Posted by: simonsteachingblog | September 7, 2009

When the Berlin Wall meets the Gaza Barrier

This text started out as a reply to a comment on my post ‘Creative Destruction on the Gaza Border’, but it got too long and so I decided to turn it into my next post.

Peter Kennard, photomontage used as the cover of his book 'Images for the End of the Century'

Peter Kennard, photomontage used as the cover of his book 'Images for the End of the Century'

Peter Kennard’s cover for his book Images for the End of the Century is a great photomontage. As the commentator observes, it does seem to represent ‘reconciliation smashing the idol’ of the Berlin Wall, as opposed to ‘smashing the idol in the vain hope of reconciliation’ in the case of the destruction of the Gaza barrier. However, we should think about the difference between these examples not just at the level of symbolism, but also in terms of the relationship between this symbolism and the political realities to which they relate. The situation in Germany in 1989 was markedly different to the current situation in Israel/Palestine. Germany had been divided by external powers after the defeat of Nazism in 1945; a division that generated separate political systems in the East and the West of the country. When the external political and military power that maintained the DDR in East Germany collapsed, then the reunification of Germany became possible. In Israel/Palestine there is no external power that has kept people divided and in conflict with each other. Instead there is an internal power, the Israeli state itself. Indeed, it is because of the dominance of the Israeli state over the territory that was Mandate Palestine that we should be careful about defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one between ‘warring tribes’ as if the Israelis and Palestinians were somehow equals in this conflict. It is crucial to understanding in this context that Israel is a sovereign nation-state with the most powerful military in the Middle East, whereas the Palestinians have no state, no sovereignty, and no army to speak of, just armed militias that have none of the technological sophistication of the Israeli army. So unequal is this conflict that some commentators refuse to call it a conflict at all (see for example Eric Hazan, Notes on the Occupation: Palestinian Lives, 2007).

Under such conditions Palestinians have little option, but to either engage in acts of pointless and murderous terrorism, or to generate vain but hopeful gestures towards a better future. Hamas’ blowing up of the Gaza barrier is not quite this kind of gesture, but my suggestion would be that it is a positive form of iconoclasm that points towards ways of contesting the imprisonment of the Palestinians within physical enclosures and stereotypical images as well as potentially contributing to the contestation of the imprisonment of the Israelis (albeit under vastly better conditions) in the role of the occupier. But what blowing up of the Gaza barrier points towards is perhaps not the violence of the iconoclastic gesture at all. What was most symbolically valuable about this action was not the act of destruction itself, but the movement of people that it temporarily allowed.

What is being discussed here is perhaps closer to what W. J. T. Mitchell defines as ‘critical idolatry’ that, in contrast to violent iconoclasm, does not involve the destruction of idols, but their ‘sounding out’. As Mitchell observes: ‘The power of idols over the human mind resides in their silence, their spectacular impassiveness, their dumb insistence on repeating the same message (as in the baleful cliché of “terrorism”), and their capacity for absorbing human desire and violence and projecting it back to us as a demand for human sacrifice.’ (W. J. T. Mitchell, What do pictures want? The lives and loves of images, The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 26-27) Sounding out the idols makes them, in Mitchell’s words, ‘an echo chamber for human thought.’ Through such practices political idols and the demands they make upon people can be contested and reconfigured. The idols that are central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – for example, the linked Israeli idols perceived victimhood and security, or the Palestinian idols of the armed struggle and martyrdom – need to be sounded out and made to resonate with new ideas and signs. Such signs may well become totems for new forms of kinship.

Where might such acts of sounding out the idols be undertaken? Perhaps the best place will be on the border. Meaning that the critical idolater needs to adopt the role of what the Israeli dissident Michel Warschawski has called the ‘border runner’ (see Michel Warschawski, On the Border, Pluto Press, 2005). The ‘border runner’ refuses to accept that there are no other locations to occupy other than those on either side of the border. Not just the literal political border, but the borders defined by linguistic, national, and ethnic difference. Border running therefore is a symbol of hope for a future when the border might no longer exist and an act that might constitute a model for this future. Occupying a position on the border is itself a gesture and an action that involves reconfiguring the idols of exclusive ethnic-national identity that are so fundamental to the violence of the conflict.

Having made these observations, it might be added that the reconciliation between East and West Germany was enabled through the effective triumph of the West German state. Indeed, this process might even be seen, not so much as a process of reconciliation as a process through which the West German social and political system dominated and replaced that of East Germany. In relation to this, what Kennard’s image might represent is not so much the reconciliation of two separate political systems to create the current unified German state, as much as it represents an ideal of ordinary people meeting as equals over the ruin of a wall that was itself part of a deep compact between Soviet style communism and capitalism that ruled out political possibilities beyond those defined by these opposed political systems. In this sense what Kennard’s montage represents might also have been the product of a ‘vain hope’ for a not yet experienced political order of equality; a political order that would constitute a kind of reconciliation – what leftists used to call ‘the rendezvous of victory’. I am thinking here of a rendezvous as a meeting place, as in the two hands coming together through the broken wall. This rendezvous did not happen, or is yet to happen. In this sense, Kennard’s image might be closer to the destruction of the Gaza barrier, or other potential acts of critical idolatry and border running in Israel/Palestine than one might think.

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