NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

March 21st, 2016

The Last Modern Man?

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

A man walks along the Cheonggye stream in central Seoul, South Korea, March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji - RTSAM1C

The caption says, “A man walks along the Cheonggye stream in central Seoul, South Korea.”  I think that’s an understatement.

How about: A man in a three-piece suit walks on, under, and along the concrete infrastructure of a public space?  Or a a man in a three-piece suit walks on, under, and along the concrete infrastructure of a public space sharply sculpted by bright sunlight and dark shadows along a stream that is part of an urban water management system?

Or perhaps this: A man holding a small leather wallet hesitates on an elegant white and grey platform between the abyss behind and the abyss before him, while a stream flows by without remorse.

Or, a lone man walks tentatively through an empty space amid abstract structures, as if uncertain of what will happen next.

Or, the official walked through light and darkness to carry out his duties, small as they were; the river awaited him.

The spy considered whether he was too late, even though he was too early, too visible, and already a dead man.

As the well-dressed man walked on the clean city sidewalk by the beautiful bridge, he thought about jumping.

You get the idea.  The stream is barely visible; the street and structure could be in any modern city, and the man is the anonymous embodiment of a type.   The scene captures key elements of 20th century modernism: a lack of ornamentation cues the dominance of functionalist design, uniform materials, abstract spaces, geometrical forms, and black and white contrasts.  In fact, not much of the world looks this barren or this purely engineered, and not many men wear suits anymore, and the image of the “man in the grey flannel suit” alone in the anomie of the concrete jungle is a figure from another era.  And yet, here he is again, and perhaps more remarkable for that.

Let’s be clear what this image is not.  It is not news.  It is not emblematic of a significant event or current controversy.  It is not a sign of the times or a new fashion or trending activity.  And yet it is photojournalism, and it was selected for the Photos of the Week at the Atlantic.

More to the point, the who, what, where, and when really don’t matter much here.  (If you look closely, he might be wearing a sweater rather than a vest.  I’m not sure he’s carrying a wallet, either.  Note that we’re not told the name of the street, etc.)  Which leaves us with the why.  And the why is doubly important, because what the photograph certainly is, is enigmatic.  Although quintessentially modernist, it’s no longer clear whether the world depicted has a future.  For all the strength and inertia of the concrete structures, they already seem almost permanently empty, and he seems both wittingly and unwittingly vulnerable.  Kafka’s K comes to mind, which takes us even farther back.  And by the way, where are the women?  Now modernism becomes an empty space that we walk through but would not want to inhabit; and enlightenment serves primarily to demarcate the dark places, which are larger than we knew.

He is caught in the light, but like his shadow, he will soon disappear.  Take a look at the last modern man.

Photograph by Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters.

March 2nd, 2016

When Dreams Become Ruins

Posted by Hariman in visual memory

Miller, Flooded Room Beneath Pad 19

It could be any abandoned basement, or subbasement, or back-lot reservoir of some forgotten rust-belt industrial zone.  And it is–except that it also is the flooded room beneath Launch Complex 19 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The Space Program, remember?  Or maybe you read about it in school.  Gemini, Apollo, the big rockets timbering upward amid gigantic columns of smoke and fire.  Humanity was going to the moon, to the stars, into the final frontier. . . .

OK, so that final frontier stuff came from Star Trek, but it was all the same, really.  Science and science fiction mashed up together.  Dreaming big and making it so real the whole world could watch in awe.

And now?  The rockets are ancient history, the space shuttles are museum pieces, and space is being privitized by those few billionaires who have hobbies other than collecting politicians.

Fortunately, photographer Roland Miller has captured what remains.  His book Abandoned in Place: Preserving America’s Space History is out this month.  I’ve only seen the images at his web site and the New York Times exhibition, but they offer a beautiful study of the complex relationships between dreams, loss, and memory.

If you liked the space program, it will be a mixed blessing, as the glory days are long gone, while rust, peeling paint, and cracked concrete testify to nature’s relentless wear.  Indeed, earth seems to be reasserting the slow, sure bonds of gravity and inertia that the powerful launches seemed to defy.

If you like ruins, however, you will feel right at home.  Which is why I want to feature this work.  I don’t miss the space program, but its ruins can help us think about what it means to tie progress to a dream of escape.

The visible abandonment of the rocket sites is a sad reminder of what it would have meant to abandon this planet.  The falling back into nature is another example of how we have to find more sustainable ways to thrive within our own ecosystem.  The deteriorating relics of a great technological achievement provide mute testimony to the fate of any civilization that thinks it can rise forever.

The great challenge of the 21st century is not traveling into space, but rather renewing our covenants with the earth and each other.  If that challenge is not met, perhaps some day travelers from another galaxy will arrive here, only to find a silent planet dotted with ruins.

Miller, Apollo Saturn Complex 34

Photographs by Roland Miller.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

February 19th, 2016

Progress and Catastrophe at the World Press Photo Awards

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

The 2016 World Press Photo Awards were announced yesterday.  As always, the awards are an occasion for marveling at the quality of contemporary photojournalism.  And as always, they probably have prompted some controversy, although I would expect less of that this year.  The winning photograph channels Robert Capa’s great D-Day photograph, while its black and white tonality and “you are there” action shot will allay concerns raised in the last few years about the presence of painterly or other explicitly aesthetic values.

A wide range of artistic inflection is still on display at the awards, however, and good thing, too.  (Keep in mind that all the photographs are digitally altered–not least the black and white images, which have the color subtracted from the original raw file.)  Photojournalism is a vital, vibrant public art, and the “82,951 photos made by 5,775 photographers from 128 different countries” will provide a rich archive of life on planet Earth today.  Note also that this WPP quotation says the photos are “made,” not taken.  The modernist assumption about transparent representation of the world finally is being replaced by recognition of the fact–and I would hope, value–of mediation.

From the look of the winners, it seems clear that the artistry that is on display brings us closer not only to the world as it is, but also to the world as it is unfolding from past to present to future.  By putting two of the category winners side by side, we can see how this public art is challenging us to think about whether a global future will be one of progress or catastrophe.

China, WPP award, Freyer

The WPP caption says, “Chinese men pull a tricycle in a neighborhood next to a coal-fired power plant in Shanxi, China.  A history of heavy dependence on burning coal for energy has made China the source of nearly a third of the world’s total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the toxic pollutants widely cited by scientists and environmentalists as the primary cause of global warming.”

Put text and image image together, and you have a problem.  Coal-fired plants in China needs to be replaced for the common good, right?  Yes, but it’s cold in Shanxi.  And that massive plant is helping people haul themselves out of centuries of poverty.

The caption refers to a tricycle, but motorbikes are there as well.  Progress is there, but hardly at the level of Saudi elites living lavishly in London.  It’s still a slog in Shanxi.  The fact that the province is now an exhibit for deplorable labor conditions is one measure of where it is on the developmental scale.  One question that arises is whether this is a photograph of how rural China is climbing the stages of industrialization toward First World prosperity, or of how the “temporary” costs of industrialization are now unacceptable because of permanent damage to the global ecosystem.

Which brings us to the photo’s artistry.  Is it a photograph or a 19th century genre painting?  Is it a photograph or a Soviet-era poster promoting industrialization?  Both the painterly hues and the modernist iconography are key elements of the composition.  The artistic implication is that this is a photograph of the past.

In Reading National Geographic, Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins made the astute observation that the ideology of progress sees the developing world is if “their present is our past” (p. 125).  Many, many photographs have carried that message.  With this photo, I’m not so sure.  The the two men in the foreground are moving the non-motorized vehicle away from the power plants.  The plants are being left behind, while the men are walking on a road that seemingly  would become colder, harsher, more tiring.  In place of electric heat, they will need that fur blanket that is draped over the trike.  As in a genre painting, they become a portrait of a simple, agrarian life, albeit now one that comes after industrialization instead of before it.  Progress is part of the picture, but it has become dangerous.  The two men almost could be refugees.  And perhaps they are.

But where might they go?  How are things going in the advanced nations?  The flip side of the Lutz and Collins observation is that those elsewhere could look at our present to see their future.  But what if our present already contains another future, and one that no one would want?

Australia, WPP award, Kelly

The WPP caption says, “A massive ‘cloud tsunami’ looms over Sydney as a sunbather reads, oblivious to the approaching cloud on Bondi Beach.”  Welcome to the affluent world: life is a beach, and better than that when you’ve also got your digital reader.  Industrialization is somewhere off stage here, while global information technologies, consumer consumption, and warmth can be taken for granted.  Taken for granted, that is, until you stop what you’re doing to look at what is coming.

Perhaps it’s just another storm.  Weather, not climate change.  A need to take shelter for awhile, not change the way you live.  That is the difference between a literal reading of the photograph and seeing it as a work of public art.  The photographs taken in 2015 record what is still a present moment, but they also can recall the past and reveal something of the future.  A future, perhaps, that looms like a terrible, dark storm.

Photographs by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images (WPP 1st prize singles, Daily Life) and Rohan Kelly/Daily Telegraph (WPP 1st prize singles, Nature).

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

February 4th, 2016

Visions of the 1 % at Fashion Week

Posted by Hariman in fashion/fiction

Tired of war, refugees, and Donald Trump?  Take heart: Fashion Week is here.  But although we might want diversion, escape, or vicarious indulgence of wretched excess, even the fashion shows are saying something about the news.  One of the themes this year is that wealth is here to stay.

OK, that may be one of the themes every year, but what’s interesting is that the designers are tuned in to how the 1% will continue to rule.  So far this year, there are at least two serious options.  One uses the theme of a new feudalism.

29review04-blog427

This couture gown from Valentino took 1,300 hours to make.  1300 hours, and it still gets a lot of mileage from bare skin.  Maria Grazia Chiuri suggested that the show represented “diversity, and freedom, and the chance to express yourself.”  True enough, and certainly so if compared to ISIS.  But actually the look is going in the same direction as the Islamic State: back into a premodern world.

I see a woman waking in an ancient courtyard.  She might be a queen or a courtesan, and there aren’t too many other options.  Her bare feet, flowing gown, and jeweled hair evoke movie images of Greece or Rome, and the bare feet and shoulders suggest a warm environment–whether in a past Mediterranean world or one remade by global warming.  Like the model she is, she is likely to be doing what she is  told: making an entrance to play her role, or an exit to meet her fate.

The dress is too expensive for most of us but the image suggests a common destiny: a world that is devolving–changing, despite all its technological prowess–back into a time of extremes and inequities, hoarding and scarcity, nobles and peasants.  Many TV shows, movies, video games, novels, and other arts are exploring this vision.  They are obvious acts of imagination, but they are representations of real tendencies in modern societies around the globe.

And they can be wrong.  Not, however, because something like a reasonable social contract and shared prosperity will be restored.  The fashion shows present another alternative, one that is just a bit retro, uncannily so.

30GUIDE_INSIDERSONLY-master1050

In this tableau, the future is already here and it looks a lot like a modern past.  Posh, preppy, call it what you will: the 1 % rule look as they have before, although perhaps even more explicitly entitled and insolent.  The image also suggests that race and sexuality can be easily appropriated (as they always were) to reinforce class domination.  But I digress.  This is not the time to denigrate what progress has occured; not when the image is reminding us that nonetheless we might be slipping back into a social order made for the few and the very few.

As Scott Fitzgerald knew when he wrote The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Photographs by Miquel Medina/AFP-Getty Images and Kevin Tachman for Michael Kors.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

January 26th, 2016

The Lesson of the Snowstorm

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

A resident shovels snow away from the entrance to his home in Union City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan, after the second-biggest winter storm in New York history, January 24, 2016. REUTERS/Rickey Rogers TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX23SDE

This is the photo that keeps coming up in the papers and the slide shows.  “A resident shovels snow from the entrance to his home in Union City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan, after the second-biggest winter storm in New York history, on January 24, 2016.”  That’s the caption, just in case you were wondering about the who, what, where, and when.  But that isn’t saying much.

Snowstorm photographs can’t avoid being stock images: whatever they are, you’ve seen them before.  This one is no exception, so novelty is not part of the appeal.  Nor is it a particularly striking photograph.  Whatever its features, I can think in every case of photos that displayed each one more directly: the undulations of white softness draping the furniture of the world, the gentle play of light and shadow on snow, the trees heavy with their winter foliage, the monster drifts, the daunting task of digging out. . . .  This photo has them all, but each quality is stacked up with the others, and they seem to subtract from one another rather than produce a cumulative effect.  So it really is an aftermath photo: emphasizing not the massive, magical inundation but instead the individuated labor of clearing a way back to the familiar routines of ordinary life.  And yet it is in its own way captivating.  Why?

The answer, I think, is that it provides a gentle reminder of just how good life can be.  Can be: not in every case.  That snowstorm will have caused car wrecks, heart attacks, and other bad news, and eventually we’ll be told how the costs for snow removal and lost business will run to the millions or billions.  But there is another story that won’t be told, except perhaps through this photograph.

If a snowstorm is your big problem this week, you’re doing fine.  If you have to shovel snow but can walk back into a warm brick brownstone where the heat is always on, where water always flows sure and clean at the turn of your hand, where you can look up and down the street and see everyone else having the same amenities. . . . . That is the good life.

The photo shows one kind of abundance–the unusually large covering of snow–to say something about another kind of abundance.  What covers reveals.  The snow temporarily removes all the cars, mailboxes, and much else from view, but we know that they are there.  It features a man working with a blade on a stick, but we know that is the closest he gets to experiencing primitive scarcity and vulnerability.  By showing how much can be temporarily stopped, it reminds us how much activity and prosperity are taken for granted.

And there is more.  As the snow also slows us down, it reminds us how we allow some of our riches to diminish others.  We have so much that we may forget to stop and marvel at the beauty of the world.  A snowstorm is beautiful, but so is a cloudy day.  It’s wonderful to curl up with a cup of coffee on an unexpected day off and look across a glistening landscape, and it’s wonderful to take a moment amid the morning rush any other day.

Come to think of it, that’s something you can do any time you look at a photograph like this one.  And others as well.

Photograph by Rickey Rogers/Reuters.

January 19th, 2016

Emoting with Panache at the Democratic Debate

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Hillary and Bernie

There will be lots of photos from Sunday’s debate between the Democratic Party presidential candidates.  I get a kick out of this one of Hilary and Bernie both letting it rip at the same time.  We’ve posted regularly at this blog on how politics is a performance art–and how that can be a good thing for democratic politics.  Of course, it also can be a bad thing, but this year it’s no secret that the demagoguery is all on the other side of the street.

So there are at least two reasons to like this photo: because it provides a comic reminder that political performances can be simply amusing rather than hideous examples of bad speech, and because it suggests that oratorical demonstrativeness really may add something to democratic deliberation.

To accept either argument, you have to grant me one thing: that these are two policy wonks who already have demonstrated exactly how debaters should speak: by answering most of the questions directly, demonstrating broad and deep knowledge of governance, addressing important problems and real needs facing the electorate, building coalitions while answering, and doing all this articulately, with concision, wit, and moments of eloquence.  None of this denies that they also have dodged questions, answered with obvious strategic intention, and been adept at spin and spin control.  But if you know anything about how reasonable speech is supposed to work, whether on in a meeting or a public forum, they you can’t do much better than go to school on these two.

Which is why it’s a hoot that they also look like a comedy team on Saturday Night Live.  “Come on people–I WANT YOU TO CARE, DAMN IT!”  And “Wheee!  Look at me!  Aren’t we having fun?”  Completely different and completely the same; opposites and complements; raging seriousness and silly enjoyment side by side.  Together they capture what is in fact a deep tension within our political culture: too much entertainment or too much principled rigidity can each be a bad thing.  A well-functioning democracy needs some of each: at the least, it needs to appeal to ordinary people and get competing interests to work together, and in response to serious issues on behalf of our best values.  And it needs political leaders who can do that, and audiences who can appreciate what is required.

Needless to say, there is some irony in the photo as well.  Bernie Sanders is the one who is labeled an ideologue, while Hillary Clinton has a reputation for pandering.  Surely there could be other photographs of them switching roles: something they should be able to do, frankly.  And we can be confident that will, because of the emotional panache that is evident in this photo.

“Emoting” is a common answer in crossword puzzles.  The clues include “orating,” “acting,” and variations thereof such as “making a speech.”  That simple equation of public speaking and a theatrical performance actually captures an important truth.  We need our leaders to emote on stage–sometimes to communicate what really matters, and sometimes simply to provide a good show.  What they say and everything else matters, too, but let’s take a moment to see what is there to be seen.  One public art has captured another.

Democracy needs them both: both seriousness and humor, and both photojournalism and oratory.

And who knows?  Maybe even both Hilary and Bernie.

Photograph by Randall Hill/Reuters.

December 24th, 2015

Season’s Greetings for the New Normal

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

weathr map

It’s only a projection from alarmist liberal media; nothing to worry about.  (The map shows predictions for degrees above normal on December 25.)  Enjoy the weather, and any respite you might find.  NCN will be back in January.

November 30th, 2015

Star Wars Optics and Socialist Dreams

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Tkachenko-18

Incredible, isn’t it?  So perfectly designed and yet so strange.  Ultramodern and yet medieval, like a space ship on a surveillance mission and a castle readied for battle, set off by itself in forbidding isolation and yet connected somehow to distant galaxies.  The tableau is so unique and so striking that it could be a scene from the forthcoming Star Wars blockbluster: we can imagine the rebel stragglers, downed on an unknown planet, approaching the daunting edifice that has emerged out of the snowstorm.  They can’t survive outside, but they don’t know what lies within.  Friend or enemy?  Life, death, or something worse than death?

They were socialists, actually: the structure is a monument to socialism built on Bulgaria’s Mount Buzludzha.  It is one of a series of remarkable images captured by photographer Danila Tkachenko.  The exhibition is available in the current issue of the National Geographic Magazine and at their website. Influenced by a nuclear waste explosion that had scarred his own family, Tkachenko set out “to look for other sites and structures that symbolized an abandoned march toward progress.”  He found them.

The movie optic doesn’t come from Tkachenko, and I don’t intend to make light of his work.  But science fiction movies and documentary photography have more and more important intersections than you might think.  (Search for “science fiction” at this blog and you’ll see a few more examples of what I have in mind.)  Tkachenko describes the now abandoned monument as a “very surrealistic object,” and he’s right.  Although having the exceptional formal simplicity and coherence of a fine art object, it nonetheless is out of place with itself and its surroundings: the scene presents a mixture of aesthetics, politics, and an abstracted natural environment where each part seems alien to the others even as they fit together seamlessly.  Surreal indeed.

Susan Sontag declared that “photography is the only art that is natively surreal.”  That was not meant to be a compliment.  It was instead a radical deconstruction of the medium that was thought to be inherently realistic.  Sontag was right, but not in the manner that she would have wished.  Photography is surreal, and good thing, too, for that is exactly why it is capable of capturing the “natively surreal” features of social reality.  Which, I might add, is a lot of social reality.

The monument itself may not be to your taste. I think it is magnificent, but you might see a glorified birdbath.  That disagreement is worth having, but it is beside the point today.  The photograph has captured something more comprehensive than the artwork itself: the pervasive alienation of the socialist ideal on planet Earth.  True, Bulgaria fell well short of the ideal society, and the money spent on the monument perhaps could have gone to help the common people rather than glorify an ideal or a regime ruling in its name.  But if present trends continue, one can imagine a planet trapped in a perpetual winter of neoliberal capitalism.  That planet could be dotted with massive, ultramodern castles surrounded by vast spaces of abandonment. It would seem like a movie to us today, but we already are living the trailer.

Perhaps an abandoned monument to a noble dream is surreal, but some day rebel stragglers may look up at the ruin and want to ask, compared to what?

Photograph by Danila Tkachenko.  The quote from Sontag is from On Photography, p. 51.

Cross-posted at ReadingThePictures.

November 24th, 2015

Security, Umbrellas, and Civil Society

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

Belgium security umbrella

The caption pointed to the soldiers on the Rue Neuve in Brussels, but what about the two figures on the right?

What about them?  A couple walks under an umbrella; this is not news.  No, it is not, but it does call to mind another European rainy day scene:

Gustave_Caillebotte_-_Paris_Street;_Rainy_Day_-_Google_Art_Project

Gustave Caillebotte’s painting “Paris Street, Rainy Day” is one of the more remarkable depictions of the bourgeois civil society that made Paris the center of European modernity during the 19th century.  The street scene is muted emotionally by the rain that has softened the brick surfaces of the city, while the couple’s comfortable domesticity under their umbrella becomes a small enclave of intimacy within the public space.  Their easy entrainment contrasts with the empty spaces and isolated strangers behind them, and with the possible collision involving the stranger approaching them.  He will adjust, of course, as will they, and so we can imagine a small ripple in the ongoing flow of urban civility–something to talk about when the couple is sitting at a cafe, but nothing more than that.  And certainly not a terrorist attack.

I doubt that the photographer was thinking of Caillebotte’s work when snapping the photo in Brussels, but the connection in there in several ways.  The contemporary couple could be inserted into the 1877 painting without much difficulty: they, too, are comfortably entrained while walking on the street on a rainy day, dressed for going out in public, enclosed in their private space beneath the umbrella, and contrasted with the strangers behind them and with the possible disturbance of an approaching figure who might step into their path.  Although not in Paris, they are in a nearby European capital, and the photo is being taken because of what happened in Paris.

There also are differences, of course.  Now she is holding the umbrella, which might be a small sign of gender equity. The scene behind them is a bit more crowded, and the dress codes have loosened up in the intervening years.  Oh, yes, and there are four armed soldiers dominating the pictorial space.  That’s not the Paris of 1877.  We might want to call it the new normal.

If terrorists opened fire, you’d be damn glad those soldiers were there.  Short of that, however, their presence is visually jarring, and should be seen as such.  Masked, porcine, with multiple appendages, partially immobilized by their gear, suited for lethal conflict rather than civil association, they are visible proof that the civil society represented by the European city has been seriously disrupted.

Just as painting captured important features of 19th century modernity, photography may reveal characteristic truths about modern civil society in the 21st century.  No photograph tells the whole story, and no painting does either.  We also should acknowledge that 19th century Paris was aligned with an extensive expansion of European imperialism, and that the public life of the era was still gendered, raced, heteronormative, and otherwise well short of its Enlightenment promises.  In like manner, more than one nation ought to admit that those attacking 21st century Paris are the issue of  imperial histories, not least the Western entanglement with Saudi Arabia and an invasion and botched occupation of Iraq.  Even so, both the painting and the photograph represent something essential about a decent civil society.

In the photograph, the couple on the right seems about to be edged out of the picture.  Perhaps they will pass through without incident, but there may not be room next time.  Instead of the openness evident in the painting, the civic space has become clotted with military force.  If the enduring legacy of the attacks is to make a “security umbrella” an ever larger and more prominent part of urban experience, we may find that we have destroyed the city in the name of saving it.

Photograph by John Thys/AFP/Getty Images.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

November 16th, 2015

Memorialization or Branding after the Paris Attacks?

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 7.14.39 PM

The drawing by by French graphic designer Jean Jullien has become one of the more widely shared artworks about the carnage in Paris.  Like many of them, and like some of the photographs being shared, it includes the Eiffel Tower.  Which is why the cynic might want to say that for all of the emergency claims being made, it’s still business as usual in the West.

To push the point, one might ask whether public opinion can ever get beyond tourism.  (Susan Sontag argued that photography turned everyone into tourists, who were content to have only minimal knowledge and inauthentic relationships.)  The outpouring of emotion far exceeded that spent on the ISIS bombing in Lebanon a day earlier or the ISIS destruction of a Russian airliner before that.  I guess Beirut needs a tower, and the Russians need to paint Red Square on the side of their planes.  The differences in coverage and response will depend primarily on powerful ethnocentric biases in the political and media systems, as well as the differences in the scale of the attacks, but one can’t help but think that the a lot still depends on the available symbolism.

That said, I think the critique is another example of how the cynic knows the price but not the value of things.  The attacks were an assault on the city itself–and on its image as a beacon for living well in a modern civil society.  Whatever the analysts might say about the political maneuvering of France in the Middle East, it was not the government buildings that were targeted.  The city of light and love was attacked for what it was.  What better way than the Eiffel Tower to communicate globally and instantaneously that we know and value what is at stake.

I think Jullien’s design is superb for other reasons as well.  The Vietnam War era peace symbol has deep resonance for many of us, and it evokes two very important ideas: That once again a truly vile war is being waged, and that international solidarity is required to stop it.

Times have changed, of course: unlike North Vietnam, ISIS hasn’t a shred of legitimacy.  But some things also stay the same: a string of unintended consequences has lead to disaster, and before this war is over many lives will be ruined for many years to come.  More tellingly, the movement to stop ISIS can’t be only a peace movement, and those defending the West will have to also beware how war will transform their own societies.  The effort to stop a ruthless tyranny also can lead to a national security state where the Paris of today is only a memory.  The brand would continue, of course, but that really would be mere tokenism, like one of those miniature Towers that you can buy on the street.

And so the cynic might have a point after all, although not about branding.  To defend Paris is to defend civil society as it is, with all its mashups of art, technology, commerce, politics, and everything else (including religion) that crazed ascetics would ban or segregate.  But what about mashing up war and peace?  The beauty of Jullian’s simple illustration is that it is a call for peace, and perhaps a claim that peace will triumph.  It has arrived, however, just as France and other nations (including You Know Who across the pond) are gearing up for war.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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