Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Draw your weapons (etc)

Last week I went with a group of workmates to the Wheeler Centre to listen to Maria Tumarkin talk with Sarah Sentilles, who wrote Draw Your Weapons. This book was one of the essay club readings last year. It annoyed me at the time and I think I might have written so. What I did not do is get around to saying why, which I'm glad of now because, as is always the case, laying out one's objections to something seemingly objectionable always entails making a bigger investment than is probably warranted in demolishing the thing. In this instance I was irritated by the method of the book, which (I still think) aestheticises the subject matter (resistance to and protest against state-sponsored violence), and by its reliance on a piecemeal approach to quoting from a fairly OK set of critical theorists to thicken up its arguments. I won't bother listing them or describing the kind of scholarship that relies on this strategy, if you know the sort of thing I'm talking about then you already know the sort of thing I'm talking about. So the book annoyed me when I read it first (I've now read it twice) but it turned out that all that was required for it to be entirely redeemed is an hour of listening to the author talk about why she wrote the book and what she thinks about the problems it identifies.

Wholly by coincidence, the day of the talk we had spent a fairly arduous and fraught afternoon at work discussing a critique of the curatorial strategy employed in the parts of our museum that deal with the First World War. The critique is a scholarly chapter, in an edited book, which compares our museum with an exhibition at the Melbourne Museum dealing with the same event, and that's all I'll say about it.

The conjunction of the chapter and the talk was interesting. I think the argument Sentilles advanced created a perspective shift that throws a very different light on the scholar’s approach to both exhibitions. Sentilles is interested in how art and in particular photography influence our understanding of and response to violence, and also in the question of how it’s possible to meaningfully and effectively resist and oppose war right now. She links these questions because she identifies that photographs make it impossible for ordinary people to not know about war and violence and therefore, as she puts it, blood is on everyone’s hands, and scapegoating combatants or passing the buck to government is not an option, but then what can ordinary people actually do?

I thought that her book raised these questions quite effectively but it didn’t really explain what conclusions she was working towards. But in the talk she worked through the evolution of her thinking and she talked about what she’d read that influenced her own views. She spoke at length about a book called The Civil Contract of Photography. She said this book reversed her views about looking at photographs of violence – she had thought, as many theorists have argued, that looking at photos of bodies in danger or pain or under violence is essentially an invasion of the photographed person’s privacy and that while it is an emotionally scarifying experience for the viewer, ultimately that emotion is useless, because we always know that the person has already been harmed and we can’t help them. But she came to believe that this focus on the emotions and responses of the viewer is the wrong emphasis. She described it as narcissistic – making the experience ‘all about me’, my emotions, my feelings.

This was the point where I really began to think about the scholar’s essay – the scholar describes the effect the museum exhibitions have on the visitor, it’s a very subjective description, and some readers will accept that approach and others won’t, but what’s important is that the scholar stops with that question and does not see it as consequential in relation to activism, citizenship, or any other way of thinking about actions that might arise from the experience of looking. I think that leaves the comparison of the two exhibitions hanging at the level of taste: s/he likes one style, s/he doesn’t like the other. What Sentilles said was that this focus on the viewer’s feelings is the wrong way to frame the experience (of looking at images of violence). It should not be about what the photograph is doing to the viewer, but what the viewer is challenged to do in response to the photograph.

And then Sentilles described what the viewer needs to do as to ‘restore to the person in the photograph the citizenship that has been taken away from them’. It seemed to be that she thought this is something we need to do both symbolically and practically. Symbolically, she thinks that we need to sharpen our literacy about images, how they work on us, what they convey. (She talked about drone strikes as an example of how images are implicated in violence, so we had better understand how that process works.) Practically, she talked about resisting war and violence by offering care to people around us – immigrants, refugees, vulnerable people, community members. Her idea is that we need to start at home to bring into being the new world that we want to exist. And this reminded me of what is sometimes talked about at work, obliquely or directly: what was the place built for, and what is it for now? What could we use it for?

You know when you get obsessed with some idea, and everything that happens to you is instantly and profoundly connected to it?* Well. Late this afternoon I found myself standing in the midst one of the saddest events imaginable, in a quiet way: a reference library, owned and maintained over several decades by the institution that is this country's key generator of public discourse, was being wound up as quickly as possible and the books given away to whoever wanted them. I went with a wish list generated by our curators and came back to work with about forty books off the list for our own reference collection. I also took these two for my own library. I haven't read these before. I've read her book about Ernest Medina, who was 2IC of the company that did the atrocities at My Lai.

I started reading Vietnam over dinner. It's connected to Sentilles's inquiry. How have civilians refused and resisted past wars, and what can we learn and borrow from from those people now? - given that our wars are conducted so differently, not least in that they penetrate our everyday lives so much more thoroughly and deeply. I felt very sad that this book is no longer in a library available to the very people who generate our understanding and thinking about the wars going on right now. They are EXACTLY the people who need to read this incredible, tough, committed public intellectual beginning her book with this sentence: 'I confess that when I went to Vietnam early last February I was looking for material damaging to the American interest and that I found it.' But on the other hand, both books were coated in the deathly ancient sticky grease that afflicts old paperbacks that got dirty three decades ago and have not been touched since. I washed it off with some Dr Bronner's Castile Soap (Tea Tree), and I will read them both and think about them carefully.

The other connected thing happened this afternoon when I got this first drawing out of Lenny's schoolbag

and in the mail I received this second drawing, done by seven-year-old el Salvadorian child, enclosed in a donation request letter from the UNHCR.

It's the centenary of the Armistice this year. No question, it's a powerful symbol and I hope that as a community we'll be able to make good use of the anniversary, when it comes around, as a prompt to reflection. And after that is over and done with, I hope we will be able to stop talking so much about the First World War. A lot of people died, a lot of people saw and did hideous and terrible things that damaged them forever, but there are wars going on right this minute that we're all implicated in and that is what we need to talk about now.

I am extremely tired and I feel a little bit ill. I made a pear and walnut cake at craft camp and as usual I wildly overestimated how much food can be consumed by half-a-dozen women who've been sitting down and eating lolly bananas and chips and drinking gin all day, so half the cake came home with me and I've just eaten a chunk of it the size of my fist. Turns out you can make anything taste like Christmas cake by pouring a cup and a half of Bowmore single malt over the top. I am so tired I begin to understand why people say they feel like they're going to die of feeling tired. 

I asked Yes/No Tarot if I'm going to survive the gym tomorrow at 5:55am:

oh NO

*Yes, you do.

1 comment:

JahTeh said...

Right up until the last second ticked over to 11 a.m. both sides shelled and killed each other and I have always wondered why. It was going to stop, was the side with the least bullets left getting an extra medal?
I read everything and naturally the 'Boy's Own' wonders of ww2 escapes was in the mix until two books changed my attitude, a novel by Alastair McLean about the Arctic convoys and an autobiography of a Polish airman flying for Britain and his vastly different treatment by the Nazis when captured.
A fondness for history and curiosity lead me to Max Hastings book about the Korean War and MacArthur's grand plan for the atom bomb.
Then I picked up "The Thousand Days War" and found out the whole sorry story of Vietnam, all the threads that came together to make a blanket of bombs.
If there is a God, he is sitting up there with a remote control, bomb this country, destroy this culture, bored, let this woman write a brilliant book, let this surgeon cure this disease, bored now, back to another bombing session, bored need laughter, put an idiot in charge of America, bored of the idiot in Korea.......
Sorry for the long comment but you mentioned cake and I'm out of Gin.