Sunday, March 29, 2009

Excuse me while I go all John Lennon on you

Over at Adbusters headquarters, the One Flag competition--a contest intended to present to the world a single flag for all--has resulted in a clear winner: This flag created by Marc Arroyo Ortiga from Berlin.

Adbusters, an organization that refers to itself as "culturejammer headquarters," has invested its resources in the argument that things might have been otherwise (despite an almost unbelievable misstep in the One Flag contest, about which more below). The description of the One Flag competition presents a nice example of how Adbusters goes about the work of imagining that otherwise world:
Design is at war with itself. We are taught that design is about finding solutions. But the success of these solutions is judged so narrowly – Did it ooze desire? Did it shift units? – that we find ourselves implicated in problems far greater than the ones we solve. The time has come for a radical shift in priorities. We are now faced with some of the most daunting global challenges in human history.

These are real targets, worthy of our problem-solving skills, ripe for our intervention. Yet those who have the vision to rise above national and political boundaries still have no symbol to rally under. We invite you to create a flag – free from language and well-worn clichés – that embodies the idea of global citizenship. A symbol that triggers pride and cohesion, whether worn on a backpack, displayed on a door, or flown on a flagpole. A symbol for anyone to declare membership in a growing and vital human cooperative. We invite you to prove that design has a real role to play in the fate of our world.
(You can look at the entries of the 32 finalists here.)

Now, about that "things might have been otherwise" argument:

Julia Clarke, writing about Actor-Network Theory (or ANT), examines the question "where is anemia?" to illustrate the point that "whatever story is being told, we are reminded that ‘it might have been otherwise’." As Clarke explains,
If there are plenty of iron tablets available, ‘anaemia’ is a good diagnosis. If there’s no iron, and no good food and no way to cure worms or malaria, then there is no point in using machines to measure haemoglobin levels. Anaemia is real, our bodies need iron; it is narrated, or discursively constructed in the context of different experiences and understandings; and it is social in the sense that what it means and what we do about it is something that is moved around in the fluid spaces of bodies and social relations.

The big work of ANT is to make a theoretical shift away from the assumption that humans are the source of all action and everything around them is just tools for action. Instead, Clarke explains it thus:
The most radical claim of actor-network theory is that all of social life consists of patterned networks of people, animals, machines, texts, buildings, plants – any material entity that is brought into a network. These entities have no inherent qualities but take their form and acquire their attributes through relationships in networks with other entities. This goes beyond the idea that humans behave differently or take on different roles in different social situations, or that plants wilt when the soil is too dry or that light bulbs need electricity.... It means recognising that machines, animals, micro-chips and people, as well as identities, categories, spaces and stories, all have politics and all are implicated in power relations.

In this view, the very humanity of human beings is an effect of the networks through which we derive ‘human’ attributes in relation to other human and non-human entities.

We say that humans are by nature territorial, and that notions like nations, borders, governments and flags emerged from that essentially human trait. But it might have been otherwise, as the Adbusters winning flag suggests. We can imagine a world in which a block of cloth tossed up a pole means not "this land is claimed for the American government and is subject to its government and laws" but "the swimming pool is now open" or "mitosis has occurred" or "a block of cloth has been tossed up a pole."

It might have been otherwise, and in this case the flag whose very image is that which means to us the exact opposite of "territory"--sky, the very opposite to us of land--won the contest because it helps us to imagine how it might have been otherwise. In fact, we might say the winning flag is not just the flag itself but the image of that block of cloth against a matching sky.

People drifting and gathering like clouds across the bright sky. No term to describe the notions of "borders," of "boundaries," no country or continent, no power exerted by the notion of "patriotism" and therefore no jingoisms, no xenophobia, no need for the complex of feelings and intentions exerted by patriotism as it currently exists in our networks of existence.

"You can't just pretend the notion of borders doesn't exist," said my British friend, talking about the expansion of the European Union. "When Poland joined the EU, immigrants flooded into the UK looking for jobs, and it's been bad for us. You can't just say, 'Right, let's get rid of the idea of countries and let everyone go where they want.'"

No, of course not. Not, anyway, in a culture where the notion of boundaries continues to exert its influence, regardless of shifts in law or approach. Not in a culture where there exists an us (the British) vs. them (the Polish, the Turks, the Greeks...). An us (America) vs. them (Mexicans, Canadians, the Middle East...).

No, of course not. But we can still try to imagine, as difficult as it is to do, how it might have been otherwise.

Ok, but here's how Adbusters kinda screwed the pooch on this one

Apparently, all of the judges of the One Flag contest were white men. For the love of pete. For the love of PETE.

This is further proof, though, of how hard it is to try to imagine how it might have been otherwise. And how important it is to keep trying.


Anonymous said...

Its easy if you try..

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that borders go beyond state to state boundaries (or, for that matter, sub-state to sub-state boundaries). Borders are tied into something deeper within the "groundedness" of humans as land-dwellers.

For thousands of years humans societies have developed in relation to real physical boundaries in the earth (i.e. shorelines, mountain ranges, tundra, etc.). And, these boundaries continue within our languages, governing institutions, and even conceptions of justice.

Borders are becoming more and more artificial as our transportation and communications technologies rapidly advance. However, I would suggest, this does not mean that borders can be imagined away through cosmopolitan aspirations. Borders and boundaries say something about our humanity itself.

Therefore, perhaps we would do well to return to the earth before we look to the sky?

Jared Giesbrecht

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