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Regressing into the Future in Tahrir Square

Instead of last spring’s inspiring images of democratic solidarity, the images now coming out of Cairo are becoming increasingly surreal.

This one is getting a lot of play–the guy is so distinctive that you can even see another photographer in the picture trying to get his shot.  And what’s not to like?  The bizarre gas mask is hardly standard issue (where did he find that?), and its white rubber both contrasts with his dark clothing and matches the white smoke pouring out of the tear gas canister.  The smoke streams back along his path as he is running forward, for this is definitely an action shot.  (Think of how many demonstration photos feature relatively passive postures: sitting, standing, or milling about, with raised hands, signs, and banners displayed for the media having to stand in for more extended or dramatic action.  Look, for example, at the rest of the people in this photo.)  Revolutionary action wearing an alien, almost unintelligible mask, the photo captures key features of a popular revolt defined, like so many demonstrations today, much more by its opposition to a corrupt establishment than by a clear idea of what an alternative future might bring.

And that’s where I get a bit worried, as the photo may be fitting too well with the anti-democratic meme of late that progressive movements are incoherent.  (Back in the day, the left was tarred with being a rigid, centralized, international organization adhering strictly to the explicit ideological doctrines of Soviet communism; now that the Cold War is over, I guess it makes sense that the left, sans directives from Moscow, would have to be disorganized and inarticulate.  As long as you’re outside of the reality-based community, that is.)  Unlike many other images of painted faces and massed bodies, the masked man doesn’t seem to link with any political aspiration or populist movement.  Because his pending action of throwing the canister mirrors the original assault, he seems equally prone to violence while this false equivalence cancels out any sense of political difference.

Worse, he looks grotesquely simian, as if political demonstrations were a form of devolution.  Worse yet, this falling backward is also a cyborg projection where organic and mechanical natures have been horribly fused.  The close fitting headpiece reveals a human skull in all its distinctiveness and fragility, yet the mechanical mask destroys any hope of wholly human sympathies.  The bare hands make the dark clothing seem like a pelt, while the loping limbs suggest a life alternating between predation and flight.  The bag hanging below his waist looks like another limb and thus another example of organic life distorted, whether by bad science or the pressures of a harsh environment. Five-limbed with a machined face, there is little basis for identification.  It seems that only violence is legible, and can calls for restoring order be far behind?

And yet, the more strange he appears, the more likely another interpretation also applies.  I’ve posted a number of times about how photojournalism is revealing the often surreal nature of violence in our time.  In addition, I’ve suggested in several posts that a corresponding political aesthetic is emerging as well, one in which the modern apparatus of power can look increasingly medieval.  Admittedly, sometimes costumes are just that, and the surface rarely expresses what lies below unerringly, but I believe that these changes in style can reflect far more troubling changes in political relationships.

To take a page from science fiction–indeed, one of its most insistent and important lessons–technological progress can proceed with and contribute to regression along every other dimension of human experience: social organization, economics, politics, culture, you name it.  Thus, rather than merely supporting or undercutting the demonstrations, photos such as the one above might be working more prophetically to identify how a harmful future is emerging in the present.  More to the point, they are showing not who is causing what, but how ordinary people are already coping with deprivations and more explicit forms of systemic violence, not least by adapting to those harsh conditions at the very moment that they are fighting against them.

Welcome to the future.

Photographs by Tara Todras-Whitehill/Associated Press and Mahmud Hams/AFP-Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


On The Road Again

Well, it is time for your NCN guys to take to the road once more, this time to attend a national communication conference in The Big Easy.  And then the Thanksgiving holiday is upon us and we will both be entertaining family and friends.  So we’ll be away until November 28.  In the meantime, if you need a hit of that old NCN magic you might check out our brief essay on “Bad Image, Good Art: Thinking Through Banality” at FLowTV, a critical forum dedicated to promoting public discussions of the changing landscape of  media culture.


Sight Gag: Protecting the Public Interest

Photo Credit: Clay Bennett

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.  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 by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.


Photographer’s Showcase: Paul Shambroom’s Shrines

Paul Shambroom is a photographer based in Minneapolis, which is much too “Minnesota nice” a place to be if you are interested in exploring American power and culture.  Paul gets out, however, to where power is really on display: places like Mayville, North Dakota.

This monument of an F-84F Thunderstreak isn’t quite elegiac, but it surely is an inadvertent depiction of power in decline.  The plane seems to be falling rather than climbing, and the marker in front could be a gravestone.  The picnic table is an almost surreal touch, and suggests that there is no necessary relationship between the military machine and the agricultural economy in the background.  Military culture and agriculture, two staples of a state containing both grain elevators and the Strategic Air Command, and yet as alienated as life and death.

The shrines to American military power are hardly limited to any one state, however.

Or to any one technology.  Here a Titan I missile adorns the Krystal restaurant parking lot in Cordele, Georgia.  The muscular assertion of male dominance is still there for all to see, but if that weren’t sad enough, just look at the rest of the scene.  Once again, the weapon seems out of place–and we should be grateful that is not surprising–but now another relationship becomes evident.  The symbol of power seems to be there to compensate for a civil society that can hardly rise above the mud.  Whatever that missile cost, it seems more than would be needed to give Cordele an upgrade.  The inverted flag in the rainwater makes the point all too clearly: while lifting up the symbols of national power, other national priorities have been left out in the rain.

Or that’s how it seems to me.  The words are mine, but the photographs are Paul’s.  I highly recommend that you spend more time with the photos.

Photographs by Paul Shambroom, from his Shrines series.


Seeing Beyond American Exceptionalism

There are many reasons for the profound economic and political problems currently plaguing the US.  Sure, a lot of them follow a direct line back to Ronald Reagan, and more recently the story is one of elite capture of the government to accelerate even further the massive transfer of wealth upward.  American society is becoming painfully inequitable and comprehensively unhealthy, and nothing I say should detract from that assessment or from demanding accountability on behalf of the general welfare.  I will say, however, that there may be additional reasons why the American public seems so passive.  Why is it that “the people” are so lacking in the intelligence, solidarity, organization, and energy needed to take back their country?  One answer might be, because they have never seen and can’t even really imagine this:

You are looking at the Omnilife Stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico during opening ceremonies for the 2011 Pan American Games.  Quite a sight, isn’t it?  Let’s say it, that’s one hell of a show in a fabulous stadium that can match or beat anything you will see on a Sunday afternoon in the US.  And let’s also say that it’s not a stadium filled with illegal immigrants who will risk anything to leave an impoverished country to get to the promised land.  (Mexico has serious poverty, of course, but so does the US.)  Finally, let’s note that Guadalajara is not that far away from the US, but for most US citizens it might as well be on the far side of the moon.

I am suggesting that one reason Americans remain so passive in the face of economic and political predation is that they continue to believe that they are better off than the rest of the world.  And not just better off, but divinely so: a nation predestined by God to become the “shining city on a hill,” as Reagan intoned, channeling the words but not the sense of John Winthrop’s 1630 speech, A Model of Christian Charity.”  As many scholars have documented, America’s ideology began with the definition of the nation as a New American Adam in the New World Garden.  That idea of having a special place in God’s plan and otherwise outside of the laws and vicissitudes of history has been carried forward through the doctrine of Manifest Destiny to the Lone Superpower to jokes about “Freedom Fries” and the current complacency.  Carried forward, one might say, ever more unreflectively and undeservedly.

James Howard Kunstler has made a related point in Home from Nowhere, which is that American’s put up with such lousy design standards because they haven’t traveled to where higher standards are taken for granted.  Americans think a city street is “nice” if it’s relatively free of litter, never mind that the few plantings are half-dead and the sidewalks too narrow for anything but funneling people between buildings.  Until you’ve traveled enough, you just can’t imagine that large areas of the industrialized world look better and have amenities from free wi-fi in the airports to good trains to you name it–and we’re not even talking about health care.  As Kunstler noted, when Disney World is seen as an upgrade from your normal environment, you have a problem.

And the problem only gets worse when your mind can be turned off by anyone who says that that the US is one nation under God, the greatest country on earth, with the highest standard of living in the world.  If you have the facts, you can back that up a bit, but the facts will never be enough.  And perhaps spectacles and monuments and city plans are not the best measure of a nation’s wealth or quality of life.  I’ll grant that, but not the rest of the argument, which is one reason I like this photo.

Again, it’s visually stunning, but also something you might have seen close to home.  Someone is sluicing down a waterslide in Mogyorod, a town near Budapest, Hungary.  Small town, cheap entertainment, simple pleasures of a summer day–it could be anywhere, and that’s the point.  What many Americans would assume is something only to be found in the US, now is a part of life for hundreds of millions of people around the globe.  And if you want to push the point, the facility, structure, or infrastructure elsewhere is likely to be newer and more up to date than what’s at the end of Strip Mall Road in Middle America.

Hence, the irony: a nation long characterized by its mobility needs to get out more.  Of course, geography works against it, and it’s hard to do in any case when your economic resources are going south.  That’s where photography can help.  The American public should come for the view, marvel at the image, and enjoy the spectacle, but they also should learn something from the experience.  It appears that God’s plan is more capacious than had been thought.  And if Americans don’t demand that government and the economy serve their common interests, one day they may wake up to discover that, compared to much of the developed world, they really are the exception.

Photographs by Jorge Saenz/Associated Press and Laszlo Balogh/Reuters.


Don’t Believe Everything you Hear

Google “What do the occupiers want?” and you will come up with something like 17 million hits in les than 0.1 seconds.  Everyone, apparently, wants to know. The problem, of course, is that just as with Freud’s question “what do women want?,” the very inquiry is tongue-in-cheek as it presumes there is no answer that can be reasonably accommodated under the prevailing regime of logic that animates it.  For Freud, of course, that was the law of the Father, and for those who challenge the Wall Street occupiers it is the logic of the market.  And in each case it presumes something like a rational, oral/verbal response.

Lacking a spokesperson or unified voice however does not mean that the occupiers are without a sense of purpose or desire however inchoate it might seem to be.   One simply has to observe what they are doing.  That is, rather than to listen to what they say they want, one needs to see how they conduct themselves.  And when one substitutes sight for sound—photographs for sound bytes—it begins to become clear on par that this is a humane, ordered, and indeed rational movement however fragmented it might be in its particular instantiations from one city or locale to the next.

Yes, it is true that the Oakland anarchists challenged this characterization in ways that give the illusion of credence to Eric Cantor’s depiction of the occupiers writ-large and across the nation as an unruly mob, but notwithstanding all of the coverage that the mainstream media gave to such—remember, “if it bleeds it leads”—the Oakland disturbances remain the aberration.  The clear exception to the rule.  And the rule has been the somewhat ordered development of tent cities that have been attentive to problems of nutrition, sanitation, and even health care.

Most of the photographs that we see in the mainstream media feature the occupiers in actual protest mode, holding up signs, engaging in street theater, marching or holding hands in solidarity, staring down the police, and so on.  And when we see them encamped they are usually sitting on the ground or on sleeping bags looking somewhat bored.  But occasionally photographs slip through that show the encampments themselves, ordered and fairly clean given the circumstances (except in those places, such as Denver, where the police rousted the tent cities and left them in shambles); or people lining up at food tables, serving and being served, and so on.  And sometimes we see images such as the one above that show the members of the community working altogether rationally to sustain itself in the face of adversity.  According to the caption this photograph was taken in Zuccotti park and it shows the “protestors” charging high-capacity boat batteries that have been retrofitted with small generators after the police confiscated their gas powered generators citing safety concerns. Adapt and adopt seems to be the rule.

I like this photograph in large part because it features the foot rather than the face, or more to the point, it features the shoe. Lots of shoes, actually, including the work boot, a black oxford, and an ankle boot.  There may even be a sneaker in the background, though it is hard to be certain.  But in any case, the emphasis on shoe and style calls attention to the pluralist world that is being organized and brought together.  Race, age, and even class are largely effaced, while perhaps gender maintains some presence (but even a woman can wear a work boot or ride a cycle!). And so what we get is not a sense of the individuals involved, who remain altogether anonymous and unspoken, but the articulation of social types all seemingly working in tandem towards a common goal.  Indeed, the photograph is in some measure an allegory for the body politic.  But instead of  an organic, idealized, or essentialist political body marked by the “official spokesperson,” we see a body politic adapted to the conditions of contemporary political life: a body politic that is fragmented, realistic, and provisional. In short, the photograph shows a conception of public life that is no longer whole—in the most traditional sense—but is nevertheless active and engaged and in its own way successful.  It is, in short, an image of a pluribus without an unum, a plurality that need not be be reduced to a stultifying One.  A public that is animated by common needs and goals without ignoring—or being reduced to—stylized differences.

What do the Wall Street occupiers want?  It is hard to say. But then again, one really just needs to look in order to begin to figure it out.

Photo Credit:  John Minchillo/AP Photo


Sight Gag: Dickens’ America

Photo Credit: John Sherrffius

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.  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 by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.




Exhibition: Coal + Ice


Curated by Susan Meiselas and Jeroen de Vries

Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, No. 155A Caochangdi, Beijing, China

September 24 – November 28, 2011

Coal + Ice is a documentary photography exhibition featuring the work of 30 photographers from China, the United States, Canada, Malaysia, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Norway, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom, whose work, brought together here, visually narrates the hidden chain of actions triggered by mankind’s use of coal.

This photographic arc moves from deep within the coal mines to the glaciers of the greater Himalaya where greenhouse gasses are warming the high altitude climate.  As these mighty glaciers melt at an accelerated pace, the great rivers of Asia that flow from the Tibetan Plateau into the oceans are disturbed, and the lives of billions of people downstream are disrupted.

A video about the show is here (it loads a bit slowly).  A gallery of images is here.

Photograph by Jimmy Chin.


Signs of the Times

Wall Street has always been defined by its signage.

Simple and effective and perhaps a bit unsettling: the iconic phrase actually is a street sign.  But what a street.  Hang a huge flag on the New York Stock Exchange and you have it all.  (You can see that at Wall Street Flag.)  Perhaps people should not be so surprised that more recent occupants have also been doing something about what you see there.

If we know anything about the Occupy Wall Street movement, it’s that signs are everywhere.  More to the point, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the coverage of a protest movement so focused on featuring the handmade signs.  Go to Google Image and type in Occupy Wall Street; one of the first prompts will be Occupy Wall Street Signs.  You will see signs galore, plenty of them from web sites that have collected them by the dozen.  In any case, they are being relayed throughout the media.  There will be some obvious reasons for this visual emphasis, not least that literate demonstrators have plenty of time on their hands, which they can use to compensate for their relatively small numbers and lack of a signature event such as a march, and which then can be uploaded and relayed quickly via digital technologies.

Sure, the Tea Party had its signs which got a fair amount of play, but usually to result only in disclaimers–“Oh, no, they’re not racist!”–and the real fun was with the costumes.  Other comparisons aside–and the movement in Oakland may take things in a very different direction–but it seems clear that Occupy Wall Street is about getting the message out to a public audience.  If so, there are two things one might want to consider.  The first, which I’ll only mention, is that one might want to ask why it is that the media ran with the right wing meme that the protests were illegitimate because they had no clear demands, agenda, or objectives.  (I’ve said a bit more about this point here and here.)  But that question largely answers itself.

The more interest point is one that Ashley Gilbertson brought to my attention in one of his photo essays on the recession.

The point is that the signs have always been there.  The signs of economic decline, the sad traces of personal and societal pain, symbols of betrayal and abandonment–they’ve always been there.  But if someone isn’t holding it up in front of a TV camera, most of the media don’t notice.  And the rest of us do no better.  Why should we, for many of the changes happen gradually as part of the ordinary routines of life.  If it’s a sign at a mall that’s slowly emptying or at a construction site that’s been mothballed or at an unemployment office that’s overcrowded, well, it’s just one more sign.  What could just be ebb and flow only later proves to be start of a flood.

Occupy Wall Street has already done the US a lot of good.  You don’t even need a political program if you can simply make people start to pay attention.  After all, that’s what good photographers do.  In fact, we don’t need to look at the demonstrators or their signs if we will just look around and see what is there to be seen: the signs of a troubled time.

Photographs from the Wikipedia Commons and by Ashley Gilbertson, After the Fall.

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On the Invisibility of Class Warfare; Or, What if They Gave a Class War and One Side Refused to Showed Up?

According to spokespeople for the political right, such as Representative Paul Ryan, President Obama, emboldened by the occupy movement and fighting for his political life, has declared divisive class warfare on the 1%.  We’ll ignore for the moment the recent CBO report that indicates that after-tax income for the top 1% is up 275% since 1990, while it has risen 40% for middle-income houses and 18% for those at the low end of the economic scale.  And while we are at it we will also ignore the absolutely insane spate of “flat tax” plans being promoted by the various candidates of the week running for the presidential nomination of the republican party who seem to think that economic “equality” means lowering taxes on the 1% while raising taxes on just about everyone else so that we are all paying an equal proportion of our income.  In short, we’ll ignore the fact that class warfare had been declared long before President Obama decided to challenge a “do nothing Congress” on jobs creation and Occupy Wall Street protestors took to the parks and the streets—and it wasn’t declared on the 1%.

Rather, I want to focus attention on the way in which the class warfare is being visually represented, or perhaps more to the point, the sense in which it is more or less invisible in news reports.  As the photograph above suggests, the primary skirmishes are occurring in the street and the ground troops standing in opposition to the 1% are the occupy protestors.  And as readers of this blog no doubt know, the web is awash with photographs of the “occupy” protests. And the scene is pretty much the same everywhere you look. Tent city encampments; protestors—young people mostly but not entirely—gathering in crowds, holding hands, marching, shouting (sometimes angrily, but not always so), and so on; protest signs that call attention to the economic disparity between the 1% and the rest; all manner of street theater, including men dressed in suits and ties while wearing pig masks, individuals with dollar bills taped to their mouth or covering their eyes, and men and women wearing Guy Fawkes masks; police dressed in riot gear (lots of police dressed in riot gear!); and of course the police rousting and arresting protestors, presumably in the name of safety and public order.

What is missing for the most part is any clear visualization of the 1% themselves.  And the question is why?  Part of the answer, of course, is that its not that kind of war.  Class warfare is not fought with guns and bombs—though of course the history of anti-union strike breaking in the 20th century might suggest otherwise.  It is fought primarily with tax codes and all other manner of rules and regulations designed to promote the interests of the moneyed classes.  And those simply can’t be photographed.  One might call it an invisible war but for the pesky facts that I started with and the myriad problems exacerbated by the lack of regulations on the financial industry that led to the debacle of 2008, including house foreclosures, double-digit unemployment, and anemic economic growth despite the fat that corporate profits are up.

But part of the reason, I think, is that those who stand with the 1%  simply don’t want to be seen.  They know what they are doing and the effects that it is having or will have, and they are simply willing to go on doing it anyway.  Unlike Gordon Gecko, they are not willing to announce piously that “greed is good,” but by the same token they aren’t willing to give any ground. They refuse to engage with the protestors, perhaps with the assumption that if they ignore them they will eventually run out of energy and disappear, once again allowing the war to continue in all of its invisibility.  And so they stay outside of the view of the lens of the camera.  This, by the way, might be one of the key difference between Occupy protests and Tea Party Protests; in the later we typically see the opposition joining the debate, but here that almost never happens.  The other difference, of course, is that we rarely if ever see the police arresting Tea Party protestors.

Every once and awhile, however, the masters of the universe slip up and allow themselves to be seen, such as in this photograph taken last week at a protest outside of J.P. Morgan Chase in Manhattan.

The image is altogether telling.  Taking a break from the world of high finance, they gawk at the protestors below.  They don’t seem to have a care in the world, and they surely don’t seem to have any real concerns for what is taking place on the street below as anything other than a passing curiosity.  The guys on the left are snickering.  The man in the middle appears to be texting a friend.  The man and the woman on the right seem altogether bored.  In another such photograph a women uses her phone to photograph the crowds below.  The overall attitude is one of  nonchalant and bemused indifference.  And in a few moments they will no doubt return to their desks and computer screens secure in the belief that this is a war that can be won simply by not showing up. After all, the law seems to be on their side—literally.

One can only wonder how long the class war will remain that kind of a war.

Photo Credits: Michael Dwyer/AP; Mario Tama/Getty Images