Video Essay: Ideology in Images of ALS and Ferguson

Hawking

This video project was originally inspired by an explosion of social media activism that occurred throughout most of the summer concerning Michael Brown’s murder and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, and the ALS ice bucket challenge. To many, this appeared as a strange dichotomy. One where the lumpen proletariate– Adorno’s naive unwashed masses– were excitedly dumping buckets of freezing water over their heads in participation with some sort of ritualistic mass spectacle, when others were simultaneously witnessing the precipitation and backlash of state power after a case of profound racial violence where an unarmed black teenager was sacrificially murdered by yet another white police officer.

The critique is that people participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge were engaged in something trivial and counterproductive when there was real political action and violence happening elsewhere– which is based on the incorrect presupposition that the Ice Bucket Challenge itself was/is not already a response to a similar kind of institutional violence. Even more so, many people who criticized the Ice Bucket Challenge made an unfortunate misappropriation of Marxism and Critical Theory in order to support their arguments, thinking that this would clarify their distributions of critique and praise regarding ALS activism and Ferguson. Ultimately however, this is a veil covering what really was and is a cynical reaction to the entire affair– given that according to Critical Theory’s larger conceptualization of ideology, the actions of both political critique and consciousness raising in social media are largely the same when it comes to material practice– in that neither are material practice. And this is notwithstanding the fact that in the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, many people were not just consciousness raising but were actually raising capital to fund scientific research which had previously been gutted by the Obama administration. Granted, this may be counterproductive to ALS activism in the long run (given that whole Althusserian notion about Ideological State Apparatuses) but that’s for a different post.

Regardless, these are some of the questions that I wanted to think through in this video essay.

 

 

Here is the full passage of the sub-chapter from Marx that  Zizek is citing:

“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.”

Part of the cynical critique of the Ice Bucket Challenge is grounded in the idea that “it’s not really doing anything.” The snag with this critique is in how it’s identical to the forwarding of the discourse of analyses of  Ferguson as inherently “doing something” at the level or representations in conversations about both events as they are compared to each other. The difficulty pivots on the ability inherent in ideology to appear as its opposite, and this is a property of both discourses as they exist as topics created around images of both events.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is largely presented through video content, as are the protests in Ferguson. This does not mean however that one image possesses more “reality” (equated in this discourse as political content) than the other at first blush. What I am trying to point out through the video is that something much more complicated is happening at the level of the organization of the perceptual content in both events. In other words, what is happening in Ferguson is something that is changing, is in a state of flux, and the same thing can be said of what is happening in ALS activism. Both are represented through a visual field, and both have been changed by being pushed into this visual field in a way that has correspondingly also changed the way people read them as events. This is arguably part of the reasoning behind why the discourses of Ferguson rapidly shifted away from being conversations about the murder of a young black man towards conversations about the militarization of the police. It’s also why Jon Stewart can rightly make fun of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to an extent, because there is something absurd about it. Nevertheless, Stewart’s criticism is also a radically oversimplified rendition of the politics behind the event as he compares it to something else– Ferguson– which is monumentally different in its structure, especially when we look at how images of both events have been picked up and co-opted by visual media.

The video itself was shot in one take with a screen capture program. The point was not to simulate something but to limit the amount of editing that went into the structure of the video essay. There are several typos on the captions, there are problems with the audio, and my mouse cursor is constantly flitting about the screen. My intent with this was not to make an appeal to some sort of documentary realism in the film, but to instead just show my own hand in scraping together a video that did not use too many editing techniques in order to construct an argument. The whole structure of the video content is visible there in the essay, which was my point in building it this way, even though it is visually noisy at times.

If anyone is interested in watching the videos I used in their original forms, here are the links:

Jon Stewart’s “Ferguson Challenge”

http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/p0fcub/the-ferguson-protest-challenge

Celebrity Ice Bucket Challenge

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfuAKDSrXeg

Millenial Diagnosed With ALS

http://elitedaily.com/news/world/recently-diagnosed-als-sufferer-explains-care-ice-bucket-challenge/719425/

Zizek in Examined Life

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGCfiv1xtoU

Anamorphosis

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBNHPk-Lnkk

Ferguson Protest

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkACHGLugu8

Zizek on 9/11 and Kosovo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5OKuwPu9Ls

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Is There A Time And Place For Theory?

Today in the humanities there is a profound emphasis (reliance?) on false dichotomies, one of which I would like to contextualize with a degree of specificity as it pertains to how I think about my voice as a student. This binary plays multiple roles within its corresponding fields and it is the focal point of copious amounts of heated debate– because, really, it is “the big one” as far as large field-scale binaries go.

Keep Right

This is the making/interpreting binary– which for all intents and purposes, can be taken as all but synonymous with the practice/theory binary.

In a blog post from 2010, Tom Scheinfeldt [Director of Digital Humanities, UConn.] notes that one thing people seem to continually notice after working in the digital humanities for an extended period of time, is that people for the most part tend to get along well. With little paraphrase, he writes, ‘working in DH is “nice”.’ Scheinfeldt attributes this to a privileging of methodology over theoretical interpretation and critique within the present iteration of the field. This emphasis on method (on doing things instead of thinking through them), in other words, makes it so that people can stop bickering over concepts and their interpretations and get back to whatever it was they were doing in the first place. And, as it is important to note, the subtext behind this is: whatever it was they were doing in the first place is inherently political and in-line with the presumed common causes of the humanities writ large. (Note that the inclinations of the humanities writ large are also implicated in his argument.)

I want to follow this line of thought, because it illustrates something I think is important to the humanities, and especially, to academic politics in the humanities.

Earlier, in 2008, Scheinfeldt wrote another post where he briefly traces what he views as a dialectical process of 1.) eras knowledge organization and 2.) eras of conceptual thought-work. Scheinfeldt recounts the history of the history of science as a field ( his field of interest) during the late 19th and early 20th century. During this time period historical scholarship was focused on amassing bibliographically focused works of impressive scale. After this, the students of the people who composed these works started writing their own interesting arguments by making use of the texts created by the previous generation of historians. Scheinfeldt’s resultant hypothesis is that scholastic discourse in the humanities moves through periods of organization–>theory–>organization–>theory…. and so forth. He argues that with the present explosion of interests in the digital humanities and a corresponding explosion of raw technological computing power, that we are about to witness another period of knowledge organization. In other words theory isn’t important. Not right now. It can wait. First we need to commit all of this stuff to memory.

Let me be clear. I am, monumentally, opposed to this argument.

First, as Jamie Bianco [Ass.Prof. Media Studies, NYU] has questioned (and with direct citation to Scheinfeldt’s post), why should an emphasis on methods make us nicer to each other? It does not follow that given how debates over methodology are more easily resolved than debates over theory that we are nicer to each other in the humanities. As Bianco notes, resolved debates over method do not change the fact that such debates and their resolutions could in fact be pointing to uneven power relations within the field (or more likely not pointing to those same power relations.) In other words, disagreement and conflict in the field are moments where the field actually moves– they are not intrinsically bad, and in point of fact, they serve to make things visible so that change can happen.

Zebras

There is a lot of talk in the digital humanities about “openness”, “collaboration”, and “inclusiveness”– but without a critical elaboration of what those things are and what they look like, they sound a lot like buzzwords to me. To cite from Bianco again:”It’s been a long time since I’ve quoted a feminist like a sledgehammer, but something about the new, posttheoretical humanities, the digital humanities, smells a bit like its self- (and other-) enlightened, progress-driven, classifying, rationalizing, and disciplining (grand)father….. This is not a rant against the machine or the tool. This is a rant against the resurgence of an old humanist theme, ‘Man and His Tool(s).’

In other words, to Bianco, and to me, this progressivist humanities rhetoric sounds a lot like classical white neoliberalism patting itself on the back for how forward thinking it thinks it is.

Furthermore, the argument that theory can wait (from Scheinfeldt’s 2008 post) is but one among several– what have since become so commong that they have crystallized into, three classical arguments against theory (as Gary Hall [Prof. Media Performing Arts, Coventry UK] notes in one of his own blog posts 2011.) All three of which posit a relationship between theory and time for the purposes of discounting theory.

These are:

1.) The time for theory is over; we live in a post-theoretical moment.

2.) The time for theory is over (again); now is the time for methodology (the Scheinfeldt argument)

3.) It is not the time to return to theory yet. The field (digital humanities, medical sciences, physics, geography, whatever….) needs time to develop into what it can become. This needs to happen before critical theory can change or interrupt potentially important work. (Also, Scheinfeldt’s argument to a degree.)

The effect of all of these arguments on theory (especially critical theory) is essentially: “Keep your politics to yourself. This is not the time or place for them.” <– And this? This is truly a dangerous argument, especially given that it is grounded in a field that is supposed to be preeminently concerned with people’s well being.

Marx

Expansions of Critical Visuality Studies: Marine Biopower

Slave Ship

[This is the first in a series of live blogs done in class for Visual Research Methods (hence the category), where we are assigned a reading from the week to write rapidly about, and ideally, in a manner that is open to a scholarly audience but which doesn’t hold a PhD as a prerequisite for being interesting or comprehensible. The essay that I worked with for today was Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “The Sea and the Land: Biopower and Visuality from Slavery to Katrina”]

Mirzoeff’s essay takes representations of the sea in 19th century painting and in modern cinema as his visual object in this article. Specifically, he’s looking at Joseph Turner’s painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying, Typhon Coming On (1840) and Spike Lee’s film “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” (2006.) The author uses a variety of academic approaches, including art history and cultural studies, in order to talk about the two objects. He begins from a Foucaultian theoretical perspective joined with historical research focused on ownership of the sea and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The writing is theoretical in form, but Mirzoeff is very clear when he makes references to complex theoretical concepts and he does a good job of giving them contextual explanations within the body of the article.

Through his starting point of marine biopower, Mirzoeff notes the manner in which the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was crystallized by early concepts of imperial ownership over large expanses of water, which became naturalized as the commons of imperial England. Specifically Mirzoeff is interested in how the sea was rendered into representation through discourses of ownership and ideas of “the natural”– where the sea started out as res nullius, or representationally formless (form of the natural), and then later became naturalized as the property of the state. Mirzoeff uses Turner’s painting as a way of showing this in how traditional England started to think differently about capital and slavery in the late 19th century due to ideas about the sea– and he then uses these images as a cross-over for talking about Lee’s film.

The Turner painting he is most interested in is based on a real slave ship named the Zong, which was trapped in a hurricane. In order to keep it from foundering, the captain of the ship ordered his crew to throw overboard all of its “cargo”, which included 132 African slaves. The ship then later filed an insurance claim of “cargo loss” upon returning to port. The perspective of the painting is important because it deliberately immerses the spectator into the waves of a tumultuous ocean as the ship recedes into the distance. This is what Mirzoeff is terming “visual immersion” in this essay.

Lee’s film, according to Mirzoeff also uses this technique, where long takes of the destruction of the lower wards of New Orleans stretch for significant expanses of time unaccompanied by any auditory commentary. Similar to Turner’s painting, the idea is to literally put the viewer in the water through the medium of film. Mirzoeff then very cleverly links images of the water to other forms of destruction, such as the market crash– frequently described as ‘a sea of debt.’ The article is in part so effective because Mirzoeff never loses sight of the relationship of the sea (the multitude) throughout the entirety of his analysis– he does this all while juxtaposing this dialogue with images of Katrina victims huddled in their attics trying to wait out the rising of the gulf, which, as he points out, is highly reminiscent as an image-memory of slaves moving across the middle passage.

Mirzoeff then returns to images and concepts of biopower when he talks about the aftermath of Katrina through Lee’s film, whereupon the port of Louisiana was moved further inland from New Orleans (which, significantly, has strong unionized black labor) and north to the new Port of South Louisiana– where large powerful multinational corporations wait to draw profit from the sea. The reader can’t help but be reminded by Naomi Klein’s theory of The Shock Doctrine.

Part of the suggestion (which Mirzoeff draws from Spike Lee), is that though professional opinion might suggest that the Levees were not deliberately blown, they might as well have been. Here biopolitics manifests as the need to kill and destroy life in order to remake life– or rather capital. If there is any confusion with regards to what Mirzoeff intends by this, he he clarifies it with a brilliant passage near the end of the essay, where he once again connects the argument to representations of water in the aftermath of Katrina:

“The government Minerals Management Service report found more than 100 accidents leading to a total of 743,400 gallons of oil spilled throughout the Gulf region during Hurricane Katrina and Rita. To put that in perspective, 100,00 gallons is classified as a ‘major spill’ and this quantity amounts to half that of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Crude oil is toxic and burns the skin. The spills resulted from the failure of the oil companies to withdraw their tankers efficiently despite the long-range forecasting of the storm. Nonetheless, it was the impoverished mostly African-American urban population who were castigated for failing to evacuate, not the all but invisible refining companies (Mirzoeff 145.)”

Again, the passage draws attention to an organization of the sensory field in connection with water, where water functions as a force of nature– but that it “behaves” differently, “of its own accord”, depending on how the capital of the state views the capital of one’s body.