Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Burial of a Child

I'm trying to... hoping to... qualify (i.e. ascend to candidacy)by June. Which means I have tons of reading and thinking and writing to do, a situation that would hinder my ability to post on this blog. But I'd like to keep this blog alive to whatever extent I can. So, taking a cue from a very smart person in my life, I'm going to start posting bits of papers and presentations that I'm working on. Besides, this is the stuff that I care about the most anyway, so it would be appropriate for blog postings.

Below is a piece I presented in my cultural studies class today... a very overwhelming class given the brutal nature of all our presentations. I think this post is especially appropriate in light of my previous rambling one on violence.


In 1984, Pablo Bartholomew, an Indian photojournalist, won the World Press Photo of the Year Award for his image titled, “Burial of a Child.” World Press Photo describes this image thus: "Following the vehicles that were taking the dead to be cremated and buried, Bartholomew saw the body of a child, with eyes glazed, milky-white and staring up at him. He says winning put him on the map in the photojournalism world, while his image became an icon of grief and greed in the face of industrial disaster." The particular industrial disaster captured by Bartholomew’s image is the Bhopal gas leak of 1984. On December 3rd 1984 the populus of Bhopal – the capital city of the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India – was gassed with 27 tons of methyl isocyanate and other deadly gases that leaked from the city’s Union Carbide pesticide factory. Within the first 24 hours, this city-turned-gas-chamber claimed over two thousand lives, and injured and disabled over 150,000 bodies, thousands of which were yet to be birthed. As of 2004, 22,000 more lives had been taken.

Batholomew’s “Burial of a Child” has come to signify the devastation and tragedy of the Bhopal gas leak. It is often featured prominently on websites dedicated to the event of the gas leak, in short youtube videos that chronicle the event, and in traveling photo exhibits that aim to educate the global community of its unending aftermath. Among other images of the gas leak – such as those of bodies writhing in pain, of bandages over burning or burnt-out eyes, of row upon row of animal carcasses – this image, in its singularity, stands out as a signifier of the event.
In the image we see an infant body, drained of life and color, covered over in rubble. The most arresting aspect of the image is the child’s face, jutting out from, and framed by, the rubble – staring out unblinkingly from white spots where once there were, perhaps, seeing eyes. The focus of this image is not the named, subjectivized, historicizable being but rather its body – in fragments and in its totality – that is made to represent the horror of the gas leak. This is the first haunting of the image – the unknowability of the name. The presence of a lone hand in the image draws one to question the relationship between that hand and the infant; to wonder about their name; yet the subjective location of the infant remains undeterminable. This indeterminancy emphasizes the nature of symbolic violence of the event where images of death – horrific death, mass death – desubjectify bodies and destroy symbolic networks of recognition. These images exist primarily as spectacular representations of violence.

This image also captures the material destruction of the event. Describing the initial hours of the gas leak, one survivor, Champa Devi Shukla, recalls: "It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies, our eyes tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain. Some people just got up and ran in whatever they were wearing or even if they were wearing nothing at all. Somebody was running this way and somebody was running that way, some people were just running in their underclothes. People were only concerned as to how they would save their lives so they just ran." We see this description inscribed onto different parts, or fragments, of the infant’s body – the eyes that appear to have been burned out by the toxic gases; the mouth that is slightly parted, perhaps from the last gasp for air that they attempted, or from the frothing experienced; the torso encased by rubble, trammeled perhaps by the chaos of unseeing feet. Although the precise details of the infant’s death are unknowable, the image, as an assemblage of the markers of destruction of the Bhopal gas leak, attains a signifying power with reference to the event. The signification of this image, extends, however, into the realm of the universal.

The infant’s body, in its totality, lies at the cusp of visibility and invisibility within multiple temporalities. While it is unclear how the infant became entrapped underneath rubble, the very presence of the rubble, the intimate mingling of body and earth, marks an invisibility attached to the evental moment. Whether the “burial” is attributable to a stampede, or whether the infant had been laid to rest and then left behind due to the exactions of escape or death, it is only the gaze of the camera that ultimately renders it visible. Indeed, what the camera makes visible is the evental invisibility of the infant. This invisibility, however, is not localized merely in an evental temporality. The image of the infant’s body covered in rubble also resembles an invisibility in the time of global capital. It is within this latter temporality that the second haunting resides.

The image of the “Burial of a Child” seems to reference back to images of shadow-people and shadow-objects taken in the aftermath of the U.S. uses of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This too is an example of an invisibility made visible only due to the gaze of the camera. The absent-presence in theses latter images – i.e. the body or object itself – captures the absolute destruction executed through the bombings. And in this nuclear age, they serve as constant reminders of the kind of death we are always already vulnerable to. Similarly, the image of the infant comes to resemble the invisibility of the millions of bodies and lives destroyed by global capital beyond Bhopal. Addressing the nature, or imperative, of labor in the modern episteme, Foucault writes: "At every moment of its history, humanity is henceforth laboring under the threat of death: any population that cannot find new resources is doomed to extinction; … Since the prospect of death becomes proportionately more fearful as the necessary means of subsistence become more difficult to access, so inversely, labor must grow in intensity and employ all possible means to make itself more prolific. What makes economic possible, and necessary then, is a perpetual and fundamental situation of scarcity: confronted by a nature that in itself inert and, save for one very small part, barren, man risks his life. … economics finds its principle [in] that perilous region where life is in confrontation with death."

This imperative of life and labor is reflected in the situation surrounding the Bhopal disaster, as it is in the numerous cases relating to global capital worldwide. Referring to Bhopal in particular, Paul Srivastava writes that as industrial growth was being encouraged in Bhopal, the city’s population grew exponentially. However, high costs of land and construction caused a severe housing shortage in the city. Thus, migrants built makeshift housing, which in turn became slums and shanty towns. By 1984, i.e. the year of the gas leak, more than 130,000 people, about 20 percent of the city’s population, lived in these slums. Two of these slum colonies were located across the street from the Union Carbide plant.

Confirming this, Elizabeth Guillette also writes that it was in fact Union Carbide that provided land deeds to the dwellers in order to improve its own image, failing to establish the necessary safety zones. The local residents, moreover, had no idea that “the plant was producing one of the most dangerous compounds ever conceived by the chemical industry.” Consequently, because of the relatively higher wages offered by Union Carbide and the social status associated with working at the plant, “the only concern [of the dwellers] was the foul odor of pesticide manufacture detected in the air over Bhopal.” Thus, as Foucault writes, the labor for Union Carbide became possible only in “that perilous region where life is in confrontation with death.”

This reality becomes even more compelling in the image of the infant. This is not merely because of the usual ideas of innocence and reckless futility attached to the death of children. Rather, in this case, the body of the infant refers back to global capital in a way that lays bare its hideous functioning and one’s own complicity in it. The mere existence of the infant at the site of gas leak demonstrates that while its sustainability depended upon labor demanded by the factory, it was always already in direct confrontation with death – i.e. the infant’s sustainability was contingent on the factory not taking its life. Moreover, the body of the infant exists as potential labor, as labor-in-waiting, for the factory. The entrapment of its body under rubble, here, marks not the loss of labor but rather its replacability. Thus, the image captures the juncture at which while death ensnares the object of labor – i.e. the body, or the body-in-waiting – the subject of labor – i.e. global capital – continues to live.

It is at this juncture, too, that the spectators’ complicity is made visible because, within systems of global capital, the degrees of separation between the infant and the spectator are not too many.

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