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May 2017 Newsletter: Nationalism, Imperialism, and "The Image"


Understanding modern nationalism as it emerges with renewed vigor around the world is no small task. Social Research authors have explored a variety of trends underlying this worldwide shift.

Aryeh Neier’s “America’s New Nationalism” in vol. 71, no. 4 (Winter 2004) discusses “the propaganda effect of terrorism” as a driver of an emerging identity. Terrorism is a type of violence which, he explains, did not exist before mass communication because its effectiveness relies on the high rates of information-sharing present today. He looks at how the fear of terrorism, in the form of a divisive fear of the Other, has changed our behavior both societally and internationally post-9/11, and posits that it could be one explanation of the increase in nationalism.

This fear appears to outweigh any humanitarian sentiment by a large margin, shaping the global landscape into us-vs-them. “Heightened American insistence that the policies of the United States should not be constrained by international rules or international institutions” has redefined foreign policy on the pretext of fighting terrorism. This weakens any sense of global community and sends the message that US security is more important than rule of law or any other nation. It is, apparently, also more important than global public health: in 2004, for example, the “international community’s expenditures on efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic [were] a small fraction of the sums devoted to trying to protect us against terrorism”—a trend that continues today.

Writing more recently in this year’s vol. 83, no. 4 (Spring 2017), on Invisibility, Emily Greenwood discusses how views of citizenship shape identity. Her article “Seeing Citizens: Rereading Gyges’s Ring of Invisibility” looks to the Athenian ideas of identity (ethnos) and citizenship as another possible explanation of recent politics. When groups become clearly distinct from one another, differing ideas about who is entitled to citizenship rights can spur discontent and strengthen nationalist ideas. Within “a quasi-surveillance state, in which the identity of citizens and noncitizens can be discerned at a glance … political judgments acquire a haphazard or improvisatory quality.” Thus, the constant scrutiny of who belongs and who does not prevents the growth of social solidarity.

Athenians avoided this problem with public spaces that “facilitated and even engendered a blurring of identities within the larger population.” This process allowed for a more fluid idea of citizenship and rights. Is it possible that our public spaces are failing to do this today? Greenwood looks deeply at the role recognition plays in forming the local identities, and when supplemented by Neier’s understanding of fear as a source of recent trends, it becomes a little clearer why outlooks have changed within local and international communities. We may share more information, but we share less and less in common.

- Tim Sughrue



In their new book, A Theory of Imperialism (Columbia University Press 2017), Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik make a case for the endurance of imperialist structures from the colonial period to today. The book confronts the general reluctance of economists or other social scientists to use the concept of imperialism to describe today’s relationship between the economies of the South and the North. In response to Patnaik’s proposal, David Harvey’s commentary, included in the book, raises important criticism by drawing our attention to the Patnaiks’ use of specific concepts, such as “periphery,” for which the authors do not offer a clear definition, though the concept is central to their explanation for how imperialism still operates.

We were happy to continue this discussion at our 12th Public Voices event on May 1, 2017, at the New School with Duncan Foley, Nancy Fraser, David Harvey, Prabhat Patnaik, and Sanjay Reddy. The panel discussed the meaning of imperialism, asked whether it is still a useful framework, and if it is still relevant, does it allow us to better understand social, political, and economic relations today? Can the concept of imperialism help us understand current systems of domination, exploitation, and inequality?

Harrison M. Wright addressed the same question in a 1967 issue of Social Research issue (vol 34, no. 4). While the discussion between David Harvey and Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik focuses on the mechanisms of trade under a capitalist system, Wright argues that an imperialist relationship is “in virtually every case a relationship of inequality.” By this Wright means political inequality, and therefore highlights the mechanisms of political control that deny people, who are the object of imperialism, political independence and self-determination.

The discussion about the value of imperialism as a concept for understanding today’s power relations is far from over. We encourage the ongoing debate, as it urges us to acknowledge the multiple relationships and activities that sustain economic and political inequality.

- Franziska König-Paratore



How are photos used in fake news? Are body cameras the answer to police brutality? Can we “see” climate change? What makes one image from the multitudes go viral? How much of our time gets spent scrolling through (filtered) images in our social media newsfeeds? Who gets seen? Who gets represented? And what do we not see when we look at an image? Our 2011 issue on “The Image,” and our 2016 issue on “Invisibility” highlight the centrality of visual representations to our lives, and, most critically, to understanding what happens when we do not see what is visible, or when we do see something other than what is there.

Writing in 2011, Mitchell Stephens argued that among the candidates for the “invention” of our time (the Internet, Google, smartphones, Facebook, the digital coding of information), it was the moving image that has lead us into a new era. Birgit Meyer wrote that an image’s power cannot be understood solely by focusing on the image alone; one must also understand how the image is embedded in “politics of representation, modes of governance, and practices of animation at specific times and places.” David Greenberg’s account of Theodore Roosevelt’s then-unorthodox approach to turning the role of presidency into a public platform through an image-making campaign raised questions that we might think through in the current political climate. While “today, opponents of every president complain that the object of their criticism has prevailed in the public mind through his devious manipulation of the news media… in Theodore Roosevelt’s day it was relatively novel.”

As Arien Mack wrote in 2011, most of us generally assume that our visual experience is a faithful representation of the scenes at which we are looking, and that our eyes function much like a camera, sending images of those scenes to our brain, which receives them and produces our perceptual experience. But this, as it turns out, is a mistaken assumption. In the 2016 issue, Mack writes that “inattentional blindness”—our failure to see what is there when we are not paying attention to it—is like our failure to see those we consider "other," revealing how our prejudices influence what we see and what we don’t.

In recent newsletters (which you can read here), we have written about the concept of truth, with particular consideration given to why it matters that we think about the idea of truth at a time when “post-truth,” “alternative facts,” and “fake news” have cultural traction. As Neal Curtis wrote in his 2011 article on “Three Realms in the Activity of the Image,” images have always fascinated us for their power to both convey truth and obscure it. He wrote, “For Plato, the truth was always visual in nature.” Emily Greenwood, in the 2016 issue on Invisibility, argued that, to reread Plato’s myth of Gyges' ring, a ring that had the mythical power to make its wearer invisible, in the context of America today forces us to confront the issue of the visibility and the invisibility of citizens, and the relationship between citizenship and the visual realm. Strategic invisibility, then as now, often plays a destructive role in democratic societies often masking the presence of extreme inequalities.

The surfeit of images that characterize modern life play many powerful and often conflicting roles. Yet it is crucial that we also consider the relationship of images and visual representations to what we consider the truth, particularly when it comes to political matters.

- Lydia Nobbs

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