The Paper: May Day Edition: Hutnyk on Images



Reflecting on The Paper as a very serious play at theatre; the political as a theatrical serious playing at paper, and 1001 stories to tell, in pictures.

JOHN HUTNYK

As bombs still rain down on Libya, with cockpit-cam night video peep-show footage of tanks being destroyed to preserve the No-Fly Zone on our 24-hour news (since tanks might fly?), we should probably have a discussion about images. David Cameron has evoked that old ‘line in the sand’ crusader cliché, and the TUC and NUS have worried about ‘hijacks’ and hi-jinx stealing their place on the day (N10, M26). But, a hijack means crashing a plane into the Twin Towers, not smashing a window – though both can be media events as well. Hijacking the UN and NATO to invade entire countries on pretence is of a different order of obfuscation – and the comic image of a President in combat gear reading stories to children does not quite register. On our part, we have had debates about images in the movement and in The Paper. Our discussion should and has extended to file images in other papers and media, and the convoluted political uses on several sides (and yes, we have been taking sides). So, what should we say about the image of images, what is the story with pictures worth a thousand words, what do we see when we open the photoshop, diorama, kaleidoscope of viewing to question?

The Millbank boot–window-demonstrator assemblage was reproduced many times. I particularly like the aesthetic, though of course it is a little bit pantomime. I also like to tell the story of watching the live BBC coverage of the December 9 demonstration as ‘anarchists’ stormed The Treasury. Early in the evening my two-year-old son was also watching when the police roughly handled a protester dressed as Santa Claus and bundled him aside. My son was shouting at the telly: ‘time out Santa, time out!’, having learnt at nursery that a cool-down period is necessary after a dispute over Lego blocks or whatever. With the kettle in place, the BBC camera then showed a police liaison constable directing photographers away from the action with the words: ‘Have you got the pictures you want? Then move along…’ Showing Santa storming The Treasury in a recession was not an ideal front page however, and so instead about a half hour later the sticking of the Prince’s ride in Regent Street was staged to grab the headlines.

The pantomime quality of such striking imagery is well known, and of course, in The Paper we have sought images with a punctum, or with irony, poignancy and politics. We have debated whether images of ‘protesters in Tahrir’ were problematic because the said protesters did not speak (photogenic credibility?), were possibly put in danger (military reprisals?), were wearing headscarves (exotica?), or were there as examples of revolt that we wished we had here (revolutionary tourism?). I think on the whole our discussions have moved us towards a more nuanced appreciation of images, and from the start we have included line drawings, illustrations, cartoons and art. My favourite is itself a claim for credibility, exotic and touristic all at the same time – the image of the boot that appears above the ‘Bosom of Fear’ article in the pink issue. This boot picks up – fashion editors love this kind of attention to accessories – an echo of the line drawings and photos of slippers in the issue that has images from Tahrir. That works for me.

Less successful were the two facing pages with pictures of Obama/Qaddafi and Mubarak/Qaddafi. These were overly literal and would only have ‘worked’ if the whole issue had been a relentless compilation of all the images of other Western leaders that had wined and dined with the Lion of Libya. We have discussed imagery that tells a story, but we also want multiple strands of narrative and subtlety in the pictures. The projection of scenes that complicate and deepen analysis, that step away from simple realism, that offer a provocative or contrary take on the expected, images that debate each other, that suggest reverie and thinking, or even that confuse, if they do so with intent. The Paper need not always adopt the one plus one platitudes of the commercial press. We can take inspiration from homemade placards from the rallies and the innovations of high art photography (Mapplethorpe and Cartier-Bresson as our gods) and tamper with each. Barbara Kruger could design a great issue, with text over picture and a wry cunning. We have had people send in their drawings, we have cultivated our own cartooning skills – and a cartoon certainly speaks in different ways in the press, there is something about the border around a cartoon that both enables anything to be said and disarms it as merely a joke. We have mostly avoided borders (of course, borders are rules).

We will multiply images, and always take sides, even with ambiguity.

The pantomime scene of marauding anarchists shopping at Fortnum&Mason which terrorized the nation (ahem) is just as much a shibboleth as the multiple images of Saddam that were presented in the lead up to the Iraq war (the playing cards) or the mysteries of the taped voice of Osama bin Laden beamed in via smuggled cassette from the caves of Afghanistan. These folds in the ideological compendium are the ones that pantomime must decode for children. Scheherazade is the ur-story here, telling fables of Ali Baba, Sinbad and Aladdin over and over, so as ultimately to disarm the power of the despot Shahryar. Only now such a figure is trapped, detained and deported, she is forced to wear an orange jump suit and tell her tale to interrogators in Guantanamo. Perhaps we can imagine her contributing to The Paper as well. Undoing the imagery of death with joyous picture narrative and creative interpretation. Fearless exposure of truth to power and spectacular adventures for all.

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and as an addendum: an off list conversation with my comrade Amit about this text that we decided might be worth putting on line as well:

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Dear John:
I wanted to share some thoughts with you about this, because I think for myself I wanted to clarify some of your arguments.
One is the relation between image and narrative.
Second is the relation between image and taking sides.
Third is the relation between image and the exotic.
And Fourth is the relation between image and body.
1. I think images should disrupt narrative processes, not tell a story. If an image is the Barthesian punctum as you suggest, then perhaps this needs to become something other than a relation to a story, diegesis, a linearity. Images can operate as a way to detour a narrative, swerve it from its intentions, potentialize a story. Central here is the relation of image to consciousness and thus to the project of consciousness raising. Can images do something to consciousness such that it is brought to confront its own materiality?
2. I agree we need to take sides, and even sometimes (frankly, more and more) without irony (!). But what are the sides we have defined? Its certainly more complicated that left and right, right? To me one of the sides I would like an image to take is against habit and cliche, is that a side in the way you would define it? I don’t know. But certainly I think creating images that jam habits and cliches is a political project, a project as well that moves us to confront memory, attention, craving, and desire in a way that is fully historical and even neurological.
3. The exotic is a habit in the West, bell hooks called it eating the other. I have been in the UK for about 9 months now, which is not very much, but enough to register forms of exoticism on my own not very exotic brown skin in a particularly British mode. But its only brown, what about black and yellow and green? I am not being facetious or ironic. I lack these skills, frankly. I think the question of the relation of how an image tells a story given the exoticism of the other, is to focus on what I suggested in 2. : habit and cliches. I think the paper needs to intervene in the habits and cliches of the exotic precisely because that practice will call us to develop different material relations with populations that not only can speak (Spivak was I believe mistaken about the politics of representation, which has more to do with her commitment to Derrida and Heidegger than with politics itself), but can affect (through their material movements, their cultures, their histories, their language, their desires) the habituations of the West unto crisis. They already have, again and again, but these crises have been managed, repressed, incorporated, and abjected. Can we agree that this is also a dimension of neoliberal “democracy”: integrating the exotic? But maybe these postcolonial processes are not speaking to the West at all? Maybe these processes are not of the nature of language but of the nature of a material transformation in life chances, resources, emotional tonality, habits of the embodied mind, new ecologies of gestures, hesitations, passions, work, communication, and affects.
4. An image can also be a variable quanta of sensation, with its own durations, foldings, hesitations, pulsations. That is why it can also touch the flesh directly, not through narrative, or consciousness, but through a kind of de-habituation taken to the n-th degree. Where an image is first and foremost not a signifier floating off into the ether of other signifiers but an event, a vector, a tendency in an ecology of sensation. This is not a metaphor. It is a politics of the image that necessitates we take the embodiment of images literally, such that the politics of the image becomes an ethology of compositions between at least two multiplicities: your body (with its cultural, biological, neurological, psychic, gendered, sexed, raced, classed, etc. histories all as variable dimensions of change and habit in and of that body) and a set of sensory motor circuits (i.e. the image).
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Reply:
Hi Amit
Thanks for this. Good good points.
I’m in the middle of marking hell, so this won’t be as nuanced as I’d like, but I can respond to a couple of things.
First up – not in your order of preference necessarily, but most crucial I think – exoticism. I could not agree with you more about this – there is great need to challenge the way the exotic masquerades in this country as an alibi for racism. No, worse than racism, its white supremacy (I guess that’s the same thing) which presents itself as some sort of tolerant liberal benevolent civilized pig-ignorant delusion. It is part of a two step routine though – a love-hate routine – ooh, exotic, culture, music, drums, saris, slightly problematic face veils and arranged marriages but great food hmmm, yum… dust, heat, sand, sun, tourism… lets get a bargain holiday out of it after we bomb you into such a state that the best you can do is provide service economy facilitation of my self deluded cultural sophistication. Lonely Planet Tony Wheeler has long been planning a new Guidebook for Afghanistan. Here in London, on the one hand in the city there are anti-racist groups with anti-nazi badges interested in hip hop and south asian dance music, Chandra/Seth/Roy/Rushdie novels and chicken tikka masala, while in the adjacent burbs there are racist attacks, paki-bashing, support for State terror, detention, islamophobia and worse (Sandline etc). Exoticism is the mild but pernicious end of white supremacism that kills.
But I certainly don’t think all images that tell stories are always helpful. Indeed, usually the story is a nightmare of a narrative that belongs to ideology and control. For example, the pantomime terror narrative being played out today – Osama and his alleged Pakistani collaborators defeated by a President of “USA USA” finally come good and the world made safe not-quite for thirty more years of this spurious war as ‘it will take a generation to defeat Al Qaeda’… OK, that said, images even when disruptive tell a story. I was watching the news tonight and even while the white house spokesperson was praising Obama for the ‘most courageous call any president has made in x years’ the background image was of black-clad Taliban-type figures in training (and in trainers) – there are a couple of stories there, depending on your interpretive stance. For some, it showed that there was a threat, no doubt for others that there still is a threat, for still others, perhaps that training still goes on, and then a little postmodern nuance in the shoes they were wearing. Finally, a text underneath reports that its expected a posthumous Osama tape is about to be released. Despite efforts on all sides, we cannot control the story. But putting out ambiguous images/story is not sufficient, but I think pushing for an understanding of the interpretive power of images is important. Scheherazade is my emblem for someone knowing how to do that (my unfinished book Pantomime Terror uses the Scheherazade frame to retell some of the same stuff I worked on with Critique of Exotica). Thing is, all images also tell a story. What we need a nuanced stories – more Scheherazade’s…
However, I don’t get what you say about Spivak in brackets. ‘(Spivak was wrong!)’. What do you mean? Her argument is not that the subaltern cannot speak as such, but that in the dominant discourse, even when taken up by well-intentioned advocates of speaking, the story that is heard is already scripted, always-already heard. If anyone, Benita Parry had got this wrong, but so do many others when they think that Spivak would deny people a speaking voice when she is, rather, making a critique of ventriloquy. And is recognizing a necessity of such ventriloquy I think as well – once the subaltern is on the path to speaking that voice is shaped by structures like representative democracy (and its corruptions) rational codes (and its distortions) media platforms (and commodifications) etc. etc. The clarification Spivak provides in the two rehashes of that essay – ‘Subaltern Talk’ interview in The Spivak Reader, and the whole last section of Critique of Postcolonial Reason are crucial returns to that material. Spivak even explains why the declarative ‘the subaltern cannot speak’ was an infelicitous remark. Its a bit like the way Sartre was criticized for including the line ‘Hell is other people’ in his play Huis Clos (No Exit). People completely overlook that this was said by a character in a play and not what Sartre thought about the world. But then now I’ve deployed Sartre out of context, remembering Nandy’s contribution to this where he said that Fanon had written in the language and tones of Sartre. Well, he was saying something pretty different…
Ahhh, this little ramble is already too long. And have not even got to the taking sides or the image-body bits. I think you are exactly right about irony. But all I can say today is: No to taking sides with assassinators of any stripe….
red salute
John
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Amit to John:
I mean something very specific when I say that Spivak was wrong. But it is not about Spivak’s work, as such. It is about the politics of representation, and why that politics (even, one might say especially, in postcolonial criticism–I am writing a piece now that I’m calling the Migrant and Mobile Phone: Toward a Postcolonial Empiricism that aims to address precisely this problem) has formed a closed loop around representation and consciousness, why questions of sensation, habit, sensory-motor circuits, neurology, duration, intensity are not only relegated but cast as politically suspect. It is about a dogmatism of the image–I realise this is not your position, and from what you say above, I have a lot to learn from your work. But you see if the conversation–and is it a conversation, is it discourse if what we are working through is crucially the experience of sensation in a new practice of the image–is going to move beyond the binary sign, into another experimentation with signification, then maybe the image should be seen as something between a representation and a thing? Something with materiality, but also a kind of spirituality (an image inhabits and is inhabited by tendencies, affects which, while real, are never fully, and sometimes never at all actualized, the image is virtual and actual at once). But again let us return to the point at hand: images do things. You and I both agree about that. They are involved in a political practice the meaning of which is not pre-given but unfolds in the doing of it.