On Joselit’s “Material Witness”

This essay was obviously completed prior to the Baltimore uprising, still underway. This is one hazard in writing about political events of the moment, particularly during intense periods of upsurge. 

Last year’s racist, police killings of African-Americans Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City has propelled Black Lives Matter in the U.S.

“Material Witness: Visual Evidence and the Case of Eric Garner” (registration required), by art historian David Joselit, was published in Artforum’s February, 2015 issue and is a useful précis of some of the case’s implications for art, politics, and representation. A subsequent interview with Joselit, conducted by David Andrew Tasman in February and March and touching on points raised in Artforum, was recently posted at DIS.

In that essay, Joselit argues:

[H]ow can we account for the fact that the video of a police officer pressing his arm against Garner’s throat—a document that could not have been less ambiguous—did not “speak for itself” before the members of a grand jury? If such a visual artifact can so blatantly fail in the task of representation before the law, both politically, as the proxy for an absent victim, and rhetorically, as evidence, doesn’t this present a challenge to how we define the politics of art?

Concrete political questions underlying “Material Witness” have been swirling around the resurgent black liberation movement and current, popular debates on police violence and, so, are not difficult to decipher.

Even the most unambiguous images of Garner’s murder did not sway the grand jury, as Joselit makes explicit. Remaining unstated are doubts this raises about the effectiveness of proposed requirements – intended to reduce instances of police brutality – that law enforcement wear body cameras.

Such requirements are a widespread demand, promoted by various political tendencies and with one up-to-date poll indicating a full 88% of individual respondents in support. (Thus, for the skeptical – Black Lives Matter and the left, for example – this debate is open and not at all resolved.) Ongoing support suggests, in part, conviction in the image’s power to “speak for itself.”  

However, an image is hardly sufficient (nor necessary, although I won’t address that issue in this posting). The vitality of really-existing mass movements on the ground is crucial as well. That must be sustained.

While, for example, cops in the Michael Brown case were not indicted, the Ferguson uprising that ensued in November, 2014 and constant pressure from black communities eventually ousted the City Manager and Police Chief there in March, 2015.

Later, in April, a bystander captured on video yet another police killing of a black man, Walter Scott, in South Carolina; those images, as with the Garner case, circulated globally and were seen by millions. This time, given the enormous national response following grand jury refusals to indict in Missouri and New York City, the officer involved will actually go on trial for murder. We will see how that turns out.

Force is needed to advance the so-called “justice” system at every step. Absent such political struggle, an image can take on dramatically different purposes. 

Particularly striking is that passers-by on the street were openly video-recording the deadly assault on Garner, and this did not remotely deter the cops. YouTube clips are here and here. While Garner is being tackled, one officer tells the videographer to step back. The chokehold on Garner is clearly visible. Milling amongst the police and an unconscious Garner, someone else on the scene waves at the videocam.

Moreover, precedents existed for such visuals to be seen by millions: the 2009 police murder of African-American Oscar Grant at a BART train station in Oakland, California, was similarly circulated rapidly and globally. Cameras today are everywhere, on phones, tablets, dashboard cams, and other devices – their images are ubiquitous. This was no deterrent either.

This brazen indifference of the police demonstrates that the capitalist state can be quite pleased for the entire world to behold its crimes. This is an attempt to inspire fear among working class and oppressed peoples, in contrast to political strategies which instead strive to conceal those crimes and build ideological hegemony and consent. These open terror tactics are less consistent with the “normal” functioning of bourgeois democratic systems.

Conversely, and perhaps the Scott case and the resignations of Ferguson city officials point in this direction, in other political conjunctures the strategy is more consistent with “normal” functioning of bourgeois democratic system.

Only obliquely registered in Joselit’s essay is the specificity of this dependence between: first, the visual and, by extension, art; and, second, struggle and the overall political situation, encompassing the state, its “armed bodies of men,” and the judiciary.

This registering occurs by way Eyal Weizman’s critique of Bruno Latour’s “’parliament of things’”; Weizman’s concepts of forensis and prosopopoeia, a “’mediated speech of inanimate objects’” that can “belatedly testify to human rights violations”; and contemporary developments in philosophy, such as speculative realism, vibrant matter, and others. In the DIS interview, Joselit describes these multiple developments:

[T]hese theories … share … an effort to understand the agency of objects (politically, socially, materially), and a commitment to de-centering the importance of human perception in conceiving of the world.

Joselit doubts the utility of prosopopoeia, given the Garner video-object’s inability to “testify” and “speak for itself.” Instead, he proposes that artist William Pope L.’s Eating the Wall Street Journal (1991–2000) allegorizes a better “adjudication of information – or evidence.” This adjudication is “not performed in a public forum (as in forensis) but rather takes place in the psychobiological theater of the body.” Further, “the presumed Enlightenment rationality of the forum … is contradicted by the particularity of individual bodies.”

This, the essay’s weakest aspect, walks around both the necessity and particularly of politics – definitionally public and collective – in favor of singular “bodies.” This will be familiar and reflects very old forms of thought on the US left.

The attempted engagement with newer thinking, such as vibrant matter, is notable. These tendencies’ “de-centering the importance of human perception” certainly helps explain the strange formulations, including Latour’s “parliament” and Weizman’s “forum” of things. The latter only hint, metaphorically, at the political. More to the point, “things” do not build a politics, human beings do.

Speculative realism and the work of Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux have a political valence, more clearly in terms of ecology or the status of science. The exact political valence of other matters is unclear. These unitary theories – for Harman, “humans differ only by degree from raindrops, dolphins[,] citrus fruit, and iron ore,” as he puts it – will be evocative for those of us in the Marxist or Leninist traditions.  

Specifically, that raises the specter of traditional arguments about the boundary, or lack thereof, between dialectical materialism and historical materialism. A Stalinist “diamat” proposes a dialectic of nature, relevant to science and simultaneously subordinating “histomat,” a dialectic of human activity. The “Western” Marxists of yore, of course, reject this subordination and completely jettison “diamat.”

Vibrant matter, speculative realism, et al will require careful consideration from the left, if they are to be applied to politics or art.

2014 protest in St. Louis, Missouri

The murder of Eric Garner

2014 protest in St. Louis, Missouri

Protest in Boston, Mass.

Baltimore "riots" (2015)

Oscar Grant

Mike Brown

"Black Lives Matter" die-in at Harvard University Medical School.

William Pope L.’s Eating the Wall Street Journal (1991–2000)

Paul Mullan is an activist and writer living in Houston, Texas, whose work has appeared in Red Wedge, The Great God Pan is Dead and Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. Paul also blogs for Red Wedge at"Conditions."

The condition of art sutured to the condition of politics. A blog by Red Wedge writer Paul Mullan.