Category Archives: materiality

The Semiotics of Che Guevara: Affective Gateways. Book Review by Jeongwon Gim

Cambre, Maria-Carolina (2015). The Semiotics of Che Guevara: affective gateways. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

In The Semiotics of Che Guevara: Affective Gateways (2015), Maria-Carolina Cambre focuses on the semiotic significance of images of Che Guevara and its impact on their viral distribution around the globe. Cambre investigates the multiple renderings of the Che Guevara image—appropriations of Alberto Korda’s famous photograph titled Guerrillero Heroico. She considers this image an affective gateway mediating people with different political ideologies in various contexts. In this way, Cambre does not presume the global reach of the image as the inevitable result of a human-led economic and cultural globalization process. Rather, Cambre bridges the gap between a micro perspective on materialities of the “affect” in visual image and a macroscopic view of their impact as a visual phenomenon. Doing so, the author provides us with a more holistic, concrete understanding of the obscured materiality of the abstract, intangible transmission of visual images.

(Cambre, 2015)

The book comprises eight chapters, ranging from a brief introduction to the historical and socio-political salience and branding discourse of the Korda image, to much more complex layers and stages of its actualization of virtual qualities and the discussion of related issues, such as its queer tendency. Chapter two begins with Cambre’s investigation of current controversies surrounding the use of the Guerrillero Heroico image. In this chapter, she delineates its dislocation as a brand, a commercial product, an art-work, and a cultural artifact within and outside of the Cuban context. Building upon theoretical frames from phenomenologists such as Gabriel Marcel, Emmanuel Levinas and Roland Barthes, in chapter three, Cambre discusses people’s encounters with the image, which often tend to be connected with the idea of “hope.” This idea of hope as an animating motif contributes to the virtual recreation and resurrection of the Guerrillero Heroico. Following Hannah Arendt’s (1959) theory of action, the author introduces ethnographic case studies in chapter four to illustrate actioning and the performative aspects of the image; it has an effect on society by allowing multiple interpretations and being politically used by individuals with different ideologies. In relation to the image’s performativity and openness, in chapter five, the author further situates her discussion in semiotics to explain what she is doing differently. She overcomes the limitations of the reductionism of traditional semiotics, which understands the complexity and simultaneity of visual and social realities through signs operating on a plane that is simplified, rigid, and concrete. Throughout chapter five and seven, Cambre explores Donald Preziosi’s (2003) elaboration of Roman Jakobson’s addition of a fourth sign type: artifice. She connects artifice with the anthropological concept of art and agency suggested by Alfred Gell (1998) to illuminate the role of the image’s virtuality as a drive for social and political changes in the world. By doing so, the author maintains a multi-dimensional perspective on the semiotics of images. Particularly in chapter seven, Cambre emphasizes that Guerrillero Heroico itself is an agency that has generative power—the power of affect—to pull its alternative forms into different places to serve different political ideologies and authorize our “actions” in the future. In the final chapter, the author opens a discussion of the queer tendencies of the image as other possible forms of appropriations and mutation.

In the simplest terms, Cambre’s research begins with the question of “how and why does the image of the Guerrillero Heroico go viral to different places?” The author then connects this question of the reception, adaptation, and circulation of the image with the discussion of “face” in chapter seven. She maintains that Korda’s image of Che Guevara’s face bears witness to certain experiences, such as anti-imperialist and revolutionary activities. However, Cambre does not discuss the significance of “face” or explain how the material properties of “face” specifically help incubate immaterial forces—internal movements, energy, and virtual qualities emergent and realized in our encounters with “face”—to actualize as particular forms of experiences and “actions.” More specifically, Cambre does not indicate her understanding of the concept of “face” in visual images. For example, “face” can be read figuratively and metaphorically as a frontal/critical “aspect” and “appearance” or is understood in “literal” terms—literally the face of humans or objects (Adams, 2000). Although it seems appropriate to say that the author takes the definition of “face” in literal terms in her analysis of the Guerrillero Heroico, it is still important to clearly identify the concept of “face,” to illuminate its materiality and the abstract mechanism that exceeds the totality of certain features and experience.

According to the concept of “face” suggested by Deleuze and Guattari (1987), the facial image of Che Guevara can be understood as a landscape, map, or topology, which is abstracted as dominating qualities and norms at a distance and produced as an overcoding of subjects. At the same time, it is deterritorilized at a close-up scale by affording different affective energies such as a fear and hope of subjects (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). Thus, the ‘face’ of Che Guevara itself is decontextualized from the body and interior forces and functions as an autonomous entity (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). This understanding may lead us to more concrete questions about the material properties of face, such as: 1) How does Korda image of Che Guevara impose onto us to assume its face? 2) What are these dominant material qualities of ‘face’ of Che Guevara? 3) More specifically, how does this ‘face’ selectively assemble its fragmented and varying movements and illustrations of different elements such as eyes, eyebrows, mouth, and cheeks and still link them with the elements and experience of the original and other appropriations of Korda image?

Although Cambre discusses artworks or images of the human figure and their global transmission, she seems opposed to an anthropocentric belief in the sociology, geography, or anthropology of art, that institutional gestures and human creativity are what suddenly transform an ordinary image into “art” imbued with cultural and political resonances. As such, in scholarly discussion of the global circulation of visual images, existing literature on globalization has focused on analyzing the role of images as carriers of certain socio-political and cultural needs in the context of evolutionary globalization. As a result, this perspective based on evolutionary functionalism has produced a simplified interpretation of the global distribution of images as an inevitable, unidirectional movement. To overcome the limited interpretations of the phenomenon, the author pays more attention to the properties and potentials of images that assemble people to distribute and connect mobile images to future actions (Miller, 2010).

Cambre also explores the potential of democratic performance in representation and reproduction of Guerrillero Heroico through a multi-dimensional semiotics. This alternative approach to semiotics allows her to consider representation as something that not only stands for other things, but also produces, acts, and is. Building upon this perspective, the author considers ambiguous and disobedient properties of the image as significant elements that reproduce different alternatives of the image and bring possibilities for democratic change. Here her affirmation of the democratic potential of the image is not simply to suggest that images can abruptly and literally make “democratic changes” in the world; rather, it addresses the latent “virtual” power of the image that forms our collective imagining for the future change. The constant reproduction and collective consumption of the image, at a grass-roots level, allows people to collectively engage with certain imaginations of the future and reshape the way we understand politics—which may in turn bring bottom-up changes to the world.

I recommend this book for the following reasons. First, the book promotes a transdisciplinary perspective that interacts with art, sociology, material culture studies, and anthropology. Methodologically, it incorporates phenomenology, semiotics, and arts-based research. The book will also inspire a broad range of students and scholars whose research is concerned with transferable lessons of applications and methods. Second, the book achieves a balance between subjectivity— such as the author’s personal engagement with the research subject—and objectivity drawn from theoretical discussions. The book provides a critical examination of the author’s own subjectivity, recognizing what frames our seeing to better understand the complexity of our reception of visual images. Third, along with the author’s own enthusiasm for the research subject, the case studies and empirical examples from various cultural contexts provided in the book make it easier for the reader to understand the semiotics of images. I recommend this book to students and scholars interested in topics ranging from the semiotics of visual images to reproduction and distribution of images and objects, politics of visual branding, art as revolution, and the ideological and political transmission of arts.

 Jeongwon Gim (University of Alberta)

 

References

Adams, T. (2000). White Walls, Black Holes: The Molecular Face of Contemporary Architecture. Interstices 5: 26-35.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. B. Massumi. London: Continuum.

Miller, D. (2010). Stuff. Cambridge: Polity.

 

Karl Marx 200: I contemplate… Thoughts by Nihal Perera

He has made an immense contribution to our understanding of the world. He expected us to know him through his work; to worship him is to lose his teachings. I am glad that I too learned a lot from him.

He is immensely popular, perhaps more than John Lennon who claimed to be more popular than Jesus Christ. Yet there is no one Marxism; it is quite diverse. As I crossed several cultural boundaries, I was fortunate to get exposed to a few variations.

As one of the greatest critical thinkers of our time, he questioned everything. Perhaps, he expects us too to be critical of his own work; i.e., to critically build on it.

He was the greatest European anti-systemic thinker, who thought outside the box. Transcending the theory-practice duality, he approached his work from the standpoint of praxis; he learned history in order to change it because it was unjust. He saw that the society is not one, but made of classes and is in conflict (than consensus). His work laid the foundation for social history.

He probably does not expect us to remember what is in Das Capital, an examination of 19th c. European capitalism, but to further develop the synthesis of his work: The Communist Manifesto.

To learn from a great person is not to import that persons time-, space-, and culture-specific findings (the model or the diagram), but to learn from her/his process of investigation and thinking; i.e., to carry out investigations inspired by her/his work, but within our own culture, time, and space, and find avenues to make a difference.

Despite violence caused in his name, his work was perhaps driven by the kindness that opted to liberate the exploited (than an animosity towards capitalists). His thinking was not limited to the working class too. He talks about many classes, especially during the French Revolution.

Most useful for my own work (especially People’s Spaces) is his understanding that the working class people (and the subjects of society) are not victims of capitalism, but “survivors.” They produce value and could change the system. They are agents of change.
Maybe our historic role -according to him- is to be partners of the revolutions that people carry out than look for people to follow our revolution.

Seeing the ongoing transformations perhaps requires a new vision (intellectual glasses). The (broader) agents of social change may not wait for outside leadership (the vanguard) and self-appointed representatives.

Nihal Perera is Chair and Professor of Urban Planning at Ball State University and the founder and Director of CapAsia, an immersive learning-by-doing semester in Asia based on collaborative projects with Asian universities.

Further Reading: https://marx200.org/en

 

Donna Haraway: Staying with the Trouble. Book Review by Juan Guevara

Donna Haraway. Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin with the Chthulucene London: Duke University Press. 2016.

Staying with the Trouble compiles Donna Haraway’s latest thoughts.  In the book, Haraway calls for the need to reflect and think on the possibilities for facing the era post-Anthropocene, the era of, what she calls, the Chthulucene. The book is divided in eight chapters that can be presented in three parts: the first 4 chapters of the book are mainly ‘theoretical’ and serve to conceptualize String Figures-SF, Tentacular Thinking, Sympoiesis and the Chthulucene; the second part (Chapters 5, 6, and 7) provides practical examples of becoming-with other species and elements to show how the Chthulucene can shape and transform our human ways to relate with other species and the planet (Terrapolis in the Chthulucene); the last part builds on science fiction (Speculative Fabulation-SF) and storytelling as a way to present the forms the Chthulucene may have (Proctor, 2017). Response-abilities is one of the main and most important elements of the book alongside with String Figures-SF, Becoming-with, Tentacular Thinking and Sympoiesis; these concepts are explored in this review.

I am not particularly engaged in Haraway’s work. However, in this book, I observe how the author engages with Northern aboriginal perspectives, Feminist theory, Biology, Ecology, and Postmodern theory. I found intriguing the way the Nomad is presented in the process of becoming, that for Haraway is always becoming with other species. The book has the merit of exercising imagination and for bringing some Northern Aboriginal wisdom to thinking the post-Anthropocene.

For Haraway, the Chthulucene is an era (with no time nor history) in which human race will confront its arrogance and ‘superiority’ and humbly make kin with the biological critters coming from the under-ground. The Chthulucene is the era in which humans will make kin with tentacles, spiders, bacteria, different ways of perceiving, living and dying, and becoming-with in n-dimensional time-spaces.

I observe that some concepts of the Chthulucene, especially its n-dimensional time-spaces and becoming-with, are inspired in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming. In her conceptualization of the Chthulucene, Haraway forgets Deleuze’s exploration of the Tick in Difference and Repetition to deconstruct and dissolve the static and unity of the self, to open up the possibilities of becoming. The Tick relies on different structures outside of itself, at the organic level, to perceive the world (Posteraro, 2016). The idea of the Tick is explored by Deleuze inspired by the work of von Uexhüll. Von Uexhüll suggests that each living cell perceives and acts but also “has perceptual or receptor signs (Merkzeichen) and impulses or effector signs (Wirkzeicheri) which are specific to it” (von Uexhüll, 1934, pp. 322-323). From this idea, von Uexhüll (1934) argues that “perceptual and effector worlds together form a closed unit, the Umwelt” (p. 320).

What is really important in von Uexhüll’s work for this book review is the acknowledgement of n-dimensional time-spaces of the Umwelt. This category is relevant in Haraway’s book but not well developed. The recognition of n-dimensional perceptual spatio-temporalities in each “soup bubbles (perceptual and effectors living cells) which intersect each other smoothly, because they are built up of subjective perceptual signs” (von Uexhüll, 1934, p. 339), plus the way in which time regards a succession of moments by different subjects are key elements of the Umwelt. This is indeed related to the entanglements of species and the actual existence of n-dimensional time-spaces that Haraway suggests for the futuristic Chthulucene.

Continue reading Donna Haraway: Staying with the Trouble. Book Review by Juan Guevara