03 October 2005

Thinking With Rather Than (Just) About Photography

There are two ways to approach this task. The first is to post entries that are inspired by or that centrally incorporate images. The second is to point to examples of how others undertake the task. I hope to do both things here. For now, I adopt the second approach and, in this respect, I highly recommend: Danielle Allen. Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education. (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Allen is concerned with the barriers to citizenship. She offers a prolonged meditation on that topic - and, more specifically, of the ways sacrifice and fraternity figure into democratic citizenship. She starts by considering the ways the events surrounding the efforts of a handful of black students to integrate the public high school in Little Rock, Arkansas in September 1957 have been depicted and discussed. Her interlocutors, at least initially, are Hannah Arendt and Ralph Ellison.

Allen claims that distrust, especially once it becomes "congealed" or "fossilized" as a result of persistent insecurity and vulnerability, is an insuperable barrier to democratic citizenship that poisons the political practices of the advantaged as well as the insecure and vulnerable. She argues that the barriers to citizenship are not simply exclusionary institutions and a preoccupation with securing the peace and public order (as, on her view, Arendt claims) but instead (here following Ellison) overly restrictive conceptions of politics that repeatedly impose "loss and disappointment" for minorities within a polity. The problem (very roughly) for democratic politics, then, is how to "address those phenomena that follow from loss and disappointment, namely resentment and distrust" (35-6).

To help her audience think through these matters and specifically to focus their attention on the actualities of pain and sacrifice and loss and distrust, Allen reproduces as a crucial element of her text a set of photographs taken by Will Counts on assignment for the local Little Rock newspaper. Here are several of the photos Allen uses:

The first in this sequence of pictures shows National Guardsmen, present under orders of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, preventing Elizabeth Eckford a young African American girl from entering Central High School in Little Rock even as they allow an unidentified white girl access. (Actually, Allen does not reproduce this exact image but one in the same sequence that makes it less clear that the Guardsmen are preventing Eckford from entering the school.) The next two pictures show a mob of white Little Rock residents cursing and harassing Eckford as she walks away and, subsequently, a crowd (complete with reporters) surrounding her as she waits at a nearby bus stop. The final image shows a white mob attacking African American journalist Alex Wilson close to Central High.

These pictures capture both exclusionary institutions and another episode in a persistent mal-distribution of sacrifice and suffering. The National Guard and Governor occupy official places in, and the School itself performs functions vital to, the political institutions of Arkansas, and by extension, the remainder of the nation. The violence of the mob and the suffering of Eckford and Wilson embody existing - just as they also set the stage for future - resentments and distrust.

Allen attributes special force to Will Counts' photographs, especially the one depicting Elisabeth Eckford enduring the curses of the white mob. She rightly insists that that "picture stripped away the idealized conceptions of democratic life," laying bare "a nightmarish version of a town meeting" characterized by domination, exclusion, enforced silence and humiliation. Its "power to engage the imagination" resided in the forceful way it presents those realities. Allen first poses and the answers the crucial question: "And what changed with the photographs? Exactly that: how citizens of the United States imagine their political world." (4-5).

One final observation: It is relatively easy to find the photos shown above (as well as several closely related images) on the web - they appear most visibly on sites marking the 40th anniversary of the events in Little Rock. There are a couple of others images that Allen uses, however, that I have not been able to easily locate; these are images of planned marches by white residents of Little Rock replete with American flags and pre-printed placards proclaiming "Stop the Race Mixing March of the Ant-Christ," among other things. It seems we are willing to celebrate unquestioned heroism and concede the putatively "random violence" of undisciplined mobs, even as we remain unable to confront the organized political practices of racial majorities.

And a final query: what does all this about political imagination have to do with the photographs we have seen of post-Katrina New Orleans?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Jim, I just wanted to thank you for this blog, and I sincerely hope you keep writing. I am working on a dissertation (in philosophy) on perception and thought, and your blog is - to say the least - very stimulating.

04 October, 2005 14:17  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the encouragement. I am new to the intellecctual terrain and probably too old for this mode of communication technology. But it seems that it is now too late to stop!

If you do not already know it, you might check out the work of Patrick Maynard, a philosopher at the University of Western Ontario. His book "The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography" (Cornell UP 1997) is wonderful.

04 October, 2005 16:50  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the tip. I did not know about the book, but its now ordered.

04 October, 2005 20:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the book recommendation! There is an excellent Eyes on the Prize episode which shows the images captured in the photos you posted.

29 April, 2006 16:20  

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