The personal and the political in an age of brass

Chris Lowe

"Exit Wounds": Jim Lommasson and Iraq veteran photography at the New American Art Union (Opening reception Friday Oct 17) (former title)

As election day approaches, many readers and writers at BlueOregon are engaged, not to say frantically busy, with electoral activities connected to renewing the formal politics of our quasi-democratic federal state at all its levels. In their engagement, they make public politics personal and personally absorbing.

It may thus seem an odd time to bring up the inverse phrase, "the personal is political," and odder still to be writing here about a photographic art exhibit. But timing and a kind of secret urgency that relates to the meaning of the election and what we do afterwards bring me to do both.

The timing issue is that Friday night, October 17, from 6-9 p.m., is the opening reception for a show put together by Portland photographer and writer Jim Lommasson at the New American Art Union, called "Exit Wounds: Combat Trauma and Trials of Homecoming," comprising both his own photographs of veterans, and photography by veterans. The issues to which it speaks about the meaning of the election have to do with the "costs of war" in several senses, and what we are going to do about those costs after the election, in the context of a deepening financial and economic crisis that only exacerbates all of those costs.

"The personal is political" was a slogan emerging from second-wave feminism that first saw print in 1970 but may have been "already in the air" in the movement and derived from thinking by earlier radical women and sociologists. While a slogan, it also was a pithy embodiment of a profound insight, two dimensions of which I want to point out here. One was that "private" personal relationships often are relationships of power, and unequal power, that are shaped by and shape the public power relationships that had more conventionally been seen as the stuff of politics. The other dimension was that definitions of politics that restricted that idea to certain public activities connected with states or governments had an effect and function of suppressing matters of urgent concern to women away from public discussion and diminishing them, and women concerned with them thereby, as less important than the public politics dominated by men. My personal impression from a bit later in the 1970s is that there probably was a connection of these insights with the widespread process of "consciousness-raising" in which feminist women engaged in intense discussions that criticized a wide range of received ideas about women, sex and gender relations and brought to more fully explicit consciousness perceptions that previously had been marginalized in dominant cultural discourses, often leaving the women experiencing those perceptions feeling isolated and marginalized themselves.

The specifically feminist dimensions of the "the personal is political" retain importance for the politics of sex and gender, even as work and struggles built on the insight have brought both more women and more formerly submerged and marginalized issues and concerns into the public political realm. But as that process has gone forward, and as the idea that the personal is political has increasingly become part of conventional mental armature in our culture, its applicability to matters less immediately related to the liberation and equality of women, or even the politics of sex and gender in sexuality-based dimensions of identity, has become increasingly visible.

To take two examples salient in the current political campaign, consider how "the personal is political" illuminates debates over our failing non-system of healthcare and insurance of access to such care, and the debate over "Wall Street vs. Main Street" in responses to the housing-tied financial and economic crisis.

Health is of course an intensely personal matter, and the debate over how to handle the deepening problems of declining access to care and rising healthcare costs ranges from also treating it in the widest public manner -- "healthcare is a right" -- to seeking to repress it back out of public politics with mantras about "personal responsibility." Likewise, to a great degree, efforts to treat the economic crisis as primarily if not purely about "Wall Street" and big financial institutions correspond to other kinds of efforts to restrict public politics to "big" and "important" matters and actors, while "Main Street" is a limited, inadequate and inapt metaphor for the composition of the large economic crisis out of tens of millions of personal individual and familial crises and situations at risk across the country. The two are connected, of course, because the personal is political, which means that the crisis has to be dealt with from both ends, and repressing the personal and familial dimensions out of sight with exclusive focus on "Wall Street" will both prolong it, and make the terms of the ultimate resolution much more unjust.

Jim Lommasson's show, with its focus on veterans returning from the U.S. war of occupation in Iraq, raises questions of the politics of the personal in still other ways. Some of the questions are closer to the feminist roots of the personal is political insight. Military service has been a highly gender-differentiated activity connecting public citizenship to maleness (in racialized ways in the U.S.), differentiation that has only partly broken down, with mixed consequences for women and men (and homosexual persons) in the service and upon returning home. The experience of male veterans and their physical and psychic injuries reveals that men have gender too. Struggles with expectations about maleness affect men dealing with injury, affect their families. They also affect the terms on which the military and the state try to evade the meaning and consequences of their wars, in part by manipulations to avoid responsibility for helping soldiers and veterans deal with the harms they suffer, by repressing them out of sight into the private and the personal.

This personal side of war for the men and women sent to carry it out is part of the costs of our current conflicts, along with the moral and cultural costs, of conducting wars of aggression internationally, and to our order of civil rights and liberties, and the sheer financial and economic costs and opportunity costs incurred. None of these can we afford. In a broad manner, most Americans understand that, and it has everything to do with widespread popular opposition to continued involvement in Iraq. While the financial and economic crisis has driven Iraq down in the ratings of issues about which people are most concerned, in fact people understand that bringing to an end the economic costs of the war has only taken on greater urgency today.

But the "secret urgency" to which I referred at the beginning of this piece, the thing that makes Jim Lommasson's show so important to me (along with the Winter Soldier events about which I wrote in another column today), is how military service in the U.S. has been reconstructed in such a way as to privatize it, and make it a burden carried much more intensely by a small proportion of the population who serve, and their families.

We are all connected to them, but the connections are largely hidden to most of us, despite the public memorializing of soldiers' deaths conveyed to us in small communities and on local news, and we are not encouraged to find the connections. As we know, modern military medicine means that many casualties that would have been fatal in previous wars are not today, so that the proportion of physically wounded and maimed veterans is correspondingly higher -- but we are not encouraged to look at or think about that. Psychological harm, externally unmarked except in how veterans act, remains as hidden and hard for those not immediately affected to grasp as unmarked wounds and disabilities always have been.

Further, this narrowing and intensifying of the burden works to hide from us what we ask people in military service to do for the country (others will disagree, no doubt, but if I can't make my opposition effective enough, in concert with others, to prevent or stop a war, I think I remain part of that national "we"), and what that does the people in the countries affected.

Meanwhile the economic and financial crisis can only increase the vulnerability and difficulties of returned and returning veterans and their families, especially if there is a lack of public sense of connection and responsibility.

Jim Lommasson's photography and that of the veterans included in the show give us a rare and crucial opportunity to discover the hidden, the better to understand our connections, to the veterans, to the conflict, to all its victims.

Although I met Jim Lommasson in the context of doing anti-war work, as he facilitated our contacts with veterans around the region, his photography is not political in any narrow sense. The veterans he portrays and facilitates in portraying themselves and their experiences and actions run the whole gamut of views, all in motion as well, of course. The main advocacy of his work, insofar as it has advocacy, is that we not let these men and women, nor their pains and injuries, nor their efforts to come home and to deal with it all, become invisible to us. Perhaps it calls upon us as well to look to our responsibilities, but I don't think it purports to tell us what those responsibilities are, or what we should do about them.

I don't know Jim well, but what I do know of him gives the strong impression of a gentle, humane, thoughtful and compassionate person, committed to seeing and making visible and thinking about the meaning of what is seen and not seen. He had a photo essay in the September issue of Portland Monthly magazine emerging from the project that also gives us the "Exit Wounds" show. For an introduction to his veteran photographs one can look at a slide show based on that essay ion the magazine's website. The introductory text gives some perspective on Jim's personal motives for the project and the show.

Even if you can't make the opening reception on October 17, go see the show, which is up until November 30.

Exit Wounds: Combat Trauma and Trials of Homecoming

Photos of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans by Jim Lommasson.
Over two thousand photos by the soldiers taken while in country, including interviews and writing by the soldiers.

New American Art Union
October 17 to November 30, 2008
Reception: Friday, October 17, 6-9.

922 SE Ankeny Street
Portland, OR 97214
Thursday - Sunday, Noon - 6PM + By appointment.

(Here's a link to The Oregonian's review of the show.)

  • edison (unverified)

    "The main advocacy of his work, insofar as it has advocacy, is that we not let these men and women, nor their pains and injuries, nor their efforts to come home and to deal with it all, become invisible to us."

    The invisibility of this war is one of the most successful "accomplishments" of the Bush administration. Everyone needs to "see" what's happened/happening. Thank you for an excellent post, Chris.

  • RW (unverified)

    Yep. See "The Unbearable Lightness of Being". I walked away from that knowing in my bones that the union/unit of two humans, that connection, is the one you must destroy if you seek to destroy a society. And feminism, dealing with the social psychology of gender relations, enriched the language immensely. This silence is killing human connections like Manchurian Device.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Thanks for this info, Chris. I've passed on the word to friends who might be interested. I plan to visit myself. Looks like it is worth a trip.

  • rw (unverified)

    OPEC is not our friend.

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