Starving children and the cost of seeing

On the day I cleaned out my fridge, I caught up on Al Jazeera news. One of the headlines read, “Starving Yemenis resort to eating rubbish.” It was a news article about the loss of jobs, of availability of food, of everyday things, 3 years into a civil war. The picture shown was of a skeletal child, lying side down, one hand over her/his overlarge head, eyes gently shut almost like sleep but the open mouth and oddly twisted limbs curled up against her/his body betray the lack of life within.

Suddenly I am reminded of Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” 4-part series that I have been trying to watch each night since last week, but keep falling asleep mid-way through. Last night was ep 2, which was about what my Gender and Media lecturer used to call, “pants in the head.” Where women are trained from a young age to be seen as an object by an external evaluator, who is inevitably male, underlined by desire. So in every act we do, we almost have an astral projection kind of experience looking at ourselves doing things, even if the doing is looking at ourselves. And the complicity of Western European art in constructing this, especially through the art of nudes – where he distinguishes between being naked (i.e. entirely in ourselves) and being nude (i.e. being seen as being naked, i.e. a kind of constructed distanced object/ornament, lacking in subjectivity).

I fell asleep soon after this, but there are things which ring true in what he is saying. This was also the anxiety that was raised by one of the researchers a few years back when we starting doing research on sexuality and the internet: pornification of sexuality directed towards girls at a younger and younger age. The aesthetics of sexuality through the eyes of porn – want me, eat me, have me (I will tease you and you will desire me because of that, but ultimately I am attainable) – is sold through lipstick, high-heels, strappy clothes and sparkly bags to kids. And then of course, the role of this weighted networked environment in viralising a kind of cultural capital to this aesthetics globally, including to her country, which is South Africa.

Because sexuality has become consumer capitalism’s greatest jewel. I wanted to type even the queer movement couldn’t resist it – but then realised it was probably rife for it, given the emphasis on sexuality <– political subversion at one level will not translate to all, capitalism has a way of folding everything within itself. And then it brings to mind questions about the economic/social class that has leadership in shaping the movement, and the values that it not only brings, but is vulnerable to because of its language/experience.

But I am meandering from my train of thought. It was of the Yemeni child. And the story about the father who lost his job, and was too proud to borrow from friends, and resorted to scavenging in rubbish bins to feed his family with 10 children. And the following story also of some Yemenis who would rather go through rubbish than seek aid.

And there two random thoughts came into my mind. One is about condom use in the time of war. Where sex must still happen, because in a time of such destruction and deaths everyday, the compulsion to mortality must be strong, and also, sex is a very simple, powerful, visceral pleasure to let you know that you are still alive. And if you can’t find food, you can’t find condoms (and sanitary pads, which is another conversation). And two is about the dignity of people even when they are constructed through stories that carry an image of a skeletal child, between sleeping and dying. Where they want their unbelievably harsh reality to be acknowledged, but there is still this space of resistance, maybe resentment.

Maybe there is a politics of resentment that shouldn’t be dismissed. Where when you have very little left, you still have the capacity to resent those who have more. So much so that they can offer you stuff. Stuff you need, which you may or may not take depending on your context, but even if you do, you can still afford to resent it. To enact that sliver of resistance to define the relationship. Because in the same moment of recognition and reaching out, a kind of power relationship is solidified and sealed. And that takes several other wars to break. Where you will always be that image of a skeletal child in foetal position, whether you are an engineer, a politician, an activist, an artist, a sundry shop owner. In the eyes of those you see you first as Yemeni, you are that skeletal child.

And then I think of the previous version of this child, still warm on our tongues. The starving Ethiopian child with hollow eyes, distended stomach, overlarge skull and a roaming fly from the 1980s politically-driven famine, viralised through “We are the world,” and “Do they know it’s Christmas?” Again the machine of visual, auditory, pop culture creating an image that is so stubborn we even still have jokes/cautionary tales for this in Hokkien. On the one hand, the visibility was gained and a thread of collective compassion was thrown like a net across the world, reaching even my household, so remote and sitting in its own version of poverty. On the other, the cost of this visibility is the struggle for this to be un-seen.

This is another layer to the war that sits in that shadow space behind our eyes, defining our first move for a long, long time. Long after the rubble becomes a privatised semi-luxury condominium, or a hipsterised art district that plays American folk music in tungsten-lit bars, or when the child of the man who scavenged for rubbish becomes an Olympic gold medalist (much to the marvel of all). And we do this all the time, reproducing visual icons that somehow captures that flavour in every space we inhabit, walk through. Instagram-worthy shots. Maybe we should just keep it to actual inanimate objects, rather than act to in-animate subjects.

On another note, I must only buy food at the pace in which I can eat it.