May 15, 2004



(picture stolen from the good people at freeway blogger)

In an online discussion for a class I TA for (Documentary as Social Practice) the very smart and very well spoken professor (Elizabeth Ellsworth) interjected, on the subject of the Iraqi prison/torture photographs:

"that [these] images […] exceed the representational and become performative--eventful in themselves--in a number of ways. They seem to implicate "us" in the events that they both refer to and in some cases actually constitute (as when people are killed on camera at least in part for the reason of creating an image). They implicate us as witnesses, and to the extent that the present moment is contemporaneous with [them] (they are not yet "historical images") we are implicated as social actors who can literally "do something" about the events surrounding the images. "

Which spurned my response;

I think this line of reasoning is the first that I have found which allows me to begin to wrap my head around this images in such as way as to allow me to move beyond the sheer horror/disgust/etc I feel when looking at them. I do question the manner that they have been isolated (esp. by the media) and decontextualized from the other horrors that have taken place in Iraq (the death of civilians etc) and elsewhere.

In his book Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, & Contemporary American Culture David Savran, referring to the master/slave dynamics in the work of (1960’s avant-garde theatre group) The Living Theatre, writes of “the psychological power of neocolonialism to produce particular kinds of (unconscious) desires” in American life. Savran goes on to argue that when (individuals or societies) become conscious of these desires and the actions that result from them they will disavow them, however they will fail to realize/change the underlying base upon which these superstructures rested.

It seems to me that the photographed horrors in Iraq are evidence of an unconscious desire by both the American public and the military to de-humanize the Other in the service of post-colonial goals. While the press now decries the pictures and the public and military both distance themselves from what took place, this sort of dehumanizing treatment is in many ways a result of the language/ideology that have been employed to facilitate this unjust war in the first place; terrorists, murders, fanatics, insurgents, fundamentalists, die-hards etc. The use of these terms, in justification and explanation for the war and its aftermath, so excessively otherize the people of Iraq that the evil which took place in the prison seem, to my (admittedly jaded) mind, un-surprising.

The media and government have, through the use of language and images, made it nearly impossible for the public to enact any sense of relationality to the people and events of Iraq that is not fundamentally neocolonial and violent in its structure. This structure created an unconscious desire on the part of a largely uncritical American public to see horrors such as these committed. Once the materialized form of those desires became actualized the public became (rightly) horrified, not at the structures and desires that allowed these events to take place but at the events themselves.

Furthermore the outrage in the press coverage of these images, however genuine on an individual level, seems to displace the images from the act of “making-war” itself. By treating these actions as isolated from the “norm” of war, by making them seem as if they are transgressive acts in the performance of war I believe we are in danger of implicitly signing off on the less documentable horrors of all war and all violence

Posted by thickeye at May 15, 2004 09:55 PM