Category Archives: Theory

News from Gezi Park, Istanbul; Don’t Forget the Penguins as the Ice Floes Melt

Mick Taussig 
           The Occupy Idea took off in Istanbul like wildfire, albeit with its own trajectory and historical roots.  I have been here five days since June 14 and every day, or rather night, something new happens. I cannot pretend to give a synthetic overview, of which I am sure there are many on the internet, but bearing in mind our little book on Occupy being launched tonight in Chicago, I will try to make a rough sketch of what I have been part of and has been told me by Turkish friends, emphasizing what could be learnt by people in the USA.

            It may seem strange to begin by saying that Istanbul hands down is the most beautiful city I have ever visited and I mention this not only because Istanbul deserves this accolade but because of the threat posed to this historical crossroads by the voracious  capitalist development now tearing at its heart.

            The plan to radically alter the main square—Taksim Square—and demolish adjoining Gezi Park with its lofty trees so as to build a shopping mall in an area saturated with malls and no green space, gives you an idea of what I am talking about.      

            You also have to understand that Taksim Square is like the nerve center of the nation, symbolically, with its monument to the founders of modern Turkey and the scene of bloody battles on May Day over the decades.  You might also note that Gezi Park was built over a military establishment, itself built over an Armenian cemetery, destroyed many decades back as part of erasure of memory of genocide on which modern Turkey was built.  The symbolic weight of the site is crushing and awe inspiring.

            The festive and pacifist air of the sit-in to protect the trees starting May 27 took a radically different tone when the police raided the protesters and forced them out a few days later using a hurricane of tear gas and water cannons. But as people poured into the area, the protesters regained the park and held it in a most extraordinarily carnivalesque way for some ten days during which it became like Occupy in Zuccotti Park, except that Gezi Park is ever so much larger and there were ever so many more people.

            There was no mic check—the crowd is huge—hand made signs were everywhere, an organic garden and flower garden was made in one corner with IV drips for the plants, innumerable tents were pitched, there was a free book exchange, and many posters of political parties. Turkey is alive with political tensions as the Islamist party in power is challenged by the old secular nationalists of the founding of modern Turkey thirsting for revenge, with the Kurdish party in the wings, all taken by surprise by this new uprising.

            Throughout my time here I hear of protesters wishing to form a new party, but the overwhelming sense I get is that that is considered a joke for, like Zuccotti, the movement is largely outside that idea and practice of politics. It is, rather, a deeply rooted, cultural movement that no one could have predicted. Like Marx’s Old Mole of Revolution, Occupy type movements surface in unexpected places throughout the world.

            The size of the crowds pouring into Gezi Park in the ten days, especially after work hours, was overwhelming. I cannot possibly do justice to this. It was like the sea had broke loose. Watching TV it seemed like most of Istanbul was pouring into the park walking in on freeways and across the bridges over the Bosphorous. 

            The park was filled with free water bottles and food and on the steps many street street vendors set up stalls selling swimming goggles for protection against tear gas and water cannon spray (said to contain pepper spray as well), and hard hats. I saw one display of hard hats for sale in a wide arc on the ground, white hat, blue hat, white hat and so forth.

            Outside the park felt like May 68 in Paris to me. Reality had cracked. There was the ordinary everyday sitting in the cafes drinking a beer, listening to stories about the past few days, and yet there was also this air of unreality seeping through one’s body. A beauty parlor had a sign in the window: “Pepper Spray is Good For Your Skin.” You always feel on edge, that everything could change in an instant. This is not just war, I think, but the whole so-called system is ready to explode and a new way of life. The imagination has been unleashed. At the same time the government is rounding up radical leftists from their homes and disappearing them.

            People walk past in the brilliant sunshine with hard hats on, side by side with the occasional tourist and curious citizen. Shopkeepers stand in their doorways. The large luxury hotels around the park allowed protesters to use their bathrooms and in some infirmary’s were installed—later attacked by the police using tear gas. Starbucks was smashed for not providing refuge

            Strange things happen. Many signs in the park declared the president to be the “son of a whore.”  Next day a number of prostitutes turned up saying “we would never give birth to such a monster.” It became un-cool to use sexist language in the park and at the barricades when the fighting started again. For the first time (I believe) the LGBT presence was made manifest, as well. There were as many women as men in the park and fighting on the streets after the park was attacked the second time.

            A striking feature was the role of football club fans with their chants and maneuvers rooted not only in team support but in the neighborhoods from which the clubs sprang, something we never saw in Zuccotti. At one point a mobile crane was stolen by the Bashiktash fans and used to attack a police water cannon truck, rocking it from side to side until the police fled. Next day the truck was for sale on ebay.

            Then there was the pianist in the park. A friend writes me: On Wednesday night, a day after the big police attack of Tuesday and the night when we thought they may empty the park because there had been a lot of police presence, there was a piano concert. The pianist was Davide Martello who left from Sicily with his piano in his truck, travelled through various countries in Europe. His concert started in front of the statue in Taksim but then the piano was carried to the barricade at the Gezi Park entrance and became part of the barricade. He played songs from “Imagine” to “Ciao Bella” and the group of football fans around him cheered him on. He was wearing a helmet against tear gas canisters like the rest of us and right behind this in the tent of the Kurdish party, there was halay (Kurdish folk dance, which is part of every demonstration and is thus extremely politicized). Later when the police kicked us out of Gezi on Saturday the piano, along with the pianist, was “arrested” too.

            The street fighting was intense, as you must have seen. There were direct confrontations all night long for many nights with police using tear gas, and the demonstrators building barricades and hurling stones. Protesters were very afraid because arrest could mean disappearing forever. The battles would rage down side streets with people drawing the police into a cat-and-mouse game. The Governor of Istanbul—made famous for ordering massacres in Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey—said on TV that police would be using live ammunition.

            Then last Monday things seemed to change. A General Strike was called by many unions (with limited success) and people walked around Taksim square and adjoining streets in small groups but not fighting. Bear in mind that just like in guerrilla warfare in which the state can never tell who is a peasant and who is a rebel, so here they could not tell who is “just a pedestrian” and who is a street fighter.

            Then a 34 years old performance artist and dancer, Erdem Gündüz, stood sock still and expressionless for many hours at the square. Others joined.  The streets filled with these (barely) living statues. Talk about uncanny! And what were the police going to do. Arrest stiller than still people. Well, that’s what they did but still more people joined in this death-in-life tableau. It was amazing to walk past row after row of deathly still, erect, unmoving people, and this happened, I believe, in many other parts of this city of 14 million people.

            Then the forums started at 9 at night in different neighborhoods, rich and poor, throughout the city. They had begun, tentatively in Gezi Park before the final attack. Then the brilliant move was to fan out in the neighborhoods, First there were three and last night twelve. The crush of the one I attended in a park with a deep amphitheater was intense. The moon was getting full, the night balmy, and people enjoying each other’s closeness. They used the hand signals of Zuccotti park—but far more enthusiastically and on a grand piano a Kurdish song was played and also a piece written especially for the struggle. It was wonderful to hear that music, so precise, so other-worldly, floating through us into the dark sky. The national anthem was sung which angered my friends greatly. (Note that there is an intense libidinal attachment to the current prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan. TV caught a 70 years old woman supporter of the prime minister saying “We are the hairs around Tayyip’s arsehole.”) Using a battery powered megaphone people debated whether to figure out the next move or whether to engage in a more philosophical discussion. The night before, so I was told, gay issues, previously taboo, had been aired. At another moment a young man with long hair said he felt uncomfortable about standing under the national flag for which he was expected to die (remember military service is obligatory for men, and conscientious objectors, I am told, are likely to be tortured and raped in prison).  

            Then a group of people dressed as penguins made a brief appearance before marching away in Chaplinesque fashion, the penguins having become a proliferating, albeit comical, symbol of the mighty power of this proto-fascist government, every day more sinister, because CNN-Turkey had days earlier refrained from showing the intense police violence by showing The March of the Penguins.

            Don’t forget the penguins as the ice floes melt.

 

           

 

 

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June 24, 2013 · 12:59 pm

The Seductive Killing Screen

Rachael Thompson

 

In 2008, the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) uploaded a video of a missile strike conducted by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to youtube.com. The one minute 18 second video has 2.7 million views as of May 2013. Anyone with an internet connection can watch short, tightly edited videos that include munitions strikes resulting in death. A typical UAV video is a low-contrast dark grey video image in a small video window. The subject of the video is an incomprehensible mass of swirling pixels that vanish in a flash. For example, watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNNJJrcIa7A. An interested audience member can follow links to more videos of strangers being blown up by Predator, Reaper, and Apache helicopters. Over and over again, I can watch little rectangles dissolve in clouds of black. Devoid of narration or text, the videos are ambiguous. The formal qualities of the videos produce a sense of texture and little else. If many people thought the events of 11 September 2001 felt more like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie than real life, UAV videos are more like the peeping tom’s camera shoved in a hole in a bathroom wall that seduce the viewer to looking closer at scenes of killing.

In her description of haptic cinema, Laura U. Marks describes a way of viewing that “puts the object into question, calling on the viewer to engage in its imaginative construction. Haptic images pull the viewer close, too close to see properly, and this itself is erotic.” The pixelated textures of UAV videos obscure the gruesome imagery of people being blown to pieces. There is no blood, no body parts, no fire.  Instead, the viewer sees incomprehensible shapes and textures that appear, disappear, and swirl around in a sea of grey pixels. In this seductive way, UAV strike videos pull the viewer in, face close to the screen, and seduce him or her into watching intimate scenes of horrific violence. UAV kill videos are a dirty thrill that can be accessed from the comfort of your home. 

Drones operate in a curious space of both distance and proximity. The distant war is brought incredibly close to drone operators and image analysts. In a Benjaminian sense, drones are the ultimate form of mechanical reproduction. Drones bring their subjects closer but completely remove the authenticity of the subject. Benjamin calls the “aura” of movie stars the “phony spell of the commodity.” The subjects of drone strikes often have the “spell of the terrorist.” For long shifts, drone operators and image analysts watch video feeds from areas where the US government has decided there might be terrorists. The operators may observe the same family over the course of several days or weeks watching for suspicious activity or waiting for the women and children to leave before a strike is ordered. Watch the video again. How do the operators on the kill chain know what they are looking at? How do operators sort through the hours and hours of collected footage to determine with the certainty that allows them to end a life that the person they are looking at is a terrorist? The interpretation of the images is already partially determined by the controllers of the image-making technology.

The United States is engaged in multiple conflicts where the use of UAVs is, as Leon Panetta famously quipped, “the only game in town.” Much has been written and said about the use of UAVs, including investigations of the moral and legal implications of fighting wars from a distance, the benefits to United States military personnel, and, to a much lesser extent, the physical and psychological impact on drone-monitored communities. One comparison that is frequently made is that operating UAVs is like playing a video game. The implication is that UAV operators can behave like video game players and detachedly kill enemies. While the apparatus of a UAV does share similarities with a video game such as screens, buttons, and joysticks, the experience of looking is quite different.

UAV operators resist the comparison between their job and video games. Instead, they comment on the closeness they experience in the course of performing their jobs. In the New York Times, UAV operators talk about watching families for hours, getting to know their routines, and perhaps even coming to identify with them a little. In addition, UAV operators feel a sense of closeness with their deployed counterparts. UAV camera technology allows the operator to have a strong sense of being-there through visual proximity. They watch over troops. They communicate with troops on the ground during take-offs, landings, and strikes. While people on the ground have a limited view, a UAV operator appears to have unlimited visibility. From their seats in remote US locations, UAV operators appear to have access to an all-seeing eye, but instead, they actively participate in the imaginative construction of terrorists.

When you are looking for terrorists, everyone can be a terrorist. The choice to send drones to a particular place to look for particular behaviors constrains what can be apprehended by drone operators. In one particularly vivid account recounted by Gregory in his 2011 article “From a view to a kill: Drones and late modern war”, drone operators who were providing air support for ground troops identified a group of people as militants, possibly Taliban. A strike was authorized. In the aftermath, the targets turned out to be women, children, and families. Jonathan Landay (2013) utilizes US intelligence reports to sharply contrast the Obama administration’s discourse of precision with the deaths of people who were inaccurately identified as terrorists. Landay identifies the following inconsistencies of precision: groups targeted were not on a list of terrorist groups prior to the 9-11 attacks, many who are killed are unidentified individuals, approximately half of the people killed in attacks Landay reviewed were not al Qaeda but simply determined by the US military to be extremists, and finally, drone operators have difficulty making identifications when men dress similarly and openly and routinely carry weapons. 

Mechanically recorded images are not mere documents; they are framed in multiple ways. Drone images are framed first by the choice of where to deploy them. The images are then framed by what the administration and military hope to find. The operators of drones are on the hunt for terrorists and therefore they find terrorists everywhere they look. Viewers are drawn into the seductive killing screen to see whatever they want to see in these mechanically produced and reproduced images of more anonymous deaths conducted by an increasingly barbaric state.  

Rachael Thompson is a MA candidate in communication at University of Colorado Denver. Her research interests include media erotics and vernacular media texts. She is particularly interested in texts that cross boundaries and create discomfort.

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June 17, 2013 · 8:43 pm

The Subject of Love

Leo Bersani, the Critical Inquiry Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago for 2012, will be conducting a graduate seminar called The Subject of Love.  The course will run for four weeks from 16 April to 11 May. Here is his course description. For more information, please email Jay Williams, Senior Managing Editor, at jww4@uchicago.edu

 

 The Subject of Love
     Concepts and representations of love in certain philosophical, literary, and psychoanalytic texts, as well as in film, from Plato to Godard.  If love is constituted by the language used to “describe” it, we might also argue that the construction of love as a psychic reality is inseparable from the elaboration of particular forms of subjectivity.  To represent and to theorize different modes and objects of human love is, at least implicitly, to propose varying structures of selfhood.  A history of amorous discourse reenacts and reformulates the Foucauldian project of tracing “the hermeneutics of subjectivity” in Western culture.  We will be testing this hypothesis first in a few texts by ancient writers (Plato, Sophocles) and then, primarily, in modern works by Freud, D. H. Lawrence, Proust,  Duras, Claire Denis, and Godard.

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On Translating Panofsky

Jas Elsner and Katharina Lorenz

[Managing Editor’s note: In anticipation of the appearance of their translation (in conjunction with a substantial essay) of Erwin Panofsky’s “On the Problem of Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts” in the spring 2012 issue of Critical Inquiry, we asked Jas and Katharina for their thoughts on the project.]

Jas Elsner:  I got into the rather recherché business of translating Panofsky by an odd sidetrack.  As an expert in late antiquity, I decided I needed to know more about the critical historiography that brought this concept into being, and especially about the historical and cultural drives behind the invention of late antique art as a topic of scholarly interest in the late nineteenth century.  The key oeuvre for this is the work of Alois Riegl, one of the greatest of all art historians.  Little did I realize at the time that Riegl’s most acute and committed critic throughout the 1920s and early 30s was Panofsky in his German career.  The first key paper in Panofsky’s rethinking of Riegl (‘The Concept of Artistic Volition’, 1920) had been translated in the early 1980s by Kenneth Northcott and Joel Snyder in this very journal [Critical Inquiry], but the hugely important and difficult essay which developed Panosky’s scheme into a system of fundamental concepts for art history remained untranslated and virtually unread by non-German speaking art historians.  I approached Katharina Lorenz to help me (with what turned out to be one of the most difficult texts I have ever read and in one of the most difficult intellectual enterprises I have ever attempted), and we translated ‘On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory’ (1925) for Critical Inquiry in 2008.  However, as we worked, it became obvious that this piece was only the second stage in Panofsky’s most creative process of philosophical thinking in his German career, and that the brilliant, assured and much more readable essay (originally published in 1932) translated in this issue of CI [that is, the spring 2012 issue]—astonishingly never before translated into English and only rarely alluded to in English-language scholarship—was the culmination of that trajectory as well as the foundation of Panofksy’s theory of iconology.

Katharina Lorenz: I have to say ‘On Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts’ was much less of a brain ache than the art theory piece we translated earlier—with regard to its language and use of art historical jargon, but not least because for a classical archaeologist of German training it has the obvious attraction of opening with a piece by Zeuxis, and some en passant sneers against Lessing! Yet, what on the surface is seemingly much more straightforward and easier to grasp in the 1932 paper, in fact drills much deeper into how we deal with pictures than the earlier piece ever could, stuck as it is in its lofty binaries and abstract philosophizing. Indeed, what is amazing is how fresh and insightful the 1932 piece still remains as a meditation on both the problems of description and the limits on subjectivity in interpretation. And yet so many of the wild and wonderful things about it were later lost in the English emulations produced by Panofsky himself in his American career.

JE: Of course, it is precisely the distance between the German and the American models of iconology—both produced by Panofsky and claimed by him to be identical—that is so fascinating.

KL: Equally interesting is the paper’s relative insignificance in German scholarship—which is of course a result in part of the eclipse of Panofsky by Nazi-inflected art history after 1933, and of a subtle resistance to his ascendancy in America in the postwar discipline in Germany.  But even where people did use his work, many a time they refer to the later English versions of iconology (or German paraphrases of it), rather than the first German version, despite the palpable fact that the German essay is much more acute and propositional.

JE: Do you think that this is in part to do with the fact that the English versions of the piece— in Studies in Iconology (1939) and Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955)—are more general, as it were universally applicable, and without the rich empirical base of numerous specific visual examples from which the argument is constructed?

KL: One thing that is really interesting here is how important are pictures to the argument. I am wondering to what extent the 1932 discussion of Grünewald and others, like Franz Marc (which are cut in the American versions of the piece), are essential to Panofsky’s argument. Would the essay have worked in the same way with other pictures? Certainly, his American focus, or entrée, not on an actual work of art but on an action event—the episode of greeting someone on the street, which opens Studies in Iconology—shifts the emphasis of his argument. In the 1932 German version, he had only used that type of social encounter to demonstrate some aspects of his notion of “intrinsic meaning”; but by the time he reformulated the paper in America, it comes to stand in for the interpretive model as a whole. The way Tom Mitchell dissects Panofsky’s use of this social event, and contrasts it with Althusser’s greeting parable, is indicative of the fact that Panofsky did himself and his pictorial enterprise no favours by moving from painting to event. This aside, on a personal level, one thing I find particularly exciting about the 1932 paper is Panofsky’s implicit insight into how thoughts are governed by language (and then again also by images), and how the use of specific choices in language bears upon both interpretation and argument. This, along with the comparison between his choices of language here and those he will adopt in English later, is much more telling of the process his thinking undergoes between German and English than his own statements on the matter later in the 1950s.
JE: I certainly agree with this. But it may also be observed that because the stakes are raised so high by what happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s, and by Panofsky’s choice to confront Heidegger in the 1932 paper, the problems of one’s choice of terms, one’s ethics of argument, the limits one should apply to willfulness in interpretation, are more acutely and pointedly raised by the 1932 paper than by most writing in the history of the discipline.

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Occupy Theory

Nicholas Mirzoeff

“Mic check!”

General assembly, sparkly hands, consensus, concern, temperature check, block, process: this is the vocabulary and embodied performance of occupy theory. Each word has an equivalent embodied gesture, which is the means of indicating how you’re feeling about a proposal: fingers up for feeling good, horizontal for not sure, down for against.

The strongest sign is raised, crossed arms for a block: an ethical or safety concern over a proposal that might cause you to leave the movement. Proposals are “consens-ed” by facilitators so that a clear majority approve. It’s not always quick but it is always interesting. It’s occupy theory.

Don’t make the phrase into a noun: it’s not a theory of occupation. Occupy theory is what you do as you occupy. It is the process that has become in some sense the purpose of the direct democracy movement, known by its signature instance Occupy Wall Street, or #ows.

There have been a variety of star theory people come to Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street is based, and to Occupy Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village from Zizek to Spivak and Andrew Ross. Given the performative nature of occupy theory, it’s not surprising that—to judge from the Twitterstorm and Facebook frenzy—it has been Judith Butler who best captured the moment. She presented a set of demands for the impossible, echoing the Situationist slogan “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” Seen in printed form in which the line breaks represent a pause for the “human mic” that has become a signature of the movement, Butler’s talk is a prose poem.

So what is this occupy in occupy theory? While occupation of public and private spaces is a long tradition of industrial protest movements, there have been concerns from indigenous and Palestinian groups about the term “occupy.” In New Mexico, they have neatly re-rendered the term as “(Un)occupy.” So somewhere between occupy and un-occupy—or more exactly oscillating between them—is occupy theory. It’s the latest version of what I have called the “right to look” which is at once the invention of the other and the consent for the other to invent you.

The first claim of the right to look is the right to existence, the right to be seen to exist. The people posting on “We Are the Ninety-Nine Per Cent” a collaborative blog, have used the webcam format to have their stories told and made visible. These assembled self-portraits together present a set of claims. The individual self-photograph transforms a data point within the statistics of debt, unemployment and insurance disaster into a person. This person is not performed for the sake of pity or charity but as a constituent member of the emerging “people.”  As Rancière has put it, “a `people` of this kind is not an assemblage of groups and social identities. It is a polemical form of identification that is drawn along particular lines of fracture, where the distribution of leaders and led, learned and ignorant, possessors and dispossessed is decided.” That is to say—we are the ninety-nine per cent.

Nor is the performative expressed “Occupy Wall Street” quite as simple as it seems. The occupation is not on Wall Street but round the corner at Zuccotti Park. Named for the director of Canadian conglomerate Brookfield—the company hoping to bring tar sands oil to the U.S.—Zuccotti is occupied because it is a private-public park, a zoning variance that has the requirement of permanent public access to a generic piece of urban landscape in exchange for extra height to a building or other such one per cent goodies. Much as New York City Mayor Bloomberg is itching to expel the occupiers—and he may yet succeed in finding a way—he has no legal recourse at present. Washington Square Park, as city property, is always closed between midnight and six a.m. so the occupation there cannot be permanent. Occupying is being done in the variant space between the security-regulated public commons and the deregulated zones of the neoliberal private market.

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