Violence with a Political Purpose: A Discussion on Dr. Laura Robson’s Lecture, “The Politics of Mass Violence in the Middle East.”

hUManities Blog, Snap Shots

 “When we are cruel to others, we know that our cruelty is meant to bring them back to their true selves, of which they are ignorant.”

-Michel Aflaq

How do we learn from, and how should we interpret, mass violence that fails to fit into the analytical categories we have established to make sense of it?  What should historians do when they are presented with instances of violence which undermine both the geopolitical and disciplinary boundaries of Middle Eastern historiography?  These are the questions which underlined Dr. Laura Robson’s recent lecture, “The Politics of Mass Violence in the Middle East.”

Dr. Robson’s choice to open with a quote addressing the political potential of mass violence within a postcolonial and – contradictorily – neocolonial geopolitic foregrounds the specific conclusions and disciplinary suggestions offered throughout her lecture.  Mass violence often has a specific purpose, and an exploration of its use across state boundaries by various regimes can shed light on the broader historic and ongoing colonial experience of the Middle East.

The specific historiographic work presented within the lecture was certainly interesting.  Dr. Robson – highlighting specific examples presented in her recently published book of the same name – skillfully traced the complex phenomena which contributed to the mass violence experienced within the modern Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean.  By harnessing mass violence as an analytical tool, Dr. Robson underlined how mass violence in the Middle East should not – and for that matter, cannot – be interpreted and rearticulated as irrational or, conversely, indicative of longstanding ethnic or spatial divisions.  Neither should mass violence be interpreted as a failure on behalf of modern Middle Eastern nations to establish effective or stable state structures.  Mass violence existed as a colonial political tool long before the establishment of current national bodies, serving as a way to divide colonized peoples and establish specific ethnic client populations. 

Dr. Robson’s articulation of the postcolonial implications of this relationship was even more profound.  Mass violence as a tool to assert national and territorial control exists only with the political and material support of the global community.  Whether it be American arms, European chemical weapons, or training from Soviet and Post-Soviet Bloc states, this violence is an unignorable transnational phenomenon.  Mass violence therefore stands as a strong analytical tool through which historians can explore the recent and continued recolonization of the Middle East.

However, the historiographical problems highlighted by Dr. Robson, and her proposals on how to remedy them – were the highlight of her presentation.  Neither genocide studies, due to its focus on strict definitions of what does – and does not – qualify as a genocide per se, nor the historiography of the modern Middle East, due to its focus on outcomes rather than causes and processes, are really in a position to explore the phenomenon of mass violence.  An exploration of mass violence in the Middle East requires the use of mass violence as an analytical tool itself.  Only by bringing mass violence into the conversation can we fully explore the causes, contexts, and intents guiding historically conditioned and conscious postcolonial subjects across national, state, and temporal boundaries.

Welcome to the Bauhaus: A Review and Discussion of Dr. Elizabeth Otto’s Lecture

hUManities Blog, Snap Shots

A UMIH sponsored event, held at Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA) on February 28, 2020.

The Bauhaus. Treated like a religion in some design schools, its history is almost worshipped. Its name is whispered reverently in the halls of architecture schools as if saying it was like tasting the sacrament. The Bauhaus. Its clean lines, revolutionary artists, architects, thinkers—sorry, I should say its men. In the cultural imagination, in its history as it is taught, the Bauhaus necessarily is synonymous with its paternalistic lineage.

When I first encountered Bauhaus, it was alongside the death of Bela Lugosi, strange bat-like silhouettes on walls, men like calligraphic lines—skinny, angular and dressed in all black. When my goth-rock sensibilities were introduced to its namesake, I’m sorry to say it was quite the let-down. Lectured by a white male professor, we were told all about Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky, Klee. Their names melted together inside my brain, it felt like an endless train of masculine genius along a long line of other male geniuses, imposing upon history. But a quotation stuck out in the noise; taken from shocked bystanders, the Bauhäusler were described as women with short hair wearing trousers, the men wore their hair long. This line stayed with me for years.

Where were the women? Certainly not in my lecture. Blink and you’d miss it: Marianna Brandt, the one woman who we spent mere moments on, swallowed up by the Iron Curtain and similarly swept under the academic rug. Begrudgingly admitted into the rank and file of history, if only for her economic success within the Bauhaus. The rest rendered like Ariadne—an army of faceless and nameless weavers, stripped of personhood or individuality.

Enter: Dr. Elizabeth Otto

Her lecture entitled “Gender, Sexuality, & the Bauhaus” was vibrant, engaging, and most of all was a feminist recovery of a long-thought and long-taught masculinist institution. Suddenly we get faces, we hear names. Most damning of all, we see the numbers of women throughout the Bauhaus and no, they certainly were not all weavers. Forty-some odd women even went through the architecture stream.

My favourite of the night, Florence Henri.

Suspected to have taken a female lover, but no speculation is needed to see the talent of her photography. The aesthetic of longing in her art, which Dr. Otto views as a queer coding, is a beautiful yearning that pulls at its viewers. Multiple pictures show her gazing at herself in mirrors, that insoluble question for queer women—wanting her or wanting to be her.

This is the difficult reality of much of Dr. Otto’s work, looking for hints, gestures, digging up the marginalized of history, trying to find these traces of female and queer life; it’s like reaching out to try to touch a ghost. Henri more than likely learned her craft from László Moholy-Nagy’s faceless wife, Lucia Moholy: the woman behind the camera and the woman behind the man. Almost like a feral network, or a queer lineage of craft passed down on the fringes of this masculine school. Henri eventually left the Bauhaus, but still continued on with her practice in Paris.

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

hUManities Blog, Snap Shots

Bang Bang, a brief review

Photo by Matt Popovich

The play Bang Bang, written and directed by Kat Sandler, depicts the aftereffects of a police shooting. Lila Hines, a rookie Black cop, shoots an unarmed Black teenager, and though he lives, the incident devastates Hines and destroys her career. A white playwright, Tim Bernbaum, decides to take her experience and adapt it into a play, without obtaining her permission or consulting her. Then, the play is picked to be adapted into a film, and upon learning that the lead actor wishes to consult with Hines, Bernbaum finally decides to pay Lila and her mother a visit. What follows is an explosive debate on who has the right to this story, an unfiltered treatment of topics like assumption, appropriation, racial tensions and the ethical limits of artistic freedom and representation.

The play – which ran Oct 2nd to 19th, 2019 at Winnipeg’s Tom Hendry Warehouse – brought up and discussed questions which are incredibly relevant to our current society. When it comes to issues of violence and oppression, who is allowed to tell these stories? What is the responsibility of the storyteller to the audience, and to the persons concerned? How can one practise responsibility when using artistic mediums to depict these difficult stories?

We live in an era of sensationalism and buzzwords, where news and viral videos are available at the tap of a screen. Police brutality against Black people has become such a commonplace act of injustice, most notably in the United States. So have mass shootings. One could argue that as we become more and more desensitized through what we see in the media, we forget that there are real people involved in these incidents of violence. This play reminds us that, as we take in so much content each day, we should perhaps pause and consider who is doing the storytelling, how it is portrayed, and perhaps to what ends.

This play is also a reminder of the care that must be taken not only in reporting but in writing about or portraying the hard-hitting social and political issues in our society. Who gets to tell someone’s story? Does it matter, so long as the story sends out an important message? Should certain people be restricted from portraying events that affect a community to which they do not belong? And does that story have to be told, even if the persons involved think otherwise? Does it matter that this play itself was written and directed by a white playwright? Bang Bang makes us pause to think about the power dynamics involved in telling any story, and to reflect on the ways in which the entertainment we consume might be appropriating other people’s struggles without necessarily showing the required respect or responsibility in addressing the issues or the persons concerned.