Monday, November 26, 2012

(Un)freezing the Image

This week’s articles posit that we must “consider the politics of suffering in their complexity and their ambiguity” (Fassin, 9).  Whether critiquing the dangers of “slacktivisim” and easy viral engagement or the mapping of the Darfur crisis on Google earth, we must think through, map, and articulate suffering in a way that does not allow us to be complacent bystanders.

I found Lisa Parks’ piece on Google Earth/Darfur particularly useful in light of our conversations in class about temporal and spatial mapping. Parks writes that one of the biggest problems with the Darfur Google earth campaign is its erasure of/covering over of a history of postcolonial geopolitics. The “seeing is believing” logic is dangerous because it does not map a history of European domination and colonization into the present crisis. But in order to understand the “crisis of the present,” we must understand a history of colonization. I’m interested, however, in how we map this history visually and spatially. Parks discusses Google earth as an archive. Yet to what extent is it an archive that we must problematize because it is not written/told by those in Darfur themselves? To what extent can the “archive” transcend place and, to what extent, does it rely on its distance from the actual crisis at hand? Fassin writes, in his introduction, “The politics… has a history.”

Models that predetermine the outcomes are dangerous. When a Google Earth Spokesperson claimed that the Darfur campaign was successful, he was determining this success based on the amount of times the campaign was viewed on the Internet—despite the Internet being removed from the on-the-ground experiences of those in Darfur. The problem, however, is that this model is reinforcing. It is a self-perpetuating and self-actualizing model in which success is based on a removed “engagement.”  

I want to discuss the role of temporality in terms of Google earth and the danger with freezing an image/stereotype/representation. Parks writes, “Google Earth interface is structured in a way that eclipses the satellite image and fills it in with closer views that are consistent with Western tropes of African tragedy and the representation of refugees…These Figures illustrate how the territorial perspective of the satellite image is overlayed with close up photographs that are mobilized to affectively pinpoint feminized bodily injury and trauma… they focus on individual bodies rather than the complex dynamics of political violence in the region.

It is problematic to freeze people in the image of a wounded/victim/sufferer. This is especially dangerous when the “victim” is displayed without any discussion of a history of subjugation and oppression. This passage raises a question for me: I wonder what it would look like to map dynamics of political violence and also map or depict the way this has real material effects on peoples’ lives. What would it mean to “see” the individual without covering over/prescribing/stereotyping her/him? It seems that to appropriately map, we must be able to both explore the dynamics of political violence and also the experiences of individual people. And yet, I think one of the questions raised from this reading was, what would it mean for the woman frozen in an image to have agency? What would it mean to map oneself as opposed to being mapped onto? Indeed, Parks exposes the danger of freezing an image without any mention of time—there is no beginning or ending to the trauma.

Parks writes, “Testimonials are translated, transcribed and geo-referenced but they remain inaudible and unheard.” What would it mean to witness without overwriting the experience? How can we move beyond what Fassin calls the “the politics of compassion…[as] a politics of inequality?”
Can empathy be turned into action? 
What is the job of the viewer in relationship to these “frozen images”?
How can “feeling” for someone be translated into acting with someone?
To what extent does “compassion” take the place of alliance building? What would real relationship building look like?
How can we complicate a trend in which those with power can give to those in need? Within humanitarian aid, is there a space for Fassin’s “reciprocity?”

-For my slactivist activity, I signed a petition right before Thanksgiving titled “Target Take the high road and save Thanksgiving” to request that Target respect their employees on the Thanksgiving holiday by opening later on Black Friday. I signed the petition on Upon sending, it sent me a reply email encouraging me to forward to my friends. 

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