Posted by: simonsteachingblog | June 26, 2010

Mobile metaphors

The thing about metaphors is that the more someone, or some collective places emphasis upon a particular metaphor, giving it visibility, the more this metaphor is open to appropriation and re-use by others, often in ways that contravene its original articulation. This has clearly been the case with the Holocaust. The Israeli state has instrumentalized the Holocaust as a kind of master-metaphor with which to legitimize its actions and create for itself a kind of latitude with which the persecuted can act as a persecutor without significant rebuke. Yet as Idith Zertal has pointed out, the Israeli state cannot entirely control the meanings of this metaphor (Idith Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood, Cambridge, 2005). The international construction of the Holocaust as the traumatic event of the recent history means that there will inevitably be points where its role as a metaphor in the service of the Israeli state project will spin out of control and result in a kind of symbolic ‘blow-back’. This occurred in November 2004 when a member of the Israeli NGO Checkpoint Watch filmed a Palestinian man (Wissam Tayam) playing a violin at the Beit Iba checkpoint. The soldiers at the checkpoint claimed that when asked to open his violin case, the man voluntarily began to play, whereas the violinist himself has stated that he was told by the soldiers to ‘play something sad’. Whatever actually happened, it is clear that this event touched a nerve for many Israelis familiar with imagery of Jewish musicians forced to play in the Nazi camps. Some felt that the actions of the soldiers besmirched the official Israeli memory of the Holocaust and problematized its role as a pillar of legitimacy for Israel. In other instances people have actively re-presented motifs related to the Holocaust as a means of using its metaphoric capital in support of their political projects. Thus Palestinian activists in the West Bank village of Bil’in protested against the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008/January 2009 by dressing up as concentration camp inmates during one of their weekly demonstrations against the West Bank Barrier which has cut them off from part of their land. The people engaging in this dramatic performance not only wore striped clothes, but also yellow stars on which were written the word ‘Gazan’. Potentially distasteful as the analogy between the Holocaust and the Gaza attack might be for some, what it reveals very clearly is the way that the horror of the Holocaust is available for metaphoric appropriation within local and international arenas. In this sense the Holocaust is not a fixed metaphor with meanings delimited in relation to one political entity and one ethnic-national group, but a mobile metaphor open for appropriation. Because of its necessary mobility, this metaphor is struggled over by those who want to control its use and connotations, and by those who want to turn it to their own purposes.

Similar considerations about the mobility of metaphors arise for me from the recent storming of the ‘Free Gaza’ flotilla. Many observers have made the link between the Mavi Marmara and the ship Exodus 1947 that brought Jewish refugees to Palestine from Europe in 1947 and was stormed out at sea by the British Navy. Both ships were engaging in an act of breaking a blockade imposed by the current sovereign power of the area. This is a powerful link to make given the way the Exodus 1947 became a focal point for international criticism of British policy toward Jewish refugees and a symbol of the perceived need to create a Jewish state in Palestine, and then later a symbol of that state once it was formed. The Exodus 1947 was represented as a story of desperate people seeking refuge in a place to which they had a historical relationship and who were stopped by an imperial power, which in this particular case eventually deported the refugees back to the place of their oppression, Germany. The story of the Mavi Marmara is currently hotly debated: the official Israeli version being that it was a ship linked to a broader will to destroy, or at least endanger Israel, while the reading made by many people worldwide, and not necessarily just partisans of the Palestinian cause, is that the ship was a symbolic attempt to break the illegitimate blockade of Gaza. However the storming of the flotilla is understood what is apparent is that the linkage between the Exodus 1947 and the Mavi Marmara involves a kind of metaphoric traffic from the one to the other.

There is an Israeli poster from 1949 that depicts a huge liner speeding towards the coast of Palestine. The ship flies a huge Israeli flag and is emblazoned with the name ‘Exodus’ on its prow. The poster depicts the Exodus 1947 as a historical ship, albeit in a rather glamorized way, and at the same time presents to the ship as symbolic of the Israeli state itself. Here the ship symbolizes the official project of the state to engage in an ‘in-gathering’ of diasporic Jews from around the world and to create a national haven for the Jews as a persecuted people. The Exodus 1947 continues to be a symbol of these aspects of the dominant Zionist narrative. Thus in 2007 three hundred people from different countries, including passengers on the Exodus 1947 travelled on a cruise ship from Cyprus to Haifa to re-enact the original journey and through this affirm its received meaning as a transition from Europe as a place of death to a place of safety.

Exodus commemoration journey, 2007

Other ships that brought Jewish refugees to Palestine have also been turned into symbols. For example, there is the ship in Herzlia that has been turned into a memorial to Jewish refugees.

Immigrants memorial, Herzlia

Yet ships have had far broader metaphoric potential than the meanings linked to this specific historical episode. The metaphor of the Ship of the State continues to recur and as such ships continue to be used as symbolic of collective destiny. There is for example an Israeli Communist Party poster from the 1950s that depicts a Jew and a Palestinian embracing on a small ship that sails over a sea of dangers towards a shore dotted with buildings representing a socialist utopia. If the image of the Exodus represented the exclusive destiny of the Jewish people in the founding of the Israeli state, this poster represented the ship as a context of a non-exclusive destiny shared by Jews and Arabs. What this means is that generic metaphors utilizing ship motifs are also highly mobile and open to re-articulation. Though obviously this applies to the more specific ship-metaphors under discussion here. This can be seen in the way that the Israel/Palestine based photographic collective Activestills reused the Herzlia refugee memorial to highlight the plight of refugees from Darfur within Israel and to bring into visibility the contradiction between the mythologization of Jewish refugees from Europe as a key element of the Israeli national narrative and the way that non-Jewish refugees are currently treated within Israel.

Activestills refugee poster

As one last example of the mobility of ship related metaphors we might consider the creation of a ship on wheels as a prop for the demonstration in Bil’in in the same week that the ‘Free Gaza’ flotilla was stormed.

Ship made for Bil'in demonstration, June 2010

This mock ship was meant to commemorate the killings on the Mavi Marmara and to symbolize solidarity with the international activists on the flotilla, yet it also was meant to mobilize the metaphoric power of the flotilla in the service of the cause of the people of Bil’in, establishing an analogy between the violence of the Israeli state when it choose to solve the political challenge of the flotilla by military means and the violent effects of the West Bank Barrier on the village. I would also like to suggest that entwined with these direct links between the flotilla and the demonstration in Bil’in are more generic articulations of the ship as a metaphor for collective will and fate, thus the Bil’in ship was festooned with the flags of many nations and was meant to represent international opinion against the ongoing Israeli occupation.

Ship made for Bil'in demonstration, June 2010

Let me finish with another obvious ship-metaphor, that of the ‘Ship of Fools’, the vessel filled with people who are oblivious and clueless about the destination and fate of their craft. Maybe it is time to conjoin the metaphor of the Ship of State with that of the Ship of Fools to represent the ongoing folly of Israeli state policies for all the people governed by that state whether they are granted citizenship, or not.

Ship of fools

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | June 1, 2010

History, ships, and symbolism

Ships carry a good deal of historical freight and symbolism. Ships have transported people into slavery, carried vast armies towards conquest, saved other armies from annihilation, and brought refugees from tyranny towards new lands. Ships have symbolised the horrors of the Middle Passage, the might of empire, and the hope of a new life free from persecution. It is this rich history of the ship as a technology of transportation and a symbol that I have been thinking about since yesterday morning when the IDF stormed the flotilla of ships heading for Gaza. The obvious connection I have been making in these thoughts is to the ship Exodus 47 that carried Jewish refugees from Europe towards Palestine in 1947, but was boarded by British forces before it arrived in Haifa. For the new Israeli state, the Exodus became a symbol of the idea of Jewish return to Israel and of the salvation of the survivors of the Nazi camps that Israel was taken to represent. In turn, the Exodus came to symbolise these things for many others outside Israel through Otto Preminger’s epic film Exodus released in 1960.

The Exodus is not only relevant to the events of yesterday morning because of the similarity between what happened to its passengers at the hands of the British and what has happened to the passengers of the ‘Free Gaza’ ships, but also because it is the powerful symbolism of the ship as the saviour of the desperate and of the Exodus in particular, that activists supporting the Palestinian cause have sought to appropriate. As far as I know, this first occurred in 1983 when Palestinians, leftist Israelis, and international supporters, many of whom were artists of different kinds, chartered a ship they defined as the Palestinian Ship of Return with the plan of sailing it from Greece to Haifa. Unfortunately the ship was mysteriously mined in Athens Harbour by unknown forces and never made its symbolic voyage. The ‘Free Gaza’ ships have picked up where this failed venture left off. They are not ships of return, but they are ships of salvation bringing supplies and moral support to the blockaded Gaza Strip. They are also meant to be a media story and an image, just like the Exodus and the Palestinian Ship of Return before them.

Lahav Halevy, 'Exodus 2' May 2010


What kind of image the ‘Free Gaza’ boats will become now that they have been stopped is something being fought over in the media-sphere as I write. Whatever this image will be, it will be a fractured one. For some, encouraged in their considerations by the Israeli state, the ships are instruments of ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘terror’, with the activists on board being defined as those who have links with terrorist organisations. For others, including myself, the ships represent a legitimate form of protest over the military and economic siege of Gaza. However this struggle within the media will play out over the days and weeks to come, it would be good if the people in the former camp considered the symbolic irony of Israeli troops violently and fatally storming ships as they neared the coast of Palestine seeking to help the wretched of the earth.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | April 2, 2010

‘We’ the population

I recently attended a conference in Tel Aviv entitled ‘The Winning Image’ (organised by the Faculty of Art and Design at Shenkar College in Ramat Gan). This title was derived from terminology used by the Israeli military during the 2006 Lebanon War and the attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. In these conflicts the Israeli military was concerned with establishing for themselves a ‘Winning Image’ and with denying such an image to its opponents. The conference was therefore concerned with the relationship between military conflict and visual imagery, a concern congruent with long-standing discourses on the relationship between conventional military logistics and what Paul Virilio termed ‘the logistics of perception’ in his well-known book War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (1984). ‘The Winning Image’ in this context was not just a spectacle of military power intended to shock the enemy and thus hasten their defeat; a spectacle that Clauswitz defined as the ‘moral’ aspect of warfare, linking the image projected by an army to its morale and the morale of its adversaries. This ‘Winning Image’ could also be one projected back to the home population to encourage them to further commit themselves to the power that has provided them with victory. The first day of the conference was interesting for the panel with which it began and the presentation with which it ended. The former involved talks by Nachman Shai (a Knesset member for the Kadima party and the former Israeli Defence Forces spokesperson), Yaniv Levitan (from Haifa University), Ariella Azoulay (from Bar-Ilan University), and Farida Vis (from the University of Loughborough), while the latter was a keynote address by the artist Hans Haacke.

The opening panel could not have been more marked in its contrasts. Shai and Levitan’s presentations were premised upon the understanding that they spoke as part of and for an Israeli national ‘we’ defined as homogeneous and clearly demarcated from its enemies, designated as ‘terrorists’. Shai’s presentation in particular was structured in terms of a struggle between this Israeli ‘we’ and threats posed by Hezbollah and Hamas, the latter sometimes being incorporated into a generic Palestinian other. Within this struggle Israel is strong in conventional military terms yet, it was argued, weak in the realm of the information war. In relation to these strengths and weaknesses, Shai discussed the prospect of what he termed a new ‘White Intifada’ that would involve less violent confrontations between the Israeli state and the Palestinians than during the Second Intifada. This lower level of violence did not seem to be a particularly attractive prospect to him. Thus he observed that it might be better to have a more violent ‘Red Intifada’ that would enable Israel ‘to put an end to terror’. From this I could only understand that a less violent Intifada, without suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, would not allow the Israeli state to violently crush Palestinian resistance to the occupation without creating a ‘losing image’ for Israel on the international scene. Consequently, although not something explicitly articulated by Shai, Israel’s weakness within the information war in the international context is not the result of its militarily weak opponents producing better propaganda because they are undemocratic and thus not confused by notions of free speech and the plurality of voices this generates. Rather this weakness is the result of the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land against which Palestinians continue to resist by both non-violent and violent means.

The occupation will always be a weakness for Israel in terms of image simply because it is often seen in a negative light in the international political arena. This negative attitude is generally not the consequence of anti-Israeli attitudes, or because of old and new forms of anti-Semitism, as some would suggest, but because a lot of people view it as plain wrong to deny sovereignty to a people through an occupation that every year looks more and more like conquest. Because of the occupation, the Israeli state will always struggle to establish the ‘Winning Image’ it might desire for itself in the eyes of people living outside of Israel, in Europe and elsewhere. It may well be the case that for some international observers the Israeli state’s reflex to use military violence for political ends has given it a positive image as a modern day Sparta. The Retort collective have suggested, along these lines, that support for Israel on the part of the US state is not based on the role of Israel as a ‘strategic asset’ in the Middle East, but at the level of image in terms of ‘self-recognition’ – that Israel has functioned ‘most deeply as an image, and justification, of the US’s own culture of endless arms build-up and the militarization of politics.’ (Retort, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, Verso, 2005, p. 123) But Retort also suggest that whatever ‘image victory’ the Israeli state might secure in this way has to compete with ‘image defeat’ in relation to the spectacle of the occupation. Many Israelis probably also desire the ‘Winning Image’ that their state can, at least temporarily, give them; an image of military dominance and triumph. Such a ‘Winning Image’ can only function on the basis of an identification with a collective ‘us’ that is utterly exclusive and premised upon the utter abjection of the population that is defined as the enemy. Given public responses to Operation Cast Lead against Palestinians in Gaza this kind of construction of ‘us’ against ‘them’ seems to be a dominant and well functioning element of the Israeli national political imaginary. But this form of exclusivist ‘winning’ has to have its losers and the losers end up being an image that also says something about the supposed winners. Thus in terms of an image of international legitimacy, the Israeli state will always find itself on unstable ground as long as the occupation continues. This is why the Palestinian option of violent resistance is preferred by the Israeli state because it can be mobilised to undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian demand for independence, or citizenship within a binational state, and because it allows for both non-violent and violent resistance to be suppressed through the application of sovereign power.

In the next presentation, Levitan continued aspects of Shai’s argument from what was ostensibly an academic position, though given what he said, he would not have looked out of character if he had delivered this presentation in an army uniform. What he said hinged on the not particularly persuasive argument that in the contemporary period ‘ideas [are] stronger than bombs’ and that ‘wars are ultimately decided in the media field’. From this, Levitan presumed, like Shai, that Israel was in a weak position and was open to information attack by ‘terrorist’ organisations and international supporters of the Palestinians. Thus the Israeli state was put in the position of being a victim of a ‘stronger’ opponent. A dubious equality was therefore set up between the Palestinians (successful in the information war) and the Israeli state (merely strong in its conventional arms) that ignored the massive disparity in economic, political, and military strength between the former and the latter. Israel was also understood to have made itself vulnerable through the openness of its communications to the extent that it had even given a platform to Hezbollah by broadcasting its propaganda. Thus Hezbollah made ‘use of the weakness of democracy’. One might wonder what the implications of this point are? Was Levitan lamenting the limitations for effective action in the field of information war on the part of liberal democracies, or moving towards the suggestion that it would be better for Israel to have a homogeneous and media with increased formal and informal censorship?

Ariella Azoulay speaking at 'The Winning Image' conference, Tel Aviv, March, 2010

Ariella Azoulay’s talk was not premised upon a taken-for-granted national ‘we’. Instead, it was concerned to problematize this ‘we’ from a ‘civil perspective’ that does not accept the delimitations upon citizenship set in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel as a Jewish state. Azoulay’s method was to reconsider certain iconic photographs, reading them in relation to the founding violence of the Israeli state and its ethno-centric policies. The photographs in question were the image of the raising of ‘The Ink Flag’ in Umm Rashrash in 1949 and the photograph of David Ben Gurion declaring the state of Israel at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1948. For Azoulay the latter image is a kind of ‘victory shot’, like the raising of ‘The Ink Flag’, or Joe Rosenthal’s famous image of the raising of the Stars and Stripes on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima during World War Two. This ‘victory shot’ depicts two Israeli flags hanging vertically against a wall on either side of a portrait of Theodor Herzl behind the assembled worthies marking the occasion of the declaration of the state, but Azoulay saw these flags as effectively thrust into occupied territory. Thus the declaration of Israeli sovereignty disguises the occupation of Palestinian land and the violence that this required. Azoulay’s reading of the photograph encouraged the viewer to reframe the photograph by bringing it into conjunction with an understanding of the ‘disaster’ that befell the Palestinians in 1948 and the refusal of ‘civil equality’ between Palestinians and the new Jewish Israelis this involved.

Within Azoulay’s presentation the establishment of a interpretive relationship between the foundation of Israeli statehood and the Palestinian ‘disaster’ was in part a matter of bringing the photograph of the declaration of the state into conjunction with other photographs of the Palestinian experience of 1948. The ‘Winning Image’ of the declaration of the state, became from a different perspective, a ‘losing image’; a transformation premised upon seeing the Palestinian ‘disaster’ as an absent presence within the photograph. Azoulay read the founding national icon ‘against the grain’ from the perspective of the defeated and the excluded. She therefore approached history, as presented through iconic photography, as a history of the those ‘lying prostrate’ in line with the ideas presented in Walter Benjamin’s famous ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Pimlico, 1999).

In her presentation Azoulay also attempted to retrieve a silenced history of pre-1948 ‘reciprocal relations’ between Palestinians and Jews by considering photographs of members of these ethnic groups working together before the establishment of the state of Israel. She noted these images as evidence of a mutuality that was eradicated by the Israeli state when it constructed ideologically inviolable boundaries between populations resident in Mandate Palestine. This mutuality was conceived not just as something that was of the past but also potentially of the future, as something that might be found through the establishment of a binational state where Jews and Palestinians share the status of citizen, or at least through the reciprocity between Israelis and Palestinians involved in a shared struggle to establish some form of Palestinian independence through a two-state solution. Overall what Azoulay argued for was a consideration of the question: ‘Who does the state serve?’ The obvious answer to this question is that the Israeli state serves Jewish Israelis. But Azoulay sought to problematize this automatic answer in order to ask whether, or not all Jews resident within Palestine in the late 1940s supported the UN partition plan of 1947, and, moreover, whether or not they supported the eventual establishment of Israel as an ethno-centric state in 1948. Here the question ‘Who does the state serve?’ is turned from obvious answers to a consideration of whether or not the Israeli state actually serves well those people it was meant to be set up for. Turning these concerns to the present and future, Azoulay also sought to enquire whether any state established within the boundaries of what was Mandate Palestine should represent the entire population of this territory.

If there was a ‘we’ within Azoulay’s discourse it was the ‘we’ of all those governed by the Israeli state irrespective of formal divions between those with full rights as citizens and those without. This is an interesting and promising argument for the way that it opens up a space for the reconsideration of taken-for-granted relationships between ethnicity, national identity, citizenship, and the state, but in the context of ‘The Winning Image’ conference it was also interesting for the reactions it produced from members of the audience. The atmosphere seemed to become tense as the presentation progressed, with some people leaving their seats in the auditorium and others interjecting (in untranslated Hebrew). It was clear that Azoulay had touched nerves, revealing the difficulty of talking about certain things within Israel even to a liberal constituency. Shai’s observations about the prospect of violent confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians in the near future, to my surprise, produced no such reactions, suggesting that more disturbing than the idea of ‘the next war’ for some of the audience was the suggestion that Israeli Jews and Palestinians might come to share the same civil context. Perhaps equally disturbing for members of the audience were Azoulay’s attempts to question the standard narrative of 1948 and its aftermath through the discussion of photographs. Those who left their seats, or protested from the audience seemed to be performing their role as national subjects defined in terms of a clear division between a Jewish Israeli ‘us’ and a Palestinian ‘them’ and in terms of a standard national narrative based upon the invisibility of the Palestinian ‘disaster’. It was therefore interesting to note that the English edition of Haaretz on the same day ran an opinion piece by Gideon Levy about what he argued was the non-existence of the Israeli ‘peace camp’ in which he stated: ‘This illusory left wing never managed to ultimately understand the Palestinian problem – which was created in 1948, not 1967 – never understanding that it can’t be solved while ignoring the injustice caused from the beginning. A left wing unwilling to dare to deal with 1948 is not a genuine left wing … The illusory left never understood the most important point: For the Palestinians, consenting to the 1967 borders along with a solution to the refugee problem, including at least the return of a symbolic number of refugees themselves, are painful concessions.’ (Gideon Levy, ‘Never was and never will be’, Haaretz, Sunday 7 March, 2010, A5)

Farida Vis speaking at 'The Winning Image' conference, Tel Aviv, March, 2010

If Shai and Levitan focussed upon the military and political struggle to assert ‘Winning Images’ in the sincere belief that such things actually exist and Azoulay pointed to the absent presence of disastrous loss on the part of those defined as ‘the enemy’ within the ‘Winning Image’ itself, Farida Vis took a different approach, suggesting that although some parties within the contest over the logistics of perception might seem, at least for a while to come out on top, the idea of a winner in the realm of images is a problematical concept. Vis began with a discussion of her research on British and US broadsheet newspaper coverage of the period of the Oslo ‘peace process’ in the mid-1990s, focussing on the Beit Lid bombing in January 1995 and the Hebron Massacre in February 1994. Considering the representation of perpetrators and victims within the press in relation to these two violent events, Vis found that in both instances Palestinians were less visible in either role than Israelis. In the case of Beit Lid emphasis was placed on the young Israeli soldiers killed, while for the Hebron Massacre much attention was given to the attacker Baruch Goldstein and not the Palestinian dead and wounded, some of whom were children. Contrary to the perceptions of some in Israel and elsewhere that the Western media follow anti-Israeli tendencies, it seems in these instances that Israelis fare better than the Palestinians, and might even be bordering on gaining some sort of ‘Winning Image’. Yet Vis’ continuing discussion problematized such assumptions through a consideration of the iconic motif of the killing of Mohammed al-Durrah in September 2000 at the beginning of the Second Intifada. What she argued was that although the dominant articulation of this motif is one that can be defined as sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians under occupation, the motif itself remains contested and insecure and, moreover, it is this insecurity in terms of meaning that drives the need to assert its significance in specific terms and consequently enables the reproduction of its iconic status. One of Vis’ key points, made clear at the end of her presentation, was that within such struggles over images like the one of al-Durrah nobody ultimately wins except for the image itself that gets to live on within visual culture as a result of attempts to use or ‘kill’ it through efforts to discredit it as a fraud.

This sense that in the end nobody can really secure a ‘Winning Image’ can be related to Azoulay’s suggestion within her discussion of photography and 1948 that one group’s victory is always implicated with another’s loss. Yet, this sense that the very idea of a ‘Winning Image’ is unfounded can also be related to understandings that both the occupied and the occupier lose out when it comes to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. For example, Edward Said discussed the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians in relation to Franz Kafka’s short-story ‘In the Penal Settlement’ (Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Books, 1963), stating: ‘In this story, Kafka shows how the invention of a fantastic torture machine – which is so detailed in its infliction of pain by needles that inscribe writing on the human body – in the end, captures the user and inventor of the machine himself. I think the same thing is happening with the Israelis. The Israeli military is used to humiliating and subjugating the Palestinians, but it may be hurting Israelis more than it hurts the Palestinians, who have triumphed in acts of heroism of just survival against all the obstacles placed in their way.’ (Edward W. Said, Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said, South End Press, 2003, p. 184) It is worth noting that Said made this observation prior to the extremes of Israeli state violence involved in the suppression of the Second Intifada and the attack on Gaza during ‘Operation Cast Lead’, however I think his point still stands. Azoulay has herself suggested something similar when she states in the introductory text to her exhibition The (In)human Spatial Condition from 2008 that: ‘The public sphere flawed by the ongoing disaster inflicted by the occupation regime upon its Palestinian noncitizens seeps into the Israeli side: the mobilization of Israeli citizens to take part in the production of the disaster and its justification, as well as its erasure and denial.’ (This text is also printed in Adi Ophir, Michal Givoni, and Sari Hanafi, eds., The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Zone Books, 2009) Though here there is an emphasis upon there being no winners in the context of the occupation, whereas Said suggests that the Palestinians do have winning images of sorts in the form of a heroism that the occupiers entirely lack. The general point made in both statements is that although the negative effects of the occupation are different for Israelis and Palestinians, both experience negative effects. In this sense, what we are addressing here is something close to Aimé Césaire’s classic characterisation of colonialism as a process of ‘Thingification’; a process that turns both coloniser and colonised into different kinds of thing: on the one hand ‘a classroom monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver’ and on the other ‘an instrument of production’. (Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, Monthly Review Press, 2000, p. 42; the original was published in 1955)

Hans Haacke speaking at 'The Winning Image' conference, Tel Aviv, March, 2010

Finally, Hans Haacke’s keynote address was focussed on his own work, but it shared with other speakers concerns over the problematical nature of the idea of the ‘Winning Image’ and over issues of citizenship. Haacke’s address resonated particularly well with Azoulay’s presentation when he discussed an artwork he constructed in the northern interior courtyard of the Reichstag Building in 2000.

Hans Haacke, 'Der Bevökerung', The Reichstag, 2000

This piece involved a reworking of the slogan on the side of the Reichstag that declared ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’ (‘To the German People’) with the slogan ‘Der Bevölkerung’ (‘To the population’). The latter slogan was laid out in white neon letters within a 7 by 21 metres wooden trough on the floor of the courtyard. As part of this work Haacke invited members of the Bundestag to each bring 100 pounds of soil from their electoral districts to fill the trough with the expectation that all sorts of plants would grow from the seeds in the soil. These plants would be allowed to grow irrespective of their origin. The resulting display was thus a demonstration against ideas of indigenousness of the type that inform ethno-centric constructions of German-ness. The plants stand in for an actual German population that is ethnically diverse. The slogan ‘To the Population’ therefore points to the need for the redefinition of the relationship between the state and its citizens in terms of an ethnically inclusive definition of the latter; citizenship would be premised upon residency rather than upon some imagined ethnos. In a German context this would mean the extension of citizenship to Turkish residents. It was witnessing such members of the population picnicking in front of the Reichstag that inspired Haacke to produce the Der Bevölkerung piece in the first place. Transposed into the context of Israel/Palestine the declaration ‘To the population’ can be linked to Azoulay’s notion of a civil space shared by Israelis and Palestinians who constitute the population governed, albeit in different ways, by the Israeli state; a civil space defined by a shared political project involving the construction of a ‘we’ that transgresses the boundaries of ethnicity in agonistic opposition to the ruling state regime that divides the governed into citizens and non-citizens. This civil space defined by a commitment to the needs and rights of all of the population would be premised upon the idea that without some sort of equality within this population everybody would lose to some extent. This kind of understanding of the situation in Israel/Palestine was underlined by Haacke at the end of his address when he quoted from the statement of the 2007 exhibition ‘Desert Generation’ to which he contributed: ‘Freedom is indivisible, and as long as Palestinians are deprived of liberty, Israelis too cannot be free.’ This slogan points to a situation where in the end there are no winners; where there can either be a condition in which the two groups that make up the population of the governed suffer (in highly unequal terms) from a loss of freedom and from the deformation of civil culture, or a condition in which the need for both groups to work together for the liberty of all is recognised as the fundamental political project of the present and the future. The first option points not only to a loss of freedom but also to the continuation of violence, while the other option encapsulates hopes for a different prospect. Here we might think of the contrast articulated by Malcolm X in 1964 between the ‘ballot’ and the ‘bullet’ in a speech in which he declared: ‘It’s freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody.’

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | March 6, 2010

Art, Visual Culture and the Israeli Occupation

This text was written as an introduction to a one-day conference held at Manchester Metropolitan University in May 2008. The conference was entitled ‘Art, Visual Culture and the Israeli Occupation’ and accompanied the exhibition ‘Desert Generation’ that was currently on display in the Holden Gallery in the Faculty of Art and Design. The text discusses issues of visuality and visibility related to the Israeli occupation and the possible role of visual artists in relation to these issues. It is in terms of these broader concerns that I post the text on my blog.

Larry Abramson and Sliman Mansour talk about the 'Desert Generation' exhibition in the Holden Gallery, Manchester Metropolitan University, May 2008

Visual forms and practices of looking constitute a significant terrain upon which political struggles are played out. Conditions of seeing and not seeing, and of being seen and not being seen, are often key to political power-relationships. In relation to this enmeshment of seeing and politics, Nicolas Mirzoeff has recently called for the establishment of general ‘visual rights’ for people in the context of globalisation, primary amongst which are ‘the right to look at the obfuscated and concealed operations of globalisation’ and ‘the right to be seen by the common as a counter to the possibility of being disappeared by governments.’ (Nicholas Mirzoeff, ‘Invisible Empire: Visual Culture, Embodied Spectacle, and Abu Ghraib’, Radical History Review, 95, Spring 2006, p. 40) These visual rights can be usefully adapted to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians in the occupied territories. In this context, most Israelis cannot, or do not want to see the plight of the Palestinians, while the Palestinians have consistently struggled to bring their condition into the Israeli – and international – field of vision, through both violent and non-violent means.

For the Palestinians being seen is a crucial step toward the alleviation of the conditions of the occupation. For Israelis seeing is the first step in the development of what the Israeli media analyst Daniel Dor has called a ‘discourse of responsibility’ (Daniel Dor, The Suppression of Guilt: The Israeli Media and the Reoccupation of the West Bank, London and Ann Arbor MI: Pluto Press, 2005). A discourse essential for the empowerment of ordinary Israelis as people who can do something about the occupation sustained by their government. Here seeing in terms of optics is obviously and unavoidably linked to understanding. It is not without reason that the subject of optical vision supplies metaphors for conceptions of knowledge and enlightenment.

The problem with the occupation, at least when it comes to the field of vision, is that a great deal of effort on the Israeli side of the conflict has been invested in not seeing. This self-imposed blindness goes back to the early Zionist settlement of Palestine and the slogan: ‘A people without a land for a land without a people’. Summarised in this slogan is an active desire not to see the existent population of Palestine, a desire that has continued into the present through various technologies of blindness and psychological states of denial. This is what Ruchama Marton and Dalit Baum have called the ‘active nonseeing mechanism’ (Ruchama Marton and Dalit Baum, ‘Transparent Wall, Opaque Gates’, in Michael Sorkin, ed, Against the Wall, New York and London: The New Press, 2005, p. 214) through which Zionist settlers and then Israelis saw, or tried to see the landscape as empty. In the current period, this mechanism has been embodied in the opaque concrete sections of the West Bank Wall that literally block vision. As Marton and Baum observe, ‘the stated reason for the wall was defense’ – ‘defense from bullets’, but they add, also ‘defense from seeing’. Seeing must be defended against because seeing the misery of others behind the Wall threatens the exclusive collective identity that has been established on the basis of not seeing the other and recognising their common humanity.

Seeing must be blocked, or at least replaced with different kinds of vision, involving seeing the other in terms of stereotypical images. As Edward Said stated in 2001: ‘For years after 1948 the Palestinians are an absence, a desired and willed nonentity in Israeli discourse, on whom various images of absence have been heaped – the nomad, the terrorist, the fellah, the Arab, the fanatic, and so forth.’ (Edward Said, ‘Afterword: The consequences of 1948’, in Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge: Canbridge University Press, 2001, p. 214) For Israelis, caught within this struggle between seeing and not seeing, wilful seeing can become a crime, as was learnt by the Israeli Talia Fahima when she was jailed after she met with the Jenin-based Fatah militant Zakariye Zbeide in 2003. Although Israeli intelligence accused her of working with the militants, she suggests that her real crime was ‘seeing the Palestinians.’ (Conal Urqhart, ‘My Crime was seeing the Palestinians’, The Guardian, January 5 2007, p. 19)

Not only does the West Bank Wall block vision, it is also manifestly visible, and has become a sign for a number of things, not least of which is the apparent lack of political vision in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this sense the conflict is also a conflict over signs that are often visual and often involve different inflections of the same motif – thus the Wall is both ‘security’ and ‘threat’, the bombed out Israeli bus is both ‘vulnerability to terror’ and ‘legitimate resistance’, and so on. The possibility of new ‘ways of seeing’ perhaps depends upon and will necessarily involve the clearing away of this structure of oppositional imagery that is part and parcel of what the geographer Derek Gregory has termed the ‘architectures of enmity’ (Derek Gregory, The Colonial Present: Afghanistan. Palestine. Iraq, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp. 17-29). Common ground can be created in a space cleared of some of this ideological clutter. I make this observation without the intention of downplaying the brute political conditions to which these ideological formations make an essential contribution. Nor do I assume that contesting such images is a simple or easy task. Rather my concern is to suggest that alternatives to these conditions can only come through finding ways of seeing without, or against the stereotype and the official view.

'Art, Visual Culture and the Israeli Occupation' conference flyer

This one-day conference addresses some of these issues to do with visual culture and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while only touching on others. The relationships between the visual and this conflict are multiple, and will require further and sustained attention, not only by academics, but also by visual producers and activists as they try to work out how to represent the conditions of the conflict and find ways to contribute to its solution. In particular the conference focuses on that category of visual production called ‘art’ through presentations by Larry Abramson, Sliman Mansour, and Anna Dezeuze, as well as through the tour of the Desert Generation exhibition. However it should be stressed that the scope of the event is meant to be broad, touching on relationships between visual representation and the politics of space, as in Wendy Pullan’s presentation on divided Jerusalem, Anna Dezeuze’s discussion of specific artistic representations of and demarcations of space within Israel/Palestine, and in my own presentation on photography and the West Bank Wall.

The emphasis upon art is partly to do with the practicalities of organising an event to coincide with an artistic exhibition, but this focus is more than this. The idea of art, despite being increasing ensconced in an institutional structure that limits its potential for social effect, still sustains a kernel of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ premised on its construction during the modern period as a court of human appeal in opposition to the worlds of industry and commerce. The commitment to aesthetic effects and creativity central to artistic practice can be mobilised to create the conditions for new ideas and ways of looking that might alert people to cracks in, or ways out of the ‘architectures of enmity’ that structure the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Alternative modes of visualisation and display, forms of creative activism, and calls for rights to expressive freedom that take us back to the core values of art, are all potential resources in the development of new visions which might be turned into different facts on the ground. As Susan Buck-Morss has observed:

‘We can do without objects as art, we can do without an artworld, we can do without ontologically designated artists. But we cannot do without aesthetic experience – affective, sensory cognition – that involves making critical judgments about not only cultural forms, but social forms of our being-in-the-world.’ (Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, London and New York: Verso, 2003, p. 73)

Thus not only is it important to examine the scopic-regimes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation, it is also crucial to think about the visual and aesthetic field as a space within which progressive forms of political activity might be developed. This is perhaps more significant than has so far been recognised, for as Wim Wenders has observed, ‘the most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes.’ (Quoted in David Levis Strauss, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, New York: Aperture, 2002, p. 101)

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | January 20, 2010

The politics of amazement

In his little book Notes on the Occupation, Eric Hazan observes that ‘it is not hatred that predominates in Palestine, but rather an immense and almost naïve amazement – what have we done to be treated like this, how can such injustice have lasted for so long, why does the entire world refuse to help us?’ (Eric Hazan, Notes on the Occupation: Palestinian Lives, The New Press, 2007, p. 106) This understandable Palestinian sense of amazement at the injustice of their situation is accompanied in the book by the Hazan’s own amazement at what he sees while travelling through the West Bank in 2005. Thus, for example, he recounts his surprise at the ‘astonishing’ sight of a jogging settler being escorted by an army jeep. Although this is a phenomenon quite normal to the absurd world of the Israeli occupation, it strikes Hazan as something absurdly amazing and as an organisation of human resources that makes no sense except within an regime premised on the systematic prioritisation of one group of people over another. This kind of amazement should be the reaction to such sights on the part of every progressive person who witnesses them. Indeed, the entire apparatus of the occupation can be understood to constitute an amazing spectacle, the most visible manifestations of which are the West Bank Barrier, the checkpoints, the unmanned road blocks, and the bypass roads, but which is not limited to such major material structures. The elements of this panoply of occupation are also to be found in the everyday occurrences generated by military routines, in small events, gestures, and normalised acts of domination.

Still from Avi Mograbi 'Avenge but one of my two eyes', 2005

A short film by Avi Mograbi that can be seen in low resolution on ‘youtube’ (which is also part of his feature length documentary Avenge but one of my two eyes (2005)) epitomises such low-key yet amazing sights thrown up by Israel’s ongoing rule of the West Bank. Mograbi filmed a confrontation between himself and some soldiers tasked to open a gate in the West Bank Barrier to allow Palestinian children to return from school. The soldiers have not opened the gate and refuse to answer Mograbi’s questions about their inaction. Instead, the soldiers focus their comments on Mograbi and his increasingly angry berating of their apparent refusal to open the gate. For the soldiers, it is Mograbi’s use of language towards them as individuals and not the children’s plight that is scandalous. The amazement this generates in me as a viewer not only involves a perception of the scandalous effect of the Barrier on the lives of children, but also a sense of incredulity towards the young soldier’s indifference to this situation, to their apparent inability to even see this situation as a problem that urgently needs to be remedied. Thus the amazing nature of the occupation is not simply defined by the inhumanity of its apparatus, but also by the inability of its agents to see this inhumanity. The inhumanity of the occupation is therefore compounded by an inhuman field of visibility that is structured by a moral blindness towards the effects of the occupation regime. This is also compounded by the condition that those who are blind to the inhumanity of the occupation are also blind to their blindness. In this context, acts aimed at redefining the ‘distribution of the sensible’ (Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum, 2004) in relation to the occupation are distinctly political. Mograbi’s confrontation with the soldiers is just such an act that does not appear to bring the immorality of the occupation into visibility for these young men, but does potentially generate this effect for viewers of the film.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | December 27, 2009

Walking the Green Line, running the border

The Lebanese artist Lamia Joreige has produced a number of artworks that address the challenges of constructing a history of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). This conflict was particularly complex, with multiple state and non-state antagonists and a complex chronology of events. Like all conflicts, this war becomes even more complex as an object of historical examination when its events are considered in terms of the experiences of individuals. From this perspective, the history of the war becomes something that seems unmanageable. Yet it is in relation to individual experience that Joreige has attempted to understand the current existence of the war as memory. Thus she states, ‘I find myself caught in a tension between the temptation and even necessity of recounting … [the] history [of the war] and the impossibility of fully accessing it’, continuing, ‘in all my work, I point out the impossibility of accessing a complete narrative, thus underlining the loss, the gaps of memory and history.’ (Lamia Joreige, ‘Here and Perhaps Elsewhere’, in Suzanne Cotter, ed., Out of Beirut, Modern Art Oxford, 2006)

Lamia Joreige 'Here and Perhaps Elsewhere' 2003

Joreige’s 54 minute film Here and Perhaps Elsewhere made in 2003 takes us on a journey of remembrance through Beirut, as she travels along the former Green Line that divided the city during the Civil War. At locations that were once crossing-points on the Green Line, Joreige asked people if they knew of anyone having been kidnapped by the militias during the war. Kidnapping was a regular occurrence during this period and a symbolic means of attacking an opposing community. The question provoked multiple answers. Some people said they did not remember, others said they did not want to remember, while others still seemed to remember all to readily. In response to the apparently easy remembrance of these respondents, some people questioned the value of statements made by others, suggesting that these people just speak for the sake of speaking. The sum result of all these answers is a sense that not only was the war a mass of individual experiences, but that in relation to the myriad responses Joreige’s question elicits, it is not possible to distinguish fact from fiction, or genuine forgetting from self-enforced amnesia. One feels no more enlightened on the subject of the war at the end of the film than one did at the beginning. For all the certainties of some of the statements about what happened in particular places at particular times, or about why certain people were kidnapped, one is left feeling uncertain and ambivalent about the meanings of the war. As Joreige’s observations suggest, this is precisely the point of the film. Thus travelling along the Green Line becomes a journey into ambivalence, meaning that the Green Line itself becomes a zone of uncertainty between the former certainties that defined the confessional collectives that opposed each other during the war.

We might link Joreige’s film to another art film made in 2004 by the Belgian (Mexico City based) artist Francis Alÿs, for which he walked along the 1949 ceasefire line, known as the Green Line that divided Jerusalem until June 1967. Alÿs’ walk took two days and involved him dripping a barely noticeable line of green paint along the Green Line.

Francis Alÿs, 'Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic, The Green Line' 2004-05

This act was filmed and the film subsequently shown to various people with different professional backgrounds and different positions in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict defined both by their national status and their specific political outlook. Some were Israelis, some Palestinians, and some foreign nationals. These people were asked to comment while watching the film. The film was then overlaid with the different commentaries and shown in a gallery context as a sequence of different versions of the film under the heading Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic, The Green Line.

Francis Alÿs, 'Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic, The Green Line' 2004-05

The commentators on the film used Alÿs’ act of dripping a green line as a pretext for discussing different kinds of boundary between people, analysing the ways that these cultural and political ‘borders’ come in and out of visibility, and how they might be politically reinstituted or dissolved. Thus, for example, the Palestinian anthropologist Rima Hamami discussed Alÿs’ re-visualisation of the Green Line in relation to the possibilities of a two-state or one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A two-state solution would mean the Green Line once again becoming a national border, while a one-state solution would mean the complete dissolution of the Green Line. In contrast to this, the Israeli activist Ruben Aberjil discussed Alÿs’ green line in relation to the ethnic dividing lines between Askenazi and Sephardic Jews within Israel. The dripped green line was therefore an ambivalent poetic act that enabled, but did not direct discussion: its meaning as a gesture was radically open. As in Joreige’s film, the act of representation turned the former Green Line into a zone of uncertainty. This zone of uncertainty is of particular significance given its wider political context in which antagonistic identities have been premised upon illusions of absolute certainty. The poetic act opens up a space for the exploration of uncertainty in such a way that these absolute certainties might be destabilised and contested.

The poetic gesture might also enable a fault-line to be opened up in the established order of appearance. This is something that Hamami notes in her commentary on Alÿ’s film:

‘It’s also really wonderful because sometimes we get locked into how we see. It is a problem that the world doesn’t hear our story [the Palestinian story], isn’t it? Or our story gets manipulated, and turned on its head, but there is also a problem that we become stuck in the ways that we see things over and over again. So it’s also really wonderful to have somebody coming who is not coming to aggressively say who we are, or what things are, but is making an empathetic act, and at the same time is pushing us to maybe see things or to think about things in different types of ways. And the other part of it, I think, is that things here are so saturated and overdetermined in terms of representation and discourse, power and politics, that it’s extremely hard to find a way to break through that, in any way. I think poetic acts are one way of breaking through that.’

These observations are close to Jacque’s Ranciére’s comments on Sophie Ristelhueber’s photographic project ‘WB’ for which she photographed unmanned rubble barricades constructed by the Israeli army during the Second Intifada to block Palestinian vehicular movement in the West Bank.

Sophie Ristelhueber, 'WB' 2005

For Ranciére these landscape type images introduce something new into the established field of representation that addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Consequently he states: ‘Sophie Ristelhueber has in fact refused to photograph the great separation wall that embodies the policy of a state and is the media icon of the “Middle East problem” … In this way, she perhaps effects a displacement of the exhausted affect of indignation to a more discreet affect, an affect of indeterminate effect – curiosity, the desire to see closer up.’ (Jacques Ranciére, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, 2009, p. 104) By focusing on the ambivalent status of the Green Line as the former border of the Israeli state and as a boundary that has been made invisible since 1967 through the Israeli colonization of East Jerusalem, rather than concentrating on more obvious demarcation lines or points, Alÿs also creates a frame for potentially reflective curiosity and for a sense of uncertainty about the meaning of this boundary.

What is the value of this sense of uncertainty? What might it do for us? Its value is not simply that it leaves us unclear about that which was thought to be certain. Uncertainly should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. What is this end? Is it not simply that in contexts defined by political antagonisms premised on ideological certainties, uncertainty clears some ground on which alternative political associations might be founded? Is it not that uncertainty can contribute to the reorganisation of people, ideas, acts, and practices in terms of the setting up of new political struggles? Thus uncertainty is a first step in a potential process of declassification that is central to the challenging and reorganisation of the political given, a reorganisation that will involve alternative forms of the opposition between ‘we’ and ‘them’ that Chantal Mouffe has argued is fundamental to what she terms ‘the political’ (See Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, Routledge, 2005).

In the case of Joreige’s journey along the former Green Line in Beirut, the value of the kind of uncertainty she presents in relation to the history of the Lebanese Civil War might be related to the contestation of a national political system that continues to be based on ethnic-confessional divisions. The new ‘we’ that might be prompted by this sense of uncertainty could be a cross-confessional one based upon a shared experience of relative exclusion from the existing political order; a ‘we’ defined not in terms of ethnicity and religion, but in terms of class. In the case of Alÿs’ Green Line walk across Jerusalem, the value of uncertainty might be understood in terms of the creation of political spaces where a joint Palestinian and Israeli ‘we’ can find grounds for agreement in opposition to the ‘they’ of the Israeli state.

The general point to be made here is that the artworks by Joreige and Alÿs do not find their potential political value in uncertainty per se, but in terms of where that uncertainty might lead for the spectator as someone who appropriates the work for their own purposes. Thus the value of aesthetic uncertainty in these instances is that the spectator might use it to unpick and de-naturalize a hegemonic order that has appeared unquestionable. Thus what Janet Wolff has termed the ‘aesthetics of uncertainty’ (Janet Wolff, The Aesthetics of Uncertainty, Columbia University Press, 2008), can constitute a resource for the development of new political projects and communities that seek to contest current hegemonies. Such anti-hegemonic projects cannot dispense with the political beliefs that are necessary for the creation of political communities – beliefs in values of democracy and equality, for example – however the agonistic struggles that define these projects might also be premised on a sense of the contingency of all political orders. Starting out from a condition of uncertainty might therefore enable political protagonists to avoid the absolutist and extremely violent antagonisms that defined the Lebanese War and continue to define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The journeys along different Green Lines undertaken by Joreige and Alÿs have both transformed these former lines of division into imaginative spaces of uncertainty. As such these explorations of the Green Line as reality and concept seem close to Israeli dissident Michal Warschawski’s concept of ‘border running’ through which members of antagonistic communities create locations ‘on the border’ where they can share ideas and engage in joint projects in such a way that the dividing lines between these communities are changed and eroded (Michal Warschawski, On the Border, Pluto Press, 2005). Yet the point is that like the aesthetics of uncertainty, ‘border running’ should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a means towards the creation of new political projects which will involve taking sides in agonistic, though hopefully not violent political struggles. Doing this will involve a movement out of uncertainty into a state closer, though not quite the same as certainty.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | December 7, 2009

Photography, citizenship, and the Israeli Occupation

Within recent thinking on citizenship a distinction has been made between formal citizenship granted by sovereign power and citizenship as an ideal that exceeds the authority of the sovereign. This latter understanding of citizenship has been identified by Engin Isin and Greg Nielsen as a ‘citizenship yet to come’ generated through ‘acts of citizenship’ (Engin Isin and Greg Nielsen, ‘Introduction’, in Engin Isin and Greg Nielsen, eds., Acts of Citizenship, London: Zed Books, 2008, p. 4). Such acts involve demands for the ‘right to have rights’ made by the citizen on behalf of the non-citizen and by the non-citizen on behalf of themselves. Acts of citizenship make demands and require rejoinders from others who are drawn into a new context for conceiving citizenship. In this context, citizenship is not a status that is passively received, but something that is actively generated. We might think of this active and creative understanding of citizenship in terms of Jacques Ranciére’s notion of ‘politics’ as something that only occurs when ‘the police order’ is contested by emergent political subjects seeking new forms of equality (See Todd May, The Political Thought of Jacques Ranciére: Creating Equality, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008). It is this kind of equality that is at the heart of Isin and Nielsen‘s understanding of acts of citizenship aimed at the creation of inclusive conceptions of what the citizen might be. For Ranciére ‘politics’ involves the creation of a point of ‘dissensus’ in ‘the given’ that is disruptive and creative at the same time. For Isin and Nielsen acts of citizenship entail ‘a break from the habitus’ (Isin and Nielsen, ‘Introduction’, in Engin Isin and Greg Nielsen, eds., Acts of Citizenship, p. 4), which is also defined as creative. For all three writers, the democratic politics of ‘citizenship yet to come’ has an aesthetic aspect involving the rearrangement of the field of the visible, or what Ranciére calls ‘the distribution of the sensible’, referring to the distribution of what can be seen, said, and thought (See Jacques Ranciére, The Politics of Aesthetics, London and New York: Continuum, 2004). This last point seems particularly relevant to visual images such as photographs.

These ideas about the difference between formal citizenship and ‘citizenship yet to come’ can be considered in relation Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Here we have a situation where a sovereign territorial state grants formal citizenship to the inhabitants of Israel, but at the same time denies citizenship to Palestinians in the occupied territories. This difference between the citizen and the non-citizen is particularly stark in the West Bank where Israeli Jewish settlers exist within extraterritorial bubbles of civilian law surrounded by Palestinians who live under a different system of law that is itself frequently suspended through acts of sovereign violence (See Neve Gordon, Israel’s Occupation, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2008). This division of the citizen from non-citizen can be contrasted to an inclusive conception of the ‘right to have rights’ held by different people in the region. It is such an understanding of citizenship that Bassam Shakaa, the former mayor of Nablus, referred to when he described himself as a ‘Citizen’ in conversation with the French writer Eric Hazan in 2006 (Eric Hazan, Notes on the Occupation: Palestinian Lives, New York and London: The New Press, 2006, p. 21). Shakaa is not the formal citizen of any state, but he describes himself as a ‘Citizen’ on the basis of his commitment to a notion of civic responsibility and his understanding that he should have the rights of a citizen. Such understandings have also informed the political movement against the West Bank Barrier that has involved grassroots cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian activists in Palestinian villages such as Ma’sha and Bil’in. These actions are underpinned by values of political equality defined in opposition to the division between citizen and non-citizen, especially where Israelis stand alongside Palestinians against members of their own army, and where Israelis and Palestinians have formed new political micro-communities such as at the anti-wall camp in Ma’sha in 2003 (See Tanya Reinhart, The Road Map to Nowhere: Israel/Palestine since 2003, London and New York: Verso, 2006). These communities were not organised around an explicitly articulated desire to redefine citizenship. Nevertheless, these practices constituted moments of rupture within the dominant political order of ethnic-national separation of the kind fundamental to acts of citizenship.

Relationships between acts of citizenship, ‘the distribution of the sensible’, and photography in the context of Israel and the occupied territories can be explored through the discussion of two examples. The first example is defined by the critical and curatorial work of the Israeli writer Ariella Azoulay, particularly her exhibition Act of State held in early June 2007. This exhibition was intended as a history of the Israeli occupation through photographs.

'Act of State', Minshar Gallery, Tel Aviv, June 2007

Amongst the photographs arranged chronologically around the walls of the Minshar Gallery in Tel Aviv were images that involved Palestinians presenting evidence of the brutalities of the occupation to the camera. These photographs involve strong instances of negotiation between the photographer and the photographed person. Palestinians are depicted showing marks of torture on their bodies, wounds resulting from rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition, and spent tear gas canisters. 

'Act of State', Minshar Gallery, Tel Aviv, June 2007

One photograph depicts a shop-owner holding up a padlock cut by Israeli paratroopers to break a strike against the occupation in Hebron in 1982. 

Anat Saragusti, 'Hebron', 1982

Azoulay has interpreted the act of presenting the padlock to the camera in terms reminiscent of Isin and Nielsen’s conception of acts of citizenship. Thus she states in her book The Civil Contract of Photography: ‘His stance is an insistent refusal to accept the noncitizen status assigned him by the governing power and a demand for participation in a sphere of political relations within which his claims can be heard and acknowledged.’ (Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, New York: Zone Books, 2008, p. 20) Azoulay suggests that this demand for citizenship is made on the basis of an assumption that the imagined viewer of the photograph will care about what they see and find it intolerable. This assumption that photography can function as an alternative court of appeal appears to be shared by other Palestinians. For example, a member of the Israeli women’s organisation Checkpoint Watch reported on 3 July 2008 that a Palestinian woman at the Hawara checkpoint near Nablus asked her to ‘Photograph me and show it to all. That all should know what they are doing to us.’ Like the shopkeeper holding up the padlock, the woman assumed that there are people in Israel who will recognise her as someone deserving of ‘the right to have rights’. Working from such gestures made by Palestinians to cameras wielded by Israeli photographers, Azoulay suggests that these acts are just one point in set of civic relations that potentially link the photographed person, the photographer, and the viewer. Such civic relations exceed the sovereign power of the Israeli state and the ethnic-national distinction that divides people governed by this state. The combination of the photographs and the responses Azoulay argues they have the potential to generate disrupts formal distinctions between the citizen and the non-citizen, delineating a different conception of citizenship. As such, these photographs involve an answerability that makes them similar to acts of citizenship as theorised by Isin and Nielsen. However, the obvious problem here is that there is no further possibility of rejoinder to the viewer on the part of the photographed person simply because they are only present as an image. Photography can be an important form of witnessing and as such can function as a token within political struggles over citizenship, but it cannot adequately function as a proxy for a person. This means that if the taking of the photographs included in Act of State and discussed by Azoulay in her book can be identified as acts of citizenship, they are so in rather limited terms. One might therefore suggest that Azoulay’s focus on the civic potential of photography has been generated out of, as well as against the prevailing conditions of separation between Israelis and Palestinians. This is not stated to discount Azoulay’s ideas but to suggest that what she calls ‘the civil contract of photography’ might only contribute to acts of citizenship through the incorporation of photographic practices into broader structures of political action that involve interactions between actual people.

My second example involves the unofficial presentation of photographs of checkpoint activities at the Hawara checkpoint by the Palestinian photographer Khaled Jarrar. This exhibition began at 12.00pm on Saturday 3 February 2007 and lasted for three hours. Jarrar had pre-publicised the exhibition amongst Palestinian acquaintances and NGOs, including Checkpoint Watch. This resulted in about 50 Palestinians, Israelis and foreign passport holders turning up expressly to take part in the exhibition as an event. Without the presence of the Israelis and the foreign passport holders the exhibition would not have been allowed to take place. These people also participated in the hanging of the 41 small photographs used for the exhibition on a fence between the entrance and exit of the Ramallah side of the checkpoint.

Khaled Jarrar, exhibition at Hawara Checkpoint, February 2007

The responses the exhibition provoked from Palestinians and Israeli soldiers are particularly interesting for the current discussion. One international observer reported an encounter between a Palestinian man and a soldier in which the man pointed to the photographs and declared to the soldier ‘look what you are doing to us’.

Khaled Jarrar, exhibition at Hawara Checkpoint, February 2007

It seems from this that the presence of the photographs temporarily altered the field of vision at the checkpoint so that a different relationship between what could be seen, thought and said was generated. Jarrar himself reports that when he took down the photographs and was placing them in the boot of a taxi three soldiers came over to talk to him. This conversation did not involve Israeli soldier-citizens acting as ‘petty sovereigns’ (See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London and New York: Verso, 2004), simply ordering Jarrar, the non-citizen, to do something. Rather it involved a moment in which the soldiers, prompted by the photographs, felt it necessary to explain their position to Jarrar. The soldiers contested the veracity of the photographs, suggesting that they misrepresented the treatment of people at the checkpoint, which they asserted was mostly ‘good’. Jarrar responded by challenging the ’right’ of the soldiers to either treat ‘well’ or mistreat Palestinians at the checkpoint, affirming in the process, the absurdity of a ‘good’ checkpoint experience. As Jarrar comments, in response to this, one of the soldiers ‘felt she needed to defend herself and her comrades by saying that they have to protect their country and that it is legitimate to fight terrorists.’ In relation to this conversation it seems that displaying the photographs functioned as an act of citizenship in the sense that it provoked a rejoinder from the soldiers. The exhibition involved a degree of answerability to which the soldiers responded by momentarily regarding Jarrar as a subject who had to be treated as some kind of equal and whose subsequent rejoinders also required response. For this to happen Jarrar had to be present alongside the photographs. The photographs as separate representations of the reality of the checkpoint experience needed to be present to add a new element to the checkpoint context, but their role was that of a kind of go-between around which an interaction between Jarrar and the soldiers could ensue. Although photographs can function as forms of appeal for people pictured within them, they cannot function independently of how they are used. This means that we might characterise gestures made by people in front of the camera as acts of citizenship, but the import of these acts cannot be fulfilled without the separate actions of others who use the photographs. In this sense whatever the civic relations enabled by photographs of the Israeli occupation might be, they are relations that are segmented and disjointed, rather than involving a cohesive political space defining a citizenship that goes beyond the limitations enforced by the state; a cohesiveness that Azoulay ‘invents theoretically’, to use her words, in The Civil Contract of Photography (Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, p. 12). This is also the case with the exhibition Act of State, where it is the gaze and thoughts of the spectator, and the texts Azoulay placed alongside each image, as well as the words she articulated in gallery talks that activated the photographs in particular ways. These acts of interpretation respond to the image created by the initial negotiation between the photographer and the photographed person, but they are separate acts. These acts respond to photographs as discrete aesthetic entities that have the potential to contribute to the world of politics through the reordering of visible reality that they entail.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | October 16, 2009

“Come on, people, move along, nothin’ to see here…”

“Move along people, nothing to see here” is one of the typical statements made by the character of Police Chief Wiggum in the animated television programme The Simpsons. This statement is usually made in an attempt to disperse onlookers from a crime scene of some sort. However, in one episode in which another character, Krusty the Clown, fakes his own suicide in a plane crash, Wiggum undermines his declaration “Come on, people, move along, nothin’ to see” by following it with “OH MY GOD, a flaming plane crash!! Come on, crowd around!”  Here Wiggum reveals what always underpins the assertion that there is “nothing to see”. Precisely that there is a great deal to be seen. “Nothing to see here” really means “there is something really interesting to be seen here, but you shouldn’t be looking at it”.  It is an order, backed up by the authority of the police, not to look at something, but it disguises its coerciveness with a denial that there is anything worthy of visual attention. Wiggum does what the police never do, or should never do, which is to change his mind and invite the people to gawp at what they should not gawp at.

David Reeb, 'Hand' 2008

David Reeb, 'Hand' 2008

Jacques Ranciére also links the statement “move along people, nothing to see here” to what he calls the ‘police order’ or ‘the police’ (‘La Police’). This term does not literally refer to the institution of the police, but rather to the distribution of institutions, differentiated and hierarchized social positions, modes of communication, images, ideas, and ways of speaking that generate what Ranciére calls ‘the given’ – the status quo in which everything and everyone has a place and everything and everyone is in their place. If the police order had a singular voice it would say, “move along people, nothing to see here”. Ranciére suggests that this is effectively what the police order says in multiple instances and in many different ways. The basic response of the police in these terms is to say “there is nothing to see other than that which is given”.  In microcosm, we can see this at work in the actions of managers within institutions. Thus my line-manager has responded in the past to my suggestions that I have too much to do, or that I am doing more than other colleagues by simply asserting that I am mistaken: essentially saying, “what you think you are seeing is not here, there is nothing of that kind to see here”. By then handing me a stress management, or a time management leaflet, my line-manager has effectively said “now move along”.

From the perspective of the police, there is always nothing else to see and nowhere else to view the world from than one’s given position within society. Everyone has their place and from that place only certain things should be seen, thought, and said. Thus authority pertains only to certain positions within social and institutional hierarchies, and particular knowledge is only open to certain people within these hierarchies. Others are kept in the dark because the given order subscribes to the view that they do not need to know, or should not know. Disorder occurs when people act out of turn in ways that suggest that there is more to the world than the given; when people demand to have authority they are not meant to have, or to know or do things they in principle should not. Ranciére suggests that this happened, for example, when workers during the 1830s began to write literature in their spare time while remaining workers. Thus he observes: ‘I think the bourgeoisie felt that there was a danger when the worker entered the world of thought and culture. When workers are only struggling, then they are supposed to be in their world and in their place. Workers were supposed to work and be dissatisfied with their wages, their working conditions and possibly still work again, struggle again and again. But when workers attempt to write verses and try to become writers, philosophers, it means a displacement from their identity as workers.’ (‘Interview with Jacques Ranciére’, Kafila, February 2009) Such developments suggest that the existing order is not unquestionable, that there are other possibilities and other things to be seen, other ways of looking and being. What Ranciére calls ‘dissensus’, something that he associates with political practices that are premised from the outset upon assumptions of equality, works on the basis that there is always something to see no matter how much the police say there is not. In these terms, looking in new ways and at things one is not meant to look at is a basic democratic action and responsibility especially when this occurs at a collective level.

How might such dissident looking be developed? How might explicit or implicit declarations that there is nothing to see be challenged? Ranciére suggests that this might happen through the development of forms of ‘curiosity’ – a curiosity that involves looking at things askew, and looking ‘at places or questions that are not supposed to be your place or your questions.’ (‘Interview with Jacques Ranciére’, Kafila, February 2009) Such curiosity might, in his words, ‘create some breathing room, to loosen the bonds that enclose spectacles within a form of visibility … within the machine that makes the “state of things” seem evident, unquestionable.’  (‘Art of the possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in conversation with Jacques Ranciére’, Artforum, March 2007)

One possible way of encouraging and manifesting curiosity is through contemporary art. That is, through generating novel aesthetic forms that can lend themselves to new ways of seeing, thinking and speaking, and as a consequence to the potential generation of dissensus. There is no automatic relationship between such art and dissident practices. Nevertheless it is one of the potentialities of artworks that they might encourage us to reflect upon how we view a particular issue, or how we look at the world in general and our positions within the world. Art that does not try to politicize us or inform us, but that gives us pause for thought, may help us reconsider the given and generate curiosity about how we might see, think, and speak differently. Such artworks might function in a similar way to what W. J. T. Mitchell calls ‘meta-pictures’ (W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, The University of Chicago Press, 1994) – pictures that represent picturing itself, that enable us to think about how picturing and representation conventionally functions, about what it does and does not do, and about what is included and excluded from the field of vision.

One of Ranciére’s preferred examples of this kind of art is Alfredo Jaar’s ‘Real Pictures’ series from (1995), for which Jaar placed photographs he had taken of the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda in canvas boxes. Viewers could not see the photographs. Instead they could only read written descriptions of the photographs attached to the top of the boxes. This replacement of pictures with words encouraged reflection upon the limitations of conventional press and documentary photographs of catastrophic events and upon the taken-for-granted-ness of our mediated relationship to these events.

Alfredo Jaar, 'Real Pictures' 1995

Alfredo Jaar, 'Real Pictures' 1995

We might also consider works by Krzysztof Wodiczko in this light. For example, his ‘If you see something…’ from 2005 that is currently on display in the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. For this piece Wodiczko created artificial windows in a windowless room using projectors. We view these semi-opaque windows from the inside so that we can see the shadows and outlines of figures beyond. These figures clean the windows, or simply stand and converse about their difficult situations.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, 'If you see something ...' 2005

Krzysztof Wodiczko, 'If you see something ...' 2005

The speakers are people in different places who do not have citizenship because they are migrants or because of their ethnic background. They speak of deportations, financial challenges, and police brutality. The work therefore involves a play between visibility and invisibility, and between this and more explicit spoken narratives. The words make clear who these people are, but what we see in the windows is rather unclear. Overall the piece encourages reflection upon the status of people who are formally defined as alien within the nation-state, a status which gives them certain visibility as ‘asylum seekers’, ‘scroungers’, ‘economic migrants’, ‘gypsies’, and so on, but which makes them much less visible as individual people, or as communities that deserve equal recognition. The title of this work refers to the requirement for a particular kind of looking placed by the state on its citizens, to keep their eyes open for unusual sights and people, to notice signs of potential terrorism and threat. Wodiczko re-inflects this requirement, making the statement ‘if you see something’ more a matter of seeing between the cracks of the given, of seeing something other than the obvious stereotype and the standard division of people into categories of those who are meant to belong and those who are not, that is a central element of the police order within the territorial nation-state.

These artworks by Jaar and Wodiczko suggest that there is always something more to see. In their own ways these works call us to “crowd around” and take a good look.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | October 13, 2009

Photographing the Bad Lands

Corinne Silva’s recent series of photographs ‘Badlands’ taken in Almeria in South East Spain are good examples of how photographers interested in the picturing of topographies and architectural structures have attempted to represent the contested nature of contemporary human environments.

Corinne Silva, 'Temporary settlement number 2' 2009

Corinne Silva, 'Temporary settlement number 2' 2009

 This series includes photographs that when considered together present us with divisions between the wealthy and the poor, and between the experiences of people who move around the world under very different conditions and for very different reasons. On the one hand, there are what Silva calls ‘Temporary Settlements’: the ramshackle dwellings constructed by migrant workers from North Africa (who presumably labour in the poly-tunnels pictured elsewhere in the series). On the other, there are more substantial and permanent architectural structures: expensive residential buildings Silva terms ‘Castles’ and buildings related to the tourist industry in the region. Other photographs of the ‘Desert Springs golf resort’ picture ‘demarcation lines’ that perhaps function as metaphors for the dividing line between rich and poor, and between what Zygmunt Bauman has called ‘tourists and vagabonds’ (Zygmunt Bauman, Globalisation: The Human Consequences, Polity Press, 1998)). 

Corinne Silva, 'Demarcation line number 3, Desert Springs golf resort', 2009

Corinne Silva, 'Demarcation line number 3, Desert Springs golf resort' 2009

 One photograph in the series depicts a tiered architectural development on a hillside (the ‘La Envia gated golf community’) that resembles Jewish Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The buildings in Almeria are not quite the fortress dwellings that constitute what Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman dub the ‘civilian occupation’ (Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman, eds., A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture, Verso, 2003), yet in comparison to the makeshift shacks made by the migrant labourers from scavenged materials, this architecture is imposing and exclusive. Silva references architect Teddy Cruz’s notion of a ‘post 9-11 political equator’ between the haves and have-nots that she suggests links border zones and dividing lines that exist between Southern Spain and North Africa, the USA and Mexico, and Israel and Palestine. Thus my interpretation of the ‘La Envia’ photograph as being suggestive of Israeli settlements seems appropriate to her understanding of the series.

Corinne Silva, ‘La Envia gated golf community’ 2009

Corinne Silva, ‘La Envia gated golf community’ 2009

Having stated this, we should be careful about getting carried away with such comparisons. South East Spain is not the West Bank. Both areas are structured politically and spatially in terms of distinctions between formal citizens and those formally defined as non-citizens. Nevertheless the nature of non-citizenship in these locations is different. Palestinians living in the West Bank are not migrants. Rather they are people living on their own land under military occupation. Moreover, in the West Bank there is no singular border zone or dividing line between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians and Israeli settlers live in very close proximity, mostly in separate enclaves under rather different conditions. This means that there are multiple dividing lines and border zones that separate settlers who live under Israeli civil law and Palestinians who live under military rule. How might this spatial complexity be pictured through this kind of topographical and architectural photography?

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | September 16, 2009

The Late and the Current

Richard Mosse’s recent photographs of palaces belonging to the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and members of his family now occupied by US military forces, present what appears to be a new development in the genre of photographic practice described by David Campany as ‘late photography’ (David Campany, ‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on problems of “Late Photography’’’, in David Green, ed., Where is the Photograph?, Brighton: Photoforum and Photoworks, 2003).

The typical late photograph pictures damaged buildings, or other kinds of detritus that attest to something having happened in a particular location before the photograph was taken. Their lateness involves the lateness of the arrival of the photographer on the scene. As he observes, these photographs are ‘not so much the trace of an event as the trace of the trace of an event.’ Such events are usually acts of violence of different kinds, from the destruction of the World Trade Centre to the burning of documents.

Vilém Flusser has observed that the still camera allows us ‘to “take” something from the stream of history’ (Vilém Flusser, ‘Image and History’, European Photography, 27:79/80, 206, p. 6), yet the sites pictured in late photography already seem removed from the continuum of history in terms of their stillness and quiet. Even before the taking of the photograph these sites seem to be of the past, defined as they are by the remnants of something that happened in that location; a sense of being of the past that is reinforced by the photographic act itself.  The capacity of photography to attest to something having been there adds another layer of distance between the viewer and the original event.

U.S. Military Telephone Kiosks in Saddam's Birthday Palace, Tikrit, Iraq, 2009

U.S. Military Telephone Kiosks in Saddam's Birthday Palace, Tikrit, Iraq, 2009

Although some of the photographs in Mosses’ series ‘Breach’ are of palaces that have been damaged by US bombardment (for example the images of Saddam’s Palace in Jebel Makhoul), many break with the standard late photographic representation of the aftermath site by showing us the former residences of the family Saddam in conjunction with the structures that US forces have built and continue to use within the palaces. In this way the photographs are both ‘late’ in that they represent locations that were sites of a now defunct order and current in that they are now sites of the installation of a new power structure in Iraq. The photographs show the rooms of Saddam’s Birthday Palace in Tikrit, for example, filled with makeshift dormitories and offices for US forces, or gym equipment, sandbags, and a barbecue in the Al-Faw Palace (now renamed ‘Camp Victory’) in Baghdad. In this way the photographs are more complex in pictorial terms than standard late photography, presenting an explicit dialogue between past and present through actually depicted material forms. Such a dialogue between past and present is only implicit in most other examples of the genre.

What might this dialogue between past and present in these photographs tell us? Is it possible, for example, to read the photographs in terms of Simon Norfolk’s suggestion that images of aftermath sites, with their remnants and ruins, bring the ‘vanity of Empire’ into visibility (Daylight Magazine, number 4, 2006)? Can we suggest that both the grandiose palaces of a fallen regime and the makeshift structures that have been constructed in the palaces by the successor to Saddam’s rule point to the folly and temporary nature of even the most seemingly secure military and political power? Is the fall of Saddam in the past something that is suggestive of the future of the US in Iraq that is already being played out in the present?

There is an interesting interview with Richard Mosse on his photographs of Saddam’s palaces at BLDG BLOG that is worth looking at.

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