A name to sing about (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 20)

This is the twentieth instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH


Nightingale Hospital, Excel Center, London, April 2020 (photo Matt Writtle, Evening Standard)

Florence Nightingale in a ward of the hospital at Scutari, Albania (from an 1856 lithograph by William Simpson)


A name to sing about

By Jelena Stojković


On May 04 the media reported that NHS Nightingale hospitals around the UK are going to be shut, weeks after they were opened and only having admitted what sounds like an insignificantly small number of patients. The explanation offered—that there are enough beds in regular hospitals—has been confusing, to say the least. If the national health service is doing fine, why are we discouraged from going to our local surgeries or emergencies? If so, why were the hospitals built in the first place, especially on such a scale? Nightingale London alone had the capacity of up to 4000 beds and there were seven hospitals opening across the country over the last month. Why were the specific locales chosen and how? And I could go on.

Listening to the MayDay Radio Notes on May 10, titled Nightingale Chronicles 2 – Failure and dedicated to London Nightingale, it struck me that there is something intrinsically flawed with the very name of the hospitals. Supposedly celebrating care giving, by evoking Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the note tells us how nurses were expected to train for the challenges expecting them on the floor within a day, which failed to acknowledge even the basic premise of the profession, let alone appropriately respond to the complexities of the ongoing health crisis. The inability to adequately staff them is speculated as one of the main reasons why the hospitals were eventually closed.

Learning this made me realise how there are two different contradictions entangled with the failure to activate the effort invested in the Nightingale hospitals. Applying a simple modus ponens renders their closure clearly illogical, as it is inferring that although the NHS is under the biggest pressure in decades because of Covid-19 it nevertheless does not need any help. But derailing the idea of care while proclaiming to monumentalise it, as their name does, is a performative one and not as easily spotted. As Martin Jay explains it:

“A performative contradiction does not arise when two antithetical propositions (A and not A) are simultaneously asserted as true, but rather when whatever is being claimed is at odds with the presuppositions or implications of the act of claiming it .”(“The Debate over Performative Contradiction: Habermas versus the Postructuralists,” in Martin Jay, Force Fields: Between Intellectual History and Cultural Critique [New York: Routledge, 1993], 29)

In retrospect, calling the hospitals by the person epitomising modern nursing was not a simple misnomer but a poor attempt at dressing up a wolf bred by austerity in the clothes of a sheep versed in historical knowledge. There is nothing new about this gesture. Quite the opposite, we heard this song many times before.

For instance, in Catch Phrases – Catch Images (1986), Harun Farocki interviews Vilém Flusser for television following the publication of Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983). Sitting in a café, the two men discuss the working of news reporting, by looking at a cover page of Bild from November 1985. Their analysis focuses on the relation between texts and images, and how they intertwine in the service of demagogy, but their conclusion still resonates with us today. It is under the assumption of shared values (in this instance motherly love), they agree, that the newspaper camouflages its double moral standards, or its endorsement for and spectacularising of violence, kitschifying, debasing and reducing human dignity along the way.



Jelena Stojković is an art historian and writer based in London. She is the author of Surrealism and Photography in 1930s Japan: The Impossible Avant-Garde (2020).




May 15th, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

A  word on “post-truth” by postcolonial and photography scholar Zahid R. Chauhary (from his 2020 essay “The Politics of Exposure: Truth after Post-Facts”):So perhaps it is not simply that truth acts (such as whistleblowing) expose what we already know, but that the place of knowledge in an atmosphere of fetishistic disavowal lends such disavowal a libidinal frisson. In cynical reasoning, truth actually matters a great deal because acting in spite of it is what endows the action with its distinctive fetishistic pleasure.”

October 26th, 2021

Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020
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