Friday, May 1, 2009

1-Sabra & Shatila massacre

Image: Still from Waltz with Bashir

On September 14 1982 Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Phalange party and Lebanese president-elect, who is very popular among the Christian Maronites, was assassinated (by Habib Tanious Shartouni, a Maronite). Two days later, Phalangists entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and killed hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians (estimated 800-3500), including children. The Israel military stood guard at the exits and provided flares at night, though they denied knowing about the massacre.

Image: Wedding in Shatila Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon, June 2006
Photo by Golbarg Bashi

Deborah Thornton-Jackson, who was living in Beirut at that time with her Lebanese spouse and two young children, recalled, ‘What will always stick in my memory is of a little boy that had come from the camps, and his little body had no limbs... He was crying for his mother. ... Bulldozers had gone in to bury bodies. They had also bulldozed buildings with people still inside, families still watching television, or having dinner. ... and believe me[,] they hadn't been shot. ... The Phalangists that I spoke to afterwards - they enjoyed doing what they had done. ... Elie [her Lebanese Christian spouse] was terribly angry with me for [going to the hospital to help]. His opinion was to rid Beirut of the "rubbish", as he would put it, of the Palestinian people.’ <>

The leader of the Phalangist forces, Elie Hobeika, was said to have been deeply influenced by the massacre of much of his family and of his fiancée at the Damour massacre (January 1976) by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (estimated 600 people killed), and that massacre was a retaliation for the Karantina Massacre by the Phalangists (estimated 1500 people killed). In 2002 Elie Hobeika was killed by a car bomb attack at his house.

Image: Child killed at Sabra-Shatila massacre

Why revenge? Is violent protest effective[1]? In the long term, short term? Is it important to forgive? Does identity always have to be constituted in relation to what it is not: self/other, my-nationality/not-my-nationality, my family/not-my-family, not-heterosexual/heterosexual, my-race/not-my-race, non-human-animal/human-animal, and so on. On identity, Derrida writes[2]:

What is identity, this concept of which the transparent identity to itself is always dogmatically presupposed by so many debates on monoculturalism or multiculturalism, nationality, citizenship, and belonging, in general? And before the identity of the subject, what is
ipseity? The latter is not reducible to an abstract capacity to say "I," which it will always have preceded. Perhaps it signifies, in the first place, the power of an "I can," which is more originary than the "I" in a chain where the "pse" of ipse no longer allows itself to be dissociated from power ... master and sovereignty.

On this Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says that 'the ethnos is already self-divided, and ... ipseity or self-sameness has something in common with the despot. For her, '[i]dentity politics is neither smart nor good'. Her work 'goes rather toward the other'.

[1] Hannah Arendt analyses the effects of violent action in "Reflections on Violence" <>. More of her writings on this subject can be found in: On Violence. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
[2] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005.

2-I Am Milica Tomic

Image: Video still from Charim Galerie

The connection between nationalism and political violence is made by the Serbian artist Milica Tomic. In her video I Am Milica Tomic (1988-89), she stands calmly in front of the viewer in a white shift, introduces herself by name in different languages and then claims the corresponding nationality (“I am Milica Tomic. I am English.”, “Ich bin Milica Tomic. Ich bin Deutsch” etc.). With each statement, a new wound or bloody welt appears in her flesh.[3]

[3]Princenthal, Nancy. "Feminism Unbound". Art in America. NY: June/July 2007.

3-Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's 'planetary figure'

A model of identity that is not constituted in relation to an other is described in Models of the Self[4], in which one does not identify with the individual (or nation, race, gender, class) but with the world. It is variously called the Self (Bhagavad Gita)[5], the greater Other (Emmanuel Levinas), the planetary figure (Spivak). Spivak’s figure is not constituted by borders and imagines oneself as planetary ‘rather than continental, global or worldly’, for ‘[t]he planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it, on loan. ... If we imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents, planetary creatures rather than global entities, alterity remains underived from us; it is not our dialectical negation, it contains us as much as it flings us away. ... what is above and beyond our reach is not continuous with us as it is not, indeed, specifically discontinuous. We must persistently educate ourselves into this peculiar mindset'. This identity is not constituted dualistically in relation to what it is not, its 'dialectical negation'.

[4] Shear, Jonathan (Ed.). Models of the Self. Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2000.
[5] Easwaran, Eknath (Tr.). Bhagavad Gita. Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1985.

4-Candice O'Denver's 'all points of view'

The hegemonic identity that is constituted dualistically in relation to an other is a construct and thus possible to undo. This is described by Candice O’Denver, 'While I consider myself to be an individual, in fact my approach to myself, my circumstances, and others is obscured by habitual points of view — by my upbringing, culture, belief systems and assumptions. ... My identity is not comprised of point of view alone, it is entirely free of point of view yet inclusive of all points of view'[6]. Point of view refers to a particular identification such as 'female' in the gender categorization. Being 'female' describes some of my experiences and behavior but does not define who I am. Gender is a social construct[7]. Other categorizations can similarly be undone.

[6] O’Denver, Candice. “Inquiry One: What has all points of view”. Twelve Inquiries. CA, 2005, workshop.
[7] Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York, NY: Routledge Press, 2004.

5-Visible imaging/representation

How to image this planetary figure? It is challenging: Spivak says that 'I keep feeling that there are connections to be made that I cannot make, that pluralization may allow the imagining of a necessary yet impossible planetarity in ways that neither my reader nor I know yet'[8]. Perhaps it would be useful to first ask: What is at stake? What are these images/representations used for?

Images/representations can be viewed as either private or public (in the Arendtian sense) and as interior, the subject looking out, or exterior, the gaze from outside at the subject (see diagram above).

The private interior image is the combination of image formed at the mirror stage (Lacan) and image formed at the image screen, the locus of mediation of the subject's looking out into the world (in->out) and the gaze from outside at the subject (out->in)[9], which the subject must align herself/himself with in order to act.

The private exterior representation is the hegemonic social code that forms the gaze. It frequently does not resemble the subject's image. An extreme, and hence funny, example is this 'rule' for popular magazine covers: 'Young is better than old, pretty is better than ugly, rich is better than poor, … and nothing is better than the celebrity dead'[10].

Public interior images that one seeks are parents (if that works), role models (for the activities of labor, work, action[11]), icons (e.g. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Obama, religious iconic figures), and 'heroes'.

Public exterior representations are figures of power. The hegemonic representation of the U.S. president – up till the last election – is heterosexual, male, and white (Obama being only partially white was a big deal).

[8] Spivak, 92.
[9] Klein, Richard. “Gaze and Representation”. The Later Lacan: An Introduction. Ed. Veronique Voruz (et al.). New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007.
[10] Stolley, Dick. “Dick Stolley’s mantra”. 20 Apr. 2009 <>.
[11] Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

6-Undoing all constructs

The move from identifying with the individual to identifying with the world/planet involves undoing all constructs, and connecting with others at the level underlying all constructs. For Lacan, the Real, repressed because it is not recognized in the symbolic and imaginary order, comes back to disrupt one's encounter with 'reality'. The effect of that lost but inescapable Real is a lack, a rift, and in that rift desire is born, the desire to close that rift[12]. In Vedic philosophy, that rift can be crossed, the lack resolved, the Real accessed. Crossing the rift, the self gets pulled into the Other/world/whole after which there is no longer any other. This identity is not symbolic or imaginary but post-symbolic, post-imaginary, non-dual.

How to cross this rift? How to access the Real? How to get pulled into the greater Other and identify with the world instead? As this concept tends to be unfamiliar to Eurocentric individualistic thought but embedded in Vedic thought and culture, a description of O’Denver’s experience is given here, 'Point of view is habit only. … Dependence on point of view is due to fear. … There seemed to be some advantage or benefit I was receiving that reenforced my principal points of view. At the same time, this way of being has had significant costs. … I have used the full force of my will and commitment to construct the points of view that had become my belief systems and assumptions. Now I expend the same force in dismantling them. … I ask[ed] myself such questions as: ... For whom gender? What is the story of my gender role? What about me has no gender? For whom identity? How did I come to know the story of my identity? What about me has no identity? For whom name? What about me has no name? ... Who are my parents? What about me has no parents? How was I conceived? What is the I that perceives having been conceived? What and where was I before I was physically conceived? ... What is the human body? What is the human mind? On what is the body and mind based?'[13] These questions, like koans, are not answerable by logic, but intended to create fissures in the symbolic/imaginary order to the Real. This undoing of constructs is experiential, not only intellectual which has a limited effect on behavior as Shakespeare puts it: ‘[i]f [only] to do were as easy as to know what to do…’ (The Merchant of Venice).

[12] Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.
[13] O’Denver, Candice. “Inquiry Four: What about me has no belief systems or assumptions”. Twelve Inquiries.

7-Not-visible representation

For this figure who identifies with the world/planet and not with the individual/self, what is the function of its image/representation? Her/his agentic subject, constituted from the symbolic/ imaginary order, remains — as a use-value for acting in the world — and her/his sphere of concern has expanded from the individual to the world/planet, much like a mother’s sphere of concern expands to her child after it is born. Her/his image, as a use-value for acting, is no longer identified with, as a politician would not identify with her/his media image that s/he is using to win an election (ideally that is). Her/his interior-public image becomes a mirror for others (in the sense of a mediator or therapist).

However if no exterior representation is offered, it would default to the hegemonic representation (i.e. heterosexual, male, white). Thus Spivak, despite objections from her readers that her following representation pluralizes but cannot be read as planetary, offers this oppositional one: 'the self as its othermost and blurring the outlines between that graphic and globalization'[14].

[14] Spivak, 100.

8-Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's pluralistic figure

Spivak stages the 'lineaments of planetary' in Diamela Eltit's text:

Far away in a house abandoned to brotherhood, between April 7 and 8, diamela eltit, assisted by her twin brother, gives birth to a baby girl. The sudaca baby will go up for sale — code name "democratization”.

'Just as socialism at its best would persistently and repeatedly wrench capital away from capitalism,’ she continues, ‘so must the new [cultural work] persistently and repeatedly undermine and undo the definitive tendency of the dominant to appropriate the emergent'.

9-Emily Jacir's Where We Come From

Image: From Emily Jacir's Where We Come From

How does this translate to strategies in art? I am still trying to make that connection; for now I will use it to read a work by Emily Jacir, and hope that someone will make this connection in the future. A strategy for the interior realm would be to undo one's identification within any construct where one is in position of power/dominance (e.g. heterosexual, or the majority race) by rendering it uncanny. In moving permanently to another country with a very different culture from the one I grew up in, my attempts to speak the new culture and adopt its standards, and being able to do so and get accepted only by renouncing my original culture, enabled me to look at my culture from the point of view of the other one, to denaturalize culture to a certain extent, and to identify with the minorities in my home country. A strategy for the exterior realm would be to connect at the level beneath the construct: for the construct of national identity, on the level below, that of the common subjectivity of being human; for the construct of non-human-animal/human-animal, on the level of ones who similarly experience joy and physical pain — to problematize the definition of human[15].

It is the connection made at this level that makes possible and provides the motivation to work towards undoing the construct. In a conflict resolution, it is the initial step of being understood and heard by the other party that opens up the connection between them, of the common experience of being human. It is this connection which enables resentment to be dissolved and provides the motivation of both parties to work synergistically through differences[16].

The punctum[17] of Jacir's Where We Come From[18] (a description of this piece[19]) comes from identifying with the human desires – to see one's family, to place flowers on the grave of one's mother. These are quotidian desires whose fulfillment one takes for granted but are denied to the Palestinians portrayed. This identification is on the level below the construct of national identity, that of being human.

Identification is further sought by having the viewer look from the point of view of the absent Palestinian (a position of power that is granted to most viewers as well as Jacir, who can travel freely with a U.S.-issued passport). The strategy to represent the Palestinians as absent is not only a metaphor for their absence in their home country, but serves to enable the viewer to more easily inhabit their position.

[15] For more on speciesism check out writings by Carol J. Adams.
[16] 'Community Boards of San Francisco Strengthen "Civic Muscles" through Conflict Resolution'. Civic Practices Network (CPN). 20 Apr. 2009 <>. Community Boards's web site is
[17] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1982.
[18] Jacir, Emily. Where We Come From, 2002-2003. 20 Apr. 2009 <>. More images of the piece can be found on this site.
[19] Waxman, Lori. "Picturing Failure". Parachute 115, 2004. Waxman writes affectingly about Jacir's Where We Come From and its strategy of combining photographs with text.

10-Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis

Image: Still from Persepolis

The strategy, of seeking connection on the level immediately below the level of difference, is often used in narrative films as well. Visibility on the level of difference (in this case, Palestinian identity -- the level of construct of nationality) is temporarily given up for the sake of establishing connection and commonality on the level below that (in this case, subjectivity of human -- the level of the construct of human). Marjane Satrapi's animated representation in Persepolis[20] is used not only to render her character more 'attractive' but also more abstract and thus easier to identify with by the U.S. audience. I have used this strategy in the first entry 'Sabra-Shatila massacre' to seek connection, at the level of being human, to subjectify/'humanize' the Palestinians in the Sabra-Shatila refugee camp. This also appears in Waltz with Bashir[21], an animated documentary that uses digital animation for almost the entire film to recreate past events and memories; only at the very end does it index to reality with actual footage – an effective strategy.

[20] Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis, 2007. 20 Apr. 2009, <>.
[21] Folman, Ari. Waltz with Bashir, 2008. 20 Apr. 2009, <>. Official site is <>. A film that importantly reminds people of the Sabra-Shatila massacre but is not completely without problems — a few critiques of the film are Ryvka Bar Zohar's "Waltz With Bashir: A Case Study on the Complicity of the Israeli Cultural Industry with Israeli Apartheid" <> and Haaretz correspondent Gideon Levy's "'Antiwar' film Waltz with Bashir is nothing but charade" <>.

11-Interventions into reality

It is because photographs of reality – and in fact reality itself – are not able to turn the objectified other into a subject[22] that it is necessary to create alternative representations and interventions into reality, to put a human perspective on the Palestinian/Israeli divide — whether this uses a dialectic through text, and concept (as in Jacir’s Where We Come From), or filmic identification and narrative[23], or participatory works that propose different models of relationality between the subject and world (an encounter with the other as challenger as opposed to a reassuring encounter with the self[24]), or other means. In Jacir's piece, Waxman writes that '[b]etween those simple photographs and unremarkable written requests lies a profoundly affecting failure: the implicit inadequacy of Jacir's gesture... Paradoxically, it is neither meaningless nor merely symbolic: by fulfilling each request and returning with proof, ... Jacir's gesture is at once success and failure. Such failure can be a startlingly potent tool, both conceptually and formally... It lurks at the heart of [this piece]: ... the failure of the Middle East peace process, the failure of photographic representation'[25].

‘[I]t is not indifference which erases the weight of the image... but love, extreme love', Barthes says (and that the only person who can do that is perhaps his mother). This love, which is not conditional, is distinguished from dependence or projection: ‘obviously, when there is fear there is no love’[26]. One function of art is to provide an encounter with the other, an encounter that allows a momentary access to the Real (in the Vedic sense), to love – Arendt uses the word ‘natality’ to describe people’s ability to bring 'new' ideas, frameworks, and institutions out of nothing and into reality – that erases the weight of the other’s image so as to resignify and reimagine one's identification to shift toward the other.

[22] Barthes, 12.
[23] Merz, Christian. "Identification, Mirror". The Imaginary Signifier. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982. More on the process of viewer identification in film in this article — Merz writes that in order to understand the fiction film, one must take oneself for the character (imaginary) but not take oneself for her/him (return to the real) so that the fiction can be established. And in order to understand the film one must 'perceive the photographed object as absent, its photograph as present, and the presence of this absence as signifying'.
[24] A review of 'The Art of Participation' SFMOMA show that analyses its interpretation of 'participation': Donough, Tom. "The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now". ArtForum. Apr. 2009. 20 Apr. 2009 <>.
[25] Waxman, 44.
[26] Krishnamurti, Jiddu. “Freedom”. Flight of the Eagle. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1973.