Blur, Gerhard Richter and failed states (longer read)


Nothing seems further from war and failed states than the early photo-paintings of Gerhard Richter. This entry demonstrates otherwise.

Throughout his long career, Richter has been indefatigable in explaining why and how he produced the paintings. Why mechanically reproduce a photograph enlarged onto canvas and then blur the oil painted image with a squeegee passed across it? By way of answer, Richter says he was aiming at inserting chance into the painting. The blurs enabled him to see what had been a familiar photograph as if for the first time and with new objectivity (his term).

Transforming a photograph into a photo-painting and then blurring it is an optic with which to become alert to a quite different object from that known in the photo and in contradistinction to those who take photos as a baseline for objectivity. The blur foregrounds what had not been seen to that point, that is, not recognized up to then, difficult to discern otherwise, and the experience of still having something new to encounter.

I wed Richter’s concept of blurring to a “policy palimpsest,” the social science notion that controversial policies are themselves the composite of policy arguments and narratives that have overwritten each other. Any composite argument read off a policy palimpsest reads sequentially—nouns and verbs appear in order and meaning is made—but none of the previous inscriptions shine clear and whole through the intercalated layers, effacements, erasures and blockages. Arguments assembled from the palimpsest have been blurred, intertwined and re-rendered for current (often controverted) purposes. The analytic challenge is to read any composite argument with its blur visible in order to acknowledge and probe what has been rendered missing. A palimpsest, if you will, questions what kind of reader its reader is—and that reader is answerable within the confines of the palimpsest (in the same sense that a macro-principle is answerable to the local context in which it operates).

To see how a policy palimpsest works, the role of blur as its own clarifying optic and how this recasts a very difficult political issue, I discuss an article on the failed-states rationale put forth in the George W. Bush Administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy. I then draw out wider implications, namely: Where are this century’s new democracies to come from, if not from the failed states?


“Palimpsest” refers to older documents and tablets whose text and images have been overlain by more recent ones, without entirely effacing earlier inscriptions. A first, if not the first, explicit use of “policy palimpsest” is in Harvey Simmons’ 1982 book, From Asylum to Welfare: “During the nineteenth century, not one but a series of mental retardation policies were superimposed on one another, with newer policies obscuring, blurring or relegating older policies to minor importance, although never entirely replacing them… (my italics)”.

Longstanding policy issues are typically described as progressing, regressing, or waiting to be modified for the better. New evidence, it is said, comes to light with respect to assumptions, and over the long haul policies change or evolve. The policy palimpsest perspective offers a different take. Major policy is a pastiche of overwritten policy arguments and narratives without presumption of sequential change and learning. Each erasure or effacement takes the policy audience further away from any kind of “original” beginning, middle and end for the policy in question.

This is not news in the study of policy and management. What the policy palimpsest metaphor highlights is the very partial nature of reworking policy. Little from previous inscriptions comes to us intact or pane-clear through a policy palimpsest for a major issue. No inscription or point made shines bright and clear through the layers, fractures and lacerations in a palimpsest. Arguments putatively read from and off the palimpsest are in fact blurred; they are elided and reassembled for current purposes. They are in effect composite arguments, whose linearity and coherence are deceptive.

The failed states argument

To see how a policy palimpsest works, turn to a 2014 Foreign Affairs article, “The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm: Requiem for a Decade of Distraction,” by Michael Mazarr, Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College.

Mazarr starts by arguing that it was with 9/11 and the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy that the failed states argument came to the fore. “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones. We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few,” according to the Bush Doctrine. Mazarr emphasizes how accepted this starting point and conclusion were at that time:

The Democratic foreign policy hand Susan Rice, for example, wrote in 2003 that Bush was “wise to draw attention to the significant threats to our national security posed by failed and failing states.” Where the right emphasized security and terrorism, the left added humanitarian concerns. Development specialists jumped on the bandwagon as well, thanks to new studies that highlighted the importance of institutions and good governance as requirements for sustained economic success. In his 2004 book, State-Building, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote, “Weak and failing states have arguably become the single most important problem for international order.” The Washington Post editorialized the same year that “weak states can compromise security — most obviously by providing havens for terrorists but also by incubating organized crime, spurring waves of migrants, and undermining global efforts to control environmental threats and disease.” This argument, the paper concluded, “is no longer much contested.” A year later, the State Department’s director of policy planning, Stephen Krasner, and its newly minted coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization, Carlos Pascual, argued. . .that “in today’s increasingly interconnected world, weak and failed states pose an acute risk to U.S. and global security. Indeed, they present one of the most important foreign policy challenges of the contemporary era.

This failed states postulate, however and in spite of initial widespread support, encountered a great many problems. The first three Mazarr identifies are quoted at length without edit:

The threat posed by weak and fragile states, for example, turned out to be both less urgent and more complex and diffuse than was originally suggested. Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index for 2013 is not exactly a roster of national security priorities; of its top 20 weak states, very few (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan) boast geostrategic significance, and they do so mostly because of their connection to terrorism. But even the threat of terrorism isn’t highly correlated with the current roster of weak states; only one of the top 20, Sudan, appears on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and most other weak states have only a marginal connection to terrorism at best.

A lack of definitional rigor posed a second problem. There has never been a coherent set of factors that define failed states: As the political scientist Charles Call argued in a powerful 2008 corrective, the concept resulted in the “agglomeration of diverse criteria” that worked to “throw a monolithic cloak over disparate problems that require tailored solutions.” This basic methodological flaw would distort state-building missions for years, as outside powers forced generic, universal solutions onto very distinct contexts.

The specified dangers were never unique to weak states, moreover, nor would state-building campaigns necessarily have mitigated them. Take terrorism. The most effective terrorists tend to be products of the middle class, often from nations such as Saudi Arabia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, not impoverished citizens of failed states. And terrorist groups operating in weak states can shift their bases of operations: if Afghanistan becomes too risky, they can uproot themselves and move to Somalia, Yemen, or even Europe. As a result, “stabilizing” three or four sources of extremist violence would not render the United States secure. The same could be said of threats such as organized crime, which finds comfortable homes in functioning but troubled states in Asia, eastern Europe, and Latin America.

As the scholar Stewart Patrick noted in a 2006 examination of the purported threats issuing from weak states, “What is striking is how little empirical evidence underpins these assertions and policy developments. Analysts and policymakers alike have simply presumed the existence of a blanket connection between state weakness and threats to the national security of developed countries and have begun to recommend and implement policy responses.”

And although interconnectedness and interdependence may create risks, the dangers in such a world are more likely to come from strong, well-governed states with imperfect regulations than weak ones with governance deficiencies. Financial volatility that can shake the foundations of leading nations and cyber attacks that could destabilize energy or information networks pose more immediate and persistent risks than, say, terrorism.

A third problem was misplaced confidence about the possibility of the mission’s feasibility. The last decade has offered an extended, tragic reminder of the fact that forcible state building simply cannot be accomplished by outsiders in any sustainable or authentic way. When a social order has become maladapted to the globalizing world — when governing institutions are weak, personalized, or kleptocratic; corruption is rampant; and the rule of law is noticeable by its absence — there are simply no proven methods for generating major social, political, economic, or cultural change relatively quickly.

As the Australian political scientist Michael Wesley argued in a brilliant 2008 essay, state weakness is primarily a political problem, and yet state building is often conceived and executed as if it were an apolitical exercise. “The intention of remaining aloof from politics while concentrating on technocratic reforms has proved unrealistic,” he wrote. “Even seemingly technocratic tasks confront international administrators with essentially political decisions: the nature and basis of elections; which pressure groups to consult; the reintegration or de facto separation of ethnic communities; school curricula; degrees of public ownership of enterprises; the status of women; and so on. However technocratic their intention, state-building missions inevitably find themselves factored into local rivalries.”

A policy palimpsest perspective recasts this line of argumentation, because this perspective clearly has difficulties with a governance or statecraft that centers around “here’s what we learned as to why it [the Bush Doctrine] didn’t work” or “we always knew it wouldn’t work.” Both may be true, but they fall well short of pushing the truth further.

–The wider truth is that Mazarr’s critique is itself a composite argument from the remains of other arguments that have been around for some time and which were reinscribed in new ways when it came to the “failed states” doctrine. What Mazarr identifies as the lack of definitional rigor in isolating key features of failed states is the result not only of new analysis since 2002, but also of the erasure of elements in what definitions we had had, all combined with the recognition that the lack of such rigor drives an uncertainty indistinguishable at times from a sense of “terror.’

Any “we used to know X, but now we have come to know Y” is too sequential and deterministic for what has been in effect an ebb and flow of government policymaking more akin to accretion than evolution. The most interesting feature about the Bush Doctrine isn’t that it proved wrong in ways that matter, but that it was overwritten and continues to be by all manner of subsequent contingencies. Where are those points we heard at the time of 9/11, but which have since been scoured out of the record, at least in the pages of Foreign Affairs? Namely: It was a tragedy waiting to happen, and now that it happened, an opportunity for America to take the lead in a new rapprochement with the Islamic World. These arguments were dropped from policy discussions not because of “new evidence and analysis,” but because they were effaced outright or blurred over. In this way, “straight-forward” policy arguments since 9/11 have been attempts to bowdlerize the policy palimpsest.

The image of the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center has been etched into the policy palimpsest of failed states in such a way as to obscure other lines and images of argument. The criticism that the Bush Doctrine propelled along one trajectory when others were available misses the other paths that were not there until 9/11 and the subsequent contingency-fueled implementation of the Bush Doctrine. To be clear as I can, any specific reading, such as the Bush Doctrine, off of a military-strategy policy palimpsest is not just specific with respect to historical moment and context; whether or not “universalized” as principles, the composite argument arises from, when not actually reflecting, the gaps, contradictions and lack of consistency in that policy palimpsest.

When it comes to major, longstanding policy issues, the coherence of the composite argument is matched by the inability to achieve exhaustive insight into the originating palimpsest. As such, no major policy sheds its shattered origins in the palimpsest; any composite argument brings the entire policy palimpsest with it. In this way, no major policy is or could ever be only what it says it is; nor is there any position in greater need of pushing further than “it is what it is.” At best, a composite argument seeks to be the arolect or prestige language of its creole palimpsest.

–Each composite argument is always open to interrogating, “What is being missed that was effaced from the palimpsest in order to assemble the argument?,” since no composite argument can be final. As a policy palimpsest sources all manner of composite arguments, any one is “revisable,” even at the moment the policymaker is insisting “this is the right policy for the right time in the right place.” Thus, when I insist that a major policy issue is uncertain, complex, conflicted and incomplete at the same time—no matter how coherent the current composite argument—it is because its policy palimpsest itself reads that way—each reading an arrested disruption, the palimpsest serving as a brake on isolating any single argument, all readings reflecting the analyst’s curatorial function of assembling an installation.

With all of this going on, how then to take Mazarr’s argument seriously? Bluntly, that’s my job, not Mazzar’s. I don’t expect Mazarr to do my work as an analyst. It’s good enough that he provides an argument as far as it goes. I, however, am the one to find the blur in his argument and make visible what is there already and already missing. Once you have identified what is missing from the composite but was in the palimpsest being read off (no guarantees here), you have identified means to recast complex the issue in new (renewed) ways. Mazarr makes it easier for us by leaving traces for the blur in his critique, which is complicated by all manner of elections, pressure groups, ethnic communities, school curricular, degrees of public ownership, and that wonderful admixture, “and so on.”

I keep referencing “blur.” This is because blurring, rather than the conventional clarifying, turns out counterintuitively to be a powerful analytic optic with which to parse and rethink major policy. The productive “blurring” I have in mind has been a centerpiece in the photo-paintings of Gerhard Richter, the German painter. His reasons for blurring go to the heart of understanding policy palimpsests and composite arguments, like the failed states one. This entry ends with one such rescription based in the blurred and blurrable Bush Doctrine.

The role of blurring in Richter’s photo-paintings and its implications

Early in his career, Gerhard Richter copied photographs and enlarged them onto canvas as oil paintings and then mechanically blurred them (e.g., with a squeegee). Below are three of Richter’s famous photo-paintings from the 1960s incorporating the blurring effect (accessed online on November 19, 2019 from

Woman with an Umbrella (Frau mit Schirm), 1964, oil on canvas.         

Aunt Marianne (Tante Marianne), 1965, oil on canvas.

Uncle Rudi (Onkel Rudi), 1965, oil on canvas.

When I tell you that the original photographs for the paintings were of Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s funeral, Richter’s aunt who was sterilized and starved to death by the Nazis, and his uncle who fought for the Nazis and died in World War II, you appreciate that more is occurring in the photo-paintings than first meets the eye.

My proposition is that a Richter photograph versus his photo-painting made from it are much like an argument we say we directly draw from the evidence versus the composite argument that is assembled from the policy palimpsest.

The photo, as has often been reiterated, is (too) easily treated as veristic depiction. “A photograph does this more reliably and more credibly than any painting,” according to Richter; the photo “usually gets believed, even where it is technically faulty and the content is barely identifiable”. It’s hackneyed that photos come to us as literal, representing things as they are, an unvarnished mechanical record of mimetic fidelity rather than something like, say, what’s reflected in a puddle. “We believe that photographs reflect reality and that the information relayed by a photograph is much more precise and convincing than even the best drawing,” says Richter.

Such too was the aspiration of the mid-20th century policy and management sciences, where our arguments would correspond to reality far better than ever before. So too, little else seems quite as direct as the image of the burning towers for what has gone terribly wrong. Yet, while we aspired to photo-clear arguments in policy, analysis and image are true only as far as they go in a world reflected in and off of all its policy palimpsests.

Richter copied a photo onto a canvas because that is not what he ended up with in the painting. “As a painting, it changes both [the photo’s] meaning and its information content.” For “even when I paint a straightforward copy, something new creeps in, whether I want it to or not: something that even I don’t really grasp”. “I’ve never found anything to be lacking in a blurry canvas. Quite the contrary: you can see many more things in it than in a sharply focused image”.

Just how does the new creep in? By deliberate means, but with accidental and contingent effect. The blurring was achieved by wiping horizontally across the canvass so that no detail stood out and everything appeared in motion. “Factors like overexposure and lack of focus found their way in unintentionally, but then they had a decisive effect on the atmosphere of the pictures”.

–But to what decisive effect?

Now comes the key point: Contingency enters into play through blurring and posing emerging elements that you now have to think about further. Having produced new effects became the occasion for thinking about what they meant for the painting, and this “thinking more about” introduced objectivity directly into the thinking. Richter explains the link between contingency (what he calls chance) and the ensuing objectivity:

What part does chance play in your paintings?

An essential one, as it always has. There have been times when this has worried me a great deal, and I’ve seen this reliance on chance as a shortcoming on my part. . . .[But] I need it in order to carry on, in order to eradicate my mistakes, to destroy what I’ve worked out wrong, to introduce something different and disruptive. I’m often astonished to find how much better chance is than I am.

So this is the level on which openness is still thinkable and credible in real terms? Chance?

It introduces objectivity, so perhaps it’s no longer chance at all. But in the way it destroys and is simultaneously constructive, it creates something that of course I would have been glad to do and work out for myself.

If I understand Richter, transforming a photograph into a photo-painting and then mechanically blurring it became a way to render an image as if for the very first time: to become alert to a quite different object from that known in the photo and in contradistinction to those who take photos as the baseline for objectivity. Blurring pops the bubble of photo-clarity, etches away any monochrome facticity. Blur winkles out objectivity from a masquerading photo-clarity—shows photo-clarity to be at best an identikit—and takes objectivity farther than it had gone before. Blur, if you will, is the generosity of chance made objective.

Anyone who has tried to operationalize a project plan or blueprint knows just this sense in which its implementation produces something objectively real via the experience of contingency and surprise amped up by difficulty and learning, however hard-won.

Yet more is going on than creating something different and new, as separate objects of knowledge, for even after that the photo-painting and the originating photo continue to resonate and reverberate, like two tuning forks in sympathetic vibration next to each other. Primarily, the photo-painting defamiliarizes any “immediacy” the photo may have had. More subtly, each authenticates the other in a resonance that unmakes and remakes both, each rotating slightly as if to shed a new light.

When I wrote earlier that it was I who blurred Mazarr’s failed states argument, I am moving myself away from how I feel about the image of the burning twin towers. By treating the image as inevitably blurring and blurrable—the double exposure that is the image branded into the brain as well as what is occluded in the process and thereafter—I claw my way to a kind of an unfamiliar naïveté: In seeing things as if for the first time I obligate myself to evaluate the things I am now stuck with, including that which has now gone missing. “Audacious reflection wants to give thought what cautious reflection drove out of it— naïveté,” as Theodor Adorno phrased it.

The point is not that the photo-painting is a hazy, smudged, imperfect rendering of what is otherwise photo-clear. Photo-clarity is a kind of clarity, but it does not go far enough. Blur, in contrast, is the kind of clarity that brings to light the presence of contingency associated with photo-clarity as well as the new that emerges, and with both the loss of any immediacy that photo-clarity had. If simplicity, clarity and transparency are valued in storytelling, blur is the clarity needed to complicate that story about storytelling.

What does this all mean for the failed states argument?

So what if a composite argument juxtaposes words, phrases and statements from other documents and sources? So what if in the process a great deal has been effaced, erased or otherwise ignored in passing off this combined assemblage as an original or straightforward argument in and of itself?

My answer: To read or listen to a composite argument is to place its readers and listeners under the cognitive demands of evaluating that argument, particularly in terms of what has been rendered missing in order to be read off coherently for the purposes sought. The obligation is to resurface the blur. But—and here is the key moment of reflexivity—to evaluate a composite argument becomes its own occasion to blur that composite argument. This means there is enormous cognitive pressure to continue to overwrite the policy palimpsest with further interpretations and effacements. Where so, then analysts should be thinking more about that blurring ahead—a blurring that works against any single focus of any “single” composite argument—for the failed states argument.

To that end, I’d like to suggest that anyone keen on the failed states argument might be better off spending time in the distractions of thinking about how failed states are to be the source of 21st century democracies rather than fountainhead of failed or worse. I had been complaining about all those “except-Africa” narratives, where everything is said to work “except in Africa,” when Aaron Wildavsky, the political scientist, upbraided me: “Now, where do these critics think the next century’s democracies are going to come from?” Our current preoccupation with failed states falls short of that need to go further. Calling them failed states registers our own historical confusions and certainties about democracy and its changing practices.

–If I’m right, the challenge of analysis in a policy palimpsest world of always-revisable composite arguments is to be two steps ahead of any clear-cut argument and one-step ahead of any new composite argument inscribed back onto the palimpsest. Two steps ahead because major policy arguments cannot be that clear-cut, where the analyst must find the blur of what’s missing. One step ahead because inscription back onto the palimpsest is itself never diamond-sharp across a clean surface. Policy arguments that are urged on us, it bears repeating, because of their mathematical elegance, engineered simplicity, crystalline logical structure or ineluctable import are a perilous kind of knowledge. They only wink at complexity; they certainly are not to be found via a policy palimpsest.

This matters because any policy palimpsest offers up the prospect of recovering blur and the forgone prospects. Analysis in such a world is like fly-fishing, where the artificial fly cast onto the water’s surface is already hooked to what is out of sight for what seems not to be there.

Principal sources:

Mazarr, M. (2014). The rise and fall of the failed-state paradigm. Foreign Affairs (January/February): 113-121.

Richter, G. (2009). Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961 -2007. Eds., D. Elger and H. Ulrich Obrist, D.A.P. (Distributed Art Publishers): New York, NY.

Roe, E. (2019). Social Complexity, Crisis, and Management. In Oxford Encyclopedia of Crisis Analysis. Oxford University Press. Online Publication Date: Aug 2019.

Simmons, H. (1982). From Asylum to Welfare. National Institute on Mental Retardation: Ontario, Canada.

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