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Sep 12, 2010

London Rioting and the Descent into Feudalism

Riots happen more often than you might think around the globe, but when they happen in London the shocked response is always the same: how could that happen here?  This is the West, for Christ’s sake: civilization, democracy, and continual progress are supposed to be the order of the day.  Why would the people riot against representative government, and why destroy the businesses lifting up your own neighborhood?  The combination of a European locale and the seeming lack of reason have lead some to label the violence a peasants’ revolt.  The modern world is not supposed to contain peasants, and thus irrational behavior by the urban masses can be dismissed as a senseless throwback to more primitive impulses.

But what if the same analogy holds for the state?

These warriors could be time travelers from the past, transported in their armor, helmets, and shields to stand before Big Ben in some Gothic fantasy movie.  The photo has been sitting on my desktop for months–yes, that’s right, it is not from the most recent riots, and it, too, was taken in London.  I’ve kept the photo because it so perfectly captures a dark tendency that is spreading across the globe: what might be called a new feudalism.  In place of the egalitarian principles and shared prosperity of the twentieth-century social contract, we see a savage reassertion of economic power backed by ever greater investments in security forces.  And, whether accidentally or otherwise, those forces increasingly look like the private armies of the late medieval period.

And it’s not just London.  These knights are patrolling amidst the destruction last year in Vancouver.  Again, the one on the right could be riding out of the 14th century.  And we can still feel the effect that cavalry have when seen from ground level by relatively unarmed opponents.  As working people have been driven down in the economic order, they also have been driven down in the political process; taking to the streets becomes the only remaining option when the government has been captured by the same elites that are grabbing and hoarding the society’s wealth, common resources, and its future.

Riots always play to the worst elements in a society, but those are not their causes.  The late-medieval uprisings were the result of conditions that sound all too contemporary: expansion of the income gap between the rich and the rest, corrupt government serving elite greed, massive deficits caused by expensive wars, and environmental changes that degraded everyday life.  Yet it remains all too easy, even among those who recognize the underlying lesson of the analogy, to deny its full implication: the riots and the police response are merely matching symptoms of the same disease.  As the social order is transformed from a modern to a neo-feudal system, riots will become all the more common while money that could address the causes of the unrest will be poured instead into security.  Perhaps it should be no surprise that those security forces are looking more and more like something seen in a distant mirror.

So take a look at the look of the future.

I’ve lost the citation for the first photo, and Tin Eye can’t find it either; any help would be appreciated.  The second photo is by Rich Lam/Getty Images, and the third is by Stefan Wermuth/Reuters.
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The Romance of Technology

According to NASA launch director Michael Leinbach, it is “the final flight of a true American icon.”  Whether or not the Atlantis Shuttle Spacecraft has achieved iconic status or not is open to question, but there can be no question that the national news media have treated the launch of STS-135 with an incredible nostalgia that has all but erased the most tragic moments in the thirty year history of the space shuttle program. Mention of the Challenger and the Columbia Space Shuttle disasters is there, of course, but as a footnote to the alleged successes of the program, rather than as a cautionary tale to our continuing flirtation with modernity’s gamble—the wager that the long-term dangers of a technology-intensive society will be avoided by continued progress.  And in its place is a romanticized tale–or rather, a romantic-technological optic–that casts our gaze first upon close-up images that underscore the sleek, powerful body of the shuttle itself, making it larger than life.  Having visually fetishized the technology, our gaze is then directed from a distance upon the enormity of the Shuttle’s power as it blasts off from the launch pad (see here, here, and here).

The photograph above, taken by NASA and duly distributed by the media,  is representative of this second moment in this optic.  Shot as a landscape, the spectator is placed directly on a horizontal plane in front of the scene, but of course at a distance that alleviates any of the risk of being too close to the blast.  The image itself is almost perfectly symmetrical, and in a manner that underscores the technological rationality of the scene itself: the shuttle and its tightly triangulated effluence divide the frame in half, with birds (nature at risk but not visibly harmed) on one side and closer to the viewer, a tower of some sort (part of the technology of control) on the other side and farther away from the viewer.  But note too the reflection of the flash of the discharge in the water that draws a line directly to the spectator in a manner that simultaneously connects and separates the viewer from the blast.

The identification between spectator and event is central to the romantic-technological optic and is evidenced by the very many photographs that feature families and individuals showing up to witness such events, as well as those that display people taking photographs of the event themselves. The sheer number of such images should clue us to the fact that there is something more going on here than simple documentation or reportage.  And of course there is, for the space program has always been driven by its status as a public spectacle, its romance animated by its connection to the myth of the American frontier and the individual(istic) pioneer willing to challenge the unknown.   And so the photograph below is perhaps the perfect marker of an Americanized, technological-romantic optic as the polished mirror of the glasses invites the illusion of a near perfect fusion of spectator and event as they appear simultaneously to reflect and absorb the image of the shuttle as it disappears into the clouds. The viewer may not be on the shuttle craft himself, but he is nevertheless cast as one with the project.

But there is more, of course, for the optic is tilted to a nostalgic past that reflects only the successes  of the shuttle program and represses any memory of its disasters.  And in this regard, notice how the photograph above seems almost to substitute for earlier photographs of individuals witnessing with horror the explosion of the Challenger as it took a similar trajectory towards the heavens.

One might understand why NASA would promote a romantic-technological optic as in its own best interests, but we should take care ourselves to avoid being too easily fooled into yielding to the unrelenting desire to beat the odds of modernity’s gamble. Or, at least when we take the bet, as undoubtedly we may need to do from time to time, we should do it with full recognition that the odds always favor the house and that the risks are not easily managed by simple remembrances of a past that never was quite as happy as we want to recall it.

Photo Credit: NASA; Scott Audette/Reuters.

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Through The Looking Glass

Many if not most of the photographs that we have seen coming out of Afghanistan in recent weeks have emphasized the theme of normalization: adults working, students studying, happy children playing—lots of happy children playing—and of course the Afghan police doing their best to maintain peace and order. If we see people hurt they are being attended to, usually by U.S. military and medical services who seem to display a generally happy countenance.  The colors in these photographs tend to be richly saturated and it would seem as if we had stepped through the looking glass on Alice’s mantel and entered the alternate, topsy-turvy universe of the mainstream media.

In this alternate universe we do not see attention directed to the 177 coalition fatalities that have occurred since the beginning of 2011, or the predictions that IED explosions—responsible for more than 55% of such fatalities—will increase in the months ahead.  The rising incidence of  suicides among U.S. veterans is only occasionally mentioned and never visualized.  There are no pictures of the “accidental” killing of Afghani citizens by NATO-led forces, and reports of the “sport killing” of Afghanis by U.S. military don’t show up on the front page, if they show up at all.  For all the happy children we see in the alternate universe, there doesn’t seem to be any recognition, visual or otherwise, of the report that on average two children were killed each day last year in Afghanistan for a total of 739 deaths, 17% of which are attributable to U.S. and NATO-led forces.  Neither do we see the effects on the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced from their homes by the conflict alone.  Nor for that matter do we see the impact of bombing on the natural environment as the endangered species list in Afghanistan has increased from 33 to over 80 in a short five years.  And the list could go on.

But alas we come to the photograph above from Kabul.  One more scene of the normalization of life in Afghanistan.  It appeared prominently at nearly everyone of the mainstream media slideshows that I visited, including the NYT, the WSJ, and the LAT.  The captions were all  different. The NYT noted the “street scenes” reflected in the mirrors, as if to direct attention to the reality of what is outside of the frame of the image, what the viewer could not see directly, a vivid portrayal of a vital and local commerce.  The WSJ emphasized the mirrors themselves  and the fact that they “were displayed for sale,” underscoring their status as commodities, and thus the economic normalcy of the scene itself. Only the LAT seems to have challenged the theme of normalcy by observing that the “display of mirrors in a street market takes on the look of a carnival fun house,” and in so doing they may well have captured the important and ironic complexity of the image as something of an allegory for recent visual representations of life in Afghanistan.

To get the significance of the LAT caption, notice how each mirror is cut to a different shape, elongating or compacting the image that it produces, and thus accenting the effective distortion reflected by the polished glass surface, just as one might imagine in a carnival fun house.  But there is more, for we have four mirrors sitting next to  one another that display four different scenes.  Jacques Lacan makes much of the “mirror stage” of ego development for a child whose identity is molded by recognizing (or misrecognizing) his/her image in the reflected surface of a mirror as an “imaginary wholeness.”  Here, however, the collection of mirrors precisely resists any such unity or wholeness by specifically fragmenting the scene into separate and distinct parts.  Indeed, despite the proximity of the four mirrors to one another it is difficult to suture their reflected images together as a seamless actuality. The reality of what we see (or more to the point, what we purport to see in the reflection) is thus optically challenged.  And as the mirror, so too the photograph, which pits the vivid colors of the reflected images against the drab and muted tones of the trash that dominates the background and upper half of the scene.

When Alice awakens from her sleep she recalls the admonition from Tweedledee and Tweedledum that her own existence might be little more than a figment of the Red King’s imagination and wonders to what extent all of life is a dream.  The point here is not quite that severe, but certainly the above photograph serves as a cautionary tale for how we have seen through the looking glass that extends into Afghanistan and what we we have found (or not found) there.

Photo Credit:  Hossein Faterni/AP.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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What is a Veil, if You are not in France?

The French have banned wearing a veil in public.  Good luck with that, mon ami.  I don’t know the first thing about French law, but I can’t help but wonder how they are going to hold to a narrow definition of the veil.  I suspect that they are defining it in terms of religious use–as constitutionally committed to being a secular state, they can do that–which dodges the question otherwise while putting them far away from American habits of thought about religious freedom.  Even so, there has to be a palpable sense of inconsistency, doesn’t there, when you consider how prevalent–and dare I say, chic–sunglasses are in every modern society?

So, is she veiled or not?  I’m sure I don’t need more examples, although hundreds are available.  (Indeed, I’ve even made the point before, but until European governments start following my advice, I guess I have to keep on giving it.)  But let’s not stop there.

OK, not so chic, but not exactly a model of transparency either.  Take off the screwy goggles and hat, and you couldn’t pick her out of a line-up.  And who knows?  Perhaps someone who wears baggy T-shirts and does home-brew metal work might be a terrorist.  You don’t need a burqa to be dangerous; all you really need is a good reason to blow.  As long as the Green Bay Packers keep winning, however, we should be fine.

I can imagine a traveler from Afghanistan seeing each of these women and reporting back home that “some women in America are veiled, but you wouldn’t believe how strange their veils can be.”  If so, would they be completely off the mark?  Well, yes, they would be, but that really isn’t the point.  What we do is strange enough even if the analogy with the veil breaks down, and I doubt we really know what we are doing or why we do it.  Modern life involves a range of techniques for denying visibility in one direction while allowing it in another.  When the asymmetry is too explicit, as with the Islamic veil, we become anxious.  We shouldn’t believe for a minute, however, that the customary alternative is to see one another as if face to face.

Photograph of the Green Bay Packer fan by Mike Roemer/Associated Press.

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Watching Over the Protestors

The protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s effort to eliminate collective bargaining for state employees is moving into its third week.  Nearly 100,000 protestors have amassed outside of the Capitol building, the vast majority in opposition to the Governor’s bill.  On Sunday the Governor ordered the Capitol locked down for “safety reasons.”  The police initially indicated that the building would be cleared, but for reasons that are not entirely clear decided to leave those camped out in the rotunda alone even as they closed the doors to the entrance and refused to let anyone without a state issued ID to enter.

By some accounts the Governor’s order to keep “the people” out of the State Capitol is a violation of the State Constitution and one District Court has already issued a restraining order that of this writing has yet to be acted upon, but constitutional or not, it is hardly a wise move to try to silence the voice of the people with such transparently authoritarian methods. According to some reports the Governor has lost significant symbolic capital in his abject refusal to negotiate with the unions, as well as with his more recent efforts to quell all dissent.  But as the photograph above—and many others like it—envision, there is a different and more important point to be made about the ways in which this political contest appears to be unfolding.

The caption to this photograph reads, “Police watch over the small number of protestors that remain in the Capitol rotunda.”  And so they do, quite literally, as they are separated from the protestors in the well of the rotunda by a full story and thus look down upon them.  Notice in this regard too how casual they are, clearly attentive to what is going on below them and yet not threateningly so.  While they carry side arms, no weapons are drawn or at the ready; the riot gear so common in protest imagery in general is noticeably absent.

Of course, the police serve a dual role as both protectors of the public and enforcers of the law, but what is important here is that they look to be more the protector than the enforcer.  Indeed, there is a sense in which the police are the primary focus of the photograph even as they frame the margins of the scene otherwise centered on the protestors, a point underscored by the high and long angle that puts the viewer above and remote from the action below.  Rather than to stand in opposition to the protestors, the police appear to be something of an extension of them, as is common with the center-margin scheme.  And more, while one might ordinarily imagine such a line of sight as distancing the viewer from the scene as a more or less passive (if not also omniscient) observer, here, perhaps because of the location in the State House, it seems to animate a more active, democratic spectatorship: As the police watch over the protestors, so the viewer—now identified with “the people” in the manner of a vox populi, vox dei consciousness—watches over the police.

Notice finally, and perhaps most importantly, that the photograph effectively distances the police from the Governor of Wisconsin. While they have not entirely turned their back on his orders, neither have they completely enacted his will by completely evacuating the rotunda.  And so what the viewer is given to see, perhaps, are the true, legitimate arbiters of state power and authority standing their watch in the way that a democratic government was intended to do, serving as a visible buffer between tyranny and liberty.

Credit:  Scott Olson/Getty Images

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Scale and Magnitude in Public Culture

Skyscrapers are big, and walking through the concrete canyons of a major city can make one feel small.  But you can go to the observation decks high above the rest of the city, and everything looks small even though you know you are seeing miles upon miles of large buildings and great thoroughfares.  You can walk through the busy streets and feel enlarged by the social energy coursing through the city, or you can lean while lost against an anonymous building and feel desolate, not much different from the scraps of paper blowing down the alley.  If things go well, you might take a picture or send someone a postcard of the spectacular cityscape, but that, too, has been miniaturized by the technologies of visual reproduction.  So it is that contemporary artists draw on distortions of scale to make one stop and think about where we are.

Lorenzo Quinn’s sculpture, “Vroom Vroom” is now on display in Park Lane in London.   The Fiat 500 is held by an aluminum hand, as if the car were a child’s toy.   The title of the work is not ironic, as the artist says that he wanted to recapture the innocence and excitement of childhood.  By contrast with the stress of driving, parking, or dodging cars in crowded downtown streets, this artistic license seems a good way to go: Stop, smile, and think about how exciting simple things once were and can be, and about you already may have gotten your wish if you would but take the time to remember it.

That simple advice actually is harder to follow than it seems; one might say its about as easy as seeing a car as a toy car.   As children, it was easy to see toy cars as cars, but now we need an artist (and considerable public investment) to recover such freedom of imagination.  As well we should, and not as merely a break in a busy day, for good civic life requires just such inversions to be able to see  problems, solutions, and possibilities.  Public art, like the city itself, can school us in these shifts in scale so that we can become more likely to make sound judgments of magnitude, that is, of how much or how little needs to be done collectively for the general welfare.

And shifts in scale are not the only available inversions.  When I looked at the photo above, which I saw without the title, I had a sense not of excitement but of something closer to foreboding.  (No, I didn’t have a terrible childhood.)  Sure, the idea of a child playing with a car is there, but the child is not so innocent in such moments, as the ability to play god is also involved.  Perhaps I’ve seen too much science fiction or read too many Puritan sermons, but a hand coming out of the sky isn’t necessarily such a good thing.  The artwork may suggest the role of chance in life, something more easily felt when aware of how small one is relative to the sheer numbers and size of city life.  Cars are not plucked out of the air, but lives are crushed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and cities will not thrive if contingencies, including problems of scale, are not managed with imagination and vision.

And so one might even speak of light in the darkness.

But a table lamp?  OK, a very big table lamp: this giant was placed in Lilla Torg square in Malmö, Sweden over the holidays.  Not so much excitement here.  As the man pulls his bag across the cobblestones of the otherwise deserted square, he seems a lonely figure, hunched a bit into his overcoat against the cold, left to his thoughts–so much so that he seems oblivious to the enormous artwork glowing in front of him.  Yet the lamp highlights his isolation, for it has twice transformed the scene: first, by its inversion of scale, and second, by placing an artifact from the home in the public space.  Instead of moving through a small square, he now appears dwarfed by the city, and instead of heading for home or hotel, he seems fated to be alone in any space, public or private.  Perhaps the lamp was intended to brighten up the square with the light and decor of a gracious home, but it can just as well suggest that the city makes everyone homeless.

Inversions also can teach us that no one condition need be permanent.  These artworks involve inversions of scale and of affect, and together they suggest both that big things can be made small and that small things can loom large.  Questions of magnitude, otherwise known as the quality of life.

Photographs by Stefan Wermuth/Reuters and Yves Herman/Reuters.

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“For Whom the Bell Tolls …”

Few things seem to bring the American people together as one as the shared heartache that follows upon the violent tragedies of the sort that unfolded in Tucson this past week.  Columbine, Oklahoma City, 9/11, Ft. Hood, Blacksburg,… the list goes on. And it is as it should be, for as the poet put it, “any man’s death diminishes me.”  And indeed, there is something comforting about the photographic record that models a public culture of sorrow and grief as a fundamental (or perhaps transcendent) sense of care and community.  In everything from images of the makeshift memorials comprised of an anonymous outpouring of flowers, prayer cards, and stuffed animals to candlelight vigils and to collective moments of silence, as in the photograph above of congressional staff members standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, we are given the opportunity to see who and what we are (or who we can become).  No matter differences divide us on other matters, the photograph implies, there is nothing that will stand in the way of our common humanity.

That said, there is also something just a little bit dispiriting about such formulaic visual displays, for they imply in their own way that we can only overcome our differences to recognize that common humanity as ritualistic responses to violence and tragedy.  And when the cameras go away, and when the media turns its attention to other matters, in a week or two or three, that sense of commonality will survive as only a distant and fading memory, replaced by selfish interest.  Until the next time, of course—and it will come.

The problem here is not that we should avoid disagreement or difference, or that we should strive to live in that ideal world where “everyone can just get along.”   A productive democratic culture thrives on, indeed requires, a vital sense of difference, as well as robust debate and dissent, lest it become socially and culturally rigid and self-satisfied. Rather, the problem is the sense in which our normative notion of community is too often visualized as a unified, ceremonial response to occasional violence—think here of what animated the so-called “Greatest Generation”—rather than as a mechanism for negotiating the relationship between commonality and difference in a humane way on a daily basis.  The question is, how might one envision community without such rigid unity?

Credit:  Charles Dharapak/Associated Press.

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Our Cops, Ourselves

It is a commonplace that one can become like one’s adversary.  Sometimes the mimicry is especially arresting.

French cop & student

This confrontation between a student and and a police trooper occurred during a demonstration at the Place de la Republique in Paris.  The place name is significant, for the gendarme and the student stand as two sides of the republic: the administration of its laws, and the citizens they are to serve.  That mutuality is signified by their commonality in costume and stance: The black, zipped up jacket mirrors the black uniform, as hat mirrors helmet, erect posture is balanced by erect posture, and extended right arm is matched by the raised right hand. Each is impassive, and together they form an almost classical tableau; if one had the right narrative, one could imagine them as a commemorative statue in the public square.

The similarities are not the end of the story, however, for they also underscore the differences.  Black and white, to be sure, and also force and speech, for the one holds shield and club while the other’s hand assumes an elocutionary gesture.  Yet both are restrained: force used only to block, speech not yet voiced.  What is most striking is that law enforcement appears so alien–as if the carapace of body armor were the outer shell of something no longer wholly human.  And so the matching coloration also becomes disturbing, as if the citizen also were becoming deformed by their co-evolution in the 21st century.

What saves them, for the moment, is the near-perfect stasis of the image.  Neither is moving or likely to move, and at the end of the day the photograph may be recording a relationship of respect.  Each is equipped for their respective roles in the demonstration, yet they still stand as equals.  As that is one of the dearest principles of civic republican government, this may be a picture of political sustainability.

In any case, the photo documents a political culture.  As does this:

cops on football field takedown

If you live in the US, you know the drill.  A fan has run onto the field during a football game, and the troopers assigned to the tough detail of providing security–i.e., watching the game from the sidelines–have run him down and tackled him.  The fan’s behavior is intentionally comic–a silly stunt done on a dare or, more likely, just for the hell of it.  The cops’ behavior is unintentionally comic: they pile up like a bunch of Barney Fifes, probably picking up an injury or two, with hats (symbols of authority) flying and their guns and other equipment useless at best (you have to hope that nothing goes off).  The parodic doubling of the actual (official) game makes the scene all the more carnivalesque, which is one reason it fits into the larger spectacle.

And speaking of fit, did you notice how fan and cops mime one another?  The intensity of the fan’s expression is mirrored by the other two faces that we can see, just as their bare arms, skin tones, and haircuts mirror his, and even his casual clothes seem similar to their uniforms, and they all are jumbled up together anyway.  The cops probably aren’t drunk, so that could be one difference, but, as above, the similarities suggest a common culture.

And so the real difference is not within the photograph but between the two images: one serious and the other a study in mindless distraction.  In one, the state is the subject of politics, and in the other, the state provides rent-a-cops for the entertainment business.  Neither culture is perfect: in one, the cops appear alien even when behaving with respect; in the other, the cops appear thoroughly human but hapless.  The important point is that these photos aren’t really about the cops at all.  They depict two very different conceptions of what it means to be a citizen.

Photographs by Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters and Jeff Gentner/Associated Press.

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Everyday Terrors: Primitive, Modern, Postmodern

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

fan head, nails

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

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

Designs such as this, for example:

museum black on black

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

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

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

hungary toxic spill suit

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

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

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

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

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The Impossible Dream

Screen shot 2010-09-28 at 11.44.24 PM

The most noted victim of last week’s failure to vote on the Defense spending bill was the rider designed to rescind the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  But no less victimized was the bi-partisan “Development, Relief, Education for Alien Minors Act” aka the “Dream Act.”

Originally proposed in 2001 and more recently revived in 2009, the act addresses the plight of the nearly 65,000 undocumented alien minors who complete high school each year, and yet have no viable route to citizenship.  While technically “illegal immigrants,” these individuals came to the United States because their parent or guardian brought them here, and thus their legal status is not something for which they are directly responsible.  It is thus extraordinarily inhumane to deny them any access or avenue to citizenship.  The Dream Act would make it possible for such individuals who have been in the U.S. for at least five years, who demonstrate “good moral character,” and who complete two years of college or spend two years in the U.S. military to apply for permanent citizen status.  It would also make them eligible for student loans.

The photograph above, which shows a group of students who are also illegal immigrants spelling out the word “Dream” in South Beach, Miami, in an attempt to sway the vote of Republican Senator LeMieux.  Their protest caught the eye of the New York Times, who printed the image, as part of its story on the run-up to the Senate vote. But what the story missed was the rhetorical import of the playful quality of the student’s effort to create a “human billboard.”  This was not just a stunt pulled off by students that had nothing particularly better to do with their Sunday afternoon; rather, it was a concerted effort borne of the recognition that they had no legitimate, recognized voice in a policy debate that directly implicated their future, and thus it warranted staging a protest in a register that would allow them to “speak.”

In some important ways the photograph below, which appeared as a random photograph in a recent Wall Street Journal slide show, comes closer to the mark in indicating what is at stake in the failure to vote on the Dream Act.

Band of Borthers.2010-09-28 at 9.22.49 PM

Marine Cpl. Pablo Olvera, “originally of Mexico,” according to the caption, leads a group of newly naturalized citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.  His eyes are fixed on the flag that stands in front of him and shrouds more than half of the frame of the image, almost—but not quite—dominating the field of vision. All the viewer can see are the red and white stripes, but Olvera’s dress blue uniform completes the nationalist color scheme and thus renders the photograph as a literal embodiment of the flag—and thus by extension, the nation itself.  And more, the shallow depth of field that focuses directly on Olvera renders a soft, gossamer quality to the red and white stripes that drape his field of vision, evoking a soft, (American) dream-like consciousness.

It is not unimportant, in this context, that Olvera is identified as “originally of Mexico,” a characterization that muffles his otherwise prior illegal or undocumented immigration status, just as the characterization of him “leading” the Pledge implies the kind of moral virtue (or “good moral character”) that we affiliate with civic republicanism.  Once “of Mexico,” he is now “of” the United States.

One might be inclined to see this photograph as a melodramatic sop for American exceptionalism, or worse, as a wink and a nod to the idea that we can easily fill the ranks of our “all-volunteer” military with immigrants.  And we should not be too quick to reject these implications of the image. After all, the U.S. Defense department is a major supporter of the Dream Act, and it is hard to believe that their endorsement would be driven by anything other than simple self interest.  But at the same time, the photograph is a reminder that some immigrants (at least) are willing to pay their own freight to become U.S. citizens, to realize the impossible dream, and that is an attitude we should respect.

It is time that we moved beyond the political wrangle and put the Dream Act to a vote.

Photo Credit:  Oscar Hidalgo/NYT; Jim Watson/Agence Fance-Presse/Getty Images

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