Category Archives: activism

Unlearning the Origins of Photography

Ariella Azoulay: Imagine that the origins of photography go back to 1492.

What could this mean? First and foremost, that we should unlearn the origins of photography as framed by those who were crowned its inventors and other private and state entrepreneurs, as well as its association with a technology that can be reduced to discrete devices held by individual operators. In The Civil Contract of Photography, I proposed to displace photography’s origins from the realms of technology to the body politic of users and reconstruct from its practices a potential history of photography. My attempt to reconfigure photography was still defined by the assumption that it can be accounted for as a domain apart, and hence situated in the early nineteenth century. In what I’m going to post here in the coming weeks, based on my forthcoming book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, I also question imperial temporality and spatiality and attempt to account for the world in which photography could emerge. It is not about questioning the exact moment of the inception of photography and proposing that it was this optical device or that chemical substance that made it possible. It is about questioning the political formations that made it possible to proclaim — and institutionalize the idea — that certain sets of practices used as part of large-scale campaigns of imperial violence are separate from this violence and unrelated to it, to an extent that they can even account for it from the outside. Let me frame the question directly: How do those who wrote different histories and theories of photography know that it was invented sometime in the early nineteenth century? They — we — received this knowledge from those invested in its promotion. Accounting for photography based on its promoters’ narratives is like accounting for imperial violence on the terms of those who exercised it, claiming that they had discovered a “new world.”

The invention of the New World and the invention of photography are not unrelated.

Suggesting that the origins of photography go back to 1492 is an attempt to undermine the imperial temporality that was imposed at that time, enabling people to believe, experience, and describe interconnected things as if they were separate, each defined by newness. To put it another way, for photography to emerge as a new technology in the late 1830s, the centrality of the imperial rights on which photography was predicated had to be ignored, denied, or sublimated, or in any case pushed into the background and not perceived as constitutive of its operation as a technology.

Foregrounding these rights requires a simultaneous exercise — unlearning the accepted origins of photography and those of the “new world,” their familiar spatial and temporal connotations, which even today are still closely associated with modernity and “the era of discoveries,” and attending instead to the configuration of imperial violence and its manifestation in rights. By imperial violence I refer to the entire enterprise of destroying the existing worlds of signs, activities, and social fabrics and replacing them with a “new world” of objects, classification, laws, technologies, and meanings. In this so-called “new world,” local populations and resources are perceived as problems or solutions, opportunities or obstacles, and are assigned specific roles, places, and functions. Through these processes, existing sets of rights that were integral to each world and inscribed in its material organization are destroyed to allow imperial rights to be imposed.

Among these rights are the right to destroy existing worlds, the right to manufacture a new world in their place, the rights over others whose worlds are destroyed together with the rights they enjoyed in their communities and the right to declare what is new and consequently what is obsolete. The attachment of the meaning “new” to whatever imperialism imposes is constitutive of imperial violence: it turns opposition to its actions, inventions, and the distribution of rights into a conservative, primitive, or hopeless “race against time” — i.e., progress — rather than as a race against imperialism.

The murder of five thousand Egyptians who struggled against Napoleon’s invasion of their sacred places and the looting of old treasures, which were to be “salvaged” and displayed in Napoleon’s new museum in Paris, is just one example of this. In the imperial histories of new technologies of visualization, both the resistance and the murder of these people are nonexistent, while the depictions of Egypt’s looted treasures, which were rendered in almost photographic detail, establish a benchmark, indicating what photography came to improve.

I’ll come back to this point in my fourth statement, when I’ll discuss the Great March of Return, the march against imperialism and the apparatuses that sought to render obsolete and bury the just claims of the marchers under the “statute of limitations,” negating their attempt to rewind the declaration of a “new” state in their homeland. More here.

Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism

Azoulay can be a challenging photographic theorist, largely because photographs for her are not strictly essential to the study of photography. This decoupling, which she outlined in her last book Civil Imagination, allows for photography to occasion political theory.2 Azoulay builds on this work here, particularly as she develops the camera’s shutter as an imperial operation that instantly “draws three dividing lines: in time (between a before and an after), in space (between who/what is in front of the camera and who/what is behind it), and in the body politic (between those who possess and operate such devices and appropriate and accumulate their product and those whose countenance, resources, or labor are extracted)” (5). To unlearn the operation of the imperial shutter is to insist on seeing past violences resound in the present, the distant “there” in the immediate “here,” and categories of “slave” or “refugee” as necropolitical corollaries of the “citizen.” Azoulay continues to be a provocative media theorist, suggesting that photography has its origins in 1492, the year of Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean. In Potential History, however, the author considerably broadens her scope beyond photography to consider and critique art and its institutions: the work of art becomes “a synecdoche of imperial power”, the museum is founded upon looting, and the knowledge it generates is the basis of sustained violence. More here.

‘Free speech has never been freer’: Pankaj Mishra and Viet Thanh Nguyen in conversation

Pankaj Mishra: Black Lives Matter has forced a long overdue re-examination, from the perspectives of history’s long-term losers, of everything, not only entrenched political and economic inequities but also the imbalances of intellectual and artistic life. But there is a very long way to go. Your recent article on Spike Lee’s new film about African-American soldiers in Vietnam [Da 5 Bloods] was instructive in this regard. Here is a celebrated African American film-maker, the cinematic biographer of Malcolm X, succumbing to American cliches about the Vietnamese, and non-white foreigners in general.

I am reminded, too, of a prize-winning writer who recently claimed in a tweet that African Americans were “fighting for democracy abroad”. Contrast this casual euphemising of American violence in multiple countries to Muhammad Ali’s principled refusal to join the assault on Vietnam. Such naive Americanism is striking. In the past African American leaders and artists, from WEB Du Bois to Nina Simone, simply assumed solidarity with peoples elsewhere; they could see that the plights of the long-term victims of slave society and the societies despoiled by racial-ethnic supremacism were inseparably linked. What do you think happened to sunder that connection?

[…] I see the opposition to BLM’s demand for root-and-branch change as deeply entrenched, among liberals as well as white supremacists. Take, for instance, the insidious Harper’s letter, which complains about something usually called “cancel culture” in the midst of the most devastating global crisis since the second world war and massive protests against racism that you rightly call transformative.

You’ll remember that King identified the peddler of “moderation” as the bigger obstacle to social justice than white supremacists. The letter is an example of how elites rush to occupy the moral high ground when their authority as arbiters of intellectual and political life is challenged from both the left and the right. The letter was organised by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a writer much liked by self-proclaimed centrists and moderates as well as rightwingers for his belief that the “root problem in black life” in America is an “intangible smallness of mind” and “moral childishness and sheepish conformity”.

Shouting that “free speech” is in danger has become one way to promote yourself as a custodian of “classical liberalism”, and to accrue some moral and intellectual glamour. The problem for this rich, powerful, but deeply insecure minority is that free speech has never been freer for most people on this planet. More here.

AOC’s speech on misogyny and feminist solidarity

AOC’s speech on widespread, normalized misogyny is masterful. I’m not surprised. She’s one of the smartest people in American politics. The fact that she’s a Brown woman, a Latina, deepens the dehumanization and othering that men like Ted Yoho feel entitled to articulate and enact. The fact that she had been lifting the voices of the poor and unemployed in her district also comes into play. As Ilhan Omar pointed out, when you challenge power, it will inevitably strike back.

Without taking anything away from AOC’s eloquence, it strikes me how the Left’s support for another congresswoman of color was less united or clear-cut. When Ilhan Omar spoke up about money in politics and Palestinian human rights, she was attacked with extraordinary violence. Republican George Buck accused her of working for Qatar and recommended that “we should hang these traitors where they stand.” The president didn’t just tell her to go home, he made up stories about her partying on 9/11. There were calls to expel her from Congress and even “put a bullet in her skull.”

Yet so many on the Left felt divided/confused/reticent about taking a stand against misogyny. It seems like advocating broadly for women is justifiable but advocating for Palestinians (including Palestinian women) is controversial, vulgar. It reminds me of Houria Boutelja’s book “Whites, Jews, and Us” which so offended white sensibilities. Nazia Kazi explicates how Boutelja ‘claims this crudeness as a very marker of her social position: “The dispossessed indigenous person is vulgar. The white dispossessor is refined.” What are civility, vulgarity, and manners in a world shaped enduringly by the brutality of empire?,’ she asks.

Ilhan Omar seems to occupy a similar position. She’s a Black, hijab-wearing Muslim woman, a refugee, a self-assured voice in Congress. She provokes powerful structures on many levels: racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, anti-immigration xenophobia and white nationalism. Zack Beauchamp wrote pointedly on Twitter that dismissing a minority community’s concerns as a ‘smear’ was not ‘a great look.’ Yet here we were on much of the Left, happy to throw her to the wolves.

When I spoke at the Rochester rally in support of the Women’s March in Washington, DC, in 2017, I tried to expand the definition of feminism. I reminded all my sisters that we must continue to support one another, march together shoulder to shoulder, but that we must also be cognizant of and respect our differences. Rather than be maternal towards Black and Brown women, we must fight imperial wars and racist machinations here at home, and meet them where they want to meet, on their own terms. Robin D. G. Kelley explains how solidarity is being able to extend the ‘hard love’ MLK spoke of, across differences, to people we don’t recognize ourselves in.

That is true solidarity, or true sisterhood if you will. It’s hard work.

The violence of Dalit feminist standpoint and Dalit patriarchy

First, if patriarchy within caste is understood as arising from institutionalised endogamy and if it is contingent on the desire to protect private property and the hegemony of the upper-castes, then we also know that there existed no material conditions for Dalit patriarchy to emerge. If you do argue that Dalit patriarchy exists, then what are the material or other conditions that existed among the Dalits (and the Bahujan at large) that gives rise to these kinds of specific patriarchies like Dalit patriarchy? They did not have power, nor land, or property. There were of course some individuals as exceptions who might have had access to property. However, on a larger societal scale, material conditions for emergence of Dalit patriarchy did not exist. More here.

Where is the Art World Left?

During the Artists Space controversy (1979), they seem to have felt that white artists have a first amendment right to express their racism. They saw protest as an act of censorship of the artist’s right to express him- or herself. It did not matter to them that artist of color were “censored” out of the system altogether and could not express themselves on the same platform on the same issues as the white artists. Nor were they bothered that artists of color were excluded from defining themselves in the same arena although white artists could “define” them as subject matter in their work. The white feminists, on the other hand, seem to feel that their concerns are being sidetracked by too much concern for issues such as racism in the artworld. As one woman artist of color said to me, “they [the feminists] have engaged the artworld’s attention, and they fear that to divert to what they feel are not relevant issues would distract from their cause. They do not see it all coming from a common source.” More here.

Neelum Films – Films by Mara Ahmed

Dear friends, after a huge amount of work by Mike Boas and myself, I would like to introduce the updated website for Neelum Films. It includes information about ‘The Injured Body: A Film about Racism in America’ and gorgeous photographs taken by Erica Jae of the powerful women we interviewed. I will continue to transcribe those conversations, share quotes, and keep you posted on the film’s editing and post production. Pls visit us here and support our projects. Check out our new website here.

Solidarity Is Not a Market Exchange: An Interview with Robin D. G. Kelley

Robin D. G. Kelley: And my sister, Makani Themba—who’s an activist, long­time, she’s my older sister—she trained me and raised me. And she’s always looking for opportunities for dialogue, always looking for a way to wage critique that is open and loving, but still critique. Because the ?ip side of this story is what annoys me the most, and that is, whenever I’m giving a talk and people start snapping their ?ngers, you know, they do this thing now [snaps fast], I feel I must have said something wrong!

Because it’s not my job to con?rm what you already know. And that to me is the ?ip side of it. The idea that people want speak­ers or want to read things that con?rm what they know rather than challenge what they know. That’s where I think, if I have edges that show up, that’s what I’m most critical of. Because it’s tied to the opposite. The culture of ad hominem and the culture of hating: the ?ip side of that is con?rmation. Neither of them is dialectical. Hating is banishment. Con?rmation is nothing changes. They’re two sides of the same coin. We’re raised politically to think dialectically. Which is that we need to have that thesis/antithesis constantly. And you cannot separate them; they have to be together, because those contradictions are drivers, they’re not some­thing to be afraid of.

[…] empathy also requires identifying with the person you’re em­pathizing with. And sometimes you only identify with those whom you recognize. That’s a problem because part of solidarity is the people you don’t recognize. The people who you don’t see yourself in. And we’re raised in this particular era of liberal multiculturalism to see ourselves in others. When in fact I tell my students, “Look, not only do you not see yourself in others, but if we’re talking about en­slaved people in the eighteenth century, I’m sorry, none of y’all can know what that means.” We can begin to understand not by simply imposing our own selves but by stepping outside of ourselves and moving into different periods of history. Understanding the constraints and limitations of people’s lives that are not us, as opposed to those who are like us. The fallback is always, “Well, if it were me,” or, “I can see how other people feel,” as opposed to, “Let me step outside myself.”

[…] I’m much closer I think to Dr. King in this when he talks about what agape actually means. The constant struggle to create community. Constant struggle! You can’t stop ?ghting. And creat­ing community means creating community with those you don’t like. And people who don’t like you. And trying to ?gure how to move forward to something better. Not to the point of, as King would put it, sentimental love. But a hard love, a hard love that’s in struggle. I can’t think of another path to go; it’s inconceivable to me. More here.

An open letter from Guantanamo Bay

one of obama’s campaign promises was that he would close guantanamo, america’s detention camp/torture center. more than a decade later, it’s still open. and there are still people there.

‘Three years ago, I was unanimously cleared for release by the six federal intelligence agencies charged with keeping the USA safe. They concluded I was “no threat to the U.S. or its coalition allies”—as I have said all along. But then, before I could be sent home to Morocco, Donald Trump was elected with a promise that there would be “no further releases from Gitmo”. The time since I was cleared has been the hardest. Before, I experienced the profound isolation of being held in solitary confinement for years, the fear of dying on hunger strike and the helplessness of being force-fed. But there is something uniquely painful about knowing your freedom lies in the hands of one man who will not let you go.’ More here.

The Left Remakes the World: Amna Akbar on Canceling Rent, Defunding Police & Where We Go from Here

Amna Akbar: I want to take a moment to unpack “cancel rent” and “defund the police,” which are two really important demands that organizers and social movements are making across the country. Police and private property are central, defining institutions of life in the United States. We know the centrality of police to local budgets now, and the immense power that they have and their sprawling scale, because it has been on spectacular display for the last two months, since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.

But it might be worth taking a moment to talk about private property, which is also everywhere and structures our everyday lives, but is arguably a bit more subterranean in how it does. Private property is the basis of our legal regime. It’s a settler regime, a capitalist regime, a racial regime. It creates these relationships where some people own property and most people don’t. And if you don’t own property, you have to pay for it. This is pretty weird, if you think about it. We are human. We have physical bodies. We need space to exist, to sleep, to eat, to take care of one another. But we live in a society where you need to pay for space to live. The private property regime then creates a direct contradiction with meeting people’s needs.

And so, both police and private property are rooted in the histories of enslavement and conquest. They are not systems rooted in collective care and social provision. And it’s not as if we have the police over here and private property over there. These are fundamentally interconnected institutions that prop one another up. They are central to the stories, the structures and the relationships that sustain things as they are. And so it might be helpful to think for a moment about the connection between these institutions, because part of what I argued in the piece is kind of this radical imagination coming out of today’s social movements that’s telling interwoven stories about the world that we live in and the world that we must build. More here.

India’s settler colonialism in Kashmir is not starting now, eliminating the natives is a process long underway

‘Perhaps the most significant of all aspects of social, economic, and political life that settler colonialism attacks is memory. The project of memoricide seeks to erase any traces of heritage and culture of the natives to appropriate the history, belongingness, and lineages of resistance. In Palestine, this was sought to be achieved by changing the names of places and sites resulting in a struggle with regard to social memory and rootedness in the land. Koshur words have long been pronounced (and these pronunciations sought to be made default) in faux Hindi and English. Calling Islamb?d (the district south of Srinagar) by its name instead of “Anantnag,” as the Indian state would have you call it, has subjected people to beatings and abuse. Post de-operationalisation of Article 370, where Urdu used to be the official language there were suddenly concerns that it might not remain so. This belief was strengthened when the advisor to the governor said, “All special provisions have been thrown into the dustbin of history where they always belonged.”‘ More here.

On impasse and hypocrisy

Nazia Kazi: Houria Bouteldja’s book is a takedown of white supremacy in its cultural, economic, and political forms. Yet the white supremacy that Bouteldja demystifies is not an objective category but a relational one.

She herself is delicately positioned not as part of the global south, but above it. “To the third world,” she writes, “we are white.” Her “crime,” as she calls it, is buffered by “the IMF, NATO, multinationals, the banking system . . . Between me and my crime, there is my father’s sweat and salary, social welfare, paid leave, labor laws . . . my passport.” She, too, is complicit, then, “in the exploitation of the South.”

As such, her work serves as a challenge to the very conception of white supremacy, a rebuke to those who sloppily invoke the term “person of color” without attending to the nuances of global geopolitics or regional inequality. Whiteness and blackness only exist in their relation to one another and to processes of capitalist exploitation and imperialist violence.

[…] Bouteldja’s book caused a maelstrom because it was unapologetic, marked with none of the lilting softness demanded of us when we speak about race, marked with no quarter for white fragility nor concern for whom it might offend. She claims this crudeness as a very marker of her social position: “The dispossessed indigenous person is vulgar. The white dispossessor is refined.” What are civility, vulgarity, and manners in a world shaped enduringly by the brutality of empire? “Many genocides have been glorified around dinner tables adorned with forks and knives made from actual silver,” writes Steven Salaita, “without a single inappropriate speech act having occurred.”

Indeed, in an uneasy twist, Bouteldja’s decolonial stance means she will not even bother to salvage feminism. (Decolonial feminism, perhaps, but that too with reservations.) “Reproaching us for not being feminist is like reproaching the poor person for not eating caviar,” she says, for feminism “would always be contained within the framework of liberal democracies, founded on the idea of the quality of citizens, and in which white women obtained rights because of their own struggles but also thanks to the Imperial domination.” More here.

Polynesians steering by the stars met Native Americans long before Europeans arrived

‘By about 1200 C.E., Polynesians were masters of oceanic exploration, roaming 7000 kilometers across the Pacific Ocean in outrigger canoes. Guided by subtle changes of wind and waves, the paths of migrating birds, bursts of light from bioluminescent plankton, and the position of the stars, they reached and settled islands from New Zealand to Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, the closest Polynesian island to South America. So it’s natural to wonder: Did these world-class explorers make it the last 3800 kilometers to South America? A genomic study of more than 800 modern Polynesians and Native Americans suggests they did.‘ More here.