“The Condition of England” 2011

 2011 moment, New media, television, Visual Culture  Comments Off on “The Condition of England” 2011
Aug 112011

It was perhaps inevitable that the 2011 crisis of visuality would returned to its source. With the collapse of social order in England, the authority that visuality seeks to make palpable, necessary and right is in crisis where it was first named. As has become typical over the course of this tumultuous year, present-day events appear to be composed of an amalgam of past and present, to use Thomas Carlyle’s famous tag.

Layer one: the decayed “condition of England” (Carlyle).

On 9 August, Duke University Press tweeted Carlyle’s 1838 letter to his wife Jane, highlighting this line: “The distress of the country at present seems beyond expression. There will almost infallibly be riots and bloodshed before long.” In 1839, he published Chartism, stressing the “deep, dumb distress” of the working classes requiring not redress but leadership. So in On Heroes (1840), Carlyle called for heroic leadership, evidenced by “clear visuality,” which the mob could then follow.

Under Thatcher in the 1980s, there was much speculation as to what level of unemployment might make the country ungovernable–one, two and three million went by and, while there were uprisings in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere, there was no sense that authority was in danger. With over one million people between the ages of 16 and 24 alone now unemployed in the UK, there is a permanent underclass. The map of London disturbances (to use the carefully neutral term) makes that class briefly visible:

Google mash-up from the Guardian (8-9-11) showing recent incidents

This is neither fashionable London, where the media folk and politicians live, nor the old working-class East End. It’s a mix of inner and outer borough linked by blight, neglect, poverty and rule by police. All Middle England wants from these people is that they, somehow, go away.

Layer two: pre-and post-panopticism

Carlyle’s detestation for all “Benthamee [Benthamite] constitutions” and liberal responses to crime was extreme in 1840 and mainstream by 1865. Thatcherism’s distaste for the poor as moral failures was similarly extreme in 1975 and is now standard. In response to the disorder, Prime Minister David Cameron epitomized the attitude of Middle England in saying “there are pockets of our society that are not just broken but are frankly sick.” He continues in High Tory fashion to deny any link between social injustice and street revolts.

Carlyle wanted those he saw as unreformable deported to the colonies. Cameron blusters about young people being tried as adults. An 11-year-old was detained overnight in the cells yesterday for allegedly “looting” a wastepaper basket.

Panoptic surveillance was not going to reform the criminal in Carlyle’s view, one now shared by British police who use the world’s most extensive CCTV camera network for detection only, not prevention. The cuts in numbers of police will go ahead, despite the unrest, because of the continued faith in this technology.

Pictures from Birmingham CCTV cameras circulated by UK police

In watching this YouTube video of an electrical store being looted in Manchester, several aspects of the events are apparent.

People are not out of control here. There are more spectators than participants. What’s happening is vandalism and theft: it’s not the end of civilization. Notably, there’s no police presence here, as in so many cases. Ironically, Manchester police had been sent to London to keep the peace there, a seemingly endless stream of police vans being shown on British TV.

Although 16,000 police were deployed in London, the normal “move on, there’s nothing to see here” condition failed to refresh. It was only on the fifth night that events petered out, from a combination of mass policing, street exhaustion and perhaps a sense that there was nothing left to take.

Layer three: social media

Print culture was crucial to the emergent radicals of the nineteenth-century from the newspaper to the radical pamphlet and the Captain Swing letters.

A bill advertising a reward for the capture of "Swing"

While there has been much outrage about the possible usages of social media, especially Blackberry BBM messages, there’s no real evidence yet that these messages were in fact instrumental in directing actions on the ground. The BBC and other media have nonetheless lost no time in relaying any violent sounding message they can find.

What was equally and undeniably visible across Facebook, Twitter and comments online was a palpable hatred from Middle England for their underclass.  The word most often used was “feral,” echoed in the tabloids, where rioters were called “wild beasts.” The nineteenth-century fear and disgust for the “dangerous classes” has returned, perhaps reinforced by the sense that there is no political threat from the underclass unlike the once-organized working class.

“Looters are Scum” read a much-photographed homemade T-shirt worn by Clapham music promoter Hayley Miller woman on one of the cleaning-up brigades.

As published in The Sun, Hayler Miller in Clapham, London

Across social media there were calls for the use of plastic bullets and water cannon–they worked so well in Northern Ireland after all. As things quietened, comments turned to calls for those involved to lose their housing and benefits–again, it’s hard to see how having a new, utterly impoverished homeless population would help.

For many of us, this attitude was epitomized by BBC broadcaster Fiona Armstrong shouting down Darcus Howe, nephew of CLR James, editor of the journal Race and Class and, as he says here, a 68 year-oldgrandfather:

Like Darcus Howe, I’m not trying to condone or excuse what happened in England this week. I’m saddened by all of it, the fact that people felt this was the only way they could get noticed, the lack of a political direction to what they chose to do, and perhaps above all by the vitriolic response.

For shouldn’t the fact that the only things those who took to the streets could think to take were televisions, cigarettes and alcohol in itself give us pause? No one stole a car. Or a Paul Smith suit. There was a lot harrumphing that Waterstones bookshop chain was one of the few shops not vandalized. But that’s exactly the point: cars, suits, books and the like don’t interpellate (call to) the structural underclass. Over thirty years of neo-liberalism that has made London the most divided city in terms of financial wealth worldwide has produced a neo-colonial imaginary in which the Orientalized underclasses have, in a very British way, their place properly designated and they recognize it: watching TV, while having a drink and cig.


May 082011

After the killing of Usama bin Laden, there has been a palpable desire for something to see. Having decided not to release photographs of the operation itself, the U. S. government released an assortment of video clips to the news media today, as if to serve that need. While much attention is being visited on bin Laden’s rather routine flub of his lines for a video recording, it seems from one of the other clips that bin Laden was better networked than we were previously told. Given the large satellite dish visible in pictures of the compound, it’s not surprising that he had TV.

bin Laden choosing channels

In this still, I can clearly read channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya but also BBC World and BBC Arabic, Dubai TV and so on. The TV was linked to some kind of modem:

bin Laden's TV set up

Any techies out there know what that is? He certainly made some interesting viewing selections in the clips we have been shown. It appears that he watched the U. S. Congress, as the screen appears to show the House of Representatives in the manner used by the networks when a vote is in progress. And he seems to have watched Hillary Clinton at work:

Here’s the screen in detail:

Hillary Clinton on bin Laden's TV

I can’t be sure it’s her, but it certainly looks like it: it might be quite an old clip, as it looks as if she’s chairing a Senate committee, so it would be before 2009, when she became Secretary of State.

Finally, in this brief but rather remarkable video, we can see that bin Laden had access to reasonably modern computer equipment, like this flat screen monitor:

A computer in bin Laden's compound

The fact that whoever took these pictures wanted to show clips of bin Laden watching himself, as stressed in the media, is open to many interpretations: it may be that this is what bin Laden liked to do, or it may have been a setup for the video shoot.

Taken together, all of this suggests that even the most recent assertions that bin Laden was isolated in his compound seem highly dubious: whether he had direct Internet access or not, he was clearly part of the contemporary communications world. As anyone who has cable knows, there must have been several visits to set up and later update the equipment. All of which suggests that the idea that the entire world was shocked to discover where he had been for the past six years or so cannot be true.

Watch this space:)


The Persistence of Race

 television, Visual Arts, Visual Culture  Comments Off on The Persistence of Race
May 022011

I find I can’t get past the Birther fiasco but I’m not altogether sure why. It’s not as if the toxicity of the racism thereby both released and affirmed is–sadly–a surprise, even if some of us had hoped that 2008 suggested something new. So palpable was it that even some liberal bastions like the New Yorker finally admitted that race was a part of Obama-hating. The Times restored order on Sunday with one of those “move on, nothing new to see here” pieces.

I think that my worry is how to respond. This is an old history: if visuality was and is a colonial technique, racialization is one of its key components, serving both to classify and separate. That these formerly legalized distinctions continue to operate under the rubric of the “aesthetic” (in the sense of what is felt to be right) is a key tenet of what I am now calling critical visuality studies. Does it help to know this? Can we say that we are equipped to respond to mediated racism? So I took a walk around some downtown galleries to see what’s happening.

First stop: Chris Marker, the film director, has a show of digital photographs called Passagers, that is to say, Passengers. The passengers in question are riding on the Paris Metro and they are for the most part visually identifiable as either immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the former French colonies.

Chris Marker, Passager

These are striking images, with a strong emphasis on formal beauty, while making the physical exhaustion of subaltern labor in the neocolonial metropole all too visible. Marker’s goal, however, is a renewed univeralism. In order to make sure you don’t miss the point, he draws resemblances to works of the classical Western canon.

Marker, Passager [After Ingres]

The resemblance between this young woman and the Ingres portrait inset at top right might serve to recall all those anonymous women who sat for the “Masters,” such as the African woman known only as Jeanne who appears in Manet’s Olympia, currently being celebrated yet again at the musée d’Orsay. I’m not sure that this gain is worth the erasure of all the differences, all the histories and, once again, all the names.

A few blocks away, Kara Walker has new video work on show. Walker was the subject of a famous controversy within the African American arts world, when Betye Saar and Howardena Pindell actively campaigned against her work as debasing the Civil Rights struggle. It’s hard not to assume that Obama would agree, with his careful evocation of Dr. King and 1960s style. Not to mention the selection of a Glenn Ligon to hang in the White House, which uses a 1961 text from John Howard Griffin’s memoir Black Like Me: “All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence.”

Glenn Ligon, Black Like Me

The explicit violence and sexuality depicted in Walker’s work seems a polar opposite to Ligon’s conceptual cool. And her two location show downtown is in fact a counterpoint to Ligon’s current mid-career retrospective at the Whitney under the title America. Watching Walker’s wrenching video Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale in this moment is not easy but it is perhaps necessary. The piece uses her signature cut-out silhouettes to negotiate the interface of sexuality and violence that fueled lynching.

Kara Walker, still from "Fall Frum Grace"

The figure above is the White Man (my title), who is one of Miss Pipi’s partners, as we see in typically graphic (pun intended) Walker style. The White Man instigates a lynching of the young African Man (I call him that because his head is stylized a mask), Miss Pipi’s more experimental (and well-endowed) partner. So far, so Walker. Then we see a photograph from the terrible lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, in which the charred corpse hangs amidst a smiling crowd. Just as jarring in its own way, Walker sets the African Man’s figure on fire and we see her cutout flame and shrivel.

The scene exemplifies the successes and failures of her work. The burning figure is shocking, where the photograph is revolting, bringing out the difficulties in describing responses to violence. Yet the use of Jesse Washington–a 17-year-old accused of rape and murder convicted in one hour by an all-white jury in 1916–is troubling. The archetypal story of (the male fantasy of) white womanhood told until this point collides with a real history that was very different. Perhaps that’s the point. But unless you know this history, the photograph simply appears unexplained as one of a series of period images. At the same time, the sheer violence that any threat to white supremacy generates in this country, its intensity and dismembering fury, cannot be historicized away or neatly explained. You could argue that it has retained all its force since Reconstruction, even if it ebbs and flows.

Walker herself counterpoints this work with a short Minimalist video entitled Levee.

Kara Walker, still from Levee

By way of visual guide: the top black space is simply the wall but at the bottom, the black mass is the levee, filmed in Friars Point, Mississippi, a small town on the Mississippi-Arkansas border, an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Memphis. The dawn footage seems to presage some drama: another act of violence, or a levee breach, as is currently feared upriver in Missouri. Nothing happens. A country village. Trees. Dawn.

Joseph Kosuth, 'Texts (Waiting for-) for Nothing' Samuel Beckett, in play"

I was late catching the first episode of the new season of David Simon’s HBO series Treme, which I watched after going to the galleries. In a key scene, the musician Delmond has a heated argument with other jazz players in New York about New Orleans music. The New Yorkers see it as nothing more than “minstrelsy,” while Delmond calls it an “American living tradition.”  In a different register, this is the same discussion: how do we deal with the past and its violences? Treme clearly sides with Delmond. On a recent visit to New Orleans, I saw the Algiers Marching Band doing a wedding party parade: all the musicians were African American, all the dancers were white. The music was amazing, though, and there were great buskers outside the Café Beignet. I saw some very drunk white men beat up an African American man.  I can’t go on. I’ll go on.


Stage direction from Waiting for Godot, produced by Paul Chan, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, LA. Note the Industrial Canal wall in the background which failed after Katrina. And the satellite dish.

It’s Not Over

 2011 moment, counterinsurgency, television, Visual Culture  Comments Off on It’s Not Over
Apr 292011

It’s not over. What isn’t? Neither that which we’d like to be over, nor the things we want to see flourish. The conjunction of the the U. S. reconfiguration of counterinsurgency, with the Palestinian regrouping in the face of the popular revolts, and the denouement of the Birther fiasco made for a remarkable global media day on Thursday 27 April.

Recalling Gen. Petraeus to DC and sending Leon “Drone” Panetta to the Pentagon amounts to an official statement that the “surge” mode of counterinsurgency, with massive costs and troops on the ground, is giving way to the UAV model of remote-controlled robot assassination, in order to keep the lid on insurgencies and budgets alike. Even the war in Libya was turned over to Predator drones this week, which launched yet another unsuccessful attack on Gaddafi’s compound.

Counterinsurgency has completed its turn away from the spectacular “image wars” of Shock-and-Awe vintage to the “invisible” war of UAVs, no-fly zones, satellite monitoring and so-called “Black” ops. The Wikileaks Guantanamo files made it clear what this means: those named by  desperate people in detention under extreme duress become targets for elimination. We are so far from the Panopticon that not only is there no intent to reform anyone, there is no legal possibility to even put them on trial. U.S. prosecutors could imagine only 20 cases being brought. So the remaining detainees linger in colonial limbo.

This is not, however, to say that counterinsurgency is simply in the ascendant. With the revolutionary ferment spreading to Syria and with Yemen on the brink of regime change, the Palestinian factions reconciled rather than face revolt from below. It was Egyptian diplomacy that made this change possible, making it clear that, while there is a great deal to be done, the fall of Mubarak was not simply cosmetic. The jailing of the Mubarak clan has resonated around the region–ironically, the Panopticon is, however briefly and instrumentally,  the tool of the “people.”

In the U. S., events seem curiously isolated from global change. The fiasco in which the President had to produce his long-form birth certificate was eloquently condemned by the comedian Baratunde Thurston on YouTube, a post that quickly went viral.

Thurston described his sense of being “humiliated” by this moment, evoking as it did past poll taxes, literacy tests and other demarcations that African Americans were not considered citizens as of right. My (mostly white) students echoed the sentiment, finding it “embarrassing” and “ridiculous.” Trump has gone on a national celebration tour because depressing our side is what this is all about. In this country, it seems that the image war is still on.

So it’s not over: not the revolution, but also not counterinsurgency, and not yet even the image wars. I think we should find this hopeful: if it’s not over, then intervening can make a difference. Hope was sold in 2008 as easy, an immaterial commodity that could be obtained by pressing a lever or clicking a link. We’re finding out how hard it is, but how critical it can be.

Counterinsurgency TV

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Mar 272011

After nine days of warfare, President Obama has deemed the new war worthy of our attention with a broadcast on Libya on Monday at 7.30 EDT. We have so many wars going on, it seems there isn’t even time to get on TV and announce the newest one. I’m drafting this review  ahead of the actual speech because it’s not too hard to guess what will have been said. Really, once the speech is announced, there’s almost no need to give it.

President Obama addresses the nation

Obama will talk in the overly rapid way he uses on these occasions, intended perhaps to convey “man of action,” but revealing more clearly that he’s just rattling through to the end, performing a task he’d rather not have to do. When he speaks in public, he takes his time and makes good use of pauses. He’ll also use a strange little chopping gesture with his left hand, no doubt focus-grouped to demonstrate decisiveness. It distracts from what he’s saying and you end up waiting for the next one.

There will be bromides to “our brave men and women in uniform.” Not to challenge the personal courage of these people in any way, but this mission is one where the “Allies” get to play bully in the playground. We will hear of “progress,” measured by the news that Mafeking has been relieved, I’m sorry, make that Ras Lanuf or one of the other small Libyan towns very few of us knew existed ten days ago.

Then it will be stressed that the mission is “limited,” but that the dictator al-Khalifa, I’m sorry, Gaddafi must fall. It will be emphasized that the U. S. has as good as left, before it even officially arrived via Presidential broadcast. In short, this is not a war but if it was one, it’s already over. Except if by any chance it isn’t, then NATO are running it, and we all know how independent NATO is from the U. S.

A quick shout-out to Hillary Clinton–remember the women’s vote in 2012!–and then it’ll be off for a world tour of the other wars, which will be going just fabulously well. A mere eight years after intervening in Iraq for a lightning quick regime change, the U. S. will be about to leave. Or have we already left, I forget? Afghanistan! we’re as good as out of there, because we know that the Pakistanis know where Osama is, and they know that we know, and so that’s ok.

For all the satire, this unwatched and unoriginal broadcast serves to reinforce the imperial dimension to global counterinsurgency (GCOIN) that had seemed vulnerable in the wake of Afghanistan’s palpable failure. The benefit of the Libyan mission, as GCOIN boosters from John McCain to David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were quick to see, is that here the “Allies” can play Afghanistan Light. A “failed state” subject to the dominion of militia groups organized via personal obligations and hierarchies can, it is hoped, be quickly subjected to domination from the air, using digitized machines. The aspiration is a re-run of Gulf War 1991, an easy techno-triumph to restore the luster, not of the New World Order touted by Bush 41, but of the “Global Counterinsurgency.”

Feel free to scorecard these predictions in the comments section (which will all be approved, BTW, it’s moderated only to keep the spammers out). More serious remarks on atomic countervisuality on Tuesday.

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