30 April 2007

Photographic Conventions (Again)

In The New York Times you can find a review of Martin Duberman's new biography of arts impresario Lincoln Kirstein. This affords an opportunity to take up the comment in my last post about the dubious nature of the conventional dichotomy between "documentary" and "art" photography. As the reviewer remarks, Kirstein "put Walker Evans on the map." Although that is a slight overstatement, it is important to understand that elevating Evans hardly was an easy task. In that regard I recommend a recent essay "A Genealogy of Orthodox Documentary" by John Stomberg. The essay appears in the recent volume Beautiful Suffering: Photography & the Traffic in Pain. Stomberg details how the elevation of Evans was part of a concerted campaign to not only characterize his work as the pinnacle of proper documentary practice but to diminish the accomplishements of purported "competitors" such as Margaret Bourke-White. Like other social and political insititutions, the conventions governing photographic practice are artifacts that emerge as a by-product of conflict among asymmetrically situated parties. Evans, Kirstein and their allies simply had more cultural resources than those whose work they sought to marginalize.

I will have more to say on this general topic in the next few days.


More Thoughts on Photographic Conventions & Their Vicissitudes

Several days ago I posted some critical remarks on the convention among "documentary" photographers of focusing on the predicament of particular individuals. (I use scare quotes on the word "documentary" because I actually think that that category is nearly meaningless outside of an untenable dichotomy in which "art" photography provides an equally meaningless pole. That, though, is an argument for another time.) Here I want to offer some examples of ways beyond that conventional preoccupation. Consider these two images that quite clearly locate individual hardship within a broader context.

Sebastião Salgado, "Kisangani, Zaire," 1997.

Dorothea Lange, "White Angel Bread Line," 1933.

The first image, part of Salgado's Migrations project, shows Rwandan refugees walking back to their point of departure because Zairian officials had denied them access to their putative destination. It is examplary of the approach Salgado uses of situating individuals in groups and of populating landscapes without ever actually losing contact with at least some of those individuals. Sometimes this occurs in a series of images, somsetimes within individual images. Notice here that some, but not all, of the individuals in the foreground make eye contact with the photographer.

The second, better known, image by Lange likewise situates an instance of individual economic hardship amongst the crowd of others in the bread line. The man with his back to the crowd seems to be shabbier than the rest. But, still, he shares his predicament with the others and is singled out only relatively. (I recommend Geoff Dyer's discussion of this photograph in his The Ongoing Moment.)

Of course one can depict suffering in more allusive ways, without actually depicting the indviduals on whom it has been perpetrated. Compare the image by James Nachtwey I lifted in my earlier post depicting the young Rwandan man who'd survived a machete with this image by Gilles Peress taken in Goma, Zaire near the Rwandan border in 1994. Given our knowledge (even then) that machetes were the wepon of choice in the Rwandan genocide, this image is chilling. Yet it depicts not a single individual.

Similarly, this next photograph, also by Peress is of a photo-album found at the site where Tutsis had been massacred by Hutu during the genocide. While the album contains photos of individuals, it does not depict their suffering directly but instead prompts viewers to imagine what became of them.

Those familiar with Peress's work will know that he also provides photographs of death and mayhem and suffering of individuals; his images from Rwanda are especially grisly. But in the examples I've lifted here, he works by indirection and, in some ways, these images are more haunting than those of corpses.

My point is not that we in the North and West ought to be spared gruesome scenes or even spared confrontation with less final sorts of suffering. Instead, it is that there are ways to sidestep the conventional practices of "documentary" photography. The examples here are merely food for thought.

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29 April 2007

Senior Prom


This is my oldest son Douglas with his girlfriend Kate last night. They were all decked out for the Senior Prom. The past weeks have been especially tough for Doug; for the past fourteen years he has been an exceptional older brother and he has been truly bereft since Jeff died. It is wonderful for me to see him smile (even though he is trying not to do so!). I love you Doug.
PS: Doug just phoned to tell me that Nazareth College (where he's going to play lacrosse next year) just beat Ithaca College (where he also was recruited) 16-14 to win the Empire Eight Conference Championship. That means an automatic bid to the NCAA Div. III tournament. More smiles!

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The Unger Experiment in Brazil

According to economist Dani Rodrik's blog, Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva has appointed pragmatist law professer Roberto Mangabeira Unger to a ministerial post heading a newly created "special secretariat for long-term actions." This is an interesting appointment from my perspective insofar as Unger has articulated (more on that verb below) a view of institutional pluralism and political experimentalism that I find extremely congenial.* (You can find an earlier post of mine on Unger here.) Unger himself is Brazilian and, if I have this correctly, was the youngest person ever granted tenure at Harvard Law School.

Rodrik describes Unger as "the most erudite and impenetrable man I know." And this recent interview with Unger from The Guardian begins with this observation: "Talking to Roberto Mangabeira Unger for an hour is like waltzing with a very articulate cement mixer. Being slippery in his intellectual formulations is a matter of perverse pride to him. When The London Review of Books rejected an article of his on the grounds that it was somewhat lacking in "conversational" tone, Unger retorted that he was never conversational; even in conversation."

I find that sort of purposeful obscurity totally unhelpful, especially because Unger's underlying ideas are, I think, both extremely provocative and politically innovative. This obscurity has been a problem for pragmatist political thought since Dewey, whose writing "style" was, to be polite, atrocious. Reading either presents an unnecessarily high barrier to entry.

Interesingly enough, I cannot find any reference to Unger's appointment in the press but it puts him into a public position similarly visible to that occupied by Richard Posner which, from a pragmatist viewpoint should be interesting. We should soon see something of an answer to the question that Unger proposd in his recent book "What Should the Left Propose?"

Follow up (added later that evening): You can find a disparaging - and I think not entirely fair - review of Unger's What Should the Left Propose? by Michael Bérubé from Dissent here. I guess just as initial warrent regarding the seriousness of a writer's political-economic ideas, I find the endorsement of an economist like Rodrik more persuasive than the flippancy of English Professors, even smart ones like Bérubé.

More importantly, and disturbingly, are claims by bloggers that Unger recently has removed a 2005 paper from his Harvard web page in which he attacked Lula's first administration as “the most corrupt government in the history of Brazil.” Unger was among the founders of the Brazilian Republican Party and his new appointment has been interpreted as a political sidepayment by Lula to the party which is part of the President's political coalition. Stay tuned.

* For the truly nerdy, you can find my views on such things in Jack Knight and James Johnson. 2007. “The Priority of Democracy: A Pragmatist Approach to Political-Economic Institutions and the Burden of Justification,” American Political Science Review, Volume 101, Issue 01, pages 47-61. This essay is an advertisement for the book Jack & I are writing.

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27 April 2007

Hold Your Applause Please ....

There often is a large discrepancy between what we see and what is actually the case. This week we’ve seen a remarkable run -up in the stock market as the Dow Jones Average closeed above 13K points for the first time ever. At right is a triumphalist graphic lifted from the celebratory account in The New York Times.

But what does this event mean? What is actually going on here? Perhaps this surge (not to be confused with other similarly named efforts) means that we are getting lots of “productive” investment that will encourage economic growth and a wide and deep distribution of the resulting wealth and income. It would be nice to think so, but there is little reason to do so. On such issues it would be nice if the mainstream press pushed just a bit past official appearances. This would not take terribly much work. And it might uncover cause for concern, it might give the revelers pause. Consider these two passages from recently published, readily available books.

“Most people think that aside from its gambling function, the stock market somehow provides nourishing finance to real corporations so they can invest and expand. The IPO wave of the late 1990s would seem to confirm that on both counts. But while the case for gambling is solid, that for the provision of finance isn’t. Over the long haul, firms are overwhelmingly self-financing - that is, most of their investment expenditures are funded through profits (about 90%, on long term averages), and surprisingly little by external sources, like banks and financial markets. And it’s especially true of the stock market, which has historically provided only a sliver of investment funds. This is true not only of the U.S., but for virtually every economy known to economics.”*

"“In 2004 a little more than half of all U.S. households had no stock holdings in any form, either direct (owning shares of a particular company) or indirect (owning shares through a mutual fund or through a 401k-style defined contribution pension plan), and, of those that did, almost two of three households had holdings of less than $5,000. This fact contradicts the popular notion that the typical household is greatly invested in the stock market. Moreover, from 2001 to 2004 the share of households holding stock, particularly those holding more than a small amount, declined - the first decline since 1989.”**

If these two passages accurately grasp actual economic phenomena, it is highly unlikely that recent events on Wall Street are working to the advantage, direct (as a source of household income) or indirect (in the form of productive economic activity***), of large numbers of the American population. So, why the vigorous applause? As a good pragmatist, I am worried about consequences. And in that regard this "accomplishment" by the markets seems especially hollow.

* Doug Henwood. After the New Economy. New Press, 2003, pages 187-8.
** Lawrence Mishel,
et. al. The State of Working America, 2006-2007. Cornell University Press/Economic Policy Institute, 2007, pages 260-1.
*** Compare, for instance, this story from
The Times today on "sluggish" economic growth.

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A Poem from Stanley Kunitz

Day of Foreboding
Stanley Kunitz

Great events are about to happen.
I have seen migratory birds
in unprecedented numbers
descend on the coastal plain,
picking the margins clean.
My bones are a family in their tent
huddled over a small fire
waiting for the uncertain signal
to resume the long march.

[You can hear Kunitz reading this poem and others here at npr]

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What!?! You Mean to Tell Me President Kennedy Has Been Shot!?!

"'There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat,' Mr. Tenet writes in a devastating judgment that is likely to be debated for many years. Nor, he adds, 'was there ever a significant discussion' about the possibility of containing Iraq without an invasion."
- The New York Times quoting former CIA Director George Tenet.

There is a very funny skit in an old Saturday Night Live where one character asks another 'Do you remember where you were when you learned John Kennedy had been shot?'. The other character replies with incredulity and shock and alarm - 'President Kennedy's been shot!?!?!' The "news" today that BushCo were intent on invading Iraq come hell or high water reminded me of that sketch.


Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007)

Mstislav Rostropovich gave an impromptu concert at
Checkpoint Charlie after the Berlin Wall fell in November
1989. Photograph © Reuters, Caption
NY Times.

I cannot explain just why, but I find the cello especially wonderful. One of the indisputable masters of the instrument has died. In addition to being a musical virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich also was a man of conviction and principle who spent a large portion of his life in political exile for having spoken out against the Soviet regime. There are reports on his life & death in The New York Times and The Guardian today [1] [2].

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26 April 2007

Photography for the Majority World

You can find a podcast of an illuminating discussion at Open Democracy between Charlie Devereaux and Suvenda Chatterjee of the Drik photo agency, which was founded nearly two decadess ago in Bangladesh. According to the agency web site, the photographers associated with Drik are animated by "a common vision; one that sees the majority world, not as fodder for disaster reporting, but as a vibrant source of human energy and a challenge to an exploitative global economic system." Given the wide range of initiatives Drik has undertaken (photofestival, photography insititute, etc.), it is worth a visit to their web site.

25 April 2007

Photographic Conventions & Their Vicissitudes: The Irony of "Vividness"

In a paper - the long, early version of which you can find in the sidebar - I argue that photographers and critics are misguided insofar as they typically suppose that the aim of documentary projects detailing the suffering of others is properly to induce compassion in viewers. This supposition, I believe, tacitly sustains (or perhaps is sustained by) the documentary convention of focusing on individuals precisely because compassion involves vicariously taking on the pain of some specific other individual. In th epaper I also argue, following Hannah Arendt, that this supposition is de-politicizing in specific ways.

I don’t want to rehearse my entire argument here. I want instead to take another tack. Let’s say that Arendt is wrong, that her arguments about compassion are flawed in one or another way. That would mean that my argument would be flawed too. I do not think this is so, but let’s entertaian the possibility just for the sake of argument. I want to suggest that the conventions of documentary photographers would still be misguided in more or less purely practical terms.

Let’s start with the purposes of documentary. Artist and critic Martha Rosler remarks that “documentary engages with structural injustices, often to provoke active responses.” That seems to me to be an unobjectionable characterization.

Next, is the issue of photographic conventions. I think it also is unobjectionable to claim that documentary images tend to be preoccupied with individuals. Consider the well known images I've for this post (credits at bottom). I did not choose them at random, but they are exemplars nonetheless.

So, it seems to me that there is some tension at work here between the notion that documentary grapples with “structural injustices” which are by definition general or aggregate and this conventional preoccupation with individuals and their particular travails. How does this tension work itself out in the process of inducing “active responses” among viewers?

Each of these photographs, it seems, is meant to capture some general phenomenon - poverty, displacement, war, labor, racism, sexism - but to do so by focusing on the predicament or experience of a particular individual. In so doing, each photographer is hoping to induce a response in her or his audience.

Among students of the media this strategy is said to be an effort to exploit "vividness." This essentially amounts to an effort to depict general patterns or phenemona through the prism of individual or personal experience. By contrast a "pallid" representation would rely on e.g., statistical information to convey the pattern or phenomenon. In any case, I have been reading an experimental study of the impact of news media and, it turns out, that "vivid" presentations of such aggregate level phenomena as unemplyment or environmental degradation have little or no effect on the ways audiences react to problems. As the authors note: "Human despair and devastation poignantly depicted, did not generally add to viewers' sense of national priorities." Later they reiterate this claim: "stories of personal suffering, pwerfully depicted, generally did not raise the priority viewers assigned to target problems."

The evidence from this experimental study clearly is not definitive (due minimally, e.g., to standard worries about external validity); but it is suggestive. And it suggests, I think, that perhaps the conventions of "documentary" photography, conventions that have been embraced by, for example, news media and humanitarian organizations seeking to raise awareness of human suffering and funds to alleviate it, may well be counterproductive. Vivid presentations may, by turning widespread social-political-economic problems into stories of melodramatic human interest, actually undermine the capacity of individuals and organizations to take remedial or preventive action.

[Photographs © Walker Evans, Luc Delahaye, Dorothea Lange, Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey, Roy DeCarava, and Gordon Parks respectively.]

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23 April 2007

Strange Culture

Lucia Sommer, a terrifically talented, smart and committed artist who is a Ph.D. student in the Program on Visual & Cultural Studies here at Rochester forwarded this email to me and I am forwarding it to you. The email announces screenings of a new film Strange Culture that recounts the legal travails of Steve Kurtz, a member of the Critical Art Ensemble, who is being mis-prosecuted under Federal anti-terrorism laws.

Don't miss Lynn Hershman Leeson's stunning new film, "Strange Culture," which documents the case of artist and professor Steven Kurtz and geneticist Robert Ferrell, accused in 2004 by the U.S. Justice Department of "bioterrorism" and currently awaiting trial. The case threatens to set dangerous precedent by eroding the boundary between civil and criminal law, and by criminalizing those who legitimately and legally criticize government policy. You can watch the trailer for the film here.

"4 STARS... 'Strange Culture' is an important heads-up to what is going on in our country right now in the name of national security, and a brilliant statement on artistic freedom and the dangers it faces." -Film Threat

Upcoming Screenings of Strange Culture:

April 25 - Toronto, Hot Docs

April 27- Chicago, Museuam of Contemporary Art

April 28, May 4 & 5 - San Francisco Film Festival

June 15- New York, NY, Human Rights Watch International Film Festival Lincoln Center

Oct 1 New York, NY, MoMA

For more information about the film and about future screenings please visit this page.

For more information about the case, and how you can help go to the Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund page here.


22 April 2007

Gun Death Graphic

In addition to my preoccupation in photography, I also am interested in "data graphics" - ways of depicting aggregate phenomena in graphical (in contrast to tabular) form. I am especially taken by Edward Tufte's work and his recognition that graphics are tools for seeing and thinking about complex, large scale patterns and events [1] [2] [3]. In The New York Times today you can find this nice graphic on the distribution (by age, race, sex, and category) of deaths caused by guns in the United States. I know that a large number of Americans subscribe to the mantra "guns don't kill people, people kill people." My reply is that like most simplisitic mantras, this one is unpersuasive. Sure, people kill people, but in the U.S. they do so far too frequently by using a gun and we ought to stop trying to fool oursleves about that. According to The Times, (American) people killed people with guns 81 times per day in the last year for which data are available from the Centers for Disease Control, namely 2004.

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21 April 2007

Why Someone in the Bush Administration Ought to Read Foucault

Let's start with the 'known knowns' (to paraphrase
the unlamented Don Rumsfeld). Alberto Gonzales is a dead man. His pathetic testimony before the Senate Judicary Committee confirmed that. It is now not a matter of whether he resigns, but when. Bush and his administration simply are demonstrating how delusional they truly are if they actually think, as their official comment insists, that AG acquitted himself well in the hearing. The politics of spin is hard at work here. The Senate Republicans, rather desperately, are trying to divert our attention from the clear politicization of personnel policy at the Justice Department to matters of administrative "competence." Whether they succeed depends on the extent to which the Democrats show that they have the stomach for real hardball politics, whether, that is, they pursue all this to its source which, as everyone knows, is the White House. I am not sanguine.

I actually don't want to talk about any of that. I want to talk about what the Republicans might learn from Disicipline & Punish. My advice is not meant to suggest that they bone up on techniques of surveillance and torture since they hardly need my encouragement on that score. Instead, it seems that they need to think about how public rituals operate and how these often are hijacked by an unruly populace. I've lifted the images here from The New York Times and they show protesters in the audience exploiting the Senate hearings for their own purposes. For instance, the man at right above is keeping track of the number of times AG claimed that he could not recall this or that event or fact (according to npr yesterday morning he did so at least 71 times Thursday, but you should consult this digest at The Nation).

Photographs © Doug Mills for The New York Times

Judging from this second photo at least some of the protesters appear to be affiliated with the feminist peace group CODEPINK (obviously not to be confused with Women in Black). Foucault insisted that disciplinary power - the form he warned readers about - emerged largely because earlier mechanisms too frequently generated opportunities like the ones these protesters are exploiting. Disiciplinary mechanisms operate to undermine and re-arrange just such uncontrolled, plural, critical relations of communication.

“[D]iscipline had to solve a number of problems for which the old economy of power was not sufficiently equipped. ... That is why discipline fixes; it arrests or regulates movements; it clears up confusion; it dissipates compact groupings; it establishes calculated distributions. It must master all the forces that are formed from the very constitution of an organized multiplicity; it must neutralize the effects of counter-power that spring from them and which form a resistance to the power that wishes to dominate it: agitations, revolts, spontaneous organizations, coalitions - anything that might establish horizontal conjunctions.”

But, as Foucault reminds readers, even when successful, disciplinary power cannot wholly eliminate resistance, whether spontaneous or coordinated. That is the lesson BushCo (and their putative opposition, the 'Democrat' party) should learn. While the protests pictured here are mostly theatre (far off, off, off broadway), they demonstrate how resistance and dissent can operate at the interstices of even the most centralized and hierarchal sites of power.

PS: For the truly nerdy out there, you can find my considered views on Foucault here: "Communication, Criticism & the Postmodern Consensus," Political Theory 25(4), 1997, pages 559-83.

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20 April 2007

Poem - The Uses of Suffering

Mr. Cogito Reflects on Suffering
Zbigniew Herbert

All attempts to avert
the so-called cup of bitterness -
by mental effort
frenzied campaigns on behalf of stray cats
breathing exercises
religion -
let you down

you have to consent
gently bow your head
not wring your hands
use suffering mildly with moderation
like a prosthetic limb
without false shame
but without pride also

don’t brandish your stump
over other people’s heads
don’t knock your white cane
on the panes of the well-fed

drink an extract of bitter herbs
but not to the dregs
be careful to leave
a few gulps for the future

accept it
but at the same time
isolate it in yourself
and if it is possible
make from the stuff of suffering
a thing or a person

with it
of course

joke around with it
very solicitously
as with a sick child
cajoling in the end
with silly tricks
a wan

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18 April 2007

Ornette Coleman

Photograph © Lee Friedlander for The New York Times

This is a portrait of composer and muscian Ornette Colemen who just won the Pulitzer Prize for composition. Here is the mention from The New York Times (16 April 07): "Mr. Coleman, the 77-year-old jazz saxophonist and composer, won for 'Sound Grammar,' a live album by his most recent quartet, recorded in 2005. Elastic and bracing, with two acoustic basses and much collective improvisation, the music harks back to the 1960s records that made him famous. 'I’m tearing and I’m surprised and happy — and I’m glad I’m an American,' he said. 'And I’m glad to be a human being who’s a part of making American qualities more eternal.'" More from The Times and npr.

This new album is really terrific - a live recording from 2005. But Coleman has been making wild, frenetic, and soulful music since the late 1950s and is is truly wonderful to see him, a true innovator, recognized for his contributions. You can find a nice essay on Coleman (a bit dated but still worth reading) by the great jazz critic Francis Davis reprinted here.

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17 April 2007

Click Here to Disappear: Thoughts on Images and Democracy

I somehow knew that David Levi Strauss was scheduled to give this talk in conjunction with the opcoming symposium in Manchester on "The Democratic Image" I noted last week. As I've mentioned here before, in my judgement Levi Strauss is as good a critic of photography as we have today. I am not sure I agree with the argument laid out here, at least I'm pretty sure I don't agree with all of it. But it is making me think. At the moment that is a good thing! Eventually I may actually try to write something of a response. For now the clicking and pasting is therapeutic.

Click Here to Disappear:
Thoughts on Images and Democracy

David Levi Strauss

Photography has always had the potential to democratise images, but it has seldom worked out that way in practice. Digital imaging has made image-making devices ubiquitous. Many more people now possess the means to make images more of the time. At the same time, images are primarily used, in the public image environment, to influence public opinion and encourage the consumption of products and services. What is the relation between these two phenomena: near universal private image-making capability and widespread manipulation through public images?

I used to think that more people making images would necessarily lead to more conscious image reception, but I'm less sure of that now. It seems that it's possible to make images as unconsciously as one consumes them, bypassing the critical sense entirely. One of the main culprits here is time pollution, or "the pollution of temporal distance" that Paul Virilio writes about. To regain our liberty (and our distance), we must slow the images down.

Images online are both more ephemeral (in form) and more substantial (in number). They flicker across our eyes and jitter through our minds at incredible speeds. We spend more time collecting and sorting images, but less time looking at any one of them. One can never step into the same data-stream twice. The images from Abu Ghraib suddenly appear and are everywhere, and then just as suddenly they vanish, leaving barely a trace. Photographic images used to be about the trace. Digital images are about the flow.

In political terms the distribution of images is more important than their collection, and the distribution of public images is still primarily controlled by corporations. Moreover, as decisions about the distribution of images become more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer corporations, manipulation increases and criticality wanes. The relative fluidity of access on the internet is rapidly becoming monetised (and thus, highly regulated) at every level. Whether or not the last vestiges of net neutrality are obliterated by law in the next few years, the distribution of images will remain a function of the larger market. Although some possibilities for resistance still exist online, the overwhelming trend is toward managed "social" networks, ideological isolation, and mandatory advertising. Advertising engineers have long known that if you can isolate consumers and turn them into monads ensconced alone before screens, you can control them without having to worry about any "social" interference.

A Critical Displacement

Even as we relinquish our privacy (everything is visible under Big Optics), we participate in the privatisation of the image in our daily dealings, where images are increasingly deprived of any meaning beyond the personal. So the two processes - private image-making and public image reception - have become fused. Under the Pandaemonium, we have become "a herd confus'd", as John Milton called us.

And rising out of this stampede is an enormous dust cloud of blind optimism. Everything is good and getting better under the Pandaemonium. Whatever problems arise will be solved technically. Stop worrying. There is no need to get involved. Go back to your monitors, everyone, there's nothing to see here.

This Panglossian imperative of the "new digital democracy" is beginning to take on all the characteristics of a collective hallucination. When one objects to it, or merely questions it, the subject under hallucination can snap, and react with rage.

In the United States, the internet president turned out not to be Al Gore, but George W Bush - not the promise of universal access and its attendant responsibilities, but the irresponsibility of untraceable acts and anonymous speech. No one is responsible because no one can be singled out. Universal access means universal complicity. No one is to blame because everyone is "democratically" included.

Once again, the scope of the demos- the people - is being drastically reduced. "The people" now consists of the small percentage of the world's population with broadband internet access. The idiotes (Greek for "private persons", referring to the 6,000 men who met on Pnyx, the hill southwest of the Agora, to speak out about the issues of the day, and who voted by raising their hands) have been replaced by bloggers, who now number over 70 million in the United States alone. So, who is left to listen, or respond?

Has democracy increased with the growth of the internet? Obviously not. It has diminished significantly. Why? Because the desire for public, democratic participation has been displaced onto consumer goods and services and dispersed into isolated individual speech. Whatever else it is, the internet is primarily an advertising medium. Access to images and information has certainly increased, but has this led to better informed citizens? No. It has led to more docile citizens, who spend more of their time in the collection and sorting of images and information (and in what Simon Schama has called the computer's "lazy democracy of significance") and less time on analysis, critical thinking, or real "socialising". Perhaps we need to find a word other than "democracy" to describe what's happening in our communications environment.

Copyright © David Levi Strauss, Published by openDemocracy Ltd
(13 April 2007).

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16 April 2007

Jeff (2)

This is a couple of years old, but it captures Jeff's smile and disposition almost perfectly. Yesterday afternoon we held a Celebration for Jeff in the church gymnasium and the place was packed for nearly four hours - lots of teammates and friends and kids from school. The funeral is at noon today. I want to thank all the readers who've left comments on the previous post. I truly appreciate all the good wishes and suppport.

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13 April 2007


This is a hard post to write. I want to let readers know that I will likely not be posting much for a while. On Wednesday afternoon my wonderful 14 year old son Jeffrey was hit in the back of the neck by a lacrosse ball during the warm-ups for a game. He died almost immediately. Although we will never know for sure, this suggests that there was some sort of structural anomoly in his brain.

In any case, Jeff was on life support for some time even though he was brain dead. This mostly was because we arranged for Jeff's internal organs to be taken for transplant and as of about 9:00 am this morning he is truly gone from us. That said, I hope that some of his smarts, verve, sense of humor and wackiness will go along to those who receive some small physical part of Jeff and that they will benefit from not just his life but receive too his love of it.

Please hug your loved ones and hold them tight for an extra moment or two today.

I love you Jeff and always will.
News reports here and here and, especially, here for insight into the very, very low incidence of this sort of event.

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11 April 2007

Gomma Magazine #3

Today I received an email (complete with "a big hug from Gomma Team") announcing the appearance of Gomma #3:

"Gomma Magazine – issue 3 is out now! This latest issue brings Gomma to new levels and audiences, affirming itself as one of the freshest publication on image-making. It fuses great international imagery with a creative layout and exclusive interviews.

In this issue: Daido Moriyama, Anders Petersen, Boris Mikhailov, Boogie, Lise Sarfati, Jacob Aue Sobol and many more. … Also Mike Patton (ex Faith No More) and Wim Wenders talk exclusively to Gomma about art, photography and more. Click here to view a page-flip sample."

10 April 2007

The Democratic Image: Photography & Globalization

I noticed this announcement for a two-day symposium coming up later this month in Manchester (UK):

As the banner notes this is is part of Look.07 co-sponsored by Open Democracy, Redeye, The Photography Network and The Photographer's Gallery. The symposium has an interesting cast of speakers - mixing photographers, writers, editors and looks like it will be a terrific event. Unfortunately, I will not be in the neighborhood!


Something to Look Forward to - Summer Reading

Although it has been unseasonably cold here lately, summer really is just around the corner - I promise! Verso promises (for June publication) this new collection of essays from John Berger that should prove to be wonderfully provocative warm-weather reading.

According to Verso, the volume is subtitled "Dispatches on Survival & Resistance." It contains, I think, a short essay I read last summer, published in the journal Critical Inquiry. The essay is entitled "Undefeated Despair" and, in it, Berger reflects on life "amongst the rubble" which is ubiquitous in Palestine. Berger refers not just to material debris, but to the "rubble of words," to language that has lost its meanings or is systematically ignored.

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09 April 2007

Blog Civility & 'Free Speech'

This article from today's New York Times on efforts to develop codes of conduct for blog posts and comments seems germane; not only have I been haunted by a rude, obtuse, anonymous commenter, but I've also seen incredibly gracious and civil behavior on the part of other commenters who are reflective and insightful. (See, for example, the comment thread on this post.)

I guess I do not see the problem of deleting comments from those who behave badly. Sure there are free speech issues - and deleting comments simply because they disagree with a post seems out of bounds. But, moderating posts, or precluding them altogether (hence pre-empting inane or profane as well as smart and relevant comments) both are possible and hardly an infringement on any one's rights. So why is eliminating a numbskull comment - say a rant in which the "speaker" calls you a 'dumb fucking cunt,' or offers some similarly articulate utterance seen as an infringement? It hardly seems like "censorship" to either pre-empt or delete such comments - the only difference is temporal.

I have no obligation to tolerate on this blog name calling and profanity aimed at myself or other commenters by folks who cannot behave like adults. If someone came to my house and started berating me or other guests, I'd ask them to shut up or leave. Is the presence of commenters on a blog any different? One might argue that my house is private and the blog public. But that is far too coarse a distinction, since I do not allow anyone to edit my posts or add items to the archive or sidebar. And, again, I can moderate comments or prevent them altogether. In fact, the blog (not just this one, but any blog), like my house, would not exist (as a forum for interaction) if I didn't maintain it. So, the publicity argument seem not just specious to me but one that could easily be turned around to justify my eliminating obnoxious comments. A commenter is free not to visit my blog if she finds it irritating. But given that she can find my URL I cannot "hide"; and so, unless I moderate or prevent comments, I am susceptible to all sorts of inanity and profanity. Given that I'm a 'sitting duck,' am I obliged to tolerate literally anything anyone wants to say? No.

Finally free speech arguments also have to (and legally, at least, do) account for consequences. And among these surely are the conflicts that arises due to utterances I or a commentator might make. Here it is important to resist the sort of "libertarian" defenses of speech rights that are nearly unquestioned in the US. Here is Owen Fiss from Yale Law School on this point:

“The libertarian view - that the First Amendment is a protection of self-expression - makes its appeal to the individualistic ethos that so dominates our popular and political culture. Free speech is seen as analogous to religious liberty, which is also protected by the First Amendment. Yet this theory is unable to explain why the interests of speakers should take priority over the interests of those individuals who are discussed in the speech, or who must listen to the speech when those two sets of interests conflict. Nor is it able to explain why the right of free speech should extend to many institutions and organizations - CBS, NAACP, ACLU, First National Bank of Boston, Pacific Gas & Electric, Turner Broadcasting System, VFW - that are routinely protected under the First Amendment, despite the fact that they do not directly represent the individual interest in self expression” (The Irony of Free Speech, 1996).

Again, no one is compelled to read this blog; similarly no one should be compelled to read inanities and profanities just because someone feels like "expressing" themselves.


07 April 2007

Los Desaparecidos (2)

“From the Uruguayan Torture Series” (1983), © Luis Camnitzer

In The New York Times is a review by Holland Cotter of "Los Desaparecidos" exhibition now showing in NYC. I posted on this exhibition a short while ago. Cotter opens with this remark: "There may have been a more moving show of contemporary political art in the city this season than “The Disappeared” at El Museo del Barrio, but if so, I missed it." He then observes of one of the artists whose work is in the show, Luis Camnitzer, that he "is one of our finest political artists, which is to say one of our finest artists." (Camnitzer was born in Germany, raised in Uruguay and now lives in NYC.) So, by implication, Los Desaparacidos is the most "moving show of contemporary art" (note the eliminated adjective) that Cotter has seen this year. He ends his review by throwing down the gauntlet to the NYC art world: "And why is it that an on-the-road exhibition from a small museum in the Midwest is the most potent show of contemporary art, political or otherwise, in town? All I can say is that curators in our local museums should pay a visit, and ask themselves that question." This seems like an excellent question; I doubt that the big city curators have a vaguely plausible answer. Cotter himself could perhaps point them in the right direction by more consistently discarding the too common art world aversion to "political" work. As Orwell noted, in a comment displayed in the side bar to the right: "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." That is something Art World movers and shakers seem never to quite grasp.

PS: “The Disappeared” (“Los Desaparecidos”) continues through June 17 at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, at 104th Street, East Harlem; (212) 831-7272.

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06 April 2007

Sports Page

"Defensive Pittsford cruises past Hilton

Jeff Milano-Johnson and his brother Doug combined for five goals Thursday in Pittsford's 9-2 win over Hilton in a Monroe County boys lacrosse game at McAvoy Park.

Both images © KRIS MURANTE staff photographer,
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

(April 6, 2007) — The Milano-Johnson brothers combined for five goals Thursday in Pittsford's 9-2 win over Hilton in a Monroe County boys lacrosse game at McAvoy Park.

Jeff Milano-Johnson, a freshman, scored three goals and his brother Doug, a senior who will play at Nazareth next year, had two goals for the Panthers (2-2). "They have played great together," coach Andrew Whipple said. "As a freshman, Jeff has stepped up and he's doing a great job finishing his chances."

Chris Kist added two goals for Pittsford, who led 6-1 at the half. Don Graus and Kyle Haywood scored for Hilton (1-2) and goalie Aaron Donaney made 11 saves for the Cadets. Pittsford starting goalie Brendan Green made eight saves.

The game was played despite driving wind and snow."


This is a story from the local newspaper. A couple of things are important to see. First, atheletic ability clearly is a recessive gene in our family. Second, "spring" sports are meteorologically challeneged in Western NY. (This is, after all, the Thursday before Easter - and it was cold!) Third, sibling rivalry can be abetted by random things like the sports page layout - Jeff outscores his older brother but gets no photographic documentation of his exploits (Doug is #2 in white above). I could make a nerdy comment about how the press regularly distributes our attention in this way but I'll resist and will simply say that I am very proud of my sons.

PS: (Added 4/9/07) - Nell Hurley, whose son Jimmy also plays on the Pittsford Team, took this picture of the parent-spectators watching the game in the snow. (You can see me 2nd from the top at the far right.) Thanks Nell!

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05 April 2007

Have you ever wondered ....?

Baghdad: Wrecked cars in a car 'cemetery'; the cars were previously
used as carbombs in various areas of the war-torn capital.

Photograph: © Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty


PS: (Added a bit later) - Of course there are famous images with similar subject matter. I have in mind, for instance, Joe's Auto Graveyard, Pennsylvania, 1936, by Walker Evans:

The obvious difference is that the autos in the Evans photograph have expired of decrepitude and old age - at worst a mishap - rather than being intentionally blown to smitherines like those al-Rubaye discloses. Thanks to an anonymous commentator for prompting me to think about this.

04 April 2007

Local Event: Photographer Sylvia de Swaan at VSW

Sylvia de Swaan is a photographer and instructor living in Utica, New York. She will be at Visual Studies Workshop on April 4th at 7pm to discuss her recent body of work that is in response to 9/11 and how “politics and world events infiltrate our daily lives.” Sylvia de Swaan is a 2006 Artist Fellowship recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts. The presentation is co-sponsored by Artist & Audiences Exchange, a public program of NYFA. This event is free and open to the public.


03 April 2007

“Guantánamo” - Paolo Pellegrin

At Open Democracy you can find a link to a narrated slideshow of images called
Guantánamo” by Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin. Given that the US Supreme Court has just denied a hearing to detainees there who are hoping to get a habeas corpus order, I thought it might be useful for readers to have a view of what things actually look like on the ground.


02 April 2007


Having read Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment I now have a hard time not continually seeing photographers who take "the same" pictures. One instance is the 1958 self-portrait by Inge Morath below and the (cropped) one at right by Jane Bown from 1982. You can find a larger version of the Bown image at the flash-based web page I link to; I couldn't find one to lift from the web. (There also is a story on Bown from The Guardian here with links to more of her images.)

Bown clearly is "behind" the camera, which obscures her face, while Morath is in the camera's shadow.

PS: (Added 4/3/07) Here is yet another similar image, this one unidentified, that appears as a banner on the photography page over at Open Democracy ...

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Just for Fun

Photograph: 'London' © Uthayanan Chelvaratnam/Guardian Unlimited

Bridging Differences

A friend sent me a link to this blog hosted by Education Week; it is called "Bridging Differences" and is written by Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch in a back-and-forth, conversaitonal format. Both of these women are smart and articulate and both have strong, insightful views on educational policy. My own politics tend to run more along the lines that Meier articulates. (Although it is very interesting to see how the two converge on the issue of strong support for teachers unions! [1] [2] ... And it is interesting too that they see this in no small measure as a matter of gender politics.) That said, having read this for a bit, it seems like an excellent forum for exploring alternatives in education and the politics that surrounds it. Moreover, given the extent to which the blog world is dominated by men, it is nice to find another written exclusively by women.


01 April 2007

Preserving Knowledge During Technical Change

This is an interesting article from The New York Times today about the Getty Conservation Institute where chemist Dusan Stulik and the staff is attempting to chronicle the surprisingly varied technical features of pre-digital photography before they get lost in the transition to digital imaging. It is a dimnesion of the history of photography about which I know nearly nothing. But, the work these scientists are doing is not only important for the markets in art photography (in terms, for instance, of assessing historical authenticity of prints); it also bears on recent discussions of the resurgence of Black & White photography. Why? Because, as The Times article notes (and as practitioners are obviously aware) Kodak announced a couple years back that it is discontinuing production of black & white photo paper. (I learned about this decision from a comment by Sebastião Salgado lamenting what will be the technological and economic pressures that will perhaps insure the disappearance of his preferred medium.)


"A Ruthless Little Bastard"

I suppose that when Richard Nixon finds you despicable, you know you're in trouble. My post title is a quote from Dick himself, referring to Don Rumsfeld, our late, unlamented Secretary of defense. An initial salvo in the post-Rummy (we can only hope his political career really is finished) assessment has appeared. It is reviewed here in The Guardian but, curiously, is not yet listed on the Verso web page.

I figure that, this being April Fool's Day and all, calling attention to Runsfeld's notorious career is appropriate.