This matters because culture is a battleground where some narratives win and others lose. Whether we believe someone should be locked in a cage or not is shaped by the stories we absorb about one another, and whether they’re disrupted or not. At a time when inequality and white supremacy are soaring, collective opinion is born at monuments, museums, screens and stages — well before it’s confirmed at the ballot box.
The incident comes four months after a similar argument over the theories of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that reason is the source of morality, resulted in a man being shot in a grocery store in southern Russia.
On June 17, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, posted an Instagram live video discussing the detention camps along the southern US border as “concentration camps” in which she used the phrase “Never Again.” This drew sharp criticism the following day from Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, and others for allegedly misappropriating a slogan associated with the Holocaust. After several days of heated media and political debate, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released a statement on June 24 condemning the use of Holocaust analogies. We received the following open letter addressed to the director of the museum, Sara J. Bloomfield, delivered by the signatories on July 1.
Likewise, Cyrus’ performance cast her in a sexually-charged role that drove home her evolution from Disney Channel PG fame. While Cyrus later said in an interview that her hairstyle was consciously infantilizing, it was hard for me not to see those spiky buns in conjunction with Medusa’s similarly unconventional and distinctive hairdo.
Why, then, would a stuck-out tongue define such a transformation? On the one hand, it is provocative, a function that seems at odds with the archaic Gorgon’s apotropaic power. But coupled with her fierce, frontal gaze, the Gorgon’s visage forces viewers into a confrontation. As some would characterize Cyrus’ performance, the Gorgon’s ferocious visage is similarly nothing if not transgressive.
And it is the tongue, I think, for both Cyrus and the Gorgon, that embodies this quality. A stuck-out tongue reaches out into the space between viewer and viewed. The tongue, after all, is the only part of the body that can easily be extended out of its natural confines. Thus, unlike the eyes, it is vividly visceral. In this sense, the petrifying effects associated with the Gorgon’s gaze gain clearer significance. While her face is safely rendered in paint or stone, her eyes and tongue can still serve to confront the viewer with a reminder of their fleshy corporeality. The tongue, in particular, serves as a gesture of defiance against the medium in which the Gorgon’s gaze has been fixed.
It also functions to segregate memory of the Holocaust from a more dynamic interaction with German colonialism and European imperial history. Germany was party to two genocides before the commencement of the Holocaust. It carried out the genocide of Herero and Nama peoples in its colony in South West Africa from 1904-1908 and then supported the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of Christian Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians as its ally during World War I—the latter was the case study for Raphael Lemkin’s coining of the word “genocide.” But the history of this genocidal trajectory has been eclipsed by the positioning of Nazi violence as singular.
The specific execution of the Nazi genocide was and remains unprecedented. What came to be described as “death camps” were spaces of industrialized genocide, in which Fordist technologies were applied to yield the deaths of hundreds in gas chambers and crematoria in just a few minutes. But while the specific brutality of the Nazi genocide was exceptional, the ideology and architecture of the Nazi camp apparatus was neither unique nor original. In the Herero and Nama genocide, concentration camps were used for the extraction of slave labor and as containment structures for indigenous people removed from their land through settler colonial depopulation. In the Ottoman context, camps were used to brutally dispose of remaining Armenians who had survived deportations. Both networks, described as “concentration camps,” were marked by sadistic physical and gendered sexual violence, summary executions, medical experimentation by physicians, and mass death by preventable disease and starvation, all in service of empire.
The researchers documented the prevalence of those tracking apps in a study last year, based in part on their work helping abuse victims in partnership with the New York City Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence. “When we’re onsite and looking at these cases, it’s a lot of what we’re seeing,” said Cornell researcher Diane Freed.
With a few seconds of physical access to a phone, even apps as common as Google Maps and Apple’s Find My Friends can be tweaked to persistently share a user’s location with another contact while offering the phone’s owner no notification or warning, the researchers told me. “It’s not the presence of some app on your device that’s disconcerting, it’s that it might be configured in some way that you weren’t aware of and didn’t agree to,” said Sam Havron, another Cornell researcher.