Indeterminacy: Thoughts on Time, the Image, and Race(ism)

MACK books, 2022

Indeterminacy: Thoughts on Time, the Image, and Race(ism)

by David Campany & Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Paperback with flap
12.5 x 19.5cm, 160 pages

ISBN 978-1-913620-48-6
June 2022
€18.50 £15 $20

In a series of written exchanges, David Campany and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa consider the options for photography in resisting the oppressive orthodoxies of racial capital, conservative history, and neoliberal visual culture. How does the essential indeterminacy of photography square with the need to work out alternative practices? How is visibility achieved beyond the consensual categories of the mass media and the commodification of art? What models are there for the making and reception of photographic books and exhibitions that might cultivate an active spectatorship beyond boutique consumerism? These urgent questions and more are discussed in a spirit of speculation and possibility, in the light of signal events that have shaped the recent past.

DISCOURSE is a series of small books in which a cultural theorist, curator or artist explores a theme, an artwork or an idea in an extended text. Explore the full series here.

Extract

Art expands the sympathetic imagination while teaching us about the limits of sympathy. […] There is no formula, however, for aesthetic education of this kind […] It is rarely prescriptive, and, although it may schematize itself as a set of rules (as a poetics or a hermeneutics), the type of thinking involved seems to import a structural moment of indeterminacy that escapes the brain’s binary wiring. A sort of unframed perception becomes possible, a suspension or confusion of personal identity.

Geoffrey Hartman[1]

A free-flowing exchange could well be the ideal form to explore indeterminacy. We cannot say we knew this when we began to share thoughts with each other via email, but we must have intuited it, and somewhere along the line we must have become more conscious of the fact that the form our writing was taking was well suited to what was, and is, on our minds.

The title of this book came late in the day. It was only when looking back that we realised how much it had to do with the indeterminate nature of the photograph. For those interested in the image, particularly the photographic image, indeterminacy is always to be reckoned with, aesthetically and politically. What is at stake in its essential ambiguity, its mobility of meanings and affects? How is the relation between a photograph’s fixed appearance and its unfixed meaning to be understood? How are relations between urgent resistance and photographic indeterminacy to be grasped and explored, critically and creatively?

In book form, our exchange unfolds at the steady rhythm of pages. The reality of its writing was much more intermittent. It began with a conversation prompted by David’s book and travelling exhibition a Handful of Dust.[2] Indeterminacy was at the heart of that project, which took a speculative look at the poetics and politics of what can happen when a wide range of tangentially related images are placed in each other’s orbit. David is a curator and writer while Stanley is an artist and writer, but we both share an interest in what photographs can and cannot disclose, what they suggest, what they might claim, and how they are less knowable than we may wish or need them to be.

That first exchange shaped the contours of our subsequent discussions to some extent, sharpening our thoughts and opening some possibilities. Our conversation continued over the summer of 2020, with David recently moved to the United States, where Stanley had been based for some time. The country had lurched further towards fascism, with all the racist violence that that entailed. In addition, it was suffering the tragic consequences of a catastrophically mishandled pandemic. In this context we were moved to ask: What places does the photographic image have in moments of crisis? Is its utility premised on a capacity to overcome its indeterminacy? Is it a matter of putting the image ‘to work’? Or are there valuable dimensions of indeterminacy to hold onto?

Our ongoing exchange became a matter of trying to think things through in the midst of unpredictability and danger, our noses pressed against history as it unfolded. Writing always affords some measure of distance, particularly in the essay form that we both hold dear. But an exchange has a different dynamic, a different pulse, and a good one can feel more like a snapshot than a distant contemplation. Yes, the text was revised for publication, clarified and fleshed out here and there, but in essence it is a record of thoughts shared on the fly and in the moment – a mutual effort to understand the changing shape of our historical present.

Part One

The perils of representation

 

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa: One of the things that has had the most consequential impact on my thinking over the last five years has been my engagement in the theory coming out of the field of Black studies.[3] What I’ve found there is a transformative confrontation with modernity as a fundamentally racist and racialising enterprise. I’ve found a confrontation with the force and effect of economies of desire in the elaboration of hegemonic, normative categories of being, or accounts of law and reason – none of it easily reducible in any way to a simplistic celebration of cultural difference. Identity is such an amenable host for the exploitative forces of neoliberal capital. It can abet the perception that representation within capital equates to value, and perhaps to safety within its embrace. We can get intensely (over)invested in those representations.[4] What Black studies has helped clarify for me is how the production of racial difference as such is inseparable from the violent, expropriative agenda of capitalism, and that the notionally whole autonomous individual subject sits at the centre of this morass.

What I’ve found empowering in Black studies is its exploration of the potency (and the threat) that subaltern practices cultivate from their positions of abjection: the ways of living with a different concept of value as members of the value-less, the ways of eluding and refusing conceptual capture within the hegemonic order of racial capital by embracing a position of exteriority, by doing away with the ostensible universality of ‘reason’ or ‘civility’.[5] We saw some part of this broader politics of refusal evidenced in the extraordinary sweep and depth of protest and outrage, of unrest and assembly happening in the US and globally in the summer of 2020.

But the image, this thing we both love and work with, seems to have had so much success as an implement for ratifying the presence of those who have historically been marginalised (or, for that matter, for anyone who feels they are not being sufficiently heard or seen). This makes it such a tricky thing to deal with in this context, especially when appearance (as a product and profit centre of corporate media) can itself power and extend the dominant reach of the forms of neoliberal hegemony that undergird the racial and economic order we see people protesting today.

David Campany: I moved to the United States recently, from the UK. I cannot help but be struck by the often glaring chasm between identity politics and anti-capitalism (‘notional disciplinary isolation’ is itself political), and the way in which images – which always show but without being able to account for what they show – are often what determine public debate. Just after I arrived, Covid-19 hit and it was immediately apparent that it was going to affect the poor disproportionately, and since the poor are disproportionately non-white, there would be a profound racial disparity in the impact of the virus. The appalling death toll grew. The callous – and racist – indifference of the Trump administration was costing tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of lives.

Very slowly, in April and May of 2020, it felt as if public debate was edging towards a proper engagement with the crisis. It seemed that, for the first time in quite a while, questions of race and class, race and economy, would be discussed in relation to each other at a national level (if not in government) as fundamental to the situation. But the debate didn’t seem to quite take hold, and neither did the public outrage. I suspected it had something to do with the absence of images. It really shouldn’t have had anything to do with images, but I suspected it did. Covid-19 is invisible, and its effects are insidious. It’s not easy to picture. Various public commentators noted this absence from the visual register. What images we had were graphs, statistics, and the picturing of an emptying out. Vacant streets. Social distancing. No images of deaths in obscene numbers.

And then something shocking and focused happened. George Floyd was violently killed by a white police officer. And it was filmed. Video and audio. The imagery is horrifying and horrifyingly familiar. And Floyd’s words were just as powerful. ‘I can’t breathe.’ (In the weeks prior I had been thinking that the anger against Trump’s mishandling of Covid-19, if it didn’t have an iconography, could do with a slogan at least, and ‘I can’t breathe’ might have been an effective one, given that this is how the virus kills.) But Covid-19 was proving too abstract to rally around, not quite socially specific enough to rally around, and not visual enough. George Floyd’s killing was extremely visual and extremely racial. Had it not been filmed, the waves of anger and frustration with racial injustice may not have swelled quite as they did.

In the civil rights and worldwide anti-colonial movements of 1968, and in their immediate legacies, the connection between racism and the ‘expropriative agenda of capitalism’ was understood quite clearly and with a historical grounding. Think of Martin Luther King arguing that:

Capitalism does not permit an even flow of resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.[6]

The imperatives of colonial capitalism and slavery produced a pernicious racial order as a means of justification for its violence. A decade later however, the ascent of neoliberalism with its credo of free markets and the self above all drove a wedge between politics and what came to be called identity politics. It was a wedge that the left was very slow to see for what it was (I have found Michael C. Dawson’s writings and his podcast New Dawn to be informative on this matter).

Indeed, much of the left was already ahead of the game (or behind), becoming so preoccupied with representation at the level of the image that it often mistook it for political representation. This was pure ideology (as a student of both Marxism and psychoanalysis I learned that ideology is the merely symbolic resolution of real contradiction). Being represented in an image doesn’t mean you are represented in any other way. Being imaged is vital, for sure, not least as a kind of currency in visual culture, but we will still have the political struggle ahead of us. Two people may struggle for representation at the level of the image but they may have no more in common politically than that. The image itself, self-imaging, participating in the circulation of imagery, cannot alone constitute a form of justice. Or if it does constitute a form of justice, it is most readily equated with the demand for a seat at the neoliberal table, in the hope of ‘comfort in its embrace’, as you put it. And neoliberalism had already implied, quite self-servingly and disingenuously, that the most efficient form capitalism can take is that of an equal-opportunity exploiter. ‘Yes, this was a system built upon slavery, and the appalling social and psychical effects of that are still with us,’ it seems to say, ‘but it is working towards a position where it doesn’t care what colour you are, who you sleep with or in what position, or what superstitious beliefs comfort you. The most efficient capitalism cares only for those in power and it doesn’t even care about their identity.’ That is its mythology. At present it is still a racist, sexist, and homophobic system. Obviously we mustn’t delude ourselves that if it wasn’t racist, sexist, and homophobic, the neoliberal order would somehow be fair. The fight for fairness is a fight against capitalism. All this to say, if one concludes that racism is structural to capitalism, it commits anti-racism to anti-capitalism, and vice-versa (and in the end one cannot ‘commit’ to an ‘anti-’, but to a ‘pro-’). This was a difficult question somewhat dodged by the Obama administration, and with grave consequences, I think.

SW-W: It’s hard for me to envision a form of capitalism that can sacrifice anti-Blackness or structural racism more broadly, simply because value and autonomy and sovereignty and property are concepts wholly saturated by race and racial difference. Without them, you don’t have a logic or a set of affects with which to rationalise and mobilise capitalist desire and production. Do you see a really or notionally colourless version of capitalism afoot? Does it materialise or coalesce in images?

DC: No, I don’t, but I’m aware there are other views. Perhaps I wasn’t being quite clear there. I suspect it is neoliberalism’s own self-justifying narrative that suggests there is such a thing as post-racial, and post-patriarchal capitalism.

Refusal and fugitivity

DC: I’m interested in what you said about subaltern strategies, and strategies of exteriority. Are these ways of refusing the terms offered by the dominant regime of the image, the image under neoliberalism? Ways of finding other relations to or with images?

SW-W: In this moment, one of those strategies that I know that I, and a number of other Black artists and thinkers are employing is to refuse to make ourselves available and visible in certain spaces, to get together and plan off to the sides of things, and to be strategic about the conditions and terms within which we might return – temporarily, because these upwellings have a history of subsiding – to the centre. The iceberg economies of Black gathering and thought are a place in which exteriority is claimed as a kind of potent resource, and those practices have many histories, but if you think of the figure of the hold in the slave ship, they also have real structural causes too.

George Floyd’s lynching – which is what I think it has to be defined as – marks the contours of the limits imposed upon black bodies in some complicated ways: he is in his car, which, in the US, constitutes sacrosanct space, but he is denied that interiority by the arresting officers, one of whom immediately draws a gun to compel him to exit the vehicle, whereupon he can be wrestled to the ground at the point of a gun, and denied the right to safely occupy public space either. So appearance, exteriority, these things are profoundly differentiated positions to take up for black people under white supremacy, since the image – the appearance of blackness – can by itself constitute a threat to which lethal violence is a legitimate response.

I love the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown Tumblr, which I discovered in Tina Campt’s fantastic book Listening to Images.[7] I think that this Tumblr constitutes a kind of subaltern practice that engages the complex conditions of appearance for Black people in the United States. It started as a hashtag on twitter, and then became a Tumblr archive that continues to expand, and its central premise is simple: what image would the media and the state use to define me if they gunned me down? That image is counterposed with another image that fundamentally contradicts the anticipated choice that the media and the state would make. So the images are anticipatory descriptions of the future abjection and dismissal of unarmed, innocent future Black dead. They’re dying declarations, in the words of Languid Hands.[8] Those future deaths are envisioned and claimed in the present. To borrow from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (with which I have very real beef), each participant in the series ‘observe[s] with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake.’[9] Campt writes of them:

Refusing to wait passively for a future posited as highly likely or inevitable for black urban youth, the sitters actively anticipate their premature deaths through these photos. In doing so, they enact anterior practices of fugitivity through their refusal to be silenced by the probability of a future violent death they confront on a daily basis. Through these images they fashion a futurity they project beyond their own demise.[10]

Interestingly, the antagonist image to the racist trope each participant shares very often centres a kind of professionalism, a kind of fitness for civil society, a competence in negotiating the neoliberal market that implicitly seems to say: I am a fit and proper current or future member of your institutions. The kind of professionalism that is opposed to the ‘abject’ image of blackness is typically grounded in educational accomplishment, in seemly appearance, in membership of the institution of family, in governmental or military service to the nation, in a kind of corporate refinement – in a kind of aspiration to participation in normativity, one way or another. This doesn’t leave much room for a set of important critiques that refuse ‘innocence’ as a precondition for care in instances of Black death at the hands of the state. Jackie Wang has written a fantastic essay about this, called ‘Against Innocence: Race, Gender, and The Politics of Safety’ that I highly recommend, and I think that in a different way David Marriott’s complicated and rich essay ‘On Decadence: Bling Bling’ also drives at the distinction between reformist and radical Black politics of resistance.[11] There’s an important discussion there precisely about the need for an anti-racist politics to also be an anti-capitalist politics, and Marriott and Wang both clarify this persuasively and emphatically. The idea, in their work, cannot be to fit in but to collectively break out. But for me, these images’ relevance stems from the fact that these image-making practices accurately index the casual impossibility of claiming a right to rights as a Black person in the United States, and their temporality, their envisioning of an exhausted futurity ‘beyond their own demise’ is extraordinarily powerful.

One of the most notable and long-lasting effects of seeing Kerry James Marshall’s extraordinary retrospective ‘Mastry’ in 2017, was, for me, the apprehension that the precise features of his Black subjects eluded solid distillation in my mind: I couldn’t hold on to them as images.[12] If you try and remember the whole face in those portraits, it’s easy to remember the figure, the pose, the colour, the action, the light, the gestures, but I’d argue that the specificity of the human faces he paints is in some way unfixable – deliberately undefined – and that has everything to do with how he mobilises blackness in his work. That too constitutes a resistant aesthetic practice with a clear political history and effect. We can easily extend that thought to Roy DeCarava, and think more about secrecy and shadow, or about refusal and fugitivity as Tina Campt describes them, as part of the complex bargain that Blackness has to make with the visible.

[1] Geoffrey Hartman, ‘Tele-Suffering and Testimony in the Dot Com Era’, in Visual Culture and The Holocaust ed. by Barbie Zelizer (London: The Athlone Press, 2001), pp. 122–123.

[2] David Campany, a Handful of Dust (London: MACK, 2015); ‘Dust’, curated by David Campany, Le Bal, Paris, (18 October 2015 – 31 January 2016).

[3] See: Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, Angela Y. Davis, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Tina Campt, Elizabeth Alexander, Krista Thompson, Christina Sharpe, Crystal Nicole Feimster, Rizvana Bradley, Simone Browne, Leigh Raiford, Kimberly Juanita Brown, Alexander Weheliye, Jared Sexton, Roderick Ferguson, C. Riley Snorton, David Marriott, Frank B. Wilderson III, Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, among many others.

[4] Darby English writes: ‘In the 1960s blacks became, through their own hard cultural work, the representatives and representations they had sought in vain from a reluctant, at times unspeakably hostile white American mainstream. If the counterpositive integrity of the affirmative image proved especially compelling, it is because it is a good that at any moment can be brought about now.’ ‘How It Looks to Be a Problem’, 1971: A Year in the Life of Color (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 93.

[5] Kyla Wazana Tompkins and Tavia Nyong’o, ‘Good Morning 1877, Sit Down: On Civility, Reconstruction, and our Revanchist Moment’, Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry, 1:3 (2018) <https://capaciousjournal.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/capacious-tompkins-and-nyongo-good-morning-1877.pdf>.

[6] Martin Luther King, quoted in Harry Belafonte, My Song. A Memoir of Art, Race and Defiance (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2012), p. 328.

[7] Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, Tumblr, <https://iftheygunnedmedown.tumblr.com/>.

[8] Languid Hands is an artistic and curatorial collaboration, which consists of Rabz Lansiquot and Imani Robinson. See: <https://languidhands.co.uk/>.

[9] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography trans. by Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), p. 96.

[10] Campt, Listening to Images, p. 109.

[11] Jackie Wang, ‘Against Innocence: Race, Gender and The Politics of Safety’, LIES Journal, 1 (2014) <https://www.liesjournal.net/volume1-10-againstinnocence.pdf>; David Marriott, ‘On Decadence: Bling Bling’, e-flux Journal, 79 (February 2017) <https://www.e-flux.com/journal/79/94430/on-decadence-bling-bling/>.

[12] Kerry James Marshall, ‘Mastry’, The Met Breuer, New York, 25 October 2016 – 29 January 2017.

 

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