Tuesday, June 19, 2018

¿Cómo Ubico Mis Hijos? (How do I locate my children?)


University of Wisconsin, Madison

I am not an expert on the effects of the forcible separation of children from their parents.

I believe the experts. I believe the American Association of Pediatrics president who says that the policy, in that it affects children’s brain chemistry, causes irreparable harm. I believe the scholars of education, history, psychology, sociology, and other fields who have delineated the effects of inflicting this particular trauma on children, named the practice unconscionable, and called for immediate reunification. I believe the wails of the children themselves, that if they are not haunting their captors, should be haunting the rest of us.

I write this post as a scholar of immigration and literacy who listens to people’s migration stories—the stories of those who have had to leave their loved ones and the stories of those who have been left. I write to offer my views on the role of stories in this humanitarian crisis.

The Official Story

The official story is the one composed by the Trump administration, who in a cruel upping the ante of this country’s shameful history of unjust immigration practices, instituted a policy of separating children from their parents to deter both asylum seekers and potential labor migrants. This official story is underdeveloped in relation to plot and context and human complexity. It can be summed up, as bad stories often can, in one brute, unimaginative, if-then clause: If you don’t want your children taken, then don’t come here.

In fact, this story is so poorly composed that if it weren’t written down in papers—in the visas, green cards, passports, in the laws that grant or deny the right to be treated as a human in the United States—we would probably ignore it. But we can’t. Because this story, whose meanings are now indelibly branded into the tender developing consciousnesses of children, is backed up by an army of one of the most powerful nations in the world.

For example: look at this flyer (pictured below). Look at Step Three. It is a response to the question posed in bold font: How do I locate my children? ¿Cómo ubico mis hijos?

From the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website:

Three actions follow. They are presented logically, as if it is a reasonable thing to be separated from one’s children by armed officers. There are ifs. There are thens. There is syllogistic violence, and I feel the panic heating my neck, and I feel my nerves fly loose. How do I locate my children? The ones you have taken. The questions are given a non-answer by an unsympathetic narrator with a baleful bureaucratic gaze.

The official story represented here seeks to tidy up the ragged edges of wrong. It seeks to replace human identity with government identification. It seeks to stamp as legitimate a hostile textual regime which is also a hostile racial regime, in which the right papers supposedly equal the right kind of person, a regime for which hostile might be too mild of an adjective.

As a scholar of words, I believe the correct word is "evil."

Resistance Stories

The official story is never the only or last word, no matter how much terror it inflicts. There are other stories underneath. Human beings are smart and we are also loud, by which I mean this textual/racial regime was not invented yesterday, nor was human resistance to it. There are stories of how African American slaves risked dismemberment and death to learn to write. With their knowledge, they sometimes authored passes to escape to freedom in the north. There are stories of how, under the Chinese Exclusion Act, some families developed paper sons to avoid deportation, conceiving of whole villages and personal histories with such thorough novelistic imagination that they became almost true. There are stories I heard during my fieldwork with Brazilians in Massachusetts, who despite not having legal papers, studied to attain church papers in the form of missionary cards, which authorized them to preach. They were legal, they told me, in the eyes of God. After all, they said, it’s not God who makes borders.

Children are smart, too. And children are also loud. In the op-ed that the president of the American Association of Pediatrics wrote for the LA Times about her visit to a border facility for children, she told of a weeping toddler who was not allowed to be physically comforted. What she left out of the op-ed but subsequently shared on NPR was that the other children in the room were eerily quiet. Perhaps they already knew there was no audience for their story. No touch to acknowledge their pain.

Under unjust neoliberal economic policies and punitive immigration laws pre-Trump, parents and children were regularly separated (though not forcibly as a part of state policy) in the course of labor migration. In my fieldwork, I have been told of children being sent ahead for safer passage. I have been told of children left behind with family members, receiving remittances from parents abroad as they waited for reunification. One family told me of a child who died waiting for her mother to save enough money to send for her.

Listening to these stories, I have often thought of my own white enough, documented, middle-class, single-mom hustle. The birthday parties. The price of milk. From where I sit, I can only imagine the historical conditions of violence or poverty or both, can only imagine the hopes and dreams and years of planning, can only imagine, God, the nauseating risk, for parents to dare to approach the US border. From where I sit, it would be unethical not to imagine. Especially now, when familial separation is not only a byproduct of an unjust policy, but is in fact the policy itself.

Future Stories

For many of the young children being held captive, whose voices we have heard, their words right now are these: Mom. Also dad. Sometimes aunt. These words are the beginnings of their stories.

Once this policy has ended (and please, it is time to act), educators, social workers, psychologists, family and community members will be tasked with helping children, and eventually their children, sort through the layers and consequences of the evil they have endured. In doing so, we can learn from educators working in creative literacy programs with incarcerated youth. And we can learn from our Latin American brothers and sisters, like those in Colombia, who have been helping children develop narratives to overcome the trauma of their country’s decades-long civil war and to project a peaceful future. The job of adults, these scholars and activists teach, is to accompany children, to hear and hold their stories, to help turn their cries into a collective call for peace.

I am not an expert on the forcible separation of children from their parents. I am a scholar of literacy and immigration. What I know is this: It is a moral imperative to write a better story.


Kate Vieira is the Susan J. Cellmer Distinguished Chair of Literacy in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a 2018-2019 Fulbright Scholar in Colombia. https://www.katevieira.com.

Children are collateral damage in Trump's border war.

Vanderbilt University

Most of us in the US remember the horror of seeing pictures of the tiny body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi laying face down on a Turkish beach. Or the small, ash-covered face of Omran Daqneesh as he was placed in an ambulance in Aleppo.

Alan and Omran became tragic “poster children” for the violence in Syria that lead to one of the most publicized, if not the biggest, refugee crises in modern history. Today, we face a border crisis closer to home. While refugees from violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America have increased dramatically, the recent policies of the Trump administration, including ending Temporary Protection Status and introducing zero-tolerance and the separation of children from their parents, have intensified trauma and harm to refugees and migrants at our own borders.

The most heinous consequence of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy is the separation of children from their parents. In just six weeks, between April 19th and May 31st, nearly 2,000 children were taken from their parents. Some parents were told their children were being taken for a bath, but then didn’t see them again. Hundreds of children are being detained in prison-like facilities, locked in cells with dozens of others, with only food and water and very little care. Guards have been instructed not to touch them, even to comfort or care for them. AP News reports: “Michelle Brane, director of migrant rights at the Women's Refugee Commission, met with a 16-year-old girl who had been taking care of a young girl for three days. The teen and others in their cage thought the girl was 2 years old. ‘She had to teach other kids in the cell to change her diaper’, Brane said. Brane said that after an attorney started to ask questions, agents found the girl's aunt and reunited the two. It turned out that the girl was actually 4 years old. Part of the problem was that she didn't speak Spanish, but K'iche, a language indigenous to Guatemala. ‘She was so traumatized that she wasn't talking,’ Brane said. ‘She was just curled up in a little ball’."

This example points to the special status of dependent children, who cannot yet take care of themselves, and cannot articulate their needs, let alone recount their histories, even when they do speak the same language as their captors or officials. U.S. law provides special protections for children. Yet, these refugee and migrant children have been stripped of all but the most basic protections. Given restricted access to facilities, and the secrecy surrounding them, it is likely that in some facilities even the most basic needs are not being met. If citizen-parents treated their children in the way that our government is treating refugee and migrant children—locking them in cages with instructions not to touch them—they could face investigation by Child Protective Services for child neglect and abuse.

The Trump administration is using refugee and migrant children as political pawns to force Congress to negotiate on the issue of immigration and Trump’s border wall, and to deter parents from seeking asylum or trying to enter the United States illegally. It is morally wrong to punish innocent children for their parent’s illegal entry; and yet imprisonment, detention, and the accompanying trauma is the penalty to paid by refugee and migrant children who reach the U.S. border. The policy of zero-tolerance is cruel and unusual punishment for both parents and children, guilty of illegal entry (a misdemeanor) or not.

It is important to point out that many of these families are refugees fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States. In other words, they are not migrants entering the country illegally, except in the sense that most refugees enter their host country illegally, which is to say without proper documentation. Most people fleeing totalitarian regimes have difficulty obtaining passports or other official documentation. The Immigration and Naturalization Act allows refugees to seek asylum whether they enter through a port of entry or not and whether or not they have passports.

The current zero-tolerance policy not only violates national law, but also international law. The fundamental principle of the United Nations Convention on Refugees stipulates that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom, what is called the principle of non-refoulement. While poverty and climate change may cause displacement and threaten life and freedom, and while in these cases the distinction between refugees and economic migrants becomes more difficult, international law is clear that those fleeing persecution in countries that cannot or will not protect them, are considered refugees and not migrants. For better or worse, the distinction between refugee and migrant is central to international law protecting refugees from non-refoulement.

The Trump administration is violating international law insofar as they do not recognize the distinction between refugees and migrants. Even those already in the U.S. are not safe. In May, the Trump administration ended the policy of Temporary Protected Status for 90,000 Central Americans living in the United States, threatening to deport refugees who will face violence and possible death if returned. And, for the record, the current administration has set the lowest cap on refugees in U.S. history.

Tens of thousands of women and children flee violence in the Northern Triangle region of Central America, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and seek asylum in the United States and Mexico. Worldwide, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala rank first, third, and seventh, respectively, for rates of homicides of women. Most of the refugees from this region are women escaping repeated rape, assault, extortion, threats from armed criminal gangs, watching their children being recruited into gangs or killed, and watching other family members being murdered or disappeared, while authorities do nothing. Often, they reach a breaking point when their lives are in imminent danger unless they flee immediately. But escaping presents its own dangers, as women are forced to pay exorbitant fees to “coyotes” and then suffer more rape, beating, and sometimes murder by these human traffickers. If they reach Mexico or the United States, these women face detention, a lack of adequate health care, and lengthy interrogations, which too often exacerbate their psychological trauma; and then, there is no guarantee that they will be given asylum rather than sent back home to face more violence.

Today, in addition to these dangers, if they reach what should be safe asylum, women escaping gang violence at home, face the trauma of separation from their children. These women risk their lives to protect their children, only to have them taken away.

People escaping violence and abuse should be welcomed as refugees and not treated as criminals. Even when parents cross the border illegally, their children should not be punished, especially not with the trauma of separation and detention. The Trump administration’s policies are immoral, if not also illegal. The policy of separating children from their parents is cruel and unusual punishment, in many cases levied against refugees, who are protected by international law.


Kelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of sixteen scholarly books, and the editor of another eleven books, including Carceral Humanitarianism: The Logic of Refugee Detention (University of Minnesota 2017); Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, winner of a 2016 Choice Magazine Award (Columbia 2016); Earth and World: Philosophy After the Apollo Missions (Columbia 2015), Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment (Fordham 2013); Knock me up, Knock me down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Film (Columbia 2012); Animal Lessons: How They Teach us to be Human (Columbia 2009); Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media (2007); The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Oppression (Minnesota 2004); Noir Anxiety: Race, Sex, and Maternity in Film Noir (Minnesota 2002); and perhaps her best known work, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minnesota 2001). Her work has been translated into eight languages. She has been interviewed on ABC News, appeared on CSPAN Books, and published in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Most recently, she has published three novels in the Jessica James Mystery Series (which have won the IPPY award for Best Mystery, The Silver Falchion Award, and The Claymore Award). More information: www.kellyoliverbooks.com.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Wildflower Series #3: A day full of prairie

Butterfly weed, like other milkweeds, is a host plant for monarch butterfly
larvae, who eat the leaves. Unlike other milkweeds, this one has clear sap
and flowers that range from pale yellow-orange to vivid orange to deep red.


We’ve been to the big woods to see the springtime flowers, we’ve been up north for a second spring (and even a bit of a third spring this past weekend near Duluth). Now we’ve a hankering for the prairie flowers, so Sunday we headed out to McKnight Prairie, the closest undisturbed prairie we know of, located seven miles from Northfield in the midst of a tree farm and corn fields.

As soon as we stepped onto the path that leads up the nearer of the two hills that make up McKnight Prairie, I was jotting names in my notebook while Kelly snapped pictures: tall meadow rue, Canada milkvetch, golden Alexanders, Canada anemone, clammy ground cherry, and northern bedstraw were all blooming, and scattered spires of prairie alumroot shot up above the grasses and flowers. Prairie roses dotted the green with their bright pink petals, and along the hilltop we found the leaves of many pasque flowers, which must have made for a glorious early spring sight. Usually Kelly puts her camera back in her camera bag between pictures, but on this visit she just kept shooting flower after flower after flower.

Prairie rose plants are the shortest of Minnesota's four native roses,
growing up to three feet tall, with bristly stems and leaves
made up of several jagged-edged leaflets.

No matter what kind of puccoon we see
(pictured here is hairy puccoon), they
light up the early prairie.

Pussytoes, puccoon, blue-eyed grass, butterfly-weed already turning orange—everywhere we looked the prairie was awake with flowers. On the second hillside the prickly pear cactuses were budding, larkspur bloomed, harebells danced and prairie smoke gone to seed rippled in the endless wind while several white camas bloomed brightly. Down the sweep of the hillside we recognized spiderwort and prairie sage. The only worrying sight was the large-flowered beardtongue, which seemed blighted by spots on the leaves with only a few plants flowering, something we want to find out more about.

We took our time following the path back along the hills, soaking up the prairie and identifying one more new-to-us flower: green milkweed. Back at the car I pulled ticks off my socks (white socks so the ticks show up), and we drove home on a perfect prairie day, filled up with wind and flowers and sky.

Like many other spring flowers, prairie smoke's stalks and bracts
are very hairy. Bees that pollinate prairie smoke do so by buzz
pollination—vibrating their bodies to shake the pollen out of the flower.


Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo spent ten years collaborating on Searching for Minnesota's Native Wildflowers: A Guide for Beginners, Botanists, and Everyone in Between. Check back on this blog as they document their wildflower-seeking adventures this summer.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Governing the countryside: On modernity and progress in rural South Dakota.

University of California, Berkeley

How should we make sense of “red states” and “blue states,” and in a way that does not fall victim to the political polarization that seems to have reached a crescendo in the present? My new book, Power and Progress on the Prairie, seeks to uncover the history of power (legal, political and social) in the Rosebud Country of South Dakota—power that has saturated the relations between the heartland and Washington, DC, since South Dakota became a state in 1889. While it may be that those who designed, enacted, and implemented national policy affecting the heartland had benevolent intentions, the forms of influence that they wielded often harmed and were resented by those people who live in the heartland (both Indian and non-Indian).

Power and Progress on the Prairie focuses on the policies and practices of governing that the federal government (both in Washington and in its local agencies in South Dakota) put into place to “improve” Indian and non-Indian people and their lands. For example, the allotment policy for Lakota people was designed to break up collective tribal landholdings into individual tracts of 160 acres or 320 acres (depending on whether the land was for farming or grazing), just as the homestead laws (which benefited primarily whites) were meant to populate the public domain with small-scale farmers. This Jeffersonian policy for individualizing land ownership in order to found a primarily rural and agrarian society was generally not seen as onerous by either Lakota or non-Indian people in South Dakota, even though it was a policy invented by elites in the east.

Less benign from the point of view of South Dakotans was the early-twentieth-century project to make them into “progressive” farmers and farm-wives (the policy was deeply gendered). For Lakota people, the goal was to “civilize” them by eradicating Native culture (and language) and discipline them to think and act like full-time farm families. Day schools and boarding schools (run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Jesuits, and the Episcopalians) would do some of this disciplining. The rest would be done by the Bureau of Indian Affairs “agent” (later, “superintendent”) at the Rosebud Agency and his field staff. The aim was to keep Indian families focused on the task of raising crops and tending to livestock, to get them to prudently plan for the future (the assumption was that Indians were present- or past-, not future-, oriented), and to encourage them to be rational in their use of time, money, and property. In the process, Lakota culture was systematically denigrated, consigned to the “primitive” past, and Lakota people suffered profound personal scarring in and out of boarding schools. This is part of the colonial legacy of the policy to “civilize” or “modernize” Native people that still has repercussions in the present.

The Cooperative Extension Service took essentially the same approach to improving non-Indian farm families. While farmers and farm wives did not feel personally stigmatized by the teachings of the Extension Service, they were aware that their seat-of-the-pants approach to making ends meet on the farm was rejected by the uplifters as “backward.” The aim was to teach farmers to think like businessmen, to keep detailed records of expenses, assets, and revenue, and to identify precisely how they could improve their bottom line. Many farm families came to see this project to improve them as nonsense, invented by “theorists” who had never been real “dirt farmers.”

The advice of outsiders—or those working at the behest of outsiders in Washington or the (quite distant) South Dakota State Agricultural College—became even more burdensome during the New Deal. In the face of the Dust Bowl and the Depression crash of agricultural prices, the New Dealers sought to socially re-engineer rural society. Instead of seeking to maximize the production of cash crops and livestock, farmers and ranchers would now be paid a fee to reduce production; the idea was that prices had declined because of “overproduction” relative to demand. What is more, farmers and ranchers were encouraged to practice forms of agriculture that protected the land (for example, contour plowing, crop stripping, and fallowing) for “future generations,” even if they reduced farm income in the present. Farmers were criticized by the Department of Agriculture and the Extension Service for being “individualists” who needed to develop “social responsibility,” and turn their backs on their habitual ways of doing things (much of which has been encouraged earlier by the Extension Service). To rural people who had long had their own forms of commitment to the greater good (for example, through military service, church participation, and commitment to neighbors), the collectivist vision of the New Dealers was deeply suspect. While the history of “red state” and “blue state” resentments is complex, finishing this book up at our present moment in American politics has convinced me that much of the left-vs.-right ill will in American politics—and particularly the suspicion of the heartland toward the East and West Coasts—originated during the New Deal. This suspicion of certain outside theories is not at all unlike the understandable suspicion of Lakota people toward the larger, non-Indian society and its ideas about “the Indian problem.”

One of the founders of anthropological method, Bronislaw Malinowski, once described the goal of ethnography as the struggle “to understand the native’s point of view.” In other words, the idea is to translate the thinking of “the native” (the community understudy) in terms that allow one to see the rationality of native thought and behavior—indeed, how one would think and act in the same way in the native’s shoes. Inevitably, this methodological base has ethical and moral implications. The scholar must seek to understand, not critique, the community understudy—in my case, a “red state.” I cannot overstate my deep appreciation for what I have learned from both Indian and non-Indian people in South Dakota, both those I have talked to formally and informally, and those whose thoughts and feelings I have read in the archives. My book is a hopefully not-too-feeble attempt to offer a different kind of scholarly understanding of a special place in a red state.


Thomas Biolsi is author of Power and Progress on the Prairie: Governing People on Rosebud Reservation. Biolsi teaches Native American studies and comparative ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been conducting research on Rosebud Reservation for thirty years. His previous books include Deadliest Enemies: Law and Race Relations on and off Rosebud Reservation (Minnesota, 2007) and Organizing the Lakota: The Political Economy of the New Deal on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations.

"An insightful, empowering read for those working to understand U.S. policy over time in rural contexts and Indian-White relations in the context of State interventions, this book will help students think creatively and confidently about operationalizing political economic theory over space and time to unpack the messy and incomplete process of governing rural America."
—Beth Rose Middleton, University of California, Davis

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

From Amazon's Dash Button to Google Glass: Is there no limit to the capabilities of today's radical neurotechnologies?

"Feeling lurks in that interval of time between desire and its consummation. Shorten that interval, break down all those old unnecessary barriers."
—Aldous Huxley, Brave New World



In 2016 Amazon introduced a new range of products called Dash Buttons. These are pocket-sized internet-enabled interfaces consisting simply of one button mapped to a specific branded item enabling users to instantly order from an extraordinary range of household goods all at the touch of a button. Once set up these buttons can be mounted on the wall in convenient locations around the house and with one press they bypass all of the usual mechanisms involved when ordering online. So if you are low on beer, for example, you simply press the Heineken Dash Button and wait for 24 cans to be delivered to your door. Adam Greenfield’s recent book Radical Technologies (Verso, 2017) takes Dash Buttons to represent the "apotheosis" of a certain "tendency": one that "as nearly as possible" aims to "short-circuit the process of reflection that stands between one’s recognition of a desire and its fulfillment via the market." A name for this tendency was coined in the late 19th century by the Italian intellectual Guillaume Ferrero: the law of least effort. It is closely related to what Sigmund Freud around the same time referred to as the principle of constancy, which underpins both the pleasure principle and the death drive.

Twice, when discussing the significance of these devices, Greenfield uses the expression "as nearly as possible," which suggests a movement toward a limit: as nearly as possible, technology developers seek to condense the interval of time, deliberation, and effort between the experience of an intention, a desire, or a need, and its satisfaction. One of the core theses of my book is that with the advent of neurotechnologies, most notably brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), this limit is reached. A BCI works by recording electrical brain signals and translating them into instructions for operating a computer-controlled device, setting up a direct communication channel between brain and machine. It typically involves the user being given a cognitive task, such as focusing their attention on a particular option from a screen, or engaging in "motor imagery," which means imagining the movement of a limb. The associated brainwaves are matched by signal processing algorithms to a particular operation, thereby facilitating the psychical control of an electronic device by the operator explicitly intending the task to be performed.

Consumer applications for neurotechnologies are still in their infancy but fast growing. Two notable examples are an accessory for Google’s (now defunct) wearable device Google Glass called Mind RDR, which enabled thought-controlled navigation through all of its features, and a computer game called Throw Trucks With Your Mind, purportedly lending you "telekinetic super-powers controlled with your thoughts" (an example of the nascent field known as "neurogaming"). Both applications use a commercially available BCI headset called MindWave, manufactured by consumer electronics company Neurosky. The customer base of such products is limited to a hardcore contingent of early adopters and tech enthusiasts, however, given Elon Musk’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s well-documented interest in neurotechnology, it seems likely that we can expect to see more investment in this area in the coming years. Already, many of our household appliances, from the thermostat and lighting to telecommunications and entertainment systems, can be integrated wirelessly into one networked, centrally controlled system. With the rate at which neurotechnology is advancing it is entirely plausible to imagine that at some stage within the next few decades this could all be activated merely by thought.

So even that most minimal physical intervention of pressing a single button to accomplish a goal, as with the Amazon Dash Buttons, is here superseded: the intention alone brings about its own realization, bypassing altogether the need for physical activity of any sort. Recalling the title of Greenfield’s book, I would thus venture to say, categorically, that there is no more radical technology than neurotechnology. Here "radical" is to be understood in the etymological sense of going to the root, or origin. The root in question is what F.W.J. Schelling called our original finitude, from which all experience derives: the existential fact of being limited to a self-enclosed subjective interiority, separated both from the outside world and from other minds.

It is common to hear how the internet functions as an externalisation of our nervous system, and indeed all technological advances can be seen as compensation for finite limitations, whether it be writing to supplement the shortcomings of our memory, the wheel to improve our mobility, clothing to compensate for our hairlessness, telecommunications to increase the reach of our voices, and so on. What is unique and unprecedented about neurotechnologies is that they do not just act on one limitation among others but on the very limit that constitutes us as finite selves. As such, neurotechnologies are not just one technical apparatus among others. This is not an empirical, bodily limit but a transcendental one.

My claim is that neurotechnologies represent something of a terminal point in the narrative of human enhancement and a testing ground for speculative enquiries into the extent of our abilities to technologically transcend our limitations, which Transhumanists consider to be our destiny and our essence. The question that I explore in my book, through a range of varied theoretical models spanning psychoanalysis, metaphysics, aesthetics, and phenomenology, is whether in operating right at this limit, at the very point where interiority meets exteriority, is our finitude overcome or reinforced. The "end of finitude" of the title should thus be read as something that is in question rather than a categorical assertion.


Michael Haworth is a writer based in London. Haworth is author of Neurotechnology and the End of Finitude. He completed his PhD at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

"Neurotechnology and the End of Finitude is a highly original and profound scholarly inquiry into the impact of technology on our understanding of art and of communication more generally. Michael Haworth is one of the most talented researchers working in the humanities today."
—Alexander García Düttmann, Universität der Künste, Berlin

Monday, June 4, 2018

What Nazi exhibitions tell us about how the far right engages audiences today


Lecturer in art history at the University of Essex

For many people, events such as the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, with its torchlight parade, eagle-emblazoned shields and Nazi flags, bring with them uncomfortable reminders of fascist visual culture from the 1920s to 1945.

While individuals and organisations associated with the far right have long appropriated elements from fascist visual culture, the sheer brazenness with which symbols and images were appropriated in Charlottesville, the ensuing violence, and the proliferation of photographs and videos depicting these events made the spectre of fascism seem disconcertingly close.

If we wish to understand how the far right engages audiences today, it is useful to reflect on how fascist visual culture functioned nearly a century ago – particularly in Germany, where the most virulently racist and antisemitic strand of fascism took hold.

Fascist visual culture is an expansive and heterogeneous field of study, and I make no pretence of speaking for the field in its entirety. But my recent research about National Socialist exhibitions has helped give me an understanding of the complex ways in which fascist visual culture motivated audiences.

Nazi exhibitions are largely known for their role in attacking modern art – a role exemplified by the notoriety and popular success of the Entartete Kunst or “Degenerate Art” exhibition, which reached several million visitors while touring Germany and Austria between 1937 and 1941.

But what is less well known is that many Nazi exhibitions – from exhibitions celebrating economic achievements to those promoting antisemitism – served as sites of formal experimentation for artists, architects and graphic designers to draw upon and reconfigure modernist ideas and practices. You can see this in the space designed by the architect Egon Eiermann for the 1937 exhibition Gebt mir vier Jahre Zeit, which promoted Nazi Germany’s recently announced Four Year Plan.

As I explain in my book, Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism, a core motivation for the experimental approaches to Nazi exhibition design was an interest in provoking what I call “engaged spectatorship”. This term describes attempts to design exhibitions in ways that beckoned visitors to become involved in wider processes of social and political change. One such example is the way designers for the 1937–38 exhibition Der ewige Jude (The eternal Jew) used plunging walls, dark lighting and other devices to create a theatrical sense of angst among spectators while viewing images of Jews in order to broaden support for antisemitic policies.

The concept of engaged spectatorship arguably has implications for how we think about the visual culture of the far right today, even if I do not discuss these implications in the book itself. For example, exhibitions may no longer be a dominant platform for disseminating political ideas, largely because other media have overtaken this function – particularly social media.

But when we think broadly about the visual culture of the far right today – from anti-immigrant posters and Nazi salutes among white supremacists to internet memes that make more cryptic references to fascism – all such examples engage spectators in roughly similar ways as Nazi exhibitions. On the one hand, they heighten the individual’s sense of belonging within a community. On the other hand, they attempt to stoke fear and anger against those excluded from this community based on race, religion, or other criteria.

But there’s a crucial difference. Whereas Nazi exhibitions brought spectators together in a physical space to create what the German philosopher Walter Benjamin called, in 1936, an experience of “simultaneous collective reception”, the far right today places much greater emphasis on virtual communities.

There were certainly attempts to create virtual communities under National Socialism and fascism more generally – above all through radio and film, which complemented audiences’ experiences in the physical spaces of exhibitions, rallies and other forms of spectacle. But the virtual communities of the far right today are defined largely by user-driven content. This includes user-created imagery posted with comments to imageboard sites, vlogs uploaded to YouTube, or materials produced by others that users share via various social media platforms.

This user-driven content extends the core interest in engaging audiences. However, it does so in more personalised and dynamic ways that more emphatically break down the distinction between the producers and audiences of content. User-driven content within virtual communities also engages audiences in ways that are more bottom-up than top-down. This gives the feeling of a grassroots movement, even though such bottom-up content is often shaped by governments, political parties, or other organisations posting via fake social-media accounts or harvesting social media data to optimise the materials that users see and share.

At first glance, the formal experimentation used in Nazi exhibition design to foster engaged spectatorship might seem antithetical to the imagery generated by members of the far right today, which is sometimes slick but frequently has a clunky, DIY quality. Yet it is precisely this content that constitutes the most disturbingly experimental frontier of the far right’s efforts to engage audiences through visual culture. You can see this in the multiple layers of irony, the elaborate meme culture and the mash up of imagery from historical and contemporary sources that define posts on 4chan and other far right-friendly online hangouts.

As one striking example, take a look at this image; modelled on a 1935–38 Nazi war flag, the image was posted online as a flag for Kekistan, the fictional country invented by users of 4chan’s discussion board. The image has since found its way onto countless banners in political rallies, largely functioning as a way to acknowledge the carrier’s support for ideas associated with the far right – all under the guise of playful irreverence and political incorrectness.

Seen from this perspective, although the concept of engaged spectatorship was conceived as a way of analysing Nazi exhibitions, it also provides a springboard for considering some overlaps and differences between the visual culture of the far right today and that of interwar fascism.

Such comparisons, in turn, may help us better understand how visual culture today continues to encourage individuals to think or behave in ways that advance ideas rooted in nativism and violence. This is vital at a moment when – much like the interwar period – these ideas are rapidly shifting from the margins to the mainstream.


This piece was first published in The Conversation.


Michael Tymkiw is author of Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism. Tymkiw is lecturer in art history at the University of Essex.