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Fire, Darkness, and Endless War

Just outside the bright lights illuminating the democratic movements in the news this month lie the shadows of history.  Triumphant demonstrators smiled radiantly in Egypt, while the army quietly consolidated control.  As the tottering Muammar el-Qaddafi took self-caricature to new heights (breaking his previous record), other despots doled out cash and intimidation to make sure they weren’t next in line.  Western governments boldly announced their commitment to peaceful transitions, while sending envoys to curry business–much of it with autocrats–at an international arms show.   American pundits celebrated liberation and condescended to advise the fledgling democracies, while acting as if the US government and American corporations had never been the mainstays of the regimes being deposed for corruption and brutality.

So it is that I find this photograph a fitting image for the current historical moment.

The sun is seen through a windscreen in Dresden, Germany.  The screen would be invisible but for the ice crystals that are occluding the thick yellow disk hanging in the night sky.  One strand and part of another could be molten gold, while the dark splotches could be oil, dirt, bacteria–anything capable of smothering human life by slow accumulation.  The deep contrasts of light and darkness allude to German expressionist cinema–an expression of a time in history when the forces of darkness were massing beneath modernity’s cosmopolitan veneer.  The small crescent of light limning the smaller sphere in the upper left quadrant carries a different code, however, suggesting that nature’s regularities will continue, and that may be enough to provide some basis for hope.

Other regularities persist as well.  War, for example.

This photograph is one example of an image that appears periodically now: a convoy of oil tankers on its way to supply US troops in Afghanistan has been ambushed.  Here, as is often the case, the attack occurred in Pakistan, for reasons that are not mysterious.  What strikes me is now much this photograph resembles the one above.  Military action shot and artsy nature image are drawing on the same cultural repertoire, and in fact speaking to each other.  Light and darkness, the sun and ice or a fireball and unharmed spectators, the effect is much the same.  A source of power has become strangely complicated, and energy seems to be draining out of the future.   (The explosion mimes a mushroom cloud, which imitates the power of the sun, which sent the rays that made the plants that became the oil, so the circle of life and death may be tighter than we realize.)  If those in the picture aren’t exactly in a panic, their comfortable distance from the burn isn’t a sign of hope, either.  When war assumes the regularity of nature, you might as well get used to it.

Like the windscreen, the first photograph provides a trick of light: We see the sun, but it somehow can seem to mirror the earth: a bright place, covered with clouds and continents, vital and yet distant, a heavenly body yet strangely vulnerable and capable somehow of becoming lost.  There is another trick as well: the sun that seems to be slipping into darkness, is in fact rising.  The sun precedes the day, which has not yet come.  Light and shadow are forever bound together, but it can make all the difference which way one is moving.  Let’s hope that the light of history is on the rise for those wanting democracy rather than dictatorship and peace rather than war.  One must admit, however, that bright moments of change fly upward like sparks from a fire, while the darkness remains.  Hope, yes, but it will take more than hope.

Photographs by Arno Burgi/EPA and A. Majeed/AFP-Getty Images.

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Sight Gag: Look For the Anti-Union Union Label

Credit: John Sherffius

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  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 might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look.


Carnival Citizenship: Chaos … or Clarity?

By guest correspondent Chris Gilbert

It is difficult to remember that times of chaos can also be times of clarity. Let me put it differently: it is easy to forget, amidst endless reports of political turmoil, that we are in a season of carnival. Above is a photograph from the 2011 Vevcani Carnival in the Republic of Maceodnia.

The image typifies the comic spectacle of the carnival tradition: the flouting of everyday decorum, the licensed (and licentious) freedom of excess, the transformation of violence into grotesque sport, and the unhampered celebration of sarcasm, irony and satire, all of which define the “carnivalesque” and defy the “seriousness” of officialdom. The caption indicates “[a] disguised reveler…in a carnival procession.” Considering the leather strap embracing his neck, the idea of revelry is jarring. Of course, the frontal angle levels our perspective and invites us to view from within the procession and, despite the obvious and potentially repulsive nature of the man’s captivity, let alone his grubbiness, we are drawn in by the gaping grin on his face. He laughs, but we get a sense that, if he can laugh at his own imprisonment, so can we.

Although the background is a blur, we can see that everyone is reveling—even, presumably, the erect figure in black who is barely visible and who likely clutches the chain linking the loose collars around the men’s necks. A man on his knees gestures at an unseen audience member (a child, perhaps?). A huge man, who evokes the giant Gargantua himself, balances his girth in glee. Together, they reveal a wending procession of interconnected actors and in it we find a peculiar ritual performance, reliant on an equally peculiar logic of liberation. But in all its debasement, in all its irony, it depicts a certain peace. Citizenship, which is defined by at least some measure of restraint (if not constraint), is momentarily defined by the erasure of boundaries. Individual bodies merge into a larger collectivity, and the tensions that build up and beg for release are expelled. Furthermore, bodily expressions and social excesses are given time and space to simply be.

This is not to say that carnival is free from political consequence, or that it affords itself the luxury to simply watch without being watched. Everyone in the village participates, and, as SETimes notes, “[o]ne of the main parts of the carnival is to act out the major news of the past year.” As such, carnival mocks prohibition, terror, authority, violence, but only insofar as life and death are metaphors for hope and renewal. At the end of carnival, shackles are removed. Mimicked pain dissolves into relief. And true (at least metaphorically) to carne vale, people bid “farewell to flesh.”

It is said that the Vevcani carnival owes much of its popularity, not only to the actors, but “to numerous journalist teams, cameramen, and photo reporters.” It is telling, then, that there is such a relative dearth of carnival images in U.S. popular media. Perhaps we in the U.S., think of carnival only as Mardi Gras or the popular cruise line. Still, many civic carnival traditions persist. Few, however, retain the customary excesses of Vevcani and its 1400-year history. We might ask ourselves then: are we too overtaken by the “serious”? Shouldn’t carnival be an important aspect of civic life? Donning their masks and costumes, many carnival participants say they become themselves while in character. Perhaps we under-value the clarity that might come from more carnivalesque ways to commune.

Photo Credit: Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images.

Chris Gilbert is a graduate student of rhetoric and public culture in the Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University.  He can be contacted at

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Collective Bargaining and Catastrophe

The other night Jon Stewart derided facile analogies regarding the demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin.  Madison is NOT Cairo, he protested a tad too much.  Since I don’t work for Fox News, I’m not about to defend facile analogies, but I am going to make an admittedly risky comparison.

No, this is not Madison, either.  It is, or was, the Pyne Gould Corporation building in Christchurch, New Zealand.  The 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck the city on Tuesday has compressed the four-story building to one mangled pile of steel and concrete.   The seismic wave has passed, but the building now looks like a ship that has been wrecked by military attack, like a half-sunken vessel at Pearl Harbor.  The bridge, though still intact, leans dangerously as the rest of the structure has run aground, slammed into ruin when the earth was moving like the sea.

The scene now is calm, and one could almost see the building as a curiosity.  Rescue workers, officials, and the occasional victim or bystander are evident, but everyone is seems a bit idle, almost perplexed about what to do next.  In fact, a larger version of the shot reveals that people are competently problem solving as they sort out the casualties and consider what to do next.  Public servants and private citizens are quickly and effectively coordinating their efforts to limit harm.

So what does this have to do with Madison?  The clue is provided by the letters still visible amidst the wreckage: CORP OR and we can’t quite make out the rest, but we know what it said: corporation.  Pyne Gould is a business, a for-profit entity that will contract with workers for their labor in exchange for wages.  When you see the corporate building reduced to rubble and completely dependent on the state for rescue, it becomes a tad harder to see taxation as a grave burden.  Most important, however, here you can see the corporation as a collective entity: as a building that contained lots of employees, as an enterprise that provided products or services for lots of customers, and, by extension, as a business that did so on behalf of the many stockholders or other people who invested in or owned the business.

Why do I mention this perhaps obvious point?  Because I am getting very irritated by the continual stream of news reports and editorials that describe (and often decry) the “collective bargaining” done by the unions under siege in Wisconsin and a number of other states having Republican majorities.   Why should there even be collective bargaining, many ask, when other workers don’t have the option?  (This is like saying that no one should get medical treatment since I currently don’t need, want, or have it.)  Most significantly, it seems unfair for a collectivity to gang up on the corporation, which is seen as a single entity.  (In Madison, the corporation is the state government, but the appeal is the same: unfair to join forces against the single employer.)  Of course, the corporation is a single individual before the law–but so is the union, so that legal fiction provides no basis for defining only one side of the negotiation as collective.

Corporations are just what the name says: corporate, collective bodies,.  They, too, engage in collective bargaining,  but on behalf of the owners or shareholders, not the employees.  There is no great harm in that, by the way: bargaining between groups is the key to a successful democratic society.  What is harmful is an ideology that masks one set of economic interests while making a corresponding set of concerns a target for denigration.

Which is why images of catastrophe can provide a civic education.  When disaster strikes, the executive can be crushed just as easily as the janitor.  When the facade of tall buildings is torn away, the rubble can expose the extent to which modern societies are complexly interwoven and comprehensively vulnerable.  Individuals remain valuable–even individual commercial corporations, and even stiff-necked governors bent on using an economic disaster as cover for political warfare–but they thrive only because society is already a vast, interconnected field of much larger things: buildings, transportation systems, state governments, global corporations, and even unions.

When disaster strikes, we can learn how it is that all bargaining is collective bargaining.

Photographs by Reuters and Christchurch Press/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


All That Glitters is Not Gold

Over 57,000 people attended the recent Shot Show in Las Vegas, the premiere annual gun trade show in the USA.  One of the largest and most frequently visited exhibits at the show was sponsored by Glock—the maker of the Glock 19, a 9mm semi-automatic pistol used most recently in the slaughter of 19 people (6 dead, 13 injured) by a deranged Jared Loughner in Tuscon, Arizona. The Glock 19, characterized by the gun maker as “the all around talent,” normally carries a 15 bullet magazine, but for those who think they might need more fire power than that, one can actually purchase 33-shot magazines like the ones used by Loughner.  It is hard to imagine why anyone other than the police or military might need such high capacity clips, and perhaps that is one reason why they were prohibited under the 1994 assault weapon ban that was allowed to expire under the Bush administration.  That is an issue that should be addressed, to be sure, but there is a different point worth making.

The sponsors of the Shot Show emphasize that the problem is not one of gun control, but rather one of mental health.  And at least at one level they are right.  I can’t help but to believe that saner gun control—such as a ban on assault weapons—would truly hurt anyone’s 2nd Amendment rights, but beyond that what we really need is more attention to the problem of mental health.  But that means a health system attentive to mental health problems and a guarantee of access to that system by those most in need of it.  There’s the rub, however,  for the people who argue for the unfettered right to own and carry guns in public are also those who tend to argue that “big government” should be eliminated everywhere, and especially and most recently with respect to government efforts to make sure that everyone has access to effective and affordable health care.  The shooter in the photo below carries a bag that say’s “Don’t Tread on Me,” and it is surely no coincidence that this is one of the slogans featured not only by the NRA, by members of the “tea party” movement as well.

One obvious response to such an argument is that there is no guarantee that Loughner would have necessarily sought or received the treatment that he needed even if we had affordable access to such health care.  That is true enough, though obviously the chances of his getting needed care would have been better rather than worse if it had been easily accessible. At the same time, it is worth noting that Arizona has among the most liberal “carry” laws of any state in the union and that didn’t seem to help the people in Tucson when a madmen began shooting.  So where exactly should we be placing our faith in such matters?

Our concern at NCN is with the relationship between civic and visual culture, and so we should end by looking more closely at the two pictures above featured at a NYT article on the gun show and ask what they show—or, perhaps more to the point, what they almost systematically fail to show.  The top image shows what the caption refers to as an “intricate display of ammunition,” but it is of course much more than that.  The intricacy of the display animates the tension between minimalist art, as it is built out of so-called “ordinary” and “everyday” materials, and the spectacle of the Las Vegas revue, as the ammo-sculpture is cast in bright lights that accent the golden hue of the uniformly manufactured bullets. The “hand gun” in the middle is shrouded in a slight shadow, but only enough to feature it as somewhat distinct from the ranks of bullets that surround it—as if the featured dancer surrounded by a chorus line—and thus to direct our attention to it as the center of focus.

The second photograph would appear to be different from the first, as it relies upon the aesthetic conventions of realism, and so it is in many ways. But for all of the aesthetic differences, the effect of the two images  is the same and it calls attention to the real problem:  guns have become objects of desire.  And as such, we are witness to a culture that has converted them into something of a fetish; not just as items that evoke a habitual erotic response, though perhaps that too, but as possessing some sort of magical or incantatory power that inspires awe. Guns may be a necessary evil that helps to guarantee freedom, though I’m skeptical of such a claim.  But such a fetish should be a warning that something has gone awry; at the least it should be a wakeup call to ask what is not shown—what is hidden or missing?

What is veiled in the pictures above, of course, are the palpable effects that such weapons have upon the world. In a roundabout way it points to our public mental health.  And that is a tragedy that knows no bounds.

Photo Credit:  Isaac Brekken/New York Times


Sight Gag: The Ruins of North America

Credit: Captain Meatpants,

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  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 might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look.

 1 Comment

Photographer’s Showcase: The Turning Point

Photojournalist Peter Turnley, a good friend of NCN, was in Cairo this past week, where he witnessed what he calls  “The Turning Point.”  He has graciously allowed us to share his work with our readers.  You can find his narrative of events here, and see his 48 hour visual diary here.

Photo Credit: Peter Turnley/Corbis  (Note:  To see other work from Peter that we have featured at NCN see here, here and here.  To see our commentary on some of his work, see here.)

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Fashion Week and the Creative Destruction of Happiness

OK, I get it: Fashion Week in New York is expected to be exotic and excessive, an uber-chic party for only the few and the very few.   Even so, I was a bit taken aback by this unexpected display of privilege.

I don’t think this kid is going to settle for paging through the American Girl catalog.  Runway seating is more valuable than a sky box at the Super Bowl, and yet this little princess is right there.  Admittedly, some are actually working for a living (yes, it must be said, some people have to, you know), but access will have been dear in any case.  Yet the photograph isn’t really about this anonymous child, but rather the social type she is performing.

While they are taking notes, she does them one better by recording the show.  You can bet that she might want to study the results, as she already is highly styled: note the lipstick, boots, hand on one hip, the other hip thrown forward, the long hair (are those highlights?), and the expert tilt of the head that makes a single line from elbow to apex.  She is a little model, and most of all in the face, which has that characteristic look of blank intensity.  (How they do it, I don’t know, but they all have it, and she’s too young to get it from the coke.)  Like other little girls, she is imitating the adults around her, but this kid is so far ahead of her peers it isn’t funny.  I have no doubt that she will become a very accomplished adult having well-honed social skills.

But will she be happy?  Surely, that is an unfair question to put to any child.  So, beware the unfair comparison that follows:

A wife kisses her husband at a celebration in Zhuji City, China, of couples who have been married for over fifty years. He certainly looks happy, and although the kiss could have been obligatory (and produced for the camera), we are to assume that they have achieved a good measure of happiness.  Everyone else in the picture seems to think that there is something to celebrate, and the couple’s mixture of intimacy and good humor is genuinely endearing, and especially so if you consider (as some of us can do more easily each year) that long association and physical aging are hardly guarantors of romance.  The message, particularly as the photo was part of a Valentine’s Day slide show, is fairly clear: love can continue to bloom like a rose, bright and beautiful, among those who have been able to live well together, even as they grown old together.

Youth is one end of the spectrum of a human life, and old age the other, and we can look to both ends of the lifespan to gain a better understanding of who we are.  One conclusion we should not draw is that fashion kills happiness.  Note, for example, the elderly woman’s beautiful jacket, and how her scarf and cap match while they pick up the jacket’s blue embroidery.  Even the old coot has a pretty impressive hat, while the trim lines, dark color, and good fit of his coat do no harm.  All societies cultivate a sense of style as they decorate their bodies and virtually everything else in the human world.

So what does this have to do with Fashion Week?  Look again at the two photographs, and you tell me.  What is there in the first but missing in the second, and again in reverse?  Some comparisons only help to point out how the comparison remains unfair: for example, the adults in the first case are working, while those in the second are at leisure.  Well, life is unfair, and that doesn’t stop it from being able to teach us a thing or two.

What strikes me about the first photo is how enthralled everyone is within a competitive gaze.  The optics are highly refined yet brutally selective, and for all the individuation that is evident everyone is caught up in powerful process of social reproduction: witness, for example, the line of blondes, none of them natural.  Decoration may be universal, but Fashion Week is a very specific social form of modern capitalism, and one that drives everyone toward competitive display and continuous consumption on behalf of faux individuation within demanding norms of homogeneity.  The business attracts creative people, and I’m all for it if only for its sociological value, but it also depends on unrelenting destruction: first, of whatever is not stylish this year; second, of the self esteem of all those little girls who aren’t going to be able to stand out by fitting in; and third, perhaps, as one edge of those neoliberal economic and ideological processes that are shredding the social fabric in one society after another.

Which is why the second photograph evokes both hope and fear.  Hope that other couples will be able to live so long and well as Jin Juhua  and Zhong Weiqiao, and, as they do so, have around them a supportive community with its many relationships and rituals.  And also fear that their achievement may be harder to come by or less likely to be celebrated.  Is there anything like that communal ceremony waiting for the little girl in the first picture?  Would she even want to be part of such an ordinary event?  Or will she have to settle for looking at herself one more time in the mirror?

Photographs by Timothy A. Clary/AFP-Getty Images and Guo Bin/EPA.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


The Long View

It remains to be seen if what we have witnessed in Egypt the past few weeks is a democratic revolution or not.  The people have spoken, and it seems that they were heard, but for now the military is in charge.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, at least in the short term, and there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.  A functioning democracy requires some modicum of order without, at the same time, stifling individual liberties and the freedom to move about as one chooses.  And so far the Egyptian military seems to be mindful of the need to achieve some balance between liberty and order with an eye to the greater concerns of Egypt as a nation state. To accomplish this, of course, one needs to have an eye for both the immediate situation as well as the long view.

The photograph above is distinct in this regard. Most of the photographs turning up at various slide shows are shot from the ground and depict members of the military microscopically, up close and personal, as they work with a wide array of civilian volunteers to convert Tahrir Square back into an open and vital public sphere—removing barricades, helping with the general cleanup, and so on.  There are a few instances where the military is shown policing protestors who simply don’t want to give up their makeshift campsites, but such instances are relatively few and serve as an important reminder that the dissenters were not necessarily all of one voice and that freedom is not a license to do as one pleases.  In general, however, such images seem to suggest that the mess of democracy can be handled by individuals—both private citizens and representatives of the state—working together in common cause.  And that is true enough to a point, but what it misses is the big picture.

In the photograph above we get the long, wide view, shot at a distance and from on-high. The first thing to notice is that any register of individuality is completely effaced. The military—and thus the state—is altogether unrecognizable, and rather than to see individuals working together, we get a macroscopic view of the modern social order as masses of people interact with one another and with impersonal machines. At first glance, the scene seems to be chaotic as both vehicles and people vie for use of the common thoroughfare.  But on second view the chaos seems to exude its own careful, makeshift order, and in any case it all seems to work.  Not perfectly, of course, as the cars have to go slower than might otherwise be optimum, and the pedestrians cannot move about without attending to vehicular traffic, but nevertheless it seems to work well enough.

Ordered or chaotic, the scene is messy, and eventually all involved will make some accommodations to one another, but perhaps that is the point.  It is easy to imagine two individuals working together joining their interests in common cause.  It can even be neat and clean.  But the longer view reminds us that mass democracies are inherently messy affairs if only by virtue of their sheer magnitude.  And more, the order they create will not always be perfect, but if they strive to balance liberties and order there is a fair chance that they will work.  Not perfectly, not to everyone’s individual optimum interests, not even as rational thinkers (like, say, street engineers) would prefer, but well enough, and with the collective needs and interests of the social order at heart.  Perhaps that is what democracies do best.  But to see it we need to take the long view.  We know that the military is capable of both long and short views when planning battles, it will be interesting to see if they can apply the same optics in this situation.

Credit:  John Moore/Getty Images


Sight Gag: Tank Man II

Credit: Clay Bennett/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  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 might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look.