“I thought, what a great scene. A powerful scene. A scene with a message that needed to be communicated. A scene of coming together.” – photographer Johnny Nyugen
Postmodernism in general, and Derrida in particular, can get pretty abstract, so I thought we might bring his concept of “deconstruction” down to earth a bit. Here is an image we’ve probably all seen from the recent civil unrest. Of course, there’s a reason we’ve all seen it, as opposed to hundreds of thousands of other pictures – it speaks to people. But what, exactly, does it say? According to postmodernism, it says a lot of things, but what it says to you, in particular, has everything to do with your individual perspective. In that spirit, here are two plausible readings of the image: the first is the one that I suppose is held by most of the people who identify with it, and the second is my own, I like to think, more subversive reading. By way of full disclosure, I suppose I should mention that my sympathies are entirely with the protestors, and I don't pretend to see anything in this photograph but a conservative message. That being said, I've confined my criticism of that message to the part detailing the liberal point of view.
A conservative reading of our image might go like this: "police and protesters, whites and blacks, young people and adults, are all Americans, and all want peace. It is always a tragedy when a policeman has to take a life in the course of their duty. They understand this tragedy better than anyone, because they’re the ones who have to live with it. We shouldn’t let the behavior of a few reckless people – a few bad cops, a few criminals, a few looters –, divide us. We should come together in reconciliation and mutual understanding, because we all want justice. Violence is the enemy – not police, not black people. We should let the legal process work, because ultimately respect for law is the basis of a democratic society, which we all have an interest in preserving. The courts are fair, and they know what they’re doing. The system works. The policewoman and the boy understand this. Their pain is real, but it only serves to bring them closer together. They’re America at it’s best." This is what, I think, conservatives would like to see in this image.
A liberal reading might go a little different: "this picture symbolizes reconciliation, to be sure – but reconciliation on whose terms? The policeman and the black boy are both perfect symbols for the way that conservatives see the problem. The policeman is older, taller, and he has on a uniform and helmet that symbolize his authority. He’s not upset or out of control – he, like police in general, understands that tragedy is unavoidable in life. He’s there to console the black boy, who, because he is a child, does not understand this. The black boy is weak and submissive. He’s not marching around with his fist in the air, or organizing for his rights. He’s certainly not busting out store windows. He’s crying in the tender embrace of authority, like a good boy. When black people are properly submissive, we are not-so-subtly told, then they can understand the facts of life. And when they do that, the problem will end, because they themselves are the problem." In short, I think the message of this photograph is basically racist and authoritarian, because it seeks reconciliation on condition of further domination and injustice. So, too, I think the widespread circulation of this image (not the fact that it actually happened, obviously) expresses what is by far the most common view of the problem with police violence and civil unrest: people don't want a solution to the problem, they just want it to go away. However, this is naive - injustice doesn't go away when people ignore it or quietly submit to it. It goes away when people resist it.
Well, those are two ways to deconstruct our photograph. I’m sure there are others. Did I get something wrong? Do you have your own analysis? How would you deconstruct this image?
Part of a Series on Postmodernism