Hijab as Media

Creating Context

Hijab, the Arabic word for “curtain,” takes its original meaning from the root ح-ج-ب (h-j-b) “to veil, cover, screen, shelter, seclude” (Cowan 184). The first use of the word hijab in the Qur’an is in book 33, “The Joint Forces” (“Al-Ahzab”), verse (ayah) 53, which M.A.S. Abdel Haleem translates to,

When you ask his [the Prophet Muhammad’s] wives for something, do so from behind a screen [hijab]: this is purer both for your hearts and for theirs. (426)

An alternative translation may be read here, alongside the Arabic text.

Understood in this historical, theological context, the form of the hijab, if analyzed as a kind of media, would have been a partition and one message it would have conveyed would be that the women behind it were the wives of the Prophet Muhammad and therefore ineligible for marriage to any other man. These women were not just married to the Prophet Muhammad, they helped establish his connections with politically influential families as Islam took root in the Saudi Arabian peninsula.

From Curtain to Covering

The shift in the meaning of the hijab from “curtain” to the tradition of veiling or its particular form as a style of headscarf, as it is popularly understood today, would most likely not have occurred until after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. A timeline of Islamic history may be viewed here.

Islamic studies scholar Leila Ahmed argues in Women and Gender in Islam that the practice of Muslim women employing the hijab as a means of seclusion was unique to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad during and for a period after his lifetime (55). She writes,

It is not known how the customs spread to the rest of the community. The Muslim conquests of areas in which veiling was commonplace among the upper classes, the influx of wealth, the resultant raised status of Arabs, and Muhammad’s wives being taken as models probably combined to bring about their general adoption. (56)

As Islam spread outward from Saudi Arabia in the time after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, it changed. So, too, did the form and message of the hijab. Although it is unclear exactly when the transition from curtain to covering occurred, one can see the ways in which the tradition of veiling that would come to be known as hijab has manifested throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Continental Shifts

MuslimGirl produced “100 Years of Hijab Fashion in One Minute (MENA/Asia)” and “100 Years of Hijab Fashion (Africa Pt. 1),” viewable below. The videos demonstrate the ways in which the hijab has taken on different forms, as well as political and non-religious meanings, from 1910 up until the present.


In different places, at different times, the hijab has taken into its form a multiplicity of meanings.

The hijab can be

  • imposed upon a woman’s body by her government or her family,
  • practiced by a woman as an expression of religious belief and display of modesty,
  • taken off as a political statement against oppressive institutions, or
  • worn as a fashion statement.

None of these meanings are exclusive of one another and these examples are not exhaustive.

Further, the materials constituting the hijab or any of its particular forms (such as the abaya, burqa, chador, hijab, or niqab) reflect the localities in which they are both produced and worn. In the United States, one can see the hijab in its multiplicity of forms among groups of refugees, immigrants, and citizens, such that it cannot be used to distinguish one group from the others. As a medium, it cannot convey or confer citizenship.

However, the hijab can signal change over time, as Muslim women in the United States might choose to veil or choose not to veil in response to personal, local, national, or international events. The hijab is also part of an ongoing conversation taking place within Muslim communities. For example, in the summer of 2017, model Halima Aden appeared on the cover of Allure magazine wearing a Nike brand hijab, which, while celebrated in some circles, has also encouraged intra-community discussion over the commodification of Islamic culture in the Western world.

The hijab makes Muslim women who choose to veil one of the most visible representations of their faith. The forms and meanings of the veil are as different as the women that give them form and meaning, whether or not they choose to wear the hijab, and the contexts in which they do so. As a kind of media, the hijab stores, in its form, and disseminates, through its meanings, information.

– Adrienne Resha

Works Cited

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. Yale University Press, 1992.

“حجب hajaba.” The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Edited by JM Cowan, Spoken Language Services, Inc., 1994.

Haleem, M.A.S. Abdel. The Qur’an: English Translation and Parallel Arabic Text. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Black Hair, Black Voice

“The men noticed…the great rope of black hair swinging to [Janie’s] waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume…”

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (2) 

Hair is a critical component of culture in the African Diaspora. It was always more than a mass that grew on my head, but a symbol of community. Hair styling at home often required me to sit between my mother’s knees as she pulled a comb through my kinks; styling at the salon meant observing as my mother engaged in gossip with the other ladies, found out about the latest church event, and reunited with long lost cousins. The salon and the relationships forged in the process of hair styling are in their own rite vehicles of communication– displaying love and kinship– but the hair itself has always held meaning.

Ayana Bird and Lori Tharps said it best when they explained that hair, in Black Culture, is a vehicle of communication, “a carrier of messages.” Going back as far as the 1400s, Bird and Tharps explain that Black hair has always stored, displayed and disseminated information. Particular geometric patterns of cornrows on the head or other types of braids often indicated “marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank.” Braided styles, after completed, were not fleeting—they were often worn for days, even weeks afterwards. The ability to indicate, for example, marital status, could be observed on an individual woman for days at a time. Some patterns could even indicate which family a woman belonged to, which offers an instance of displaying familial pride with one’s hair. It would even be rumored that enslaved Afro-Columbians used certain patterns of braiding as maps to freedom.

Angela Davis sporting a Black Power afro

More recently, Black hair became a political statement. William Van Deburg discusses the budding Black Power Movement in Day in Babylon, stating that “during the late sixties, white American youth used their hair to make a variety of political and philosophical statements. Young blacks were not excluded from this trend.” (198) In 1966, Stokely Carmichael, in his speeches, as he urged audiences toward Black Power, a concept which centered around self-determination for Black people, he would also contribute to the Black is Beautiful movement, stating that “a broad nose, a thick lip and nappy hair is us [Black people] and we are going to call that beautiful whether they like it or not.” (201) This plea for Black people to love themselves as they were would help popularize the Afro, as well as other natural hair styles. In the midst of Black Power, natural hair styles would symbolize a commitment to unapologetic Blackness and “a statement of self-love and personal significance.” (Van DeBurg, 201) It came to indicate a break with white hegemonic cultural norms and thus an embracement of Black culture.

In 2017, statements about one’s political life can also be displayed through one’s hair. For women, in particular, it is becoming increasingly rare to find a young Black woman who regularly relaxes her hair. It seems only fair to note that as Afros and natural hair increased in popularity during the Black Power Movement, natural hair today appears to be making a comeback parallel to the development of #BlackLivesMatter. The debates around today hair sound familiar: one side argues that to chemically straighten one’s hair communicates an accommodation of white supremacy, the other argues that natural hair is just a trend– an empty symbol with no meaning. While it is possible that this moment may very well be “trendy,” it is a trend that is rooted in a legacy of politicized Black hair. It is entirely possible that it is a fad, but there is something inexplicably liberating about cutting off your relaxed hair. Freeing my hair helped me communicate the pride I felt as a Black person—it was the most basic form of self-expression and self-love as my kinks communicated to the world that I had no desire to conform to white American standards of beauty.

Beyonce and her ‘Formation’ backup dancers, sporting afros

It meant something in 1966 when Stokely Carmichael called for Black people to embrace their beauty. That same message of self-love by embracing their natural hair is still heard today—just turn to the Knowles sisters, Beyoncé and Solange, who both sung of the magic of Black hair on their 2016 albums while wearing natural hair styles themselves, or else featuring women with natural hair in their music videos. Solange’s song in particular, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” particularly resonated with Black women as they recognized that their hair was political, historical, and extraordinarily valuable because of all that it was—at the bare minimum an expression of self, an assertion of personhood, and a freedom to love of one’s own body.

“Don’t Touch My Hair” x Solange


Don’t touch my hair

When it’s the feelings I wear

Don’t touch my soul

When it’s the rhythm I know

Don’t touch my crown

They say the vision I’ve found

Don’t touch what’s there

When it’s the feelings I wear


They don’t understand what it means to me



Works Cited

“Afro-Colombian women braid messages of freedom in hairstyles,” DeNeen Brown

Hair Story: Understanding the Roots of Black Hair in America, Ayana Bird &Lori Tharps

New Day in Babylon, William L. Van Deburg


Gravestones as Media

You’ll find them in every American town, large or small. Sometimes they’ll be conspicuous, sitting prominently behind the church in the middle of a country village. Other times they’ll be out of the way, obscured by trees or the growth of the city around them. They are rarely visited; in fact almost the only time people visit them is when they are first put up, when someone passes away. They are a sad sight, and sometimes a scary sight – the background setting for ghost stories and zombie attacks – but they serve a purpose. They mark the dead, and leave a notice of their former life. Gravestones are an “extension of ourselves” as McLuhan put it in Understanding Media – not only of the person who has died, but of the people and the societies who bury and memorialize them.

The “classic” gravestone is made out of sandstone, although now granite is more common – and you can spot a pricey one not just by its size and shape but also by its material, with expensive marble replacing commoner and cheaper alternatives. Sandstone fades slowly over time, a physical representation of the fading memories the community has for its older dead. When it comes to their graves at least, the dead do have an age. The writing on the older ones has often almost completely disappeared, leaving their names and dates indecipherable. Newer ones are regularly cleaned, and quite shiny – with flowers and pictures sometimes left by the living relatives. Keeping graves clean is a business, usually called “grave care” or “grave maintenance”. And it is also charity work. In New Orleans, the group “Save Our Cemeteries” is trying to restore some of the many famous historical burial sites in the city. But fame and notoriety are not enough to save a graveyard. Paris’s Montmartre cemetery may be well known, but it is still full of crumbling and crushed headstones. The physical construction of a grave tells us about the affluence and prominence of the person being buried, and the physical upkeep of that grave tells us about their continued prominence – or sometimes lack thereof.

Speaking of prominence, the graves of the famous often serve as a sort of exception to the rule – as a spectacle, spots of regular gathering and visitation, in what is otherwise a place of mourning. To return to Paris, the singer Jim Morrison rests at the Père Lachaise Cemetery and his grave continues to attract crowds. Indeed, that cemetery is unique in that it is a big tourist attraction, which millions visit annually. Of course, there is a similar case in the US – that of Arlington National Cemetery, where many of the nation’s war dead are buried. The rows of plain white headstones that line not only Arlington but more than a hundred military cemeteries both at home and abroad hold a special significance. Their owners died in uniform, and are buried uniformly. And that uniformity, coupled with their number, immediately brings to mind the immense costs of war. But not every soldier has a gravestone, and the absence of one can often say as much as its presence. The age of the machine gun, the bomb, and the tank brought the death and destruction of warfare to a previously unimaginable scale. Among the millions of dead in the First World War, there were many rendered unidentifiable by these new technologies – blown to bits by artillery, or gunned down in a fruitless mass charge. They could not be remembered in a traditional sense, their mangled and unrecognizable bodies lying in a foreign land – their death could be roughly dated, but they could not be named. So the British government created the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior to serve as a site of collective, rather than personal, remembrance (although it is quite literally a grave, or rather series of graves, with actual remains buried below) – and nations around the world soon followed suit.

Regimes of mass murder did away with the gravestone entirely. The Nazi government cremated its victims, or more specifically, made its victims (organized in units of “Sonderkommandos”) cremate each other. The Soviet government supplied generous amounts of liquor to its camp guards before ordering them to bulldoze over and bury unmarked the frozen dead of its Gulag system, in order to make the grisly task bearable. These people were rendered inhuman in life, excluded from that category by totalitarian governments, and they were rendered inhuman in death – excluded from the signification of humanity, of remembered humanity, which a gravestone provides. To these regimes, they were meant to be forgotten. On that note, there’s the curious case of the Bergfriedhof cemetery in Heidelberg, Germany. Like the society that created it, Bergfriedhof was strictly divided by religion – with Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish sections. Many of its gravestones share a certain similarity, namely, their death dates. The first half of the 1940s is heavily over-represented for every faith, for completely understandable reasons. And yet though the dates are similar, and though the deaths occurred under the auspices of the same conflict, the gravestones marked with a Jewish star differ both stylistically and temporally. That is, many of the Jewish gravestones were actually constructed well after the war by charity groups, the person’s physical corpse having been burnt to ashes in one of the crematoriums of the death camps, and their family being unable for obvious reasons to memorialize them. In one corner of the cemetery, across the way from the victims of the Holocaust, there is a gravestone, heavily covered in ivy but otherwise unremarkable, that reads “Albert Speer” – the Nazi war criminal known for being Hitler’s favorite architect and as the wartime Minister of Armaments. The phrase “Never Forget” takes on a strangely dichotomous meaning at Bergfriedhof – victims and war criminals are both marked by rectangular stones labeled with names and dates in the midst of the same tree-laden field, both never to be forgotten for very different reasons.

Class or Crass? The Not-So-Hidden Message of Fedoras

From Polyvore

Pink Fedora (From Polyvore.com)

The fedora has come a long way in the past century. Earlier versions of the fedora in the twentieth century were a fashionable and practical choice for men and women, but the fedora eventually fell out of style alongside most other hats in America in the 1960s. By the 1980s, however, the fedora was the choice hat for pop culture icons like Michael Jackson and Indiana Jones. In the twenty-first century however, the fedora is no longer the hat of just music legends and action heroes.

Marshall McLuhan conceptualized clothing as a direct extension of the skin. In other words, clothing, he argued, was a medium. Our sartorial choices convey certain meanings and messages, regardless of our intentions. If the fedora is an extension of the body, then what does it communicate?

Before moving forward, I must acknowledge the difference between the fedora and its cousin, the trilby. David Colman at The New York Times notes that the trilby has a narrower brim than the fedora, but ultimately these trilby hats are just another version of the fedora. While more astute viewers can distinguish the trilby from the conventional fedora, the online dialogue regarding these hats typically uses ‘fedora’ as a catch-all term.

Although a fedora does not actually ‘store’ information like a book or computer does, the hat does carry a heavy reputation in this decade. In her 2012 essay, “Why the fedora grosses out geekdom,” Leigh Alexander explains that bloggers are noticing a correlation between men wearing fedoras in their online profile pictures and having questionable content in their bios. According to “Forever Alone Fedoras,” one of the Tumblr blogs that Alexander profiles, “a fedora speaks volumes about one’s character. It implies that he is a basement dwelling, live action role playing, no social skills having, complete and utter geek in the worst sense of the word.” If the fedora is the medium, then its message is that this is the hat of an awkward and unlikeable person.

How did the fedora get this negative reputation? Ben Abraham attributes this image to the work of pick-up-artists, or PUAs. Abraham writes, “The quintessential image of the PUA is the swaggering, middle-class white, often geeky male, between 18 and 30, who imitates the dress code and flair of a pimp.” In the mind of these pick-up-artists, the hat is a memorable prop that will entice women into a sexual relationship. According to Abraham, these anti-Fedora blogs are a “challenge to the construction of the fedora as ‘cool’ or ‘suave’, and an attempt to shame those who wear them.” The politics of fedora culture and ‘fedora-shaming’ are for another day, but the fact that these mentalities exist and thrive online demonstrates how Internet users have reinterpreted how the fedora stores and displays information. For the wannabe pick-up-artist, the hat displays a sense of class to women, but for many of these women (and some men, as we’ll see in a moment) the hat carries too much of a connection to men who are desperate to sleep with a woman by any means necessary.

For more evidence on how the fedora stores information, look no further than Reddit – home to both critics and fans of the controversial hat. One subreddit, r/justneckbeardthings, reveals how fedoras store information within an online community. Users on r/justneckbeardthings, which currently has more than 258,000 subscribers as of October 2017, discuss instances of fedoras popping up in digital and non-digital spaces worldwide. Oddly enough, the fedora does not even need to be on a person’s head to convey a message. The subreddit’s header is a picture of a fedora hanging off a sign reading “Fedorah” while tiny fedoras replace the traditional upvote/downvote arrows. Users repeatedly mock the phrase “m’lady,” – an expression associated with pick-up-artists in which they tip their fedora to a woman before making an advance on her. The phrase is so ubiquitous on the subreddit that the image of a fedora by itself is enough to warrant a “m’lady” caption. The fedora carries not only the reputation of pick-up-artists, but their phrases and mannerisms as well.

While the fedora has cemented its place in American popular culture, its current reputation in online circles demonstrates how the hat’s meaning is held not in the wearer, but in the hat itself. If simply looking at the hat is enough to cue the viewer to stay away from the wearer, then McLuhan’s argument that the medium is the message must apply to fedoras. So for anyone looking for a new hat, you might want to think twice before choosing the hat with a rather unpopular message.

Works Cited

Abraham, Ben. “Fedora Shaming as Discursive Activism.” Digital Culture & Education. (2013). http://www.digitalcultureandeducation.com/uncategorized/abraham_html/

Alexander, Leigh. ‘Why the fedora grosses out geekdom’. Boing Boing (2012). http://boingboing.net/2012/10/02/why-the-fedora-grosses-out-gee.html

Colman, David. “Old Hat? Not on a Young Head.” The New York Times. January 18, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/18/fashion/18CODES.html

“Just Neckbeard Things.” Reddit.com. https://www.reddit.com/r/justneckbeardthings/. Accessed October 1, 2017.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man; Edited by W. Terrence Gordon. New York, Gingko Press, 2013.

The Hanky Code as Queer Male Semiotic, or, The Immanent Contradiction of the Medium

In June 2017, queer artist and activist Andy Simmons completed the first of twelve color illustrations exploring the imagistic history of the Hanky Code, a sartorially driven, discreet coding system used by queer men to express sexual desire.

In June 2017, queer artist and activist Andy Simmons completed the first of twelve color illustrations exploring the imagistic history of the Hanky Code, a sartorially driven, discreet coding system used by queer men to express sexual desire.

In the decade bookended by the Stonewall riots and the advent of HIV/AIDS, urban queer male culture experienced rhizomatic transformation. The heady rush of political praxis immediately following 1969 left its intoxicating watermark on the economies of pleasure and desire queer men nourished from San Francisco to New York City.

It would be misleading, of course, to suggest that the first legible crystallization of urban queer male culture materialized in the 1970s. The vibrant cultural ecologies of the post-Stonewall moment were shaped by the multiplicity of queer male social and sexual histories, the coalescence of which sometimes resulted in the adoption of nuanced methods of sexual communication—like the hanky code, known also as the handkerchief code, the banana code, or flagging.

On the Hanky Code as Queer Male Semiotic

The 1970s hanky code, as described by American sociologist and historian Cindy Patton, generated meaning through the “semiotic use of bandanas of different colors,” the selection of which expressed interest particular modes of sexual practice. In terms of practice, an individual would place a handkerchief in one of his back pockets; when read alongside the handkerchief’s colors and patterning, the placement of the handkerchief in either the right or left pocket revealed the wearer’s sexual interests. The conceptual yoking of the handkerchief to sexual expression transformed the sartorial medium into a sexual text—exclamatory to those already versed in its coding schema, inconspicuous to those unaware of its signifying labor.

Despite the hanky code’s novelty and likely importance within spaces inimical to queer sexual expression, its emphasized substitution of articulated sexual particularity for more universal and universalizing signifiers necessarily flattens the nuanced economies of desire out of which the code arose. This hollowing of sexual difference, inadvertently effected by the creation of a system meant to augment sexual possibility, underscores the shifting potentials immanent to a critical concept of the medium.

One might consider, for example, the notional incongruities within Hal Fischer’s analysis of the hanky code as a paradigm of gay semiotics. In the following statement, Fischer highlights the imaginative variability of queer male desire and the correlative complexity of any signifying system operating to capture the nuances of that desire:

The gay semiotic is far more sophisticated than straight sign language, because in gay culture, roles are not as clearly defined. . . . Gays have many more sexual possibilities than straight people and therefore need a more intricate communication system.

Having established the relative depth of the queer male sexual imaginary, Fischer then proffers his descriptive account of the handkerchief qua gay semiotic, which, rather discordantly, unfolds in a language of monolithic absolutism and an almost transcendent stasis:

In the gay semiotic the body is divided into sides, the left representing the aggressive, the right the passive. Any sign placed on the left side indicates that the wearer will always take an active role during sexual activity. Conversely, a sign on the right side of the body indicates passive behavior.

Of interest here, in addition to Fischer’s situating queer sexual possibility as both a repository of difference and a chamber of sameness, is the reversal of the binaristic associations between passive/aggressive and left/right. Although Fischer’s subsequent capitulation that handkerchiefs may ultimately be “ambivalent signifiers because many individuals prefer to pick their roles after they pick their partners” only results in further equivocation, I would like to contend that the slippage visible within Fischer’s analysis illuminates an important aspect of the handkerchief as a medium and the hanky code as a mediated system of sexual communication.

The Immanent Contradiction of the Medium qua Signifier

My purpose in mentioning the specifics of Fisher’s analysis is not to critically glorify the presence of inconsistencies but rather to marshal those inconsistencies as evidence of the signifying medium’s inevitable potential for contradiction, confusion, and communicative failure.

In the version of the hanky code considered authoritative (likely because it is an aggressively distilled taxonomy and thus one more easily employed), the color-categories available for selection simultaneously seem to include so much as to bleed into one another and to remain so disparate as to confound any suggestion that the “hanky code” was used by any homogenized sexual culture (i.e., queer men). Because the handkerchief communicates not only an interest in certain sexual practices but also the “role” one prefers in the realization of those sexual practices, it is difficult to determine whether it was realistically possible to adhere to the code’s demarcations.

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 9.39.43 PM

I would provisionally suggest that the emancipatory potential of the hanky code—its covert communication of vilified sexual desire—is limited by and also serves as a limit point of the capacity of any medium qua signifier to flatten difference. Placing a handkerchief in one’s back pocket as an urban queer male living in the 1970s revealed to potential partners the possibility of sexual pleasure in myriad forms; however, in its display and dissemination of this information, the handkerchief ossified queer male libidinal economies by sedimenting reductive binaries onto queer male sexualities. Insofar as the “information” expressed by the handkerchief dealt in heteronormative sexual scripts, the hanky code mobilized a medium that broadened the discursive reach of male queerness without unmooring the heterosexualization to which non-normative sexualities are relentlessly exposed.

Holocaust Shoe Piles as Oppressive Media

And so I persevered. And trusted the silence that envelops and transcends words. Knowing all the while that any one of the fields of ashes in Birkenau carries more weight than all the testimonies about Birkenau.

Wiesel, Elie. Night (Night Trilogy), Preface

Holocaust Shoe Piles as Oppressive Media 

Images of shoe piles in concentration camps have become, in some contexts, a symbol of Holocaust remembrance. Alongside burning candles, calls to “never forget,” and the rattling sounds of cattle cars, shoes have a stronghold in Holocaust memorializing. As representations of the unnamed dead, empty shoes have had multivalent and historically situated meanings; In the present day, the Washington D.C. and Auschwitz Holocaust memorial sites reenact the concentration camp shoe piles in order to evoke an unintelligible sense of loss.

In the camps, the shoe piles had multiple meanings as well. For Nazis, the shoe piles acted as a visual representation of the success of their final solution. Every pile and overstocked warehouse represented a death toll; each pair of shoes represented a captured or murdered body. Left on display the in camps, shoe piles disempowered and threatened those imprisoned within. People in the camp saw overwhelming, ever-growing piles of shoes that emphasized their mortality. Tall enough for large swaths of prisoners to see, the overbearing piles of shoes spread the threatening message through the camp. Jews, Romani, disabled people, homosexuals and others were made aware of their inferiority and inhumanity in the eyes of the Nazi regime.

Aufräumungskommando Spiritual, Emotional, and Economic Labor

As representations of the dead, Holocaust shoe piles have threatened and emboldened those who encounter them. Marshall McLuhan describes clothing as “an extension of our skin [which] helps to store and channel energy” (McLuhan 119). Piles of shoes confiscated from the captured and the dead carried, and still carry with them, the essence of a body that is no longer there. Ambiguous souls occupy the shoes that were collected, sorted and displayed by camp prisoners. The above image, “Aufräumungskommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau Sort Through Shoes Confiscated from Hungarian Jews” demonstrates the emotional, spiritual and energetic work that Nazis subjected camp prisoners to (Note: this image was taken from the “Auschwitz Album” which included within it, among other things, images of the Aufräumungskommando of Auschwitz, a group of primarily Jewish order commandos).

The fresh shoe pile is taller than the Aufräumungskommando sorting through it and too long to fit entirely into the image. As it towers over them, the shoe pile contains within it the heavy story of Hungarian Jews who were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. But also, the Aufräumungskommando had to touch each pair and sort them into piles based on their monetary value. The bodies that would be gassed, burned, and overworked to support the Third Reich would continue to possess economic value for the regime. When prisoners’ bodies were gone, their shoes would be traded and sold in complex sales networks. Eventually, the shoes would be removed so far away from the camps that the aura of the person who wore them would disappear. As the Aufräumungskommando worked, they were forced to separate the essence from the shoe, the object from the person. And as the Nazi’s intended, the bodies would be forgotten.


Piles. Images from the Holocaust consist of piles: piles of glasses, piles of suitcases, piles of hairbrushes, of teeth with gold fillings, of jewelry, of bodies, of ashes…of shoes. All of the piles reflect the absence of bodies. While each of these collections holds deep meaning, piles of shoes have a weighty aura of the people who wore them. The breadth of genocidal rage and the rise of Nazi power can be sensed in those piles. But the meaning has also been flipped by descendants who have transformed them from architectures of power to metaphorical gravesites. Regardless of their application, the piles of shoes from concentration camps contain a sense of the dead and spread the affective horror of the Holocaust.

-Ari Weinberg


Works Cited

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The MIT Press, 1994.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill and Wang, 1972.

The above shoe pile images were all taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website: