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Dec 15, 2012

Getting Workers into the Picture

It wasn’t but a few weeks ago when the ballyhoo in the US was that the congressional elections this fall were going to be determined by the economy.  Unless the rate of recovery improved, and particularly with regard to the critical variable of unemployment, the Democratic majority was sure to be doomed.  Such conventional wisdom can’t be entirely mistaken, because discontent can drive people to vote for change, but now that the election is approaching the tea leaves are turning a bit muddy.  One reason, of course, is that the airwaves are full of ads about everything but economic policy.  Such reticence is not surprising: the Democrats don’t have a lot to crow about–it’s hard to get excited about saying that things could have been worse–and the Republicans have the even bigger problem of wanting to restore the very policies that created the disaster in the first place.  The result is that we are treated to discussions of Sharia law, the right to carry a concealed weapon while you are drinking in a bar, and whether Social Security is constitutional.  (As for the latter, no, that’s why you have slaves.)

Tokyo Pedestrians stock market

I don’t want to disregard the more obvious explanations for the continuing dysfunction in American public discourse today, but let me suggest another, overlapping reason for the difficulty that the US seems to have when it comes to thinking about the economy.  That reason, as I’ve suggested before, is that too many people don’t think of themselves as workers and of workers as labor, and their distorted conception of themselves is reinforced daily by the images of work that do circulate.  Stated otherwise, neoliberal fantasies about the economy now dominate not only government policy but also the conventions of representation that we rely on to think about the economy.

The photograph above is a convenient example of what I have in mind.  This week the Dow Jones climbed back above 11,000-good news, right? Well, yes, except that it did so after the announcement that 95,000 jobs were lost in September.  This troubling relationship between corporate profits and unemployment is captured neatly in the photograph of Japanese white-collar workers seen through a scrim of stock market data.  On the one hand, the photo seems to depict that labor and stock prices are indivisible parts of the same economic whole.  For there to be profits, there have to be workers; for there to be workers, there have to be profits.  On the other hand, the photo could also reveal how labor and finance are not coordinate, and how the electronic data flows of the stock market are obscuring, displacing, literally writing over the body of labor.  Despite the many workers massed to cross the street, they are becoming invisible beneath the numbers, spread sheets, and abstractions that have become, not merely representations of productive work, but their own reality.

There will always be work, of course; the question is whether it will be seen, recognized, and rewarded.  That’s why I like this photo.

Oktoberfest workers

These are workers–and perhaps one customer–at a German Octoberfest.  Needless to say, the photo is a bit different from the typical images of happy waitresses serving tall steins to happy customers.  Here, the waitresses are on break–a couple of smokes, a phone call, a text message.  These last details are informative: although still a part of the global data sphere, the ratio of bodies to electronic display has been reversed.  This is a place of actual work.  Another reason we know that is because there is nothing romanticized about it.  Unlike the smiling faces and effortless activity seen in ads, here we understand that working people can be bored, tired, and having to manage the rest of their lives around the edges of their work, which is tightly scheduled and often includes having to deal with people, like the kid on the left, who are not exactly at their best.

And even if this photograph shows labor, the workers are still back stage, caught in an unguarded moment that might not be subject to company surveillance and proprietary control.  In the US, anyway, we’re not accustomed to looking at work in public, and not at all comfortable–the word should be “competent”–at talking about labor.  Until workers can have their rightful place in the pictures that animate public discussion, the results on the ground are going to continue to be grim.

Photographs by Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters and Matthias Schrader/Associated Press.


Sight Gag: Do You Remember When … ?


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.


Zoe Strauss, On the Beach

on the beach folded arms

Remember the oil spill–you know, Deepwater Horizon, millions of gallons spilled, disruption of both the ecosystem and the economy for years to come?  Oh, yeah, that spill, the one we’re now being told wasn’t so bad after all.  Somewhere between Monday Night Football and mid-term election coverage, a massive industrial disaster has sunk to the bottom of the Gulf.  Fortunately, Zoe Strauss has not forgotten, and her documentary project On the Beach is still available at this page.  If you take a look, you can begin to understand why the national news coverage never gets close to the story on the ground, which is that for too many people the US is a catastrophe, and one that has condemned them to internal exile.

Zoe is a progressive photographer and installation artist living in Philadelphia, PA.  Her book America offers profound witness to the people living amidst the faded strip malls, desolate urban spaces, and other scenes of abandonment that can be found across the US.  This is the other “real America,” one where people have to deal with a society that provides freedom and nothing else while lavishing its wealth elsewhere.  To her credit, Zoe never condescends, and her work is not another celebration of human dignity.  We are offered something at least as important in a democratic society: a view from inside their world.

You can learn more about Zoe’s work at her blog.


Everyday Terrors: Primitive, Modern, Postmodern

Well, not any old day, actually, but Game Day:

fan head, nails

And it’s not primitive, either: those nails are a product of the machine age, thank you very much, as is the plastic material used to form the mask.  But it is a mask, and he is masked, painted, draped, and otherwise transformed externally and internally for ritualized combat.  That combat has to be imagined between individual warriors, as there is no point in one man trying to frighten a platoon or a plane.  The attempt to terrify is more intimate still, for he bares his teeth as if to rip your throat out.  The fact that they are painted the same colors as the mask adds to the threat, for it says that he has been made into a single being for a single purpose.  Man and mask have become one thing–and it is a thing, as the eyes, window of the soul, are vacant.

If you have any doubt of his now inhuman will to power, look at the nails: he has cannily challenged his adversary by mortifying himself first: what can be done to terrify him, when he has already mutilated his own image?  But who is he, anyway, now that he has fused his identity completely with his team, his tribe?  Although merely a very modern Miami Dolphins fan enjoying the carnival culture of a live football game, he is nonetheless channeling the artistry, psychology, and mythic resonance  associated with primitive societies–at least as they are used to supplement or escape (temporarily) the dominant designs of modern life.

Designs such as this, for example:

museum black on black

Although wearing wrinkled corduroy slacks, this museum visitor is neatly turned out for public viewing; you might call it uptown casual, and you can find it any day of the week in the museums and similar venues for Art and Culture.  The basic black jacket, corresponding gray slacks and gray-white hair with just a hint of muted color in the scarf for accent, along with the sheer geometric surfaces devoid of ornamentation–these are standard features of modern design (and, since men started wearing black in the 19th century, of modernity itself).  If you aren’t sure, just look at the painting, where the design principles have been perfected.

As with the first photograph, the image is striking because of the homology that ties person to thing.   Just as colors joined mask, teeth, and tribe, now color joins spectator, painting, and modern design.  And where the first image was carnivalesque, this one is gently humorous.  What is there to see in that black void?  Will peering intently discover anything in black but black?  Isn’t it amusing that person and artwork seemed to be doubles: that a black surface mirrors an actual person?

It takes only one more step for the joke to turn into something else: perhaps the painting does mirror the person, who may be largely a void after all, and also not much more accessible to the rest of us who can only see the individual from behind, as it were, and as a social type.  And is art imitating life, or is life being made over according to an aesthetic that is abstract, impersonal, dehumanizing–the expression not of the individual person but of mechanization?  And what is the photograph but a witness to Nietzsche’s admonition that “When you stare into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you?”  Perhaps this photograph is a study not only in modern design, but also in a distinctively modern form of terror.

hungary toxic spill suit

But not the worst terror.  Here we have a third thing: simultaneously primitive and modern, machined and animal-like, horrifically Orwellian yet an actually existing scene from the present.  The workers in their Hazmat suits are cleaning up a toxic sludge spill that inundated a village in Devecser, Hungary.  The costumes are awful, terrifying, and yet not intended to scare anyone.  Even so, there is something terrifying about the suits, not least because the workers seem so completely habituated to them–as though this was just another day on the job.

And that’s one more thing all three images have in common: each is a photograph taken from a relatively special event rather than a typical day’s activity–and yet each of them suggests that something both terrifying and deeply continuous is in fact present.  Blood lust is always there; it’s just a question of how it is sublimated.  The abyss is always there, along with the grinding uniformity of modernization; it’s just a question of how to live well anyway.  The catastrophes that result from industrialization, environmental exploitation, and the continual assault on the commons are becoming woven into the fabric of everyday life in far too many places; the question remains of who is going to do what about it.

So take a look at each one and ask yourself which world you want to live in.  You can stare as long as you want to.

Photographs by Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post; DPA; Bernadett Szabo/Reuters.  The Nietzsche quote is my translation of the passage from Beyond Good and Evil, part IV, section 146 (1886).  On the role of black in modern dress, see Men in Black by John Harvey.


The Softer Side of War

Screen shot 2010-10-03 at 10.55.30 PM

The military is a brotherhood.  The battlefield a cauldron of male bonding.  And so it is that we are accustomed to thinking that war is men’s work.  “Real” men’s work.  So much so that even the thought of a homosexual in camouflage is enough to make some in the Pentagon almost apoplectic as they seek to explain the deleterious effect such “integration” would have on unit cohesion.  And generally, the conventional wisdom goes, women are really no less problematic inasmuch as they create “distractions” that disrupt the fragile ecology of the band of brothers. As the photograph above suggests, however, one solution to this problem is to have all-female units, a band of sisters, as it were, who might lend a softer touch in the battle for the hearts and minds of  those whose land we have chosen to occupy by military force.

This photograph leads off a slide show at the NYT titled “The Female Marines” that tells the story of a group of women warriors who have been attached to the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment in the Helmand Province with the express purpose of “engaging” Afghani women.  The assumption, apparently, is that gender trumps nationalism, and when Afghani women encounter other women they will see past their uniforms and body armor—as well as the fact that they are carrying high powered, automatic weapons—and they will identify with them as women.

The premise relies on a cultural reductionism that is altogether implausible, if not downright absurd given the circumstances of the American occupation of Afghanistan.  And so one has to wonder about photographs such as this one, which show the “engagement team” sitting on the floor in an Afghani home, drinking tea and playing with a toddler while members of the family look on.

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The photograph has all the qualities of a snapshot in which the principals studiously avoid acknowledging the camera so as to feign a natural or candid moment. But there is nevertheless a tension in the image that belies the illusion of a comfortable identification between the family and its “visitors.”  Note, for example, how all but the toddler—who presumably has no knowledge or experience that would signal danger or caution—holds back from any direct interaction with the marines. And notice in particular the boy who stands deep in the back corner, his line of sight riveted upon the automatic weapon that sits on the rug in the middle of the floor.  It is hard to know exactly what he is thinking, but it seems unlikely that he is counting his blessings that the people who have taken over his home are women and not men.

That wars such as the one we are fighting in Afghanistan are a struggle for hearts and minds is obvious, and it should give us serious pause as we continue to commit to the use of military force as a way of overcoming the influence of the Taliban in a country that has withstood occupation for centuries.  But more, we need to challenge the notion that such force and occupation can be made less noxious or troublesome—let alone more successful—by trying to feminize it.  In the end, female marines with guns are, well, simply marines with the guns.

Photo Credit:  Lynsey Addano/NYT.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Sight Gag: Congressional "Truthiness"

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Credit:  Jim Lo Scalzo/European Passport Agency

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.


Seeing Gender in Transition

By guest correspondent Emily Dianne Cram

Afghan Passing.2.2010-09-29 at 8.18.41 PM

Two children in Afghanistan play in an alleyway between two houses.  The child on the left awkwardly turns forward while looking back towards the viewer.  The child, whose name is Mehran appears to be running toward a place in the distance where bodies blur almost indistinguishably from one another.  Or maybe Mehran is running away from the spectator watching the scene unfold.  Whether moving towards or away from particular coordinates, the important point to note is that the viewer of the photograph sees Mehran suspended in what appears to be a moment of stasis, yet simultaneously always moving.

Mehran’s story is one of several featured in a recent New York Times essay and slide show that chronicles a practice known as “bacha posh,” in which female-bodied youth pass as boys to secure their families’ status within their communities.  The title of the essay—“Afghan Boys are Prized, So Girls Live the Part”—cues the spectator habits the “gender abroad” genre typically evokes: condemnation of a misogynistic practice.  Yet, such a judgment seems problematic if we take another look from a perspective that troubles how we think about gender.

What is remarkable about the slide show is the banality of bacha posh in a cultural context Westerners typically see as marked by strict gender segregation.  In the image, below, Azita Rafaat, a member of Parliament, leans down to address Mehran, who dresses as a boy.

Afhan Passing 3.2010-09-29 at 8.39.54 PM

The entire scene invokes the narrative of a mother attempting to quiet and contain an unruly child in public. Rafaat’s hand curls firmly around Mehran’s shoulder as she demands the child’s attention with what appears to be a stern look. Rafaat reacts with an expression that is in equal parts puzzlement and discontent.  What is especially distinctive about the photograph is how Mehran’s white clothes blend into the bodies of the men in the background, while Rafaat, shrouded in black, awkwardly ushers the child through the scene.  And what we get is something of an allegory for the often confusing norms of public and private behavior that implicate the equally confusing norms of gender and sexual identity as they manifest in their local contexts. And in the end, Mehran’s particular identity hangs in the balance.

These photographs illustrate how gender in particular is a way of moving one’s way through the world to produce forms of social relationality.  Yet, this view is contingent on seeing gender as a permeable category that people use as a means of building their communities.  Accordingly, gender is an embodied act, something that is done to produce a relation to others in the world.  This perspective enables us to see gender in transition, and how cultural practices often exceed the strict binaries of male/female and woman/man.  Perhaps if we take our everyday embodied violations of categories more seriously, we can see the work gender does in a different light, rather than rush to judgments about others.

And yet, the act of seeing gender in transition is imbued with its own paradoxes.  In the photograph below Zahra, a girl who has passed as a boy since childhood, gazes pensively through sheer curtains towards a bright, sunlit day.

Afghan Passing .1.2010-09-29 at 8.18.16 PM

The juxtaposition between the shadows behind Zahra’s back and the white light greeting “hir”* face and torso suggests that the secret past is coming to an end.  Part of bacha posh is a transition into womanhood and the rites of marriage and motherhood.  For Zahra and others, such a transition is difficult and at times undesirable because of the way their bodies sediment a particular way of being with others.  Another look shows Zahra gazing towards an inevitable future with a sense of heavy dread, and we learn not only of hir desire to live as a boy, but that s/he has never “felt like a girl.”

Zahra’s story shows the contingency of gender, and the heartbreak that emerges when one’s own desires for a particular embodiment conflict with community norms and practices.  This tension is endemic to the human condition, one that we all embody as we attempt to find the way our bodies fit into spaces of the world.

* “Hir” is a neutral pronoun that serves as one alternative to the gender binaries embedded in the English language.  I choose to use “hir” in this case because of the way Zahra describes hir embodiment: female bodied, yet desiring a male public presentation. “Hir” emerges from a transgender critique of language, a perspective that understands the limits of and inventional potential of language in articulating the complexity of embodiment.

Photo Credit: Adam Ferguson/NYT

Emily Dianne Cram is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Indiana University, and her research engages the intersections of visual culture, embodiment, and gender and sexuality.  She can be contacted at


The Impossible Dream

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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.

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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

 1 Comment

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/ 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.