31 August 2010

Lessons from Katrina

As we approach the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina destroying New Orleans, I am heading out to the annual APSA convention. Once again the conference is in Washington, DC - as it was on that weekend in 2005. Posts will be - at best - intermittent through Sunday.

But here are a set of essays by Rebecca Sonit on lessons for the post-Katrina world - from The Nation here, The L.A. Times here, and from Yes! here. Solnit points out, once again, that the dangers in NOLA in the immediate wake of the storm emerged more from ineptitude and malign neglect on the part of government, the misrepresentations of the media and the violence of mercenaries, police and white vigilantes - all animated largely by racist fear fear and animosity - than from the poor residents whom the storm displaced.

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29 August 2010

And While we are Talking About King ...

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous
than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
~ Martin Luther King Jr., 1963

King may have overstated the case a bit - after all, in the category of dangerous characteristics, it is hard to beat either true, shameless venality or sadistic delight in the pain of others. The latter just happen, in my view, to be less widely distributed than the qualities King identifies.


28 August 2010

Why Glenn Beck is Right (Meaning Correct, Not Just Reactionary)

Glenn Beck speaks at his 'Restoring Honor' rally in front of
the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010
(Image © AP Photo/Alex Brandon).

I never thought I'd say it, but here goes. Glenn Beck is right! Reviving the message of Martin Luther King , Jr. would indeed go considerable distance toward restoring honor to America.

Unfortunately, Beck fails to grasp the implications of his call; MLK Jr.'s message entails radical politics of just the sort that he and his reactionary followers would find appalling. After all, King preached a message of progressive political-economic reform. For instance, he demanded a universal guaranteed income to directly address the widespread poverty that plagued the U.S. in the 1960s and continues to do so today. He also spoke and acted in solidarity with striking workers - indeed, he was shot in Memphis where he had traveled to support the demands of sanitation workers seeking to exercise their right to form a union. King also spoke eloquently against American military aggression in Viet Nam; his message on that score translates more or less seamlessly to our current disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, let the Merry Becksters re-orient their politics to accommodate King's message. We'd all be much better off.

The fact that those on the left are so pre-occupied with the resonance of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, suggests that they too ought to look more closely at Dr. King's message. He did not stand for freedom and civil rights in the abstract, but for freedom deeply embedded in circumstances of solidarity and justice and peace and equality.

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27 August 2010

Ceci n'est pas un recouvrement

Free associations: When I read Paul Krugman this morning I wondered immediately whether maybe he has been inspired by the late Michel Foucault.

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Ansel Adams or Uncle Earl? Why Should we care who made the Photographs?

Well, silly, . . . because photographs are property and all sorts of people have large financial stakes in controlling the number of Adams snaps in circulation. The law suit reported in this story shows the pretentious art world in all its essential venality. You can find background on the fracas here. In any case, much of my effort on this blog is aimed at shifting attention from worrying about photographs and their characteristics to talking about photography and how it is used. Perhaps the basic difficulty in effecting that shift is that photographs are simply worth so damned much?

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26 August 2010

Best Shots (128) ~ Horace Ové

(155) Horace Ové ~ Michael X (behind middle bodyguard)
at Paddington station, 1967 (25 August 2010).


22 August 2010

What is up at The Photography Post?

The first time it happened I figured there must be some sort of technical snafu. That was when the image I've lifted above appeared on The Photography Post which runs a live feed from my blog. In that instance, the white on gray replaced the image from this post. That was several days ago. Today, I opened this post with the same image and .... surprise, it was replaced on the live feed with the same white on gray. Coincidence? Given that, to the best of my knowledge, this has not happened with any earlier posts, I suspect not. What's with that?
Update: As the comments make clear, my initial suspicions were correct. This was simply a technical problem. The simplest explanation is pretty often actually the correct one. My apologies.


Using Aisha ~ Can We Get Beyond Time's Propaganda (Again)

A couple of days go I posted a response to this essay by Susie Linfield in which she agonizes (and I do not mean that in a pejorative sense) about the fate of women in Afghanistan in the event the U.S. were to withdraw from military operations there. Linfield's essay was occasioned by the notorious recent cover of Time magazine, depicting a young woman maimed by Taliban thugs for resisting an arranged marriage. My comment on Linfield was my second post on the matter.

The folks at Time importuned: "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan?" And their reply was that the Taliban would be unleashed, placing the modest but real gains women have made in Afghanistan at grave risk. In the past couple of days, I've come across a couple of articles [1] [2] in The New York Times that suggest that the problem in Afghanistan is not just the Taliban, but other trends in Islam* as it is institutionalized there, putatively "moderate" or "mainstream" clerics who are more than willing to accommodate fundamentalists. In other words, the claim that we might just stay long enough to quash the Taliban (no minor feat, in itself) seems radically to underestimate the cultural problem. We are not, by military means, going to overturn or reform or whatever a traditional culture.

There are a couple of other matters. In the first place we are talking about a set of practices that we in the west deem 'barbaric' ~ "stoning — along with other traditional penalties like whipping and the amputation of hands." In the second place Afghanistan is hardly the only place where such practices ('stoning' specifically) are indulged ~ "in addition to Iran, they include Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria." These observations suggest that if we have concerns about human rights generally (you know, protection from 'cruel and unusual punishment') and women's rights specifically (since such punishments for 'sex crimes' tend to be meted out disproportionately to women) we ought to be intervening in those other places.

But let's set such messy, complicating factors** aside and focus exclusively and narrowly on Afghanistan. After all, such rhetorical narrowing is the point among pro-war types striking moralistic stances. Here is one telling passage:
"Perhaps most worrisome were signs of support for the action from mainstream religious authorities in Afghanistan. The head of the Ulema Council in Kunduz Province, Mawlawi Abdul Yaqub, interviewed by telephone, said Monday that stoning to death was the appropriate punishment for an illegal sexual relationship, although he declined to give his view on this particular case. An Ulema Council is a body of Islamic clerics with religious authority in a region.
And less than a week earlier, the national Ulema Council brought together 350 religious scholars in a meeting with government religious officials, who issued a joint statement on Aug. 10 calling for more punishment under Shariah law, apparently referring to stoning, amputations and lashings.
Failure to carry out such “Islamic provisions,” the council statement said, was hindering the peace process and encouraging crime.
The controversy could have implications for efforts by Afghan officials to reconcile with Taliban leaders and draw them into power-sharing talks.
Afghan officials, supported by Western countries, have insisted that Taliban leaders would have to accept the Afghan Constitution, which guarantees women’s rights, and not expect a return to Shariah law."
So, all you pro-war types, what, exactly is the plan here? How long do you think we should we 'stay'? What would you count as 'success'? Uprooting the Taliban? Subverting the other "mainstream" actors who seem to endorse barbaric practices? When we finish in Afghanistan, shall we proceed to Pakistan? Saudi Arabia? (After all the connections between those countries and al-Quaeda are reasonably well documented.) What would count as 'success' there? If we want to pose the question the Time cover presses upon us, why not pose these questions too? The answer is that asking them does not allow us to be quite so moralistic, quite so certain of what we have grounds to do.
Military force is a blunt instrument. It is ill-suited to the task of trying to protect women - or anyone else - in Afghanistan from fundamentalist thugs or those who abet them. I am not sure how better to proceed. But that discussion is hampered by a preoccupation with 'winning' an impossible military mission. And propaganda of the sort that Time has spewed simply obscures that fact. But that, after all, is the point, isn't it?
* Please Note: The practices under discussion, as the essays in The Times make clear, do not derive from the Koran but from ancillary sources. The extent to which they are "Islamic" is contested.

** We can set aside too the hypocrisy of the U.S. with its official commitment to the death penalty and huge prison population of disproportionately minority and poor men has much claim to be scolding others about barbaric practices. We'll leave aside too the newly found willingness of American administrations to blatantly ignore the principles of international law in the prosecution of the GWOT.

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21 August 2010

Simon Norfolk on Art & Politics

Image © Simon Norfolk. "BlueGene/L, the world's biggest computer, at
Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, California, USA. It is the size of 132,000
PCs. It is used to design and maintain America's nuclear weapons." On
his website, Norfolk notes that the computer is used for "modeling physics
inside an exploding nuclear warhead."
(Caption from BLDGBLOG Interview cited below.)

I have posted on Simon Norfolk and his work here a handful of times, but never at any great length. Several years ago, he did this interesting interview with with Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG and tonight I was re-reading it because I am going to use some of Norfolk's work in a presentation I am giving in a couple of weeks. I thought I'd offer the following passage as part of my ongoing campaign against the tendency to try to sequester art generally, and photography in particular, from politics.
BLDGBLOG: It's interesting that, on your website, it says you gave up photojournalism to move into landscape photography – yet that seems to have coincided with a more explicit politicization of your work.

Norfolk: Yeah, absolutely.

BLDGBLOG: So your projects are even more political now – yet they’re intended as landscape photography?

Norfolk: I mean, I didn't get fed up with the subjects of photojournalism – I got fed up with the clichés of photojournalism, with its inability to talk about anything complicated. Photojournalism is a great tool for telling very simple stories: Here's a good guy. Here's a bad guy. It's awful. But the stuff I was dealing with was getting more and more complicated – it felt like I was trying to play Rachmaninoff in boxing gloves. Incidentally, it's also a tool that was invented in the 1940s – black and white film, the Leica, the 35mm lens, with a 1940s narrative. So, if I'm trying to do photojournalism, I'm meant to use a tool that was invented by Robert Capa?

I needed to find a more complicated way to draw people in. I'm not down on photojournalism – it does what it does very well – but its job is to offer all its information instantly and immediately. I thought the fact that this place in Afghanistan – this ruin – actually looks a little like Stonehenge: that interested me. I wanted to highlight that. I want you to be drawn to that. I want you to stay in my sphere of influence for slightly longer, so that you can think about these things. And taking pictures in 35mm doesn't do it.

So the content of photojournalism interests me enormously, it's just the tools that I had to work with I thought were terrible. I had to find a different syntax to negotiate those things.

BLDGBLOG: Ironically, though, your photos haven't really been accepted by the art world yet – because of your subject matter.

Norfolk: Well, I cannot fucking believe that I go into an art gallery and people want to piss their lives away not talking about what’s going on in the world. Have they not switched on their TV and seen what's going on out there? They have nothing to say about that? They'd rather look at pictures of their girlfriend's bottom, or at their top ten favorite arseholes? Switch on the telly and see what's going on in our world – particularly these last five years. If you've got nothing to say about that, then I wonder what the fucking hell you're doing.

The idea of producing work which is only of interest to a couple of thousand people who have got art history degrees... The point of the world is to change it, and you can't change it if you're just talking about Roland Barthes or structuralist-semiotic gobbledygook that only a few thousand people can understand, let alone argue about.

That's not why I take these photographs.

BLDGBLOG: Clearly you're not taking these pictures – of military supercomputers and remote island surveillance systems – as a way to celebrate the future of warfare?

Norfolk: No, no. No.

BLDGBLOG: But what, then, is your relationship to what you describe, in one of your texts, as the Romantic, 18th-century nationalistic use of images, where ruined castles and army forts and so on were actually meant as a kind of homage to imperial valor? Are you taking pictures of military sites as a kind of ironic comment on nationalistic celebrations of global power?

Norfolk: No, I don't think it's ironic. I think what I'm in favor of is clarity. What annoys me about those artists is that there were things they actually stood for, but what seems to have happened is their ideas have been laundered. They've been infantilized. I don't mind what the guy stands for – I just want to know what the guy stands for. I don’t want some low-fat version of his politics. And unless you can really understand what the fellow stood for, how can you comprehend what his ideas were about? How can you judge whether his paintings were good paintings or rubbish paintings?

The thing that pisses me off about so much modern art is that it carries no politics – it has nothing that it wants to say about the world. Without that passion, that political drive, to a piece of work – and I mean politics here very broadly – how can you ever really evaluate it? At the end of the day, I don't think my politics are very popular right now, but what I would like to hear is what are your politics? Because if you're not going to tell me, how can we ever possibly have an argument about whether you're a clever person, your work is great, your work is crap, your art is profound, your art is trivial...?

For instance, I'm doing a lot of work these days on Paul Strand – and Paul Strand is a much more interesting photographer than most people think he is. The keepers of the flame, the big organizations that hold the platinum-plating prints and his photogravures, or whatever – these big museums, particularly in America, that have large collections – they don't want the world to know that Strand was a major Marxist, his entire life. He was a massive Stalinist. That just dirties the waters in terms of knowing who Strand was. So Strand has become this rather meaningless pictorialist now. You look at any description of Strand's work, and he was just a guy who photographed fence posts and little wooden huts in rural parts of the world. If you don't understand his politics, how can you make any sense of what he was trying to do, or what he photographed? These people have completely laundered his reputation – completely deracinated the man.
The rest of the interview is actually quite funny, in addition to being interesting. The point here though is that it is nearly impossible to understand the current practice or the history of photography without considering how it intersects with politics. Seems right to me. One other thing to note is that Norfolk finds the conventional categories (e.g., art/landscape vs. photojournalism) that structure how photographers ply their trade to be stultifying. He is right about that too.


20 August 2010

Best Shots (127) ~ Lynne Cohen

(154) Lynne Cohen ~ "one of the craziest, most over-the-top
pictures I ever made" (18 August 2010).


19 August 2010

Talkng Back ~ Susie Linfield on Time and Afghanistan

"Bieber’s photograph of Aisha . . . is disgusting. I am very glad that Time ran it." So says Susie Linfield in this pointed essay at Dissent online. As is usual, Linfield offers smart and insightful comments on the fracas surrounding the image. She insists that "the photo, taken by South African photographer Jodi Bieber, did the opposite and is, in a sense, a model of how photography can be used."

Interestingly, though, Linfield doesn't actually discuss the use of the photograph as much as she excoriates "the antiwar Left and . . . feminists" who "[w]ith a couple of notable exceptions," have responded to the Time cover with "a dispiriting lack of appropriately complex thinking, or, one might say, a distressingly reductive reading of events and of what feminism, and leftism, might mean." Since I have already posted on the cover in a highly critical way, I feel as though it is important to engage Linfield. So, here goes.

In the first place there is ample room for agreement:
There were, however, some thoughtful responses to the Time photo and the larger issues it raises. And in this case, thoughtful means uncertain. (Contrary to what readers of this piece might think thus far, I am not an advocate of “staying in Afghanistan.” In fact, I am thoroughly confused about what the “right” thing to do is; the only thing I’m certain of is that there are no good choices—and certainly no unambiguously good choices—on offer.) For some, the agonizing question is how to respond to conflicting demands.
OK. That is a more or less accurate depiction of where I stand. Conflicted. However, nothing Linfield says there is incompatible with the following.
[1] Attributing a significant helping of hypocrisy and disingenuousness to the people at Time. As I noted earlier, to the best of my knowledge the editorial staff there showed scant concern with women's rights when, for instance, the "moderates" in the U.S. Congress negotiated to have the demands of our own fundamentalists (e.g., the Catholic Bishops on abortion rights) incorporated into the health insurance legislation.

Moreover, the notion that this story is not a brief for staying in Afghanistan is simply not credible. Linfield bemoans the fact that the Time story has not generated any debate. But, having read the report, let's be clear that it accords roughly zero attention to any alternative beyond 'stay the course.' If, as Linfield rightly insists, we read the report for evidence of what Afghan women think, why not read it for evidence of what the folks at Time think? Absent an argument to the contrary, it seems entirely appropriate to charge Time with trafficking in propaganda.

[2] Acknowledging that the Taliban are barbaric thugs and that the Afghan people and nearly everyone else would be significantly better off if they could be eliminated. Nothing I've said so far reduces to the position that "the ousting of the Taliban [is] inconsequential, or that a commitment to women’s rights is only a form of hypocrisy." I think ousting the Taliban is quite consequential. But not in the abstract. How many lives - Afghan and American and other - are we willing to expend? What means - torture, imprisonment without trial, assassination, imprecise drone attacks - are we willing to use? These are political questions, not as Linfield insists, questions of "conscience." And, beyond a protest about simplistic thinking she offers no answers to them.

On the charge of hypocrisy, let's agree that the matter is best addressed by attributing bad faith not to some indeterminate "we," but to identifiable actors and agencies. When discussing members of the Bush administration, various right-wing war-mongers, and, as I've just suggested, the folks at Time and other bastions of corporate media, I have no problem claiming that the newly discovered commitment to women's rights is "only hypocrisy," false concern trotted out to rationalize a disastrous policy. (By disastrous I mean a policy that has been poorly executed from the start and for which there is no plausible criterion of "success.")

[3] Questioning just what it means to speak, as Linfield does, of "the NATO presence." If this is not to work simply as euphemism for a war prosecuted by American troops, we need to be clear. How many non-American military personnel are in Afghanistan? I don't know but I suspect the answer is someplace in the vicinity of "few." And what about consequences? I recall hearing a report on npr recently that stated that Taliban and other 'insurgents' cause roughly three-quarters of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. American troops and their allies cause the remaining quarter. But, the report went on, many Afghans remain convinced that something like the opposite is the case. If we grant that our campaign in Afghanistan is of a 'hearts and minds' sort, this is troubling. Continued military intervention may simply be a losing strategy on that dimension. I am not certain of that, but absent some evidence to the contrary, it is hard to discount skepticism.

Likewise, Linfield rightly insists that we "at least call barbarism by its right name." OK, let's do. The various tactics I just mentioned - torture, imprisonment without trial, assassination, 'collateral damage' caused by drone attacks, and so forth - are barbaric. Agreed? (And recall that I've already conceded that the Taliban and their terrorist tactics are barbaric.) What are the alternatives? Neither the Time piece nor Susie Linfield offer any suggestions. But that is where we ought to be headed - a discussion of how to proceed that does not simply assume that our current policy and tactics will "work" (whatever that means).

[4] Questioning what it is that Afghan women (is that a homogeneous category?) "want"? There is a strange ambiguity in Linfield's essay. On the one hand she thinks we ought to be paying attention to what Afghan women say (at least as the Time folks report that). On the other hand, she dismisses those who are concerned with attributing "agency" to those same women. This ambiguity is perhaps unavoidable. I agree that the downtrodden generally are not going to, without significant aid and support, throw off their oppressors. Conversely, it is unclear that clauses in the constitution alter underlying realities in the hinterlands. And I am not so sanguine that the Time report offers an even-handed assessment of the views that Afghan women articulate. Those views, as I have noted here before, are complex. They are not, in short, determinative. They do not mitigate the uncertainty that Linfield herself feels. To assert otherwise, I think, displays a dismaying level of credulousness.

[5] Recalling that much of the current disaster in Afghanistan is the result (wholly or partly) of U.S. policy. We funded the precursors of the Taliban against the Soviets. And we prosecuted a war in Iraq instead of dealing with the Taliban and their links to al-Qaeda. How confident are we - Linfield, I, others who think the Afghan campaign is a mess - that the folks who brought us those policies can clean up even part of the mess they've made?
Being a progressive or a leftist indeed requires avoiding knee-jerk reactions. The latter, after all, make one a reactionary. Insofar as the Time cover story has prompted debate it has proven valuable. But, I suspect that any such debate has been an unintended consequence. The folks at Time used the cover photo for a quite specific purpose - to shore up support for continued American military intervention. In other words, they are seeking to thwart debate by painting those who criticize the war as fools who are willing to sacrifice women's rights. (How does their report differ from the claims of BushCo to which Linfield refers?) In my view, they have undertaken that task in what I think is a hypocritical way. That brings me round to my initial claim: Time has used photography for propaganda.
Update: Lest you think I am overly suspicious of the good folks at Time, I recommend this post which not only claims that the CIA has been pushing the "women's rights" angle on defending the Afghan mission, but makes the following point, which should be especially pressing for a news weekly:
It’s worth noting that the Taliban are Sunni, not Shia, and that the US-backed president has enacted a law for the non-Taliban sector of society, rolling back rights for women that were written into the constitution. Before the elections, the Times Online reported that “the United States and Britain [were] opposed to any strong public protest [against the law] because they fear[ed] that speaking out could disrupt [the] election.” The bill was pushed through parliament in February of 2009 and came into effect in July of last year. Afghan women fumed, while US and UK leaders stood by, and where was Time’s cover advocating for women’s rights then? Here are the covers they ran in February 2009.
Update 2: See also this post at Conscientious.

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18 August 2010

Theory Talks #36 ~ Michael Shapiro

I teach in a Political Science Department. This afternoon I discovered (because my friend Susan Orr pointed it out to me) a web page called Theory Talks which is run by Peer Schouten at the Institute for Global Studies in Göteborg, Sweden. It is a terrific undertaking which consists in an ongoing series of interviews with luminaries in the ephemeral disciplinary sub-field of "International Relations." The reason I think the site is so useful is that my own home department is, by any reasonable standard, not only small, but quite narrow and inbred. I do not say that in an entirely pejorative way; there is something to be said for a shared vision, so long as it does not become stultifying. (I actually believe that there is a strong argument to be made for the virtues of dogmatism in social and political inquiry. That places me at odds with many of those who proclaim the virtues of pluralism and 'interdisciplinarity' and so forth. That is another topic.) That said, the discipline of political science is pretty various and that is something that my own colleagues and our graduate students seem not to recognize, at least in any positive way. The interviews that Schouten has posted are a reminder of that.

Readers of this blog will want to consider this interview with Michael Shapiro ~ "Pictures, Paintings, Power and the Political Philosophy of International Relations." Shapiro is among the very first political scientists to work on the intersection of politics and photography. While I would differ with him on all sorts of matters, his work is smart and provocative.


Political Philosophy & the Left (Part II)

Some time ago I posted a link to the first part of a longish, but quite useful interview at The New Left Project with political theorist Stuart White. The second part of the interview is now available here.

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17 August 2010

Steve Meisel + Vogue Italia = Steaming Piles of BS (again)

(All three Images © Steven Meisel)

In this post I will try to resist simply reverting to form. It will be difficult. My subject is Steve Meisel, about whom I have posted several times before. Let's just skip the excoriation and say he's at it again.

This time, though, I have a suggestion. Think of this as my effort at being constructive. I am not much for charity as a solution to political-economic problems. But since ~ I assume ~ Meisel makes buckets of money plying his trade, I'd be ever so grateful if he'd simply donate a couple thousand to this or that relief effort and spare us his attempts at profundity. I'm certain I am not alone in this. And notice that I am least crediting him with a sincere concern with the various public troubles he has incorporated into his work over the past few years. So let him 'help' (if that is what he thinks this stuff does) by allowing his money to speak for him instead of imposing on the world yet another vapid spread in Vogue Italia.

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Aftermath Project ~ Call for Applications (2011)

The folks at the Aftermath Project fund photographers who undertake projects aimed at countering the too common propensity to sanitize war and its consequences. You can find them and download an application here.

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Upcoming Conference ~ Time for Light

I recently received an email from Adriane Little at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo calling my attention to the upcoming Midwest Regional Conference of the Society for Photography Education.
Conference Description: The 2010 Regional SPE Time for Light conference will be a collaborative meditation on the past, present, and future contributions of lens-based media to art, society, and culture. The conference invites imagemakers and theoreticians to examine and share the benefits and consequences of photography to the societies and cultures behind or in front of the lens. So that imagemakers may better understand the past, record the present, and shape the future, the MWSPE Time For Light conference will culminate in the restoration, renewal, and new discoveries of historic and post-historic photographic discourse and practice. As we move forward and look backward, the conference will convene in Kalamazoo to make and take time for light.

Keynote Speaker: Lucy Lippard and Featured Exhibiting Artist: Yinka Shonibare.


16 August 2010

Passings ~ Herman Leonard (1923-2010)

Photographer Herman Leonard, perhaps most famous for his iconic images of jazz musicians, has died. You can find notices from the L.A. Times and npr here and here.

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15 August 2010

Do-Ho Suh

Various views ~ Floor, 1997-2005 © Do-Ho Suh.

Until this afternoon I had not seen Do-Ho Suh's work. It is pretty remarkable for conveying not just numbers, but relations, reconfiguring any notion of individual achievement or standing. In addition to this work, I recommend his series "public figures" which adds yet another dimension of politics - in effect reversing the relationship between the 'heroes' and 'luminaries' presented in public art and the public.

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Quick Take: Carrie Schneider

Recession, 2009 © Carrie Schneider

Here is my one-liner on this one: Crewdson and Wall meet a pretty wrong-headed (shallow) understanding of economic hardship.

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11 August 2010

Best Shots (126) ~ Dmitri Kasterine

(153 ) Dmitri Kasterine ~ Stanley Kubrick, 1969 (11 August 2010).

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10 August 2010

Thinking a Bit About Democracy

"So democracy becomes a real problem, right? If people continue to choose inequality, what can you do?"

"Democracy has always been a problem. The truly attractive features of the Western tradition that we accidentally—and it really is accidentally—get the benefit of are the rule of law, liberalism and tolerance, all of which are virtues inherited from predemocratic societies, whether they were based in eighteenth-century Anglo-American aristocratic individualism or nineteenth-century European forms of a type of developed postfeudal legal state. Democracy comes last. Democracy is simply a system of selection of people to rule over you. And it's not accidental that everyone is now a democrat. The Chinese are for democracy. George Bush was for democracy. The Burmese believe in it; they just call it something slightly different. South African whites believed in democracy; they just thought it should be arranged differently for blacks. Democracy is a dangerously empty term, and to the extent that it has substance, and the substance consists of allowing people to select freely how they live, the chance that they will choose to live badly is very high. The question is, 'What do we do now, in a world where, in the absence of liberal aristocracies, in the absence of social democratic elites whose authority people accept, you have people who genuinely believe, in the majority, that their interest consists of maximizing self-interest at someone else's expense?' The answer is, 'Either you re-educate them in some form of public conversation or we will move toward what the ancient Greeks understood very well, which is that the closest system to democracy is popular authoritarianism.' And that's the risk we run. Not a risk of a sort of ultra-individualism in a disaggregated society but of a kind of de facto authoritarianism."

This remark is from this interview with Tony Judt, published not long ago in The Nation. It reminds me of conversations that I have on a depressingly regular basis with my friend and co-author Jack Knight. These conversations typically occur when, by more or less democratic processes, this or that group of people make a more or less wholly bone-headed decision. What Judt seems to overlook is that the sort of 're-education' via public argument on which he falls back too is a feature of democratic politics. In other words, democracy is not quite so minimal or 'empty' as he makes out. It does not in any way insure a just or fair outcome; but it sets the terms, and thereby structures, our public disagreements about how we choose to live.

P.S.: Actually, having thought about it a bit more, I want to take issue with Judt on another point. He lauds the practices of liberalism, tolerance and rule of law but derides those whose idea of the good life consists in pursuing their own self interest. But someone fancying themselves a good 'classical liberal' could following, say Hayek, endorse all of those practices (and, indeed, think we need little else) while subscribing to precisely the view of the good life that Judt derides. Among the virtues of democratic decision-making is that, well beyond simply allowing us to choose rulers, it affords the sorts of institutionalized process for allowing us to assess when systematically, someone's pursuit of self-interest truly comes at the expense of others and, if so, what sorts of systematic remedies might be had.*
* There is an argument to be made there. But it is one that can be made. For an initial cut see Jack Knight & James Johnson. 2007. "The Priority of democracy," American Political Science Review. 101:47-61.

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09 August 2010

Political Philosophy & the Left (Part I)

You can find this useful interview with political theorist Stuart White (Jesus College, Oxford) here at the New Left Project web page. This is just the first installment. I'll link to the second part once it appears.

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08 August 2010

Pictures of Words ~ Richard Misrach, After Katrina

Photograph © Richard Misrach.

This is among the images Richard Misrach made of graffiti in New Orleans in the months following Hurricane Katrina. His pictures of words will be published this fall in Destroy This Memory (Aperture). And many of the pictures are now on exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Misrach donated the images to the Museum as well as to the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery, San Francisco's MoMA, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Misrach has pledged the royalties from the book to the Make It Right Foundation.

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In the "Marketplace of Ideas" Working People Have Been Silenced: Media Bias in Reporting on the Recession

My co-conspirator Susan Orr points out that over at Crooked Timber my friend Henry Farrell has posted on this recent report from the nice folks at the Pew Research Center. Surprise! In their coverage of our "recession" (speaking of euphemisms) the "mainstream media" - more appropriately labeled corporate media - base their reporting overwhelmingly on sources from government and business while systematically ignoring trade unions.

In analyzing sources in stories, however, the fundamental pattern is the same. Those in government, and especially Obama administration staffers, dominated the conversation. Representatives of business and industry came next, followed by academics and independent observers. But the voices of ordinary citizens and people in the workplace trailed behind, appearing in only about one in every five stories.

The president himself or key staffers in the West Wing of the White House were sources in 28% of the stories. Representatives from federal agencies were in 25%. And fully 61% of stories included a government representative of some kind, including those from state and local government.

Representatives of business, those identified as clearly speaking on behalf of the company or corporation, were the next most prominent sources, figuring in about 40% of the stories.

In many of the economic storylines, ordinary citizens and workers were well down the rung of sources. For instance, they were heard in only 8% of the stories gauging the severity and trajectory of the recession, 9% of the stories about the financial sector and 11% of the stories about the stimulus program.

One subset of the American workforce was virtually shut out of the coverage entirely. Representatives of organized labor unions were sources in a mere 2% of all the economy stories studied (stress added).

I must say that this finding is hardly surprising.

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Passings ~ Joanna Steichen (1933-2010)

Joanna Steichen, third wife of photographer Edward Steichen has died. The New York Times ran this obituary. This may seem a bit of a stretch as the basis for a post. But it is a good thing, I think, to puncture the photographer-as-hero-genius myth that pervades the profession. Not only are those who make images captive to those who inhabit a host of institutional arrangements (e.g., editors, curators, publishers, galleries, museums, agencies, etc.), but they often are beholden too to the active collaboration of inspiring subjects (e.g., [1] [2]) and of supportive families and creative staff. (Joanna Steichen clearly falls into that category; but she is not alone if one thinks, for instance, of Lélia Wanick Salgado or of the staff Ed Burtynski has put together to fabricate his prints.)

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Passings ~ Lee Lockwood (1932-2010)

Photojournalist Lee Lockwood has died. You can find the obituary from The New York Times here. Here again my lack of background is a disability. Lockwood seems to have slipped from the limelight leaving a considerable body of provocative work.

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07 August 2010

Passings ~ Tony Judt (1948 ~2010)

Historian Tony Judt has died. You can find obituaries from The New York Times here and from The Guardian here.

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06 August 2010

War, Propaganda, Censorship: The Military Reveals the Actual Power Relations "Embedded" in Their Relations to With the News Media

Michael Hastings at the ISAF base in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Photograph © Mikhail Galustov for RollingStone/Redux.

In late June Michael Hastings published this story in Rolling Stone. The picture above accompanied that story which cost a high ranking military officer his job and career. I think Hastings was right to publish the story. To the best of my knowledge, while many commentators questioned the 'propriety' of his doing so, none actually contested the details of what he wrote. Well, it turns out that the military apparently doesn't much want Hastings around any more and has canceled his next scheduled "embed" in Afghanistan. You can read the news here at Mother Jones.*

Is there anyone who is really surprised by this? I'd be surprised if there were. Tit-for-tat, and so forth. What is outrageous is not this decision to kick Hastings to the curb. That is simply authoritarian reflex. Predictable. What is outrageous is that the news media has voluntarily embraced the legitimacy of the entire system of "embedded" reporting. Having done that, they really cannot complain that the military unilaterally dictates the rules of engagement. This episode simply reveals in especially stark form the power relations to which the press has acquiesced.

The press should pride itself on being untrustworthy (which is not the same thing as being dishonest, quite the reverse) when it comes to political and military authorities. In the current context the premium seems to be quite the reverse.
Update (8/6/2010): More here.

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Best Shots (125) ~ Harold Chapman

(152) Harold Chapman ~ Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg
in Paris, 1956 (5 August 2010)


05 August 2010

TIME & War Propaganda

You will likely have seen the original cover (top) and may be interested in this shameless rationalization TIME printed. The editors insist: "We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground." Right. You ought also to see the second, photo-shopped version (Thanks Stan!) and read the reasoning of the fellow who took license with the original (scroll down the comments). His claim is only modestly less credulous. For some sensible discussion go here.

You might ask: So, you oppose the war? What about the Taliban and women's rights? Good questions. But, yes, I still oppose the war. And my simple, visceral retort is "What about, say, the Catholic church and women's (or children's) rights? What about the medieval attitudes that our own fundamentalists display regarding women's rights?"

My more complicated retort is, "OK, we can agree that the Taliban are fundamentalist thugs. But we are not going to get rid of them in any plausible scenario. And the ineffectual and corrupt Karzi regime is hardly an enlightened replacement. You might say the same of "our" fundamentalist allies in Pakistan. And, oh, by the way, let's have a graphic TIME cover story on the many various families we have bombed into oblivion in predator drone attacks - you know, the people we treat as collateral damage - and then talk support for the war." After all, we are deploying the drones mainly in hopes of avoiding American military casualties! I suppose Afghan lives are not worth quite as much?

This cover story is propaganda, pure and simple. TIME hardly is a font of feminist politics when it comes to our own relatively comfy lives. And, whether they admit it or not, they've adopted a moralistic stance in the service of a losing war.
P.S.: The cover photo was taken, in the words of the TIME folk, "the distinguished South African photographer Jodi Bieber."

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04 August 2010

Solidarity . . . With Striking Mott's Workers

I have, on repeated occasions, posted about the dire economic circumstances across Western NY (e.g., here); I've also posted repeatedly on the beneficial consequences of unions (e.g., here). This current post arise at the intersection of those two concerns. In nearby Williamson, New York there is a Mott's processing plant. You know, apple sauce and so on. Mott's is owned by Dr. Pepper Snapple, a Texas based, financially healthy company. The Mott's plant is unionized - Local 220 of the United Food and Commercial Workers - and the workers are out on strike in the face of rapacious demands on the part of the company. Despite its profitability and the steadily increasing compensation of management, the company is asking the workers for concessions in terms of both pay and benefits. I live in apple growing country. I support the workers who harvest the fruit and those who process it. You should too. A good place to start is at nobadapples.org. In an area that was economically depressed prior to the even harder times of the past two years the Mott's workers need your solidarity.

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03 August 2010

Deficit Discourse (2) ~ A Disaster Bequeathed to Us by BushCo

This graphic appeared at HuffPost this morning. It is not as useful as the very similar graphic I posted on here some months ago. This one is not quite as clear because it requires viewers to start at the upper left hand corner and work downward and outward - a lesson in how not to design an informative graphic. It nonetheless makes an important point.

Conservatives face a predicament. It was bequeathed to them by George Bush and his minions. They (conservatives) very much want to be deficit hawks and keep a keen eye out for government spending - especially when such spending threatens to benefit the less well off. Yet the clearest, simplest way to cut the deficit is to (1) rescind tax cuts Bush bestowed on the wealthiest Americans and (2) cut our losses and end the pointless wars he started. In other words, it is impossible to be a deficit hawk, a foreign policy hawk and a patron to the wealthy all at the same time.
P.S.: And, of course, it is crucial to recognize - as the folks at HuffPost point out, that the dollar for dollar stimulating effect of tax cuts for the wealthy is significantly lower that what we get from other forms of government spending.

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02 August 2010

Daniel Hernández-Salazar ~ Memoria de un ángel ("Memory of an Angel")

I have, on a couple of occasions, posted on the work of Guatemalan photographer Daniel Hernández-Salazar. You can find those posts here and here. I think his work is remarkable for the way it traverses conventional photographic genres - art, documentary, forensics, photojournalism; because it ignores the boundary between each of those genres and politics; and because he insists on pushing for international recognition of the Guatemalan genocide beyond the local or regional. While I worry about this third aspect of his work - in particular, I have concerns that it may transform what in Guatemala is a truly and deeply political undertaking into a less pointed humanitarianism when he moves his work to distant locations - I nevertheless find his angel a powerfully evocative image.

Having said all that, I received an email from
Hernández-Salazar late last week calling my attention to his blog and specifically to this post he has made (Spanish/English) on his more recent installations and interventions at the memorials to those who perished at the Nazi extermination camps at Treblinka, Plaszów, and Auschwitz. I still have my qualms; but I also admire Hernández-Salazar and his work immeasurably. I hope you will visit his blog and see his new works.
P.S.: You can find Daniel Hernández-Salazar. 2007.
So That All Shall Know/Para que todos lo sepan. University of Texas Press, here.

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