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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Image of the Body: Ferguson, Agency, and Leftist Appropriation

Photo of Twitter user @eyeFLOODpanties taken by Robert Cohen
I want to center this week's article in a somewhat odd way--around a bibliography. I'm doing this for ethical reasons--as a white person writing about the murder of Michael Brown and the resulting protests and violent, militant police repression of the people of Ferguson, MO, events that are fundamentally a product of racism both systemic and individual, I want to do my best not to co-opt the events for the sake of an abstract academic argument. This is particularly important in the context of the specific ideas I'm going to attempt to grapple with, since I want to talk about issues of agency, the use of images and signs, and the political transformation of people into signifiers. Centering this article upon the bibliography of information I drew upon in writing it is, in part, an attempt to avoid the behaviors I'm trying to call out.

First, for the background details of what's happening in Ferguson, I'd recommend the article Ferguson is Fighting Back from Socialist Worker, which, unlike corporate media outlets, recounts the story from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the militarized police that have been terrorizing a small town for over a week. In particular, it is worth considering this quote from the article:
"Eavesdropping on questions asked of residents by the mainstream media was instructive. Again and again, reporters wanted to know about "looting" and "violence," entirely missing the main point of what was unfolding before them: every resident, if asked, could have told them about the routine police violence they've experienced." --Socialist Worker: Ferguson is Fighting Back
Instructive indeed. That framing is important to the questions I want to consider about the way this is not merely a war waged materially but waged with symbols. This is a battle of words, and corporate media has sided with state terrorism in this battle.

I also want to highlight the ongoing commentary from blogs Gradient Lair and This Is Bobby London, without which I could not have composed this article. In particular, it's worth reading over Bobby London's piece which frames looting not as a random act of greed but an act of political resistance and rebellion (particularly relevant now that we're seeing reports of people breaking into McDonald's in order to get milk to sooth the suffering of civilians who were assaulted by the militarized police with chemical weapons), and three pieces from Gradient Lair, one on avoiding the consumption of black bodies in discourse about events like Ferguson (which I've tried to take to heart here), one on the transformation of black bodies into metaphors for other forms of violence elsewhere in the world, and one on the history of the terrorist/psychological warfare of lynching and the way the treatment of Michael Brown's body fits into that history.

In the interests of contextualization, it's worth taking note of a few other stories about images, image sharing, and the desperate iconoclasm of the militarized police. From Tech Dirt comes a story of a police campaign in Washington to (incorrectly... illegally?) get people to stop filming them with a remarkable statement about responding to smartphones the way they respond to guns; from Z-Net comes a story about Apple's new patent to kill cell phones automatically, because hey, another week, another instance of Apple or Microsoft furthering corporate fascism, and lastly, from Medium, comes an excellent analysis of the way Ferguson represents proof positive of the dangers of a non-neutral Net, as Facebook algorithms systematically sank information about the atrocities being committed against civilians while Twitter sank the #ferguson tag in the US despite it trending globally.

If you want to get involved in pushing back against the militarization of police and the state terrorism on display in Ferguson, here is a list of resources (updated 4:08 Eastern 8/19):

Since I'm adding links, I figure it's worth making a point of mentioning the way in which I'm curating this. I can't vet every one of these donation drives, because I'm honestly not sure how I'd even begin doing so, so that's a limitation I have when I'm posting links. But one thing I can do as a curator of these links is vet the voices being heard. And a great way to make sure you DON'T get included on this list is to post shit about how everything would get better if the left and right would just listen compassionately to one another, or how Obama's hands are tied and he's just doing the best he can politically, or any of that other weak Liberal nonsense. Last I saw, it wasn't the Left lobbing tear gas at civilians. The point here is to boost voices that are drowned out by the corporate media shit show.

With all that said, let's get to the secondary content of this post. Let's talk about the man in the photo at the top of this post, that photo, and its use.

I want to frame this discussion with these three tweets:

The point I want to make in highlighting these, and in highlighting the other analysis above, is to hit back at a notion that I think lurks within leftist discourse on events like Ferguson, and the wider cultural assumption that it's a part of--primarily, that academics explain the manipulation of images and symbols (what Roland Barthes calls "Mythology") while the oppressed experience the effects of the manipulation of signs. In this basic idea, the lower classes, women, people of color, and queers have a limited understanding of the symbols they are surrounded by. They lack agency.

I'm highlighting this stuff because I, along with far more distinguished scholars like Chela Sandoval (whose book The Methodologies of the Oppressed can be read here!), think that's a pretty arrogant, inaccurate perception of events. In Sandoval's reading of culture, the systems that academics like Barthes codified and discussed are simply rigorously defined versions of methodologies already practised by oppressed peoples all over. Being able to signal-switch, manipulate signifiers (i.e. clothes, manners of speech, postures... all sorts of stuff that signifies mythologically--that culturally comes to mean something symbolic beyond itself), and carry out disruptive subversions of the dominant order is, in the work of Sandoval and others, essential to survival.

The photo of eyeFLOODpanties highlights that manipulation of signs in a pretty remarkably obvious way. What we've got here is a shot of a man with pretty incredible dreadlocks tossing a grenade away, according to his twitter, from some kids... while wearing an American flag shirt. I mean, wow. What an image. If I made up that image for a poster it'd seem over the top, yet there it is in living color.

And what's remarkable to me about it is that while this particular man couldn't have known that he'd be lobbing chemical weapons away from innocent children that night... he did make a decision to wear a shirt with the colors of the American flag to a protest where there was both a possibility of violent police repression, and a good possibility that some image of him would be reproduced.

Twitter user @Artimis_J is acknowledging that when she describes him as "practical AND political." Like, this wasn't just Robert Cohen taking a great shot that just "happened" to be a certain way. It wasn't luck; it was practical AND political--a series of choices that he made that resulted in the situation where that picture was possible.

He had agency, not just through his physical act of resistance but through his semiotic act of resistance, using the flag to position the protest a certain way politically.

And other folks expressed that same semiotic agency in different ways as well, such as the tweet up there that compares Sam Wilson as Captain America to eyeFLOODpanties. This is the kind of shit that you folks pay me to do every week! It is literally no different than the kind of points I try to make on a regular god damn basis! The only thing distinguishing us is that I'm using a bunch of theory jargon to explain what these folks are doing already.

I'm not saying any of this to explain it to folks like the people I've already highlighted. Clearly they know their business. And I'm not trying to use this as a way of pumping up the profile of poststructuralism; that'd be kinda crass and I can do that better elsewhere.

The reason I bring this up is because of my frustration with the way leftists or pseudo-leftists downplay this kind of semiotic warfare, either by downplaying its relevancy, by behaving as though it's something only the elite have access to, or by taking it upon themselves to co-opt the activism of others into their own artistic practice as though the transformation into art performs the mythologising work rather than simply translating the work others have already done.

This is particularly heinous when it comes in the form of artists profiting via t-shirt sales and so on off of the images of other oppressed peoples, as we've seen with the transformation of eyeFLOODpanties' image into a commodified  product in remarkably short order (or Shepard Fairey's depoliticizing theft of leftist protest art for his branding campaign, which I've also talked about before on this blog). But I think that's simply the most egregious example of an unethical treatment of protesters and victims of oppression as entities without semiotic and political agency of their own, whose bodies are free for use by leftists for political purposes.

I'm leading into this, then, with a protester driven to action by Michael Brown's murder with the purpose of wrapping around to Michael Brown himself and the way images of his body are similarly reproduced as elements of leftist discourse. It is this issue that Gradient Lair analysed and criticized in the linked posts earlier in this article--the transformation of Michael Brown into an object of white spectacle culture. We can see how the denial of Brown's rights to his own image represent oppression in the reproduction of what the police claim (however dubious those claims are, given that they're dropping from the mouths of child-killing fascists) is footage of Brown allegedly shoplifting. Here, the denial of the Brown family's agency and control over the images of Mike Brown is an act of violence. It is the violent power of images and the stripping of agency that comes with their reproduction that the police so desperately fear.

This all reminds me of a post I made on StIT's sister blog Cyborg Maria last year about Chelsea Manning and the use of her body for leftist political agitation. At the time I wrote this:

The sort of... almost casual suggestion here that if Manning is still stuck in prison, hey, we can build a movement around that so there's an up side... that is disturbing to me, because it suggests that Manning's existence, her presence in prison, is a form of free labor that the Left can draw upon. The part of me that sees myself reflected in Manning recoils from the appropriation of her transgender body for political purposes without her consent, no matter how noble the cause.
The point is, I worry that Manning here is being reduced to a particular kind of body that can serve as a particular kind of ideological standard, and that this reduction is happening in a way that is potentially exploitative--that Manning's "work" as an imprisoned trans woman is producing a convenient tool for the radical left. And that's a situation that I'm not comfortable with.

I think much of this might be applied to Mike Brown. I worry that his body is being used in an exploitative way, not by the protesters who are rightly furious about the violence perpetrated in their community but by a wider leftist public that has no qualms using shock tactics to achieve its ends, and--perhaps more pressingly--by a reactionary corporate media in search of revenue-driving spectacle.

I suppose my point in all this, then, is to just offer a reminder that as Ferguson continues to resist the assault on their community, it behoves us to consider the ethics of the images we reproduce and the way we position the subjects of those images as not blind actors but as people with agency, a political consciousness, and the ability to make their own decisions about how they portray themselves and how they fight back against the mythologised society in which we live. Such recognition of agency is essential when these images are so often adopted, decontextualized, and manipulated further by the corporate media.

Follow for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at Circle me on Google+ at you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. I never knew why the word "OBEY" kept appearing on things before ...


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