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Sight Gag: “… led by an invisible hand”

 Credit: Jeff Danziger

“The rich … are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants; and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.”  — Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759, Part IV, Chap.1, p. 264.

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.


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


How The Other Half Lives – 2011

In 1890 the immigrant social reformer Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, a searing photo-textual expose of the appalling and inhumane living conditions of the 300,000+ residents packed into a square mile of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  The Lower East Side (LES) consists of a number of neighborhoods, including Chinatown, Little Italy, the East Village, and most notoriously, New York’s version of skid row, the Bowery.  And as is the case with many impoverished inner cities neighborhoods, the LES has undergone significant gentrification in recent years.  So it is that the NYT recently reported on the renovation of The Prince Hotel, a nearly century-old flophouse located in the Bowery that continues to offer rooms—actually “cramped cubicles topped with chicken wire” —for $10 a night to a few men who continue to need a place to live and can actually afford the rent, but which also has converted several “upper” floors into a “stylish,” and “refined version of the gritty experience” for $62-$129 a night that includes “custom-made mattresses and high-end sheets.  Their bathrooms have marble sinks and heated floors.  Their towels are Ralph Lauren.”

There is something tawdry about the whole endeavor, to be sure.  The real estate developers who came up with the idea of promoting a “flophouse aesthetic” believe that it embodies a “living history vibe” that is as much a museum experience as it is a hotel for “stylish young men and women.”  Indeed, the NYT reports that the down-on-their luck individuals who live in the dilapidated cubicles on the lower floors are “an asset to the property,” apparently because they give some authenticity to the experience of “slumming”—a word, alas, which has returned to something like its original usage.  We could go on at some length to criticize the industry of slum tourism which, at least until now, has been more prominent in developing nations like India, Brazil, and Indonesia than the U.S., but there is really a different and more important point worth making.

The two photographs above, which show one of the “nicer,” lower-level squalid rooms on the left and one of the upper-level, renovated versions of the “gritty experience” on the right invite us to see the direction of America’s economic future.  Those who live in the room on the left have barely enough to get by (click here for a larger view). The room is dimly lit, and while neat and orderly, it is stuffed full with all of this person’s worldly goods. This is not the room of a destitute street person, after all, for they do have a television and other electronic equipment, including a jury-rigged ceiling fan, and they have enough money to pay the rent which implies some very minimal resources; but it is equally clear that their piece of the American Dream has eluded them.  And a look at their bathroom facilities makes the point all the more.  Those who live in the room on the right (here) seem to have arrived.  They not only survive, but enjoy the luxuries of an aristocratic class, with designer towels and sheets, and black bathrobes (that apparently bear The Bowery House monogram: TBH).  Their bathroom stands in marked contrast to those living on the floors below.  The developer describes the clientele for rooms like this as “people who might choose a cheap cubicle  for their city accommodations, yet go out for a $300-a-bottle table service.”

What we are given to see in these two images when put side by side (and by the hotel-museum aesthetic more generally) is a glimpse at a possible—and all too likely—economic future, a world divided between the haves and the have nots with little room in between.  In short, we see a world in which the middle class itself has been erased.  There are many reasons why this spells tragedy for our future—and somewhat ironically, not least the inability for a capitalist economy to sustain itself— but surely at the top of the list is the simple fact that  a society defined by such stark and radical economic inequality will never be able to sustain a vibrant democratic political culture.

Photo Credit: James Estrin/New York Times.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Rebuilding America: Will It Happen Here?

Commemoration Sunday is over, and America has resolved once again to never forget the terror attack of 9/11/01.  That terrible day should not be forgotten, but concerned citizens might ask whether 9/11 has much to do with the problems defining the US today.

Al Qaeda didn’t destroy this Fisher Body plant in Detroit, Michigan. Didn’t have to. Nor, as the comic Andy Borowitz has astutely pointed out, have foreign terrorists threatened to dismantle “some of the most essential functions of the US government, from Social Security to the Federal Reserve.”  You had to go to the recent Republican Party Presidential Debate at the Reagan Library to hear that.

To steal a phrase from Barbie Zelizer,  9/11 commemorations may be another example of “remembering to forget“: It is easy to remember the planes hitting the Twin Towers, but difficult to face the massive cost of 9/11–according to Sunday’s New York Times, $3.3 trillion and counting, with the greatest portion by far the result of an ill-advised and fraudulently justified rush to war.  And while that national treasure was being squandered, jobs were being lost by the thousands every month: 2.3 million between 2001 and 2007, and the hemorrhage hasn’t stopped since then.

This is how the US should look: a gleaming city. It need not even be a “city on a hill,” just a city that shows the signs of strong investment guided by government policies representing a dedicated and intelligent effort to lift the nation to new heights.  Unfortunately, the photograph is not from Milwaukee or Buffalo or New Orleans or Portland or any other American city.  Welcome to the Jinzhou New Area on the northern side of Dalian, China.  It’s what you can do if your national economic policy is dedicated to creating jobs, and if you aren’t spending a trillion dollars on an unnecessary war in Iraq, and if you are not held hostage to economic policies that now have a proven track record at benefiting only the wealthy at the expense of the middle and working classes.

Is the comparison unfairly selective?  Sure, and one could show pictures of poverty in China and gleaming office towers in the US.  But consider this: Detroit has been in trouble for a long time–the first Chrysler bailout was in 1979–while everything you see in the second photograph has been built since the establishment of the Dalian Economic and Technological Development Zone in September 1984.  Detroit is still waiting for its “market solution,” while Dalian exemplifies what capitalism can do when it is made to serve the national interest.

The US economy is experiencing serious structural problems due to government policies at home and abroad.  Terrorism has nothing to do with it, save as a distraction and an invitation to mismanagement of national resources.  For the record, American democracy isn’t broken beyond repair. It is is serious trouble, however, and not least because the Republican party is prepared to reduce the nation to Third World status in order to win elections.  And as Mike Lofgren has trenchantly argued, don’t think they don’t have the political will or the policies to do it.

Along with the memory of 9/11, it is imperative that Americans recall just how much has been lost in the last ten years.  And why.

Photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre/The Ruins of Detroit and Jim Ford/Evanston.

Cross-posted at BAGnewNotes.



“… Trust the Invisible Hand”

Perhaps you saw the Sunday Doonesbury cartoon yesterday.  After one character points out, with some exasperation, that the top 400 richest families hold as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the population, the other character notes, “[I]f each group has the same amount, what exactly is the problem?  Sounds totally fair to me !”  When the first interlocutor begins to question this foxy logic, the second cuts him off, “It’s all good … Trust the invisible hand.”

The numbers here are astonishing, to say the least.  And they don’t get any better when we recognize that between 2008 and 2010, as working Americans on average lost 25% of their 401K accounts to the recent recession, the richest 400 Americans increased their wealth by $30 billion. At no time in our nation’s history has the inequality of wealth been higher.  Not even close.  And so one has to wonder how the invisible hand actually works.

The photograph above, which appeared online in the WSJ, is captioned “Off the Hook” and it offers one possible account.  It is important to note that we don’t see very many photographs in the mainstream media that call attention to the palpable disparity between rich and poor as indicated by the numbers above.  Yes, we see photographs of people standing online at job fairs desperately seeking employment, and we see photographs of factories and home foreclosure signs, and even the occasional tent city, but such images all imply that everyone is sharing in the recession with some degree of equity.  What we don’t see are the machinations of the invisible hand.  And what especially we don’t see is how the market makes the numbers above possible, not just as mathematical abstractions, but as a moral reality that somehow legitimates such inequities as in any way fair or socially desirable.  Instead we are encouraged to have faith in an idol that we cannot see.

And so back to the picture.  With no hand in sight, the phone is “off the hook.”  Does this mean that the hand of the market has abandoned any and all logic?  Incapable of communicating any sense of moral or economic direction?  Or does it mean that the market abjures all responsibility for how it has been interpreted and used, literally taking itself “off the hook.”  There is no way to know, of course, but then that’s the point.  For as with any idol, the invisibility of its logic is its most potent attribute making it impossible to challenge. But not to worry. After all, “It’s all good ….”

Photo Credit:  Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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The Real Urban Problem: Graffiti

I didn’t start out looking for graffiti.  I had bigger fish to fry: the bad economy getting worse, and outright catastrophe looming as the GOP prepares to wreck the county rather than anger Grover Norquist.  I can’t just write about national problems, however: there has to be a photograph.  Whether seen as documentary record or public artwork, the image provides writer and reader alike with a basis for thinking about things held in common.  But look around, from the print editions to the slide shows, and you would hardly know that the economy exists, much less that people might be out of work, underemployed, working harder for less, or otherwise worried about the future.  And maybe that’s why the New York Times decided to write about an upsurge in graffiti.

Yes, it’s true: graffiti is on the rise.  This image from LA captures the mood of the article: an empty, urban wasteland degraded further by anonymous vandalism, while all we should be seeing are blue skies.  Now the Times can write about whatever they want, but this story is worrisome for a number of reasons.  One is that it is frivolous, and the times are not.  Would that the paper of record had instead zeroed in on why kids all over the country are more than usually keen on tagging property.

Another problem is that the story repeats a very tired meme that the Times has been pushing for decades, which is that graffiti always is a sign of urban decay; this despite its development as a vernacular art that can just as easily improve a community as harm it.  Imagine if both porn and ballet were labeled “soft-core,” or if all risk taking from the casinos to Wall street were labeled “gambling.”  In each case the label would be true, but something would be lost in translation.  Graffiti can be a serious blight, but the examples in the Times own slide show indicate that there is more to the story.

My biggest gripe is with the way that the story attempts to present a balanced account.  In what may appear to be sophisticated coverage, the Times reports that “The upturn has prompted concern among city officials and renewed a debate about whether glorifying such displays–be it in museum exhibits, tattoos, or television advertisements–contributes to urban blight and economic decay.”  And there, in a stroke, we have it: The Times channeling Fox News.  The leading explanation faults culture, not economics or politics, and suggests that a culture war is underway and the rightful center of public debate, and that the real danger comes from curators and other liberals who promote transgression in the arts and refuse to stand up to media corruption–no doubt because they are relativists rather than values voters.

Of course, in the next line the Times provides the far more plausible explanation: “But it is also stirring a debate about what is causing this recent surge and whether it might be an early indicator that anxiety and alienation are growing in some struggling urban areas in the face of stubborn unemployment and the lingering effects of the recession.”  Oh, ya think?  In fact, even the best uses of graffiti are likely to be on the rise for the same reason, as neighborhoods pull together around the arts when nothing more substantial is forthcoming from their leaders.

The pairing of two explanations–one where culture harms the economy, and the other where the economy affects culture–is not journalistic objectivity; no, it’s a false equivalence, and one that encourages the reader to believe that state should be treating symptoms rather than causes.   The Times is schooling its readers in the same habits of delusion and denial that are at the core of the national decline.  One can easily imagine the likely response: more cops, not more jobs and summer programs.  More gated communities instead of more public investment.  More starving of the cities by state legislatures, rather than raising taxes to nurture economic development.

And the truth gets left in the gutter.  Graffiti can be a sign of decay, and cities large and small, like the suburbs and rural areas around them, are struggling with very serious problems.  Most of those problems have been created by men in suits, however, not by artists in tennis shoes.  Until the voters in this nation (and others) face that fact, there isn’t much one can do–except, perhaps, take a moment when no one is looking to make the best of a bad situation.

Photographs by Eric Thayer for the New York Times.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


The Invisible American Family

By guest correspondent Rachel Rigdon

Despite the Great Recession and the escalating rates of both poverty and economic inequality within the United States, finding images of poor Americans within the news often feels like a process of excavation. There is a curious deficit of photographs of the 44 million Americans living in poverty, and in lieu of using photographs, many articles on welfare or economic inequality feature graphs and charts. One result in a dominant framing of poverty as a purely economic category rather than as a condition of life.

One of the few photos that I have found accompanying an article about poverty is this image from Time Magazine’s blog. Taken at a soup kitchen in Detroit, the focus is primarily on the family sitting at the table in the bottom right of the frame. The background subjects are blurred, creating a sense of a rushed, noisy environment surrounding the family, and yet the large open space of the maroon table offers a small sense of calm. But the photograph also is off-center, tilted, and unfocused, and thus it captures the incongruity of the private, domestic ritual of a family dinner occurring in a public setting. By positioning the viewer slightly above the edge of the table as if about to take a seat, we are invited to imagine poverty as the backdrop of an otherwise normal life.

In response to the limited numbers of photographs of U.S. poverty within the media, a group of photojournalists joined together to create as a shared space to publicly document the lives of the poor. The website automatically opens with a short slideshow of photographs accompanied by dramatic music and text. Opening with the phrase: “For decades American poverty has been invisible,” it then quickly cycles through several images, mostly of children and families, before pausing on an image of a young, white girl in front of a trailer house. Here text emerges, saying, “It’s not invisible anymore.” The photojournalists’ goal is that by rendering visible what has been invisible, viewers of the photographs will demand social change.

This appeal to potential advocates is present in the choice of photographs for use in the slideshow. All of the photos are of sympathetic subjects such as children and families. Many of the images feature the subject, usually a child, looking directly at the camera as if asking the viewer to see them. These subjects demand a response from the viewer—by virtue of both their embodiment of the large-scale realities of poverty and economic inequality and their identity as equal citizens living unequally.

One of the more engaging photographs within the video is this one of several children playing in New York. The primary focus of the photograph is the reflection of the boy in the middle. His face is serious, his eyes intently focused on the reflective surface before him. This use of the mirror mimics the active work of photography by providing an image of a moment that seems to be of reality, while also announcing the existence of the apparatus that can only provide a partial and fractured glance at its subject.  The camera’s position is aligned with the boy’s, making what we see within the photograph representative of his viewpoint. The photograph reveals a moment of American life, and our own understanding of it, to be as fractured and incomplete as the boy’s reflection.

In contrast to the boy’s resistant gaze, the girl who holds the mirror is downcast. In the literal sense, she is showing us (the boy, the photographer?) something: a piece of broken mirror. She is also revealing the sad resolve of the boy’s reflection, the proof of poverty’s withering effect on the soul, and the loss of a happier childhood being modeled by the three children playing behind her. The children in the background are playing with bubbles next to a tall, metal fence. The combination of the fragility of the small children and the bubbles with the harshness of the broken mirror and the prison-like connotation of the gate results in a sense of unease. The happier moment playing out in the background seems destined to disappear as the harsher realities of life reveal themselves in ever sharper relief.

Both of these images point to the ways in which poverty transforms the daily activities of life into moments that are both familiar and foreign. They produce a sense of dissonance through the combination of familiar practices with the realities of need. The ritual family dinner becomes displaced by the family trip to the food kitchen; playtime involves bubbles and broken pieces of an automotive mirror. These photographs not only attempt to render visible what is invisible; they also try to render legible the normalcy of poverty. By illustrating scenes of daily, familial life, viewers are encouraged to both identify with their familiarity and be horrified by the inequality they unveil.

Unlike the graphs and diagrams that so often stand in for the visual experience of American poverty, these photographs draw upon powerful values about family life, the protection of children, and our shared sense of horror at their violation. They also challenge the ideology of American exceptionalism and the promise of liberal democracy to provide a high quality of life to all of its citizens. And perhaps this is the real reason that these images and these people remain invisible—they are American yet they trouble our sense of just what that means.

Photographs by Spencer Platt/Getty Images and Brenda Ann Kenneally.

Rachel Rigdon is a graduate student in the program in Rhetoric and Public Culture, Department of Communication Studies, Northwestern University. She can be contacted at


The Human Form: How Much for that Image in the Window?

Photography’s subjects include the other visual arts along with their institutions such as museums, theaters, galleries, shows, festivals, and auctions, and their modes of spectatorship such as gallery tours or 3-D movie audiences.  So it is that occasionally the daily slide shows include images such as this one.

A woman is walking past an artwork at the 2011 Armory show in New York.  It is significant that she is shown in silhouette, that the photograph’s caption didn’t include the name of the artwork or artist, and that both spectator and artwork are framed in black.  Art and spectator are unified by a shared darkness, which also places them in a figure-ground relationship.  She is tied to the artwork even though not looking at it (she is walking by as if it weren’t even there to be seen), and it becomes the vehicle for revealing her presence (as if it had been designed for that purpose).  Neither inference is true, yet that is irrelevant to the photograph’s artistic effect as it is viewed by another, unseen spectator: you.

Way back in the twentieth century, it was easy to speak of the human person ensnared in structures of alienation, and to believe that the art could expose that alienation.  One could read this image in that way, but, well, the colored panels are just too bright, and the human form is not so much trapped as simply passing by.  By featuring both the jawline and the tightly bound ponytail, the silhouette has a decidedly anthropological cast.  She seems to be almost primitively human, as if part of one of those 19th (and 20th) century “ascent of man” pictures that were a centerpiece of evolutionary anthropology during its racist and sexist heyday.  But isn’t she going in the wrong direction?  Yes, and that is one reason we can assume that the old hierarchies no longer apply.  But what is going on?

The answer lies in the artwork behind her.  She is carrying her culture with her while passing through the historical corridor of modern art, while the art seems both more vibrant and the more enduring structure.  Its form imitates the bar code or other modes of systematic information display as they are designed for machine processing.  She is not so much alienated by that information as simply different from it; not so much alienated from the rectilinear code as the life form that is symbiotically related to it.  She is a human being while it is a human design, yet she is relatively primitive as it no longer needs her input while being more directly transferable across the  domain of information systems.  (Consider which one is easier to reproduce.)   As one of its tertiary functions, however, it provides the lighted background so that she can remain visible.

And remaining visible may be a gift worth having.  This image from the Shenyang stock market was taken far away from the Armory show, yet it uses a similar artistic repertoire.  The human figure is caught, albeit only in silhouette, as it is passing across a lighted data array.  The gauzy screen that is partially visible provides a nice artistic touch, suggesting a medium in both the technological and spiritual senses of the term.  Again, however, the mood can’t be fraught with angst: true, this time the colored columns are somewhat intimidating, as if in a dream that is going bad  (the blurry numbers tower above him while an alarming red band cuts across the screen at waist level), nonetheless, he is a happy fellow, smiling brightly as it hurries along.  As he is going in the same direction as the woman above, we might wonder what is there, off in the back lot of the march of progress?

More to the point, however, we might ask what value there is in highlighting the human form in a very modern world.  Both the stock exchange and the Armory show are marketplaces, and the human figure thus acquires not only aesthetic but also economic significance.  Photojournalism, which seems resolutely dedicated to realistic documentation of people and places, also can provide a different artistic platform for thinking about larger questions of how humans can inhabit the markets and other impersonal information systems that constitute modern life.

Artworks in their own right, photographs such as these can raise good questions about the human image, and, with that, about our place in a strange world of our own making.

Photographs by Timothy A. Clary/AFP-Getty Images and Tian Weitao/


Collective Bargaining and Catastrophe

The other night Jon Stewart derided facile analogies regarding the demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin.  Madison is NOT Cairo, he protested a tad too much.  Since I don’t work for Fox News, I’m not about to defend facile analogies, but I am going to make an admittedly risky comparison.

No, this is not Madison, either.  It is, or was, the Pyne Gould Corporation building in Christchurch, New Zealand.  The 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck the city on Tuesday has compressed the four-story building to one mangled pile of steel and concrete.   The seismic wave has passed, but the building now looks like a ship that has been wrecked by military attack, like a half-sunken vessel at Pearl Harbor.  The bridge, though still intact, leans dangerously as the rest of the structure has run aground, slammed into ruin when the earth was moving like the sea.

The scene now is calm, and one could almost see the building as a curiosity.  Rescue workers, officials, and the occasional victim or bystander are evident, but everyone is seems a bit idle, almost perplexed about what to do next.  In fact, a larger version of the shot reveals that people are competently problem solving as they sort out the casualties and consider what to do next.  Public servants and private citizens are quickly and effectively coordinating their efforts to limit harm.

So what does this have to do with Madison?  The clue is provided by the letters still visible amidst the wreckage: CORP OR and we can’t quite make out the rest, but we know what it said: corporation.  Pyne Gould is a business, a for-profit entity that will contract with workers for their labor in exchange for wages.  When you see the corporate building reduced to rubble and completely dependent on the state for rescue, it becomes a tad harder to see taxation as a grave burden.  Most important, however, here you can see the corporation as a collective entity: as a building that contained lots of employees, as an enterprise that provided products or services for lots of customers, and, by extension, as a business that did so on behalf of the many stockholders or other people who invested in or owned the business.

Why do I mention this perhaps obvious point?  Because I am getting very irritated by the continual stream of news reports and editorials that describe (and often decry) the “collective bargaining” done by the unions under siege in Wisconsin and a number of other states having Republican majorities.   Why should there even be collective bargaining, many ask, when other workers don’t have the option?  (This is like saying that no one should get medical treatment since I currently don’t need, want, or have it.)  Most significantly, it seems unfair for a collectivity to gang up on the corporation, which is seen as a single entity.  (In Madison, the corporation is the state government, but the appeal is the same: unfair to join forces against the single employer.)  Of course, the corporation is a single individual before the law–but so is the union, so that legal fiction provides no basis for defining only one side of the negotiation as collective.

Corporations are just what the name says: corporate, collective bodies,.  They, too, engage in collective bargaining,  but on behalf of the owners or shareholders, not the employees.  There is no great harm in that, by the way: bargaining between groups is the key to a successful democratic society.  What is harmful is an ideology that masks one set of economic interests while making a corresponding set of concerns a target for denigration.

Which is why images of catastrophe can provide a civic education.  When disaster strikes, the executive can be crushed just as easily as the janitor.  When the facade of tall buildings is torn away, the rubble can expose the extent to which modern societies are complexly interwoven and comprehensively vulnerable.  Individuals remain valuable–even individual commercial corporations, and even stiff-necked governors bent on using an economic disaster as cover for political warfare–but they thrive only because society is already a vast, interconnected field of much larger things: buildings, transportation systems, state governments, global corporations, and even unions.

When disaster strikes, we can learn how it is that all bargaining is collective bargaining.

Photographs by Reuters and Christchurch Press/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.