31 January 2007

Forging Spaces for Imagination

"A city of presentation without creation defeats the central purpose of radical art: to make art an invitation to join in rather than just to look on, to give voice to the unheard, to engender conversation about the meaning of the lives being led all around us, to build a vital relationship between artists and public." ~ Rebecca Solnit

Warning, this will be a rambling, inconclusive post. I want to trace some loose and tentative connections between possibilities, public space, artists, communities and urban vitality. In part, the proximate impetus for the post is this anthology Participation edited by Claire Bishop that just appeared in a new, joint MIT Press/Whitechapel series called "Documents of Contemporary Art." I picked up a copy yesterday. The anthology is a bit parochial in the fairly predictable sense that it contains contributions occupying the intersection of European cultural theory and art history. It will be useful to me because that is a forbiddingly inscrutable terrain where I generally fear to tread. But the underlying thurst of the book is to see how the boundary between artist and audience has been understood and intentionally subverted in various ways in modern/contemporary art. That John Dewey, Jane Addams, Randolph Bourne, among others, had been articulating this agenda in the U.S. early in the 20th C seems to have been lost on the editor and contributors to the volume.

I also am reading a book Rebecca Solnit and Susan Schwartzenberg collaborated on a few years back about the role of art and artists in vital (and decaying) urban centers, Hollow City: The Seige of San Francisco & the Crisis of American Urbanism (Verso 2000). I was prompted to read this by a conversation with one of the smart graduate students in our PhD program in Visual and Cultural Studies here at Rochester who is interested in issues of public space and redevelopment. I lifted the passage at the top of the post from this book. It seems especially germane to the blinkered redevelopment vision in the City of Rochester which seems to me to be focused on making this a city of presentation and to neglecting or even eliminating the sorts of spaces needed for processes of creation. Actually, our extant spaces for creation typically seem to be connected to elite theatre, arts and music insititutions that carefully manage any opportunities for participation. By way of contrast I will call attention (again) to the much more progressive Project Row Houses in Houston about which I posted a short while ago.

The Houston project might well serve as inspiration for similar undertakings in places like Rochester where relatively inexpensive, appropriately zoned spaces like this are on the market.

In the right hands a converted church could provide modest but vital gallery and studio and performance space in a community that is marginalized within a city that itself is becoming increasingly marginalized politically and economically. And the imaginative projects that might incubate in such a space could, in turn, help foster the capacity of community members to envision ways of resisting the pressures beseiging them that might not be otherwise apparent. Just a thought.

Solnit and Schwartzenberg punctuate the notion:
"How do you face a time that, with new technology, new globalizations, new hybridizations of art, entertainment, race, politics, media, genes, new economic principles, can't be described in old terms but demands a response before its too late? With imagination. That's one reason art matters."
I warned at the outset that this post would ramble and it has. It also remains inconclusive. Whose are the right hands? Where might funding come from? What legal and political and social obstacles might emerge to threaten such an undertaking? Who knows? Creating spaces for imaginative practices requires diligence and imagination too.

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30 January 2007

Photographic Locations: Allan Sekula

"I hoped to describe the attitudes of people waiting, unarmed, sometimes deliberately naked in the winter chill, for the gas and the rubber bullets and the concussion grenades. There were moments of civic solemnity, of urban anxiety, and of carnival.

Again, something very simple is missed by descriptions of this as a movement founded in cyberspace: the human body asserts itself in the city streets against the abstraction of global capital."

From "Waiting for Tear Gas, 1999-2000." © Allan Sekula

In 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle & Beyond (Verso, 2000) Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair report enthusiastically on the anti-WTO demonstrations that took place in Seattle in the fall of 1999. Their text is accompanied by 30 photographs by Allan Sekula under the title "Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black]." The photograph shown here, which may well be the most poignant of the series, and the text quoted above, are from Sekula's section of the book which he describes as "anti-photojournalism" because it is preoccupied less with capturing a "defining image" than with conveying "the lulls, the waiting and the margins of events." I will set aside the possibility that, despite his efforts, Sekula might well have made a defining image. I also will set aside the vexing question of whether Sekula's photo-essay constitutes "art." I am more interested here in the trajectory of the photograph and how that trajectory reflects and effects the way it is used.

I was reminded of this image because I am re-reading Julian Stallabrass's terrific art INCORPORATED (Oxford UP, 2004)* for my undergraduate class this term. Stallabrass adopts a no-nonsense neo-Marxist approach, portraying the putative "freedom" of contemporary art as largely illusory and suggesting that that illusion distorts the multiple ways the art world functions to support advanced capitalism. I don't buy a lot of what Stallbrass peddles, but the book is both very smart and an exemplar of this sort of analysis. Among the places where I find Stallabrass especially flat-footed is in his assessment of Alfredo Jaar as tacitly lending support to "neoliberal values." And the reason that the Sekula image struck me is that Stallabrass presents it (pages 195-201), by way of contrast, as art that resists the pull of capitalism and its servants among art world elites. Sekula's "Waiting for Tear Gas," acording to Stallabrass, exemplifies"the political use of art" which helps expose the "contradictions" in "the logic of capital" precisely to the extent that, in it, "corporate sponsorship and museum curatorship do not define what is seen."

It seemed to me on first reading that this sort of blunt contrast illuminated the shortcomings of Stallabrass's theoretical commitments. I plan to push my students on this point. So, I went to the web, searching for a copy of the image that I could show in class. Ironically (and conveniently for my argument) I discovered that Sekula's image apparently has migrated from a small text published by a lefty press to the permanent collection of the Swiss Fotomuseum Winterthur. Perhaps it has lodged itself in other prestigious locations as well, thereby falling sway to the vicissitudes of "corporate sponsorship and museum curatorship." How and why might this migration compromise the political uses to which Sekula's work can be put?

* OUP has repackaged this book as Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction (2006).

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29 January 2007

Hey, Want To Thumb Through Martha Rosler's Books?

The "Goings On About Town" column in The New Yorker this week includes a notice of this zany browsing opportunity. You can go to this splace in NYC and browse through artist/photographer/critic Martha Rosler's books.

THE MARTHA ROSLER LIBRARY Some people snoop in medicine chests to understand their friends. But for those who find the telling portrait on the bookshelves, here is an unprecedented opportunity to peep into a visual artist’s reading mind. Housed in the e-flux space—a tiny storefront that is the new, real-life manifestation of the online art-events list—the library presents some six thousand volumes culled from Rosler’s home, studio, and university office, representing decades of bibliophilic accumulation. Cheek by jowl on towering wooden shelves waits an endearing chaos of novels, poetry, political theory, cartoons, thrift-store finds, classics in philosophy, and, of course, stuff about art. There’s a cozy chair to sit in, too. Through April 15. (53 Ludlow St. 212-619-3356.)"

I have added the links myself since I know nothing about e-flux, I figured there might be others as clueless as I. And, unfortunately, I must be missing something. As far as I can tell it is a high-tech mass-mailing firm founded and run by artists. Here is their self-description:

"e-flux (electronic flux corporation) is a New York-based information bureau dedicated to world wide distribution of information for contemporary visual arts institutions via the Internet. Established in January 1999, e-flux has already built a readership of more than 33,000 international visual arts professionals (42% North America, 47% Europe, and 11% other) and a client base of some of the most vital and prestigious institutions. Our focused and selective approach to the information we choose to distribute has been rewarded by an exceptionally high degree of attention and responsiveness from our readers."

Two things strike me a comical about this. First is the unself-conscious snottiness of the blurb. The second thing is the phrase "11% other" - didn't the focus groups include any post-modernists or post-colonialists when the e-fluxers had this blurb market tested?

That said, I think a trip to the Rosler Library might be fun. I wonder if she underlines the same passages as me?

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28 January 2007

Fashionistas Talk Back "So What Are the Alternatives?"

I have on several occasions been highly critical here of photographers like Steve Meisel and Rankin who, while devoting most of their talent and energies to blatantly commercial projects, attempt, eagerly if implausibly, to claim a certain social and political gravitas for their work. These guys strike me as self-absorbed and self-deceiving in incredible ways. You can find my most recent rant here and that post has links to earlier outbursts.

I suspect that some readers may find my assessment overly harsh, so I thought it might be helpful to provide a counterexample - a photographer who seems to be highly successful in un-apologetically commercial work but who managed to extricate himself from that milieu in order to contribute to a political campaign in a useful and creative way. I have in mind Frederico Naef a Swiss photographer who, judging from his web site, specializes in fashion, beauty and advertising photography. Here are two representative examples of his work:

These images - both © Frederico Naef - seem to me to be considerably more subtle than what Meisel or Rankin produce, but that is not my point. Rather, I want to call attention to how Naef has collaborated with a Swiss advertising firm Walker on a campaign for Amnesty International. I posted on this undertaking early last summer. Here are several images from the campaign:

[All Three Images © Amnesty International, Section Suisse]

The campaign, which consisted of posters like these, focused on several of AI's ongoing concerns - child soldiers, famine and torture. The posters were placed in various public places and each featured the slogan "This happens, not here, but right now!" in one of several different languages. Because they are site specific, the posters bring the issues "home" as it were, providing an immediacy heightened by the clarity and sharpness of the images and text. The practices depicted in the examples I've lifted no longer take place in Liberia, Sudan or Iraq but right there on European streets. The fact that the posters do not quite fit seamlessly into the locaitons they are inserted affords a slight sense of refraction that further prompts recognition and reflection.

You can find other examples of the posters on the Walker agency and on the AI web sites I link to above. Here is the accompanying text from the agency page:

"OBJECTIVE: The main mission of Amnesty International is to uncover, document and make public the abuse of human rights. This campaign shows how human rights are abused each and every day - within only a few hour flying distance of us. The aim is to make people in Switzerland aware of the issue of human rights and to stimulate discussion.

SOLUTION: The campaign entitled “Its not happening here, but is happening now” brings the worldwide abuse of human rights straight to Swiss doorsteps. Two worlds collide on 200 posters, each one adapted to match its surroundings. The brutal scenes from Guantanamo, for instance suddenly take place in the middle of Zurich.

RESULT: With only 200 posters, the campaign is triggering a resounding international echo. After the start of the campaign, extensive media reports both inside and outside Switzerland as well as intensive discussions of the campaign in hundreds of weblogs have led to a twenty fold increase in visits to the internet site of Amnesty International Switzerland."

Now, if we compare this project with either Meisel's "State of Emergency" or the delusional ways that Rankin invokes influences like Eugene Smith, it becomes quite clear that, not only is there is an alternative, but that it is creative, provocative, and effective in ways to which the "political" efforts of the fashionistas can hardly aspire. Moreover, while Meisel and Rankin keep the focus of attention resolutely on themselves, Naef and Walker prompt discussion of the ravages of war, the persistence of hunger and the horror of political mendacity and brutality. Quite a difference, I'd say.

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27 January 2007

Liar! Liar! ... Tempest in a Journalistic Teapot

When reading, we must be careful to ascertain the point of statements and reports and other sorts of speech act. If we recall that fairly simple point we can cut through a recent, highly irritating polemic. In Slate this week, journalism/media critic Jack Shafer has published a scorching essay entitled "The Lies of Ryszard Kapuściński." As the title suggests, Shafer takes Kapuściński to task for fabricating facts and purveying untruths, passing them off as journalism. It s only fair to accuse Kapuściński of lying, however, if we are sure that the works that prompt Shafer's ire properly are classified as journalism and so as bound by the conventions of that enterprise.

Shafer mentions a number of glowing obituaries for Kapuściński who, as I noted in this post, died earlier this week. He demurs from all the praise, insisting that "there's one fact about the celebrated war correspondent and idol of New York's literary class that didn't get any serious attention this week. It's widely conceded that Kapuściński routinely made up things in his books." Shafer seems bent on policing the boundaries of journalism and insuring that we do not include Kapuściński's books in that category. I don't really have a problem either with Shafer's self-appointed role as defended of the realm or with his desire to exclude Kapuściński.

That said, there is no reason to join Shafer in labeling Kapuściński a liar. The Times obituary explicitly notes that Kapuściński's books are not strictly speaking journalism. According to The Times Kapuściński "spent his working days gathering information for the terse dispatches he sent to PAP [the Polish National News Service for whom he worked], often from places like Ougadougou or Zanzibar. At night, he worked on longer, descriptive essays with phantasmagoric touches that went far beyond the details of the day’s events, using allegory and metaphors to convey what was happening." Hence, for instance, The Emperor, a book that appeared in 1978, while "ostensibly about Ethiopia," actually was "an allegory of absolutist power everywhere." In much the same way that Tocqueville was writing about France in Democracy in America, readers commonly recognize that Kapuściński may well have been writing about authoritarian regimes elsewhere (Poland, maybe?) under the guise of a "report' about Ethiopia. So perhaps Jack needs to calm down just a smidgen. At the very least he needs to stop treating readers like literal-minded morons.

Sure, The Times obituary describes Kapuściński as "a globe-trotting journalist." But that description seems accurate insofar as he indeed regularly filed news reports from the field. And while Shafer relies on a highly critical review from the TLS to clinch his case that Kapuściński's books are fiction, the evidence regarding his respect for the factual news-reporting hardly is cut and dry. And for someone trying to defend the integrity of journalistic truth, that should matter to Jack Shafer.

Let's assume for purposes of argument that on matters of "fact" the author of the review is correct and Kapuściński's books are wrong in each disputed instance. And let's assume too, that the cumulative weight of those errors is such as to render the books something other than journalism. A couple of things seem important. First, there is no indication in the TLS review that its author has read any of the reports Kapuściński filed with PAP. So, unless we presume that the PAP reports and his books are identical, we have no sense of whether, if at all, Kapuściński was purveying fiction to his employer and thereby to his Polish readers. Kapuściński's news reports and his books may simply be different genres. That is an empirical question, of course, and I may be wrong in my suspicion that there likely is a significant divergence between the news stories and the books that Kapuściński wrote. The important thing is that neither Shafer nor his source are in a position to prejudge the matter. Kapuściński may well have been a perfectly accurate reporter when he was writing for the Polish press.

Second, the reviewer rightly cautions that we mustn't read Kapuściński 's books as straight journalistic reportage because Kapuściński himself explicitly endorsed interpretations of The Emperor, for instance, that see it as allegorical in much the way The Times depicts it. Likewise as the reviewer remarks of Kapuściński's later writings on Africa (about which he is most exercised): "The baroque note in Kapuściński’s prose confirms the movement away from fact towards the realm of fantasy and symbol." So I guess I don't quite see why, if as Kapuściński himself provides explicit and tacit warrant for so doing, we ought not to read his books as ficitonalizations of events and places and people.

In the end, of course, Shafer concedes that perhaps such a gerrymander (i.e, making up a new "genre" for books like Kapuściński's) would safeguard journalism and that the resulting "truth in packaging for wall-straddling authors would calm [his] savage, beating heart." But he just cannot let things rest. He insists that such a new category of work might nonetheless tarnish the image of "other geniuses of foreign correspondence" who hew to a just-the facts-ma'am approach to writing. This seems a considerable stretch to me. We can (we hope) rely on reporters and correspondents to purvey "the facts." And we need not buy Shafer's rhetoric that the only way to defend Kapuściński is by insisting that, as compared to standard press accounts, his books "contain a higher truth, if you will." The issue of truth may be moot. We might instead ask if there is something that we can learn from non-journalistic reportage, from the fictionalization of actual affairs. If there is, then Jack Shafer's diatribe about Ryszard Kapuściński is simply beside the point.

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26 January 2007

Enthusiasms (6) - Robin Holcomb

"If you can't make the curve look further ahead
The road may seem straighter by morning.
You can't turn away if its all in your head
It comes and it goes without warning."
~ Robin Holcomb

I don't recall why I first picked up a recording by Robin Holcomb, it likely was just chance. I do remember, though, buying it, probably in 1991, at a little record store in Evanston, Illinois where I then lived and taught. Once I bought the first, however, I was hooked. Holcomb's vocals are distinctively tremulous. Her compositions and lyrics are sparse and jagged, straddling the intersection (?) of various strands of Americana and the sort of "downtown" jazz that fanices itself avant-garde but really only becomes interesting in the hands of someone like Holcomb. Her recordings consist almost exclusively of her own compositions and, where they don't consist in solo piano, feature a stable set of musicians that includes her husband Wayne Horvitz, Bill Frisell, Doug Wieselman, Danny Frankle and Dave Hofstra augmented by varying background vocals and other instrumentalists.

Although I hadn't noticed at first, the covers of Holcomb's CDs are interesting from a photographic perspective. The portrait on her eponymously titled first record is by Marion Ettlinger; the cover photo on The Big Time is "Southern Mississippi, 1980" by William Eggleston; and on Little Three the cover image is "Somebody's House" (1964) by William Clift. Eerie images of haystacks by Robert Lewis are interspersed throughout the liner notes to her Rockabye (1992) on Electra Musician.

Holcomb's more recent recordings are really terrific as well. They include John Brown's Body (2206) on Tzadik Records and Solos (2004) on Songlines Recordings which consists, as the title suggests of solo piano works, but where Holcomb alternates numbers with Horvitz. This record is something of a conversation, sometimes animated, sometimes meditative, sometimes edgy, sometimes lilting, sometimes somber or ominous, between two extremely talented and creative musicians.

Here is a touching detail. In the liner notes to her first album Holcomb appears in a photograph with a little blonde girl, no more than four or five years old by the looks of things, whom I presume is her daughter, Nica Horvitz. The credits to that recording say that Nica "sings and tells stories" on one of the tracks. On John Brown's Body the photography credits for the cover images go to Nica Horvitz.

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Best Shots (Again)

Several weeks ago I mentioned a really quite clever series of short features by Leo Benedictus in The Guardian called "best shots." In each an accomplished photographer responds to LB's request that thay identify a favorite piece of their own work and offer some brief comments on it. In the earlier post I linked to the first half-dozen of these. In the interim a couple more have appeared. Since the newspaper's web page doen't make it easy to keep track of the series, I think I will simply post links to them every so often. As before, the photographer's name links to her or his web presence and the date links to the relevant article in The Guardian.

[8] Rankin, "Beautyfull" (25 January 07):

© Rankin

[7] Anne Hardy, "Unfamiliar systems at work... " (11 January 07):

© Anne Hardy

Although neither Hardy nor Rankin are "my type" of photographer, Hardy at least seems thoughtful and interesting. I actually want to take some time and think about her approach to photographing simulated interiors. By contrast, as I noted in an earlier post, Rankin comes off as entirely insufferable. He does not disappoint in this instance either, running on about the genre of glamour photography ghetto he wallows in like this: "The photo is a bit of a dig at fashion, the shallowness and emptiness of the industry, which can take itself far too seriously. You've got to balance out the seduction and what you enjoy about it with a little bit of cynicism." It never occurs to Mr. Waddell, of course, that rather than affording the best antidote to "shallowness and emptiness" cynicism instead is merely a symptom of those characteristics. Considering that possiblity would, I suspect, require that he extricate himself from the shallowness and emptiness long enough to let down his oh-so-ironic self-defense for just a few moments.


25 January 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007)

Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński died in Warsaw on Tuesday, probably of cancer. You can read the obituary from The New York Times here. I have read only a little of Kapuściński work (and not just because much of it has never appeared in English), but The Times is right to paint him as being perhaps as important for having challenged genre boundaries as for any single piece of his "reportage." In his essays Kapuściński trampled across the border of journalism and literature for reasons that seem immediately important here because of a recent post on Amos Oz. Here are a couple of paragraphs from his obituary in The Times:
"Mr. Kapuściński (pronounced ka-poos-CHIN-ski) spent some four decades observing and writing about conflict throughout the developing world. He witnessed 27 coups and revolutions. He spent his working days gathering information for the terse dispatches he sent to PAP, often from places like Ougadougou or Zanzibar.

At night, he worked on longer, descriptive essays with phantasmagoric touches that went far beyond the details of the day’s events, using allegory and metaphors to convey what was happening.

“It’s not that the story is not getting expressed” in ordinary news reports, he said in an interview. “It’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town; the smell; the thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper.”"

So Kapuściński and Oz agree that to convey the realities of battle and other sorts of mayhem one needs to focus on details - e.g., the smell - that are extra-ordinarily difficult to put into words. The two writers simply approached that difficulty in different ways. Oz deems it beyond his capacity; Kapuściński proceeded, if not undaunted, at least with determination and considerable success.

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Josef Koudelka

I have been meaning to write a post on Josef Koudelka for some time now. Mostly, I've been rolling over in my mind what I want to say and I've settled on trying to point out a couple of connections between his work and that of others. I have previously posted one of his images that I esepcially like but largely without comment.

Koudelka (b. 1938) is Czech and became"anonymously" famous for his photographs of the Soviet Invasion of Prague in 1968. Perhpas the most recognizable of these is this image showing the deserted streets of the city.

The negatives for these photographs had to be smuggled out of the country and subsequently were published in the West to mark the first anniversary of the invasion. In 1969 The Overseas Press Club of America awarded the "Robert Capa Gold Medal" to the "Anonymous Czech Photographer" who had chronicled the events. Koudelka did not emigrate until 1970 and until that time it remained politically dangerous for him to be credited for the photographs. In this respect , of course, Koudelka's exprience presages that of Iranian photographer Jahangir Razmi
who only this year was credited with images he made during the Iranian revolution and for which he had anonymously received a Pulitzer Prize in 1980.

A second, less coincidental, connection between Koudelka's work and that of several other photographers is the preoccupation with disappearance. As Koudelka remarks of his panoramic images of post-Communist East and Central European landscapes: "The changes taking place in this part of Europe are enormous and very rapid. One world is disappearing. I am trying to photograph what's left. I have always been drawn to what is ending, what will soon no longer exist" (Josef Koudelka, Torst 2002, p. 141). The image at right, "Croatia, 1992" is an example of this work.

This comment immediately brought to mind the recent work of another, somewhat younger Czech emigré, Antonin Kratochvil (b. 1947). For Kratochvil's recent work you also should consult the web site of his agency VII. I posted early on here about Kratochvil's [VANISHING] (d.MO, 2005), which, as the title suggests, is precisely about things disappearing. As I said at the time, each section of the books seeks to capture "some dsappearing species or resource or environment or landscape or community or principle or history in geographically dispersed locales." For both Koudelka and Kratochvil the disappearances they chronicle are tragic, although their attitudes toward the possibility of rejuvination seem to diverge somewhat. (Koudelka being perhaps a bit more sanguine of the two.)

But I also soon recalled Sebastião Salgado's Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age (Aperture 1993) where you will find the following dedication: "This book is an homage to workers, a farewell to a world of maual labor that is slowly disappearing and a tribute to those men and women who still work as they have for centuries."

There are other photographers, surely, less preoccupied with disappearances. But there likely are others who we might add to this list of three. It is a difficult matter to depict something that cannot be seen (e.g., smells, as I noted in a very recent post or relative power as I noted in an earlier one). But what of transformations? What of extinctions or passings or vanishings, when all the camera can capture, really, is what is demonstrably present "here and now"? The difference is between trying to depict something we "know" exists even though it is difficult to see and trying to depict something that, in Koudelka's words, "will soon no longer exist."

[Images in this post © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photo]

PS: This spring two new "retrospective" collections of Koudelka's photography are due to appear. One is Koudelka. With essays by Robert Delpire, et.al. (Aperture). The other is JOSEF KOUDELKA. Introduction by Bernard Cuau. (Thames & Hudson).


24 January 2007

The Sandbox

I learned this afternoon of a pretty remarkable undertaking initiatedd by Gary Trudeau, the creator of the Doonesbury comic strip. It is a blog, started last October, called The Sandbox which serves as a digest for posts from "miliblogs" kept by men and women serving in the U.S. military. A quick look suggests that most of the posts are from personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a remarkable undertaking because it provides a forum for those of us not fighting for our country to hear from those who are doing so. In that sense Trudeau affords us an opportunity to listen to voices that typically remain far beyond hearing distance.

Given Trudeau's liberal predilections you might be suspiscious that this is an "anti-war" undertaking, but that seems not to be the case. It instead is a forum where we can learn from the expereinces and reflections our military personnel. You may not trust my judgment on this, so here is an assessment from our right wing friends at the American Enterprise Institute:

"The Sandbox suffers from its somewhat pretentious self-description as "GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire" and reassurance to contributors that "all content, no matter how robust, is currently secured by the First Amendment." But the blog is excellent and probably serves as the best one-stop shopping option for most readers who are interested in sampling opinion from the field on a daily basis without having to wade through the morass of milblogs" (stress supplied).

Now, the folks at AEI may not be as concerned about the 1st Ammendment as they perhaps ought to be, but that is unsurprising. I simply want to say that this is a fabulous idea and Trudeau should be lauded for providing this forum.

PS: (Added later that same day). It turns out that Trudeau has gotten some good press in the mainstream newsmedia as well as at The Nation and Mother Jones (see the interview with him in the Jan-Feb '07 issue). In the former he is quoted as saying
"I think the wars are just too remote for people's minds ... They see two, three minutes on the evening news, maybe, if they don't look away."

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23 January 2007

Why Can't We Ignore Right Wing Authors When They Invite Us To Do So?

Once again Katha Pollitt has single-handedly redeemed the price of my Nation subscription. Her column in this week's issue - "Ayatollah D'Souza" - dismantles Dinish D'Souza's newly published right-wing rant in which he tries to pin the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the "cultural left" in the U.S. and then recommends that American conservatives make common cause with potenital allies among "traditional Muslims." This is lunacy.

Pollitt has a right to focus on such nuttiness, I suppose, since apprently she is among the targets of D'Souza's ire. However, I also noticed that The New York Times felt obliged to waste column inches on the book in its review section last Sunday. The reviewer, Alan Wolfe (hardly a radical by any estimation), offers a caustic assessment of the new book, saying first that it "is clearly designed to restore his reputation as the man who will say anything to call attention to his views" and then calling it "a national disgrace, a sorry example of a publishing culture more concerned with the sensational than the sensible." At what point will the "liberal" media feel that it can safely ignore such authors?

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22 January 2007

The Smell of Battle

This evening I have been preparing for my class tomorrow where the assignment has been to read part of Amos Oz's How to Cure a Fanatic. So, I have been reading a bit of background on the author, including this essay by David Remnick from The New Yorker a few years back. It turns out that although he is a founding member of "Shalom Achshav—Peace Now," Oz unsurprisingly also is a veteran of the Israeli military - he did his intial service in the late 1950s but also served (and saw battle) in both the 1967 and 1973 wars. Remnick quotes Oz about why his military experience does not figure in his writing. Here is the reply:

“It is difficult for me, either in an interview or in a book, to talk about the experience of fighting,” he said. “I have never written about the battlefield, because I don’t think I could convey the experience of fighting to people who have not been on the battlefield. Battle consists first and foremost of a horrible stench. The battlefield stinks to high heaven. It’s hard to imagine the stench. This doesn’t come across even in Tolstoy or Hemingway or Remarque. This stifling mixture of burning rubber and burning metal and burning human flesh and feces, everything burning. A description of the battlefield that does not contain the stench and the fear is not sufficient. It is where everyone around you has shit their pants.”

PS: (Added 8 am EST, 12/23/07) - Clearly, if Oz is right, this poses a massive difficulty for any effort to convey the horrible reality of battle in film, let alone in photographs. While this inference is obvious to me right at the moment, it didn't occur to me last night.


Making Sure the Shoes Look Good

In The Guardian last Saturday you can find a story on the upcoming show of fashion photography at the National Portrait Gallery in London. If you've been around here much you know that I don't have much good to say about fashion photographers - especially when they make "political" statements; more generally, the enterprise seems to me an excuse for wasting talent. (See, e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4] [5].) Hadley Freeman, the reporter for The Guardian, notes that:

"Fashion photography straddles a tricky line between portraiture and making sure the shoes look good. .. . [T]he best fashion photographers have managed both, but in doing so created images that have defined their time as much as any film, book or painting."

There are, of course, the ponderous questions as to whether such photography is "art," about the "depth" the photographers give to an incredibly shallow set of people and performances, and so forth. My view is that all of that is more or less bullshit in the technical philosophical sense of the term. What gives this photography any pretense of being "art" is the fact that it is being hung in a museum. And the Museum will reap whatever fees and notoriety and visitor statistics that come from hanging the show. All of that will make the curators and adminstrators look good.

Fashion is a cultural and a commercial phenomenon, replete with ritual and convention and profit, but that does not make either it or the images used to sustain and sell it "art." So, the fact that some images haved defined their times, need not elevate them (if that is the appropriate metaphor) to the status of art. Think, by comparison, of the many iconic images that defined the period of the Vietnam War. Are they "art?" Powerful reportage, surely. Art, quite doubtfully. For my money, it is considerably more important to frame that period in memory with photo-journalistic images from Vietnam than with fashion shoots featuring Twiggy.


"Another World is Possible" - World Social Forum 2007 - Nairobi

The 7th World Social Forum opened in Nairobi, Kenya on Saturday and runs through the 25th of January. According to the WSF Charter: "The World Social Forum is an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among Humankind and between it and the Earth." As a platform for debate and interaction among activists from around the globe, this seems like a useful and hopeful antidote to the various but quite regular summit meetings held by political and economic elites.

The "liberal" media seems thoroughly unimpressed or uninterested. To the best of my knowledge The New York Times has not recognized the event, The Guardian devoted six short skeptical paragraphs to it in the business pages. And while the cover story of The Economist frets about the threat that inequality poses to globalization, a search of their web pages turned up no notice either. Democracy Now! (1/19/07) and Open Democracy both ran stories, but The Nation and In These Times remain silent on the event. If "another world is possible" it will be hard for folks to know.


21 January 2007

Bird on a Wire

Well, the invitation I made in my last post has already elicited a very nice response from a young Iranian photographer Mohammadreza Mirzaei. His most striking images approximate silhouettes - dark, anonymous figures, often shot from considerable distance, against expansive, starkly, not-quite white backgrounds.

© Mohammadreza Mirzaei

While you should check out Mohammadreza's work generally, this particular image resonated with me immediately, reminding me of the Leonard Cohen song "Bird on a Wire." I have to say that the best version of this song I know is the hauntingly sparse rendition made by the late, great Johnny Cash on the first volume of his American Recordings (1994). It balances right there on the verge of hope and resignation. Here is the lyric as Cash sings it:

Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

Like a fish on a hook
Like a knight from an old fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons with thee

And if I have been unkind
I hope that you will just let it go by
And if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you

Like a baby stillborn
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me

But I swear by this song
By all I have done wrong
I'll make it all up to thee

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He called out to me " Don't ask for so much "
And a young woman leaning on her darkened door
She cried out to me " Hey, why not ask for more "

Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

There clearly is a theme of longing, of striving for redemption here. But that, of course, presumes some measure of forgiveness, even recognition, that others, for their own reasons, or due to their own incapacities, may well withhold. In any case, it is hard to know what the implied promise in the song might mean or to whom one might address it. Here is a remark that Cohen made in a 1988 interview, some twenty years after he first recorded "Bird on a Wire":
"There's a lot of songs that lose their meaning, you forget. I'm finding that out now, rehearsing the band. There are some songs I just can't get behind. Some are surprising me, songs I really thought I could sing, like "Bird On a Wire." I'm not sure it's necessary to say, "I swear by this song and by all I've done wrong that I will make it all up to thee." Either I've done that, or there's no point in making that promise again if I haven't. It's very hard to get behind certain lines"
So how do you get behind the lines that go round in your head when some things - to say nothing of "all" of them - simply cannot be made right? Is anyone beside yourself listening or even willing to? If not, are you merely replacing "thee" with "me" in your promise? Perhaps that is the best and only way to move ahead. A first step, at least.

[Should you be wondering, this post is for D, J & A - with love.]

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20 January 2007


This is a poor reproduction of the "clustr map" detailing visitors to the blog since mid-summer. You can see a larger version by clicking on the map should you be dying of curiousity. The thing I find gratifying is the number of spots - indeed even of fairly large ones - on the map outside of Europe and North America. Thanks for visiting. And please don't be bashful about commenting; I'd love to hear what's on your mind. Really. I'd be especially grateful for suggestions about writers, and photographers and others who may not have a high profile here in the "rich north atlantic democracies."

Witness: Know War/Know Genocide

A series of exhibitions and programs

"Almost since its invention, the camera has been used to record the more difficult aspects of the human condition: War and its aftermath, genocide and famine. Today’s barrage of images on television, in newspapers, and online remind us that such things persist as much as in the past. This winter, George Eastman House, along with more than 20 community organizations, undertakes a series of exhibitions and public programs on these issues to address the role of photographs in our personal and collective experiences. Join us in exploring how photography and photographs make us all witnesses to world events."

I am ambivalent about this project at the George Eastman House (GEH) - located right here in Rochester. My ambvalence is captured by the passage below from an editorial in City the local "alternative newsweekly." On the one hand, this is an incredibly conservative town both culturally and politically. So the fact that the folks at GEH are even mounting this program means they are sticking their necks out a bit. Right around the block a bit our daring Memorial Art Gallery just spent three months hosting Georgia O'Keefe and a collection of posters from World War I. And the big news at the MAG is that they "acquired" a 16th C Suit of Armor! So Eastman looks positively radical by comparison.

On the other hand, as the City column makes clear, this is not strictly speaking a political program. It takes no stand on the current war. In addition to listing links for a set of humanitarian NGOs, the web site rightly suggests to visitors: "Tell your government representatives your views and concerns about events in Darfur." By contrast, it does not recommend telling your government about the war one way or another. I suspect that Eastman House (as well as the other sponsors in the community) would risk its not-for-profit tax status if it adopted even a non-partisan stance on the war. And I also would be surprised if there are not more than a few donors and members of the Board of Trustees at GEH who consider the "Witness" program politically distressing as it stands. Perhaps one might hope that the program will prompt political reflection and political argument and political action and, thereby, confirm the expectations of those apprehensive donors and trustees.

Here is what City says about the program and their asasesssment seems just right.

"No country should be engaged in war unless its people are willing to look it in the face. And as the new year begins, Rochesterians have a unique opportunity to do that, thanks to the George Eastman House and several other local institutions and organizations.

Our cover story this week focuses on that opportunity: a group of exhibitions, lectures, and other events called "Witness: Know War/Know Genocide." This newspaper is privileged to be the print sponsor, a commitment we made because of the importance of the subject, and because of our respect for the involvement by the Eastman House and other participants.

"Witness" is not a political statement. It is not, for instance, a protest against US involvement in Iraq. The exhibits and events cover much more than this current war: Darfur and Nazi Germany, to name two horrors. But war itself is a political act, and the "Witness" participants may well receive criticism for their involvement. At the least, the Eastman House must worry about audience. The subject is a serious one, to put it mildly, and photos like these are tough to see.

But we hope you'll see them, regardless of your political views and your feelings about this current war. War is killing thousands of people, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Darfur, in Somalia. The least we can do, safe here at home, is to pay witness."

And here is the City cover from this week. Right Again!


19 January 2007

Today's Blues

Beginning last night and continuing through much of today and into this evening, life here has been a mess in a number of ways. Tonight, it is not stretching the truth very much at all to say that music saved me. In particular, I have been listening to this record of concise duets that Arthur Blythe (alto sax) and David Eyges (electric cello) put out on the CIMP label a decade ago.

What I really wanted, actually needed rather desperately, was not consolation or distraction or soothing but sonic interlocutors who might engage me and help me face the mess without despair. This music turned out to be nearly perfect; there is a lightness of touch and an edge to it that makes it sound matter of fact. "Here are today's blues. Now what are you going to do about them?" In this interview, Eyges (about whom I know little) remarks of his propensity to play duets: "There is a natural conversational flow to a fine duo recording." The title track is a wonderful instance of just such a conversation, but so, really, is the entire recording. I appreciate the talk.

PS: Blythe and Eyges have released another CD of alto-cello duets that you can find here.

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Landscapes - Nuri Bilge Ceylan

From the BBC, "a series of panoramic landscape photographs by Turkish film director Nuri Bilge Ceylan." To the best of my (wholly inadequate) knowledge these pictures have nothing to do with politics. Ceylan made them while scouting scenes for an upcoming movie. Each of them is quite striking. So here they are:

All images in this post © Nuri Bilge Ceylan. According to the BBC,
these photographs and others
are being shown at the National
Theatre, London, from 22 January until 3 March 2007.

18 January 2007


I generally am not a big fan of Gregory Crewdson's work. But his recent work Fireflies is intriguing for several reasons. In the first place, the images seem all to be tiny (about 6.5 x 9.5 inches). Second, they don't have the weirdly ominous color typical of Crewdson's work. Maybe it is just me, but his photographs remind me of colorized versions of old black & white movies. Finally, during the summer, the edge of the woods where I live is awash with fireflies that hover and sparkle in the night air like little sounds and whispers that we sometimes are reluctant to share. (Thanks for the lead Tim Atherton.)


17 January 2007

The Greatest (b. 17 Jan 1942)

Muhammed Ali (1966) © Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

PS: Added 2 February 07 - There is a nice essay from The Nation by Dave Zirin entitled "Muhammed Ali - The Brand and the Man" on the crucial importance of keeping Ali's political and ethical courage in sight.

Still locked up?

In The New York Times today we find a review of a new video projection on the outer walls of the new MoMA made by Doug Aiken in collaboration with a "public art organization" called Creative Time. The title is "Sleepwalkers" and according to The Times it is meant to "portray urban workers of various classes making their way through the night hours."

All images in this post © Nicole Bengiveno/New York Times

Perhaps it is admirable for the museum, the artist and the organization to want to depict matters of class and work but I have to say that The Times, surely unintentionally, makes the entire enterprise seem quite dubious. In the first place, the video is cast with celebrities of various sorts - Donald Sutherland, Tilda Swinton, Chan Marshall, Seu Jorge, Ryan Donowho - playing, respectively, "a captain of industry," "an office worker," "a postal worker," "a hardhat," and "a bicycle messenger." As the reviewer says: "The actors are themselves emblems of glamour and hip." And the characters they play each are captured in various "moments of private reverie." So what are we make of this? Well, the likely conclusion is that the projection is not really about class and work at all, but quite self-consciously about "art" and the "artist" and the institutions and organizations he and his work inhabit. As the review suggests:

"Many of the piece’s best moments come when the big, bold shapes and flat colors align in near abstraction. White arrows on red fuse into a continuous band. Flashing black, white and gray
rectangles form a dancing patchwork. Red stoplights grow into immense circles. Mondrian’s scaffoldings, Josef Albers’s squares and Ellsworth Kelly’s looming geometries all come to mind."

What comes most immediately to my mind are the stories and images I mentioned in my post yesterday from Los Piñeros: Men of the Pines” where we see actual workers and the daily dangers and other difficulties they face. While those real workers surely have dreams, they hardly have the luxury of much in the way of private reverie. But since this project apparently is about art and artists and not workers and work, I will recall remarks by Martha Rosler that I incorprated into an earlier post [1]. Rosler comments on the demise of "video, whose expansively utopian and activist potential has been depoliticized, as "video art," ... was removed from wide public address by its incarceration in museum mausoleums and collectors’ cabinets." Unfortunately, this collaborative projection did not quite escape incarceration. I suspect it never was intended to do so.


16 January 2007

Sidney Hillman Awards

I have to say that the proliferation of awards for photography and writing and thinking is a kind of professionalization about which I am quite ambivalent. In part this is because there inevitably is a political dimension to any such prize. But I have in the past noted a couple of awards (or at least discussed them) here and here. That said, I do want to call attention to the awards given by the Sidney Hillman Foundation for writing and photography that "promotes social and economic justice." These awards came to my attention because a friend recommended I look at a project that turns out to have won one last year. You can find “Los Piñeros: Men of the Pines” here. It features the photography of Hector Amezcua.

The point, which I nearly forgot, is that the deadline for Hillman Award nominations is fast approaching: 31 January 2007.


15 January 2007

The Radicalism & Relevance of Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is an iconic photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington D.C.. In that speech, King focuses on the struggle for racial equality and civil rights and relies heavily on the language of freedom and opportunity. Such language is central to American political discourse. And King's demands remain in crucial respects unfulfilled. But, as is regularly recognized, King soon enough shifted his language and demands in important ways and came to link the cause of domestic freedom and civil rights to broader claims for peace, equality and justice that fit less easily into the language and practices of American politics. These more radical themes remain relevant today as well.

Here is a passage from "Beyond Vietnam," the speech King delivered to Clergy & Laity Concerned in NYC in 1967. His words clearly resonate in multiple ways with our current circumstance.
"Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the North. He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than eight hundred, or rather, eight thousand miles away from its shores.

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called "enemy," I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours."

Just over a year after that call for solidarity, in early April 1968, King was assassinated. The night before he was shot he delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech in support of striking Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. And he was quite clear at that moment that "The issue is injustice." King did not abandon the language of freedom, but he placed it in a considerably broader context.
"The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding--something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya: Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee--the cry is always the same--'We want to be free.'"
In effect, King was translating his own call for solidarity into action. He urged his audience to set aside fear and cultivate instead a "kind of dangerous unselfishness." And he identified just how we ought to use such a disposition.
"It's alright to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's alright to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do."
King continued to recognize the importance of various freedoms - speech, assembly, press; but he also insists that "the greatness of America is the right to protest for right." His was a call to activism and opposition and dissent in the name not just of freedom and opportunity, but of equality and economic justice and democracy.

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14 January 2007

Rare Influence

I have been thinking lately about the impact that writing and teaching might have on others. In part this is inspired by my own very narrow academic department in which many (not all) of my colleagues think the crucial point about any piece of research is how it builds on "the literature" and consider the point of teaching to be creating pint-sized replicas of themselves - think Dr. Evil and Mini-me. To be fair, my colleagues are neither alone in the way they think nor especially egregious about how they pursue the implications of their views. That said, their's is is an approach to teaching and writing that I find increasingly foreign. It nevertheless is difficult to see how one might have intellectual influence - for that is what is at issue here - in a more useful, less incestuous way. Who might one take as an exemplar?

Over the past several months I've read a number of reflections by those who knew her, on Ellen Willis. who died in early November. I have to admit that I've only ever read about a handful of Willis's essays and, while I typically found them smart and provocative, neither did I find myself wholly blown away. What I find amazing, though, are the remembrances that her friends, students, colleagues offer about her and especially about her apparently astonishing ability to think through and convey important matters of politics and culture, to address students and peers and adversaries, and, in the process, to remain a decent, committed woman. Here is a sampling of recollections of Willis from The Nation, The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and Dissent.

Class Warfare

A short while ago I posted on a project by the Friends of William Blake aimed at disrupting military recruiting processes aimed at youth in predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods. A graphic produced by the National Priorities Project disclosing patterns of recruitment among various income groups in the U.S. by zip code shows why that project is especially important. According to the folks at the NPP:

"The graph below shows the representation of active-duty Army recruits for 2004, 2005, and 2006 according to the median household income of their ZIP code. (Data are not available for the individual recruit's household income.) Each bar represents the ratio of two proportions: the share of total recruits living in ZIP code areas where median household income falls within the specified range over the share of the total youth population living in the ZIP code. A score of more than one means the income range is over-represented. A score of less than one means the range is under-represented. Note that the peak of the bars falls in the range of $30,000 to $59,999. In other words, neighborhoods with low- to middle-median household incomes are over-represented. Neighborhoods with high-median household incomes are under-represented. (The comparable median household income for the U.S. is $47,837.)

Upper-middle and high-income neighborhoods have fallen in representation from 2004. In other words, wealthier neighborhoods are less represented in 2005 and 2006 than they were in 2004. "

You can find a larger (hence more readily legible) version of the graph here.

PS: (Added 1/21/07) - This theme may be getting some traction; see this story in the New Statesman.

13 January 2007

Gianni Dal Mas - "Illegal Portraits"

This poster announces an exhibition that is now over, sponsored by Amnesty International, consisting of portraits taken by Italian photographer Gianni Dal Mas of Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic who, having illegally immigrated to take jobs cutting cane under appalling conditions, also are denied basic human rights. So the exhibition title does not imply that Dal Mas's images themselves are illegal but that the subjects of his portraits are. You can find some of his photographs from this project as well as texts sketching the political-economic context here and here.


PS: (Added 1/14/07) - In his comment on this post Jon Anderson notes a couple of related undertakings that you might want to track down. The first is a web page created by Celine Anaya Gautier and some collaborators called "Esclaves au Paradis: Projet International sur Esclavage Contemporain" focusing on the impromtu villages or "Bateys" that cane workers inhabit in the Dominican Republic. The second is an as yet unreleased documentary by Eric Grunebaum called "The Price of Sugar."

For myself, I would add that if you are interested in the political-economy of sugar production, perhaps the best place to start is with this book by historical anthropologist Sidney Mintz, Sweetness & Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Penguin 1986). And in case you think the political-economy of sugar is too many places to the right of the decimal point to bother with, this recent note by James Suroweicki in The New Yorker sketches some reasons why you are mistaken. Put otherwise, you may not care about slavery and human rights in the developing world, but perhaps you will care about the more or less direct costs to you.

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Secretary of Defense Gates Should Fire Charles Stimson

In the Pentagon there is a man, Charles Stimson, occupying the position of "Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs." This story in The New York Times suggests that Mr Stimpson, himself a lawyer, seems to not understand that in an adversary system of justice like the one Americans pretend to embrace, even individuals suspected of especially egregious offenses are entitled - yes, entitled - to legal representation. Otherwise we cannot expect the system of justice to work very well. He also seems not to understand that not everyone agrees with the Bush Administration project of subverting international law specifically and the rule of law more generally. His job might be much easier if suspects were not so entitled or if all legal observers shared his presumption that the administration was proceeding unobjectionably. Too bad for Mr. Stimson and his ilk.

Mr. Stimson (abetted by the administration's minions on right-wing talk radio and the Wall Street Journal editorial staff) has taken it upon himself to publically criticize lawyers who are working to represent those imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. And he has suggested that the corproate clients of the law firms for whom those lawyers work take their business elsewhere. The choice lawyers (and we, their true clients in all this) face, however, is not the one Mr. Stimson presents - represent terrorists or represent law-abiding clients. Rather, the problem with the detainees whose affiars Mr. Stimson is charged to oversee is that we have nothing beyond the word of the government that they are terrorists or have any links to terrorists. Given their record of dissembling and incompetence, there is little reason why we should assume the administration is credible on this matter. So the choice we actually face is this - proceed credulously or challenge the government to establish its presumption.

The lawyers whom Mr. Stimson is attacking are trying to open up enough legal space to see whether the government view is plausible or not. That is the way things ought to work.
Mr. Stimson is interfering with the administration of justice in an especially blatant way. He should lose his job. Once Secretary of Defense Gates completes his PR tour for the President's "surge" proposal, he should fire Mr. Stimson whose views and actions disqualify him from any position having to do with the adminstration of justice.
PS: (Added just a bit later) I've just come across this short note by Peggy Kohn in Dissent that very nicely articulates how the Bush adminsitration view on legal treatment of detainees subverts basic premises of the rule of law.

Guantanamo Anniversary

This past week (Thursday 1/11) marked five years since the inception of the BushCo policy of imprisoning "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay. According to press reports there are presently more than 400 prisoners being kept there, mostly without the most basic legal recourse. This policy, like much of the administration strategy, is a condemnable revision of international law that is self-defeating. Amnesty International quite rightly orchestrated a set of protests to call attention to the anniversary. The following images (all lifted from the BBC web page where you also can find a set of relevant reports) depict protests against the practice in Ankara, Paris, London, Budapest and Berlin.

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