The Hidden Rulers of the Internet

I have a complicated relationship with technology. I acknowledge that it’s a useful tool for so many aspects of life and to be honest, I don’t know where I’d be without it. But I’ve never really trusted it, and as it advances year by year I get scared of our dependency on something that the majority of us don’t really fully understand. The internet can give us the power to engage with politics in a whole new way, but what power does it take away from us? And is it really a space for challenging structures of power or is it subject to those very structures?

Our studies have made me realise the way that advances in technology can be used as a tool to be unruly in so many varied ways. I’ve come to understand the power that the smart phone can bring to each of us in a political way. When we discussed photography, I realised how the smart phone gives each of us the power of the journalist. Where media coverage of protests and other unruly actions has previously been dominated by select newspapers, the phone equips us all with a tool to instantly share photographs on social media and frame these in our own ways. Social media also gives us the power to organise riots, with the London riots organised through BBM, the use of twitter in Tahrir Square, and the current use of social media to coordinate political protests in Burundi.

I think our interactions through technology take us back to the heart of the question of who we are as political subjects. The internet can give us the power of anonymity. We can seemingly comment on anything, share anything, without it being instantly obvious who we are outside of the technological realm . As Donna Haraway argues, through communication technologies we have ‘fractured identities’ as we construct multiple interactions. Technology can be an ‘embodiment’ of ourselves rather than something to be demonised and feared (Haraway, 1991). But whilst I think that we can create compound identities through the internet, these compounds still appear to be subjected to complex networks of power relations.

Gaventa's 'power cube'
Gaventa’s ‘power cube’

Last week I was reading John Gaventa’s work on spaces of participation. He uses the model of the ‘power cube’ to consider how spaces were created, on which level they operate, and the visibility of this power (Gaventa, 2006). The internet strikes me as an interesting and unique space for participation because of its many dimensions, which blur the lines of who has created the space and who is in charge. Although I’m sure that coders and hackers might be able to shed more light on the matter, to me it’s not clear who the ‘leader’ is and where the power structures lie. The internet is perhaps a network of constantly evolving spaces, each with their own set of power relations, which often operate on a ‘hidden’ level.

Despite the freedoms that the internet can give us to nurture and explore unruliness, does it really give us as much power as we think? Perhaps, as Zizek says, ‘we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedoms’ (Zizek, 2002). I recently went to a talk by Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, who spoke about the infringement on our civil liberties by government operated surveillance. The complex networks that share our data mean that our ‘embodied’ technological identities created through social network sites are often not as anonymous as we might think. Even without using my smart phone as an unruly tool, I feel violated by this infringement on my privacy in the name of security. When government programmes such as PRISM are gathering data on us, they are enforcing power structures that mostly remain unseen and unconsidered. If we embody technology, then they are violating our bodies.

This can particularly work to undermine created spaces of participation. I recently read an article about surveillance of the internet in China. I’m sure you’re not surprised to learn about extensive internet censorship going on in China, but what surprised me is that censorship appears to focus not on silencing criticism of the government, but on silencing collective expression. Unruliness is monitored and curtailed, and potential spaces of participation are shut down.

So what does the internet offer us in the way of an unruly tool? I think that technology can be a tool for recreating power, but only if you know how to use it without compromising your own civil liberties. How can we trust something unless we understand it? There is evidently a complicated power play in the use of technology. I believe that the internet is revolutionary in its potential as a space for participation and for challenging power structures, but we should also be aware of the power structures that it creates less conspicuously. There is a great deal of ambiguity on whose space it is, how it is controlled, and what rights we have within this space. With the rate at which technology is advancing, it is both exciting and disquieting to think how advances in technology will shape our participation as political subjects in years to come.

Further reading: I found a link (thanks to our beloved internet) to a lot of interesting articles on the subject of social media and politics: Global Protest, Technology, and Social Media

Ritual of Earthly Bodies

Eyes opened up to confide,  there was faith, there was belongingness. Sea shells were deposited unaccompanied on shores and shallow water receded so silently into its origin.

Moist of  sticky sand covered  hues of those bare bodies. Bare bodies that were stripped into their entangled yet unbounded fantasies.  The shapes and images were obscure, yet  bulkiness of the flesh was lucid and untamed.  There was no separation it seemed. The budding civilization connected pulses gravitated in earthly soil.

The resonance of the heart beats could ring across their thudding bodies. Strokes of different layers amalgamated into feelings of pain and pleasure.

Time was lost, waves were subdued in oceans and they both wanted more of the unknown, uncertain and the unreal.

He whispered “If pleasure was unguided, my body is only a occupancy to brim spaces it requires”

She replied “I feel if my body is getting soaked in this pleasure, this fantasy. I have let loose my vanity, my possession to become part of it.

He said “We are creatures of the sand, made out of mud and it is only inevitable we must return to it so to acknowledge its magnificence”

The wind started to bustle rapidly as waves rose from their depth. Few droplets poured onto the bodies and  they knew that nature had summoned them into this ritual.

They cried in  salvation, in melancholy and in freedom. The nostalgia of the past had been surpassed and what they could feel together was real, beautiful and Divine.

The Goddess of Earth has risen and so was her confession to arms of nature

The sun was beating  persistently on the crackled walls of old buildings and melting bodies rambled on the streets like shining armors. There were many shapes and textures, all which were unique and expressive. In being silent they had so much to say and converse with each other.  The unrealized connections in shaking hands,  touching  shoulders or meshing hips in clutter seemed trivial yet very powerful in different ways.  However conditionality for such expression was  of physicality. This notion of physicality was  ceremonial in bodily experience.

As the evening gathered heat of the day onto its arms, in room littered with scattered paintings was he. Puff of smoke exhaled out of his dry lips decorated with his unkempt facial hair  The paintings were of lower abdomens of different forms. However inappropriately the upper body halves were camouflaged with obscure figures of medieval dragons. The room was spacious enough for her to play rusty tunes on un-tuned acoustic guitar. She had slender fingers colored with black nail polish. The guitar pick was fixed in her middle finger and there was continuation between G Major and E Minor Chords.  It was a liminal space of uncertainty yet there was resonance between her earthly tunes and his obscure imageries.

It was erotic, it was smooth. The bare navel flirted with the burning candles and warmth of the aroma poured into her sweat.  She crawled into his veins, and he laced onto her sweat. The symphony began to play and dance of the crawling spider emulated in different moves and turns.  He began to submit and shrink .The brittle veil began to disappear and images weaved lucid colors. Colors that were now beyond mystification.  No more were tunes rusty no more was She a dragon of the medieval times. She was real and so was her emerging aroma.

“Strip me of this comfort, abstain me from this threshold,  as I have no threshold to honor” He said

She smiled in admiration “I could muse in centuries over this stillness, stillness which shakes clouds and feeds rain with the surreal. I could dance in this silence, silence which shatters mountains and melts moments in submission”

Bodies have a conditioning of their Own, they can both create and emulate what they create. Darkness has a light of its own, it spins our imagination and allows us to appropriate what we consider as insensible and unintelligible.

 This prose has been indirectly inspired by Works of  French philosopher George Bataille, Pakistani short story writers Ismat Chugtai and Saadat Hassan Manto.  Their use  of bodily analogies and metaphors had ability to express the unsaid and allowed them to venture into unchartered territories that are part of our daily lives in different ways, yet we feel inhibited to acknowledge their significance.

References 

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminisms and Subversion of Identity, London and New York: Routledge

Ranciere, J., et al (2006) ‘The distribution of the sensible’, in The Politics of Aesthetics, London: Continuum, pp. 7-46.

Vanderwees, Chris (2014) “Complicating Eroticism and the Male Gaze: Feminism and Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye,” Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature. Vol 38 (1), pp 1-17

Could it be…the signs of a rupture?

A BBC notification just popped up on my phone: “Some 400 migrants feared drowned after boat capsized off Libya, survivors tell Save the Children”. (14.04.15). As I write my term paper about how the SDGs offer little potential for “truly transformative change” despite grandiose claims about how the “stars are aligned” and how the SDGs will mark “paradigm shift” (yes it actually says these things) already before they have been formally established, I am having one of those moments where I feel like everything is a bunch of crap and there’s no point.

But, then came Badiou and the Unruly class on ‘the Event, its ruptures, their enfolding and their Residues’ and apparently we are witnessing the Rebirth of History.

Uuh yeah, fire!

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“A paradigm shift is when you ask a question that can only be answered in a new paradigm” Maro put up on a slide in front of us. Indeed the main critique of ‘gender’ in the SDGs is that it continues to be disguised in depoliticized and normalized language so that everyone can agree on never actually challenging the structures that make ‘the masses’ (particularly women and people outside heteronormative identities and sexualities) subordinate.

Despite my cynical view on such development initiatives (safe to say this is a shared unruly view), I want to share my excitement with you about a rupture that I feel may be coming!! I feel like the two new parties that have been established in Denmark within a relative short period of time looks like that ‘unruly excess’ that refuses to be contained, but contains within itself a new political establishment.

I’m not sure Badiou would share this excitement with me, since, he writes about the Spanish indignados that “to demand a ‘real democracy’, as opposed to a bad democracy, does not create any enduring dynamic” (p.97). Furthermore, there has not been an Event; an intensification, contraction or localization in Denmark as seen in Tahrir Square that I can think of. But maybe Tahrir Square, or maybe the undeniable injustice of people drowning in the Mediterranean can somehow make visible the Truth without there being a physical movement?

Maybe because there is already one of the worlds most advanced welfare systems (despite its slow deterioration) and we can take for granted that the people fundamentally agree on having a welfare state we don’t need such a localized event? Maybe I am missing the point, I don’t know, but the people are fed up with politics, with politicians ‘throwing mud at each other’ as we say in Danish.

The oldest of the two parties, The Alternative, already has 2.4% of the votes according to a recent poll. Both parties are founded on a fundamental concern for the current state of democracy, as the Alternative writes in their manifesto the party “is for you who can tell that something has been set in motion. Who can see that something new is starting to replace something old. Another way of looking at democracy, growth, work, responsibility and quality of life.”

The other party, called The National Party, is established by 19-year-old Yahya Hassan, a newly renowned and controversial Danish/Palestinian poet. By reclaiming Danish values and with the slogan “We are Denmark” I think the party acts as an important counterweight to the fascist and racist ‘Danish People’s Party’ claiming to be everything Danish. Could the National Party be like ‘the organization’; the political becoming of the event that ‘is going to challenge the conservative power of the state, guardian of all temporal forms of oppression’? (p.70)

The question remains: “how are we to be faithful to changing the world within the world itself?” (p.67). Again, I really don’t have a clue how that is supposed to happen without the strict theoretical processes that should follow the Event that Badiou describes. But I will allow myself to be optimistic and hope that with the introduction of new parties, new politicians who (to some extent) speak another language than what is spoken in the halls of Christians Borg, and who reclaim what Danish means – a process that is attempting to preserve the characteristics of the Event has been set into motion.

With that, I’d like to ask you all, more generally:

What role does conventional politics play in creating ruptures? Is it possible??

Can we challenge politics by refusing to speak its language and play by its rules? Does this represent unruliness?

Contention is dead. Long live politics

My development journey has been one of seeking justice. Trying to create change, transform society, have impact. To do this, I’ve had to act. So I am an activist. My first activist activity was being involved in the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign in Edinburgh in 2005.

Moreover, I was previously one of those activists that got paid to be an activist and encourage others in their activist activities – namely, speaking out about global inequality and injustice. I was a campaigner for a London based international development organisation which meant that I organised marches like this:

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events like this…

tea time for change

…and stunts like this:

Robinhood Tax stunt in front of European Parliament, Brussels, 25th march 2010 RHT2

And, got to dress up in amazing outfits like this:

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Don’t judge – I was a climate justice superhero.

According to Tilly (2008), politics is by nature contentious. It involves a maker of a claim (me or you), a claim (poverty is unacceptable), and receivers of claims (the government or a mining organisation for example). It involves performances (see above – tick!) and repertories (see above – tick!).

Despite my love for dressing up and even better, being paid for it, I’ve always been a very orderly activist and taken part in very ruly voice-raising. I’ve organised very ruly gatherings of (thousands of) people ahead of large summits that have entailed very proper diplomatic negotiations.

And this is my conclusion – the claims are accurate and justifiable but the repertoires and performances are boring – and entirely institutionalised. A national march I helped organise on climate change was designed as a ‘family-friendly day’.

Where’s the contention in that?

Where in the polity is ‘the challenger’? (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly, 2001)

As for impact, are these ‘ruly’ forms of collective action effective? I would argue no. Quite the opposite, they are sometimes appropriated by the state to support their policy. In other cases, just ignored, as demonstrated by the march on the Iraq war – one of the biggest failures of the UK government to represent their population.

The massive demonstration against war in Iraq, February 2003. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

Part of me, and I probably shouldn’t admit this out loud let alone in writing, has respect for the people, the groups, who are willing to go the extra mile. Those who are willing to be arrested for a cause; die for a cause; know bare life may be the consequence of the cause and choose it nonetheless.

I’m not saying that contentious politics don’t exist entirely in the UK. The London riots, the Occupy movement, memorable stunts like Fathers for Justice climbing Parliament (one of my favourites):

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And, times are changing. According to Badiou, the events of 2011 marked ‘The Rebirth of History’ and for Zikek, 2011 was ‘The Year of Dreaming Dangerously’. We have seen a rise in ‘unruly politics’ across the globe. There is no doubt that every day across the world, people jeopardise their safety in standing up against their oppressors, turning the law on it’s head. Or, shitting on the law, in the case of the new Indian land acquisition bill that’s being pushed through parliament.

But where are the ‘events’, the ‘ruptures’, in the nice, friendly world of development work?

Global poverty… How much do we actually care? What sacrifice are we willing to make for this cause? To what extent is the general (middle class) British population who join these ‘family-friendly’ marches willing to stand up against injustice? And what does the rebellion look like? Living in community, boycotting Amazon, recycling our lecture readings? Is that really enough?

I’m looking for something more. Acts, events, ruptures, that will make a government, an institution, an organisation, a bank, an entire industry, a country, sit up and listen.

I don’t have the solutions or the answers of how we do this… But there is one thing I’m clear on.

If we really care about doing something about poverty, about seeking social justice, we need to find the contention and bring it back into politics.

References:
Tilly, McAdam and Tarrow (2001) Dynamics of Contention, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Tilly, C. (2008) ‘Claims as performances’, in Contentious Performances, Chapter 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Questioning Unruly Politics as a “language of understanding”

Engaging and grappling with Foucault, Badiou, Latour, Rancière and others is a struggle. At least for me. Language, background, interest or just capacity to understand, the fact is that it takes me a lot of time and energy to understand and use their ideas. So when last class I had difficulties to understand our recorded lecture about aesthetics, my mind got lost, and I started to think. It is during this moment of floating consciousness that I wondered why I was doing that to myself. But more seriously, I asked myself why we were thinking of aesthetics? Or more generally, why are we thinking about Unruly Politics? I mean I understand that we want to better understand everything, but is it worth it? I ask this question because as you will see below, I believe that this thinking creates two problems: (1) it increases a gap of communication between the thinkers and the people we want to understand, (2) it provides tools for the powerful to apprehend Unruly modes of action.

Let me first introduce “my” concept of “language of understanding” (I love the idea of developing a concept, feels like being an academic). Basically it means “levels of understanding”, but by using language instead of level I intend to stress the importance of the interaction between different levels of understanding. Levels of understanding are how people understand and see the / their world, things, life in general. We can say that they depend of our education, context, origins and many other factors. When two persons speak a different language, there is a problem of communication. I argue that similarly, when two people speak at a different level, or as we will call it from now on language of understanding, it can create difficulties in communication. Let me give you some examples that I draw from my own experience in order to better support my first argument.

If I look back, I can think about four languages of understanding. The first one is related to where I come from, rural / working class background. It is the language that everyone talks, the one that we use in our everyday life to communicate, to say hi or thank you, to talk about the weather and the neighbours. Pretty basic. The second one comes from my previous work with humanitarian INGOs. It is a language of action, of development, it is about geopolitics and security, about needs and programmes, about our impact on the planet, it is also about wars and suffering. The third one is the one I am presently acquiring while doing my Master at IDS. It is the “academic” language of understanding. It is about deconstructing, un-packing, criticizing, it is about theories, it is about understanding the origin, the departure, the past to make sense of the present, it is about asking questions, why, why, why and sometimes even, why not.

As I said before, when two persons don’t use the same language, they cannot understand each other (we can always use signs, but…you know what I’m talking about). If I speak to my previous colleagues doing humanitarian work about either (1) the historical causes of international development, or (2) expatriates’ collective identity, or even (3) how a rebel group can be interpreted as a political society in Chatterjee’s definition, which is the academic language, they won’t understand me. Indeed, we don’t speak the same language of understanding. And knowing them, they may look at me with big eyes thinking “what the hell are you talking about!”. And imagine (you can’t but try at least) if I use this language at home, their eyes would be even bigger. Indeed, what if I talk to my aunt about how I have used Bourdieu and his concept of Habitus to understand “continuation” of expatriate’s identities. I remember when back home I would try to explain issues I encountered in the humanitarian field. It was difficult to be understood.

With the risk of losing you, and before briefly introducing a fourth language, I want to draw an analogy if it can help to understand what I mean. Racism is high where I come from. Lots of people around me back home are racists in some ways. If I want to talk to them about their racism, I should talk to them about the need to celebrate differences, of culture, origins or traditions, etc. This is the discourse I should have with my peers. But instead, I tell them that we are all humans, all the same. Why do I do that? Because in their language of understanding, which broadly comes from TV, differences are sources of fear. Indeed, black people or Muslims will always be depicted as dangerous, terrorists, and rioters through TV. I then cannot use differences as a way to bring my peers to a more rational position, because they would use it to justify their racism. I then need to use another language of understanding. And I am not being patronizing, it is only about education, context, etc. as I was mentioning earlier.

And here comes a fourth language: Unruly Politics. I can’t really say I’m talking this language, but I’m kind of learning it, bit by bit. It is another level, it is more philosophical, it is about theorizing and deconstructing theories, it is about seeing the invisible and making sense of things that at first sight don’t make any (and even though I share the same mother tongue as the four authors I have listed above, it doesn’t make it easier).

It is with this language of understanding that I argue that we are creating a gap between thinkers and actors. I have just described how it is difficult to talk to each other when you have different languages of understanding. With Unruly Politics, we are adding one more level of difference. A bigger gap between who thinks and the people we are thinking about. In trying to understand Unruly Politics, we explore the concept of Liminality and empowerment gained from these experiences, we make sense of the interplay between hidden and public transcripts, we talk about the aesthetic of spaces, etc. What does this mean for the marginalized, for the one putting their life in danger to fight for their causes? Will these people appreciate this language of understanding? Will they think that experiencing Liminality will empower them when they are going on the streets? Do they occupy spaces because of aesthetic considerations? I’m not sure. This is the sense we are making of it, and it makes sense for us only. In the case of Unruly Politics, when we talk about activism, about changing the world, about revolution, the gap it creates between us and them, even though them can be us, is even more critical.

And I’m coming now to my second argument, which also questions the need, and the risk, of asking these questions. Indeed, in trying to make sense of these events, we run side by side with the powerful against the marginalized that we want to understand. Indeed, by unpacking these “unruly” events and linking them with theories, we are providing keys of understanding to policy makers, politicians, rulers and other powerful. Once provided with the key, they will understand how it works and what it means, they will find solutions, they will not be surprised anymore, they will react, and they will be able to understand the messages behind the events, hence address the impact or even anticipate. They will unveil the hidden transcript of Scott. And we are helping them to do that.

So yes, I’m going back to my first question. Why are we thinking that much, when we know that we are creating gaps between us and them and providing rulers with tools to understand Unruly actions?

PS: If you want to know more about some of my frustrations that could explain the rationale behinds this post, I wrote something about it in my own blog a few weeks ago: https://arnaudpont.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/learning-what-cannot-be-done-in-development/

 

fat and sometimes happy

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It is well known, and the punchline to many jokes, that people in the United States are stupid,war-mongering, love our Coca-Cola and Walmart t-shirts, and (perhaps even worst, and funniest, of all!): we’re fat. Not just fat. Obese.

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We’re so obese that it’s an epidemic. Our obesity epidemic particularly burdens our working class, and it’s spread to the United Kingdom, and all other countries “in which there is significant participation in the global processed-food regime” (Berlant, 766).

It seems that as our flesh grows and expands, our aversion and disdain to fatness grows and expands. This aversion has many justified and self-righteous explanations, mostly related to health and aesthetics.

Amanda FINALZ

There is nothing particularly new about fatness, but what is new is the context of the world that this flesh is living in; the way we view health, responsibility, and epidemics. The poor throughout the contemporary world are not always emaciated, obesity is now another symptom of malnourishment. And what about responsibility? Our appetites, our lack of self control: “one cannot talk about scandals of the appetite – along with food, there’s sex, smoking, shopping, and drinking as sites of moral disapprobation, social policy, and self-medication – without talking about the temporality of the workday, the debt cycle, and consumer practice and fantasy.” The epidemic concept is “inevitably part of an argument about..causality, responsibility, degeneracy” and it also justifies “moralizing against inconvenient human activity” (Berlant, 755).

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Coupling morality and health is toxic: even if you could have averted health problems by simply making “healthier choices” earlier in your life, are you suddenly a person less worthy of dignity and respect?

Is it unruly to be fat and not hate your body? Is it unruly to unapologetically and shamelessly occupy public space with your body? Unruly politics characteristically take forms that are “disruptive of the social order” or “rude”. They also “elicit a response”, and transgress the “social rules of the political game”, with a “preoccupation with social justice” (khanna, 166).

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Tess Holliday is the first fat, short model to be signed to an agency. She is “super short and super fat and breaking all the motherfucking rules” (militant baker) – however, her instagram account receives thousands of intensely hateful comments, including all kinds of vicious threats. Why do people hate happy fat people? Jes at themilitantbaker.com argues that it’s because millions of people spend their lives and money working their asses off to achieve some kind of beauty ideal. Tess Holliday didn’t try to “fix her body”, she publicly says: I’m HAPPY, and succeeded – this is breaking all those social rules.

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Gabi Gregg said, “If there is a fat person on television trying super hard to lose weight, crying about how hard life is, and talking about how they eat to cope etc, then everyone is at home crying and cheering them on. Put that same person in a crop top while they smile, and the pitchforks come out.”

Fat bodies are demonized and degraded. The fat acceptance movement says, “yeah… well, fuck all that.” Being body positive means transforming the control and hatred of your fleshiness to acceptance and love. I think that in this world, it is transgressive to not hate yourself… and, when you can manage it, to even love yourself.

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Unruly Borders

In our first class, we were introduced to the idea of unruliness as a rejection of political language. Politics is framed in an institutionalised language, spoken by authorities to create and sustain power and legitimacy. Unruliness can be seen as the subversion of this language, the creation of a new language that questions the prevailing discourse. Ranciere claims that ‘Politics revolves around what can be seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces’ (Ranciere, 2004). As a governance student I am used to focusing on the institutionalised language, the political ‘rules of the game’ and how these affect politics. An unruly lens helps me to question how people can reject these rules in their engagement with political spaces.

Over the weeks we have looked at how unruly politics can take the form of appropriation – claiming back language, claiming back the body, and claiming back spaces through aesthetics. This led me to question aesthetics as a subversion of political language, and how aesthetics can be used to claim back contentious spaces. Here I consider the contentious space of political and territorial borders by focusing on the West Bank barrier.

The barrier

The border between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank territory is a particularly contentious border as its limits and its political status have been contested for many years. Alongside disputes of whether the West Bank should be part of a Palestinian state or under the control of Israel, Israeli troops have occupied this area and taken control of the disputed border. In 2003, Israelis began to construct the West Bank barrier, a wall surrounding the West Bank territory. It was declared illegal by the International Courts of Justice in 2004, on the grounds that it violates human rights law. Yet eleven years on, the wall continues to be constructed today.

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Biopolitics

The occupation of West Bank by Israeli troops can perhaps be interpreted as biopolitical control of the West Bank Palestinians. Mbembe describes Foucault’s notion of biopower as ‘that domain of life over which power has taken control’ (Mbembe, 2003: 12). West Bank appears to be a ‘state of exception’, where certain Palestinian rights are denied. Although the construction of the wall may increase security in Israel, what civil liberties should be compromised in the name of security? Israeli troops regulate movement across the barrier, restricting Palestinian mobilisation and access to services. Although the Palestinians have been given a degree of autonomy, their lives are restricted by the ID cards allocated to them by the sovereign power of Israel. So what language are the constructors of the barrier speaking? They are speaking a language of biopolitics. The physical presence of the wall speaks as a visual symbol of constraints and control.

Aesthetics

But against this language of authority is the graffiti and artwork that can be found along the wall. The wall has been reclaimed by Banksy, visitors and Palestinians themselves, who have occupied this space in aesthetic form. Mitchell argues that the occupying of space is ‘a demand in its own right… an insistence on being heard’ (Mitchell, 2012: 10). The action of reclaiming this space is unruly, as ‘public space is, in fact, pre-occupied by the state and the police’, and there is the sense that reclaiming this space may provoke a reaction from the troops (Mitchell, 2012: 10).

Artwork which has been added to and annotated by others
Artwork which has been added to and annotated by others

What is interesting about wall art is the conversation it can start. Artwork on a public space transforms it into a canvas, where others can add their own message and interact with the current messages. The graffiti is not one voice but many anonymous contributions to a conversation around the imposed political boundary. The looming presence of the wall speaks a political language of separation, warning those within the West Bank to stay away. The graffiti artwork subverts this language, inviting onlookers to come closer and observe. The wall is transformed from a representational image of Israeli occupation to an aesthetic monument, undermining its very function. This is what Ranciere might consider a reconfiguration of the ‘distribution of the sensible’, as the way politics is experienced in that space is transformed, and there is a power shift in who can create this experience (Ranciere, 2004).

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From oppressive wall to artist’s canvas

Of course, the artwork does not represent all voices. There are those who appear to disagree with this subversion of the language of power through aesthetics. In ‘Against the Wall: The Art of Resistance in Palestine’, Parry claims that some Palestinians disagree with the transformation of the political wall into an aesthetic space (Parry, 2010). Some argue that they disagree with the wall, and do not think it should be beautified as they do not want it there at all. It seems that some don’t want the visual representation of power to be subverted, as they want the language of oppression to be visually evident.

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‘How many layers of paint will it take to tear this wall down?’

Concluding thoughts

Viewing a political boundary as a space for aesthetic conversation can lead us to question our own borders – how are our spaces divided and who has the authority to impose these divisions? What right do we have to contest this? And what language can we speak in opposition? What strikes me about the West Bank barrier is that despite UN opposition, it remains. Perhaps the use of the barrier as a conversational space is doing more to question the authority of the barrier than the political language of the UN. The graffiti is questioning the biopolitical, divisional language of the barrier and turning its function on its head. This shows the different media through which we experience our political realities. Unruliness does not just manifest itself in a large scale protest, but in the everyday way we interact with the political structures around us.

UPDATE: I just rediscovered this great video of parkour in Gaza. Reclaiming the warzone! 

Photo credits:

http://hummusnotwalls.com/2013/04/18/photos-the-wall/

http://www.e-architect.co.uk/israel/west-bank-wall

http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/obamas-shift-from-freezing-settlements-to-drawing-borders-creates-new-problems-for-israel/?_r=0

Re-examining the Holocaust: The Triumph of Humanity over Inhumanity

Re-examining the Holocaust: The Triumph of Humanity over Inhumanity

By Elias Pogany

‘And yet we have not forgotten that we are human beings, not degenerate, primitive creatures … we want to go on living and remain free, creative human beings. This will be the test of our lives. If our life will not be extinguished even beneath the thick layer of ashes that now covers it, this will signify the triumph of humanity over inhumanity’    

– Anonymous Author from Warsaw Ghetto, in short essay entitled Vi a Balhaltener Vasser Kval Fun Unter Der Erd (As a Hidden Spring Beneath the Ground), Quoted in Radavasky, 1987.

Throughout my reading of Agamben and subsequent scholars such as Primo Levi, as well as our group discussions in class, I thought of my own family and what they experienced over the course of the Holocaust. My grandmother, Margit (Grandma Muci), grandfather, Miklós (Grandpa Nick), and great aunt, Klara (Klari), were survivors of this genocide. My grandfather Miklos’ mother, my great-grandmother, Gabriella, perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  While my grandparents and great-grandparents lived in the Nazi-imposed ‘state of exception’, and while Agamben might argue that they were reduced to ‘bare life’, I feel confident that were they still alive today, my grandparents might disagree with him. Though I do not claim to speak for my grandparents, and cannot even begin to fathom the experiences that they endured during the Shoah, I would like to tell you why I feel so confident.

A bit on the theorists

Before I do so, it might be helpful to quickly review some of what Agamben had to say on the state of exception, bare life, and the Musselman. In Homo Sacer, Agemben discusses the distinction between bios, which is political life, or life in society, and zoe, which refers to ‘bare life’ or animal life that is stripped of all political and social meaning. In the modern state, zoe is coming to be increasingly included in calculations and manifestations of sovereign power, which is where politics becomes biopolitics. The extreme example of this convergence is the ‘state of exception’.  In this space, the status quo – juridical law – is suspended, and a blurring occurs between order and chaos, between bios and zoe, which creates a ‘zone of indistinction’. Thereby, the political and social status of one’s life has been stripped, and the remainder is what Agamben calls ‘bare life’.  The individual who has been reduced to this bare life is the target of extreme violence and degradation by the Sovereign, who, by virtue of declaring this ‘state of exception’, is in essence violating the law without actually violating the law.

The Holocaust is often advanced as the paradigmatic example of the state of exception. In the ghettos, concentration camps and death camps, the Nazi state attempted to strip large numbers of human beings of their humanity, and reduce them to bare life. Levi’s concept of the Musselman—the figure who is neither human nor inhuman, neither dead nor alive, neither conscious nor unconscious—resides somewhere in between.  He is the iconographic concentration camp inmate. Instead of a name, the Musselman was reduced to a number, which was forcibly tattooed on his or her forearm or wrist.

bare life

What do I say to all of this?

What do I say to all of this? I say, yes, Hitler and the Nazis were successful in establishing ‘states of exception’, zones populated by Muselmänner—seemingly lifeless, though technically alive, beings. But stopping here doesn’t do justice to the anonymous author in the Warsaw Ghetto whom I quoted at the beginning, who resisted being reduced to bare life and all of the courageous men, women, and children who defiantly refused to give up their humanity.   My grandmother, grandfather, and great-grandmother come to mind. My grandfather served for a year and a half essentially as a slave labourer in the Hungarian Labor Battalions and was later interned in the notorious Bergen-Belson concentration camp in northern Germany. Despite the best efforts of his incarcerators to break him down, starve him, and eradicate his bios, he didn’t completely allow them to. I remember my father showing me a large piece of paper that his father had given him. While in the camp, my grandfather collected soup recipes from his starving fellow inmates and recalled those recipes that his mother had passed down to him and wrote them down—70 in all.  While he may not have been thinking it at the time, I believe that my grandpa was effectively declaring; ‘I am Miklós Pogany, the son of Gabriella Pogany; I am not inmate #xxxx’ and I will eat the most delicious soup someday.’

While born Jewish, Grandpa Nick, his parents and siblings converted to Catholicism, and my grandfather entered Bergen Belsen having been a devout Catholic for over 25 years. While there, he witnessed some fellow prisoners performing a makeshift Passover Seder, when Jews give thanks to God for guiding them out of slavery in Egypt. My grandfather was so moved by this act of defiance, he decided to return to Judaism. In this instance, I think that my grandfather, as well as his fellow prisoners, were resisting the best efforts of the Nazis to strip them of their dignity, humanity, and socio-religious identities. I think the same can be said of my equally devoutly Catholic great-grandmother, Gabriella, who in clutching a crucifix to her breast as she entered the gas chamber refused to surrender that aspect of her bios, her religious identity, which she held so dear.

My Grandma Muci provides another example of the durability and resiliency of the human spirit. When I think of my Grandma Muci, I don’t think of the skeletal, lice-infested, concentration camp inmate weighing 63 pounds, battling tuberculosis in the many months  following her liberation. I think of the kind, compassionate mother who raised my father, aunt, and uncle. I think of the woman who had a special place in her heart for her grandchildren, who, when I would spend the night at her house, would excitedly wake up at the crack of dawn and fix me a bowl of Fruit Loops and milk. I think of the woman who would never miss a chance to take my cousins and me to the mall and spoil us rotten. Overall, I think of the woman who, despite the best efforts of the Nazi regime to abrogate her spirit and capacity for optimism and loving-kindness, not only survived the Holocaust, but thrived and passionately devoted her life to her family and community.

So again, maybe the Nazis did succeed in turning many individuals into complete Muselmänner. But, this characterisation does not do justice to the power of human agency in the face of extreme adversity. It does not do justice to the lived experiences of my grandparents, and the numerous other parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, sons and daughters who rejected the Nazi machine’s forceful attempts to reduce them to bare life, and lived to tell their stories.  In the words of the author from the beginning, ‘This will be the test of our lives’.  So many individuals passed this ‘test’ with flying colours.

liberation

Miklós and Margit with their grandchildren in Budapest, 1992
Miklós and Margit with their grandchildren in Budapest, 1992

 

 

 

Note: I’m going to do a bit of shameless plugging here. My father, Eugene Pogany, wrote a book detailing my family’s experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust. If you are interested in an (unbiasedly) engrossing read, check out In My Brother’s Image: Twin Brothers Separated by Faith After the Holocaust (Penguin 2000).