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How The Other Half Lives – 2011

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: James Estrin/New York Times.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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The In/visibility of the Warrior-Citizen

Much of what we experience as war photography focuses attention on the manner in which war is fought.  And whether the photographs we see shows soldiers conducting military campaigns, interacting with local children in occupied territories, experiencing the boredom of war that punctuates the time between skirmishes, suffering from wounds both physical and psychological, or returning home to the hugs and relief of friends and families—or worse, in flag drapped coffins, the focus is always on what we might call “the conduct of war.” And because wars are typically fought in the name of collectivities the role of the individual is played down—not erased entirely, but nevertheless minimized, as such photographs underscore the archetypal quality of the scenes displayed.  Individuals tend to stand in for something larger than themselves.  And yet for all of that, one of the genres of war photography continues to be the individual portrait.

The most common portraits of soldiers tend to be taken prior to battle and usually feature the soldier in full uniform.  This is of course a practice that is as old as the Civil War.  And whether taken by the military itself or by friends and family members, such portraits veil the identity of the individual beneath the uniform and mark the soldier first and foremost as a representative of the nation-state.  In recent years a number of photographers have begun to challenge such work and in a ways designed to remind us of the individuals doing the fighting (here and here).  Among such work is the photography of Suzanne Opton.

In a series of projects beginning as early as 2003 Suzanne Opton has been photographing individual soldiers, emphasizing the artistic conventions of portraiture designed to help us engage and understand the individual qua individual.  And with stunning results. Taken “at home,” rather than on the war front, the soldiers she photographs are all out of uniform.  And thus there is a sense in which their status as “citizen” is accented, rather than their status as “warrior.”  And yet at the same time they are unmistakably marked by their experiences as warriors.

In one set of images, titled “Many Wars” she photographs veterans in treatment for combat trauma, but what marks the series is that they cut across every American war from World War II to the present.  As with the photograph above, they are shrouded in cloth, and generally distinguished by age, though only somewhat incidentally by the particular wars in which they fought. And the point seems to be that we need to see them as one, even as they are portrayed as individuals—a paradox that underscores the in/visibility of war as it crosses generations (and more).

 

In one of her most recent works, titled “Soldiers” she photographs veterans returning from Iraq, by asking them to lie on the ground with their faces at rest, almost as if they were preparing to go to sleep.  The pose not only resists the typical conventions of portraiture (showing the individual sitting or standing up straight, shoulders back, emphasizing their strength and agency) but locates them in that liminal state between full and active consciousness and the dream world of sleep. The pose surely operates as a visual metaphor for the condition of such individuals.  There is also a gesture here to the “two thousand yard stare” that recurs as a convention of war photography, made all the more haunting by the fact that these individuals are out of uniform and thus that much closer to us as citizens on the home front.   These photographs were part of a provocative and controversial “Billboard” campaign which, in their own way, demonstrate the sense in which the soldier has become more or less in/visible.

Whatever one makes of Opton’s work, it is clear that she is challenging us to think about the conventional representations of war and the warrior-citizen, and more, the implications for how we experience and engage such representations as we go about our daily lives.  Suzanne Opton will be lecturing on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, IN on Monday, October 3, 2010.  The title of her presentation is “Many Wars: The Difficulty of Home” and it will take place in Fine Arts 015 from 7:00-8:30.  If you are in the neighborhood I encourage you to attend.

Photo Credits: Suzanne Opton

Note:  My colleague Jon Simons and I are co-hosting the 2011-2012 Remak New Knowledge Seminar on “The In/Visiblity of America’s 21st Century Wars.”  As part of the seminar we will be bringing eight speakes to campus including Michael Shapiro, Roger Stahl, Diane Rubenstein, Nina Berman, David Campbell, Wendy Kozol, and James Der Derian.  Suzanne Opton is the first speaker in the series.  In April 2012 we will be hosting a conference on the same theme that will include presentations by Robert Hariman and Michael Shaw.


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Home Again, Again

Guest post by Lisa Carlton

Literary and visual tropes of homecoming are essential to narrating war.  Take, for instance, the timeless Greek war mythology of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  Both of these poems invoke the theme of “nostos” or homecoming.  Or we might think of the iconic WWII image of the Times Square Kiss. Typically, homecoming tropes signify an end to a time of national conflict and strife—a relative return to normalcy.  But the wars of the new millennium are perpetual.  They resist narrative’s conventional markers of a beginning, middle, and end.

The image above was taken at a homecoming ceremony for the South Dakota Army National Guard’s 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade on May 3, 2011.  It appeared in the Memorial Day collection of “In Focus,” The Atlantic’s news photography blog.  According to the caption, the little boy in the photograph is four-years-old and the little girl is two.  This means the boy was born around 2007 and the girl was born in 2009.  By then, the war in Afghanistan had been underway for over five years and almost ten.  These children were born into a culture where war is the norm.

The uniformed father figure is identified by the caption as Major Jason Kettwig of Milbank, South Dakota.  An officer-level rank suggests that Kettwig has been in the Army National Guard for quite some time; Probably before his young children were born.  The photograph’s caption explains that this particular “group of approximately 200 soldiers has been serving in Afghanistan for the past year.”

One year ago the little boy in the photograph was three; and the little girl was just one-year-old.  In the image her hands lovingly and gracefully cup her father’s neck.  She is not clinging to him, as we might expect a young child to do to her father.  Instead, her head is pulled back from his.  She gazes at his face with a mature, furrowed brow, a look of relief, concern, and wonderment, commonly identified on the faces of adults.  She has not seen this face in one year and she appears to be studying it, searching for traces of change since the last time she saw it.  It reminds me of the way parents look at their teenaged children after their first long stint away from home.  But her father does not return her gaze.  He appears to be looking at his son.

The son, who is four-years old, stares off into the distance over his father’s shoulder.  His facial expression is less engaged than his sister’s.  His lips part and turn upward, but the smile looks almost hesitant.  Perhaps he has experienced this homecoming scenario before.  Maybe, by his ripe old age of four, he has experienced his father’s deployment and return once already.  The boy wears a green tee shirt, almost identical to the color of his father’s desert camouflage.  And his short, clean haircut adds to the father-son likeness.  As the father looks at his “mini-me,” the reader is invited to wonder if military service is in this little boy’s future.  So as the father looks at his son, and the son looks off into the distance, and we, the viewers look at these children, all of the gazing that animates this image is oriented toward the future.

While the children are the most salient figures in this photograph, with their adorable, round faces and the light bouncing off their shiny, sandy blonde hair, the father figure is positioned as central.  However, it is the back of his shoulders, neck, and head.  We cannot see his face, and as such, we have a harder time identifying emotionally with him.  We can only imagine what his face looks like.  Does it express happiness?  Relief?  Melancholy?  The back of his head does not provide cues for how we should feel.   Perhaps the absence of his visage marks a loss of his humanity while at war, or perhaps it symbolizes an anticipation of his death, or maybe it’s a social commentary on what has been described as a faceless war effort.

The photograph’s composition is an uncanny inverse of Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother.  Instead of identifying with the mother — or the absent father figure — as we might have with Lange’s image, this photograph turns our attention to the children’s faces for a model of how to feel and how to interpret the action in the scene.  This important shift in subjectivity positions the viewer as childlike—an infantile citizen who, like the four-year-old and two-year-old in the photograph, has become a little too acclimated to a culture of perpetual war.  When we take on the gaze of the confused and bewildered child, we as citizens are invited to remain complacent and uncritical.  Again.

Photo Credit: Eisha Page/Argus

Lisa Carlton is a Ph.d student in Communication Studies at the University of Iowa.  She can be contacted via e-mail at lisa-carlton@uiowa.edu.

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“Out, Damn Spot!”

Fighting a war against terrorism is one thing.  But apparently there’s no good reason not to maintain personal hygiene. And what better way to do that than to brush one’s teeth after a tasty MRE while on duty?  What is striking about the photograph, however, is not just the fact that we have a U.S. soldier massaging his gums while poised in a bunker between two machine guns, but that he seems somewhat—but only somewhat—nonchalant while doing so.  Leaning relaxed against a wall of sandbags, his right hand comfortably in his pocket, he seems to be without a care in the world.  But of course he is wearing a vest and a helmet, which suggests that the risk to his safety might be a little more serious than gingivitis or bad breath.

And so the question is, what exactly is the point of this photograph?  I must admit that in some ways I don’t have a clue.  He is part of the “No Fear” task force of the 2-27 Infantry in Kunar, and so there might be something here about looking death in the eye and laughing.  But there is also this:  If you work your way through the very many slideshows of the U.S. military stationed at outposts in faraway places like Afghanistan or Iraq you are bound to come across more than a few photographs of U.S. personnel washing or shaving or cutting their hair in what might otherwise be understood as primitive field conditions.   “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” and we should not ignore the sense in which the display of such behavior even under the harshest of conditions subtly visualizes a cultural commonplace that gestures to an Americanized, Christian sensibility.  But more than that, it points to something more subtle still.  Yes, such soldiers might be stationed far from home and under less than normal circumstances, their lives may be at risk and they might even be called upon to kill or die in the name of God and country, but for all of that the basic habits of a civilized people abide.

Put differently, such photographs in general serve as a reminder that war is dirty business even as they feign to suggest that one can fight a war and still maintain clean hands.  The presence of the guns that frame the scene above, and to which the soldier is destined to return, make this photograph unique in this regard, for they stand as a reminder that, as with Lady Macbeth, one cannot completely avoid the tragic stain of war’s inevitable ignominy.

Credit: Erik De Castro/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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Inflating the National Value

I expected to see a lot of U.S. flags on display for the 9/11 anniversary and commemoration this past weekend.  And of course my expectations were fully met with ersatz versions of the Stars and Stripes represented in virtually every size and variety imaginable, ranging from lapel pins to newly inked tattoos and decorated cakes to a flag the size of a football field requiring hundreds of people to manage its presentation.  What I didn’t expect to see were three thousand flags clustered together in one place, as in the photograph above of Forest Park in St. Louis (and repeated in other places across the country as well).

I don’t think of myself as a curmudgeon in such matters and I do pledge allegiance to the flag on the appropriate occasions, but I also find the excess of display in the photograph above as more than just a spectacle of national hubris.  Rather, it strikes me as symptomatic of a larger cultural problematic. The flag, of course, is a national symbol.  And it means many different things to many different people, affecting the full gambit of civic emotions from patriotic piety to nostalgia to cynicism.  But the question is, what do three thousand flags represent that a single flag cannot stand in for?  Or perhaps more to the point, given the presumed gravity that we commonly grant to the meaning of the flag as the national banner–that which marks us as “one nation, indivisible,” and for which we are willing to sacrifice all–how can they represent it better?

One might see the field of flags as symbolic of the actual fatalities on 9/11, but the numbers don’t quite add up, with the official casualty count just short of three thousand, and so the potential for the mystique of identification with individual victims is not satisfied. But even if the numbers did add up, the question would still abide in some measure for the massive replication and concentration of flags in a single space has something of an inflationary effect on the symbolic currency of the national icon.  And there, I think, is the rub.  For there is little doubt that the symbolic value of the flag has diminished in recent years in proportion to the diminution of our domestic and international stature.  The multiplication of flags in such huge numbers thus perhaps functions as something of a symbolic palliative for our current psychic anxieties about national greatness.  We simply need more flags to fund our national urge.

What the photograph reminds us is that as with the effects of inflation on the dollar, the flag simply doesn’t buy as much as it used to.  And more, that at some deep level we know that but don’t want to admit it.

Photo Credit: J.B. Forbes/AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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The Long View

It remains to be seen if what we have witnessed in Egypt the past few weeks is a democratic revolution or not.  The people have spoken, and it seems that they were heard, but for now the military is in charge.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, at least in the short term, and there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.  A functioning democracy requires some modicum of order without, at the same time, stifling individual liberties and the freedom to move about as one chooses.  And so far the Egyptian military seems to be mindful of the need to achieve some balance between liberty and order with an eye to the greater concerns of Egypt as a nation state. To accomplish this, of course, one needs to have an eye for both the immediate situation as well as the long view.

The photograph above is distinct in this regard. Most of the photographs turning up at various slide shows are shot from the ground and depict members of the military microscopically, up close and personal, as they work with a wide array of civilian volunteers to convert Tahrir Square back into an open and vital public sphere—removing barricades, helping with the general cleanup, and so on.  There are a few instances where the military is shown policing protestors who simply don’t want to give up their makeshift campsites, but such instances are relatively few and serve as an important reminder that the dissenters were not necessarily all of one voice and that freedom is not a license to do as one pleases.  In general, however, such images seem to suggest that the mess of democracy can be handled by individuals—both private citizens and representatives of the state—working together in common cause.  And that is true enough to a point, but what it misses is the big picture.

In the photograph above we get the long, wide view, shot at a distance and from on-high. The first thing to notice is that any register of individuality is completely effaced. The military—and thus the state—is altogether unrecognizable, and rather than to see individuals working together, we get a macroscopic view of the modern social order as masses of people interact with one another and with impersonal machines. At first glance, the scene seems to be chaotic as both vehicles and people vie for use of the common thoroughfare.  But on second view the chaos seems to exude its own careful, makeshift order, and in any case it all seems to work.  Not perfectly, of course, as the cars have to go slower than might otherwise be optimum, and the pedestrians cannot move about without attending to vehicular traffic, but nevertheless it seems to work well enough.

Ordered or chaotic, the scene is messy, and eventually all involved will make some accommodations to one another, but perhaps that is the point.  It is easy to imagine two individuals working together joining their interests in common cause.  It can even be neat and clean.  But the longer view reminds us that mass democracies are inherently messy affairs if only by virtue of their sheer magnitude.  And more, the order they create will not always be perfect, but if they strive to balance liberties and order there is a fair chance that they will work.  Not perfectly, not to everyone’s individual optimum interests, not even as rational thinkers (like, say, street engineers) would prefer, but well enough, and with the collective needs and interests of the social order at heart.  Perhaps that is what democracies do best.  But to see it we need to take the long view.  We know that the military is capable of both long and short views when planning battles, it will be interesting to see if they can apply the same optics in this situation.

Credit:  John Moore/Getty Images

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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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Santa and the Problem of Public Safety

Santa and the TSA.2010-12-14 at 9.29.53 PM

I remember as a child watching over and again the post-World War II movie Miracle on 34th St. (1947), a story about a man who looks rather like the elfish chap above and is institutionalized as insane when he declares himself to be Kris Kringle—the real Santa Claus.  Claiming to be Santa Claus, it seems, can be something of a threat to public safety, and it is only with the help of a lawyer who persuades the local post office to deliver thousands of children’s letters addressed to “Santa Claus” to his client that he is able to get the state to acknowledge his true identity and thus establish his sanity.  And the moral of the story was that sometimes it isn’t such a bad idea to believe in fantasies—or miracles—at least a little bit.

Of course, that was then and this is now.  The late 1940s were something of an age of anxiety, to be sure, but now we live in the so-called age of terror.  And today, not even an army of ACLU lawyers can save Santa  Claus from the indignities of being patted and probed by the woman in uniform wearing the rubber blue glove.  After all, in an age of terror anyone can be hiding a bomb inside his or her clothing: pilots, grandmothers, and even babies in blankets.  Why should Old St. Nick be any different?  And really, what is the loss of a “little” dignity—in some ways just another fantasy of public decorum—in the interest of maintaining national security and public safety?  Or so we are told.

My initial impulse upon seeing the photograph above was to smile at the incongruity of a fantasy figure being treated by the apparatus of a national security state as if he were real and wondering who the sane and the insane might be.  But then it struck me that there was nothing amusing here at all.  That indeed, what we are looking at is a very real and tragic sluice of contemporary life, a world in which even our most hopeful fantasies have been taken away and no one seems to notice … or maybe even care. Notice the man on the left who doesn’t appear to be paying any attention whatsoever—or for that matter to even see—what is going on before him.  Perhaps he is absorbed by the task of preparing himself for the blue glove, or maybe he just doesn’t want to get involved.  But in any case, he remains passive and compliant—rather like Santa himself—and that might be the most troubling point of all as it suggests that just maybe the terrorists have already won.

Credit:  AP Photo/The Repository, Scott Heckel

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Visual Traces of a Democratic Public Culture

k11_KNC30109-1

The above photograph is nearly fifty years old and I doubt that very many people recognize it—or for that matter have ever seen it before it was recently included in a slide show at The Big Picture—or can identify the event that it depicts and marks.  I couldn’t. But it is nevertheless interesting for several reasons.  For one thing it is a reminder of how homogenous the press corp was as recently as the mid-1960s. The site for this image is the Treaty Room in the White House and so it is possible that Helen Thomas can be found somewhere in the vicinity, but she certainly isn’t in this photograph which is not only lily white, but masculine to the core.  For another thing, notice the flood lights that are illuminating the table and document being photographed, a reminder that image events and photo-ops have long been part of the political process.  But what is perhaps most interesting is that apart from the journalists, there are no obvious political agents of action here.  If we can assume that event marks the signing of a treaty, there is no direct evidence of who might have engineered or negotiated it and no evidence of who might take credit for it.  The painting of presidents looking down upon the scene would seem to suggest that whatever victory is to be claimed here inheres in the presidency as a democratic institution and not an individual president.  It is hard to imagine such a photograph being taken today.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the photographers are huddled around the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was signed by then President Kennedy on October 7, 1963.  It was an incredibly important historical event given that concerns about above ground nuclear testing had been on the international public agenda since the middle of the Eisenhower administration in 1955. But no less important are contemporary efforts to manage nuclear arms through the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a treaty that as recently as September 16, 2010 was endorsed by four republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as a number of Republican stalwarts of national security, including Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and George Schultz.  Even Patrick Buchanan notes that the Presidents he worked for—Nixon and Reagan—would have supported it.  As of this morning, however, it appears that only one Republican Senator—Richard Lugar of Indiana—supports the treaty, while congressional Republican leadership in general seems determined to deny any and all initiatives by the Obama administration, notwithstanding any value they might have for something like national security or the possibility of movement towards a nuclear free world. Of course it is possible that Republican senators such as Christopher Bond of Missouri have good reasons to be skeptical of the verification standards built into the New Start treaty, and one can only hope that he will reveal the “secret” information he claims to have that supports his worries. Or perhaps John Kyl of Arizona is correct to try to “negotiate” for additional support to the $84 billion dollars already dedicated to “nuclear modernization” in return for his support, though its not clear how much would be enough to meet his concerns.

What does seem clear is that once a treaty is signed—and it is virtually inevitable that some treaty will be signed–whether in the lame duck session of Congress or once Republicans take control of the House in the new year we are unlikely to see a photograph like the one above where the Treaty itself is perhaps more important than those who brought it into being.  And for future generations looking back on the politics of this time that too will offer interesting evidence of the state of our so-called democratic public culture

Photo Credit: Robert Knudsen, White House/John F. Kennedy Library

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Going Gaga Over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

WP.Lady Gaga. 2010-09-21 at 4.54.10 PM

Notwithstanding the oratorical skills of Lady Gaga, the U.S. Senate voted today to block debate on a bill designed to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  It might be easy to lay the blame on the forty Republican Senators, bolstered by two renegade Democrats (plus the majority leader whose vote was a procedural ploy that allows him to reprise the bill at a later date), who voted against letting the bill come to the floor for debate, but that would be to ignore any number of complicating issues, such as efforts by the Democratic majority to add contentious amendments to the bill concerning immigration policy.  All of which is to say that its not exactly clear what specific interests were being served here on either side of the aisle.

One might imagine this as standard operating procedure for a legislative body that seems intent on letting partisan political self-interest stand in the way of national interest, and hardly worthy of note but for the presence of Lady Gaga.  What is interesting here is how the national media has given significant attention to her ersatz protest rally without fully recognizing the way in which her transparently self-conscious spectacle is not just an appeal for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but is also (and maybe more) a parody of the mass mediated political process itself.  To get the point, notice how many if not most of the reports on her rally are primarily if not exclusively photographic, almost to the exclusion of any consideration of what she actually had to say. The irony, of course, is that a quasi-faux rally cast as political spectacle received far more coverage than the presumably unintentional spectacle of actual Senators deciding the fate of the military.

Perhaps the most interesting representation of the Lady Gaga rally occurred in the pictures of the day slide show at the Washington Post.   Despite the possible significance of the Senate filibuster on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the pictures of the day at WAPO feature a photographer at a photo fair in France trying on a pair of 3-D glasses, a child in Slovenia sitting next to his friends on a curb and with a bucket on his head, and Bristol Palin displaying her legs in a PR shot for the television show “Dancing with the Stars.”  There are no pictures regarding the debate over gays in the military.  Or at least not at first glance.  But as one moves through the thirty seven images in the slide show one eventually comes across the above photo of Lady Gaga, public advocate, characterized as “rail[ing] against what she call[s] the injustice of having goodhearted gay soldiers booted from military service, while straight soldiers who harbor hatred toward gays are allowed to fight for their country.” The alternative she prefers, we are told, is to “target straight soldiers who are ‘uncomfortable’ with gay soldiers in their midst.” That the caption fails to acknowledge either the irony or the parody of Lady Gaga’s performance is underscored by the two photographs that follow.

The first of these photographs shows a “former” member of the Air Force taking a picture of the rally.

Standing Agsint the Flag for Lady Gaga 2010-09-21 at 11.07.37 PM

Perhaps he is one of those “good hearted gay soldiers,” but nothing in the photograph suggests as much.  Indeed the photograph suggests incoherence as much as anything. Shot in long distance we see only his face and hands as they peek up from behind a poster to take a picture for Twitter of the anonymous and faceless audience waving hands.  The background shows a large American flag, but its meaning is made ambiguous by the somewhat incomprehensible legend on the poster that implores the audience to “Leave them Speechless.”  Lacking any reference to context, the overall effect of the photograph is one of clutter and confusion. And as a result, the political and parodic effects of the rally are muted, or worse, made to appear senseless.

It is the second photograph, however, that by contrast politicizes the slideshow, suggesting an antidote to the apparently incoherent spectacle of Lady Gaga’s rally.

Leaving for Iraq2010-09-21 at 7.12.21 PM

Here we have a member of the Army National Guard preparing to leave for a training assignment in Texas and a subsequent deployment to Iraq.  Shot in medium close-up, a soldier (not a “former soldier”) and his wife say goodbye.  It is a tender moment.  The two lovers gaze into each others eyes as he offers solace by placing his left hand on top of her right wrist, while her right hand gently supports her chin in a gesture that suggests a degree of vulnerability.  It is hard to tell if she is smiling or crying, and probably she is doing a little of both given the stresses and strains of the impending separation.  He is apparently “straight,” but it is hard to imagine him harboring “hatred” towards anyone, let alone why he should be “targeted.  Indeed, though this is a scene of separation and not reunion, and while he is not a sailor nor she a nurse, one can nevertheless imagine them embracing in Time Square to the nodding approval of the public that views them.

And therein lies the problem. For what gives this photograph its affective power is the way in which it visually repeats the conventions of the famous Times Square Kiss. It not only foregrounds traditional, heteronormative assumptions, but it does so by valorizing a private moment in a public space.    Of course there is nothing especially new here.  We have long sought to manage our anxieties about war and the military by normalizing our understandings in the context of a sentimentalized heteronormativity.  To get the full effect, imagine two men or two women in the same pose.  And, that, of course, is the point.  Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Sentimentality, it seems, trumps parody … or at least in this case.  But in truth, both scenes are media spectacles that demand more careful attention than the tired and nonchalant glance they are too often given by contemporary media.

Photo Credits: Joel Page/Reuters, Pat Wellenbach/AP, Joe Jaszewski/AP

Crossposted at BagNewsNotes

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