Monday, July 4, 2011

Modes of Perception

The assignment instructions can be found here. Click on the photos to view larger sizes!

The meaning and relevance of this picture is tied more closely to the way it was taken than solely the content itself. While walking on the tour with Orhan, I noticed this woman sitting on steps outside her house. Her expression and the atmosphere of the scene were more than I could verbally elucidate or even wrap my mind around; there was something haunting about an old woman in traditional clothing sitting alone, surrounded by the reality of her settings. I didn't want to point the camera directly at her, so I surreptitiously shot the image from the hip. The result was a use of technology without particular mindfulness of artistically capturing a scene; it was a simple point-and-shoot to keep the memory as my own.

Inconsistencies of texture and color make this image what it is; the shock - present, but subdued - takes center focus and the viewer takes in the details of the environment as a whole. The details of the built environment in Istanbul are what contributed to my sense of displacement the most, especially in this particular area: the peeling paint from the buildings, broken fences, chipped stairs and broken balconies, crooked doors and cracks in the walls. It was impossible to focus on one aspect, but rather necessary to acknowledge each as an organic presence in the larger composition of the environment. The presence of the two women in the photo indicate a sense of livability and perspective - these are not dilapidated buildings composing an inanimate landscape; they are someone's reality, and this realization creates an even greater rift in the differences of environment.

As someone from a non-religious background, I found this image to be particularly poignant in conveying the limit of the camera in portraying experience. The subject's face is turned away from the camera and the viewer is left wondering what her expression and what her mind reads. No amount of photographs taken at the Blue Mosque would have been able to fully convey individuals' relationships with their religion - perhaps we're all outsiders to each others' experiences; perhaps we all have our backs turned, our eyes perpetually facing the front, maybe closed, maybe not.

Sometimes the most meaningful and interpretative photographs are those that happen entirely on accident. This was taken haphazardly at the Memory Void in the Jewish Museum, after the rest of the group had already continued on the tour and I realized I forgot to get a shot of the exhibit. It was meant for narrative purposes ("look, I was here, isn't this interesting?") and was taken without even looking through the viewfinder. Instead, it turned out to be one of the most complex photographs I've taken on this trip so far. I didn't see the light hitting the single face until I took the picture - however, the separation of this one face from the rest, made visible only with the use of a camera, changed the meaning of the exhibit entirely. Individuality was lost during World War II and millions of Jews became nameless and faceless figures, which this display was attempting to commemorate (and forget) - but, the highlight of the individual face restores individuality in the sea of lost faces; it lets us remember that there are multiple meanings and multiple views of the same pieces of metal, of the same pieces of history.

In addition to being hauntingly beautiful, the Basilica Cistern evoked a recent memory that is almost completely indescribable through words. This same time last year, I wandered into an old, abandoned mansion in the heart of London. The inevitable fate of places like this creates a fragility about derelict areas and a sense of urgency to capture them, knowing that they can never be replicated again (unlike the developments that often replace them). This house was a playground - a dangerous playground - and I found the deepest sense of peace and serenity I've ever felt, walking among creaking floorboards and stray light, infiltrated with particles of dust as ephemeral as the atmosphere itself. The entirety of the experience relied on the unknown; I was walking both literally and metaphorically into the dark. The cistern in Istanbul (despite being a location that has been visited by millions of people), evoked this sense of mystery, of transience, of unknown history that may be lost, or never even uncovered in the first place.


At the core of the modern nation-state's relationship to its constituents is power - always. Power and authority perpetuate the existence of the State, and this translates into a direct effect on the lives of citizens. Power is not merely brute force; it creates (constitutes) objects through its specific forms of political and technological practice - the modern individual as a subject of the State is the creation of political technology. Through the application of political power (for example, I will talk about specific cases of religion, immigration, and forced migration), you become a subject of the society you are in. The modern state realizes itself in and through you. Therefore, politics becomes pure technique: a science of administrative technology. Because the goal of the State is merely to perpetuate itself, we're concerned with administering a state that is an end in itself; politics ceases being about virtue - politics becomes refined decision-making. This is essentially what Michel Foucault meant about "reason of the state" - the reason used to bring about goals of the modern state: to totally and effectively integrate the individual into the body politic.

So how can this be used to contextualize my take-away experience in Istanbul? To begin with, a poignant example of a nation-state's integration into the private lives of individuals is religion. As Jen explained, Istanbul professes to be a secular society. However, this is not entirely true, at least not in the sense that we as Americans are accustomed to understanding. In Istanbul, it is not acceptable - or even legal - to not associate with a religion. Freedom of religion does exist, but one must have a religion. The State has a vested interest in not only perpetuating faith, but also controlling it as a means of weaving its citizens into the social fabric of society. This also serves as a way for the State to attempt to homogenize its population, which was a pervasive theme throughout our lectures and travels through Istanbul. Homogenization is of paramount importance to the modern state, because it allows for the construction of artificial borders of culture, which in turn stabilize the State - and, more importantly, secure its power. Migrants were (and still are) a threat to this system of stabilization and power; migrants politicize the outside bounds of a culture, whereas citizens politicize the inside. A cultural shift (a broadening of the borders) has the potential of displacing power - the State does not want this to occur.

The Blue Mosque is an example of the State's vested interest in the personal lives of its citizens.

Similarly, the promise of equality binds citizens of a nation-state and achieves stabilization and cooperation. It is not necessarily actual equality that achieves this; instead, it is the promise of equality. In a few cases we have learned about, equality was certainly not being practiced. For example, Orhan explained the displacement of the working class from their homes, to serve the purpose of gentrification and the State's interest. However, the promise of equality (in the form of democracy) quelled the voices of Istanbul's citizens - a majority continues to vote for the party that is in support of this gentrification project. In many ways, equality in the form of democracy is a double-edged sword; its mere presence ensures that the voices of dissent will always be overshadowed by the majority.

The seventh and last picture illustrates the power of the State - particularly in its false promises - over its people. The people are moving up a staircase and towards a light, a goal, some knowing what waits for them, and some not. Only the perceived promise of something better waits for them, but while they make their way to their destination, an ominous presence is hovering over them, perpetually, intangibly, ingrained in the atmosphere itself.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Goodbye, Istanbul

The evening before leaving, I was sitting on the balcony, drinking a glass of cool water and just slowly soaking up the amazing view of the city-scape. Even though I saw this same view every day, each time I take a few minutes or half an hour to just sit in my chair and look and really see it, I feel this sense of awe. And the evening is my favorite, because the light isn’t so glaring and harsh as it can be in the day. Everything is muted and I love the sort of melancholy, wistful and open feel of an evening sky, just after the sun has set, when the work of the day is over, and it’s time to let go of all the efforts and worries and struggles of the daylight hours. Evening is a time of freedom and release from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

(Not an evening picture, but you can understand the idea.)

Anyway, I love the view from our balcony. I’ve taken pictures, but I don’t think they really capture the feel of it all. I love looking at all the houses (aka apartments) stacked up helter-skelter on the hills of the city. There is a feeling of business, confusion, the messiness of life; it feels somehow organic. The buildings are almost like a hive, all mismatched, built up wherever there’s a few free inches of land, right on top of one another, at all different angles with no uniformity of size or shape, in a manic and seemingly thoughtless way. There’s no apparent plan; there's only action and result, constant movement.

Then there are the colors - red clay tiled roofs, the burnt orange, pale pinks, soft yellows and warm browns of the apartment blocks. Hanging from the balconies are clothes lines draped with sheets and shirts and socks, drying in the still-warm evening air. As the sunlight fades, you see the lights of hundreds of windows turn on, one by one, and sometimes you can distinguish the flickering glare of a TV in someone’s sitting room. And there are constantly big seagulls soaring around the city and congregating on rooftops. You can see them in the form of white specks against the red roofs in the distance, and closer to home you can see two or three preening their feathers on the neighbouring buildings, and soaring from roof to roof. There are also swallows darting everywhere. They make constant ear-piercing squeaks as they circle and dive and swoop, catching whatever flying insects are drifting around on the warm breeze. The seagulls soar and have a lazy, relaxed look about them, but the swallows are like dive-bombers, all energy and speed and efficiency.

I love to slowly soak up this scene. I breath in the cooling air and look, really look, at it all. As my own thoughts slow down and I forget about myself and my day and all my concerns, I let my eyes adjust to the light, to the colors and shapes, to the depth and the many layers of the city. Sometimes the city, the actual buildings and balconies and rooftops and trees and lampposts, seems to have a life all its own. It has a personality and a unique physicality. It’s unlike any other place. It is an individual, full of contradictions, rough spots, ugly bits, quirks, noise, corners and sharp edges, layer upon layer of being, complexity, a past, present, and future, a pulse. It is full of life and death, poverty and wealth, callousness and hospitality, struggle and beauty, achievement and failure. This city truly breathes with great big gulping breaths. It is vibrant, blinding, demanding, harsh, and in its own unique way, painfully beautiful. This city is a microcosm of the larger world; at any given moment, absolutely everything is happening here. The human experience is being played out in all its complexity and drama right before your very eyes.

If you want to know about life, come to Istanbul. For better or for worse, life is here and happening all around you. There’s no escape and you can’t ignore it. This city isn’t just a place that you visit or live in for a while; it’s a place you form a relationship with. It takes you over, it owns you, it changes you in ways you can’t fully wrap your mind around. I don’t think this is a city you can ever truly leave, no matter where you go. I think it must stay with you forever.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Research Proposal: Portraits of Berlin

The juxtaposition of living entities is fascinating. I've always been interested in the parts that comprise a whole, the connections between those parts, and the way the individual parts change when integrated into a larger collective. In Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter discusses how self-reference and formal rules allow systems to acquire meaning despite being made of "meaningless" elements. He explains how the individual neurons of the brain coordinate to create a unified sense of a coherent mind; through illustration and analysis, the book takes the form of an interweaving of various narratives.

I plan to execute my research project in a similar style, with a similar foundation of exploring the connections and elements of the whole: the city of Berlin. However, instead of analyzing formal systems, I will attempt to look for connections between the people of Berlin. In a city as riddled with a tumultuous past of complex issues of identity and belonging, I feel that the study of social psychology is especially relevant here. In
The Order of Things, Michel Foucalt's underlying claim is that all periods of history have possessed certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable. He called this notion an "episteme," in other words, a social paradigm. It is my hope that in observing the individual interactions of Berliners, I can come to discover - or at least come close to discovering - the city's paradigm, its underlying social dynamics, and the unspoken truths that compose Berlin's existence.

Hundreds of psychologists have attempted to parse and even to codify interpersonal phenomena. Kurt Lewin attempted to describe behavior as a function of the person and their environment,
B = f(P, E), and used a method called force field analysis to come closer to arriving at a solution to his equation. He believed the "field" to be a Gestalt (descriptive) psychological environment existing in an individual's (or in the collective group) mind at a certain point in time that can be mathematically described in a topological constellation of constructs. The "field" is very dynamic, changing with time and experience. When fully constructed, an individual's "field" (Lewin used the term "life space") describes that person's motives, values, needs, moods, goals, anxieties, and ideals.

This type of analysis relies not only on observation, which is the primary method of research I'll be using, but also on objectivity - which may or may not be possible. Because of this, the medium I'll be using will be photography - a photograph is able to more objectively capture what prose or a painting cannot. This will primarily be a street photography project coupled with a series of portraits (maybe they are even one and the same?). My goal is to capture Berlin's "episteme" through photographs taken up close, and photographs taken from far away; from this, I hope that a portrait of Berlin will emerge from the portraits of its people.

Preliminary sources:

Hofstadter, D. (1980).
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, M. (1973).
The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books.

Lewin, K. (1943). "Defining the Field at a Given Time."
Psychological Review. 50: 292-310.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Guests and Aliens

Coming into this class, I have a very strong perception of immigration to begin with, because my family and I are immigrants ourselves. I recognize that although our motivations may have been personal to us - in our 'frame of reference', so to speak - hundreds (even thousands) of people shared a similar experience. While I may be plagued with memories and inundated with stories of coming to America, it's important to remember that immigration is both individualistic and collective, and must be approached accordingly. Guests and Aliens reminded me of this.

In explaining trends in immigration, Sassen pointed out two key features (at least, the ones that stood out to me most): region, and time period. Although these factors seem straightforward now, I had never taken them into account because my perceptions were (and quite possibly still are) still heavily tainted with years of personal stories and family history. It's interesting to think of trends, then, through a much more large-scale lens. While individuals are certainly part of the immigrating group, the group itself is more likely to mobilize individuals. And, unlike my family, not every immigrant necessarily moves for "a better life" - there are many other factors involved. A multifaceted understanding toward immigration would help alleviate many negative misconceptions and resulting injustices (I'm looking at you, American immigration policy...).

Reading Sassen's piece illuminated the larger trends of immigration for me, but also made me interested in learning these immigrants' stories. One must complement the other to help us understand how the individual fits into this large-scale phenomenon.