31 May 2012

Best Shots (206) ~ Justin de Villeneuve

(233) Justin de Villeneuve ~ Twiggy & David Bowie, circa 1973 (16 May 2012).


28 May 2012

Anti-Democratic Politics in Europe

"Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Europe’s current malaise is the replacement of democratic commitments by financial dictates — from leaders of the European Union and the European Central Bank, and indirectly from credit-rating agencies, whose judgments have been notoriously unsound." ~ Amartya Sen
 I missed the Op-Ed from which this statement is lifted when it appeared last week. There is lots of hand-wringing about the way protests have mounted across several European countries over the past year. But there has been less attention, unfortunately, to the anti-democratic policy making that has driven people out into the streets.

27 May 2012

(Anti)War Photography or Arms Industry Adverts? The Strange Case of Ron Haviv and Lockheed Martin

This is a screenshot from photographer Ron Haviv's web page; the featured image is from an advert for Lockheed Martin, arms manufacturer (he also apparently works with BAE, another arms manufacturer - [1] [2] [3]).* This is not ironic, it is politically problematic and deeply so given the vocal stance both Haviv and his photo agency, VII, take toward war and violence. You can find a pointed assessment of the situation here at duckrabbit. I also recommend this exchange between David Campbell and the duckrabbit folk regarding the process of formulating their post. Blogging is a new-ish enterprise and it is, I think, important to have these sorts of frank discussion about standards. That said, it also is important to keep one's eye on the ball which, in this case, means the links between VII, Haviv and the arms industry.
* Update: I have updated this after having poked a bit further on Haviv's page. I will take the opportunity to point out the remarkable commonality between Haviv's BAE adverts and what I previously have criticized as an emerging set of conventions among embedded photojournalists covering war here and  here and here and here. Look at all those nice pics of military personnel as 'just kids' hanging out.

Update #2: And you can find Haviv's not especially persuasive response here. Basically he adopts a partitioning strategy in which the agency (VII) was in the dark, the clients are admirable (USO) and the decision to sell the images rests elsewhere. No responsibility in sight.

Update #3: Here is the similarly diffuse/non-committal statement on this episode by VII; even accounting for the group nature of the enterprise (hence the need to communicate with the various members) this took a long time.

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James Q Wilson Revisited

Some time back I took the hapless Ross Douthat to task for comparing Wilson to the 'duplicitous bastard' Andrew Breitbart when, coincidentally, both men died in the same week. Turns out that I was being a bit too kind to Wilson - as Glenn Loury makes clear in this nice assessment of Wilson and his legacy at The Boston Review. Turns out that like many conservatives Wilson was genial over drinks or coffee but thoroughly tone-deaf to the political implications of his work. And Douthat is still a lightweight.

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Finding Good Music in Out of the Way Places

Yesterday afternoon I paid a visit to Vaxkupan and discovered a bunch of releases from Ayler Records, an indy label I had never heard of before. I picked up a couple of CDs - live recordings by Henry Grimes/Hamid Drake/David Murray and Fred Anderson/Harrison Bankhead that sound promising. It just reinforces the realization of how much music is out there to be heard. And, of course, you don't find these sorts of discs at your local big box.

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26 May 2012

Salvaging Israeli Democracy?

At the NYRB this week you can find this withering essay by David Shulman (the vehicle for his assessment is a generally positive review of a recent book - The Crisis of Zionism - by Peter Beinart). I have not read the book. As Shulman characterizes the argument, despite his sharply critical stance toward Israeli policy, Beinart apparently is trying to salvage an impossible position. He seeks to use the green line separating Israel proper from the Occupied Territories to mark off the domain where democracy (however flawed) prevails from the lawless and racist "ethnocracy" that lies beyond. But as Shulman acknowledges the Israeli policy in the territories is systematic and draws essential support from Israeli political and judicial and media institutions:
Even apart from the disastrous political consequences of current Israeli policy, it is critical to recognize that what goes on in the territories is not a matter of episodic abuse of basic human rights, something that could be corrected by relatively minor, ad hoc actions of protest and redress. Nothing could be further from the truth. The occupation is systemic in every sense of the word. The various agencies involved—government bureaucrats and their ministries and budgets, the army, the blue-uniformed civilian police, the border police, the civil administration (that is, the official Occupation Authority), the courts (in particular, the military courts in the territories, but also Israeli civil courts inside the Green Line), the host of media commentators who toe the government line and perpetuate its regnant mythologies, and so on—are all inextricably woven into a system whose logic is apparent to anyone with firsthand experience of it. That logic is one of protecting the settlement project and taking the land. The security aspect of the occupation is, in my view, close to trivial; were it a primary goal, the situation on the ground would look very different.
Shulman - rightly in my estimation - suggests that what is happening in Israel/Palestine is in large measure a conflict of narratives. He critically dissects the narrative Israelis weave to rationalize their stance toward the Palestinians. But for those of us - non-Israelis - who oppose that stance he also throws down the gauntlet: "Those who recoil at the term “apartheid” are invited to offer a better one." I am among those Shulman has in mind. I think such analogies - to fascism generally - are unhelpful. In large measure they are counterproductive because they encourage activists to resurrect tactics - like boycotts - that I think are de-politicizing and ineffective and that, ultimately, subvert democratic engagement. I have made that case here multiple times before. Shulman too poses the question about how best to confront doomed Israeli policies. On that matter I have no particular insight. But I agree with him that the stakes are clear and disastrously high.
So again, it is worth stating the self-evident truths: at the core of this conflict there are two peoples with symmetrical claims to the land. Neither of the two has any monopoly on being “right,” and each has committed atrocities against the other. One of these two sides is, however, much stronger than the other. Until the national aspirations of the weaker, Palestinian side are addressed and some sort of workable compromise between the two parties is achieved—until the occupation as we know it today comes to an end—there will be no peace. It is impossible to keep millions of human beings disenfranchised for long and to systematically rob them of their dignity and their land.

To prolong the occupation is to ensure the emergence of a single polity west of the Jordan; every passing day makes a South African trajectory more likely, including the eventual, necessary progression to a system of one person, one vote. Thus the likelihood must be faced that unless the Occupation ends, there will also, in the not so distant future, be no Jewish state.

Picturing the Prison-Industrial Complex

I simply could not resist piling on here. This screen shot from a project by Josh Begley (via the inimitable Pete Brook) is a google-esque condensation of "the geography of incarceration" in the United States. Aerial shots of the nearly 5,000 branches of our prison-industrial complex.

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24 May 2012

Thinking with Photography about Politics and Power.

Well, this morning I am off to give an informal presentation to the cultural studies folks at University of Linköping. Title? "Thinking with Photography about Politics and Power." Basically this talk is a brief for thinking harder about the pragmatics of photography and focusing less on the aesthetics of images.  Examples? Daniel Hernández-Salazar, Richard Avedon, Joel Sternfeld, and Richard Ross.  And, of course, a dose of Arendt and Foucault. Should be fun!

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21 May 2012

Women's Place - According to TIME

I have purposefully tried to avoid commenting on the latest fracas generated by a cover story at TIME Magazine. I've lifted the cover, depicting a mom breastfeeding her son; you can find the inside photos here. And you can find Katha Pollitt's typically astute commentary on the extremely regressive gender politics of "attachment parenting" and other child-rearing obsessions here at The Nation. As Pollitt rightly stresses, the issues here are political rather than about the ethics and idiosyncrasies of parenting. The punchline:
"Child-rearing fashions come and go, but they’re always about regulating the behavior of women—middle-class educated women. If these discussions were really about children, we would be debating the policies that affect them—what to do about our shocking level of child poverty, for example. It’s not on the radar except insofar as single mothers, with their selfish, licentious, man-spurning ways, can be blamed for it. Yet child poverty surely affects children’s well-being more directly, and more injuriously, than a pregnant woman indulging in the occasional glass of wine, or the momentous question of whether to use cloth diapers or disposable ones. And only tangentially are child-raising fads about fathers; men are more “involved” now than fifty years ago, but you won’t catch them beating themselves or one another up over not making organic baby food from scratch. Indeed, Time’s attachment-parenting package includes a humorous “Detached Dad’s Manifesto,” which suggests that Dad’s role is to provide “a little dose of fatherly distance” from attachment parenting’s heavy demands. That tells you everything you need to know about these guilt-inducing scripts."
Pollitt seems to me - as is usual - to be just about right on this episode. But I also want to point out that the folks at TIME seem to have a real talent at exploiting women for sensational and politically dubious purposes. I commented repeatedly here on an earlier installment - the propagandistic use the TIME-folk made of Jodi Bieber's image of a mutilated Afghan girl. This is the liberal media at work?

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20 May 2012

Best Shots (205) ~ Richard Mosse

(232) Richard Mosse ~ Iraq, 2009 (9 May 2012).

Self-righteousness as Psychological Symptom

This report of a recent social psychological study popped up on my FB news feed and made me think about the bases of moralism - which regular readers will know I find deeply problematic when it migrates into politics.

As described the study seems a bit lame. I'd say - without having read the study itself - that people who become organic snobs would become some sort of snob anyway and that eating organic is simply their excuse. Does eating organic cause people to be jerks? Probably not. More likely it allows them to exhibit jerky propensities that they'd exhibit in some manner anyway. And I'd bet the food snobbery is correlated with rigid, judgmental behaviors on other dimensions too! (You know, 'I drive a Prius. And I don't just do yoga, I do this very, very strict sort that everyday lame-asses cannot possibly appreciate!' and so forth.) These are people who would've been Dana Carvey's 'church lady' in some other milieu but happen to have ended up at the food coop instead. I see it pretty much every time I go to Advantage Food Coop or out to visit August. His home town is full of this sort of moralistic acting out.

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19 May 2012

The Wonders of Ideological Delusion

Let's see now, the government funds lots of basic research that leads to massive technological advance; let's call it the Internet. And a bunch of guys make oodles of dollars exploiting the technology for commercial gain. And then those same guys turn around and spend oodles of dollars on groups that spout libertarian nonsense about how "government regulation stifles innovation and, without innovation, there is no economic growth." Bullshit. It really is enough to make me wonder why so many Americans assume that one needs to be particularly intelligent or on the ball to succeed at business. So let me spell it out in simple terms: absent government funding, the world would be forced to get along without the wonders of PayPal. Think we might manage?

And before all my libertarian friends and students start rushing about asking why I think businessmen like Warren Buffett (say) are worth listening to on matters of tax policy, let's just say it is because Buffett, unlike this bozo, apparently believes in the virtue of consistency. Pretty simple.

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17 May 2012

Depicting Military Service

"The human body is the best picture of the human soul." 
~ Ludwig Wittgenstein 

Arnold © 2012 · Claire Felicie. 
These series of portraits by Claire Felicie are pretty astonishing; they depict Dutch infantrymen before, during, and after a year of active duty in Afghanistan.  Just what is the cost - the impact in physical and psychic terms on young men - of combat deployments?

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16 May 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and ... Then Some Statistics

So, apparently we should expect a full-scale onslaught from the right-wing deniers of reality. Actually, I don't think O'Reilly was making an empirical statement about the persistence of inequality - he was simply saying that he doesn't give a hoot about it. No surprise there, the man is a political Neanderthal.  Old Rush, on the other hand, is simply lying.

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Jeremy Waldron

Here is a big event in political theory circles; Jeremy Waldron has just delivered the inaugural address as Chichele Chair of Political Theory at Oxford. You can find a link to the text of his address here. Waldron is a very smart guy and an outstanding selection for the position.  On top of that, a quick glance at Waldron's remarks suggests that he thinks political theory is rightly concerned with pretty much the things I think it should be concerned with - institutions, how they emerge and operate, and how they might be justified.


LA County's Finest

Well, issue a couple of guys uniforms and guns to go along with their Associate's Degrees in Criminal Justice and here is what you get ~ authoritarian overreaction to law-abiding photographers. This would be a joke if the uniforms didn't have guns to go along with their ignorance of the law and enlightened social views about 'retards'.

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15 May 2012

Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent

Here is a link to the newly established Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent including notice of the three inaugural winners of the prize - Ai Weiwei, Manal al-Sharif, and Aung San Suu Kyi. 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with giving prizes to courageous people and the three winners clearly are impressive. That said, I wonder if the foundations might've stuck out their necks just the slightest bit and bestowed the award on people who do not already occupy a prominent place in the western media. They might, in other words not just rewarded courage but exhibited it too. 

Moreover, while I agree that dissent often requires tremendous creativity - more so than most of what passes for "entrepreneurship" - how about those engaging in pedestrian resistance to oppressive regimes? Read Disturbing the Peace. In it Havel describes the Plastic People of the Universe - the group of musical misfits and hangers on whose persecution offered the reason for Charter 77. These were not glamorous "dissidents" or "artists" who received big commissions or traveled to this or that Biennale around the world. They were a bunch of "kids" who were being harassed and badgered by the Czechoslovak police because they wanted to play rock and roll. That was dangerous business. But they were not in the headlines. In other words, in addition to being a bit courageous the award committee and its funders might also work some at being creative themselves. 

The Prize committee might look for incipient dissent, the political opposition that might not be recognized as especially creative as it stands but that is no less crucial for that.

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13 May 2012

Land of the Free?

This graphic popped up on my FB news feed this afternoon [source]. Pretty astonishing? Actually not. American conservatives often proclaim "Freedom isn't Free!" - mostly in an effort to rationalize sending the US military off on arbitrary adventures abroad. But apparently they worry not one whit about the freedom - or at least the time to exercise freedom - here at home. In the US freedom is unprotected from encroachments by employers; in fact if you are lucky enough to have a job (notice I did not say decent job) your free time exists, if it does, at the whim and pleasure of your employer. In that we are totally out of line with other developed nations. And if you want an interesting exercise, map this graphic onto data for union membership or density in all those other countries. It might open your eyes. States typically provide legal protections because they are compelled to do so. Indeed, freedom is not free.

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12 May 2012

Why Keep a Blog On Photography? The Place of Criticism

Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, Near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) ~ Photograph © Jeff Wall.

Over the course of the nearly half dozen years I've kept this blog, I have, on a pretty regular basis, met with a dismissive attitude from photographers whom I've met or with whom I've corresponded. When they discover that I just "talk" about photography and that I do not myself make images, they simply cannot see the point. Some, finding that I am not a photographer myself, or even that I am not a photographer of this or that specialized sort (usually their sort), dispute my standing altogether. On what basis - by what 'right' - they ask, do I think I am allowed to have and express views, especially critical views, about them and their work.

I have to say that I find such such reactions tiresome and defensive. But I've never felt I had a real clear idea of what an appropriate response to such dismissiveness might look like. I recently came across this characteristically incisive piece by David Levi Strauss that offers an appropriate retort:
". . .  Without criticism, the only measure of value in art is money, and that measure has proven to be both fickle and stultifying. As a subject of inquiry, it’s a bore. I know why investment bankers and hedge fund managers prefer it, but why have artists put up with it for so long?

[. . .]
Among other things, criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things. If criticism is devalued, artists and curators have no other choice in the current crisis of relative values but to heed the market’s siren song.
[. . .]
Why does art need criticism? Because it needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world. Art for art’s sake is fine, if you can get it. But then the connection to the real becomes tenuous, and the connection to the social disappears. If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism."
Substitute photography and photographer for art and artists in this passage and it seems to me to be just right. I myself tend to think that the distinction between art and documentary photography is bogus, so you might not even need to do that. But when, as also often is the case, I hear photographers - for example, Salgado or Nachtwey (to take just two impresarios) - suggest that they hope their work will enter into and influence political debate and social dialogue, I think that Levi Strauss's comments are, well, pretty devastating to my dismissive interlocutors.

Ironically, I came across the Levi Strauss essay at just about the same time that I noticed the news reports that the photograph by Jeff Wall I've lifted above, broke records at Christie's auction house. I've written about this image here before. But then again, I wrote about Wall because Susan Sontag singled out just this image at the end of her Regarding the Pain of Others, not because I suspected it would soon fetch a record price on the market.

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Passings ~ Willie Middlebrook (1957~2012)

Photographer Willie Middlebrook - about whom I know very little - has died. You can find an obituary here at The Los Angeles Times.


Passings ~ Horst Fass (1933~2012)

Photographer Horst Faas has died. There is an obituary here at The Guardian.  There also is a slide show of Faas' work here at WAPO.


10 May 2012

Climate Change, Leadership and Obama's Center-Right Politics

"The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow.  . . .  Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action." 
Well said. But if the US is any indication, science and politics mix like, well the two liquids featured in this essay - oil and water.  Just how do the results of scientific inquiry make it outside the academy and into the corridors of power? As the essay also makes clear: "leadership is essential." And Obama is leading here in roughly the same way he has done on gay marriage - from way behind the curve.

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09 May 2012

Gay Rights, States Rights and the President's Persistent Lack of Leadership

So, President Obama has decided to catch up with civilized opinion on gay marriage - finally. What follows below are a set of images that came across the news feed on my FB account this afternoon. We need a third map showing the percentage of FOX News viewers by county in North Carolina. I know what my priors lead me to suspect on that. The take away is that Obama is not simply late on this issue, he barely has caught up - you'll note that he continues to privilege states rights over gay rights. And given that the nice folks in NC voted to constitutionalize discrimination yesterday, well . . . where does that leave the President?

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06 May 2012

Democracy at the Margins

I have been waylaid on the first leg of a trip to Sweden and so am sitting in Newark, NJ. Hardly seems like a fair trade to me.

In any case, two recent news articles have caught my attention. The first, here at The Guardian really is a manifesto of sorts for a resurgent civil society in the EU. The signatories apparently think that volunteering on a mass scale will presage democratic renewal. The second, here at The New York Times is a brief report on the electoral surge of the "Pirate Party" in German electoral politics. This insurgency seems only slightly less naive. Here are some top-of-the-head reactions.

Working in reverse, I would simply point out that - setting aside the apparently right-wing inflections of the Pirates' politics -  political discontent is not a sufficient basis for "direct democracy." There is a naivety at work here in the notion that there are technological solutions (internet voting) to problems of political institutions. The Pirates seem to think that if only everyone simply acted on their ethical commitments and voted directly things would be remarkably different for the better. Count me unpersuaded. First, among the things we understand about voting is that different methods of counting votes (even from the same initial distribution of inputs) often generate quite different electoral outcomes. Institutions matter. Second, the very fact that the Pirates are contesting seats in regional legislative assemblies - in itself an admirable course of action - is a reminder that argument and debate are essential characteristics (both historically and conceptually) of representative institutions. And, to the best of my knowledge, the internet does not afford a terribly useful platform for productive exchange of political views. We may not reside in Cass Sunstein's dystopian virtual world, but where exactly do we find productive political exchange, instances where people actually listen and change their minds?

As for the luminaries (many of whom I admire) who are trying to persuade us that rejuvenating civil society will enhance democratic politics, I am not at all persuaded. This seems a variation on the argument that democracy presupposes robust "social capital" for which I have never seem a terribly coherent or compelling argument. There are a number of problems with the proposal being floated here too. How are the multitudes of volunteers to be coordinated? Can they actually accomplish more than providing compassionate care on a on-to-one basis? Nothing wrong with that, but it will not remedy any large scale problem. How will the putative moral uplift that such a campaign will generate actually get translated into politics? Isn't this proposal simply a capitulation to the neo-liberal view that government cannot provide remedies to aggregate problems? Can reliance on charity/philanthropy and volunteerism do anything more than further undermine the notion that persons deserve political-economic security as a matter of citizenship? Won't the sort of campaign being peddled here simply further subvert confidence in the efficacy of democratic politics? If the problem is that the 'politics of fear' is subverting the notion of a common Europe, what is required is a political campaign that might directly reply to the apprehensions and anxieties of those who are frightened or insecure. That would be a democratic reply, and a direct one to boot.

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03 May 2012

Photographers and their Rights (Another in a Recurring Series)

When you can readily find stories like this one about the laws governing the rights of photographers in such obscure publications as TIME Magazine, it really makes you wonder whether the police officers across the country who regularly violate those rights are incapable of reading. Or, perhaps they know full well and good that they are violating basic rights and simply do not give a hoot. I am pretty sure I know which option makes them look worse.
PS: I have posted on this topic here multiple times in the past.

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02 May 2012

Best Shot (204) ~ Mitch Dobrowner

(231) Mitch Dobrowner ~ North Dakota, 2011  (2 May 2012).


01 May 2012

May Day

For information on actions near you try here
If you are from the Rochester area - look here.


And remember, in the late 19th C, when May Day was invented as a working class tradition (see Eric Hobsbawm on that) it revolved around general strikes for the eight hour day. Many - especially capitalists - viewed the notion workers might put in just 8 hours at work as wholly fantastic - in the sense of being something that was simply not possible. We now know just how well-founded that belief turned out to be. Imagination, the capacity to entertain possibilities or what might be the case, is central to politics. It was central to the worker's movement and it is central to Occupy.

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