31 October 2008

Studs Terkel (1912-2008)

Long time radio personality and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Studs Terkel has died in Chicago at age 96. There, very appropriately, will be a host of notices and remembrances and appreciations in the coming days. Here is part of the initial wave from The Nation and The Chicago Tribune. Terkel and I are both alums of the University of Chicago which is in the process of trying to establish a major institute named for the late, unlamented ideologue Milton Friedman. I look forward to the day when there is a similar move on campus to commemorate Studs.

Update 1 November: Here are more recollections and tributes, most with various links - The Nation (again), In These Times, and The New York Times, . . .

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Discovering Remarkable People

Leon Greenman - Auschwitz survivor and life time campaigner
against racism, 1910 - 2008. Photograph © Joel Redman.

Over at the Magnum blog today Alec Soth noted that Simon Norfolk is guest editing an issue of The British Journal of Photography this week. He noted too that Norfolk had given the cover story over to Milton Rogovin. So it seemed like a good bet to drop in at the BJP page and see what was up. Well, since I'm not a subscriber, I couldn't access the Rogovin story. But I did discover this portrait by Joel Redman, which Norfolk singled out as follows:

"When I adjudicated the BJP International Photography Award recently I was told the rules didn't allow for a Judge's Choice. However, the great thing about being editor - King For A Day - is that I can put whatever I like in the magazine. So here it is: my Judge's Choice.

I couldn't swing the rest of the panel to back this fine portrait by Joel Redman, probably because my reasons for loving it are too personal. I knew without any caption that it is a portrait of Leon Greenman, who died earlier this year and who was also an Auschwitz survivor and a life-long anti-fascist fighter. I first met him on demonstrations in the early 1990s. In amongst the youthful racket was a silent, elderly man in a raincoat and beret with a large lapel badge saying 'I was there' - he had survived the Nazi death camps.

Auschwitz isn't an aberration, a myth or a 'detail of history', and the evil that made it had to be confronted wherever it reappears. I found his political tenacity astounding and the fury that he carried with him, uncooled after 50 years, totally inspiring. Joel Redman has done well to capture his wide-eyed curiosity and his inner toughness.

His death is a loss for all of us - the world needs many more people like Leon Greenman, not one less."

So thanks to Joel, Simon, and Alec for helping me discover Leon. And I suspect that Milton Rogovin would rather have Leon in the limelight than be there himself. He is remarkable too.

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Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2009 ~ Short List


The press release from The Photographers' Gallery is here; I will come back to the nominees in a later post. But in photo-land this is big news!

This annual award of £30,000 rewards a living photographer, of any nationality, who has made the most significant contribution to the medium of photography in Europe between 1 October 2007 and 30 September 2008.

The four shortlisted artists for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2009 are:

Paul Graham (b. 1956, UK) is nominated for his publication, A Shimmer of Possibility (steidlMACK, October 2007).

Emily Jacir (b.1970, Palestine) is nominated for her installation, Material for a Film, presented at the 2007 Venice Biennale (7 June – 21 November 2007).

Tod Papageorge (b.1940, USA) is nominated for the exhibition Passing Through Eden - Photographs of Central Park at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London (7 March - 12 April 2008).

Taryn Simon (b.1975, USA) is nominated for her exhibition An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar at The Photographers' Gallery, London (13 September -11 November 2007).

The Jury this year is: David Campany (writer/lecturer, University of Westminster, UK); David Goldblatt (photographer, South Africa); Chus Martínez (Chief Curator, Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Spain); and Anne-Marie Beckmann (Curator, Art Collection Deutsche Börse, Germany). The Director of The Photographers’ Gallery, Brett Rogers is the non-voting Chair.

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Best Shots (48) ~ Sarah Moon

(74) Sarah Moon ~ A Passing Seagull, Saint-Malo, 1998
(30 October 2008)

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Enthusiasms (21) ~ Charlie Haden & The Liberation Music Orchestra

First things first, The Liberation Music Orchestra (LMO) often is presented as a project of bassist Charlie Haden, but it really is a partnership with pianist/arranger/conductor Carla Bley. The orchestra has, between 1969 and 2005, put out five albums on various labels (Impulse!, ECM, Verve, Blue Note). The personnel is inconstant but uniformly stellar. The music impressive throughout. There are those who complain that jazz ought to steer clear of politics (which as the name implies, this orchestra does not). But that is a partial, particular view of the music - think of Billie Holiday singing 'Strange Fruit' or Charles Mingus composing and performing 'Fables of Faubus' or Max Roach's 'Freedom Now Suite' or . . . well, you get the point.

If you are fortunate enough to be in Seattle or San Francisco or NYC over the next few days, don't miss the chance to to see the LMO. They are playing the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle on 31 October, the San Francisco Jazz Festival on 2 November and then are booked at the Blue Note in NYC from 4-9 November.

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Talk Back: ACORN versus the Nuts

A few days back I noted the campaign that ACORN has mounted to fight back against the ridiculous charges right-wing nuts have leveled at them regarding alleged voter registration fraud. In this nice essay in The Nation this week Peter Dreier & Jon Atlas expand the counterattack to deflate right wing efforts to lay the blame for our financial crisis at the doorstep of .... you guessed it, ACORN. The nutty line of reasoning here - and I use the term 'reasoning' loosely - is that ACORN not only supported the Community Reinvestment Act (which the right, implausibly, have been pointing to as the source of our travails) but threatened and intimidated bankers into making ill-advised loans to poor applicants. If that sounds pretty lame, you are not as stupid as the folks at FOX and The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page think you are. Dreier and Atlas explain why.
"The right-wing case against the CRA is entirely bogus--a diversionary tactic to take the heat off the financial services industry and its allies, like McCain. The CRA applies only to depository institutions, like commercial and savings banks, but thanks to Congress's deregulation mania, there are now many other lenders, including private mortgage companies like CitiMortgage, Household Finance and Countrywide Financial (which was recently bought out by Bank of America). These outfits, which exist in a shadow world without government oversight, account for most of the predatory loans in trouble today.

When Congress enacted the CRA in 1977, the vast majority of all mortgage loans were made by lenders regulated by the law. In 2006 only about 43 percent of home loans were made by companies subject to the CRA. Indeed, the main culprits in the subprime scandal--the nonbank mortgage companies, which successfully grabbed the bulk of the mortgage market away from the CRA-regulated banking industry--were not covered by the CRA.

[. . .]

And unlike the institutions that offer unregulated predatory subprime loans, banks that make CRA loans are required by federal regulation to verify borrowers' incomes to make sure they can afford the mortgages. In 2006 the Federal Reserve reported that just 11.5 percent of mortgages made by CRA-regulated institutions were high-cost loans, compared with 33.5 percent for lenders not covered by the CRA. Janet Yellen, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, has criticized those who blame CRA lending for the subprime crisis: "Most of the loans made by depository institutions examined under the CRA have not been higher-priced loans, and studies have shown that the CRA has increased the volume of responsible lending to low- and moderate-income households."

While the CRA helped boost the nation's homeownership rate, particularly among black and Latino borrowers, subprime and other exotic mortgages had very little impact on homeownership. Most subprime loans were refinances of existing mortgages. From 1998 through 2005, more than half of all subprime mortgages were for refinancing, while less than 10 percent of subprime loans went to first-time home buyers. Moreover, a significant number of borrowers who took out subprime loans could have qualified for conventional, prime-rate mortgages with much better terms. Even the Wall Street Journal acknowledges that "plenty of people with seemingly good credit are also caught in the subprime trap." Brokers and lenders misled many of these homeowners, replacing safe thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages with deceptive, risky loans."

They proceed to describe how ACORN and other organizations sought to use the CRA to press banks to end discriminatory lending policies while also maintaining responsible lending practices. Once again the right wing nuts are just that.

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30 October 2008

Passings

Over the past month I've read obituaries for three photographers, none of whom I know anything about but all of whom seem incredibly accomplished. It seems appropriate to mention their deaths.
Terry Fincher (1931-2008) ~ notice in The Guardian here and here.

William Claxton (1927-2008) ~ notices in The Guardian here and here.

Alex Rivera (1913-2008) ~ notice in The New York Times here.

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There is an Interview with Martin Parr ...

... entitled "Why Photojournalism has to 'Get Modern'" and you can find it here at PDN. I discovered the interview because it was mentioned in the comment thread following a post by Alec Soth on the Magnum Blog. Alec and the folks contributing comments were taking up some of the points Jörg made re: Nachtwey (see my previous post). All that is way too blog-centric, but the Parr interview is interesting!

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29 October 2008

James Nachtwey & the Campaign Against XDRTB ~ Caught in the Conventions of Photojournalism

A boy experiencing severe pain from TB meningitis is comforted by
his mother at Svay Rieng Provincial Hospital, Svay Rieng, Cambodia.
Family members provide much of the personal care at hospitals in
the developing world. Photograph & Caption © James Nachtwey/VII

Let's start with the obvious, since I want to talk about what I think are more important things. James Nachtwey is an extraordinarily talented photographer. In his work he has captured the dangers and depravities of war and famine and other forms of systematic, man-made devastation. And he's done so in ways that have proven both profound and powerful. It is perhaps only a slight overstatement to say that he is unrivaled. Yet, despite his own admirable aims, Nachtwey is operating within conventions that are highly constraining.

O.K. - now for the critical part. Here I am prompted by this post Jörg Colberg made at Conscientious yesterday.** Jörg used a recent undertaking by Nachtwey to raise a set of general critical questions about photojournalism. He is uneasy about the genre and its conventions - at least as these operate in our current circumstances.

Background: Last year Nachtwey won a TED Award. As part of that extravaganza, winners are granted "wishes." Nachtwey used his wish to request help in mounting a campaign that he was then working on. At the time the subject remained "secret." Earlier this month a coordinated publicity campaign revealed that the subject is the prevalence and spread of extremely drug-resistant Tuberculosis (XDRTB). Nachtwey had traveled to a half-dozen countries (Cambodia, South Africa, Swaziland, Thailand, Siberia, Lesotho, India) to photograph the epidemic. His stated his wish this way:
“I’m working on a story that the world needs to know about. I wish for you to help me break it, in a way that provides spectacular proof of the power of news photography in the digital age.”
You can find the web site for the Nachtwey's campaign here. Like Jörg, I resisted the multiple pleas I received (directly and indirectly) to post on the project and thereby publicize the campaign. Like Jörg too, I have various reservations. And like Jörg not just the campaign but my own reservations make me uneasy.

Jörg focuses his attention on the content - more accurately, on the conventional style - of the images Nachtwey has made. He finds the images troublesome; so do I. But I want to put that off for a bit. That is because I think the ways - the tacit purposes for which - the images are deployed is troublesome too. Indeed, Nachtwey's style is crucially, a reflection of the way he understand the aims of his campaign.

[0] Nearly all public problems, actual or threatened, tend to be aggregate phenomena - think of epidemic, forced displacement, war, famine, etc. None of Nachtwey's images, however, give any sense of that basic fact. This is true of this project, but is true as well of his earlier work.* He not only focuses on individuals but does so in an especially intimate way. This is intentional; in this interview following the publication of his book Inferno, he observed:
“Virtually every picture in Inferno was made at close range. I like to work in the same intimate space that the subjects inhabit. I want to give viewers the sense that they’re sharing the same space with a photo’s subject.”
In this respect, Nachtwey's work epitomizes the conventions of American (at least) photojournalism - think of such iconic images as Walker Evans's portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs or Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother.' The problem is that by presenting individuals as the exemplars of collective or group circumstance, we too easily lose sight of the aggregate nature of the phenomena and become absorbed in the pathos of individual hardship and suffering. The image I've lifted above - the pietà transported to contemporary southeast Asia- is a perfect example.

[1] The aim (at least tacitly) of photojournalistic conventions is to elicit 'compassion' among viewers in hopes that they will move from compassion to some political (collective) response. In the "Afterward" to Inferno Nachtwey makes this explicit:
“What allows me to overcome the emotional obstacles inherent in my work is the belief that when people are confronted by images that evoke compassion, they will continue to respond, no matter how exhausted, angry or frustrated they may be.”
Unfortunately, as I've noted here before solid psychological research (by, say, Paul Slovic) suggests that this move is virtually impossible. This research establishes that compassion is highly individualistic - it founders more or less immediately if we move from concern for one individual to concern for as few as two. Yet, any plausible remedy to a major (or even not-so-major) public problem requires not just individual "awareness," but concerted, coordinated action. And that action must aim to remedy general patterns. Even if one were to insist that public awareness is a first step, it would be important to establish how - by what mechanisms - that public awareness could be coordinated into action or even support for action. All this is a political problem - one of constituting a 'we' out of the vast distribution of individual awareness. As political theorists as diverse as John Dewey and Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt remind us, we should not be naive about the obstacles and difficulties that stand in the way here. My own view is that campaigns animated by celebrity are unlikely to be effective.

[2] The TED Awards, at best, are a recognition of accomplished individuals, prizes that allow them to pursue some 'wish' in a more or less ad hoc manner. Nachtwey fits the bill. There is no sense in which there is a permanent or even persisting organizational outcome to his campaign. This is not meant as a criticism but as a description of the situation in which he is operating.

Nachtwey's campaign has emerged as a philanthropic enterprise in which various firms donated talent and labor of various sorts. This becomes clear in the credits to the XDRTB.org web page:
"XDRTB.org is a project of the Sapling Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization. © 2008 XDRTB.org. All Rights Reserved. Design donated by Radical Media. Website design and development by Mammelfish. Site hosting donated by PEER1. Video on demand donated by Akamai."
All neatly tax compliant or, at least, set up to be able to claim tax credit. But note - the tax code precludes non-profits form acting politically. The funding mechanisms here insure that this plague will be defined as a problem of charity or philanthropy. And the providers in the field - all good NGOs - rely on the same sorts of funding. Again, I am not criticizing - I make monthly contributions to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, but I also understand that that is necessary as a remedial gesture and in no way constitutes political action.

[3] Here we arrive back at Jörg's worries. He is concerned that Nachtwey's photographs (and not just his) are not effective in the same way that similar work has been in the past. This is a crucial worry since, as Nachtwey himself makes clear in his 'wish,' his aim is to establish the continuing relevance of photography in a 'digital age.' Yet, if what I have claimed here is close to being on point, it is unlikely that photojournalism ever had demonstrable effects of the sort that either Nachtwey or Jörg are ascribing to it. Here I think Sontag is correct when she insists that photography has important effects largely when it is taken up and used by those who already are engaged in some movement or other.

Recall that, as I noted here early on, Evans and Lange and others were "embedded" in a government program, not in a philanthropic organization. Recall too that their work - like that of virtually every other photographer I find compelling, including Nachtwey - trespasses across the conventional boundaries of photojournalism and art photography. (I've made the case here and here that that distinction is more or less useless as a guide to thinking about photography and how it is used.) It seems to me that Nachtwey's campaign will be most successful if - beyond perhaps attracting attention and funds to relieving the pain and suffering of those with XDRTB - it prompts a re-thinking of how we use photography in such cases. This is where, I think, Jörg and I and perhaps even James Nachtwey, might agree.
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* If you are interested in Nachtwey's previous work, I recommend Susie Linfield, “Beyond the Sorrow and the Pity,” Dissent (Winter 2001), pages 100-106.

** Jörg has just added this helpful update to his first post.

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28 October 2008

Mark Curran - The Breathing Factory

Gowning Room 1, Building 7 11.02 a.m., Monday,
November 11th 2003.

From, The Breathing Factory © Mark Curran 2006

The ill-defined region where I live - Upstate and Western New York - is an economic wasteland characterized by de-industrialization, with resulting high levels of un- and under-employment, incredible concentrations of urban poverty, and widespread poverty in the rural countryside too. All that pre-dates our recent economic collapse. Among the 'good news' lately has been the announcement that a multinational firm - Advanced Micro Devices Inc (AMD) - has agreed to build a chip manufacturing plant north of Albany. The promise is that the plant will employ 1400+ people. The firm already has collected $1.2 billion in incentives from NY State and is trying to squeeze further, even larger sales tax breaks from the county. And, as befits the asymmetrical relationship between a multinational firm and a developing region of the world, the new plant will be concerned solely with manufacturing - all design and development functions will remain in Germany.

All of that leads me to an intriguing, (relatively) recent project by Mark Curran, called The Breathing Factory. As Curran explains, the project "critically addresses the role and representation of labour and global labour practices in Ireland's newly industrialised landscape as manifest in manufacturing and technology. Global industrial practices are characterised by . . . transient spaces as capital moves when and as required. In such an ephemeral and global context, [he] focuses specifically upon the Hewlett-Packard Manufacturing and Technology Campus, part of a cluster formation of multinational technology complexes, in Leixlip in the east of Ireland." this is, in other words, precisely the sort of production facility we are bribing AMD to build here in New York.

Curran makes clear - it is part of his reflexive working method - that completing the project was problematic for several reasons:
Mark Curran spent 9 months negotiating access to the Hewlett-Packard Technology Campus. The project began in April 2003 and was produced over a 20 month period. Each site visit was pre-scheduled and cleared by security and he was accompanied on site at all times. All material collated was vetted and Curran has made this 'policing process' visible in the work, as a comment on the way that global capital investment is a highly managed and protected process. The Breathing Factory has been developed as a cross-disciplinary project involving the application of ethnographic practices and techniques. Curran conducted interviews with a range of staff including the Director of Government and Public Affairs, a Logistics Coordinator, the Vice-President and General Manager, a Production Supervisor, a Clean Room Supervisor and a Health and Safety Inspector, among others. Transcribed excerpts from these interviews have been incorporated into the final installation and publication. Curran has also produced a series of photographs and digital video work surveying this new and transient landscape.
The fluidity of ownership, the high levels of secrecy, and highly asymmetrical control render the high tech production plants quite creepy - despite their sanitized appearance. In many ways Curran's work puts me in mind of Richard Ross's Architecture of Authority - about which I've commented here before. I have not seen the Curran exhibition but am intrigued to find out how he incorporates his interviews and other text into it and the book.*

The Breathing Factory is showing through the end of October as part of 'Septembre de la Photographie 08' in Lyon, France. You can find the particulars here.
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* The Breathing Factory (Edition Braus and Belfast Exposed Photography, 2006) ISBN # 3-89904-216-6.

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Talk Back: Voting Fraud Fraud

As many of you know, the Republicans are trying to change the electoral subject from the set of failed policies and crappy candidates they have on offer to alleged voter registration fraud. They are pointing the finger mostly at Acorn. Their finger pointing is, as I noted here a short time ago, not only a distraction from the real issues at hand, but basically fraudulent. More right-wing bullshit.

In any case, today I received a plea from Acorn via email. They are asking folks to write the McCain campaign demanding that they cut the crap. You can find their communication here. While I am not sanguine that such efforts will persuade the Republicans to clean up their act, it is always good to talk back. I encourage you to do so.

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25 October 2008

Grief

As many of you may know, my son Jeffrey died a little less that two years ago. At that time, and since, I have looked at a number of books on grief and grieving and so forth. Like most pop-psychology virtually all of it seems like drivel to me. (A notable exception is Joan Didion's book The Year of Magical Thinking, but , of course, it is not written by a psychologist.) The smart folks at 3QD posted a link to this article in Scientific American (October 2008) and, I have to say that I am not at all surprised at the total lack of evidence for now-standard tales about grief and how it allegedly operates.
Five Fallacies of Grief: Debunking Psychological Stages
By Michael Shermer

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

So annealed into pop culture are the five stages of grief—introduced in the 1960s by Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross based on her studies of the emotional state of dying patients—that they are regularly referenced without explication.

There appears to be no evidence, however, that most people most of the time go through most of the stages in this or any other order. According to Russell P. Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and co-author, with John W. James, of The Grief Recovery Handbook (HarperCollins, 1998), “no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are defined as such can’t be called stages. Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss.... No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships.”

Friedman’s assessment comes from daily encounters with people experiencing grief in his practice. University of Memphis psychologist Robert A. Neimeyer confirms this analysis. He concluded in his scholarly book Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss (American Psychological Association, 2001): “At the most obvious level, scientific studies have failed to support any discernible sequence of emotional phases of adaptation to loss or to identify any clear end point to grieving that would designate a state of ‘recovery.’”

Nevertheless, the urge to compress the complexities of life into neat and tidy stages is irresistible. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud insisted that we moved through five stages of psychosexual development: oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. Developmental psychologist Erik H. Erikson countered with eight stages: trust vs. mistrust (infant); autonomy vs. doubt (toddler); initiative vs. guilt (preschooler); industry vs. inferiority (school-age period); identity vs. role confusion (adolescent); intimacy vs. isolation (young adult); generativity vs. stagnation (middle age); and integrity vs. despair (older adult). Harvard University psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg postulated that our moral development progresses through six stages: parental punishment, selfish hedonism, peer pressure, law and order, social contract and principled conscience.

Why stages? We are pattern-seeking, storytelling primates trying to make sense of an often chaotic and unpredictable world. A stage theory works in a manner similar to a species-classification heuristic or an evolutionary-sequence schema. Stages also fit well into a chronological sequence where stories have set narrative patterns. Stage theories “impose order on chaos, offer predictability over uncertainty, and optimism over despair,” explained social psychologist Carol Tavris, author of The Mismeasure of Woman (Touchstone, 1993) and co-author, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) (Harcourt, 2007), in an interview with me. “One appeal of stage theories is that they tell a story—they give us a narrative to live by (‘you feel this now, but soon ...’). In cognitive psychology and also in ‘narrative psychotherapy,’ there has been a lot of work on the importance of storytelling. Some therapists now make this idea explicit, helping clients change a negative, self-defeating narrative (‘look at all I suffered’) into a positive one (‘I not only survived but triumphed’).”

What’s wrong with stages? First, Tavris noted, “in developmental psychology, the notion of predictable life stages is toast. Those stage theories reflected a time when most people marched through life predictably: marrying at an early age; then having children when young; then work, work, work; then maybe a midlife crisis; then retirement; then death. Those ‘passages’ theories evaporated with changing social and economic conditions that blew the predictability of our lives to hell.

Second, Tavris continued, “is the guilt and pressure the theories impose on people who are not feeling what they think they should. This is why consumers of any kind of psychotherapy or posttraumatic intervention that promulgates the notion of ‘inevitable’ stages should be skeptical and cautious.”

Stages are stories that may be true for the storyteller, but that does not make them valid for the narrative known as science.

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Greenspan Sorta', Kinda' Takes Some Responsibility

As I wrote here not long ago, it is unfair to lay all or even most of the blame for our current economic woes at the feet of Alan Greenspan - or an other single policy-maker. But it also is irresponsible to allow Greenspan and his various fellow travelers to walk away as though faultless. Late this past week, as the financial markets were collapsing world-wide, Greenspan almost accepted a reasonable share of responsibility in his testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Almost.

There is, of course, a longish line of libertarian political thinkers - Robert Nozick in the U.S. and John Gray in the U.K., for instance - who've recanted after policies inspired by their views have been implemented by right-wing politicians. But 'Oooopps! My Bad!' doesn't really cut it if the consequences of one's ideas are being born by many less able to bear them. And, while I am not advocating show trials, there is a long line of academic economists and policy makers who advocated for extreme de-regulation and who ought to be 'invited' to take public responsibility for the abject failure of their ideological views.

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24 October 2008

Tweaking the Surveillance Apparatus

According to a report at The New York Times, this recently painted mural by Banksy will be removed by order of the borough council. It is difficult to know whether this is just because, as the council president proclaimed, one cannot simply encourage graffiti, because of the critical message the mural expresses, or because, the artist managed to paint the mural without detection right under the nose of a CCTV camera (shown circled in red to the upper right in this photograph).

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23 October 2008

Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, the U.S. and Our Press (amongst others) ...

I am getting ready to head out to class - a lecture on "freedom" and "pluralism." The students are meant to have read Isaiah Berlin's essay "Two Concepts of Liberty." We'll see!

In any case, last summer, before we all became distracted by our economy and its travails, there was much hand-wringing about the military conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. At the time, I wrote that there seemed to be plenty of bad behavior all around. The standard narrative in the west was that the evil Russians were solely to blame. While they were not, neither were they innocent. Same with the Georgians. Same with the U.S. and other western powers. Most of that complexity was lost in press accounts of the conflict. Over at The Nation you can find this account of just how skewed the press accounts may really have been.

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22 October 2008

Best Shots (47) ~ Simon Norfolk

(73) Simon Norfolk ~ The North Gate of Baghdad, 2003 (23 October 08)

"When you see this picture in a gallery from 20 metres away,
you think, "God, that's gorgeous!" It's only when you look at
it in detail that you realise you're looking at a place
where people were slaughtered." ~ SN

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Same News on Inequality

The Organization for Cooperation & Development (OECD) yesterday released a report Growing Unequal? that documents the increasing inequality of income and its effects across 30 countries over two decades (1985-2005). The news is not good. Nor is it surprising. You can find the report here and a report on the study from The Wall Street Journal here. The OECD Press release presents the key findings as follows:

Key Findings of Growing Unequal?

Why is the gap between rich and poor growing?
In most countries the gap is growing because rich households have done significantly better than middle-class and poor households. Changes in the structure of the population and in the labour market over the past 20 years have contributed greatly to this rise in inequality.

  • Wages have been improving for those people who were already well paid.
  • Employment rates have been dropping among less-educated people.
  • And, there are more single-adult and single-family households.

Who is most affected?
Statisticians and economists assess poverty in relation to average incomes. Typically, they take the poverty line to be equivalent to one-half of the median income in a given country.

  • Since 1980, poverty among the elderly has fallen in OECD countries.
  • By contrast, poverty among young adults and families with children has increased.
  • On average, one child out of every eight living in an OECD country in 2005 was living in poverty.

What does this mean for future generations?
Social mobility is generally higher in countries where income inequalities are relatively low. In countries with high income inequalities, by contrast, mobility tends to be lower.

  • Children living in countries where there is large gap between rich and poor are less likely to improve on the education and income attainments of their parents than children living in countries with low income inequality.
  • Countries like Denmark and Australia have higher social mobility, while the United States, United Kingdom and Italy have lower mobility.

What can be done?
In some cases, government policies of taxation and redistribution of income have helped to counteract widening inequalities, but this cannot be their only response. Governments must also improve their policies in other areas.

  • Education policies should aim to equip people with the skills they need in today’s labour market.
  • Active employment policies are needed to help unemployed people find work.
  • Access to paid employment is key to reducing the risk of poverty, but getting a job does not necessarily mean you are in the clear. Growing Unequal? found that over half of all households in poverty have at least some income from work.
  • Welfare-in-work policies can help hard-pressed working families to have a decent standard of living by supplementing their incomes.
It goes without saying (almost) that the U.S. emerges as especially bad in the report.

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21 October 2008

Dualing Fundraisers in Rochester

I have repeatedly complained that Rochester has the single most boring npr affiliate in the country. Despite one fairly recent reason for pause, I stand by that assessment. With nearly no local programming on either band, WXXI gives over its FM broadcasts exclusively to classical music, while their AM station devotes hours and hours to more or less insipid talk programming.

This is pledge week on npr. I do not support WXXI (I once did, but gave up in despair). Instead, I give to a local member-supported, mostly jazz station WGMC.* I will say that while the WGMC programming is a bit too conventional for my tastes it is nonetheless considerably better than the fare served on npr. This is their pledge period too. Indeed, this morning I violated the law and used my cell phone to call in my pledge while I was driving in to the University. But they are having a difficult time making their fund-raising goal. If you live in the area and have to choose, send your money to the folks at WGMC. And, if you live out of the area, you can get the station via a live internet feed. Geography is no barrier. Dig deep, find some cash and pledge it.
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* I say "mostly" because, as their web page announces: "Jazz90.1 is also an important outlet for music and voices that don’t make it onto commercial radio. Our longest-running show is Polka Bandstand. We also feature the Lithuanian-language program Dainos Aidas; The German Radio Program; and Esencia Latina, a four-hour program of Latin music (broadcast in Spanish)."

One of my lasting childhood memories is of the Sunday morning 'Polish-American Hour' on WBRK in the Berkshires where I grew up, so 'Polka Bandstand' weirdly resonates with me.

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20 October 2008

Cheka Kidogo

"I think we have become anaesthetised to traditional photographs of conflict victims. By applying my celebrity portraiture style of photography to the survivors ... I have tried to get beyond the statistics and show the human side of the conflict." ~ Rankin
This is another of the posts I write periodically that likely will draw the ire of good-hearted readers. The Guardian today ran this announcement of a London exhibition of a project underwritten by Oxfam and undertaken by fashion /celebrity photographer Rankin. I have criticized Rankin (and others like him) on several occasions - for instance, here and here. Oxfam apparently brought Rankin to the refugee camp at Mugunga in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where he took celebrity-style portraits of some of the nearly 20,000 people who inhabit the camp. You can see some of the results in the panel at right; there are other examples here at the Oxfam web page (just above the advert for the Oxfam credit card issued by The Cooperative Bank)..

The project obviously seems well-intentioned. It is entitled Cheka Kidogo, which, in Swahili, means "Laugh a Little." And many of the portraits are indeed touching. Why am I criticizing it? It is not just that I've never doubted that people can experience and express joy even under extremely dire circumstances. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag criticized Sebastião Salgado for his Migrations project for including images of individuals without naming them. Here is Sontag:
"A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertently, in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite type of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights. Taken in thirty-nine countries, Salado’s migration pictures group together, under this single heading, a host of different causes and kinds of distress. Making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to think that they ought to “care” more. It also invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be changed by any local political intervention. With a subject conceived on this scale, compassion can only flounder - and make abstract."
Now, I think Sontag is remarkably wrong about Salgado and about much else as well. Put aside the hypocrisy of Susan Sontag (celebrity) who had a long term relationship with Annie Leibovitz (celebrity photographer) denouncing our contemporary "cult of celebrity." Notice, though, that the Oxfam/Rankin undertaking falls prey to her basic complaint. It simply assumes that everyone can be a celebrity - or at least everyone can be treated as one. That in no way addresses the source of the ongoing war and dislocation in the DRC. The task - and it is a political task, not a philanthropic or humanitarian one - is to identify and implement effective ways of settling the conflict and provide the population with the basic security necessary to begin pursuing normal lives. What we need to do, in other words, is not treat displaced people as celebrities, as though that is a proper aspiration, but as ordinary people who are bearing the burden of carnage and mayhem. How such depictions might inform a movement for social and political change is a perennial problem. I have no quick answer to the difficult questions involved. But I am fairly certain that the Oxfam/Rankin undertaking will do nothing in that regard.

In the comment at the top of the post, Rankin tacitly criticizes "traditional photographs of conflict victims." He does not identify any particular work or photographers. One might compare, though, the contributions to this project that members of the photo agency VII took on in collaboration with Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres several years ago. I have criticisms of much of that work. But I wonder about the fairly common worry Rankin expresses that photographs of pain and suffering anesthetize viewers. That is a big topic, however.

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Fucked Up

In The New York Times today is a review of this CD. I've not heard it and it is unlikely that I ever will. What is astounding is that The Times is so concerned about our delicate sensibilities that it refuses to publish the band's "prankishly unprintable name." Please!

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There is an Interview With Raymond Geuss . . .

... here at Philosophy Bites. I have mentioned Geuss here before; he is Professor of Political Theory at Cambridge and an extremely smart and provocative thinker. Geuss has a new book out; the interview addresses some of its central themes.

(My advice, let the audio file load and run through on mute while you do something else, then go back to the start and listen to the interview.)

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Heroine

"She was monetarily helpful to a lot who were struggling. But more than that, she was with us. By being with the baroness, we could go places and feel like human beings. It certainly made us feel good. I don’t know how you could measure it. But it was a palpable thing. I think she was a heroic woman.” ~ Sonny Rollins
. . . referring to Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter a patron and protector of jazz and many musicians who made and sustained it. There was an interesting story in The New York Times yesterday on a new book and exhibition of her photographs and writings.

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19 October 2008

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt is, in my estimation, among a small handful of truly profound 20th century political theorists. Maybe Weber, Dewey, Rawls, Foucault, and Habermas are in the same league. The picture at right is Arendt at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s. In any case, she was born 14 October 1906 and I missed noting the anniversary this past week. That is ironic because I actually was reading her essay "What is Freedom?" that day in preparation for discussing it in my freshman political theory course.

There are two aspects of the essay that especially appeal to me. The first is her insistence that freedom requires public space in which we can interact and speak. And this leads her to note that in our world freedom is precarious precisely due to a lack of such a public world.
"Moreover, whenever the man-made world does not become the scene of action and speech - as in despotically ruled communities which banish their subjects into the narrowness of the home and thus prevent the rise of a public realm - freedom has no worldly reality. Without a politically guaranteed public realm, freedom lacks the worldly space to make its appearance. To be sure, it may still dwell in men's hearts as desire or will or hope or yearning; but the human heart, as we all know, is a very dark place, and whatever goes on in its obscurity can hardly be called demonstrable fact. Freedom as demonstrable fact and politics coincide and are related to each other like two sides of the same matter."
On Arendt's view, freedom is not a characteristic of thought or conscience or choice, but of action, where the latter, when free, involves the capacity "to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known." It is, in other words, essential to our ability to make (although that is a word Arendt herself would not allow in this context) and sustain the world. This sounds as though Arendt would see politics as akin to art and she does in a somewhat unsatisfying way. She insists that politics resembles the performing arts, but not the creative arts. That is because, on her view, the former require continues performance if they are exist, while the latter reify thought and action in some object. This, it seems to me, is a mistaken - overly narrow - view of the creative arts and that, if we were to turn to Dewey and see that it is a mistake to conflate art and its objects. (This is a lesson, as I noted here, that we need to keep in mind if we want to think of photography and its uses instead of about photographs.) That, of course, would require an argument that I am not prepared to make here.

The second theme in the essay that I find appealing comes toward the very end where Arendt makes the following comments on the miraculous dimension of free action.
"Every act, seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a 'miracle' - that is, something which could not be expected. If it is true that action and beginning are essentially the same, it follows that a capacity for performing miracles must likewise be within the range of human faculties. This sounds stranger than it actually is. It is in the very nature of every new beginning that it breaks into the world as an 'infinite improbability,' and yet it is precisely this infinitely improbable which actually constitutes the very texture of everything we call real."
Having spent extended parts of my childhood in Catholic schools, I am almost viscerally averse to talk of miracles. Add to that the recent vogue for such talk among new age types and I'm usually ready, when someone mentions miracles, to back my way toward the door so that I might escape without taking my eyes off the crazy folks. That said, I think it is important to be able to think seriously about the truly unexpected both in art and in politics. What else, after all, do we have in mind when we think about surprise and creativity and innovation and reform?

Game theorists, for example, talk of unforeseen contingencies - occurrences to which we do not merely assign minuscule probabilities, but that we truly do not anticipate at all. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that one cannot exclude such events from formal models. That is part of what makes them useful and provocative. Similarly, pragmatists rightly stress the indeterminacy of social and political interaction in all sorts of ways. Roberto Mangabeira Unger, about whom I've posted here several times, speaks of the place of miracles in ways that echo Arendt too. Where those affinities might lead us, though, is a subject for another post. I was interested only in noting that Arendt directs us to ponder the same difficult subjects.

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Cameras as Weapons (3)

Yesterday both Voice of America and Ha'aretz ran brief stories about Israeli settlers on the West Bank attacking Palestinians attempting to harvest olives. As I have noted here and here before, this is an ongoing problem in which the Israeli security forces and courts appear to be complicit. As in the earlier cases on which I've commented, the settlers seemed especially distressed by the idea that their criminal acts were being photographed. This image accompanied the VOA report.

Israeli settlers attack a Palestinian photographer
during an olive harvest in the occupied West Bank,
18 Oct 2008 (picture released by Active Stills).

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18 October 2008

Making Things Visible

On Thursday evening I attended a work-in-progress screening of a new film by a very talented local film-maker Carvin Eison entitled Shadows of the Lynching Tree. The title captures the subject. I anticipate that, when finished, this film will be provocative and extremely powerful. During the follow-up discussion, a set of themes occurred to me. The first was how long the shadows actually are. As I've noted here before, many of those commenting in print on the photographs that initially broke the ways U.S. military personnel were torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib regularly draw analogies to lynching photographs. The focus in each instance was on those perpetrating the crimes instead of on their victims.

This, in turn, brought to mind a second theme (on which I've posted here and here) revolving around the difficulty of depicting power and powerlessness. The difficulty, in particular, is how one might mitigate the risk of exploiting victims or sensationalizing violence and suffering while still capturing the evils of, say, torture or terror or genocide. This brought to mind the work of Ken Gonzales Day who - as I noted here - has used some photoshop-like-technique to erase the victims out of lynching photographs, leaving behind only the perpetrators. Here for example is a detail from one of these altered photographs; it was initially taken at the lynching of John Holmes at St. James Park in San Jose, CA in 1933.

Detail St. James Park (2006) © Ken Gonzales Day

We no longer witness Holmes's body dangling from the tree. As a result we are able to see more clearly the spectators and perpetrators. Arguably, we can discern even more. In a perceptive short review for The New York Times of a 2006 exhibition of Gonzales Day's work, Holland Cotter wrote:
"In each of these pictures, though, the artist has erased the body of the victim, leaving everything else intact. The tree or telegraph post used for the hanging is there; so is the crowd of witnesses and executioners, posing for the camera or staring up at what is now empty space.

As the artist Kerry James Marshall demonstrated in paintings using lynching photographs and a comparable mode of selective erasure, the effect is very different from looking at the horrific unaltered pictures, where the victims continue to be exposed and shamed as objects of casual spectatorship, exactly as their killers intended. Mr. Gonzales-Day's work throws the emphasis on the spectators themselves and makes hard lines between then and now, them and us, difficult to draw."
Cotter here drew my attention to Marshall, with whose work I am unfamiliar. The relevant work seems to be this triptych:

Heirlooms and Accessories (2002) © Kerry James Marshall

Although in this reproduction you cannot quite make out the suppressed background, Marshall leaves a spectral impression of the original photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion Indiana. Each of the women whose face is encapsulated in a locket witnessed the event.

The way that Marshal lays the necklaces clearly suggests that the spectators lives, and those too, of their descendants, are tethered to this violent scene. With that gesture, he enables us to ponder things that might otherwise be occluded by horror - things like complicity and, thereby, inheritance and continuity. Like Gonzales Day he is using photography to provoke us into seeing that the subject of the images might just as well be victimizers as victims.

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Suspicions Confirmed: Political Science Professors Give Good Grades for Liberal Views


Quick! Someone alert David Horowitz! I've posted on the latter buffoon here before. My views on freedom and discomfort in the classroom are about the same as they were then. It is nice, though, to see some humor injected into what is a dreary, predictable litany of right wing complaints. Of course, I do think various high ranking members of the Bush Administration will be susceptible to war crimes prosecution too [1] [2].

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'I Was There'

"Get this close to the epicentre of history and your pictures are bound to look pretty bad, as if they're being blown apart. The irrefutable truth of the image - I was there - overrides all aesthetic and technical concerns." ~ Geoff Dyer
Dyer tips his hand in a longish review of a couple exhibitions of war photo-journalism currently showing in London. The review appears in The Guardian.

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17 October 2008

Obama Should Repudiate Any Powell Endorsement

There seems to be significant amount of buzz surrounding the possibility that Colin Powell may endorse Barack Obama this weekend. Before getting all worked up, Democrats should recall at least two things. First, not only did Powell lie repeatedly in the course of the BushCo propaganda campaign that led up the Iraq invasion in 2003 but, his command performance at the U.N. arguably was the clincher for the invasion, which was initiated roughly a week later. Second, Powell was among the group of top level BushCo officials who met in the White House Situation Room and approved plans to torture specific detainees in particular ways.

Over at Huff Post the comment threads on stories about Powell's anticipated endorsement are full of folks declaring that Powell is "honorable" and that the anti-war crown ought to 'get over it' now that some time has passed.* This is a pretty astounding lack of self-reflection on the part of people who support Obama as a progressive purveyor of change and hope. (I actually do not subscribe to that view, although he is better than McCain.) I'd love to hear how honor squares with duplicity and inhumanity.

Powell is way too smart and had way too many contacts in the military and intelligence communities to actually believe what he peddled in the run-up to the invasion. (at a minimum he had to have understood that the "intelligence" was contested and that the BushCo line was mostly spin.) And he simply ought to have resigned and spoken out forthrightly about the policy of torture. It is that simple. All the talk about honor and integrity amounts to nothing in the face of the record. If Obama takes on a Powell endorsement, he unnecessarily takes on the burden of an unjustified war - one that he prides himself on having opposed at the outset.
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* For example:
"Powell is the only person to come out of the Bush Administration with high favorability ratings. Only some remnants of the anti war movement still stuck in 2003 care about that much about his UN speech. Iraq was a Bush Cheney Rumsfeld policy. I and most people consider him an honorable man. This is a definite plus for Obama."

"Powell is not tarnished in anyone's eyes except extreme partisans. If he was running for president, he'd win in a landslide."

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Voter Fraud Fraud

The right, those overly proficient practitioners of voting suppression, are more or less apoplectic about alleged shenanigans of ACORN. Actually, I suspect that they are apoplectic about the prospect of lots of new lower income and minority voters. That said, all I have are my suspicions. That is, that is all I had until I read: Hendrik Hertzberg "Voter Fraud Fraud" at The New Yorker (on line) who does a nice, succinct job of deflating right-wing bombast.

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16 October 2008

Context and the Consequences of Neglecting It

Photograph © Susan Meiselas (1979)

Painting from the Series Riot (2003) © Joy Garnett

I've just read this exchange of sorts that appeared in Harper's (February 2007) between a painter Joy Garnett and photographer Susan Meiselas. The exchange culminated a fracas that arose after Garnett based a painting (2003) on a fragment of an image Meiselas had made in Nicaragua in 1979. Each woman offers her own take on the way Garnett appropriated Meiselas's photograph.

I have to say that I side with Meiselas in this dispute. The reason is not the legal one of whether the way Garnett appropriated her image was somehow or other covered by the fair use exception to copyright. I suspect Garnett is right on that score. And from what I can figure from the exchange that is not actually what bothered Meiselas.

The artist's statement on Garnett's web page describes her paintings as "visceral re-imaginings of current events both far and near." In this instance, unfortunately, what I think we get is more accurately seen as a politically suspect re-categorization.

In her contribution to the exchange with Garnett, Meiselas focuses on the importance of context in understanding her photographs. Indeed, she has tried in a fairly systematic way to reinsert her Nicaragua images back into their (changed) context. And she acknowledges the various ways that Nicaraguans have appropriated the image. The issue seems not to be appropriating as much as it is mis-appropriating. As she succinctly notes about this image: "What is happening is anything but a 'riot.'"

Garrett notes that the "Riot" series of which her painting is a part, was "born of frustration and anger" caused by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It seems to me that it was informed by a considerable dose of self-indulgence too. That self-indulgence apparently blinded Garrett to the way that - in this instance at least - her frustrated "re-imagining" converged with the self-serving rationalizations of successive American administrations. The latter, after all, precisely have sought to portray any and all active resistance to our policies, or those of the repressive regimes we've sponsored, as senseless violence, terrorism, and so forth.

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