Saturday, June 20, 2020

Vetoed Dreams: Theodore A. Harris

Theodore A. Harris. Vetoed Dreams. 1995
Theodore A. Harris
Vetoed Dreams
Mixed media collage on paper
1995
Collection Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 


Overview:  A young black male child wearing a bandana or face mask looks at us, his forehead perhaps scarred. Behind half of his head we see a large red stripe; to the right we see an inverted image of the US Capitol. The image of the child is taken from a photograph of a Rwandan boy, wearing a mask to protect himself from the stench of victims of the vast genocide of 1994.

Mark Auslander: Although created a quarter century ago in the immediate aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, this image of a vulnerable masked child speaks to us with startling urgency today, as the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic--from which face masks offer partial, though by no means complete, protection. The upside down US Capitol dome, then as now, is a reminder of ineffective US governmental response: how many lives might have been saved, in 1994 or 2020, had those in power acted with more foresight, decisiveness, and moral courage?

The image is centered on a young Rwanda male, wearing a face mask to protect himself against the overwhelming stench of rotting bodies. The mask has the function of highlighting his eyes, which look directly out at us, silent reminders of the failures of the international community, and especially the US government, to intervene to limit the mass killings by state-sanctioned militias.

Alfredo Jaar
The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, 1996
The work of the eyes is rather like those in Alfredo Jaar's  "The Eyes of Gutete Emerita" (1996), created a year after Harris' collage. Jaar's eyes pose a haunting accusation to the world, for failing to prevent the massacre in Rwanda's Ntamara Church. For Jaar, as for Harris, the worst illness of our era is a failure of empathy and of outrage, the numbing of passionate care and concern for others. A silent, gazing pair of eyes constitutes the most fundamental appeal to see the self in the other, the I in the Thou, to fully acknowledge the pain of others and the common dignity of all sentient life.

Viewed in the mid-1990s, the vertical red stripe behind the young man, which intensifies the color of his bandana and the downward slashes of his forehead scars, bought to mind the flows of blood from the hundreds of thousands of mutilated corpses, as well as the Kagera River, through which tens of thousands of murdered bodies floated  from Rwanda down to Lake Victoria in Uganda, irrefutable evidence of the horrors unfolding upriver.  The parallelism between the youth's black head and the rotund shape of the white Capitol building is striking, and is made even stronger by the now-downward direction of the spire, evocative perhaps of the governmental inaction, which in effect pierced the victims as sharply as any machete.

Masks as Racial Signifiers

Reconsidering the work in 2020 our minds inevitably turn to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of color, as converging co-morbidities linked to prexisting medical conditions are intensified through histories of poverty, deficient medical care, and racialized geographies.  
There is at the present moment a strange racial politics to the wearing of masks in the United States; those on the right who refuse to wear masks to protect themselves or others against the disease are by and large sympathetic to white nationalist positions (even if they do not consciously acknowledge that sympathy). They insist that the mask is an infringement on their personal freedom. This stance can be read as implicitly racially coded, in light of the thoughtful analysis by Adam Serwer in his essay in the Atlantic, "The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying."  Building on Charles Mills' concept of the 'racial contract,'  Serwer argues that Trump's supporters are motivated first and foremost by a politics of resentment against the undercutting of an older system of unquestioned higher status for whites; and that as it became clear that communities of color were predominantly at risk of mortality from Covid-19, resolve to combat the pandemic diminished proportionally, both in the Trump administration and in "Red"-governed states.

In the puzzling alchemy of race in the US of 2020, to refuse to wear a mask (fully revealing one's face) has become a kind of public affirmation of white identity, while wearing a mask is coded as signaling a commitment to a multiracial compact of mutual care as foundational to the democratic experiment. (This is, as many have noted, a striking contrast to the association of masks and white racial terror during the periods of the first and second Klan.)

As I write these words, these dynamics are pointedly on view in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the weekend of Juneteenth, as thousands of Trump supporters, overwhelmingly white, flock for the President's first mass rally of the pandemic era, most refusing to wear masks, as  a multiracial alliance of protesters, galvanized around #GeorgeFloyd and #BlackLivesMatter, converge on the city, most of them likely to wear masks. All this unfolds at the site of the nation's most horrific pogrom against African Americans, on the eve of its centennial. Two Americas, one masked, one unmasked. An ethic of mutual care and transracial solidarity, opposed to an ethos of ostensibly rugged individualism and an assertion that 'race doesn't matter anymore' (an alibi, of course, for the transmuted white nationalist stance).  Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter.

The Capitol, in Free Fall

I am also fascinated by the way in which this image centers on the image of the upside-down Legislature as a stand-in for Federal government failure, even though so much of the responsibility for the failures of both the 1994 response to Rwanda and the 2020 responses to the novel coronavirus rests with the Executive Branch.  This ambiguity is millennia-old, of course: the Roman Empire identified itself through the initials, SPQR, Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (The Roman Senate and People). Even when the Emperor had  long superseded the actual decision-making functions of the Senate, the legal fiction endured that he governed as an expression of the Senate and the popular will of the people of Rome.  

We may be approaching a similar moment in the United States, in which the Republican-led Senate appears to have abdicated all oversight responsibilities, bending to the will of an increasingly autocratic Executive. The Executive power of the "veto," even when it is not exercised, seems to have cowed the upper branch of the legislature into staggering passivity, putting at risk, in the current crisis, hundreds of thousands of lives (especially the lives of persons of color, imperiled by militarized policing and public health failures.
The power of the "Veto, " referenced in the collage/s title, also dates back to Ancient Rome, to the power of the Tribune to block action by the Senate, and to supersede conventional law by virtue of ostensibly standing for the whole of society, having, as the keeper of law, the ultimate power to suspend all laws under emergency conditions. These paradoxes are brilliantly explored in Giorgio Agamben's book,  Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life" (1998).  Agamben centers his discussion on the figure of the Homo Sacer, a person condemned to live outside of the shadow of law, so that any person may kill him, while his body is deemed unworthy of serving as a sacrifice in ritual action. This shadowy figure, Agamben argues, continues in the modern world, which renders permanent a "state of exception" that legitimates mass violence against certain designated classes of people, cast outside of the "spell of law,"  by an executive that claims to embody the totality of society.  Hence the road to Auschwitz, to the massacre sites of Rwanda and Srebrenica,  to the confining of migrant children in border cages and to the present-day abdication by those in power of the duty to care for persons of color most threatened by a global pandemic. 

I have a final thought, inspired by that other set of eyes immortalized in Alfred Jaar's work.  Some years ago, we organized with the Waltham Family School a series of workshops for refugee and new immigrant women, who crafted recorded testimonies about major works of art in the collection of Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.   One woman, recently arrived from war-torn western Guatemala, was deeply taken with  The Eyes of Gutete Emerita.  She was not very familiar with the Rwandan genocide, but she knew, she said, the eyes of women survivors of any violent civil conflict. "For men, she says, a war stops when the bullets stop flying. But for us women, another, real war starts at that moment.  Our menfolk come home, having seen such horror, and we must wait watchfully, wondering what did he do to survive, and what might he do, because of that, to me and my children? Will we ever see kindness again?"

Midway through our annus horribilis of 2020, her question seems more urgent than ever,  posed in a new register by those haunting eyes, still staring out at us from Jaar's work and  Harris' "Vetoed Dreams." There is a kind of rage afoot in the contemporary US rightist white sector, coalesced around the Trump cult of personality, which seems to have cast people of color, and by partial extension their allies, as outside the penumbra of social protection, as alien beings whose lives are trifling.  No mask will be worn to protect them. They must be driven with tear gas from the public square. Increasingly guns can be fired at will. Knees taken to the throat. 

Will we ever see kindness again? 

Ellen Schattschneider:   Mark concentrates on the first word of Harris' title, "Vetoed. " I am especially intrigued by his second word, "Dreams." What precisely are we being asked to awaken from, then and now, through this piercing image?  In this light I am inclined to approach the work, both in its original 1995 framing and in how we read it 25 years later, through the psychoanalytic concept of "disavowal," which for Freud was vital to unpacking our dreaming and waking lives.   Unlike the psychic function of repression, in which a threatening impulse or scenario tends to be deeply buried in the mind, that which is "disavowed" rests relatively close to the surface, and is hedged about with constant strategies to prevent full recognition of a truth that is in a profound sense known, although it cannot be spoken or manifestly acknowledged.  As Freud notes, the mind actively and "obstinately defends" itself against overt perceptual evidence, to prevent potentially disturbing or traumatic realizations.

In that sense, one of the most important elements of Harris' image is the white field below the inverted Capitol dome, an enveloping miasma of denialism, as if "white-out," used to cover up typing errors, has been spread across the surface.  In one reading, the white fog of disavowal, enhanced by the whiteness of the upside-down Capitol, organizes the right half of the canvas as "safe" and "neutral," in contrast to the deeply disturbing left side, associated with death and terror through the palates of red and black.  The distinction is consistent with Robert Hertz's (1907)  famous anthropological discussion of Death and handedness, previously noted in these pages; in diverse world cultures, the left hand is symbolically associated with death, darkness, and danger, while the right is associated with life, protection, and light.  (Harris appropriately complicates and subverts this conventional distinction, as a proud band of black resolutely extends into the right half of the canvas, above the Capitol dome.)

At one level, "veto" could refer, as Mark suggests, to the exercise of Presidential power to thwart proper, righteous action.  The state has failed to answer the understandable dreams of the people of Rwanda, or Bosnia, or Central America,  or persons of color on local streets, for peace and justice, and in that sense the nation has vetoed their dreams. As we have seen this week, the #BlackLivesMatter movement's call for serious police reform has faced de facto veto in the Senate, even without a formal Presidential rejection.

But perhaps, in a deeper sense, the work's call for justice is actually an insistence that the dream of disavowal, of systematic failure to apprehend reality, will itself be vetoed, or actively pierced by the accumulated weight of history.

Disavowal in the long term never really works, and that crucial truth is, to my mind, the point of the image. The white mist might be read, not simply as the blanking out of reality,  nor only as a racialized "white out" but rather as two spectral hands, irrepressibly returning to take hold of the Capitol. Perhaps the souls of those whose enslaved hands built this very building, as well as the nation, are rising up to demand a long-delayed accounting. (How appropriate that the upper dome of the Library of Congress, the nation's repository of knowledge and history, is just barely visible over the inverted Capitol's flank: even in our era of systematic, wilful ignorance,  the flame of wisdom and rationality isn't quite wiped out.) 

In 2020, amidst a pandemic whose severity is being actively denied by President Trump and his supporters, the dynamics of disavowal are undiminished, albeit in a novel register.  The complaint by white rightists and libertarians that wearing a mask is a 'constraint' on their personal freedom, actively "masks," I suggest, an underlying resistance to the harness of social responsibility, to taking civic-mindedness seriously, to entering into the social contract.  To say that I am free only inasmuch as I am a sovereign state unto myself, independent of others, is an act of pathological disavowal, a refusal to recognize how deeply bound to one another we actually are, from our initial bond to our mother onwards.  Today, to don the mask in the public square is to acknowledge, at the end of the day,  that we are our brothers and sisters' keepers. Our very breath, which gives us life, can transmit danger to others, and our promise to one another is to try to keep our shared air, from which draw breath, as safe as possible.  

The spectacle of white folks gathered, proudly and defiantly maskless on Florida beaches or around state capitols, insisting that they are in God's hands,  is perhaps the epitome of disavowal. My actions don't matter since I will be taken care by the Lord (who, it may be assumed, is white like me). It's just those other people, over there, who are the problem. They may be constrained by society (and by masks) but I am free. The point about the white "racial contract" as the fundamental unmarked category in American society,  is that it makes a claim to not being a contract at all. It is simply the natural order of things. Anything else is catering to "special interests."

A person can try, as hard as they might, to maintain the dream illusion that like the Capitol in Harris' montage, they exist only on terms of their own making, on their own island, in full disavowal of the fires burning an ocean away, or three blocks away. But the arc of history does have a way of bending, and even the dream-universe of total self-mastery (the ultimate fantasy, it should be noted,  of the Confederate slaveocracy) has a way of going topsy-turvy and tumbling down.  That spire of the Capitol just might pierce the dream world of the sanctified Self, whatever elaborate defenses the Ego has deployed.

None of this is without irony. The Statue of Freedom on the Capitol's apex was, we now know, partly cast and erected by enslaved persons.  The weight of history's injustices rests upon the very nation's ultimate symbol of liberty, the gleaming dome of the US Capitol. Yet, in our ability to recognize those long denied truths as self-evident, we can awake ourselves from the dream of a past denied, and marching together, celebrate a new birth of freedom. 

References

Hertz, Robert, 1960 (1907). Death and the Right Hand (trans. Rodney and Claudia Needham.) London: Cohen and West 















2 comments: