Transcending Single Vision

BW Powe.  Towards a Canada of Light. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2006.

I wrote this book to counter the mood in my country…the powerful feeling that, wrenching really, that there was a dead-end sign at the turn of what should have been a wide thoroughfare…that the circuits were being blocked when energy, a great free sweep, should have been flowing through, flowing on.

Thus, Canadian media theorist and poet BW Powe introduces his deeply insightful—and inspiring—meditation on Canada as a “communications state,” crackling with potential yet blocked and distracted by a failure of leadership and vision.  Powe articulates the vision and the prayer, providing powerful inspiration and concrete direction for those of us close to despair at the sell-out of our potential  contributions to the world. And this is not a vision for Canadians alone, but a kind of intimate manifesto and call to action for anyone who cherishes justice, freedom, and credibility.  Towards a Canada of Light is a performance of propaganda at a high register of consciousness.

For it is a story about consciousness, how consciousness is extended and amplified by our electronic technologies. Our powers to communicate—essential to the creation of the Canadian nation, more intrinsic to us than trading natural resources and playing hockey—are given new potential and global reach by these new technologies…if only we have the vision.

Powe calls for an exuberant dialogue using visionary language—“Find the peak of your spiritual power in words, and you could begin to break through” (4)—yet remains aware that such visionary language often falls prey to “single vision,” the “imposition of one way of seeing things….If we succumb to single vision, so Blake said, to someone’s way of perceiving (forms of propaganda, whatever side delivers it), then we fall, and fall asleep, slaves then to whatever system sets the coordinates for the discussion” (5).

As I write this (on May 30, 2010), the Israeli armed forces have just intercepted a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, apparently killing at least 9, preventing media access to those captured in international waters, and quickly engaging the Israeli hasbara or public relations machine to set the news agenda. The coordinates of the discussion are being set and the corporate media are induced to repeat the official narrative.

In place of the single vision, Powe suggests “more of the mosaic…less of the melting pot: more of the plurality of peoples and languages and faiths and attitudes and conversations, and less assimilation” (5). He does not want to whitewash present challenges or past failures of Canada, but he does want us to get on with it and take advantage of our communications expertise: “Canada’s lightness of spirit means free play: a bearable lightness, agility in the changing currents, never to be loaded down by a past of racial hatred, by aggressive dogmatism, ancient acrimonies or grievances, the zealotry of an immutable idea of what a state should be” (6).

*   *   *

Towards a Canada of Light had two previous incarnations, published with a slightly different title in 1992 and 1996, and those earlier rehearsals have resulted in a book that is both deeper and wider in scope.  BW Powe is both an incisive communications scholar and a poet, and he takes us to the roots and heights of language, asking his readers to relish the “elusive and fragmentary” because this is what we need to transcend the single vision.

Since the publication of the first two versions, “What has changed in a devastating way is our relationship to a militarized America.”

After 9/11, the Patriot Act, the advent of Homeland Security, the suspension of civil rights for suspected terrorists and non-combatants, the exporting of suspects without lawyer or trial to countries that sanction torture, Canada seems more like Athens , cerebral and contemplative, during the time of Sparta. It is as if our culture and politics have been reincarnated from the model of the chattering, philosophical state set alongside the society efficiently organized for action—one, and only one purpose: the idealized crusade of its wars.  (9)

As a Canadian, I find this analogy provocative, though perhaps lacking in messy complexity—we have our own class of Spartan crusaders, and the U.S. has no shortage of chattering Athenian intellectuals and philosophers.  Powe will later argue that Canada’s failure of vision and leadership has us significantly aligned with our Spartan neighbor. We have our own “hardness, coldness” openly expressed in the real politick of international affairs.  The poet, however, uses analogies not to define a reality but to provoke healing vision: “the prizing of the original spark in each, keeping thought bold, our mental landscapes a frontier” (14).

BW Powe thus offers us a prayer, a most lyrical performance of propaganda:

One of the sparks is the place I want to evoke and summon in these pages: a Canada of light, a promise, a flash, an opportunity for reverie, a turning leaf, an opened door, a rendezvous of many cultures, a sometimes quieter street or pathway in the wailing world, an outpost, a DEW line, the least likely place to incite mass ethnic hatred, a glimpse, a turning away, a provocation to think beyond single vision, a drama of inwardness, a site for talk and contemplations, a celebration of solitudes, a generous spirit wrestling with the demon of closure and the shadow of uniformity, where the vision of the country remains, fortunately, always ahead of the politicians. Gather depth and expanse, and patiently come together in the night to know beauty. Deepen solitudes, and love the unsolved. Salute each other across the truest eternal borderline, which is not national, but human. (18-19)

Idealistic? Of course—this is a prayer and a vision meant to inspire in the face of deadening cynicism.  And consider the purposes of propaganda—to motivate the people for a cause—and that all propaganda needs a vision and a definition of who we are, who we want to become. How do we define ourselves to the world, and is our definition credible to those who are not us? Are we deceiving ourselves and the world with a bankrupt self-definition? Perhaps that is a way we can distinguish ourselves from our Spartan neighbor, but we have some work to do.

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Cuba’s Revolutionary Landscape

Reference: Daniel H. Ortega.  ‘En Cada Barrio’: Timocracy, Panopticism and the Landscape of a Normalized Community.  Culture Machine 8 (2006).

I’ve been working on a book about the political billboards, murals, and graffiti in Cuba, and have been to the island three times (2006 – 2009) to take photographs. I first heard about these political billboards at the Visual Culture Conference at Kansas State University in 2005 in a presentation by Daniel Ortega, whose point at the time had been to comment on the strong architectural presence of the billboards (called murales in Cuba) on the physical landscape. In his article “En Cada Barrio,” Ortega develops that emphasis into a theory of Cuban political power and the formation of national identity.

In my own writing on Cuba—with the working title The Revolution Continues—I have been attempting to take a relatively neutral position on the content of the billboards, to see them as classic examples of visual propaganda promoting the values, heroes, challenges, and aspirations of the socialist revolution to both Cubans and tourists alike. Ortega challenges that analysis, and I want to review his argument here because it has merit, and complicates my own approach in productive ways.

At the core of his arguments lie Foucault’s notions of power and knowledge, and his recovery of the image of the panopticon: the threat of surveillance being a restraint on dissent.  Ortega’s focus is on “politically oriented signage…as landscape elements that act as agents of power…and to serve as visual reminders of a state-activated panoptic condition.” The result, he claims, is a “self-surveilled, normalized community.”  In other words, the proliferation of political billboards, murals, and ad hoc graffiti in Cuba make Cubans feel watched by their community and their leaders, and any dissent will marginalize them from that normalized community. (Perhaps an analogy to North America might be a billboard with a message to the effect, “If you don’t consume our stuff, you aren’t pulling your weight .” Or, more likely, “You aren’t cool if you don’t consume.”)

Ortega provides a brief history of Cuban independence movements to set up his argument that history, as displayed in the billboards, provides a scaffold for the Cuban timocratic society.  Timocracy is defined as “a state in which the love of honor, glory, esteem is the highest ideal and the ruling principle of government;  a state ruled by leaders of honor, worth, competence, and esteem as opposed to class, heredity, power, [and] privilege.”   In Cuba, of course, contributions to independence and the socialist revolution count more than wealth, and thus the landscape is populated by images of such heroes as Manuel de Cespedes, Antonio Maceo, Maximo Gomez, Jose Marti, Fidel and Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara, and many others who embody Cubanidad (Cuban-ness). These are the people who fought for independence, and the people should aspire to be like them and to be ruled by people with similar virtues.

Viva Fidel! Viva Cuba Libre!The notion of Cuba as a timocracy may help to explain the longevity of Fidel Castro’s leadership and the gradual transfer of power to his brother Raul and other old guards of the Revolution—there are few others who have the equivalent revolutionary credibility.  Ortega writes, “[T]he reverence held for these leaders extends beyond ideological teachings and becomes a substantial part of the Cuban landscape, as images of the heroes are reproduced on billboards, in murals, and in sculpture found throughout the country.”  This cult of leadership additionally performs the task of forging a Cuban national community: “[T]hese public images act as a common voice…” and suggest who is a worthy member of the community and who is not.

“Establishing a consciousness of a timocratic state” is a “maintenance strategy” using proyectos de artes–graphic images placed in the landscape—to effect a transfer of esteem from the revolutionary leaders to the presiding government: “By choosing to utilize representations of revolutionary heroes in public proyectos de arte, the Castro administration draws on the perception of honor, glory, and esteem associated with the person …and the historical event being exhibited.”

Jose Marti: Revolution is to struggle with audacity, intelligence and realism

Jose marti: Revolution is to struggle with audacity, intelligence and realism

To this analysis of the timocratic state, Ortega adds insights derived from Foucault, particularly his articulation of “dividing practices” to create a “self-surveilled” community. For Foucault, power is “a mode of action which does not act directly and immediately on others. Instead, it acts upon their actions: an action upon an action, on existing actions or on those which may arise in the present or the future.” Dividing practices “separate out deviants and dissenters from the rest of society.”  In many of the Cuban billboards, the distinction between “a good Cuban citizen and a dissenter” is graphically obvious and “a good member of the Cuban community understands the value of propaganda in establishing a mass movement.”

Remember Giron

Remember the Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961). Cuban Revolutionary sending counter-revolutionaries on their way

Ortega concludes: “While in the United States and other consumer cultures the billboard typically acts as commodity space, and therefore renders itself virtually invisible, the Cuban counterpart also performs an act of advertising, albeit an advertising that ‘sells’ a state-authorized timocratic community. As such, the billboards become a graphic assemblage of nationalistic ideals intended to invoke a unified ideological power of community…”

En cada barrio--Revolucion

In every neighborhood--Revolution (Santiago de Cuba)

The construction of a unified community based on ideology—as with other enactments of power—requires constant reaffirmation, and Ortega calls on the image of the panopticon to suggest that self-surveillance in Cuba performs that function. The phrase “en cada barrio” (in each neighborhood) reminds the Cuban people that the revolution starts with them, and they are being watched by the network of CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution). Ortega quotes Rabkin (1991) to assert that the CDRs have “become the chief instrument whereby the government [presses] its demand that the citizen participate actively in the revolution.”  For example, the CDRs are “responsible for organizing mass support for public demonstrations.”  Deeply embedded in every community, the CDRs assure the “automatic functioning of power” and act as “a way of defining power in terms of everyday life.”  The process of normalization is critical to success in this performance of propaganda, wherein the CDRs mediate between the people in the barrios and the leaders in the government,  with a consistent message using media familiar on the landscape.  “Hence, an armature for the normalization of Cuba’s citizens has been proposed via an extensive network of landscape elements.”

Vigilantes y Combativos

Vigilant and Combative (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution)

Ortega views the occurrence of ad hoc signs and graffiti mimicking government propaganda as evidence of community normalization and a demonstration of Negri’s notion of “multitude” as a “broad horizon of subjectivities” that seeks to “transform the world.” The singular expression does not dissent from the normalized community, but rather adds another  subjectivity to that multitude. As well, these ad hoc signs complicate any judgment that Cuba is a top-down culture: “The implication that politically oriented graphic materials …reveal a set of cultural values imposed by those in power, suggests the formation of a visually oriented, ‘top down’ (Marxist) ideology. However, a closer reading asserts Foucault’s suggestion that power can also be transmitted in an ascending fashion.” The top down messaging of the billboards  and murals encounters an upwards force of ad hoc signs and other activities of the CDRs to forge community and national identity, as well as affirm governance models.

Without being a Cuban national, it is difficult for me to confirm or challenge Ortega’s argument, though it appears to have considerable merit.  However, as a tourist and researcher who has traveled extensively in Cuba on different occasions, I believe I can add another perspective to Ortega’s conclusions. It is not frivolous to suggest that the extensive network of billboards and murals adds colour and interest to the Cuban landscape in much the same way that local murals in Canada or the U.S. illustrate the community’s history, values, and aspirations.  As tourists to Cuba, we are brought into the national dialogue, not only about the timocratic state and the maintenance of revolutionary watchfulness, but also about the issues that concern Cubans and what they want the world to know about. The network of murales is newsworthy.  This is propaganda as education for outsiders to the community. Unlike Cuban citizens, tourists are not being asked to accede to the power of the state in the long run. That these murales are prolific along the main route between Havana and Jose Marti International Airport and along the Via Blanca between Havana and Varadero suggests that tourists are a significant audience for their messages.

blockade”]70% of Cubans have been born during the [U.S.] blockadeGiven on-going attempts to isolate and discredit Cuba by successive U.S. administrations and the Cuban exile community, getting the message out to the world is animated by a tone of urgency and indignation.  This message to the world relies on visitors to become the medium—taking home their stories and photographs—and asks for justice in the court of international public opinion.  This further function of Cuban visual propaganda does not contradict Ortega’s analysis so much as open it up for further dialogue.

How Barbarous! A terrorist goes free.

How Barbarous! A terrorist goes free.

[All photos by M. Soules]

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Propaganda as Performance

Propaganda’s  persuasive powers have enduring interest because we see so much of it and we know it is shaping our lives, yet we seem to have few opportunities to answer back. At its best, propaganda is in our faces where we can see and hear it; at its worst, it is operating covertly behind the scenes to create earth-shattering consequences.  As the Irish poet W.B. Yeats warned, this may be a time when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Besides my interest in propaganda and compliance gaining, I’m interested in the protocols of performance (the subject of my PhD at Rutgers University). Most propaganda is a performance for a mass audience; there is a stage (figurative or real); and the symbolic and dramatic elements making powerful performances equally apply to propaganda. From politics and diplomacy to public relations, lobbying, advertising, and advocacy, persuasive actors make their pitches on the public stage and behind closed doors. Media screen the spectacle, providing the stage, pulpit, soap box, loudspeaker, subliminal whisperer for these persuasive narratives.

I’m trying not to take sides and find the middle way a difficult path to follow when I witness injustice, dishonesty, and lack of discernment. But my goal is not to judge. It is to observe with curiosity the techniques of persuasion and learn from them.


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