Jan 25, 2010
Sep 28, 2009
Apr 28, 2014
Sep 28, 2007
Feb 27, 2013
Aug 31, 2012

Signifying Shoes

You might think that a high end fashion item would seem more valuable for being rare, hard to get, almost one of a kind.  Everyone should want one of the items, but it should be clear that not everyone will have one.  So it is that this display of Christian Louboutin shoes seems counter-intuitive.  How can there be so many of something so pricey?  Why pay so much for something that appears mass produced and uniform?  The Louboutin website opens with a pair of heels under glass, as if they were a rare treasure that should be protected from the open air, whereas this display of indistinguishable copies invites comparisons with the knockoff items that you can buy for a few bucks on the New York street.

But the curator who created this exhibit at the Design Museum isn’t in the business of selling shoes.  Like the designer, she is keenly aware of how shoes signify, but the focus here is on prompting reflection on fashion as a design art.  Two of the contradictions within modern fashion are that “exclusive” products typically are mass produced, and that consumers strive to distinguish themselves using identical items.  These conditions make good design harder, not easier to achieve.  Instead of individualized tailoring whereby everyone could be outfitted uniquely, clothing, furniture, and everything else has to be appealing and functional for many different people despite having a single, impersonal form.  By acknowledging these constraints, the exhibit captures Louboutin’s achievement: even when one pair of shoes is shown to be exactly like all the others, they still look really good.

It’s also interesting to see how focusing on one art can reflect back on another.  The display of the shoes makes each pair interchangeable with the others; what are real shoes become mere copies of an absent original.  Thus, the mere awareness of mechanical reproduction subverts a secure sense of the reality or worth of the object.  Photography, of course, suffers the same fate: the ease in making reproductions of any image heightens awareness of how each one is a copy of another reality.  One result, particularly in the hands of some theorists, is to fault the art for cheapening our sense of what is really real.  What happens, however, is that some images prove to be all the more exceptional for that.  Their artistic achievements become more obvious, not less, when set against many others much like them.  And that competition for attention amidst a pervasive process of copying is another of the constraints in fashion design.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that one way to distinguish each of the shoes above is by the way it catches the light.

Nor need the comparison stop there.  Fashion and photography can intersect not only in the museum but also out on the street.  Or at the Golden Gate Bridge.

This commemorative display was created by the Bridge Rail Foundation, which advocates for measures to prevent suicides at the structure.  Turns out there is more than one design problem involved.  On the one hand, the bridge proves to be superbly suited to a wholly unintended use; on the other hand, perhaps the most deep-set objection is that preventative modifications mar the bridge’s aesthetic appeal, which is one of its principle design features.

In any case, it is interesting that a display of shoes can say so much about the tragic cost of inaction, and comparison with the first image can identify some of the reasons why.  Whereas in the first image multiple copies enhanced distinctiveness, here the obvious uniqueness 0f each of the pairs heightens a sense of common fate. Each person wearing the identically recognizable Linboutin shoes will stand out in a crowd, and the status markers proclaim that they have the personalized flair that comes with being among society’s winners.  Each of these motley yet varied shoes at the bridge marks a single individual no longer visible, someone who ended up at the bottom of life, caught in an undertow of despair that lead to the same darkness.

However cheap, each one of those shoes was a small fashion statement before it became a means for civic advocacy.  The shoes’ second significance is extended further by being copied by the camera.  Shoes, like photographs, are social objects, and so can talk by being seen and communicate further by being displayed.  This photograph expresses the advocates’ intention, but it also prompts the viewer to think about who is seen and valued, who is granted attention or other social goods and who is left to walk by unseen–as if just another copy of the one before, even if on their way to the bridge.

Photographs by  Jonathan Short/Associated Press and Noah Berger/Associated Press.

 1 Comment

The New Normal

Perhaps one of the most famous photographs to come out of World War II—or any war—is the image of a nurse and sailor kissing in New York’s Times Square.  The “Times Square Kiss” is notable for many reasons and not least for the way in which it models the egalitarianism of the war effort (both sailor and nurse are in uniform), as well as for way in which it channels the public celebration of the end of the war (it was VJ day) through the spontaneous, heterosexual kiss of two anonymous individuals as they return to the “normalcy” of public life.  If war marks the enforced separation of the sexes and uniformed repression of the yearnings of private life, the subordination of Eros to Thanatos, the “Times Square Kiss” signifies the release of long suppressed passions.

Photographs of returning sailors, soldiers, and marines kissing their loved ones upon return from overseas duty have become a photojournalistic convention and it is difficult to look at the many such images and not see their tribute to the image of the sailor and nurse in Times Square.  Most such photos are full-bodied shots; the image above, however, taken recently in Washington, D.C. at the return of the 4th Civil Affairs Group, 2nd Marine Division from a 7 month deployment in Afghanistan, focuses only on a pair of feet, and in that fact the photograph seems to tell something of a different story.

There is no way to know for sure that they are kissing, of course, but the fact that her right foot rises above the floor and her weight seems to be firmly on her left foot suggests that she is leaning up and into a taller lover as if in an embrace.  The contrast between heels and combat boots implies that this is a heterosexual kiss, just as with the original “Times Square Kiss,’ but nevertheless ambiguity reigns as even female Marines would surely wear combat boots.  And more, photographs of public homosexual kisses between returning veterans and their loved ones is no longer a taboo (see here and here).  If nothing else, then, the photograph gestures to the possibility of shifting mores within the public culture, or at the least to the uncertainty of otherwise longstanding stereotypes of cultural normalcy.

The primary difference between this photograph and the “Times Square Kiss,” and here there is no ambiguity, is the privacy of the scene being represented.  And that privacy is marked in multiple ways.  To begin, and most obviously, there is nothing in the image that would indicate that this is a public space.  The flooring appears to be some kind of tile designed to look like marble, but it also has an indistinct, institutional quality about it that suggests that this could be just about anywhere—and nowhere in particular.  More to the point, there is no indication of a viewing or witnessing public of any kind.  The caption to the photograph notes that 35 Marines from this unit returned on this day, but of course there is no evidence of them whatsoever in the image.  In all likelihood they too are engaged in kisses and embraces with loved ones, but if this photograph is to be an index of the event they too are in all likelihood involved in personal, individuated celebrations.  The point is accentuated by the contrast between the combat boots and the high heels, both showing the scuff marks of normal, everyday wear that mitigates the distinction between military and civilian life.  While the anonymity of the full-bodied kissers in the original photograph underscored their status as individuals standing in for the public at-large, here the solitary focus on their shoes identifies them as private individuals representing only themselves in a closed and private universe.  Nor perhaps should this surprise us all that much.  After all, the war in Afghanistan is the longest war in the nation’s history, and given that there is neither public consensus as to what our mission there is nor clarity regarding when it will actually end—promised schedules notwithstanding—it should come as no surprise that there is no public witnessing or celebration of such returns.

The original “Times Square Kiss” was often captioned “The Return to Normalcy” and here we might be witnessing something like the “The New Normalcy.”  Whether we want to read that as a salutary world of changing mores concerning gender relations or as an increasingly frail, privatized world in which the public exercises no voice at all in such matters is a matter of what we choose to see.

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Brittany E. Jones/USMC


The Shame of Survival

The VA reports that 18 veterans commit suicide every day.  And last week the U.S. Army reported that the suicide rate among active duty soldiers has risen from 9.6 per 100,000 in 2005 to 24.1 per 100,000 in 2011. The number of attempted suicides is astronomically higher still and all out of proportion with the suicide rate among the civilian population.  Reports of all of this leak out from time to time, of course, but the tendency is to make the problem abstract by focusing on the aggregate and not so much on the individuals.  The numbers underscore the sheer magnitude of the problem, but at the same time they make it almost impossible to imagine the individual trauma … or perhaps the better word here would be “envision.”  And because the real effects of the problem are harder to see in the abstract, they are also easier to be blind to.  We are not inclined to quote totalitarians in the affirmative here at NCN, but Josef Stalin’s characterization of such situations is much to the point, “[o]ne death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.”  The situation is thus really something of a catastrophe: a problem that we don’t appear to know how to solve (assuming we exclude the obvious and refuse to eliminate the root cause, which is sending our young men and women to fight  such wars in the first place) and yet one that is so large and so present that the logic of its representation encourages us to acknowledge and ignore it simultaneously.

A large part of the difficulty is that it is virtually impossible to get photographs of actual suicides and one would surely have to challenge the ethics of taking such photographs if one could do so. And yet it is not sufficient to turn a blind eye to the situation.  A slideshow at the Denver Post titled “Welcome Home” is much to the point in this regard as it invites us to see into the life and mind of at least one contemporary war veteran and his struggles with readjusting to the civilian world.  Part of the story conveyed by the slideshow is the all too conventional tale  that the veteran’s return home is experienced as altogether lonely and alienating, and in any case anything but welcoming.  That narrative is no less true for being conventional, but the photograph above signals a second, more poignant and even more troubling story as well. Tattooed with what appears to be the face of death—a marking which it will turn out is probably not incidental—the wrist belongs to Brian Scott Ostrom, an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp’s Second Reconnaissance Battalion who served two tours of duty in Iraq.  Ostrom did not commit suicide, but as the fresh stitches that mark his wrist indicate, he made a serious attempt at doing so.  In fact, it was his second such attempt.  The question, of course, is why?

Like so many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ostrom suffers from PTSD, a psychological disorder that manifests itself in panic attacks and fits of rage that often lead to physical violence.  Frequently that violence is directed outwards at other people or physical objects, but just as often it is directed inward at an intractable guilt that simply never goes away—and, of course, that cannot be seen. Part of that guilt is a result of having voluntarily participated in a troglodyte world in which all empathy for the other is evacuated, a world in which there is no difference between doing’s one’s job and behaving in the most brutal ways imaginable … and yet, in Ostrom’s own words, not feeling bad for “anything I did over there,” but “for what I didn’t do.”

The words are as cryptic as is the face of death on Ostrom’s wrist.  But both take on an eerie and troubling significance when we recall something he said earlier in his narrative, reflecting on his PTSD, “I think it comes from the fact that I survived.  That wasn’t my plan.  It’s an honor to die for your country, but I made it home.”  And then this, “Every one of us has a suicide plan.  We all know how to kill, and we all have a plan to kill ourselves.”  What he didn’t do was to die for his country.  The words are as hard to hear as the photograph above is to look at.

But look at it we must, for in its own way it illustrates the problem faced by our returning war veterans writ large—a point emphasized by the fact that the hand itself is disembodied; it could belong to Ostrom (as it does) but it could belong to any of the thousands of returning veterans (or for that matter to those who might be inducted to fight in future wars):  Bred to kill and marked by death, our warriors are assimilated into a topsy-turvy world in which survival is a sign of failure, and doing one’s job well results in dishonor.  And there does not seem to be any way out except for one.   Perhaps the only wonder is that the suicide rate amongst our veterans is as low as it is.

Photo Credit: Craig F Walker/Denver Post.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Gesturing Towards the Costs of War

We have discussed the costs of war on many occasions.  And as we have noted, such costs cannot easily be calculated as they are variously and incommensurately measured in dollars and cents, lives interrupted and lost, the disruption of social and civic norms, and so on. Photography, with its capacity to enact a realist aesthetic—the so-called “window on the world”—offers a powerful optic for how to see these costs in bodily terms, and occasionally in ways that challenge our normative assumptions about where the bottom line might reside.  The photograph above is a case in point.

The liberal assumption is that we identify individuals by their faces—or maybe by their clothing.  But here the camera focuses on the hand to the exclusion of any other bodily identifications.  In fact, what we see are two hands grasping one another. Gender is effaced, but so too nationality, or for that matter, any obvious political, or ideological differences.  But more to the point, is that there do not appear to be any clear signs of pain and injury—but somehow we know that both are present.  Ultimately, it is the caption that clues us to the particularities of the scene as it indicates that one hand belongs to  U.S. soldier who how has suffered the effects of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province, while the other belongs to a U.S. flight medic giving comfort and aid. But in a larger sense it is the grasping embrace itself—tight but also tender—that makes the point; perhaps it is something on the order of a universal sign of support and connection, of contact at a moment of crisis or distress, that underscores the  fundamental humanity that is at stake.  The hands touch one another and in the process they touch us.

The hand, of course, with its opposable thumb, is uniquely human. As such, photographs that feature only the hand become synecdoches for the human experience and by extension models of human polity.  Indeed, the gestural iconography in which hands are employed to communicate the sentiments of public life is far ranging and complex, but at its heart is a collective rather than idiosyncratic or personal experience. The reaction of one person to an event might be a human-interest story, and the deeply personal experiences of private life can achieve profound resonance in literature or other arts, but photojournalism typically depicts experiences that are created by common conditions.  A photograph that focuses solely on the hand can intensify and amplify those conditions.  What matters in the photograph above, then, is that care is being enacted at a moment of distress.  It matters little that we know the individual identity of the people involved.  The photograph communicates the experience of caring and connection, and so offers the realm of collective experience as a model for human engagement.

But there is more, for when such a photograph is placed in comparison with other “similar” photographs, as in a slide show on the Casualties of War, the “gesture” operates in multiple registers that serve not only as models of behavior, but also invite social and political judgments.  So then, we find this photograph:

Once again all measures of identity are effaced and one would not know that this was a young Afghan girl suffering from a shrapnel wound but for the caption.  Nor in one sense, at least, does it really matter, for now the context has changed, and not just because the gesture within the image itself seems a bit more clinical, but because together the two photographs (and others in the same slide show) serve as a gesture to the real cost of war—this war or any war—as fundamentally human.  When faces and uniforms are foregrounded it is hard to lose sight of the fundamental humanity at stake; when focusing on hands alone it is clear that the photograph itself is not simply a window on the world, but indeed is a mechanism for gesturing to aspects of the world that are otherwise difficult to see.

Photo Credit:  Johannes Eisele, AFP/Getty Images


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


Visual Ambiguity and Human Rights

It’s not the royal wedding or Obama’s birth certificate, but the recent disclosure of The Guantanamo Files obtained by the New York Times is important news nonetheless.  In a better world, the release of classified documents detailing the detentions in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay would not have to compete for attention with fluff and idiocy, but we don’t live in that world.  For a mainline journalist, this distortion of values might seem both demeaning and surreal.  Perhaps that sense of things helped put this photograph front page above the fold as the leading image for the story.

It certainly caught my eye, and also was strangely disturbing.  Perhaps it suggests that the experience of being detained in the prison is both demeaning and surreal.  It’s easy to imagine such disorientation in any prison and certainly for prisoners moved there from half a world away.  But I don’t think that is what still bothers me about the photo.

This blog periodically features photographs that are cropped to feature only hands or feet.  John and I believe that this is a generally unnoticed and increasingly prevalent technique in contemporary photojournalism.  We have discussed its use across a range of topics–war, protests, leadership, etc.  We have suggested how it has been used productively to focus attention, evoke empathy, provoke critical thought, and otherwise do the work that photojournalism should do.  We even have suggested an explanation in terms of an “elocutionary function” that visual imagery can bring to print discourse.  And generally we have not been critical of the technique.  But now I’m not so sure about that.

A standard criticism of photojournalism is that it fragments representation–the image is a discrete slice of reality without obvious narration or argument to maintain a larger conception of the whole.  That fragmentation then allows inventive recombination, as Photoshop has made all too obvious; Susan Sontag went to far as to accuse photography of fostering a pervasive surrealism.  Sontag perfected the art of being simultaneously right and wrong, and the claim about surrealism is no exception, but she might be helpful in understanding the use of this particular image.

The problem is not the image itself but its relation to context: specifically, the Times coverage of the incarceration practices at the prison, which have for the most part been violations of law and decency.  Had the Times, when breaking the story, been paying as much attention to the hundreds of mistaken detentions as to the few prisoners who very likely are dangerous enemies of the US, then the photograph would be suitably representative: The image suggests someone could be a security risk, but who also could be an ordinary person wearing flip-flops.  The one foot idly pulled out of the sandal suggests someone who is both habituated and bored, killing time in his pajamas while having been there long enough for anyone to have built a case against him if there is a case to be made.  And shackles and chains exemplify the excessive security measures that are the essence of the whole sorry Guantanamo story.  Maximum security for an anonymous prisoner who may well not deserve detention–that seems about right, right?

But that wasn’t the context, and the photograph also can reflect precisely the biases, paranoia, and dehumanization that is also at the core of Guantanamo’s role in the war on terror.  The photograph cuts the man off well below the knees–he is incapacitated by the photo as well as the chains.  More to the point, he is not visible as a full person.  Were we to see even his face and upper body, it would be much, much easier to see him as an individual–that is, as a specific person with a history, culture, family, friends, occupation, aspirations, and so forth.  We could readily assume that he might have many possible reasons for being in the world, rather than simply being a terrorist.  Most important, we could see him as a person having human rights.  Instead, we see only his shackled feet, as if he were inherently dangerous and likely to escape at any moment. Worse yet, the shadow under the table darkens his skin. What more do you need to know?

Of course, the photograph is a fragment that doesn’t have a fixed meaning.  The fault, if there is one, lies not in the image but in its use.  In this case, however, I find the ambiguity troubling.  The good news is that the Times coverage has become more balanced over the past few days, as you can see at the link above, and so the photograph (which still is the leading image for the story) need not be damning.  The fact remains, however, that the Guantanamo Bay prison has been part of a larger erosion of the rule of law, a displacement of due process by routinized security procedures that may be relatively humane but stand too close to and, via practices such as rendition, often in collusion with authoritarian regimes.  It then becomes all the more important to hold the line wherever one can, including in conventions of reportage.  It may not be possible to see the whole process of justice, but it certainly is possible to become complicit with moral blindness.

Photograph by Brennan Linsley/Associated Press.


A Sporting Memory of 9/11

By guest corespondent Michael Butterworth:

Baseball Shoe 911.2010-09-16 at 4.10.20 PM

At first glance, this photograph may appear well-suited to NCN’s category “boots and hands.” But the cleats of Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano are not the real story here, or at least not primarily so.  While the foot commands our attention, the real focus is on how it directs the viewer’s gaze to the legend printed on the base: “We Shall Not Forget.”

Even the most casual observer of sports has likely noticed how commonplace such memorials have become.  The sentiment should be simple enough: 9/11 was an event of such magnitude and consequence that it is incumbent upon us to remember the things which bind us together as a nation.  And since such “binding” seems to be one of the socio-cultural functions of national sporting events, it is little surprise that  they have become the perfect vehicle for circulating such memories.

While such declarations make it clear that we should not forget, what is left unstated is exactly what we are to remember.  Note, for example, that we are not being asked to remember the actual events of 9/11 itself.  Indeed, memorials like those found in this photograph are only partially about the past; as memorializing is more often a reflection of a community’s needs in the present.  And the  present here, of course, is defined by the so-called “war on terror,” a military campaign that is now only minimally about 9/11 itself.  With this in mind, we can view “We Shall Not Forget” as it overlaps with the numerous visions of militarism that have become woven into the fabric of sports—from red, white, and blue emblazoned ball caps, to military flyovers, to museum exhibitions—and conclude that sports in the United States continue to contribute to the normalization of a problematic war.

The tragedy in this is that the photograph reminds us that it needn’t have turned out this way.  Behind Soriano’s carefully balanced cleats is the blurry image of the Miller Park outfield grass.  Baseball mythology is grounded in, among other things, the idea that the ballpark represents a pastoral sanctuary—a metaphor of the countryside that offers comfort, security, and community.  Although that mythology can be flawed, 9/11 precipitated a rare moment when the “national pastime” really did invite all Americans to participate in an imagined community, one based on genuine human needs laid bare in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

All too quickly, those initial ceremonies—of mourning, of healing, of hope—that took place in baseball stadiums in September and October of 2001, gave way to belligerent expressions of hot patriotism and militaristic vengeance.  This photograph reminds us that in the days, months, and years after 9/11 there was a more humane and less violent path available to us.  Now, just like the outfield grass in this photo, that path seems blurry and somehow out of reach.  How easily we have forgotten, after all.

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Phelps/AP Photo

Michael Butterworth is an assistant professor of communication in the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University and host of The Agon, a blog on rhetoric, sport, and political culture.  Michael is also the author of the recently published Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity During the War on Terror (University of Alabama Press, 2010).  He can be contacted at mbutter@bgsu.edu.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Disposable Lives

One of the little noted features of modern life is how safe many people are much of the time.  For all of the warnings about being out too late or going into the wrong side of town, most of us take for granted that we can be out and about on our own most of the time, that we don’t need to carry weapons, that the night will be well lighted, that it is more important to watch out for traffic than for enemies, and that stray bullets are not a problem.  There have been many times and places in human history where one could not feel so safe so much of the time.  Today, however, many people can afford to have other worries.  But not everyone.

In some parts of the world today, violence is a terrible, chronic condition of everyday life.  Eastern Congo continues to be the rape capital of the world, while terror bombings and gang killings are ubiquitous in far too many locales.  Venezuela has a higher murder rate than Iraq.  The Mexican drug wars are getting worse.  In the US, homicide is the leading cause of death for young black men.  And most of this carnage seems to be no part of ordinary life elsewhere.  Even when violence does erupt, it quickly disappears again, leaving barely a trace.

rubber glove on NY street

This photograph from New York City provides strange testimony to both the presence and the elusiveness of violence.  The blue rubber glove is all that the medical and forensic teams have left behind in the aftermath of a shooting at East 132 Street in Manhattan.  (If you look carefully, you can see the yellow crime scene tape on the ground behind the police car, soon to be taken up but for the moment almost as natural and well ordered as the yellow lane divider that it crosses to make a square framing the lone glove.)  That glove will have been pulled on by practiced hands and then discarded as the body was wrapped up and sent on its way to hospital or morgue, the evidence bagged up, the questions asked and reports filed.  Experienced professionals will have followed well-honed procedures, and in little time the scene will have been returned to normal.

Or what passes for normal.  One reason the image is disquieting is that the blue plastic is so artificial and out of place, and yet as one imagines it being picked up (and I think that is implicit in the viewpoint), the street is not improved so much as made disturbingly empty.  One then can imagine that you are seeing the street as it would look to someone laying on the ground, say, while bleeding to death from a gunshot wound.  At a distance on each side there are trees, nice cars, decent apartments, signs of the good life in a well-ordered city, but up close only the hard concrete leading past the cop car to an empty sky.  And once that glove is picked up, there will no longer be any trace of all that was lost there.

The glove can be discarded, forgotten, and then thrown in the trash because it is disposable.  Cheap (or not so cheap) plastic gloves are a sanitary precaution, of course, and disposables are just the thing for keeping first responders properly equipped during a busy night.  The glove’s brief double duty as a witness to violence will not have been part of the plan, and it is all the more revealing for that.  This small object is one example of the normalization of violence–of how a society manages violence and restores a semblance of order (and a large measure of amnesia) rather than confronting what has become a chronic social problem.

This is not to fault the first responders or to pretend that the police aren’t dedicated to and effective at preventing violence.  Indeed, violent crime has in fact decreased overall in many cities over the past decades, albeit while becoming horribly concentrated in some neighborhoods and correlating highly with economic decline.  At the end of the day, however, one can’t help but think that more than the glove has become disposable.  Too many lives are being thrown away, too many neighborhoods abandoned, and, perhaps most important, a sense of shared obligation across all of the city and all of the globe, rich and poor, safe and unsafe, has been lost.

Photograph by Angel Franco/New York Times.