Imaging Trumpism, pre-Trump

Image result for blueservo texas border watch

In our weekly group meetings so far, we have discussed the various ways Trump’s isolationist, closed-border rhetoric – so shocking in its directness and disregard for the conventions of civil political discourse – is in fact much less incongruous with modern U.S. orthodoxy than the President’s bolshie framing might lead us to believe. We can – in fact we must – acknowledge that Trumpism is a threat and an upheaval while also acknowledging that U.S. liberal convention contains much precedent for his exclusionary, supremacist early policy initiatives, of which the elaborate plans for a border “wall” are both the most obvious example, and an apt metaphor.

As a Film major, I have tasked myself with researching the ways in which the U.S.-Mexico border has been imaged in recent history, with a focus on how the “wall” might have a precedent in the pre-Trump era. This being the twenty-first century, no political discourse can be completely isolated from the way it has been communicated visually (and let us not forget the pivotal role that reality TV, a hyperreal phenomenon if there’s ever been one, played in #45’s rise). The very earliest days of my research thus brought me to a difficult problematic: how can we discuss the ways in which the border has been visualised and aestheticized while retaining a sensitivity to the very serious human toll had by its consequences – which will surely only get worse?

The author Maggie Nelson’s 2009 essay collection, The Art of Cruelty, is composed of thirteen chapters which probe the many ways violence and cruelty have been key in the formation of contemporary U.S. consciousness, her case studies primarily drawing from the visual arts but also from theatre, performance and literature. In the author’s signature hybrid style – it is a work of art criticism, memoir, cultural theory, political critique and many other things – she delineates the ways in which U.S. culture in roughly the late-W. Bush, early-Obama moment could be examined through a focus on its accommodation of senseless and banal violence – in which visual culture must surely play an integral part.

Its third chapter, ‘Great To Watch’, is about ordinary, everyday spectatorship of things that in pre-digital times would have remained unseen. Nelson queries the links which are regularly made between visibility and intervention; throughout the twentieth century, it was popularly claimed that if only populaces could see the ills of the world with their own eyes, those ills would surely be more preventable in future – i.e. that increased visibility must surely lead to an increased progressive engagement. Her conclusions, drawing on spectatorship and the internet, show that hyper-visibility can lead to damaging consequences just as easily; if not moreso.

This chapter brought to my attention the BlueServo project, which set up cameras along the Texas-Mexico border and broadcast the footage on a live stream, with the aim of encouraging U.S. citizens to patrol the border for possible criminal activity from the comfort of their sofas. From a New York Times story at the time:

The Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition (TBSC) has instituted the Texas Virtual Border Watch Program to enlist the public’s assistance in preventing crime along the Texas-Mexico border. This initiative provides real-time streaming video over a web-based network to enable the public to report suspicious activity to the appropriate law enforcement agency via e-mail. Day and night surveillance cameras have been strategically placed throughout the border region to deny drug and human smugglers unobserved access to the United States by placing high-threat areas under public surveillance. The numbers and locations of these cameras will constantly change based on threat. To view the Texas Virtual Border Watch cameras, the public can visit the website.

NPR’s John Burnett reported last month that “more than 43,000 people have logged on” to to spend some of their free time scanning streaming video of border hot spots and acting as what the Web site calls “Virtual Texas Deputies.”

NPR reported: “Since the program started in November, virtual deputies have yielded four marijuana busts, totaling more than 1,500 pounds, and 30 incidents when illegal crossers were repelled.”

As an example of the insidious ways visual and digital cultures can contribute to hawkish, nationalist politics long before President Trump became any kind of possibility, the BlueServo project and its huge popularity among certain demographics, as well as the many similar projects which emerged in the late Bush era, seemed to me a key prefiguring of the Trump moment. Unsurprisingly, there exists a small body of scholarship on the website and similar initiatives. In continuing my focus on how the border has been politicised and Mexican citizens demonised via the use of digital visual communication, in the weeks leading up to our group presentation I aim to consider further how utilising methods and perspectives from contemporary media and art theory might be a useful way of understanding the role of the U.S.-Mexico border in this uncertain, divisive time.


To feel citizen of a national political community there is a need for “markers”, “symbols” both in time and space.

— So said Michel Foucher, geographer, geopolitics specialist and diplomat, in an interview on the subject of borders, security and identity.

From the announcement by Dr. Victor Fan this week that there are both many films and no films that deal with the political situation surrounding the 1967 riots in Hong Kong (due to colonial censorship no film will deal with the 1967 problem up front*), to the lack of reliable historical writing on Hong Kong, it has become apparent that we are attempting to approach a topic that is full of lacunae. This fits in with Fan’s work on Extraterritoriality, in which he constructs his argument precisely around an unstable Hong Kongese identity. To return to the above quotation from Michel Foucher, physical borders have great significance to the people of Hong Kong on a political, juridical and an imaginative level, however these territorial borders do not allow the straightforward identification of “citizen” that Foucher suggests.

When Chai and I visited Dr. Fan in his office hours this week he explained that, as someone born and raised in Hong Kong and who left in the 1990s to come to the UK, he always dodges the identity labels that people apply to him. Asked if he is Chinese, and he will answer “not Chinese; a Hong Konger” but if asked if he is a Hong Konger, he will also “erase” this label with a qualification. Fan explained this in terms of the negotiation of identity in relation to colonisation. He went so far as to say that the ego — sum — does not exist for such an individual. This is a process of ‘desubjectivisation’, in which a boundary is implicit in conversations with others on the subject of Hong Kong identity. I wanted to get to the bottom of this, and so I asked him how representative this sort of positioning was. Victor answered that people feel differently, but ultimately that if you probe and question long enough, you will find that people’s sense of affiliation is unstable and negative (negative in the sense of being to compelled to erase the labels that are imposed upon them; a reaction to colonisation).

To return to history for a moment: I want to emphasise the pertinence and timeliness of our project, with the British National Archives on Hong Kong opened only last year — an important source of primary evidence and the location of government documents concerning the period of British colonisation and handover to the Chinese. The colonial history of Hong Kong is a very young subject of study — existing in Hong Kong only since 1997 — and it is still considered a forbidden subject (both by the Chinese and the British government). This explains the scarcity in the historiography. Frank Welsh wrote a highly problematic but influential history of HK from a colonial conservative perspective, claiming for example that the 1967 riots could be reduced to an economic explanation (nothing to do with colonisation). Don’t read accounts from mainland China, advised Fan, as these show strongly nationalistic positions. Focus on the few books on the subject that have been published by the University of Hong Kong Press… These will be part of the bibliography that we are compiling.

Fan’s argument in Extraterritoriality extends to the cinema as a space in which HK identity may be expressed and negotiated. It seems to me that where the ability to achieve a political or historical overview of the situation developing over the course of the c20th in HK is significantly limited, it makes sense that scholars like Fan (Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at KCL) have located their studies within the cultural field, with art as a place in which individual experience is subjectively articulated. That is not to say that there is freedom of expression in art — particularly when we have so recently been considering the Cultural Revolution — but indeed, that it is fruitful to consider the silencing of directors (such as Shu Shuen, director of China Behind, a film which did was banned from public screening until 1981) and the barriers faced within the film industry, on which Lau Shing-hon has commented in ‘Shu Shuen: The Lone-Rider in Hong Kong Cinema in the 1970s’. It would be interesting to see if literature fulfills a similar role. Cue: Francesca!

In our meeting last Friday we reexamined the spatial significance of borders as a subject, and the relevance of methods from Geography for its academic treatment. A suggestion was made that we could connect our disciplines by reference to an overarching idea or approach relating to borders from geography, that we could all use as a starting point or combine with our own discipline in our individual research. We spent the meeting attempting to narrow our focus, setting the parameters in time (Classics stretching back to the Roman Empire in comparative study of the appropriation and return of provinces and History to the c15th and c16th definition by the Catholic Church of extraterritorial spaces: land that lay beyond European jurisdiction and therefore could be freely acquired as colonies) and space (HK, with a broader study by Lewis, who discussed his confinement within the discipline of Classics to the boundaries of the Roman empire but mentioned that he might possibly don his Ancient Civilizations hat if he wanted to branch out further into Asia).

We discussed a possible structure for our presentation, to show how history repeats itself, and George urged us to consider more recent developments in HK. Our Politics major would be best placed to address the Umbrella Movement of 2014. A reform was instigated by the Chinese government in 1997 promising voters the right to elect their Chief Executive by popular vote. However, the government would choose the candidates for which the electorate could vote. The first wave of reaction in the Umbrella Movement came from high school students, who occupied the Central Banking District and the Admiralty. They were later joined by close to a million people. When Dr. Fan discussed these protests with us he commented that the constitutional system put in place by the Chinese was nonetheless far more democratic and comprehensive than that laid down by the British colonial government. This might be a point worth investigating in order to problematise an East/West Orientalist divide, with the West typically waving their banners of democracy and declaring superiority on such grounds. Methods from Anuthira’s study of the riots by migrant workers in Little India, Singapore, may prove useful in application to the Umbrella Movement protests.

Our Comparative Literature student has already provided us with a detailed bibliography, both from a module taken in Hong Kong entitled ‘Hong Kong Culture: Representations of Identity in Literature and Film’ and from the works cited in her Translations Across Disciplines essay. It is interesting to note the structure of the HK course, which begins with ‘Unlearning Hong Kong’, explores ways of writing Hong Kong and the city, and in a third part revisits HK through China. I wonder if she could tell us a bit about the functions of literature for these purposes of resituation. Particular reference was made to the following part of the syllabus:

Rethinking the city as home: stories of migration and homecoming

Required readings:
Aihwa Ong, “Introduction”, Flexible Citizenship
Sara Ahmed, “Home and away: narratives of migration and estrangement”
Required literary text:
Wong Bik-­‐‑wan, “Losing the City” 黃碧雲〈失城〉
Paul White, “Geography, Literature and Migration”
Lawrence Lam, “Searching for a Safe Haven”
Philip Mar, “Unsettling Potentialities: Topographies of Hope in Transnational Migration”
王德威〈香港: 一座城市的故事〉(An article by David Der-­‐‑wei Wang on Hong Kong literature: in Chinese only) Peter Chan, The Age of Miracles 陳可辛 《嫲嫲帆帆》(film)

To wrap it up before our next meeting: we agreed to do some individual research and to prepare a list of the books/articles/films etc specific to our own disciplines for compilation into a group bibliography. We also all agreed to watch the relevant scenes of China Behind (from 75 mins approx., to the end of the film).


*According to Fan, the film which most closely deals with the subject is The Home at Hong Kong by King Hoi Lam. He also recommended Ann Hui’s Boat People, though this shows a post-socialist situation, and the later 1980s comedies: Chinese-Hong Kong collaborations.