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This chapter investigates Walter Benjamin’s notion of the optical unconscious, concentrating on photography but taking up a variety of representations and visual practices. Key examples range from the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan through daguerreotypes of enslaved persons to digital photography’s role in audience interactions with Kara Walker’s 2014 public installation, A Subtlety. The cases considered underscore how unconscious impulses or desires guide visual perception and how visual details that are not noted consciously may nevertheless register affectively. Making novel sense of Benjamin’s term, the chapter uses it to show how the visual construction of race and sovereignty are intertwined in ways involving not only what affect theorists call side perceptions but also the unconscious dynamics charted by Freud.

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