Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras, Isaac Julien, Chantal Akerman, Raoul Peck, Zarina Bhimji, Amar Kanwar, Pier Paolo Pasolini & Hannah Arendt; Seyla Benhabib; Stuart Hall; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; Frantz Fanon; Paul Gilroy; Chantal Mouffe; Edward Said; Peter Weiss; Cornel West
In her life’s work on political thought, German philosopher Hannah Arendt questioned the origins of violence and authoritarianism. Amor mundi (love of the world) – an early possible title for The Human Condition (1958) – is at the core of this thinking. In her journal she once asked: ‘Why is it so difficult to love the world?’ 01 To look at it differently, we could ask the question in reverse: ‘Why is it so easy to hate the world?’ It often seems that any path that prioritises love, justice, respect and the defence of dignity for all life can only be forged through constant struggle, while a path that reproduces hate and violence is already there in front of us. We have lived through many vicious cycles of violence in human societies, which have generated an established, systemic violence. What is it possible to do within human power?
This 50th edition of Afterall responds to the situation created by Covid-19 – a consequence of humanity’s treatment of its environment and other species. The pandemic has also boldly highlighted entrenched socio-economic inequalities. Artists, however, have long been engaged in making such ‘invisible’ issues visible – a major reason art plays such a fundamental role in societies. For this piece, we juxtapose seven moving-image artworks that dwell on systemic violence and oppression, with excerpts from texts by philosophers and theorists who offer new perspectives on these issues and generate much needed discourses for a movement towards global equality.
Afterall was born some twenty years ago, at a time when cultural studies was at a global peak. The field had strong roots in the UK since the 1980s through the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, founded in 1964. BBC Four was then promoting multiculturalism as the ‘new paradigm’ for Britain, which accordingly understood and constructed itself as a multicultural society. This didn’t happen without struggle and negotiation, of which one of the leading voices was that of the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall. He describes the overall context in which he found himself at the time as that of a Familiar Stranger. 02 A public intellectual and spokesperson of the Windrush generation – those arriving from the ex-colonies of the Caribbean to the UK between 1948 and 1970 – Hall influenced many young artists and practitioners, including Isaac Julien, then a young painting and film student.
Julien was deeply involved in the political struggle that took place in 1980s Britain, at the height of punk, the New Romantics and dub music, and closely followed happenings around Notting Hill Carnival, an annual event in West London. Territories (1984), his first film and his final degree work at Central Saint Martin’s School of Art, juxtaposes archival footage of demonstrations and clashes between the police and Black people at Carnival, portraying the experience of racism in the UK. Using the testimonies of protestors as soundtrack and exposing how the police tried to banish participants from the streets, the film’s title refers to territories of race, class and sexuality – a triangulation that Hall considered intrinsically connected. In Julien’s later film, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1996), he examines similar ideas around discrimination in the context of the French colony of Martinique, in which Fanon – a psychiatrist by profession, and political leader by choice – was born. His film Looking for Langston (1989), however, has a more abstract, surreal setting, and while highlighting the specific predicament of queer people of colour, articulates how racism cuts across class, gender and sexuality, sparing not even the privileged, affluent members of the Black community.
Arriving in Texas with the intention of filming America’s South and tracing the movements of writers James Baldwin and William Faulkner, Belgian film-maker Chantal Akerman found herself confronted with the news of a Black man having been brutally murdered by three white men. South (1999) portrays the story of James Byrd Jr., who was beaten, chained to a pickup truck and then dragged to his death. The camera mercilessly follows the truck’s five-kilometre route in long landscape shots, interrupted by interviews and images of Byrd’s funeral, evoking the climate in which such a hate crime could and did happen. For the African-American philosopher, political activist and author Cornel West, racism is part and parcel of the constitution of the United States. The global movement to end racism and oppression has been silenced over and over in an endless cycle, seemingly impossible to break. Yet, the fight has never ceased. Hence British historian and academic Paul Gilroy calls for a new name for the movement beyond anti-racism, which he considers inadequate to describe the ongoing violence, repression and inequalities suffered by Black people around the world.
In Lumumba, la mort d’un prophète (Lumumba, the death of the prophet) (1990), Haitian-born film-maker Raoul Peck, who grew up in the Belgian Congo, examines how Patrice Lumumba, one of the most charismatic figures of the African Independence Movements, was ruthlessly undermined when he became the first elected Prime Minister of the Independent Republic of the Congo in 1960. In this documentary with diverse archival footage, Peck unveils how Western and specifically Belgian political and economic interests never intended to give up control over the Congo, ultimately leading to Lumumba’s covered-up murder in January 1961. Frantz Fanon, who became a leader of the Algerian revolution, accurately elucidates how the independence of African countries took place, echoing what is stated in Lumumba: independence was given with one hand and taken with the other. Leaving Africa exploited and destroyed, the European colonisers saw no need for reparations. In this regard for Fanon, as he points out in his book The Wretched of the Earth (1961), the redistribution of (global) wealth is of the utmost importance.
Fanon suggests the physical and psychological wounds of the victims of impunity can only heal through collective violence against the oppressor. Hand in hand with racism and classism, violence against women is committed around the world with a similar sense of impunity. The Lightning Testimonies (2007), by Indian film-maker and artist Amar Kanwar, sheds light on the history of systemic sexual violence inflicted on Indian women across regions and generations. Projected over eight screens, their bodies become sites of memory and resistance, both individual and collective.
Oppressions, of course, have their own complex histories and contexts. In 1972, President Idi Amin of Uganda ordered the expulsion of all its ethnically Asian citizens within three months. As a child, the Ugandan Asian artist Zarina Bhimji and her family stayed on in Uganda until 1974, hiding in a small village before finally fleeing to the UK. Bhimji returned to Uganda for the first time in 1998, driven by an interest in places that bear traces of war. She started photographing, and on her second journey, slowly began filming her family home, the school and the mosque of her childhood. In a deserted Uganda, she filmed the eerie interiors of abandoned buildings, military barracks and bloodstained prison cells. The mesmerising pans in Out of Blue(2002), devoid of people, accompanied by the sounds of human humming and breath as well as the music of Pakistani singer Abida Parveen, become a solemn portrayal of the extermination and cultural erasure.
The traumatising experience of losing one’s citizenship is exacerbated by a complete loss of human rights. Hannah Arendt came to this realisation while observing how the Jewish population in Germany became stateless during World War II. The practice is enforced in certain countries towards First Nations, Roma, Sinti and Palestinian people to this day.
In other parts of Europe different histories were being played out. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last film before he was murdered. The film’s story, a loose adaptation of the 1785 book by the Marquis de Sade, follows four wealthy Italian libertines during the fascist Republic of Salò (1943–45), who kidnap eighteen teenagers and proceed to mentally and physically torture them over a period of four months. The extreme violence and sadism that unfold throughout the film mirror the political corruption and authoritarianism that continues in post-Mussolini Italy, while also pointing to moral corruption and nihilism. A critique of capitalism and consumerism, Pasolini’s Salò depicts the epitome of lust for power that extends itself into a violent power manifested in domination and sexual abuse.
The impact of any conflict is long-lasting. With screenplay by Marguerite Duras and direction by Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour (1959) is a meditation on memory – on how (not) to forget the atomic bomb thrown by the U.S. Air Force onto Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and devastating the city and its inhabitants with interminable consequences. The traumatic history of Hiroshima’s nuclear bombing is narrated through personal conversations between a French actress and a Japanese architect, who become briefly involved during the actress’s stay in Japan. In these compressed, sharp historical constellations, any division between the personal and the political collapses. In the film, this is made apparent by how the damaged body becomes a wounded, war-torn landscape.
2020 commemorates 75 years since the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sadly, we are closer than ever to a nuclear war with major arms control treaties being withdrawn and hard-won victories towards the elimination of atomic weapons being squandered. The all-destructive bomb is the ultimate instance of imperial biopower – control over life, as argued by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire (2000).
The attempt to reinstall imperialisms – currently to be witnessed in various parts of the globe – has nurtured a fertile ground for neo-fascism, the normalisation of state violence and the abuse of state power, including in countries with democratic constitutions. The ongoing widening of the socio-economic gap has accelerated during the current pandemic, and the impact on those who can’t afford to isolate or work from home is devastating. The human right to protection and care is clearly not extended to all.
Invited by Afterall to select works of art that are relevant at this moment, in the attempt to understand the gravity and scale of the crisis we have revisited and cited texts that inquire specifically into systemic economic inequalities and state violence, which are once again resurfacing. As Arendt pointed out in The Human Condition, what is required in order to break the spirals of violence and divide is the re-emergence of unconditional love for this world and, we would add, all its life forms.
Once we acknowledge the dimension of ‘the political’ we begin to realise that one of the main challenges facing democratic politics is how to domesticate hostility and to defuse the potential antagonism in all human relations. The fundamental question for democratic politics is not how to arrive at a rational consensus, that is, a consensus not based on exclusion: this would require the construction of an ‘Us’ that did not have a corresponding ‘Them’; an impossible feat because – as we have seen – the condition of the constitution of an ‘Us’ is the demarcation of a ‘Them’. The crucial issue for democratic politics, instead, is how to establish this ‘Us’-‘Them’ distinction in a way that is compatible with pluralism. The specificity of modern democracy is precisely its recognition and legitimation of conflict; in democratic societies, therefore, conflict cannot and should not be eradicated. Democratic politics requires that the others be seen not as enemies to be destroyed but as adversaries whose ideas should be fought, even fiercely, but whose right to defend those ideas will never be questioned. Put differently, what is important is that conflict does not take the form of ‘antagonism’ (struggle between enemies) but of ‘agonism’ (struggle between adversaries). The aim of democratic politics is to transform potential antagonism into agonism. 03
Antonio Gramsci has made the useful analytic distinction between civil and political society in which the former is made up of voluntary (or at least rational and noncoercive) affiliations like schools, families and unions, the latter of state institutions (the army, the police, the central bureaucracy) whose role in the polity is direct domination. Culture, of course, is to be found operating within civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions and of other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent. In any society not totalitarian, then, certain cultural forms predominate over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others; the form of this cultural leadership is what Gramsci has identified as hegemony, an indispensable concept for any understanding of cultural life in the industrial West.04
As the postcolonial and post-Cold War model of global authority takes shape and reconfigures relationships between the overdeveloped, the developing and the developmentally arrested worlds, it is important to ask what critical perspectives might nurture the ability and the desire to live with difference on an increasingly divided but also convergent planet. We need to know what sorts of insights and reflection might actually help increasingly differentiated societies and anxious individuals to cope successfully with the challenges involved in dwelling comfortably in proximity to the unfamiliar without becoming fearful and hostile. We need to consider whether the scale upon which sameness and difference are calculated might be altered productively so that the strangeness of strangers goes out of focus and other dimensions of a basic sameness can be acknowledged and made significant. We also need to consider how a deliberate engagement with the twentieth century’s histories of suffering might furnish resources for the peaceful accommodation of otherness in relation to fundamental commonality. In particular, we need to ask how an increased familiarity with the bloodstained workings of racism – and the distinctive achievements of the colonial governments it inspired and legitimated – might be made to yield lessons that could be applied more generally, in the demanding contemporary settings of multicultural social relations. This possibility should not imply the exaltation of victimage or the world-historic ranking of injustices that always seem to remain the unique property of their victims. Instead of those easy choices, I will suggest that multicultural ethics and politics could be premised upon an agonistic, planetary humanism capable of comprehending the universality of our elemental vulnerability to the wrongs we visit upon each other.05