Congo 50 years on: a study in photography and reification

This post was written by Jacob on July 14, 2010
Posted Under: Uncategorized

Last week was the fiftieth anniversary of the election of Patrice Lumumba in The Congo. It’s a fact that hasn’t been so widely publicized (although I have been out of Britain for the last few weeks so haven’t had great access to the British press.) It was not even four years ago that we had reports all over the press about how elections were the first “free democratic” elections since independence in 1960. What was more shocking at the time, though, was the fact that none of our news sources mentioned anything about why there haven’t been elections, how the civil wars have been spurred on by other world governments, and what exactly was happening 50 years ago that stopped democratic elections continuing. In fact what is significant is the fact that the story of Lumumba has been wiped from the history books.

It is no surprise that the American and Belgian government feel shame about the deposition and murder of a democratically elected leader leading to a conflict lasting over 40 years in which millions have died. Although, of course, Congo was not the first and certainly not the last. Anyone remember what happened in Chile in 1973? Anyhow, this is somehow getting off the point. It seems to me that the one prominent place in which the issue of Congo has existed in the British media in the last week is on the BBC’s website, in which a gallery from their Spotlight section was displayed prominently on the front page:

A summary of the images in the BBC's gallery (sponsored by Canon!)

What interests me about this gallery is its movement towards what appears to be an anti-subjectivity and anti-politics through a description of absolute abject poverty and the conditions of war. The figures displayed are held, as so often with modern “political” photography in their moment. Each person’s inability to breach the boundary of the image is the same as his or her inability to breach the bubble of the present in which history exists as something distant, merely a condition of life rather than the matter of life itself. Once again Lumumba is not present, and at this base level of what Giorgio Agamben may call “bare life”, the fetish of life itself is allowed to become a blind with which to hide a history.

Photo of Nangwahafil Makuza from the Guardian's piece

Picture of Nangwahafil Makuza from the Guardian

An interesting, and much more sustainable, counterpoint to this BBC gallery is a piece on the Congo that was published in the Guardian this year, which describes the many years of bloody conflict as rather than presenting poverty ahistorically. What is interesting between these two pieces is the focus on physiognomy, on faces, and although this particular mode of thought is often considered to be totally anti-scientific, there certainly seem to be arguments for taking it seriously, if not to make pronouncements about the status of a person, but rather as a means of reading historical subjects. One of the few good fragments on physiognomy in the twentieth century comes from Walter Benjamin’s account of taking has in Marseille in 1928:

In that little port bar the hashish began to allow its truly canonical magic free reign with a primitive acuity which I had hardly experienced before. Namely, it began to make me a physiognomist, at any rate an observer of physiognomies, and I witnessed something quite unique in my experience: I became dead set on the forms in the faces around me, which were partly of a remarkable rawness and ugliness; faces which I generally would have avoided for two reasons: neither would I have wished to draw their attention to myself, nor would I have been able to bear their brutality. It was a seemingly advanced outpost, this port tavern. It was the one furthest in that direction which was still accessible without putting me in danger, and here in my rausch I had assessed it with the same certainty with which a deeply exhausted person understands how to fill a glass to the very brim without spilling a drop, whereas a person with refreshed senses would never be in a position to do so. It was still far enough away from the rue Bouterie, and yet no bourgeois were sitting there. At best there were a pair of petit bourgeois families from the neighborhood sitting next to some of the authentic harbor proletariat. I now grasped all at once how to a painter –has it not happened to Rembrandt and many others? –ugliness is the true reservoir of beauty, better than the receptacles of its treasure; just as the jagged mountain chain could appear with all the interior Gold of the Beautiful sparkling from its folded strata, vistas and ranges. I particularly recall an infinitely bestial and vulgar face of one of the men, from which the “wrinkles of abandon” suddenly struck me. It was men’s faces which appealed to me most. And now, too, I began the long sustained game in which an acquaintance surfaced up in front of me in each new face. Often I knew his name, often again not.

Now disregarding the facts that Benjamin was ridiculously fucking high, and he goes in for what can only be seen as a Bolshevik description of an authentic proletarian, we are possibly into interesting territory here that can reflect on our two versions of reports on Congo. What is important for Benjamin is the physical manifestations of history in the present (and this is equally reflected in his work on writing in which he, at this time, wrote about the graphology of German Trauerspiel.) If we are to treat faces in this way then we can see finally quite how far short the BBC’s gallery falls. The face, the physical and physiognomic portrayal of the history of a country is debased by the format of the gallery. The physical inscriptions of history are pacified by the reification of the constant repetition of the notion or the concept o absolute poverty, and of destruction. The concept, which by definition is the absence of quality, overrides the living qualities of the faces.

I am not trying to argue that the entirety of history can be read through its residues in the physiognomies of those who live through it, but rather that the disjunct between what the faces can tell us in these photos and the mode of talking about today’s situation in the Congo, as an awful nadir with no history, can shed some light on the mode of reification of important historical struggles for liberation as presented in today’s society.

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Reader Comments

There was, however, a work of fiction, The poisonwood bible, which perhaps did something to increase public awareness.

Written By Steve Hayes on July 15th, 2010 @ 9:40 am

Yes, it’s a fantastic book.

Written By Jacob on July 15th, 2010 @ 10:16 am

Yes, though I think the Benjamin quote really isn’t deep without the context of his Trauerspiel book, in which the ideas of violence, ugliness and crudity are taken as not only symptomatic of a society, but to be treated with as much reverence and intellectual curiosity as beauty, peace and ‘civilization’.

To make a conceptual sidestep, I think the same thing happens with pseudo-feminist articles on ‘strong women’, in which the hard, embittered, lined face of the women-who-has-had-to-fight becomes reified, creating a kind of heroine sculpture. And of course the whole effect of this isn’t just a politics of ‘la nuda vita’, but also a profound individualist attitude, even with regard to moments of high collective struggle.

Written By richard on July 15th, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

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