The State of the World: Rehearsing an Abolitionist Reading Practice

Hadley Howes

Keywords: Abolition; Photography; Poetry; Critical archival practices; Decolonial reading practices

Participation: on-line

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre's infamous Daguerreotype of boulevard du Temple (8am) (1838) marks a monumental moment in the history of (what Ariella Aïsha Azoulay calls) the “imperial technology” of photography. This image has been historically celebrated in the Western cannon as documenting “the first human being to be photographed”: a “man having his boots polished” who stood still long enough for the ten-minute exposure to impress his statue-like image on the plate. Poet Dionne Brand sees the photograph otherwise, however, writing in The Blue Clerk that, through this image, she sees “the state of the world.” This vision of the image–the lived relations, gestures and intimacies that escape capture by the shutter–is the counter-reading Brand challenges us to bring to the colonial archive.

Katherine McKittrick asks: “What kind of work are we doing when we’re reading, and are we doing the kind of work we want to do?” The work I want to do when I read is the work of abolition: of engaging the reality of a world where the colonial culture that demands the existence of prisons, police, and punishment is impossible. Dylan Rodriguez describes an "abolitionist reading practice" as reading beyond what is immediately perceived to include the conditions under which the information emerges. If the conditions for the emergence of the Daguerreotype of the boulevard, and its inscription into the archive as a monumental event, are rooted in imperial powers that seek to know, possess, make and destroy worlds, then acknowledging and reckoning with these conditions is, according to Azoulay, a method of attending to “the recurrent moment of original violence,” and beginning to “unlearn imperialism.” Examining the conditions of meaning-making about the boulevard recorded in the archives of European and American press reveals the kind of work these (white gentlemen) scientists, journalists and scholars wanted to do when they read the image in 1839, 1937, and yesterday. This is part of the process of unlearning imperialism and practicing the work we want to do now.

During a conversation about archives and archival practices, Brand asked an audience (composed primarily of archivists): “What is the world where we might live in, where we have taken into account and reckoned with what we know–what might that look like?” Brand’s reading of the boulevard Daguerreotype demonstrates a process of “unlearning imperialism” (Azoulay) and an “abolitionist reading practice” (Rodriguez). By following the traces of Brand’s reading practice (given as poetry) alongside the archive of the photograph’s history as a monumental artifact of imperial technology, I seek to rehearse methods of reading that counter the sense-making project of Western aesthetics and transform the world into what is, therefore, possible.


Azoulay, Ariella Aïsha. Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism. Verso, 2019.
Brand, Dionne. The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2018.
McKittrick, Katherine. Dear Science and Other Stories. Duke University Press, 2021.
Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography from 1839 to the present day. The Museum of Modern Art, New York 19, New York, 1969.
Rodriguez, Dylan. “Abolition as Praxis of Human Being: A Foreword.” Harvard Law Review 132 (2019): 1575–1612.


Hadley Howes works to disrupt, dismantle, and transform the sense-making project of Western humanist aesthetics from the position of a white, queer, trans, settler artist and scholar. Their interest in archives, counter-monument and art in urban spaces is informed by their professional experience creating public art and their twenty-year international exhibition history as a visual artist working in research-rich, site-responsive and multimedia installation. Alongside creating art in public space and working with abolitionist care collectives in T’karonto, Hadley is a student researcher for the Archive/Counter-Archive research-creation project led by Janine Marchessault, and a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University, Katarokwi, on Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabek territory (Turtle Island).