Nov 09, 2012
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Jun 06, 2012 Turns Three

This week celebrates its third birthday.

Three birthday candles

As we did last year, this is a time to say “Thanks” and to take stock.  Thanks to all our readers, and not least to those who comment on the posts.  If anyone would like to give us any advice about the blog itself, now is a good time to do it.  We can’t say we’ll follow that advice, especially given our limited resources, but it always is appreciated and sometimes one thing can lead to another.  You can comment below or email us at and

A big party is not in the works–living large is so last year–but we will take two weeks off from posting to get caught up on some other work.  We’ll continue to read our mail, however, and hope that you’ll be back on July 7 as we start another year at NCN.


The Golden Dream of Modern Technology

The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has renewed debate about key elements of modern resource use.  How dependent should a society be on fossil fuels?  What constitutes “energy security?”  Can extraction industries and other commercial interests such as tourism thrive in the same ecosystem?  Advocates of various stripes argue that we should drive less, drill more, or rely more on either government or markets to mange complexity.  These are important debates, but the familiar antagonisms can create their own smoke screen.  To understand our predicament more deeply, it can help to look at those images that capture modernity’s basic promise and pathos.


This photograph of a plane at Heathrow airport is not only a stunning depiction of modern design, but one that evokes the dream of technology liberating humanity from earthly bonds.  The marvel of flight has been intensified into a few, sharp, geometrical lines.  The sleek lines of the machine represent sheer efficiency, while its dark undercarriage harbors the deep thrust of power that can lift everyone into the sky.  The terrain of earth is reduced to wisps of low-lying trees in the background, while machine and sky, technology and nature, exist in a pure space of perfect harmony.  The plane is at rest, yet poised as if waiting for a radio signal from heaven.  Flight has become a reality, while even greater potentialities for transformation are waiting to be released.

One might ask, however, why the sky is so golden, or whether the sun is rising or setting.  It might help to know that the plane was on the tarmac because it had been grounded by the ash clouds blowing across Europe last April.  Despite its technological prowess, modern society is still bound to unwanted natural constraints.  Indeed, looking at the image again from the standpoint of a catastrophic situation awakens one to another dimension of technological achievement.  Attending now more to color than line, a melancholic mood emerges to mark what is at risk.  The plane conquered the air only by consuming vast quantities of jet fuel.  The dark fuselage, wings, and engines now stand for the hidden cost of otherwise efficient design.  The darkness below becomes systematic denial of what continues to bind us to the earth.  The golden hue is not a sign of transcendental favor but rather the sunset of a civilization.

Not to put too fine a point upon it, but modern technology has allowed society to advance to a point where it is capable of engineering its own collapse.  That is an achievement, actually, and not for the first time.  It is small consolation, however, to imagine that at least we, too, will be remembered for our beautiful sense of design.

50th-anniversary Brasilia

This insight holds even if the sun is actually rising, as it is in the photograph taken on the morning of the 50th anniversary of the city of Brasilia.  The epitome of high-modernist urban design, Brasilia has become a monument to both the Utopian dream and social poverty of modernism.  This beautiful image captures each condition and can stand as a complement to the one above.  Using the same economy of line and the same combination of color and darkness, the photograph exposes at once the precision, the promise, and the danger of a society organized around modern technologies.  Once again, society seems poised for ascension into a higher order of being, and yet also reduced to emptiness and darkness.  The golden dream, it seems, will be eternal, even when only one person remains.

Photographs by David Levene/The Guardian and Fernando Bizerra, Jr./EPA.


Wild West Fantasies in Afghanistan

The New York Times made it the lead story: “U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan.”  The question remains of who will get the riches.  The Times danced all around that one, and the key words sound like a Hot Button list for those who pay attention to how imperialism is coded in public discourse.  The report was filed by a Pentagon task force for business development that had recently been transferred from Iraq.  (Did you know that the Pentagon has a deputy undersecretary for defense for business?)  The research was conducted with geologists from the United States Geological Survey’s international affairs office.  (Yes, they have an international affairs office.)  The relevant Afghani law was written by advisers from the World Bank (just happened to be passing through Kabul).   Mining contracts are being drawn up by “international accounting firms,” and the technical data is about to be turned over to “multinational mining companies.”

Needless to say, with talent like this, we can look forward to the day when, according to the internal Pentagon memo quoted by the Times, Afghanistan will become “‘the Saudi Arabia of lithium.'”  Coming your way soon, yet another obscenely wealthy beacon of authoritarianism and Islamist terrorism.

But that’s the future, and of course the future could turn out otherwise.  What is interesting for the moment is how the conversion of Afghanistan into a mineral extraction colony for multinational capitalism is being framed both verbally and visually.

Afghanistan sheep, Tyler Hicks

This is the photograph that the Times appended to their article.  It is one of many amazing images of Afghanistan by Tyler Hicks, and I believe I’ve seen it some time ago.  In short, this is not Tyler Hicks working up the mineral story, but rather an appropriation of the image to frame that story.  As such, the implications are clear: there really is nothing and almost nobody there; the pastoral herders who are there are incapable of the capital- and technology-intensive development necessary to convert the rocks to wealth.  Where have we heard that before?  Well, in the American West.

base near Marja, Afghanistan

Let me suggest that the idea that Central Asia is a new Wild West has been present often enough in the visual coverage of the American military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.  This photograph was part of a slide show at the Washington Post on Marine efforts to secure the area around Marja in southern Afghanistan and train Afghani police at “Camp Leatherneck” there.   This shot was the last in the series.  Don’t say there are no more frontiers, because this is an image of a frontier outpost.

Photographs by Tyler Hicks/New York Times and Andrea Bruce/Washington Post.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Waiting Your Turn in the Machinery of Death

This photograph from Kabul, Afghanistan could have been captioned “Return of the Body Snatchers.”

Loading  corpses in Kabul

Gallows humor is pretty cheap, but it may be as sane a response as any other to another suicide bombing.  The attack last week killed 18 people, wounded at least 47 others, and generally made a mess of things in the center of the capital.  And somebody has to clean up.   I could be snide and say “Your tax dollars at work,” but the US occupation of the country is one reason the bombings occur, and US troops are as logical a choice as any for the clean-up detail.  Even so, there is something unnerving about this image.

The caption said that the body was being loaded onto a truck, but it also looks as if it is being loaded into a shredder.  Or worse, some mobile rendering vat–everything processed, nothing wasted.  One neatly wrapped body is being conveyed up and into the machine, while another lies on a gurney waiting its turn to be fed into the industrial maw.  In  fact, they will be transported and unloaded while respectfully wrapped against additional harm, but nonetheless one senses that something awful has been revealed.  Something about how life and death alike are being captured by the routinized violence of military occupation.

Whatever the motives of the suicide bomber and whatever the intentions of the clean-up crew, this photograph has captured the  anonymity, repetitiveness, and pointlessness of 21st century warfare.  Death and destruction are spreading like global plagues–as I write this, ethnic violence has erupted again in Kyrgyzstan–and entire societies are transformed into that strange late-modern hybrid of new technologies and demolished infrastructure.  In rubble world, you can see cell phones and twisted rebar, digital cameras and gashed streets. And in place of thriving marketplaces, we see soldiers and other state functionaries going about the business of restoring the city, not to what it was before the blast, but to what remains after the worst of the damage has been carted away.

This dual character of being both modern and degraded is evident in the photographs themselves.  The photo above depicts both an efficient funereal detail and the degradation of seeing bodies being treated like they were being recycled.  It documents a modern military machine–not only the truck itself, but the entire military organization that so effectively manages violence and chaos–and also the waste and wreckage spread by war.  And the image itself is a marvel of digital reproduction that will become lost among many other images much like it, each another fragment in the growing detritus of seemingly endless conflict.

One way or another, violence in the 21st century is a story of modern technology strangely implicated in the production of ruins.  So it is that photographs of the machinery of death are both factual and allegorical.  The facts are tied to the present; the allegory extends into the future.

Photograph by Ahmad Masood/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Sight Gag: The All New BP Logo


Credit: gremlin at

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.


Dude! Extreme Sport in Afghanistan

Sometimes a photograph seems to focus on something incidental but actually captures the deep structure of a situation.

Marine in Marja

Nice back, isn’t it?  And the tattoos look pretty sharp, although it’s hard to appreciate the detail from here.  And that would seem to be about it: an anonymous Marine is physically fit and tattooed.  Interesting, but hardly news and surely not the key to ending the war in Afghanistan.

The photographer’s skill begins to emerge when one reads the caption for the photograph in The Washington Post: “A Marine tries to talk to residents of southern Marja, who gathered in front of a small outpost to voice complaints to the troops stationed there.”  I assume that the caption is referring to the guy in the blue trunks, as he’s the one doing the talking.  But perhaps he’s an interpreter instead of a Marine.  The text refers to one Marine, after all.  If so, the Marine “talking” is in fact waiting, lost in translation, you might say.   Things are getting complex, aren’t they?  The visual composition emphatically features the Marine in the center of the photograph, while the text seems to refer to the other foregrounded figure and to the villagers while leaving someone unmentioned.

And so the photo may not be showing communication at all.  The more I look at the picture, the more it seems like something out of an extreme sports event.  The dude in the center looks like he could be a surfer, mountain biker, base jumper, or some other high-risk, outside the box athlete.  The rest of the scene can lock into that theme.  Dude is waiting out the preliminaries, maybe even getting into his zone, while his agent or some media flack briefs the locals about their part in the event.  Dude is cool, focused, totally able to get it done; just don’t ask him to talk and you’ll be fine.

The intermediary carries his share of derivative cool–check out those shorts–but he definitely is working in a more familiar mode.  And the villagers?  Oh, yeah, the extras in the scene: distant, fuzzy, a vaguely illegible mini-mob there to be pacified, they are only today’s background while the show goes around the globe.

Of course, this analogy is unfair to the actual people in the photograph, but photojournalism is not about its literal referent.  Young men in arms are going to dig getting big, sporting tattoos, wearing sunglasses, listening to metal, and otherwise acting their age, and the dude actually could be a captain listening astutely on behalf of effective negotiations, and the villagers are in fact being pro-active by voicing complaints. What the photograph captures, however, goes well beyond those facts.  If the central figure is the one “talking,” then it is through an interpreter with people whose interests are barely in the picture.  If he is not the one talking, then talk is being backed up by force that waits to be unleashed with  little regard for whatever was being said.

And whatever the story, one can’t help but think that a basic tendency in American culture is being revealed.  Whitman celebrated democratic athleticism, but we are further down the line now.  Vernacular grace has been harnessed for powerfully focused, high-adrenaline competition.  Whatever the complexity of the world, Americans are turning war into an extreme sport.

Photograph by Andrea Bruce/Washington Post.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Drawing Lines in the Dark

border patrol vehicle by night

Don’t ask what it is, just enjoy it for a moment.  Earth and stars, a soft layer of cloud and a bright river of light–the scene is both timeless and transitory.  The stars wheel across the sky as night turns toward day, and the mountains will keep their deep geological time while that strip of  illumination flares for an instant and then is gone.  Perhaps it’s a line of fire, more likely something human and so even more impermanent.  One can imagine the stars slowly fading out and the universe sinking into final darkness, yet planet and sky would still be part of the same unity.

But if your fate were tied to that light snaking through the darkness, you might wonder just what it is.  The answer is, a US border patrol vehicle travelling near Otay Mountain, on the outskirts of San Diego, California. I don’t know enough about the area to say whether the vehicle is following the border exactly, but the time-lapse photograph nonetheless becomes an image of how the state draws a line in an otherwise  inchoate reality.  In place of the deep regularities of nature, here we see a division that could just as well be drawn a thousand different ways.

That assertion of sovereignty seems mighty puny against the galaxies passing overhead, but it is closer to human scale, for better or worse.  It also is not inconsistent with the world around it: the trail will be following the contours of the landscape, and its light and shape mirror the landform and firmament in the background.  What is inescapable, however, is that the patrol can only be a momentary traversing of a much bigger reality.

Chandeleur-Sound-oil booms

Like this, for example.  Now you are looking at shrimp boats dragging booms to collect oil in the Gulf of Mexico.  Like the border patrol, they, too, are drawing lines in the dark.  The effort to capture some of the oil has to be undertaken, but any attempt to capture all of it is surely futile.  This is not a brief against the state, however.  The boats probably are working for British Petroleum, but it is not likely they would be working at all if the US government wasn’t able and willing to enforce some corporate compliance with environmental protection.  Modern societies need to have states, and states are defined by borders, so what is the point?

These photographs are not images of trucks or boats or even of their visible traces in the darkness of a desert night or the deep waters of the Gulf.  These images are hieroglyphs of human limitation.  They mark the enormous difference between human–and, yes, modern–activity and the natural world encompassing it.  They remind us that large scale collective enterprises–states and corporations–are nonetheless very partial, incomplete attempts to manage a world that remains too often inchoate and beyond control.   In short, these images declare that we are overmatched–and not only by natural forces but by our own attempts to live well at all.

And for all that, they are beautiful.  Some would say that is a liability, but I think it’s a clue.  Even when working through the stupidities that define US immigration policy (too much policing) and regulation of the oil industry (too little), the hints of more harmonious relationships are there to be seen.  The societies that need to be developed will always involve drawing lines in the dark, but perhaps they will make more sense if they are undertaken with a sense of humility, and with the idea that beauty need not be accidental.

Photographs by Jorge Duenes/Reuters and Eric Gay/Associated Press.


Fear and Self-Loathing in an Environmental Catastrophe

Oil Soaked BIrd2010-06-06 at 11.12.03 PM

I cannot look at this photograph without being utterly and thoroughly disgusted.  I can feel the bile form and rise in my stomach, there is a stench that triggers the first hints of an urge to wretch, my gag reflex forces me to avert my gaze.  And at the same time I can’t stop looking at the image. Disgust is among the most visceral and sensuous of emotions; in point of fact, it might be thoroughly corporeal, an affect that literally defies verbalization.  Hate, anger, fear, even love to some extent, can be put into words, even rationalized.  But the very attempt to explain disgust recasts it as something like “contempt” and thus shifts the locus of judgment from a moral to an ideological register.  Put simply, disgust is beyond contempt, an intuitive, affective response to our own impurities; but, and here’s the rub, because they are our own impurities, part and parcel of our own waste and decrepitude, we can identify with them in some measure, we are attracted to them as much as we are repulsed by them.

It is for this reason, I believe, that photos such as the one above “speak” to the current environmental catastrophe in the Gulf in ways that are far more revealing—and certainly more powerful and compelling— than any study an environmental scientist can offer, any report an investigative journalist can write,  or any speech an activist or even the President can make offer (angry or not). Shot in tight close-up the photograph is devoid of all context, underscoring its universality rather than its particularity; indeed, the image incorporates many of the conventions of portrait photography with the point of focus slightly off-center and with the subject both filling the frame and yet looking askance the lens so as to put itself on display.  There is something of a regal quality to the bird’s pose, as if to acknowledge that it is on view for all to see and yet refusing to succumb to the humiliation of the muck and mire that covers and encases it. It is not a stretch to say that the bird exudes a prideful majesty—a sense of dignity—that resonates with the better part of the human spirit.

But there is more, for there is nothing in the photograph that directs our attention to the immediate cause of the bird’s plight.  The caption locates the bird on a beach in Louisiana’s East Grand Terre Island, and so we might be inclined to point our fingers at British Petroleum or perhaps the oil industry more generally.  But the photograph itself fails to provide any direct evidence to support that conclusion.  If any blame is identified in the photograph it must come from elsewhere, and as with any portrait this one urges us to look inward, to see ourselves lurking in the image somewhere.  When we do that, and if we are in any measure honest with ourselves, we have to recognize that for however much BP is culpable for the catastrophe in the Gulf—and there is no question that they own a considerable portion of the blame—the responsibility for this bird’s quandary is not theirs alone.  Everyone of us who enjoys—or more, who demands—the use of petroleum and oil byproducts must own up to our responsibility as well.  This does not mean that BP should be let off the hook when it comes time to pay for its negligence in the Deepwater Horizon accident, but it does suggest that we need to do more than simply hold the oil industry in contempt.  As a society we need to view the disgusting effects of our usage of oil on its own terms and in the context of a larger moral universe.

What we see in the photograph then is an image of ourselves.  The disgust we experience in viewing it is a measure of self-loathing animated by the implicit recognition of own impurities and decrepitude.  The question is, will we simply assume that this is part of the natural order of decay  and thus continue as if nothing is to be done (or assume that the problem can be solved by stronger regulations),  or will we recognize and act upon the need to change the way we live our lives?  It should not be seen as overly dramatic to suggest that our future hangs in the balance.

Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel/AP Photo.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Sight Gag: "I wasn't really in Vietnam, but I did watch it on TV"


Credit: Walt Handelsman/Newsday

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.


Seeing that Nature Can't Be Fooled

The physicist Richard Feynman has famously remarked that “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”  Those of us familiar with both the clean, green British Petroleum logo and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have good reason to savor the remark.  More than irony is needed to get to a better world, however, not least for those of us who spend much time on technologies, such as computers and the Web, that are wholly dependent on the electrical grid and the large-scale energy production that fuels it.  If visual culture is to be more than part of the problem (think of that BP logo), then there is need to look at more than oil-soaked birds or those hypnotic video images of robots at the well head.  In fact, thinking about better approaches to resource management might benefit from more ordinary images of events that are still dramatic but less than horrific.

Guatemala sinkhole aerial view

The walls of the sunken cylinder are so uniformly even that it could be another feat of engineering–perhaps the footprint for a missile silo.  No one expects to see an underground silo along a city street, however, so something is amiss.  Seriously amiss, as it happens: you are looking at an enormous sinkhole in Guatemala City, Guatemala.  The hole opened suddenly following Tropical Storm Agatha, devouring a factory that had closed for the day only an hour before.  No harm, no foul, perhaps, but this is not what you want to see happening in your neighborhood.

The illusion that it could be engineered is indicative of the larger tension exposed by the photo.  The built environment all around the hole is engineered, which means that it is the result of carefully working with nature rather than trying to fool it, manipulate it through magic, or otherwise live at its mercy.  Nature has no mercy, and engineering either provides or protects a great deal of what is necessary for a good life in the modern world.  But the more successful and extensive the engineering, the greater the consequences when nature does expose errors in calculation.

landslide Taiwan

Oops!  This photo of a landslide across Highway 3 in Taiwan is somewhat of an inverted image of the one above.  Here the earth rises above the street instead of having disappeared below, but in each case the built environment is drastically disrupted by the earth moving as it will and without any respect for the plans of those who build upon it.  The photo is more comic than catastrophic, however: perhaps it will inspire a B movie, say, “Revolt of the Hill Creatures.”  If done well, we’ll learn that all they really want is to be left alone–that, and love, of course.

I’m featuring these photos in order to point out not only that nature can’t be fooled, but that humans will continue to fool themselves.  That highway is an impressive piece of engineering, but not one that could have anticipated every change in topography.  The sinkhole in Guatemala is not the first in that area, but few would expect everyone living there to pack up and leave (and then what–move to San Francisco?)  At some level, the illusion that it can’t happen here may be essential for human life.  That does NOT excuse hubris, however, and BP and other global-scale offenders should be penalized and regulated to the hilt.  Even so, the innovation needed to develop a sustainable society has to come at all levels, and especially in respect to the humble but still difficult tasks of restoring local communities.

Perhaps one reason why I like these photos is that they are relatively humble.  The record distinctive events, but the images themselves are rather straightforward.  They show disasters but relatively small scale disasters, and they are more instructive than dazzling.  The perspective afforded is not the engrossing close-up but rather the relatively detached aerial view.  Indeed, it is that calculated distance from the scene, that long view and the comic willingness to admit to one’s own faults that may be a critical part of seeing our way to a sustainable society.

Photographs by Reuters/Casa Presidencial and Reuters.  The Feynman quote is from the report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Volume 2: Appendix F – Personal Observations on Reliability of Shuttle by R.P. Feynman.  And despite my crack about oil-soaked birds, I have to applaud The Big Picture for breaking through the fourth wall with these photos.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.