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Mar 29, 2009

The Ritualistic Means of Politics

“War,” say the realists, is the “continuation of politics by other means.”  But of course war—whether symbolic or actual, whether fought with bullets or with words—is also arguably the last resort of the incompetent; a means of managing power when all other manner of negotiations have been frustrated and exhausted.  War, of course, inevitably leaves carnage in its wake, whether it is fought on a literal battlefield or in a legislative chamber.  And so rather than to concede the purportedly “essential truth” of the realist mantra and all that it portends we should perhaps consider the possibility that the political process operates best when it dances to a different drummer.

“Dance” is not an idle metaphor here, for it calls attention to the artistic and ritualistic quality of politics.  Politicians, after all, are courtiers, and whether they are courting votes from their constituencies or courting an opposition with which they must co-exit, they are engaged in an important ritual of cooperation.  I submit that this is important in almost any political system, but that it is especially so in a democratic polity where the very legitimacy of the process relies on the mutual commitment of any opposition to a common cause that supersedes any particular outcome.  Rituals of cooperation that underscore civic friendship, whether feigned or not, prefigure the grounds on which the dance of political compromise might precede.

And so we come to the photograph above which appeared in numerous publications this past week, both in print and on-line.  Representatives John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, the Majority and Minority leaders of the House of Representatives respectively, ritualistically cooperate in the building of the platform on which the winner of the November election will be inaugurated in the new year.  Of course, it is perhaps one of the few places at which they have cooperated at anything over the past four years, and so one might read the image as cynical political theater. We should not ignore that possibility too quickly, and truth to tell the photograph was cropped in some publications so as to focus tightly on Boehner and Pelosi and the somewhat surprised look on her face in a manner that cast the scene as one of awkward discomfiture. But rituals need to be seen against a broader horizon of activity and interaction, situated in a context that locates the performance in a symbolic history of repetition that underscores their longevity and normative significance.

That is why I like this image shot from below and with a wider angle that takes in an emblematic representation of the presidential seal, a reminder that the inauguration platform–which here, and importantly, is a work in progress–is the physical site of a formal ritual that presumes to stand above party in the name of a united “people. ” The photograph also features the smiling and interested Senator Lamar Alexander as he observes the ritual, and he appears to do so approvingly.  Senator Alexander is not only from a different legislative body, but more to the point, he is one of the more bi-partisan members of the U.S. Congress.  A member of the Republican party, and one time candidate for his party’s nomination to the presidency, he nevertheless breaks ranks when conscience and good sense tell him that it is the prudent thing to do.  Of course, such bi-partisanship is hard to find in Washington these days, but perhaps the simple staging of this event for the photographer’s lens—itself a political ritual—is a small sign that even those who have failed to cooperate in recent times recognize the need to keep the longer, historical possibility alive.

Photo Credit: Like Sharrett/NYT


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


How Does One Survive a Moral Virus?

The above photograph was taken while we were on a brief hiatus but I figured there would be plenty of time to write about it once we returned after the Thanksgiving Holiday.  Little did I imagine that it would go viral, become a meme, and basically disappear from attention in a period of ten days.

One of the things that we’ve learned in writing this blog for the past three years is that the news cycle can be brutal.  Blink and it has moved on to something more immediately interesting, as if our attention span is incapable of pondering the rightness and wrongness of human behavior for more than the time it takes to click through a slideshow.  But one would hope that genuine acts of unrepentant moral turpitude would not be cast aside so easily or so quickly.  Maybe it is because the image of Mary Anne Vecchio wailing in distress at the murder of Jeffrey Miller at a different student protest in the 1970s is so seared in my consciousness that I find the photograph of Officer Pike assaulting students who are the very image of nonviolent rectitude to be so appalling. I taste bile in my mouth every time I look at the image, even now, ten days after first seeing it.

Others have commented on how casual Office Pike appears as he sprays the students, and the point is all the more pronounced in the various U-tube videos that provide live documentation of the event.  Indeed, he looks rather like the weekend gardener in ads I’ve seen selling weed spray, killing the chickweed that has infested his otherwise perfectly green lawn as if it doing so makes him a good neighbor by maintaining property values.  It is no doubt in large measure that sense of nonchalance that has animated the “Officer Pike” meme that became the basis for literally hundreds of appropriations that show the pepper spraying of everything from cuddly kittens to the founding fathers, as well as inserting him into virtually everyone of the major iconic photographs of 20th century U.S. public culture, such as the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, the Times Square Kiss, accidental napalm, the Tiananmen Square tank man, and the photograph of Mary Anne Vecchio at Kent State.

One could go on at some length to analyze these many appropriations, though their production in such a compressed time period, coupled with how quickly they seem to have become irrelevant, makes it difficult to know quite what to make of it all.  There is outrage being expressed at Officer Pike’s nonchalance, to be sure, but also equally heavy doses of adolescent irreverence and cynicism that might lead one to think that the response in general is as much a conditioned, knee jerk reaction as anything at all.

But there is an additional point to be made and one that seems to have been missed by the many commentators and appropriators of the Officer Pike meme.  What makes the scene captured here so morally outrageous is not just that the behavior of the police officer is casual, but that it lacks any moral concern at all, despite the fact that it is being witnessed by hundreds of photographers and videographers.  It is one think to behave casually in ways that might be morally questionable, it is something altogether different to do so in the full light of day and with the knowledge that the world is watching.  Indeed, if anything Officer Pike’s behavior is marked by a conceit that reminds me of the photograph of a lynching that took place in Marian, Indiana in the 1930s where the townspeople are smiling for the camera as they direct attention to the hanging black bodies in the background.  Lacking any sense of shame for the scene in which they found themselves, they pointed with pride to what their community had “accomplished.” The officers in the photograph above—and here I mean to call attention to all of the officers—know that they are being photographed and yet they proceed as if there could be no question but that it is appropriate to shoot pepper spray into the faces of citizens sitting on the ground and posing a threat to no one.  It is, in short, an image of moral hubris that should be anathema to a liberal-democratic public culture that relies for its life blood on civil (and civilized) dissent.

And yet for all that, we seem to have moved on, the viral video little more than one of the millions of u–tube videos that seem to serve the contemporary role of bread and circuses, the Officer Pike meme  an online joke that is on the verge of becoming a trivia question.  And the moral outrage that should haunt us all is lost to the news cycle.

Photo Credit: Louise Macabitis



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