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Icons, Leaders, and Glen Beck

Now that Tea Party rallies have become “non-political” and dedicated to the vague ideal of restoring honor, perhaps the US media can get on with the business of covering what we might call the Real Government–you know, the one that makes laws, distributes resources, provides services, and generally is tasked with protecting the general welfare.  The Tea Party will be a footnote to history soon enough–no, not soon enough, but soon–and thus the weekend’s march on Washington provides a fitting moment for reflecting on political movements and their leadership.

tea party icons lincoln & indian

According to the caption at the New York Times, this is a photograph of Glen Beck waiting backstage with security personnel.  The photo also is a critical study in American propaganda.  The center of the photograph is dominated not by any political actor but rather by a symbol: the Washington Monument celebrates both the nation’s first president and the Enlightenment rationality that his generation of political leaders valued so highly.  Austere, abstract, and not in any way religious (unless you count the Egyptian allusion), the monument perfectly captures both aspiration and stability as they are to be deep virtues of a federal government.

That is not to say that the monument shouldn’t serve as a rallying point for populist movements lead by demagogues preaching about “faith.”  The monument does set the key for the photograph, however, one that is developed further by the framed images left and right.  Abraham Lincoln is Washington’s equal in the pantheon of great leaders, and the figure who guided the nation through its second great crisis.  The Native American figure is apparently emblematic of natural nobility and honor–and perhaps of the honor of the Lost Cause now neatly brushed clean of slavery and Jim Crow lynchings.  In any case, it is clear that he is a warrior and perhaps a leader of his people.  Thus, you have three symbols of leadership on behalf of the nation: a triptych binding together the founding, the second founding, and those who were displaced, all supposedly united by–I hate to say it–a native sense of honor.

And then there is Glen Beck with his guards.  Perhaps we are to believe that dark suits and sunglasses are the latest incarnation of the warrior spirit, but the photograph is much more a depiction of contrasts than continuity.  Today’s political actors are dwarfed by the images of their forebears, and the supposed unity of the neatly balanced composition belies the tensions between the founding of the union, its being rent apart by slavery, and its reunification including the conquest and near eradication of the original peoples.

Most important, the symbols are inert, objects for manipulation.  And that is what the political actor of the day is all about: manipulating symbols and, through them, crowds.  And manipulating those symbols without any regard to the original history, commitments, or sacrifices of the real men and women who built the nation or suffered the often tragic turns of its making.  (One might note that both suffering and victory were eloquently joined in the original March on Washington, to which Beck’s rally was the “accidental” and parodic sequel.)  Indeed, the leader of this rally has rewritten the record book for those who trammel history, which one can do when leading consists in no more than giving speeches without ever having to govern.  And when the leader is far removed from his audience, a crowd that is visible only in the distance as a staged source of applause across the moat formed by the reflecting pool.

There is one more contrast built into the photograph, albeit one that requires a bit of history.  Construction of the Washington Monument began in 1848 but wasn’t finished until 1884.  One reason for the delay was that the project was hijacked by the Know-Nothings, the nativist reactionaries of the day who were precursors to the Tea Party movement.  Know-Nothings were virulently opposed to immigration from Ireland and Germany–immigration by people with names like Beck, for example.  They also thought that Catholics couldn’t be good citizens in a democracy, wanted Bible readings in the public schools, and otherwise endorsed positions that, with the change of a name or two, are all too common among those gathered on the Mall last Saturday.

Fortunately, the Know-Nothings became a footnote to history, and the monument was completed.  Perhaps we could do worse than to have our symbols outlast those who now would speak in their name.

Photograph by Brendan Smialowski for the New York Times.

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Sight Gag: Of Dreams and Nightmares


Credit: John Sherfius, Boulder Camera

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.


Katrina: The Long Aftermath

Hurricane Katrina

In recognition of the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast, Aric Mayer has put together a short film version of his paper “Aesthetics of Catastrophe” (Public Culture 20:2), in which he explores some of the problems and possibilities in covering the immediate aftermath of the storm.

The anniversary will be recognized by a number of other documentaries, but I doubt that serious reflection on Katrina could do better than to start with Aric’s visual essay.  And while it is true that substantial investments have been made in respect to civil engineering, I think it is safe to say that much remains to be learned: about what the disaster exposed in American society and government, about that society’s relationship to nature, and, perhaps most important, about the nature of catastrophe itself.   Catastrophe involves not only dramatic destruction but also long, slow processes of denial both before and after the event.  Hence the double tragedy when the aftermath is defined by the restoration of the same rather than genuine renewal.  Aric’s mediation on the first days of the aftermath of Katrina provides a remarkable demonstration of how a natural disaster challenges not only civil engineering but also the civic imagination.

Aric was the principal photographer working for the Wall Street Journal in New Orleans in the weeks after the storm.  His solo exhibition of the photographs, titled “Balance + Disorder: Hurricane Katrina and the   Photographic Landscape,” was held at Gallery Bienvenu in New Orleans.

You can see the film here, as one of the posts at Aric’s blog.

Photograph by Aric Mayer, Port Sulphur, LA (southern Plaquemines Parish).

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Disposable Lives

One of the little noted features of modern life is how safe many people are much of the time.  For all of the warnings about being out too late or going into the wrong side of town, most of us take for granted that we can be out and about on our own most of the time, that we don’t need to carry weapons, that the night will be well lighted, that it is more important to watch out for traffic than for enemies, and that stray bullets are not a problem.  There have been many times and places in human history where one could not feel so safe so much of the time.  Today, however, many people can afford to have other worries.  But not everyone.

In some parts of the world today, violence is a terrible, chronic condition of everyday life.  Eastern Congo continues to be the rape capital of the world, while terror bombings and gang killings are ubiquitous in far too many locales.  Venezuela has a higher murder rate than Iraq.  The Mexican drug wars are getting worse.  In the US, homicide is the leading cause of death for young black men.  And most of this carnage seems to be no part of ordinary life elsewhere.  Even when violence does erupt, it quickly disappears again, leaving barely a trace.

rubber glove on NY street

This photograph from New York City provides strange testimony to both the presence and the elusiveness of violence.  The blue rubber glove is all that the medical and forensic teams have left behind in the aftermath of a shooting at East 132 Street in Manhattan.  (If you look carefully, you can see the yellow crime scene tape on the ground behind the police car, soon to be taken up but for the moment almost as natural and well ordered as the yellow lane divider that it crosses to make a square framing the lone glove.)  That glove will have been pulled on by practiced hands and then discarded as the body was wrapped up and sent on its way to hospital or morgue, the evidence bagged up, the questions asked and reports filed.  Experienced professionals will have followed well-honed procedures, and in little time the scene will have been returned to normal.

Or what passes for normal.  One reason the image is disquieting is that the blue plastic is so artificial and out of place, and yet as one imagines it being picked up (and I think that is implicit in the viewpoint), the street is not improved so much as made disturbingly empty.  One then can imagine that you are seeing the street as it would look to someone laying on the ground, say, while bleeding to death from a gunshot wound.  At a distance on each side there are trees, nice cars, decent apartments, signs of the good life in a well-ordered city, but up close only the hard concrete leading past the cop car to an empty sky.  And once that glove is picked up, there will no longer be any trace of all that was lost there.

The glove can be discarded, forgotten, and then thrown in the trash because it is disposable.  Cheap (or not so cheap) plastic gloves are a sanitary precaution, of course, and disposables are just the thing for keeping first responders properly equipped during a busy night.  The glove’s brief double duty as a witness to violence will not have been part of the plan, and it is all the more revealing for that.  This small object is one example of the normalization of violence–of how a society manages violence and restores a semblance of order (and a large measure of amnesia) rather than confronting what has become a chronic social problem.

This is not to fault the first responders or to pretend that the police aren’t dedicated to and effective at preventing violence.  Indeed, violent crime has in fact decreased overall in many cities over the past decades, albeit while becoming horribly concentrated in some neighborhoods and correlating highly with economic decline.  At the end of the day, however, one can’t help but think that more than the glove has become disposable.  Too many lives are being thrown away, too many neighborhoods abandoned, and, perhaps most important, a sense of shared obligation across all of the city and all of the globe, rich and poor, safe and unsafe, has been lost.

Photograph by Angel Franco/New York Times.


The Mourning After

Screen shot 2010-08-22 at 9.25.09 PM

The war began officially on March 19, 2003, and 43 days later President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” after landing a S3B Viking “Navy One” aircraft on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.  That was on May 1, 2003.  This past week—7 years, 3 months and 10 days later, to be exact—and with considerably less fanfare—the “combat phase” of the war came to an end as the last of  30,000 America’s combat troops crossed the border from Iraq to Kuwait en route to the USA.  I might feel slightly better about this if we were not leaving 50,000 “non-combat troops” behind to lend “technical assistance” to the Iraqis, a fact compounded by the lingering memory that the war in Vietnam was fought with “military advisers.”  All of that notwithstanding, my first thought was that it would be somewhat churlish to feature the above photograph on this occasion.  After all, surely President Bush cannot be responsible for the decisions made by President Obama … can he?    But then I recalled that the initial motivation for the invasion of Iraq was to seek out and destroy weapons of mass destruction; weapons, lest we forget, which were never found and were in all likelihood a neoconservative fantasy from the outset.  “Mission Accomplished,” indeed.

Bringing any troops home is nevertheless a moment for some celebration, and no doubt in the weeks ahead we will see more than a few photographs of loved ones as they jubilantly reconnect at the end of a gangplank or on the tarmac of an airfield.  It is, after all, a convention of war time photography.  But as we view these images we have to be sure to see past the immediate burst of joy to the long and extended pain and trauma—both physical and psychic—such soldiers and their families will endure.  It is unlikely that such images will be taken or if they are that they will be featured; and even if some are, it is a sure bet that they will not circulate widely or that they will quickly fade from memory as too painful to recall and attend to for very long.

As much as coming home can be a moment of celebration, so too is it in some measure a moment of mourning for those who return.  I was struck in this regard by expressions on the faces of soldiers leaving or preparing to leave Iraq. Where one might expect to see joy or relief most images showed men—and it is notable that such images were specifically of men, not women—bearing a serious if not actually somber countenance.  The photograph below, appearing in a Washington Post slide is particularly poignant in this regard.

Screen shot 2010-08-22 at 10.17.54 PM

Shot at night and from within the hold of a cargo plane preparing to leave Iraq, the image has a degree of sober familiarity to it.  We have seen scenes like this before, though typically the “cargo” being loaded is not a pallet of duffle bags, but rather flag draped coffins.  What makes this image particularly eerie is the way in which the workers appear to be mourning the cargo as if this were a burial pall.  That is hard to imagine, of course, because it defies our experience.  How could one possible mourn the return of cargo which metonymically stands in for the return of the troops?  But then why would troops about to return home not exude joy?  The problem is that our experience of the war is mediated, and from a distance; not being there it is impossible to know what the troops who were there actually experienced—or what their return to their former “civilized” lives might entail … what and how and  why they might mourn.

The photograph above is thus in some ways a reminder of the difficulties that we might all have in adjusting to the return of fellow citizens form the war zone—friends and family and strangers alike.  For just as in the image, shot at some distance and at a slightly oblique angle with a wide angle lens, our plight might be to witness but not actually to participate in the performative space of action in any direct way.  Put differently, the photograph is perhaps an allegory for the wide range of ways in which war entails mourning.  For those who were there and for those who were not.  Lest we forget.

Photo Credit:  J. Scott Applewhite/AP; Ernesto Londono/Washington Post

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Sight Gag: The Recession is Over (For Some)


Credit: Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

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.

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BP and the Ghosts of Bhopal

By Guest Correspondent J. Daniel Elam

A recent restaurant review in Time Out Delhi described the chicken at a new restaurant as “oily enough to remind us of the Gulf of Mexico.” Too soon? Yes, at least for this temporary ex-pat. But as BP and the US government attempt to ameliorate the environmental catastrophe they’ve caused off the coast of Louisiana, India has only recently seen political progress from its 1984 environmental tragedy in Bhopal.

On the night of 02 December 1984, the Union Carbide India Limited (at that time, a subsidiary of Dow, a US company) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh began to leak methyl isocyanate. Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, 500,000 people were exposed to the gas and at least 2,500 died. In the first two weeks following the leak, 8,000 more people died as a direct result; 8,000 deaths since then are believed to be the result of permanently contaminated groundwater and air. 200,000 people have had or continue to have injuries or disabilities related to methyl isocyanate exposure.

Bhopal dead baby, Rai

This is one of the most famous images of the Bhopal tragedy, taken by photographer Raghu Rai in the days following the leak. It is a baby, blinded by methyl isocyanate exposure (given the weight of the gas, children were the most likely to inhale large quantities of the chemical), mostly buried in one of the mass graves constructed in the emergency following the leak. A hand hovers over its head, perhaps to have one last touch, or perhaps to place a final handful of dirt over the corpse. The picture is horrific and nauseating, grotesque and yet jarringly real. It is nearly impossible to look at the image longer than is required to identify it.

Bhopal blinded, Rai

This is another image by Rai, taken on 03 December 1984. Three people sit, blinded, on a bench, framed by people with vision who look with skepticism at Rai and his camera. Most striking, at least to me, is the blinded man, wrapped in a blanket, whose head is tilted toward the sky. His body reads of resigned pain, and although he is unidentified, we can imagine that he died shortly after the photograph was printed (along, most likely, with even the non-disabled people around him). There is something of a Greek tragic chorus in the composition of this photograph, and wailing seems justifiably in order.

What seems most tragic about Bhopal – aside from the lack of prosecution except for seven middle managers made scapegoats in May 2010 – and what makes Rai’s photographs of the event so appropriate, so jarring, is that the effect of gas exposure was (and is) blindness. Thus, Raghu Rai’s photography highlights the uncomfortable difference between the viewer and the subject of the image: sight. That the leak could have been easily prevented (Dow was aware of the plant’s deficiencies), reminds us that oversight is a privilege. Rai’s photography of the Bhopal tragedy reminds us that sight is a privilege–one that may disappear in the span of a few minutes by no doing of our own accord. In witnessing the horrific effects of the pesticide leak, we are reminded of the privilege to do so in the first place, and the responsibility that vision demands we accept.

Photographs by Raghu Rai.

J. Daniel Elam is a graduate student in the program in Rhetoric and Public Culture, Department of Communication Studies, Northwestern University.  He can be contacted at

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Reflections in a Bipolar World

The most direct means for inducing reflection about the photographic medium is to capture a literal reflection, making the photograph an image of an image.  One then can ponder, for example, how a photograph is itself a trick of light sure to include some degree of distortion.

swimmer doubled

This remarkable double image reveals how the camera can see what usually will elude the unaided eye.  You are looking at a swimmer in the European swimming championships, and also at his image as it is reflected off of the underside of the surface of the water.  The odd, upside down inversion is disorienting: Is that two swimmers or one?  Where is the surface of the pool, and which way is up or down?  (I’ve spent some time studying the image just to be somewhat confident I have it right.  Note that the air bubbles provide a referential anchor, and since the swimmer in the foreground is underwater the camera must be below him pointing up toward the surface.)  It seems that photographic images need not be clearly legible, and precisely because they can record the visible world somewhat independently of encultured habits of perception.  Fish, for example, probably would have no trouble seeing this photo for what it is.

But I suspect that only the human being can experience the uncanny.  The swimmer in the background is a strange double of the first.  Due to the refraction of light through water, some parts of him are a more exact reproduction than others; note, for example, how his right arm seems crippled as it is refracted by the water.  The comparison between the two bodies is unsettling: instead of two toned athletes, one of them seems to be bent by disease or disability.  He could be the athlete in another life, or working out when he is infirm with age.  One might imagine that we each carry such images with us all the time, saved from reflection on our luck and mortality only by the absence of the right kind of mirror.

Reflections of and on reflection are not limited to existential musings.  They also can be a study of collective life.

Pakistani faces reflected

These children are reflected in a window at a camp in Pakistan for people displaced by the flooding.  As above, the reflection is on a surface that usually is transparent, and again the effect can be disorienting.  Are they all on the same side of the window, or only some of them?  Are they enthralled and amused by their own images or by something else that we can’t see?  And again the answers would not be enough to dispel the strange sense that some of those visible may not actually be of the present but rather a haunting from another dimension or another time.  However one speculates, the photographer has succeeded in making one pause long enough to no longer see only the stock images of Third World Children and Disaster Refugees in a Camp.

And once again the multiple images prompt reflection on more than the nature of the camera.  Instead of a few isolated children, one gets the sense of a multitude.  Instead of an appeal for charity in respect to a specific event, there is the suggestion that something vital and beautiful is multiplying regardless of natural disasters and political malfeasance.  There even is a theological concept that might apply: the Christian idea of a “cloud of witnesses,” past and present, whose labor, sacrifice, and presence will sustain the community of believers.  These children, wherever they are, can be thought of as such a presence on behalf of a better world.

That world is not yet available to be photographed.  These photos are also a study in contrasts.  Water plays a role in both of them, but consider the difference between the controlled environment of the European pool and the uncontrolled rivers disrupting millions of lives in Pakistan.  Together they represent a bi-polar world.  The swim meet and the camp, high energy and enforced waiting, personal achievement and talent wasted, wealth and deprivation.  An image and its reflection, you might say.

Photographs by Francois Xavier Marit/AFP-Getty Images and Aaron Favila/Associated Press.


A Tale of Two Cities

It has been a summer of catastrophes, both natural and man made.  There are pictures aplenty, and in some measure they all depict a similar and recurring story of tragedy, death and destruction, first responders, clean-up, and mourning, all of which rely upon a common set of visual tropes and conventions to make their point.  Those who decry “compassion fatigue” have plenty to support their claims, but if we look closely we might see differences that warrant less knee jerk reactions. As a case in point, consider two slideshows featured in tandem at The Big Picture concerning the current floods in Pakistan and the mudslide in Zhouqu County, China.


The mudslide in Zhouqu County resulted in over 1,100 deaths (and counting).  In the above photograph we see a platoon of workers disinfecting a street in front of a building that was demolished by the slide.  The image is marked by two complementary features. First, is the contrast between the drab tones of the mud encrusted building and the bright green canisters that contain the disinfectant being sprayed.  Second, is how carefully these state workers—soldiers actually—seem to be going about their task: dressed in protective gear, their attention focused on the ground in front of them, their movements are almost entrained as they work in unison to destroy the breeding grounds of infection and disease. Taken en toto we have a representative image of the Chinese government’s response to the disaster: the carefully coordinated use of state resources and modern technology to address the immediate needs precipitated by a crisis situation.  The point is reinforced in a second representative photograph:


This is a more panoramic image of the destruction and devastation, shot from above, but once again note how the orange and yellow cranes and earth movers underscore not just the presence of modern technologies, but the capacity of the state to organize and coordinate their usage quickly and somewhat effectively.  And note too that both state workers and civilians appear to be working in tandem.  China is governed by a totalitarian regime, make no mistake about that, but such images indicate one of the sources of its internal legitimacy:  when push comes to shove the state mobilizes its considerable resources to respond to crisis situations with some dispatch.  We have seen it before (here and here).  And whatever we might find objectionable in China’s commitment to human rights—and there is plenty—this is not a feature of its government that should be ignored or scanted.  Indeed, it deserves emulation.

In contrast, consider some of the photographs that depict the recent floods in Pakistan. The Big Picture begins with this image:


Here we have a Pakistani man literally marooned on an island in the midst of flood waters.  What distinguishes him from the animals with which he shares this tiny piece of land is the demand he is placing on his viewers for assistance.  And as the caption to the image tells us, he is appealing to an “Army” helicopter for relief. There is nothing here to indicate that this particular helicopter belongs to the U.S. government, though other pictures in the slide show make the implication clear enough.  But the bigger point to be made is how alone and isolated the man is, literally separated and apart from those with whom he supposedly shares a social contract.  Numerous other photographs in the slide show underscore the sense of isolation and social fragmentation that appears to govern Pakistani society in the wake of what is without a doubt a monumental crisis, suggesting the sense in which this image is something of a representative anecdote for the immediate underlying problem that confronts Pakistan.

That sense of isolation and social disconnection is reinforced by other photographs in the slideshow, and not least by those few images that picture a thoroughly inadequate State response.  The Pakistani military has something of a vague presence in a few of the photographs we are shown, but even there their efforts are isolated, individuated, and apparently inadequate, as implied by the larger and more active presence of the U.S. military.  And the one place where we see a distinctively active Pakistani state, the effect is hardly salutary:


A Pakistani police officer is pummeling a fellow citizen with a baton for “looting” donated food.  On the face of it the looter doesn’t seem to be all that much of a threat.  To be sure, order needs to be maintained, perhaps all the more so in times of crisis, but beating an already weakened citizenry in need of food hardly seems to be an appropriate response.  Perhaps this is an isolated incident.  Maybe this lone police officer felt overwhelmed by a mob of looters and reacted to a felt threat. Maybe.  But again, the bigger point is how the photograph functions as a cipher for a society in total disarray and a government that doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how to proceed in the modern world—or perhaps imagines its legitimacy as nothing more than a function of brute force and doesn’t worry about the need to achieve any legitimacy by effectively administering its society.  This may or may not be an accurate characterization of Pakistani society and governance, but the contrast with how China appears to respond to crisis and catastrophe could not be more pronounced.

It is of course important to keep in mind that the magnitude of the catastrophe in Pakistan dwarfs the recent disaster in China.  The mudslides in China effect one county and thousands of people, the floods in Pakistan will effect nearly fourteen million people.  And yet, even for all of that, it is hard not to see a tale of two cities envisioned here, one animated by a modern government dedicated to effective response to crisis, large or small, and the other thoroughly inadequate to the demands of life in modern times.

Photo Credits: STR/AFP/Getty, Reuters, AP Photo/Anjum Naveed.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Sight Gag: The Original Anchor Babies


Credit: John Sherffius

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.

 1 Comment