Previous Next Up Comments
SEHR, volume 5, issue 1: Contested Polities
Updated 14 February 1996

book review

representing the urban

Susan Ossman, Pictures of Casablanca: Portraits of Power in a Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

William Glover

Timothy Mitchell's Colonizing Egypt opened a discursive space in the field of Middle East studies and colonial history that other works have increasingly begun to occupy.[1] In his book, Mitchell develops a model of power lying at the heart of colonial projects in Egypt (and possibly elsewhere) that combines Foucault's theory of "microphysical" or disciplinary power with an effect of structured visual representation ("enframing") whose techniques -- dividing, containing, simulating -- are particular to European capitalist society. As her title itself hints, Susan Ossman's recent ethnography, Picturing Casablanca: Portraits of Power in a Modern City, owes much to Mitchell's framework of analysis. Although her claims to describe a specific form of power are considerably humbler, Ossman's book shares with Mitchell's an emphasis on the confluence of new modes of representation and European colonial power.

Ossman begins her book by arguing that the flood of new technologies and modes of representation brought into Morocco by French colonial authorities during the early twentieth century (including the cinema, photography, the phonograph, telephones, mass advertising, etc.) initiated a process of reconceptualizing Moroccan selfhood and political authority in entirely new ways:

When the limits of the visible push beyond habitual frames, individuals' senses of their bodies, their identities, and their place in the universe are transformed. . . . In Morocco, European conventions of representation could not be disconnected from other aspects of Protectorate power and new modes of economic and social organization that accompanied it (4-5).

Rather than describing the operation of this power in the colonial setting, as Mitchell's book does, Ossman explores the ways that mass images both reflect and transform political discourse and everyday life in present-day Casablanca. If new ways of constituting and representing power were brought in by Europeans, Ossman argues, then those forms of power produced specifically local effects in Casablanca. Consciously evoking Roland Barthes' study of photography and his search for "the fundamental trait, the universal without which there would be no Photography"(14), Ossman attempts to locate a constellation of cultural identities and "frameworks of distinction" that characterize contemporary Casablancan-ness.

The text of Picturing Casablanca is divided into seven loosely related chapters that explore these questions at different sites within the city. In the first chapter, Ossman attempts to develop Casablanca itself as a character in her narrative, rehearsing for the reader ways in which the real city differs from the romanticized image its name often evokes in outsiders' imaginations. In subsequent chapters, Ossman analyzes the 1988 French elections as they surfaced in the Moroccan press and television; the Moroccan government's efforts to "reconstitute" physically several areas in Casablanca during the 1988 Conference of African and Francophone States; the television's ability to transform a person's sense of time (drawing a distinction between "clock" time and "religious" time); and the way images from the mass media -- portraits of King Hassan, love scenes in European films, the American pop-idol Madonna -- provoke changes in the practices and representations that underlie Casablancan sociality.

A careful look at this nexus could have helped advance debate over the "post-colonial condition" as a contested theoretical subject. Unfortunately, Ossman misses that opportunity by failing to make Casablanca and Casablancans locatable subjects in any real sense. The various cultural productions Ossman describes (images from the mass media, changes in fashion, wedding videos) seem to be peculiarly unmarked by other forms of economic and social production within and beyond the city. In an effort to underline the indeterminate character of semiosis in Casablanca, Ossman elides important ways in which Casablancans and the images they encounter are enmeshed in power relations that both constrain and provide opportunities for individual or group action.

This limitation is perhaps most noticeable in the way Ossman ignores the economies and structures of power that produced the images she describes in her text. In a comment that could be a leitmotif for the entire book, Ossman tells the reader that, "Images may be mere facades, but this does not mean that they are always shadows of more fundamental facts"(183).

When I enter a grocery store in Casablanca, I am greeted by a soccer team, Egyptian and French actresses, a snapshot of the family of the shop owner. Amid these assorted portraits it is difficult to see how any one might come to upstage the others. . . . Some journalists in Morocco explained to me that certain televised images could engender upheaval 'among the uneducated' or fire fundamentalist propaganda; others welcome these images as signifying liberty. . .(140).

Missing in this description are the unequal histories of conception, production, marketing, and deployment of each of these images. This information is crucial not because images don't often mask their conditions of production, but because these histories help constitute the context for interpretation of those images. It is, in fact, often these histories of production that make these images seem ambiguous. Ossman highlights the indeterminate character of the messages that inhere in mass images in an effort to resist the closure provided by an economic determinist model of the effects of mass media, or conversely, that of a seamless conception of culture. But if the mediations of social and economic productions are absent in any determinate sense in the passages above, then the power of the image itself to change history could not be more determinant. (Can television images detached from an historical context "engender upheaval"?) In a paradoxical way, Casablancans seem more circumscribed by the relentless transaction of images in Ossman's text than they would be in the more rigidly structuralist narrative she attempts to decenter.

This unwillingness to locate the material and political coordinates of her subject emerges in other ways throughout the book. Given the book's focus on images, it is surprising how few images of Casablanca itself appear in Ossman's text. Ossman describes Casablanca in the first chapter as "a place to leave," a city at a crossroads, and unique among Morocco's cities in its newness, its ephemerality, and its multiple links with a world "outside." It is a city, moreover, composed of remarkably generic elements: neighborhoods like Ain Chowk (considered by the author to be the city's most representative), an area "pleasantly designed in a neo-traditional style," where "most people live in small apartment buildings"(49). There are also idealized Moroccan homes that turn their "gaze" inward on themselves, and public parks that offer a "splendid vision of youth, color, and amusement"(48). Ossman's Casablanca is too often a clichˇ city figured through a small number of more or less standard tropes of urban life in the "third world": poor transportation, high unemployment, restrictive social mores.

Similarly, Ossman's human informants seem at times as unanchored socially as the mass images against which they ostensibly constitute and transform their identities. It is hard to imagine a more generic voice than that of Fatima, a secretary who takes Ossman for a ride in her newly acquired automobile:

. . . I can go out on my own now at night to visit friends or go out. Having a car will save me so much time and it's real freedom. Turn on the tape, will you? Who would you like to listen to: Oum Khalthoum, Bob Marley, Edith Piaf?(39).

Representing the anonymity of places and people as constitutive of Casablancan life could be a powerful conceptual device if it were juxtaposed to the specifying, ordering, and classificatory practices of "European" power that Ossman identifies as authoring social change. Instead, the interchangability of people and places in Ossman's text seems only to reflect a conception of politics as individual acts of reading meaning into images freed from their context -- or perhaps of politics as "reading" itself.

Ossman concludes her book with a suggestion that the search for an interpretive community within which to ground these meanings is a task best left to "moralistic" anthropology: "Perhaps we must accept that 'mere anarchy' is a part of [the] condition that cultures and those who study 'them' might like to tame"(190). Questions of morality aside, a deeper investigation into the concrete subject-forming elements that structure interpretations of mass imagery in Casablanca -- the ethnicities, classes, and webs of local and non-local power that have historically sustained or challenged the production of those images -- would make Ossman's conclusion a difficult one to sustain for very long. Ossman's book reveals the slippage possible in a theory of power as "image" that other writers interested in engaging with the themes opened up by Mitchell's earlier work would do well to avoid.

Previous Next Up Comments


1. Timothy Mitchell, Colonizing Egypt (New York: Cambridge UP, 1988).