Sunday, July 12, 2009

Citizenship of images

Ariella at opening

Opening experience

This is a multilayered experience, an encounter, as curator Ariella Azoulay called it. A series of affective moments crafted in the interaction of gazes looking at each other in multiple temporalities. In the exhibition Act of State, A Photographed History of the Occupation, different trajectories coalesce, with the intention of sparking if you wish, the numbing of the history of the Israeli occupation. This silence here takes a stance through color and in black in white, in strong faces and desolate spaces, in blood and tears, in flames and water spilled over pavement, under dust and rocks full of meaning—even if only for some. But it is this same multiplicity that sometimes makes this a difficult space to travel at once. There are many things going on here, in various levels and registers—even in the quantity of images themselves—that we are to deal with.

First of all there is the political implication of the photograph as a form of creating citizenship for those who are constantly denied of it. The visibility of the invisible subject is a stance that is taken directly and sets forth the possibilities of the image for the filling of voids. Voids that are, as Ariella reminded us of in her opening talk, the effects of state acts, that otherwise would be crimes. And still this filling of the voids of citizenship is an act that walks along the line of the victim as subject. However plausible this thin line is, I do want to take a step back from the critiques of visual representations of violence, and recall what Alan Klima has written about this critique of the visual. That despite the colonial and violent history of photography, we should also ask ourselves why, even if one can never do justice to the act of true witnessing through technologies of image reproduction, “if one was not there, then why are the flecks of the unaccountable political murders one has witnessed still ‘sticking to the heart?’ Just look” (The Funeral Casino; 2002: 226).

Other aspects of this multiplicity that spark reflection are those regarding the politics of photographing, presented not only in the image as image, but in the act of the photographer as part of the context as well. I am thinking of an image of a photographer being attacked and photographed, in an encounter with colonist-settlers, under the gaze of both the soldier and the Palestinian—while others snap the moment.

I am thinking as well of the politics of the image as seen in the series of Israeli soldier’s giving water and the captions that warn us of the invention of its humanitarianism through the crafting of the photographic moment itself.

There is also the moment of reflection of the public—public here as the visitor to the exhibition—which in this case is much more of a private moment that takes the viewer deep into her own personal memories. This moment can be a sensual form of memory in becoming, as a sensual form of memory making and experiencing the past in the present (see Nadia Seremetakis, The Senses Still, 1996). Undertaking the effects of the images and in this case of their location as they are merged in the exhibition implies a relationship as well with the space itself. Walking under the old prison’s barbwire to see images of more barbwired moments, or engaging the colors of decay on the walls where panels hang and of the images hanged above them, is part of a series of interactions that add layers to the experience of traversing silence and invisibility in multiple forms. These are moments that have the potential of generating sensual reactions through the images that surround us, and in some cases can then unsettle, delimit, excite, activate, and even, resuscitate.

This brings to the fore the role of the personal through the sensual and the aesthetic to the grounds of politics. I thus want to end this reflection by not letting go of the personal. A personal that, from what I have been hearing in recent discussions, is wanting to be disciplined—both in academic and in Foucauldian meanings of the term. Something that it was actually never intended to be. The personal whether through the medium of photography itself as form of writing, in the encounter, or in the represented being, comes to this stage of the political as a vehicle for the practice of poetics, imagination and the affective as politico-theoretical projects. Why should we limit its potential?

Juan Orrantia

Critique of the Law

Dale, Phumi and Kelly on the Law.

The Studio Session, Critique of the Law, was triple framed: first by John Comaroff’s morning talk (see below), then by Achille’s recalling the four doors of intellectual encounter through the JWTC, focusing on the studio sessions as more informal conversational times, and finally by our two co-chairs Julia Hornberger and Kelly Gillespie. Kelly and Julia posed questions along the lines of (1) What does it mean to carry on struggle in post-apartheid SA when political space has been saturated by the law; how do we engage the law critically and strategically? How do we not be abject before the law? And (2) for proper critique, we need to be first recognizing the enchanting and conjuring power of law in SA. In particular, the powerful negative apartheid past in SA animates the role of the Constitution; because of the undisputed injustice of the regime, the image of the Constitution is as a means to a radical political project. (In a legal jurisprudential key, see for instance the past and current South African Journal on Human Rights work of Dennis Davis and Karl Klare on this theme of transformation).

The morning had indeed been John Comaroff’s two hour talk, focusing largely but not entirely on constitutionalism and the judicialization of politics. That’s not the subject of this post but did provide the background to the afternoon session on the Critique of the Law. Supported by scholars such as Charles Taylor and South Africa’s own Martin Chanock, John seemed sympathetic to the view that legality was increasingly significant as a form of neo-liberal governance. Noting David Schniederman and South Africa’s own Heinz Klug analysis of a movement from a classic to a neo-liberal frame of constitutional design, John noted how the judicial has taken power by contrast to the bureaucratic and the parliamentary and how group rights have been constitutionalized only as aggregates of individuals.

The contrast to this studio session was real and intended: three inputs by self-professed activists – indeed of three different varieties: an academic/activist, a guerilla academic, and an organizational strategist for gay and lesbian rights. Jackie Dugard told us that law is a backup where politics has failed. While she was unrelentingly self-critical and institutionally modest, her water rights litigation nonetheless looks set to change some important policy at its Constitutional Court hearing in September. Hers was the perspective of the self-described human rights lawyer, but one who seeks to and does work with social movements. Dale McKinley, expelled from the Communist party for trying to be a communist, was explicitly utilitarian in his view of the law. It’s there; don’t debate, use it. Indeed, if those damn civil rights lawyers (not you Jackie) would just be willing to help me and my APF colleagues out on our criminal transgressions (see John for the dynamic of pushing the political into the criminal space) we would be happy to use them more. Phumi Mthetwa also was self-critical – recognizing that the gains on gay and lesbian rights were won by a small group of activists and not a social movement, and certainly not, as would be currently desired, with appropriate class analysis and alliances.

One similarity (but yet different) with John’s morning talk was around access to justice. For John, this was the issue of standing – how groups become aggregates of individuals or otherwise have their identities transformed through and in the legal/juridical encounter (broadly understood). For these three activists, access to justice was not enough money, lawyers, time, court attention, and other organizational resources. I’ve heard Jackie speak elsewhere on the dilemmas of litigating for those who are precisely not the poorest of the poor but that angle did not come out here. (See J Dugard in Part 3 of the South African Journal on Human Rights for her story of the Phiri water rights campaign thus far.)

One difference (but yet similar) was the local versus global framing. While he is not that beast, John could almost not help but at times sound like a comparative constitutional lawyer – the sheer volume of doctrinal holdings dispensed was enormous. On the other hand, apart from some backgrounding by Jackie, the afternoon sessions had little doctrine and moreover became explicitly anti-comparative constitutionalist. In response to a question about Kenya looking South for guidance, Jackie and Dale both advised against borrowing from South African legal models, at least with respect to the TRC. (Indeed, the Kenyan version will be the TRJ(for Justice)C). Phumi was silent on that one, perhaps implicitly approving some borrowing.

I came away wondering whether rights campaigning (think CALS, think TAC, think Khulamani) in the courts (think SA, think NYC) was indeed becoming or has already become the base narrative of legitimacy for transformation in our current juridified global politics. It is much easier to imagine a win in a New York City court for a Nigerian case than it is to imagine an election linking those two locations. In order to pursue emancipatory politics, it is important to have a good story to tell and a successful rights case is a good story.

Jonathan Klaaren