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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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The Modern Condition

It has been a full year since Japan was overwhelmed by an earthquake and tsunami and like clockwork the major media slideshows have responded with a series of “then” and “now” photographs (e.g., here, here, and here) marking the slow but steady progress of an advanced society—in many regards a society much like our own—as it returns from utter devastation to a bustling, self-sustaining economy.  It has not fully returned, but it is on the path to recovery and the comparisons surely invite our sympathy and admiration.  In January we saw a similar set of visual comparisons (e.g., here) on the one year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, but with this difference: while it appears that Haiti has recovered some from the disaster, it continues to be an impovrished, utterly dependent, “other world” nation that invites neither our identification nor our sympathy so much as our pity.

The differences between Japan and Haiti are signified in a multiplicity of ways, not least in how the devastation in Japan seems to have been largely structural, effecting roads, bridges, buildings, and other forms of physical property, whereas the devastation in Haiti has been more social and economic, exacerbating an already starving, unemployed, uneducated, and generally impecunious population.  The above photograph is telling in this regard.  It is a photograph of lost photographs collected in a local school gymnasium in Natori, Japan, waiting for their owners to seek them out and recover them.  Some are quite obviously old, perhaps even antique, and thus mark a sense of historical continuity that spans generations and thus mitigates the impact of the more recent and comparatively minor “then”/”now” dialectic that commemorates no more than a span of twelve months.  But perhaps more importantly, these photographs are obviously cherished items, their value signified not just by the fact that they are framed and were thus objects of display in the home, but because they were patiently and laboriously culled from the detritus left behind by the earthquake and tsunami and collected with the hope that they would be found by their respective owners.

Collection centers such as the one above can be found throughout Japan, and some are down right enormous as in the photograph below which identifies a site that contains more than 250,000 photographs .  And the point should be clear: more than lost property, these lost photographs are quite clearly significant momento mori, cultural artifacts that identify the society that takes them and preserves them as a modern, technologically sophisticated, bourgeois civilization (not that one has to be bourgeois to take and keep photographs, and the practice of snapshot photography cuts across all economic classes where it is an established cultural convention, but it rarely occurs in societies that lack an established middle-class).

And so it is that when we turn to retrospectives of Haiti we don’t find the preservation of family photographs at all.  That is not to say that photographs are unimportant, but as with the image below, they signify not an established, modern cultural practice, but rather a modernist intervention of sorts.

Here a Haitian woman shows a photograph of herself as she was pulled from the rubble of a house that had fallen upon her. The photograph was taken by an AP photographer and then given to her.  It is clear that she values it, but importantly it is more a curiosity—or perhaps a marker of humanitarian aid—than a conventional cultural artifact, and as such it designates the society in which she lives as pre-technological if not in fact premodern.  One finds a similar curiosity and intrigue displayed and accented in photographs that show Haitian children (here and here) being introduced to cameras and photography by the Art in All of Us project.

The simple point would be to notice how two societies are distinguished by their attitudes towards photographic technology: one modern and mature, the other premodern and either immature or innocent, but in any case defined as childlike and needy.  But perhaps more important is the way in which the photographs above function in each instance as media that model social relations, inviting us to see and be seen as members of a social order driven by the differences that simultaneously separate us and connect us. That, perhaps more than anything, defines the modern condition.

Photo Credits:  Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images; Toru Hanai/Reuters; Dieu Nalio Chery/AP Photo

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The Silent Erasure of Executive Order 9066



Tule Lake, Minadoka, Heart Mountain, Grenada, Topaz, Rohwer, Jerome, Gila River, Poston, Manzanar: their names should be etched on our national consciousness as a reminder of how quickly fear can blind us to the “better angels of our nature” and activate the dark side of our democratic sensibilities.  But of course they are not; indeed, in all but a few cases the names are barely recognizable.   This week marks the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, President Franklin Roosevelt’s ignominious decision to “relocate” some 110,000 Japanese-Americans—over two thirds of whom were U.S. citizens—in the ten internment camps listed above and scattered throughout the western portion of the nation.   Roosevelt signed the order on February 19, 1942, and that the national media has chosen not to acknowledge the occasion of its anniversary only compounds the original tragedy by contributing to the erasure of its memory.

The photograph above was taken twelve years ago at Manzanar, a relocation camp located five miles south of Independence, California—the irony of its name should not escape us—and home to over 10,000 interned Japanese-American residents. The rusted and bent barbed wire that frames the landscape, emphasizing the wide open spaces and the big sky, is at home in the American west where it was a tool used to establish the boundaries of land ownership in an expansive frontier, and to contain and control cattle or other livestock.  Ordinarily such a framing of the landscape would not warrant a second look as perhaps anything more than a photographer’s affected representation of the relationship between nature and civilization.  But here, of course, the barbed wire is not a tool of civilization but a weapon of war, its purpose to imprison a race of people whose only crime was that they didn’t quite look like “us” and whose ethnicity identified them with a country that was at war with the United States.

When located in relationship to its proximate political history the focus invites us to shift our attention from the background to the foreground, from the majesty of the sky and the distant mountains to the violent protrusions of the barbs, from now to then. While all else seems to have been erased—the stables that were initially used to house humans, the eight guard towers that surrounded the compound and provided twenty-four hour surveillance, and indeed the compound itself—the barbs, cast almost but not quite in silhouette, linger as a twisted reminder of our own violent and unjust past, of what once was and risks being again if only because it risks being no more in our collective, public memory.

Photo Credit: Getty Images North America

Manzanar is now a national historical site maintained by the National Park Service.

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The Shame of Survival

The VA reports that 18 veterans commit suicide every day.  And last week the U.S. Army reported that the suicide rate among active duty soldiers has risen from 9.6 per 100,000 in 2005 to 24.1 per 100,000 in 2011. The number of attempted suicides is astronomically higher still and all out of proportion with the suicide rate among the civilian population.  Reports of all of this leak out from time to time, of course, but the tendency is to make the problem abstract by focusing on the aggregate and not so much on the individuals.  The numbers underscore the sheer magnitude of the problem, but at the same time they make it almost impossible to imagine the individual trauma … or perhaps the better word here would be “envision.”  And because the real effects of the problem are harder to see in the abstract, they are also easier to be blind to.  We are not inclined to quote totalitarians in the affirmative here at NCN, but Josef Stalin’s characterization of such situations is much to the point, “[o]ne death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.”  The situation is thus really something of a catastrophe: a problem that we don’t appear to know how to solve (assuming we exclude the obvious and refuse to eliminate the root cause, which is sending our young men and women to fight  such wars in the first place) and yet one that is so large and so present that the logic of its representation encourages us to acknowledge and ignore it simultaneously.

A large part of the difficulty is that it is virtually impossible to get photographs of actual suicides and one would surely have to challenge the ethics of taking such photographs if one could do so. And yet it is not sufficient to turn a blind eye to the situation.  A slideshow at the Denver Post titled “Welcome Home” is much to the point in this regard as it invites us to see into the life and mind of at least one contemporary war veteran and his struggles with readjusting to the civilian world.  Part of the story conveyed by the slideshow is the all too conventional tale  that the veteran’s return home is experienced as altogether lonely and alienating, and in any case anything but welcoming.  That narrative is no less true for being conventional, but the photograph above signals a second, more poignant and even more troubling story as well. Tattooed with what appears to be the face of death—a marking which it will turn out is probably not incidental—the wrist belongs to Brian Scott Ostrom, an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp’s Second Reconnaissance Battalion who served two tours of duty in Iraq.  Ostrom did not commit suicide, but as the fresh stitches that mark his wrist indicate, he made a serious attempt at doing so.  In fact, it was his second such attempt.  The question, of course, is why?

Like so many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ostrom suffers from PTSD, a psychological disorder that manifests itself in panic attacks and fits of rage that often lead to physical violence.  Frequently that violence is directed outwards at other people or physical objects, but just as often it is directed inward at an intractable guilt that simply never goes away—and, of course, that cannot be seen. Part of that guilt is a result of having voluntarily participated in a troglodyte world in which all empathy for the other is evacuated, a world in which there is no difference between doing’s one’s job and behaving in the most brutal ways imaginable … and yet, in Ostrom’s own words, not feeling bad for “anything I did over there,” but “for what I didn’t do.”

The words are as cryptic as is the face of death on Ostrom’s wrist.  But both take on an eerie and troubling significance when we recall something he said earlier in his narrative, reflecting on his PTSD, “I think it comes from the fact that I survived.  That wasn’t my plan.  It’s an honor to die for your country, but I made it home.”  And then this, “Every one of us has a suicide plan.  We all know how to kill, and we all have a plan to kill ourselves.”  What he didn’t do was to die for his country.  The words are as hard to hear as the photograph above is to look at.

But look at it we must, for in its own way it illustrates the problem faced by our returning war veterans writ large—a point emphasized by the fact that the hand itself is disembodied; it could belong to Ostrom (as it does) but it could belong to any of the thousands of returning veterans (or for that matter to those who might be inducted to fight in future wars):  Bred to kill and marked by death, our warriors are assimilated into a topsy-turvy world in which survival is a sign of failure, and doing one’s job well results in dishonor.  And there does not seem to be any way out except for one.   Perhaps the only wonder is that the suicide rate amongst our veterans is as low as it is.

Photo Credit: Craig F Walker/Denver Post.

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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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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Dirty Work and Combat’s Cyclical Seasons

By guest correspondent Jeremy Gordon

Seeing dirt in combat zones is nothing new.  In accounts of combat and its aftermath, terrain becomes a living entity, both working in terms of physical contact and mystical dimensions.  The grounds are alive, swallowing bodies in rice fields, suffocating men in trenches, and blinding convoys in deserts.  But they also offer places to cling to at the screams of a falling mortar round.  It is a sordid relationship, cyclical in nature, turning to dirt for safety and death, sorrow and elation of near misses.  There is a constant movement to and from the earth, going to it for safety and attempting to control its unruliness with concoctions and machinery, trying to keep tabs on it so it does note betray you.

Drawing lines in the sand with barbed wire is one such consistent method, as seen above.  The earth shakers on the highway in the background rumble by on pavement paying little heed to the mounds and bushes to the side.  Their pace is consistent as the space between the personnel carrier and the two other vehicles is fairly even, a measured and rational approach to traversing landscape.  They blur into the horizon with a linear direction and time.  The soldier nearest us wears no gloves, perhaps a sign of confidence and experience in the dirty work of war.  Not rushing, he bends over at the right distance so as not to be cut.  The gun is slacked on his back.  The pace and direction of the action is somewhat contradictory to the convoy, as there is a sense of care in the arrangement of the wire, a ritual that serves to form barriers between bodies and space, safety, and danger.  The wire then works as a frame, a barbed optic and cordoned view through which combat is expressed.

We might surmise that the optic changes post-deployment when treatments are scheduled and predictable, away from the dirt of the body, cleansed of pollution, pieces of trash stuck by barbs.  The move is away from the dirty work of war.  Maybe.

This image is part of a NYT slide show that accompanied a story about a veteran transition program training combat vets in organic farming.  Literally framed in terms of “dirty work,” the article cites a “veteran-centric” farming movement.  The “centric” thematic should not be ignored here, as now irrigation hoses, circular, yet tangled, frame our view of both men.  Soldiers still work to roll out and arrange, the optic is similar, but the relationship to dirt is much different.  The men maintain relaxed yet focused poses. The barbs are gone, but not the suspicion.  One looks directly back through the circle, the other ponders, arms folded, looking off to the distance with an air doubt.

The rural setting, tree-lined fields and fertile soil, its pace, and farming’s inherent concerns with seasons of circularity rather than linear narratives of completeness provide an optic through which we might reconsider hyper-rational cleansing narratives of post-combat trauma.  Here there is a circular patterns in which sorrow of death and joy of life are connected, where physical contact with dirt can be joined with mystical elements, linking bodily and soulful healing.

Such a cyclical approach to wholeness is not an escape from dirt but a shift in relation, from a season of wilting to a season of cultivation and rejuvenation.  Seeing the combat narrative this way then is not a story of Homer’s Odysseus and the treacherous journey from Troy to an end of the Odyssey, but an echo of the Hymn to Demeter.  Demeter was one of the earth gods in whose name a civic festival celebrating the cyclical nature of joy, sorrow, earth, agriculture, cultivation, and rejuvenation sought to change relationships to life and death, body and soul.  The earth, like Demeter, knows mourning and elation, and as such, rituals that joined these were deeply rooted in the rural, agrarian Mysteries of Eleusis, secret rites in which initiates’ were changed through experience of “kinship between soul and bodies.”  Rather than looking up, yearning to flee pollution and clean dirt from hands, changing our gaze only slightly reveals another optical style where unwinding wire brings us full circle, turning approaches to trauma to chances for labors of focused, relaxed, contingent, patient, and seasonal soiled work of rejuvenation.

Similus similibus curantur, loosely “relief by means of similars,” by means of unwinding coils of separation.

Photo Credits: Lushpix/StockPhotoPro; Sandy Huffaker/NYT

Jeremy Gordon is a graduate student in the program in Rhetoric and Public Culture, Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University. He can be contacted at jeregord@indiana.edu.

 

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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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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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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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