For so long, society was captured in the steady progress of colonial and otherwise opportunistic exploration and expansion of certain peoples into and on top of other peoples. Eventually, once the first globalization happened – that is, once the indigenous peoples of the world had been properly mapped out by mostly European colonizers – a shift started to take effect. Peoples were cordoned off into nations, which both aligned with very old community boundaries and were often the product of colonial lines. This eventually gave us the tensions that we live through today.
At first it was the cold war. In the Clinton era, we became participants in probably the greatest global movement of ideas and resources in modern history vis-à-vis the creation of the world-wide-web and national policies such as NAFTA. More recently, we were thrust into the midst of a terrorist-thirsty world. No longer is there a nation to be afraid of…no, we are in constant speculation about where and what we should fear. After “9/11”, we lived, psychologically, according to the color coding of fear.
Now, we are in a perpetual tug-o-war between neoconservativism and neoliberalism in the United States. It seems too easy to think it ebbs and flows like the changing of political guard within the U.S. presidency. But it may. If under the Bush presidency we were made constantly afraid by being given images of terrorists on a daily basis (neoconservativism at its best), under the Obama presidency we are left to change, and change, and change some more (neoliberalism at its best). It’s a bit of social bi-polarism. This is best exemplified in the changing of imagery in pop-culture over the years.
Susan Sontag writes in her essay about photography, titled “On Photography”, that:
[photographing] is essentially an act of nonintervention. Part of the horror of such memorable coups of contemporary photojournalism as the pictures of a Vietnamese bonze reaching out for the gasoline can, of a Bengali guerrilla in the act of bayoneting a trussed-up collaborator, comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photographer and a life, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene (pg. 177).
She continues by saying that the photographer, if not a type of interventionist, is a “participant.”
This set of ideas set out by Sontag in 1977 is quite interesting especially when we consider how the political climate has changed since the 1970s in the United States. As Sontag suggests in her essay, she lived in an era of mass production of images, many of them centered on neoconservative war. But today images are carried farther more quickly and in defiance of national, ideological, and philosophical borders. The human relationship with images, like any other evolutionary aspect of human existence, has morphed into something new, so much so that images (because they are so prevalent) are less the reflection of humanity and more the product of humanity.
Now the cart is before the horse. The cart (images of suffering) is before the horse (human experience). We not only seek images, but we help create them. This happens with such regularity that we are left with a crisis of imagination where we seek difference or change in a highly inequitable and violent world. What was the image of suffering in times of national war is now the vast realm of invisibility in times of global instability. “Movements” like KONY 2012 make sense because they can create the frameworks for evoking meaning in a world of humanitarian aid. Younger generations see themselves not as the perpetual readers of images but as the agents that will create new images. No longer is there a stale, removed image of death or suffering that we see as part of some other nation. We now create our own utopian fantasy about what the world should be and about how that suffering should end. Importantly, it’s not that there is one camera for the sake of a thousand picture holders. There are now thousands of cameras with an attention-challenged viewership.
As members of U.S. society, instead of joining to do the nation’s service (as was the notion of loyalty in the 80s and during post-9/11), we are now pushed by neoliberal apparatuses to do the service of undeniable and impassioned service. That is, if in the aftermath of 9/11 you were asked to be loyal to the U.S. in protection of the nation against the hologram of terrorism, now you are asked to constantly envision change for the sake of change. Osama Bin Laden (or, maybe more correctly, what his image represented) is dead. Now we are left with passion (and a military industrial complex) that must be extended somewhere.
Over the last 5 to 10 years, we have realized the emergence of a new neoliberal shift in society. The terrorist-thirsty agenda was once the only face of the coin of our citizenship. However, now we see that the other face is accented by the quite fascinating fascination with giving, intervention, and empathy. That is, while we still live and are invested in nations, as part of a global economy and political infrastructure, our worlds are full of people who, as parts of churches, civic groups, and other social tribes, expect to be able to affect the world – to change many things – with the same fervor that we were once a fearful citizenry.
What do we do when a neo-conservative set of forces aren’t controlling our loyalties? How do we express passion? I believe that within this neoliberal side of our American identities, we are taken for an interesting ride where large corporations provide us with astutely drawn maps for constantly conceiving ourselves as able agents of change. Take, for example, the Disney campaign to teach children to change. It is called “Friends for Change” and its goal is indefinite and undefined change. Go to Disney website and watch some of the videos: Disney Change. If you look at this website closely, you will see the basic symbols of change in U.S. society, among them the green circle of recycling (Google “green circle of recycling” and click on “images” for examples). I wasn’t surprised by this when I first visited the website. The notion of perpetual and sometimes pointless change is exhibited in almost every facet of U.S. society. Take as alternative examples images I came across at a visit to a local hospital in North Carolina that was implementing what it calls a “transformational” system of hospital care.
Its way of expressing this “transformation” was to effectively usurp the cliché imagery of reuse and recycling as a motivation for its employees and patrons.
What I see here, in terms of the contemporary fixation on unbounded, unlimited, and often nonsensical calls for “change” or “transformation”, is the swing in the pendulum from the neo-con to the neo-liberal – from outright nationalistic fear to the pervasiveness of a quite frantic sense of needed change. Will we continue to swing back and forth between the two for the next few generations? Maybe so. In a world of unlimited media (re)sources, and the entrenchment of youth in the discourses of schizophrenic change, the ease with which change is conceived is numbing.
As Clint Eastwood (begged by the RNC audience to say “Make my day!”) speaks incoherently tonight at the Republican National Convention, and as U.S. Senator Marco Rubio speaks intimately about the fate of his family in Cuba, I am reminded that the images of fear, as they have been conveniently paraded for decades as a form of inspiration in U.S. politics, are constantly in tension with optimism beyond the rhetoric of fear. This has broader implications as we choose to understand how many parts of U.S. society are at the mercy of conflicting notions of societal volatility (whether this volatility is called “change” or “transformation”, or captured in the image of “never forgetting”) that are constantly written into our psychology. I guess that is why President Obama, during his ’08 campaign, was confident in stating that he was “Change you can believe in”. It was obvious then, as it is today, that volatility in American life engulfs us and becomes expected. As Disney, Obama, and others show, this volatility must be harnessed in some way outside the politics of fear and neo-conservative loyalty. What troubles me is the inevitable murkiness of neo-liberalism’s perpetual spinning of wheels and ignorance of human realities.