She Is Easy to Overlook …

Living in a city demands constant visual negotiations.  From the countless decisions we make, often unwittingly, about how to allocate our attention when so much is clamoring for it, we also operate according to instinct, superstition, sometimes fear.  Personally, I deliberate about whether or not to make eye contact with the boy who wants to squeegee my car windows when I’m stuck at an intersection, if it’s better to scowl at or studiously ignore the men who ask why a pretty girl like me isn’t smiling when I’m out for a run, and about the safest place to direct my gaze when I’m walking alone at night.

I navigate these visual encounters through the screen of vulnerability that comes with being female in public.  But as a white woman who owns a home in one of the safest neighborhoods in Baltimore, my visual experience of the city is shaped by racial and class privilege.  I don’t have to worry much about whether or not to make eye contact with police officers.  The city has not installed “security” cameras – these flashing blue lights have essentially become a telegraphed message for a ‘bad’ neighborhood – on my block.  Consequently, I would wager that although we both live in the same city, probably no more than a few miles apart, I inhabit a very different visual landscape than the woman in this white pickup truck.

baltimore policing

In this photograph taken by Peter van Agtmael, one of a handful that illustrated the recent ProPublica / New York Times story entitled “The Tragedy of Baltimore,” she is easy to overlook.  She, like everyone but the police sergeant, goes unmentioned in the caption, which reads, “A Baltimore Police Department sergeant on patrol in West Baltimore. The department’s federal ‘‘consent decree’’ regulates how officers can interact with the public.”  The story itself makes no reference to the photograph.  Nevertheless, I want to focus on her with her because she is, relative to the other people in the image, so hard to read. The sergeant is looking at the truck.  The driver is looking back at the sergeant.  A third man, barely visible (is he in the truck or on the sidewalk?), seems to be watching what is happening.  But she appears entirely disconnected from the scene.  Her posture is rigid and her eyes are fixed forward.  We cannot know if she has deliberately excluded herself from this exchange of looks, and if she did make that visual choice, we cannot know why.  Studied nonchalance?  Disinterest?  Has she been conditioned to avoid looking at the police?  Is this the sort of thing that happens so regularly to the men around her that it doesn’t even catch, or seem to merit her attention?

She might not jump out as the focal point of the image, but she is an enigmatic figure that points us directly to what surveillance cannot reveal.  Beliefs about the power of surveillance are central to the visuality of virtually every major city, particularly those, like Baltimore, with high crime rates.  The guiding assumption is that more surveillance will always yield more useable information.  But even though this photograph records an instance of state surveillance ensnaring its subjects on the move, she is the figure that best demonstrates the limits of what can be known through what can be seen.

The scene is washed in red and blue light, and because the the photo is shot from the perspective of the officer, the image is doubly saturated by police power.  As spectators we are positioned by the photograph on the safe side of that activity.  We look at these three people from the same vantage as the officer, and are essentially shielded by his body.  If we cannot quite figure out what’s happening in the truck, we might lean in to get a closer look, mimicking the sergeant’s assumption that heightened scrutiny is going to yield more information.  The composition of the image locates us, as spectators, within the police car, with the officer between us and whatever lurks outside.  For privileged city-dwellers, police typically represent protection from dangerous others; however, as the article notes, for people who are poor or of color, police presence signals repression or violence or worse.  The photograph gives us no indication of what, if anything, the man driving the truck has done to invite the sergeant’s suspicion.  Could it have been that the white work truck, with its tool boxes and ladder racks and scratches, signaled a certain, and suspicious, class status?  (Read another way, this truck also implies that he is doing something constructive, in some way helping to rebuild a city that  the story portrays as already having fallen apart.)  The photo invites us to speculate, too, about what might have inspired the officer to stop and stare, thus aligning us yet again with his inquisitive look.

In the late nineteenth century, reform-minded documentarians sought to record the gritty truths of city life in tenements and factories. As they improved their craft, the mastery of flash photography further enabled them to illuminate dark urban spaces, like crowded apartments and narrow alleyways, making them visible and safely accessible to privileged spectators, who were meant to be both moved and disgusted by ‘how the other half lived.’  Here, the red and blue lights of the police cruiser are similarly invasive, but instead of revealing information about the people in the image, they instead tell as story about the visual networks exchanges initiated by state surveillance.  Indeed, the mere happenstance of being caught in a surveillant exchange imparts the impression of criminality.  There is “nothing to see here,” though being fixed by the gaze of the police officer and camera still turns her and her companions into objects of suspicion whether or not they had been doing anything wrong.

The woman in the truck refuses the gaze of the police officer, the photographer, and us as spectators, and the camera, too, can only see as far as the officer.  The caption, with its seemingly non sequitur reference to the “consent decree,” intimates that police power in Baltimore is checked or restrained, leaving the police present but helpless or apathetic. Aligned with the view from the patrol car, the camera here is present but not especially effective.  The device functioned as intended—it captured a scene—but the resulting image does not tell us much.  As Baltimore continues to invest in surveillance technologies while conditions in the city deteriorate, this elliptical image serves as a reminder of both the intrusiveness of the state gaze and the limits of what it can accomplish.


“Insecurity” at the Center for 21st Century Studies

Last week, I participated in the “Insecurity” conference at UW-Milwaukee’s Center for 21st Century Studies.

Besides learning so many things, I also presented a paper entitled “‘It’s Okay to Smile’: Nonheteronormative Security and the Work of the American Widow Project.”  Here’s the abstract:

In 2007, when she was 22 years old, Taryn Davis became a military widow.  Shortly thereafter, leveraging money from her husband’s life insurance, she became something of an entrepreneur when she founded the American Widow Project.  A support and resource network, the AWP recognizes widows’ suffering but also embraces a vision of widowhood that is independent and pleasure-seeking.  The AWP tacitly reframes widowhood as a deeply unfortunate opportunity for positive transformation.  In addition to providing services like peer-to-peer counseling, the AWP offers “WidowU” courses that aimed at equipping widows for success in the marketplace and heavily subsidized spa weekends and adventure trips.  In this way, it veers toward a neoliberal response to grief and the insecurity created by the loss of a spouse, which is especially acute for young widows who have not yet established themselves professionally or financially.  Yet given the failure of the state to provide meaningfully for military personnel and their families, and the possibility that self-care can be a radical and necessary practice for marginalized people, I argue that the work of the AWP is worthy of further consideration in addition to critique.  It might offer, howsoever ambivalently, one way of reclaiming a substantive futurity outside of the institutions, like marriage, that typically guarantee it.   Indeed, with its photos of women grinning broadly and exuberant testimonies from members about healing and community, the AWP also provides a vision for life lived in the uncharted space beyond the heteronormative fantasy and all the securities it promises. 


MPSA 2019

Later this week, I’m heading to Chicago (yay!) for my first-ever Midwest Political Science Association conference.

The paper I’m presenting, “Traumatized Drone Operators and the Rescue of American Exceptionalism,” will be part of a larger panel on the theme of “Anxiety and Politics.”  Here’s the abstract:

This paper queries the popular fascination with PTSD among drone operators.  I argue that anti-drone discourses rely on this suffering to assuage anxiety about the affront to American exceptionalism (read as moral goodness) and that drone warfare seemingly poses. droneIn June 2018, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature story entitled, “The Wounds of the Drone Warrior.”  Against the popular fantasy of a bloodless war being prosecuted easily by a military of ‘joystick warriors,’ the article meditates on the somatic and psychological suffering of drone pilots. 
This story, while newsy in its focus on experimental treatments for drone pilot PTSD, is hardly news; accounts of this type of distress have been circulating on academic, clinical, and journalistic platforms for years, while popular culture representations of distressed drone pilots have also become commonplace.  This paper queries the popular fascination with the notion of the traumatized drone operator, focusing on a pair of anxieties that circulate within it: about their suffering and about the status of the U.S. in the world.  I demonstrate that the figure of the traumatized drone operator serves crucial discursive functions for arguments against drone warfare, working to assuage anxiety about the ways that this mode of fighting has seemingly besmirched American identity.  Building on Caruth’s (2017) reading of Freud’s theorization of anxiety—namely that anxiety appears as a retroactive, repetitive, and ultimately fruitless defense against a traumatic event—I argue that concern about the suffering of drone operators becomes a strategy for the rescue of American exceptionalism, even as the killing continues apace.

I’m also looking forward to participating in (and chairing) a roundtable on how to balance work and life demands, which is one of my favorite and best-trodden soapboxes.

Icy and Sot are not the ‘Banksy of Iran’

“Wet Paint,” a 23-second video by Iranian street artists Icy and Sot, begins with an anonymous pair of hands stenciling the words “wet paint” onto a black sweatshirt. It then cuts to a subway station, where a young man wearing a dark cap and sunglasses walks nonchalantly to a wall plastered with advertisements, looks around, and slides his body along them, smearing black paint across a poster for the movie Jason Bourne before wandering back out of the frame.  The movie’s tagline, “you know his name,” registers ironically here.  Street art is a largely anonymous and ephemeral enterprise, particularly in places—like Iran, and some metropolitan areas of the United States—where it is heavily criminalized.  And even when artists do take credit for their work, it is often under a pseudonym, like Banksy, JR, or Icy and Sot.  This pseudonymity often persists even when the artist achieves enough renown to warrant museum or gallery shows.  And although Icy and Sot have begun to establish precisely such a presence, they nonetheless remain relatively obscure.  The playful mark-making featured in “Wet Paint” strikes me as a visual metaphor for their position in the world of street art: undeniably present yet incompletely visible.  Journalists and curators often refer to them as the “Banksy of Iran,” a comparison clearly meant as a compliment.  Yet even as this designation offers the brothers a certain visibility and legitimacy, it also obscures the unique significance of their work.

In their art, Icy and Sot regularly make self-referential gestures to art in general and street art in particular.  Their piece “Crime Sense,” which appeared on a heavily tagged wall in Brooklyn, is a stencil-pained line of police tape that runs crookedly over the tags already present on the wall.  This comment on the criminalization of street art mockingly dramatizes the repressive force of the state, while also vindicating the presence of these marks on this wall with the application of their own imprimatur.  By their palimpsestic engagement with the work of other artists, Icy and Sot locate themselves actively in a creative community and artistic resistance.

I first encountered their work at the Moco museum in Amsterdam in June 2018.  Located on Amsterdam’s touristy Museumplein, the Moco is a short walk from both the better-known Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museum.  At the time of my visit, the Moco had two exhibitions up: its marquee collection of pieces by Banksy and another featuring Icy and Sot.  Moco’s English-language promotional materials for the show contend that “the fact that the young Iranian brothers Icy (34) and Sot (29) are called the ‘Banksy of Iran’ is not without reason.”  Indeed, the layout of the space channels visitors through Banksy’s work first, and then downward to pieces by Icy and Sot, an arrangement that suggests both a line of descent and a derivative relationship between the artists.  Even if this correctly marks a generational difference between them, or patterns of influence, it also risks marginalizing Icy and Sot via a maneuver that traffics in a deeply problematic, even imperialist, set of assumptions about creativity and the capacity to make art.  Unlike the implicitly conversational stance that they take in “Crime Sense,” the ‘Banksy of Iran’ interpretive framework suggests a unidirectional relationship that renders Icy and Sot’s creativity incidental and denies their capacities for innovation reflexivity.

Icy and Sot were born in Tabriz, Iran, in 1985 and 1991, respectively.  The joint bio on their website describes them as “transcend[ing] their histories of artistic and political censorship by using public art to envision a world freed from borders, war and violence.”  Overall, their work is marked by sharp political commentary on a wide range of urgent global issues and a continual experimentation with medium and form.  They  address issues like migration, gender, capitalism and its predations, censorship and control of information, police brutality, militarization, and climate change, along with the politics of everyday life under authoritarian regimes (as in their “beer is not a crime” graffiti in Tehran).  The brothers began their work with stencils in 2006, but they now create for both gallery and public settings, and their work has appeared across the United States and Iran, as well as Germany, China, Turkey, Norway, Switzerland, France, Germany, among other countries.  In 2012, they applied for asylum in the United States, and currently reside in Brooklyn.

Icy and Sot’s work often reflects on the destabilizing power of art.  For example, “Art Molotov” is a glass bottle filled with miniature instruments, paints, pencils, and works of literature, capped with a rag already on fire.  Similarly, “Make Art Not War” is an animated piece that features a tank lurching creakily around a dilapidated, depopulated urban landscape.  Instead of weaponry, the tank shoots multi-colored paint bombs, which resolve, apparently by magic, into graphics on the sides of buildings, as if Icy and Sot had managed not only to mechanize their production process but also to do this by repurposing military equipment and so fashioning their work as an antidote to militarization.


In general, their approach to questions of war, violence, and weaponry is playful but incisive. For example, “No More Yellowcake”—a reference to the oxide produced as an intermediate step in the process of enriching uranium—unfolds in a parched landscape evocative of the American desert southwest, a region that the U.S. government frequently employed as a test site for weapons, including nuclear weapons.  The scrubland stretches to the horizon, while the center of the frame is occupied by a folding table covered with an American flag that flutters gently in the breeze.  A bright yellow cake, topped with candles, sits inert on the table until a man wearing a gas mask, white protective jumpsuit, and gloves walks purposely into the frame, turns the cake over and smashes it onto the flag, and then walks out.  “Nuclear Plant”—a piece in which they affixed a flurry of radiation warning signs to a tree at the Grand Canyon to draw attention to ongoing contamination of the land and its threat to the Navajo communities that live there—operates in a similar register.  To confront militarism with this comic sensibility requires a certain brazenness, but ultimately it is this cleverness that separates them from their more didactic counterparts, Banksy included.

Many of their recent works on migration reveal a similar approach, as they use media like mirrors and chain-link fencing in efforts to compel spectators to reckon more humanely with the circumstances of migrants and refugees.  A 2017 installation called “Migration Crisis” features a green boat carrying a bombed-out building—evocative of the residential landscapes decimated by the ongoing war in Syria—“floating” on an ocean made of IKEA’s iconic blue tote bags.  Unlike other depictions of this ongoing crisis (including some of their own work) that rely on sympathetic images of refugees themselves, there are no people here, only traces of human habitation in the ruined buildings: a satellite dish on the roof, railings marking the edges of balconies, wallpaper in a lovely floral pattern, graffiti on a garage door.  Using the building as a symbol of the suffering of refugees, and the absolute necessity of their departure from home, the piece shifts the story of the refugee crisis off of individuals and onto larger structural issues.  This type of nuanced political commentary cannot be reduced to a ‘Banksy of Iran’-style explanation.  Banksy’s own work on migrants tends to decontextualize or individualize them (perhaps most notably in his “The Son of a Migrant from Syria,” a portrait of Steve Jobs as a migrant himself), which invites a primarily emotional or sentimental spectatorial response; by contrast, work like “Migration Crisis” refuses to play on sympathies and instead demands a more substantive ethical reckoning.

I do not wish to belabor the significance of Icy and Sot’s own biography or make an essentialist claim that they might automatically understand this crisis because of their own exile, but it is worth noting that Icy and Sot create this work as asylees themselves.  This type of compulsory mobility and attendant forms of hiding and displacement stand in sharp contrast to the rather more volitional anonymity, itinerancy, and secrecy that Banksy has pursued.

Many critics who write about Icy and Sot’s work seem to deploy their identity or place of origin as something of a gimmick or way to sensationalize their art; this is the Orientalist dimension of the ‘Banksy of Iran’ comparison.  This comparison also undersells their work, which strikes me as far more varied and multifaceted in terms of its aesthetics, technique, media, and focus.  Of course, this is not to undermine the significance of Banksy’s work; I simply think that the formulation is too reductive.  Moreover, the invocation of Banksy recenters the Western artist, and the West more generally, in the supposed appreciation of Icy and Sot’s work.  It deprives them of the specificities of their context and their stories (indeed, another Iranian street artist known as Black Hand has elicited the same ‘Banksy of Iran’ comparison).  These comparative practices make a fetish of the brothers’ Iranian identity by treating them as both novel and exotic.  After all, it is virtually impossible to imagine anyone describing Banksy as the ‘Icy or Sot of the UK.’

Overall, Banksy’s work may be more palatable; it has certainly become more mainstream.  Perhaps his most iconic piece is “There is Always Hope” or “Girl With Balloon.”  This image depicts a girl, in profile, just a moment after letting go of a heart-shaped red balloon that is already floating away from her, carried by the same wind that is mussing her hair and her dress.  Although there is, perhaps, something melancholic in the image, the girl’s body position and the faint smile on her lips suggest wonderment more than sadness, so that the overall tone of the piece is optimistic, which may explain its considerable popularity (in October 2018, Banksy engineered a print of this piece to mechanically self-destruct after it was sold at auction for $1.4 million).  Indeed, Icy and Sot made direct reference to this work with two pieces, “Broken Heart” (2012) and “Lorn Life” (2012).  (As far as I can tell, this is the only obvious homage to Banksy in their work.)  In “Broken Heart,” the heart-shaped balloon lies heavily on the ground, the girl still holding its string, her shoulders slumped and her eyes downcast.  “Lorn Life” also features the red heart, this time broken into two pieces separated by a jagged crack and borne on a stretcher by an emaciated, weary-looking pair of children.  These pieces signal a clear departure from the artist to which the brothers are supposedly indebted.  The cartoonish symbol of the heart keeps the work from feeling overly didactic, but the commentary is clear, and relative to the original, this darker vision seems far more apposite for a world in which so much is amiss.

This came out last year, but still …

hardly non-political

A belated, but no less sincere, thanks to the “Made by History” team at the Washington Post for giving me some room to write about the fallout from Trump’s criticism of Admiral William McRaven and what it reveals about public rituals of expressing gratitude for the troops.  Trump’s comments were characteristically loutish.  Hardly news.  My interest is in the scramble they provoked for everyone else to say their own “thank you”s to the troops.

My article is available here.

Who Cries for U.S. Empire?

imperial benevolence Imperial Benevolence: U.S. Foreign Policy and American Popular Culture Since 9/11, a smart new anthology edited by Scott Laderman and Tim Gruenewald, includes my chapter, “Imperial Cry Faces: Women Lamenting the War on Terror.”

In it, I explore the trope of the crying female agent of state power in popular culture depictions of contemporary American warfare, and map the currents of gender, sadness, and imperial violence embodied by characters like Carrie Mathison in Homeland.  Rather than analyzing the representations of these frail female warriors, I instead consider the political complexities of their crying in context.  Ultimately, I demonstrate that this type of lamentation, which might read as a critique of American militarism, serves actually to sustain it.

ASA 2018: “An Asymptotic Approach to Visualizing War”

repatriationI’m very happy to be presenting with Wendy Kozol at this year’s meeting of the American Studies Association.  Our paper, “An Asymptotic Approach to Visualizing War,” reflects on The Day Nobody Died, a project by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, to propose a radical reconsideration of the politics of spectatorship, representation, and indexicality in conditions of saturation violence.

We’re presenting as part of a panel that we organized, entitled “Secrecy, Transparency, and Power: Visual Methodologies for States of Emergency,” which includes Keith Feldman, Anjali Nath, and Carrie Rentschler.