Dignity isn’t well regarded at the moment. It’s seen as a normative concept, difficult to gauge and even more difficult to reconcile with artistic practices that tend to strive for emancipation from norms. It’s also a political argument that has been made by reactionaries and enemies of artistic freedom. Finally, it is an ideal that goes against the tide of nihilism in this atmosphere of triumphant post-truth.
Unlike freedom, dignity isn’t sexy. This might perhaps be linked to what nasty Marx and Engels discuss in The Communist Manifesto when they accuse the bourgeoisie of having transformed dignity into a pure exchange-value. Even Bob Dylan doesn’t manage to restore the luster to the banner of dignity. The song he titled Dignity is relatively obscure. And it ends with words that sound almost like a challenge: Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed / Dignity never been photographed.
In fact, dignity is one of the pillars on which our shared world was constructed in the wake of the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis. They began by representing their victims as deprived of dignity, as subhuman. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 begins with the following phrase: recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Dignity, then, is not only universal; it underpins both freedom and justice.
We have no other choice but to accept the challenge of dignity—even if it can’t be photographed. No other choice but to take part in the struggle of representations in the world, and in doing so we must strive to represent the other as an end in herself or himself and not as a means.
But how to meet the challenge when the screens that divide and format the world follow a logic of representation that marches in step with the market? How to produce a dignified image faced with the market-produced spectacle of indignity that exhibits the debased corpses of Syrians in the name of an obligation for compassion?
The question of dignity was raised ever since the first appearance of a Syrian on a screen, in a film by the Lumière Brothers, The Assassination of Kléber (1897). The scene portrays General Kléber, the illustrious figure of the French Revolution, stabbed in the back by a bearded fanatic. But the film chose an alternative representation of the Syrian to the historical facts. The Syrian who stabbed the leader of the French colonial campaign in Egypt and Syria was a beardless writer, and he stabbed Kléber in the heart.
Two schemas of pre-existing alternative facts can explain this representation. On the one hand, the abundant literature the Lumière Brothers encountered representing the young Muslim writer as ontologically hostile. On the other, the young writer’s remains were brought back to Paris by the French Army and his skeleton was exhibited at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, a specimen of a fanatic.
Exhibited at the museum since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the skeleton became the first sensory referent for generations of intellectuals, journalists, and artists (including the Lumière Brothers), which would inscribe the image of a modern Syrian. Then he was tidied away into storage at the end of the twentieth century, replaced by a more politically correct media image, but without any of those intellectuals, journalists, or artists bothering to challenge this original sensory referent.
The challenge finally came from Syrians who, in the spring of 2011, staged mass demonstrations to shouts of KARAMEH (Dignity). Even here, the facts leave scarcely any room for doubt since the uprising of Syrian society against the Syrian state is bolstered by socio-demographic data favorable to the model of universal democracy (See Le Rendez-vous des civilisations, Emmanuel Todd and Youssef Courbage, 2007).
Meanwhile, the world’s screens showed corpses deprived of dignity, talking only of religions and sects, of geopolitics and The Thousand and One Nights. They show images that would not have been produced—let alone broadcast—if the victims in question were European or American. Remember: images of the victims of terrorist attacks in Europe and North America are never published in the name of a principle of dignity inscribed in the charters of journalistic ethics in both the traditional media and YouTube.
So how can we explain such a spectacle of indignity that runs contrary to those ethics? It’s the economy, stupid! According to Osama al-Habali, a citizen journalist who worked with international media organizations in order to bypass the media blackout decreed by Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of the uprising. This is his testimony gathered at the end of 2011. He was the first to give the game away by placing the issue of dignity in the framework of the power relation between the author and the producer.
As it so happens, the author is a citizen who films his own people in order to defend them; the producer belongs to the media organizations that exploit those images to reach the widest audience possible for financial reasons—usually income from advertising. The author is accountable to his own people with whom s/he shares a destiny; the producer is accountable to nothing but the market.
Of course, the power relation between the author and the producer has always been unequal in Syria, at least since the time of the Lumière Brothers’ film. But the Syrian revolution seemed to challenge those power relations between author and producer. At least that’s what one hoped when a new generation of independent activists and artists arrived on the scene. They were actively participating in the representation of Syrian society, monopolized until then by the Syrian state or the media and culture industry.1
This generation of image makers, to which Osama al-Habali belongs, used the internet with a DIY spirit in order to produce and broadcast a representation of their own society that conformed with their own aspirations. A representation that defended society against the state, while offering an alternative to the image of Syrians around the world, hitherto represented through the lenses of geopolitics, religion, and exoticism. Soon the Syrian state would use all the means at its disposal to maintain its hegemony. And the media and culture industry would do all in its power to protect its monopoly, beginning with satellite TV channels.
After the first popular protests in March 2011, the largest TV channels made contact with independent authors who were filming and uploading images of the uprising and the regime’s repression spontaneously. The TV channels began to circulate their images and offered to broadcast testimonies in the mainstream media. It flattered them for their bravery. Soon TV channels began to offer to buy images from activists. Then they began to commission new images, imposing their own norms regarding subject matter and angle. It no longer became the case that authors were producing images in response to the needs of their own society. Rather they were meeting the needs of the market where the golden rule has long been that “if it bleeds it leads.”
So the young independent authors producing their own images for their own society to satisfy their own needs became the subcontractors of the media and culture industry producing a spectacle of indignity. Those authors became the industry’s alibi to justify the spectacle of indignity, putting in place a new informational order that we have called the war from within. This is a new informational order with the power to reduce Syria to a video game of war (see GoBro) and rebels to clowns (see Here and Elsewhere).
We affirm emphatically that the images of Syrians are even more lacking in dignity because the conditions of production benefit the producer at the expense of the author. In other words, dignity is compromised when Syrians are unable to become the producers of their own image. So if Syrian image makers want to reinstate the dignity of their compatriots, they must seize the means of production of their own image.
But that is not a conclusion. This is just an introduction to the struggle our collective hopes to carry out side-by-side with the world’s image makers, following in the footsteps of our anti-fascist predecessor who wrote The Author as Producer. Because the market has rediscovered the tricks of “activism” and “new objectivity” that Walter Benjamin discussed when he delivered his speech at the Institute for the Study of Fascism. Its ruse has been so successful that it has managed to convince that the aesthetics of indignity actually come to the aid of Syrian dignity, no doubt to the pleasure of Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, and the partisans of post-truth. So even if Dignity has never been photographed, now is the time to defend it by laying the groundwork for a mode of production based on the right of each human being to a dignified image.
This is a revised version of a paper first presented in a seminar at the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm, in January 2017.