Unmasked (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 36)

This is the thirty-sixth 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

 

Unmasked

By Kimberly Juanita Brown

The United States is unmasked. Like the videos of white supremacists marching down public streets armed and angry, the incessant images of white women white-woman-ing, and the streamlined indifference emanating from the White House, we are seeing, in real time, the façade dissipate. What is left in its place is the “second sight” W.E.B. Du Bois offers as the violent navigation of blackness-amid-white supremacy.[i] Be it the individual refusal of a layer of protection or a temporary acquiescence to the reality of the viral droplets in the air we all breathe, the mask, as we know it, is off.

“I know your kind,” the protagonist in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian says to Sproule, the unfortunate survivor of a battle under a captain named “White.” “What’s wrong with you is wrong all the way through you.”[ii] Unmasked in all of its viral isms (race, gender, class, citizenship, ability, etc.) the visual presence of face masks to thwart the transmission of the coronavirus (and a particular violent resistance to wearing them) represents a toxicity that must be denied. And so it goes: in grocery stores, town halls, parks, pharmacies, and everywhere in between, bad actors emerge, spewing out all of the sickness within. [iii]

Picture one scene: June 9, 2020, a Board of Supervisors meeting in Orange County, CA to discuss the face mask mandate. The people (almost exclusively white) are not pleased. A woman stands at the microphone, reading from a piece of paper. “You are kneeling,” she says, “on the necks of the people, and you are continuing to act in a thuggish manner.”[iv] She is met with applause from the crowd. It is certainly not the first time, and it will not be the last time a white person has used black death as the symbolic reference point to advance a ridiculous and dangerous demand. The meeting takes place fifteen days after George Floyd’s videotaped killing by Derek Chauvin, the man so certain of his power he doesn’t even bother to take his hands out of his pockets to steady himself during the act. I know your kind…

The mask order was rescinded two days later.

There is something visceral about the refusal to place a protective barrier across the mouth and nose, to disregard specific advice from the scientific community, and to do so in the name of “freedom” or “just because.” In the barrage of images on social media and via news feeds all over the U.S. there is the jarring, disruptive visage of the figure averse to acknowledging that a deadly virus is killing hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. For this figure, denial functions as a route through and around what was taken for granted, namely, that death happens elsewhere; it happens to others; and they are in control of life and death. For these figures, they want their normal back the same way that they want their country back—without delay and devoid of accountability.

“I’ve developed an aversion to that word normal,” Dionne Brand writes. “Was the violence against women normal? Was the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism normal? Was white supremacy normal? Was homelessness growing on the streets normal? Were homophobia and transphobia normal…who would one have to be to sit in that normal restfully, to mourn it, or desire its continuance?”[v] You might be someone another would describe as wrong…all the way through.

What is there to see in the violent resistance to wearing a mask in public spaces where other people dwell, work, live, and move about? Everything. It only seems like an odd pandemic anomaly, yet it speaks to a much longer history of ruination—a centering of white supremacy that is, like Sproule’s arm, full of puss and excreting an infection he will not acknowledge is killing him.

But it is, it is, it is.

 

[i] “It is a peculiar sensation,” Du Bois writes, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, 2.
[ii] Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, Vintage International, 1985, 66.
[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41KluMgqE9A
[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41KluMgqE9A
[v] Dionne Brand, On Narrative, Reckoning, and the Calculus of Living and Dying, The Star https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2020/07/04/dionne-brand-on-narrative-reckoning-and-the-calculus-of-living-and-dying.html
Kimberly Juanita Brown is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College. She is the author of The Repeating Body: Slavery’s Visual Resonance in the Contemporary (Duke University Press, 2015). She is currently working on a book about the history of photography and its relationship to antiblackness. Tentatively titled “Mortevivum: Photography and the Politics of the Visual,” the book examines images of the dead in the New York Times in 1994 from four geographies: South Africa, Rwanda, Sudan and Haiti.

 

July 26th, 2020, 02 / Rosa Mercedes
Interface

Paul B. Preciado on Indigenous models for “stopping the world,” via Artforum: “Every culture has invented procedures for isolation, for fasting, for breaking the rhythms of eating, sexual activity, and production. Those caesuras serve as techniques for modifying subjectivity, activating a process that disrupts perception and feeling and can ultimately generate a transformation, a new way of becoming. Certain languages of Indigenous shamanism call this process ‘stopping the world.’ And that is literally what happened during the Covid-19 crisis. The capitalist mode briefly stopped. […] we could say (drawing on the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s analysis of Tupi rituals and shamanic practices) that they usually include at least three stages. In the first, the subject is confronted with their mortality; in the second, they see their position in the trophic chain and perceive the energetic connections that unite all living things; in the final stage, they radically modify their desire, which will perhaps allow them to transform, to become someone else.”

July 26th, 2020, Tom

On the occasion of the film festival “Reconstructing Realities,” the Broadway Cinematheque in Hong Kong will show the film “How to live in FRG” (1990) from Harun Farocki.
The screening will take place on Saturday, July 11, 2:30 pm (local time) at the Goethe Institut Hong Kong.
Online booklet: https://bit.ly/bcXForum50

Reconstructing Realities – A Film Programme to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Berlinale Forum

The screening will be followed by the talk “Harun Farocki’s Imitations of Life” with Doreen Mende, co-founder of the Harun Farocki Institut.
Time: Jul 11, 2020 04:00 pm Hong Kong SAR / 10:00 am Berlin time
Language: English

The talk will be held on Zoom, registration here: https://forms.gle/tyLfKLwBYNUutoLz6
After registration, you will receive an email with the link and the login information to join the talk.

https://www.goethe.de/ins/cn/de/sta/hon/ver.cfm?fuseaction=events.detail&event_id=21884136&

July 8th, 2020, HaFI

Avery F. Gordon, in an interview conducted by Katherine Hite and Daniela Jara in Memory Studies:  “Non-participation is one modality of what I call being in-difference. Being in-difference is a political consciousness and a sensuous knowledge, a standpoint and a mindset for living on better terms than we’re offered, for living as if you had the necessity and the freedom to do so, for living in the acknowledgement that, despite the overwhelming power of all the systems of domination which are trying to kill us, they never quite become us. They are, as Cedric J Robinson used to say, only one condition of our existence or being. Running away, living apart, squatting, communing, feral trading, bartering, self-managed currencies, human, debt, labour, knowledge strikes, boycott, divestment, non-policing, throwing your shoe at an occupying president: the ways of non-participation in the given order of things are many, varied and hard to summarize. And they are taken up for a variety of reasons, including the failure or irrelevance of states and the US–European post–World War II social movement model.”

July 7th, 2020, Tom
moreless news