Control,” and these images of horrors should never be stripped from that complete context. America was founded on fascist acts, and also trades in death of both its own citizens and abroad. The scenes of the Jan. 6 insurrection are burned into the minds of many Americans. “Image Control” discusses in depth about how terrible things are sensationalized. Pictures are repeatedly shown to us of refugees clinging to planes in Afghanistan, of fascists breaking into the Senate Chambers, of children starving and of homelessness right in our neighborhoods.
As Nathan says, these deaths have been used to “fuel the massive entertainment apparatus that has replaced our journalistic structure.” The people who profit from death are far removed from the poverty, war and misery they sensationalize.
Images don’t solely serve as reminders: They can also distract us. “Image Control” examines memes and how the use of pictures and incomplete text together can create relatable and funny scenarios for our friends and observers. When I post a photo of a raccoon leaning out the driver’s side window with watery eyes and caption it, “me in the drive-thru when the barista asks how my day is going,” that sentence is incomplete. But the context is, “I am having a bad day and a small act of kindness is enough to make me emotional.” Our society’s continual manipulation of imagery is a fascinating form of communication.
In “Image Control,” Nathan helps his reader recognize all the ways in which they are subjected to and fall for propaganda. None of us are immune. He also confronts the fact that we ourselves often present an image. In 2014, during that fateful argument with Aunt Naomi, the image she had curated was shattered irreversibly; I suddenly saw more context than just a fun, loving, loud-mouthed person who my mom spoke highly of over the years. Maybe my aunt’s image of me changed too — or maybe she always saw me as a Black woman whose right to exist hinged on arbitrary behavior. I will never know; “Image Control” points out that we aren’t mind-readers. And while acts of fascism and white supremacy can feel like targeted abuse, the perpetrators likely don’t see it that way; if you don’t already think like one of them, it’s unlikely you’ll understand their reasoning.
“Image Control” is out of Nathan’s hands now. It’s a living, breathing piece of art in the world to be consumed and potentially misinterpreted by the masses, and he’s OK with that. His hope is that people will read the book, form their own opinions and grow. “What I really like about my book is that it is essentially in itself a defense of the ability to change one’s mind,” he said. Nathan doesn’t want people to only listen to middle-aged white male political commentators.
One point that echoes throughout “Image Control” is that fascism is never over, and therefore anti-fascism is never over. With the removal of Trump from office, Nathan said, “Fascism has become polite again.” Criticizing and examining the content we consume is critical and never-ending.
The terrible moment with Aunt Naomi and her defense of Uncle Blake’s words lives in my memory and is part of a larger framework of propaganda and history. Nathan wants everyone to remember that you have a right to an inner life, one that is not splashed across social media and aestheticized. “No one has the right to exploit your inner life, no one has the right to replace your personality with consumer habits, no one has the right to interrupt your relationship with yourself.” Clashes with family members over ideology have happened before, and they will happen again. The important part is to never give up.
If you are interested in “Image Control,” I also recommend:
■ “Pet” by Akwaeke Emezi.
■ “Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad” by M.T. Anderson.
■ The podcast “The World Beneath” by Lincoln Bible.
The names in this article were changed to protect privacy.
Leinani Lucas is an Indigenous and Black writer from the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas
Read more of the Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2021 issue.