Catastrophe Photography & Palestine Agonistes (The Civil Contract of Photography)


I finished reading Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography, an excellent and exhausting study that attends to the civic function of photography, to the photograph as a space of appearance (Arendt) for the forging of a common citizenship binding together the citizens and non-citizens of a polis or place. It’s a serious thinking through of the relationship between photography and technology, on the one hand, and ethics and responsibility, on the other hand, with politics and political activism situated squarely in the middle. There’s this claim to the book. It’s predicated on the notion of an animated and animating human presence beyond the mere image and formal organization and material conditions that define the photograph. On this particular point, Azoulay reads like Levinas, who, interestingly enough, goes unmentioned in the book. Around this point, the text of the political critic reads like “the spiritual in art.” The discussion revolves around “evasive presence,” “overwhelming distress,” “commands,” “secrets,” “divulging,” “the desire to know,” and Walter Benjamin’s “sparks of contingency” (pp.375-6) As a scholar of religion, it sounds like revelation to me. The face of the other revealed in photograph, the face of the other gazing at me and upon whom I look, binds or contracts me to her or to him. But in what way, how, and under what conditions does this happen?

I’m not sure I know what to do with the conceptions of “photographic citizenship” and conceptions of “sovereign power” that animate the politics of the text. Manichean, the conception of the former is utopian (imagined, virtual, open, without borders, unmediated by sovereign power); whereas the conception of the latter owes itself to Schmitt and Agamben (state power always ready and threatening to suspend the moral law, to abandon, to murder the non-citizen, to control and to eliminate under this or that false pretext). It’s a brutal and often paranoid combination rooted in the real-time state of emergency that was Israel/Palestine circa 2000 and the Second Intifada, the sense of being on at the edge of total catastrophe.

The feel for catastrophe is what lends the civil contract of photography the air of prophecy and magical thinking. The idea that the spectator can “foresee or predict” the future and future emergencies, and that it is her or his duty to warn others. It’s a prophetic posture I am unable to assess. On the one hand, the prophetic impulse is profoundly ethical and overwhelmingly political. On the other hand, the prophetic impulse always has something theatrical and self-theatricalizing about it. In this particular case, too much trust, perhaps, has been put into the photograph, and the spectator’s ability to ascribe meaning to the photograph. But if I remain unsure if “the act of prolonged observation by the observer as spectator has the power to turn a still photograph into a theater stage on which what has been frozen in the photograph comes to life” (pp.168-9), it is because I am not sure what to make of the combination of prophecy and theater –a theatricality found in Levinas and that goes back, I’m sure, to the Bible itself..

It could be that what bothers me about Azoulay’s text is that the imbrications between prophecy, aesthetics, politics, and ethics run deep, perhaps too deep. I became aware of this early on in the text when she introduced the notion of “borderless citizenship” (p.26). Understanding Azoulay’s contention that this to be understood as a virtual concept, not an actual one, I nevertheless had a hard time getting my mind around the concept. Perhaps because the poltical contexts that shape Azoulay’s work as a scholar and critic are so painfully actual. But also because the concept is not “critical.” There are simply no way to rationally assess (i.e. falsify) claims about it, or the sovereign power that seeks to negate it. The lack of an edge may or may not work in art and art photography, but in politics I think this lack of an edge is a disaster. The notion of borderless citizenship, as well as the caricature of sovereign power, suggests an aestheticization of politics and a politicization of aesthetics, the one being what Walter Benjamin warned against and the other being that which he thought he could harness for the purpose of revolution. I’m very unsure of the idea that citizenship, even the virtual citizenship of the photographic contract, is ever or could ever by unmediated by sovereign power, especially by the sovereign power that may or may not seek to negate it.

So if I am unable to assess, critically, the claims made by the author, then maybe I can just look at this as a kind of aesthetic theater. And once I understood that, then I am able to understand those peculiar moments in the texts, such as that claim about the spectator’s uncanny ability to “foresee and predict the future,” whose location in text is not separated from the “theater stage” and its animating power.  I’d like to read Azoulay’s text against the grain and to read it as agitprop. The text is full of caricatures on stage –the Prime Minister issuing directives to strip the Palestinian body, to show the truth of his body (p.358); the Palestinian is “raped” into being a photograph (p.355); the hands of the soldiers at the checkpoint “[take] pleasure in gripping their weapons” (p.326). It reads like Brecht. It sounds like Fela Kuti’s Zombie.

The aspect of the text as an aesthetic performance piece I could understand well enough without the moral or judiciary thrust, which is actually a signal part of the construction. Somewhere between the performance of a piece and the set of concepts that determine it, we, the reader, are meant to be obligated, even commanded to register moral horror and to pass judgment at “the universal tribunal that goes beyond local interests to see clearly what photography has to show” (p.128). And we are being asked to do so in real time and space, not the performance space of an agitprop stage. In court, these photographs are supposed to be “the basis for seeing everything, despite the case that not everything can be seen in the photograph,” the photographic record being held up as “sufficient cause for the establishment of an indictment against injury done to citizenship” (p.195).

This is the line from which I myself would want to step back in order to take stock of the emergency discourse and moral urgency that inundate the notion of photography as a “space of appearance” and the contract of photographic citizenship. After too prolonged an exposure it’s no longer clear just what it is that the photograph has shown. While they might often work in tandem, brought to bear one upon the other, the responsibility to look or to watch and to care is not as necessarily or automatically bound up with the imperative to judge as we are asked to consider by this or that spectatorship. I’m not sure what would happen if one tried to separate the concept of photographic citizenship from the emergency discourse. My own sense is that it would actually work to buttress the discourse of “care” that must lie at the heart of the photographic civil contract.

So there’s this tension. I don’t think the civic contract of photography is going to clarify, politically, conflicts over Israel and Palestine or the catastrophes now roiling Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. The biggest problem with the civic contract of photography is that there are too many photographs from too many sides of too many partisan divides, particularly in the case of cultures on the verge or over the verge of catastrophe. The con-fusion of faces scrambles in a very bad way the clear cut moral and political judgments that Azoulay wants, otherwise, to compel us to draw. What remains then is the most clear compulsion, the most clearly articulated compulsion signaled by Azoulay, which is the compulsion to look or to watch, and to do so closely and with a human purpose that transcends narrow notion of citizenship and non-citizenship.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Catastrophe Photography & Palestine Agonistes (The Civil Contract of Photography)

  1. dmf says:

    is there much in the book along the lines of a kind of phenomenology of reader/viewer/responses?

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