Andreas Gursky: Oceans and Bangkok. A Worldview.

26 Dec

In his 2010 series of images, Oceans, Andrea Gurski shows the world’s oceans as seen from the perspective of an airplane flying overhead. The resulting images, large in scale when measured against the earlier conventions of photography, are largely blue. An expanse of water is surrounded by scraps and shards of landmasses. The pictures pull the viewer back from earth to a position that is still within human reach, on an airplane, but close to a point of view that would render the entire globe abstract. Gursky’s ambition, as in many of his other photographs, is to show the entire world. Gursky does not aim to show us a few glimpses of an ocean, or any other scene for that matter. He wants to show simply that the world can be shown-he wants to show that photography has the capacity to show the world to us. To put this differently, Gursky aims to have a worldview–a view that will give to our sight the world in its entirety.

[You can see Gursky’s images online easily by searching for “Gursky Oceans”. Once I have clearance I’ll include some images in this blogpost]. 

To see the entire world at once is, of course, impossible. Nonetheless, Gursky’s photography is driven by such a conviction and desire. It is the desire and the belief that the world is something that we encounter principally by sight. This desire is very common among photographers. It is a desire to hold the entire world within one’s viewfinder or, if that proves impossible, to create a set of images that would, upon completion of the series, let the entire world be seen. 

The idea that the world can be seen from such an imagined or real position of a single point of view, is a new one. New in the sense of coinciding with the idea that a person exists at the center of his or her surroundings. It is an idea that we live in the centers of our own worlds, which extends in all directions all around us. It is the same idea that human beings can become the makers of their own destiny and the creators of their world, understood as the world of relations in which they interact. This world can be hostile, threatening, or even apocalyptic, but it is a world entirely available to a subject who sees that world as outside of him, and surrounding him. [Martin Heidegger, in “The Age of the World View,” makes the distinction between the ancients, who could not conceive of a worldview, and us moderns, who think that having a worldview is part of being human. See “The Question Concerning Technology, trans. William Lovitt. I translate Heidegger’s Weltbild as worldview, since world picture is not colloquially used in English, and Heidegger’s point is the way in which we see the world naturally as an image, picture, or view (rather than philosophically, or abstractly, or scholarly).]

This new idea of the world is no longer a world that remains largely hidden to human beings but is visible and transparent to a greater force. It is no longer a world of which we are simply a part but in which we cannot hope to see beyond our own position, or think of ourselves even as occupying a position that is – even if only for the purpose of reflection – separate from the world. It is instead a modern view of the world.

But in its modernity this conception of the world is also in some sense timeless. A modern worldview cannot be contrasted with an ancient worldview, precisely because the ancients did not understand the world as something that could be viewed from the position of a subject. The subject was embedded in the world to a degree that made it senseless to think of extricating oneself from the world, even if only to think of oneself’s limitations. The world was in us as much as we were in the world.

The idea of a worldview is modern in itself. There is no such thing as a worldview for the ancients, here understood as the great thinkers of Greek philosophy. For them, the world could not be seen from a subject position. An individual was embedded in something that could amount to a world, but this world was never something that could be understood in its totality by the subject. There was no view of the world available to anyone, even if everybody had joined forces and in some way linked their visions of the world into one grand, overarching perspective. The world could not be seen the way in pre-modern times the way we cannot see the backs of our heads without tricks and mirrors. We were inseparable from the world, which made it impossible to see the world in one view.

 

Andreas Gursky’s photography allows us to see with particular clarity this distinctly modern relationship between the notion of individual subjectivity and the idea that the world can be seen in its totality. During a visit to Gagosian Gallery in New York City where Gursky’s Oceans were on view in fall 2010, it was easy to imagine that if only there were enough talented and inspired photographers such as Gursky, or if only Gursky had enough cameras, screen real estate, and printers at his disposal, we could see the entire world’s surface in one space. It would only be a matter of finding printers large enough, and enough cameras, perhaps manned by photographers and perhaps installed on airplanes, drones, and elsewhere, to render a view of the world that would be our worldview. This view of the world represents the world to be one seamless place that exists at any given moment and is at all those moments available to our senses. And this representation rests on an understanding that the whole world could be seen by us. It is a view of the world as a world that can be grasped through vision, and that allows us all to live on this planet together since we share this one belief: that the world can be seen. It is a view of the world that renders the world as a flat phenomenon.

 

Gursky’s photographs have the great virtue of showing us that this flatness however, does not have to be bland. By drawing on the painterly tradition of the sublime in landscape depictions and on such late Romantic artists as Courbet, Delacroix, Jonking and Boudin (who obsessively painted waves, water and clouds in the 1870s when photography had just become popular in France), Gursky takes the ocean as this site that inspires feelings of awe that can just be contained in our minds. Gursky also draws on our familiarity with the technological sublime, the sense of awe we might experience upon encountering things that we know exist but that are unavailable to human sensory perception. Such experiences can be had when looking at microscopic images of the interior of our bodies, or photographic renditions of the color spectrum available in birds, plants, and other sights in nature. They could also be had when looking at photographs of light moving through space, and through all sorts of photography’s other “special effects”.

 

At the Gagosian gallery in the fall 2010 show, Gursky’s oceans were paired with images of the surface of a river that flows through Bangkok, Thailand. The pictures of the river are quite different from those of the oceans. Gursky composed the pictures of Oceans electronically by using satellite images and then adding or removing, as he saw needed, color and texture to create a semblance of the oceans as seen from above. Perhaps the oceans truly look like this, and perhaps they don’t. There’s no way to ascertain the accuracy of his images, since no human will ever have a vision such as the one provided in his photographs. And yet they strive to be realistic or, differently put, they rely on the codes of realism to achieve an impression upon the viewers. What we see in the oceans, then, is an illustration of photography’s potential to present us with images that we experience as real even though we can never know such sites.

 

Gursky’s pictures of the river in Bangkok are different. Since they are not bordered by banks, shoreline, docks, piers, or the edges of a boat, we are staring at a surface that covers the whole print. But here the surface is quite beautifully also the place where objects can be seen in detail. The surface of the river, in fact, reveals that photography can introduce depth into something that is usually flat to our eyes. The elements of texture floating on this surface can be interpreted then as, for instance, Gursky’s commentary on the pollution or on the spiritual dimensions that we attribute to water in motion, or on the way in which light plays upon water in ways that we, as humans, find beautiful. Bangkok can even be interpreted, if you wish, as an allegory of how the flat medium of photographs allows for all sorts of interpretations to float across its surface.

Above all, these photographs are illustration photography’s potential not to show the entire world but to show that the world at any given place is actually more nuanced and textured than the discourse of a worldview would suggest.

 

But even the images in Bangkok are motivated by a belief that the entire world can be seen in its entirety. It is the desire to be global, personified by Gursky who is enjoying a moment in the art world’s sun shining its bright light in New York, Los Angeles, Cologne, and Tokyo. It is the belief that one can be carried away into a world that is not one’s own world but still connects in important ways to our own experiences. Those important ways are, for instance, the way in which Gursky relies on the conventions of painting to create shimmering surfaces that we interpret as beautiful. The viewers at the Gagosian Gallery experience a slight frisson upon realizing that they are seeing a river that flows far, far away from them. It is a river that is so different, so foreign, so polluted and yet to beautiful, and so Asian. But it is also a river that empties into a sea that connects to a sea into which other rivers empty, and which is thus linked to our own spot here two blocks away from the mighty if domesticated Hudson. If these pictures were of the Hudson, they would produce the same frisson in reverse: namely that the viewers  are seeing part of a global vision, through the world of a global visionary, who sees similarities where others see endless flow, who can capture the beauty in places that otherwise are not available to us, and who connects all of us through the expansive and generous vision in his work.

 

Gursky is an important photographer because he reveals to us a desire and belief that underlies much of photography, and that has informed photographic practice from the medium’s inception until today. It is the desire and belief to be able to see the entire world. It is the desire to be fully in the world and to be able to access all of that world. Such a worldview is neutral in its character. It is not democratic or inclusive, nor totalitarian or exclusive. It could be a potentially totalitarian vision of sameness and of finding similarities everywhere that can be controlled from one singular, master position and perspective. Or it could be a greatly unifying vision that allows all peoples to have their own place on this globe, without anybody assuming a central role that trumps those of others. Gursky allows us to share his perspective behind the lens or in front of the computer screen where he composes his images. He lets us see things with the promise of seeing the world in its entirety, rather than showing us a world to which only he has privileged access, or which is incomprehensible to anyone except those inside it.

 

Gursky’s images are also highly seductive for contemporary viewers because they can plunge into them and thus vicariously become global visionaries themselves. Oceans and Bangkok allow us to see that Gursky has always viewed the world as one extended and continuous site that anyone with a sufficiently perceptive eye can take in. Photography’s only drawback is that you need a lot of photographs to show all of the world. But there’s no question in Gorky’s practice that all of the world is fully visible to us, and that we are in a position to see the world around us as if we all stood in the center of a 360° diorama, or flew overhead in planes serenely taking in the world as it spins along.Image

The World as Appearance vs. The World as Being

15 Jul

The big question haunting all photography criticism is whether the world around us is made up of appearances, or whether those appearances are actually just the surface manifestations of something greater, deeper, more real, more profound. Photography gives us only surfaces, and we have been trained (we being part of the self-relective Western tradition from Plato to facebook) to see the world as the somewhat deceptive, often seductive, but ultimately unreliable surface manifestation of a deeper truth.

Now photography trades only in surfaces. That’s one of the reasons why it has always been looked at askance by great artists (first among them Baudelaire, who distrusted Daguerre as a new God promising new access to reality to the hungry masses clamoring for meaning and truth).

Photography appears always a bit meretricious, shimmering and not deep like painting, drawing, and other arts done by hand. I understood this difference from a comment made by Art Spiegelman, the genius cartoonist who was gracious enough to draw the cover for my book 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11 (NYU Press). In 2002 there were lots of book published about 9/11, most with graphic photographs on the cover. Spiegelman’s cover, by distinction, took days to draw, and somehow it seemed to draw people in, and soothe them a bit.

Cover Art by Art Spiegelman

 

 

Why? Because as a drawing the viewer could sense (or know) that the image had been mediated by someone else (the artist Spiegelman in this case) rather than hitting our sight with unmitigated force, the way photographs do. What Spiegelman was alluding to is the way photography often does not advertise or show its artifice (the human intervention of the photographer). In a drawing, by contrast, you know that someone took the time to transform and transfigure a sight into an image. That turns the sight into an experience.

When looking at a photograph you cannot be sure that the sight was truly experienced by anyone. (I develop this notion of photography as unexperienced sights in Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (MIT Press). Sorry for the self-promoting links in this post).

So photography gives us the world (really it gives us an image, but this image strikes us as part of the world) as pure appearance. But what if the world is appearance? What if there is no deeper being or truth or meaning hidden behind this ‘surface’ appearance? What if the surface is the world?

This later notion, that the world is appearance (and not the surface of a deeper truth) is developed by Hannah Arendt in Vita Activa, and by Lao Tse in the Tao Te Ching. More on these sources in another post.

 

Photography as the Medium of the Future

12 Jun

 

Photography as the Medium of the Future

Do photographs speak of the past, or of the future? The Western understanding of photography bases the phenomenological claims on the medium’s power of reference. Photographs are understood to capture events from the past and make those moments portable – frozen chunks of time that are transported into our present.

            Let’s look at two distinct photographs that seem to speak more to the future than the past.            

Lech Walesa Addressing Union Workers During a Strike, August 1980

            The first image was taken by Jorma Puusa for Lehtikuva, a Finnish photo agency. It shows Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarnosc union in Gdansk rallying workers, on August 25, 1980. After several days of strikes that were backed by the massive union six days later Walesa met with Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Mieczyslaw Jagielski. They signed the Gdansk Agreement. In the Agreement the Polish government recognized the union but also proclaimed that the strike had not challenged the “principles of socialism.”

            The photograph can be interpreted as referring to an event in the past. It is one scene in a long struggle for the Polish people to take control of their own political destiny apart from one-party rule and an autocratic regime. But when the photograph is thus regarded as referring to the past that leads directly to our present moment, when Poland holds free elections and is no longer politically controlled by the Soviet Union, we miss its importance. The significance of this image is how it invokes the possibility of a different future – not of the future as we know it today, with the benefit of historical hindsight, but as a future yet undetermined. Nobody in that image knew what the future would bring: the violent suppression of the strikers, an arrangement where the government would meet some of their demands but continue to curtail other rights, or a complete overthrow of the government and  with it the end of socialist rule in Poland.

            So the photograph contains these possibilities as pure potential. And this content outweighs the documentary dimension that mark this picture as evidence of a moment in the past. The photograph invokes the future and conjures possibilities, rather than refer back to a moment that is easily integrated into the narrative we know as history. Photographs have this unique potential to contain in one scene this tension that can give rise to different outcomes.

Compare the photograph of Lech Walesa to Catherine Henriette’s photographs of May 21, 1989, in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing. 

 Young Man Appealing to Liberation Army Soldiers to Leave Tiannanmen Square, May 1989

The young man  in Nike sneakers is appealing to the People’s Liberation Army soldiers to leave Tiananmen Square. Catherine Henriette shot the student in a theatrical pose, replete with a victory-sign t-shirt, red headband and full of passionate commitment to be heard. We know that the student protests on June 3, 1989 were violently suppressed by the Army of which the sitting soldiers in the back are a part.

            The photograph could thus be understood as merely capturing a moment of the past. The student’s silent appeal to the soldiers, who are either looking at him or at the press photographers capturing this scene, goes unheard. It echoes pointlessly into the crowds, and the victory-sign t-shirt looks like a poignant reminder of the futility of his stance.

            But viewing the photograph as only appealing to the past in this way does an injustice to this student. As the protagonist of this image he is filled with the same passionate intensity as Lech Walesa in the image discussed above. And He is calling out not only to the soldiers on the ground but also to us as viewers today. He is silently appealing, in the timeless of the image, not to the defeat awaiting him in a few hours or days that allows us to relegate this picture to the dustbin of failed revolts and protests. No, he is appealing to the future which is yet unknown to everyone in this scene. Who is the Tiananmen Square uprising going to end? Nobody knows at this moment while the Chinese Party is debating how to handle this crisis, while students are struggling to come up with a strategy, and while Western media strive to snap a good image.

            The appeal from within this image is addressed to a future that cannot be known from within the image. When we relegate the image to a single instance in a longer story, the way we might relegate Lech Walesa’s speech to one instance in the liberation of Poland from autocratic rule, we miss this appeal to the future itself.

            The picture does not refer only to the past but to the future as yet uncharted – to the world as having the potential of being truly transformed. 

Referencing the Past or Invoking the Future?

12 Jun

Photography:

Referencing the Past or Invoking the Future

What do photographs refer to? From the time of its invention the medium of photography has been understood to refer to reality. It great claim has been verisimilitude (truthlikeness; the quality of realism), and the reality photographs capture are the moments that occurred in front of the camera’s lens but are now gone forever. From the beginning photography was a medium of recollection – of recollecting moments, sights and scenes that had passed unnoticed but that someone wished to remember. Or photographs served to preserve the likeness of people who had passed on – we could behold a photograph of someone who was no longer alive. Lastly photographs depicted reality in places that were inaccessible to the viewer, either because they were remote or close-by but unknown to the viewer and not considered part of her everyday world.

So photography has always been understood in the West as referring backwards – backwards in time to a place and moment that is no longer the same. They preserved instances – frozen moments, perfect moments – against the incessant progression of time. Every photograph was thought to refer back to a moment in the past. Photography came to be associated with the past.

Photography’s realism, or verisimilitude, came to be understood as proof of a past reality. The photographic image invoked the recent or distant past, and in this invocation the image was reduced to the function of a medium ferrying a message more or less faithfully through the river of time. The overwhelming assumption was that even though photographs can misrepresent the truth or distort the way things really happened, photographic images refer back to a reality that already happened. They did not create reality but were always anchored in the past.

This understanding of photography as a fundamentally backward looking past is problematic for several reasons. In Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002) I showed that certain photographs can be understood more accurately not as isolating the flow of time into isolated segments, or frozen moments. Some photographs instead reveal our experience of reality to be comprised of disconnected moments and singular instants – of an unpredictable and erratic of single rain drops that never amounts to a continuous flow, river, or flood. Photography can be seen as the medium that alerts us to this Democritean, disjointed, disparate, non-unified experience of reality. Photographs thus may uncover that experience is not solidly banked into the river of time but that it occurs outside of such a narrative, and that our lives are filled with moments that do not fit into any coherent sequence of a before and after. Photographs, in this understanding, may capture the moments that fall outside of time, by which I here means outside of our conception of time as a continuous unfolding.

The understanding of photography as referring to a past reality is problematic for other reasons. It presupposes that photographs always refer to a reality that has existed already. This would mean that photography is always on the side of those for whom this reality was also equal to the truth. Differently put, when photography’s realism is measured by its claims of reference to a past moment, this past moment has to make sense in the viewer’s present.

I want to focus on another problem in the understanding of photography as referring to the past.

Consider photographs that are meant to refer back to the past. Consider images that are meant to forecast an as-of-yet unimagined future. Consider images that show people in circumstances where their very presence is so problematic as to be almost inconceivable to some, or at least to provoke very strong and even violent opposition.

The two images below, by Will Counts, are titled “Black Students Integrate Little Rock’s Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas, September 4, 1957.” The caption refers to an event of the very recent past (Counts photographed these scenes for the Northern press, where they were instrumental in influencing public opinion for the Civil Rights struggle in the American South).

They show Elizabeth Eckford on her first day at Little Rock High School after being turned away by National Guards and trying to pass unscathed through a menacing mob. Eckford barely escaped physical assault that day when a New York Times reporter helped her on to a public bus after she was denied refuge from the mob at a local diner.

But these harrowing images are not fully understood when we think of them as referring only to the past. They do not only refer to an event that happened a day ago (as in the newscycle for which Counts took the picture). They also do not refer only to an event over a half century ago, in the distant past where such acts of public and open discrimination still happened.

No, these pictures refer to a future that is yet unknown. Their strength does not lie in the way they refer to an event but in the way they invoke a future that is yet unknown. For it was not at all known, nor was it inevitable, that the one day of integrating a school in Little Rock would lead to education equality for all Americans. It took federal troops, many more lawsuits, several Supreme Court decisions and the sacrifice of many heroic Americans who fought for their people’s rights to live fully in their society. If we look at these images only as referring back to the past we ignore the fact that the road to freedom was not only an obvious one, but that it progressed in fits and starts, with victories and tragic, horribly brutal defeats, and that its success was by no means guaranteed. [I discuss these images, and their use in newspapers and within the Civil Rights movement, in an essay in Aperture 202, spring 2011, 62 – 65.]

The photograph is less a recollection of a bygone era and more of an invocation of the possibility of things to come. And the things that came are not easily placed into a coherent, smooth narrative of triumph. For one thing, Elizabeth Eckford has her own story to tell – and it is a complicated story to be sure. Secondly, nobody back then knew how this story would play out. This is the most important dimension of this photograph – that we do not know what progress will mean. There were the young women behind Elizabeth Eckford for whom the world was falling apart – they were holding on to their own privilege in a place where this privilege did not look all that attractive suddenly. And yet their faces proclaim that they saw no other way but to hold on to whatever little advantage they had in 1950’s America.

Counts’ photographs anticipate and conjure a reality that is simply not known yet in the American South at this point. The leaders of the Civil Rights movement, though politically savvy and perspicacious, embarked on a battle in the name of freedom, not in the name of certain rights.  And what this freedom would taste and feel and look like nobody could yet know – that was precisely the strength of that struggle. The Rights legislation and court victories, spotty as the record is, tell only part of the story.

Elizabeth Eckford’s face in these images, hidden partly behind her sunglasses, tell the other part. She is focused on a freedom from this agony of being ostracized and of having to walk amidst people who do not want her in their world. This freedom is the future beyond these images, and it is a freedom that these images refer to more forcefully than any past.

If you still think photographs mostly provide evidence of the past, and refer back to past moments, look at this image from the Arab Spring in Egypt this year. What does this image refer to? What do these women see? A future that is yet unknown. No – several futures that are yet unknown, several possibilities and paths to take, and all of them invoked, conjured and announced from deep within the image.

I will discuss this and other images in my next entry.

Malick Sidibé: “You Don’t Choose. You Are Called.”

1 May

Malick Sidibé: “You don’t choose. You are called.”

Here is an excerpt from a remarkable interview with Malick Sidibé where Sidibé explains how he became a photographer. Sidibé apprenticed for a European photographer in Bamako, was allowed to buy a used camera, and began to photograph the African events (while his employer covered the European events).

I want to focus on a remarkable part of this interview and propose to read Sidibé’s answer against the grain, slightly shifting his answer to explain something else about his great and important images. (The full transcript of the interview is found on lensculture.com).

Here is the excerpt from the interview:

“[Interviewer]: How did you choose what to cover?

Malick Sidibé: You don’t choose. You are called. You are recommended in advance, so you go to someone’s wedding, someone’s christening… We were recommended, and I was lucky enough at that time to be the intellectual young photographer with a small camera who could move around.”

Sidibé explains that he did not choose his subject matter but that he simply accepted jobs, like weddings, parties, events, celebrations of all kinds. But the question, of course, refers to something larger than the subject matter. The question of Sidibé’s choice of subjects refers to the importance of his images, first taken to be sold to people who would come to his shop after the weekend’s parties and see themselves in print. These images, purely commercial and made for sale at low prices to the people in them, have now attained another level of significance (in the art world, and in new narratives of African written over and in the place of the colonial stories perpetuated by the colonial settlers).

Sidibé responds to the question (which is meant to extract the ‘meaning’ of his work) by explaining the simple logic of his work. People called him; he showed up and took the pictures.

But when Sidibé says: “You don’t choose. You are called.” He also echoes, as if unconsciously, the explanation often given by great artists of why they did certain pathbreaking works, and also by visionary leaders who charted a new path for society. I say that Sidibé echoed this artist’s explanation unconsciously not because he was unaware of the tradition and cult of the artist-as-genius. I say “unconsciously” because the experience of being called upon, of being summoned, interpellated and addressed from a place that one does not know yet, is precisely not a conscious experience.

So when Sidibé says: “You don’t choose. You are called” he refers only to the fact that some people would simply ask for him to take pictures of their events. But this simple origin and banal transaction, when someone asked him to show up with his camera, resulted in photographs that far transcend this meaning, since they now are viewed as documenting a possibility of African self-expression that was not fully knowable, visible or possible at the time.

Sidibé quickly dismissed the interviewer’s respectful yet portentous question by turning “how did you choose your subject matter” (a question one would ask Van Gogh) back to its simple literal meaning. But his answer, though utterly literal, nonetheless says something more. Like his photographs which show nothing more than people having a good time at a party, and yet say so much more today, his answer also says: as an artist one does not choose. One is called.

Behold the images here, by Malick Sidibé.

And think that he was called to take these pictures, the way someone is called to the priesthood, or to serve her country, or to enlist in the greater cause of art. And yet also see the pictures and behold those faces as simply enlisting Sidibé in their own way of calling upon us to view them now, and of Sidibé not choosing to a greater purpose, but simply responding to what these people wanted from him, and want from us: to be seen.

“Soirée organisée par Mlle Mounina Keita, 1964.” [Evening Organized by Mrs. Mounina Keita] Printed 2010.

Chester Higgins: Stars of Ethiopia

21 Apr

Chester Higgins: Stars of Ethiopia

You walk down a city street in Lower Manhattan, New York City, State of New York, United States of America, Northern Hemisphere, Planet Earth, the Universe. And there on this busy but ultimately non-distinct street you encounter a remarkable series of 13 larger-than-life portraits of Ethiopians by Chester Higgins, in a show of window-installations curated by Lydie Diakhate. Higgins’ photographs are the result of encounters with Africans over many years, now distilled into a series of mesmerizing, vibrant images of the people he’s met. What’s special about this set of images? How do Higgins’ photographs work? And what are they pictures of?

*            *            *

Every photograph refers back to previous images that had been created by others before. Whether or not we know or remember those prior images consciously, we make sense of any new image us in reference to those pictures that came before. We look at photographs the way we look at the face of someone new we’ve just met – we read that face not exclusively on its own terms but compare it unconsciously to all of the other faces that have come into our field of vision before. And then, in this instantaneous recapitulation of all of the faces that have come before we are struck by that indescribable beauty that only another human being can reveal to us. It’s like the sun rising on another day, which we understand only to be dawn because we’ve lived through many dawns before, and yet we see and feel the sun as if for the first time. Except that it’s the same old sun.

In the case of faces it’s another face, an other’s face – a face so indescribably different and yet a vision we understand as a face because we’ve been learning to read faces from infancy on. We dive dive into that new face’s singularity by allowing it to eclipse the countless faces – remembered and unremembered – that we’ve seen before.

Photographs can work in a similar way on us. And images of Africa and Africans have a peculiar status in the endless and unconscious chain of images that have become before. They stand in a tradition that begins with a European view of Africa and Africans as ‘other,’ merely because of the fact that the medium of photography had been invented in Europe during the period when Europeans colonized Africa. Every picture of an African today extends a chain of images than is different from the chain evoked by a picture a French shopgirl, say, or country-folk in Scotland. In those settings the  camera had not been deployed from a position and point of view that saw itself as superior, all-powerful, and in full control of the resulting image.

Every image of and about Africa must at once engaged with and break with this long and complex but largely nefarious tradition. Every photographer in and of Africa must deconstruct this tradition of colonial images not because it is ‘politically correct,’ and because stereotypical images of Africans are no longer acceptable. No, every image of and in Africa and Africans must deconstruct this tradition (expose its implicit hierarchies and politics) because otherwise none of us will truly to see the world.

For it is only if and when we see Africa and Africans outside of the vexing chain of images of the ‘other,’ as defined by a Euro-centric point of view, that we grasp the fullness of the world. This fullness, in a nutshell, is our awareness that every photograph of a person also contains a point of view from which we can be seen as other. This point of view inside the photography can never be completely attained by us – we will never know entirely how we are seen by others. It is only when we see photographs of Africans as images of people on their own terms that we glimpse the fullness of the world – as a world that contains us rather than a world that we see outside of us.

Now behold Chester Higgins’ regal portrait of a Gnangaton woman. The photograph is not only beautiful in terms of composition, detail of texture, and color. But it creates a space for the woman of the Gnangaton tribe to show herself calmly, confidently, and with a dignity that permits our gaze. And what we see is a woman wearing her tribal adornments in a way that frame and heighten her beauty.

Chester Higgins, photographer.

In the window gallery curated by Lydie Diakhaté, Chester Higgins’ gorgeous oversized prints directly engage the passers-by. They see a row of Africans looking out at them, calmly, confidently, and no longer in the chain of stereotypical images of Ethiopia so widely disseminated in the West. Now these Africans are inserted into the streetscape of New York where pedestrians bob along the vast ocean humanity, and take in faces the way a gull takes in the whitecaps on the waves. Higgins’s photographs insist above all on the Africans’ right at self-presentation. This is a right claimed by everyone who is put in front of a came out ra. But it takes a photographer of Higgins’ skill and depth of understanding to yield to it. Higgins has spent over three decades traveling to Ethiopia and now returns to us, the viewers passing his images in the street, the faces he’s learned to read over those years. But not just the faces he’s learned to read – also the faces he’s allowed to read him. He’s learned to photograph them outside of the chain of images that have locked Africans into settings defined by oppression and struggle.

The photograph of the woman of the Gnangaton tribe shows someone who negotiates her life with dignity and pride. The photograph’s punctum, for me, consists of the bottle caps braided into her hair above the beads and necklaces contrasting so beautifully with her brown skin. We could define these bottle caps as part of the Africans’ “cargo cult” – the natives’ appropriation and adaptation of Western, modern goods for ornamental and other uses, as explained by anthropologist Michael Taussig. But when I behold these bottle caps as part of the woman’s beautiful headdress I no longer see some items from “the West” and from “modernity” that have been appropriated by a poor Africans. No – what I see for the first time is the sheer beauty of a hive of bottle caps, hovering like carefully curated shiny dollops arranged by an African milliner/hairdresser atop a head held high in the awareness of her beauty. I see for the first time the true and absolute function of bottle caps – and I now realize, through Chester Higgin’s gracious and imposing portrait, that the West had always misunderstood, denigrated, limited the lifespan of bottle caps.

Indeed, the West had not seen and recognized the beauty of bottle caps and realized their full potential, relegating them to a short life of sealing soda or beer until they get trashed. Now we see a detail of modernity revised, re-used, expropriated and re-visioned by a woman from Africa. The brass key around her neck attains a dignity that pries this object from its Western, utilitarian setting. And by taking these small objects of their setting the woman also leaves the chain of reductive images in which Africans have been trapped for all too long.

Proud, dignified, looking not at us but capturing our gaze. This is the face not of Africa but of an African woman who makes us want to know more, and makes us realize that to look at her means to see the world.

Higgins’ photograph succeeds because it does not bow to the weight of images of Africans, stooped and struggling to throw of the yoke of colonialism. Instead it shows Africans who view themselves as looking forward. Looking out at us, without a desperate need to say Look at me! but with the confidence that simply by their comportment and as a result of Higgins’ steady, patient and humble handling of the camera they hold and transform our gaze.

Diane Arbus: The Other’s Gaze Wins Out

6 Feb

Diane Arbus: The Other’s Gaze Wins Out

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1953)

In the 1960s Diane Arbus embarks on a career as photographer on the American East Coast. The child of privileged New York City parents Arbus seeks to show how “the other half lives.” In her world this other half comprised the “freaks” of society who just did not belong because they were too poor, too different from what passed for normal, too tall, too short, too queer and too done-up, too tattered or too gaudy, too colored or too pale. They did not belong either by birth or by choice, by circumstance or destiny, by accident or fate. But those people who did not belong had been visible nonetheless. They had been hidden in plain sight. There they had lived liked ghosts but waited for their chance to be seen.

When Arbus unpacked her camera, giddy and excited as if on a blind date that she would repeat only once more, in the safety of her darkroom, these people revealed themselves to her. Of course it was not the first time that they were visible. But particularly in her work for magazines such as Esquire Arbus transformed these people from being visible into seen. What is this difference between being visible, both to oneself and to others, and being seen?

I would suggest that being visible means that one is viewed as an object: as a stand-in for a group, or category, or particular part of the world. The dwarf, the giant, the drag queen, the illusionist, the tattoo artist, the socialite, the tycoon, the barmaid, the freak. The Asian, the Black, the Indian. The German. Being visible means that one registers as an object in the field of vision. When one is visible as such one has little agency in determining how one is being seen.

Being seen, in distinction to being visible, means to be acknowledged as a subject. When one is seen one is recognized to be a person, but as a person that has attributes and traits in addition to one’s category. The dwarf is a person who is exceptionally short but also has other traits: he may have dark hair or light, a mustache or curls, a heavy ring on one hand, nice clothes, or a seductive smile. The drag queen, to continue, is a man dressed as a woman but also someone taller than the person she is dancing with, or blessed with legs longer than the Mississippi.

Being visible affords a person about as much humanity as the stick figures on the doors of restrooms. Being seen allows you to own some dimensions that make you look and stand apart.

America in the 1960s was a land divided into “non-seeing and seeing, into illusion and reality.” (“Seeing and non-seeing, illusion and reality”: those are the categories Ralph Ellison associates, in his review of Howard Zinn’s The Southern Mystique, with “any book involved with race and color in the United States.”) All of the people photographed by Arbus were fully visible before she caught them on film, but it was through her work – and their own political and personal struggles – that they became seen. Arbus did not drag invisible people into our field of vision but shows how non-seeing is a critical and integral part of life in the world of her time. She turned her camera on the people that had been relegated to this strange dimension of non-seeing which structured American society. The resulting images show the passage of people from being visible to being seen.

At key junctures in her work Arbus is concerned with race and color. The resulting photographs are complicated and often vexing, teetering like all of her work on the brink between condescension and concern, affection and disdain. But throughout her photographic work she is concerned with seeing and non-seeing. She does not photograph people who had been invisible but transforms their status of visibility into that of being seen.

So how does this work? A critical aspect of Arbus’ work depends on the way the people in the pictures look back. The other’s gaze “wins out” over whatever definition of reality the viewer brings with him or her. What does it mean that the other’s gaze “wins out”? Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher, attributed enormous power to the other’s gaze in photographs. “Whatever precautions you take so the photograph will look like this or that, there comes a moment when the photograph surprises you. It is the other’s gaze that wins out and decides.” So winning out means to decide, and deciding here means that the photograph will read you, determine your point of view, shape your image rather than the other way around. This is exactly what happens through (not in but through) the best of Arbus’ photographs: you feel that you are being looked at.

And when you are being looked at by one of Arbus’s bartenders, senior citizens, suburban housewifes, or sullen teenagers your world is suddenly revealed to be nothing but another construct, perhaps more powerful but ultimately no more significant and important than the world from which these people look at you. Arbus creates photographs that establish such a Derridean contest between photographed persona and viewer over whose gaze is going to win out.

This is so because in photographs the photographed people always look just past the moment at which we, as contemporary viewers look at them. These folks will all have aged and might have died between the day Arbus took their picture and today. But they are still looking at the future as future, and not at a particular way in which their history unfolded. The people in Arbus’ pictures look not at Arbus, not at the world in which they live, and not at us. They look at a world beyond us when they can be fully free to be themselves.

This offers a key to approaching Arbus’ photographs of African-Americans, which she includes in her problematic catalog of  ‘others’ — those people who are visible but not seen in society. For it is not the strength of Arbus as an artist alone – not only her power of imagination, access and technical skill – that determines the outcome of these photographs. If Arbus alone had the power to decide what the people in her pictures would look like, they would continue to look like others to her gaze. But because their gaze wins out Arbus’s work is nothing more than the stage on which people could transform themselves from being visible to being seen. Her photographs speak against her, undermining and tripping up her intentions, her limited imagination of what life is like when lived in ways not known to her. This is what Susan Sontag did not see in Arbus’ photographs (in her harsh dismissal of Arbus in “America, Seen Through Photographs Darkly,” in On Photography). Sontag did not recognize that Arbus’ photographs work against their maker, like little monsters created by a mad scientist who cannot rein in their fierce assertion of independence. This, of course, is the definition of great art: a work that gives itself its rules that no longer coincide with those proclaimed by its maker.

It’s as if in the 1960s, in front of Arbus’s coaxing camera, they took a cue from the playbook written by Foucault who traced in several books how society’s ways of locking up criminals and madmen gave way – in the name of humanizing their treatment – to ostracizing them in full view of everyone (by making them internalize their condition through shame, guilt, the promise of healing and transformation if they only became like us).

The mechanisms by which people were made to live their lives unseen and yet in full sight were varied. In the 1960s they included the categories of shame, self-hatred, fear, economic and social disadvantage. They were the closet, and the yes m’am, and yessur uttered in response to an insult, the cooing apologies oh-I’m-only-a-girl and the tight-lipped turning back when confronted with a sign “New Yorkers Only” on a beach. Arbus searched out the subjects who were thus hiding in plain view, and placed them in the unforgiving voyeuristic glare of her camera’s cold flash. Arbus was not nice about this.

In New York City Arbus shot the people who are part of the world and yet do not seem included in it. She photographed dwarves and drag queens, transvestites and tattooed performers, child couples, bar maids, twins, giants, and an assortment of others who have been minoritized by mainstream culture. This mainstream culture of Middle America was not a vague formation concocted by a nefarious group of demagogues working in a secret government program. It was the plethora of cheerful images propagated by print media and television that made people feel good about looking a certain way. The trick, in Arbus’s work, was for people who had been taught just like everyone else to worship perfect eyebrows and good hair and nice legs to let go off these ideals and come up with a new visual grammar of their own. She could lend her framing techniques to this effort, but ultimately the people in her photographs look good because she coaxed them into believing that, even though everyone around them and they themselves did not agree with it.


In the best of Arbus’ images people pose before her camera to present themselves in ways they want to be seen. They exude confidence not shame, and assert themselves as visible while society prefers to think of them as invisible, or as an uncomfortable presence relegated to the margins of the world. Arbus raised her camera to allow people to blot out, for a moment, the notion that others are looking at them with disdain.[1]


[1] Susan Sontag did not believe that Arbus could shed this bias from her own mode of seeing, and that Arbus’ images consequently are dripping with condescension. I will devote another post to Sontag’s critique of Arbus’s work.

Garry Winogrand’s Wacky, Optimistic, Grandiose Mash-Up of the World

23 Jan
“World Fair, 1964”


In 1964, and alongside 50 million total visitors, Winogrand prowled the New York World Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Industry leaders and urban planners had designed the parkland with the iconic Unisphere sculpture to showcase an optimistic future strategically located half-way between Manhattan and its major airports LaGuardia and JFK. The Fair projected a time in 2024 where smooth roads would course through jungle, deserts became pastures, and peace would have reign on “a shrinking globe in an expanding universe.” Ford introduced the Mustang here, and under the slogan “Challenge to Greatness” the U.S. Pavilion outlined the ambitions of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” project to eradicate poverty and racial inequality. But not all was well in the land.

By opening day in November 1963 President Kennedy who had broken ground for the Fair in 1962 had been assassinated. The event that was designed to be a defining moment for the baby boomer generation fell short of its lofty goal of providing a crisp road map for America in decades to come. Members of the Congress of Racial Equality were arrested during a protest at the Fair, and Johnson’s aspirations of a fully integrated and peace-promoting society were not uniformly shared.

In 1963 Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.. The bitter struggle of the Civil Rights movement was far from over. Victory was uncertain. Various lawsuits wound their way through state appeals courts and ultimately to the Supreme Court to challenge the legality of racial segregation in transportation, accommodation, and marriage, and to enforce school desegregation in the South which more promise of success than guaranteed by “all deliberate speed.”

In this climate of a vast upheaval in American society Winogrand came upon a bench at the World’s Fair, packed with weary women with flattened hair and flat-soled shoes. One woman’s youth and beauty, something that surely caught Winogrand’s eye, seemed lost on an older man reading the paper to one side. A bit worse for wear, just starting to relax, and glad to have secured a temporary spot to rest, the women stretched their feet and nobody, as far as we can tell, was aware of being photographed. It was a tangle of limbs and craning necks, and in between this silent choreography emerged potential new alliances, separations, groupings, losses, love.

A young man on the other side of the bench elicits from the young and tired slightly sweaty bodies a current of interest as if his presence, sprawled comfortably in his neat khakis on the bench, could twitch this weary line-up into life. It would be a life not yet legal in all states and still frowned upon, two years before the Supreme Court would declare unconstitutional the ban on interracial marriage, and a barely a year after Sidney Poitier had won an Academy Award for Lilies in the Field and years before he would star in the race-relations films, A Patch of Blue, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? On this bench Winogrand glimpsed a reality that many still considered impossible even though countless had lived it, even if outside the law: that of a life where blacks and whites could be together in peace. At the Fair Winogrand captured a moment for which no proper visual grammar had been yet established. “World Fair” offers us time and space to contemplate and envision several outcomes to a particular moment. It is an unguarded instant when, as Hannah Arendt, writes in a different context, from the “twilight which illuminates our private and intimate lives” the possibility of a yet-unseen future between the young woman and the man on the far side of the bench cautiously emerges into “the much harsher light of the public realm.”[1]

The people in Winogrand’s image opt out of the stream of people surging through the exhibits of the World Fair. They opt out of the world, so to speak, and he catches them in this odd moment of detachment from the world when they do not pay attention to him. Eileen Hale, Winogrand’s widow, described her late husband’s practice thus:

“I think part of the aim was to unsettle people’s ideas, whether his own or other people’s. To move people out of an unquestioning space and to some less settled space in which the authority of rules and structures was broken up a bit.”

With the bench at the 1964 World’s Fair Winogrand found such a “less settled space” where the script of one’s life could be altered. In between the people on this bench social and other relations could be unsettled and rearranged for brief moments – or for life.

Winogrand showed the space between people as a fragile “in-between” that could be negotiated and bridged or kept apart, and that had no particular power to shape these outcomes. His genius consisted in choosing a park bench as an allegory for the potential world “in which the authority of rules and structures was broken up a bit.” Things were possible on such a bench that could upset the social order.

Winogrand’s pictures contain these unimagined futures with humor and optimism. In this particular image the young black man is engaged, interested but relaxed: he is open to the possibility of chatting but also at ease and full of self-control. The woman with the white headband next to him is also engaged and while more animated than the man still guarded. Then Winogrand caught possible opprobrium and disapproval to this interaction on the bench’s periphery, with the two gossiping girls in the center.

–              Can you believe she’s talking to him? And we just sat down a second ago?

–              What can she be talking to him about? And to just chat him up like this, right here next to us…

But Winogrand’s non-judgmental eyes moved right along without leaning in to hear the gossip. There’s a girl resting her head in her friend’s lap, and in addition to this weary indifference to the way the world could change remains the older man whom Winogrand did not crop from the image precisely to show that not everyone is looking. And then there are the two posing graces who look elsewhere for what happens next, whether it’s the end of America as anybody knew it then, or just another fellow to check out.

And then, ultimately, it’s only a bench on which nobody will sit forever. It’s a metaphor for the world as a place though which you can move without constant explanation or justification, and without philosophizing. It is a scene at once languid and yet bursting with possibility, of limbs and lives shifted and unsettled through the minutest alterations and producing unheard of new configurations of the world.

Only if we believe that history happens to us and if we relinquish our option to take action, only then do photographs look as if they freeze a moment in time. For photographs with their capacity to keep both the past and the future at bay plunge us into the boundlessness of the present to look from this otherwise unattainable vantage point of an interval in time, when the past is not all-determining and the future forever unknown. Winogrand happily rid photography of the pathos that often colors pictures of ambiguous social situations. Instead he opted for humor, irony, and sheer wackiness in his approach to some of the pressing social questions of his day. Not every image in this efforts is successful: sometimes the irony veers into condescension, or disrespect. But when he shot “World Fair, 1964” Winogrand did not interrupt the flow of time. He inserted himself into time that he experienced in bursts of intensity: risky and thrilling like the little flirt that’s starting on one side of the bench (if still divided, for ever, by the dark tree trunk between the couple-in-the-moment-and-making: unstable and menacing like the girls’ jealous whispers in the center; languid like the girl resting in their lap; glued to the past like the man reading the paper to the side. Winogrand’s shutter revealed the human experience of time to be a step into the ever-changing Heraclitean river but a dance in the Democritean multi-metric rain where the next thing that’s going to happen is radically uncharted.

We come closer to honoring the great promise of photography when we understand photographs to shelter unredeemed moments. Every photograph remains addressed to a beyond that remains open to transformation. This beyond extends past our present time when we, the belated viewers, look at the image while we are weighed down by the past and pulled toward the future. Photography affords us the occasion to claim this space for thinking, communicating, and creating and not to cede this in-between to mere representations of what we already presume to know. To look critically at photographs means to maintain the possibility that any photograph’s future may be something different from its known outcome. Photographs suspend time and, when we seize this suspension as a political opportunity rather than an occasion to go numb, they allow us to be in the world more consciously, more fully, and more alive.


[1] The Portable Hannah Arendt, 200.

The Sapeurs of The People’s Republic of Congo: A New Visual Grammar for the World

16 Jan

The Sapeurs of The People’s Republic of Congo: A New Visual Grammar for the World

What happens when people are set free through political change but the images of them up to this point depicted them as nothing but objects? How are new images created — and why is a visual grammar that allows for different and new modes of being so important? How do you become a subject of your own making when you had never properly been seen before? Look at the sapeurs in the Congo, or study the images produced by Malick Sidibé in his studio in Bamako in the 1960s. There you witness the creation of a new visual grammar that can liberate the world.

When the Republic of Congo threw off the brutal shackles of colonial rule in the early 1960 Mobutu Sese Seko imposed a strict dress-code that would promote authentic African values after the long and brurtal oppression under European colonial rule. Africans were instructed to wear only African clothes (or a plain tunic called an abacost). Mobutu violently ruled the Congo for decades, and the country continues to suffer the aftermath of its postcolonial disposition. So why would a bunch of guys choose to explore their tenuous political freedom by wearing incredibly expensive designer duds in flashy colors, rather than invest their money in small businesses to lift themselves out of poverty? Isn’t sartorial excess a sign of decadence and misguided values?

The sapeurs of the Congo (adherents of “La Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes,” originally inspired by the pop singer Papa Wemba in the 1960s) found themselves caught between two stark options. The first had been Mobutu Sese Seko’s draconian protocol of authentic Africanness – and the second seems to be the lot of the masses in emerging countries who get to wear cast-off, second-hand clothing from the West. It was either Mobutu’s idea of Africanness that harked back to a mythic past some 300 years in the past, the last time Africans had been allowed to govern themselves. Or it was the clothing of the Western oppressors who had abandoned the country but left a visual grammar with no place for free Africans? The colonial project had produced enormous suffering for Africa, unspeakable wealth for the West, and left a pernicious legacy, long after African constitutions had been signed in thrilling ceremonies, of a complex and globally internalized set of images of Africans as either naive or savage, impoverished or corrupt.

So when African nations attained political freedom, the available set of stereotyped identities, images, and modes of Africans’ being-in-the-world had to be revised. New visual paradigms had to be invented to accompany the political realities ushered in by the overthrow of colonial rule. Mobutu’s draconian rule in the Congo was one such response, and the despot’s severe guidelines of how people could dress tells us that the link between political and sartorial freedom is very real. So how to create a visual grammar in which Africans could appear as governing themselves, after that possibility of self-governance had been denied to them for some 300 years?

So the sapeurs stepped out of the dilemma presented by these stark choices (African authenticity vs. Western oppression) by bringing elegance and coolness to the street. Like people all over the world in the 1960s these guys claimed the street as a public space where political identities can be performed, asserted and created.

Chinua Achebe notes, in a New York Times editorial entitled “Nigeria’s Promise, Africa’s Hope” (NY Times, January 16, 2010):

“At the end of the day [after the stuggles for equality, for justic, for freedom], when the liberty was won, we found that we had not sufficiently reckoned with one incredibly important fact: If you take someone who has not really been in charge of himself for 300 years and tell him, “O.K., you are now free,” he will not know where to begin.”

What is needed is not only the proclamation of liberty but the knowledge and experience of being free. The philosopher Immanuel Kant had written:

“Freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another, and in so far as it tends to exist with the freedom of all according to a universal law, it is the one sole original inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity.”

To dress freely, then, would perhaps seem like a secondary and frivolous matter that takes a back-seat to more urgent political struggles for liberty. But to dress freely means to be develop a grammar in which the freedom of existence finds a place.

The sapeurs in the Congo today, as did the people who visited Sibide’s photo studio in Bamako over several decades, pose for themselves to invent a new visual grammar for a free African existence — and they insist that the new, free modes of being African and thus of being human are categories that until the day when all people are free had not truly existed before.

Beyonce’s Global Reach

10 Jan

The approval rating of the US among Muslims in the world is reported to hover around 85% – that is 85% who disapprove of the US. The US government is trying hard to win over the hearts and minds of Muslims throughout the world. The conservative columnist Larry Elder bemoans the fact that Obama’s presidency has not altered this fact — and uses it (in many repostings of his blog entry from 2008) as evidence that the Bush government’s line toward the Muslim probably should not be altered. I won’t comment on this assessment (I disagree with it wholeheartedly).

But it’s time to consider other contact zones of the American and Arab worlds.

Get up from your chair ‘cuz you’ll want to dance along: one contact zone is a television ad featuring Beyonce, Pink and Britney Spears as gladiators cast in the ring by the Emperor of Arab Pop Music himself: Amr Diab.

Beyonce, Pink and Britney are thrown to the lions but in a triumph of music over muscle, and thirst for American soft drinks over the imperial reach, they succeed in getting what they want, even if ultimately fate cannot be averted. Pink’s voice is amazing, Beyonce as always unbeatable, and Britney goes down blazin’.


Of course the PepsiCo commercial (and a second one where Beyonce and JLo become motorcylce-riding ninjas to defend their right to drink Pepsi against David Beckham’s orders) is blatant American commercial imperialism. These commercials impose American values, scantily-clad pop stars and saccarine drinks on a world that neither asked for them nor needs them. And yet…. the fact that these videos are immensely popular in the Arab world but that you need to scroll through hundres of videos of Beyonce before finding them buried in the internet’s recesses says something. It says that there is contact between cultures that happens at levels not entirely scripted by politics and commerce, even if it’s driven by the fact that Britney, Pink and Bee need to pay the rent, too.

You  can be Adornian about this: follow the dyspeptic cultural critic, Theodor W. Adorno, of the Frankfurt School of post-war cultural criticism who for all of his brilliance could not see any redemptive value in pop culture. For Adorno, Beyonce, Diab, Spears et al. encourage a form of “passive” or “consumerist listening” that defeats the purposes of engaging with art. If you follow this line of thought you’ll find support among academics who see a new category of “joyless consumers” (Kenneth Surin, “Introduction: ‘Theory Now?’,” South Atlantic Quarterly 110:1; Winter 201; 7) that partake of pop culture to self-induce collective amnesia.

Or you can be Benjaminian about this, and follow Walter Benjamin, a part-time member of the Frankfurt School of post-war cultural criticism who defended Mickey Mouse against Adorno, seeing in the Mouse a redemptive spark for a humanity detaching itself joyfully from the locales and regimes of thought on Planet Earth. If you follow Benjamin you’ll enjoy Britney, obviously – and you might insist, as I do, that there is a dimension of pleasure and joy, even jouissance, in the world that cannot be entirely coopted.

Check out the video. (Search Beyond and Amr Diab on youtube).

http://www.youtube.com/v/OI-6YsW8QoU?fs=1&hl=en_US

I’m not deluding myself to think that the gals in their gladiator bras qualify as humanitarian good-will ambassadors, and that they should be put on the State Department’s payroll. But I want to keep the option open that something happens when folks watch this video that brings together the biggest stars in America and Egypt. What happens? The world reveals itself even in the minds of a commercial’s director to be always ready for transformation from within.

I found this video not as a reference in the winter issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, alas, where scholars quite perceptively and acutely diagnose the reasons why academic thought has a hard time coming up with politically relevant aspirations today. I found it since I’m a ‘friend’ of Amr Diab’s commercial facebook page – and discovered a three-minute possibility of touching the hearts and minds of people whose contact with America is not always the best.