[untitled photo stories - 1]

alley in Tenjin, Fukuoka; Imperial Palace in Kyoto; famed Glico runner in Dotonbori district of Osaka; mural in Nagasaki)

we stumbled upon a marriage ceremony in process at Miyajima Island/Itsukushima Shrine.

we stumbled upon a marriage ceremony in process at Miyajima Island/Itsukushima Shrine.

God Bless America (2002) by Tadasu Takamine, exhibit at the Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art

God Bless America (2002) by Tadasu Takamine, exhibit at the Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art

Nnimmo Bassey interview at the Durban Summit //on Democracy Now!

"Africa, over the years, has been a major source for materials for energy—starting from human beings as energy sources, and moving on to items like palm oil and other energy crops. And right now, we have a major shift to land-grabbing in Africa for the production of bio-fuel and agro-fuels. Everything about Africa is about extracting resources to power industry, to make life comfortable for people outside of Africa. So African resources are not used by Africans, they’re not used for Africa, they’re not used to improve the situation on the continent.

And especially the fight for crude oil extraction, the fight for minerals like gold, like diamonds, all these have been done in a way that the African environment is severely degraded. And now, the oil companies are extracting with complete impunity, abusing human rights on the way, and of course, you know, by the addition of the war on fossil fuels, the industry gets away with murder. And you’ve seen what’s going on in Africa, the many conflicts: the conflict over diamonds, the conflict over gold, the many wars on the continent can always be traced to resources.”

- Nnimmo Bassey, Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria and Chair of Friends of the Earth International

informing: Jean Baudrillard on atomic war

"Deterrence precludes war - the archaic violence of expanding systems. Deterrence itself is the neutral, implosive violence of metastable systems or systems in involution. There is no longer a subject of deterrence, nor an adversary nor a strategy - it is a planetary structure of the annihilation of stakes. Atomic war, like the Trojan War, will not take place. The risk of nuclear annihilation only serves as a pretext, through the sophistication of weapons (a sophistication that surpasses any possible objective to such an extent that it is itself a symptom of nullity), for installing a universal security system, a universal lockup and control system whose deterrent effect is not at all aimed at an atomic clash (which was never in question, except without a doubt in the very initial stages of the cold war, when one still confused the nuclear apparatus with conventional war) but, rather, at the much greater probability of any real event, of anything that would be an event in the general system and upset its balance. The balance of terror is the terror of balance."

- Jean Baudrillard from Simulacra and Simulation (“The Orbital and the  Nuclear”)

Remixing memory: an ongoing methodology

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto: This photo was taken by my friend Stevie, who was traveling in Japan en route to study Chinese medicine in Nanjing. Remixing this image five months later from my laptop in Austin, it occurs to me that my work to organize the meaning of my research in Japan parallels an aesthetic project. One that involves sorting, categorizing, and editing thousands of photographs taken in the eight Japanese cities I visited during my trip.

On most of my days spent in Hiroshima, my photography was voracious: multiple perspectives of the Atomic Dome, Cenotaph, and other monuments, images revisiting the park in rain and in daunting brightness, serial documentation of the museum exhibits, close-ups of material witnesses—remains of clothing, charred lunch boxes, a thumb, and other personal artifacts retrieved from the ashes. A good friend who lives in Fukuoka and accompanied me to Nagasaki still enjoys teasing me for forcing her to endure several hours of noisy photography at the Atomic Bomb Museum.

The impulse to document everything connects to an anxiety about place, a fear that the risk of loss could permeate any experience of temporary residence. But loss is not a risk, it is a necessary condition. It’s an ethical dimension for researchers (and non-researchers too, of course). The very selection of a theoretical frame initiates a loss of data and perspectives exceeding its view. When we visit and return from place, we lose other things: visual and sensory details, the adjacent spaces never visited, and data overlooked. The photograph reports its dependence on time and place and the inability to return to it. Our intellectual vulnerability contains important cues. What loss might then reveal is a colonial hubris underwriting impulses to control data and “subjects” producing data, rooted in both anxiety and power.

In remixing these images, I encounter how my project is one grasping at experience. What these visuals attempt to remember are the moods of place. Or rather, an allusion to the (amateur) photographer’s experience of perspective, emotion, and sensation while annotating place. The reviewed image, extracted from these senses, underscores how knowledge constantly moves and cannot be captured. Moreover, to remix and assemble is a method taking a long view to the field. In editing, I’m given a closer look to how memory anticipates its own construction from within the field and not simply retrospectively. Then, a second look to how the frame of memory often excludes by its design, warranting both play and interrogation.

photo: the corners of the Atomic Dome in Hiroshima, remixed from color to black and white

[This essay is part of a series on my 2011 summer research on atomic memory in Japan and also appears on HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory).]

The Revolution will not be Authored: On Occupy-ing, the first days, and digital authentics

Social movements revolve on the physicality of the first day, a threshold materializing political intent and counted in the presence of bodies. It might be a defense—of our bodies as realer than digital, an articulated crisis that often adjoins to other sets of politics also navigating our anxiety. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, journalist Malcolm Gladwell confronted the fear of our social intimacies ultimately alienating into digital fragments. Gladwell made the case that in-person relations are key to authenticating social movements. The revolution to which we always refer finds itself in people showing up, making friends, and taking big risks. In a different way, sociologist Zeynib Tufekci underscores a similar spirit. In her analysis of the Egyptian revolution at a recent sociology conference, Tufekci celebrated social media as foremost a tool: assembling the masses for the important first day of protest, that effervescent and fragile time predicting a movement’s life-course.

But in what ways do digital and social media, particularly in their status as nascent and unchartered technologies, intervene not merely as tools for organizers but form a political epistemology, an ordering of the interests staggered at the crossroads of action? Perhaps technophobes should resume worrying. The undemanding amorphism of Occupy Wall Street and its satellites reveals some of these conflicts. The movement legitimizes itself by narrating an ontology of ethics. The right to reclaim Wall Street, a monument representing what has ostensibly been taken away, sources itself not only in a consensus of human rights. What also gets assumed as right is the ability to author a politics of authenticity, specifically to name that very 99%.

How to make sense of an equation, “DEBT=SLAVERY,” a sentiment boasted on multiple signs at Occupy Austin’s inauguration on October 6th. One of the most serious critiques of Occupy is its rehearsal of colonial violence. Many activists involved with anti-racist social justice are concerned with the movement’s claim to speak for a solidified 99% population while also appropriating and erasing the United States’ own genealogy as a colonizing and genocidal sovereignty, persisting today in its violence against people and communities of color. A number have spoken out—journalists Rinku Sen and Kai Wright of Colorlines and feminist writer and editor Jessica Yee. The counter to this critique suggests that Occupy is an inclusive space, one committed to unifying plural perspectives and experiences into the core politics of the movement. I do not mean to suggest that Occupy is incapable of such a task or that it intends otherwise—certainly, deciding on the movement’s potential at this stage would be premature. What requires our suspicion, however, is Occupy’s ability to virtually bypass a tradition of anti-capitalist people of color organizing, one that in recent years has been largely neglected by mainstream media, in order to author the movement as starting from a white, male standpoint.

The politics of authorship, therefore, are important for understanding Occupy. While social movements have historically encountered conflicts over power and privilege within their organizational structures, the current and growing merger of activism with digital technology plays out such tensions in some different ways. In thinking of the advertising-driven naming of Occupy and other recent social movements, including the controversial Slut Walk, I have been reminded of innovators and early adopters. To be an early adopter is to access styles and behaviors innovated out of sight of the mainstream, and then to appropriate this intel to set the stage for a shifted, emergent culture. American studies theorist Mark Greif applies this concept to explain the phenomenon of the hipster.In our first!, meme-making digital culture, the impulse is not simply to adopt early but to document originally into public record. The digital model shapes originality as a phenomenon that can be both claimed and proven immediately. What validates the social movement, particularly on its first day, is its aptitude for producing documentation. (See: various photos, blogs, and Tweets for this purpose.) My inquiry into this process does not simply respond to statistics showing that minorities, particularly youth, enjoy lesser access to digital technology—this notion of the digital divide is, in fact, complicated by developments in mobile media and attracts more critical research. What compels me, rather, is legal activist Lawrence Lessig’s observation that institutions of power are able to take advantage of the newness of online spaces to reiterate digital laws and cultural practices in their own “images.” To copyright is to state ownership over an idea or product, thus, the power to direct its present and future use. Social movements might also be copyrighted.

The hegemonic image of the digital public is white, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied, despite this “group” constituting a minority of the globe’s population. Because Western colonialism has historically articulated white men as the default identity, the digital public is thus further abstracted as being without a body, thereby empty of the politics of racialized, gendered, and sexualized conflict. Moreover, in being disembodied and in the physical body’s maintained primacy as a locus of meaning, such power ruptures are dismissed as unserious. For organizers such as the Occupy-ers, digital culture is available as a tool for action because it does not contain the full density of social life. It is an illusion of the internet as primordially free—neutral, unmapped, and under-exploited. The analogy becomes available: that online early adopters constitute a breed of settlers, administering racial and gendered hierarchies within digital terrains while consecrating their own belonging. By analyzing social media as itself politically organizing, the so-called real and material outcomes of digital hierarchies also begin to reveal themselves.

To “occupy ethically,” a settler narrates his own appearance as “first” on a territory ostensibly empty. Precisely, this is the ethics that has been historically deployed to colonize indigenous communities. The colonial imagining of empty land reinvented indigenous peoples and communities as simultaneously living and emptied, stripped of the value of their cultures, the legitimacy of their institutions, and their rights to name themselves as owners of landed property. The ideology of American authenticity, echoed in Occupy, has named itself through genocide, innovated by the U.S. nation-state. The problem with authenticity is not simply a post-structural anxiety that there is no real or truth worth chasing. Instead, it is that authenticity does not do without power—that what gets constituted as real is a realness premised on hegemonic belonging. This does not come out of abstraction, but rather is deeply political, enduringly violent, and dislocating.

I do not reject the motivations and expressions of Occupy—solidarity envisioned around the humanity of socioeconomic grief, suffering, and anger has worth. However, solidarity and unity might not be the same. In the case of a movement claiming 99% of a people, it may be more ethical to organize through a politics of difference. One challenging the illusion that our dispersions can be mediated into some coherent identity and that our masses, as reproduced from the digital screen, are colorless, shapeless, and identical. It is important to point out that resistance to this absorption continues, as evident in the presence of Decolonize Occupy Austin at last week’s rally. What this might leave us, instead of unity, is a sharp vision into how power works creatively and pervasively to fracture. How Wall Street architects itself not only by scraping the sky but in our mutual complicity, our rush to claim authorship over one another—politically, bodily, digitally.

Return, from Going: the political appropriation of forgetting

Return is visceral. Among other tasks it organizes the body toward some normal, the first shock of re-location progressively routinized in small details, eventually inscrutable. At your first American airport upon return those slow-moving lines are familiarities encountered abruptly, added to your assemblage of pithy comparisons for friends—how things flowed differently, better, where you were. The Texas sun impossibly enduring, yet arguably less immediate in sweaty-ness than humid Kyushu. The hungry absence of onigiri at convenience stores. You forget by annotating, buy a rice cooker for home and retain the references, fragments of evidence that you were once away and now are returned.

Return is more than once. It instructs through repetition; what it repeats is forgetting.

My view of forgetting as a human talent and curating survival draws from psychoanalytic theory but owes particular thanks to Jasbir Puar, whose talk on lifelogging technologies I attended last fall. As Puar argues, in digital we observe the estranging paradox of forgetting pathologized and remembering disembodied. What about an alternative, forgetting as a gift? In this way, we might witness resilience, possible through selectively dislocating memories, ways for the body to move without the weight of its worst knowledges and by displacing trauma outside of presence. But obstructing such relief is an anxiety. That is, a fear that in catharsis we might lose our forgettingsin the future of recalling them, discover their total absence from the intimacy of our cupboard, from our archive.

Such an anxiety is legitimate, and particularly for women of color and survivors of colonial histories. The extractive geography of colonialism is more than soil; empires build themselves on alienation and historically, U.S. colonialism has abused indigenous, diasporic, and enslaved communities through the occupation of memory. Saidiya Hartman shows with painful clarity that the colonial archive, what we can know of ourselves, is already ruptured (the title of this essay takes some inspiration from “Come, Go Back, Child,” a chapter in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along The Atlantic Slave Route). That is, like all knowledge and emotion, power has converted memory and forgetting to property—therefore, vulnerable to colonization and other structures of exploitation.

Forgetting is political: in constructing itself, the nation-state appropriates forgetting, deploying and releasing strategically. We are afraid to forget, but want to stop remembering. Official actors and public sites enter as custodians of our un-lost memories, experts and places out of view until the appropriate days, when we are ready. I saw this fear translated to tourism in my research of Japanese museums of atomic memory (as I call it) in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and upon my return in the lead up to 9/11’s tenth anniversary. In the math of the memorial, the monument provides a presence to conjure memory and the memory subtracts from ourselves. We will never forget because we have entrusted this task to our discourse-makers. They are better equipped to care for the memory than us. We visit and return from the memorial, to forget.

The normal to which we both can and can’t return is an illusion of safety, the anchor of any nation-state and particularly evident in U.S. exceptionalist politics. Americans are safe in where we live outside the memorial, supposedly, because this segregation is enforced militarily and economically. Like the memorial, the violence and danger exports itself to places and peoples outside our view, until we are called by our guardians to remember, to recognize and pay for their protection. The dependency of forgetting and safety as a politics is not exclusive to the U.S., but was rather visible in my research of Japan. There is something important happening and that has happened.

Then there is the question of when not all of us return. Some begin and live dislocated by geography, others are exported and lost, and then both. And what of them, what of us?

[This essay is part of a series on my 2011 summer research on atomic memory in Japan and also appears on HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory).]

A geography of Safety: women, hybridity, and violence in Jana Leo’s ‘Rape New York’

Is there a geography of safety? Are safe spaces territorial, areas of protectiondrawn by the boundaries of privacy, the shapes of our homes, in the walkable comfort of “good” neighborhoods and company? Does the body govern its own cartography—with safety locating yet another intersection of gender, sexuality, race, class, and nationality?

I’m taking inspiration for these questions from Jana Leo’s Rape New York, a memoir about the author’s rape in her Harlem apartment in 2001 and the imprints of this trauma on her personal, social, and intellectual relationship with New York City. To mention, as well, the legal consequences Leo endured through criminal and civil cases against her assailant and her landlord. (Leo’s landlord was eventually outed by NYC media outlets as one of the city’s most notorious slumlords).

The book has a svelte, unassuming appearance—in length almost as brief as Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, white cover ominously modest. Leo’s talent enables the book to be short—an efficiency of prose balancing the conceptual density of her narrative. No wonder, reviewers have suggested that Rape New York is a hybrid text—a seemingly rare union of autobiography with academia, the sensory with the political. Surely, Leo’s memoir does embody a certain contradiction of form. But as I interpret it, the text’s hybridity articulates itself not as an aberration, but rather, as recognition of the lived contradictions of human biography, particularly for women and marginalized individuals and communities. In other words, Leo’s work is not a marriage of the private and political—it is a rejection of this splitting, an interrogation into the power-interests motivating this geographic binary.

Leo makes some powerful observations about the home, property, urban development, mass incarceration, and capitalist ideology. Of the most salient of Leo’s points is her argument that gentrification self-generates and accelerates through a geography of crime—“[t]he more sophisticated and perverse approach is to simultaneously clamp down on street crime while forcing it into specific buildings targeted for speculation” (41). Real estate developers are then able to purchase these buildings cheaply and profit greatly from their redevelopment.

Even more fascinating is domestophobia, a central concept of Leo’s academic research and one irrevocably altered by her assault. Domestophobia predicates on “two ideas: one, that the idea of ‘home’ is a myth, in practice it is more like a prison; two, the house is literally a site for violence against women” (83). Narrating her research in the aftermath of her rape:

As I looked at the statistics, it became clear how the myths associated with rape and the home were intertwined. The idea that rape happens at night, in dark alleys, in alien locations, is false. It is a myth that nourishes the image of the house as a safe place, offering comfort and suppressing the threat of rape from the mind. This mythology serves a masculine interest, with its lust for the free availability of women within the sanctuary of their home.

After being held hostage in my apartment and raped, I didn’t feel at home anywhere or with anybody. I didn’t feel safe at home or anywhere. I found myself disappearing into nonplaces: computer rooms, libraries and coffee shops, or friends’ studios (49-50).

Which returns us to the question of safety. More than simply rejecting the analytical limits and fallacies of spaces partitioned as “safe” and “unsafe,” Leo suggests that such mythic geography is of particular danger to women who are structurally vulnerable both inside and outside the home. The notion that white, middle class, heteronormative citizens purchase the power to detect and choose safety is core to neoliberalism: safety-as-commodity. Such a belief is key toward rendering separate and invisible those economies of exploitation so interlocked with Western, neoliberal projects. Thus, when the New York Times nonchalantly claims that, “only a minority of men feel entitled to have their way to dominate others, to humiliate them if provoked,” it dually-articulates violence: as a vision—some exceptional stroke of character and power—and its antonym, a blindness. We see here mainstream media dislocating the disturbingly high number of victims of violence and abuse who live at all strata of the socioeconomy.

It’s worth noting that feminists of color have long traversed the meeting grounds of violence, gender, sexuality, race, class, and nationality. The ability to project violence, exploitation, and danger as some remote phenomenon, to ignore its presence and foundational status, and to expect it in some singular type of form is a blind privilege. Thus, this literature has often found shelter in an aesthetics of hybridity–I am thinking particularly of Audre Lorde’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. The question—where can women and marginalized peoples live safely and survive?—acknowledges the geopolitical interests and institutions structuring violence and the necessity for activist praxis. But what both Lorde and Leo’s texts also demonstrate is the importance of aesthetics and the personal as some kind of proper home—a space to rearticulate the nuance of experience and to suffer safely, a liberatory geography reclaiming humanity and joy.

[NOTE: I picked up Jana Leo’s Rape New York while attending Bluestockings’ book launch of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence within Activist Communities, another great text and related to my discussion in this essay.]

Militarizing Nostalgia: “Allies” in Libya, Media, and Memory

Does neoliberal media miss the good ol’ days of military yore? In following the coverage of the U.S.-led military intervention in Libya, I’ve been struck by a widespread revival of Allies as a term describing Western coordination. With 2/3rds of the Big Three (plus France) involved, the term not only applies a geographic specificity, but quite importantly, loads a historical symbolism onto the invasion. Allies linguistically resurrects the geopolitical binary of World War II, a political theorizing of space that, through its memorialization, continues to bifurcate the globe into moral halves—the good, free West securing its defense against the bad, encroaching despotism of Axis power.

If we recognize neoliberal media as a constellation of political soft power, specifically promoting Western political and economic projects, there’s utility in this reference. (Check out the media’s own linguistic “alliance”: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, BBC, and Bloomberg.) The media’s allusion to World War II as an ethical typology sorting nations into good and bad has operated throughout the many wars of my generation. Now Muammar Gaddafi elicits comparisons to Hitler, but previously, Saddam Hussein wore that honor and Kim Jong Il does too, on occasion. The same vocabulary constructs the Axis of Evil and, more broadly, understandings of the role of militarization in “enforcing” human rights. Whereas Axis language might be applicable for any regime deserving our horror, Allies suggests a stable location within Western righteousness (of course, with the Cold War utterly abjecting Russia from that picture). For while those mysterious enemies might creep quietly across “dark continents,” We can always know, and claim who We are.

Nostalgia does not simply remember the past, it memorializes what we conceive to have lost. Arguably, the West’s crisis of legitimacy is the project attended through the media’s current preference for Allied language. World War II has been core to the ideological rooting of American Exceptionalism—a moral supremacy that now peels at its veneer, particularly worn during the Bush Years. Perhaps Allies is a desperate move, designed for stirring a citizenry that—across its political spectrum—is fatigued by the seeming endlessness of our military involvements in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Even in this stage, public favor for our intervention into Libya is noticeably low in the U.S. and the U.K. Worse than duration is an unsparing cynicism, a sense of betrayal among soldiers and voters who quite realize their sacrifices (and those of occupied communities) pay forward the securities of a global elite, and not their own.

But as a colleague of mine recently pointed out, nostalgia is deceptive: glorifying a history as it never was. The topic emerged out of a discussion about Mad Men. Readers of Racialicious will be familiar with the argument—that the show’s guise of critiquing 1960s advertising culture through exposition entirely belies its neoliberal celebration of all privileges “lost” through the decades—patriarchy, unregulated desires, and a near-totality of whiteness. It may seem like scripted television and war have very little to do with one another, but Mad Men offers clues about how war traumas could possibly memorialize as worthy of remembrance and re-living. Nostalgia is dispensed through aesthetics, and in the case of Mad Men, beauty—those gorgeous actors and their tailored clothes, the glossiness of the film—offers its most beguiling scent. Further, in memorializing the pleasures of hetereosexual, white men, Mad Men fetishes its erasure of marginalized narratives. Implicitly, those untold stories of black and brown protagonists, feminists, queer love, appear nowhere (or seldom) in the Mad Men logic not simply because they are “minority experiences,” but as a result of their un-sexiness, their inability to seduce a market of viewers who are foremost invested in white, American beauty.

We can bridge this understanding of how culture and politics often marry at the site of aesthetic production to our analysis of Libya. To what extent does World War II nostalgia—distributed in texts with a range including Hemingway, Saving Private Ryan, and video game Call of Duty—premise itself on beauty? The beauty of honor, bravery, bellicose morality. If blood-for-oil offends us as an ugly perversion of our democracy’s ethical might, we might consider that war is never divested of economic interest, nor that the organizing motivations of war are ever democratic. Not simply now, but in the obscured war rooms of the mid-twentieth century, too.

Language, in the case of Libya and other wars, is not itself the engine of militaristic nostalgia: it is the arrow pointing us toward what we already remember. In other words, if we are indeed curious about the media’s ability to power softly in times of war, we must examine the cultural production of war and American exceptionalism as a memoir project. Here is our new moral imperative: to dig out and name those structures and interests invested in the cosmetics of war—so righteous, so just, so worthy of sacrifice.

talking about: the news, media, politics, ethics, feminism, race/identity, images, sound

e-mail: vivian.shaw AT gmail
twitter: @vgshaw

about | ask vivian

view archive

Ask me anything