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Sight Gag: In the Name of “Limited Government”

Credit: Mike Luckovich

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

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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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Visual Traces of a Democratic Public Culture

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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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The Softer Side of War

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The military is a brotherhood.  The battlefield a cauldron of male bonding.  And so it is that we are accustomed to thinking that war is men’s work.  “Real” men’s work.  So much so that even the thought of a homosexual in camouflage is enough to make some in the Pentagon almost apoplectic as they seek to explain the deleterious effect such “integration” would have on unit cohesion.  And generally, the conventional wisdom goes, women are really no less problematic inasmuch as they create “distractions” that disrupt the fragile ecology of the band of brothers. As the photograph above suggests, however, one solution to this problem is to have all-female units, a band of sisters, as it were, who might lend a softer touch in the battle for the hearts and minds of  those whose land we have chosen to occupy by military force.

This photograph leads off a slide show at the NYT titled “The Female Marines” that tells the story of a group of women warriors who have been attached to the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment in the Helmand Province with the express purpose of “engaging” Afghani women.  The assumption, apparently, is that gender trumps nationalism, and when Afghani women encounter other women they will see past their uniforms and body armor—as well as the fact that they are carrying high powered, automatic weapons—and they will identify with them as women.

The premise relies on a cultural reductionism that is altogether implausible, if not downright absurd given the circumstances of the American occupation of Afghanistan.  And so one has to wonder about photographs such as this one, which show the “engagement team” sitting on the floor in an Afghani home, drinking tea and playing with a toddler while members of the family look on.

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The photograph has all the qualities of a snapshot in which the principals studiously avoid acknowledging the camera so as to feign a natural or candid moment. But there is nevertheless a tension in the image that belies the illusion of a comfortable identification between the family and its “visitors.”  Note, for example, how all but the toddler—who presumably has no knowledge or experience that would signal danger or caution—holds back from any direct interaction with the marines. And notice in particular the boy who stands deep in the back corner, his line of sight riveted upon the automatic weapon that sits on the rug in the middle of the floor.  It is hard to know exactly what he is thinking, but it seems unlikely that he is counting his blessings that the people who have taken over his home are women and not men.

That wars such as the one we are fighting in Afghanistan are a struggle for hearts and minds is obvious, and it should give us serious pause as we continue to commit to the use of military force as a way of overcoming the influence of the Taliban in a country that has withstood occupation for centuries.  But more, we need to challenge the notion that such force and occupation can be made less noxious or troublesome—let alone more successful—by trying to feminize it.  In the end, female marines with guns are, well, simply marines with the guns.

Photo Credit:  Lynsey Addano/NYT.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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Seeing Gender in Transition

By guest correspondent Emily Dianne Cram

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Two children in Afghanistan play in an alleyway between two houses.  The child on the left awkwardly turns forward while looking back towards the viewer.  The child, whose name is Mehran appears to be running toward a place in the distance where bodies blur almost indistinguishably from one another.  Or maybe Mehran is running away from the spectator watching the scene unfold.  Whether moving towards or away from particular coordinates, the important point to note is that the viewer of the photograph sees Mehran suspended in what appears to be a moment of stasis, yet simultaneously always moving.

Mehran’s story is one of several featured in a recent New York Times essay and slide show that chronicles a practice known as “bacha posh,” in which female-bodied youth pass as boys to secure their families’ status within their communities.  The title of the essay—“Afghan Boys are Prized, So Girls Live the Part”—cues the spectator habits the “gender abroad” genre typically evokes: condemnation of a misogynistic practice.  Yet, such a judgment seems problematic if we take another look from a perspective that troubles how we think about gender.

What is remarkable about the slide show is the banality of bacha posh in a cultural context Westerners typically see as marked by strict gender segregation.  In the image, below, Azita Rafaat, a member of Parliament, leans down to address Mehran, who dresses as a boy.

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The entire scene invokes the narrative of a mother attempting to quiet and contain an unruly child in public. Rafaat’s hand curls firmly around Mehran’s shoulder as she demands the child’s attention with what appears to be a stern look. Rafaat reacts with an expression that is in equal parts puzzlement and discontent.  What is especially distinctive about the photograph is how Mehran’s white clothes blend into the bodies of the men in the background, while Rafaat, shrouded in black, awkwardly ushers the child through the scene.  And what we get is something of an allegory for the often confusing norms of public and private behavior that implicate the equally confusing norms of gender and sexual identity as they manifest in their local contexts. And in the end, Mehran’s particular identity hangs in the balance.

These photographs illustrate how gender in particular is a way of moving one’s way through the world to produce forms of social relationality.  Yet, this view is contingent on seeing gender as a permeable category that people use as a means of building their communities.  Accordingly, gender is an embodied act, something that is done to produce a relation to others in the world.  This perspective enables us to see gender in transition, and how cultural practices often exceed the strict binaries of male/female and woman/man.  Perhaps if we take our everyday embodied violations of categories more seriously, we can see the work gender does in a different light, rather than rush to judgments about others.

And yet, the act of seeing gender in transition is imbued with its own paradoxes.  In the photograph below Zahra, a girl who has passed as a boy since childhood, gazes pensively through sheer curtains towards a bright, sunlit day.

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The juxtaposition between the shadows behind Zahra’s back and the white light greeting “hir”* face and torso suggests that the secret past is coming to an end.  Part of bacha posh is a transition into womanhood and the rites of marriage and motherhood.  For Zahra and others, such a transition is difficult and at times undesirable because of the way their bodies sediment a particular way of being with others.  Another look shows Zahra gazing towards an inevitable future with a sense of heavy dread, and we learn not only of hir desire to live as a boy, but that s/he has never “felt like a girl.”

Zahra’s story shows the contingency of gender, and the heartbreak that emerges when one’s own desires for a particular embodiment conflict with community norms and practices.  This tension is endemic to the human condition, one that we all embody as we attempt to find the way our bodies fit into spaces of the world.

* “Hir” is a neutral pronoun that serves as one alternative to the gender binaries embedded in the English language.  I choose to use “hir” in this case because of the way Zahra describes hir embodiment: female bodied, yet desiring a male public presentation. “Hir” emerges from a transgender critique of language, a perspective that understands the limits of and inventional potential of language in articulating the complexity of embodiment.

Photo Credit: Adam Ferguson/NYT

Emily Dianne Cram is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Indiana University, and her research engages the intersections of visual culture, embodiment, and gender and sexuality.  She can be contacted at emcram@indiana.edu.

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