Posted by: simonsteachingblog | July 18, 2013

“Now you get a picture, you can put it in your Facebook”

The following paper was delivered at the ‘Social Media and Political Horizons: Israel/Palestine, the Middle East and Beyond’ workshop, organised by Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein at The University of Manchester, June 2013.

I should state from the outset that my paper is not really about social media. Nor is it really about the Israeli military. It touches on both of these subjects, but it is really about something else. In fact I am not really interested in social media, or the Israeli military per se. What I am interested in is images, or more precisely in how they are put into motion, how they get shifted from one context and from one form to another. This means that I am interested in what Hans Belting defines as the nomadic nature of images (see Hans Belting, An Anthropology of Images: Picture. Medium. Body, Princeton University Press, 2011; first published in German in 2001). This is an old subject. It is the classic interest of art historical iconography, as exemplified by Aby Warburg’s early twentieth century ‘Mnemosyne’ project (see Philippe-Alain Michaud, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, Zone Books, 2004). However this old subject remains relevant to the contemporary period when digital cultures and social media define significant contexts for the image in motion. Iconographers thought that by tracking the movement of images across time and space they could understand important aspects of cultural memory and define how certain recurrent motifs become the loci of key social narratives. Here we are also touching upon the subject of iconic motifs and cultural icons of the kind addressed by scholars such as Robert Hariman and John Lucaites (see Robert Hariman and John Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, University of Chicago Press, 2007). Such work suggests that visual images are put in motion – through their replication and adaptation over time – because we care about them, because they have significant meaning, or value, because they do something for us. These points also relate to discussions of technological reproduction of the visual image articulated by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s (obviously I am referring to ‘the work of art’ essay here) and by John Berger after him in the early 1970s (obviously I am referring to the first episode of Ways of Seeing). In one sense the replication of digital images in the contemporary period is a further extension and intensification of the photographic reproduction discussed by these earlier thinkers.

To think about the image in motion it is necessary to consider what is meant by the term image. Again I follow Belting when he defines images as motifs that can exist in different ways. They can be in our heads, or as Belting puts it, in our bodies. They can take the form of words. And they can take the form of pictures, which is where Belting suggests that the image/motif is made visible through a medium (in his terms the image ‘resides’ within the picture/medium). When we talk about images we usually mean pictures – and when it comes to social media, for example, this usually means photographs – but a picture is just one manifestation of an image. The technical reproduction of pictures, whether analogue or digital, is one way that images move. But they also move in Belting’s terms between the picture and the viewer: between the external pictorial image and the internal image. Thus Belting observes that an image often ‘straddles the boundary between physical and mental existence.’ And it is this kind of movement between a picture and the mind that enables the production of new, or adapted pictures that are generated in response to what the spectator sees and understands of the original. Pictures move, but the point is that the picture does not have to move for the image to move.

All of this leads me onto a subject more directly relevant to the theme of this seminar. This is the furore around the posting of certain photographs on Facebook in August 2010 by the former Israeli soldier Eden Abergil. Various people have written about this subject, including Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein in their book Digital Militarism. Right now I am not sure what I will have to add to these discussions, other than a sense that it is important to consider this subject in terms of the idea of the image in motion. And that something of the ‘viral’ nature of the furore around the Abergil pictures can be understood by adapting long-standing iconographical approaches.

The Abergil photographs are of her posing in front of handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian detainees in Gaza. But they are also more than this in that they have been read as representative of power relationships between the Israeli occupier and the occupied Palestinians. The movement of these pictures as images was therefore both the literal movement of the digital photographs and also the movement of a motif that in Belting’s terms is not necessarily limited to any one medium, or even to a medium at all.

The original pictures started out as digital photographs on a phone, or a camera that were then posted on Facebook as part of a set of ‘snaps’ and ‘selfies’ depicting Abergil and her army friends under the heading ‘The Military – the Best Time of My Life’.

Eden Abergil, Facebook, 2010: 'The Military - The Best Time of My life'

Eden Abergil, Facebook, 2010: ‘The Military – The Best Time of My life’

It was from this larger set of photographs that the two pictures of Abergil posing with the detainees were selected and relocated on blogs, websites, and off-line in newspapers. The Israeli NGO ‘Breaking the Silence’, for example, reframed the pictures in a different set of photographs that depicted other Israeli soldiers posing with blindfolded, or dead Palestinian men.

Breaking the Silence, Soldier's Trophy Photographs, Facebook, 2010

Breaking the Silence, Soldier’s Trophy Photographs, Facebook, 2010

In this way, the Abergil pictures became part of a set that was not about ‘good times’, but explicitly about oppression, abuse, and violence. In the process they were redefined as part of the photographic sub-genre of soldier’s trophy pictures (see Janina Struk, Private Pictures: Soldier’s Inside View of War, I. B. Taurus, 2011). Other people compared the Abergil pictures to the photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq during the US occupation as a measure of their oppressiveness. In addition to all this, the image of Abergil herself was also transformed into a meme involving the superimposition of her portrait onto pictures of famous historical events, some of which were violent and traumatic.

'The Normandy Invasion - The Best Time of My Life'

‘The Normandy Invasion – The Best Time of My Life’

Here there was a dislocation of Abergil’s likeness from the frame of the occupation, but what remained was the sense of her making light of a scene that should not be made light of.

The Abergil pictures – as manifestations of a more generic motif of the oppressiveness of the occupation – moved in other ways. At the end of the week in which the pictures broke as an international news story they were referenced within the weekly Friday demonstration against the West Bank Barrier in the Palestinian village of Bil’in. This enabled the activists of Bil’in and their supporters to mobilize the current notoriety of the Abergil affair and also to refer to the ongoing detention of fellow village activists. Demonstrators playing the role of blindfolded and handcuffed detainees walked from the village, before sitting down in front of a line of soldiers and in front of attendant members of the media. This action was an image itself, but at the same time it was intended to enable the production of further mediated images. These pictures ended up in newspapers, on blogs and as video on YouTube, specifically a video made by the Israeli video-activist David Reeb.

David Reeb, video-still of Bil'in demonstration, August, 2010

David Reeb, video-still of Bil’in demonstration, August, 2010

In relation to this YouTube video we can see that one trajectory of the Abergil pictures as images was from one social media platform to an off-line event and then via the ‘documentary aftermath’ (see Imogen Tyler, Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain, Zed Books, 2013) of this event, back onto another social media platform.  But the aftermath of this protest event was not just a documentary one. From one of the stills from his video, Reeb made a painting entitled Facebook Painting; a title that made the reference back to the Abergil pictures more explicit than the picture itself.

David Reeb, 'Facebook Painting', 2010

David Reeb, ‘Facebook Painting’, 2010

This relative lack of explicit visual reference to the original pictures was compensated for during the demonstration when one Palestinian demonstrator declared to the line of soldiers: ‘Now you get a picture, you can put it in your Facebook.’ While another stated: ‘If any soldier has Facebook, you take this picture to Facebook’.

Reeb’s painting takes an image of the demonstration and remakes it through the process of painterly production. The light and shade and colors of the documentary image become the basis for what he defines as the ‘absurd’ act of covering a canvas with paint. The painting also includes members of the press within its pictorial frame, depicting actors who are not usually shown within pictures of protests against the occupation, or for that matter in documentary and press imagery in general. In this way the painting appears to be concerned with the image-making nature of such demonstrations. Such a concern might also be linked to the history of reflexiveness towards the practice of picturing that is part of the history of painting.

There is another thing that interests me about the movement of the original Abergil pictures and the inter-visual relationships that this involved. This interest is not in the figure of Abergil and what she did, but more in the blindfolded Palestinians in the pictures. That is, in the blindfolded Palestinians as a recurrent visual motif of the occupation.


Imagine the Abergil pictures without Abergil and they become just one more image of detained Palestinians. When the focus is on Abergil, this standard image of the occupation somehow loses significance. The furore around the Abergil pictures concentrated upon the ethics of what she had done and her actions as an indication of some kind of oppressive excess. This happened both when the IDF defined this excess as abnormal in relation to their standards of military conduct and when ‘Breaking the Silence’ argued that this excessive behavior was a regular thing within the occupied territories. What disappeared a bit from view was the normality of this Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of detention as part of the military structure of the occupation. Through the movement of the Abergil pictures something of the occupation seems to have become visible, but at the same time something, perhaps more significant, was rendered less visible.

The question I would want to ask is: if you took the posing figure of Abergil out of this picture, would it really be any less bad? Are the hundreds of other pictures of blindfolded and handcuffed Palestinians ok when the figures of posing Israeli soldiers are absent? My suggestion would be that the answer to both these questions is no. And moreover that the pictures of detained Palestinians that are just routine, that do not generally cause any great fuss, take us more to the heart of the procedural oppressiveness of the occupation than Abergil’s posing. While referring back to the original Abergil pictures, the demonstration in Bil’in also invokes these standard images of Palestinian detention and as such it resonates with other demonstrations that referenced the standard mode of detaining Palestinians in the occupied territories.

ActiveStills, Protest outside the Tel Hashomer army recruitment base, near Tel Aviv, September, 2005

ActiveStills, Protest outside the Tel Hashomer army recruitment base, near Tel Aviv, September, 2005

The Bil’in demonstration exploited the news value of Abergil, but also made visible the SOP of detention. It turned this SOP into an image that was performed and made this performance news.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | August 19, 2011

Recent paintings and videos by David Reeb

David Reeb’s recent paintings address themes that should be familiar to people who have followed his work in the last two decades. Some paintings picture aspects of his everyday environment in Tel Aviv, while others represent events related to the occupation of the West Bank. The latter works explore the relevance of painting to the political reality of the occupation and at the same time address pictorial issues that can be said to be specific to painting itself. As with many of the works Reeb exhibited at the Tel Aviv Artist’s House in 2008, these apparently political paintings were made from video stills derived from footage he shot while on demonstrations in West Bank villages such as Nabi Saleh and Bil’in that have been affected in recent years by settlement expansion and the building of the West Bank Barrier. It is in these paintings that Reeb addresses both the need to make the political struggles in these places more visible and the necessarily self-referential nature of painting as a mode of representation.

David Reeb, 'Facebook Painting' 2010

For example, Facebook Painting (2010) depicts a demonstration in Bil’in in August 2010 during which activists engaged in a performance that made reference to a recent scandal around photographs posted by the former Israeli soldier Eden Abergil on her publicly accessible Facebook wall. These photographs showed Abergil posing in front of detained Palestinian men who had been handcuffed and blindfolded. The activists in Bil’in handcuffed and blindfolded themselves before posing in front of a line of Israeli soldiers, with the intention of creating a photo opportunity for the media. In this way the soldiers were made unwilling participants in a re-enactment of the Abergil photographs. Reeb’s painting shows members of the press with their cameras in front of the activists, thus including something that is rarely seen in media images themselves. This inclusion enables the painting to function as a picture about picturing; a meta-pictorial role that is not just about the inextricable relationship between contemporary political protest and media coverage, but also about painting as a different kind of pictorial production (on ‘meta-pictures’, see W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory, Chicago, 1994). Painters have explored picture-making as a subject for centuries through the genre of the Artist’s Studio. This genre involves the depiction of the studio as the context for the production of art, representing this space as a way of taking stock of the means, subjects, and representational limitations of painterly practice (See Svetlana Alpers, The Vexations of Art: Velasquez and Others, Yale, 2007). Reeb has himself produced a number of studio paintings over the years and continues to do so. Yet in some of his recent paintings of Bil’in and Nabi Saleh he seems to have transferred something of the meta-pictorial function of the Artist’s Studio to the picturing of political events.

When Reeb’s paintings and videos are exhibited together each affects how the other is viewed. Seeing the video footage from which a particular painting is derived reframes the painting, adding context and a sense of location within a narrative (for example, see the video of the demonstration at Nabi Saleh on 26 October 2010, from which Reeb took a still that formed the basis of a two of his recent paintings. This video will be shown alongside the paintings in his forthcoming exhibition in Tel Aviv). The stillness and quiet of the painting is potentially invaded by the action, violence, and noise of the video. The contrast between the videos and the paintings also establishes a strong sense of difference between them in terms of the directness and indirectness of their respective relationships to reality. However because works like Facebook Painting take the lens-based news media as a key element of their subject matter, they suggest the need for an understanding of Reeb’s own video work as the result of particular decisions and actions on his part. This does not devalue the documentary status of the videos. Instead it places an emphasis upon their nature as representations imbued with values and commitments.

Reeb has recently made other paintings that appear to present straightforward depictions of events in Nabi Saleh. 29.10.2010 (2011) pictures the moment when a soldier pepper-sprays two men from the village who are protesting by sitting in the road.

David Reeb, '26.10.2010' 2011

The work appears to involve a realist approach primarily concerned with the visualisation of a political situation. Yet in a later painting entitled 500% (2011), Reeb interrupts this apparent realism through the combination of the same scene in Nabi Saleh with abstract elements that flatten the depicted space and emphasise the constructed nature of the painted image.

David Reeb, '500%' 2011

These abstract elements are literal blocks against the apprehension of an easy access to non-pictorial reality and signs that even Reeb’s ostensibly realist paintings are always more like other paintings, including abstract ones, than they are like the realities they depict. 500% is in turn depicted within subsequent works that picture Reeb’s studio.

David Reeb, 'Studio Painting with Bicycle' 2011

Here the image of the studio is overlaid with red, green, and yellow vertical stripes meaning that the duality of seeing the painted surface and seeing-into depicted space characteristic of the experience of looking at paintings is emphasised. All visual representations of the world are defined by productive relationships between specificities of medium and genre on the one hand and chosen subject matter on the other. When it comes to lens-based images this relationship between the means of representation and the represented subject is rarely as apparent as it is through the manifest twofoldness of painting (on ‘twofoldness’, see Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art, Thames and Hudson, 1990). However it is this very twofoldness that might provide an alternative starting point for re-viewing lens-based images as actively made visualisations of the world.

For all the heartfelt conviction that Reeb expresses through his activism, when it comes to his paintings there are no simple relationships between political concerns and artistic interests, or between what is experienced directly on demonstrations in the West Bank and what is depicted. Through the paintings we are more likely to encounter layers of simulation – for example, the simulated incarceration pictured in Facebook Painting depicted through the simulation of the painted image – than we are to encounter a straightforward understanding of political issues. The dialogue between surface and depicted depth, and between painterly concerns and political subjects that is structural to these paintings cannot be resolved. Nor should we necessarily want it to be. It is this dialogue that makes these paintings what they are and which also allows for a complex dialogue between Reeb’s paintings and videos when they are seen alongside each other.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | August 11, 2011

Declining and falling again

How should we describe what has been happening in the UK over the last few days? The government and much of the media are calling the riots ‘sheer criminality’ and ‘criminality pure and simple’. Such terms seem to be referring to something beyond that which is merely criminal in terms of the law. Here ‘criminality’ refers to a relationship between intentions and actions in such a way that it is meant to rule out the consideration of any other causes for the riots than the intention to act in a criminal way. This notion of criminality also works in terms of an essencing of those involved in riotous behaviour. Such people are being defined as criminal through and through. What all this amounts to is a delimitation of thought and speech about these events to a discourse of law and order versus crime and disorder, with a clear demarcation between the representatives of the law and the law abiding on the one hand and those breaking it on the other. There is nothing new about this, indeed, any critical understanding of current developments requires the consideration of the historical formation of discourses around such events and the pathologisation of certain people and actions as essentially criminal. As commentators like Paul Gilroy have argued, such pathologising discourses have been strongest where the figure of the criminal and the purveyors of disorder have been constructed in terms of a conception of racial otherness (Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, Routledge, 1987). Though in the current context these discourses are doing their work not only through the linkage of criminality to racial difference. Here they have a wider role, which is a kind of banning of alternative modes of discussion and alternative understandings of society and its current crisis.

The community ‘clean-ups’ that have been happening in different cities also add to this delimitation of how the ‘riots’ can be understood. Some astute commentators have observed that these clean-ups function as a kind of symbolic cleansing that has a racialised element to it and also that they involve an ideological suturing of the rift in the social fabric revealed by the riots (for example, The Third Estate, ‘Riotcleanup: a physiognomy of an old fascism restored’, August 2011). The clean-ups are acts of denial masquerading as community spirit. They reinforce a representational construction that opposes the rioters to the rest of society in terms of a contrast between the lawless and the lawful, the mindless and the rational, the good and the bad. By doing this the clean-ups effectively say there is nothing wrong with society and that the fault lies entirely with the rioters. From this perspective there can be no other explanation of what has happened than that these people are ‘sick’, to use the Prime Minister’s term. The rioters are othered as utterly abject and the system – with its impoverished structures of community and solidarity, its repressive policing of the poor and recalcitrant, its massive inequalities, and its uncontrollable economic failures and upheavals – gets let off the hook.

Obviously there are other ways of describing these events; ways of breaking out of these discursive attempts to inoculate the dominant order against criticism. One can explain the riots in terms of the police shooting that was the spark that ignited these events in the first place. One could go further back and explain the riots in relation to longer-standing policies of stop and search by the police in relation to poor minority communities. One could discuss the growing social inequalities created by Neo-Liberal economic and political policies since the 1980s and more specifically the cuts to public services enacted by the current government in the context of the financial crisis since 2008. All of these discussions would function as counters to the delimitations upon explanation created by the dominant discourse of criminality. Yet they would on their own only be partial explanations and even together would not quite be able to explain what has been happening in recent days.

One of my friends has described the riots as the ‘vomit of the dying system.’ This phrase somehow gets closer to something crucial about the current situation more than anything else I have read. Through this phrase the system itself is somehow made abject. The system is vomiting and the vomit is somehow indicative of what the system is. It is the system that is sick and not the rioters. What is the nature of this system? How would I name it? Well obviously it is a capitalist system that is exploitative, unequal, and unfair; a system in which the sheer greed of a few is rewarded even when that greed creates chaos; a system where how much money you have defines how much freedom you have and in which too many are effectively rendered surplus to requirement. It is a system in which it should not be surprising that people who feel excluded and that the system is set against them sometimes act in violent ways. It is a system in which we should not be surprised that those who do not have access to the commodities that they are constantly encouraged to desire go on a rampage of looting when the opportunity presents itself. It is a system in which the smash-and-grab opportunism of financial speculators provides an example for such behavior. In this context why is it immoral or sick for people to act selfishly and destructively? The system is fundamentally selfish and destructive. And with this in mind we might say that the rioting is one of its natural products.

Writing in 1965 in response to the riotous uprising in the Watts area of Los Angeles the Situationist International described looting as ‘the natural response to the society of abundance – the society not of natural and human abundance, but of the abundance of commodities.’ (Situationist International, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy’, 1965) They saw the looting in Watts as a rejection of the commodity culture. Here African-Americans were defined as a kind of avant-garde who were refusing the economic tyranny of a capitalist society that was declining and falling. The system did not die back then, nor is it necessarily dying now. For all its crises, capitalism seems massively resilient. However the riots in Watts in the 1960s and the current riots in the UK are evidence of a sickness, not of the rioters and looters, but of the context within which they act. This sickness will continue not only through the perpetuation of the inequalities that structure capitalist society, but also through the reactionary backlash to the riots that already seems to be in evidence. The Prime Minister has suggested that some parts of society are suffering from a disease but he is unable to understand that this is just a symptom of a greater and more fundamental malady. Our society is sick, but most of us cannot seem to see it. Through the language of othering people think that we have put the disease at a distance, separating it off from themselves, but in reality it is much closer to hand and all around us.

As this blog is meant to be about the visual, let me finish this post with reference to an image. On Tuesday 9 August many of the British newspapers presented a front-page image of a young man in a grey tracksuit. His hood is up and his face is masked. Behind him a car burns. One presumes, at least when it comes to the use of this image by the Daily Star and the Daily Mail that this person is meant to be symbolic of anarchy and criminality, and to epitomise a sickness threatening British society. It is a well-chosen image, for it is spectacular, striking and disturbing. But for those of us who want to find alternative ways of thinking and speaking about recent events there is a necessity to resist the shocking nature of this image, or perhaps better still a necessity to turn its shock potential to some other purpose. To the purpose, that is, of thinking recent events differently in such a way that the viewing of this image does not involve the shock of encountering an other but instead the shock of seeing something of ourselves, or at least of the society that we continue to accept. Rather than the image providing a window to some other reality, perhaps it somehow holds up a mirror to the reality within which we all exist.

What constitutes the nation-state? Conventional answers to this question propose that the nation-state involves two key elements: first, the cultural and imaginative construction of the nation as a community and, second, the state apparatus that governs the territory within which this national community resides. When the nation is predominantly imagined as a homogeneous ethnic community, the state operates to reinforce this homogeneity within the bounds of its sovereignty. However the nation can also be imagined as something more ethnically inclusive. Here citizenship might be premised upon residence rather than ethnic heritage. The history of the nation-state is defined by specific versions of both the ethnic and the inclusive state. How might we consider Palestine in relation to these observations?

Palestine can be understood as a nation in the sense that it is imagined to exist by millions of Palestinians living in what was Mandate Palestine and in the Palestinian diaspora.  Palestine is imagined as a connection between a people and a place that has not yet been realised in the form of a state that controls a contiguous sovereign territory. What is currently called Palestine is a not a state because those places within former Mandate Palestine where Palestinians live, or where the Palestinian Authority has administrative control are effectively under Israeli rule. The Oslo process of the 1990s created some of the institutions constitutive of the state and involved the deployment of official symbols of nation-statehood. Yet so much of the state-apparatus remains absent. There is no Palestinian currency, or Palestinian passport. Moreover Palestine is not diplomatically recognised. In official terms it has no international existence. The Israeli occupation denies Palestinian statehood, maintaining a gap between the imagined nation and the state that is aspired to.

Khaled Jarrar’s project Live and Work in Palestine involves a symbolic gesture that aspires to bridge this gap between imagined nation and actualised state. The artist takes on the role of the representative of the sovereign who grants permission to foreigners to reside and work within Palestine. To do this Jarrar has created an official looking stamp that bears the slogan ‘State of Palestine’, which he uses to stamp the passports of non-Palestinian visitors to Ramallah where he lives and works. Thus Jarrar pretends to be the one who controls the border that demarcates the inside and outside of a sovereign territory. The actual border where passports are stamped with the mark of the sovereign is in reality completely controlled by Israel, yet by stamping passports Jarrar contests this border regime.

Khaled Jarrar at Ramallah Bus Station, West Bank, 2011

At a fundamental level, Jarrar also contests what Baruch Kimmerling has called ‘the politicide’ (Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians, New York and London: Verso, 2003) of the Palestinians through which the Israeli state has worked to destroy the Palestinian capacity to organise themselves in political terms. Since the early 1990s this politicide has involved the radical fragmentation of Palestinian space within the West Bank, establishing a spatial reality that militates against the establishment of a Palestinian border. As Ronen Shamir observes, ‘the governmental logic of the occupation is an “antiborder” logic.’ (Ronen Shamir, ‘Occupation as Disorientation: The Impossibility of Borders’, in Adi Ophir, Michal Givoni, and Sari Hanafi, eds., The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, New York: Zone Books, 2009)
Thus the Israeli state has created a paradoxical situation through which a tightly controlled border regime – the most important locations of which are at Ben Gurion Airport and the Allenby Bridge Crossing – encloses an anti-border condition that is synonymous with the denial of the state of Palestine. As another Palestinian artist, Khaled Hourani has stated: ‘I exist in a place that is not a state … full of checkpoints, border crossings and barricades. When there is no state, there are no borders.’ (Khaled Hourani, statement for the ‘Liminal Spaces’ project)

By waiting for foreign visitors at Ramallah central bus station and requesting if he can stamp their passports, Jarrar enacts the setting up of an alternative border, asserting his agency as a creative and political subject, and attesting to the fact that the long-standing Israeli attempt to suppress Palestinian political nationalism is an incomplete and in fact failed venture. If Jarrar’s project effectively highlights the lack of Palestinian sovereignty, it also asserts the ever-present potential of this sovereignty in the future. The legend ‘State of Palestine’ exists in the passports stamped by Jarrar as a phantasmic premonition of what might be.

Khaled Jarrar, Live and Work in Palestine, 2011

Yet Live and Work in Palestine does not simply entail the act of stamping passports in Ramallah and the stamped passports themselves. It also involves the moments where these passports are used to cross the Israeli controlled border. Jarrar’s project parodies the Israeli border regime when he stamps passports in Ramallah and also brings this parody into an unpredictable encounter with the official Israeli border at Ben Gurion Airport when these passports are scrutinised by the ‘petty sovereigns’ (Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2006, pp. 56-60) of the Israeli state. Given the nature of security procedures at the latter location, travellers carrying the unofficial stamp of the phantom Palestinian state in their passports are understandably anxious about how the representatives of the Israeli border regime will react. What will the Israeli security operatives do? Will they ignore the stamp, or will they take it as a sign that checks and questions must be intensified? As part of his project, Jarrar has not only been photographing people with their freshly stamped passports, but also collecting reports of their experiences at the Israeli controlled border through the project’s Facebook page.

Jarrar also plans to extend his project through the nomination of international ‘ambassadors’ for his phantom state, who will be sent a stamp and instructed to stamp passports in their own countries. Through this spatial extension of the project the effects of the project will also be expanded. More people might hear about it, there might be more news stories about it that there have already been, so that the project becomes a spatially dispersed set of actions and effects involving people stamping passports, stamped passports, instances where these passports are scrutinised by border officials, and instances where the project becomes a story to be told. This story is both about what Jarrar has been doing and the lack of a Palestinian state that his project highlights.

The nomination of people as ambassadors for the project also suggests that the phantom Palestinian border can be set up anywhere. This emphasises that a real Palestinian border exists nowhere. Passports can be stamped with the legend ‘State of Palestine’ everywhere, because the state of Palestine currently exists nowhere. In her discussion of the Israeli checkpoint system, Ariella Azoulay has suggested that to suppress the possibility of a proper Palestinian border the occupation regime has created multiple points of division that often have the appearance of a border. Thus she observes that ‘the border passes wherever a Palestinian body stands.’ Continuing: ‘Every time a Palestinian seeks to travel, Israel takes advantage of the opportunity to reassert its sovereignty. There where he would like to live his life, an ad hoc border-marker is posited – not a borderline but a border-point, a “spot”.’ (Ariella Azoulay, ‘Determined at Will’, in Sharif Waked, Chic Point: Fashion for the Israeli Checkpoints, Tel Aviv: Andulas Publishing, 2007, p. 151) Jarrar’s project mimics and at the same time inverts this system of ‘border-points’, by setting up border-points of his own that enable the assertion of a phantom Palestinian sovereignty. Wherever he, or his ambassadors decide to stamp passports is where the border is. If the checkpoint is the oppressive manifestation of Israeli sovereignty over Palestinians and Palestinian land that also asserts the antiborder condition that is the occupation, then Jarrar’s project contests this sovereignty and its denial of a proper border. Both the checkpoint system and Jarrar’s project attest to the lack of a Palestinian border. Yet unlike the former, the latter is not aimed at maintaining this situation, rather it is concerned with highlighting the lack of a Palestinian border and simultaneously providing a symbolic the solution to this situation.

Jarrar’s project is politically serious. It is aimed at having an impact upon the political situation that holds the possibility of a state of Palestine in abeyance. Yet the project is also conceived as art. It is this status as art that might provide an alibi to the traveller with a ‘State of Palestine’ stamp in their passport when they pass through the Israeli controlled border. The response that the stamp is art could potentially be disarming. Under such conditions the category of art would provide a space of relative protection within which things can be done that might not be possible elsewhere. Here the apparent inconsequentiality of art in political terms means that it has the potential to be of political consequence. The artistic project that parodies the operations of the sovereign state and highlights the absence of Palestinian sovereignty can constitute an alternative space for the assertion of Palestinian rights. Through this the artist can become a new kind of political agent.

Having made these observations, it should be stressed that the Live and Work in Palestine project is not politically prescriptive. The project is about raising questions rather than providing answers. The legend ‘State of Palestine’ does not tell one when, or how this state will come into being, or what kind of state it will be. Will the state of Palestine come into being through a two state settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, or will the Palestine of the future involve some sort of one-state or binational entity? Who will this Palestine be for? Will it just be for the Palestinians, thus constituting a new version of the ethnically exclusive nation-state, or will it be an inclusive state based on residency? A statement made be Jarrar on the project Facebook page suggests that his ideal is some version of the latter kind of nation-state. Thus he writes: ‘I need one state for all so its Palestine for all.’ Who will this ‘all’ be? Palestinians, Jews, others? Whatever the answers to these questions might be, Jarrar’s project attests to the reality that the ongoing Israeli occupation is not only unjust, but also untenable. For a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be achieved, Palestine must become a political reality. For those people guided by any sense of political justice, this is beyond question.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | March 19, 2011

Glimpsing the wild zone of power

In early December I attended a national demonstration in London against the cutting of state funding for higher education. For me, the demonstration was not just about the replacement of state funding with higher student fees. It was also about what I see as an attack on the role of the university within society. This attack involves the partial privatisation of the university system, opening it up to market-oriented competition and allowing for the private enclosure of a public good, while at the same time involving an increasingly draconian administration of higher education by the state. In the process there will probably be a substantial shift in the culture of the university as students are redefined as consumers and the necessarily reciprocal relationship between teachers and learners is distorted into one where students see lecturers as providers of a paid-for service. In this context education will be reframed as a bundle of skills that only have a value in terms of employment after graduation and in terms of ‘value for money’. What will be squeezed out through these changes are conceptions of the university as a space for open-ended imaginative exploration. Such exploration would in part be concerned with thinking about what society might be rather than simply being premised upon an uncritical acceptance of what is. More broadly I understood the demonstration as being in opposition to the general programme of cuts in public spending being pursued by the current Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. Cuts that are aimed at shrinking and disabling the public sector in the UK and are a further step in the politically driven process of the Neo-Liberalisation of British society that has been underway since the early 1980s. Moreover, for me, this and other demonstrations I have recently attended, are about finding a political voice within a society that has – in line with the general effects of Neo-Liberalism elsewhere – become significantly less democratic.

I travelled from Manchester to London by coach with students from my university and a few other lecturers. We arrived late in London, having been delayed for a number of hours by a road accident on the motorway. The coach dropped us near Trafalgar Square and from there we proceeded towards the Houses of Parliament. People in the group from the coach had been in mobile phone contact with others who were already at the demonstration and we were told that the majority of the demonstrators were in Parliament Square near the Houses of Parliament despite the fact that the demonstration was meant to proceed on to the Victoria Embankment where there was going to be a rally. Looking from Trafalgar Square we could see that one route to Parliament Square along Whitehall and Parliament Street was blocked by lines of police. Consequently we headed towards the river and Victoria Embankment in an effort to outflank the police who were present in the area in large numbers. Retrospectively I discovered that the Metropolitan Police Force had assembled over four thousand officers to police some twenty thousand demonstrators. By travelling alongside the river and then turning right onto the end of Parliament Street we were able to enter Parliament Square, which was full of demonstrators and showed signs of earlier confrontation where temporary barriers erected by the police had been torn down. For me the most striking sight on entering the square was the fortification that the police had constructed along the side facing the river and the Houses of Parliament. This route out of the square extending for about three hundred metres was totally blocked by a deep barrier and lines of riot police. It was clear that the police were determined that no demonstrators would get near to the seat of British governance. This planned response to the demonstration was partly the result of damage to property and scuffles between demonstrators and the police during an earlier demonstration in November when students invaded Somerset House where the Conservative Party had its campaign headquarters. These events were widely covered in the media and represented as highly violent. This media coverage also implied that the police were unprepared and had not done enough to prevent trouble, thus in December they were taking no chances.

Anti-Higher Education cuts demonstration, Parliament Square, London, December 2010

This barrier across one side of Parliament Square had also been the site of earlier confrontations between police and demonstrators angry about having their freedom of movement restricted. A chant on many of the anti-cuts demonstrations late last year was ‘Who’s streets? Our streets’. The demonstrations were therefore defined by the determination of the demonstrators that they would not play by the rules imposed by the police and allow their route through urban spaces to be predetermined, or enclosed. In response the police had applied a tactic, standard to their policing of demonstrations since the late 1990s known as ‘kettling’, through which large numbers of police officers are used to temporarily imprison groups of demonstrators in public spaces. In most instances kettling seems to have been a pre-planned strategy on the part of the police, rather than simply a response to the actions of demonstrators. As such this practice can be understood as a strategy for enclosing and deterring public dissent. It can also be seen as a form of incitement through which the enclosure of demonstrators provokes them to react in more confrontational ways, thus fulfilling the expectation on the part of the media that the demonstrating ‘mob’ will express its inherent propensity towards violence and lawlessness.

Anti-Higher Education cuts demonstration, Parliament Square, London, December 2010

Once in Parliament Square, I wandered around for a while with another lecturer looking at the police lines and what the demonstrators were doing. The actions of the latter seemed rather disorganised. There seems to have been an earlier collective decision to stop the demonstration and occupy the square, but once the occupation had been established no one knew what to do. Some people lit fires using placards to ward off the cold, while others chanted slogans, or posed for the media who were present in quite large numbers. This kind of activity went on for sometime, before a large group decided to try to leave the square via Victoria Street next to Westminster Abbey, but were quickly blocked by riot police supported by mounted officers. It was during this confrontation that there were a number of injuries amongst both the police and the demonstrators. I saw one demonstrator being attended to by police medics in the grounds of Westminster Abbey. Although this person was conscious, he was clearly incapacitated and was carried away on a stretcher. It was also around this time that an undergraduate student received a brain injury caused by being hit very hard on the head with a truncheon. He later under went emergency surgery.

Anti-Higher Education cuts demonstration, Parliament Square, London, December 2010

It was also around this time that the police decided to kettle the demonstration by blocking the remaining exits from the square. Night was falling and the temperature was dropping, and I joined about one thousand people at the now blocked entrance to Parliament Street, where the police were intermittently letting small numbers of demonstrators through their lines. But this process was very slow and people wanted to leave quickly. The crowd began chanting ‘Let us out’ and at one point surged forward breaking the police line. The line was reformed and after about thirty minutes I managed to get through the police onto the Parliament Street, only to find that this was another site of confrontation between demonstrators and a different line of police carrying shields and truncheons. There were also a number of police on horses involved in pushing the demonstrators back towards the square. It was clear that I would not be able to leave this way and was in fact trapped between two groups of police. By now it was fully dark and I witnessed some surreal scenes: a police officer being dragged off by a colleague to prevent him from hitting a female demonstrator; police charging demonstrators who were assembled beneath the Cenotaph national war memorial; demonstrators being pushed back by mounted police while one activist with a megaphone called to the horses to ‘behave decently’ despite the ‘orders’ they were receiving from their masters. Much of this was witnessed while I stood beneath a statue of the World War Two hero Field Marshall Montgomery.

It was while on Parliament Street that I ran into two of my students. We nervously smoked cigarettes while being pushed back by the police. Every now and then we had to run to get away from the mounted police, who were making short charges at the crowd. Finally we ended up amongst some police vans between the police lines. Not far away at the entrance to the square other demonstrators were charging a police shield line using metal barriers that had been installed in the square years before to stop demonstrators from congregating there. The sound of the barriers hitting the shields was frightening and made me fearful that the police in Parliament Street would soon charge in amongst the vehicles so that they could help push back the demonstrators in the square. This fear was justified as a large number of police, masked and in full riot gear, charged at us pushing us up against a wall. They commanded us to move back into the square, but we were stuck and unable to move no matter how much they shouted at us or tried to use their horses to push us along the wall. Our inability to move was recognised by more sensible officers amongst the police and for a while there was a stand off. Then suddenly the police ranks opened and they let us out, presumably because the group I was with was not doing anything and because the police did not like us being on their flank. We walked out along Parliament Street and back to the coaches.

Other demonstrators were not so lucky and as the police lines pushed into the square they were trapped in a decreasing space. The police let many of these demonstrators out one-by-one, but not before photographing them and recording their details. I understand that the rest were finally pushed from the square onto the nearby Westminster Bridge where they were held for hours in the freezing cold. During this time the police lines kept squeezing the remaining demonstrators. Many complained in subsequent days of bruising received in the crush and of difficulties in movement and breathing. Others who were pressed up against the waist high barriers of the bridge testified that they were afraid that they would be pushed into the freezing waters of the Thames below. None of these actions on the part of the police had a clear policing function and I can only interpret them as a form of collective punishment.

Overall what the policing of the demonstration made me think of was Susan Buck-Morss’ notion of the ‘wild zone of arbitrary and violent power’ that lies at the core of all modern sovereign states, even those that are ostensibly democratic. This violent and wild power, that is supralegal and perhaps prelegal in the sense that it is the power that underpins the very establishment of the law in the first place, cannot be democratic (Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press, 2002). It is the violent power of the sovereign that is revealed at points where those seeking greater democracy exceed their allotted places in the established order of things. Seeing the police act in threatening and violent ways towards ordinary people, no matter how peacefully they were behaving, gave me a brief glimpse of what resides in this wild zone and a sense that when it comes to political matters the police are far from being servants of the public good.

I have written on the subject of the wild zone of power before in relation to Israel/Palestine (Simon Faulkner, ‘Land, Landscape and the Wild Zone of Power’, in Einat Manoff, ed., NatureNation, Jerusalem: The Museum on the Seam, 2009, pp. 255-244) in an article that addressed how the occupation of the West Bank has involved the creation of a seemingly permanent territorial wild zone where the civil law that defines life within the internationally recognised borders of Israel does not apply and where even the military law that is used to govern the occupied territories is often suspended through acts of sovereign violence. This kind of longstanding manifestation of the wild zone of power in a specific geographical area is clearly very different and much more serious than the relatively low key and fleeting glimpse I had of the violent potential of the state on the demonstration in London. However the violence of the Israeli state against the Palestinians and the heavy handed policing of demonstrations in the UK can be linked through Buck-Morss’ thinking in that both are manifestations of the need for violence on the part of sovereign power to establish and maintain its regime of control. We might think about this further via Slavoj Zizek’s suggestion in relation to class struggle that ‘the very existence of the state, as an apparatus of class domination, is a fact of violence.’ (Slavoj Zizek, ‘A Permanent Economic Emergency’, New Left Review, 64, July/August 2010) In this sense, what is seen when the wild zone of violent power is made visible for a brief period of time or in a particular territorial area is not so much an anomaly in the normally non-violent workings of the state, but a glimpse of what the state fundamentally is as a protector of private wealth and power, or in the case of Israel, as the maintainer of a regime that divides Israeli Jews from occupied Palestinians in terms of a relationship of domination and colonisation.

The other thing that my experiences on the demonstration made me think about is the British artist Mark Wallinger’s work State Britain that was installed at Tate Britain in 2007. This work involved the replication of the images and slogans that had constituted a forty-metre long protest display established in Parliament Square by the anti-war activist Brian Haw in opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of this display had been seized by the police in 2006 under the 2005 ‘Serious Organised Crime and Police Act’ that resulted in the declaration of a one thousand metre diameter exclusion zone around the Houses of Parliament within which it was illegal to demonstrate without prior permission from the police.

Brian Haw, display against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Parliament Square, London, 2006

Wallinger had taken photographs of Haw’s protest display prior to the police confiscation and it was from these images that the display was reproduced at Tate Britain.

Mark Wallinger, 'State Britain', Tate Britain, London, 2007

Wallinger also worked out that the perimeter of the exclusion zone ran through Tate Britain and marked out its projected path on the gallery floor in black tape.

Mark Wallinger, 'State Britain', Tate Britain, London, 2007

This meant that part of Wallinger’s work could be read as constituting an illegal protest, though the fact that the galleries of Tate Britain are within a public building rather than an open public space meant that even if the work was it was highly unlikely that the police would move against it. This meant that the gallery space could function as an alternative site for the presentation of a political protest that had been banned elsewhere, but only because the liminality of the gallery seemed to render it irrelevant to what is conventionally understood as the political. Tate Britain was a space of relative freedom in comparison to other areas of the exclusion zone, but this freedom came at a price. This is why Buck-Morss has observed that ‘artistic “freedom” exists in proportion to the artists’ irrelevance.’ (Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, New York and London: Verso, 2003) Though we should not necessarily conclude from this that the replication of Haw’s protest display as an artwork in Tate Britain had no potential for political effect. The very act of replicating the protest display in a space of high art drew attention to the attempt by the state to delimit dissent elsewhere. By pushing dissent into a space of relative political irrelevance, a different kind of dissent was made manifest: an artistic dissent against the original segregation of political dissent.

The act of censorship that led to the creation of Wallinger’s State Britain and the policing of the demonstration in Parliament Square are both worrying manifestations of the democratic deficit within contemporary Britain. Yet they both point to the ways that the state itself can be provoked and even intimidated into responding in ways that reveal the wild zone of power at its heart. What this means is that dissent continues to have its own power, albeit a much lesser power when compared to that of the state and capital.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | December 15, 2010

It could be you

Writing in the late 1990s, Mike Neary and Graham Taylor discussed what they saw as a fundamental shift in the UK from a social and cultural structure significantly informed by what they termed the ‘law of insurance’ to a structure informed by what they called the ‘law of the lottery’ (Mike Neary and Graham Taylor, ‘From the Law of Insurance to the Law of Lottery: An Exploration of the Changing Composition of the British State’, Capital and Class, 65, Summer 1998). Within their thinking the ‘law of insurance’ defines a commitment on the part of the state and much of the citizenry to the idea that the former has a responsibility to the latter in terms of providing health and welfare, especially when citizens fall on hard times. This ‘insurance’ is understood as a counter to the instabilities of the capitalist market system. In contrast to this the ‘law of the lottery’ defines a different understanding of what society is that replaces commitments to ‘insurance’ with the understanding that people should, or will inevitably be subject to the vicissitudes of market. The ‘law of the lottery’ decrees that people should not expect a social safety net. This signals the end of what Alan Sinfield has termed ‘welfare-capitalism’ established in the UK after the Second World War. As he observes, welfare-capitalism ‘promised all the people a stake in society, an adequate share of its resources as of right – a job, a pension or social security, a roof over their head, healthcare, education.’ As he continues, this augmentation of the capitalist economy with a welfare system was an ‘attempt to ameliorate and preserve capitalism, by protecting against and compensating for its disadvantages.’ (Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics – Queer Readings, Routledge, 1994)

The increasing prominence of the ‘law of the lottery’ as an aspect of Neo-Liberalism meant not only the end of the post-war social dream of a fairer society within an overarching capitalist context, but the also end of the fear of dramatic, even revolutionary social change that had led the state to develop the welfare system in the first place. The organised working class and other opponents of the dominance of society by business have been massively weakened and capitalism no longer has to wear an even remotely friendly face, except when addressing citizens as consumers. Since the 1970s successive governments have enforced practices of retrenchment that have cut back the welfare system and privatised public institutions. This has involved the shrinkage and colonisation by business of certain elements of the state. Alongside this reduction of the socially supportive role of the state, the general state emphasis upon the overarching role of the market within society has led to increasing social inequality and a reduction of already limited democratic accountability. This lack of democracy was brought into dramatic symbolic relief for me on Thursday 9 December when I entered Parliament Square as an anti-education-cuts demonstrator to find my way to parliament blocked by what I can only describe as a military style fortification. Here my supposed representatives were quite literally inaccessible, but in reality the ordinary relationship between the electorate and the elected is not really that different. Moreover the role of the police as a political force in controlling the anti-cuts demonstrations, masked by the discourse of ‘law and order’, might point to an increasing reflex on the part of an unrepresentative government to seek to use force to avoid an adjustment of the current relationship between the represented and their representatives. David Cameron’s declaration that those demonstrators who confronted the police in Parliament Square with physically expressed anger over the cuts and the absence of a proper public voice will ‘feel the full force of the law’ should not come as a surprise.

During the era of the state retrenchment of welfare, social and political hegemony has been maintained through the enhancement of two entwined discourses. The first discourse constructs the individual subject as competitive and self-interested; a subject who has a responsibility to look after only him or herself and to expect nothing from others. Consequently it is deemed illegitimate for people to expect the state, as a collective embodiment of society to have a responsibility towards them. This discourse is exemplified by Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ The second discourse involves the naturalisation of the market as the authentic arena of human agency in which only the fittest and, more importantly, the luckiest will prevail. Society, modelled on this understanding of the market, becomes a space of risk and chance. Thus Neary and Taylor comment, ‘[t]here is an increasing risk of redundancy or of not being adequately cared for when one is ill, but this is legitimised through a state-sponsored discourse of risk and chance.’ The current government is extending the Neo-Liberal project of marketisation under the guise of economic necessity. But it should be stressed that this rhetoric of necessity only works – is only logically unchallengeable – when framed by a world-view informed by the ‘law of the lottery’ and its attendant ideological forms. The cuts are legitimised by this world-view and in turn this world-view is extended through the cuts. The government is not only making the cuts themselves, but at the same time is attempting to deal a deathblow to the ‘law of insurance’.

One of the things that Neary and Taylor discuss in their article is the National Lottery, established in the UK in 1994, which for them stands as a cultural manifestation of the ‘law of the lottery’ and the increasing acceptance within British society that people have to expect life to be a matter of chance. The promotional imagery used for the National Lottery at the time depicted the lit window of an ordinary terraced house in which can be seen a person raising their arms in celebration.

UK National Lottery promotional material, mid-1990s

In the night sky above a hand constituted by hundreds of little points of light has materialised, its pointing finger directed at the person in the window. Beneath the image is presented the Lottery slogan: ‘It could be you’. What the combined image and slogan emphasise is the possibility that the purchaser of a lottery ticket might win a fortune, while at the same time downplaying the actual remoteness of this possibility. What the image also suggests is that the possibility of winning the lottery is not a matter of worldly circumstances, but of something unworldly; it is something that results from fortune, or even divine intervention. Indeed, the National Lottery image was criticised in the mid-1990s by religious people for suggesting that the lottery had something to do with divine will. Here success is the result of something beyond human control. The crossed fingers of the National Lottery logo also suggests that winning is just a matter of luck.

How might we relate this discussion of the National Lottery image to the idea of the ‘law of the lottery’? To answer this question it is necessary to invert the significance of the promotional image and focus not on the idea of winning, but on losing. If this image can be taken as somehow symbolic of the ‘law of the lottery’ it might be in terms of a sense that if it is fortune, or some other unworldly force that decides those who win in the game of life, then it is the same forces that decide upon those who will lose out, upon, that is, those who will not win the lottery, will not become rich, by whatever means, and in fact will quite possibly lose their jobs and their homes, not be educated properly, or given adequate health care. Thus the image seems to remove the ups and downs of life in British society from their social and political context, and from any sense of social responsibility for those who are not doing well in the current social order: both success and hardship are defined as a matter of the lottery. In this context where the life of the individual and of the wider society is understood to be subject to chance and where all good things come from taking risks that can equally lead to misfortune, people should not expect to be supported by the state when they fall down. In the true lottery there can be no safety net.

Of course the National Lottery image disguises the concrete social structures that not only make it more likely that some people will do well and continue to do well, but also makes it likely that some people will have a hard time. At the current juncture people in the UK will not only be suffering economic hardship because of the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of the economy, but also because of ideologically driven governmental decisions that will result in job losses and cut backs in all sorts of social provision. These political decisions are explained in terms of necessity, but they are also framed by the ethos of the lottery that places responsibility for what will be the calamitous effects of the cuts beyond the actions of actual people. For those committed to Neo-Liberal ideas this naturalisation of the market allows them to have their cake and eat it, for it enables them to argue that the market is the true basis for social organisation and that welfare structures are a kind of unnatural aberration, but also because the market is naturally structured by risk and chance, nobody can be held responsible for its negative effects. This also enables the proponents of Neo-Liberal doctrine to obfuscate the alternative welfare system for business, the financial sector and the rich that takes the form of public subsidies for the privatisation of public assets and the greasing of foreign business deals, financial bailouts using colossal amounts of public money, and the turning of a blind-eye to the egregious evasion of corporate taxes.

Let me now turn to another image from a different era. It is a political cartoon from December 1942 that depicts a smiling and winking British soldier holding a beer mug in his outstretched right hand. Behind him there are explosions, other British soldiers and a tank as well as planes in the sky.

Beveridge cartoon, 1942

The beer mug itself takes the form of a portrait of Lord Beveridge and the foamy beer on top is labelled with the words ‘Social Security’.  The soldier declares: ‘Here’s to a brave new world!’ The cartoon obviously refers to the famous ‘Beveridge Report’, officially entitled ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’, that Lord Beveridge oversaw and which argued for the setting up of the Welfare State and the National Health Service to counter what he identified as the five ‘evils’ of society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness (meaning unemployment), and disease. What interests me about this image in contrast to the National Lottery motif is the way that it is configured to present an aspiratory movement upwards from the bottom of the picture instead of downwards from on high. This is a movement that is represented as being wholly human-made. The soldier is not just an individual but a representative of the national will that has cohered with the acumen of Beveridge in a desire for a better world after the inevitable defeat of fascism. The image represents this national will as wholly male and is related to the problematical construction of welfare in the post-war settlement on the basis of the idea of the male family breadwinner. Nevertheless, it symbolises the prospect of a society in which social initiative moves from the bottom up, with the desires of the people motivating and supporting the decisions of politicians. These decisions provide citizens with what they want and need, and represent a relationship that seems to involve proper cooperation and representation. The people – represented by the male citizenry at arms – have sacrificed and defeated the enemy and now they deserve better than they have gotten before. Idealised as this image is, it represents a sense that policy depends on human motivation and action. In contrast to the National Lottery image that suggests that social developments are essentially out of human hands, the cartoon suggests that with the right political will a better and fairer society can be created. The National Lottery image is premised upon the idea that in the end the inequalities of the capitalist system are just the luck of the draw within an economic context that with the best will in the world has an uncontrollable logic of its own. Whereas the image of the soldier and Beveridge suggests in mildly utopian terms that the society you choose to have is the society you will end up with. British governments since the late 1970s, to differing degrees, have simply chosen to prioritise market considerations over the welfare of the people they are meant to represent.

I now want to finish this post with a discussion of a final image that also deals with the subject of fortune. In part this image is attractive to me because it allows me to stray into the realm of traditional art historical iconography with reference to E. H. Gombrich’s article ‘Magic, Myth and Metaphor’  (in his The Uses of Images, Phaidon, 1999), but also because it allows me to consider the National Lottery slogan ‘It could be you’ in a different way. The image I am considering is of the mythical ‘Wheel of Fortune’ that has been part of political iconography since at least the twelfth century and has been used, in Gombrich’s words, for the ‘visualization of the ups and downs of fate’. In this particular picture Fortuna the goddess of fortune turns the wheel around which is depicted the progress of a particular individual who rises to become a king at the top of the wheel, but then descends, losing his crown and finally falling down.

The wheel of fortune

Thus the image depicts how people can rise to great political heights, but equally can fall down, suggesting, as Gombrich notes, that ‘those who ride too high will come to grief.’ My reading of the National Lottery slogan in relation to its accompanying image is that ‘It could be you’ can refer both to winning and losing. We might apply the duality of this slogan to the Wheel of Fortune. Thus ‘It could be you’ suggests the possibility of political fortune, rising to the heights of political status, but also, as the progress of the wheel in the picture attests, that those who are singled out for success can also fall down and that this falling is also a kind of choosing. If we relate this image to the current situation in the UK regarding the re-strengthening of Neo-Liberal politics through the cuts agenda then it is not fortune that might lay the mighty low, but their arrogance and misjudgement of a situation that might lead them to unleash public anger on a scale unseen for a very long time. The cutting back of welfare in an era when the market has been proved to be highly unstable means that the pointing finger of fortune could single out many for misfortune, yet this finger, if I am permitted to sustain this metaphor, might also point at the powerful. The message for the likes of Cameron and Clegg is therefore, perhaps, ‘watch out it could be you’.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | November 29, 2010

Staging violence

Since the demonstrations against cuts in higher education funding on Wednesday 24 November there has been much discussion of the possibility that the Metropolitan Police deliberately left one of their vans in the path of student demonstrators in London in the hope of provoking them to acts of destruction.

Much of this discussion makes reference to video footage from Sky News that shows protestors milling around the van prior to the police containment of the demonstration, rather than the supposedly intimidating situation that led the Met to state that they had abandoned the van because ‘officers felt threatened’. Two key explanations given for this possible police tactic are, first, that the van was left in the hope that demonstrators would attack it and thus provide an alibi for the ‘kettling’ of the demonstration and, second, that the van was left so that more images of student ‘violence’ could be generated to delegitimize the student cause. Both of these explanations may be true, though it is the latter that is of particular interest for it suggests that the police are developing a strategy towards popular dissent that involves the appropriation and reconfiguration of tactics developed by political activists since the 1960s. Such tactics have involved popular movements using the media to their advantage against powerful opponents who are prone to violence.

I am thinking specifically here of the Southern Christian Leadership’s (SCLC) approach to their civil rights campaign in Birmingham Alabama in April 1963 when they put demonstrators on the streets, including large numbers of school children in the expectation that the Commissioner of Public Safety ‘Bull’ Conner would respond with violence that would make powerful images in the press and on the TV news. Scenes of the Birmingham police setting dogs onto peaceful protestors and the local fire brigade turning their fire hoses on children shocked liberal America and were powerful contributors to subsequent change.

Police dogs used to attack civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963

The SCLC staged the police violence by ‘baiting’ Commissioner Connor, who provided the final element to the political ‘dramaturgy’. Thus the civil rights activists set in motion a chain of actions on the part of different agents that led to the generation of images of violence that served their purpose (see Simon Cottle, Mediatized Conflict, 2006). Their aim was not only to make the civil rights struggle highly visible on the national and international stage, but also to draw out the violence that they saw as inherent within the system of segregation. The spectacular violence of the confrontations in Birmingham thus stood-in-for and made visible the ‘systemic violence’ of a social order that discriminated against African-Americans in every area of social life.

We might also consider contemporary Palestinian practices of peaceful resistance, in particular in the West Bank village of Bil’in. I have written about this subject before, but it is worth revisiting because the Popular Committee in Bil’in often organized dramatic demonstrations that require the Israeli army to contribute a violent finale. Earlier this year, after the storming of the Free Gaza Flotilla, people in Bil’in constructed a mock ship on a car that was driven from the village to the West Bank Barrier where it was stormed by Israeli soldiers, thus restaging the attack on the flotilla and completing the demonstrator’s performance with actual violence.

Israeli soldiers storm the mock Flotilla ship in Bil'in, June, 2010

More recently activists in Bil’in responded to the Eden Abergil Facebook picture scandal by staging their own captivity using handcuffs and blindfolds in front of a line of Israeli soldiers. After a while the soldiers reacted by dragging one of the handcuffed and blindfolded demonstrators off, transforming mock captivity into real captivity. Both of these actions were intended to lead to the generation of images and to make visible the often ‘withheld’ and non-spectacular violence that defines the Palestinian experience of the Israeli occupation (see Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir, ‘The Order of Violence’, in Ophir, Givoni, and Hanafi, eds., The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Territories, Zone, 2009).

The Metropolitan Police are hardly the same as a popular movement, yet the apparent planting of the police van suggests that they too are interested in creating dramatic scenarios in which their opponents act out forms of violence before the cameras of the media. Here we have a state institution taking a ‘weapon of the weak’ often used by those opposed to the power of the state and using it against non-state based political agents. In this sense what we might be seeing is a kind of ‘rerouting’ of dissident media tactics in the service of police and state power. As with the actions of the SCLC and the Bil’in Popular Committee, this involves three different sets of actors: those who stage the event, those who respond to the staging, and those who visualize it. We can think about the student demonstrations themselves in these terms, with the students staging an event, the police responding to their actions, and the media reporting on the proceedings. However the student demonstrations have not been staged to provoke the police to violence, nor was the police violence that did happen properly reported in the media. What has taken center stage both on Wednesday 24 November and Wednesday 10 November is student acts of destruction that have been framed as violent thuggery. This suggests that the political dramaturgy staged by the police has been successful in its aims.

However we should not be quick to assume this. Violence staged by a state institution is different from that which is staged by opponents of the state. These different forms of staged violence have different meanings. The former involves an attempt to frame opponents of state or governmental policy as representatives of a disorder that threatens democracy and the public interest. But the latter can carry a far greater symbolic freight, for it involves a contrast between the weak and the strong, between the oppressive actions of the state and the plight of these who are oppressed. Although the discourse of law and order is very strong within UK society, the ‘baiting’ of student demonstrators to acts of destruction will not generate the kinds of charged images that were produced by confrontations between civil rights activists and police in Alabama, or more recently by confrontations between unarmed Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. Moreover the resulting images of student ‘violence’ might be having the opposite effect to the one intended by the police. Instead of delegitimizing the student campaign these images might well be strengthening the position of the students, not only because they appear to have increased media attention on the demonstrations, but also because they have made manifest the degree of anger involved in the opposition to the government cuts. In this sense the ‘violence’ staged by the police may work against them.

Those who oppose the cuts need to focus their energies upon keeping the quiet destructiveness of government policy within the public field of vision. This will require the clever development of argument against this policy. It will also perhaps require strategies to manage the conditions under which the police stage violence for the media. Yet it might also require opponents of the cuts acting in ways that make their anger visually apparent, acts that to be effective will need to border on the de-legitimization of their cause. How else will it be possible to show just how angry people feel about being betrayed by their supposed political representatives and over the destruction of what remains of a welfare system that has been a familiar and expected part of the social contract for nearly three generations?

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | November 18, 2010

The represented and their representatives

Karl Marx famously wrote in his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte from 1853: ‘They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.’ Edward Said uses this sentence as an epigraph to his book Orientalism (1978) to refer to the representational relationship between the West and the Middle Eastern Orient through which the former ‘orientalises’ and stereotypes the latter. Said comments that: ‘The exteriority of the representation is always governed by some version of the truism that if the Orient could represent itself, it would’. As the Orient apparently cannot represent itself, it must be represented. But Said also relates this to governance. From the perspective of the Orientalist, the Orient also cannot represent itself politically. Through this discussion we can interpret Marx’s observation in terms of an interrelationship between representation as the aesthetic or linguistic description and framing of something – in this instance an entire region of the world – and the issue of political representation. Colonialism in the Middle East has been legitimized in the past by the assumption, projected onto the region from without, that the peoples of the region cannot represent themselves either directly, or through elected representatives, instead they had to be governed by those from more ‘advanced’ nations.

It has often been observed that European modes of representing colonial others as incapable of governing themselves had their origin in the ways that European elites regarded their own subordinate populations. The lower orders were represented as ‘unthinking’, as a ‘rabble’ and a ‘mass’. When these people took it upon themselves to contest their domination, they were represented as a ‘mob’ rather than as political agents. Thus when the dominated sought to act politically they were represented as being somehow beyond politics. Consequently such representations ordained that the ‘rabble’ had to be governed by those who could think and who ‘know better’. The parliamentary system of today is the result of a kind of compromise between the desires of the dominated to be counted within the sphere of the political and the desire of elites to reserve their assumed right to govern. Within elective democracy the voters are meant to be represented by the politicians who they elect; the latter are meant to be their surrogates. But the historic compromise between the urge for equality on the part of the governed and the desire to govern on the part of their governors means that there is necessarily a gap between the represented and their representatives, between the desire of the represented to have a political voice and the assumptions of their representatives that they must be represented in the sense that Marx articulated. As long as the compromise between the interests of the represented and their representatives is maintained and desires on the part of the dominated for equality are contained by our nominally democratic political system then everything will be well from the perspective of those committed to the existing order. This is partly a matter of maintaining a particular representation of legitimate politics as a narrow space between two despotic poles defined on the one hand by the figure of the dictator, or the totalitarian party and on the other by the image of the rampaging mob that would wreck the careful balance of ordered society and cast everything into chaos. Thus the representative political system is enmeshed and dependent upon particular representations of the political. As Jacques Rancière has suggested, such representations involve an actual fear of the democratic, where democracy means the involvement of people in politics beyond the act of voting and where conditions of consensus are threatened by agonistic contests, not only over different political issues, but over the very meaning of politics and democracy. To use Rancière’s metaphor of the shores and the seas of politics, such representations involve an ‘anti-maritime polemic’ that attempts to keep politics beached on dry land away from the dangerously turbulent seas populated by unruly mariners who do not know their proper place (Jacques Rancière, On the Shores of Politics, Verso, 1995). In this sense dominant representations of politics within parliamentary democracies involve an anxiety about the political overspilling the boundaries set for it by what Rancière calls ‘the police order’ in which everyone knows there place and is in their place. Within this framing of the political, different people are assigned different and fixed roles: there are those who are meant to represent and those who are meant to be represented. The latter can potentially become the former, but only within the established political structure within which the represented and their representatives are always distinct, the fundamental rule being that the represented cannot (and should not) represent themselves.

With these things in mind, what can we make of the reporting of the student demonstration against proposed cuts in the public funding of higher education in London on 10 November? The image that graced most of the front-pages of British newspapers depicts a demonstrator kicking in a ground floor window of the Millbank Tower which houses the Conservative Party Headquarters.

Student demonstration, Millbank Tower, London, 10 November, 2010

The demonstrator is hooded and anonymous, a fitting symbol of the ‘mob’ he is taken to represent in some of the newspapers. For these commentators this figure represents a point beyond the narrow space of legitimate politics, a point that defines the usurpation by ‘thugs’ of the legitimate right of the students to voice their opposition to government policy. But one cannot also help thinking, despite this definition of the student demonstration as a legitimate expression of political freedom, that this legitimacy is displaced by the power of the image. The iconic representative of ‘mob rule’ comes to stand-in-for and in-the-representational-way-of the political agenda of the students. The democratic concerns of the students are left to mere words and other less powerful images on the inside pages of the newspapers. Though even here there are instances of slippage between the ‘violence’ of a few of the demonstrators and the rest of the demonstration, such as the heading in a large bold font across two inside pages of the Daily Mail that read ‘Just 225 police to hold back 50,000’, as if everyone on the demonstration, including myself, was trying to get into Millbank Tower.

Perhaps what is revealed here is not so much the ‘hijacking’ of legitimate protest, as the Mail defined the events on its front-page, but a sense of the intolerance for even lawful dissent when it seeks to re-adjust standard relations between the represented and their representatives. Perhaps it is not the figure kicking in the window that is a threat to the given order, but rather the peaceful but angry political agents who took to the streets to voice their dissent without resorting to the destruction of property. Or more precisely, perhaps it is the potential of these political agents to become something else, to grow and develop into a popular movement that is the real threat; a threat that might be contained at least in the realm of representation, if not within the field of the political, by invoking the threatening symbolism of ‘King Mob’. The press seek dramatic images and the image of the destructive demonstrator is certainly that. This is why the image graced the front-pages of a broad spectrum of newspapers, whether they empathised with the students or not. These different newspapers might have verbally framed the image in different ways and intended different things by reproducing it. But we are discussing effects more than intentions here. Some newspaper editors might have intended to de-legitimise the demonstration, others might not. Nevertheless the effect of the replication of the image across the press has created an icon that summarises the demonstration in terms of only one of its aspects.

Yet the other aspects of the demonstrations cannot and will not be contained. They are there in the press in the form of other kinds of commentary, but also in the front-page image itself. The violence presented in this image might be verbally framed in elements of the press through the use of words like ‘mob’ and ‘thugs’, but the very power of the image to seemingly dominate the representational space within which the student demonstration can be understood is also something that might exceed such framings and symbolise the anger created by the gap between the represented and their representatives. In this sense the image of the violent demonstrator might not so simply be the enemy of the student cause and the tool of those who oppose it. Instead this image might be taken as a symbol of anger and violence that is generated when those who are meant to be representatives no longer even pretend to represent those who they seek to govern. In this sense the violence depicted in the image might come to stand simply as a reaction to the greater, but less visible, violence that will be caused by the policies being established by the current British government. This is the kind of violence that Slavoj Zizek has identified as ‘systemic’ violence: ‘the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.’ (Slavoj Zizek, Violence, Profile, 2008) Thus the image might be taken to represent not mindless hatred that must be opposed if society is to be sustained, but rather an anger that needs to be understood as thoughtful and as something that needs to be channelled into a progressive politics that seeks to preserve and enhance those aspects of the social contract that our present leaders seem bent on wrecking.

The most recent student demonstrations on Wednesday 24 November have given us another image. This time the image shows us demonstrators in London venting their anger upon a police van curiously abandoned in the path of the demonstration.

Student demonstrators attack police van, London, 24 November 2010

For those with a conspiratorial bent, it might seem that the police left the van there on purpose as an irresistible target in the hope that the demonstrators would provide a scene for the media that could be used to de-legitimise the student cause and give cause for heavy handed policing. If this is true, the police were engaging in a crude form of image-generation that depended on the students adding in the final element of the picture. However, it seems that the image fails in terms of this intention, for the anger that it represents will exceed the moral panic it is meant to enable. This anger will grow as the cuts bite in different areas of British society. It is an anger that will not be contained nor know its place. Nor will it accept being represented by those who would want to send it out to sea as a means of preserving the official space of the democratic.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | October 2, 2010

“Its the occupation stupid”, yet again

Usually photographs contribute to the construction of the news. It is more rare that photographs themselves are newsworthy. An instance of the latter was the reporting in mid-August of the discharged Israeli soldier Eden Abergil posting photographs of herself in uniform posing in front of bound and blindfolded Palestinians on her Facebook wall.

Eden Abergil, Facebook photograph

The newsworthy-ness of these photographs has now passed, to be replaced by attention given to the ‘peace’ talks in Washington between Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. But obviously the political conditions that generated these particular images in the first place have not gone away. It is these conditions that doom the talks in Washington to inconsequentiality, because they are premised on the misperception that what has to be resolved between the Israelis and Palestinians is a conflict rather than a situation of domination of one side by the other.

So after the Eden Abergil furore in which she was the focus of commentary that either attacked, or defended her actions, what can we learn from her photographs? The first thing to say and this was a key point made by various commentators at the time is that her photographs are not really out of the ordinary either within the Israeli military, or within the age of military conflicts when soldiers have access to cheap and portable photographic equipment. Soldiers take these kinds of photographs and the denial made by the IDF that these photographs are a ‘phenomenon’ will not change this fact. Abergil’s incredulity towards the suggestions that she had done something wrong was probably partly based on the understanding that ‘everybody does this’.

The second related thing to note is that the only thing that distinguishes Abergil’s photographs from others taken by Israeli soldiers is that they were projected into the public realm. Thousands more photographs of this kind that make light of the brutalisation of Palestinians, probably exist in the private realm, on personal computers, or in boxes of photos related to the taker’s period of army service. The photographs that ‘Breaking the Silence’ revealed from their archive the day after the Eden Abergil story broke are the tip of the iceberg.

Photographs released on Facebook by 'Breaking the Silence'

These photographs will mostly remain hidden, but it is reasonable to assume that they exist, not because young Israeli soldiers are monsters, but because cameras are a technology that allows them to explore and manifest a power-relationship towards Palestinians that is structural to the Israeli occupation. What opened Abergil up for criticism is obviously her wrongheaded assumption that the normalcy of this kind of photograph within the culture of the IDF extended to Facebook.

The third thing to say in relation to the photographs and the way that the posting of them on Facebook has been reported is that Abergil has functioned as a kind of scapegoat for the IDF and the Israeli state. In this context denigrating Abergil constitutes an ‘inoculation’ of the kind discussed by Roland Barthes in his essay ‘Myth Today’ from 1956, where he identifies the admittance of the ‘accidental evil of a class-bound institution the better to conceal its principle evil.’ Continuing: ‘One immunizes the contents of the collective imagination by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil; one thus protects it against the risk of a generalized subversion.’ Abergil has been defined as an aberration in the hope of inoculating the Israeli state and its occupation in the eyes of observers outside of Israel. Abergil also fleetingly became a figure of hate for people who should really be focussing their attention on the occupation regime rather than the actions of individual Israelis. In both her new found guises as scapegoat for the Israeli state and as hate figure, Abergil reminds me of Lindy England, the young women at the centre of the Abu Ghraib scandal. I am not sure about Abergil’s background is, though within the blogosphere some Israelis have labelled her an ‘arsit’ (which I understand translates as ‘white trash’, or as a Hebrew equivalent to ‘chav’), but in the case of England I know that she was working-classed and relatively powerless within the context of US society, someone easy to blame for violence that was structural to and a natural result of the occupation of Iraq. England brings to mind the white female ‘cracker’ characters in Civil Rights era films about segregation in the American south such as To Kill a Mocking Bird and In the Heat of the Night. Whatever happens in these narratives, the working-class ‘trashy’ woman is always to blame for what is obviously the racism of a social system.

The fourth thing that we can learn from the photographs is that a key element of what they depict is not as visible as it should be.  The question I want to pose is: if you take away Abergil from these photographs, do they become acceptable? Obviously not, for they depict bound and blindfolded Palestinians. Such photographs would only be acceptable if one internalised the logic of Israeli state ‘security’ discourse that defines the treatment of people in this way as being absolutely necessary for a greater good. If one does not accept this logic and, indeed, if one has any critical understanding of the occupation regime, which is really a regime of conquest given its forty-three year duration, then such photographs are unacceptable. The main thing people seem to have objected to about the Abergil photographs is her posing for the camera that suggests that she is making light of the plight of the Palestinian detainees in a rather distasteful and callous way, but what people should be equally, if not more, disturbed by is the fact that the Palestinian men in the pictures are bound and blindfolded at all. It is almost as if it took Abergil posing in front of bound and blindfolded Palestinian detainees for this familiar scenario of the occupation to actually be seen. Photographs of bound and blindfolded Palestinians are rather common. Enter ‘blindfolded Palestinians’ into Google Image and you will get a good number of results.

I presume, again, that this is the tip of an even bigger iceberg. What these pictures show is an IDF standard operating procedure that is integral to policies aimed at keeping the Palestinian population in the West Bank subordinated to an order that separates Palestinians from their land and enables the process of Israeli colonisation. Such images have become part of the iconography of the occupation, especially since the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000, but their commonplace nature should in no way make them acceptable.

So criticise Eden Abergil if you feel so inclined, but at the same time do not lose sight of the bigger picture of the occupation. Abergil’s actions are really nothing that out of the ordinary, nor are her explanations of why she has been attacked for these actions. As Daniel Dor has argued, since the end of the 1990s a dominant discourse within Israel has articulated the understanding that whatever Israel and Israelis do, they will always be criticised because Israel is hated and because they are Jews (Daniel Dor, The Denial of Guilt: The Israeli Media and the Reoccupation of the West Bank, Pluto, 2005). This belief is obviously linked to a longer standing aspect of Israeli identity relating to conceptions of the eternal persecution of the Jewish people and the culture of memory around the Holocaust (see Jacqueline Rose, The Question of Zion, Princeton, 2007). Aiming vitriol at Abergil might feel satisfying for some people, but it is of little political value. More significant is finding ways to focus attention on those ‘ordinary’ aspects of the occupation that have somehow been inoculated within the international media as ‘just the way things are over there’. We need to de-immunize images of bound and blindfolded Palestinians and from there move to the position where we can firmly assert that the occupation regime is intolerable however well, or badly Israeli soldiers behave.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | September 18, 2010

Not just ‘Avatar activism’

In 2006 Mohammed Khatib, a leading member of the Bil’in Popular Committee,
wrote on the Bil’in village website:

‘We refuse to be strangled by the wall in silence. In a famous Palestinian short story by Ghassan Kanafani, “Men in the Sun,” Palestinian workers suffocate inside a tanker truck. Upon discovering them, the driver screams, ‘Why didn’t you bang on the side of the tank?” In Bilin, we are banging, we are screaming … Please stand with us.’ (quoted in Tanya Reinhart, The Road Map to Nowhere: Israel/Palestine Since 2003, Verso, 2006)

This use of Kanafani’s story as a metaphor for the situation of Palestinian villages like Bil’in that have been severely affected by the construction of the West Bank barrier reminds us of just how potentially isolated and silenced Palestinian communities in the occupied territories can be. It also reminds us that many of these communities, with Bil’in being exemplary amongst them in recent years, have resisted this isolation and silence over their plight.

An important function of the Israeli regime of control in the West Bank is to suppress both the Palestinian national movement and forms of popular politics that depend on people making links over distances and acting collectively. The system of closures, curfews, and checkpoints combined with the cantonisation of the West Bank through the construction of barriers, bypass roads, and the settlements themselves are not only about establishing a grid of Israeli military and civilian domination over the territory, but also about dividing Palestinians from each other and from their potential allies, degrading not only their everyday lives, but also their ability to have a political life. As such, this system is fundamentally part of what Baruch Kimmerling has termed the ‘politicide’ of the Palestinians (Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians, Verso, 2003). This situation means that for communities like Bil’in, politics has to a large degree become a matter of developing tactics for overcoming this regime of control and division, finding ways to work with Palestinians from elsewhere in the West Bank and with Israeli activists as well as to make their situation visible in an international context. Communication using different kinds of media has become a key element of their political struggle. The internet has of course been very significant here, but the people of Bil’in have also staked much upon successfully gaining the attention of the conventional news media.

A recent article by Henry Jenkins in Le Monde Diplomatique (7 September 2010) emphasises that the key thing that people in Bil’in have done to attract this media attention is stage what Sean Scalmer has called ‘dissent events’ (Sean Scalmer, Dissent Events: Protest, the Media and the Political Gimmick in Australia. UNSW Press, 2002) in which costumes, sculptural props, and theatrical performances were used to enliven demonstrations and amplify their political message. Jenkins focuses on one demonstration in particular that occurred in February this year when activists dressed up as blue Na’vi characters from the film Avatar as a means of both tapping into the currency of the film and appropriating its narrative involving human military power pitted against indigenous life forms on an alien planet who are defending their land.

Avatar demonstration in Bil'in, February 2010

Jenkins in fact uses this instance of activists appropriating motifs from popular culture to coin the title for the new category of dissent he calls ‘Avatar activism’.

For Jenkins, this kind of protest tactic involves both a gain and a loss. Gained are affective images taken from the field of popular culture and re-used in a political context that he suggests enable the emotional sustenance of dissent. Lost in the reuse of simplistic imagery, often disseminated through new and old media without adequate contextualisation, is a sense of the complexity of the political situations involved. But as Jenkins adds, such simplistic imagery may well ‘direct attention to other resources.’  Thus viewers of a video of the Bil’in demonstration on YouTube, or photographs of the same demonstration on Flickr might turn to text-based forms of communication as a means of informing themselves about why these images were produced. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites have suggested that the Abu Ghraib photographs disseminated internationally in 2004 encouraged people to read documents that were already in the public realm, but which had not gained as much attention as they should. Thus they state: ‘Strong images can activate strong reading.’ (Robert Harimen and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Chicago, 2007) The organisers of the Avatar demonstration in Bil’in aimed to produce strong images that would have an impact upon those who saw them and would attract the attention of a much wider audience. The video of this demonstration posted on YouTube by Bil’in based video maker Haitam Al Katib has received 245,440 views, at the time of writing, as opposed to the video of Naomi Klein’s visit to Bil’in in August 2009 which has received 9,498 views. Taking the motif of blue aliens from a science fiction film and relocating it within the political reality of the West Bank could not be anything but a strong image, generating an uncanny effect and one hopes encouraging reflection and ‘strong reading’ that might help explain what was being seen. But the potential effects of strong images are not restricted to media audiences. The strength of these images can also shape how these audiences encounter them in the media. Thus Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples have argued that the strong images created by acts of symbolic violence performed by anarchists during the protests against the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle in 1999 focussed the media spotlight on the concerns of the demonstrators, allowing their ideas to be aired and given a greater degree of serious attention (Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples, ‘From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the “Violence” of Seattle’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Volume 19, Number 2, June 2002).  With these considerations in mind, it can be suggested that whatever loss of conceptual understanding occurs through the immediate impact of the images of ‘Avatar activism’ can be made up for in how these images relate to the written word.

Considering Jenkin’s fleeting discussion of Bil’in it should be added that the Avatar demonstration was just one instance in which demonstrators in the village appropriated motifs from other contexts, most of which were not related to popular culture. More usual has been imagery related to the broad historical frame of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and current events related to the occupation. Thus the Bil’in Popular Committee have set up demonstrations themed to reference, for example, the iconography of the Holocaust and the storming of the Free Gaza flotilla.

Demonstration in Bil'in

This affirms that the image repertoire of the Bil’in demonstrators is much broader and more historically and politically aware than the appropriation of imagery from a Hollywood blockbuster might suggest. The key point here is that the people of Bil’in have repeatedly appropriated imagery for their demonstrations that is in some way relevant to their cause and that enables them to not only keep going, but also to break out of their isolation. To do this they have had to constantly innovate themes for their demonstrations and develop new props that can become the focal point for demonstrators and the media alike. What this suggests is that although the imagery used in the demonstrations is often simple and involves the reinforcement of crude binaries between oppression and freedom defined in terms of a contrast between the Israeli state and the Palestinian struggle, this mobilisation of simple imagery is the result of a sophisticated understanding of what resources politically weak agents can mobilise in a long term struggle against the power of a sovereign state. The people of Bil’in have committed themselves to non-violence and consequently have had to turn to other media oriented means of resistance to the classic ‘weapons of the weak’ utilised in the armed struggles of guerrilla and national liberation movements.

I have heard some people describe the demonstrations in Bil’in negatively as ‘theatre’ and a ‘media-circus’. Such descriptions identify the key characteristics of the demonstrations but they fail to understand the significance of media attention for certain kinds of contemporary activism. It no longer seems appropriate to judge political movements on the basis of some notion of political authenticity defined in opposition to the big media and some notion of the spectacle as a negative and alienated product of domination. As Simon Cottle has argued, it is a particular form of spectacle that enables certain kinds of political project to occur (Simon Cottle, Mediatized Conflict, Open University, 2006). This does not mean that politics does not exist outside of the media, but rather that in highly mediatised societies the media take on an important function within political projects whether they are hegemonic, or counter-hegemonic. Nor does it necessarily mean, as Cottle argues, that ‘the co-present public at demonstrations no longer count the most’ as opposed to the ‘mass audience watching and reading public the media coverage at home’ (Simon Cottle, ‘Reporting demonstrations: the changing media politics of dissent’, Media, Culture & Society, volume 30, number 6, 2008). In Bil’in the activism on the ground works in conjunction with, but at the same time differently from the effects of its mediation upon a wider audience. The activism engaged in by the villagers and their allies is the core of the struggle, but this struggle is elaborated through the media, an elaboration that in turn feeds back into the activities organised around the local geography of Bil’in. In particular, media attention keeps the struggle visible, raising awareness about the building of the barrier on village land and providing a modicum of protection against the violence of the state. Under this precarious umbrella of this protection in addition to the minimal shield provided by the presence of Israeli and international activists at particular times, the people of Bil’in have not only been demonstrating for five years, but also filed petitions in the Israeli High Court of Justice, and organised an annual conference on non-violent popular resistance that has involved international and Israeli speakers and delegates. Here the geographically limited core and the mass mediated periphery of the struggle maintain and enable each other. Political realities on the ground and practices of media image production are entwined.

The dissent events organised by the Bil’in Popular Committee often involve an element of playfulness with the intention of courting the media and creating circumstances in which eye-catching imagery can be generated, but this playful image production is always serious in its intentions and itself often involves a dramatisation of the seriousness of the situation by involving the Israeli military in the dramaturgical action. Thus in a recent demonstration blindfolded and cuffed Palestinian, Israeli and international activists positioned themselves in front of the soldiers sent to stop them from reaching the barrier with reference to the revelation in the media that week that a female Israeli soldier had posted pictures of herself posing in front of blindfolded and cuffed Palestinians on her Facebook wall. In front of the assembled media the demonstrators played at being detainees while the soldiers inadvertently became their captors.

Bil'in demonstration, 20 August 2010

Yet this dramatisation of a standard scenario of the occupation soon became reality as the soldiers reacted violently to stone throwing, breaking up the demonstration and arresting one of the blind-folded and handcuffed activists. Thus role-play dramatising the power relations and violence of the occupation was followed and in fact dramatically completed by the actualisation of that power and violence through the actions of the soldiers. Yet one might argue that dissent events of this kind are only completed through being imaged in the media.

Writing about his experiences amongst Palestinian refugees and fighters in Jordan in the early 1970s, Jean Genet emphasised how the Fedayeen were turned into ‘stars’ by the media and how at the same time they were very much aware of their roles within the realm of media images. One Palestinian fighter states: ‘Stars, that’s what we were.’ Another observes:

‘Whenever Europeans looked at us their eyes shone. Now I understand why. It was with desire, because their looking at us produced a reaction on our bodies before we realized it. Even with our backs turned we could feel your eyes drilling through the backs of our necks. We automatically adopted a heroic and therefore attractive pose. Legs, thighs, chest, neck – everything helped to work the charm. We weren’t aiming to attract anyone in particular, but since your eyes provoked us and you’d turned us into stars, we responded to your hopes and expectations.’

The same Fedayeen continued: ‘But you’d turned us into monsters, too. You called us terrorists! We were terrorist stars.’  (Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love, New York Review Books, 1986) This condition of being imaged and being aware of being imagined has followed the Palestinian struggle at least since the 1960s. But the awareness of Palestinians that they are the subject of media representation was not just a matter of being aware that they had been turned into different kinds of stereotype – the guerrilla hero, or the terrorist monster, or, in addition to the two figures discussed by Genet, the refugee victim – stereotypes that service the desires of others. This awareness has also related to how Palestinians have seen that the media can also serve them.  Through spectacular acts of symbolic violence Palestinian fighters thought they could gain the attention of the media to their cause, using the limelight to tell the story of the Palestinian catastrophe to a world that did not appear to know, or did not seem to care. This is demonstrated by the TV footage contained within artist Johan Grimonprez’s film about the history of skyjacking dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) in which Palestinian guerrillas were allowed to speak to the press about their cause after they were arrested.

Johan Grimonprez, 'dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y', 1997

But this need to connect with a media public was not just a matter of making visible something that has been marginalised within the field of vision, it also logically involves the assumption that the audience, or at least some of that audience would empathise with the Palestinian plight. Israeli writer Ariella Azoulay has defined this empathetic connection as one involving a ‘civil’ relationship between people who are linked by an understanding of citizenship that exceeds the civil status granted by sovereign power. Discussing photographs of Palestinians living in the occupied territories, Azoulay has observed:

‘The consent of most photographed subjects to have their picture taken, or indeed their own initiation of a photographic act, even when suffering in extremely difficult circumstances, presumes the existence of a civil space in which photographers, photographed subjects, and spectators share a recognition that what they are witnessing is intolerable.’ (Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, Zone Books, 2008)

In relation to Bil’in, this sense that the presence of the visual media at the demonstrations connects the villagers with people that can recognise that what is being done to the village is wrong is shown by the example of a demonstration for which village children produced a poster that depicted a camera and bore the slogan in English: ‘Their eyes won’t stop showing the Israeli soldiers crimes.’

Demonstration in Bil'in

This slogan suggests that there are people out in the wider world who will also see the things shown in photographs of the struggle in Bil’in and elsewhere in the occupied territories as a crime, that these people are connected to the makers of the poster by a shared understanding. This sense of a shared civil ethos is also suggested by Mohammed Khatib’s call to others to ‘Please stand with us.’  But here the call is not for people to simply recognise something, but to act upon this recognition and to do something to help the people of Bil’in in their struggle. Here the connection that mediation allows is not just about publicity, or even about keeping the popular struggle in Bil’in in the public eye so as to afford some degree of protection, but a matter of creating a bigger community of concerned citizens and even activists with whose help the people of Bil’in might have some hope of succeeding in the goal of regaining the land they have lost to the construction of the barrier and to the expansion of the nearby settlement of Modi’in Illit. In these terms the dissent events in Bil’in are only really completed when they lead to something else, that is, to action and practical political results.

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