• The Politics of Instagram: War, Apartheid, and Aesthetics

    by  • March 4, 2013 • Sasha • 0 Comments


    The Dictator is a Hipster!

    Today, there is an interesting Guardian report on the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has just opened a new twitter account. He bemoans the problem that “if, for people, Instagram is just entertainment, for me it’s an additional burden.” Already we have the dictatorial language of ennui: “everyone else has fun except me” becomes “pay attention to me, I’m the one who needs attention; only me.” “I am supposedly the oppressor, but here can’t you see how I can feel so oppressed, too?” We find the great Kadyrov—a violator of human rights, torturer, etc.—in domestic scenes with wives and children, cradling farm animals, feeding chickens; or in international diplomatic scenes representing national pride albeit among international elites.

    Isn’t there a terrible similarity here to the recent blog about the IDF soldiers’ instagram photos showing their mundane experiences visiting friends, hanging out at a diner, on the airplane, taking photos of themselves infront of mirrors—generally acting like normal 19 year-olds? Was this not a release of similar discursive value? In Gaza today, the State of Israel introduced “separate” buses for Arabs. Because they are “a security risk,” Palestinians must now ride on separate buses, as well as being sequestered behind an illegal wall that separates them from their homeland. This is the very nature of the apartheid state, but we find on the other side, with the IDF forces who cement these boundaries between human and bare life, a sense of ennui, liberal melancholy, romantic yearnings for “something else.”

    When we see these “normal” teenagers or this “normal” 30-something adult acting as we do, do we not have a twinge of sympathy? Of course, the rejoinder is: they are too much like us, the sympathy becomes uncomfortable; the minimal distance between ourselves and the violent agitators, violators of human rights, etc., is as thin as a filter on an iPhone—sometimes not even that thin.

    The instagram milieu is already a painful play on teleology. We re-visit a ’50s vintage aesthetic, the feeling of a polaroid photo having been thrown in a hatchback for years, producing a grainy, filmy texture on our old, beloved momento. The effect is a time-erasure. We appear today viewing yesterday’s quotidian through a lens of having been decades ago, although it really only just occurred. We are instructed by this apparatus to view our mundane existence as precious, fleeting, to cherish our hours and hold on to our memories of today. It makes sense in Marxist terms, since instagram is meant to present true recreation, the wasting of time, a kind of decadent filming of the past today to skip the nostalgia of old age and live life to the fullest today—as Marx said, “since labor is motion, time is its natural measure” with a work day wherein “time itself [is] regarded as space” and eventually the global market leads to “annihilation of space by time.” If the workers’ time becomes the eradication of their space to move and be free, the bourgeoisie expropriates that time in the form of surplus value. The oppressive class will always “have the time.” We have a destruction of Schillerian nature as the force that produces in this extraction of time and destruction of space (via apartheid, dictatorship, etc.).

    Regarding Digital Rations

    But there is a modest rejoinder to the relentless critical gaze we must take. We might approach the subject through the perspective of raw emotional content, as though taking the side of Rosalind Hursthouse, who insists that “we value ourselves and each other as emotional creatures—not as rational-emotional in the way pinpointed by Aristotle, but as just plain emotional—and do not believe that the perfect human being would never act arationally.” Soldiers taking instagram shots of one another (or themselves, as the case may be) expresses the triumph of the human spirit that arationally perseveres through kindness and tenderness. But this expression of gentleness, the life-world of soldiers in their ‘time off’, is precisely where instagram illustrates how human nature goes terribly awry, where the junction of emotion and intent brings on climactic breaks with reality and rational action.

    Like counterinsurgency strategy, the instagram software humanizes the oppressor. We can see that inside the IDF or even Kadyrov are nice people with human emotions—they do not intend to harm anyone, it is simply the way things are. What about iPhone’s manufactories in East Asia where the workers are subjected to 12-hour days for a pittance–could we imagine their instagrams; minutes stolen from the observing managers as they have time to try on zany outfits or visit the arcades? It is somehow less likely of a scenario, but that simple problem leads to the daunting question: Does it make a difference that Apple is instructing us to cherish our moments? What about through extension, it is Kadyrov who is delighting in this instruction and passing it on to us—his laborious postings of instagram photos bearing a kind of stain of banal, terrible injustice of everyday life.

    Classic Lomography

    An antipode to modern instagram can be found in the usage of Soviet-era Lomo cameras. The Lomo were distributed to the Soviet proletariat to present an image of everyday life in the USSR. It was supposed to be a futurist experiment to find the bright, vibrant Soviet family loving and living together. Rather than the ironic capitalist aesthetic, the Soviet Lomo was a kind of contented family trope. A kind of inward totality that ignored the gulag archipelago. In some ways, the aesthetic of totality is what instagram’s grainy surface lacks in its arational emotional content—but that is what makes it all the more brutal.

    It seems to me that instagram is like a new propaganda aesthetic for neoliberalism. Couldn’t we just imagine, for instance, that when the Nazis filmed what they wanted to project as the “tolerable and even comfortable conditions” of the concentration camps (viewing Jews milling around, eating, playing in the band, gardening, etc.) they would have used instagram to do it, as if to say “Let’s hold on to those precious memories, it may be banal and boring of us to enjoy doing this every day, but maybe if we think of time as already having passed, we will look back on it through a radical succor and realize we really did seize the day? We recognize that our lives are full of oppression, but don’t we just have fun here and there? Isn’t that, after all, what makes us human?

    But let me qualify this comment: we have just discovered that between 15-20 million people likely were imprisoned or killed during the Holocaust, not the 6 million figure we thought originally. This has been discovered by uncovering numerous capillary aspects of Nazi infrastructure, from smaller ghettos around Europe to unknown concentration camps in Eastern Europe. This doesn’t expose all of a sudden the shocking breach that the Holocaust represents in ordinary European life, but the traumatic problem that it was almost second nature to white Europeans to see the Jews go off into ghettos and then disappear. This was a normalized function of anti-semitism that had become so general.

    What about today? Will we not find out decades in the future that the CIAs rendition sites were much more diffused throughout the world than we thought? That there were far more intricate cells of murder, detainment, etc., than we previously thought? The number of Iraqis killed as a result of the Iraq War is now well over one million. Will, decades from now, we be surprised to find that this number was in fact only half the reality?

    The Bush Pose

    If we look with the borders of the US, we will find the answer is an emphatic “no!” With so many millions languishing behind bars, in detention centers and concentration camps like the tent city in Phoenix, Arizona, the state cannot even keep track. Perforce, we will need truth commissions to sort through the ashes of this contemporary inferno to find out how many millions were victims of the torture, humiliation, murder, genocide of “The New American Century.”

    Bush’s bathtub scene

    Yet the phenomenon of the “new dictator” whose mundane existence is only slightly different from ours is not only shared through instagram. What about George W Bush’s now-famous paintings? They are remarkable for their total rationalism, sterility even (the bathroom motif, stainless steel, clear edges and open spaces, etc) and sense of exile (open spaces, the mirror displacing the image in an almost-baroque fashion) as an Edward Hopper painting. They seem remorseful, as though something is missing, an open wound might be imagined, the fictional wound of christ, for instance. In the bathtub scene where all we see is the painter’s feet. The lack is, however, a lack of emotion, a lack of the haunting, that haunts the viewer instead. We have in Bush’s paintings a kind of obverse of instagram—a clear, focused image that still reflects only the mundane, silenced times, the banality of a razor on stubbled chin and over a million dead Iraquis whose soul lies just beyond the mirror’s reflection.

    Hopper’s “Morning Sun”

    David’s “Death of Marat”

    Isn’t this chilling objectivism, this apparent lack of ‘arationalism’ on canvas a kind of cruel twin of the other bathtub paintaing—Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat? In David’s stark portrayal of the slaying of the incendiary French revolutionary, Jean Paul Marat, there is a deep contrast between dark and light, the realism of wooden writing table and cloth sheets; the viewer feels eminently there as a heavenly light seems to take the spirit into a glowing transcendence (one can only imagine, the truth realm of Liberty). The presence of the wound in David’s scene is dialectically absent in the complacency of Bush’s tone. With Bush’s paintings, however, there is a kind of limpidity, a directly honest dimensionality of perspective; the viewer is caught in a “candid” almost humorous and bashful moment—the painter in the tub wherein the stillness of lack resides. What both images retain, however, is a kind of purity of form. There is a severe solemnity to Bush’s paintings, shown by the precise forms depicted. The reframing of dignity here, the generally limpid light which lacks real contrast, is an issuing of a kind of pragmatic temporality. No transcendence, I’m afraid, just an utterly human moment, like an image of purity captured by a Lomo camera.

    But what if this “human moment” is “all too human,” as Nietzsche wrote. What if it reveals something tacit about each of us? That we are all in this lack of transcendence, the dream of Liberty and aspiration is requited to the elimination of time and the boredom of civilization. Whether or not is observed or observable, there is an innate corruption of which we dare not speak.


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