31 March 2009

Faces of Unions

Congress has emerged as a key battleground in the class war of which most Americans are deathly afraid. Business interests are lined up on one side, labor on the other. At stake is legislation - the Employee Free Choice Act - that will make it less possible for businesses to interfere with union organizing campaigns.

I know, many readers probably think unions are a disaster for the economy. That, it turns out is not so- at least if you look at things like the extreme mal-distribution of income and wealth in the U.S., despite pretty consistent increases in worker productivity. It also the case that unions are very good for democracy.

One group that is pushing for the EFCA called American Rights at Work are running a campaign called "Faces of the American Free Choice Act" which involves posting banners like these on buildings around Washington DC.

PS: My friend Susan tells me that now that the EFCA might actually stand a chance of passing there are a lot of Senators and Congressional Reps who are pack peddling. It was easy to support the act when they knew Bush would veto it. Put some pressure on your elected representatives on this. You can do so via the ARaW web page.

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30 March 2009

Passings ~ Brian Barry (1936~2009)

“Social justice became the rallying cry of social democratic parties everywhere in Europe, but argument raged over the institutions that were required to realize social justice. ... Although no generalization can cover every case, it is broadly correct to say that in the period following the Second World War social democratic parties had converged on a handful of key ideas:

1 The power of capital must be curbed by strong trade unions (perhaps also worker representation) and by regulation to ensure that people come before profit. As far as public ownership was concerned, non-socialist parties had already, from the nineteenth century on, put public utilities and public transport under municipal ownership or control in most countries, but its extension beyond this was not essential to social democracy. ...

2 The distribution of income and wealth created by capitalism was unacceptably unequal and should be changed by appropriate measures of taxation and transfer. In particular, the market mechanism failed to provide support for those unable to earn enough to live on at a level consistent with social justice. Institutions (the 'welfare state') must therefore be created to provide adequate incomes.

3 Education and health services of uniformly high quality should be provided universally in such a way as to be equally available to all, thus eliminating the market criterion of 'ability to pay'. Although housing was not treated in the same way across the board, it was a universally recognized as too important to be left to market forces, though intervention might take different forms.

My object in this book is to elaborate a conception of social justice of a kind that will support the case for institutions of the kind that I have just outlined. I shall seek to show that the reasons that have been given for abandoning this analysis are flawed. Conditions have not changed in ways that make the social democratic prescriptions inappropriate: in some ways they have in fact changed so that social democratic institutions are more necessary than ever.” ~ Brian Barry, Why Social Justice Matters (Polity, 2005), pp. 5–6.
I have recently learned that one of my old teachers, Brian Barry, has died. As far as I can tell there have been no obituaries. That is odd given Brian's contributions to political theory and philosophy in terms of scholarship, teaching and institution-building. The passage I quote here summarized what Brian was about. He was a committed egalitarian and thought that the general run of right-wing, libertarian 'argument' was mostly crap. When he thought you were full of it he'd say so. But he also was incredibly gracious and generous to students and junior colleagues. You can find notices along with comments from many of Brian's former students and colleagues at Crooked Timber - here and here.

PS: Formal obituaries are now starting to appear: You can find one from The Guardian here and The Times here. (Thanks Gail!)


Helen Levitt (1913~2009)

New York, circa 1940, © Helen Levitt.

Helen Levitt has died. You can find the obituary in The New York Times here and at npr here.


29 March 2009

Rotting Hulks

The April issue of Harpers has an interesting photo essay ~ "Graveyard of Ships: Photographs from Staten Island" ~ by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel. I am unfamiliar with their work. This apparently is part of a larger project on the waterfront of NYC. Judging from the bits they offer on their web page, it should be an interesting undertaking. From what I can tell, Cook does the b&w images and Jenshel the color ~ but that is just an inference from the credits.

28 March 2009

Rochester in the News ~ Poverty & Schools

I have written here before on the criminally high levels of poverty that beset Rochester and other urban areas of Western, New York. There is rural poverty in the hinterlands too, but the cities are racially segregated and poor. No coincidence. No coincidence either, that the schools in the cities are under-performing and dangerous relative to their suburban counterparts. So, here is a report that has escaped our local news ghetto into the national media spotlight. It is shameful that Yolanda Hill feels the need to smuggle her kids out of the Rochester schools and into the system in the neighboring suburb of Greece. It is more shameful still for the Greece district to be spending money on detectives to monitor and disrupt this particular underground railroad.

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Martin Parr at the Arms Bazaar

Photographer Martin Parr recently attended the International Defense Exhibition (idex) in Abu Dhabi - a major international arms bazaar - and filed this verbal report with The Guardian. Funny, no photographs.

Update: Thanks to the commenter who indicates that Parr has a set of pics from idex on his web page.

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Recommended Reading re: the Sources of Economic Crisis

A couple of really useful essays, one by a journalist, the second by a labor lawyer, lay bare some of the basic factors underlying our current, ongoing economic crisis. They converge in identifying the rashly deregulated financial sector in the US as the primary culprit.

The first essay, "The Big Takeover" by Matt Taibbi, appeared in Rolling Stone (19 March). You can find it here. Taibbi does a good job of explaining all the terms that we are told (say by Diane Rehm and her guests this past Friday) are impenetrable - credit default swaps, securitized debt obligations, and so forth. In the process, he does a good job in explaining how these instruments actually introduced information problems and hence risk and uncertainty into financial markets. And, as we all know, absent complete and perfect information, markets just might work poorly. Ask Joe Stiglitz for the details. So the crisis has been created by the venality of financiers in creating new "products" to peddle - at the expense of the institutional structure of markets themselves.

The second essay, "Infiinite Debt" by Thomas Geoghegan, appears in the April issue of Harpers. You can find it here, but there is a subscription wall. Geoghegan discusses the themes of the essay at Democracy Now! here. The basic point is that by freeing the financial sector to charge extortion rates of interest (what he terms "the dismantling of usury laws") various institutions in the U.S. - regulatory agencies, the courts, the labor movement, etc. - have sucked investment from manufacturing and, hence, decent jobs. As a result of this pattern, regular folks are left little choice but to live on credit and, thereby, contribute to the dynamic as their debt (in aggregate) reinforces the extortionate returns available in the finance sector.

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27 March 2009

Best Shots (65) ~ Erwin Olaf

(91) Erwin Olaf ~ Felix (26 March '09).


23 March 2009


"Actor Liam Neeson and his mother-in-law Vanessa Redgrave
walk through St. Peter's Cemetery after a funeral for his wife,
Natasha Richardson. Photograph: Mike Groll/AP"

I came across this photograph here in The Guardian. I am deeply ambivalent about it. On the one hand I can nearly feel the burden of pain and sadness reflected in Neeson's posture. I recognized the feelings immediately. On the other hand, what the hell was the photographer Mike Groll doing there? When my son Jeff died, his older brother (then 17) nearly punched news reporters who'd camped out at his mother's house. Yes it is the photographer's job. But there are jobs one might turn down, right?



The Spring '09 issue of PRIVATE is out; it features work by members of the Noor Photo Agency. You can find a preview here. You can find the agency web site here.


21 March 2009

Socialism at The Nation

A while ago I noted a running symposium called "Reimaging Socialism" that is being published at The Nation. Barbara Ehrenreich & Bill Fletcher provided the leas essay in which they endorse the socialist ideal and especially the concept of solidarity. Ehrenreich and Fletcher are followed by shorter replies from Bill McKibbon, Tariq Ali, Rebecca Solnit and Immanuel Wallerstein. Links to all these are in my earlier post. Since then a handful of new contributions have appeared:

Robert Pollin, "Be Utopian: Demand the Realistic"

John Bellamy Foster, "Economy, Ecology, Empire"

Christian Parenti, "Limits and Horizons"

Doug Henwood, "A Post-Capitalist Future is Possible"

Mike Davis, "The Necessary Eloquence of Protest"

Lisa Duggan, "Imagine Otherwise"

Vijay Prashad, "The Dragons, Their Dragoons"

There can be little doubt that capitalism - at least of the wholly unfettered sort we've endured since the 1980s - has created a mess. It is not viable. But what are the alternatives?

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Question the Economists not Economics

I came across this essay by Dani Rodrik last week. I generally think he is on the money here - if anything he is a bit too easy on his colleagues.

"So is economics in need of a major shake-up? Should we burn our existing textbooks and rewrite them from scratch?

Actually, no. Without recourse to the economist’s toolkit, we cannot even begin to make sense of the current crisis.

[. . .]

The fault lies not with economics, but with economists. The problem is that economists (and those who listen to them) became over-confident in their preferred models of the moment: markets are efficient, financial innovation transfers risk to those best able to bear it, self-regulation works best, and government intervention is ineffective and harmful.

They forgot that there were many other models that led in radically different directions. Hubris creates blind spots. If anything needs fixing, it is the sociology of the profession. The textbooks – at least those used in advanced courses – are fine."

My own recommendation for a textbook account of microeconomics that not only avoids, but goes some distance toward puncturing, the arrogance of the economics profession is David Kreps' A course in Microeconomic Theory [Princeton UP 1990]; it is self-effacing and funny and, beyond that offers a quite reasonable account of the scope and, importantly, limits of basic economic models. As a result Kreps is quite useful in sorting out the need for thinking about political economy.


20 March 2009

Torture, Lies & the Bush Administration

In the most recent NYRB you can find this new installment in a series of pointed articles by Mark Danner about the duplicity and lawlessness of our unlamented former President and his minions. The essay is a review of a report published in 2007 by the International Committee for the Red Cross. Here is a crucial passage:
In the wake of the ICRC report one can make several definitive statements:

1. Beginning in the spring of 2002 the United States government began to torture prisoners. This torture, approved by the President of the United States and monitored in its daily unfolding by senior officials, including the nation's highest law enforcement officer, clearly violated major treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, as well as US law.

2. The most senior officers of the US government, President George W. Bush first among them, repeatedly and explicitly lied about this, both in reports to international institutions and directly to the public. The President lied about it in news conferences, interviews, and, most explicitly, in speeches expressly intended to set out the administration's policy on interrogation before the people who had elected him.

3. The US Congress, already in possession of a great deal of information about the torture conducted by the administration—which had been covered widely in the press, and had been briefed, at least in part, from the outset to a select few of its members—passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and in so doing attempted to protect those responsible from criminal penalty under the War Crimes Act.

4. Democrats, who could have filibustered the bill, declined to do so—a decision that had much to do with the proximity of the midterm elections, in the run-up to which, they feared, the President and his Republican allies might gain advantage by accusing them of "coddling terrorists." One senator summarized the politics of the Military Commissions Act with admirable forthrightness:

Soon, we will adjourn for the fall, and the campaigning will begin in earnest. And there will be 30-second attack ads and negative mail pieces, and we will be criticized as caring more about the rights of terrorists than the protection of Americans. And I know that the vote before us was specifically designed and timed to add more fuel to that fire.

Senator Barack Obama was only saying aloud what every other legislator knew: that for all the horrified and gruesome exposés, for all the leaked photographs and documents and horrific testimony, when it came to torture in the September 11 era, the raw politics cut in the other direction. Most politicians remain convinced that still fearful Americans—given the choice between the image of 24 's Jack Bauer, a latter-day Dirty Harry, fantasy symbol of untrammeled power doing "everything it takes" to protect them from that ticking bomb, and the image of weak liberals "reading Miranda rights to terrorists"—will choose Bauer every time. As Senator Obama said, after the bill he voted against had passed, "politics won today."

5. The political damage to the United States' reputation, and to the "soft power" of its constitutional and democratic ideals, has been, though difficult to quantify, vast and enduring. In a war that is essentially an insurgency fought on a worldwide scale—which is to say, a political war, in which the attitudes and allegiances of young Muslims are the critical target of opportunity—the United States' decision to use torture has resulted in an enormous self-administered defeat, undermining liberal sympathizers of the United States and convincing others that the country is exactly as its enemies paint it: a ruthless imperial power determined to suppress and abuse Muslims. By choosing to torture, we freely chose to become the caricature they made of us.

Two things stand out for me in Danner's essay. First, none of the torture the ICRC documents comes close to the 'ticking-bomb' scenario that apologists and appeasers trot out in defense of the cruelty and horror we have imposed on detainees. Jack Bauer is a fantasy character. Second, if Obama lets his predecessor get away with this, 'politics' will win again. There is no excuse. The tired cliché about the ignoring the past and being condemned to repeat it comes to mind. And that hardly is the course a pragmatist would adopt.

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19 March 2009

AIG in the News ~ A Cross Border Comparison

Photograph © Stephen Crowley/The New York Times.

This morning I was getting coffee here in Vancouver and, as I was waiting on line, noticed an interesting contrast on the newspaper rack. Both The New York Times and The Globe and Mail carried front page, above the fold stories on the testimony that Edward Liddy, the new CEO of AIG, gave before a subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee yesterday [1] [2]. As you probably know, AIG executives accepted bonuses, paid for out of their publicly financed bail-out funds. So much for performance-based compensation. And the Congressmen and women wanted to chat with Mr. Liddy about that slight impropriety. (The Congressional outrage is posturing mostly, since they signed the blank check last fall, but, hey ...)

So far, so good. But notice the contrasting images that accompany each story. The photographs from The Times are on top here, while I've lifted the entire front page from the G&M. From The Times we get tightly framed close-ups with no 'distractions.' Politics, after all, is serious business. From The Globe & Mail we get a sense of active citizenry - those inimitable folks from Code Pink giving Mr. Liddy the hard time he deserves. Democracy, after all, is not so neat. And while Mr. Liddy might well complain that he is only a public spirited individual who agreed to assume leadership of AIG once it had been bailed out, that hardly absolves him of accountability.
PS: In fairness, The Times story does note that "Mr. Liddy ... chatted with protesters as he entered the session for hours of testimony" and they did include some photos that showed protesters on their web page.


Best Shots (64) ~ Jillian Edelstein

(90) Jillian Edelstein ~ Christmas 2002, Warmwaterberg,
South Africa (19 March 2009).


17 March 2009

West Coast Tour

Not much action here lately. And not much likely for a few days either. I am on a trip up the Pacific coast from Oregon to Vancouver with my youngest son August. This is us at the beach yesterday. In Vancouver I have a conference and we will go to the zoo too. I will try to get up a post or two, but no promises.

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14 March 2009

Fannie Lou Hamer (6 October 1917- 14 March 1977)

”Sometimes it seem like to tell the truth today is to run the risk
of being killed. But if I fall, I'll fall five feet four inches forward in
the fight for freedom. I'm not backing off."
~ Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer testifies about the systematic denial
of voting rights in Mississippi before the Credentials
Committee at the Democratic National Party Convention
in Atlantic City, 1964.


13 March 2009

Annals of Fair Use ~ The Wire Service Strikes Back

This from PDN on the ongoing AP v. Shepard Fairey fracas:
[ . . . ] On Wednesday the AP filed its answer to a lawsuit brought last month by Fairey’s attorneys. The AP and Fairey are locked in a dispute over the graphic artist’s famous Barack Obama posters, which feature an illustration based on a 2006 AP photograph by Mannie Garcia.

Fairey says his use of the photograph falls under the Fair Use Doctrine of the copyright law. The AP says Fairey infringed on its copyright and the news organization is entitled to licensing fees and damages.

The AP’s counterclaim accuses Fairey of copyright infringement, violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and filing a fraudulent registration with the Copyright Office. The AP seeks the dismissal of Fairey’s lawsuit and unspecified damages, including any profits Fairey and his company, Obey Giant Art, made from the image. [. . .]


12 March 2009

Small Worlds

Upon graduation from college in the late 1970s I was singularly unprepared for graduate school; as an undergraduate I had been - more or less - what is now known as a 'slacker.' I read what I wanted, attended class sporadically, and squeaked by as a middling student. In lieu of a job or any desire for one, I ended up moving back to Massachusetts and eventually ended up working at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where part of my compensation consisted in some now forgotten number of free tuition credits per term. I set about taking courses in social and political theory. Among the faculty I encountered was Norman Birnbaum who was then teaching at Amherst College and who offered a graduate course in social theory at UMass. This was an intimidating experience since Birnbaum seemed to have read and have smart things to say about pretty much everything. Eventually I wrote a passable paper for the seminar and Birnbaum kindly wrote a letter of recommendation to accompany my applications to proper graduate programs. This week The Nation includes this review by Birnbaum of a collection of essays by the late radical sociologist C. Wright Mills edited by John Summers a young intellectual historian who took classes with me here at Rochester. Small world. John is a smart, decent fellow. Birnbaum praises the volume and notes John's deft work on it too. Neither the gracious review nor the fact that is is surely deserved surprises me.

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Best Shots (63) ~ Wim Wenders

(89) Wim Wenders ~ The Coppolas, Kurosawa and my foot -
on a lazy Sunday afternoon in paradise (12 March 2009).

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11 March 2009

Natura ~ Pfahl Progeny

Deer April 16, 2005 ~ Photograph © Forest McMullin.

Thailand Lagoon 1, 2001 ~ Photograph © Stuart Rome.

UGA Extension Bamboo Farm ~ Photograph © Steve Mosch

Desertscape, Death Valley, California, 1991
~ Photograph © Marilyn Bridges.

Female Blackbird ~ Photograph © Jeannie Pearce.

I made it into town today and stopped in to see the Natura exhibition at Rochester Contemporary that I mentioned yesterday. It really is quite good and I recommend a visit before the show closes March 22nd. John Pfahl's "Scrolls" are quietly astounding. But the work of his students is uniformly impressive too. The show includes work by 15 of his students (the complete list appears in my earlier post) but the five whose work I've lifted here stood out as especially compelling.

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Theatre of the Cliché

Yesterday evening on npr I heard this story on a new play - Time Stands Still - focusing on the anxieties and moral predicaments the author Donald Marguiles images haunt photojournalists. Fortunately the reporter actually spoke to a photojournalist who leavens the moralism considerably. Even so, the play sounds pretty dreadful.

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10 March 2009

Local Exhibition ~ Natura: A Maker/Mentor Exhibition

Natura: A Maker/Mentor Exhibition with John Pfahl

John Pfahl, Marilyn Bridges, Barbara Bosworth, Dean Chamberlain, Grey Crawford, Alida Fish, Richard Gray, Paul Lange, Silvia Lizama, Forest McMullin, Steve Mosch, Judy Natal, Jeannie Pearce, Stuart Rome, Alison Rossiter, Jane Wattenberg.

The artists featured in Natura studied with renowned photographic artist and educator John Pfahl during his tenure as professor in the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology. Natura is co-curated by John Pfahl and Therese Mulligan and is organized in partnership with RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences.

February 6 - March 22, 2009 at Rochester Contemporary Art Center-137 East Avenue, Rochester, NY 14604.
I have not seen this exhibition but hope to do so this week. It is the second exhibition this year in Rochester that sheds light on the rich local tradition of influential teachers/makers of photography. I wrote about the other - On the Edge of Clear Meaning - a retrospective on the career of John Wood, here and here.

The photograph I've lifted here is Autumn Lagoon, 2006 © John Pfahl.

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Out of Our Heads

I came across this short interview with philosopher Alva Noë in The Nation (Christine Smallwood continues to do really interesting things with her "Back Talk" feature). What caught my eye was this passage:
Are fundamental experimental flaws contributing to a picture of consciousness as being seated materially inside the brain?

One place where I think there's source for concern is with the so-called brain-imaging technologies such as MRI or PET scans. Scientists have the idea that these technologies are photographing or depicting the brain in action or catching the brain in action as it thinks, as it feels, as it acts. In fact, those technologies are highly theoretically laden ways of thinking and talking about what's going on in the brain. There are many layers of interpretation and supposition. We assume that the cognitive phenomena are neural events, and we assume that the neural events correspond to metabolic processes, and we assume that the physical magnitudes we're measuring correspond to the metabolic processes. There's a sense in which these brain images are more like composite police sketches than photographs.
I find this is interesting for two reasons. First, consider his provocative view of these brain-imaging technologies - a drawing rather than a photograph (as though making and viewing photography does not require "layers of interpretation and supposition"). I think he is correct to destabilize common conceptions. Second, his view is a profound challenge to the many political scientists who are scrambling out to do brain-imaging studies of various processes of "political" responses - affect, judgment and so forth. My colleagues think they are being oh-so-scientific (where that means repudiating philosophical considerations). That, of course, just is silly.

Having never heard of Noë but since he seems to endorse a view of human mental functioning similar to how I think about such matters and because I think that view has important implications for how we understand political economic issues, I thought I would look him up. You can find his web page here. And you can find a longer interview with him here. He advances what (I think) is a very persuasive view of perception and consciousness. Here is some of the good part of the longer interview to which I just linked:

We should reject the idea that the mind is something inside of us that is basically matter of just a calculating machine. There are different reasons to reject this. But one is, simply put: there is nothing inside us that thinks and feels and is conscious. Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do.

A much better image is that of the dancer. A dancer is locked into an environment, responsive to music, responsive to a partner. The idea that the dance is a state of us, inside of us, or something that happens in us is crazy. Our ability to dance depends on all sorts of things going on inside of us, but that we are dancing is fundamentally an attunement to the world around us.

And this idea that human consciousness is something we enact or achieve, in motion, as a way of being part of a larger process, is the focus of my work.

Experience is something that is temporarily extended and active. Perceptual consciousness is a style of access to the world around us. I can touch something, and when I touch something I make use of an understanding of the way in which my own movements help me secure access to that which is before me. The point is not that merely that I learn about or achieve access to the world by touching. The point is that the thing shows up for me as something in a space of movement-oriented possibilities.

Visual consciousness relies on a whole set of practical skills that we have, making use of the eyes and the head. I understand that if I move my eyes, I produce a certain kind of sensory change. Perceptual consciousness is a mode of exploration of the world, making use of a certain kind of practical bodily understanding. And that is what dance is. And this makes dance, for me, the perfect metaphor for consciousness.

But there's more to the comparison with dance.

Consider this. On the traditional conception of the mind, if you want to study experience, you shut your eyes and you introspect. You look inward and reflect on what is going on inside of you, on the inner show. But if experience, if seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling, isn't something going on inside of you, but is something you do, then you need a different paradigm of what phenomenology would be, that is, of what a reflection on experience itself would be.

To reflect on experience is not to look inward, it is to pay attention to what you are doing, and to the way in which what you are doing is world and situation and environment involving. Suppose I am a hiker. I walk along and move my legs in all sorts of subtle ways to follow a path along a trail. But the steps I take and the way I move my legs are modulated by, controlled by, the textures and bumps and patterns of the trail itself. There is a kind of locking in. To study experience, to think about the nature of experience, is to look at this two-way dynamic exchange between world and the active perceiver.

Not only is dance a good analogy for what consciousness is, but the experience of watching dance and the way in which we can cultivate our aesthetic appreciation of something like dance is, actually, a good way of thinking about what phenomenology itself could be. What do you see when you look at a dance? You understand the movements and the forms and the patterns of the ensemble in a particular dance environment, which may be a stage or it may be some other kind of environment. To watch a dance is to make sense of this kind of dynamic.

Contemporary dance—contemporary art more generally—can be hard to appreciate. If you're not already familiar with an artist's work, it can be difficult even to bring it into focus. But we do. It is interesting to compare this process whereby we bring a dance or other work of art into focus for aesthetic experience with the project of phenomenology itself, that is, with the project of bringing experience into focus for science. Scientists ask, how does our biological being enable us to have the kinds of experiences we have? That should be understood as a question less about how the function of our brain produces images inside our skull and, rather, about how our full embodiment enables us to carry on as we do in an environment in a situation. This raises an interesting possibility. Maybe we can think of aesthetic experience as a model of the workings at least of an important core of human consciousness—perceptual consciousness. And then may be we can think of artistic, creative, aesthetic practice as making a direct contribution to the study of mind itself. Art is not something for science to explain; art is a domain for scientific investigation, a potential collaborator for science. It is certainly clear that the empirical investigation of consciousness requires help framing the phenomena of interest for itself.

One experience that I've been especially interested in is our understanding and experience of pictures. If I show you a picture from a newspaper—for example, a photo of Hillary Clinton—there is a sense in which, when you look at that picture, you see Hillary. There she is, in the picture. Of course, Hillary is not there, so there is an obvious sense in which you don't see Hillary when you look at the picture. There is a sense in which you see her; and a sense in which you don't. She shows up for you, in the picture, even though she is not there. She shows up as not there. Getting clear about this phenomenon is the central empirical and conceptual problem about depiction.

One idea might be to say, well, seeing a picture of Hillary is just like seeing Hillary. Seeing a picture of Hillary produces in you, the perceiver, just the same effects that actually seeing Hillary would produce. The problem with that suggestion is that if that's right then we lose our sense of the difference between seeing Hillary and seeing a picture of Hillary. The distinctive thing about seeing Hillary in a picture is that she is there but not there. She is there but visually absent. She is manifestly absent in her visual presence. It's a kind of a paradoxical thing. There is something paradoxical about pictures.

My view is that traditional philosophy and cognitive science has been asking the wrong question when it comes to pictures. They ask, how does the picture affect us and give rise to an experience in our heads? Instead, what they should ask is how do we achieve a kind of access to Hillary, to properties of Hillary, such as her visual appearance, by exploration of something which is not Hillary, namely, a picture?

The critical thing is the relation between this model, this picture, and that which is absent, such that we can gain access to what is absent in the picture. Once again we are thrown back to this idea that the perceiving is an achievement of access by making use of skills, knowledge. I need to know what Hillary looks like in order to recognize Hillary in her picture.

A striking feature of pictures is their immediacy. A picture of Hillary doesn't seem to be a symbolic representation of Hillary. There seems to be the sense in which merely knowing how to recognize Hillary or how to recognize a human form, a figure, is enough to recognize a picture of Hillary. There is this idea that we don't need any further knowledge or further skills in order to perceive something in the picture.

That is a very interesting idea. But, in fact, there is a nice comparison we can make to help us see that pictures don't really have this sort of immediacy. Think about something like the Macintosh operating system. No promotional endorsement intended, but the Mac OS is user friendly. If you understand a few basic metaphors, about the desktop, clicking, open files, closing files, a few basic metaphors allow you to unpack just about any program that you might be working with.

So there is a sense in which the functionality of the graphical user interface is straightforward and immediate. But, of course, that is precisely because the engineers have built the program with our particular predilections and capacities in mind. They built it to be easy for us. It's not as though it just happens to be easy. Technological evolution made it transparent for us. And pictures are just the same. You encounter pictures in a newspaper, say, and we find it easy to see Hillary Clinton in the picture. We don't need any further training. But that is not because you don't require training to see Hillary Clinton in a picture. It's because that technology was devised to be easy for us. The technology was designed for people with the training we already had.

OK, what does that mean? Pictorial technologies, both painting and photography, have been designed to be straightforward for people that already know how to recognize things by using their eyes. Certain background visual skills are all that is presupposed. But then seeing itself requires tremendous background knowledge.

If I have never seen a camera before, I won't know how to make sense of what that is. A beautiful paradigm for how much seeing requires background knowledge comes from art again. When you go to a museum you can look at a picture on the wall and it can be flat and unavailable and opaque. You look about it, you think about it, you talk about it, you read the placard on the wall and discuss it with a friend and all of a sudden it can come into focus as an object. As you learn about it, you bring it visually into focus as an object. Your understanding, your thinking, helps make it intelligible.
This is enough to make me track down Noë's new book - you can find publication information here.

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09 March 2009

A Pox on All Your Houses (2)

White Madonna With Twins (l) & Pregnant Madonna (r), 2006.
Both photographs © Vanessa Beecroft.

I came across this short story in The Guardian on Vanessa Beecroft who, having gone to Sudan to investigate the genocide there, visited an orphanage and "instinctively" felt the need to whip out her breasts and start nursing a set of orphaned twins. She then hatched a plan to adopt the infants so that she could make them the objects for her artistic endeavors. Beecroft also tussled with the nuns who run the orphanage when they took exception to her treating the infants like pets. (Having spent nine years in Catholic School being terrorized by nuns, I rarely see them as forces for enlightenment. Beecroft has really accomplished something!) When asked how the folks back home responded, she explains that her husband filed for divorce. (My view? He ought to have had her committed.) And all of this, of course, for the cameras - Beecroft was being tailed by a documentary filmmaker who, witnessing this revolting behavior, went ahead and made the film anyway. The whole thing makes me want to puke.

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08 March 2009

Talking About Maggie Sherwood's Imaginative Institution

One of the very nice things about keeping this blog is that I have made all sorts of friends and acquaintances whom I've never actually met. One of these virtual friends, Beth Wilson, wrote to remind me about an exhibition she has curated - Taking a Different Tack: Maggie Sherwood and the Floating Foundation of Photography - at the Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz. The exhibition runs through April 8th. Beth is moderating what looks to be an interesting panel discussion scheduled this coming Thursday (see the poster above for information).

Sherwood was not only committed to photography at a time when it was hardly lucrative but - more impressively to my way of thinking - she established a creative exhibition and educational space. You can find the Foundation web page here. At a time when our cultural ecology is under pressures of all sorts, I think this is an incredibly important topic.

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Two Poems*

Robert Creeley

America, you ode for reality!
Give back the people you took.

Let the sun shine again
on the four corners of the world

you thought of first but do not
own, or keep like a convenience.

People are your own word, you
invented that locus and term.

Here, you said and say, is
where we are. Give back

what we are, these people you made,
us, and nowhere but you to be.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sit Down
Robert Creeley

Behind things
or in front of them,
always a goddamn
adamant number stands

up and shouts,
I'm here, I'm Here!
- Sit down.
* From Robert Creeley. Selected Poems, 1945-2005 (University of California, 2008), pages 132, 168.

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07 March 2009

Will the Real Cindy Sherman Please Stand Up?

Cindy Sherman, 2005. Photograph © Mark Seliger.

I suppose it is odd, but while I've seen lots of pictures of Cindy Sherman, it never occurred to me to wonder what she really looks like.

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06 March 2009

Sen & Smith on Capitalism

"Indeed, early advocates of the use of markets, including Smith, did not take the pure market mechanism to be a freestanding performer of excellence, nor did they take the profit motive to be all that is needed. [. . .]

Smith never used the term "capitalism" (at least so far as I have been able to trace), but it would also be hard to carve out from his works any theory arguing for the sufficiency of market forces, or of the need to accept the dominance of capital. [. . .]

Smith viewed markets and capital as doing good work within their own sphere, but first, they required support from other institutions—including public services such as schools—and values other than pure profit seeking, and second, they needed restraint and correction by still other institutions—e.g., well-devised financial regulations and state assistance to the poor—for preventing instability, inequity, and injustice. If we were to look for a new approach to the organization of economic activity that included a pragmatic choice of a variety of public services and well-considered regulations, we would be following rather than departing from the agenda of reform that Smith outlined as he both defended and criticized capitalism." ~ Amartya Sen
As economics currently is taught in most universities it is more or less a discipline for amnesiacs. Students learn about this or that model as it applies to this or that narrow problem. There are some exceptions, of course, and they include many of our most accomplished economists. But while most of our Nobel winners, for instance, are considerably broader in their thinking, they are not necessarily attuned to the history of the discipline. Why is this important? Because instead of reading their fore bearers, economists read technical papers and textbooks that presume to have gotten the history of economic thought, and the lessons it offers, right. We get lots of market fundamentalism - peddling inane policy with religious fervor [1] -, often accompanied by vague reference to a caricature of Adam Smith. Not only is the fundamentalism unjustified so is the rationalization. You can find a useful essay - "Capitalism Beyond the Crisis" - by Amartya Sen here in the NYRB. Sen hammers on some of these points and his argument supports an experimental approach to political economic institutions [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] too.
Update: A shorter essay by Sen discussing the same themes has appeared here in the Financial Times.
Update 2 (26 April 2010): And you can find yet another Sen essay in Smith retrieval here.

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Still More on Icelandic Politics

ICELAND—By the Urridafoss waterfall, anti-industrialization
protesters hold a banner demonstrating against the proposed
damming of the Thjórsá River, which is under threat of housing
a new power station. The waterfall has the highest volume of
water passing through it in all of Iceland, 2007.
Photograph © Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos.

As part of a continuing series [1] [2] on politics in Iceland, here and here are two versions of a slide show of work by Jonas Bendiksen focusing on the "Power Struggles" at the intersection of environmental concerns and economic development.


Stiglitz and Socialism at The Nation

There are two features at The Nation that you may find interesting. The first is this essay by Joseph Stiglitz on what it would mean to nationalize the U.S. banking system and why we need to do it. The second is a set of short essays published under the rubric of "Reimagining Socialism." The lead essay is by Barbara Ehrenreich & Bill Fletcher endorses the socialist ideal and especially the concept of solidarity. Ehrenreich and Fletcher are followed by shorter replies from Bill McKibbon [1], Tariq Ali [2], Rebecca Solnit [3] & Immanuel Wallerstein [4] - with more contributions promised. Interestingly, McKibbon and Solnit, if for different reasons, demur from the concept of socialism.

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05 March 2009

Hey! Look At Me! (Some More)

Eden Crying #3, 2006.
Photograph © Elinor Carucci.

I have a three year old son. When August is crying and snot is flowing from his nose like this what do I do? Do I say, "Wait a sec while Papa gets his camera ... Don't sniff or wipe your nose on your sleeve!"? No, I get a tissue or use my shirt and wipe his nose and give him a hug and a kiss. So I am afraid to say that, despite what the folks at The New York Times think, Elinor Carucci's photography actually is not something "which any parent can relate to."

I have posted on Carucci here and here before. No need to do any more work then necessary; I'll just repeat myself. Carucci "seems to specialize in providing too much visual information about herself, her family, and her relationships. This sort of exhibitionism strikes me a wholly self-indulgent and completely uninteresting." True to form, even though her latest project is called "My Children," Carucci still manages to get into the picture naked

Unfortunately, the folks at The Times couldn't find any other photographer in the entire city to write about this week. It must be a really slow week in the NYC art world.


Best Shots (62 ) ~ Paul Graham

(88) Paul Graham ~ Pittsburgh (Man cutting grass), 2004
(5 March 2009).


04 March 2009

Dharavi, etcetera

"The further analysis moves away from the center of the Third World
City, the thicker the epistemological fog." ~ Mike Davis

India. Mumbai. 2006. A girl walks along a water pipe in the Industrial
Area of Dharavi. Although it functions as a throroughfare through this
area of the slum, the water in the pipes is headed for the more affluent
southern areas of the city. Dharavi is one of Mumbai's biggest and
longest standing slums. Home to somewhere between 600 000 and one
million people, it is a beehive of recycling and manufacturing industries.
However, Dharavi sits on prime real estate right in the heart of the
booming megapolis, and is in close vicinity to the new Bandra-Kurla
Complex, a new financial hub. Dharavi is now scheduled for
redevelopment, meaning everything in the slum, for good and bad,
is set to be demolished.
Photograph & Caption © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum.

I have not seen Slumdog Millionaire the multi-Oscar winning film. I plan to see it though and, in the interim, have been reading about it a bit. Here are a few comments that popped out at me ~ you'll notice a convergence.
"What disturbs me about the Oscar achievement is the collateral fragrance it spreads around our mushrooming slums. We are told Dharavi is a slum of vibrancy, enterprise, the triumph of the human spirit and a model of inter-communal living. Another collateral boon: superpower India has at last come to terms with its penury. It is comfortable with its poverty. If you will pardon my French, that’s bullshit!

Slums, whatever artistic gloss you put on them, are ugly, dark, squalid, crime-infested locations—a sign of a failed state rather than a shining one. However many Oscars India might collect, we should never lend legitimacy and romance to scars which should make us hang our heads in shame. There is nothing nice about a slum, even a five-star one like Dharavi, and the Indian state must avoid flirting with the myth that a slum is a beautiful place, inhabited by beautiful people doing beautiful things—an example to the rest of the country of how hard work and honest toil can make the rags-to-riches story possible." ~ Vinod Mehta

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"The [Congress Party] claims that instead of India Shining it has presided over India ‘Achieving’. Achieving what? In the case of Slumdog, India’s greatest contribution, certainly our political parties’ greatest contribution is providing an authentic, magnificent backdrop of epic poverty, brutality and violence for an Oscar-winning film to be shot in. So now that too has become an achievement? Something to be celebrated? Something for us all to feel good about? Honestly, it’s beyond farce.

And here’s the rub: Slumdog Millionaire allows real-life villains to take credit for its cinematic achievements because it lets them off the hook. It points no fingers, it holds nobody responsible. Everyone can feel good. And that’s what I feel bad about. [. . .]

Politically, the film de-contextualises poverty – by making poverty an epic prop, it disassociates poverty from the poor. It makes India’s poverty a landscape, like a desert or a mountain range, an exotic beach, god-given, not man-made." ~ Arundhati Roy

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“But it's also clear that Boyle's version of the third world, complete with fetidness and depravity, is particularly gratifying to our UK and US sensibilities. Why? Because it grossly oversimplifies poverty and our relationship with it.

After watching the film, viewers are left to infer that slums are horrid, rancid places because of beggar masters, Hindu zealots and Muslim gangs. Of course these forces play their role in perpetuating misery. But in reality, slums are an international problem caused by an intricate set of entities: corrupt government officials, gargantuan multinational corporations and suspect IMF structural adjustment programs.

Playing it safe, Boyle doesn't implicate any of these entities. As a result, his movie does allow us to believe that we have been responsible global citizens by engaging with the intensity of third world slums. We in the audience even feel genuine sympathy for destitution. But at no point do we have to forsake the delusion that abject poverty and inequity are strictly foreign things for which we share no culpability.” ~ Hirsh Sawhney
I suppose these responses to the film are not really surprising. (Nor, I suppose, are the resentful, self-satisfied replies that Sawhney got at The Guardian.) And perhaps it is misguided to expect a movie to actually pay attention to the big picture - you know, to causes and culpability and such things.

That leads me to turn to Jonas Bendiksen's remarkable The Places We Live which is an attempt to capture something of the lives people who reside in slums actually lead. Here is how he describes the project and his approach to it on the Magnum blog:

"In 2005, I started work on The Places We Live, a project about urban poverty and slums. For three years, I visited dozens of families in four slums around the world.

The Places We Live was not a search for finding the absolute extremes of urban poverty—I wasn't looking for the dirties spot, the poorest hovels or the most crime-ridden street corner. My task was to find how people normalize these dire situations. How they build dignity and daily lives in the midst of very challenging living conditions.

In the project, I asked someone from each family to "tell me about life around here". Since I do not speak either Spanish, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi or Marathi, I had one rule-of-thumb during the recordings: As long as the subject talked, I didn't interrupt to get translations of what they were saying. Only when I got transcripts of the recordings months later did I see the wide spectrum of stories told. For me, the process was a sort of protection from projecting too much of my own preconceptions of what slum life involves—and meant the project had to be interactive and collaborative."

Insofar as Bendiksen is concerned not with causes and culpability - to say nothing of resistance* - but with how people who are engulfed in slums make a life there, he does not address the political issues that Mehta, Roy, and Sawnhey raise. That was not his aim. But as the caption above (also lifted from Bendiksen's blog post) makes clear, the story is incomplete if we do not attend to the factors and forces that will destroy Dharavi, precisely because those are the very forces and factors that, in the first place, have engulfed the slum residents and against which they struggle to make their lives. Where will the residents go when Dharavi is "redeveloped"? There is no need to romanticize life there now in order to conclude that displaced residents will end up inhabiting a place even more shrouded in epistemological fog. Without attention to causes and culpability and resistance, then, some future Bendiksen will have to begin from scratch if she hopes to extend the vision of rich denizens of the developed world to the poor and distant.
* I will set aside the question, and that is all it is, of whether perhaps slum dwellers only adopt individual strategies for coping with their environments. If so we might at least have to complicate our standard views about the struggle for human dignity against adversity in order to recognize the politics that exists in the world. I've complained about related issues here before.

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03 March 2009

Landscapes ~ Pentti Sammallahti

“The objectivity of the photograph is a fine
thing, even though it may only be apparent. You
have a chance to deal with reality which does
not always correspond to your own wishes and
expectations. You have an opportunity to deal
with chance.” ~ Pentti Sammallahti

Solovki, White Sea, Russia, 1992
(man walking away on snowy road).
© Pentti Sammallahti

I came across the work of Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti (b. 1950) more or less by accident this evening. I have not been able to find out much about him on-line. But his work brings to mind Josef Koudelka and also Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Kitakata City, Fukushima, Japan, 2005.
© Pentti Sammallahti

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Profiles in Courage: Vladimir Ilyich Limbaugh Intimidating Hapless Republicans

Rush Limbaugh is a Leninist. Rather than work for the recovery of the country from the military fiascoes and economic disaster that the unlamented 'W' and his minions bequeathed us, he is wishing for even more disaster.* Hence he repeatedly proclaims that he hopes Obama fails.

Like his namesake V.I., Limbaugh wants crisis - and damn the regular folks who will suffer the consequences. (Many of the regular folks are Limbaugh worshipers who don't get that he's rooting for a political economic state of affairs in which they will get screwed.) But on Limbaugh's Leninist view crisis will set the stage for a revolution - Republican, that is. This would be laughable except for the fact that the Republicans are spinelessly allowing Rush to whip up extremist fervor among the far right wing of the party. Limbaugh has them thoroughly intimidated.

Last month, we witnessed Georgia Congressman Phil Gingrey's shameless apology to V.I. for having spoken the truth. Gingrey had simply stated what is obvious, namely that Limbaugh plays no constructive role in governing and so can easily sit back and spew venomous inanities. (Actually Gingrey didn't go that far, but he ought to have.) But Limbaugh went on the air whining and blustering. So, the good Congressman demonstrated amazing courage as he called in to lick Limbaugh's boots.

This week we have the newly elected Chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, following Gingrey's lead. Steele rightly dismissed Limbaugh as an "entertainer" and rightly characterised his tirades as "incendiary" and "ugly." Not much to disagree with there. But, again, V.I. took to the airwaves, whined to his faithful followers, and Steele quickly issued an apology.

Regular readers will know that I don't think very highly of our right wing revolutionary. As I said here not long ago:
"I find Limbaugh loathsome. He is a bigoted, hypocritical drug addict. Politically he is a buffoon, a right-wing windbag who is out of touch with even Republican voters . . ."
I see no reason to alter that assessment. Nor can Limbaugh expect any apology.

The problem for the Republicans, of course, is that Rush is sabotaging their ability to attract any portion of the vaguely sane segment of the American electorate. And the craven behavior of Gingrey and Steele (among others in the official and unofficial party hierarchy) just makes matters worse for the party. From my perspective that is all to the good. If the Republicans let this sort of thing go on, they deserve what they get. It will simply confirm my suspicions that they really are quite dim.
* Yes, I am sure some Limbaugh disciple will complain that Rush has proposed this bipartisan stimulus alternative in the WSJ. The problem is that just cutting taxes and getting out of the way is a recipe for disaster. There is no evidence that cutting taxes does much to spur productive investment. And, to the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence that it will do anything to impact the financial markets (which is speculation not productive investment). So, Rush's "plan," like most of what he spews is worthless.

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