The Image of Aleppo

Aleppo Has Fallen. Call Your Representative. Take Action. Or Stand By, Do Nothing. All of these responses, circulating through social media unabated, are a kind of empty gesture framing the way “we” (whoever that might be) imagine “Syria.” Who needs to “take action”? Why has it “Fallen”? What is this “action” we need to take? Responses to these questions don’t take the form of words, but appeals: images of dead Syrian children, headlines pointing toward “Mass Death in Real Time.” In the Post-Truth-Post-Post-Modern hyper-partisan discourse of the #SyriaCrisis, behind every “fact” lurks a Russian Tankie or a New York Liberal covered by the shadow of the Stars and Stripes or a Fascist or a Genocide-Defender or a Neo-Imperialist. Beside all of this exists some real event in Syria, inaccessible to those who don’t speak Arabic and Russian and French and English, bearing some connection to the photos that presumably count as testimony-in-themselves for some unspecified end.

Aleppo represents the limits of “our” ability to imagine and solve problems beyond our “own.” And here I can only speak to some kind of horizontal community of whites, the middle-class, the college-educated, and men in the United States. We’ve long had the belief that any problem is fixable and the solution, if unknown, only awaits our action or discovery. Maybe it’s time to admit that our belief in solving everything is a fantasy. Sometimes we can’t act and inaction is the only answer. Sometimes there is no “solution.”  Giorgio Agamben asks us to reflect on these limitations by seeking a kind of anti-subjectivity where “the ways in which we do not know things are just as important (and perhaps even more important) as the ways in which we know them…the art of living is, in this sense, the capacity to keep ourselves in harmonious relationship with that which escapes us.”[1] Elsewhere, speaking more pointedly about the limits of our political imagination, Agamben indicts those who seek answers through escalating violence:

A power that has only been knocked down with a constituent violence will resurge in another form, in the unceasing, unwinnable, desolate dialectic between constituent power and constituted power, between the violence that puts the juridical in place and violence that preserves it.[2]

Agamben’s claim presses against knee-jerk reactions to the unfolding of Syria’s violence. When asking what “action” is implied by the accusation of “standing by, doing nothing,” one can’t help but assume some trajectory of violence. We can call our senators and ask for “diplomatic resolutions” and “sanctions on Russian aggression.” But these calls can lead in one of two directions: toward baiting Russian antagonism (whether with a no-fly zone or heightened sanctions; remember that our “sanctions” have already spurred nostalgia for Russian Empire among certain political elites within Putin’s circle), or toward ineffective catharsis. For Agamben, both directions are damning. Violence initiates violence. Catharsis perpetuates the belief that we as individuals are capable of doing something, if only to cathartic ends. Against both the third alternative is to recognize our own limitations: not to admit defeat (which implies that we have some obligation against Russia and Assad) or find an alternative route to victory, but simply to concede that not all problems are solvable. Perhaps they are not “solvable” because they are not problems to solve but symptoms of problems we do not yet recognize.

Syria exists in a history of U.S. relations with the Middle East and cannot be disentangled from the political and cultural contexts that inform the current moment. The broad historical context should be obvious to most educated observers: Israel-Palestine, the Gulf War, Iraq, our antagonism toward Iran, our alliance with Saudi Arabia, and our ambivalent relationship with Turkey. The United States considers Sunnis and Shias to be political actors in a deep conflict between Iran and the Saudis while we simultaneously seek to make democratic allies of the region by way of Israel and promote a kind of Islamic secularism by way of Turkey. We are at war in Yemen because we imagine it to be a conflict between a Saudi Satellite and an Iranian-backed coup (we have “deployed troops” for a Saudi Arabia’s coalition and accuse Iran of supporting the Houtis, despite their denials). Syria exists for us as a geopolitical plane in the midst of these conflicts. A Congressional Research Service report criticizes Syria for “resisting” U.S. influence and identifies it as a locations strategic for “the four major active or potential zones of conflict in the region (Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, and Iran),” with deep ties to “Iran.” Under President Bush, the United States cut diplomatic ties with Syria in 2005. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to re-establish dialogue on the grounds that Syria would be more open to partnering with Israel and distancing themselves from Iran; but Assad would not budge. Concurrently, Putin began expanding Russia’s sphere of influence, and also began courting Assad. The violence that erupted following the Arab Spring occurred within this international context where Assad already sought alliance with Putin and the United States already had political reasons to oppose Assad’s control. Certain segments of the American left want to imagine Syria to be a genuinely democratic uprising against Assad’s tight control where the only intrusive actor is Russia. Among them is Michael Walzer, professor emeritus of political philosophy, who wrote in 2013 that “We stayed out of Syria” suggesting that Syria is not a conflict we created or had immediate responsibility for causing. But only a few months prior to his assertion the United States actively sought to overturn Assad. This is in addition to the many refugees from Iraq that filtered into the country after our own excursions against Saddam Hussein, and the different role these Iraqis now play in the future of Syria. Whatever Syria might have been, it is now a complicated scenario that cannot be reduced to simple binaries. More importantly, the only reasonable assertion we can now make about Syria is that Russia called our bluff.

To what end, then, are these calls for actions and these photos of the dead? No reasonable actor imagines that our current activity in the United States will change the heart of Vladimir Putin or lead to a Free Syria. We therefore exchange our reason, which can only ultimately indict our limitations and inabilities, for catharsis. Exchanging photos of the dead creates visual economies of violence that exist only to draw attention to the violence itself. We can’t bear to acknowledge the limits of our activity but also insistently need to feel something as individuals.

Photography and headlines do not necessarily imply policy positions or political action. Every time we observe a photo or read a headline we constitute ourselves as subjects toward a certain end. Judith Butler, in Frames of War, encourages us to think critically about the photos that circulate during wartime and the “weaponization” of the camera: “What is formed and framed through the technological grasp and circulation of the visual and discursive dimensions of war?…how (do) cameras work as instruments of war, how (do) they both frame and form the human and non-human target along with a field of collateral damage (?)” Photos do not “simply exhibit reality” but “actively participate in a strategy of containment, selectively producing and enforcing what will count as reality.”[3] Not only does this mean that the bodies of the dead and the rape that continue to inspire calls for action are limited, but their very circulation participates in a kind of war narrative that remains concealed behind our reactions and desire to “share.”

But here the #SyriaConflict becomes even more confusing and distant: if we cannot trust our own national media sources, to whom do we turn? “The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism” and the United States has often insisted on an understanding of the historical world where we are “the source of the world’s significant action and life.”[4] Syrians themselves are divided. Anti-Assad Syrians speak to Anti-Assad media sources and pro-Assad Syrians are denied voice. These Syrians only reach us through alternative partisans, the radically pro-Russian, anti-Imperialist leftists who simultaneously deny the reality of the atrocities Assad commits. To this end, Syria might be better contextualized by the Soviet Invasion of Hungary in 1956: an international event during the Cold War where hyperpartisanship so saturated the discourse that those outside immediate involvement in the event had no reliable standpoint from which to think. Or perhaps more locally, imagined as a continuation of the Not-Happening of the Gulf War: “We are left with the symptomatic reading on our screens of the effects of the war, or the effects of discourse about the war, or completely speculative strategic evaluations which are analogous to those evaluations of opinion provided by the polls…whom to believe? There is nothing to believe.”[5]

We circulate photos of the dead because most of us within this visual economy will react with anger or sadness in ways that inculcates a desire for action; the desire for action is not given in the photo itself. And we replace productive discourse with visual economies precisely for this desire for action. Engaging the “discourse” of Syria requires recognizing the long and short historical contexts of Syria and the over-saturated partisanship of nearly all media frames. Productive discussion reaches its end here, because we can only admit what we don’t know and recognize that we have limits. We don’t want to acknowledge our limits. We want to believe in the American belief that individuals still reign supremely and have the power and ability to solve problems if only we “raise awareness” and keep “doing” vague actions. To that end, Baudrillard’s discussion of the Gulf War remains relevant for understanding Syria. “There is more than one kind of absurdity: that of the massacre and of being caught up in the massacre. It is just as in La Fontaine’s fable: the day there is a real war you will not even be able to tell the difference. The real victory of the simulators of war is to have drawn everyone into this rotten situation.”[6]

Recognizing the limits of Syria, I had no desire for U.S. military intervention, “diplomatic” measures that euphemistically mass baited proxy wars against Russia, or calls to “raise awareness” by participating in the ongoing circulation of Syria’s pornography of violence. Rather, I think these limits require our own critical antagonism to U.S interests. Circulating photos of the dead not only reduces Syria to individual acts of catharsis but also redeems the U.S. perspective from its own implication in the tragedy of Aleppo.  “The world today does not exist as a spectacle about which we can be either pessimistic or optimistic, about which our texts can be either ingenious or boring. All such attitudes involve the deployment of power and interests.”[7] U.S. power remains authoritative in Western reception to the events unfolding in Syria. We might be powerless to undo time, but we are not powerless to effect some degree of change in the long-term for the United States’s relations with the rest of the world. We (the Bush Administration) cut off ties with Syria in 2005; we (the Obama administration) continued diplomatic pressures against the Russians and the Syrians for various reasons almost totally unrelated to human rights; and we (Bush, Obama, Bill Clinton, and those administrations of the second-half of the twentieth century) continued to pursue a diplomatic policy antagonistic to both Russia and Syria because of our own alliance with Saudi Arabic and Israel and our hostilities toward Iran and Palestine. We should not fall into the trap of “solving” Syria and act as an “apologist for overseas American interests” that insists on “American innocence, doing good, [and] fighting for freedom.”[8] We should recognize that American foreign policy has a way of shaping our subjectivities in ways that we explain-away the difficulties latent within and consequence of U.S. action abroad. We need Syria to be a tragedy to justify American military action; imagining Syria to be a “problem” rather than a symptom of consequence invites our consideration of how to “solve” it, which almost always implies some kind of eventual invasion. “Anarchy has often been used by imperial powers as a euphemism for revolution or independence struggles in order to justify their suppression by military intervention and colonial subjugation.”[9] We should be wary of how quickly we moralize the deaths in Syria and the ends that moralization serve. Syria is a symptom among tragic symptoms yet to come of a problem that these “tragedies” mask: the patchwork network of diplomatic relations consequence of both the Cold War and decolonization. We need radical diplomatic change: one that severs our energy dependence on OPEC, recognizes the self-determination of both Palestine and the Kurds (who have been the most successful in fighting off ISIS on nearly every front), accepts the Iranian Revolution as the inevitable reaction to our own intervention in the country through the former Shah, and ultimately stops participating in our current association of Middle Eastern relations.

The dead in Syria don’t ask for our guilt. And not all the dead have asked that we share their mutilated bodies as a form of national catharsis. If we truly want to “do” something for the dead then we need to theorize from our own limitations and accept what we cannot do: “There was a time when the American empire recognized limitations, or at least the desirability of behaving as though it had its limitations. That was largely because they were afraid of somebody else – the Soviet Union. In the absence of this kind of fear, enlightened self-interest and education have to take over.”[10]

 

 

[1] Giorgio Agamben, Nudities, Stanford: Stand University Press, 2011. 113-114.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. 266.

[3] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? New York: Verso, 2009 (2016). Ix-x; xiii.

[4] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1993. Xiii.

[5]Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001, “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” 242.

[6] Baudrillard, 253.

[7] Said, xix-xx.

[8] Said, 8-9.

[9] Amy Kaplan, Anarchy of Empire: The Making of U.S. Culture, 16, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. 12.

[10] Eric Hobsbawm, Globalization, Democracy, and Terrorism. London: Abacus, 2007 (2014), 167.

 

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