Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Capital as Image

Achille Mbembe. Image by Aude Dieuda

It is under a clear blue sky that the champions arrive at Orlando Stadium. Situated on a hill overlooking a valley in the Soweto area of Johannesburg, the arena is spectacular, a place to see and be seen. This brisk, sunny morning is full of promise, and the arriving competitors are full of expectation. I am among them, and as we move through the tunnel toward a luxuriously fertile pitch, the stadium’s aisles yawn, its thousands of hungry chairs warming in early sunshine. We participants in the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism arrive early for the main event: Capital as Image, by Achille Mbembe. I shivered with anticipation; Mbembe is a distinguished scholar, famous for thrilling audiences with theoretical rigor and agility. On this particular morning, his supporters expect a hypnotizing performance.

The audience’s expectations are quickly fulfilled. But we also discover Mbembe’s hypnotism demands a willing engagement. Rather than passive delivery, this event was staged as “studio session,” a format that is deliberately tentative, tirelessly exploratory and resolutely fragmentary. Mbembe begins by explaining the rules of this serious game: there will be no attempt at systematicity, but goals may be achieved through hypothesis, proposition, and risk. I am already uncertain, but Mbembe raises the stakes further—he informs us that these calculated risks could lead nowhere—for the goal is not to pin down the proposition, but to circle around it. Mbembe is running in the direction of Walter Benjamin’s theses, and suddenly there is a flash that places us all in a moment of danger.

Mbembe continues by revisiting a proposition longstanding in archives of critical theory: Whatever we mean by capital, in order to understand its workings, its winding pathways, it will help to define it as image, and as spectacle. Mbembe describes the questions concerning image and spectacle that suddenly appear: What kind of image is capital? What type of spectacle is it? Who produces capital (as image)? For what purposes or effects is it produced? Mbembe insists that any response must be validated empirically. In this instance, he makes reference to Hans Belting’s work in visual culture—Belting does not always treat images as works of art, but as informing instances of cultural activity. The “question of the image” is an issue of various disciplines, and while there is immense literature on the subject, no single discipline can encompass the image. This unmanageability is apparent when the disciplines reach their end limits. To demonstrate this point, Mbembe schematizes two disciplinary examples: theology and philosophy. For Mbembe, in theology the image is universal, and its image claims theological significance. The image is reduced to a single common denominator, with unifying formulas developed with a practical end in view. Philosophy, on the other hand, is concerned with phenomena of the visible world and the truth of ideas. In this theoretical context, the material image is a possible object of linguistic or mental abstraction. It is clear such vast methodological differences present overwhelming theoretical odds.


Mbembe stays home. He reminisces about his interest in the problem of the image, which he says comes from a childhood in Cameroon, where television was not a part of life. He left the country in 1980 and saw his first movie at twelve years old, his next at nineteen years old. It was not until his thirties that he began attending movies regularly. He contrasts the popular cinematic experience with his local experience of masking, and explains that his childhood world was governed by socio-political debates about the mask as image. This personal experience provided a sense that the image involves more than the object, but also a series of mental acts that carry characteristics of the image. Mbembe was made to understand everyday life as a series of interactions between things and actions. The point here is to demonstrate the experience of the image is always personal, localized and contextualized. The image concerns issues of ontology, social principles, seen and unseen worlds, principles of apparition and oscillation. He notes how the image is activated through mediations, and refers to two intellectual traditions that address these issues: a tradition of French thought that (in line with Martin Jay’s arguement) denigrates the image, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which, in various ways, approaches the image as a source of anxiety. On this occasion, Mbembe’s anxiety is with the problem of image and calculation; image and spectacle; the image understood as a set of associations.


Mbembe leaps. We land with him in Paris, reading philosophy and aesthetics, approaching the image in a different manner. This time, we are made to see the image as a question present in art history and theology, but external to philosophical discourse in the main. The claim here is that in the French tradition, literature is the space of the image. At once, key players enter the game: Bataille, Foucault, Deleuze, Blanchot, Nancy and Heidegger. In sweeping movements they chase a finite image. Mbembe slows them down by marking the imago, the death mask (I turned, awaiting the arrival of Barthes and Schapiro). Mbembe takes a time out: Why the death mask? What is the connection with capital?

Another turn. We are now in Berlin with Nietszche, Wagner, other German’s, in the shadow of World War One’s incomprehensibility and death, running toward meaning.

Momentum shifts. Now we approach Christian mythology, Lazarus and Martha make an entry, and Death is defeated by Jesus Christ’s masterful technique of excavation (it is even an iconoclastic moment, in which the gravestone is overturned).

The unseen image plays on, runs to Debord and through Baudrillard, is nearly glimpsed in spectacle, capital, capitalism, then shape-shifts and becomes another name for exteriority. Mbembe points to a radical exteriority, something like death itself, but fake, a naked presence that never actually becomes authentic experience.


Mbembe pushes harder. This time, Debord and spectacular society enter the arena to the cheers of modern society. Life here is an accumulation of spectacle, not a collection of images, but social relations transformed into material forces. Spectacle is both outcome and goal of the dominant mode of production, not added, not decorative, but at the core of society’s real and flowing into a world in which deceit deceives itself. Ranciere breaks in to emancipate the spectator, and we turn to look at ourselves, just as the image reappears to ask: How do we view? How do we look without falling into stupification? Mbembe calls a penalty: What about the politics of viewing? How could a (new?) pedagogy of viewing help confront the double bind of the ontology of the image?


Mbembe circles back. Debord’s intuitions have foreseen the centrality of images in contemporary mass culture. The image moves faster and faster, producing specular, screen culture as it goes. Virilio begins keeping time; Merleau-Ponty perceives imagistic movement. For Mbembe, the two team up to wonder how to think and understand ballistic trajectories—Mbembe wants to regain contact with the landscape. From the ground, Mbembe observes self-made traps of technological innovation and (along with Bergson, Deleuze and Guattari) sprints towards emancipation. Running with Mbembe, we happily end up where we began, confronting and confronted by images and their workings—but this time, we look more carefully. Mbembe pauses, looks at the spectator, and wonders: What sort of value do images bring to capital?

In the interim, more questions are raised. The concept of the fetish might add to game. During a commercial break, Pietz offers a genealogy of the mysterious concept. Others query about the relation between the image and the body, the meditating experience of the body, its location, and its experiential role. Images of currency appear, if only to pull apart movements from material based currency to paper based promises.


Mbembe plays to win. He passionately describes his World Cup—the daily work of watching, analyzing, loving and hating, the stuff of risk, speculation and investment—to outline the image as a center of indetermination. Such indeterminacy lingers long after discussions about the image have ceased. The proceedings of this spectacular event spill into subsequent discussions and open new spaces of inquiry. I will work towards a stopping point, then, with a remark about spectacle and the visual image.


Mbembe invites us to the field, and even those of us who just came to watch are surprised to learn that it is impossible to passively observe—we are all (unavoidably) active participants in a contest of visuality and meaning. As Mbembe notes elsewhere, visual phenomena may hypnotize, overexcite and paralyze the senses. Spectacular images create and express collective identities central to the creation of new images, the deployment of power, and political actions. Put simply, spectacular images are compelling and generative forces. In the end, we are left with more openings than closures, more questions than answers. We are left looking for that which we cannot see.

RaƩl Jero Salley

By/way of Passage

Image by Gabi Ngcobo

Gabi Ngcobo’s curatorial intervention “PASS-AGES: References & Footnotes” located in the space of the former Pass Office at the corner of Albert and Polly Street in Johannesburg engages with what it describes as “the most basic work of the apartheid state . . . the control of black bodies across the South African landscape.” It references in part the photography of the late Ernest Cole, of Drum pedigree, whose iconic “Young boy is stopped for his pass as white plainclothesman looks on” is reprinted in the program accompanying the project, fittingly more “newspaper” than catalogue. In order to animate the moment of arrest--apprehension but also stasis—that is the substance of Cole’s tableau, we might invoke Mongane Wally Serote’s “City Johannesburg”, a key text of the “Soweto Poetry” of the 1970s. Serote offers a kind of contingent ekphrasis tied to the same technology of power which had produced Cole’s image a decade earlier.

This way I salute you:

My hand pulses to my back trousers pocket

Or into my inner jacket pocket

For my pass, my life,

Jo’burg City.

The poem evokes a lived sense of the body’s disarticulation in response to its being hailed by the racist state apparatus, but the interpellation must be routed as much through Fanon as through Althusser. If the poem illustrates power becoming capillary, in Foucault’s sense, it returns this trope to the tissue of material embodiment in a manner reminiscent of the hemorrhage that spatters Fanon’s body with black blood in the fifth chapter of Black Skins, White Masks.

Gabi Ngcobo and her collaborators are intimately attuned to the materiality of the body and its capacity to archive the production of race in apartheid South Africa. They work in a particularly dense nexus of such production: the pass office, paradoxically stripped of its evidentiary status through the willed destruction of the archive—in the most literal, bureaucratic sense—by the state officials who worked there. Its emptiness must be “activated” in Ngcobo’s term, or “reenacted.” Kemang Wa Lehulere’s video installation “Pencil Test” does just this. It reenacts the notorious pencil test of apartheid classification, rendering it absurd through multiple insertions of pencils into the artist’s own hair. The video installation is part of a larger—spatialized--commentary on what is imagined as a kind of archaeology of race. Afro-combs set in a display case triangulate between “Pencil Test” and a second video installation, amplified by photographs, of another performance piece by the artist which documents his excavation of a hole in Gugulethu using an afro-comb. The assemblage is framed by the statement “I found a rib cage” that alludes to the unexpected discovery of the skeleton of a cow in the process of excavation.

This is reenactment as haunting, then, but equally as an “unearthing” of stories and narratives “that the dominant historical narratives have shoved six-feet under,” states Kemang Wa Lehulere in a conversation with Gabi Ngcobo reproduced in the “newspaper” catalogue. The degree to which this is a critique of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose own preoccupation with exhuming corpses is well known, is never rendered explicit. In a slightly different mode, Zanele Muholi and Mary Sibande use the female body as surface onto which to project enduring questions regarding domestic work as a site of domination erased by, precisely, the framing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission’s focus on gross violations of human rights as Mahmood Mamdani has long argued obscures the ability to see apartheid in structural terms, as well as in its quotidian instantiations. Muholi’s and Sibande’s contributions encourage us to ask how the figures of the “Madam” and the “Maid” continue to be joined. How, in other words, do they inhabit “complicity” in that slightly more expansive, more complex etymology which Mark Sanders has taught us to recognize? What is the duration and what the temporality of its folds and grooves? A tactile, even textile association feels appropriate here. Mary Sibande intervenes in this problematic under the sign “Long Live the Dead Queen,” reworking Victorian costume through the use of fabric typically associated with the uniforms of domestic workers in South Africa. Zanele Muholi, for her part, investigates the problematic of domestic work in a photographic series which encodes deliberate personal references. The series is staged under the banner of “Work as Usual” in a telling allusion to a 2002 newspaper article that documents the biography of the artist’s mother, itself included in the sequence and captioned “Work as usual for Bester.” One of its memorable images juxtaposes the high-heeled legs of the white madam with the figure of the maid on her knees washing the floor: a footnote, if you like, to the hierarchical relations prevailing between them.

I am aware that my own language at this point has been shaped by the foregrounding of polysemy in the title of the curatorial project itself: “PASS-AGES: References & Footnotes.” Ngcobo dislocates the term “passages” into yielding a play on temporality: “ages.” The plural seems to carry her conviction regarding something like the unfinished nature of the past, an exploration of the way in which certain “codes and cultural signifiers are repeated, universalized and preserved.” It is also surely worth noting that the history of passes and, famously, of pass resistance in South Africa predates the apartheid state. A “pass” is officially a “Reference Book” or “Bewysboek” in Afrikaans (from “bewys”—“prove”), although the derogatory popular Afrikaans designation “dompas” had far more currency. The pass book would have contained pages used for the endorsements of employers, that is, references. But the term is not allowed to settle into its familiar usage in this context. In a substitution that raises questions concerning the relation between power and knowledge production, then and now, the box-files on the desk that stands in for the presence of the apartheid official who might once have sat behind it in the deepest, most recessed of the exhibition spaces contain a pile of articles by Berlin-based curator and art critic, Jan Vervoert. His article is (pointedly? playfully?) a “reference” in academic jargon. It is tempting to draw this mobility of “reference” into conjunction with the notion of “archaeology” tacit in Kemang Wa Lehulere’s visual engagements with excavation. What “archaeology of knowledge” so to speak, is being entertained here? How do these shifting and erratic registers—register is itself a word pressed into duplicity in the immediate context of a pass office—sit with the linguistic deformations for which apartheid was notorious? As an aside, note that the “Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents) Act” of 1952 actually extends the pass law legislation to people formerly exempt from it.

What are we to make, finally, of the errance, as Paul de Man might have said, of “pass” itself, as noun, but also as verb? I have been suggesting that the coherence of our passages between the various visual spaces constituting the curatorial project is partly conditioned by Ngcobo’s bold critical gesture which is to make the curatorial project co-extensive with a kind of subterranean investigation of knowledge production through a device which the Russian Formalists might have designated the “realization of metaphor.” We have already seen this at work in the wrenching of “reference” between simultaneous contexts so as to settle as the stack of paper’s on a bureaucrat’s desk. Metaphor devolves back into materiality; the figurative becomes, in a sense, literal again. But to evoke the “realization of metaphor” is also to leverage “passing.” The literary theoretical term might serve to amplify the display of the life (and death) of Ernest Cole. Sean Jacobs’ homage to the dead Cole in the text that accompanies the project is entitled “The Passing of Ernest Cole” where passing is, and is not, a euphemism. “Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole successfully applied to be reclassified from African to Coloured in 1966,” Jacobs writes. “He was 26 years old.” Cole subsequently performs the trajectory of his life as the realization of a classificatory trope: coloured. We might say that Ernest Kole seizes a kind of perverse mobility delivered in passing and inadvertently by the logic of the classificatory mechanism itself. He is an “accident” of the system of the kind that Ackbar Abbas, drawing on the work of Paul Virilio, had previously asked participants in the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, a co-sponsor of the exhibition, to consider. “From Kole to Cole” proclaims the curatorial banner. But Cole’s trajectory, contra the foreclosure which the banner encourages through the very constraints of its form, is far from a simple one.

Cole’s posthumous inclusion in the curatorial event is also far from simple. Admittedly, the confluence of his photographs and of his life choices provides much of the historical ballast for the project. The specificity of Cole’s biography illustrates, as it were, the pernicious general logic of racial classification in South Africa. This is well and good. At the same time, the notion of reenactment as an illustration of overarching logics--the repetitive “codes” and “cultural signifiers” of the program--left me feeling somewhat disappointed. I would have liked to see a greater curatorial engagement: not with “the pass office” but with this pass office, the one on the corner of Polly and Albert. Spatial history, in Paul Carter’s understanding of it, seeks to reverse the subordination of space to history; the former’s being rendered a backdrop for the latter. Does Cole’s biography decorate the pass office in Ngcobo’s curatorial intervention or does the pass office decorate the impasses of personhood in apartheid and indeed post-apartheid South Africa? I would not settle for either version. In seeming, at times, to acquiesce in both, Ngcobo neglects a literal space, suspended instead as a byway, a byline, in a more general story. The performance, to reroute Dineo Bopape’s intervention in PASS-AGES, has indeed been deferred.

Louise Bethlehem