Occupy Climate Change!

 Climate Change, Occupy Wall St, sustainability, Visual Culture  Comments Off on Occupy Climate Change!
Dec 212011

Occupy climate change! Why? Because the transformations that Occupy seeks in social and economic life are the same as those needed to sustain conditions suitable for human and non-human life on our planet. So the phrase “occupy climate change” is correctly understood to mean “the political economy of sustaining the biosphere and the cultural imaginary.” This hybrid form might be called “prosperity without growth,” a way of life that promotes the greatest collective well-being without raising either fossil fuel consumption or standard models of gross national product.


Occupy COP17

Rural Women Association demonstrate at Occupy COP 17

The official UN climate change talks held in December at Durban (South Africa), known as COP17, maintained the status quo, undertaking merely to begin setting an emissions framework in 2015 to take effect in 2020. Like the police so much in evidence these days, such governance says to us “move on, there’s nothing to see here.”

In response, indigenous and first nation peoples  joined with climate and social justice activists to occupy the convention. Barely mentioned in mainstream US media, the Occupiers issued a statement read at Liberty Square, New York, on December 3, Global Climate Justice Day: “The same financial, corporate and political institutions that caused the financial crisis are poised to seize control of our atmosphere, our forests, our agricultural lands and water. We will fight for our survival and not allow the elite to enter into a suicide pact for future generations.”

It is both striking and ironic in a humorless way that Brookfield, the owners of Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square, are also planning the pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil to the US, an action that NASA scientist James Hansen has described as “game over” for the atmosphere.

Tar Sands banner at Occupy COP17

The one percent tells us that climate is a future concern, but the present must be devoted to public austerity and private profit. We retort: climate change is here, it is now, and it is the action of the one percent.

Climate change is here: the climate system is planetary in ways that humans are still learning to understand. While current predictions show that those most responsible for emissions, such as the US and China, will not be systemically affected as much as Africa and the Pacific Small Island Nations, no one is escaping the rise in intense weather events.

During Hurricane Irene, it emerged that a storm surge of only four feet over normal highs would inundate lower Manhattan. The effects of the gradual sea level rise caused by climate change render such high intensity events likely to be annual, rather than once a century. Soon, the only way to occupy Liberty Square will be to swim.

Climate change is now: 2010 saw the single greatest rise in warming gas emissions in human history. The International Energy Authority, big oil boosters in the ordinary way, have calculated that, because of new power plant construction already underway, we have until 2017 to stop the increase in emissions. The rhetoric across US politics that climate change is something we should worry about for the sake of our children or even grandchildren is, then, disastrously misplaced.

Paradoxically, the moment of eviction is the perfect time to occupy climate change. The more that our ideas, rather than our encampments, are the center of the movement, the more they need to think about the connections between the local and the global. It’s estimated that there will be some 250 million climate migrants. Across the Pacific Small Island States from Kiribati in the West to Tuvalu in the South and the Carteret Islands in the East, people are already abandoning islands and settlements.

The island of Huni, split into two by rising sea levels

Some are flooded, others made uninhabitable by the salination of the soil. We stand for their right to occupy their homes, the places where they choose to be, just as we support the right to occupy the commons.

Indeed, the political invisibility of climate change within the current system, even as the actual consequences of ongoing climate change become more and more apparent, is the refusal to accept that the planetary majority has an equal claim to the right to existence. This is the first claim in the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth made at Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2008 by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change as part of their campaign for the “decolonization of the atmosphere.”

The failure of the UN process has led to the perception of an emerging climate apartheid, in which a small minority both generates the plurality of emissions and suffers the least consequences from the resulting climate change. That is to say, it’s not a question of “making” climate change a political issue: it already is one, embedded in the patterns of global underdevelopment and oppression.

The standard developed nation mainstream reaction to such events is a ‘more in sorrow than anger’ shake of the head: and then we carry on, there’s nothing to see here. What Pacific small islands, developing nations, indigenous peoples and the global majority living on less than $2 a day have long known is that for the abstract form of finance capital we are all, to cite the Micronesian activist Juan Aguon, “disposable humanity.”

Now, after the evictions, we need to turn around, to see that the space we are contesting is an island and the waters are rising. The refusal of the global one per cent to recognize the existence and relevance of such claims is not a denial or a delusion but a political strategy and a choice. As so many have come to realize, the last best hope is the global occupy movement. It’s the G 7 Billion not the G 20 who can make the changes necessary to sustain the biosphere. No election, no cleverly worded document, no demand, no image will forestall this decision to press on regardless. It’s up to us now: then again, it always was.

NOTE: a slightly different version of this piece was published in Occupy!

The Force of Law #OWS

 counterinsurgency, Occupy Wall St, Visual Culture  Comments Off on The Force of Law #OWS
Nov 162011

For the past few days, Occupy locations have reverberated to the sound of the force of law. I mean this literally. I was awakened at 3.30am on November 15 by the sound of what I think were helicopters above lower Manhattan. The combination of police barricades and the closure of the subways meant that no one could get closer to the eviction of Zuccotti Park. Even the airspace was closed, not to prevent the Occupy air force from deploying but to keep out the news channel helicopters. Once again, we are reminded to “move on, there’s nothing to see here.”

The eviction created a new hybrid by categorizing political protest as a health and safety issue, and then responding to it with the weapons of counterinsurgency. The OWS site  was suddenly flooded with klieg lighting, blinding those trying to sleep. From the Twitter feed, email and later news accounts, it’s also emerged that Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) were used to disperse the crowd with painful sound blasts. The LRAD was developed as a weapon of counterinsurgency after the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 by al-Qai’da and is now mounted on certain NYPD vehicles. After a set of legal maneuvers, the park was opened to the public, with the stipulation that no one can sleep there. The result was that “anyone found lying down and even a few of those who tried to sleep sitting up were woken by security guards for Brookfield Properties.” The private corporation now has its own security force on the streets of New York, rendering Zuccotti into the latest outpost of Baghdad-Kabul Inc., the 60 billion-a-year cash-fest for private security firms. In the business pages today, Brookfield just sold a building in New Jersey for $377 million: the realtor took out a congratulations ad.

Clearing a way for Brookfield

In short, we have a full range of counterinsurgency tactics being deployed from noise and light violence to sleep deprivation and the now infamous destruction of books.

Reverting to its standard deference to counterinsurgency, the New York Times described how:

The mayor and his advisers had grown fed up with their inability to police the park, with complaints about noise, disruptions to businesses and odors, and with a leaderless movement that they just could not figure out how to deal with.

Never mind that recent articles had shown there were more complaints about the noise from Ground Zero building work than from Zuccotti. Or that most of the failings here are on the city side: an inability to police must not be tolerated.

A few miles northwest of Zuccotti is the Cardozo Law School where Jacques Derrida delivered his epic essay “The Force of Law” in 1989. Reading an early essay by Walter Benjamin Critique of Violence (1921), Derrida pointed out that it is only in English that one can speak of “enforcing” the law. Both writers showed that law is, in the last analysis, only force but that it does everything it can to sustain what Montaigne long ago called “the mystical foundation of authority.” It is that claim to authority, the ability to determine the relation between the sayable and the visible, which I have called visuality.

NY Times photo showing klieg lights in action

If this deconstruction is what one might expect from Derrida, his conclusion pushed beyond the scholastic definitions of “politics” and “theory” to show why Occupy is perceived as a threat to the state that requires counterinsurgency tactics. Developing Benjamin’s assertion that a general strike is “the right to use force”–which is not at all the same as violence–on the part of labor in the same way that the state claims the right to enforce law, Derrida asserted:

There is something of the general strike, and thus of the revolutionary situation in every reading that founds something new and that remains unreadable in regard to established canons and norms of reading that is to say the present state of reading of what figures the State, with a capital S, in the state of possible reading.

For Bloomberg, the New York Times and the other mediatic apparatus of the one percent, Occupy is and remains unreadable so it must be eliminated as pollution.

Asserting at his press conference that the decision to evict was “mine alone,” Bloomberg sought to restore the authority of the State for his one percent class. His comment made it clear first that he wished to be regarded as the heroic leader, justifying his claim to authority; and that he had simply decided in the manner of King George and consulted no lawyers or other functionaries, let alone the lonely occupant of the White House, who once again missed his opportunity.

Bloomberg’s action was then a classic admission of failure, the failure to understand and communicate. In an indication of the absurdity of it all, the simple tent has now become the latest purported weapon of insurgency, banned from Zuccotti–but not Union Square, where a large tented holiday market is up until December 25. Tents were even banned from sale anywhere near the Occupy London site at St Paul’s Cathedral. Today the City of London Corporation filed an eviction notice to Occupy London, specifically indicating that “the Orders sought will not prevent lawful and peaceful protest in this general area and is directed at the tents and other structures.” Serious legal debate is being pursued relating to the right to bear sleeping-bags.

When the veil was banned in France, the performance duo Niqabitch parodied the ban by wearing a niqa with miniskirts.

On the N17 demonstrations, and thereafter, let’s wear tents in whatever way we can.[UPDATE: 12/5/11] This idea was obvious to many and “bring a tent” has become part of Occupy rhetoric. However, the police have turned even this apparently humorous effort to “wear a tent” as the opportunity for violence as this video from Occupy Melbourne shows:

The violation of her right to privacy is emphasized by her repeated assertion that “this is not consensual.” As Laurie Penny puts it:

It’s the sense of ritual humiliation that’s truly chilling. It’s the pointlessly brutal demonstration of who is weak and who is strong in this game, and the grim, sour humourlessness of it all.

Benjamin understood the general strike to be different from an ordinary strike “in the determination to resume only a wholly transformed work, no longer enforced by the state, an upheaval that the strike not so much causes as consummates.” In this way, most of the strikes cited by Rosa Luxemburg in her 1906 pamphlet on the general strike were local, spontaneous actions. These strikes were “general” not because everyone took part but because their aim was a general transformation and renunciation of domination. Benjamin saw this vision of revolt as not being violent but rather as “deep, moral, and genuinely revolutionary.” The right to look. The invention of the other. Or even, as Arundhati Roy put it today to OWS, “the right to dream.”


“Mic check!”

General assembly, sparkly hands, consensus, concern, temperature check, block, process: this is the vocabulary and embodied performance of occupy theory. Each word has an equivalent embodied gesture, which is the means of indicating how you’re feeling about a proposal: fingers up for feeling good, horizontal for not sure, down for against.

The strongest sign is raised, crossed arms for a block: an ethical or safety concern over a proposal that might cause you to leave the movement. Proposals are “consens-ed” by facilitators so that a clear majority approve. It’s not always quick but it is always interesting. It’s occupy theory.

Don’t make the phrase into a noun: it’s not a theory of occupation. Occupy theory is what you do as you occupy. It is the process that has become in some sense the purpose of the direct democracy movement, known by its signature instance Occupy Wall Street, or #ows.

There have been a variety of star theory people come to Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street is based, and to Occupy Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village from Zizek to Spivak and Andrew Ross. Given the performative nature of occupy theory, it’s not surprising that—to judge from the Twitterstorm and Facebook frenzy—it has been Judith Butler who best captured the moment.

She presented a set of demands for the impossible, echoing the Situationist slogan “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” Seen in printed form, in which the line breaks represent a pause for the “human mic” that has become a signature of the movement, Butler’s talk is a prose poem.

So what is this occupy in occupy theory? While occupation of public and private spaces is a long tradition of industrial protest movements, there have been concerns from indigenous and Palestinian groups about the term “occupy.” In New Mexico, they have neatly re-rendered the term as “(Un)occupy.” So somewhere between occupy and un-occupy—or more exactly oscillating between them—is occupy theory. It’s the latest version of what I have called the “right to look,” which is at once the invention of the other and the consent for the other to invent you.

The first claim of the right to look is the right to existence, the right to be seen to exist. The people posting on “We Are the Ninety-Nine Per Cent,” a collaborative blog, have used the webcam format to have their stories told and made visible. These assembled self-portraits together present a set of claims. The individual self-photograph transforms a data point within the statistics of debt, unemployment and insurance disaster into a person. This person is not performed for the sake of pity or charity but as a constituent member of the emerging “people.” As Rancière has put it, “a ‘people’ of this kind is not an assemblage of groups and social identities. It is a polemical form of identification that is drawn along particular lines of fracture, where the distribution of leaders and led, learned and ignorant, possessors and dispossessed is decided.” That is to say—we are the ninety-nine per cent.

Nor is the performative expressed by “Occupy Wall Street” quite as simple as it seems. The occupation is not on Wall Street but round the corner at Zuccotti Park. Named for the director of Canadian conglomerate Brookfield—the company hoping to bring tar sands oil to the U. S.—Zuccotti is occupied because it is a private-public park, a zoning variance that has the requirement of permanent public access to a generic piece of urban landscape in exchange for extra height to a building or other such one per cent goodies. Much as New York City Mayor Bloomberg is itching to expel the occupiers—and he may yet succeed in finding a way—he has no legal recourse at present. Washington Square Park, as city property, is always closed between midnight and six a.m. so the occupation there cannot be permanent. Occupying is being done in the variant space between the security-regulated public commons and the deregulated zones of the neo-liberal private market.

This suggests by extension that one reason that Facebook and Twitter have proved so oddly instrumental in the global “movement of the squares” from Tunis to Manhattan is their private-public status.[1] Both are private companies, but committed to being online without interruption worldwide, whereas a public company like Google has been willing to self-censor in China. Google then found its own private-public zone of variance in Hong Kong. These spaces are clearly not the “state of exception” of which so much has been heard of late. Perhaps it could be that these are spaces in which people struggle to preserve that everyday life in which citizens ordinarily may be active. To be clear, I am not arguing that market forces preserve liberties: to the contrary, it’s the fact that these spaces force regulation on the market that gives them a variant form.

The concerns of the occupations with food, cleanliness and above all their own process suggest that, as in Tahrir Square, a new form of public-private institution is emerging within the occupation itself. Here those occupying reclaim the public space as private in the sense of domestic. Disputes must be resolved “peacefully” in the language of Tahrir, or by “consensus” in that of OWS. As was reported from Tahrir, OWS is a place where you don’t feel afraid. It’s oddly easy to talk to complete strangers, which I never do in New York, or even to speak at the General Assembly. The repetition of your words gives you time to think, keeps it to the point and is strangely reassuring. For some it feels like church—I wouldn’t be able to comment! The confirmation of the domestic nature of occupying comes in the justifications now being advanced to end it: the occupiers are messy and their music is too loud. Not for the first time, authority presents itself as a parent. In the self-aware fashion of the modern teenager, OWS refuses to fight on these terms.

There is, of course, another way to read “occupy theory,” which would suggest that we should occupy whatever theory might be. Insofar as “theory” has become a default set of readings used in scholastic fashion in the curriculum, as many whisper that it has, perhaps some occupation is in order. Ironically, much of the canon was produced in response to the failure of the last such planetary pushback in 1968. Perhaps theory should have been pre-occupied for a long time with what this occupation has turned out to be. I don’t find myself overly worried about that any of that now. As we occupy theory, we’ll find out what it is that we need to learn.

[1] An idea that occurred to me in response to excellent papers by Lisa Nakamura, Mobina Hashmi and John Cheney-Lippold at the #2011ASA in Baltimore.

OWS #Oct15

 2011 moment, Occupy Wall St, Oct 15, Visual Culture  Comments Off on OWS #Oct15
Oct 152011

Right Here All Over (Occupy Wall St.) from Alex Mallis on Vimeo.

Alex Mallis


United for Global Democracy

Occupy London Oct 15

Occupy Sydney Oct 15. Credit: Marianna Massey


Occupy Rome Oct 15


Occupy Ottawa Oct 15


Occupy yourself.

Occupy your ideas.

Occupy your body.

You are too big to fail.

“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.


The Right to Look

 counterinsurgency, New media, Visual Culture  Comments Off on The Right to Look
Jun 012011

This post sets up a link to the PDF of my article “The Right to Look” in Critical Inquiry. Please enjoy! and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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.

Going Meta, or, “Slow” Thinking.

 metaphysical, nuclear, Theory, Visual Culture  Comments Off on Going Meta, or, “Slow” Thinking.
Apr 112011

I have been wanting to write about the writing of this blog for some time but the pace of events since January has been so breathtaking, and so relevant to the themes of my book, that it has not seemed possible to take a break. In the past week, the crisis seems to have itself taken a metaphysical turn. Nuclear regulators in the U. S. (no-one’s idea of a green crowd) have critiqued their Japanese counterparts to the extent that the most basic sense of what has actually happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plants is in doubt. Is there a leak or not? Has there been a meltdown or not?

In tandem with this confusion, nuclear scientists announced last week that maybe they had not properly understood the atom at all. In the last experiment at the Fermi lab before it is due to be closed down, it seems that a new particle has been discovered. Or a subatomic force. Or something. Or maybe not. Meanwhile the search for the mythical Higg’s boson, which has to exist in order for all the other theories to be right, continues to fail, despite ever larger super-colliders. Is it entirely wise, some might ask, to create power by unleashing forces that we clearly do not understand? Obama administration officials see such remarks as “opportunistic” [warning: NYT link, don’t waste your ‘hits’!] What could go wrong with using plutonium in much larger amounts, after all?

All this sent me into a metaphysical reverie about materialism and the atom, chasing down references to the  Atomists, like Democritus, who was so detested by Plato that his work has to be a good thing. And before I knew it, I had missed my self-imposed “deadline” of Tuesday or Wednesday latest. In turn that made me think that what I’m doing is perhaps less a blog than a column. If you can have a column on the Internet that is. In the era of rapid-fire response and disseminating links by Twitter, perhaps the blog form is obsolete, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick mused this week?

At the same time, there’s another iteration of the return of old media going on at present. Leaving Facebook is becoming a performative sub-field in its own right. Over at hip webmag Triple Canopy, the mantra is “slowing down the Internet.” While at Media Commons, I edit a section called “The New Everyday,” which invites people to post “between the blog and the journal,” adding another layer for thought, reflection and, if you’re lucky, feedback.

So, if even the elite in what Bifo calls the “cognitariat” feel overwhelmed by the need to assemble information, forward it to their audience, and then repeat, perhaps the very gesture of annotation is under pressure. Indeed,  the “theory is over” crowd are celebrating the rise of data-driven methodology. It’s been over six months since Wired announced the death of the web, killed by the triumph of the app from the iPad to Netflix. If the Top Ten websites–like Facebook–now command over 75% of web traffic, then the “open web” is a quirky remnant, especially if/when net neutrality disappears.

As the open web retreats, a “computational turn” that depends on Google for its data-mining is likely to be short-lived. When people do find time to comment on open web work, they often do so now via Facebook and Twitter, meaning that the audience for the original piece may well not see the comments, undermining one of the very arguments for open web writing. By the same token, the idea that comments or site visits can be used as a new metric of influence is troubled by that dispersal of commenting to apps.

In short (for once!), the need to be reflexive is also the need for critique, or in a word, politics. So just as we have turned to “slow” food as an alternative to agribusiness, we have to maintain the “slow” humanities. The very need for “theory on the run,” as Geert Lovink has called it, paradoxically requires us to break it down into steps, just as a top-class athlete works on their “mechanics.” It means working towards the “free, libre, open university,” as Gary Hall has put it, in place of the corporate machines that we now have. We need to  collectively work theory from post/tweet/update to  a “middle state” form where it works and can be worked upon, and then achieve its archival form in a publication.

And yet, even as I’m trying to think this through, my email is dinging, I’ve got a tweet about how multi-tasking destroys your memory, and what was I saying?

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