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Jan 25, 2015

Turning Off the Lights to See

Despite their routine, conventional, ritualized, and otherwise predictable nature, public media can mash up different topics with an ease that should make novelists growl with envy.  Editorial cartoonists make the most of this everyday opportunity, but it pops up all over the place: politicians’ metaphors, athletes’ analogies, advertiser’s corny TV ads, and often enough a deft comparison in a letter to the editor.  I’m not immune to temptation, either, and so today it’s time to talk about both Earth Hour and Stanley Fish.

No, that’s not Stanley, although I’m sure he wouldn’t mind having his statue overlooking a major city.  This statue is labeled Christ the Redeemer and overlooks Rio de Janeiro.  Very famous, dare we say iconic, and certainly one of the signature monuments that many cities now try to erect in order to brand themselves visually to attract tourism and other business.  And so it becomes easy to say that it is both a religious and a cultural symbol, and perhaps more cultural than religious.

And that’s where Fish comes in.  On Monday he posted on a peculiar decision by the European Court of Human Rights which ruled that Italy could place crucifixes in public schoolrooms because the cross is not primarily a religious symbol.  You can read Fish’s account of the opinion, and the opinion itself, but I’m not really concerned about either.  What is interesting is the debate about when a symbol should be seen as more parochial or more general, as something dedicated to a specific group or something in common circulation, as exclusionary or assimilated.  Examples include everything from the Confederate Flag–which I would prefer to see as a sign of treason, but few seem to concur–to “In God We Trust” and other bits of civil religion.

And that’s where Earth Hour can help.  On Saturday night, March 26, thousands of organizations and individuals around the world turned off their lights (well, most of them) for an hour to symbolize support for energy conversation.  (I was in Paris when the Eiffel Tower went dark.  The experience did not strengthen my commitment to sustainable energy.)  This week The Big Picture has put up a gallery of before and during photos.  The comparisons, and the digital mechanism for making them, are interesting, but one pairing goes further.

Incredible, isn’t it?  One could almost title it “Christ, Prince of Darkness.”  The city looks like Hell, glowing embers of eternal misery from which rises an awful miasma of vapors, while darkness surrounds everything, shrouding all hope.  Or not: perhaps some will see a real Christ, and one who offers not salvation but rather compassion, not escape but rather God’s presence amidst the suffering.  And one who may be present only because he has agreed to be powerless.

Now go back to the first photograph.  I see only kitsch: it might as well be in a snow globe.  The official, illuminated symbol has no religious depth.  How could it?  That doesn’t mean that it won’t be exceedingly meaningful when seen by some believers, especially for the first time.  But those responses are drowned in the sea of indifference–or, better, obliterated in the bright lights and endless repetition of civic branding.  When illuminated, it is reduced (although not completely) to being a cultural symbol.  Only when the lights are turned off, for a moment not to be repeated for a year, can religious meaning come to the fore.  How do we know?  Because only then are we confronted with our finitude, our fatality, and the dim prospects for achieving heaven on earth.  Come to think of it, not a bad message for Earth Hour.

Photographs by Felipe Dana/Associated Press.


Meltdown at NCN


Sorry, but we don’t have a regular post for today due to a bad combination of connectivity problems at one end and jet lag at the other.  If we were a high-tech industrial corporation, we’d blame it on unspecified “human error.”  If we were Fox News, we’d say it was Obama’s fault.  If we were the Japanese government, we would assure you that everything was under control.  But we are who we are, so we’ll let it be what it is: another sign of the impending collapse of civilization as we know it.  Have a nice day.


What Are Unions Good For?

There has been a good deal of talk recently about the public value of unions, much of it framed in the euphemistic language of “right to work” laws and the alleged unfairness of “collective bargaining.”  There is probably something to be said about how unions have occasionally exploited the power of collective bargaining in ways that may not always be in the public interest, but as Hariman pointed out recently, corporations are no less collective bargaining agents representing the special interests of owners and shareholders.  And so it hardly seems reasonable to single out unions as singularly or generically problematic in this regard.  But since we are approaching the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, there might be a different point worth making.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (TSF) was on the 8th-10th floors of the Asch Building near Manhattan’s Washington Square.  The TSF was what we would today call a sweatshop and the working conditions were oppressive.  The vast majority of the 500 employees were teenage girls, most of them recent immigrants who spoke little or no English.  At 4:45 p.m. on March 25th, just short of quitting time, a fire broke out and spread quickly.  There were two descending stairwells, but one was quickly blocked by flames and the second was locked to avoid theft.  Some packed themselves onto the sole working fire escape which quickly collapsed under the extreme weight (and in any case apparently led nowhere), others jumped down an elevator shaft or made their way to the roof of the building only to jump to their death 135 feet below.  When all was said and done 148 people—129 women and 19 men—were dead.  The owners were indicted on charges of manslaughter, but subsequently acquitted.  Two years later they lost a civil suit which compensated each family $75.00 for the loss of their loved one.  The owners were compensated by their insurance company in excess of their reported losses and in the amount of $400 per death.

The final cause of the fire was never determined, but what the photographic record made palpably clear (here, here, and here) was that the health and safety conditions of the TSF were wholly inadequate.  And this was doubly tragic since groups like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Women’s Trade Union League had been advocating for better working conditions and protective safety legislation for several years. Following this tragedy they redoubled their efforts in both lobbying for reforms and monitoring the safety conditions within the garment industry.  Things did not change immediately, as industry leaders continued to argue that stringent safety codes would wipe them out of business—an argument that seems to persist in contemporary times—but it is hard to imagine that without the efforts of union organizations that things would have changed very much … or at all.

As we debate the value of unions in the days and weeks ahead we are well advised to recall the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the need that workers have for a collective voice in representing their interests, particularly in the face of efforts to castigate unions as little more than selfish, greedy operations.  And to the extent that any of that interest speaks to questions of health and safety we need to recognize the especially important watchdog, public interest that is being served.

Photo Credit: Brown Brothers/Kheel Center

Update:  The NYT “City Room” is remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire this week.  Thanks to NCN friend Jim Johnson for bringing this to our attention.

Update: Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Visualizing Magnitude 9.0

The human mind has the amazing capacity to calculate magnitudes far beyond the scale of ordinary experience.  We can speak of the size of the earth or the galaxy or the universe, using terms such as “light years” as if we had lived through them regularly, or discuss whether the earth is 4.5 or 4.54 billion years old as if we might have there for the birthday parties.  We can “scale” up with ease, whether increasing a recipe or clicking on the magnitude button at Google Maps.  One result is that it is easy to forget how much distortion is occurring when we do so.  Our knowledge of magnitudes comes at a price: we forget how much distance or time or damage is actually involved.   Indeed, we are more likely to grieve for one death than 100,000.  So, magnitude, particularly when talking about human experience, can prove to be a difficult matter: something that can lead to serious distortions in sympathy, knowledge, and response when trying to deal with disasters and other large scale events.

One consequence is that people need to imagine magnitude: they need to draw on their imaginations to fill in the abstraction created by large numbers.  This imaginative representation of events is particularly important for collective action on behalf of the general welfare–which is the key to human success as a species.  That is, an ability to imagine the magnitude of a catastrophe can ensure effective collaboration in response to present emergencies and guide precautionary measures on behalf of a better future.  But large magnitudes are, by definition, difficult to see.  I can use a world map precisely because I don’t see the actual size of the earth.  Managing scale requires abstraction, not visualization.

Fortunately, we have visual arts that we use for just this reason (among others).  The photographer or designer can show us the world in a way that emphasizes magnitude in order to counter our habitual abstraction and its emotional and thus social consequences.  The public image is an aid to public imagination, one that can help us move beyond merely seeing the localized effects of what happened where and when.  The challenge is to show us that and more: to engage the imagination in a manner that fills in the gap between particularity and abstraction, between the collapsed house and numerical measures of causal forces.  And by bridging that gap, the public image helps us cross the space between one person and another person, one group and another group, one nation and another nation.

Everything depends on it.  By seeing ourselves in respect to the large-scale forces shaping our lives, we can begin to recognize our common vulnerability.  From there, perhaps we can understand that humanity succeeds or fails as people learn to work and live together across the distances that only seem to separate them.

Notes: Photograph of shipping containers in Sindai by Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press; computer simulation image of the tsunami by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; whole earth photograph by the crew of Apollo 17 for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Sight Gag: What Fiscal Responsibility Looks Like

Proposed Republican Budget Cuts (and How to Pay for Them)

Credit: greywolfe359

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.


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Documenting the Disaster

History may be a slaughter pen, but we didn’t always get to watch.  Now we do, up to a point, and some social commentators are sure to become censorious.  It is customary to fault photography for turning disaster into a spectacle, but the critique is mistaken in many ways beyond simply blaming the messenger.  Sure, you can gawk if you like, but there is so much more going on–in the photograph and in the complex dynamics of public response.  More to the point, the photographs of the unfolding catastrophe in Japan provide a remarkable opportunity to think about where modern societies are and where they are going.  We’ve listed below some of the slide shows (as of today) that offer particularly rich archives.

The Boston Globe’s Big Picture provides extensive coverage here, here, here, here, here. here, and here.

The New York Times has arranged before and after photos taken by satellite.  The Times primary collection of over 100 photographs of the disaster is here.  They also have some readers’ photos.

ABC News has joined before and after photos in a smart format that allows you to scroll back and forth from past to present.

Totally Cool Pix has slide shows here and here.


The Family of Man

The photographs of the devastation wreaked by the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan are, well, simply devastating—aerial views of towns and cities literally flattened beyond recognition, acres upon acres of rubble and debris, and, of course, amidst all the scattered wreckage, dead bodies.  But for the fact that they are in color, many of these photographs could be perfect doubles for photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the immediate aftermath of suffering nuclear attack.  It is a haunting reminder of the persistent threat of calamity to human frailty whether wrought by man or nature.

Many of the images of rubble and wreckage show oddities such as boats teetering perilously atop buildings or hundreds of cars and trucks piled upon one another in a city street as if rather in a junkyard.  But equally prominent, and far more poignant, are photographs such as the one above of family photo albums that managed to survive the catastrophe only to come to rest among the detritus.

The family photo album is a modern affectation, of course, but within liberal, late modern cultures its presence is ubiquitous to the point of being almost universal.  And its value in this context is pronounced as a central marker of time and identity, of where “we” have been and who “we” are, as well as a family relic to be passed down from one generation to the next. Just as the photograph is an index of the thing photographed, indicating that “this” once was here, so too is the family photo album an index of the family it records.  It is not clear if these particular photo albums will ever find their rightful owners, if the mud and dirt will ever be cleared away, or if the images contained within them will live on in specific family memories—or if they will live on at all.  What is clear, and perhaps what is most important, is our willingness to recognize them among the rubble as important symbols of a common humanity that invites us to activate a powerful stranger relationality.

There but for the grace of god …

Photo Credit:  Damir Sagolj/Reuters



After the Quake: When You Realize Science Fiction Is Real

You’ve seen photographs of the devastation, the images that chronicle the magnitude of the quake and the sheer mess it can make, and you’ve seen photographs of the rescue efforts, as governments swing into action to provide shelter, food, medical care for the survivors, and you’ve seen photographs of those who didn’t make it, and of those who now are wounded by grief, sometimes watching helplessly or walking aimlessly through a world turned upside down.  But you might not have seen an image such as this one:

The caption at The Big Picture said that “an official in protective gear talks to a woman who is from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant in Koriyama.”  I find the description puzzling, as the woman clearly is speaking to the official as well.  The difference reveals more than gender bias, although that should be pointed out.  We are to believe that the official is instructing the woman, guiding and helping her on behalf of her safety and others as well.  Shouldn’t communication during a disaster be from the official to the citizen, and from those who are equipped with modern technology to those who are wrapped in a blankets?  Well, yes and no, not least because effective response to a disaster depends on two-way communication: those who are deployed need information from those who have direct experience of what is happening on the ground.  Given the sensory deprivation involved with that Hazmat suit, she probably can help.

But I digress.  One reason this photograph is remarkable is that it seems to be a still from a science fiction movie.  More precisely, by considering it as a movie still we can begin to discern its ability to reveal something about our civilization.

There she stands, one of the new nomads, continuous with primitive peoples from tens of thousands of years ago and yet newly vulnerable.  Her blanket and mask were machine made, but she seems to be illuminated by firelight, and her gesture suggests that she knows the terrain and even how to negotiate with the alien questioning her.  But we know that she is in danger; it’s as if the red tent behind them is blaring a continuous state of emergency.

As well it should, for what kind of world includes the figure on the right?  Its clothing isn’t something that was grabbed while scrambling for safety.  The suit and gloves were designed, tested, manufactured, ordered, and worn in training because they are part of the normal operation of managing the nuclear reactor.  That is to say, because responding to nuclear catastrophe is part of the normal operation of this society.

A friend has remarked that prophets are always right because their predictions of destruction in the future actually are descriptions of what is happening right now.  (When the effects become evident down the road may be less well known; similar to public opinion polling, perhaps we should grant prophets a margin of error.)  The earthquake had to come, and the reactor, despite the many precautions taken, was likely to crack and release radiation, and both happened because of natural and social processes that were underway, day after day, well before the bad news arrived.  Thus, we might consider how the photograph above reveals not only that a dystopian future could happen, but that we already are getting used to it.

Photograph by Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters.

Update: For a fine essay on the role of science fiction in Japanese public culture, see “Japan’s Long Nuclear Disaster Film” by Peter Wynn Kirby at the New York Times Opinionator Blog.

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Sight Gag: “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been … a Muslim?”

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.