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Fifty Shades of Contemporary War

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The photographic record of the ruins of contemporary war are everywhere to be seen. Buildings once cast as monuments to modernization destroyed in the blink of an eye, homes completely devastated as if hit by a tornado, dead bodies strewn amongst the debris of what was once thought to be civilization, and much, much more. We have written about it previously under the sign of “rubble world” (here in 2008 and here in 2012).” And truth to tell, even now in 2015 it doesn’t seem like it is getting much better.

The photograph above is from Debaltseve in the Ukraine. According to the caption “an elderly woman collects water from a puddle” and then goes on to detail the “particularly intense” fighting that is going on in and around the city. Of course the fighting is not immediately present in the photograph, but what we see might be more demoralizing for that very fact as what we are witnessing is not the death of individuals (which is tragic enough and in its own right) or the demolition of buildings (which can and in all likelihood will be rebuilt by whatever regime takes over), but the utter destruction of civil society. The surrounding buildings mark a modern society, as does the road on which the woman stands; but for all of that she apparently has no water running in her home and so she is reduced to scooping what she can from the ice melting on the street. The garbage strewn around her makes it clear that this is not without its risks, but the will to survive is strong and one cannot live without water; so she does what she can. And when winter gives way to spring and summer and the ice is gone, who knows what she will do.

War’s horrors and tragedy comes in many shades, but as this photograph testifies its effects ripple throughout a society at the most fundamental levels, their most devastating effects implicated by the day-to-day demands on subsistence that stand as a constant challenge to the human spirit and make it hard to imagine the reconstruction of a vibrant and colorful society. The color cast of the scene in this photograph is grey and dreary, and it seems to offer little hope for the future—indeed, multiple shades of grey give little respite, but then this isn’t a movie in a fictional world.  That said, what the photograph may well be showing us is the future—or at least one possible future—that could well test the limits of human resilience.

Photo Credit: Sergey Polezhaka/Reuters

 

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“… ‘Till Death Do Us Part”

 

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The post today can be somewhat brief, not because there isn’t much to say, but rather because, well, we’ve said it several times already (e.g., here and here), most recently two weeks ago (here).  Today’s photograph simply makes the point in dramatic fashion.

Wildfires are overrunning different parts of the world and in ways that are completely out of synch with normal weather patterns … and in ways that really ought to be of some serious concern. They are catastrophic in their effects, both economically and environmentally. But the bigger catastrophe—or perhaps the proper term is “tragedy”—is that we seem to have begun to take them wholly for granted, treating them as the new normal. Or, as in the photograph above, treating it as an interesting backdrop to an otherwise romantic scene of personal avowal and commitment. What better way, after all, to secure one’s wedding vows—“for better or for worse, through sickness and in health”—than to locate the beginning of one’s life long future with another person against the conflagration that apparently promises to be there forever and anon.

It really is hard to know what to make of this photograph. For one thing it has appeared at a number of different “pictures of the week” slide shows for different national news groups, none of which otherwise pointed to or commented on the wildfires burning in the background. And even if there was something “new” to report on this account, its not like one more photograph of the fire is adding probative evidence to make a claim about basic facticity. I mean, does anyone really question whether these wildfires exist (even as I write that I know that there have to be “fire deniers” somewhere in the world, but for the remaining 99.99% of the population, do we really need one more picture of a wildfire to make the case that such fires are and have been raging out of control?). That said, it should also be noted that the photograph is being taken by a photojournalist, not a wedding photographer, and yet it is also something of a mashup of two photographic genres.  So if the photograph is not contributing to the “news” what is it doing?

One answer to this question might be that it is offering evidence of a pervasive attitude—and attitudes, of course, are incipient actions.The caption identifies a couple near Bend, Oregon posing for a wedding portrait.  It is hard to register the photograph as anything other than a publicity stunt, perhaps an advertisement for the next apocalyptic movie to come down the pike.  But, there you have it, its a “real” photograph of a real couple.  Why settle for a lake or a pond or a nestled grove of trees to mark your nuptials for posterity when you can have a raging wildfire in the background! The fire was apparently close enough that the minister performed a “shortened ceremony” so that the wedding party could be safely transported elsewhere for the reception, but then again it was not so close that the couple seems distracted by it from the passionate fires that burn within their own breasts (or so we might assume). The irony is astonishing. Then again, perhaps the irony here cuts in a different direction if we can assume that this woman and this man are actually dedicated environmentalists and that they are using the occasion of their union to call attention cynically to the inanity of such rituals and ceremonies when in fact the world is ablaze—and the fire is getting ever closer. Perhaps in the next moment (or at least after their reception) they peel off their wedding vestments and don the attire of activists concerned to alert the world to the need to address the problem. Maybe. It’s hard to know.  It would certainly make for an interesting movie.

However you read the photograph—whatever attitude you note or potential action you see— there can be little doubt that it pictures a profound problem that surely predicts a troubling future.  Right now it seems to point to a tragic outcome, particularly if we persist in accepting the background in the photograph as just another backdrop for a dramatic wedding portrait. The fire, after all, will only continue to burn brighter and to get closer.  If we continue to ignore that problem, however, or worse, if recast it as something which is altogether normal,  it is  possible that the story which points to a tragedy will end as a farce.

For better or for worse … indeed.

Credit: Josh Newton/AP

 

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About to Die (But not in the USA)

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The man we see here is in the clutches of death. Still alive, but only for a few seconds before his body meets with the pavement five floors below, his death is imminent and all but certain.  As Barbie Zelizer points out, such “about to die” images sanitize the visual representation of death, emphasizing the contingency of the moment while nevertheless gesturing to the only logical conclusion.  Such images not only neutralize the emotional affect and spectacle of a broken and mutilated body, but they serve as well to draw the viewer into the scene, inviting contemplation of the subjunctive moment and to consider the possibilities inherent in the image (if not in history itself).  Photographs of death have a finality to them that the visual trope of an “about to die” photograph challenges.  And because the still image stops the action for all time it leaves open—for all time—the tentative possibility of alternate outcomes.

The photograph above is of a man who has “fallen” from a burning building in Lahore, Pakistan.  Or at least that is how the caption for the image typically reads.  It is more likely that he jumped to his death—as did at least four others—to avoid the immolation that killed at least seventeen people.  But whether he jumped or fell, it is clearly an “about to die” image.  It was reproduced in many of the “pictures of the day/week” slideshows that are now featured at most journalistic websites.  What drew my attention to it, however, had less to do with the simple fact of its quality of an “about to die” image and more with how it reprises similar images of people plunging to their deaths from Manhattan’s Twin Towers on 9/11.

There is no official count of how many people jumped from the towering infernos on that fateful day, but the lower end estimations put the number at nearly 200.  Many of the jumpers were captured by videographers and a number of still photographs appeared in newspapers, though almost never on the front page.  More importantly, these photographs disappeared from public view almost as quickly as they had originally appeared, virtually erased from the public record through at least the tenth anniversary of the event itself.  One can now access some of these photographs by searching on the internet, but the larger question has to be why it was deemed inappropriate to broadcast and publish such images then, and yet now it seems acceptable to document the tragic fire in Lahore with virtually identical images and, indeed, to feature the photograph in institutionally sanctioned journalistic websites?

One answer to this question is the assumption that foreign lives count for less than American lives; it is hard to abide such cynicism, but events in recent years make it an answer that we should not discount altogether.  Nevertheless, I think there is something more going on here than an hyperbolic and over-extended American exceptionalism.  One of the features of the “about to die” photograph is that it activates an audience engagement with the image that bridges the distance between here and there, implicating the viewer in the scene being depicted by requiring them to complete the event frozen in time, both cognitively and affectively.  This can produce an especially powerful identification when the actors portrayed are strangers, distant others, as we would imagine most Pakistani citizens to be for most American viewers.  When the actors are easily identified with—by type if not as particular individuals—the problem is reversed, as there is an emotional need to provide some measure of distance.  In the immediacy and aftermath of 9/11 the problem of distance from those who died in  the terrorist attack had to be managed differently as the photographs operated in an interpretive register that distinguished social identity (which arguably needed to be pushed to the background so as to mute social pain) from political identity (which needed to be placed in the foreground to animate the anger needed to spur collective action).

The point is a simple one, but worth emphasizing:  as with linguistic conventions, so with the conventions of visual representation, literacy dictates attention to context at multiple levels: historical, social, cultural, political, and so on.  And perhaps most important in recent times, international and global.  And more, it is in learning how to interpret and engage with such images that we begin to get a sense for what it means to see and be seen as citizens in all of these different registers.

Photo Credit:  Damir Sagolj/Reuters

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The Winters of Our Discontent

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I wish I could claim sole authorship of the title for this commentary, but in fact it is an adaptation of a recent article in Scientific American (which adapted it from the title of John Steinbeck’s last novel who in turn borrowed it from Shakespeare’s malevolent characterization of Richard III).  But for all of that it is no less a compelling characterization of our current state of climactic affairs as we find ourselves confronting the acceleration of what has become known as “slow violence.”

Slow violence refers to environmental disasters that occur so gradually that we barely see them, but which reap long-term, catastrophic outcomes.  Recent global warming trends top the list and what makes such phenomena all the more problematic is how they can often appear to be incredibly, breath takingly beautiful, approaching what we might even call the sublime—representations that in some measure transcend reality, transporting us to a place that defies the very capacity for representation itself.  The photograph above is perhaps such an image where sky and water bifurcate the horizon of here and there as variations in lightness and darkness mark the temporal distance between now and then (or perhaps past and future).  The orange and magenta tones of the sky cast a calming shadow upon the sea which masks the mysteries of who knows what within its otherwise murky depths.   And overall the image invites both our approach and avoidance as if a heavenly and sanctified location.  It is hard to not look it and to be in awe.  Only the protuberances that emerge from the bottom of the frame call attention to the fact that this is a photograph and not a scene that fully transcends human occupation.

What we are actually looking at is “haboob,” a white shelf cloud of dirt that has been stirred up by a ferocious dust storm in the Indian Ocean off of the coast of Western Australia.  This dust storm, one of many that has caused brush fires over nearly one million acres is the result of uncharacteristically hot temperatures peaking at more than 119 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of Australia.  The result of those brush fires invites consideration of sublimity’s counterpart, the grotesque, as a second photograph from New South Wales pictures the carcasses of sheep incapable of breaking free of a fence that contained them while a wildfire consumed the earth on which they stood.

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The bodies are not human, and so the tragedy is not as pronounced as it might be—not that we should scant the lives of sheep or other living beings—but it is not hard to imagine that they could be human bodies.  The image is hard to look at, but that would seem to be the point, as it works as a powerful, visual counterpoint to the awe-inspiring beauty that all too often and all too easily diverts our attention and placates (gratifyingly so) our acceptance of slow violence in the first place.

This is the third winter in a row that we have faced extreme weather patterns throughout the world.  These are the winters of our discontent. How much longer will they go on before we respond responsibly as global citizens is the real question we need to be asking.

Photo Credit: Brett Martin/Reuters/fishwrecked.com; Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

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“Oh, The Humanity”: A Second Look at the Hindenburg Explosion

This past Sunday marked the 75th anniversary of the explosion of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, NJ.  As we have indicated elsewhere, when it occurred on May 6, 1936, the event, prominently depicted in the above photograph, was immediately and subsequently identified as a gothic image of a “brave new world” that invited a bleak and cautionary attitude towards the catastrophic risks of industrialization and technology—a dystopian icon of an emerging, universalized, technocratic modernity.  What is especially important to note is that the explosion of the Hindenburg, resulting in 36 fatalities, was neither the first nor the most deadly of such explosions—the explosion of Britain’s R-101 dirigible killing 46 passengers five years earlier on October 5, 1930.  The key difference was that in the case of the Hindenburg the media was present with live radio coverage and, of course, we have the above photograph, which quickly became the iconic representation of the disaster.

The last point is especially important, as it stands as a reminder of the centrality of the mass media in creating disasters.  I don’t mean, of course, that the mass media cause disasters in a direct cause-effect fashion, but rather that what is recognized as a disaster is largely a measure of its status as a discernible “event” and outside of local and immediate experience.  Such discernability is largely a function of the role that the media play in depicting and disseminating occurrences of one sort or another.  As Rob Nixon has recently demonstrated in his book Slow Violence, tragedies that defy easy representation as a discrete occurrences—say disease and death caused across generations of the members of a community by toxic waste—are very difficult to cast as disasters because we simply cannot visualize their longitudinal effects.  A graph marking deaths across time simply lacks the presence and verisimilitude of a photograph.

The anniversary commemoration of this event points to a different point as well.  The iconic photograph above  lacks any nationalistic markings of any kind.  Although the name “Hindenburg” clearly designates this as a German airship, the photograph effaces that fact.  It is impossible to say that this is the reason why this photograph quickly became identified as the icon for the event, but there are good reasons to believe that it didn’t hurt the cause, both because of the prevailing desire to downplay nationalist tensions between Nazi Germany and the United States, as well as the way in which such erasure made the photograph more about technology of a universalized modernity than about politics.  But, of course, the extant photographic record suggests a different story.  And so it is that the Atlantic frames its remembrance of the event not in terms of modernity’s gamble, but precisely in the context of international politics.  So, for example, they begin with an image that shows the Hindenburg in all of its grandeur and magnitude, hovering over Manhattan.  But what is most pronounced in the photograph is the swastika that sits on the tail of the vessel.

Several such images—few of which were originally seen, or at least prominently displayed in the media of the time—follow, carefully marking the national origins of the dirigible.  And then, after a series of images that move the viewer through the ritualistic, everyday banality and catastrophic fatality of the attendant technological innovation of transatlantic air travel, it reinforces the nationalist origins of the whole event with photographs of a funereal  scene.  These photographs, replete with multiple caskets draped in swastika clad flags and Nazi salutes (images #31 and #32), are chilling in their effects, even if our contemporary reaction is marked by a presentist understanding of the horrors of Nazism that most viewers would not have been in a position to acknowledge in 1936.

The point is a simple one, but nevertheless worth emphasizing: photographs are always involved in a dialectic of showing and veiling.  If we think of the iconic image in terms of how it is often captioned with reference to radio announcer Herb Morrison’s lament, “Oh, the humanity” it is easy to see how it fits within the logic of a dystopian, technological modernity.  In short, it is a catastrophe that resists and challenges the positive resonance of modernity’s gamble.  However, when we return the swastika to the tail of the dirigible in all of its prominence, and when we locate the event within the particular narrative of twentieth-century politics animated by Hitler’s Third Reich, the meaning of the icon is overshadowed by a much larger tragedy and its dystopian resistance to the positive affect of modernity’s gamble is mitigated if not altogether erased.  It truly is a matter of what we see … or perhaps more to the point, what we are shown.

Photo Credit: Sam Shere/MPTV; AP File Photo

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Flying Too Close to the Sun

The Costa Concordia is a floating resort. Larger than the Titanic by nearly seventy feet, it boasts 1,500 cabins, one third of which have private balconies, the world’s largest fitness center at sea (65,000 square feet), five restaurants (two of which require reservations), thirteen bars (in addition to cigar and cognac bars), a three level theater, a casino, a discotheque, a Grand Prix race simulator, an internet café, and much, much more.  It houses 4,300 passengers and an additional 1,100 crew members—that’s one crew member for every four passengers—on seventeen decks.  It is valued at just less than $600 million dollars.  And while we would probably not consider it a technological marvel in the late modern world, as we would have considered the Titanic or the Hindenburg in an earlier era, it is nevertheless something of a marvel, its sheer magnitude making it larger than life.

Of course, the photograph above doesn’t quite do it justice. Foundered on a rock off of the coast of Tuscany near the island of Giglio that left a 160 foot gash in its hull and listing to the starboard side, the marvel and magnitude of the Costa Concordia are somewhat diminished. The actual cause of the grounding has yet to be finally decided, though there is no evidence of bad weather or other emergency conditions that would have required bringing the ship this close to the coast line.

It is both a catastrophe and a tragedy. As of this writing the death toll rests at eleven with twenty or so others still unaccounted for.  And as with the mythological Icarus, the disaster is a result of sheer hubris.  In the days ahead the focus will no doubt be on the captain’s unauthorized deviation from the planned course and his lack of good sense animated by assumptions of unfounded pride in either his skills as a sailor or in the capacity of the ship. Or perhaps we will learn that he was intoxicated or otherwise distracted.  We are already hearing that much of the problem was due to the fact that passengers failed to participate in muster drills, as if the disaster was their fault.  In any case, “human error” will no doubt bear the weight of the burden.  And to be fair, a good measure of this may well be warranted.   But of course the hubris here extends beyond the human failings of the captain or the passengers and extends to a society that places its unfettered faith in its technological ability to master nature.

Elsewhere we refer to this faith as “modernity’s gamble”—the wager that the potential for catastrophic risks assumed by a technology-intensive society will be avoided by continuing progress.  Modernity’s gamble is most apparent in the building of airplanes and rockets designed to conquer the skies, or in nuclear power plants intended to free us from our reliance on fossil fuels, but it is no less relevant to things such as online banking and commerce, where the risk to economic catastrophe is no less disastrous—or likely.  It may be that we are passed the point that we can refuse modernity’s gamble, but surely we need to learn to respect it and to avoid challenging the odds for frivolous purposes. That here the wager was lost in a disaster involving a technologically advanced and sophisticated playground for the upper classes only underscores the hubris of a society that cares little for how it employs its resources and even less for how it respects its environment.

 The photograph above is telling in this regard, as it contrasts the  failure of an overextended and idealized technological mastery of nature (for fun and profit!) with the sustainable houses and buildings that occupy the coastline.  A storm could come along that wipes out the village, no doubt, but it wasn’t an unpredictable weather event that led to the disaster here.  It was the failure to respect modernity’s gamble.  And while those who built the village appear to have respected the natural crag of the outcropping, preserving it as a defense against the sea and the wind, but not trying to overcome it, those sailing the Concordia did not respect it, running aground in the process.  As Don Quixote’s sidekick Pancho reminds him, “whether the stone hits the bottle or the bottle hits the stone … its always bad for the bottle.” And so here, the ship once visually magnificent, is humbled; indeed, in its own way it appears to have settled into a fetal position of total resignation.  It is perhaps a subtle irony that the ship’s name—referring to the state or condition of agreement or harmony—is betrayed by the scene depicted in the photograph in which harmony rests with the village and not with the trappings of an unbounded hubris.

Photo Credit: Remo Casilli/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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Sight Gag: Hurricane Irene—Follow The Bouncing Ball

Photo Credit: Chang W. Lee/NYT

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.  We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible.  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.

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The “Advance of Civilization”

I had the opportunity this past week to visit the Museum of Westward Expansion which is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and is housed underground beneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.  According to the museum’s website it  “preserves some of the rarest artifacts from the days of Lewis and Clark” and allows visitors to “explore the world of American Indians and the 19th-century pioneers who helped shape the history of the American West.”  Imagine my surprise then when I came across the floor to ceiling photograph shown below in the middle of the first exhibit room dedicated to a timeline of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

You will of course recognize it as the iconic image of the “mushroom cloud” explosion over Nagasaki, the second of two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August, 1945.  Since this event has no obvious connection to the Louis and Clark Expedition, I expressed my surprise to one of the museum’s docents who responded by noting, “… the museum is [also] about the advance of civilization as part of the nation’s movement westward and we want to show some of the key moments from the twentieth century.”  And indeed, not far from this display one finds a comparable floor to ceiling photograph of Neil Armstrong saluting the U.S. flag on the moon.

In as much as the space program was originally framed as an extension of the American frontier—marked here by the stage coach—the photograph of the moon landing makes a modicum of sense, but the explosion of a bomb that obliterated a city killing nearly forty thousand people and set off what became known as the Cold War’s “arms race” does not sit easily with the theme of the “advance of civilization,” and its connection to the notion of “westward expansion” is even more difficult to fathom.

Upon more careful inspection, however, I noticed that the photograph of the mushroom cloud, which otherwise lacked any caption or explanation, is inscribed with a quotation from Alfred Einstein in 1939 that reads: “… in the course of the last four months it has been made probable … that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium elements would be generated … This new phenomenon … would lead to the production of bombs and it is conceivable, though much less certain, that extremely powerful bombs of a new type constructed.”  The quotation stands in odd opposition to the photograph itself inasmuch as it frames the bomb as a less than certain outcome of a scientific advance in nuclear technology.  The bomb may have been “much less certain,” but sure enough here it is as a documented, photographic reality.

One might want to read this as a ham handed expression of  America’s “manifest destiny,” and I don’t want to ignore the implications of that possibility.  But I think there is another and more subtle point to be made.  Einstein’s words precede the explosion by six years.  And as such they caption the image in terms of what Hariman and I have described elsewhere as “modernity’s gamble,” the wager that the long-term dangers (and anxieties) of a technology-intensive society will be avoided (or managed) by continued progress.  Yes, the ability to “set up a nuclear chain reaction” is a mark of scientific and technological progress, but of course it comes with a risk—the possibility of the production of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” That in this case the possibility became a catastrophic reality is mitigated by the necessities of the gamble itself, i.e.,  such risk is the cost of progress in an advanced technological society.  And as the second photograph purports to show, sometimes the gamble pays off.  The problem, of course, is that those who paid the costs of such gambles with their lives are nowhere to be seen in either photograph.

In short, the exhibit articulates our history of westward expansion with our cultural vow to technological progress, and as such it reinforces our commitment to the rationale of modernity’s gamble.  More specifically, it contributes to the domestication of our memory and understanding of the explosion of the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki by casting them as simple “advances in civilization.”  And that should give us pause.

Photo Credit: John Louis Lucaites

 

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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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An Economic Model of Greed (Or, the Legacy of Gordon Gekko)

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Before Deepwater Horizon there was Thunder Horse, a fifteen story oil platform that cost over $1 billion dollars to construct and was characterized as a marvel of modern technology.  According to then Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, “It is amazing that so large a structure … will have such a tiny environmental footprint, leaving almost no trace of itself in either the sea or the sky.” The photograph above shows it pitching in the seas of the Gulf of Mexico following Hurricane Dennis in 2005 before it had become fully operational. The efficient cause of its near sinking was not the storm however, but the improper installation of a check valve that “caused water to flood into, rather than out of, the rig when it heated during the hurricane.”  A simple enough mistake, perhaps, until we learn that the platform was hastily rushed into production “to demonstrate to shareholders that the project was on time and on schedule.”  And it was later discovered that the shoddy welding of underwater manifold pipes could have led to a catastrophe that would have made the current disaster seem small in comparison.

But there is more, for in the same year a BP refinery in Texas City, TX exploded, killing fifteen and injuring nearly 200 more.  And again, the cause was “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of BP.”  The next year BP was responsible for the leaking of 267,000 gallons of oil on Alaska’s North Shore. And yet, once again, the accident was foreseeable and avoidable.  In total BP ended up paying over $300 million dollars in fines.  No small amount until you compare it against their net profit for 2007 of $20.84 billion dollars (admittedly, a sharp decline from the previous year but more than enough to absorb the fines and still leave enough to pay investors a substantial dividend, aka, “the cost of doing business”).

There are two points to be made. The first and more obvious point concerns what the photograph above (and others like it from the Texas City explosion and the leak in Alaska) actually shows.  The evidence of the impending disaster of Deepwater Horizon was literally before our eyes at least as early as 2005, but we chose not to see it.  After all, progress entails bold risk, and where would we be without oil.  It is just the most recent iteration of modernity’s gamble, the wager that the long-term dangers of a technology intensive society will be ultimately avoided by continual progress.  Sure, safety is important, but … And as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, as we dole out fines that amount to little more than a slap on the wrist.

The second point is less obvious precisely because it is harder to visualize, and it is all the more important because of that fact:  the economic model that is driving such decision making is not guided by anything even approximating the rationality of free markets or the law of supply and demand, but by the same culture of greed that has driven the world economy to its knees in recent times.  As one British economist put it, BP was run like “a financial company, rotating managers into new jobs with tough profit targets and then moving them before they had to deal with the consequences.  The troubled Texas City refinery, for example, had five managers in six years.”  Without putting too fine of an edge to it, we’ve learned in recent times that that is no way to run the financial sector, let alone an oil conglomerate.

In the end, the photograph of the listing Thunder Horse Platform might be a proper visual rebuttal to Gordon Gekko’s now famous declaration, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

Photo Credit: NYT.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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