The revolution of the homo sacer: the battle for LGTB rights in Peru.

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On the 12th of April, thousands of people went to the streets to support the draft legislation

In the past months I have been a witness of a revolution that is not like the ones we are getting used to see in media: it doesn’t mobilize millions of people to the street like Egypt; it didn’t have a moment of ‘rupture’ like Brazil or Turkey; and of course, there’s not a worldwide campaign supporting it by using a hashtag. Even academics and development practitioners don’t get excited with this type of revolutions anymore; probably because the impact is not clear.  I’m talking about the battle for the recognition of LGBT rights in Peru. This isn’t a new fight. There have been activists for decades. However, a civil union draft law has become the most debated draft legislation and has collected a huge amount of support from public figures like artists, journalists and academics, as well as activists from almost every side of the political spectrum. Also from ordinary citizens, particularly those tired with the hegemonic conservative discourse and the intromission of the Catholic Church in politics.

There are approximately 3 million LGBT Peruvians (more or less 10% of the population) who don’t have the same rights as the rest of the population. The Peruvian State doesn’t recognize homosexual couples. Therefore they cannot get married, they cannot have shared heritage, they don’t have the right to inherit from their partners, and they cannot access the same health insurance or decide if their partner needs an emergency treatment, among many other things.  Moreover, they risk being beaten up or killed (confirmed by the amount of hate crimes); the rate of gay teenage suicides is five times the one from heterosexual teenagers. They grow up listening to very common expressions such as “homosexuals are sinful” or “I’d rather see my son dead than a faggot”.  In popular culture they are portrayed in a feminized way and usually associated to professions such as hairdressers or prostitutes. To sum up, the majority of society considers them dirty and immoral, and they are against giving them any right.

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Every year, LGTB activists organise “Kisses against homophobia” in Lima’s central square. There are always reactions from the police. 

It is inevitable to think that LGTB people are the Homo Sacers of Peruvian society.  As Agamben indicates “what defines the status of homo sacer is therefore not the originary ambivalence of the sacredness that is assumed to belong to him, but rather both the particular character of the double exclusion into which he is taken and the violence to which he finds himself exposed. This violence- the unsanctionable killing that, in his case, anyone may commit-is classifiable neither as a sacrifice nor a homicide, neither as the execution of a condemnation to death nor as a sacrilege…”(1998; p.82)

This was clearly illustrated, not so long ago when the Parliament refused to include in the hate crime law  crimes motivated by sexual orientation and they were finally considered in the category ‘others’.  Equally, when a hate crime occurs, it’s almost sure that the murderer won’t be prosecuted.

This is why I started this text talking about battles. The new draft legislation is not a just a representative claim but a matter of survival: too many LGTB people die because the  Peruvian State doesn’t recognize what in other countries are basic human rights. As linguist and LGTB activist Ernesto Cuba says “due to the circumstances, to say that you are bisexual or homosexual is almost a political declaration. We live in the most homophobic country in Latin America where there isn’t any exclusive and direct law that addresses the protection of LGBT people[1]”. Having a civil union law could tackle part of the problem: the State recognizing LGTB rights for the first time in its history.  Society will take its time to change but it’s sure that social movements have taken the first step.

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Image from the campaing “Unión Civil Ya” (“Civil Union now”)

However this is not only about a law. I also started the text talking about a revolution that I do believe is happening. The campaign for the civil union was supported by politicians from different sides of the political spectrum, something not common in Peruvian politics. Also, other initiatives where launched like ‘No tengo miedo’ campaign (‘I’m not afraid’), which encouraged LGTB people to tell their stories; on the 12th of April thousands of people went to the streets pacifically to support the draft legislation…there weren’t millions but that day Peruvian’s protesting standards were largely exceeded… and for the first time in the country’s history, one member of Parliament (and sponsor of the draft legislation) has openly talked about his homosexuality, thus becoming the first openly gay representative.

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“I’m  gay and I’m proud of it”, Carlos Bruce and his two sons. He became the first openly gay Peruvian MP

The icing in the cake (and the definitive proof that something is changing): for the first time I can remember the Catholic Church and the conservatives that oppose this law are portrayed as backwards by mainstream media ( and not so mainstream too). Their answer to this change was to make this issue a subject of referendum. In return, they received one clear message: the will of the majority cannot cancel the rights of a minority. Finally, the debate is raising awareness about homophobia in Peru. There’s still a lot to do but it is clear that a change has already started.

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Image inviting to the pacific protest on the 12th of April

Agamben (1998) Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Standford University Press: California

‘Everyday unruliness’for social change

“Something is wrong with the world. You’ve felt it all your life. You feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth … the truth that you are a slave. You were born into a prison you cannot smell or taste or touch, a prison for your mind.” (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999)

These lines are from a film called ‘The Matrix’. In the film a character called Morpheus, appeared to be a structuralist guru, says to Neo, the protagonist, referring to the illusory world which resembles that of early-21st-century capitalism, where people go to work and  engage in all the activities of ‘daily life’. Morpheus exposes Neo to the lie of his existence. When Neo realizes he commits himself to resistance against the machines.

“According to structuralist theory, institutional discourses tell us who to be, what to believe,and how to behave, individually and collectively. We are born into sets of social relations ordered in discourses and images not of our own making, structured in ways that constrain critique and agency” (Cloud, 2006).But our highly esteemed philosopher friend Ranciere does not agree with the ideas of structuralism, let me use his words- the ‘police order’ is defining our ‘modes of being, doing, making, and communicating that establishes the borders between the visible and the invisible, the audible and the inaudible, the sayable and the unsayable’.It is happening everywhere, everyday.  When we write our essays,go to our Unruly Politics class and even when we write a blog about the police order. It also happens when the order tells us to read the impenetrable, ‘sophisticated’ text of Ranciere who thinks that,  a philosopher and a South Asian, international post graduate student in the UK who is  marginalised (in some way or another),  are the same,  because their intelligence is equal to each other.He also says that the two are in very different situations even if their intelligence is same.

For Ranciere, politics emerges with rupture within the natural social order that defines the social spaces and the social identities (Ranciere, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, 1999). Politics emerges when we disagree with the police order. Politics emerges when we occupy a street or a building and also when we put up some posters on the wall against the order. But then we go back to our ‘daily life’ just as it was and feel good about our involvement in politics. Politics becomes fashionable, part of our life- “hey! I occupy! Do u? I am cooler that u mate!!”

So what am really trying to say is that, the order is telling us what to do every moment of our life. Let’s not wait for something very bad to happen and occupy a street or building or whatever, let us occupy every single moment of lives and say NO to the police order. Let every moment of our life be a moment of rupture to prevent this from happening.

Shahbag: The Uprising

“Unruly politics exposes the fact that people are finding alternative spaces to engage politically because political and civil societies no longer provide the means to express citizens’ voices”(Tadros, 2011).

Bangladesh is a no stranger to political social movements. Even before attaining independencethe country had witnessed a myriad of social movements, political protests, youth mobilization, activism etc. But recently what has been most pronounced and caught maximum attention nationally has been the Shahbag Movement which took place in February 2013.

The rupture that was theShahbag movement where tens of thousands of people spontaneously emerged on the streets of Dhaka to protests the unfair lenient punishment meted out to war criminals is not an event that happened in isolation. To truly understand the movement, we have to trace the history leading up to it for which we will have to take you back 7 decades back where the seeds of the movement lie.

In 1947, during the partition of India, was the creation of West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) purely on the basis of religion and not on culture or ethnicity. The two states were hugely different in every way, and West Pakistan being the dominant player continued to oppress and discriminate against East Pakistan.

The first upsurge against this oppression, and the first youth social movement was in 1952, when West Pakistan tried to enforce Urdu as the national language as opposed to Bengali, which people of East Pakistan spoke. Students protested to this in a big way, and the Pakistani military opened fire against them, resulting in many students losing their livesthus intensifying the movement and ensuring that Bengali was restored as the official language. Thus rose the image of the students martyr;the face of the student as an active participant in the political process of the country.

From 1958 to 1969 was the military rule in Pakistan. However Student social mobilisation, and activism continued in the country in many ways. In 1969 was the uprising against the military rule where students were in the forefront led by the All Party Student Action Committee, resulting in the end of the military rule.

In 1970’s general election, East Pakistan having the higher populationwas able to elect Sheikh MujiburRahman of Awami League. This was much to the displeasure of West Pakistan who refused to hand over the power to him. Sheikh MujiburRahman realised that gaining political power was never going to happen and announced an ultimatum that if he was not given his political rights, he would declare independence, having the legal authority to do so. On 25th March West Pakistan retaliated by orchestrating a mass killing before any social mobilization for independence could take place. Among others they targeted students and professors, a group of people who had already created their identity as political activists.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEidHJKTu00&hd=1

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

Thus rose the image of the student martyr again. Having always being at the heart of social movement in the country, they mobilised themselves to become one of the most prominent actors of the independence movement. For 9 months the struggle for independence continued. However not every Bengali was in favour of independence. Those who were not in favour, the pro Pakistani Bengali’s created 3 para-military forces and started going against the people of their own country,killingthose in favour of independence. The leaders of these forces were the leaders of a political partycalled Jammat-e-Islami.The pro-liberation majority looked on them as traitors. During the war of 1971, they perpetrated atrocities against civilians. On the 14th ofDecember 1971, having realized that independence was inevitable and imminent; the paramilitary forces assisted the West Pakistan military to conduct another mass killing of mainly the ‘Bengali Intellectuals’.

“… a group of senior Pak army officers and their civilian counterparts met in the city’s Presidential residence. They put together the names of 250 peoples to be arrested and killed, including the cream of Dacca’s professional circles not already liquidated during the civil war. Their arrests were made on Monday and Tuesday by marked bands of extreme right-wing Muslims belonging to an organization called the Al-BadarRazakar…Only hours before the official surrender was signed (on 16th), the victims were taken in groups to the outskirts of the city……where they were summarily executed……..” The Times, December 23, 1971

On 16th December 1971 after years of strugglethe free nation of Bangladesh emerged.

Independence however did not ensure any political stability for the country. After independence, Sheikh Mujib as the first president declared general amnesty to majority of the collaborators. The citizens ofBangladesh were not happy with this decision but accepted it.Jammat-e-Islamiwas banned from politics for 6 years, after which the ban was lifted with the help of a newly formed political party called Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Over the years BNP became one of the most influential political parties along with Awami League.

Despite the fact that the citizens of the country contained a certain amount of dissent about amnesty for war criminals, this feeling,lost precedence in the political battles between the few parties which was ongoing for 4 decades.

In the post-independence era, the feeling of nationalism was dominant in the minds of people and Awami League, whose political identity was always linked to pro-liberationsentiments, used this leverage to gain more power and popularity amongst the people. To feed into the anger of the common man, Awami League made it a point to maintain trials for war criminals in their political manifesto. Meanwhile, Jammat-e-Islami, taking support from the dominant political parties in the country was gaining power and prominence. This was possible mainly because most of the dominant parties like BNP often took support from Jammat-e-Islami for their political benefit. Over time, Jammat allied with BNP.

In 2009, keeping the hopes of justice for war criminals in the hearts of citizens alive yet again, Awami League, having come into power again, included the trials in their manifesto. Unlike previous occasions, this time, they start the trail procedure. The trails were of course had to be against the leaders of Jammat-e-Islami who were the leaders of the pro-Pakistani para-military forces.

The outcome of the trial was life sentence and not death sentence. The dominant feeling amongst the people of Bangladesh was that QuaderMolla, the leader of Jammat-e-Islami was let of really easily with the life sentence when the evidence clearly linked him to  mass murder and child rape during the 1971 war of liberation; crimes which command nothing short of death sentence. Also it is popular belief that Molla would only have to wait for the Government to change and his life sentence would be defunct. Even Molla accepted that he got off really lightly and his infamous ‘two fingered’ hand gesture while leaving the courtroom will go down in history as the first hand gesture to launch a mass movement. 

This was the one incident that led to the rupture that was Shahbag.The protests started the moment Molla stepped out of the courthouse with a group of online activists and bloggers vehemently opposing the verdict. They set up a camp in Shahbag square where they demonstrated a sit in. Shahbagis an intersection in the heart of Dhaka within Dhaka University. It took less than half an hour to put out the call for protest which were initially done through social media and later television channels. Student organisations who had always been on the forefront of political activism, were at Shahbag Square in no time and started demonstrating their opposition to the verdict.

“Unruly politics, as we define it, is political action by people who have been denied voice by the rules of the political game, and by the social rules that underpin this game. It draws its power from transgressing these rules while at the same time upholding others, which may not be legally sanctioned but which have legitimacy, deeply rooted in people’s own understandings of what is right and just”(Shankland et al., 2011).

These protestors painted murals on the road, drew cartoon and hanged effigies of war criminals. They chanted slogans, with a vow to continue demonstrating until their demands were met and death sentence announced for war criminals.

On the second day of the protests, the crowds started intensifying and more and more people joined in. By the third day, other towns and cities in Bangladesh also joined the demonstrations. By the fourth day morehundreds of thousands of people nationwide had joined the protest. Most actively involved in the protests were the youth, mainly the student organisations of the city. 

Shahbag movement was the first time of its kind in the history of Bangladesh that people had so spontaneously gathered in the streets and protested for so many days. The demonstrations at Shagbagcontinued for an entire month. Many protestors would sleep at night in the square. Some would go home and return next morning. Many would go to work and the return to the square in the evening to protest. Some protestors even started taking donations from the protesters to cook food in bulk for all who were protesting. People from all walks of life, all classes of society, across all age groupswere present at the protests.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4v75XGOyryw&hd=1

Over the month that the demonstrations lasted, the atmosphere was like that of a carnival. There were vendors selling snacks. There were smalls groups within the crowd sitting in circles, reciting poems, playing guitars, making music. At the other end there was a play being staged. There was also a tailor sitting on the side, with his sewing machine, quickly sewing up replicas of the Bangladeshi flag for people to wear on their head. 

The nature of Shahbag was such that there was a unified consent and anger towards the decision of the trials. No political party in Bangladesh could manage to bring together tens of thousands of people and keep them in one place for so many days. It was the collective anger and feeing of nationalism which was able to bring people together. Many of whom has not been engaged in any kind of political activism before were also out on the streets protesting.

Talking to one of the student protestors about why Shagbag turned out to be such a big movement in the history of the country, he said, “This movement has been about the one thing that people have had a unified opinion for a long time. People in Bangladesh were adamant about the fact that war criminals must be prosecuted ad punished for the atrocities that they committed. This unified consent and anger led to the mass mobilization of people for this movement”

What happened over the days after the protests was a clear demonstration of the power of political parties who co-opted the movement and turned it around from its initial agenda. It got murkier with counter protests by the Jammat-e-Islami and the marked event of the death of a blogger who was one of the first to initiate the movement. The events that followed the movement and the repercussions on the protestors are essential to the movement, but not one that we can justice to in this blog. But Shahbag as a movement, in its magnitude, spontaneity and solidarity was a marvel and vision in itself.

“a given act cannot stay ‘unruly’ for long – when it is recognized as ‘political’ and engaged as such, it enters the lexicon of politics and becomes instead a recognized mode of political action”(Khanna, 2012, p . 166).

In a few days, the initial protestors and the original agenda was lost somewhere and other political manipulations had taken its place. The one definite outcome of the protest was that death sentence was awarded to QuaderMolla. As for what Shagbagh did for the people of Bangladesh, in the words of one of the protestors,

“People of the country had certain strong ideas and beliefs about thepro-liberation force and the anti-liberation force. These ideas were proved wrong. There was a clear understanding of what the pro-liberation force would do for the benefit of the country and its people as opposed to the anti-liberation force. What the people realised was that these two forces operate interdependently for the sake of power and nothing else. They don’t care for nationalism, the people or any kind of patriotism. In the process of these two forces collaborating with each other for sustenance, the people of the country are lost; accountability has become nil. This process of collaboration which had been concealed for so long, became transparent to the people through this movement. Despite the many challenges and frustrations that people face in Bangladesh everyday, the faith in the pro-liberation force and its commitment to justice was a hope that the people had held for a long time. This hope was shattered. It was never about the people. Everything was for the sake of Power.”

“‘politics’ refers to ‘interests’  that is the actions of individuals and groups in furtherance of their own particular and located interests” (Khanna, 2012, p. 162)

References:

Khanna, A., 2012. Seeing Citizen Action through an “Unruly”Lens. Development 55, 162–172.

Shankland, A., Burns, D., Hossain, N., Khanna, A., Scott-Villiers, P., Tadros, M., 2011. Unruly Politics: A manifesto. Brighton IDS Mimeo.

Tadros, M., 2011.The Politics of Unruly Ruptures.UNRISD News.

Photography and our complicated relationship with reality and so on and so on…

Last week I was strolling around Barcelona and, as I always love to do, I visited different museums. I ended up in the MACBA, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona, where a collective exhibition called Invocable Reality was taking place. According to the curator explanation this exhibition intended to explore possible perspectives on reality from art practices. Based on the premise that we maintain a complicated relationship with reality and at the same time there is a “passion for the real”, for that which is credible, genuine.

But, before I continue however, a caveat is due here.

The following narrative should be viewed as a dialogue I had with myself. Not that I am a schizophrenic, but I have to admit that I find myself quite often talking with my inner voice (don’t we all?). I would guess that I am more a “schizo” as Deleuze and Guattari (and Foucault) would put it. This is, a little bit of neurosis is good as it is an inner force that permanently questions everything. Therefore, this blog entry is a cocktail party version of my wandering thoughts about some philosophical readings and, as such, does not constitute a coherent body of thought (so, bear with me!). But, I thought it was worthwhile sharing as it touches some issues we have seen in class and my own preoccupations about aesthetics, among other things…

A political ontology of photography or how photography is political. 

So, back to the main story!

Confronted with works by artist from different back grounds and generations I was so fascinated that I spend 4 hours in the museum without noticing it. Some of the questions posed by Invocable Reality where: Is there a reality outside our perception? Does it imply the affirmation of reality both in life and death? Is extreme violence the price we pay to unlock some layers of reality? Is our everyday a reality? Or does reality lie elsewhere? Can art have a bearing on reality? Many more questions rushed in my mind, heavily biased by my passion for photography: What is it that makes photography unique? If no objective reality can be represented truthfully, so what does a photography represents? What is its essential nature? Can a photograph have a bearing on reality, or is it just fiction?

But, let us examine what can surprise us here. If, indeed, one could easily assume that photography produced fictions, how could such a definition be applied to politics? Would it not rather the sense of the Real and the effort to govern that define politics?

The photograph is merely one event in a sequence that constitutes photography and which always involves a trinity of the spectator, the photographer and the individual(s)/situation(s) portrayed. And in this trinity relations of partnership, solidarity, and sharing can potentially come into being at the expense of alternate meanings set by the dominant ideology. This is due to inherent characteristics of a photography as it constitutes a proof; an immersion in an experience where the viewer is not involved making the world more available as it is, yet it is not passive, it can arouse conscience because it is always sentimental. (Sontag 1979)

But, photographs are not constructions of reality, they are a specific representation of a specific event of reality framed by the photographer. An image is the “presence of the thing in its absence” as Lechte (2012) put it. At the same time we will be able to say with certainty that what we see is faithful to what was there as it is a re-representation of a past reality. As such, a “Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or o snowflake” (Bazin 1:13) Because of this photography’s ontology, photography can be defined to an extent by a dynamic tension between the particular and the whole, it is, an instant that has the potentiality to change the immanent whereby the world is forced to question itself. I am referring here to the socio-political effects and opportunities arising from that distinctive tension.

Here is when Rancière comes to my mind. As he examines the relationship between art and politics by pointing out that politics and art have similar activities, which is source of an eternal latent conflict between these two forms of expression. The source of this conflict exist in that both create fictions and work with the same subject, the sensitive.

As he further claims, the social and political system is founded on the distribution of the sensible, it is an aesthetic order in a broad sense of the term. In this sense, Rancière points out that, all reality is “a construction of space where the visible, the sayable and doable are linked”, all reality is the process of a fiction, a dominant fiction! In other words, for Rancière establishing the Real is setting the ways of feeling.

So, how does art and politics construct the fiction that configures the world?

The “work of fiction” of art is to dissent: art blurs the homogenous construction of “common sense” and the world that it establishes; it disrupts established meanings, reunites opposites, and expresses what should not be expressed, and so on. The aim is thus, using Rancière’s words, “…to produce rupture in the delicate fabric of perceptions and the dynamics of emotions.”  True “aesthetic rupture”, he claims, brings out a “common sense polemic”, a dissenting and singular sensibility, facing the “common sense” that frame the political fiction.

In this regard, photography has the potentiality of altering the distribution of the sensible. It allows us to project our self toward diverse possibilities, and may even generate a spontaneity of responsibility to the Other as it serves as “evidential force”. However, a photography does not promote understanding, it stimulates a reordering of relationship with the world as it goes beyond the mere making of an “aesthetic judgment” by the spectator.

I will give one random example of a photograph that allow us to “see” the interplay of art and politics in the construction/de-construction of the Real.

The “Napalm Girl Photo”.

A naked girl runs with a group of other children after the accidental napalm bombing of a Vietnamese village (Trang Bang, South Vietnam). The name of this girl is Phan Thi Kim Phuc, and she was shortly taken to the hospital by Ut, the photographer. Thirty percent of Phuc’s body was burned by third-degree burns. This was one of the images that brought the atrocity of the Vietnamese war into the world’s attention. 

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Huynh Cong (Nick) Ut, Trang Bang, Vietnam – Terror of War, 1973

The content of the photograph in itself is very potent. It represent a horrifying image of the Vietnam War, the suffering of children. This suffering is felt so strong, so traumatic that it constitute as the Real, in the Lacanian sense. This is that which resist symbolisation, its inclusion in the world of meaning, in the daily experience of our live.

As we are used to read from left to right, our eyes tend to first lock on the left side of the photography. So, we firstly observe a boy clearly crying in despair, we then see the naked body of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, her face more in pain, and finally the young boy and girl holding hands, as they try to escape from the horror together. Somehow they look as they do not understand the horrible situation that is evolving around them. This sequence and the fact that the subjects are situated in different planes makes us examine the image so that we feel the “hierarchy” of pain:

The fact that this image has been shot in black-and-white constitutes an additional element. It somehow reinforces pain, it makes the naked girl in the centre represent the most shocking and horrific image. The contrast between the soldiers and escaping children, and the whites that highlights the children’s skin also highlight the children’s suffering. Are the soldiers just standing by? Why is this happening?  WHY? The edges of the road give us a hint as they act as lines that begin to converge, they somehow lead our eye to the origin of the horror, reminding the viewer that the reason for these children’s suffering is because of the napalm. Words cannot convey the sensations this photograph produces. As such, a photograph can situate us beyond the “wall of language”.

This was a very polemic photograph for the time, as it was the only picture of such shocking nature from the Vietnam War. “The fact that the photographer captured this moment of napalm bombs being dropped was very important as well, since what made the Vietnam War so contentious, was this use of chemical weapons which would target not just the enemy soldiers, but thousands of innocent civilians.” (McDonnell nd)

As can be seen, the potency of this photograph resides in the way in which it may alter the distribution of the sensible. In some sense, because this photograph made “reality” seemed less real.

For those who like happy “endings” it seems that this particular story, that not has not ended yet, is a happy one. Kim Phuc, became a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador to help victims war and started a foundation with a similar objective. If you are interested in the whole story you will find it HERE

By the way, she is a mother of two sons and is turning 42 this year…

Photography and the transposition of reality.

I have to acknowledge that I have depicted a partial view of the relationship of photography and the political. Consequence, off course, due to that my project in understanding of the ontology of photography is still in process. But, I hope that I have made a case that a photography is not only a mere re-representation but more importantly a transposition of reality as it sets the way of feelings. In that sense, I think a photograph can invoke the real, I put emphasis on invoke as it does it in a partial way. At the end, it is not the “visible” at all which is the essential subject of photography. Bazin in his book The Ontology of the Photographic Image in What is Cinema states: “photography ranks high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely a hallucination that is also a fact”. 

Obviously, I do not mean by this that all images have political consequences, it is the intentionality of the photographer that activates this characteristic in the image. Notwithstanding, from an ontological standpoint a possibility is the very root of existence. It is the mere possibility of unruly politics based on the re-reading and reinterpretation.

By Woody Wong Espejo

References

Bazin, A. and Gray, H. (1960). The ontology of the photographic image. Film Quarterly, 13(4), pp.4—9.

La Grange, A. (2005). Basic critical theory for photographers. 1st ed. Oxford: Elsevier Focal Press.

Lechte, J. (2012). Genealogy and ontology of the Western image and its digital future. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.

McDonnel http://theafricanwriter.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/deconstruct-an-image-napalm-girl/

Sontag, S. (1977). On photography. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Valran, V. (2010) Sergei Podgorkov’s Leningrad photographs. Philosophy of Photography Volume 1 Number 1 doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.89/7 

Politics of the Invisible

Reading Partha Chatterjee’s ‘Politics of the Governed’ turned out to be a very emotional journey for me. It took me back to my beloved Kolkata, my hometown, the place where I grew up and the way in which I saw the city change in the 15 years that I lived there. After reading the article, what was most remarkable for me was to realise the intensely political nature of the major changes that were taken place in the city; political processes which were completely invisible to me. 

Before starting to talk about some of the stories that Chatterjee shares in the article, I want to share about my personal ignorance and oblivion to any political issues while I was growing up. I grew up in one of the most politically charged cities in India with a very active CPI(M) (Communist Party of India, Marxist) in power. But that meant absolutely nothing to me. I never joined any of the Student’s Unions or student protests. The most politically active student’s party – The Students Federation of India (SFI) was a non-reality for me. I did not even know who they were or that these students were operating all around me. Not only was I in oblivion, I was also extensively discouraged, almost shielded from politics. My family had told me from a very young age that I would go to college in Mumbai where the student political engagement was inexistent as opposed to the hugely political Student Union movement that was going on across all the colleges of Kolkata.

At every instance, I was told by everyone around me that ‘politics’ is ‘dirty’ and thus not for ‘us’. ‘Us’ being the urban, educated middle class; superior in comparison to the inferior status of those who engaged in politics.  I would go far enough to say that we were the ‘Bengali Intellectuals’ who had no need to engage in politics but felt the immense need to declare the inferiority of those who ‘had’ to or ‘chose’ to engage in political society; while basking in the superiority of our position in the social strata defined by our estranged relationship with politics.

For ‘Us’, politics was more about headlines in newspapers, frivolous conversations, entertainment over drinks, evening time chats and debates over cups of tea; often a subject of comic relief and ridicule. The evenings would end, the tea would be finished, and our engagement with politics would be over.

 “Refugees, landless labourers, homestead, below poverty line are all demographic categories of governmentality. That is the ground on which they define their claims” (Chatterjee, 2004, p 59)

The Societal boundaries which I grew up in, made me believe that politics was only for the poor, the disadvantaged, the downtrodden, those who needed to avail Government services, subsidies etc These were the people who the political parties came to for vote banks. These were the people affected by changes in political agenda. This is what appeared to be – ‘The politics of the Governed’. Looking back, the only thing that I can assume is that, ‘we’ did not fall into any of these categories. Our lives were not dependent on the ‘claims’ that we were making to the Government. Is that why politics was unnecessary for us? As for ‘these’ people, how they engaged, negotiated and sustained in the political society was of no concern to me. I never gave it a thought. For me it was the ‘Politics of the Invisible.’

 “… claims were political, and they could only be made on political terrain where rules can be stretched, and not on the procedure of law and administrative procedure” (Chatterjee, 2004, p60).

I guess this was the primary reason for the disdain and discouragement that the middle class had for active political engagement.  The space where rules could be bent, stretched and modified was murky ground. Clear cut administrative processes, defined legal boundaries were the rules which governed the middle class ideals we lived our lives by.  We followed the ‘rules’ and behaved like ‘good citizens’ carefully refraining from ‘messy’ situations.

Reading Chatterjee’s article made me realise the impact and important of politics for certain sections of populations whose everyday existence very much depended political connections, changes and negotiations.

While my family shielded me from any kind of political engagement, I could see how politics action was very much inscribed into the visual landscape of the city. Local level politicians, stopping traffic in the middle of a main street, erecting a mic, putting together a few chairs and giving an emotionally charged animated speech was an everyday sight.  

I remember this one instance when, my friend told me about a CPI(M) rally  being held close by, where they were giving out packets of Biriyani ( one my favorite Indian dishes) to entice people to participate. My love for Biriyani and oblivion to consequences made me happily follow my friend to the rally. At the rally, I did not even stop to think about the hugely animated claims that the speakers were making, quietly took my packet of Biriyani and enjoyed a meal with my friends.

However, when I casually shared the story over dinner, I got a scolding from my Dad, who very clearly told me that I was no longer allowed to resort to such cheap activities. I wonder how much of idea of the ‘dirt’ in politics came from the fact that the people who were considered to be the ‘dirt’ of the city were actively engaging in it. Of course it could also be for the overriding corruption that was popular belief for politics in Kolkata. But having realised the continuous and active political engagement certain demarcated groups of people were struggling to face every day, I cannot help but think otherwise.

Going back to Chatterjee’s stories of engagement with political society, I remember two of these instances well as they were happening very much in front of me.  The first was the demolition of the vendors who were occupying the pavements of Gariahat. Gariahat being in an extremely central and prime location in Kolkata, these vendors or ‘hawkers’ were the delight of middle class shopping, as they sold a variety of products at very reasonable prices, always willing to bargain.

When the demolition of Gariahat was taking place, strangely called ‘Operation Sunshine’, we barely spent 2 minutes talking about it. “The pavement stalls were clearly performing an important economic function and providing low level but vital source of livelihood to thousands of people” (Chatterjee, 2004, p61 ). But I remember the only response I got from one of aunts, was “too bad! We used to get some very good bargains there. Where will we go for cheap shopping now?” and that was it. We never thought about what would happen the ‘hawkers?’ Did they even receive the rehabilitation they were promised?

Few years back when I went back to Kolkata, I found a huge mall in the same place where the hawkers used to have their stalls. I then wondered about what happened to them. Where then did they go? What happened to their livelihoods? How did they sustain after the demolition? I felt sad to realise that they were completely invisible to me while they were right in front of me, struggling to engage with political society, struggling to sustain. By the time I actually wanted to know about them, they truly had become invisible. 

The other instance is that of Rajarhat.  Rajarhat was a place where I used to go to get away from the city. The open fields and open roads were the perfect atmosphere for romantic drives, and the serenity, unachievable in the city. I used to enjoy looking at the people working in the fields, the children running around. But when news of Rajarhat being turned into a commercial ‘new town’ was declared, I did not consider how the lives of those people would change. We kept hearing about the farmers’ resettlement and how investors and real estate builders were offering prices ‘beyond expectations’ to these farmers for their land. But the reality was completely unknown. Were there some who were over compensated and some who received nothing?

 “The decisions taken by the governmental authorities, hides the actual negotiations that must have taken place in political society” (Chatterjee, 2004, p 73).

Again, ‘we’ just speculated about the political process of changing Rajarhat over our evening conversation and watched the green fields being turned into a glittering ‘New Town.’ 

When Chatterjee says, “not every population group is able to operate successfully in political society” (2004, p 60), I wonder whether the huge middle class population automatically goes into the ‘successful’ category or we don’t count at all. Or maybe it was just my family who were fortunate or ‘smart’ enough to never have to engage with any kind of political society. As stated by Aristotle, “citizen is someone who has a part in the act of governing and being governed” (Rancière, 2013, p 12). Going by this definition, I should not even count as citizen. Apart from going to a rally purely for free food, I have had absolutely no engagement with politics. But what now? Have we changed? Have I changed? The world of politics and how different groups are continuously engaging and struggling in political society has been opened to me. But nothing has changed. Politics still continues to be the speculation of our evening chats over tea, entertainment over drinks…..

For years, political society around me continued to be invisible. The people who were affected by politics were invisible. However I realise now that Iit was not the ‘Politics of the Governed’ that was invisible to me. It was I who was invisible in the entire process and I continue to be invisible.

References:

Chatterjee, P., 2004. The politics of the governed: reflections on popular politics in most of the world. Columbia University Press.

 Rancière, J., 2013. The politics of aesthetics. A&C Black.

‘Speaking from the Unruliness’

Unruliness: the condition of being disposed to disobedience or indiscipline

(Collins Dictionary)

Wednesday, 14th of May, 9.30 am. It is my second day at Barcelona, Spain, and I am going to occupy a bank.

I am meeting a group of activists in a public square in the city center. On my way, I feel excited but also nervous and uncomfortable. The action is secret – I do not know yet which bank I am going to occupy. All external signals – T-shirts, pins, placards… are hidden. What are we going to do exactly? What are we asking for? What can happen if things do not go ‘well’? What are my red lines about my position?

When I arrive to the meeting point I cannot avoid myself counting, the number of policemen that I can see, I do it almost unconsciously: How many they are? Where they are? Which banks I can see in the square – which one are we occupying???… I could not imagine myself, a quite formal and obedient Spanish woman, doing this some years ago.

 Then I see that group of people, ‘the crowd’. Automatically I feel relax and welcome, protected:

Pau[1]: ‘Good morning! How are you? Thanks for coming. We are very few affected people in this bank and we need all support. Today we are blocking the bank, not occupying it’

Me: ‘Brilliant. Could you explain me the difference between a block and an occupation, please?’

Talking about blocks and occupations as an ordinary way to start the day, we walked to the bank, Novagalicia now I know which one (thankfully I am not a client), to force a negotiation with the management.

The problem behind this action is a very complex one. To put it in very simple words: as a result of the economic crisis and this bank’s operations – among many other reasons –  many Spanish people have lost their houses and savings[2]. Today we-they are defending the rights of 17 affected people who cannot pay their mortgages. They are going to be evicted and still be obliged to pay part of the debt. This is the evil trap of the Spanish law. The activists want to negotiate a real solution. To negotiate they have to make their voice be heard.

 It is 10 am. We arrive to the bank. I remain in a secondary line, after the experienced activists. We all wear normal clothes. The action starts, working as a well-rehearsed performance. First, some people enter to the bank and simulate to be clients. Second, some of them open the bank door and block it. Third, part of the group enters the bank and ‘occupies’ the place. Forth, suddenly and simultaneously, all people inside and outside the bank dress their ‘true colours’: put their activist T-shirts on, unfold the placards, start making noise (sirens, music…), start throwing leaflets and confetti all around the place, shouting ‘Yes it is possible, yes it is possible’. Fifth, 3 activists quickly announce with a megaphone that they form the negotiation commission and want to talk to the bank’s director. In the meantime, outside the whole front building is covered with leaflets, placards and messages.

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‘This bank cheats, defrauds and evicts people from their houses’

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‘We rescue people, not banks – Yes it is possible’

Outside buses, taxis and cars start showing their support, hooting their horns. I cannot believe what I am seeing: 60 people – young, old, Spanish, immigrant, evicted, not evicted – acting in coordination, in apparently unruly ways but with a distinct order inside the disobedience and the chaos, challenging the power of banks and unfair laws, feeling the owners and protagonists of their actions, fighting to be considered and take part in the decisions that affect them.

‘This is the strength of the Platform’, says somebody. ‘The strength of making collective your individual problems, the strength of the fight: if they touch one of us, they touch all of us’.

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Not all of it is exciting. It is hard and painful. ‘I am very nervous, I cannot be inside today’, says Pau. His situation is being negotiated right now.

Their messages and demands are clear: ‘This bank steals and cheats’, ‘This bank evicts people from their houses’, ‘Social rents right now’.

It is 12pm. The commission announces that the negotiation is going well and Marta, one of the affected people, is about to get a social rent. All we clap and celebrate the good news.

I am touched.

What has happened? The Mortgage Victims Platform has happened (PAH, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca[1]). A movement that has changed the dominant discourse in Spain, that has made even ‘formal’ people like me to question and reconsider the concept of justice and democracy that we experience and feel in our daily lives. It makes us question who are the winners and the losers of this economic and inhuman crisis and system. They have made us believe that it is true: we can create new meanings, we can create new spaces. And yes, sometimes ‘contentious issues require contentious forms of mobilisation’[2].

I leave the bank singing:

‘Lo llaman democracia y no lo es’

‘They call it democracy and it is not’

I say good bye:

Me: ‘All the best Pau, see you soon’

He: ‘See you soon! Tomorrow is Thursday? We have action’ (another)

Me: ‘See you then’

I smile. I start to feel how PAH warms and occupy your daily life.

(I must confess: I cannot help worrying about how dirty we leave the place and the damages caused to the building… Is it necessary? How can I reconcile my ruly and unruly dimensions?)

P.S. 7.30pm. I receive a whatsapp: ‘Novagalicia refuses any negotiation under pressure. We decide to occupy the bank indefinitely. We need support. Will you come? Alone you arrive sooner; together we go further’


[1] All names are pseudonyms to protect the activists’ anonymity

SOMA, 13 MAY 2014

Photo: Gündüz Akagündüz/Nar Photos

By now it’s more than 250 miners died in the mine explosion in Turkey. Some reporters say that medics put oxygen masks on dead people in order to prevent rage among families from escalating. It can never be enough.

There are many things to be said about mine conditions in Turkey, about how we refused to sign ILO’s Mine Security Agreement for 19 years, how this Company reduced cost “significantly”, how the ruling party recently declined a proposal from the opposition party for investigation for the same mine. These questions are running on my timeline in facebook now. People are organising a protest tonight. Unions started doing things. One is especially very effective: putting black ribbons on tomorrow!!!

Anyway, the reason I am writing now on this blog is the silent fight I gave at IDS. Since the beginning of classes I tried to include Turkey and countries alike (and there are many) in class discussions. Not because I don’t care about the rest obviously but I knew I would go back to Turkey and would be applying what I learned here in NGOs etc. I often get the look saying “what are you whining about; Turkey is not a poor country”.

Yes, it’s getting richer as well. It’s getting richer while negligence in a mine results in a massacre, a 15 year old boy found dead in that mine or silicosis kills many in a country considered to be a success story in exporting blue jeans.

“Occupy IDS” and Those “Unruly Kids”

“Unruly Politics” – From the very sound of it, it’s clear that this is a fairly different module from a lot of the others we take at IDS. These classes have been a space where regular IDS jargon, seminar style lectures, structured assessments have taken a backseat as we explored how to think critically and differently about theory through discussions on film, music, art, literature, politics and popular culture. In the beginning, we truly didn’t know what was going to happen in this course. But at the end, it became one of the most exciting modules we took at IDS. There were classes that could never stop on time, weekly movie screenings, after-class evening bar sessions and of course our ‘end-of-term group assessment’.

Now, from dutifully reading our module documents, we knew there was a ‘group activity’ involved in the course – though none of us had any ideas on what this could possibly mean. As we are used to by now, we waited for some direction, indications, and pressure from our conveners; but were duly informed that we would have to figure it out on our own. We had no guidelines or directions – all we knew (or rather assumed) was that it had to be Unruly… and we also knew that last year’s Unruly action had caused quite a bit of stir and some trouble for the students and the conveners.

Armed with this information or the lack thereof, we set about engaging with the course and the readings- which have been incredibly rich and complex. In a small reading group, we started engaging deeper with the readings and relating it to anything and everything around us. The readings, reflections and discussions would go on for hours, making us feel like active participants in our own learning process.

This is where the idea for our group activity started developing. Our interests lay in how we had engaged with the IDS community and in what ways we had become a part of it. We started sharing anecdotes, conversations we had had with people, about our experiences both in and out of the classroom. These got more and more animated, and as the stories started flowing and we decided to work on how we had engaged with IDS as a space; and how the institution engaged with us.

Given that time was running out and we were in our last week of term, we also had to think about feasibility and despite the plethora of ideas we had, we had to narrow it down to the ones that we could actually do. We called our project ‘Exploring Incongruencies at IDS’, in which we addressed the ideas of ‘development’, the ‘global south’, ‘multiculturalism’, peer interactions, power relationships and inclusiveness that were being presented here at the Institute of Development Studies and reflect on how these ideas were manifested in the physical and discursive space. In short, we wanted to ask whether IDS really practices what it preaches.

When we took shared our ideas with the rest of the class, we realized that all our ideas fit in neatly together, as they too wanted to highlight what IDS meant as an institution operating in isolation and how we could collectively re-imagine IDS.

“Collective action means coordinating efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs” (Tilly, 2008, 6)

Thus all of the ‘Unruly Kids’ (as we were later branded by our peers and staff) came together for a week of ‘Unruliness’ – an effort to raise some uncomfortable questions of IDS as an institution, and a time for self-reflection. 

In our group, we wanted to use the physical space and the building, and use them to make certain statements. Being extremely familiar with a space, one can become so accustomed to it, to the extent that one no longer notices what the space, the pictures on the wall, the signs say and how they represent the institution.

Our installations from covering the face of the woman on the stairs, creating an IDS Wordle, leaving cynical and humorous messages on the pictures around the halls, personal Valentine messages for everyone all tried to tackle and challenge certain ideas that the institution was reinforcing. While planning our intervention, we were inspired (like many students all around the world) by the literature we were reading on the Occupy movements, realizing the power in those movements. One of the most striking aspects of the Occupy movement, was the fact that it a movement of non-compliance. It refused to make any clear demands and suggestions; it “refuses to describe or define in any detail the world that it wants to create, while showing this world in its actual presence… It renounces the demand that it make specific, practical demands, while opening a space in which innumerable demands can be articulated” ( Mitchell, 2012,10).

Thus over the course of a long (and Unruly) weekend we came into IDS- worked for hours creating the various installations all around the space.

On Monday morning when people walked through the doors of IDS, reactions were mixed. While some looked disturbed, some were curious and some utterly confused. We were thrilled when people started taking photographs of the installations and putting them up on social media. We were very excited, as we went from corridor to corridor to see people reactions and eavesdropping on conversations.

But this initial euphoria at having gotten the reaction we wanted soon disappeared. Within 4 hours, we saw all our installations being taken down, without any explanation, warning or attempts at mediation. Everything happened so fast, that our reactions quickly went from nervous, excited, confused, angry and finally dejected. We took the fact that this was done without any dialogue with us, as a denial of our right to use the space of the institution. This led to discussions amongst us about whether we were members or just consumers of IDS. Did we have any right over the space, and a chance to use it in ways we saw fit?

“But the demand of occupatio is made in the full knowledge that public space is, in fact, pre-occupied by the state and the police, that its pacified and democratic character, apparently open to all, is sustained by the ever-present possibility of violent eviction” ( Mitchell 2012,10).

After the installations were taken down we all met for a group meeting. Our convenors said it was important for all of us to respond to the language of the establishment, pay close attention to the things that are being said, have a critical dialogue about the same and what it said about power relations. We were advised to engage with them and not provoke them further.

“…participants in contentious politics learn how to match performances with local circumstances, to play their own parts within those performances, and to modify performances in the light of their effects” (Tilly, 2008, 18).

While we were trying to decide what our next steps should be something wonderful started happening on social media. Within hours, our peers had responded with statements and support.

“I was amazed in this Monday morning with the art works my peers put around IDS building. I was surprised with the sweet pink love letter at my locker. But half a day later, I saw a man taking down all the nice posters my peers had spent long nights to draw and hang up. It is absolutely a shocking feeling for me. It’s a mixture of sadness, disappointment, frustration and confusion. We are encouraged to challenge all social norms, so could we challenge this IDS system? What is the price of being unruly later in real life? Its not a facility man who takes down your posters on the corridor, it may be guns and cannons. Its not the mental attack that strikes you with the feeling of sadness and frustration, it may be physical attack. Do we dare to be unruly? I can imagine how you guys are feeling, Unruly Politics peers!! If you want to protest, I’m in!”

-Trang, MA Dev (on Facebook)

In all the confusion, we felt that we still hadn’t made our point, and we were adamant that it be made. In addition, the other group still had to showcase the interviews they were working on. Since we had been compelled to negotiate and abide by the rules dictated by the management, we began to think of new ways of getting our message across. We decided to take the whole intervention forward, with the same message but also incorporating the reactions of the management and why they had reacted in the way they did.

“…no two contentious performances mirror each other perfectly. Indeed, they would lose some of their effect if they operated like precision military drill. Participants improvise constantly in two different ways: figuring out how to shape the available routines to communicate claims they are currently pursuing, and responding to other people’s reactions as they make the claims” (Tilly, 2008, 11).

This time we took over the lobby of IDS after taking due ‘permissions’. We worked on pin boards, aware that many of our installations had lost their meaning in their new de-contextualised spaces. However, they had also gained new meaning because of this.  On these new boards, some of the installations were tattered and ripped, and jostling for space with each other. The movie made by our classmates was also played on a loop. Some of us got instruments and started playing music. When people came and walked through the installations, we started a conversation with them, asked them what they thought about the intervention and explained our intentions in organizing this.

It wasn’t the unruly intervention we had planned initially, but it was the unruly intervention that we refused to give up on.

Our reflections and learning on this Unruly intervention have been rich and varied. Aside from the process of initiating and conducting the group work, the response of the management was in retrospect quite amazing. Instead of engaging with us in the way that we had provoked them to, they responded in an almost typical fashion. They made the entire exercise about a group of ‘unruly kids’ who had turned vandals for a day and had violated institutional rules. Their assertion was that the space did not belong to us; we had not taken ‘permission.’ This became the central point of contention; which most people would agree, defeats the purpose of any Unruly intervention.

What the management had done was refused to even acknowledge the questions that the installations had raised and shut down debate before it even started. Unwilling to give up, we were forced to speak with them a language they understand and accept.  When authorities act in a way that shuts down dissent, discourages debate and critical thinking they are actually reinforcing many of the issues we are supposed to be tackling and challenging in the classroom. While a lot of this reaction may have stemmed from ‘baggage’ of what the management had faced from unruly students last year, the institution showed an almost knee-jerk reaction to the intervention. Unruly Politics, while certainly different from other modules, is still a module with a syllabus, teaching outcomes, student body, convenors and assessments that we are graded on. It is part of the curriculum at IDS, one that it offers its students but still refuses to let them engage with it completely, as we experience through the restrictions we had to face in our ‘assessed group work’.

To shut down an exercise that was part of our assessment just because it wasn’t handed in to the teaching office at 4pm, wrapped in a green and blue cover sheet, just shows an amazing level of hypocrisy on the part of the institution.

Our experience with this level of censorship was in some ways used to our advantage. It only managed to sensationalize the event, and soon everyone in IDS was talking about it, sharing pictures and asking each other about the things that they had missed out on seeing. One of the most interesting comments made by one of the fellows at IDS was: ‘you know that an action is effective based on the nature and swiftness of the response’. The point of the intervention was not about making clear-cut demands, about asking for something and offering alternatives and suggestions. Instead, it was to make everyone aware of certain ideas of development, thus provoking them to question their own notions and ideas. There was no conference, or dialogue involved. The physical space of the institution was used to convey the message. When the brick and the wall of a physical space go unnoticed every day, become the main actor or protagonist of the show, it creates a powerful statement.

“The trope of occupation…is it speaks by refusing (for now) to speak; it declares by refusing to declare…” (Mitchell, 2012, 2).

Over all, the unruly politics course challenges many of the dominant discourses of development, and reinforces the necessity of having critical debates, thinking and readings that are subversive. If IDS is in the business of creating development practitioners; then contentious politics should be given more space and emphasis. The unruly action gave us a chance to see how what sometimes appears to be vague and abstract theories can be used practically and how they play out in our lives. We had set out to challenge people’s perceptions, but in the process, we ended up re imagine and changing our own perceptions about the space. Much to our surprise, this intervention helped transform us and altered the way in which we engaged with the institution. Having been able to articulate things which were bothering us throughout the year gave us a sense of satisfaction and feeling of closure with the conflicting emotions. Through the reactions, response, support and sympathy that we got from the Unruly event, we ultimately identified what has been drilled into our heads since the first day of class.

‘Development’ is not just one thing; there are different voices, opinions and issues to be dealt with and understood. Challenging and questioning these from within can then bring about the change we hope to see in development studies and the larger Development paradigm’.

References:

Tilly, C. (2008), “Claims as performance” Contentious Performances. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (2012) ‘Image, Space, Revolution: The Arts of Occupation’, Critical Inquiry 39 (1), 8-32.​

Why now? Why this?

I just finished writing on Kurdish women’s participation in the armed conflict as fighters not only as an ideological choice but also as a protest to oppression they face in an extremely patriarchal society. I have also been thinking of riots, protests and how to make sense of them for a while, I realised that I am more interested in what disturbs us to the point of risking our lives and what disturbs us only in front of a TV or behind the newspaper.

N.Ç, as she first appeared in Turkish newspapers in 2002, was a 13 year old girl from a city in the south east who was raped by 26 people for at least some months. The court ruled after 8 long years that she knew what was happening to her and she had “consent in the sexual relations” she was having with these men who were as old as her father and grandfather.  Among her rapists there were civil servants, a police soldier, an elementary school principal, a technician, shopkeepers, private and public bank personnel, and head of chamber of agriculture of the city.  After years, it was revealed(?) (I translate from newspapers directly) that the girl who had “consent” on having sex with these men had gone through four surgical operations because she could not even sit.

I can’t possibly explain the feeling I had every time I read or think about her and it seems like I do quite often. After the Gezi Protests the feeling took a form which is more like embarrassment, a feeling of failure as a human being, as a woman. Why did we choose to act against the destruction of a park but not a human body? Could it be the kind of “alienation of capitalism, the primacy of things over existence, of commodities over life” Badiou refers to1 that we are also trapped in as protestors while shouting anti-capitalist slogans on streets? I don’t mean to downgrade it, I got my share of pepper gas and I am proud that we finally got out of our comfort zones.  But how did interruption of our right to the city by the government create a rupture but trivialization of an unthinkable damage by jurisdiction received so little rage? And I am measuring the level of rage by its existence on streets not by comments under newspaper columns that suggest useless things like divine retribution or that the rapists should be hung in public or distant and cold comments on passing previous legislations that made these crimes easier.

We couldn’t empathize with her. And perhaps the rapists were too familiar. They were normal men on the streets all around Turkey. They were so many in numbers and so diversified that they almost represented the men around us. But somehow she didn’t represent us.

That’s what puzzles me. The possibility of building a shopping mall on a park that I’d been once or twice in my life like many other people from Istanbul meant that the city became a source of rent for the ruling regime. It was a symbol of something bigger. We were not going to put up with it. I’ve always believed that most of the opposition to AKP was ill-reasoned as it wasn’t emerged because of the extensive power they have gained but because they took that power from us, the secular elite. But the 5 year sentences given to these rapists didn’t mean much for us as her rape didn’t weaken our status as secular citizens of Turkey.

The fact that the court humiliated this little girl by asking her to “show” what happened in the court didn’t humiliate us all together since we were above our bodies, we were political(?). We were political enough to protest the jurisdiction when it comes to the former military men accused of coup attempts (which were undeniable attempts by the way). It turns out that political islam is dangerous when it tells us we can no longer rely on our saviour army for democracy and secularism and when it makes profit on public space instead of us, the former owners of that space. But it is OK when it rapes the rights of non-political citizens in court rooms. What sense does it make to jump from basic human rights to something like right to city?

I was reading a blog post on why the French doesn’t like Chomsky. Anyway, one thing the blogger mentions about the difference is “his critique of the abuse of power in one’s own society”.2 Not quite what she means and he says but got me thinking. Perhaps, a crime is more of a crime when the common enemy/the other/the outsider/the new commits it. Perhaps that’s why anti-Americanism finds more supporters everywhere in the Middle East; liberal/political Islam finds more opponents in Turkey and etc. It looks like we can tolerate incest.    

Badiou, A. and Elliott, G. (2012). The rebirth of history. 1st ed. London: Verso.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2010/06/14/why-the-french-hate-chomsky/

The inexistent, the Homo Sacer of Singapore

What must it feel to stand on the margins of a hectic city street of high-end economic matters and people….stand there dirty…with mud on feet, soot on face and smell from sweat…amidst a deodorized, sanitized, well-groomed, important, busily moving people…who walk past you every day, without noticing, as if you don’t exist, or sometimes stopping only to give you a disdainful look.

What does it feel to be the inexistent, the migrant worker from a ghost village of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or China? To be the one who builds this first class city of Singapore, but nevertheless to remain the Homo Sacer, the one who is banished from the impressive and glitzy city into a state of suspension, where one begins to wonder if he is man or a beast put to work.

How does it feel to be this migrant worker, ‘foreign workers’ as they are called in Singapore. I cannot know, for I was categorized as ‘foreign talent’ instead by the Ministry of Manpower. The English-speaking, University-educated, PPT-making, Excel-sheet-navigating, globe-trotting, dabbling-with-foreign-cuisine sort of ‘foreign talent’ that is rewarded and celebrated by the Singapore state and public opinion (for most parts and on most days). And while I may share the national background, skin colour, language and civilizational history with many of these ‘foreign workers’, our places in the city-state of Singapore could not be more different.

I find it hard not to invoke Ranciere’s (2006) distribution of the sensible here. In Singapore, the way I dressed, looked, spoke, conducted myself, my training and economic class included me in the category of the respectable. Whereas the dark skin, dirty nails, frumpy clothes, stinky boots, bloodshot eyes of the foreign worker continues to exclude him as suspect, illegitimate, maybe even dangerous, but on all accounts not pleasing to the sensibilities of everyday inhabitants of Singapore.  

 “Let us call these people, who are present in the world but absent from its meaning and decisions about its future, the inexistent of the world” (Badiou & Elliott, 2012, pg 56). What are those moments when these migrant workers are rendered inexistent? Could the sense of inexistence be a culmination of the harsh working terms, the living conditions of the crammed dormitories, the low wages or lack of contractual rights? Or could it be that moment when they enter a train or bus, only to find the respectable, perfumed passengers move away, get up and leave the seat next to them empty. Is the moment of inexistence that moment when they see other passengers cover their noses as they stand next to them, or quietly pull their children or girlfriends away from the worker’s threatening presence? At what point does the awareness of sheer powerlessness and displacement descend upon them? Perhaps when they are instructed by the State, by public opinion, by looks and tone of voice of citizens –  Do not think, or feel. Do not look at me. Do not come in my way. Do not stand next to me. Dig that hole, build that structure and go back quietly to that self-contained dormitory of yours on that off-shore island, or next to that cemetery or to the fringes of the city-state…. far from our sight. Know better than to contaminate our lives with your putrid presence and being. Do not protest, for that is illegal; do not raise your voice, else we won’t pay you; do not argue with us, else we will deport you.

Sorry, but am I being a bleeding heart who can’t see a rational point? I may be reminded by some sane-minded people of Singapore – yes, construction work is hard work, but these workers come from places where things are worse, where deprivation is stronger and standard of living is abhorrent. Aren’t the dormitories in Singapore a much better life then? In any case, this is the best Singapore can do. After all, it is a full time job to become a city where 1 out of nearly every 20 citizen is a millionaire[i]. We are much too busy to think about disparities and other such social science-y issues.

With all of this, is it surprising that the inexistent migrant workers broke out into a riot on 8th December 2013 (read news report on the riot here) ? I think – yes and no.

Yes, it is surprising – because they were risking their already fragile situation in Singapore by rioting, knowing all too well that no one will protect them. No one important enough will empathize with foreign vandals, not in this city where law and order sits on the highest pedestal, above humanity and justice.

No, it is not surprising – because what else can an inexistent worker do when he sees one of him being run over by a bus, dead on the spot? What else can result from a moment when he, collectively with others like him, together become fully aware of their inexistence so completely and overpoweringly? For this collective, which was not trained in the language of ‘constructive criticism’ and was told that no one wants to hear them anyway, what else could they do in this moment so that for once they can feel like they count and that they exist, if only for a moment? Was the riot that moment, which Badiou (2012, pg 56) calls “restitution into existence of the inexistent”? Or was it simply and only “an isolated incident arising from unlawful actions of an unruly mob”, as the Prime Minister reminded us  (see here for PM’s statement).

And what of public opinion in the aftermath of the riot? As is characteristic of decent people across the world, their imagination remains captured far more by the apocalyptic threat to their most cherished value of law and order. There was talk, dripping concern for the minor injuries suffered by security personnel and terror felt at the lack of regard for property by the rioters.  As it happens, these matters remain more important than really trying to understand the rage that was felt and expressed that evening.  There were fortunately, some progressive intellectuals, civil society activists and select journalists who ever so tentatively, cautiously, and in meek voices pointed out that perhaps this is a time to think about the condition of this community, living in this highly ranked global city of ours. And as it happens, talk shows, seminars and meetings ensued, and policy discussions were undertaken to ease the situation. And what came of these? A decision to build recreation facilities in isolated self-contained housing centres for the workers far away from decent society, where they can do as they as do, as they please….but far away from where we  work, live and play (read more about this here). The worker must remain Agamben’s Homo Sacer (1998), banished into oblivion…there he can persist as long as he does not interrupt our merrymaking, domestic bliss and orderly living. Anyone can continue to kill this Homo Sacer without repercussions, which today means, anyone can wrong him, insult him, reduce him to inexistence without being called indecent or disrespectable. The police can beat him, the doctor can refuse to see him, the contractor can refuse to pay him (see here) and we can continue to live our good lives, for caring about such things is not what transformed Singapore from a dirty fishing village to one of the top cities in the world. We shall continue to exhibit righteous anger when a worker takes up space on public transport, and we shall continue to laud the authorities for arbitrarily going after destitute workers and fining them $300 dollars for throwing a cigarette butt on the floor, which they shall pay without earning even a minimum wage in the best place to work on earth (see here). The worker must understand his place….for in Singapore we are too busy attracting professionals from the West, who may I remind you, have the legitimate right to drink themselves silly and talk to all Asian girls like they are prostitutes, and cutely think that all prostitutes love being grabbed without warning. The white man can call us ‘stupid locals’, but the worker, he may not sit down to eat lunch under my HDB without incurring my wrath.  

 

 

Afterthought……not to forget, a reaction to the episode is also corporate sponsored kindness from the sky that was bestowed upon suffering workers by Coke….a moment of happiness, to ease the humiliation and feeling of inexistence through a carbonated drink, gifted from the sky through drones (see here for Coke’s kindness)! Not to think that this is a ridiculous feel-good, self promotion on Coke’s part that unproblematizes and depoliticizes the issue beyond recognition…not at all, instead the ‘foreign talent’ from South Asia must squeal on watching the Coke video ‘how nice yaaaa!’. For you see, the South Asian expat in Singapore feels somewhat empathetically for the fate of our fellow countrymen in Singapore…that is for the 30 seconds we may spend thinking about this before getting drunk at a new bar, followed by a hazy night in the dazzling heights of One Altitude club.

References

Rancière, J. (2004). The politics of aesthetics. 1st ed. London: Continuum.

Badiou, A. and Elliott, G. (2012). The rebirth of history. 1st ed. London: Verso.

Agamben, G. and Heller-Roazen, D. (1998). Homo sacer. 1st ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press

 

[i] Wealth Insight, (2013). Nearly 1 in every 20 Singaporeans will be a millionaire by 2017. See http://www.wealthinsight.com/pressrelease/nearly-one-in-every-20-singaporeans-will-be-a-millionaire-by-2017