micro-performances of a patriotic self
A conversation between Ashley Hunt and Heather M. O'Brien
The following conversation was published in the Subject Matters catalog, in conjunction with the CalArts MFA graduate exhibition in Los Angeles in June 2013.
Ashley Hunt: I was surprised by the monolithic simplicity with which all my lefty friends saw the gesture of using the American flag and wearing all white in the 2006 immigration protests in Los Angeles. To them the flag could only mean one thing: palpitation, compromise, giving in.
Heather M. O'Brien: Which was my initial reaction too; it’s conforming to a greater imperialistic power.
AH: In relation to the use of the flag in these protests, we could think about how James C. Scott explained the relationship between the slave and the master. There’s an understanding that the slave has as a slave: “yes, I’ll do this for you, my master.” But that’s only one layer of discourse that has certain autonomy and relational needs. There’s also the conversation when the slave goes back home and says, “did you hear what that motherfucker master said?”
H'OB: And the fact that the master can’t exist without the slave, which is what Hegel talks about.
AH: Exactly. There’s also the part in the slave-master dialectic where the blacksmith is shaping the metal. In every strike that re-shapes the metal, even though the metal is for the master, at the same time, every deformity that comes from each strike also comes from the power of the blacksmith’s physical body. Each strike is a signature; it’s an impression of an “I” that shapes some part of the world that speaks to the agency of that individual. The root of thinking about this type of agency relates to the use of the American flag in those protests. There’s also an interpellation that the flag offers. An invitation that the waving flag offers to the photographer whose sense of self worth is invested in an honorable notion of the U.S.
H'OB: What do you mean by interpellation?
AH: Interpellation in a philosophical sense––the process by which ideology addresses the individual and produces them as a subject proper. So the interpellation that the flag offers; the photographing of that flag, and it’s framing.
[H'OB clicks a slide projector through photographic images her grandfather took of the flag; the projector stops on an image of the Iwo Jima memorial in Washington DC]
AH: That monument shows the staking of that flag: the flag as territory, a spacial analogue. Your grandfather is considerate of the framing. He makes the flag into an image; it’s an act of self-affirmation.
H'OB: When I look at these slides I try to imagine, “what was he thinking?” Since I’ve seeing the flag in many of these slides within his larger collection of images. You’re saying the performativity occurs when my grandfather clicks the shutter, it’s avowal of being a soldier?
AH: Yes, in terms of trying to understand why your grandfather would take these photographs, outside of participating in a larger circulation of images of the flag. We could call it micro-performances of a patriotic self. When you’re a solider and you see the flag you do this [makes a salute gesture]. So does this [salute gesture] become the same as this [camera click gesture]? For example, the speech act, where a performative utterance, which, even though it rests in spoken language, it’s certainly not limited to language alone. The performative is based on the fact that it doesn’t just say something, show something, or refer to something, it does something.
H'OB: Right. Like if you say, “I do,” during a wedding ceremony, there’s a legal shift in the eyes of the state. I still wonder what the flag really stands for.
AH: What are the different places where we could imagine someone displaying an American flag?
H'OB: In front of a house, at a funeral, during 4th of July, at a sports event, a memorial.
AH: In each of those uses there’s a different context that asks, “what does the flag really mean?” So when I refer to my lefty friends who were so upset about the use of the flag in those immigration protests, what they couldn’t get over was the flag only representing imperialism, which has to do with the struggles they’ve been through. But different meanings of the flag have to do with particular performances: its use as an image, as a symbol, at that moment, and within a particular context. I’m thinking about J.L. Austin’s, How To Do Things with Words, where he talks about performatives. He says there are different categories of performatives: happy and unhappy. A happy performative is where a number of contextual conditions of the performatives are satisfied. An unhappy performative is where they’re not. There’s also a person within the peformative transaction, so it can come down to someone’s honesty, in terms of meaning something.
H'OB: So J.L. Austin wouldn’t agree that the flag in those protests could only stand for imperialism.
AH: Exactly! That was just a field of unhappy performatives! But the use of the flag made the right wing media buy it. They were stumped and they couldn’t point to their flag.
H'OB: Arundhati Roy talks about flags as simply bits of colored cloth; that governments use, them, first, to shrink wrap people’s brains, and then, as ceremonial shrouds, to bury the dead.
AH: Well, shrink wrapping people’s brains it’s a very playful metaphor.
H'OB: Because you buy into a notion of freedom?
AH: Right, there’s a commodity connotation there. It makes me think of a hermetic seal, one that’s wrapped around one’s consciousness so tight, it suddenly becomes the limit point. Inartfully interpellated as an American, no matter what our disagreements are, we all go: [puts hand on chest].
H'OB: Or saying the pledge of allegiance in the morning at grade school. There was a specific decision of the school to have the pledge said in each classroom every morning, as a compulsory practice.
AH: Right, and those making that decision to implement the pledge were fully aware of the performative dimension that could take place in the repetitive act of the speech. Now that doesn’t mean that there’s not agency hidden within the act; how many of us changed the words or––
H'OB: joked around with it.
H'OB: I’m interested in exploring how U.S. History is taught in its public schools, and what is left out of the books.
AH: Well there’s doing the History, and then there’s studying the uses of the History. The uses of the History to interpellate, to train us, to automate our thinking, to shrink-wrap our brains. One way to look at it is via an historical materialist analysis, to look at some part of the past and its relationship to the present. It’s another thing to say, “I want to study the ideological purposes to which U.S. History as is written.” In that sense your questioning about your grandfather’s practice of photographing the flag is potentially a really beautiful story to build a narrative out of. You’re looking at the ideological purposes towards which those uses of History are mobilized. That’s a question you arrive at by saying, “I wonder what my grandfather was doing with his camera, and why?”
H'OB: It’s a starting point that leads to a larger narrative about nationalism and how borders are constructed; different voices will then chime in, react, agree, disagree, etc. I’m interested in pushing this piece to work with bodies in space, and using Boal and Brechtian techniques. A friend of mine recently said something that has stuck in my mind, “one must always provoke political history through a conversation––repetition and stuttering, a slowing of time and action, a waiting to consider ethics, a 'testing' of ideas.”
AH: I’ve been thinking about what civil disobedience and activism is all about. Even if you know something isn’t going to change, just by pressing up against power, you see where its limits are. Power has to perform itself; in order to maintain its authority, symbolically, it has to push back.
H'OB: Yes, but I’d have to really think before doing something like burning an American flag. Burning the flag makes it more sacred. My grandfather had a very deep respect for the American flag, and I’m sure I inherited some of that from him. Nationalism is a complex ideology, one that is built upon generations, and through many social constructions that must be fully re-examined.
AH: That could be why this is such a useful project for you, because you have that complexity. You had that initial reaction towards the flag in the immigration protests, and you also have curiosity about your grandfather’s commitments. Maybe your grandfather had a relationship to the flag that you don’t have. There’s moments when inheritance becomes a surface on which to explore our own questions about life, or your own political commitments. The flag is representing these contradictions for you. There are many strategies you could call upon to take the flag and shake it loose of its concealed powers and mythical meanings.