Category Archives: media

Rising Seas

LOK133SE0043-204x136Doing research for my current book project, I came across an amazing series by the photographer Kadir Van Lohuizen on Sea Level Rise.

At the right is one of his images, this one taken in Bangladesh, where the subsiding delta is combining with typhoons and rising sea levels to imperil millions of farmers and other poor people.

Screen-Shot-2014-06-23-at-4.37.49-PM-888x589Van Lohuizen’s project focuses on the impact of sea level rise in a number of countries around the world, from threatened island nations like Kiribati to abandoned corners of wealthy nations like East Yorkshire in Great Britain.

Kadir Van Lohuizen’s Rising Sea Level project can be viewed online.

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What We Communists Want

Following on my last post concerning the danger of reproducing the dismal logic of contemporary capitalism in representations of uneven development, this morning I began thinking about the question of what we communists want.

well-being-map-gallopPart of the problem in trying to think this question today is that utopian horizons have been smashed and discredited by the patent failures of “really existing” socialism around the world during the last half century. But another strong problem is the way in which capitalism has gotten under our skin and into our minds, defining what is possible.

So, if we’re going to insist that another world is possible, what kind of world do we want it to be?  Certainly not the one we currently inhabit. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been doing a great deal of work on the issue of Well Being. Two key facts they mention: since 1970, the UK’s Gross Domestic Product has doubled, but people’s satisfaction with life has not changed; 81% of Britons believe the government should prioritize creating the greatest happiness rather than the greatest wealth.

The NEF has participated in some important attempts to redefine Well Being on a national and international level, shifting the conversation away from GDP, which, as they point out, can be augmented through increased sales of guns and tobacco just as much as through increased spending on education and child care facilities. The projects of theirs that are worth checking out: Happy Planet Index (the “leading global index of sustainable well being) and the National Accounts of Well Being project.

Part of the problem here is that prescriptions for well being can often come across as pretty banal. NEF’s Five Ways to Well Being thus includes a list of actions that seem pretty obvious:

  • Connect
  • Be Active
  • Take Notice
  • Keep Learning
  • Give

They also seem hopelessly oriented to middle class citizens of affluent, overconsuming nations of the global North. It makes sense on some level to target such hyperconsumptionist subjects since the materialistic values that we Northerners have been coaxed to embrace are at the leading edge of destroying the planet through anthropogenic climate change, and our materialism is being disseminated through the global media as the paradigm to which all developing countries should aspire. We have to shift values in the global North if we are to avert catastrophe.

We also need to dismantle the skein of false desires generated by capitalist culture. This has been a dominant preoccupation of the Left over the last century, from the Frankfurt School intellectuals’ dyspeptic critiques of consumer culture, to Thomas Frank’s more recent discussion of the rise of Right-wing sentiments among the U.S. working class in books like What’s Wrong With Kansas?, to Sara Ahmad’s The Promise of Happiness, which discusses the ways in which the imperative to be happy leads to straightened and oppressive definitions of the self and social being.

Despite, then, the importance of this discussion of alternative definitions of well being in the North, it’s important to simultaneously ask what the question of well being would look like from a global South perspective. A partial answer to this question is given in the Vivir Bien project. Growing out of the insurgent Bolivarian movement in Latin America, the project is explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

An immediate set of demands on the path to well being were articulated at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.  The People’s Agreement crafted at this conference in Bolivia includes the following demands:

  • harmony and balance among all and with all things;
  • complementarity, solidarity, and equality;
  • collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;
  • people in harmony with nature;
  • recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own;
  • elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism;
  • peace among the peoples and with Mother Earth;

I’d be very interested to hear what kinds of other models of well being have been articulated by social movements around the globe in recent years. At the beginning or the end of these lists, of course, should come the abolition of capitalism and its drive to ceaseless accumulation, which is of course at the roots of everyone’s unhappiness as well as the threat of planetary extinction.

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Representing the Landless

images-3Earlier this week I went to see a film in the MOMA New Directors/New Films series. The film was They’ll Come Back, a meditative, beautifully immersive film directed by the Brazilian Marcello Lordello.  The film tells the story of a teenage girl from a wealthy family who is left by the side of a road in the middle of the countryside as a punishment for fighting with her brother. Her parents do not return – we learn later that they are both left in a coma after a car hits them – and the girl, whose name is Cris, is left by herself when her brother hikes off in search of a gas station.

They’ll Come Back follows Cris as she moves from one good Samaritan to the next. She initially is helped by a boy who takes her to stay with his mother and sister, who are squatters on land occupied by other landless families under the leadership of members of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement. The film shows Cris’s disorientation in the rural world inhabited by these people, and traces her gradual return home to the affluent but sterile, reactionary world of city-dwelling bourgeois family. Of course she returns home completely changed.

images-1Lordello’s film offers a gentle critique of the massive inequalities of contemporary Brazilian society. The film’s conceit of following the unformed girl Cris reminded me in some ways of Hollywood’s anti-apartheid films of the 1980s. The assumption behind those films was always that white audiences couldn’t or wouldn’t identify with black actors, so each film had to have a middle class white protagonist, whose eyes are opened to the injustice of apartheid by an increasingly violent train of events. Similarly, They’ll Come Back clearly expects Brazilian audience members to identify with the middle class, extremely white character Cris as she journeys through the worlds of her poorer, darker-skinned compatriots.  What sort of film, I wondered as I sat watching They’ll Come Back, would result if the lens were turned around and a kid from the rural regions of Brazil were suddenly catapulted into the antiseptic elite world into which Cris was born.

This thought set me wondering about representations of the landless. With exceptions such as the Courbet painting at the outset of this post, the Western landscape tradition has tended to represent rural areas as idyllic zones of repose and retreat from the hectic crowds of modern urban life. Sebastiao Salgado’s photograph above offers a far more challenging view of the militancy of landless workers that is clearly influence by the Brazilian context.

Given the forms of accumulation by dispossession that David Harvey analyzes as increasingly characteristic of contemporary capitalism, what kinds of representations of landless people do we find in the media today? They’ll Come Back offers a glancing one, at best. Here’s the film’s trailer; it starts at the end of the film and works back to the beginning. As this clip shows, the MST interlude is a brief one:

A brief search turned up a couple of other films, both documentaries, depicting Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (whose acronym in Portuguese is MST).

History Did Not End is a documentary about the MST directed by the Italian Mario Alemi:

The NGO Other Worlds, which is also behind the Harvesting Justice project, has also done a documentary about MST:

In addition to such visual representations, there’s also the recent important book by Wendy Wolforth, This Land Is Ours Now, which discusses the rise and subsequent crisis of the MST.

We need more fictional or at least creative representations of such organizations. Such representations can offer us a sense of why such movements arise, what keeps them alive, and how they might be linked more effectively to one another.

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The Politics of Climate Change

xin_15212061620171092619063Some good academic work has been coming out on the politics of climate change lately.  Here are a couple:

The latest special issue of the ACME, an online, open access journal of critical geography, is devoted to this topic, and features articles by Erik Swingedouw, Kelvin Mason, and David Featherstone, among others.

The Open Humanities Press, another open access project, has a series of books devoted to Critical Climate Change. Particularly interesting in this regard is Impasses of the Post-Global, which has contributions by a fantastic group of scholars working across a wide variety of genres.

Finally, the most recent issue of American Book Review, which I edited, has some great essays on Post-Apocalyptic Literature. Contributors include Jayna Brown, Brooks Landon, Rob Latham, Tavia Nyong’o, Lee Quinby, Sukhdev Sandhu, and myself.

(Un)happy reading!

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Manufactured Landscapes

The European tradition of landscape painting imagescreated idealized representations of an arcadian world populated by shepherds and nymphs. The evenly distributed planes of sloping land in paintings by artists such as Poussin (one of whose works is featured to the right) created a balanced sense of landscape that reflected an idealized social order. These ordered representations of the land were given form in the ornate geometrical images-1symmetries of Renaissance Italian and French gardens such as those of Versailles, and, later, in the carefully constructed simulacrum of nature found in the gardens of English country houses.

Ironically, Poussin and other landscape artists such as Claude Lorrain created their works shortly before the onset of capitalism broke apart the stable feudal order that tied workers to the land, setting off a series of enclosures that radically dispossessed peasant communities across Europe. Similarly, the apparent self-enclosed order of the English garden was often a product of the brutal landscapes of exploitation that characterized slavery-driven sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Each age, it seems, creates images of the landscape that just as often obscure the underlying social relations that produce nature as they idealize those social relations and the configuration of land produced by them.oil1

What representations of landscape is our epoch creating?

It should not be much of a surprise that some of the most interesting depictions of contemporary landscapes depict a land blasted by industrialization and extreme extraction of various sorts. Edward Burtynsky’s series on Oil is typical in this regard. Burtynsky traces the various stages in the life of oil, from extraction (featured at the right) to the auto plants, flyovers, and fast food joints of Detroit and Los Angeles, to the toxic shipbreaking yards of Bangladesh.

His work is important since oil is such a contradictory substance. It is the lifeblood of US late capitalist culture, and yet is remains thoroughly invisible to most Americans. They see neither its oil2sites of extraction or refinement, and seldom think about the ways in which oil fuels virtually every aspect of life in the US, often at a serious toll of resources and blood for people in other parts of the world.

Other artist-activists have produced work which seeks to make this environmental toll visible. The Nigerian photographer George Osodi, for example, documents the massive environmental and social destruction caused in the Niger delta region of his country in a series of photographs reproduced in a montage here:

Nor are established forms of extraction such as petroleum the only form of manufacturing toxic industrial landscapes. The short photomontage Oil on Lubicon Land by Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation and a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace, describes the impact of oil and gas developments and the recent oil spill in the traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree in northern Alberta:

There are many other artists working today on Manufactured Landscapes. Indeed, this geographical awareness, and the critical, investigative spirit that animates such depictions, could be said to be one of the most important trends in contemporary artwork. A key institution in supporting such work is the Center of Land Use Interpretation, whose website features photomontages every bit as devastating as those I’ve featured in this post.

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Tar Sands Resistance

tar sandsA new documentary chronicles resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would bring oil down from the Alberta tar sands in Canada to refineries and shipment depots in Texas.

Over a year ago, a series of dramatic acts of civil disobedience unfolded in front of the White House to try to convince President Obama to put the breaks on development of the Tar Sands. I was present at those protests and write a piece on the folly extreme extraction.

Since those demonstrations, construction of the pipeline has proceeded in some parts of the US, despite the Obama administration’s vacillation concerning the project. In Texas, protesters have engaged in a courageous campaign against the construction of the pipeline. The new documentary, called Blockadia Rising, chronicles this resistance.  Here’s the film:

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The evil that men do lives after them

caesarYesterday I went to see the film Caesar Must Die, by Paolo and Vittorio Taviana.  Set in a maximum security prison outside Rome called Rebibbia, which famously houses some of the top bosses of the Italian mafia, the film documents a scorching production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by a group of convicts. The film is a chilling meditation on mens’ capacities for violence.

The film is stripped down to bare essentials. We see a snippet of the final production at the outset, but the film quickly segues back to try outs for the play, in which potential actors are asked to identify themselves first as if they are at a border crossing, leaving behind their wives and children, and second as if they are being harshly interrogated. Following this introductory casting, rehearsals unfold, although the border separating rehearsals, the play itself, and the lives of the convicts is consistently blurred.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar offers a harsh lesson about the dramatic danger of unleashing violence, with the cascade of vendettas and military clashes that follow Caesar’s assassination completely undermining Brutus’s idealistic vision in murdering his beloved Caesar.

The power of Caesar Must Die lies in the gravity that comes from employing men who have led violent lives as actors in Shakespeare’s depiction of a politically motivated assassination and the bloodletting that follows. The Taviani brothers’ film hammers home this message by showing us that men such as the actor-convicts of Rebibbia prison are ineluctibly scarred by the violent acts they have committed. The shadows that pass over these actors at moments in the production remind us as viewers that violence does not die, but lives on in these men, scarring their memories, interrupting their voices, and, of course, drastically impoverishing their present-day lives.

At the outset and conclusion of Caesar Must Die, we watch as each of the men whom we come to know in the course of the film is locked into his tiny cell. These somber moments underline the grim toll of violence, but also suggest the importance of art in opening up – however fleetingly – wider vistas of human experience and emotion to the men who enact Shakespeare’s play. A similar unsettling message can be found in This American Life‘s moving portrait of a jailhouse production of the final act of Hamlet. However great the violence committed in the past by such men, these two documentaries suggest, the greater violence lies in their societies’ decision to consign them to a living death behind bars.

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