‘Solidarity, Togetherness and the Emancipatory Image’ by Evi Roumani
In 2020, we all, as a collective subject of human beings with access to mass information, came across changes that altered our behaviors in our every day lives. We could say that we came across a proposed, or in many cases forced, way of expressing our social gestures. I prefer using the term gestures rather than the word behaviors, due to its immediate connection to notions of emancipation and the image, and the contexts my discussion will elaborate on. The opinions following are placed inside a theoretical framework of understanding the image as a subject (1), a living visual form, which has the ability to take positions and act energetically upon our reality. An image-subject is capable of shaping opinions as it opens up alternative thoughts about the visual world. In these strange situations that we all experience, image-subjects can project our gestures and provide solutions even in emergency state restrictions.
New recommendations, new rules, new limits, new applications, new kinds of loneliness, new circumstances, as well as very old but present fears. And, some things that never left. The most constrained element has been touch. Touching has been identified as a new danger, as an activity, an action that should or must be limited amongst very small circles and under a very strict “regime” of trusting another person, our “target” of touch. How can we name the many examples of oppression emanating from the limitations placed on touch, when their reach is so evident and I believe quite noticeably to a lot of us? And by us, I again refer to a collective subject with access to mass information, who share beliefs about the regularities of a normal life project numerous limitation of a rising heterogeneity.
I think that a certain need has arisen through these days. A longing for togetherness, a need to be intimate, an emergence of new expressions of solidarity under oppressive systems and behaviors. A need in the age of the supermodern ethnology of loneliness (2) that we all witness coming to life. Closed doors, lonely deaths, shelterless bodies, an absence of funerary practices, no libraries, no trust, but a lot of work that couldn’t wait and could never wait in neoliberalism. An urge for maintaining productivity in the context of money making has also been a theme of 2020. All the free time one could imagine with the world engines being almost shut down, was never really made available since people were advised to fill it, so that they would not feel suppressed and isolated. I can’t help but wonder if this was a way to limit people’s chances of sitting back and gazing upon the world. In solitary situations, people (maybe and hopefully) discovered that being together was a key to solve mistrust, the fear of death, the fear of our freedom as we know it being suspended. The fear of emancipation flying away and being left alone (with a zoom meeting pending). Can we realign some of these outcomes?
Within the scope of phenomenology and its philosophical roots, our senses (where touch is one of five) serve as the vehicle through which we can discover alternative ways of understanding and perceiving the world, which is no longer a map of classifications and identifications but a field of endless possibilities, where anything can exist in a state of potentiality regarding its nature. According to the phenomenological tradition, human consciousness isn’t a closed cognitive system, but is rather than an “act” itself. The intentionality of human consciousness is generated by our senses while capturing expressions in our environment. Our senses function as a perceptive “hammer” that breaks any already known and explanatory assumptions regarding our surrounding phenomena. As Maurice M. Ponty stated in Phenomenology of Perception (1945): “Phenomenology is an attempt to describe our experience as it is, without taking into account… the possible causal explanations… on behalf of the scientist, the historian, the sociologist” (4). Maurice M. Ponty speaks of an “experience as it is”, a lived series of events that a subject has been immersed in and invested time, out of which an experience-based knowledge can emerge, understanding through sensual experience. Smell it, hear it, taste it, touch it, see it. In this manner, phenomenology introduced us to a rethinking of our investment in the sensible world.
The world sensible is crucial because, as I mentioned before, we have witnessed our senses limited for the sake of our health. The unequal weight of restriction placed on some senses (touch) over others in this moment, indicates that there’s always a way towards emancipation. Georges Didi-Huberman introduced the concept of the sensible (which is central in his theory and thinking) in a political philosophical context, by stating that: “the sensible includes the gesture of rendering sensible, meaning that historical and anthropological cognition does not exist without a dialectic of images, phenomena, presences, gestures, gazes… all that we could name sensible events”. To see might differ from touching or tasting but it is essentially of the same nature. When touch is forbidden, we must explore other ways of intimacy, of generating touch, including vision. In our gaze, in our act of seeing, we can explore a “phenomenon of the whole” (6) , an “omnisensoriality” where all our senses are moved towards our emotional movement (7).
Maurice M.Ponty argued that notion came after having faced an image (8). And in the same way, Jean Luc Nancy supported the idea that to really comprehend something is to process it in its complexity, a process only made accessible by our senses (9). Therefore, Georges Didi-Huberman proposes to dialectify the visible, which means to create new images, whilst connecting representation with emotion (10).
There is a turning point on behalf of the image, a movement, a gesture for Georges Didi-Huberman, allowing us to visualize those that stand without image, the image-less, because the image can reveal the suppressed moments of history (11). New potentials can be found in an image. Since the image is capable of initiating a discourse for approaching the image-less, we can see a visual image-kind opening and moving against regime control oppression and repressive mechanisms of “emergency”, towards emancipation. Through the emotional nature of the image, the image-less can form an expression of their repression, a becoming visible. This visibility serves as – a touchless – formation of a new collectivity based on our common (12) pathematic state (13).
Images make visual phenomena accessible and they also set light on their very sensitive aspects, the cracks, the falls, the weaknesses of the image-less. It is by the sensible events that someone becomes aware and sensitive to another’s life and suffering, to facts we didn’t know of and now look us in the eye. When facing an image, a visual event, one can “adapt and attach themselves to it as one hand clasps another,” they can be “mysteriously transplanted and magically transformed into this Other”. The visual is an opening, a disturbance of our cognition (16) before knowledge arises, inviting us to form a gesture, a feeling of togetherness. Emotion plays a huge role here since it is through emotion that bodies can stand together (17).
Almost globally, governments have urged civilians to practice social distancing. Giorgio Agamben in his many, and controversial for some, texts and articles during the outburst of the Covid-19 pandemic, commented on the term’s many implications, connected to authority and control (18). It is only expected that after a while, we would contemplate the reasons for choosing the word “social” to describe the distance we should keep from each other in order to stay safe ourselves and at the same time protect our fellow citizens. This should be considered since social engagement does not necessarily rely on physical contact (19). On the contrary, one can abstain from physical contact and at the same time engage in social activities, by for example meeting new people, talking, exchanging opinions, initiating a dialogue and many other activities that can widen one’s social circle. Of course, physical contact is a red flag but why social? Why did a recommendation in Greek public schools (by the Ministry of Education) advise students to stay in their already known groups of friends? In our social activities, we engage in sensible experiences that help us explore one another. Is there really no way out? Is it really so dangerous to widen our social circles during 2020?
Giorgio Agamben suggests that all the “social distancing” measures constitute some kind of preparation for humanity’s new political and social values (20). By suspending what we know of social life, one has really been left to wonder if this is a preparation of forgetting what we had so that a new lonely and cold reality can form more easily. But why could a social engagement be so problematic in our neoliberal world? My answer would be to wonder, to raise questions regarding the power of the image-less when together. Togetherness as perceived and initiated by our senses is our way to an emancipated future with our eyes to the past, just like Walter Benjamin’s Angelus Novus. Togetherness presupposes a cause, a cause in which a collectivity has invested and lusts for. And it also presupposes a kind of (a semi-forbidden nowadays) intimacy.
Since creating a togetherness has started to feel really distant, we could find something of it in the extraordinary and performative nature of the image. Images as well as our way of relating to images, can release personal and private aspects, of delicate intimacies which form an impossible – or until now only very difficult, way of being together. An image with its acting (21) morphological formation releases an aspect of the world which is formed as an intimacy at the very moment that it is shared and begins to exists amongst other subjects. It is a privacy not sacrificed for security and safety, but a moment of privacy with a potential, when externalized, to project necessities of a sensible nature. The image acts and connects subjectivities together and the visual with the intelligible only by being there, existing no matter what. What we face here is an action, a subject ‘capable of taking a position’ (22) acting along with other visual-kinds of subjects (images) and in their formation, a new togetherness emerges.
1 The notion of the image as a subject is based on the theory and arguments of Georges Didi-Huberman, for more see Didi-Huberman, G., The eye of history, when images take positions, translation: Shane B.Lillis, Ric Books, Toronto, 2018
2 The term “ethnology of loneliness” is borrowed here from Marc Auge’s book, Auge, M., Non-Lieux. Intriduction a une anthropologie de la surmodernite, Editions de Seuil, Paris, 1992
3 Agamben mention that it is the first time in history that bodies are being burnt without a funeral since the years of Antigone, Agamben, G. «Ένα ερώτημα»[One question], 2020, translation in Greek: Giorgos Pinakoulas, https://www.alerta.gr/archives/3647
4 Ponty, M.M., Φαινομενολογία της αντίληψης [Phenomenology of perception] (1945), from the Greek translation, μετάφρ. Κική Καψαμπέλη, εκδόσεις νήσος, Αθήνα, 2016, p.15
5 Didi-Huberman, G., «Κάνω αισθητό» στο: Τι είναι λαός [“To render sensible” in What is a people], μεταφρ. Γιωργος Καράμπελας, εκδόσεις του εικοστού πρώτου, Athens, 2014, p.99
6 It is Robert Vischer that states the act of seeing is a “unity”, “a phenomenon of the whole”, Didi-Huberman, G., The surviving image, Phantoms of time and time of fantoms: Aby Warburg’s history of art, translated by Harvey Mendelson, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017, p.268
7 Ibid, p.269
8 Ponty, M.M., Το μάτι και το πνεύμα, η αμφιβολία του Σεζάν, [Eye and mind. Cezanne’s doubt], μετάφρ. Αλέκα Μουρίκη, εκδόσειε νεφέλη, Athens, 1991, p.96
9 Nancy, J.L., The pleasure in drawing, translation: Philip Armstrong, Fordham University Press, New York, 2013, p.66
10 Didi-Huberman, G., “To render sensible”… p.79
11 Ibid. p.102
12 We speak here of a common state that is formatted differently in each and every one since we believe in differentiated formations, of a common problem, that enhance alternative and open collectivities.
13 Pathematic here is originated in the Greek word πάθημα, or in French pathematic, and it describes a state of being under suffering, under a state of pathos Aby Warburg speaks of his term pathosformeln, an emotional state, a capacity of being affected and it is not a passivity but a sensibility. Didi-Huberman, G., The surviving image, Phantoms of time and time of fantoms: Aby Warburg’s history of art, translated by Harvey Mendelson, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017, p.130
14 Ibid, p.102
15 Didi-Huberman, G., The surviving image, ibid. p.269
16 Didi-Huberman, “To render sensible”, Ibid, p.162
17 Didi-Huberman here speaks of a simultaneousity of existence under an emotional state referring to A.Farge: “bodies… exist emotionally in the world”, Didi-Huberman, “To render sensible” ibid, p.88,89
18 Agamben, G., «Εξουσία και κοινωνική αποστασιοποίηση» [“Social distancing”], article in the Greek newspaper, Documento, 2020, available in Greek: https://www.documentonews.gr/article/tzortzio-agkampen-exoysia-kai-koinwnikh-apostasiopoihsh , in English: http://autonomies.org/2020/04/giorgio-agamben-social-distancing/
19 Agamben is commenting on the fact that the term used is social distancing over physical or personal in an expanded volume of his texts published recently in Quodlibet, available in: https://www.quodlibet.it/una-voce-giorgio-agamben
20 Agamben, G., «Εξουσία και κοινωνική αποστασιοποίηση» [“Social distancing”], ibid.
21 I refer here to the term “image acts” as proposed by Horst Bredekamp in his book Image Acts, A systematic Approach to Visual Agency. Bredekamp argues and this text is based on such arguments, that the image is an action that has a life of its own. For more see Bredekamp, H., Image Acts, A systematic Approach to Visual Agency, translation: Elizabeth Clegg, De Gruyter publications, Berlin, 2018
22 Georges Didi-Huberman suggests that images are subjects capable of taking positions. For more see: Didi-Huberman, G., The eye of history, when images take positions, translation: Shane B.Lillis, Ric Books, Toronto, 2018
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