31 December 2011
Photojournalism & Its Uses
30 December 2011
Photograph © Pieter Hugo.
Photograph © Pieter Hugo.
Some years ago I wrote this not-terribly-enthusiastic post comment on South African photographer Pieter Hugo and his work. Earlier in the fall seemed to be getting a fair share of quite positive exposure - from Sean O'Hagan here at The Guardian, for instance, or here at The New York Times Magazine - so I thought I'd see if it might do to reconsider. Hugo has done two major projects recently. One, Permanent Error, documents the environmental and human disaster of a massive dump outside of Accra, Ghana. The second, Rwanda 2004: Vestiges of a Genocide, focuses on just what the title suggests. I suppose there is nothing wrong with either of the two undertakings. Permanent Error seems fairly derivative - I think of Edward Burtynsky's images of computer salvage in the Chinese countryside or of Salgado's images of impoverished scavengers at massive dumps across the developing world. The same might be said of at least parts of the "vestiges" project - think of Nachtwey or Peress or Salgado. But there are some images of Rwanda that are strikingly provocative. These depict the Rwandan countryside, mostly now tangled overgrowth, all seemingly banal, where atrocities took place.
In the end, I have not updated terribly much. Hugo seems more able to resist the 'Africa as freak show' thrust of his earlier work. But he has now turned instead - with only mixed 'success' - to 'Africa as disaster zone.' (Note: in many respects the other photographers I mention above might be accused of falling prey to a similar pre-occupation.) He clearly is a talented photographer. But he is caught in the tropes that dominate photography of the African continent. I wonder if he might some day break out from those constraints. That, in my mind, would warrant some of the superlatives that rain down around him now.
29 December 2011
There is an Interview with Philosopher Charles Taylor ...
27 December 2011
Sen on the Folly of Austerity
"Like many board games that were developed in India, of which chess is perhaps the most important and famous, the game of “snakes and ladders” too emerged in this country a long time ago. With its balancing of snakes that pull you down and ladders that take you up, this game has been used again and again as a metaphor for life, telling us about our fortunes and misfortunes, and going further, about the consequences of good deeds and bad actions. Good decisions yield handsome rewards – taking us rapidly up a ladder – and bad moves yield severe penalties – making us suffer a precipitate decline through the mouth of a long snake, all the way down to its distant tail.Sen, of course, advances a set of fairly broad criteria for assessing economic development. And he staunchly defends democratic politics against technocratic incursions. But the immediate point is clear.
[. . .]
I begin with snakes. I cannot hide from this audience my belief that a great many countries in the West seem to be doing their best to go straight into the mouth of a fairly hefty snake. In an economic world that is still emerging very slowly from the gigantic crises of 2008, with the continuation of huge unemployment, very low growth, and languishing demand – as is the case in many of the traditionally rich countries, particularly in the bulk of Europe – it is hard to think that anything can be further from a ladder and as close to a snake as huge programmes of comprehensive economic austerity. It is certainly true that many countries in Europe need – and have needed for some time – a better system of economic accountability and more responsible management of the economy. But to regard large-scale cutting of every kind of government expenditure, including those that decimate the quality of vulnerable human lives and the bases of centrally important human security, and create havoc to the possibility of economic growth, would be a very odd vision of a ladder."
News Flash! Jackass + Handgun = Felon
I recommend this piece in The New York Times today about how concealed weapons permits mix really well with mental illness, pot, alcohol, criminal behavior, domestic violence in particular, and, well, simply being a jackass. Mr. Diez, a (now-former) Asheville, North Carolina firefighter, seems to have started in the final category but has advanced to confessed felon. Apparently, it is a short step that jackasses regularly take. I've been pretty consistently clear here about the stupidity of handgun fetishes. (And no, you don't need a concealed carry permit to hunt. You need one only to shoot people.) In that sense, I suppose there is no real surprise in The Times report.
26 December 2011
Republican Anti-Environmentalism as an Assault on "Unborn Babies"
Hat makers no longer use mercury (and who wears hats these days?), but a lot of mercury gets into the atmosphere from old coal-burning power plants that lack modern pollution controls. From there it gets into the water, where microbes turn it into methylmercury, which builds up in fish. And what happens then? The E.P.A. explains: “Methylmercury exposure is a particular concern for women of childbearing age, unborn babies and young children, because studies have linked high levels of methylmercury to damage to the developing nervous system, which can impair children’s ability to think and learn.”And, then, referring to recently promulgated EPA regulations on mercury and other toxics, Krugman explains:
. . . the payoff to the new rules is huge: up to $90 billion a year in benefits compared with around $10 billion a year of costs in the form of slightly higher electricity prices. This is . . . a very big deal.
And it’s a deal Republicans very much want to kill.
So, it is OK to assault the unborn so long as it is 'good for business'? I love the Republican logic - which is driven by the irresistible urge to abandon or ignore virtually any commitment in order to suck up to the capitalists.
* Please note that nothing I write here commits me to recognizing "life" as beginning at any time other than birth. I'm just taking "pro-life' reds at their word. I know, it seems unfair.
24 December 2011
In any case, Doug gave me this CD by Italian pianist Augusto Pirodda, featuring the recently deceased, very much lamented Paul Motian. The disc is really quite good. That said, it is a bit too understated and spacious for the other listeners currently at the house.
21 December 2011
Best Shots (188) ~ Lukas Strebel
20 December 2011
Andrei Sannikov ~ Political Prisoner in Belarus
18 December 2011
Passings ~ Václav Havel (1936-2011)
Václav Havel has died. You can find obituaries at The New York Times and The Guardian here and here respectively. Regular readers will know that I've hardly hidden my considerable admiration for Havel. This is a sad day. While I thought many of Havel's political formulations were too fraught with metaphysics, it is important to note that he never subscribed to the mindless neo-liberalism that swept much of post-communist Central Europe. And throughout his public career he persisted in speaking out against political oppression and exploitation. This is a sad day.
17 December 2011
clashes in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Saturday. Photograph © Reuters.
This photo is lifted from The New York Times today. Ditching Mubarak for this? Where will the Obama administration be this sort of violence and repression?
16 December 2011
An Appropriate Irony ~ Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
15 December 2011
Obama Shelves the Rule of Law
briefing room of the White House in Washington on
December 5, 2011. Photograph © 2011 Reuters.
This is an image from 10 days ago. In the intervening period Obama stepped back from a rare moment of impersonating an individual with political backbone. He has decided to sign the Defense Authorization Act and, with it, sign away the rule of law in the U.S.; not a bad turn around. Here is a statement on this from Human Rights Watch - initially set up to monitor bad behavior of the communists during the cold war. HRW is too polite by at least half.
13 December 2011
Photograph © Platon.
12 December 2011
Turkish Political Scientist Büşra Ersanli Under Arrest
Best Shots (187) ~ Ryan McGinley
10 December 2011
West Coast Port Shutdown ~ Monday 12 December
No one has asked my opinion, but I think the action is a good idea. I think of the Occupy movement as seeking to initiate a national conversation about fundamental aspects of our political economy. State and local officials across the country have relied on coercion in a coordinated campaign to squelch any dissent. So, it seems to me that OWS is right to seek new spaces to press its case. I hope the action comes off and is wildly successful.
Art and the Eurozone Crisis
09 December 2011
Passings ~ Jose Gaytan (1940~2011)
08 December 2011
Picture Stillbirths, If You Can
the UK. That's one in every 200 births, a rate that has stuck at
that level since 1999." ~ The Guardian
07 December 2011
Political Theorists on OWS (5) - Stanford Crowd
06 December 2011
Art & the Limits of Neuroscience
05 December 2011
Political Theorists on OWS (4) ~ Raymond Geuss
Political Theorists on OWS (3) ~ Wendy Brown
Theory & Event
Volume 14, Number 4, 2011 Supplement
Occupy Wall Street:
Return of a Repressed Res-Publica
For three decades, American populist politics have been largely reactionary, instigated and instrumentalized by monied interests. What finally triggered this left revolt against neoliberal deregulation and corporately bought democracy? Why didn't it erupt in 2008 when the government bailed out teetering investment banks but not their victims-those holding subprime mortgages or gutted retirement funds? Why not in 2009 when gigantic bonuses were handed around to the very investment bankers who had crashed the system with their derivatives games? Why not in spring 2011 when the Supreme Court overturned limits on corporate contributions to Political Action Committees (permitting corporations to flood the electoral process) and then essentially killed off class-action lawsuits (workers' and consumers' main line of defense against corporate fraud and abuse)? Why not at any point in the last decade as mass access to higher education collapsed, infrastructure rotted, real income for the middle class plummeted, health care costs skyrocketed, while corporations, banks and the wealthy feathered their nests?
The OWS events this fall are the twin gifts of, on the one hand, the inspirational Arab Spring and, on the other, the colossal failure of the Obama presidency to place even a light rein on neoliberal de-regulation or install a modest interval of separation between Wall Street and Washington. If the first was an obvious trigger, the second should not be minimized: Had any of the promised Obama "hope" been substantially realized—early withdrawal from Iraq war, closing Guantanamo, stimulating economic recovery with jobs creation, repealing the Bush tax cuts, tightening regulations on finance capital, expanding access to affordable higher education, reining in health care costs—many Occupy Wall Streeters, especially the young, might have remained wedded to the electoral political process that engaged them so intensely just three years ago.
In addition to the galvanizing effects of the Arab Spring and the Obama Autumn, almost half a decade of recession fueled the fire with staggering unemployment (25% among recent college graduates), deteriorating wages, vanishing pensions, home foreclosures, scandalous rates of poverty and homelessness (1 in 5 children in the US are born into poverty) and accelerated destruction of public goods and services already slimmed by two decades of neoliberal defunding and privatization. Together these effects pooled the predicaments of the poor and the middle class, the young and the old, the working and the under- and unemployed: all are sacrificed as capital is propped, bailed, and continues to feast. Put another way, what makes this era unique is the unprecedented mutual identification among working middle class families carrying under-water mortgages, unemployed youth carrying under-water college loan debt, laid-off factory workers facing contracting unemployment benefits, public workers forced to shoulder ever growing contributions to their own "benefits" or losing long-promised pensions, and skilled and unskilled workers—from pre-school teachers to airline pilots—whose salaries for full-time work cannot lift their families above poverty level.
If neoliberal economic policies eliminating state benefits and public goods while plumping the nests of the rich have paradoxically joined the fates of heretofore diverse and often divided generations, job sectors, races and classes, neoliberal political policies aimed at breaking social solidarities have similarly paved the road for broad-based democratic uprising. Recent years have seen a plethora of state and federal court decisions assaulting the organized power of unions, consumers, welfare recipients, seniors, public sector workers, and the electorate as a whole. From AT&T Mobility v. Concepion (the Supreme Court decision permitting corporations to avoid class action litigation) to State of Wisconsin v. Fitzgerald et al (the Wisconsin court decision upholding a state law gutting the collective bargaining power of public unions), the last decade has seen the steady ratification and implementation of Margaret Thatcher's iteration of the neoliberal political ideal—"there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women ...."1 Yet paradoxically or perhaps (for those who still believe in it) dialectically, this very demolition of organized interest group power—combined with scandalous growth in income inequality, eye-popping wealth at the top and dismantling of public goods—has facilitated a new populist political consciousness. Out of broken traditional solidarities and assaults on democracy itself, a new ethos of the mass is being carved: modestly democratic, probably even more modestly egalitarian, but certainly contoured by more than individual, sectional or partisan interests.2
To put the problem a little differently, partly through these broken solidarities, partly through demonizing the 1%, and partly through explicitly forging this new populist ethos, OWS has managed in spirit, analysis and conduct to substitute justice talk for interest talk. And it has done so when the language of justice seemed nearly extinguished by a neoliberal rationality that refracts all conduct through the metric of human capital self-appreciation.3 "We are the 99%," far from participating in a discourse organized by interest or difference, overtly rejects the seizing of the nation by a plutocracy, by private rather than public interests. If the slogan is sometimes mobilized to cast this seizing as an effect of corruption and greed rather than neoliberal rationality in late capitalism (including the complete imbrication of Euro-Atlantic states with the fates and imperatives of finance capital), this is consequent not only to the wealth extremes the epoch has generated but to the necessary personification and theatricalization of all potent political discourse. (Even the Bolsheviks needed to feature the czars as the enemy!) Yet how difficult it has been for the mainstream media to grasp this new formation as promulgating a vision of justice, as issuing from educated political conviction and not only personal circumstance or individual rancor! It is a sign of our profoundly depoliticized vernacular of citizenship today that the stock interview question of OWS participants, "what brings you here?" is always intended to solicit a story of personal hardship or calamity. From CNN to NPR to the New York Times, the interviewers never know what to do with OWS answers that reference a decent, equitable and sustainable way of collective life, a sense of right and wrong, and an account of what we political theorists quaintly call The Good for the polity.
As splendidly surprising as the OWS movement has been, equally astonishing is the level of national endorsement for it: recent polls indicate that 62% of the country supports the movement and that more than a third of the super-rich (the 1%) are sympathetic.4 Regardless of the strategic challenges ahead for OWS as a movement, these facts alone brighten future prospects for a critical national discourse about democracy and capitalism. Occupy Wall Street has already generated something extraordinary in its successful challenge to the neoliberal image of the nation on the model of the firm, where profit is the only metric, competition the only game, private property the only rule, winners and losers the only outcome, and hierarchy and inequality the only form of organization. In place of that image, OWS has revived the classical image of the nation as res-publica, the nation as a public thing. The struggle ahead? To make the image real.
Wendy Brown is Class of 1936 Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley where she teaches political theory. Her most recent book is Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (Zone 2010). Her political work is currently focused on preserving public higher education in the United States, in particular the University of California. Brown can be reached at email@example.com
1. "Wisconsin Court Reinstates Law on Union Rights," New York Times, June 15, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/us/politics/15wisconsin.html
2. Sure, the unions showed up qua unions at Zuccotti Square for a few days in early October but to "seize on this "crystallizing moment" in "talking about what's wrong with the system," not to organize labor. "Seeking Energy, Unions Join Protest Against Wall Street," New York Times, October 5, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/nyregion/major-unions-join-occupy-wall-street-protest.html?pagewanted=all
3. Michel Feher, "Self-Appreciation; Or, the Aspirations of Human Capital," Public Culture 21.1, 2009.
4. "Poll: Most Americans Support Occupy Wall Street," The Atlantic October 19, 2011 http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/10/poll-most-americans-support-occupy-wall-street/246963/ and "Over Third of Millionaires Argue 'Occupy' Protestors Make 'Good and Valid' Point" Huffington Post, November 3, 2011 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/03/occupy-wall-street-poll-millionaires_n_1074551.html
Copyright © 2011 Wendy Brown and The Johns Hopkins University Press
Political Theorists on OWS (2) ~ Bernard Harcourt
04 December 2011
Political Theorists on OWS (1) - Bill Connolly
Theory & Event
Volume 14, Number 4, 2011 Supplement
What Is To Be Done?
William E. Connolly
Occupy Wall Street, or better described, the 99% movement, represents a delayed reaction to the political economy of inequality, crisis, military adventurism, and corporate authoritarianism of the last 30 years. It carries the potential to energize the democratic left, to pull Obama and Blue Dog Democrats toward the left, to mobilize local energies, and to awaken a yet larger section of the American populace. Its immediate adversaries are Wall Street, the volatility of unregulated capitalism, Republican blockage of corporate regulation, jobs programs and existing tax policies, the right edge of the evangelical movement, the lack of labor and consumer representation on governing boards of most firms, the diffidence of the democratic party, campaign laws that flood the air waves with right wing disinformation, the right wing majority on the Supreme Court, and a 24-hours news media that uses distraction and scandal mongering to draw attention from the plight of the urban poor. The dynamics of this critical movement deserve much closer attention, but that will not be my focus today.
One question the media poses, now that it can no longer simply ignore this movement, is, "What do these people want?" "What do they stand for, anyway?" Below are a few interim answers to such questions. The interim answers are definitely at odds with the pure market fantasies of neoliberal capitalism. But they are compatible with capitalism per se, understood as production for profit, contractual labor, the primacy of the commodity form, a significant degree of competition between firms, and a large role for the state. A large state? In actual fact, every advanced capitalist country has a large state; they vary in the extent to which they support egalitarianism, unemployment benefits, health care, and sustainable modes of consumption over huge prison expenditures, intensive crime control policies, and gargantuan military budgets on the other. Capitalism per se has serious problems, dangers and limits, but that is not the focus now. Some policy responses, then:
1. A minimal objective is to transform the tax code so that capital gains taxes, now set at 15%, are equalized with other taxes. If you earn, say, over $300,000 in income, your capital gains will be taxed at the same adjusted rates as your income tax. This reform means that incomes gained from work and investment are treated equally. A much more progressive tax system is also required. And a transaction tax on derivatives is required that could bring in a few hundred billion over a decade, even as the myth that low taxes for the rich generate high productivity must be exposed. And the indispensability of the state must be acknowledged by the shape of a progressive tax system.
2. Banks must be required to set aside much bigger deposits for the loans they make, to reduce the chances of another bank induced world collapse. Investment and savings banks must be separated once again, prohibiting the casino approach to investment by banks. Housing foreclosures, most of which have been created by a crisis started at the top, can be stopped by renegotiating loans. Unemployment insurance must be extended.
3. State policies must be introduced to press banks and corporations to invest the huge amount of capital they have on hand. How? One approach would be to reward institutions that invest their funds in productive ways with modest tax breaks while hitting those which curtail growth with tax increases. As this is done, it is essential to publicize to the broader populace how the most immediate barrier to job growth today is the current unwillingness of private institutions to invest their capital.
4. A general jobs program, alone, is not sufficiently focused. State action must aim at reconstituting the general infrastructure of consumption that now sets the frame of possibility in which everyday consumption is set. By building fast transit systems, trolleys, trains, and bike paths you shift a large portion of current state expenditures and subsidies from roads, highways and airports toward more egalitarian alternatives; you open up new possibilities of production; and you introduce less expensive consumer choices for travel. By creating a state health care system you increase the competitive position of America in the world (in which most advanced countries have such systems); you relieve these burdens from consumers and businesses; and you improve the long term health of the populace. By subsidizing and publicizing food production that is healthy you provide new jobs for many as you reduce the medical costs and health burdens of the populace. By providing incentives for sustainable and efficient energy production you increase the independence of the country, decrease pressure for military expenditures, speak to the desires of innumerable consumers, and take important steps to forestall climate warming. Such a list can be extended indefinitely, with each item to be judged by its capacity to equalize the ability of citizens to participate in the larger
5. What else besides tax policy and significant shifts in the established infrastructure of consumption can be done to reduce the extreme inequality we now have? Well, one answer is to set up competition between firms in each large sector-- including health care, automobile production, banks, universities, schools, police forces, and so on, so that the firms in each sector that make the most progress in reducing the gap between the highest and lowest paid workers receive tax credits. Then, as the most successful firms in each domain demonstrate the possibilities available, other firms in that zone can be given penalties and incentives to meet it. Think of this as policies aimed at the income distribution system that replicates some of those applied now, with so much fanfare, to welfare recipients. Given the examples of other countries, such as Denmark, Canada, Germany and Japan, there is ample room in the States to promote both a highly productive economy and a much less unequal one. In fact, the two go together, no matter what Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Mitt Romney keep saying everyday.
This, of course, is merely a preliminary set of programs. And the 800-pound gorilla of global warming has not even been mentioned. But even it will take a broad based, highly energized movement to push it through. It, of course, sounds outrageous to those who pretend that they favor a small state while in fact supporting a huge, punitive, military state system tethered to the fantasy of unregulated capitalism. But an unregulated economy and a small state is in fact discernible nowhere; the fantasy of it keeps getting punctured by each new crisis. And, increasingly, it has lost its power to convince. New experiments and adventures are required.
We have not noted here a series of small and local initiatives and movements that are also critical to the success of the 99% movement. They are at least as important, generating the initiatives and energies needed to keep this movement alive. It is when local initiatives, larger social movements, church assemblies, blog activity, university teach-ins, and state policies amplify each other that things will start moving.
William E. Connolly is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor at Johns Hopkins University where he teaches political theory. His recent books include Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (2008); and A World of Becoming (2011). In Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, he argued that the "evangelical-capitalist resonance machine" is carrying us to a probable crisis, and addressed a militant politics to respond to it. He is currently working on a book entitled The Fragility of Things, the first chapter of which will appear in Theory & Event in early 2012, under the title "Steps toward an Ecology of Late Capitalism." Connolly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2011 William E. Connolly and The Johns Hopkins University Press
Arundhati Roy on OWS
Phillip Glass Meets OWS
"When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again."I have to say that Glass orchestrated this in a superbly democratic manner.