flavour, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing,
but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men.
Wim Wenders is a classic example of a man of bourgeois privilege blinds – possibly intentionally, to the violence and exploitation that creates his privilege. And as all such men & women, he is illiterate to the the idea of – one that Gambatista Vico so fabulously gifted mankind, that man makes the world and to understand it we must examine, with honesty and truth, man’s actions and decisions in it.
From handing prizes to embedded photojournalist James Nachtwey (yes, he does make amazing photos, but lets just also look at the interests and ideas that informs his politics shall we? I am working on a critique of Nachtwey’s life’s work that maps his ‘projects’ to the political ‘ethos’ of the time, looking to examine his close collusion with American imperial interests and the angles adopted in his Time magazine funded stories), to this white-wash of Salgado’s collusions with mining interests and his continued refusal to speak honestly about the devastating impact of unchecked capitalism, share-holder returns, outright corporate thievery and corruption, political bribery and ‘development’ and ‘growth’ addictions, Wenders embodies many of the presumptions of his class. As Laura Jaramillo points out:
Wenders is careful to shape Salgado’s interviews into a meditation on the human condition palatable for the international art-film market, not a meditation on the destructive effects of globalised capitalism. “Everyone should see these images to see how deadly our species is,” Salgado says over one particularly grisly set. Each event that feeds into his illustrious career is, not coincidentally, one of the greatest atrocities of the latter half of the 20th-century. Each is curiously disconnected from the last, presented without historical context.
Not to mention the addiction to consumerism on which basis he will sell his exhibitions, prints, books etc, If I sound harsh it is only because we never speak to question. Everyone wants martyrs and heroes – or even Messiahs who die (figuratively etc) so that we may live and continue. But it isn’t just Wenders who removes context. Salgado is actively involved in making the same obfuscatory arguments. In the film The Salt Of The Earth, Salgado offers the classic neoliberal representation of the world – the focus on the individual person, and the erasure of the existence of corporate and political interests and objectives. His conclusion, after nearly a decade of trying to document imaginary landscapes of purity and ‘genesis’ perfection, Salgado simply states:
We are a savage animal. The humans are a terrible animal.
In another instance, when confronted with the challenge of the bizarre hypocrisy of allowing the mining firm Vale – voted as the corporation with the most “contempt for the environment and human rights” in the world, to fund his Genesis project, he argued:
The problem is not the oil companies or mining companies, but the system of life we’ve created.
Yes. According to this PhD in economics, corporations are merely a coming together of human beings to serve needs that emerge first in our society. They have nothing to do with the structure of our society, and the way of life we are dependent on. They are merely providers, subservient to the demands of individuals whose overwhelming preferences can only be met my reactionary corporations there to serve his / her needs. If only s/he can change her ways, her preferences, then all this will change. God will return and the Earth itself will be heaven. The reduction of all life to the consumer choices of an individual is the classic ideological position of a neoliberal subject. For Salgado the most powerful, influential and definition forces – corporate interests, political calculations and their collusion with corporate interests, nationalism and its infantile ideas of ‘us’, do not exist. After decades of covering some of the worst atrocities against man, Salgado seems to be so intellectually closed-minded, that he fails to make any connections whatsoever. And the wining-dining elite love his disconnections. They love being told that they are the essential class, the innocent class, the saviour class, the informed and sensitive class. They love works that pander to their sense of relevance and centrality. The power of a work like Genesis – with its obfuscations and evasions, its childish pseudo-religious imagery and moralism, its cleansing of accountability, its dodging of responsibility, and its failure to accuse, is precisely this affect of relevance that it bestows on its patrons and its patronising.
Where does Mr. Salgado draw the line between ‘systems of life’ and the place of corporations within them? After all, are not corporations players in this system? Are they not active participants in the creation of these desires and not just passive providers of them? Do they not actively work to influence opinion, wants, and ideas whether politically or socially? Perhaps Mr. Salgado is unaware of the march of advertising and marketing – a field that only exists within corporations and political structures, in the making of our ‘systems of life’. He may want to take a look at Adam Curtis’ brilliant documentary The Century of The Self explores how mechanisms – advertising being one powerful one, have been used over the last 130 years, to influence people, create desire, control ideas, manipulate opinions and deliver ‘satisfaction’.
Women ‘choosing’ to smoke, and seeing the act of smoking cigarette as ‘an act of liberation’, was an idea manufactured and created by tobacco corporate interests. This ‘system of life’ did not emerge from some organic, feminist move, but was in fact a cynical, profit-making scheme concocted by men. So much for Salgado’s insight. The ‘system of life’ cannot stand apart from the systems of corporate and political interests. This is more true today than ever in a world where were corporations spend over $250 Billion (for 2014, in the USA alone!) convincing us of ‘our’ choices. When political parties and ideologies spend decades tearing apart structures of democratic and public which were once won after many hard battles. Where we are constantly manipulated into accepting choices that are in our worst interest – the recent elections in the UK, or previous election patterns in the USA attest to this. The fact remains that we are not solely responsible for our ‘systems of life’, but that corporations, governments, and small but powerful interests manipulate and manoeuvre our into places we may not want to be. From coups that destroy democracies, to wars waged behind the sickening allegiance to a flag, our ‘systems of life’ are driven by needs and goals beyond mere individual consumerism and wants.
But Salgado absolves the most powerful forces in our modernity, and places the onus on the individuals. This neoliberal trick is seriously embarrassing to read. His cowardly, hypocritical and frankly ridiculous statement that the problem isn’t the profit-seeking, government bribing, politician lobbying, war criminal supporting, warlord funding, environment poisoning, multi-billion dollar corporations, but ‘us’, is nothing but the cheap trick of a shyster. It plays on the false idea that it is ‘individual consumerism’ that is the reason creator of problems, and consumer activism the only solution to consider. As Falguni A. Sheth, associate professor of philosophy and political theory at Hampshire College, has argued, consumer activism…
…centers on the individual as the locus of responsibility, thereby depoliticising the issue at hand, and reducing it to an “individual” choice: to make garbage or recycle; to spend or not; to have a carbon footprint or not; to consume only healthy foods or not.
Such campaigns don’t take into account the context of the issue about which they drumbeat: whether it be waste management (such as where landfills are located, or the health impact of these landfills on surrounding populations), or trash production (involving the notable absence of regulations requiring companies to produce goods in recyclable containers). The precise point of such consumer-activism is that larger social structures that induce ill impacts on a larger society can be ignored in favour of the “every individual can make a difference” model.
And I would further argue, the reality of the Capital-Labour relationship that just cannot be ignored. You cannot, despite Salgado’s attempts, discard the reality of Capitalism, the struggle of labour against Capital, the structures of dependency and domination by Capital of labour – a dependency and domination that has only increased in the last 20 years under neoliberalism and its political handmaidens, and pretend that we are simply ‘individuals’ making ‘individual’ choices devoid of larger forces that impact and constrain these choices. Frederic Lordon has discussed these forces of dependency and domination in his book Willing Slaves of Capital. I quote a small excerpt:
The reorientation of corporate governance towards maximising shareholder value – namely, the demand from ‘above’ to extract a rate of return on net capital far beyond the prevailing norms of Fordist capitalism25 – provides a textbook example of the propagation of violence that may follow from the straining of the chain of dependence throughout the organisation. The brutal and purely quantitative increase in short-term targets is in itself sufficient cause for the intensification of the relations of instrumentalisation and their intrinsic violence. The hierarchical organisation of the division of labour transmits the impulse from one end of the chain of dependence to the other, converting the economic abstraction of the rate of return on capital into concrete violence in the process. As it descends from top to bottom, the commanding desire for financial returns is translated at each rung into short term desires/targets, while the captured product of efforts moves up in the opposite direction in order to be totalised as an overall rise in productivity, promptly converted into yield for shareholders. The degree to which the impulse coming from above avoids transmission losses and maintains its mobilising power while traversing the thick of the organisation depends both on the internal structures of the latter and on its over-determination by external factors. Both have the effect and sometimes the purpose of raising the penalty for failure, and consequently of increasing fear, hence adding to the reactive power of acting that individuals deploy. This is the case for example with managerial reforms that block off avenues for collective resistance and condemn employees to meet crushing performance targets under the pressure of inescapable personal surveillance (reporting), or that establish internal competition and create job insecurity through the threat of demotion or dismissal.
Likewise, the external competitive context contributes to all these effects by exacerbating the struggles for persistence across the board. As the enterprise as a whole fights to stay in business, the degree of mobilisation necessary to avoid being wiped out by competitors ‘imposes itself’ according to the desire of its upper management, interested to the highest degree. But the firm can also export its own imperatives and thus gain from the competition between other firms that depend on it, namely, its suppliers. For, just as organisations are internally constituted in a hierarchical chain, so are the external relations between enterprises structured in chains of economic dependence. The violence of the relations of domination that pass through the supply chain is every bit the equal of that of other economic relations, as the upper management of second-tier companies, which only survive thanks to the patronage of one or a few large clients, know from experience. Unlike the employment relation, whose specific jurisprudence developed precisely in a break with the common law of contracts, the supplier relation is a pure market relation. But, when strained by competition, it hurls organisations against each other with a violence that reflects the vital importance to each of preserving major contracts. This is an almost canonical illustration of the conatus as effort of persevering in being: the organisations fight in order to not disappear, which says something about the intensity with which they sometimes pursue their goals – the hypostasis of the organisations (‘they’) refers in fact, first of all,to the conatus of upper management. External violence thus incessantly produces internal violence
There are specific government, political, and corporate-influenced policy decisions made that create the suburb, that re-direct and drain rivers to feed dams, that give tax-breaks to fracking companies, that allow capital to move freely and without accountability around the globe, that enable financiers to create housing bubbles and its associated mass consumerism, and equally allow these bubbles to devastate and leaves lives and our environments torn apart. There are policy choices that encourage oil exploration, permit profit off-shoring, dis-invest in public transport to encourage private vehicle use and so much more. The ‘system of life’ is created by forces that are not just about ‘us’, but about reducing and limited ‘our’ choices to only those that may be more profitable. After all, does Salgado really believe that man ‘choses’ to work like a dog, without social protections or insurance, without guarantees and with a full and explicit exploitation of his / her labour power? Was he asleep in the 1980s when Capitalists lashed back against the social gains made in the aftermath of WWII by labour, and took away most everything we had fought for? The world that emerged in its aftermath, is not a ‘system of life’ that we chose and the evidence is the massive violence that was needed to construct it. Has he forgotten these battles that still continue – and that are brutally put down by state sanctioned and corporate backed violence, where our ‘system of life’ remains a contested reality? Does he not see how it is the state that prosecutes those who confront corporate power e.g. environmentalists who are then treated as ‘terrorists’ and want to stop its devastating desires? Does he think that we simply demand that we be sold new computers every six months, or does the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’ never come into account? Or desire, vanity, want, insecurity, greed, and other ’emotional’ elements that are constantly manipulated to convince us to consume, and to want more and more. How can he even begin to separate ‘the system of life’ from the corporations in our lives? Does Wal-Mart have nothing to do with the devastation of neighbourhoods, the destruction of jobs, and the massive supply of cheap, bad-quality, packaged foods that it then provides to the jobless and dependent, most all of which is shipped (at horrifying environmental cost) from around the world? Its as if they more we know, and the more obvious the inter-relationships become, the more ignorant Salgado wants us to be.
I will not even raise the desires and greeds of the nation-state, yet another actor Salgado absolutely refuses to confront. But maybe David Harvey, from his work Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies of Freedom, can remind him that:
Most of the hegemonic social theories…that have shaped dominant interpretations and political practices…over the last three hundred years… have paid little or no critical attention to how the production of spaces, places, and environments might impinge upon thought and action. In practice, we almost everywhere find tacit assumptions about the nature of space and time, the cohesion of places (the nation-state), and the idea of what is or is not given by nature…. The effect is like trying to navigate the world with any old map, no matter how arbitrary or erroneous it may be.
The production of spaces – nations, cities, suburbs, boundaries, tax-havens, special economic zones, trade arrangements, and more. The fact of policy and planning. The influence of corporations and political interests. From NAFTA to the creation of South Sudan. This isn’t just ‘us’ as a ‘system of life’. This is the world in which we have to explain the destruction of it. And yet Salgado is silent.
His theocratic/biblical delusions of an untouched, virgin, noble-savage world – an exoticism so right out of a colonial gaze not seen since Levi Strauss, is hilarious. His depictions of untouched worlds false and contrived. Like Jared Diamond, Salgado imagines that his fantasies, created after spending millions on this embarrassing project, of natural purity and innocence can be true given that as he was galavanting around the globe on millionaire’s largess, millions were being killed and destroyed under a cloud of corporate and political lies. The ‘innocent’ and ‘pure’ savages that he so colonially documents are absolutely not what he imagines, or attempts to sell us. He in fact visits them with further historical and intellectual violence, reducing them to mere avatars, and empty shells into which he can feed his fantasies of the ‘true’ and the ‘untouched’. In a scathing critique of Jared Diamond, who has made the same anti-intellectual mistake, James C. Scott (author of excellent works like Seeing Like A State & Weapons Of The Weak, points out that people like Jared Diamond (and in our case, Sebastiao Salgado) can:
…triangulate his way to the deep past by assuming that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are ‘our living ancestors’, that they show what we were like before we discovered crops, towns and government. This assumption rests on the indefensible premise that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are survivals, museum exhibits of the way life was lived for the entirety of human history ‘until yesterday’ – preserved in amber for our examination.
In the unique case of Highland New Guinea, which was apparently isolated from coastal trade and the outside world until World War Two, Diamond might be forgiven for making this inference, though the people of New Guinea have had exactly the same amount of time to adapt and evolve as homo americanus and they managed somehow to get hold of the sweet potato, which originated in South America. The inference of pristine isolation, however, is completely unwarranted for virtually all of the other 35 societies he canvasses. Those societies have, for the last five thousand years, been deeply involved in a world of trade, states and empires and are often now found in undesirable marginal areas to which they have been pushed by more powerful societies. The anthropologist Pierre Clastres argued that the Yanomamo and Siriono, two of Diamond’s prime examples, were originally sedentary cultivators who turned to foraging in order to escape the forced labour and disease associated with Spanish settlements. Like almost all the groups Diamond considers, they have been trading with outside kingdoms and states (and raiding them) for much of the past three thousand years; their beliefs and practices have been shaped by contact, trade goods, travel and intermarriage. So thoroughly have they come to live in a world of powerful kingdoms and states that one might call these societies themselves a ‘state effect’. That is, their location in the landscape is designed to help them evade or trade with larger societies. They forage forest and marine products desired by urban societies; many groups are ‘twinned’ with neighbouring societies, through which they manage their trade and relationship to the larger world.
Contemporary foraging societies, far from being untouched examples of our deep past, are up to their necks in the ‘civilised world’. Those available for Diamond’s inspection are, one might argue, precisely the most successful examples, showing how some hunter-gatherer societies have avoided extinction and assimilation by creatively adapting to the changing world. Taken together, they might make for an interesting study of adaptation, but they are useless as a metric to tell us what our remote ancestors were like. Even their designations – Yanomamo, !Kung, Ainu – convey a false sense of genealogical and genetic continuity, vastly understating the fluidity of these groups’ ethnic boundaries.
That as he traipsed around the globe, neoliberal capitalism and its hunger for profit and the earth, was tearing apart the lives of many millions of others. What Salgado produced, over one of the most violent and brutal decades, the living know, is a sedative of a project. Like a television sit-com: based on the real (actors) but representing something entirely unreal. This is truly a very irresponsible, anti-intellectual, and obfuscatory work.
Too many have tiresomely written about Salgado’s aesthetics as a form of obfuscation. But this is a trivial question when compared to his politics as a form of obfuscation. His products are geared to a consumer market desperate for relief from its collusions in the destruction of the very planet they claim they wish to save. His work – these massive traveling exhibitions with their carbon footprints, their manufacturing engines, their consumerism goals, are balm for the guilty. They are a false promise of ‘concern’ and ‘action’, for people who realise that they are in fact unconcerned and unable to act. His work – Genesis, actually works the same way that, as Zizek has argued, on the basis of The Starbucks Logic:
There is something deceptively reassuring in our readiness to assume full guilt and responsibility for the threats to our environment. We like to be guilty since if we are guilty then it all depends on us. We pull the strings and so in principle we can also save ourselves by simply changing our lives. What is really difficult for us to accept is that we are sometimes reduced to the purely passive role of an impotent observer who can only sit back and watch what his fate will be. To avoid such a situation we are prone to engage in frantic, obsessive activities – recycling paper, buying organic food or whatever just so that we can be sure that we are doing something, making our contribution, like a soccer or baseball fan who supports his team from a tv screen at home shouting and jumping up from his seat in his superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome…
…there is something of this same order that is no longer just a marginal phenomenon but is more assuming a central role in how today’s capitalism functions. The best example is what I call The Starbucks Logic…the logic is the following one, and in a perverse way I like it….we make it simpler for you. You can remain just a consumerist, because your altruistic nature, your solidarity with the poor, is included in the price…
These projects win the day because they absolve us and our life-style and the politics that enables it. These projects allow us to not be disturbed but instead to congratulate ourselves at our ‘superior’ aesthetic sensibilities and social sophistication. The permit us to justify war and devastation, while crying crocodile tears at our planet’s decline. Salgado is today the master- hypnotist. Snap! You are now forgiven!Snap! They permit us to continue to vote into power the very people who are profiting from the structures that are destroying our world. Salgado has nothing to say to the war-mongers who have poisoned our earth, or the CEO whose company has poisoned the people, or created massive levels of waste materials, or spewed pollutants into the air. He has nothing to say to world leaders who meet each year, and avoid each year, making any difficult choices about the situation of the environment. He refuses to hold to account those who hold the reins of power and profits, and instead points the finger at the ‘consumer’ other. He believes, or hopes, that this accusatory finger will hide the money that companies like Vale – more responsible for the destruction of the earth, and devastation of human lives, that has funded this clearly hypocritical marketing success.
Once Salgoda spoke for the struggles of the landless and documented the state violence against them. There he was a voice that spoke truths. A mind who saw the connections and even a way forward; that more important that economic ‘development’ was social and human ‘development’ and a just and equal voice in our futures. That there were those who knew the fragility of the connection between man and soil, and knew how to protect this connection. That you could not just kill the many to appease the few. A anti-capitalist Salgado perhaps. The one who would not have become the subject of a misleading bio-pic.