Last week I presented my paper, “An Ethics of Unidentifiable Suffering: Spectatorship, Responsiveness, and Photographs from the War in Syria,” at the Photography and Its Publics symposium at Monash University’s Prato Center in Prato, Italy. Thanks so much to the organizers for the invitation – it was a marvelous conversation in a beautiful place.
The abstract for my paper can be found here. I originally conceptualized the paper’s theoretical intervention in terms of a cosmopolitan spectatorship, but subsequently realized that something more is required: hospitality. I’m looking forward to thinking more deeply about how this ethic can be translated into the practice of spectatorship and the particular demands that this conflict places on such an optic.
For some reason, this time around, even though my hatred of the holidays in general finds its most visceral expression in my hatred of New Year’s Eve, this year, I am experiencing the new year as something. Maybe it’s the relief, admittedly arbitrary, of having an extra shitty 2015 in the rearview. Maybe it’s my list of resolutions, which so far seem easy to keep because I haven’t had to leave the house much since the year began, and their potential to orient me toward an existence veritably sparkling with peacefulness and productivity. I don’t know. Circumstantially, nothing much has changed with the turn of this new calendar page: my list of problems and deadlines hasn’t gotten any shorter, nor have my stores of patience or aptitude increased. But still, it feels like something.
There are lots of social, cultural, and economic reasons why people dislike New Year’s Eve (the internet tells me), and they all make sense: pressure, generalized FOMO, and the cost or difficulty of realizing most of our desires for the evening. And these are plausible explanations for the drinking and the fireworks.
For my part, I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts during this go-round of the holidays, the intricacies of exchange, presentation, and expectation that accompany them. Lots of people (again, according to the internet) experience these rituals as burdensome, both socially and financially. So do I. Surely they persist because of massive, globalized, and finely-tuned apparatuses of production and consumption. But the season that extends from Thanksgiving to just after Christmas is, symbolically at least, perhaps the most orderly part of the year. The instructions and expectations, impossible though they might be, are crystalline. And in most instances, the shortest and most direct route to fulfilling them is consumption. All of us who observe the Christmas holiday know what we ought to be doing, which is comforting, albeit in a way that’s prickly and anxiety-provoking.
Marking the new year is different. The only real uniformity and guidance comes from the glittery synchronicity of televised celebrations. And as a holiday, it’s relatively unique for being untethered from rituals of gift-giving. It’s cheaper that way, but also, I suspect, discomfiting. The arrival of the new year is an empty signifier. Hence, I think, the drinking and fireworks. Insubstantial observances for a meaningless transition.
But still, this year, it feels like something. I’m finding pleasure, of a sort, in the emptiness of the signifier. It feels, in this brief stretch where so much seems to be on pause and very little is mandated, like a relief.