Monumental Questions

Today hearings were held in Manhattan for the Mayor’s Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers. It was a real New York occasion, with dashes of radical politics, establishment equivocation, blunt force and moments of pure eccentricity. Anyone who wanted could speak for three minutes in randomly assigned slots.  Despite being called for the day before the holiday at 10am, about 100 people attended with a good sprinkling of local media.

The Commission hearing 11.22.17

As luck would have it Decolonize This Place organizer Conor Tomàs Reed went first and called on the commission to remove the Columbus monument at Columbus Circle, the Theodore Roosevelt statue at the American Museum of Natural History and the Marion J. Sims memorial at 103rd St. As Reed said

These three monuments serve as a daily reminder of colonialism, indigenous genocide, and white supremacist eugenics. That they are familiar landmarks in this city shows just how much we have inured ourselves to the horrors that they celebrate.

Decolonize This Place

This bracing challenge was soon countered by a succession of “proud Italian Americans” declaring undying love for Columbus and that any attempt to remove the monument was an outrage. One speaker from the Knights of Columbus claimed opponents were like the KKK because the Klan were (he claimed) against Columbus in the 1930s. These statements were undercut by a young Italian-American activist from SURJ who pointed out that Columbus lived about 350 years before Italy was a nation; spoke only Catalan; and served the Spanish monarchy. But no politician could have missed the vehemence and belligerence of the opposition to any change whatever, even adding a sign.

If most of the discussion was about  Columbus, in nearly four hours of testimony, very few Indigenous voices were heard. One exception was Robert Borrero of the International Indian Treaty Council, who spoke with dignified restraint about Columbus’s brutality to his own Taino people.

Several African Americans testified to the scandal of Marion J. Sims, who did medical experiments on African American women without anesthetic, having a memorial. One flamboyant Jewish lady got the only laugh of the day when she concluded emotional testimony saying

Keep all the monument–except that Sims, I never heard about that, he’s awful

So if I had to bet, I’d guess Sims will be the token withdrawal. The co-commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, NYC’s cultural director, opened with a slightly lame PowerPoint suggesting alternatives to removal, like adding signs; commissioning art projects; or augmented reality apps. This seemed to be a clear signal of the Commission’s thinking, although radical academics like Audra Simpson and Jack Tchen are members and might be able to push for a little more. Perhaps the markers to Marshall Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval, who directed the genocidal Vichy regime in Second World War France, might be quietly uprooted.

There are two more opportunities to intervene:

  • Monday, Nov. 27 at 10 a.m. — Bronx Borough Hall, Rotunda, 851 Grand Concourse, the Bronx
  • Tuesday, Nov. 28 at 10 a.m. — Staten Island Borough Hall, Room 125, 10 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island

Even so nothing will happen fast this being New York. The report will come out in December. The Mayor will then decide which of their recommendations to adopt. And then it all goes back to the beginning with the community boards and a multi-step process back to the usual parks and culture review board. So here we are, giving reform a chance. Expect to hear about a return to revolutionary tactics soon!

Roosevelt Must Fall

As for me, I spoke about the Theodore Roosevelt Equestrian Monument at the American Museum of Natural History. For the record, this is what I said:

Roosevelt Equestrian Memorial

“I would like to suggest to you that the Equestrian Monument that is part of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the American Museum of Natural History should be removed because it visualizes systems of racialized hierarchy, which, while discredited, continue to do harm in the present. Additional signs or information cannot replace the visceral impact of visual materials, as advertisers and artists alike know very well. Certainly, that removal would need to be the start of an extensive repurposing of the Museum, which is long overdue. But given that the Natural History Museum is the most visited in New York, with over 6.5 million visitors, it cannot be right to leave a symbol of racial hierarchy in place.

Roosevelt died in 1919 and the New York memorial was at once proposed by Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the American Museum of Natural History. That same year, the Museum Journal claimed to demonstrate a “relationship between [skin] color and achievement.” Osborn was a believer in Nordic supremacy, a theory which also entailed the decline of white dominance unless immigration was controlled. These theories unfortunately continue to have purchase today.  In 1921, the AMNH hosted the International Congress of Eugenics under Osborn’s organization. It opened a Hall of Public Health to promote eugenics (the attempt to breed out “impurities” from humans, also involving forced sterilization) and the effort to control immigration that resulted in the 1924 Immigration Act.

Compare the “slope” on the three heads

The Equestrian monument was sculpted by James Earle Fraser, who had earlier made a piece called The End of the Trail, illustrating the eugenicist belief in the period that Indians would “die out.” The monument visualizes belief in racial superiority through the now discredited so-called science of craniometry—measuring skulls. The idea was that the perfect skull had a vertical forehead, which is hard to find in an actual human being, so the example given was usually a Greek statue. In the US this idea was widely disseminated in Josiah Nott’s 1857 Indigenous Races of the Earth. This work claimed that there are several distinct human races, visible in their different skull shapes more than superficial details like skin color. In this framework, a statue is not a depiction of a racist idea, it is a racist idea.

If you examine the Equestrian Monument, you can see that Roosevelt’s skull is close to vertical, while the African figure has a noticeably sloped forehead and the Indian has the most sloped of all. In short, the Monument visibly incarnates Osborne’s system of racial hierarchy, as the Trustees acknowledged at the dedication ceremony in 1936 (the sculpture was completed in 1939). Of course, Roosevelt’s towering position over the half-dressed African and Indian reinforces that meaning, derived as it was from Roman Imperial sculpture.

It’s true that most people have now forgotten the specifics of craniometry. But the racist term “slopehead” indicates that the false claim of cranial angle still influences present-day racist caricature, usually applied to people of Asian descent—it’s in the cult film Pulp Fiction for example, a Harvey Weinstein production, I might add.

So it’s not a question that people at that time had bad ideas and we censor the monument for that but that it actively visualizes and perpetuaties racial stereotypes today.

I’m second from the right, speaking. Photo: MTL+

Sources

Anon, “The New York Theodore Roosevelt Memorial.” Science 83, no. 2143 (1936): 75-76.

David Bindman, Ape to Apollo : aesthetics and the idea of race in the 18th century (London: Reaktion, 2002)

Michael Barker, “The Life and Controversies of Henry Fairfield Osborn,” http://www.swans.com/library/art18/barker99.html

Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton 1996)

Havig, Alan. “Presidential Images, History, and Homage: Memorializing Theodore Roosevelt, 1919-1967.” American Quarterly 30, no. 4 (1978): 514-32. doi:10.2307/2712298.

Nicholas Mirzoeff, Bodyscape: Art, Modernity and the Ideal Figure (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

George N. Pindar, “The New York State Roosevelt Memorial,” The Scientific Monthly Vol. 42, No. 3 (Mar., 1936), pp. 280-284

 

The Misogynist Aesthetics of Visuality

“All hitherto existing visuality becomes aesthetic by being misogynist.” This is the necessary update to my past claim that “the right to look…is very much a feminist project.” Visuality is not just “masculine” or “heroic” but actively depends on misogyny for its ability to claim legitimacy. Its permanent crisis is a condition of its patriarchal possibility, evoked through nostalgia. As imagined in Blade Runner 2049, for instance, the sequel to the visual culture classic Blade Runner (1982).

*

Before beginning this rewrite, let’s take a moment to say that I’m aware that this is not just any modulation of an analysis. It’s an admission of past failing that has been made glaring by present conditions. It’s up to you, the reader, to decide what to make of that. This is me beginning to try to do better by working it through.

In The Right to Look, the patriarchal authority to visualize is set against collective, democratic forms of countervisuality, yes. But I’m a little bit surprised looking back at it now to see that the feminist/gender/sexuality analysis is not well worked out. Why? I’m male identified, so that probably doesn’t help. There was a foregrounding of a masculine seriousness about war in the period I was writing (2003-10). I think, too, that I wrongly assumed the gender dimension of the ridiculous hyper-masculinity of the Heroic tradition to be both well established in visual culture analysis and so obviously reactionary that it did not need as much focus. And I was wildly wrong. Let’s start again.

                                                        *
misogynist visuality

“Visuality” is the specific technology of coloniality formed on the plantation by the overseer, generalized as a technology of colonial war, and later named in English by Thomas Carlyle (1840). All such misogynist visuality is the property of the Great Man or the Hero. To understand what this means, it is only necessary to know that present-day alt-right considers Trump to be such a Hero.

Colonial visuality operates in complexes, which classify (free from slave, for example) and then separates the classified orders. That order holds because it produces an aesthetic, that which Fanon called the “aesthetic of respect for the established [patriarchal] order.” This aesthetic is always nostalgic, always bound to what Carlyle called “Tradition,” always haunted by the fear of its imminent disappearance. Which is to say, it is always violent.

In the era of neo-colonial war in Iraq and Afghanistan, enabled by the drone, there was a return to overt ideology of “commander’s visualization,” to quote the US Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual. It also seemed as if that visualizing was not hegemonic. The “aesthetic” of permanent war (in movies like The Hurt Locker) felt unfinished and thereby contestable because there was no way to make it feel necessary and right. 

That analysis underestimated the necessity of unfinish to the neo-imperial masculine aesthetic, the need it has to feel threatened and on the verge of being overwhelmed, to sustain and reproduce itself. “Chaos” is visuality’s always feminized other in Carlyle and in all subsequent claims to Heroism. The opposition to Heroism was, according to Carlyle, “the female Insurrectionary force,”  always already racialized as “black.” Carlyle did not even bother to consider the possibility of a female Hero,  which would (in his view) produce monstrous forms like Amazons and Maenads. “Female force” is Heroism’s internal challenge to be overcome, as a constitutive, embodied part of itself. This ideology is phantasmatic, even ridiculous, to be sure, but it has had very real effects.

Indeed, coloniality has now created a new form of heroic masculinity for the aftermath of the conquest of (M)other nature.  Surviving in the midst of climate disaster is the new heroism visualized in Blade Runner 2049, in ways that bear little resemblance to lived experience. Today’s self-proclaimed Heroes embrace the earth system crisis as their chance to wage permanent misogynist war.  Real men eat GMO, use pesticide, burn coal and master the resultant chaos because mastering (female) chaos is what Heroes do. What follows is the spectacle of Trump minions advocating for coal at the climate conference, while only 8% of college-educated Republicans “believe” in climate change, as if it is a branch of theology. In this view, faith rests in the Hero, who welcomes climate chaos as a test of his strength.

2049 is now
Blade Runner 2049

This misogynist coloniality has created its own nostalgic aesthetic, such as that deployed in the self-consciously epic film Blade Runner 2049. It failed at the box office but so did Trump. For my generation of visual culture, the first Blade Runner was canonical, taught over and again. So its return was nostalgic for me too. Like Bertolt Brecht siding with the cowboys during Westerns–as he admitted he did–I can’t deny enjoying watching it, both for its intense cinematic experience of sound and image and for the postmodern Proustian resonance of rediscovering past media time.

But this film not only visualizes the white supremacist masculinity that is making the world toxic, it takes active pleasure in the toxicity of the world. It is now the visible analogy of the hidden-in-plain-sight violent, abusive, misogynist Hollywood system evoked by the name “Weinstein.” Everywhere you look in this extended exploration of white masculinity there are available, conventionally attractive, young, white female bodies, floating on the side of buildings; or activated as software when the Man returns home to his miserable apartment; or standing on the street waiting for sex work. In this future, a wish fulfillment if there ever was one, no one is trans or queer, and hardly anyone isn’t white.

In Blade Runner 2049, the new white male hero, known only as K,  is literally a machine. K (Ryan Gosling) embodies the Heroic interface of the corporation and the police, which Gramsci called Caesarism. K marches through the orange desert in post-apocalyptic Las Vegas in search of the lost original Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford). It’s radioactive but he doesn’t care because he’s a machine. If such orange effects usually result from desert winds, recently seen in the U.K., the hyper-smog today enveloping Delhi and Lahore is a suffocating grey that locals are actively comparing to Blade Runner. Without the “conquest of nature” anaesthetic to make it palatable. Unlike Blade Runner, helicopters can’t even fly in the dense, gritty air mass.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog

K’s wandering through radioactive Vegas is a digital upgrade of the industrial-era Romantic fantasy of the conquest of nature. In Caspar David Friedrich’s much-reproduced painting, the wanderer–perhaps Josef K but known only through his bourgeois suit–is colonial master of all he surveys, like Keats’ Cortés, “silent on a peak in Darien.” What lies beneath him is said to be fog but most such precipitation in the period was coal-induced smog. It’s not so far from the Wanderer to K, except that the “human” (which is to say “white” masculine) gaze is now automated.

the machine gaze
Opening shot Bladerunner 2049

How does the machine visualize? The first shot of BR 2049 fills the screen for a second: an all-seeing blue eye, with blond eyelashes. It is that of a replicant, an artificial person. Nowhere else in BR 2049 does this combination of blue-eyed blonde appear, so it is not the eye of a character. It is the ideal of machine vision, the machine as Hero. In the next instant, blink and you miss it, we zoom into the eye, into swirls of blue, and emerge in a giant solar panel array, converting the tomb-like sky into power.

The Solar Eye

All puns are intended by director Denis Villeneuve: the replicant’s eye is replaced by the solar “eye,” where neither is an “I.” Power is all, electric and social. If “we,” the spectators, are, as it were, in the eye of the machine, in their mind, then where are we? And who are “we,” when people are not always human?

A primary classification of visualizing is at work here, creating a distinction between the “human” and the machine, or replicant. Any such classification is a displacement of the colonial hierarchy of the human, in which most people do not achieve the fully human status that is reserved for “whiteness.”

In Blade Runner 2049, all the major characters are machines. The only human that plays a role is the police officer Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), desperate to keep “order,” meaning the separation between human and machine. It’s already too late. She’s killed by a replicant. The fully human “humans” are elsewhere in the place the film calls “off-world,” the new interstellar colony.

Luv’s Eye

The replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), who kills Joshi, achieves perfect machine visualization, sublimely reflected in her sunglasses that act as her remote screen vision. Like a machine-Medusa, Luv directs a lethal missile attack to protect  K in his hunt for the natural-born replicant. In the animation of her cyber-eye, Luv embodies all the current dreams of power, such as the wide-angle drone apparatus named The Gorgon Stare. What Luv cannot do, the film suggests, is love. She is all war, the female counter-insurrectionary force machine, the necessary counterpart to the heroic drive of corporate leader Wallace (Jared Leto).

wish fulfillment

The sardonic displacement of “love” into Luv acknowledges the misogynist violence at the center of the storyBlade Runner 2049 centers around the pursuit of a child born to the replicants Rachael (Sean Young) and Deckard (Harrison Ford). In the first Blade Runner film (1982), Deckard falls for Rachael. When he tries to kiss her, she pulls away. He slams the door, pushes back into the blinds and makes her say “I want you.” Then she acts out the kiss. Did she love him? Or Luv him, as directed by her software? Deckard doesn’t care.

The YouTube post of Deckard’s assault on Rachael (labeled a “love scene’)

Deckard, we learn in BR 2049, was programmed to desire Rachael (meaning that he is himself a replicant, as everyone except Harrison Ford has worked out long ago). So the first film literally engenders the second with the birth of their child, which conveniently causes Rachael’s death. In BR 2049 we discover Deckard living out a bro-noir life of mourning and drinking in ruined Las Vegas hotels. Captured,  he again causes the death of a newly re-replicated Rachael. Like Wallace’s casual murder of a newly-created replicant, this misogynist killing has no other function than to continue the wish fulfillment that violence is power.

For Deckard’s assault plays out the elemental pornographic fantasy that whatever a man wants, a woman does too. In the recent HBO series The Deuce, the sex worker turned porn film director Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaall) keeps reminding everyone it’s “fantasy.” It’s as if she’s speaking out of character here in this sadly misogynist and racist series–beautifully staged and shot, just like BR 2049–as the present-day actor addressing the audience.

Only it never really was only a fantasy in the minds of assaulting men, but a justification. Women’s words play no significant role in this justifying narrative. Yale students chanted “no means yes, yes means anal” in 2010, so this is (by the hierarchy’s own standards) a rot that spreads from the head. Maybe now Sean Young’s claims to have been abused by a studio head and Warren Beatty might be finally believed.

fetishism

In BR 2049, K doesn’t bother with complicated replicant Luv. He has an A.I. called Joi (Ana de Armas) instead, a software construct designed to meet his every need. Joi makes home dinners for him and then changes into vampy outfits, the digitized remake of the 1950s every MAGA man needs. The fetish she offers K is the siren call of whiteness: “You’re special.”

Joi “believes” this–or, more exactly, has been programmed to say it –so that K continues to do his work. In just the same way, the “wages of whiteness” like racist statues, the national anthem, and not being shot by police compensate for the not so perfect lived experience of actually being “white.”

Only K finds out that, despite his fantasy, he isn’t special, he’s not a naturally-born replicant, but just another shop-bought off-the-shelf model. Rather than give up his fetishism, he transposes it into the “noble death.” The rebel replicant leader suggests to him that such a death is the most human thing he can do, like Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities–whose 1935 movie ending was oddly watched in The Deuce as a form of sex work. K dies happily at the end, the first time he has smiled during the entire film.

But why would a machine that can see what humans have done to the world want to be human? There’s no reason that makes “sense” within the narrative, it’s just the old colonial fantasy that what “they” want above all is to be like “us.” And it’s the job of the Hero to stop them. Within the film narrative that doesn’t quite make sense but the real Hero is, in the cinematic fantasy, the male spectator, now aspiring to be a machine, a metaphor that also saturates sports fantasy.

condensation

K does achieve one notable visual first. Freud imagined Western male (hetero)sexuality  to revolve around the (m)other/”whore” classification. These roles must then be separated to feel right and, goodness knows, a whole lot of “aesthetics” has followed from that separation. In a world where, according to the New Yorker of all places, incest is the top-rated theme in porn, such distinction seems more than a little quaint.

In BR 2049, K manages to have it both ways by inserting his eroticized (m)other Joi into the body of a replicant sex worker Mariette (Mackenzie Davis). The resulting not quite perfectly overlapping three-way was a tour-de-force of animation and white male peculiarity. What does the white (machine) man want? To fuck (with) his own software. Apparently.

white supremacy

What does machine visuality want? To sustain the separation between the human and the enslaved. In the first Blade Runner, the replicants are to be pitied as they are hunted down. Now the replicant capitalist Wallace demands the production of an enslaved machine labor force, creating a new hierarchy between the human machine and the enslaved machine.

The enslaved machine will be known to be enslaved in the same way that the United States knew its enslaved to be so: because they were their mother’s child. An enslaved person could be of many phenotypes and genealogies. But there was no gainsaying partus sequitur ventrem, literally “the offspring follows the womb.” Control of the womb is, as United States politics amply demonstrates, central to all coloniality. As Saidiya Hartman puts it, “the master dreams of future increase.” Androids may dream of electric sheep but the ones in charge dream of primitive accumulation.

In the imaginary of Blade Runner 2049, the ever-more perfect replicant can defeat the test as to whether it feels. But it cannot refute being its mother’s child, although that “kinship loses meaning,” as Hortense Spillers argues in the context of slavery, when “one is neither female or male.” Enslaved or machine, the meaningless of the non-human condition continues. The patriarchy wins on both sides of the film: the replicant natural-born child lives (win for Wallace’s slave patriarchy). Deckard lives, and like a latter day father of the Horatii, gets to claim the same woman as “his” child, free of both her mother and K, her potential love interest (win for replicant patriarchy).

the end of patriarchy. or the end of the world?

It turns out that it is not the end of capitalism that is impossible to imagine over that of the end of the world. It is that of patriarchy. Worse, for patriarchy to continue, it now imagines that its conquest of nature must continue, whether in the machine body, the transformed planet, or the racialized hierarchies of the human and the enslaved.

Monuments, Looking, Lynching and Gender

In the past week,  the ubiquitous Confederate monuments have suddenly become visible as monuments to genocide and white supremacy. It’s important to continue to show their systemic role in making and sustaining white supremacy. In particular, the monuments form a network that connects seeing, unseeing, lynching and gender in ways that I for one had not previously understood. 

seeing and unseeing

The sheer numbers are astonishing. Over 13,000 Civil War memorials. 700 Confederate monuments on public land, including Arlington National Cemetery and the US Capitol. Statues of Robert E. Lee at universities like City College, New York, and Duke. That’s a system, an infrastructure of white supremacy that has been hiding in plain sight across the US. Now begins the process of learning to unsee the unseeing of them.

But the statues were always watching. In the Vice documentary on Charlottesville, one African American woman comments that the statue of Robert E. Lee seemed to watch her wherever she went. The monuments are racialized CCTV, placing those designated “not white” on notice that white supremacy is watching.  They materialize the mystical power of “oversight,” once embodied in the plantation overseer, and now part of segregated public space.

material mourning
Ad for the McNeel Marble Company in 1913, peak of the monument boom

The monuments convey that power not by artistic skill or visual creativity but by sheer mass. These were mass-produced objects, made by companies like McNeel Marble. They had massive height and weight. When Louisville, Kentucky, decided to take down its monument, nearby Brandenburg put it back up. It’s 70 feet tall, 100 tons of granite and now re-mounted on 80 tons of concrete. In and of itself, this materiality dominates. By its simple presence it makes a statement as to who “counts” in America, who is grievable, and who is not.

Via the monument, the materialized power of (over)sight forms specific sites within the matrix of white supremacy. Take the thirty-four foot high monument in Pensacola, Florida, paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1891.  At the time, the city was majority African American. It had been been captured from Native Americans and free Africans by Andrew Jackson in 1817.

Confederate Monument Pensacola, FL

The monument dominated the local landscape when first installed (as in the 1907 postcard above). A year later, Leander Shaw, an African American man accused of assaulting a white woman, was lynched nearby. Over 2000 bullets riddled his corpse, after he was hanged from an electric pole (yes, there’s a picture; no, I’m not posting it). When the local high school was “integrated” in 1975, a race riot ensued and attracted a major KKK rally to the monument.

In the past week, the mayor has called for it to come down, only to meet determined opposition from the local Republican congressman and a 5000-signature petition. Which in turn generated 2300 signatures supporting removal (possibly to a nearby cemetery). Now a weekend rally has been called in support of the monument.

Here, then, is a metonymy of what these monuments stand for: the conquest of Indigenous populations; the subjugation of African Americans; white supremacy and the myth of white womanhood; the former Republican “Southern strategy” of electoral domination; and now the metonymic conflict over the monument.

the site and sight of lynching

In other cases, as in Brooksville, Florida, and Hot Springs, Arkansas , lynchings actually took place at the site of the Confederate monument. Take the case of Caddo Parish, Louisiana. It was the second largest site of lynchings nationwide. In 1903, the UDC put up a Confederate monument. Six months later, three people were lynched at the site on November 30, 1903, from the tree visible in the photograph below.

Caddo Parish Confederate Monument. Three men were lynched here in 1903 from the tree.

A typical “Silent Sentinel” monument, the Caddo Parish example is thirty feet tall, dominating its locale. The woman in front represents Clio, the muse of history and the inscription reads “Lest We Forget.” The site could better serve as a memorial to Phil Davis, Walter Carter, and Clint Thomas, the lynched men.

In general, it’s noticeable that there is a rough correlation in the incidence of lynchings and the numbers of Confederate monuments.

Tuskegee Institute table of lynchings per year.
SPLC chart of Confederate monuments per year

Both “peak” in the decade after 1890, as Jim Crow became fully established in the South, with an upturn again in the 1920s with the revival of the KKK. I do not think that the monuments “caused” lynchings or vice-versa. Rather, both were interactive instruments of violence in instituting and sustaining white supremacy.

This interaction can be called the “sight of lynching.” As in the case of Leander Shaw, many lynchings resulted from the testimony of white women, often without other evidence. In the common instance of “reckless eyeballing,” (which I’ve written about here) the accusation was that an African American person had looked at a white woman with sexual intent, as in the case of Emmett Till.

There is, then,  a relay to be explored between the oversight materialized in the Confederate monument; and lynchings based on embodied perceptions of being looked at. The white gaze was at once surrogated through the monument and expressed as the power to remain unseen (in the case of the monument) and unseeable (in that of white women).

What was both seen and unseen was the spectacular and appalling violence of lynching. In 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative will open the Memorial to Peace and Justice, the first prominent memorial to the 4000 victims of lynching. Yet as many exhibitions and publications have shown since the groundbreaking Without Sanctuary exhibit (2001) [caution: very distressing images], lynching itself was intensely mediated. There were postcards, photographs, newspaper stories and public events. Nonetheless, only one white man was convicted of lynching in its eighty-year heyday.

white mythology

Further, the Confederate monuments were, as has been widely noted, often paid for by the UDC or other Confederate women’s organizations. Fundraising for the Pensacola monument was failing until the UDC became involved. Perhaps unexpectedly, white women’s activism made the network of monuments possible. Women are even active in today’s white supremacy movement, despite its visible misogyny.

In her 1952 memoir, UDC leader, Dolly Blount Lamar claimed that the monuments expressed:

in permanent physical form the historical truth and spiritual and political ideals that we would perpetuate.

This “truth” was very specific. When a historian at the University of Florida expressed the view in 1911 that

the North was relatively in the right, while the South was relatively in the wrong

members of the UDC drove him out of his job. When we hear the call to respect “history” on all sides, it is such falsified and white supremacist history that is at stake.

segregation forever

These monuments remain active today. One instance of the work they do for white supremacy is to act as “border” markers in segregated cities. It’s not just in the former Confederacy that this happens. The statue of the appalling J. Marion Sims, who performed medical experiments on enslaved African women without anesthetic, does this work in New York City today.

Statue of Marion Sims, 103rd St NYC

To the North of Sims is so-called “Spanish” Harlem, a diverse area of Black and brown people, dotted with housing projects and schools offering free meals to anyone under 18. South is Central Park and Museum Mile, where white people play whiffle ball and look at the monuments of white “civilization.”

anti-antiblackness

I have not been to the mountain top. I do not know what comes after white supremacy. I continue to be engaged in the work of anti-antiblackness which means negating the regime of white supremacy by making the monuments and the work that they do visible: and thereby removable.

All The Monuments Must Fall #Charlottesville

In the aftermath of the white supremacist terrorism at Charlottesville, all the monuments must fall. The murder of Heather Heyer was prompted by the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. These statues are material nodes in the network of white supremacy.  They  are the visible form of the established order of racial hierarchy. No longer “unseen,” they are active and violent in and of themselves. The work of decolonizing has been by-passed and now it has returned with a vengeance. Taking our cue from South Africa, they must now fall. When I first wrote this post on Sunday August 13, it was in hope. That Monday, August 14, people in Durham, North Carolina, came to the same conclusions (entirely separately, as far as I know) and pulled down the Confederate memorial in their town. It’s on.

Durham NC August 8, 2017. Photo: Derrick Lewis
seeing the unseen monument

The Charlottesville statue in question is a 1924 equestrian monument to Robert E. Lee designed by Henry Merwin Shrady and finished by Leo Lentelli. Shrady, a New Yorker, had designed the Washington DC memorial for Ulysses Grant. His statue of George Washington is in Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn. In the 1996 application to place the statue on the National Register of Historic Places, no historical claim relating to the Civil War was made. Rather, the work was held to be an

important art object that exhibits the figurative style of outdoor sculpture produced by members of the National Sculpture Society

Which is to say, it’s not that important, really, as a sculpture. It has no historical value because it was not made in the period in which its subject was alive and the artists had never met Lee. As a work of art, it is derivative, and in poor condition. Other, better works by Shrady remain in place.

Shrady & Lentelli, “Robert E. Lee” (1924)

The statue was dedicated in 1924 after three years of organizing by the KKK in the area. The ceremony was organized by “the Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.” Lee’s great-granddaughter pulled away a Confederate flag to reveal the sculpture. And then the sculpture began its work as part of the unseen operations of enforcing consent, what Frantz Fanon called “the aesthetics of respect for the established order.” Military ceremony is key to these aesthetics, as are these usually “unseen” monuments, testifying here to the naturalizing of white supremacy.

the whiteness of statues

Consider the statue in itself. Formally, the sculpture evokes that of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations were one of the books Lee took with him to war. The 1895 US edition was dedicated to Lee by the English translator. Trump’s defense secretary Mattis also carries the book with him. White nationalism sees itself as embodying the legacy of Rome. The violent polemicist Richard Spencer has even imagined Trump’s regime as a new Roman Empire.

Statue of Marcus Aurelius

As so often, there is also a racist dog-whistle here, made visible in the film Django Unchained–the purported unlikeliness of an African American riding a horse.  The statue is intended as a portrait of Lee’s horse Traveler. It marks the dominion of whiteness over both inferior races and non-human “brutes.”

Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

Other than Lee’s name, the statue has no contextualizing or historical information. The content of the statue as an art work is thereby expressed through its form. It is, to use the American semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce, only loosely indexical because it was made from illustrations and photographs. While Lee may be a key figure in the Confederate imaginary, the sculpture is not iconic in the strict sense that it shares qualities with Lee. It is strongly symbolic, not of Lee as a person, but of white supremacy.

That whiteness is both overwhelmingly visible and not present. Statues have been used in polygenic natural history for two centuries. In this now-discredited view, there are multiple species of humans, who exist alongside each other in a ranked hierarchy. At the top, as illustrated Julien-Joseph Virey’s Natural History of Man (1801) were Greek sculptures, representing whiteness.

Virey, Types of the Human, 1801.

This idea was widely circulated in the United States and was used extensively in pro-slavery positions.

In the past, I’ve made fun of this, pointing out that no actually existing whiteness can be found, only statues. But now I see it differently. Classically-influenced statues can be found across the Atlantic world. They form a material network of whiteness, one of its fundamental infrastructures. Whiteness does not adhere to any particular aspect of these sculptures but rather to the entire monument.

In the case of Lee, there was a debate as to whether the base of the sculpture was sufficiently large. At the unveiling, a speaker agreed but said:

Let it stay that way. The planet as a pedestal would be too small for Robert Edward Lee.

“Whiteness,” said Du Bois two years later in 1926, “is ownership of the earth for ever and ever, amen.”

***

It was only after the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 that local people began to ask questions, leading to the base of the statue being tagged “Black Lives Matter” in 2015 (still visible in the photo). Earlier this year,  young African American Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy led a movement to remove the statue, despite a persistent campaign of harassment led by Justin Kessler, who also organized Unite The Right.

The resistance has been persistent, first legal and now violent. For the statue is doing new work.  The Trump administration is dominated by white nationalists (Bannon, Miller, Sessions) and generals (Kelly, Mattis, McMaster). Monuments like Lee’s naturalize the connection between the extreme right between white supremacy and war.  This articulation has reached a new degree of tension in the unlikely conjuncture of North Korea and the murder of Heather Heyer. At all costs, it must not become naturalized.

Replace us

So far more is at stake here than the classification of a second-rate sculpture.

Dem Deutschen Volk. Photo: Wikimedia

On my first visit to Berlin some years ago, I went to the Reichstag. I’m of Jewish descent and so I was startled to see the racialized inscription Dem Deutschen Volke (The German Race) still in place. It gave me some sense of what a person of color might feel when confronted with a statue like that of Lee. At that time, I thought to myself: “We’re still here, you lost.” On Friday, white supremacists at the University of Virginia chanted, as if in response: “Jew Will Not Replace Us.”

The slogan was coined by the fascist website The Daily Stormer, which translates the title of the Nazi propaganda sheet Der Stürmer. In the chants, “you” and “Jew” were interchangeable, just as “us” also stands for US. The replacement of the statue by “you” (the racially inferior from African Americans to Jews and more) was understood as a challenge to be resisted by force.

#AllTheMonumentsMustFall

What, though, if anti-fascists took “replace us” as a challenge? Not “replace white people,” because many of us are white. But the statues. It’s time to say “all the monuments must fall.” Because it’s the form that sustains white supremacy, not just the individual objects.

While some people are not able to engage in the street contestations, many academics, artists and activists–the kind of people I imagine might be reading this–know of such monuments in their cities and campuses. It’s time to take action against them not as individual “works” but as a class–these are violent and dangerous objects.

Putting them in museums is not in and of itself a solution. The Elgin Marbles are the epitome of classical whiteness and colonial power. No British government has imagined returning them to the empty museum that awaits them in Athens. To do so would be to finally end the colonial imaginary in the UK. Or at least admit that it was time to do so.

There would have to be a new way of displaying these immense objects in the circuits of power, knowledge and aesthetics that sustained the established order of white supremacy, without accidentally allowing the statues to continue to do that work.

In Germany, I do not remember seeing any statues of Nazi-era generals or politicians. There was a minor rehabilitation of the Nazi sculptor Arno Breker in the 2000s  and now US neo-Nazi websites have posted extensive galleries (caution: highly offensive website) of his work, including a portrait-bust of Hitler. In other words, these things are hard to contain.

Any such action would be an expansion and extension of the #Fall movement in South Africa that began with the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town and expanded to defeat the government over proposed tuition increases in #FeesMustFall. Now the agenda is to decolonize the curriculum.

Still from Metalepsis in Black (2016)

In following the South African lead, those of us who are identified as white and/or as intellectuals need to heed a warning. At the end of the challenging 2016 film Metalepsis in Black about #FeesMustFall, a Black South African student speaker (above) castigates those academics and intellectuals who write about the movement but do not participate. She says:

It’s no longer good enough to write…It’s time to take bolder action…We do not need your sympathy, we need action, real action.

statues are falling

The Durham activists heeded that call. They did not hear it directly. When there are social movements, they create a counter-power that has its own “common sense.” In Durham, that lead to direct action. So far, no one locally appears inclined to criminalize it. In Lexington KY, the mayor has directed that Confederate memorials be moved to a site where they can be repurposed. Let there be diversity of tactics. But recognize that it was direct action that created the possibility of that diversity.

Fallen Statue. Photo: Amy Ruth Buchanan

The statue brought down in Durham was also dedicated in 1924, at a time of “unprecedented growth” for the Ku Klux Klan in the state. I suspect the national Klan resurgence in the 1920s sparked a wave of such memorials. Whereas the Charlottesville statue had some B-list claim to artistic merit, the Durham one is far more interesting fallen than it ever was on its pedestal.

Yet no sooner had the statue fallen, than certain elements on the white left began decrying the action. So once again: the Fall movement does not erase history, it reveals it. In this case, we are learning that Ku Klux Klan activism created and engaged with the 1920s Confederate memorials, which I at least did not know before. If these statues are not “just” in defense of white supremacy but in active support of the Klan, is there still a case that they should stand? Really?

The work ahead is not limited to the former Confederacy by any means.

Robert E. Lee memorial, Brooklyn, NY.

Here’s a memorial to Lee on General Lee Avenue in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, NY. The Army has consistently refused to change the name, and did so as recently as last week. It might be time to ask again in whatever way necessary.

There will be retaliations, as there were in South Africa, by white nationalists, like the attack on Boston’s Holocaust memorial yesterday. Already we’re seeing the so-called “respectable” Republican right trying to cauterize its connection to white nationalism. Partly they want to isolate and undermine Trump and partly they know that being on the side of Nazis and Holocaust memorial vandals is not acceptable, even to whites that go along with dog-whistle anti-blackness. So this assault raises issues for those identified as white.

When statues fall, it opens the way to re-thinking the infrastructures of racial hierarchy, as we saw in South Africa. Rhodes Must Fall became Fees Must Fall became Decolonize. Here the intersectional issues of reparations, the abolition of mass incarceration, respecting the treaties with Indigenous nations are both clear and seemingly far from being attainable. When I look at the three young African Americans in Durham raising Black Power salutes next the fallen Confederate statue, they suddenly seem a little closer.

 

 

For The Abolition Image #GrenfellTower #PhilandoCastile

Here we go again. A killer cop acquitted. Migrants and people of color in London dead in a completely preventable inferno. And still they come–cops kill a Black woman with mental health issues in Seattle. A “white” English man drives his  van into a crowd of Ramadan worshippers. The images are terrible.

Again, we must learn. It’s not enough to “see” what happened or to call for “changes.” It is, as it has been for so long, time for abolition. Of the police and the “real” (meaning “royal”) estate they defend. The “people” are the necessary product of the sovereign image, its excluded other. Which has nothing to do with actual people.

Abolition images make subjects who are not subject to the rule of others but have subjectivity. And that subjectivity is rooted in their mutual knowledge of others, human and non-human. It creates power,  not to dominate but to enable. More exactly, these images convey and contain the potential for that movement to occur. They do not cause such kinetic happenings but can participate in them.

Not icons. Not history (paintings). Abolition.

abolition history

You will perhaps be skeptical, and rightly so, for have we not been here before? Many times, yes. Can we learn from this repetition compulsion? History says not. Sometimes there is a virtue to being ahistorical and trying to live in a present not wholly circumscribed by the nightmare. That present has many names, even recently: Tahrir Square. Black Lives Matter. And anywhere where abolition is the agenda.

But that history, though. Twenty years ago, another Kensington resident died and the people came out on the streets in their thousands for her. Nothing will ever be the same, it was said. Tony Blair said, “the people’s princess” and those who were called the people settled for that and got nothing more from the death of Diana.

It could have been the moment to carry out the task set for us by Foucault, “to cut  off the King’s head.” Not the head of the person called the king but the head of the King, Kingship, and Majesty. Subjection, in a word. Without that abolition–whether there is a person called the king or not–no liberation is possible.

The sovereign image is the icon, the image that is the very thing it depicts. So the icon of a Christian saint “is” the saint, because we have never ceased to believe in magic. Here’s the risk–it’s easy to make icons and the “people” like them. Diana the icon, England’s rose, queen of our hearts, delivered the country to Blair and the war in Iraq.

Abolish royal estate
Grenfell Tower before refurbishment

Grenfell Tower must not become an icon. Its power is stark and clear in each and every image I have seen. In a terrible irony, its Brutalist architecture now stands freely. What we saw previously was not what was designed by Clifford Wearden and Associates in the 1960s. Mrs Thatcher’s government had already set aside the 1961 standards proposed by Sir Parker Morris in favor of “densification.” Then new flats were added on the ground floor that had been open. The result was 120 families inside the Grenfell with only one stairway.

After the redesign in 2014

What burned was not the concrete structure but the neo-liberal “cladding,” designed by architects Studio E and contractor Rydon Construction. What should also burn is the shiny illusion it represents that there is opportunity for all, that wealth trickles down, that there’s no racism here.

What must not be allowed to happen is to make the site sacred and pass just a limited set of bureaucratic modifications–banning the (apparently already banned) cladding, putting in sprinklers, and the like. It’s not that these things shouldn’t be done but that they are window dressing the dynamic that underlies “royal” estate-based capitalism worldwide.

This ownership incarnates colonial sovereignty and makes it possible for a corrupt financier of such capital to be elected to the US presidency. Abolition has always been about land from the demand of the Haitian revolutionaries for small-holdings to the US call for “forty acres and a mule” and the {r}evolution in Detroit.

Black Lives Matter tweeted today: “Today is #Juneteenth, honoring the June 19, 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery. And today we take back land and reclaim space.” It’s still abolition time.

That is to say: abolition is to decolonize; which is to create a relationship of power, knowledge and subject. And that is to be done by creating space, liberating land and ending colonial domination. Since 1492, there has been a convenient fiction that it is possible to apply Roman law to the entire planet for the benefit of those with such sovereignty. Or to put it more simply, this “law” allows the colonizer to claim unused land as their own. The colonizer says, “in my view, you’re not using this land, so it’s mine now. Go away.”

dwelling
Khadija Saye. “Dwelling” (not to be used commercially)

It is, then, shattering to remind ourselves that the young Black British artist Khadija Saye, who died in the Grenfell fire with her mother Mary Mendy, had produced a stunning set of work with the title: “Dwelling: in this space we breathe” (2017). Her series of tin-types were decolonial because they addressed Ghanaian knowledges in ways that are not transparent to outsiders. Because she worked collaboratively with Almundena Romero to make the pieces. Because the work does not limit power to the human. And because it knows that life is living breath together, not dead capital or royal estate.

A tin-type is one of the oldest low-cost forms of creating a permanent image from light-sensitive materials, using wet-plate collodion on tin (rather than the more expensive glass). The tin creates mysterious and unpredictable patterns, imbuing the plate with non-human agency. The spiritual practices–not known to me–that Saye depicts as her subject are, then, of a piece with her materials.

And yet the title of the series cannot but open this work to the Black Atlantic world.The tin-type was a form that formerly enslaved human beings had used to capture their likeness. From the top of the Grenfell where she lived and worked, Saye could see the Westfield Mall in Shepherd’s Bush, where activists held a die-in, chanting “I can’t breathe” in November 2014.

i can’t breathe
Detail from the drawing of HMS Brookes slave ship (1783)

If there was ever an abolition image, it was (from the white side of abolition), the drawing of HMS Brookes. I’ve seen it twice this summer, oddly, once in Copenhagen and again in Lisbon. And what I noticed is that the first thing that I (and many others) usually say about it was wrong. The figures of the enslaved human beings are not abstracted at all. As you can see above, each figure is distinct and separate. Perhaps that’s a good place to start: that white people looking for abolition images are more often wrong than not.

The Brookes drawing makes it clear that not being able to breathe was a condition of Atlantic slavery (and indentured servitude). If it helped bring about the abolition of the legal slave trade, the drawing could not change that condition. Nor should we expect it to, it’s just a drawing.

History painting claimed to be that form. In this year’s now notorious Whitney biennial there was, in addition to that painting, one by Henry Taylor, depicting the death of Philando Castile at the hands of Officer Yeronimo Janez. Who was just acquitted on all charges.

Henry Taylor, “The Times They Are A Changin Not Fast Enough” (2017)

Taylor’s picture is a transposition of Diamond Reynolds’ Facebook Live video that I have written about at length here.  The painting is large scale, opening the small phone-generated image into the imagined space of History. It creates a greater sense of openness and space in the car than the video and withdraws Yanez’s gun so that it seems to be outside.

Most notably, it changes the deep red splashes of blood on Castile’s T-shirt into yellow and green drips that rhyme with the other colors of the canvas. For some critics, this move was “transcendent.” I’m not sure that transcendence was the artist’s goal here. Certainly, Reynold’s repeated invocation “Please don’t tell me he’s gone” implied that Castile has a spirit or soul.  But while that spirit can depart, can we transcend this scene? More to the point, should we?

History painting implies that shift into the register of the sacred and the sovereign.  The little patch of blue sky does open a space outside the killing zone of the car. Castile is not sovereign in human terms, although his posture might be taken to indicate that of the dead Christ in the pietà. Only here the fallen is supported not by the Virgin Mary but by the passenger seat.  Perhaps it’s too early to tell what Taylor’s work means. If it enters one of the temples of white “civilization,” aka a permanent collection, perhaps it can subvert the meaning of those quiet halls.

Outside, it was the fifty-third time Castile had been stopped. His luck just ran out in what is still a violent white supremacy and for all his practiced skill in addressing the gun, it still fired at him, as it will do eventually. Castile need not be made into an icon. He was just a good person, who helped children to dwell and breathe, remembering their allergies and taking care of them.

now

And so the time of abolition comes to be now. Or it should be.

Don’t Look Back in Anger #Day40

Forty symbolizes the overcoming of hardship. The Israelites wandered for forty years, while Jesus spent forty days in the desert. For hunger strikers, forty days marks the passage into system failure–the hearing goes, sight fails, the body collapses. Despite everything, let’s hear the call from Manchester: “don’t look back in anger.”

The failure of the strikers’ bodies symbolizes the catastrophic failure of seventy years of counterinsurgency waged by advanced capitalism in the Middle East. At least, a failure on any human terms. Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has used the Manchester atrocity to not only acknowledge this but to call for

the solidarity, humanity and compassion that we have seen on the streets of Manchester this week to be the values that guide our government.

These ideas have closed the gap in the opinion polls from close to 20% to just 5% in a few weeks. Meanwhile everyone here tells me it’s all about 2018 and 2020, while the Democrats continue to offer warmongering and neoliberalism lite.

At the vigil to mark the deaths of twenty-two people in the Manchester Arena, one Mancunian woman just began to sing Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis, a song that so evokes the Northwest of England. And everyone joined in.

My friend Paul, an activist-artist and a truly inspiring person, who has deep roots in Salford, Manchester’s working-class and immigrant twin city, puts this sentiment into words:

I worry that the very use of the word “Terrorism” suggests that there is a need to identify an enemy, rather than the impulse to reach out to a friend. What has happened is human tragedy; it reflects the pain and suffering of countless others in distant parts of the world. Our only answer is unity. We must resolve to stay true to this purpose.

I worry that we in the United States cannot find this humanity in ourselves any more as a collective. I worry that we exalt a leader who pushes his way to the front and boasts of abusing women. I worry that voters in Montana looked at a candidate assault a Jewish journalist and elected him anyway. I worry that my Jewish  peers can’t get past their anger to see that the new right are old-school anti-semitic.

Do we doubt that what happened in Manchester is not in very direct ways connected to the intervention in Libya? Do we not realize that a renewed willingness to kill civilians, which has killed 1793 people in Mosul alone since January (according to Airwars) can only make this worse?

How long can you occupy a country in anger? How many people have to die before your anger is exhausted? How many days are enough?

 

Manchester-Palestine: A Dialectical Image

For Manchester and Palestine, in solidarity

In the flash of the media cameras and the detonation of a bomb, Manchester and Palestine yesterday became a dialectical image of the present. The invisible, drawn-out suffering of the hunger strikers in Palestine shatters against the hypervisible instant of mass mediated murder. The clash of two sets of images produced a fragmented sense of the uneven time in which we live and die or, more exactly, live dying.

Last remains of the Peterloo Massacre (1815)

So many times were present in that moment. One could speak of the mediated spectacle of Ariana Grande in the home of the Industrial Revolution. Of the death of fifteen strikers in the Peterloo Massacre of 1815, less than a mile from the Manchester Arena. Of the gentrification of a city once known as “Gunchester.” Of the long unwinding of the British Mandate in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East. Of the static condition of “terrorism” and “counterinsurgency” that has persisted since the Cold War. And, above all, of the intersection of lived lives that ended because fascism is willing to use them to make its interventions.

manchester

The so-called suicide bomber does not have suicide as their primary goal. It is a means to the end of producing the impactful image, the place that will be remembered until the next detonation. The index was defined by Charles Sanders Pierce as the bullet hole that indexed the passing of a bullet. That was the analog photograph. In the age of the camera as data-gathering device, the explosion and its impact is now the index of the “image.” This “image” stems from the release of light and energy caused by a bomb. If it makes sense, as I think it does, to understand this as an “image,” it changes what is meant by that term. It perhaps explains the difficulty an actual photograph or video has in recording or making social change.

If we were to ask W.J.T. Mitchell’s famous question, “what does the picture want?” of such images, the answer would be “to create multiple deaths and injuries.” That is “impact” in the age of data-gathering and quantification. Such is the actuarial calculus of the mediated spectacle of death, the counterpart to the “message” sent by the cruise missile or the MOAB. To whom are such messages sent? By what device are they to be recorded? It does not matter. The indexical image pointed to a moment in time. The impact image stops time. Think of the clocks and watches from Hiroshima, all stopped at 8.15 am, the time of detonation.

The goal of the insurgent and counterinsurgent is to create the battlefield. Britain has rushed troops into the streets, as if in recognition that the bomb has succeeded in forming a new space of combat. The IRA bombings, like that in Manchester in 1996, were always “one-offs,” with specific targets. ISIS-style random attacks are designed to create the sense that there may be a series. It is, like it or not, insurgency for the network era. It is an image-event composed of a series of actual or potential “impacts.”

palestine

The Palestinian hunger strikers are, in the phrase of their Irish Republican counterparts in 1981, “going to the edge.” The temporalities here are the intersection of bodily time, the time of imprisonment and the fatal moment of release. Prisoners are making their bodies into icons by suffering, as Allen Feldman observed of the Irish hunger strike. There are, just as there were in 1981, furious denunciations that these are just violent criminals. Whether one accepts such charges or not, the time is different now. By striking to death, the hunger striker seeks to separate their physical bodies, which may or may not have done terrible things, from their iconic images as martyrs.

Watch, if you can, the video clip of prison officers dragging two hunger strikers into vans to be transferred to hospital. I don’t know who these people are and what they have been accused or convicted of doing. But forcing them to walk when they have not eaten for thirty-eight days conveys the sense that the regime does not regard the prisoners as people. All Palestinians remain forbidden, until and unless they both “renounce” violence, as if it is a creed rather than an act, and “recognize” Israel, a form of seeing that would amount to self-denial.

But for the most part, the hunger strike is unseen, unmediated and, outside Palestine and those in solidarity with it, ignored. Further, those striking can do so only in the expectation of not seeing themselves as icons. They have taken the call to renunciation and turned into a form of self-directed action. In the words of one Irish Republican, hunger strikers use their own “bodies as a protest weapon.”

That is the “edge,” the rendering of the physical body into immaterial icon. The power of the icon depends precisely on the forty to sixty days it takes to starve oneself to death. By imposing a worse punishment on themselves than even the carceral state is prepared to mete out, the strikers defy its logic.

The messianic hope is that this defiance, as it were, jumps the wall and reaches the outside. By striking en masse–over a thousand are involved–the Palestinians are hoping to create a “wave” response to mass death. It is a perhaps deliberate contrast to the Irish hunger strike that went from person to person, but ended up diminishing the impact of subsequent deaths. It is astonishing what you can get used to in the era of the mediated spectacle.

The icons of the hunger strike will be nothing in themselves unless they become a catalyst for change. The gamble is that the amount of time involved gives the regime plenty of time to prepare. When Bobby Sands died in 1981, Catholic areas in Belfast were sealed off and the British Army was in place. There will be no surprise, no time-stopping “impact” as there was in Manchester. Time is exactly what is in play.

Dialectics of oil

The dialectical image of the present does not operate within a philosophical “logic,” like that of Hegel. Rather it operates within the totalizing “logical” system that has demolished the balance of geological modernity, namely petrocracy, the mutually reinforcing rule of fossil fuels and monotheism.

Petrocracy is an autocratic state apparatus defined for and by the exploitation of fossil fuels, whose lineage can be traced back through the world-destroying projects of racial capitalism. Its presence today is self-evident from Putin’s gas-driven regime in Russia to Rex Tillerson, to the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil, now the Secretary of State in the United States and, of course, the entire Middle East and Gulf region oil regimes.

So it is no coincidence that this dialectical moment opened with the United States agreeing to sell armaments worth $110 billion to the autocrats of Saudi Arabia in the name of peace. The US regime appears to be attempting to reconfigure the Middle East from Saudi Arabia, in alliance with Israel, against Iran. In so doing, they ignore precisely ISIS, funded and backed by Saudi Arabia, as were the 9-11 hijackers.

Trump in Bethlehem

This illogical logic of petrocracy was encapsulated in this image of Trump’s motorcade passing Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem (thanks to Richard Reilly for posting it). Established in 1948 after the Nakba, Aida is now bordered by the Separation Wall on one side and Banksy’s new “Walled Off Hotel” on another. Both the Wall and the hotel serve as spaces for protest art. The insufficiency of such visual depictions in the face of the spectacle of “peace” is epitomized by the poster created for Trump’s 90 minute visit.

Bethlehem Poster, May 23 2017 (Jerusalem Post).

It says: “The city of peace welcomes the man of peace.” One can only presume that the “man of peace” is Trump and Abbas is simply content to share the visual field with him as a form of legitimation. The poster, in common with all the media coverage of the non-event of their meeting, served as a screen, preventing any possibility of Palestine actually being seen.

Prisoners mothers waiting for Trump (Jerusalem Post)

Outside the Church of the Nativity, a long line of mothers of hunger strikers awaited Trump. Despite his recent claim to Christianity, Trump skipped the visit and the potentially challenging confrontation was avoided. In Ireland, mothers were deployed by the British to break the strike, as Feldman documents. To have twenty-two mothers within this one shot willing to endorse their children starving themselves to death would, one might have thought, been worthy of mention.

The ISIS-style action in Manchester had as one of its effects the occlusion of the Palestinian protest and the hunger strike from what was its best chance of gaining international attention.

Dialectics of Resistance

In the 1960s, James Boggs considered the dialectic and the  possibility of revolution in Detroit. After the Detroit Uprising of 1967, he and Grace Lee Boggs came to consider that a Bolshevik-style revolution was no longer possible. It changed his view of the dialectic:

Reforms and revolutions are created by the illogical actions of people. Very few logical people ever make reforms and none make revolutions. Rights are what you make and what you take.

Here Boggs anticipated an idea better known in the later work of Jacques Rancière–that rights are made by those who do not have them in circumstances where they are actually denied. Rosa Parks taking her seat in the bus had no right to do so but opened the way both to the reforms of the Civil Rights Movement and the possibility of revolution.

If the logic of petrocratic capital requires “illogical” responses, dialectically, that opens the possibility of fascist actions, like those of ISIS, to claim the rhetoric of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. Given their willingness to use the bodies of others to comprise their impact images, they garner media, military and political attention without parallel. I am not for one instant suggesting that radicals of the left should emulate or envy these actions. But just as Walter Benjamin noted the power of the fascist aesthetic in the 1930s, it would be foolish to pretend that the dialectic of the present is equal. Nor, as I have tried to show, can we respond like Benjamin with a simple injunction to politicize the “image.” That has been tried and it has failed and continues to fail.

Where the damned of the earth resist, we must be in solidarity and we must make that resistance visible, even and especially if it makes us uncomfortable and challenges some of our “givens.” The situation is new. The solutions we have are old. If not now, when?

The Long Hunger Strike (Against Slavery)

These posts are difficult to write and I’m sure they are difficult to read. By measuring the time taken to write–or to read–it is possible enter the symbolic world created by the hunger strike, a world in which existence matters. It is the force of the statement made by the strike that enables this fragmentary sliver of participation. It is their gift to those in solidarity, the hospitality of those utterly without resource. Like all gifts, it invokes a response, the taking of the time to feel for an instant the stakes of their action.

For a hunger strike both compresses and expands time. Every moment without sustenance is freighted with meaning and, after the first days, haunted with danger.  And yet it also makes things visible. It opens the understanding of the long hunger strike from Atlantic slavery, to British imperialism, women’s suffrage and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The long hunger strike is interwoven with British coloniality, from slavery to Ireland, the women’s suffrage struggle, India and the former British mandate of Palestine. This pattern stems from the British practice of using regulated hunger as a weapon, which was then turned against them by the enslaved and colonized.

the long hunger strike

The long hunger strike turns the state weapon of hunger against itself. It changes the terms of the encounter between the state regime and the body of those Fanon called les damnés, the damned–those who have no voice that the state can hear. By risking life, the damned reclaim dignity and in so doing make themselves heard. This is not a statement in the manner of a politician proposing a settlement, or a philosopher formulating a maxim. It is one that is felt within the body, at a molecular level. It is nonetheless articulate. It enacts the right to exist through the self-willed challenge to life.

The power to keep people in hunger of all kinds is a tool of coloniality, the transhistorical expansion of colonial domination and its continued effects. Whereas, according to Nelson Maldonando Torres,

decoloniality refers to efforts at rehumanizing the world

Humans have the right to exist, so they share food and offer hospitality to each other. They know that living together is the only way that humans may live and the only way to avoid ge(n)ocide. Dignity is the right to exist. If it is refused, people strike.

Slavery and the hunger strike

For Marcus Rediker, the historian of slavery,

The Atlantic slave trade was, in many senses, a four-hundred-year hunger strike.

In Central and West Africa, a politics of “eating” was central to social ordering. As Africanist Wyatt McGaffey has summarized it

An ordered society is one in which ‘eating,’ both literal and metaphorical is properly distributed

Eating is both supplying food and creating conditions in which people, animals and spirits alike can thrive. A slave ship was very obviously not such a place. Many captive Africans refused to eat.  In 1727 a man refused to eat on board the Loyal George, causing its captain to torture and kill him, whereupon all the Africans rose in revolt. Similar violence on the ship City of London caused all the 377 Africans on board to go on hunger strike in 1730. A Fante man (name unknown) undertook a fatal hunger strike on board the Brooks, the ship famously drawn by abolitionists. The little Black stick figures were people, who had a politics and acted on it.

HMS Brooks, slave ship

As a result, the slavers resorted to force feeding, using a metal device called the speculum oris to force open African hunger strikers’ mouths. As the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson reported in 1808:

the slaves were frequently so sulky, as to shut their mouths against all sustenance, and this with a determination to die; and that it was necessary their mouths should be forced open to throw in nutriment, that they who had purchased them might incur no loss by their death.

Speculum oris to open the mouth of a hunger striker, c.1850

It rarely worked (if by that we mean “kept the captive alive”) but it perhaps deterred others. Many more “returned to Africa” by means of their hunger strikes.

the suffragettes

The same tool was used against the Suffragettes, when they undertook hunger strikes in British prisons. In July 1909, the artist Marion Wallace-Dunlop was imprisoned for stamping a slogan on the walls of Parliament. She refused to eat, declaring

I claim the right recognized by all civilized nations that a person imprisoned for a political offence should have first-division treatment; and as a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me, I am now refusing all food until this matter is settled 

She was, in short, on dignity strike. “First division” treatment was a provision of the 1898 Prison Act, whereby the prisoner would not be subjected to a month of solitary confinement, or have to wear prison dress. They were allowed visits and reading materials. “Second” and “Third” division prisoners were allowed none of these things and had to maintain silence at all times, or else be placed on bread-and-water diet.

As the writer Oscar Wilde, sentenced to two years hard labour, put it in a letter to the Daily Chronicle in 1898, there were “three permanent punishments authorised by law in English prisons”: hunger, insomnia, and disease. The hunger striker in British prisons, like those in the slave ships before them, turned the state’s weapons against itself.

For this presumption, they paid a terrible price. Using the speculum oris, prison administrators force fed the Suffragettes, especially those from the working class. Sylvia Pankhurst, arrested in 1913 for breaking a window as part of the Suffragette escalation of the period, described how she was force fed after a hunger strike of only three days:

I felt a steel instrument pressing against my gums, cutting into the flesh, forcing its way in. Then it gradually prised my jaws apart as they turned a screw. It felt like having my teeth drawn; but I resisted—I resisted. I held my poor bleeding gums down on the steel with all my strength. Soon they were trying to force the india-rubber tube down my throat. I was struggling wildly, trying to tighten the muscles and to keep my throat closed up. They got the tube down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything but a mad revolt of struggling, for at last I heard them say, “That’s all”; and I vomited as the tube came up. ….But infinitely worse than any pain was the sense of degradation, the sense that the very fight that one made against the repeated outrage was shattering one’s nerves and breaking down one’s self-control.

Force feeding was also rape. Sometimes the prison authorities tried to make this anatomically specific, by inserting food into women’s vaginas and rectums. The women called it “violation.”

the palestinian dignity strike day 35

The logic of colonial domination continues in the former British mandate of Palestine today. 33% of the Palestinian population are what the UN call “food insecure,” meaning threatened by hunger. This hunger is unevenly experienced: 57% of those living in Gaza suffer it, as do 19% of those living in the West Bank. An outside visitor to Palestine, like myself, would be hard put to document this suffering because Palestinians are so committed to hospitality. We visited a village demolished over 100 times by Israeli police, reduced to only two tents, where our hosts produced a delicious and generous lunch, quite unasked and utterly not to be refused.

Within the Israeli prison system, food supply is a consistent problem. Families are not allowed to bring in food and, according to a 2016 report by Addameer, “the quality of the food and the quantity has decreased dramatically” since 2011. Not least, the fall in quality is due to the fact that Israeli convicts prepare the food for Palestinian prisoners. As a result, prisoners rely on a privatized and expensive canteen, forcing them to participate in the prison labor system. Prisoners spend an average $111 on food per month, which is “shopped” and cooked collectively at a mark up of over 20% from outside shops. The Israeli Prison Service makes over $30 million a year from this system.

Like the enslaved and the disenfranchised women before them, the Palestinians are turning the system’s withholding of food into a means to reclaim dignity. So it is denied to them in other ways. Far-right activists held a barbecue outside a prison, taunting the prisoners with the smell of food, just as British prison authorities left eggs, bread, milk and chops in the cells of Suffragettes. The prison service released a video purporting to show Marwan Barghouti eating a candy bar after more than two weeks of hunger strike. If he had done, he would have vomited it immediately. No media bothered to mention that.

in solidarity#dignitystrike #day35

 

 

Dying for Dignity

This is a project about time, mutant capitalism and life. Its tempo has changed from the epoch to the day. For the remainder of the dignity strike, there will be daily posts.

Qalqilya Checkpoint

It is now a month since Palestinians in Israeli regime incarceration began. On #day31 of his hunger strike, Bobby Sands was nominated as Sinn Fein candidate for MP in the by-election for Fermanagh and South Tyrone that he would go on to win. Having started his strike two weeks ahead of his fellow strikers, Sands was already half way to death. I don’t think there was anyone in the UK or Ireland that did not know his name. On #day66 he died and 100,000 people attended his funeral.

Today is also #day31 of the hunger strike of over 1000 Palestinian prisoners, a hunger strike for political status, known as the Dignity Strike. Over 100 men are in hospital and they are refusing water. This will become critical imminently. The Guardian has no mention. Nor does the New York Times or Washington Post. All the attention goes to the circus in Washington.

The Bobby Sands Trust has two articles on its front page about Palestine. 400 immigrants are being arrested every day. Dozens if not hundreds of strikers are at risk of starving themselves to death.

A year ago today I was about to go to Palestine, totally unprepared, despite my own sense of knowing, for what I would see and learn there. A year later, it will be the Trump circus that arrives, leading Abbas to make nice in the delusion of preference or perhaps just to further feather his nest.

Often people cite Judith Butler’s work about grievable lives to understand such situations. Recently, she has put it like this:

we are compelled to find the specific forms in which grievability is asserted. Indeed, one question I hope to pose is: what counts as a militant assertion of grievability?

I understand and appreciate Butler’s position, which is brilliant as ever. And yet.

Biologist Michelle Callard-Stone has summarized the effects of hunger:

Roughly speaking, at the end of thirty days without food, the body is dying. Humans are not meant to starve for prolonged periods, hungry cavemen ate bushes and roots instead of going without food. The body is well-into starvation mode, which means that your body has depleted its glycogen stores in the liver and muscle, and has also reduced its use of ketones, which are the body’s short term solution for lack of food. At this point the body is surviving primarily by degrading muscles and bones, even in the presence of adipose (fat) tissue.

Damage to the immune system is permanent, even if food is restored. Sight and hearing may be affected forever.

In his book Hunger: An Unnatural History, Sharman Apt Russell sees forty days as the key turning point for hunger strikes, depending on the condition of the striker at the beginning of the protest. At this point, the body loses the ability to function at a cellular level, unable to form new cells or transfer across cellular membranes. Sight and hearing fail. At some point, the person cannot fully recover even if the strike is abandoned. The Yad Vashem museum documents that “tens of thousands” of Holocaust survivors died from the effects of returning to eating and overeating.

To read such paragraphs takes us to a place beyond even grief and grieving to question how life is lived and how there are ways to protest–how small that word feels here–even when every option has been foreclosed. It makes us feel the force of words like “dignity” that seem so old-fashioned in our worlds of precarity, state-enforced self-reliance and permanent attrition of social welfare. Dignity was what Frantz Fanon saw as the goal of decolonizing.

In Washington, Tel Aviv and official Ramallah, dignity has been so lost, it no longer has any meaning. Try and imagine denying yourself all food and water for over thirty days in pursuit of dignity. What would I do for my dignity, I ask myself? Do I have a claim to dignity, when the elected leader of my country is visiting the regime that perpetrates the occupation that has removed all dignity for an entire people? What is the psychic damage to me and to all of us to live without dignity? Is that a hunger so deep-rooted and so systemic that, like the long-term hunger striker, we no longer feel it?

 

Salt and Baseline Communism #dignitystrike

Salt has often been a catalyst by which the interaction of life, colonialism and apartheid can be made visible and subject to change. From India to South Africa and today’s ongoing Palestinian hunger strike, salt is the means by which the inhuman form of colonial oppression can be tasted. To deny access to salt by taxation, price or the regulations of mass incarceration is to colonize human life itself. It is to assert that only certain types of human life are beyond price and have inherent dignity.

In his book Debt, activist anthropologist David Graeber calls gestures like passing the salt “baseline communism.” If you sit at a table with someone, whether in your own home or a dining place elsewhere, and they ask you to pass the salt, you simply do it. You don’t try and monetize the transaction. You don’t demand some kind of reciprocal gesture, like passing the pepper, just because you passed the salt. It is the simple recognition that the request comes from a human being like yourself.

This common interaction suggests that, as Graeber puts it, “communism is the foundation of all human sociability,” not to be confused with the formerly existing state Communism of the Soviet period. Nor is it about the exchange of goods. It’s the basic generosity and hospitality that makes human social life possible. It was this impetus, for example, that led the Native peoples of the Americas to give food to white settlers to their long-term detriment.

Gandhi illegally collecting salt, 1930

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi protested against the British imposition of a tax on salt in colonial India by walking to the sea in his now-famous Salt March. Arrived at the coast, he picked up a handful of dried salt, deliberately breaking the colonial law. The absurdity of the colonizer prohibiting the colonized from using a natural product epitomized the baseline stupidity of colonialism. It was perhaps his most effective act of non-violent resistance, or satyagraha, and some 60,000 Indians were arrested for contravening the salt laws in similar fashion.

A few years ago, I visited the University of Pretoria in South Africa. I used the example of salt as baseline communism in a seminar. Later, students told me that the university had recently introduced a charge for salt in its cafeteria. It was just a couple of cents, irrelevant to those like myself with means, so I had not noticed. For those without resources, always the Black South African students, such small charges are exactly what prevent them from being able to study.

Shackville at University of Cape Town, 2015

Just as utility debt, rent arrears or a traffic ticket can disrupt African-American social life, as Ferguson has taught us, so could this little salt tax end the possibility of a Black South African student making ends meet. In 2012, Black South Africans earned an average 3000 rand ($224) per month. Assuming that a student might not make that average, it’s easy to see how even small extra charges add up. At Wits University, one of the most expensive, student fees range between 30,000 and 60,000 rand. As a result, only 53% of Black South African students graduate six years after beginning their degree. As many as a third drop out after only a year.

The students did not accept their endless immiseration. When the Zuma government attempted to raise tuition fees by 8%, they rose up, created #FeesMustFall and defeated the increase. The student movement has now turned to decolonizing education, using the slogan “Decolonize the Curriculum.” For Dr Shoshe Kessi of the Black Academic Caucus, “we can’t have a dialogue about Black people’s dignity. That is a given.” And yet it is not. That is why the Palestinian hunger strike is a dignity strike and why the hunger strike is a decolonial action.

In the Palestinian hunger strike in Israeli prisons, the regime has taken to denying the strikers salt. They had been consuming only water mixed with salt, a basic and fundamental nutrient without which life is endangered. Denying salt is denying life. More exactly, it denies social life, which is to say, human life. Graeber describes how communities like those of the Iroquois are divided into halves. The two sides interact in specific ways. You can marry only people from the other side, while you are obligated to bury their dead, just as they bury yours. “Society will always exist,” says Graeber. “Therefore there will always be a north side and a south side of the village.”

The regime wants to deny that possibility. It refuses the principle of hospitality, which capital has mutated into “the hospitality industry,” a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. According to Graeber, there is an Arab story that a burglar accidentally tasted the salt in a house he was robbing. Realizing that he had partaken of their salt, he replaced their property because now he was bound to them. Israel wants to be bound to no one and to deny the possibility of there being common life between peoples of different religions or ethnic backgrounds.

Aarab Barghouti

Aarab Barghouti, Marwan Barghouti’s son, launched the “saltwater challenge.” He drank a glass of salt water, like that then being consumed by the strikers, and challenged others to do the same. Thousands have done so, including Yacoub Shaheen, the winner of Arab Idol 2017. In a striking understanding of what is at stake, hospitality industry businesses like the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah have posted videos of their staff taking the challenge.

What is the meaning of this challenge? It does not raise money like the ALS Ice Water challenge. It recognizes that the “village” of the social world exists, even and especially in prisons. By performing the action of those imprisoned, the challenged do not pretend that their conditions are the same. Rather they recognize that there is a duty of care toward the incarcerated. It is to enact the conditions of baseline communism in the only way possible.