Category Archives: Essays

Monumental Woes

Unite the Right rally attendees. Picture taken by author.

No matter how ready you think you are to see an actual Klansman, you aren’t. Not that the Klansman is easy to see. Standing on tiptoe several rows back in the crowd, I can glimpse some of the white robe, which is more than enough for me. Someone else tells me that when she got close enough to see she began to cry. It sounds dramatic, she adds, apologetically.

The Klansmen—around fifty of them—are here in Charlottesville on an early July Saturday to protest the imminent removal of statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and the renaming of the respective parks that contained them from Lee to Emancipation and from Jackson to Justice.

For them, this event is a sign of their decline. Back in 1921, a few months before the statue of Jackson that’s overlooking this whole affair was unveiled, the local paper proudly announced that “the fiery cross, symbolic of the Isvisible [sic] Empire and of the unconquerable blood of America, cast an eerie sheen upon a legion of white robed Virginians as they stood upon hallowed ground and renewed the faith of their fathers.… The Ku Klux Klan has been organized in this city.” Their members were, as the article says, “Charlottesville’s leading business and professional men.”

But what is the Klan now? An image of itself, surely. These people aren’t community leaders by any stretch. At first glance, the entire struggle now is over images: statues, white hoods, and Confederate flags. Removing the statues is as symbolic as keeping them—a gesture toward Charlottesville’s black population that seems to fall just short of actual material aid. (In fact, though it hasn’t dominated the news, the city has also passed an equity package, which, among other things, has dedicated around four million dollars to developing the African American Heritage Center, public housing, and educational opportunities.)

Still, there’s an undeniable electric shock that comes from seeing a Klansman; the image has power. There’s something real here, you think. Those white robes still have power.

There’s something real here was precisely what I didn’t think about a month later, when I first started watching a live video of Unite the Right ralliers preparing to march across UVA grounds with torches. The Unite the Right is here, like the Klan, to protest the removal of the monuments, and to agitate for “white rights.”

If anything, I expected one of the fidgeting young men—maybe the one with a tiny swastika pin on his polo shirt—to ask himself, “What am I doing here?” and take off. The situation is undeniably comic. But as they continue to march with their risibly misappropriated bamboo Tiki torches chanting, “You will not replace us” (and, sometimes, “Jews will not replace us”), they quickly become less funny. When they surround the woman who is recording the video I’m watching and my screen goes black, they’re not funny at all.

The next day, many of the Unite the Right ralliers show up at Emancipation Park carrying little wooden shields. I snap a picture of one man with a shield that says DEUS VULT in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other. When the rally is ordered to disperse practically before it can even start, one rally attendee begins to yell at white counter-protestors: “Y’all are all hypocrites!” He makes eye contact with me as he says it. Given the other options on the table, there are worse things.

These people, too, don’t seem altogether real. More dangerous, to my eyes, are the private militia members who have come to the rally heavily armed and looking ready for combat. They view themselves, as one tells me, as the self-appointed keepers of the peace. But one of the kids behind a wooden shield is James Alex Fields, and in a few hours he’ll ram a car into a crowd of people on Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall, killing one counter-protestor, thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer, and injuring nineteen others. It doesn’t get more real than that. Continue reading

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Terror, Photographed

Two people escape an Oslo office building after the 2011 terrorist attack there; Morten Holm/AFP.

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Terror trades in images—it needs spectators to feed itself. It is commonplace to say that atrocities like the terrorist attacks in Manchester, London, Brussels, or Boston are “unspeakable”—whether to indicate that words are inadequate to describe such an act or that using words in this way is somehow, in itself, a form of violence. While these attacks may be unspeakable, they were most certainly not un-picturable: On the contrary, they generated a great number of images. These images mobilize shock, disbelief and repulsion, as well as gratuitous voyeurism. Becoming prime mediators in interrelationships between the targeted local communities and global audiences, they deploy a visual force that releases the impact of terror to the world at large.

Although piercing, images of terror are becoming more and more disconnected from the context in which they take place—all too often, photographs of mayhem, wounded bystanders, and destroyed buildings could have been taken almost anywhere in the world. No longer novel, photographs of terror now seem to create a sense of déjà vu or anxious anticipation. Many of us—myself included—have projected the photographed scenes against the background of own cities. Still, a few images stand out: Davina Douglass pressing a gauze mask to her face after being rescued in the aftermath of the 2005 London tube bombing; Tarana Akbari in a green tunic screaming in horror just minutes after a 2011 suicide bombing in Kabul; or dazed and bloodied Omran Daqneesh in the back of an Aleppo ambulance after a 2016 airstrike. Is any one of these as indelible as, for example, nine-year-old Kim Phúc running naked and napalmed down a Vietnam highway in 1972? That remains to be seen, but all of these demonstrate the essential qualities of terrorism photographs: their emphatic, graphic reality and unavoidably exploitative nature.

The Intersection of Photography and Terror

Any consideration of the impact of terrorism’s imagery must also examine the entanglement of photography and terror. Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero defines terrorism as an act of violence that destroys any notion of safety, integrity, or distinctiveness for individuals or society as a whole. In fact, she argues in her 2011 book Horrorism that words such as “terrorism” and “war” have become obsolete. Terrorist acts, says Cavarero, whether bombing or stabbing, are as ubiquitous as they are random: Every person, innocent or guilty, armed or defenceless, civilian or soldier, believer or atheist, is a potential target for obliteration. Terror disperses violence from its designated territories (battlefields, camps) into civilian settings (a pop concert, a restaurant, a Christmas fair), making the quotidian into a war zone. As for photographs of terror, Cavarero follows Susan Sontag’s lead in considering such images as the eroticization of horror.

But terror is also the emotional response that the act of violence engenders among bystanders, a mixture of fear, angst, disgust, and disbelief. To respond to terrorism (or horrorism as Cavarero would have it) is to experience a visceral and brutal check to our usually unexamined feelings of personal and public safety, our comfortable integration in the world, our very concept of existence. It is precisely the generation of this affective state among large populations, rather than the death and dismemberment of individuals, that is the ultimate goal of terrorists. From ISIS to white supremacy, terror’s power is in its emotional undoing.

Photographs of terrorist attacks operate to document the results of terror as an act of violence on helpless civilians and to instill a feeling of terror in viewers—viewers often caught unawares by these images and thus unwittingly coerced into a state of anxiety and fear. Further, photographs of terror create a sense of loss of time and place, a de-temporalization as lived experience comes to a halt. We become temporarily paralyzed—a reaction, it should be noted, that is fundamental to the experience of photography itself. Photographs stop a moment in time and arrest our sense of the ongoing movement that characterizes the body and the world around it. What’s more, photography interrupts our sense of interiority, disrupting with its insistence on motionlessness our feeling of being anchored in a temporal world. When the camera captures a moment of violence, it freezes the act of terror, making it unending, even eternal, forever perpetuating our emotional reaction to it.

In the Moment and After

Images of terrorism come in three forms. First, there are images of the immediate aftermath of the attack, civilians—often the most vulnerable, women and children—staggering out of the danger zone, faces bewildered or distorted by anguish, clothing torn and bloody. These victims have seen and experienced the carnage. “In the moment” imagery also includes first responders and aerial shots taken by police helicopters or drones. The latter can be particularly disquieting as they often reveal bodies of the wounded or the dead who may be the attackers themselves. Formalistically, these images tend to be visually arresting: vivid colors, dynamic compositions, chaotic scenes filled with authentic, unstudied human expressions. The element of immediacy and a lack of finish also contribute to a sense of dread. What we can see within the frame is bad enough—what horrors are taking place just out of sight?

Then come the images of mourning, grieving, and commemorating—photographs that invite viewers to become part of the visual script for grief. Streetscapes changed into shrines, a sea of snapshots, handwritten messages, flowers, and teddy bears. There are candlelight vigils and stern police officers patrolling the streets. These photographs offer no grand gestures, no sweeping emotions, no spectacle. Rather, they speak to the more mundane work that terror develops over time, of the personal, political, or cultural effort to make sense of the event and move beyond its senselessness. These images spark solidarity and identification, appealing to the feeling of shared mourning. They also run the risk of trivializing the act of terror and the depth of human response by replacing scenes of violence with those of sentimentality.

Accordingly, we have grown accustomed to visual performances of institutionalized grief: heads of state and high officials—Queen Elizabeth, London mayor Sadiq Khan, former prime minister Theresa May—making somber hospital visits and condemnatory speeches. Following the May 22, 2017, bombing in Manchester of an Ariana Grande concert, there followed a novel expression of performed grief: Grande’s June 4 benefit concert. Except for images of the singer sporting her One Love Manchester sweatshirt (merch available online), photographs of the event look exactly like any one of hundreds of other carefully choreographed and highly lucrative pop star concerts. The visual medium in this instance has brought us quite a distance from an act of terror to scenes of entertainment and capitalism seen through a screen of philanthropy.

The commemorative power of photographs reaches new potency in the world of social media. Twitter and Facebook were deluged with profile images of concertgoers as they looked before they became victims—who can forget the sweet-faced Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old victim, or Georgina Callander, a bespectacled eighteen-year-old who was shown in an older photograph with her arms around Grande’s waist? All of these private images became gateways to lives that would have otherwise remained unknown to us. Rather than being manifest and visible in these images, terror remains stored, contained, releasing an insidious emotional reaction for which we are unprepared. In the social media environment where self-celebratory rhetoric mixes with conflict reporting and funny cat videos, the snapshot portraits of victims became an affective portal for our voracious and indiscriminate quest for media consumption.

In Pursuit of Clickbait

Photographs of terrorist events also have other troubling aspects. More than other forms of photography, portraits seem to reflect the Western bias in the media coverage of terrorist attacks. Victims are presented as precarious and grief-worthy. After the concert bombing, the Greater Manchester Police Twitter account, for example, was transformed into a kind of digital shrine of personal images as a tribute to lost lives. At the same time, private images of the victims of attacks in Kabul and Baghdad, which happened around the same time as the UK attacks, are hardly to be found in the Western media. Occasionally, we do encounter memorable photographs of non-Western child victims (Omran Daqneesh, refugee Aylan Kurdi, or Kim Phúc), but countless others remain invisible and nameless.

In addition, especially since the Manchester bombing, Facebook and Twitter have been filled with images of fake victims, images stolen and posted alongside messages pretending to beg for help in finding “loved ones.” Generating thousands of shares and re-tweets by well-intentioned bystanders, these hoaxes extend the emotional impact of terror by amplifying and confusing the event for no other purpose than sowing chaos and eroding our ability to make meaning from meaninglessness. With the increasing prevalence of trolling and accusations of fake news, the credibility of media imagery grows weaker and the possibility of sensationalism, exploitation and anonymous malice increases. Photographs of terror, loss, and death and the feelings they spark become so much clickbait. These manipulations expose our disenchantment with the medium of photography, once thought to be an unimpeachable source of objectivity and truth.

Photographs of terror remain a powerful tool. More than simply capturing evidence of violence done to people and places, they provide concrete evidence of the unravelling of human identity and communities. Intentionally or not, they also reinforce the concept of violence as a norm, accommodate and expand our appetite for manipulable visual media, and forge affective (or potentially abusive) connections between individuals separated in space and time. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, photographs deepen solidarity and care for one another, but they can also intensify fear and xenophobia, invite voyeurism, and expose vulnerability. They may coerce viewers toward specific narratives, generate unwelcome emotions, manipulate people to spend money, or indoctrinate certain outlooks or ideologies. In a media saturated world, one in which photography flourishes, it is critical to recognize its dynamics, endurance, and significance.

Dr. Marta Zarzycka teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, at the Center of Women and Gender Studies. She is the author of Gendered Tropes in War Photography: Mothers, Mourners, Soldiers (Routledge) and essays on photography in Los Angeles Review of Books, Lens Culture, and Huck Magazine.

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The Groot Gang: Superheroes, Politics, and Art

Image from a film by Louis Feuillade. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Image from a film by Louis Feuillade. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, good guys die by disintegration. They flake apart; their death leaves confetti everywhere. This residue—sparkly, expensive-looking, soon gone—resembles the way the film exists in the memory.

As for the bad guys: They die, as in all Marvel movies, by extreme, cartoonish violence, of the sort one is supposed to find cutely amoral. In this case, it’s a glowing flying space arrow (don’t ask) that a character controls by whistling (don’t ask) and that carves beautiful arabesques on the screen as it disposes many dozens of henchmen. The crowd around me laughed, just as they laughed last year, when Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool killed eleven goons while dodging twelve bullets, or nine years ago, when Robert Downey’s Iron Man flattened those hostage-takers with the shoulder-mounted rockets. Superhero films resemble slasher movies, these days, in the cleverness and dexterity of their kills. In Guardians 2—as in the first film, which featured a space-jailbreak that presumably left hundreds dead—the audience is expected to go along with this violence, and largely does, because of the excellence of the heroes’ repartee. They’re bounty hunters and killers, but they’re cute, and one of them is a tree.

The amoral turn in superhero cinema—you can trace it to Iron Man, with Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990) as a fascinating precursor—is really a turning back. Historians generally attribute the distinction of “first superhero” to Superman, but this requires willful blindness to the great silent crime serials of Louis Feuillade—the Fantomas series (1913–14), Les Vampires (1916)—or their imitators: 1926’s The Bat, based on Mary Roberts Rinehart’s play; Fritz Lang’s Spies (1919). Les Vampires in particular, with its elaborately costumed, endlessly clever, undeniably sexy conspirators, in turn drew on the activities of the Bonnot Gang, an anarchist sect known for expropriating (though they never got around to redistributing) the goods of wealthy Parisians. Just as the first detective was a thief—Eugene Vidocq, a nineteenth-century thief-turned-fence-turned-informer, invented criminology and opened the first private detective agency—the first superheroes were supervillains. Continue reading

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Beyond the Legality of Executive Orders

A young Japanese-American waits to be taken to an assembly center. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A young Japanese American waits to be taken to an assembly center. Via Wikimedia Commons.

This Sunday marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Executive Order 9066. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, the order authorized the secretary of war and military commanders to establish “exclusion zones,” which ultimately led to the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these actions in a series of decisions culminating in Korematsu v. United States.

We are now in the middle of a heated national debate over another executive order: “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” signed by President Donald J. Trump. The two orders are not the same in scope or consequence. But they do bear some similarities. Neither Executive Order 9066 nor Trump’s immigration order singles out a group of people by name. Yet both orders make possible discriminatory action.

As much as I disagree with its substance and symbolism, many of the constitutional arguments raised against Trump’s executive order strike me as unpersuasive. The order does not flagrantly overstep the bounds of executive power as they are currently understood; nor is the purported Establishment Clause challenge as obvious as some commentators have suggested. (I find Michael McConnell’s analysis of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion closest to the mark.)

But whether or not an executive order is constitutional is not the only question that can be raised about it or even necessarily the most important. The actions of our president—particularly those formalized and ritualized as executive orders—have expressive as well as legal consequences. They tell us something about who we are and who we should be as a people. From this perspective, the historical connection to Executive Order 9066 reminds us of the dangers of fear and the human toll that can too easily result from that fear. Continue reading

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Support Your Local Cat Café

Cat Café MoCHA in Japan, photo HIS Travel Agency

Cat Café MoCHA in Japan, photo HIS Travel Agency.

Before visiting Los Angeles a few months ago, I did what I always do when planning a trip to a major city: I made reservations at a cat café. For the uninitiated, cat cafés are small businesses that offer patrons the opportunity to admire and play with domestic cats. The cats come to the cat café from local shelters, and if a guest and a cat hit it off, the cat can be adopted. All the while, guests sip coffee and munch pastries (which usually have to be brought to the café from separate facilities due to health code restrictions on the preparation of food in the presence of animals). Reservations are necessary because having too many humans in the café at the same time could be stressful for the cats.

Cat cafés started in East Asia and have spread to large cities in Europe and the United States. After having previously visited Meow Parlour in New York City and Crumbs & Whiskers in Washington, D.C., I eagerly went to Crumbs & Whiskers’s new Los Angeles café on my first full day in town. Waiting inside was just what awaited me in New York and Washington: a little slice of heaven for a dyed-in-the-fur cat fanatic like myself. Continue reading

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Pericles in Waveland

Cleveland Indians fans bringing goats before 2016 World Series Game 1.  Erik Drost via Flickr.

Cleveland Indians fans bringing goats before 2016 World Series Game 1. Erik Drost via Flickr.

Even as winter finally descends on Chicago, fans of the Cubs are lingering over a November moment frozen in time. As every American was reminded during the World Series, for one hundred and eight years the Chicago Cubs labored under a curse. Then, all of a sudden, the curse broke—with a ball flipped almost casually from a boyishly grinning Kris Bryant to Anthony Rizzo, who deposited it in his back pocket after tallying the final out of those 108 years and winning a World Series.

There’s no such thing as a curse, not even in baseball, and yet we’ve seen three such curses end in the last dozen years: Boston’s curse of the Bambino (1918–2004), the Chicago White Sox’s curse of Shoeless Joe (1917–2005), and finally the Cubs’ curse of the Billy Goat. Each ending was cathartic, the pitcher’s-mound dogpiles amplified by the famous fans, the stories of parents and grandparents who didn’t live to see it, and the accumulated pressure of so many implausible near-misses and narrow escapes. Failure—so grinding and unaccountable that the only way to make sense of it was to borrow the language of witchcraft—undergoes an instantaneous and total reversal. The curse measures the vindication. There may be nothing like it in the world of sports.

Like any dramatic denouement, the ends of these championship droughts are the products of a certain kind of artifice. And it can be an alienating artifice. No American sport inspires the kind of good-bad writing that baseball does, with its hackneyed narratives, its wistfulness that always courts cheapness, its grittiness that skirts kitsch, its philosophy that degrades quickly into mediocre verse–all of it housed within the pure artifice of the game itself. Continue reading

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After the Know-Nothings

Pro-Trump chalk messages at Virginia Commonwealth University. Eli Christman via Flickr.

Pro-Trump chalk messages at Virginia Commonwealth University. Eli Christman via Flickr.

I.

In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party swept New England. They won local offices and gained the statehouse and almost every seat in Massachusetts’s legislature in 1854. They showed strong in Pennsylvania and New York. Many observers thought that the Know-Nothings would win the presidency—and in 1856 they even ran a candidate, former president Millard Fillmore.

And then, they disappeared. Some went back to the Jacksonian Democrats, but many aligned with the new Republican Party which offered a vision of hope and rejected the hateful messages proffered by the Know-Nothings. By 1860, the Republicans would win the presidency with a positive message. The Republicans transformed voters’ rage, hatred, and anger into an optimistic vision for the American future. And it is from their experience that I, too, have hope.

In a previous essay, written as then-candidate Donald Trump was gaining popularity, I argued that we have much to learn from the Know-Nothings. At a time when native-born white Protestants were nervous about their future and thought the political system unresponsive, Know-Nothings channeled those widespread anxieties into hostility toward Catholic immigrants. Know-Nothings in various states barred teaching foreign languages, prohibited state courts from naturalizing aliens, and attempted to limit immigrant voting through literacy tests and longer waiting periods for citizenship. Worst of all, violence broke out between Know-Nothings and their opponents. Continue reading

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The Election Everyone Lost

Locked ballot box used in Carson, North Dakota on October 30, 1940.  U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr.

Locked ballot box used in Carson, North Dakota on October 30, 1940. U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr.

One of the truisms of American politics is that there are winners and losers. For Americans, this binary world of win-or-lose is second nature: It is embedded in our two-party system and ritualized in the structures of our political rhetoric, the spectacle of our public debates, and the signage on our private property.

The reason that it is a truism is that it is mostly true. Every two years, millions of us find ourselves in one of two positions. Some, victorious, cheer in ballrooms as their candidates claim victory and return home invigorated by the fresh hope of democratic change. Others, defeated, gather in similar ballrooms across town to witness the concession of their defeat, and then return home resolved to realize their hopes in days to come.

It is now evident to most of the world that this democratic ritual of triumph and defeat has once again taken place—though in an admittedly dramatic fashion—in the 2016 presidential election. Donald J. Trump won the presidency of the United States, while Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party she represents, lost. But what seems less evident to many of us is the very real sense in which this election represents a departure from the conventions of win-or-lose that have become so familiar: That it is, in fact, an election that everyone lost. Continue reading

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