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The Impossible Dream

Screen shot 2010-09-28 at 11.44.24 PM

The most noted victim of last week’s failure to vote on the Defense spending bill was the rider designed to rescind the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  But no less victimized was the bi-partisan “Development, Relief, Education for Alien Minors Act” aka the “Dream Act.”

Originally proposed in 2001 and more recently revived in 2009, the act addresses the plight of the nearly 65,000 undocumented alien minors who complete high school each year, and yet have no viable route to citizenship.  While technically “illegal immigrants,” these individuals came to the United States because their parent or guardian brought them here, and thus their legal status is not something for which they are directly responsible.  It is thus extraordinarily inhumane to deny them any access or avenue to citizenship.  The Dream Act would make it possible for such individuals who have been in the U.S. for at least five years, who demonstrate “good moral character,” and who complete two years of college or spend two years in the U.S. military to apply for permanent citizen status.  It would also make them eligible for student loans.

The photograph above, which shows a group of students who are also illegal immigrants spelling out the word “Dream” in South Beach, Miami, in an attempt to sway the vote of Republican Senator LeMieux.  Their protest caught the eye of the New York Times, who printed the image, as part of its story on the run-up to the Senate vote. But what the story missed was the rhetorical import of the playful quality of the student’s effort to create a “human billboard.”  This was not just a stunt pulled off by students that had nothing particularly better to do with their Sunday afternoon; rather, it was a concerted effort borne of the recognition that they had no legitimate, recognized voice in a policy debate that directly implicated their future, and thus it warranted staging a protest in a register that would allow them to “speak.”

In some important ways the photograph below, which appeared as a random photograph in a recent Wall Street Journal slide show, comes closer to the mark in indicating what is at stake in the failure to vote on the Dream Act.

Band of Borthers.2010-09-28 at 9.22.49 PM

Marine Cpl. Pablo Olvera, “originally of Mexico,” according to the caption, leads a group of newly naturalized citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.  His eyes are fixed on the flag that stands in front of him and shrouds more than half of the frame of the image, almost—but not quite—dominating the field of vision. All the viewer can see are the red and white stripes, but Olvera’s dress blue uniform completes the nationalist color scheme and thus renders the photograph as a literal embodiment of the flag—and thus by extension, the nation itself.  And more, the shallow depth of field that focuses directly on Olvera renders a soft, gossamer quality to the red and white stripes that drape his field of vision, evoking a soft, (American) dream-like consciousness.

It is not unimportant, in this context, that Olvera is identified as “originally of Mexico,” a characterization that muffles his otherwise prior illegal or undocumented immigration status, just as the characterization of him “leading” the Pledge implies the kind of moral virtue (or “good moral character”) that we affiliate with civic republicanism.  Once “of Mexico,” he is now “of” the United States.

One might be inclined to see this photograph as a melodramatic sop for American exceptionalism, or worse, as a wink and a nod to the idea that we can easily fill the ranks of our “all-volunteer” military with immigrants.  And we should not be too quick to reject these implications of the image. After all, the U.S. Defense department is a major supporter of the Dream Act, and it is hard to believe that their endorsement would be driven by anything other than simple self interest.  But at the same time, the photograph is a reminder that some immigrants (at least) are willing to pay their own freight to become U.S. citizens, to realize the impossible dream, and that is an attitude we should respect.

It is time that we moved beyond the political wrangle and put the Dream Act to a vote.

Photo Credit:  Oscar Hidalgo/NYT; Jim Watson/Agence Fance-Presse/Getty Images

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State Power When the Center Should Not Hold

Photographs often provide a necessary challenge to the abstractions of political discourse.  When state officials speak of “relocation,” a photograph can expose the squalor of the camp.  Against claims of “national security” and “regional stability,” one can point to visual documentation of murder.  Nonetheless, it also is important to consider how photography can identify basic forms of political power: forms and features of domination that otherwise might easily become hidden behind the particular identities and passions of specific conflicts.

settlers in hebron

This photograph is a case in point.  According to the caption, “Israeli soldiers guard Jewish settlers as they walk down a closed street in the Palestinian territory during Sukkot celebration.”  Nicely balanced reportage, that: “guard” implies that the settlers are likely victims of violence, while “closed street” can remind us that the Palestinian residents of the town will have been driven or prohibited from the area so that the settlers could walk to and from their religious service.  You could almost say the report is fair and balanced.  It also is ironic, as Sukkot commemorates a time when Jews lived in temporary dwellings, while the question of whose dwelling in the occupied territories is “temporary” is a very vexed issue.

The photo both naturalizes and exposes a division of labor that is crucial to state power.  We see both civilians who are unarmed, and soldiers who enact the state’s monopoly on violence.  In a just, well-ordered, democratic state, that is a good contract.  From that vantage, the ubiquitous images of Palestinians throwing stones or carrying weapons while still in street clothes imply immediate illegitimacy; no wonder that the US rarely sees images of settlers carrying arms, as some do.  In the photograph above, the settlers appear merely as citizens exercising their basic right to walk unarmed and unharmed in public.  The soldiers are merely guarding, not inflicting violence on others.  The degraded, graffiti-smeared buildings are just there, ominous signs of danger that make the soldiers appear all the more appropriate rather than one cause of the poverty.

Hebron is home to about 163,000 Palestinians and roughly 800 Jewish settlers.  In the sector where the settlers live, Palestinian movement is highly restricted, whereas the settlers can move anywhere and have some streets reserved solely for their use.  According to a report in the Washington Post, “Shuhada Street, the principal thoroughfare [in the H2 sector], is well-paved thanks to multimillion-dollar renovations funded by the United States, but empty of Palestinian pedestrians and Palestinian vehicles. . . . In some areas near the settlements, Palestinians cannot walk unless they are residents or visit unless they have a special permit from the Israeli army.”  In short, the “closed street” shown in the photograph is just one example of a much larger state practice for controlling the territory and degrading the well-being of a captive population.  Thus, although no Palestinians are in the picture, it is precisely because no Palestinians are in the picture that the photograph is another witness to the practice of domination in everyday life.

And so a seemingly innocuous photograph suggesting the likelihood of violence against the Jewish settlers also exposes some of the means and effects of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory.  The soldiers in the photograph are one small part of a vast apparatus of restriction, deprivation, intimidation, and outright violence.  Of course, the settlers are likely to be risking violence, but the same can be said of anyone who breaks into a house.  And to get the full implication of how the photograph exposes a practice of domination, one might compare it with this image.

Karzai and mercenaries

Here Hamid Karzai is accompanied by his armed guards while visiting an American military base in Afghanistan.  Apparently Karzai isn’t safe anywhere.  Once again, a civilian is cordoned by his protectors as he walks through an environment marked by the signage of another slow war.   Although protected by concrete blast shields and his guard, Karzai still looks wary, as if looking for a potential assassin.  Contrast his stance with the casual demeanor of the settlers, and you can see how confident they are of IDF protection.  And because Karzai’s mercenaries are wearing their preferred uniform of street clothes and Kevlar vests, his legitimacy appears shakier still.

But despite their differences, both photographs reveal the same, sad reality: no amount of military force on the periphery can compensate for injustice or corruption at the center of the state.  If the regime is legitimate and just, it will still need military protection.  But Karzai’s regime is not legitimate, and Israel’s occupation is not just, and force, no matter how effective, can only protect, not change moral failure.

Photographs by Mamoun Wazwaz/Xinhua/ZUMApress.com and Massoud Hossaini/pool photo.

The gesture is so small as to risk insult, but this post is dedicated to Ariella Azoulay, author of  The Civil Contract of Photography, who very recently has been denied tenure at Bar-Ilan University for reasons that can only be construed as shameful–and shameless.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Sight Gag: Identity Politics


Credit:  Rex Babin, Sacramento Bee

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.


Spaceship Suburb, Planetary Subway

Aerial photos were a big deal back in the day, but they had lost their cachet well before Google Earth and Google Maps came along.  Now the aerial photo lies in the odd fissure between a novelty item and the technologies for navigating of everyday life.  Until, that is, someone thinks to make it an instrument for social thought.

Phoenix sprawl aerial photo

This photograph by Christoph Gielen of a Phoenix-area retirement community is one of several you can see in a slide show at the New York Times Opinionator blog.  The accompanying post by Gielen and Geoff Manaugh provides relevant commentary, including an apt reference to Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, in which a grid of tract houses is compared to a circuit board.  That’s Pynchon doing what he does so well, and it’s also an example of the rhetorical figures of metaphor and synecdoche.  Metaphor is a comparison to suggest identity, and synecdoche identifies part-whole relationships.   They can work together powerfully by fusing microscopic and macroscopic perspectives, as when one sees the world in a grain of sand, or a galaxy as a piece of jewelry.  (The Greek word kosmos meant, revealingly, both universe and ornament.)  Both come into play above in the photograph above if you see, perhaps, a hieroglyph, as Gielen and Manaugh do, or the nosecone of a rocket, or a colony in outer space.

In looking at the photo, we always can stay with a literal transcription of the suburban infrastucture of houses, streets, and arterials, and, with that, an analysis of land use, population density, and other administrative variables.  Or, without loss of the more pragmatic perspective, we also might let the image work through our imaginations.  Not for mere flights of fancy, but to encounter wider perspectives toward the same end of living well collectively.

As I see the suburban development morphing into a space colony, I become aware of the dreams underlying suburban American development–dreams of escape, adventure, self-sufficiency, and community in the desert–and also of vulnerability, hidden dependencies, problems with environmental and social sustainability, and other dangers that cannot be paved over forever.  The suburbs, like the American West, always were about colonization one way or another.  If images such as the one above can help us see how the burbs, like the cities they encircle, are as amazing and as precarious as an outpost on a distant planet, that is an artistic achievement.

To get the most out of thinking with visual tropes, you have to look for inversions of whatever figures you might have before you.  For example, instead of extending a small suburban development into deep space, you might imagine the entire planet as a single city.

world subway map heller-4

This delightful image is from Transit Maps of the World, by Mark Ovenden and Mike Ashworth.  The more I look at it, the more possible it seems.  Not boring tunnels under the oceans, but living together, all of us, through sensible, sustainable use of public infrastructure.  Living in a time, perhaps not too distant, when such ideas wouldn’t make people wonder, “What planet are you from?”

Photograph by Christoph Gielen.  The map also can be seen in Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities, by Frank Jacobs.

Update: Since I wrote this post, Alan Taylor as put up a terrific example of aerial analysis at The Big Picture.


Going Gaga Over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

WP.Lady Gaga. 2010-09-21 at 4.54.10 PM

Notwithstanding the oratorical skills of Lady Gaga, the U.S. Senate voted today to block debate on a bill designed to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  It might be easy to lay the blame on the forty Republican Senators, bolstered by two renegade Democrats (plus the majority leader whose vote was a procedural ploy that allows him to reprise the bill at a later date), who voted against letting the bill come to the floor for debate, but that would be to ignore any number of complicating issues, such as efforts by the Democratic majority to add contentious amendments to the bill concerning immigration policy.  All of which is to say that its not exactly clear what specific interests were being served here on either side of the aisle.

One might imagine this as standard operating procedure for a legislative body that seems intent on letting partisan political self-interest stand in the way of national interest, and hardly worthy of note but for the presence of Lady Gaga.  What is interesting here is how the national media has given significant attention to her ersatz protest rally without fully recognizing the way in which her transparently self-conscious spectacle is not just an appeal for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but is also (and maybe more) a parody of the mass mediated political process itself.  To get the point, notice how many if not most of the reports on her rally are primarily if not exclusively photographic, almost to the exclusion of any consideration of what she actually had to say. The irony, of course, is that a quasi-faux rally cast as political spectacle received far more coverage than the presumably unintentional spectacle of actual Senators deciding the fate of the military.

Perhaps the most interesting representation of the Lady Gaga rally occurred in the pictures of the day slide show at the Washington Post.   Despite the possible significance of the Senate filibuster on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the pictures of the day at WAPO feature a photographer at a photo fair in France trying on a pair of 3-D glasses, a child in Slovenia sitting next to his friends on a curb and with a bucket on his head, and Bristol Palin displaying her legs in a PR shot for the television show “Dancing with the Stars.”  There are no pictures regarding the debate over gays in the military.  Or at least not at first glance.  But as one moves through the thirty seven images in the slide show one eventually comes across the above photo of Lady Gaga, public advocate, characterized as “rail[ing] against what she call[s] the injustice of having goodhearted gay soldiers booted from military service, while straight soldiers who harbor hatred toward gays are allowed to fight for their country.” The alternative she prefers, we are told, is to “target straight soldiers who are ‘uncomfortable’ with gay soldiers in their midst.” That the caption fails to acknowledge either the irony or the parody of Lady Gaga’s performance is underscored by the two photographs that follow.

The first of these photographs shows a “former” member of the Air Force taking a picture of the rally.

Standing Agsint the Flag for Lady Gaga 2010-09-21 at 11.07.37 PM

Perhaps he is one of those “good hearted gay soldiers,” but nothing in the photograph suggests as much.  Indeed the photograph suggests incoherence as much as anything. Shot in long distance we see only his face and hands as they peek up from behind a poster to take a picture for Twitter of the anonymous and faceless audience waving hands.  The background shows a large American flag, but its meaning is made ambiguous by the somewhat incomprehensible legend on the poster that implores the audience to “Leave them Speechless.”  Lacking any reference to context, the overall effect of the photograph is one of clutter and confusion. And as a result, the political and parodic effects of the rally are muted, or worse, made to appear senseless.

It is the second photograph, however, that by contrast politicizes the slideshow, suggesting an antidote to the apparently incoherent spectacle of Lady Gaga’s rally.

Leaving for Iraq2010-09-21 at 7.12.21 PM

Here we have a member of the Army National Guard preparing to leave for a training assignment in Texas and a subsequent deployment to Iraq.  Shot in medium close-up, a soldier (not a “former soldier”) and his wife say goodbye.  It is a tender moment.  The two lovers gaze into each others eyes as he offers solace by placing his left hand on top of her right wrist, while her right hand gently supports her chin in a gesture that suggests a degree of vulnerability.  It is hard to tell if she is smiling or crying, and probably she is doing a little of both given the stresses and strains of the impending separation.  He is apparently “straight,” but it is hard to imagine him harboring “hatred” towards anyone, let alone why he should be “targeted.  Indeed, though this is a scene of separation and not reunion, and while he is not a sailor nor she a nurse, one can nevertheless imagine them embracing in Time Square to the nodding approval of the public that views them.

And therein lies the problem. For what gives this photograph its affective power is the way in which it visually repeats the conventions of the famous Times Square Kiss. It not only foregrounds traditional, heteronormative assumptions, but it does so by valorizing a private moment in a public space.    Of course there is nothing especially new here.  We have long sought to manage our anxieties about war and the military by normalizing our understandings in the context of a sentimentalized heteronormativity.  To get the full effect, imagine two men or two women in the same pose.  And, that, of course, is the point.  Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Sentimentality, it seems, trumps parody … or at least in this case.  But in truth, both scenes are media spectacles that demand more careful attention than the tired and nonchalant glance they are too often given by contemporary media.

Photo Credits: Joel Page/Reuters, Pat Wellenbach/AP, Joe Jaszewski/AP

Crossposted at BagNewsNotes


Visions of the Sacred in Low Places

September brings the religious festivals of Ramadan and the High Holy Days, while Christians have–what, Halloween?  So for those readers who might be feeling a spirituality deficit, I thought we could turn to our Buddhist friends, or, at least, this photograph of children dressed up as Buddhas for a peace festival in Naida, India.

Children as Buddha

Perhaps I shouldn’t have labeled them, as they also could have appeared to be cheap Roman statues or extras for a low-budget sci fi film.  Whatever they might be, there is no doubt that they are children.  Where else could one find such openness before the social eye of the camera?  Although the gold paint makes them appear masked, they are in fact unmasked, exposing the unique personality and momentary attitude of each individual.  And as with Roman statuary, those individual faces in turn reveal how the human soul is traversed by suffering, self-consciousness, willful composure, and endurance that has been forged out of continuing vulnerability.  Though but a photograph, we are brought to a moment of existential truth much like Rodin’s great statue of The Burghers of Calais, where distinct individuals share a common fate.  The children seem to be looking at something both awesome and terrible, as if they have been brought before a sacrificial alter, perhaps one waiting for them.  They are indeed thoroughly human.

But wait a minute–aren’t they Buddhists at a peace festival?  What’s with the sacrificial alter?  Perhaps my imagination is too grounded in an Abrahamic religion, but you can’t spin suffering out of Buddhism, and the photograph is a powerful testimony to something deeply human.  It captures how we bind ourselves together through religious ritual and other forms of community in order to keep terror at bay, only to still suffer as we await destruction.

And that attempt to bind ourselves together and to God makes all the difference.  Perhaps another reason the photograph struck me so powerfully is that it reminded me of the annual Christmas pageant.  I don’t recall being in one, but I’ll never forget the first time I watched my children among the others dressed as little shepards, angels, and the like.  There they were–halos askew, wings off-kilter, awkwardly yet intently trying to play their roles–and then it hit me: that’s how God sees us.

In other words, you don’t have to believe a thing about God or the divine spark in each of us to understand that human beings are over-matched by reality–pathetic creatures condemned to self-consciousness who survive only by amateurish acting in the theater of social life.  And if you will accept for the moment that religion exposes humanity as it is, then you might go a step further and consider how any divine intervention is going to have to come through human hands.

Pakistan flood refugees, man & boy

I close with this image of refugees from the floods in Pakistan.  Like the gilded children above, this image is obviously artifiical: a trick of back lighting suggests supernatural emanations.  Again, no one label need apply.  The man could seem to be something out of Night of the Living Dead, leading the boy to be sacrificed.  Or they could appear to be bathed not merely by the flood waters but by some spiritual power that can withstand the monsoon and signify that they are worth saving.  And as before, the child is watching, looking at something that awes and worries him.

These images are tinged with suffering, and they expose a few of the devices that human beings use to bind themselves to one another.  Devices such as pageants and photojournalism.  The question remains: will we see what is there to be seen when the sacred appears among people humbled by circumstances?  People of low status such as children, or those who are knee-deep in flood waters. . . .  I see humanity, over-matched yet enduring, watching and waiting, and perhaps wondering whether they will ever be treated as children of God.

Photographs by Parivartan Sharma/Reuters and Daniel Berehulak/Getty.


Sight Gag: Why Fat Cats Need No Sympathy


Credit: Bill Day (and see Poverty on the Rise)

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

A Sporting Memory of 9/11

By guest corespondent Michael Butterworth:

Baseball Shoe 911.2010-09-16 at 4.10.20 PM

At first glance, this photograph may appear well-suited to NCN’s category “boots and hands.” But the cleats of Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano are not the real story here, or at least not primarily so.  While the foot commands our attention, the real focus is on how it directs the viewer’s gaze to the legend printed on the base: “We Shall Not Forget.”

Even the most casual observer of sports has likely noticed how commonplace such memorials have become.  The sentiment should be simple enough: 9/11 was an event of such magnitude and consequence that it is incumbent upon us to remember the things which bind us together as a nation.  And since such “binding” seems to be one of the socio-cultural functions of national sporting events, it is little surprise that  they have become the perfect vehicle for circulating such memories.

While such declarations make it clear that we should not forget, what is left unstated is exactly what we are to remember.  Note, for example, that we are not being asked to remember the actual events of 9/11 itself.  Indeed, memorials like those found in this photograph are only partially about the past; as memorializing is more often a reflection of a community’s needs in the present.  And the  present here, of course, is defined by the so-called “war on terror,” a military campaign that is now only minimally about 9/11 itself.  With this in mind, we can view “We Shall Not Forget” as it overlaps with the numerous visions of militarism that have become woven into the fabric of sports—from red, white, and blue emblazoned ball caps, to military flyovers, to museum exhibitions—and conclude that sports in the United States continue to contribute to the normalization of a problematic war.

The tragedy in this is that the photograph reminds us that it needn’t have turned out this way.  Behind Soriano’s carefully balanced cleats is the blurry image of the Miller Park outfield grass.  Baseball mythology is grounded in, among other things, the idea that the ballpark represents a pastoral sanctuary—a metaphor of the countryside that offers comfort, security, and community.  Although that mythology can be flawed, 9/11 precipitated a rare moment when the “national pastime” really did invite all Americans to participate in an imagined community, one based on genuine human needs laid bare in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

All too quickly, those initial ceremonies—of mourning, of healing, of hope—that took place in baseball stadiums in September and October of 2001, gave way to belligerent expressions of hot patriotism and militaristic vengeance.  This photograph reminds us that in the days, months, and years after 9/11 there was a more humane and less violent path available to us.  Now, just like the outfield grass in this photo, that path seems blurry and somehow out of reach.  How easily we have forgotten, after all.

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Phelps/AP Photo

Michael Butterworth is an assistant professor of communication in the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University and host of The Agon, a blog on rhetoric, sport, and political culture.  Michael is also the author of the recently published Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity During the War on Terror (University of Alabama Press, 2010).  He can be contacted at mbutter@bgsu.edu.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


(Re)membering 9/11 in the Future

9:11 Firefighter 2010-09-14 at 8.50.34 PM

I am currently teaching a senior seminar on photojournalism and civic culture and it should come as no surprise that we have spent some time this past week discussing the ways in which photography contributes to how we remember and memorialize the most recent day of infamy in U.S. history.  After a recent class one of my students wrote with a question, wondering why it was that there are so many pictures of firefighters at ground zero and no pictures of “the Pennsylvania flight or the DC attack.”  Of course, such pictures do exist and they have had some distribution and circulation, but nevertheless the sense of the question is dead on correct: for the most part we have remembered the 9/11 attacks photographically in terms of New York City and the heroic efforts of hundreds of firefighters. The photograph above, which led off a recent slide show on 9/11 remembrance at The Big Picture offers some hints as to why.

The focal point of the photograph is the pink rose being offered by a young boy to a firefighter.  The child appears to be happy, safe and secure on his fathers shoulders; but more, his pose—cast against a cloudless, bright blue sky—suggests a return of the innocence that had been purportedly erased once and for all on that fateful day, nine years ago.  The dark pink rose, of course, is a symbol of gratitude and appreciation, and its significance here is enhanced by the fact that it is being offered backwards from a representative of a future generation to a representative of the earlier generation whose sacrifices made the present possible.  But that is not exactly right, as the offer of gratitude is not simply from one generation to another, but from a citizen to a representative of the state.  That the citizen is cast as a pre-adolescent child is very much to the point as it prefigures the parental role of the state.  And therein perhaps lies one of the reasons why the firefighter has become such an iconic representation of 9/11, as well as why we see so few pictures of the assault on the Pentagon.  Although no one is to blame, images of a successful sneak attack against the nation’s premiere citadel hardly inspires confidence in the ability of the state to protect its citizenry; by the same token, the New York City firefighters more than rose to the task in responding to an attack against a public site.

But there is more going on in this photograph than an allegory of parens patria.  And to see what you need to look more closely at the deep background, shot in soft focus, that blends the vivid blue sky with erection of  the new tower.  That the emergent tower is aligned with the child, and thus identified with a bright future is not incidental, but the bigger point is that the landscape background serves to frame the events on the ground.  The effect of that framing is to redirect our remembrances of 9/11 away from a narrative of trauma and loss and towards an unreflexive and over weaning pride—one might even say hubris— in our ability to rebuild and reconstruct, a point underscored throughout the slide show (e.g., here, here, here, and here), but emphasized elsewhere as well, as with photographs such as this one of a father and son appearing to admire the construction site for the new World Trade Center.

Father and Son Ground Zero 2010-09-14 at 11.58.34 PM

The full implications of conflating remembrance (of the past) with rebuilding (the future) are a bit unclear, but they are also somewhat unsettling. Emphasizing the trope of “rebuilding” no doubt draws attention to Ground Zero more than to other sites of 9/11 memory, and in that sense it might help to explain why we see so relatively few photographs from Pennsylvania or Washington D.C, where there are no easily recognizable rebuilding projects.  But it should also lead us to notice a potential shift in attention away from the firefighter as hero to the construction worker, and by extension from the state to the private sector. That shift is underscored by the fact that the new tower, originally identified  as “Freedom Tower,” has more recently been dubbed “One World Trade Center,” almost as if to shed its connection with the world of state politics and to locate it back in the world of capital and commerce.  And what better site for that than New York City?  And so it is that the two photographs above seem to work in close tandem with one another: in the first the child must turn around awkwardly to address the firefighter who, it turns out, is barely in the frame, seemingly fading into the past and perhaps soon to be forgotten altogether, or remembered as little more than a relic of a distant time and place; in the second image, father and son comfortably cast the gaze of multiple generations ahead to the future.

It made me recall the words of George Santayana.  Not just his prophecy that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but also that “Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not quality.”

Photo Credit: CHang Lee/AP Photo; Spencer Platt/Getty Images.


Violence, Art, and Politics

H. Rap Brown once famously remarked that “violence is as American as cherry pie.”  Brown was challenging dominant myths, not least the idea of America’s providential exception from the dark side of history.  Now that America has become a major exporter of violence, Brown’s statement may seem antique.  Myths die hard, however, and it remains difficult to say who might make people stop and think about the production of violence today.  One place to look is an installation by Yoko Ono in Berlin.

Yoko Ono, A Hole Das Gift

This photograph captures the artist posing behind her artwork entitled “A Hole.”  Perhaps the work need not appear to be a bullet hole, but it certainly becomes that when backed by the blood and black silhouette of her head.  It’s easy to fault Ono for putting herself in the front (even when in the back) of her art–Is at all about her?–but I think that is mistaken.  She and the photographer have created a moment of near-perfect performance, one that captures the deadly allure of the aestheticized violence in its mass market forms of detective fiction, Noir and action films, and even high fashion.

The image is a set of contrasts (of course): shimmering surface and dark depth, centrifugal dispersion across a plane and the concentrated energy of the human figure, obliteration and the human face, a circle of nothingness where a person should be.  Add to this the tension between the formal elegance of the composition and the shattering force at its center, and violence seems to become an aesthetic achievement.  If so, one might recall Walter Benjamin’s prophetic observation that humankind’s “self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.”  That may be, but one also could consider that the photo is highlighting some of the design elements of how that already has happened, not here, but elsewhere: in the movie theater, for example, or the nightly news.

It takes nothing away from the artist to note that the art can reveal only some of the truth of a complex reality.  So it is that the artistry of the image ought to be balanced by another photograph, one that may be thought of as looking at the same thing from the other side.

Yasin Malik & crowd

This image is more conventional than the photograph from Berlin but an artful study in violence nonetheless.  Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front leader Mohammed Yasin Malik stands in front of a crowd of supporters in Srinagar, India.  There are no bullet holes or other overt signs of violence here, yet the scene is all about violence and the potential for violence.  The liberation movement represents one side in a long-standing and often violent conflict over Kashmir; the crowd is protesting brutal crowd control measures by Indian government forces that have included killings; the crowd itself is capable of becoming a mob (such is one source of crowd power and its frequent definition by the state); and the leader could both unleash violence by the crowd or revolutionary fighters and be himself a target of assassination.

Here Politics mediates violence just as Art did above.  In each case actual violence is off stage, but its presence can be felt powerfully.  In the first photo, the violence is completely artificial but visible; in the second, it is implicit but leads directly to actual deaths.  Both are moments of performance, with the artist remaining hidden and the politician exposed to public scrutiny: and yet both are enigmatic, as you don’t know the artist’s opinions on the subject, while the political leader looks by turns hard, worn, calculating, concerned, and both a man of the people and yet set apart and isolated by his role.  In the first image, the scene is nowhere and anywhere there is a cinema; in the second, the urban masses of the Global South are paired with a figure who could be stepping out of Shakespeare.  Put the two photographs together, and Malik becomes the figure behind the hole made by the assassin’s bullet.

In the first image, the spectator could be the assassin; in the second, it could be the state.  It remains unclear whether that is much of a difference.

Photographs by Hannibal Hanschke/EPA and Mukhtar Khan/Associated Press.

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