Two Image Futures

I want to consider two images that will help us trace what Jacques Ranciere has called the “odyssey from the Aurorean glory of Lascaux’s paintings to the contemporary twilight of a reality devoured by media images and an art doomed to monitors and synthetic images.” (1) And for the sake of consistency in subject matter, I want to follow this as an animal trail which begins with the familiar bisons and horses of Lascaux, and ends with a futuristic image of a futuristic animal, a digital dinosaur from the film Jurassic Park. You will probably want to ask why the long journey of the image from the deep, primeval past to the contemporary moment of virtual, imaginary futures should be exemplified, not by the “image of man,” the human fabricator and implied beholder of these images, but by images of animals? What is it about animal images that provides a clue to the entire odyssey of the image, and allows us to glimpse the future of the image?


Before I address this question, I want to consider the situations of the images themselves. Among the many speculations about the function of the Lascaux images is the notion that they were something like a ritualistic “teaching machine” in which a kind of Platonic cinema was being staged prior to the hunt, in order to familiarize the hunters with their prey, producing a virtual rehearsal that would, by a kind of iconic, homeopathic magic, ensure the success of the hunt. (2) No doubt the smokey atmosphere and the ingestion of appropriate stimulants would help to heighten the hallucinogenic, dream-like atmosphere of the cave, which becomes a place for using images to project and control an immediate and possible future. Similarly, the scene in Jurassic Park is in the control room of the park, which has just been invaded by a real, not imaginary velociraptor that has accidentally turned on the film projector showing the park’s orientation film. The raptor is caught in the projector beam at the moment when the film is showing the DNA sequence that made it possible to clone a real live dinosaur from its fossil remains.  If we imagined a real bison galloping into the caves of Lascaux and threatening to trample the stoned-out hunters, we would have a Paleolithic version of the effect produced in the projection room of Jurassic Park.


Consider these two images, then, as an allegory of the beginning and end of the odyssey of the image. They exemplify many of our common assumptions about the past and future of this narrative, moving from hand-painted, primitive likenesses that still “suffice to stand in” for the objects they represent, to a highly technical object, a product of high speed computing and genetic engineering that is then represented filmically by the latest development in the cinematic image, namely digital animation.  Many more contrasts could be elaborated:  the image of primitive magic with the technoscientific artifact; the mythic ritual of the deep past and the science fiction narrative of a possible future; the beast to be pursued in the wild, with the cloned organism to be produced as a theme park attraction.  And yet the longer we contemplate these two images, the more evident it becomes that the binary oppositions between past and future, nature and technology, wild and domesticated, hunting and zookeeping, will not stand up to scrutiny.  Both images are technical productions, located in cinematic “control rooms”; both are present objects of consumption to be “captured” by their images.  Most interesting is the temporal inversion that the two images demand. The image that stands for the past in this pairing turns out to be much younger than the image that represents the future.  The digital dinosaur is not, like the Paleolithic bison, an actually existing animal in the present; it is a purely science-fictive creature, a living, fleshly re-animation of an animal that existed on this planet long before the bisons or the primitive artists who painted their images.  In this sense, our futuristic animal, if not its image is much more ancient than the animals of Lascaux.  Perhaps the only contrast, then, that really stands up to deconstruction is the most literal natural fact about the objects represented by these images:  Lascaux is about herbivores, and Jurassic Park features its carnivores as the main attraction.  The positions of predator and prey have been reversed.  In the primitive image, it is we who hope to kill the wild object represented; in the contemporary, futuristic image, the artificial object we have created has gone wild and threatens to kill us.



(1) Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (New York: Verson, 2007), 1.

(2) Bertram Lewin, The Image and the Past (New York: International Universities Press, 1968).




Bruegel's Opacity

How does the current interest in the “presence” of the object fit within the study of the visual? Art history, a discipline more interested in the historical location of pictures rather than their continuing activity in the present, often acts to define and freeze images in time. How can we let them breathe in order to recognize their power over us in the present? Is there an alternative to iconographic and iconological analyses that might offer something new to an understanding of Bruegel’s paintings. “Bruegel’s Opacity” is meant to call attention to the way in which his paradoxical pictures resist interpretation while at the same time demanding that we make “meaning” from them.

Can we walk the tightrope of the distinction between our relation to the object as an object, our phenomenological response to its material existence, and the desire to give it significance--including that which it may never have had? Or, must we accept that this distinction is a heuristic tool that often blinds us both to the nature of the encounter and to the quality of the interpretations we place on it? Can we escape Michael Baxandall’s conclusion that: “… what one offers in a description is a representation of thinking about a picture more than a representation of a picture (?)”

In the painting, “The Triumph of Death” (Madrid, Prado, ca.1562) for example, representatives of various classes and occupations of the social hierarchy fill the foreground. From kings and cardinals to aristocrats and pilgrims, they have little to do with the landscape represented behind. In fact, they register as outlined shapes on the surface of the painting regardless of their location in illusionistic space. Bruegel has little recourse to foreshortening, and his actors tend either to be depicted in profile or seen from above so that their actions may more readily be recognized. The absence of perspective plunges us into a wealth of incidents that would escape perception if the principles of either linear of atmospheric perspective had been observed. Our gaze travels the picture surface looking in vain for stasis, for there is no focal point. The picture tells us how to look, or perhaps how not to look, insisting that multiplicity and difference are more important than a single act of comprehension. No one major event or figure offers us the key to the painting’s meaning. The work itself insists on a restless movement during which incident upon incident develop in richly terrifying detail ways the manifold dimensions of the concept of death.

Does this description actually make contact with the picture before us? Does ekphrasis bring the work closer or simply push it further away? Is it any more informative than what the iconographers attempted? Gottfried Boehm refers to what he calls the underside of painting, the fact that it works only by concealing the invisible within the visible. This approach seems relevant to our problem. Citing Husserl he writes:

His conclusive argument postulates namely that the visible front and the invisible back [of an image] categorically and totally diverge from one another and belong to completely different classes. The front of something is always thematic, that is to say that it is grasped in the act of focusing; the back is never thematic, but rather implicit and therefore potential. (1)

My brief description of Bruegel’s painting has focused on what Boehm would call the “thematic.” I have followed the artist’s invitation to “read” the work as its illusionism demands, but I have also been acutely aware of the limits placed on the meaning created by this process in the medium of the visible--what Boehm calls the “potential.” Is the translation of the potential into the thematic all that ekphrasis does; is it both its enduring contribution and its fatal curse? As description attempts to bring the image to life before our eyes, it seems to blinds us, substituting a text for the image and an author for the artist.

Scholars have taken Bruegel’s works apart, objectifying their experience of them to the best of their ability, in the effort to stabilize their conclusions as part of an enduring epistemological system. The “transparency” achieved by these means, in which time is equated with intelligibility and insight with the semiotic, must ignore the “opacity” of visual objects. Belonging to a historical moment that is long gone, these pictures are still with us today, and an encounter with them cannot ignore the contemporaneity of the experience. Confronting the painting as an object, what Heidegger might have called a “thing”--something that has significance for somebody--is crucial for the development of intimacy and the establishment of a bond. (2) Even if the nature of the experience is constituted in retrospect, with the aid of memory, its immediacy, that which took us by surprise--that which cannot be translated into words--will figure in the account, if only by indirection.  

Some words in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis that might help. Lacan speaks of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological project of putting the eye back in touch with the mind. Referring to Cezanne he asks: “…what occurs as these strokes, which go to make up the miracle of the picture, fall like rain from the painter’s brush is not choice, but something else. Can we not try to formulate what that something else is?” (3) In this talk I have tried to encourage the pictorial rain to keep falling, resisting the interpretive urge to freeze the visuality of Bruegel’s paintings into yet another triumphant declaration of iconographic meaning. Difficult as it is to keep the visual specificity of this art alive and working free from the ice that clings to words predicated on the promise of transparency, I have tried to restore a certain opacity to Bruegel’s art.


(1) Gottfried Boehm, "Indeterminacy: On the Logic of the Image," www.imagehistory.org/texts/2008/3-2-Boehm.pdf, 6.

(2) Martin Heidegger, "The Thing," Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 2001), 163-180.

(3) Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton,  1981), 114.





Notes on Seeing



To look and not see: an old problem. It usually means a lack of understanding, an inability to divine the meaning of something in the world around us.



Cognitive scientists have repeatedly conducted the following experiment and, without fail, they come up with same results. An audience is asked to watch a film of two teams playing basketball. They are given a job to count the number of times the ball changes hands. I have done this, and one has to be very attentive to follow the motion of the ball. In the middle of the game, a man wearing a gorilla suit walks onto the court, turns to the camera, thumps his chest and leaves. Half the people do not see the great ape. They do not believe that he was actually there until the film is replayed and, indeed, a gorilla strolls in and out of the game. Nearly everyone sees the gorilla if he is not given the assignment. This has been named inattentional blindness.



Writing at my desk now, I see the screen but this sentence dominates my attention. In fact, my momentary awareness that there is much around the words distracts me: the blue screen of the computer beyond the white edge of the page; various icons above and below; the surface of my desk cluttered with small Post-it squares which, when I turn my head, I can read, “Habermas 254-55”, “Meany et. al, implications for andrenocortical responses to stress” scrawled on pink paper (residue of arcane research); a black stapler; and countless other objects that enter my awareness the moment I turn to them. What is crucial is that I don’t turn to them. For hours every day, I have little, if any, consciousness of them. I live in a circumscribed phenomenal world. An internal narrator speaks words and dictates to my fingers that type automatically. There is no need to think about the connection between head and hands. I am subsumed by the link. Were another object suddenly to materialize on my desk and then vanish, I might well have no knowledge of either its appearance or disappearance.



Once, in an unfamiliar hallway, I mistook myself for a stranger because I did not understand I was looking in a mirror. My own form took me by surprise because I was not oriented in space. Expectation is powerful.



There are days when I think I see an old friend in the street, but it is a stranger. The recognition ignites like a match and then is instantly extinguished when I understand I am wrong. The recognition is felt, not thought. I can’t trace what created the error, can’t tell you why one person reminded me of another.  Was the old friend a subliminal presence in my mind on that particular day or was the confusion purely external—a jut of the chin or slope of the shoulders or rhythm of a walk? 



We do not become anesthetized to horrible photographs of death or suffering. We may choose to avoid them. When I see a gruesome image in the newspaper in the morning, I sometimes turn away, registering in seconds that looking too long will hurt me. People who gorge on horror films and violent thrillers do it, not because they have learned to feel too little, but because they indulge in the limbic rush that floods their systems as they safely witness exploding bodies. It seems that these viewers are mostly men.



We feel colors before we can name them.  Colors act on us pre-reflectively. A part of me feels red before I can name red. My cognitive faculties lag behind the color’s impact. Standing in a room my eyes go first to the vase of red tulips because they are red and because they are alive. 



My mother once told me about coming home to find our cat dead on the lawn. She saw the poor animal from many yards away, but she said she knew with absolute assurance that it was dead. An inert thing. An it.



Photographs of the beloved dead draw me in. I am fascinated. There is the good, dear face, one that changed over time.  It is the picture that preserves the face, not my memory, which is befogged by the many faces he had over the years. Or is it the single face that grew old?  Sometimes I cannot bear to look. The image has become a token of grief. And yet, there is nothing so banal as the pictures of strange families.  After my father died, I found Christmas cards with photographs of unknown people among his papers—happy families—grinning into an invisible lens. I threw them away.



Galvanic skin response registers a change in the heat and electricity passed through the skin by nerves and sweat during emotional states.  People in white coats attach electrodes to your hands and track what happens. When they show you a picture of your mother, your GSR goes up. Meaning in the body.



Is our visual world rich or poor? There are fights about this. People do not agree. Philosophers and scientists and other academics ponder this richness and poverty question in papers and books and lectures. Human beings have very limited peripheral vision, but we can turn our heads and take in more of the world. When I’m writing, my vision is severely limited by my attention, but sometimes when I let my eyes roam in a space, I discover its density of light and color and feel surprised by what I find. When I focus, say, just on the shadows here on my desk, they become remarkable. My small round clock casts a double shadow from either side of its circular base, one darker than the other, a gray and a paler gray. There is a spot of brilliant light at the edge of the darker oval. As I look, this sight has become beautiful. 



Why is a face beautiful?



If an image is flashed too quickly to be perceived consciously, we take it in unconsciously and we respond to it without knowing what is happening. A picture of a scowling face I can’t say I’ve seen affects me anyway. Scientists call this masking. Blindsight patients have cortical blindness. They lose visual consciousness but not visual unconsciousness. They see but don’t know they are seeing. If you ask them to guess what you’re holding (a pencil) they will guess far better than people who are truly blind. Words and consciousness are connected. How much do I see of the world that never registers in my awareness? When I walk in the street, I sometimes glimpse a scene for just an instant but I cannot tell you what I have witnessed until a fraction of a second later when the puzzling image falls into place: that furry thing was a stuffed animal and a little boy was dangling it from his stroller. The lag again.



We are picture-making creatures. We scribble and draw and paint. When I draw what I see, I touch the thing I am looking at it with my mind, but it is as if my hand is caressing its outline. People who stopped drawing as children continue to make pictures in their dreams or in the hallucinations that arrive just before they go to sleep. Where do those images come from?  I dreamed grass and brush and sticks were growing out of my arm, and I got to work busily trimming myself with a scissors. I wasn’t alarmed; it was a job handled in a matter-of-fact way. If I painted a self portrait  with bushy arms, I would be called a surrealist.



Some people who go blind see vivid images and colors. Some people who are losing their vision hallucinate while awake. An old man saw cows grazing in his living room, and a woman saw cartoon characters running up and down her doctor’s arm. Charles Bonnet syndrome. Just before I fell asleep, I saw a little man speeding over pink and violet cliffs. Once I saw an explosion of melting colors—green, blues, reds, and then a great flash of light that devoured them all. Hypnogogic hallucinations. Freud said dreams protect sleep. At night the world is taken from us and we make up our own scenes and stories. When you wake up slowly, you will remember more of that human underground.



Deprived of sight, we make visions. Seeing is also creating.



There are things in the world to see. Do I see what you see? We can talk about it and verify the facts. Through my window is the back of a house. One of its windows is completely covered by a blue shade. But if I tell you I see a flying zebra you will say, Siri, you are hallucinating. You are dreaming while awake.



Sometimes artists can make a hallucination real. A painting of a flying zebra is a real thing in the world, a real thing to see.



Why do I not like the word “taste” when applied to art? Because it has lost its connection to the mouth and food and chewing. I don’t like the way this picture tastes. It’s bitter. If we thought about actual tastes, the word would still work. It would be a form of synesthesia, a crossing of our senses: seeing as tasting. But usually it is not used like that anymore so I avoid it entirely when I talk about art.



Looking at a human being or even a picture of a human being is different from looking at an object. Newborn babies, only hours old, copy the expressions of adults. They pucker up, try to grin, look surprised, and stick out their tongues. The photographs of imitating infants are both funny and touching. They do not know they are doing it; this response is in them from the beginning. Later, people learn to suppress the imitation mechanism; it would not be good if we went on forever copying every facial expression. Nevertheless, we human beings love to look at faces because we find ourselves there. When you smile at me, I feel a smile form on my own face before I am aware it is happening, and I smile because I am seeing me in your eyes and know that you like what you see.



I am looking at a small reproduction of Johannes Vermeer’s Study of a Young Woman, which hangs in a room at The Metropolitan Museum here in New York.  It is a girl’s head and face. I say girl because she is very young. From her face I would guess she is no more than ten years old. When I look up the picture in one of my books on Vermeer, I see that there it is called Portrait of a Young Girl, a far better title. We should not turn girls into women too soon. She is smiling, but not a wide smile. Her lips are sealed. My impression is that she is looking at me, but I cannot quite catch her eye. What is certain is that she is answering someone else’s gaze. Someone has made her smile. She is not a beautiful child; it is her looking that is beautiful, her connection to the invisible person. There is shyness in her expression, reserve, maybe a hint of hesitancy. I think she is looking at an adult, probably the artist, because she has not let herself go. She looks over her shoulder at him. I have great affection for this girl. That is the magic of the painting; it is not that I have affection for a representation of a child’s head that was painted some time between 1665 and 1667. No, I feel I have actually fallen for her, the way I fall for a child who looks up at me on the street and smiles, perhaps a homely child, who with a single look calls forth a burst of maternal feeling and sympathy. But my emotion is made of something more; I remember my own girlhood and my shyness with grownups I didn’t know well. I was not a bold child and in her face I see myself at the same age.



In some of Gerhard Richter’s painted-over photographs, he painted over his wife’s face and parts of her body. He covered the bodies of his children, too, in snapshots of them as babies and growing children. In these gestures, I felt he was keeping them for himself, keeping the private hidden. Other times, he framed them with swaths of color, turning them into featured subjects. I love those pictures.



Mothers have a need to look at their children. We cannot help it.



Lovers have a need to look at each other. They cannot help it. 



Several years ago a friend sent me a paper on mirror neurons. They were found in the brains of macaque monkeys. When one monkey makes a gesture, grabs a banana, neurons in his premotor cortex are activated. When another monkey watches the gesture, but doesn’t make it, the same neurons are activated in his brain. Human beings have them, too. We reflect each other.



Looking at pornography is exciting but loses its interest after orgasm.



Reading the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses when Molly Bloom is remembering is erotic because she gives permission, gives up and gives way, and this is always exciting and interesting because it is personal not impersonal. Isn’t it strange that looking at little abstract symbols on a white page can make a person feel such things? I see her in his arms. I am in his arms. I remember your arms.



When I read stories, I see them. I make pictures and often they remain in my mind after I have finished a novel, along with some phrases or sentences. I ground the characters in places, real and imagined. But I always remember the feeling of a book best, unless I have forgotten it altogether.



I do not usually see philosophy with some exceptions: Plato, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche because they are also storytellers.



Some people cannot make visual imagery. They do not see pictures in their minds. They do not turn words into images. I didn’t know such a thing was possible until a short time ago. They see abstractly. They remember the symbols on the page.



“I see” can also mean “I understand.”



There is a small part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus that is crucial for recognizing faces. If you lose this ability your deficit is called prosopagnosia.  It happens that a person with brain damage looks at herself in the mirror, and believes she is seeing, not herself, but a double. It seems that what has vanished is not reason, but that special feeling we get when we look at our reflections, that warm sense of ownership. When that disappears, the image of one’s self becomes alien.



I look and sometimes I see.






Recently, I have become interested in spaces of practice - particularly the artist's studio, the writer's study, the art gallery, and the psychoanalytic consulting room. I am curious about the different processes that take place in these spaces - making, writing, curating, talking, thinking, daydreaming, being anxious, etc. At the same time, I am intrigued by the various stages through which our work develops: for instance, how do we begin a work of art or a psychoanalysis? How do we know when to finish, or end a piece of writing? When has the process of curating an exhibition turned the corner and the show resembles what we had in mind for it? Or when is it that we realize that what we are working on has failed, and what happens after that failure is recognized? How do we move on?

In this short text, I examine the images or ideas we have of beginnings, blankness and detours as three such stages by considering one painting, one essay by a literary author, and one psychoanalytic case history.  I argue that together these images or iterations of practice make the following four propositions: first, we never begin a work of art, a piece of writing, a psychoanalysis at the beginning. Second, there is no such thing as blankness, a new beginning. Third, we are always taking a detour – away from one thing and towards something else. And finally, we are always in the midst of it. 

Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings: Detour as Difference

Joanna Morra #1

In an interview with the art critic Calvin Tomkins, the American artist Robert Rauschenberg states the following about his practice in the early 1950s:

‘I couldn’t really emulate something I was so in awe of. I saw [Jackson] Pollock and all that other work [by the Abstract Expressionists], and I said, Okay, I can’t go that way. It’s possible that I discovered my own originality through a series of self-imposed detours.’ [1] [Italics mine.]

During the Summer and Fall of 1951, while studying at Black Mountain Art College near Asheville, North Carolina, Rauschenberg produced a series of white paintings. Made up of varying numbers of mathematically calculated canvases (1, 2, 3, 4, and 7), the White Paintings are remarkable in many ways. They are made with household paint and a roller. There is no use of brushes, no gestural work, no mark, no figure, no ground, no frame; they are quite simply large expanses of singularly articulated white canvas.

With the White Paintings, Rauschenberg had, in art critic Henry Geldzahler’s view, ‘wiped out the history of painting;’ in effect the artist had produced a tabula rasa. [2] This is obviously an exaggeration by the art critic, but the point should be taken: the White Paintings enabled Rauschenberg, and artists coming after Abstract Expressionism, to distance themselves and differentiate themselves from what came before them. Through a ‘series of self-imposed detours’ the White Paintings represent the process of beginning as difference. These works show us that all beginnings mark out, and are marked out by, a moment of difference.

The White Paintings enabled Rauschenberg to dislodge himself from the burden and force of the history of painting, more specifically, to differentiate his work from the painting that was being produced around him at the start of his career. As Rauschenberg put it, in the early 50s, he ‘“start[ed] every day moving out from Pollock and [Wilhem] de Kooning, […and this] is sort of a long way to have to go to start from.”’ [3]

If, then, the issue at stake is how Rauschenberg was to make the necessary shifts, take the detours which mark out difference, in order to do something other than move out from an artistic history, inheritance, and influence as formidable and present as the one in which he found himself, then the White Paintings should be understood as a negotiation of this genealogy. For the art critic Geldzhaler, the paintings are just that, because they are a determinate negation of these art practices and histories: they are a ‘wiping out [of] the history of painting.’

I would like to propose that these paintings are also something a little more complex than a simple negation. I would like to suggest that the White Paintings are a type of ‘beginning’. Something akin to Edward Said’s understanding of beginning as the combination of the ‘already-familiar’ and the ‘novel’, but, also slightly different. [4] I would characterize these paintings as a beginning that is made up of both a fidelity and infidelity to what Rauschenberg inherited. On the one hand, the paintings are unfaithful because they are a negation and critique of what came before them. They are a wiping away of the work being done by the most important artists of the time: Pollock, de Kooning, Albers (Rauschenberg’s teacher at Black Mountain College), Newman and others. On the other hand, they are also faithful to that inheritance because they are engaging with similar ideas around the limits of painting. The White Paintings are dealing with what it means to empty content out of painting, to make abstract works of art that deal with painting as experience for both the artist and the viewer. In the case of Pollock, de Kooning, Albers and Newman, the experience should be a transcendental aesthetic one. What Rauschenberg’s White Paintings did was related to this, but also different from them.

When you stand in front of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, they do something quite remarkable. They become the ground upon which, as John Cage noted, your ‘shadow’ is cast. In front of them, you can see your shadow, you can see what is going on in the room around the work, and this was quite an exceptional experience. [5]

As the artist Allan Kaprow said when he first saw them,

[… the] white paintings were an end to art and a beginning. Once a man’s shadow gets into a painting for a moment, everything becomes possible and the conditions for experimentation are thrust upon the scene. Possibility, artists know, is the most frightening idea of all. [6]


The Blank Page, or the Anxiety of Memory

The English author, screenwriter and essayist Hanif Kureishi starts his essay ‘Something Given: Reflections on Writing’ with the following: ‘My father wanted to be a writer. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t want this.’ [7] With this essay, Kureishi constructs an autobiographical narrative about his relationship to writing that is intimately connected to his father’s failure to become a writer. Although his father wrote many books and plays throughout his life, none were accepted for publication. Working in conflict with his father’s failure, where Kureishi found success, and against the wishes of the extended family – who simply did not understand or value the importance of intellectual labour – Kureishi persevered and became a published author.

In this image of the author’s life and work, Kureishi establishes a genealogy for his writing outside of himself. He suggests that his desire to write preceded him: he was born into it. Like psychoanalysis’s conviction that we are born into culture and language, that they precede us, beginnings are always already culturally and linguistically determined, history precedes us, even if our desires are possibly novel constituents of these antecedents.

However, even within, or perhaps because of these historical, cultural and autobiographical antecedents, the blank page – whether it is a canvas, strip or roll of film, the white space of a gallery, or the blank screen (all of which are always already full of their own antecedents) – brings with it conflict and anxiety. As Kureishi informs us, ‘To begin to write – to attempt anything creative, for that matter – is to ask many other questions, not only about the craft itself, but of oneself, and of life. The blank empty page is a representation of this helplessness. Who am I? it asks. How should I live? Who do I want to be?’ [8]

In the midst of these questions, while both knowing and not-knowing what we are doing, sitting alongside that blank page, chaos looms. It can propel us forward or create a standstill. While looking at that blank page, those notes, scraps of ideas, and images, one searches for a magnet around which things will gather. With this hope and intention in mind, eventually one looses oneself in what Kureishi and others call the pleasure of play, those ‘long periods of absorption and reverie’ [9] wherein we imagine and make, we work to create, something else.

What we learn from Kureishi is that the practice of writing, and here I would also say art making and curating, is a process through which a narrative of the self is in Laplanchian psychoanalytic terms, ‘constructed’, ‘deconstructed’ and ‘reconstructed’. [10] Bringing together our autobiographical, psychological, social and historical formations, we begin our creative practices in the midst of chaos. And each time we begin, we attempt to plot a course through that chaos, so as to bring about something new.


Beginning in the Midst of Chaos

Joanne Morra #2

So, let’s think about this image of chaos through which we search for something to say, to write, to make, to exhibit, to curate. Perhaps we can appreciate the productivity of chaos in a different manner, when we consider its relationship to the unconscious. For Adam Phillips, the English psychoanalyst and writer, the mess that is the unconscious is a fertile ground for creative practice. The practice of psychoanalysis either idealizes this mess, or wants to bring order to it. Whether the psychoanalysis that one practices wants to tame the disorder or champion it, Phillips sets up a relationship between disorder and creative practice in his text ‘Clutter: A Case History’, which relays the psychoanalysis of a young, mildly agoraphobic painter. [11]

The question of space and creative practice becomes remarkably important for both the case study, and for creative practice more generally. It is necessary to have, make, create, name and inhabit our workspace - whether it be our study, studio, a gallery space or the psychoanalytic consulting room. In the case of the painter under discussion, Phillips wants to remind us to take into account the spatialization of another frame within which some of us work, that of the blank canvas. And here, I would like to add, that of the blank page, or the gallery space. For many - Kurieshi sitting in front of a blank page, or Allan Kaprow in front of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings - the blank page brings with it fear, the threat of the unknown, and anxiety; but it also constitutes the possibility of play, pleasure and something new.

For the artist that Phillips worked with, we are informed that as an adolescent, the painter read an interview with Francis Bacon where Bacon talked about his ‘un-technique’. This is in reference to how Bacon often messed up the blank canvas with random painterly gestures to mark a necessary difference in beginning a work of art. After reading about this, the painter in psychoanalysis also began to clutter his canvasses. But for our young artist, rather than it being a positive and productive chaos within which to work, it was a means of averting his fear of the unknown – ‘to stop what he thought of as the real painting happening’. [12]

With this case history, Phillips is able to begin to unravel the patient’s symptoms, as well as to ask more general questions about the relationship between clutter and the unconscious, clutter and creative practice, clutter and psychoanalytic practice. As Phillips writes,

It is perhaps one of the most useful, indeed pleasurable Freudian insights that the way we defend ourselves tells us, in disguised form, what it is we desire. If clutter was the obstacle to desire, it was also an object of desire. In clutter you may not be able to find what you are looking for, but you may find something else instead, while you are looking for it. [13]

What interests me about Phillips’s interpretation is the way in which clutter is theorized as a prohibition that necessitates a detour, and that in working around the mess, in averting one thing, we find something else. This is exactly what Rauschenberg did, took detours to avoid the work of Pollock, de Kooning and others, so as to make something new.

Phillips ends his essay with guidance taken from the English analyst, writer and amateur artist, Marion Milner’s book entitled On Not Being Able to Paint, Phillips writes, ‘Milner counsels us to be wary of the pre-emptive imposition of pattern, of the compulsive sanity of reassuring recognitions. Of what we might be doing when we are too keen to clear up clutter. Clutter, that is to say, may be a way of describing either the deferral that is a form of waiting, or the waiting that is a form of deferral. Our eagerness for recognition can be a self-blinding.’ [14]

Through these images of our working processes, in our spaces of practice, beginnings are always constituted by conscious and unconscious acts of waiting, of avoidance and deferral, of action, detours, and decisions, and of waiting once more. Born into our historical, cultural, and autobiographical antecedents, we always begin in the midst of it all. By making a mark on, for instance, the blank page or the white canvas, we define possibilities within ourselves and our practice by simultaneously abandoning one route and taking another. We have begun.


[1] Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1980), p. 63.
[2] Henry Geldzahler, ‘Robert Rauschenberg,’ Art International, 7 (25 September 1963), p. 65.
[3] Robert Rauschenberg, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, ‘Bob Rauschenberg’, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde (New York: Viking Press, 1962, (repr. 1965)), p. 213.
[4] Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (London: Granta Books, 1985 (1975)), p. xxiii.
[5] John Cage, ‘On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and his Work,’ Metro, 2 (Maggio 1961), p. 43.
[6] Allan Kaprow, ‘Experimental Art,’ Art News, 65 (March 1966), p. 79.
[7] Hanif Kureishi. ‘Something Given: Reflections on Writing’, Dreaming and Scheming: Reflections on Writing and Politics (London: Faber and Faber, 2002), pp. 1-24 (p. 1).
[8] Ibid., Kureishi, p. 10.
[9] Ibid., Kureishi, p. 12.
[10] Jean Laplanche. New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans. David Macey (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989 (1987)).
[11] Adam Phillips, ‘Clutter: A Case History’, Promises, Promises (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), pp. 59-71.
[12] Ibid., Phillips, p. 64.
[13] Ibid., Phillips, p. 64.
[14] Ibid., Phillips, p. 71.




About Class Photos

"This is me when I was ten years old," says Marji in the first frame of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, a memoir in graphic form, and we see a little girl, simply drawn, wearing the veil and looking serious, if not glum. [1] The present tense confirms that we are looking at the drawing of a fractured photograph through which the narrator introduces herself. The portrait of the ten year old Marji is merely a detail of a class photo shown in the next frame in which she is not visible: all we can see is part of her left arm and the right hand that crosses over it as she assumes a pose identical to that of the other four girls. "You don't see me," she tells us as she names the other four from left to right. All five wear the veil and all look equally distressed although, with a few lines, Satrapi is able to convey physiognomic differences and a range of facial expressions.

Why use a class photo by way of introduction? And why is Marji invisible within it? Satrapi's opening frames tell us a great deal about this most unremarked genre of vernacular photography which, within the visual structure of the comics medium, underscores the ideological transformation effected by the Islamist Revolution that interrupted Satrapi's childhood. The rest of Persepolis plays out the uneasy and sometimes violent oscillation between a "me" that can be visually captured in an image and the evasive "you don't see me" - an oscillation between the subject of totalitarianism and the rebellious "I" who disappears in the gutter between frames. Class photos, even under politically less authoritarian circumstances, dramatize precisely the individual child's struggle between singularity and ideological interpellation. The extreme situation drawn by Satrapi merely accentuates some of the general features of this vernacular visual genre.

Taken by commercial photographers with seemingly few if any artistic aspirations and little desire to deviate from formulaic representations, class photographs share the same general characteristics. A group of students, standing or sitting on benches or by their desks (or standing outdoors, in rows, near the school building) all face forward and look at the photographer. The group is usually photographed head-on, generally through a wide-angle lens. Most class photos distinguish themselves from other institutional group photos by the central position of a teacher, around whom students are arranged. The teacher's presence, like the photographer's, serves as a disciplining force, enjoining the children to assume postures and gazes that demonstrate their acquiescence to a group identity imposed through their membership in their class. In Satrapi's memoir, the unforgiving teacher appears in the fourth frame, holding the veil and instructing the little girls to "Wear this!"

Although not fully visible in the image, the contextual matrix of the class - the school accredited by the municipality or state - plays a key role. Schools are the institutions that teach children to read and write, and which provide them with elements of a national literary and scientific culture and its versions of history. They are also the sites that instruct them in rules of acceptable behavior and morality, tutor civic responsibility, and instill respect for authority and the established economic order. While aided in this task of ideological inculcation by other institutions - the family, the law, the media, and the arts - they are primary agencies in shaping and reinforcing values, outlooks, beliefs, and myths that constitute citizenship in the society where they are located.

Class photos, in this regard, like school diplomas, can be seen as a form of certification - confirmation of grade level, grade ascendancy, and of participation in a trajectory of socialization defining citizenship and national belonging. Each image is visual evidence of this commonality among the depicted group of children, a commonality often enforced and highlighted by the wearing of uniforms, dress and hair codes, and by other means of minimizing or erasing differences. Few markers of difference are visible in class photos, and Satrapi, through the idiom of comics, is able to emphasize how uniformity is imposed and difference discouraged, even punished.

The assimilating pull towards sameness in setting up and posing in these photos makes the possibilities of subversion minimal even within pictures taken in less repressive political settings. Children may try to fool around before or even while the photos are being taken, but the class photos that survive are no doubt the ones that record the most uniform deadpan look on all the faces. Class photographs do more than just to record children's ideological formation: they actually instantiate the force of the institution as it interpellates the individual into a trans-individual group identity. And they certify that interpellation. The school photographer's camera, as such, is one of the technologies of socialization and integration of children into a dominant world-view. By staging the school's, and the society's, institutional gaze, class photos both record and practice the creation of consent.

Rebellion against the veil

In the large double frame at the bottom of Satrapi's first page, we see the girls' rebellion against the wearing of the veil that forms the background against which the compliance registered in the class photo must be read. "We didn't really like to wear the veil," the narrator tells us, and individual children, wearing uniforms but sporting different hairstyles, gestures and facial expressions, run around the school yard playing hide and seek, jump rope and even "execution" with the piece of black fabric. The school building with its foreboding black windows remains visible and the games occur in a space external to it, just as in the frame above, girls can fool around outside the school walls but must comply with the teacher in the foreground, inside. Satrapi's expressionist drawing style, relying entirely on bold blacks and whites, underscores this opposition: the bottom image where the children play and fool around has lighter, thinner lines, more white, while the class photo, featuring the uniformity of the veil, is thicker, darker, almost entirely black.

Why does Satrapi begin her story with a class photo? Their sameness and ubiquity would seem to make school photos largely unremarkable. How, then, can we explain their pervasiveness in family albums, their common display on memorial websites and at reunions, and their frequent reproduction in communal histories and in memoirs? Certainly, in spite of their conventionality, they do provide some contextual information about the school, the historical moment, and the cultural values of the time when they were taken. But in most cases that information is minimal and the images remain interchangeable and opaque. And yet, as Satrapi shows, they can serve not just as vehicles of narrative and memory, but also as political media of protest and resistance. How can we explain this capacity?

If we read class photos as a subset of group portraits -- paintings and photographs of guilds, army units, clubs, unions, and youth groups - we might speculate on the associations they evoke. We might see them in the terms introduced by art historian Aby Warburg who in his "Mnemosyne Atlas," mapped a large set of "pre-established expressive forms" that carry and transmit affect across time, constituting a trans-generation memorial repertoire in visual form. [3]

If class photos fall into such a category of expressive forms then their "emotional life" [to use Jill Bennett's term] would be transmissible. [4] By recalling the subordination of individuality to group membership and the incorporation into a social assemblage, they would convey both the desire to belong to the group and the resistance against the coercive submersion of the individual within a class collective. Indeed, this tension between individuality and trans-individual anonymity structures the emotional life of class photos. Since like all photos, moreover, class photos freeze a moment in time, they serve to measure change over time, and to recall past incidents, when they are viewed and reviewed years, perhaps decades, later. They thus not only become potent media for anyone wishing to memorialize and mourn a world of yesterday but also effective mnemonic aids helping to identify particular living classmates - as well as age mates who have disappeared (or been violently removed) from our midst. As documents that carry incontrovertible evidence of past existence and previous acceptance, they assert "we were here" and become powerful emotive as well as political vehicles combating forgetting and the erasure of violence and the exclusion of some members from the group.

It is this very inherent emotional and political life of class photos that Satrapi is able to mobilize in the project of underscoring the violence of the Islamist revolution and her resistance against the loss of individual freedom. Throughout the two volumes of Persepolis, Marji's rebelliousness is never squashed and school remains the site of her resistance. In school in Iran, she stages her resistance to the veil and the conformity demanded of girls and women by the Islamist regime. Later, in Vienna, she rebels against school rules and against the different constraints on individual freedom operative in the West.

In addition, the very ordinariness and ubiquity of class photos enables them to become privileged media of memory and mourning for those who become separated from the group. "From left to right: Golaz, Manshid, Narine, Minna," Marjane names her classmates individually. In the course of the memoir, some classmates will be persecuted and killed, others will comply with the regime and others still will continue to rebel and, along with Marji, to assert their freedom. When Marjane says, "you can't see me," she is activating the emotional life of class photos, both the struggle between individuality and conformity that they stage, and the sites of mourning they can so effectively become. In the medium of comics, the gutter becomes what Warburg calls "the iconology of the interval," that space "between thought and action" where intense emotion can surface and be felt. Class photos drawn in comics form: relying on both genres, Satrapi can provoke an immediate and layered emotional response on the part of her reader.

[1] Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (New York: Pantheon, 2003) and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (New York: Pantheon, 2004).

[2] On Satrapi's style, see Hilary Chute, "The Texture of Retracing in Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis," WSQ 36, 1&2 (Spring/ Summer 2008), 92-110.

[3] Aby Warburg, Der Bilderatlas MNEMOSYNE, Martin Warnke (ed.), Berlin 2003, 2nd printing.

[4] Jill Bennett, Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affects and Art After 9/11 (forthcoming).






Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Throughout decades of rancorous debate between modernist and classical architects, Peter Eisenman figured prominently on the side of the modernists. But this is by now a rather dated quarrel; I believe that aesthetics -- and Eisenman -- have moved on. A period of interactive aesthetics has set in, in which the focus is no longer on an isolated factor within artistic communication, such as the classicists' obsession with the historical code of art, or the modernists' with the formal characteristics of the artwork. Instead, it is the interplay among factors-audience, artist, model/referent, conditions of their contact, as well as code and work -- that draws our attention. Eisenman's 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is almost a parable of this shift in aesthetics, and a powerful example of what the future may hold in store for art.

Eisenman's Memorial deliberately evokes the look of geometric modernism. Located in a vast tract not far from the Brandenburg Gates in Berlin, it is a grid of 2,711 closely spaced, slightly tilted, polished concrete stelae. These blocks are uniform in width and depth, but vary in height from ground level at the periphery to 4.5 meters in the interior. As an environment, the Memorial suggests typical images of modernist alienation -- a cemetery, a labyrinth, a brutalist city of harsh planes and abrupt corners. Considered only in terms of its form, the work conveys the bleak silence and death of meaning proclaimed by Elie Wiesel and George Steiner in their discussion of the Holocaust. It evokes the eerie emptiness of De Chirico's streets, the intellectual coldness of abstraction and minimalism, the denial of empathetic connection.

But inside the grid, a different aesthetic is at work, though it takes a while for this to register. Unnaturally constricted, visitors are conscious of their isolation; the distance between the rows of stelae is too narrow to permit two people to walk side by side. Eisenman's intent, according to the official guide, is "that everyone should experience the memorial individually," but since this isolation is not chosen, it feels like deprivation and victimization. Once in the grid, all one can see is the dark alleyway stretching ahead into the distance between towering banks of stelae. At the end is a spot of sunshine and in some cases a building or tree is visible beyond the grid. Suddenly it registers that there is a beyond, an alternative to the darkness and isolation inside, whereas for the victims of the Holocaust, there was none. The architecture of the Memorial forces viewers to consider their relation to the victims it memorializes: the restriction we experience is like theirs, but it is crucially different at the same time.

The Memorial also makes visitors hyper-aware of each other. The alleys are so narrow and the corners of the stelae so sharp, that anyone about to cross one's path is invisible until the point of collision. Nevertheless, some visitors run through the aisles (and occasionally rollerblade through them -- though that is prohibited). People pop into view as they cross at distant intersections, and then as abruptly pop out. Because the pavement undulates, sometimes dramatically, those seen farther down the aisle will be higher or lower, and if they stand still, they look like sculptures or figures on a stage, backlit by the sunlight of the "outside."

Everything in the unnatural space of the Memorial conspires to heighten an awareness of other people, even the shadows they cast. But though social encounter appears so uncanny here, at the same time one notices the ordinariness of people's behavior, equally striking in this setting. According to Nikolaus Bernau, "Eisenman's dream is of children's laughter resounding at the site. His concept is of the memorial as a part of everyday life that always includes memory and recollection." In the Memorial, memory and reflection become elements in a disquieting mix of behaviors. Visitors look about or stand lost in thought. People cry, take pictures, play tag, kiss. One may find their responses to the situation touching, surprising, irritating -- how dare they ignore the Holocaust to pursue their little pleasures? And then one observes oneself doing the same. The experience of the Memorial inevitably becomes a part of the day, of one's life. Like the mourners, the heedless children, the self-involved lovers, one lodges this place and all that it stands for within the overall context of one's experience and understands that others do the same. People live in many relations to history, and in many relations to each other.

Such thoughts animate the trip through the grid. Always the Memorial is about interaction-between contemporary viewers and the victims of the Holocaust, between oneself and one's fellow viewers. Far from a static "utopia of form," it is an ever-changing set of encounters, complex and contradictory, at once saddening, heartening, and perplexing. And yes, it is beautiful -- in all these respects and for all these reasons. One might say, in fact, that the memorial takes viewers through modernism -- makes them feel through it -- toward the possibility of a more sunlit place beyond. The model of beauty it provides is a heterdox conversation concerning the real.

To appear in Wendy Steiner, The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art (University of Chicago Press, 2010)






Introduction: Another Kind of Image

In my normal academic and critical practice I have been invested with close, even myopic, looking at specific images for a long time. I had -- I think -- a good reason for this bias. I believe that images have as much to say as texts, and that encountering, or entering a dialogue with an image takes as much time as reading a novel. Whether we call it "propositional content" as I have at some point (1991) or by any other term, the idea that images visually say something, rather than illustrating something already said, is at the heart of my practice as an art writer. By calling it "saying," however, I do not wish to maintain that the image's content is limited to a rational, cognitive level. The divide between cognition and emotion, or reason and affect never sat easy with me, and I ignore it with conviction.

In order to find out what images "say," I have advocated "close looking" as a practice to learn from and engage with the artefacts of visual culture, instead of merely regarding them as illustrations of what we already know. Developing this conviction further, I have proposed that images can perform an equivalent of speech acts; that they can respond ("speak back") to the look cast onto them, and that they can entice viewers to theorize. These tentative ideas are congenial to W.J.T. Mitchell's suggestive question "What do pictures want?" (2005) Hence, when we study and analyze images, they are not so much case studies, subjected to the scholar's scalpel, as dialogical partners. I call such "speaking images", which speak back and make me think, "theoretical objects." [1]

This idea has consequences for the way I develop arguments about how visual images help articulate thought. The usual term "case study" has been both overly inflected by exemplarity and comprehensiveness and, paradoxically, marred by generalization. That is why I am now more inclined to use the alternative, equally over-extended but more specific term "theoretical object." As Hubert Damisch, the creator of that term, explains it in an interview, a theoretical object obliges you to do theory but also furnishes you with the means of doing it. Thus, if you agree to accept it on theoretical terms, it will produce effects around itself . . . [and] forces us to ask ourselves what theory is. It is posed in theoretical terms; it produces theory; and it necessitates a reflection on theory. (Bois et al. 1998, 8)
Do, means of doing it, effects, forces, produces, necessitates . . . every word here is relevant. Compelling collective thought processes emerge in the dynamic between the works as objects, their viewers, and the time in which these come together, accompanied by the social buzz that surrounds both work and viewer as their shared environment. The specific aspects of an image that activate "doing theory" are in constant dialogue with the image to which the analyst is committed to return every step of the way. They are the sites of these thought processes, this triple theoretical activity Damisch mentions. [2]

For the kind of image I am considering here, the term "theoretical object" is therefore better suited to situate my approach than the simpler "case study" -- on the condition that we extend it to cover more than single images. Here, the dialectic of singularity and generalization plays itself out. The object is not this or that artwork, photograph, or film still, but an image-series that activates thought. In the case of a narrative series, these images together activate the construction of, among other thoughts, a story. Each image begins to do what, along with other ones, viewers do, in an ongoing process of performativity. [3]

This performativity is significant for images that, according to our ontological distinctions, do not (materially) exist, as is the case, at least in part, with the images I wish to discuss here. In the first instance, it was an image, or rather, a series of images, that came out of an activity of reading. This "coming out of reading" happened twice over. First, an author wrote a book in which she described images that came out of her readings. Second, I read that book, and images-the same ones? different ones?-came out of my reading of her reading. Except for the cover image, a detail from Pieter Breughel the Elder's painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1562), there were no images in the material sense involved. Yet, these images were so strong that, after seeing them with my mind's eye, I had to make them, as "after-images" that were interpretants of the images evoked but not presented. This, in utterly succinct form, is the story of my current film project Mère folle.

I use the term interpretant in the sense in which American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce theorized the sign, in order to make the point that images can be signs even if they are not materially extant. Peirce starts his definition of the sign with a perceptible object. The question posed by this object -- What does it mean? -- cannot be answered by revealing something inherent in the object. Instead, the cultural group in which the object circulates works the meaning out in a practice that yields a second, further developed object. That second object, or sign, is the interpretant, a new sign developed on the basis of, and evoked by, the attempt to understand the first sign (Peirce 1985). Objects, hence, also images, are active participants in the performance of analysis in that they enable reflection and speculation; they can contradict projections and wrong-headed interpretations (if the analyst lets them!), and thus constitute a theoretical object with philosophical relevance, whether materially embodied or not.

Two qualifications are required here. First, filmmaking is never something one does alone. There is a wide, and ever-widening, circle of contributors, from professional and amateur actors to make-up artists and translators. For Mère folle, we had, for example, actors, both volunteers and professionals; help with script, camera, sound, translation; people who made a superb website for the project (crazymothermovie.com, dir. Olli Heinola). But most importantly, I am making this film with British artist Michelle Williams Gamaker. Michelle and I have been collaborating since 2002, the beginning of my practice in filmmaking. Hence, when I use the pronoun "I" it should be read as "we" in most cases. I cannot use "we" as this pronoun has been marred by the universalist "we" that strives to create a "wefeeling" that is in turn liable to constitute an exclusive audience and its manipulated benevolence. This is why I choose to avoid it here. Moreover, others, to be indicated as we go along, have made the photographs of draft sequences of this film that stand here as "the image" I am discussing. What I am going to say about the film is my own responsibility -- hence the persistence of "I" -- while the film as such is a collective work, and specifically the work of Michelle Williams Gamaker and myself in an equal partnership. [5]

Second, there is another intense partnership involved, which bears on the status and the nature of the images. The film is a "translation" of a book by French psychoanalyst Françoise Davoine (on which more below), an act that has turned out best served in close collaboration with the author. The images she "saw," or had in mind, when she wrote her book are inevitably very different from the ones that end up in this publication and in the film-to-be. There are several layers of interpretation and imagination between the one and the other. This is why the film images can only be what I call "after-images," with several temporal and visual layers separating the "original" from the images now put before my readers. Still, I am confident I can speak about these images as I contend that there is not actually a fundamental difference, only a difference of degree, between my very tentative images here, and, say, a painting or photograph one can analyze. [6]

Even a material painting has once existed in the artist's mind, and then came off on canvas much different. And that material painting subsequently keeps changing in each act of viewing projected upon it, with time, place, and social circumstance of its subsequent "life" as a work of art. An image, in this sense, will always be in the process of "becoming." By that Deleuzian term I mean something quite specific. Not only each artwork, but a priori the entire oeuvre of an artist, is and remains in the process of becoming. The becoming of an oeuvre implies a retrospective temporal logic according to which each new work recasts the terms in which the previous works could be understood. [7]

Each new phase of that becoming is informed by a later work that retrospectively glosses an earlier work. Each new work puts a spin on the ensemble of what came before it. In that becoming as an oeuvre or a work consisting of multiple images, my theoretical object is the body of images named Mère folle, inflected by what "my work" -- as a reader, filmmaker, and critic of the resulting images -- adds to that corpus. And, according to the retrospective logic I have elsewhere called "preposterous" (1999), the beginning or starting point is the set of filmic images you will see here, followed by the images "I saw," only then followed by those in the author's book and ending with those images the author "saw," and that are inaccessible to me. It is this retrospective impact that is the point of studying an image "in its entirety." [8]

Finally, let me add a word on the ontological impossibility of the term "case study." "The world is everything that is the case," Ludwig Wittgenstein writes at the opening of his Tractatus (2001). In Wittgenstein's terms, then, the images resulting from the multi-layered imaging as you can see them here, are "the case." Therefore, a discussion of them cannot be a "case study" in the classical sense, as then they would be a "case of" -- something else. Instead, any discussion of them emphatically endorses the inescapable fact that the image is part of the world in which it occurs -- in which and hence for which it is the case. The philosopher's opening phrase of the Tractatus brings existential and performative claims together: as a part of the world, the image labors for the latter's transformation. The image is "worldly" in a double sense: it emerges from the world in which I, Michelle, the actors, and the author exist and make images; while the themes and modes it takes on are dictated by that world-a world that posits its conditions of possibility for effective, that is, performative art.
The Film: Story-Images
With this in mind, I propose a look at some of the images, or after-images, fragments of what is to be considered one image. These images resulted from the retrospective work on the images the author created, or received, in her mind. As I mentioned earlier, Mère Folle is a feature film based on the book Mère folle by the French psychoanalyst Françoise Davoine (1998). This book, written in the first person, hovers between fiction and theory and integrates the best of both. Mère folle was Davoine's second fiction, after La Folie Wittgenstein (1992). Perhaps I should call it a "theoretical fiction": the term Freud uses to explain the genre of Totem and Taboo, his story of the primitive band of revolting sons killing and eating the tyrannical father (1913). Sometimes, Freud's story intimates, it takes fiction or other forms of imaginative thought to understand something for which reason is too simple. Davoine's book too has theoretical points to make and uses speculation and fiction to make them, and subsequently so has (and does) our film. But, unlike Freud's primary tool of plot, Davoine's points are primarily made through images, not discursive discussion. The plot itself, not absent, serves, rather, to frame the images. [9]

Like the auto-fictional book -- but not in the same autobiographical form -- the film stages the intertwinement of two confrontations. One occurs between a psychoanalyst and her severely traumatized patients. The other confronts this contemporary world with medieval fools, agents of a late-medieval political theatre. Most of the times, these two worlds mingle. For Michelle and me, the theoretical-political importance of the project lies in a positive representation of mad (psychotic) people and a constructive interaction between mad and sane people through which both learn things from the other that help them live their lives. Within the film medieval "fools" strike precisely that balance. This motivates their participation. Hence, in that ambiguous representation of "madness" -- rather than in relation to the book as such -- our first allegiance was positioned.

This allegiance can only be done justice through a carefully thought-through image of the Fools and their contemporary counterparts, the Mad. To achieve this, an ontological uncertainty with bearings on epistemology was our primary guideline. The Fools raise an ontological question that also bears on the status of the images and what they convey. The Fools are not mad but play the fool. So how do we know what "being mad" is, and whether that is different from playing? Can you play what you are; and be, or become, what you play? This is the theoretical question that undermines the authority of the archaeological thrust of psychoanalysis. It lies at the heart of Davoine's social approach to psychoanalysis; her attempt to make the theory and practice less individualistic.

For us as filmmakers, this question was doubled by another one: how can we make that unknowability or undecidability visible, convincing, and productive? The book is an out-of-the-box integration of theory, fiction, and documentary. Here lies the debt the film and its images have towards the book and the points its author seeks to make. As a "faithful" translation, the film owes it to the book to make that integration of traditionally separate domains visible, and to the book as theoretical object in the sense described above, to draw (visual) conclusions from that integration. This is quite a heavy task, especially if we also consider Benjamin's paradoxical view of translation.

Françoise Davoine, author and main actor (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 1: Françoise Davoine, author and main actor (photo Markus Karjalainen)
The story runs as follows. The opening words tell us that "tomorrow is All Saints' Day". That makes today the Day of the Dead. As it happens, Françoise has just learned of the death by overdose of one of her psychotic patients. Discouraged, she blames herself and psychoanalysis for this tragic failure. She enters a deep crisis that will last until the final pages of the book. She is tempted to abandon her job at the psychiatric hospital. While pondering this decision in the courtyard of the hospital, she takes a book on the Middle Ages out of her bag. It is a book her dead patient had requested she bring him. She had intended to give it to the patient last week, now it is too late. As she rummages through her bag and finds the book, the enigmatic figure of Mère Folle appears - as if out of the book, as its interpretant. A number of medieval Fools accost Françoise, challenging psychoanalysis as fraudulent. Their primary grievance is the privileging of word over gesture, the individual over the group, and the past over the present. Their leader, Mère Folle, is depressed because the Fools do not obey her anymore. She sits down in silence. With a wink to iconography, that staple of art history, she takes the pose of Dürer's famous engraving Melencolia. [11]

Mère Folle arrives (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 2: Mère Folle arrives (photo Markus Karjalainen)

A long discussion ensues, in which a dead-pan Françoise remains situated in the present without being astonished by the confrontation with another historical time, and responds as if discussing with colleagues. It is this ability to remain her professional self while engaging with other times and their discourses that is her primary strength. That discrepancy in tone was our interpretation of the rather even tone of the argumentative prose in the book, in spite of the exuberance of the descriptive parts. We translated this tone into the main character's calm acting, although the text does not reflect on it per se. [12]

That this discrepancy comes across in the images is due to Françoise's superbly subtle acting. But we had to visualize a point that the book makes constantly yet only implicitly, which is the ontological uncertainty of madness mentioned above. Since playing the fool is the Fools' profession, this took a specifically theatrical form, one that is not in the book. The film shows how, in the course of the discussion, the Fools can no longer be separated from the Mad. These begin to mingle with them, even to chant comments drawn from medieval poems under the direction of the Musical Nurse who tries to calm them with their own means, all of this to the panic of the Head Nurse. [13]

Fools and Mad mingling in courtyard (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 3: Fools and Mad mingling in courtyard (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Nurses separate Fools from Mad (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 4: Nurses separate Fools from Mad (photo Markus Karjalainen)

But a professional crisis is harder to actually live than Françoise had thought. The fools end up irritating her out of her determination to resign, and reluctantly she returns to work. There she is caught by her affection for and identification with the patients, and the occasional success of a treatment. As she talks with patients, the distinction between the Fools and the Mad fades away slowly. Françoise is struck by the unexpected bouts of wisdom both groups bring forth. This uncertainty is made visible by several means, one of them being the quite simple ploy of playing multiple roles. The most striking instance of this is the performance by actor Thomas Germaine. In the courtyard he shows up among the Fools under the name of Antonin (later, his last name turns out to be Artaud), a self-proclaimed although anachronistic friend of sixteenth-century writer Étienne de la Boétie. As the latter cannot speak, Antonin speaks for him. In the hospital scene, Germaine is a patient, also called Antonin. And in the trial, he acts out Artaud's combination of genius and madness. At this point one already wonders if these figures are one, two, or three persons. Moreover, towards the end of the film he shows up at Françoise's home seeking treatment, and the short treatment they undertake together is successful. His name is Herlat, another name for Harlequin, the King of Death Mère Folle conjures up during the trial - at which point not Harlequin but Artaud appears. All these characters may or may not be the same "person." This questions the ontology of persoonhood embedded in the questioning of madness.

La Boétie, Antonin, and a Fool who lent her ear to the tyrant (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 5: La Boétie, Antonin, and a Fool who lent her ear to the tyrant (photo Markus Karjalainen)
Meanwhile, exhausted and dejected after this turbulent half-day, Françoise goes home and parks her car. In her garage she is abducted by two mafiosi and so begins a strange voyage. She is taken to the Middle Ages -- or rather, the Middles Ages surface in the present, in a small, somewhat shabby Parisian theatre. There, Françoise is brought before a court where she is blamed, not for the death of her patient, but for her lack of insight. The episodes of that court case confront her, and us, with the sane reasoning hiding behind the Fool's mask. The alleged fools come from the tradition of "sotties," a political theatre from the late Middle Ages, a kind of carnival of Fools. These are the Fools who merged with the patients at the hospital; their arrival, thus, becomes a political moment. As opposed to the patients, the fools have impunity.

The Court presided by Mère Folle (Murielle-Lucie Clément) at Françoise's Trial (photo Mia Hannula)

Photo 6: The Court presided by Mère Folle (Murielle-Lucie Clément) at Françoise's Trial (photo Mia Hannula)

Françoise is guarded by her captors. But still, consistent in her in-betweenness, she cannot help herself listening and discussing these issues seriously.

Françoise with her abductors (photo Mia Hannula)

Photo 7: Françoise with her abductors (photo Mia Hannula)

The narrator's own literary and philosophical sources also mix in during the trial in the form of imaginary or dreamt dialogues with great thinkers such as Antonin Artaud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, T.S. Eliot, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Clearly, there is madness and madness, and perhaps where there is madness, genius is often not so far away. There is also a carnival of words taking place; hilarious yet incisive dialogues in which everyone, fool, mad or sane; from the past, the present, or as in-between as the mad are, is on equal footing, and the smart repartees are, by far, not always the narrator's.

Artaud (Thomas Germaine) and Francoise (photo Mia Hannula)

Photo 8: Artaud (Thomas Germaine) and Francoise (photo Mia Hannula)
For the narrator, this dialogic traversal of time is also a return to her own past. Her boundaries -- in time, space, and identity -- melt down. She becomes capable of identifying not only with her patients, in whose adventures she begins to participate, but also with her former self. Two patients from the past stroll through Françoise's world when she least expects it. These are a woman named Sissi-doctor Davoine's first failure of twenty years ago-and the timeless elfish Ariste who dies at the beginning, only to resurface regularly throughout the film as an "inspector" (or as Françoise bruised super-ego), as a source of gossip, and as a memory. These two phantom patients constantly confront Françoise with the difficulty of her work and the danger, and likelihood, of failure. But nothing is entirely positive or negative, nor a complete success or failure.

Sissi (Marja Skaffari) (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 9: Wittgenstein (John Neubauer) and Eliot (Matthew Wright) arguing (photo Mia Hannula)

Ariste (Fleur Sulmont) (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 10: Sissi (Marja Skaffari) (photo Markus Karjalainen)

From these combined travels Françoise gains a capability to practice immersion into the deliria of her patients, in order to become a fraternal equal to them. Only through such an "extreme identification" will she be able to carve for them an auxiliary space wherein the "catastrophic regions" that generated their madness can be confronted. Psychosis can only be cured through this method, which has profound consequences for the human existence of the psychoanalyst herself and the way she can tell her story. Throughout the story, the narrator has been doing precisely that: becoming an equal to the "fools" and the "mad." [14]

It is on this hopeful note that, during the turmoil of the Carnival of Basel, the immersion into the medieval universe of folly, the story ends. Between the trial and the Carnival, Françoise's day is not over. She treats Herlat, then pays an overdue visit to the grave of her former teacher, the sister of her father's Resistance friend, inveterate Spanish freedom fighter Don Luís, as well as to that of the latter's "mad aunt" who also haunts her childhood memories. Meanwhile, viewers will have made the acquaintance of a number of patients, who each pull the narrator into their own temporal and spatial catastrophic regions. Theoretical considerations, initially only occurring in the mind of the narrator, will be taken over by fools, colleagues, patients, and even a bee who seems to be her interlocutor when she muses about her dilemmas.

The after-images that result from our working through of Davoine's ideas and story can also be called "story-images," since they build up a story that is both the same as the book's and different; and I would even say, one story-image, composed of many fragments. They both visualize and glue together the episodes of the adventure, the voyage to insight Françoise undertakes, and which, in its entirety, constitutes "the image" of the film. The images must remain close to that story, make it concrete, and at the same time betray the length, complexity, and theoretical density of the book. The primary task we saw ourselves confronted with was to turn this into an engaging film without betraying the thoughts of our theoretical object.
Loyalty by Betrayal
Making a book into a film: the problems one encounters during such an undertaking are well known. There is, for example the obvious need to compress, the equally obvious task of filling in and fleshing out the appearances of people, places, and objects; and the visualisation of abstract thought. And all this must be done against the desire -- if not the obligation or the need -- to be "faithful" to the book. Before submitting these images to the viewer's gaze, many interventions have already taken place. The question of loyalty to the book, without which it hardly makes any sense to endeavour to "translate" a book into a film, is in itself very vague. What is it to which the filmmaker wishes to be loyal?

For Michelle and me it was important to remain loyal, not so much to the book, as to our own desire to make a film based on it. The theoretical thrust -- offering an alternative vision of psychoanalysis as a profoundly social science -- compelled certain visual decisions that, at first sight, have little to do with theory. Here, I want to discuss some of these decisions, as a contribution to the question of images to which this series is devoted.

The first, major intervention concerned the individualism and the linguistic bias the Fools impute to Françoise. The narrator is semi-convinced by these reproaches, which she recognises all too well from her practice and her colleagues; but she also tries to defend a certain approach to psychoanalysis against these criticisms. Her entire project is a battle against the individualism that keeps the Mad impermeable to psychoanalysis. Her life's work, instead, consists of attempts to preserve psychoanalysis as a social science. In the book this discussion can obviously only remain verbal, although it is narratologically speaking, astonishingly "jumpy": interrupted by small occurrences and verbal punning, misunderstandings and anachronistic "errors", and never leading to a compromise or resolution. Here, a dilemma arises: do we do justice to the discussion, to the author's project, or to the story, and on which level? [15]

In Davoine's book, the story concerns Françoise's crisis and the voyage of discovery that leads to her insight. It is a kind of Bildungsroman slash travel story. If this form was respected in detail, the film would become too centred on a single character, a formal ploy that is better suited to writing than the externalisation of visuality. In particular, this form would not do justice to the fact that in Françoise's eyes, the Fools do have a point. We deployed several levels of dispersal in order to avoid an individualistic, autobiographical interpretation of a story that, in fact, harbours important theoretical insights that go against individualism, and thus necessarily revise the very notion of autobiography-the "auto" of it. These dispersals make the story more general while preserving the singularity of the characters involved. This was our first, primary act of loyalty-by-betrayal. [16]

Another dispersal concerns language. The film is multilingual; actors from different countries speak their own languages. This decision was partly compelled by the need to recruit actors from different countries, casting our own acquaintances rather than getting professionals from a casting agency. But very soon it seemed the right thing to do, and it inspired us to expand on this. The multilingual speeches became images of a multi-cultural Europe, as well as of a certain kind of social madness present in the contemporary world. At the same time, they became almost utopian images of the possibility to communicate against all odds. This ambiguity functioned as an incentive for inventive imagining and subsequent imaging.

In an interview that may make it into the film, the author says that images build bridges because they help to communicate across the boundaries that separate the sane from the mad, the contemporary from earlier times, and different cultural and linguistic communities from each other. She establishes a connection, however briefly, between the function of images and the accumulative effect of the oral transmission of poetry. The tension in this multilingualism between a utopian vision and a certain kind of madness became a rich source of play with the ambivalence of the book toward classical psychoanalysis, the uncertainty of madness, and contemporary European reality. [17]

Thus, the oxymoron "loyalty-by-betrayal" became our guideline. In every decision, both the loyalty -- How did the book represent this? -- and the betrayal -- How to represent this "best," most adequately? -- became an issue of reflection and discussion. Once the linguistic dispersal had become a principle that would be loyal to the book by differing so drastically from it, the visual setting had to be dispersed as well. Geographically, the film is set in different places, moving along with the dispersal of the vision of psychoanalysis. The psychoanalyst's dilemma, for example, is shared by other psychoanalysts.

Former patients of doctor Davoine are now either independent, or live in a "half-way house" where they are getting ready to re-integrate into society, elsewhere, under the guidance of other psychoanalysts. As an example of a visual-linguistic pun that makes a theoretical point tangible, this house is in "the North," because retrouver le nord is the French phrase for coming to your senses. As the patients, there, struggle to come to their senses, then, so does psychiatry: for filming this half-way house we were lucky enough to end up on historically layered Seili Island, a small island off the coast of Turku, Finland. The island's landscape is beautiful, the mid-summer light extraordinary, and the overall sense of the place gives a peek into the layering of history in the present. On this island, a former leprosy hospital had been converted into a hospital for the insane, only to close in 1962. After the disappearance of leprosy in that part of the world, the old hospital cared for the mad (mostly of the lower classes and more women than men), who were never to return home to the mainland. A chilling requirement for admission, we learned, was that patients bring their own coffin. [18]

In spite of more ontological similarities than usually assumed, film images also differ from paintings or other still images in several respects. One difference that matters enormously for filmmaking is setting. Apart from their obvious movement, film images are set in spaces that have continuous presence and, hence, a function in a film. In a book, the settings can remain much vaguer, indicated only rudimentarily, as is the case in Davoine's book as well. In the film we need to evoke what Mexican psychoanalyst Alberto Montoya Hernández has called "landscapes of madness" (2006). This beautifully ambiguous concept refers both to the imaginary places madness elects to situate itself in, and to images of landscapes that appear mad, or are hospitable to the Mad. [19]

For our purposes, we wished the landscape of madness to be both full of real history of madness, as well as slightly anachronistic. Two parts of the film are set in psychiatric hospitals: the treatment of Sissi by another analyst, and the work Françoise does once she returns to her job on that fateful Day of the Dead. The location for the first part is an obsolete yet formerly actual psychiatric institution in Nokia, Finland, called Pitkäniemi Hospital. It is quite reminiscent of the hospital at Seili. The location for the other part is in Amsterdam, the Netherlands: an art deco building housing an art school, with large echoing spaces that respond to the idea of collective treatment in more ways than one. The footage shows that this cannot be what is known as group therapy, because the patients are too deeply immersed in their madness to connect to each other. This isolation, in turn, comes across through the echoing sound characteristic of the large halls, which makes for difficult understanding. The echo surrounds each patient with an isolating auditive halo. The patients' only sociality is with Françoise, a situation that burdens the latter with the responsibility to begin restoring sociality with and for them. Thus, a drawback of that particular location -- its terrible acoustics -- ends up contributing to making concrete, to "image", the central problem in madness according to Davoine's book: the broken social bonds that leave the patients in what she calls "catastrophic regions," a term that resonates with Montoya Hernández's "landscapes of madness." For Davoine, these regions -- mental and geographical as well as historical -- harbour the violence that generates madness, sometimes generations later.

Other locations include several sites in Paris, such as an old neighbourhood theatre as setting for the trial, and a flea market for a short memory sequence of the Fools being chased away from public space (by adding "by François Premier" they place themselves in the sixteenth century). These sites are "turned mad" by the discrepancies between the normal goings-on and the interference wrought by the Fools. Seili Island and its hospital convey the sense of isolation that is a silent stream in the film, not foregrounded as much in the book. In the South of Spain, we set the visit Françoise pays to Don Luís, the old family friend and Resistance fighter, in order to broaden the scope of the historical violence invoked. Here, a visit to the cemetery dates the film to that long 31st of October, the Day of the Dead, as well as placing it against that other "paisaje de la locura" that was the Spanish Civil War. Documentary footage of a puppet play at an annual medieval festival in Turku opens the film. This sets up the anachronistic time-and-place of the entire story. These are settings where, precisely, history can act up again, as it does in the lives of the patients. [20]

But, in spite of such suggestive settings, the film is not realistic in the traditional sense; it actively avoids this rhetorical mode. We have several reasons for this avoidance of straightforward realism. As the film and its story offer clear indications that it is not realistic, a realist reading will not only be false rhetorically. It will also fail to do justice to the inextricable bond between the film and the reality it critically engages. I am even inclined to generalize this point: realism by definition distorts, obscures, and otherwise bypasses the bond between art -- or literary works -- and reality. That bond, complex and questionable as it is, also remains a primary requirement for art to matter. [21]

In the same vein, I maintain the term "Mad" for the characters that hover in a state of patienthood. The clearest synonym of this word is "mentally ill," rather than the American euphemism "mentally disabled" or, worse, "challenged." Whereas "ill" is a cultural diagnosis of a state that does not preclude competent agency, "disabled" is precisely the opposite of what the characters turn out to be, and suggests permanence; they are rather hyper-abled. That other euphemism, "mentally challenged," again if literally interpreted, implies the possibility to willfully improve the state of one's mind. All euphemisms based on this word "challenged" imply the worst connotations of the ideology of the American dream: challenges can be met; who fails is herself to blame. Here, again, I submit a generalization: euphemisms, well-meant as they are, are misguided attempts to take the sting out of language. They are misguided because, precisely through their erasure of negativity in their connotations, they erase the persistence of the views the older terms express more honestly.

Rather than avoiding the language, culture is in need of different views of a phenomenon that has a history. For this revision of the views the old term may be more useful, reminding us as it does of the dangers inherent in the views they express, not in the terms per se. Thus, such euphemisms do the opposite of performing retrospection; they erase what needs to be re-visioned. The authentication of psychosis compels a commitment to such a strongly historical yet reversed, or preposterous, politics of time.

The impossibility of realism -- its fundamental unrealness -- is most clearly demonstrated by the "actual" psychoanalytic treatments we staged. As mentioned, in the course of the film there are two (supposedly) completed treatments of patients: a shorter one of a man called Herlat, played by Thomas Germaine (whom we already encountered as Fool Antonin, patient Antonin, and court member Artaud) taking place in Davoine's office, toward the end of the film; and a longer treatment of Sissi, taking place early on in Pitkäniemi Hospital. These two sequences pose the cinematic problem of realism with insistence. If played out earnestly, they would have to be documentary in style and boring in length. If tampered with, as we were compelled to do, they might become demeaning to the seriousness of the pain of the (fictionalized) afflicted patients.

In relation to this dilemma, here I will only briefly discuss one aspect of Sissi's treatment, a major sequence in the film. This sequence is subject to a particular act of translation, that of loyalty-by-betrayal. We made two decisions of betrayal that turned out "loyal enough." In the book, Françoise evokes Sissi's treatment at length in conversations with Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), the physicist devoted to quantum mechanics. He is also a member of the court, and the person she runs into after the trial. These conversations as such were impossible to capture visually: they were too abstract, too lengthy, and full of word play and other linguistic elements that would make the film top-heavy. Brilliant writing, impossible filming. This was an aesthetic consideration dependent on medium. More importantly, there was a theoretical consideration. As an object of conversation, Sissi herself would be invisible or only serve as an illustration, which goes against the grain of a treatment that declares the patient to be of primary importance. [22]

So, to put it simply, in the service of loyal-enough imaging we eliminated the scientist. However, since Schrödinger is widely known for a thought experiment involving a cat, we felt compelled to stage a cat. But instead of to Schrödinger, we gave it to T.S. Eliot, whose reputation is also attached to cats (through the long-running Broadway musical based on his poems). To kill two birds with one stone, in response to both problems, Sissi's treatment, which Françoise remembers as her first failure, is recast as a second attempt at analysis this exuberant patient undertakes, this time engaging with another analyst, Marjo Vuorela.

And, once liberated from the indirectness in Françoise's account to Schrödinger, we could visualize Sissi's dreams of grandeur. While coming from a very simple working-class family, she imagines herself to be (a double of) the Empress of Austria-Hungary. This feature of the character became a great asset for visualization as well as empowerment. Instead of or in addition to having her talk about her imperial status and dignity, we dressed her in a variety of chic clothes, different for each session, with fitting hairstyles and jewelry. As it turned out, and in no small measure thanks of the superb acting of Finnish actress Marja Skaffari, the moving moments in the treatment when Sissi is evoking extremely painful memories are set off against her exuberant dress with very convincing, indeed contagious, poignancy. Through these two serious betrayals to the book we were able to create a gripping image sequence, give Sissi her own voice, and stage her madness without demeaning her. This sequence will probably be shown before the trial.

Sissi at the office door (photo by Olli Heinola)

Photo 12: Sissi at the office door (photo by Olli Heinola)

The sequences of treatments turn on another decision. We envisioned a film with an integration of scenes that are exuberant in mood (rather than in colour and style), using close-ups as a way of slowing down pace from the whirlwind of the carnivalesque scenes, and getting close to the minds of the characters. Close-ups also help us to break through linear time, to slow down, and to bridge to other times. The temporality is always ambiguous, between play-acting and the representation of a different reality. It is by means of close-ups that it becomes possible to place these scenes at a remove from the present, instead of in a chronological temporal continuity. The close-ups help to create the mood, the language, and the interaction necessary to liberate the story from a realism that is at odds with the world of the imagination, which is the ultimate setting.

We wanted to experiment with an approach based on minimal hints, rather than full representation. The acting is demanding, as the actors carry the story and its most implausible, dream-like events, which are filmed without the conventional visual rhetoric of dream representations, such as soft focus or blur. I already mentioned that narratologically, the attention is not systematically focused on the main character. The narrator-psychoanalyst is never securely in charge. Instead, the patients take turns in dominating the scenes. This is especially the case with Sissi and Herlat, but also with other characters, less fully "treated" than these two. Between these narratological changes and the visual shifts, I contend, the film is loyal to the book on a deeper level than a formal similarity would have allowed.

Anachronism and Cultural History
Not only in terms of the main character, places, and languages, but also cinematically we pursued the sense of suspension from linear time, and of dispersal that, Michelle and I found, is the "royal robe with ample folds" that Benjamin presented as an image of translation. The film merges cinematic traditions with theatrical ones. A film with medieval scenes and scenes in remote buildings in it will have to be carefully crafted to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of such films, that is, both a false realism and an offensive, cardboard anachronism. If the film is to be serious in its betraying loyalty to the book's insights, the anachronisms have to be, so to speak, earned. This means that they have to make sense theoretically as well as visually. Françoise's position between the two worlds, times, and visions of psychoanalysis is nicely conveyed in photo 1.

Photo 1: Françoise Davoine, author and main actor (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 1: Françoise Davoine, author and main actor (photo Markus Karjalainen)

While she is simply explaining something, the photographer, Markus Karjalainen, has carefully captured her in-betweenness. The iconically baroque colour of her casual and contemporary sweater, the equally baroque foreshortening of her hand, and the mirroring of her face position her strictly in two worlds at once. Her facial expression conveys the joy of the freedom and creativity that that position gives her.

We have, of course, been deeply influenced by other films. The visual exuberance and temporal ambiguity of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal is one of many sources of inspiration; so is Orson Welles's The Trial with its over-structured, maddening spaces. Consisting of a single shot, Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark stretches the idea of long shots to the extreme. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death with its surreal trial scene stages people traversing time, as does Sally Potter's Orlando, and Fritz Lang's M stages a judgment with criteria spiralling out of control. We also look at experiments such as Maya Deren's At Land and Agnès Varda's Les glaneurs et la glaneuse.

For the Fools, small characteristic details and props and strong acting make them look as if coming from another time. Photo 2, for example, conveys the other-worldly nature of Mère Folle through a few very simple elements.

Photo 2: Mère Folle arrives (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 2: Mère Folle arrives (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Her wild hair is pushed back, as if through a strong wind, or a fast pace. Neither were the case during the shooting, but the effect, which was to enhance the idea of "appearance," was created by simply backcombing her hair. At the same time, the low hedges of the glorious French classical garden of the Maison Descartes in Amsterdam set off her layered skirt to suggest she is floating above ground. And her fierce look aheadadds to the feeling that she does not quite belong to where she is. [23]

The central scene of the trial is set in a theatre, which also implicates that art form as a full participant, rather than simply the cinema's "other." On the one hand, up to the structure of the trial scene, the "sottie," a medieval genre of street theatre, is a constant reference; on the other the film refers to Brecht, Pirandello, and twentieth-century street theatre. If we realize that Brecht admired Breughel's painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), which he used as a model for his Mutter Courage (Bryant-Bertail 2000, 83-84), the use of this figure both on the cover of Davoine's book and in the sequence of Sissi's treatment, this theatricality becomes even an aesthetic (and political) hub. Yet these theatrical moments are ultimately indistinguishable from the scenes set in a straightforward contemporary setting, such as the scenes at the hospital. Photo 3 shows the Fools on their way out of the courtyard, protesting when at the end of the scene the nurses attempt to cast them out, as happens in photo 4. [24]

In photo 3, on the left, La Boétie beats a makeshift drum, participating in the Fools' charivari (a brutal noise of beating on pots, as a protest).

Photo 3: Fools and Mad mingling in courtyard (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 3: Fools and Mad mingling in courtyard (photo Markus Karjalainen)

A big Fool (Richard Wank) who so far has been patiently gluing a book together in protest to what he sees as the damage done by reading, follows Mère Folle on her way out. The other Fools are bickering with the Musical Nurse, who tries to calm down the resident Mad with music resonant with their own noise, while her colleague the Head Nurse shoos the Fools out by authority. The shadow her arms cast onto her own body visualize the latter's impotence of her authority. All this is highly theatrical, specifically comedic. And the visual and behavioural clashes, as well as the contagion between the Fools and the Mad -- the protesters and the victims of the system of mental health care respectively -- suggest the difficulty of keeping up a regime when the categories on which it rests melt down. [25]

Once it has been instated as a principle, inter-temporality shows up everywhere. Photo 5 shows the strange inter-temporality among the Fools.

Photo 5: La Boétie, Antonin, and a Fool who lent her ear to the tyrant (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 5: La Boétie, Antonin, and a Fool who lent her ear to the tyrant (photo Markus Karjalainen)

A meeting is staged across four centuries. La Boétie (Carel Smith), the sixteenth century writer and a prominent legal specialist in his day, meets Antonin, aka Artaud, the early twentieth century mad poet and playwright. The medieval Fool on the right (Eloe Kingma) looks to La Boétie, in an understanding born from their shared dumbness. Antonin, who uses La Boétie's rhetorical prose to act out his own tendency to verging on hysteria, looks into an undefined distance. He is temporally in-between, belonging neither to the Middle Ages (although the Fools explicitly adopt him as "one of us") nor to Françoise's contemporaneity (although she claims him as a patient ["an authentic madman"] who likes to makes a nuisance of himself). As he is in-between times, he is also in-between the two groups, the Fools and the Mad. Like the Fools, he seems addicted to arguing and talks with great anger; like the Mad, he is alone, as his distant gaze suggests. Sympathetic to the grievance of the Fools but too mad to connect with them, the creator of the Theatre of Cruelty incarnates in his role the ideal of a kind of language half-way between gesture and thought. Especially in the trial scene, his discourse becomes strongly performative. Yet, there, too, he remains alone. [26]

This loneliness recurs in photo 6, where the members of the court judging Françoise sit at the table.

Photo 6: The Court presided by Mère Folle (Murielle-Lucie Clément) at Françoise's Trial (photo Mia Hannula)

Photo 6: The Court presided by Mère Folle (Murielle-Lucie Clément) at Françoise's Trial (photo Mia Hannula)

Artaud, who will soon dress up as a monk to further harangue Françoise, looks into the distance. Mère Folle has her eyes cast down; she is consistently self-absorbed and, due to her depression, incapable of exercising her authority. As the scene in the hospital courtyard explains, she is depressed because her tradition has been repressed from public culture. The other three court members on her left look cheerful, while the young Fool on the President's right (Fleur Sulmont) looks confrontationally to the audience. The bird cage on the table is an attribute of Ariste that this young Fool has appropriated. She waves it provocatively in photo 3. [27]

Two particularly theatrical moments are visible in photos 7 and 8. In the former, Françoise is flanked by her two abductors.

Photo 7: Françoise with her abductors (photo Mia Hannula)

Photo 7: Françoise with her abductors (photo Mia Hannula)

The one on the left (Jean-Baptiste Decavèle) alternates force with sympathy for her. He considers his job as an abductor a normal way of making a living ("just doing his job") and establishes a friendly, advising connection with her. He even falls asleep like a baby with his head on her shoulder. The abductor on the right (Bruno Lermon) continually does not understand what is going on, and looks alternately bored, confused, and irritated. Hence, Françoise, who remains as earnest a discussant as ever, is utterly alone, in spite of these two companions. In photo 8, the consistently near-hysterical acting of Artaud becomes a ploy to visualize the character's privileging theatricality in his work.

Photo 8: Artaud (Thomas Germaine) and Francoise (photo Mia Hannula)

Photo 8: Artaud (Thomas Germaine) and Francoise (photo Mia Hannula)

Suddenly showing up in a monk's robe, he uses the court case to deliver a plea for his famous Theatre of Cruelty, consistently hovering between artistic and political originality on the one hand, and madness on the other.

Like Eliot (Matthew Wright, left) and Wittgenstein (John Neubauer, right) in photo 9, these characters from the cultural history of the early twentieth century all embody ideas; they are conceptual personae.

Photo 9: Wittgenstein (John Neubauer) and Eliot (Matthew Wright) arguing (photo Mia Hannula)

Their intellectual raving surrounds them with a kind of cognitive aura, comparable to the auditive aura in the Grande Salle scene. They all seem mad to the extent that they push intellectual ideas. It is only the context of a film in which everyone is both a little mad and a little sane that their self-centred utterances converge in something that is the ultimate image or backdrop of this film. In what is both a cacophony of theoretical pronouncements and a convergence of ideas, a tapestry of thought emerges in the proximity of which psychoanalysis had been able to become so individualistic that it reaches the aporia that is Françoise's crisis. The temporal encounter between these thoughts from history turn a chronological cultural history into a preposeterous one, while weaving a backdrop for an acute need to turn to anachronism as a cure. [28]

Conclusion: What Images Can Be and Do

One of the conclusions I wish to draw from this brief consideration of filmic images as responses to the linguistically articulated ones they translate and betray, is the inseparability of visuality and narrativity. The preceding discussion has hopefully shown that images are not ontologically separate from the story they allegedly convey, let alone "illustrate." Rather, they make the story, every time anew. In the context of word-and-image relations, the word "illustrate" is a verb we should for a while ban from our reflections, until we have learned to take for granted that like linguistic utterances, images, too, have performative power. [29]

Also, an image, even a figurative one, is not confined to a visual representation. I am particularly interested in how images make us "do theory," to recall Damisch's words. I contend that what I just wrote about the cacophony of theoretical ideas, forming a tapestry, is itself an image. Only to the extent that it is an image can it be a backdrop against which the story can be set and psychoanalysis, with its failures and potential, can be set in a constant becoming, instead of the rigid legacy of a genius author. Like the cacophony of the charivari, slowly merging into the music the Musical Nurse uses as medicine. Or like the sea in the haunting photo 10, where Sissi, now in the half-way house, stands considering whether to throw herself into the water- being, or playing Ophelia? This is an image that carries with it the many stories of drowned women. While alone, her hands conduct the arguments for or against, considering the Shakespearian madness against the tradition of her own Finnish folklore. [30]

Sissi (Marja Skaffari) (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Photo 10: Sissi (Marja Skaffari) (photo Markus Karjalainen)

Finally, the insight I find most important to draw from this is what a cliché would phrase as "learning from the past": something "we" (here in the universal sense) never quite manage. Psychoanalysis is the theoretical framework that keeps us attentive to this historical lesson, if we are only willing to see that not only individual neurosis, but true historically induced madness can be successfully analyzed. This is what Davoine tries to argue -- if this is the right word -- through the images she wrote.

Ariste (Fleur Sulmont) looking on
Photo 11: Ariste (Fleur Sulmont) looking on (photo Markus Karjalainen)

The dead Ariste, who in photo 11 looks on at the scenes of madness played out before him, is the embodiment of that deadly, but potentially curable past. Sissi, as if emerging from the office door to which she seemed glued like a painting, embodying the two-dimensionality the hospital imposes on its patients, insists on the continued presence of the past, in photo 12 where photographer Olli Heinola (also actor and webmaster) has captured her in-between state perfectly. This is her opportunity to make a new start after having been stuck, to "get better," as she says several times. It is, then, also what Michelle Williams Gamaker and I try to argue visually. If we manage that, the translation from book to film can be said to work, not in spite of but thanks to our many betrayals.

Sissi at the office door

Photo 12: Sissi at the office door (photo by Olli Heinola)
[1] The idea that images "speak back" has emerged from my practice as PhD advisor. Instead of alleging an image as evidence for an argument, I teach my students to look back at them to see if, to what extent, and how they support the argument. And if to an extent the match is not happening, the writer learns from that, rather than regarding that as failure. For the idea of the performativity of images, modeled on speech act theory (Austin 1962), see Bal (2002).
[2] Damisch's concept of the theoretical object sometimes seems to suggest these are objects around which theories have been produced. At other times, as in the interview quoted here, he attributes to the artwork the capacity to motivate, entice, and even compel thought. I endorse the latter meaning.
[3] On the case study, see Berlant (2007a and 2007b). On the tension between case study and theoretical object, see the introduction to Bal (2010). On performativity, see the relevant chapter in Bal (2002).
[4] Ernst van Alphen-also a Damisch interpreter who thinks about the intellectual contribution images can make-devoted the chapter "Caught by Images" of his 2005 book on that subject to images that remain entirely literary.
[5] As members of the collective Cinema Suitcase, Michelle Williams Gamaker and I collaborated on the films Mille et un jours (2004), Colony (2007), and Becoming Vera (2008). We have both made other films with other members of the collective, as well as individually.
[6] I am aware that the more common term is "adaptation." However, I choose to consider the film a translation, because of the specific issue the activity of translation entails, according to the Benjaminian stream of thought I engage here. Among many studies of adaptation, the collection edited by Stam and Raengo deserves attention.
[7] On "becoming," see Deleuze and Guattari (1987), where they use that term throughout. For an argument about the transformative nature of images that supports an anti-intentionalist position, see Bal (2002, 253-85). On the retrospective logic as a historical perspective, see Bal (1999).
[8] Although author and filmmakers remain relatively independent from each other, it is relevant to realize that the preposterous logic I have developed as a historical approach squares perfectly with Davoine's conception of history, particularly (but not exclusively) as it plays itself out in madness. See the clip "Françoise on Time" on the video section of the film's website, as well as many remarks in her books (1992, 1998, 2008), and the scenography of her encounters with people from the past.
[9] The idea that images are received, rather than created by the author, was suggested to me by Kaja Silverman's recent book (2009), in which she discusses this attitude of artists apropos of Rilke. Davoine's book is an extraordinary integration of theory and images, "facts" and fiction. Among other advantages, such as more subtlety and strong identification, this integration allowed the author to do justice to the lived experiences in the case histories of her patients without being the dominating one who writes them.
[10] "While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds," Walter Benjamin writes in "The Task of the Translator" (1968, 75). This essay, central to my argument an images as my primary "philosophical object," will henceforth be referred to by page numbers only. See also the discussion in Derrida (1983, 93-161). For an extensive discussion of Benjamin's text, see chapter two of Bal (2002).
[11] The summary in these paragraphs does not distinguish between book and film, in spite of the differences between the two.
[12] The author, the main character-narrator, and the actress are the same person. For clarity's sake I will use the first name "Françoise" when speaking about the character, actress, and narrator, and use her last name "Davoine" when talking about the author of the book.
[13] Since we had a micro-budget for the film, we mostly had to work with volunteer actors. The Musical Nurse (Leticia Bal) is a professional musician (Feil! Hyperkoblingsreferansen er ugyldig.) but amateur actress, while the Head Nurse is a prominent professional actress (Olga Zuiderhoek). See www.crazymothermovie.com for more information on cast and crew.
[14] The notion of "extreme identification" was Michelle's and my interpretation of Davoine's method. The term "catastrophic regions" is Davoine's.
[15] See Verstraten (2009) for a film narratology that is consistent with my own narratological concepts. (Bal 2009)
[16] Françoise Davoine commented on this point: "I feel not betrayed but expanded" (augmentée, personal communication, January 3, 2010). Many of our interventions started out as need-compelled and received theoretical support retrospectively, or half-way through the making of the film. But I will not go into the adventures of a micro-budget film production here.
[17] See the clip "Françoise on Time" on the video page of the website. The author commented further on this in a personal communication after reading a first draft of this paper (January 3, 2010).
[18] Thanks to Mia Hannula of the University of Turku, whose constant support and help has been indispensable to us. The beautiful documentary "Women of Seili" by Mikaela Weurlander (2008), which we saw only later, gives background information about the hospital that converges astonishingly with our film. The primary source on this "invention" of madness as a hospitable disease after leprosy remains Michel Foucault. The English edition of his Madness and Civilization is an abridged version of Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique, originally published in 1961. A full English translation titled History of Madness was published by Routledge in 2006.
[19] As has happened several times during this project, the author of a book, in this case a psychoanalyst working in Mexico City, ended up playing a role in the film. See the clip "Don Luís the younger" on the video section of the website.
[20] One funny but revealing incident demonstrates what a "landscape of madness" can be. When shooting the incident of the Fools chased away from the public place, the actors playing cleaners who got rid of the medieval Fools were later approached by resident visitors of the flea market, who thanked them for getting rid of "those crazies." In other words, the action created a space where madness threatened to take over, and the guys in uniforms were automatically taken to be the authorities, who "saved" the market from madness.
[21] I am currently devoting three books to this question. One of these, "Of What One Cannot Speak" is currently in press.
[22] With the phrase "loyal enough" I am alluding to the object-relation theory idea of the "good enough" mother (Winnicott 1989, 10-1).
[23] For this scene, make-up artist Hannele Rantanen skillfully meandered between exuberance (for the Fools) and restraint (for the patients).
[24] Brecht also drew on the figure of Dulle Griet for Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, writing that: "any actress who plays Grusha needs to study the beauty of Breughel's ‘Dulle Griet'" (quoted in Carney 55). The painting is clearly theatrical; Artaud also links theatre to this painting, commenting that it is "mute theater, but one that tells more than if it had received a language in which to express itself" (120). I thank Machteld Harmsen for bringing this information about Artaud's stance and Brecht's preference for Mad Meg to my attention.
[25] On the genre of the sottie, see Aubailly (1976). For the concept of theatricality underlying the film we benefit from the work of Maaike Bleeker, who defines theatricality as a "critical vision machine" (2008a and 2008b), as well as from her personal advice. The Musical Nurse plays a self-designed instrument, a set of enamel pots, that she hopes will sound congenial to the Mad who have been riveted by the charivari made by the Fools. On the charivari tradition, see Rey-Flaud (1985).
[26] Artaud published a collection of his essays on theatre called Le théâtre et son double in 1938, translated as The Theater and Its Double (1958).
[27] Davoine's book follows the conventions of the genre of the sottie with great sophistication, something the film cannot do. For the structure of the sottie, see Aubailly (1976). For the Dutch medieval tradition in the same vein we have greatly benefited from the generous advice of Dutch medievalist Herman Pleij (1989, 1992, 2007a, 2007b).
[28] Deleuze and Guattari loosen up the authority/authorship of the philosopher himself by means of the concept of "conceptual persona," a figure that helps them think as well as "become other" (1994). The term refers to "fluctuating figures who express the presuppositions or ethos of their philosophy and through their existence, no matter how inchoate or unstable, give life to concepts on a new plane of immanence." Such conceptual personae can be given shape in cinematic characters. Importantly, these figures are not allegories; they do not "stand for" some idea, concept, or thought, but figure the search for still unformed thoughts. (This formulation of the conceptual persona is partly quoted from and further inspired by Rodowick 2000, n. pag.)
[29] For a helpful discussion of images in both texts and visual artifacts see Mitchell (1986). Van Alphen (2005), already mentioned, offers a brilliant case study of visual images in literature.
[30] The famous Finnish medieval epic poem Kalevala also features a woman throwing herself into the water. On the bond between women and death, Bronfen.
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Spent 2009 (ongoing)
Materials: Artist's Semen, Universal Litmus Paper

A true, all RAW, DADDY BEAR, GANG BANG FUCK FEST! COCKED AND LOADED features 7 hot Daddies fucking 1 lucky bottom boy…a total cast of 8 ass ploughing, cum eating studs, fucking non-stop for 80 minutes all for your pleasure…COCKED AND LOADED features real man to man ass banging…with some of the most awesome feltching scenes you will ever see. And, of course, all the trademark close-up shots by the legendary Michael McKey as he zooms in so you get to see every drop of cum and every man-ramming minute.

8.01. That’s what it says on the porn star’s watch as he begins his ecstatic, over-acted climax. I can see it clearly on the screen, a silver digital watch with a grey face and black LED numbering. The counter on the silver DVD recorder shows me that I am 28 minutes and 39 seconds into the ‘fuck fest’.  The clock on my mobile telephone lying next to the bright orange sheet of universal litmus paper shows me that it is 10.30 exactly. A triangular interface of three separate moments all ‘shot’ through by a porn stars’ orgasm. Maybe there is another kind of a clock in the room, the fingers of my hand wrapped around my dick, a five-digit flesh metronome, each stroke of my hand keeping time, the rhythm see-sawing, faster and slower, creating a score of the fizzing pressure of my own orgasm, getting nearer, ebbing away, getting nearer again, as my hand strokes and hesitates, strokes and hesitates.

The DVD’s that I have been watching are getting progressively more explicit, no frills, no music, no soft lighting just hard, super-sharp fucking. I have produced over one hundred and fifty semen drawings. I described them once as a mapping of desire for an exhibition catalogue. I was wrong. They don’t map desire; they map mechanical reproduction, repeatability, and the boredom of making over and over again. The material evidence of these drawings reduces my orgasm to a mere methodology, an A to a B. My need for explicit images is a need to get it over with, to make the composition, make it number one hundred and fifty one. It is not porn that is brutalising me but drawing, the voluntary act of turning my body into a system, a sequential unit of pictorial production.

My experience is fractured, not the self-absorbed onanistic pleasure of libidinal need but an array of necessities that disperse the encounter with myself. Propped up awkwardly on a cushion leaning on my left arm, remote control in hand. The litmus paper in front of my cock angled slightly up to the left so that the ‘composition’ can be framed on the paper. My eyes shift from screen, to remote, to paper…back to screen. The rhythm of intercourse on the screen falls into the rhythm of my hand and then my hand falls behind, the endless edited thrusting explored from every angle, known visually from all sides. The ache in my left arm reminds me that it needs to move; I angle my body closer to the paper.

The porn stars eyes have betrayed him. As he waited his turn at the ‘cum hole’ his eyes flicked towards the camera. I am no longer the eternal voyeur visually eves-dropping, the straight trajectory of his desire has been disrupted and he has acknowledged his performance within the scene no matter how quickly he takes his eyes away again. The remote, the paper, frame my own scene, puncturing the smooth flow of my own desire. The shadow of a boom mike crosses his leg and then quickly withdraws, as he steps towards the bed he reveals a clothed boy behind him sitting on a sofa. How old is he? Early to middle twenties? He is wearing a grey t-shirt and blue jeans, a clipboard clutched to his chest with campy efficiency. His gaze is not boredom, or invested physical interest, but a kind of efficient directorial stare at a job getting done. I too have bodies to direct, and paper, an orange screen for my efficient ejaculations, director and performer, a producer and consumer. My arm begins to hurt, time to shift again, angling my body further from the paper this time.

Fast forward, rewind, trying to get just the right moment. I can digitally control these porn stars, get them to re-enter or cum again and again endlessly repeating their contorted faces at the moment of orgasm, finding my favourite position, my eyes eating the screen. Click, not close enough, click, not extreme enough, always trying to see more, to catch every texture of the skin of the cock, to scoop up the last visual viscosity of the semen as it spatters onto the face and chest of the ‘bottom’.

I am never in it. No imagined positions or transference, no attempt to be a top or bottom my eyeballs are dispassionate and disconnected to the rest of my body but slip over not into the screen. I can feel my balls beginning to tighten, here is the familiar conclusion, not eagerly anticipated but not necessarily uninvited either. End of the process.  I move my hand quickly up and down my cock, the rhythm quickening pace with the porn star so that we can come together. He is purely focused on the money shot, isolated in his own universe and strangely separate from the bottom who watches with a staged anticipation but also with a kind of locked out distanced look on his face.

If I am so separate from the screen then why do I ‘cum’ with him? Why do I want to perform this sexual swoon at exactly the same time? Am I slipping into the directed fantasy of the film, are the cries of “yes, yes cum, shoot it” for me? To me? Of me?

In-take of breath…eyes too wide to see and then the charges through my body and the separate thrusts of my balls as the semen is pushed out of my dick. I am not lost in the drenched feeling of orgasm, never un-tethered or oblivious as my eyes quickly dart downwards across my chest and down onto my penis. This is my money shot, making sure the semen hits the orange of the paper, the litmus target. I try not to compose, not to frame the orgasm but, as the now dead, meaningless and hollow sounds of the porn movie continue on with its ‘fuck-fest’, I move my cock around so that it creates flicks and splashes, an onanistic Pollock tracing loops. As soon as the semen hits the litmus paper it turns green, no longer anything to do with me, that green is the shut off, the severing away from myself. That green is the objective, dispassionate evidence, an aesthetic mould that bleeds away from the private, the inside and onto the public.

Press the off button.

Cum time: 10.56
Cum Date: 06/08/09

Spent 2009 (ongoing)
Materials: Artist's Semen, Universal Litmus Paper

Masturbating. Onanism. Self-love. Auto-affection. Auto-eroticism. Self abuse. Self-pollution (selbst-befleckung). Defiling with the hand. Playing with yourself. Wanking. Frigging. Beating off. Fingering. Tossing off. Beating the beaver. Flogging yourself. Gerkin jerkin’. Jacking off. Digitizing. Chocking the bishop. Mangling the midget. Punching the clown. Spanking the monkey. Whipping the pony. Chafing the weasel. Flogging the dog. Strangling the snake. Shooting your load. Squirting. Ejaculating. Spent.

Here is the rub: what is this corporeal violence, this vicious carnality, this fierce appetite, this pathology of the imagination, the solitary pleasures of masturbation, this act of ejaculation? Cruel? Murderous? Necrophilic? Frequently. Atheological? Yes. A case of dwarf love, coulrophobia, zoophilia or animal cruelty? Sometimes. Sadistic? Over and over again. Masochistic? Time and time again. Repetitive? Repeatedly. Sado-masochistic? Undeniably. Narcissistic? Always.

Masturbation, the solitary vice, you just can’t beat it.

Masturbation is an act of profound narcissism. It is a love for the self. Of the self. It is enacted by a subject who takes itself as its own love object. It bespeaks the dangers of human solidarity itself. However secretive or furtive, however under-hand, it still leaves an indelible mark. Even in private it is the act of the exhibitionist. Asocial sociality. We make a spectacle of ourselves. (And we watch ourselves doing it.) Masturbation evinces an excessive need for admiration and affirmation, a selfish-ness, a disregard for others. It is a perversion par excellence, a perverting of desire, polymorphously so: an aberration, libidinous, carnal, an instinctual act of self-presentation, and likewise a coming-to-death, always pertaining simultaneously towards both life and lifelessness. With a shiver, a shudder, with in-joyment we surrender ourselves to sensual, jubilant, excruciating paroxysmal pleasure. Spent. It is the death instinct turned around upon our own ego, an infinite delay and pleasure, a sexual satisfaction crucial for masochism’s contractual, destructive attitude.

Which is not to say it necessarily happens alone. We inflict pain and pleasure, harm oneself as if another, harm oneself and another, be harmed by them. Then they call it ‘mutual’ or parallel masturbation, reciprocal and reciprocated, but nonetheless there’s something asymmetrical in, always a sadistic edge to, this pleasure from the law of coming or squirting at or on or into the mouth or arse or cunt of an other.

Masturbation is all about contact. Touching. Touching the self. Touching the other. Touching the other as self. Skin on skin. The skin, wrote Freud, is a sensory filter between the internal and external worlds. Fair enough. But skin, the largest of the body’s organs, is also continuous. Inside and outside. Continuous contours. Baroque. Touching is for Freud a source of pleasure, much as it is a danger, and even a perversion if, as he warns, the individual becomes preoccupied by lingering over the stage of touching at the expense of and to the extent that the ‘sexual act’ is no longer the desired outcome of any given encounter. This is touching for its own sake. Imminence itself. Touching as touching, then, a touching of the self, an act of auto-affection, a solitary pleasure.

When it comes to such touching, there is of course something manual, instrumental, about such handy work. Such contact. Such control. Painfully intimate and yet strangely dissociative. But where is the locus of power, the management of such a regulative regime? For Luce Irigaray, auto-affection for men always already involves some kind of mediation by way of a tool or an instrument: a hand, a device, a woman’s body. Here, because of this enforced distance that he has from himself while touching himself, he can only touch himself as other to himself. Contrary to this, as Irigaray makes clear, woman’s masturbation needs no mediation. She touches herself ‘in and of herself.’ Leo Bersani, always ready to queer things a little further, suggests that the authority lies elsewhere since for him ‘in masturbation the… body, more specifically the penis, disciplines the hand that would rule it.’
Masturbation is aeconomical. This touching, this contact, is against the economy of heterosexual genital intercourse. It is that dangerous supplement deceiving nature – because it supplants rather than complements nature – and thus the natural order of things. It is non-procreative eroticism. It leans away from husbandry and towards squandering  (extravagant spending, and scattering too) and wastefulness. Its precious seed, in all of its purity, dirtiness, and abject material-ness is spilt wondrously, wastefully, exhaustively. Spent. Its true worth is finally fully understood as George Bataille’s celebration of the philosophy of dépense, of expenditure or waste. Against classical utility, masturbation is generative and non-generative, productive and disposable, a perverse sexuality that speaks of a non-genital finality, a matter of ‘non-logical difference’. As symptomatic of Bataille’s general economy, it is unproductive expenditure par excellence. Unproductive activities always lead and are tied to economic anxieties. Masturbation is an autarky: economically self-reliant and self-sufficient. Convenient. Cheap. Free even! All strong motives. Supply and demand are endless – physiologically and socially: alone, in pairs, with lots of people, etc. Masturbation is a quantitative problem. This is no economy of scarcity. As Thomas Laqueur writes, there is no bottom line in the masturbatory economy. You come, come, and come again. Spurt. Trickle. Gush. Repeatedly so. Serially. Daily. Spend. Spend. Spent. Fiscally-speaking, especially in this climate, who can afford (to waste) the money shot?

Masturbation has an aesthetic all of its own; it is the ultimate incitement of the theory of the qualities of feeling. It is graphic; material, embodied, enfolded. It demands we ask a Proustian question: how is that (by, from) me? Squirting, ejaculating has a trajectory, a temporality, a rhythmic pulsation, and the beginnings of a narrative. It has a morphology, it is morphogenic even. It also has a spatiality, a spacing, a gradual bleed, for instance, across the litmus paper. Form and formless-ness. And repetitive, where repetition is boredom, banality, chaffing, soreness, an operation in the service of the death instinct. Squiggles. Baroque. In the end it is perhaps a little like Darwin’s aevolutionary coral.

This masturbatory aesthetic has taken many forms, and formless-nesses.
Date: 10th November 2005, Guggenheim, NYC, 5pm-12am: In ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ Marina Abramovic re-performs five earlier performances by other artists and two of her own, including Vito Acconci’s ‘Seedbed’ (1972). In re-performing ‘Seedbed’, she remembers, repeats, and works through the original, re-enacting the self-pleasure of another as her own. The audience are raucous, cheering and jeering her efforts. She has four orgasms.

Date: 1994-2002: In ‘The Cremaster Cycle’ Matthew Barney acts out an eight-year extended exercise in narcissism and anal sadism. This masturbatory machine, this investigation into the creative potential of perversion with its Vaseline and tapioca sculptures, circles around the cremaster muscle, the muscle that covers the testis, that raises and lowers the scrotum in order to regulate the temperature of the testis and promote spermatogenesis. Feel it ripple. Barney has put the masturbation into Cremaster.

Date: 1991 (and other times): In penning her ‘Woman’s Ejaculation Guide’, performance philosopher Shannon Bell is intent on a re-eroticisation of female ejaculation by speaking about her own ejaculating female body, with its rushing and gushing fluids, and of how female ejaculate serves the purpose of pleasure. She writes about the Greeks such as Galen and Hippocrates who believed in the female seed, about Aristotle who understood the fluid as pleasurable, as evidence of the female prostate, and mentions the Ugandan Batoro who have a custom called ‘kachapati’ which translates as ‘spray the wall’. Her ‘how to’ guide produces results.

Date: 4th October, 1991: former porn star turned performance artist Annie Sprinkle is at the Live Theatre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne contributing her ‘Sluts and Goddesses’ workshop to an event entitled ‘Burning the Flag? American Live Art and Censorship’. The workshop includes a re-staging of her regular ‘Public Cervix Announcement’, and culminates in ‘The Legend of the Ancient Sacred Prostitute’, a magic masturbation ritual in which Sprinkle charms her audience by orgasming multiply on stage.

Date: 1970-73: Valie Export masturbates in a tub for Mann & Frau & Animal.

Date: 15th-29th January, 1972: For ‘Seedbed’ Vito Acconci is under a false floor in the Sonnabend Gallery for eight hours a day, three days a week. With his black jumper on and his cock out, he performs an action. Repetitively. Solipsistically. His body a mere means, an instrument, his goal is to produce seed. He masturbates, out of view and by way of a disembodied voice vocalises through loudspeakers his fantasies about the visitors to the gallery.

Date: 1946: Duchamp’s ‘Paysage fautif’, a stained landscape of dried and gluey fluid is later identified by the FBI laboratories in Houston, Texas, as human semen.

Date: March 1920: Picabia’s blasphemous and iconoclastic ‘La Sainte Vierge’ (1920), his ink stain as the Virgin Mary on paper from his journal, was illustrated in the Dada periodical 391. Whether seminal or urinal, it echoes both the accidental blot drawings of 18th century English landscape painter John Robert Cozens and anticipates Jackson Pollock’s joyless and boorish hyper-masculinist action painting.

There are of course others. This is a never-ending sadistic, masochistic, sado-masochistic, vicious cycle – always the same, always different - of corporeal violence and solitary pleasures, of narcissism, touching, unproductive expenditure, a unique quality of feeling, and a graphic self-making. Jordan McKenzie is just the latest. There will be others to come.

Give the masturbator a hand.

Spent 2009 (ongoing)
Materials: Artist's Semen, Universal Litmus PaperMasturbating. Onanism. Self-love.




Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here Album Cover

The music runs in two directions. The music always ought to run in two directions. All things should run in two directions. The two directions in this case are, perhaps, discontent and compassion. Or the two directions are thick and thin. Or the two directions are waste and bounty. Or the two directions are the profligate and the miserly. Or the two directions are yearning and recoiling. Or the two directions are Here I Lie or Never You Mind. Or the two directions are one direction, or no direction at all but a shutting down of directionality, and an obsession with absence, with attempting to fill the void of absence, an unfulfilled presence, a disengagement from absence that is both disconsolate and outraged at once, and the interpretation of the directions, or the absence of direction, is more interesting than the direction themselves, which is what happens when enough room is left in the music, in the sonic spectrum, and in its visual analogue (the design that attempts to refract the music), so as to encourage and to make possible the layers of interpretation, rather than closing them out.

The first sound on the record, apparently, is made (in part) by fingers running around the rim of crystal wine glasses, and one is tempted to use the word goblet, so as to employ it, and it’s easy from this vantage point to see the opening section, the section in which fingers are playing wine glasses, as the work of a living and breathing keyboard player, Richard Wright, now dead, so this slow, incremental opening, which starts with wine glasses and synthesizers, and some other stuff tinkling way back in the mix, vibraphone, e.g., is a celebration of his living, and a eulogy for his passing, just as the entire composition, first and last, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” is about another former band member now deceased, Syd Barrett, original composer for the ensemble known as Pink Floyd, and because the song, first and last, is about Syd Barrett, the direction, the trajectory of the record is in the direction of regret, because, after all Syd Barrett was released from the band because of unreliability, because of excessive whimsy, because of an inability to be professional, because of vision, because of writer’s block, because of a lack of furniture, because of ill treatment of girlfriends, because of revision in the matter of free expression, because of sartorial eccentricity, because of tonsorial eccentricity, because of dark clouds massing on his horizon, because of lateness, because of earliness, because of operating outside of time, because of social awkwardness, because of a refusal to be social, because of weight gain, because of the future, because of the past, because of astronomy, because of youth, because of beauty; Syd ran in two directions, or maybe in several directions, and thus the album is a depiction of Syd, and not a depiction of Syd, and a depiction of regret and then rage, and these directions themselves splinter into a number of sub-menus, and one of the subsequent forking paths is very liquid, and is best expressed by evocative blues guitar solos as practiced by the replacement guitar player, who certainly has more technique, and a more beautiful voice, but who could not turn a lyric the way Syd Barrett could turn a lyric, which is why some of the best lines on Wish You Were Here are the lines that are swiped from Barrett’s own albums; but in fact it is not “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” that is the miracle on the album, if that is the right word, miracle, nor is the miracle the carping, mean-spirited, and wholly reasonable songs about the music business, especially “Have a Cigar,” which is musically lovely, and kind of funky, and is lyrically adolescent, or “Welcome to the Machine,” whose ominousness is sort of pre-Industrial (if we take industrial to be a musical sub-genre); no, these are not miracles, though there is good playing on them, nor is the miracle the beautiful understated snare sound of Nick Mason, which is what made Pink Floyd, Pink Floyd, nor is it the tempi—there is a Pink Floyd tempi, a kind of frozen, Cannabis-drenched plodding, one that no one else has ever quite perfected in the same way—in fact, the miracle of Wish You Were Here is the song “Wish You Were Here,” which was apparently composed rather late in the day, and which involved taking a microphone out to the guitar player’s car and spinning the radio dial at random, and recording the various snippets of white noise that ensued, including a bit Tchaikovsky, and of course everybody knows how to play the opening chords of this song, every guitar player knows those chords, and it’s almost forty years later, and still people are playing those chords, but that is not the miracle, the miracle is the sentiment, and the sentiment is longing, and all the tricks are vanished in the mesmerism of longing, the ensemble is become just a rock and roll ensemble, during this plangent opening, acoustic guitars, acoustic pianos, and some lovely soloing, and the lyrics are all about the two directions, the oppositions, the ways that a person can go, when the ways a person can go are not necessarily the acceptable ones, predetermined ones, but are in fact off in directions that are more challenging to those around us, in which the easy acceptable ways are given up for ways that confer loneliness upon the individual sufferer, and while it is not the case that the replacement lyricist can convey that loneliness the way Syd Barrett could convey it (see The Madcap Laughs for further evidence), the confluence of sluggish tempo, a country/Gospel musical idiom, and regret over mental illness and the way in which we are forced to act with (and upon) the mentally ill, do make for a ominous and compelling song, and the members of the band must have known, and that is why the record was named for the composition; they must have known that the words to “Wish You Were Here” constituted something like a lyrical universal.

Upon completion of the recording, which by many accounts was not without its difficulties, a designer was selected to make manifest the marriage of oppositions that is Wish You Were Here, and this is the designer who also worked on its predecessor, The Dark Side of the Moon, also about mental illness, at least in its gloomiest passages (“There’s no dark side of the moon, really, matter of fact it’s all dark”), and the designer was none other than Storm Thorgerson, of the design team called Hipgnosis, which team at the time was at the forefront of a certain Magritte-influenced popular surrealism that was sweeping through the world of British music (see, for example, the Hipgnosis jackets for The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, by Genesis, or Presence, by Led Zeppelin, among many others). For the rank and file consumer, perhaps less informed about high art, Thorgerson’s designs had a tremendous impact, and it was exactly the impact that one associates with the high art form of surrealism, at least in its “realistic” incarnations as practiced by Dalí and Magritte. In the time before digital manipulation of photographs, these Hipgnosis images had to be constructed through laborious means, and in the now famous flaming handshake image that adorns Wish You Were Here, which you could only reach by tearing off some black, opaque shrink wrap, the how was it done aspect of the photograph constitutes a great portion of its uncanniness. There are two men (depicted), two corporate types, let’s say, and they are standing on a vacant lot (a Hollywood back lot), and they are shaking hands, and there is no one else around, and the sky is a robust blue, and one of the men is on fire. Perhaps, given the back lot setting, it would not be a total surprise if it were just a single man on fire, and in that case the image would suggest certain Buddhist monks protesting the war in Vietnam or perhaps stunt passages from a myriad of Hollywood films, nor would the image be arresting if the two corporate types were merely shaking hands in some empty modern space, because we expect corporate types to have access to empty modern spaces; no, the image leaps off of the dust jacket (or at least it did when it was the jacket of a long-playing record, as opposed to a compact disc) because of the conjunction of handshake and flaming man. The faux raccord, or false conjunction. The routine and the calamitous.

As one reads up on the image, one recognizes that there was no particular trickery involved in the image. It is as it would appear to be—a photograph of man shaking the hand of a man on fire, and at one point, when the shutter made its agreeable clicking noise, there really was a certain man on fire, and then the fire was extinguished, and this image really was imprinted on a piece of silver iodide film, and carried back to the dark room to be printed by Thorgerson or his associates. Now, there are interpretations that suggest that this image has something to do with the less graceful or music biz-related compositions on the album called Wish You Were Here, as in Pink Floyd got burned on its contract, or some such, but this interpretation to me seems wholly unsatisfactory, even moronic, because if the image had an impact, and it certainly had an impact, it was because at one point someone really was touching someone else in the image, and one of these persons was on fire, and if the image had an impact, then it had a significance, and the significance I am after could not have had anything to do with a simple reiteration of corporate malfeasance, because after all what did the recording entity known as Pink Floyd have to complain about? They had just made one of the highest-grossing albums ever made. The Dark Side of the Moon. It still is among the highest-grossing albums ever made. This can’t have hurt all that much.

The flaming handshake, therefore, must signify something much more enduring, and the something more profound must connect, somehow, to the theme of unfulfilled presence (which I believe is Thorgerson’s description, in fact, of what he heard on the recording called Wish You Were Here), in which the mechanics of self and other are such that the subject of the sentence, the first or third person, is eliminated from the sentence by which the album is known; that is, the album is not called I Wish You Were Here, although it says as much in the lyrics, nor is it called We Wish You Were Here, in which the sentiment of the replacement lyricist is generalized so as to be the sentiment of the band entire, and thus the longing, the unfulfilled presence, results in a nullification of self, as conveyed in the image, in a suppression of union, and that is indicated in the consumption of the object of desire in flame, or that is implicit therein, a recognition that this is the state of consciousness, this is the essence of consciousness, in which the object of desire, in this case another man, is consumed in flame, and it is routine, and this is significant, that it is another man, meaning that there are no carnal love songs on Wish You Were Here, and in fact there are very few carnal love songs in the entirety of the Pink Floyd oeuvre, going all the way back to the days of Syd Barrett, unless, for example, you were to accept that “See Emily Play” is a sort of a love song, because if it’s another man consumed in flame, then the relationship between the protagonists in the image (Roger Waters and Syd Barrett, in one interpretation) might be described as representing simple longing for intrapsychic contact, a recognition of one’s own identity registering in the other, a comraderie, a bonhomie, a friendship, before finding that this can no longer be, that the contradictions and paradoxes of consciousness prevent this contact. Or, perhaps, it’s not about a particular set of protagonists at all, perhaps it’s about the relationship between artist and audience; perhaps, in part, it is the artist recognizing a loss of contact with the essence of the audience, which was no longer possible for the band at the time of Wish You Were Here, now that their shows were of a such enormity that they couldn’t perform easily in spaces where you could see beyond the first row; or perhaps the relationship is not between a healthy, fully functioning protagonist (the corporate type on the left), and a damaged one; perhaps it’s about a recognition that the protagonist in flames is the self, is the perceiving consciousness; perhaps the image is about a recognition that this is who the artist is, the artist is the person consumed in flames, and we don’t mean consigned to flames, we mean consumed in flames, which means in a state of self-inflicted torment, unable to rise up out of the internal contradictions that make art happen, and especially unable to rise up out of the internal contradictions so as to have human relationships, or to successfully conduct human relationships, without feeling as though one is somehow socially doomed, which is another way of saying in flames, in which case the result, as it is again and again in the Pink Floyd, is that one is lonely, one was born lonely and one trudges through life in loneliness, one dies in appalling loneliness, whether or not one’s friends and loved ones are arranged around the bed. Or, and perhaps this is the most successful interpretation of the two men in the flaming handshake image on the cover of Wish You Were Here, they are one and the same man. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Their outfits are similar, and though apparently the flaming guy was wearing some kind of flame retardant hood, you can’t really see it, because of the flames. If they are one and the same man, then the flaming handshake depicts a union between opposite poles, between dualities, between divergent directions, between misalignments, a mysterium coniunctionis of internal contradictions, and this man in question could be, well, a nearly universal depiction of man, and thus not only the replacement lyricist, nor the original band leader (Syd Barrett), nor some character who stands in for the band, nor some character who stands in for the audience, nor some character (as on the back of the album, where we get the faceless invisible guy striding through the desert) who stands in for the record business, the flaming handshake, in its unfulfilled presence, and its union of opposites, of misalignments, is a generalized depiction of the situation as is, for the human sufferers, of whom there are as many as there are humans, and it’s true that Storm Thorgerson managed the uncanny on a great many occasions. In fact, the Gnostic part of the Hispgnosis brand seems to suggest that Thorgerson, at least for a while, had secret knowledge, knew something he wasn’t telling us, knew how to point in its direction, and the flaming handshake was one such instant; he was a Gnostic the way that Magritte and Dali and Andre Breton were Gnostics, in that they were willing to take the images prompted by the unconsciousness and to totally trust these images, but it seems inadequate, in this case, simply to write off the flaming handshake as some pseudo-Gnostic surrealist image, especially if one considers the end of the album known as Wish You Were Here, in which the dead keyboardist Richard Wright again leads the band through the ninth part of the composition called “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” another deeply melancholic transmogrified piece of Gospel, with some rather ominous washes of synthesizer buzzing around in the background, his death now being essential to the contemporary experience of the piece. The stillness of the piece, as at the beginning, when it is wine glasses that are being played, is what’s essential here, after all the spasmodic caterwauling of the Roger Waters compositions elsewhere. For the moment, there is the piano, and the major and minor, and the plunging melody in the left hand, and not a singer to be found anywhere, until it all resolves into a major chord, some organ, and some synthesizer, and so the flaming handshake suggests this music, must suggest it, the sense that it’s okay to resolve into a major chord, and into a kind of meditative peacefulness, even if all is calamity, even if all is regret, even if all is loss. Loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, loss.




La plus simple émotion

By Raymond Bellour

J'erre dans la Biennale. Comme toujours, trop d'œuvres, de dispositifs, d'écrans, de sons, couleurs, mouvements, constructions, slogans, dérives, idéologies, trop de tout. Fatigue, écoeurement. Attente. Reprendre son souffle. J'arrive au seuil d'une autre salle. D'un coup d'œil, la surprise, le calme. Ravissement, douceur. Un dispositif clair, élémentaire, dans une ombre savemment calculée. Sur plusieurs fils d'un bleu-vert métallisé, tendus de mur à mur en parallèle, cinq torchons carrés sont accrochés par des pinces. Ils varient de couleurs simples. Carreaux rouges et roses, un classique. Faux blanc imprimé de motifs beiges. Jaune paille. Gris à peine rosé. Rayures inégales, bleues, blanches, roses, encore un classique. Sans jamais empièter l'un sur l'autre, ces torchons, de taille légèrement différente, sont tous décalés l'un par rapport à l'autre selon la profondeur. Mais sur le mur du fond, contre le rectangle blanc et vibrant d'un écran, leurs ombres égales s'alignent en une sage succession réglées. Cinq carrés noirs sur fond blanc. Le choc est immédiat, entier, nettoyant l'œil qui se captive. Un contraste de perceptions dans la logique primitive d'une projection. On se retourne pour comprendre : un projecteur-film envoie une pure lumière, dont la vibration anime continuellement l'écran, inventant un effet inédit de noir et blanc, de noir sur blanc, que le bruit familier de la machine acccompagne. Il a suffi de filmer un écran blanc, puis de projeter en boucle ce film sans images, et d'ordonner les profondeurs entre ombre et réalité. La notice qui commente cette œuvre dans le livret de la Biennale précise que les spectateurs – disons plutôt les visiteurs - peuvent modifier l'ordre des torchons (je ne l'ai pas vu faire, mais une brève vidéo sur "You Tube" les montre dans un ordre différent de celui des photos que j'ai prises) - interactivité minimale dont la tentation la plus spontanée est de s'introduire dans le faisceau, en levant par exemple sa main contre le flot qui sort du projecteur. Ou de s'avancer vers le mur-écran, pour y saisir son ombre projetée, mais toujours s'arrêtant au-dessous des cinq carrés noirs alignés. 

Pourquoi cette simple émotion est-elle si entière? Parce qu'elle fait sentir comme peu d'autres le passage et l'écart entre ce que serait une simple magie provoquée par un spectacle comme il s'en produit par instants dans la nature, grâce à des arrangements de hasard, et sa fixation par les moyens de l'art. Dans un texte tout récemment publié en France, où il s'interroge, dans les années 1910, sur sa passion nouvelle pour le cinéma, le psychologue Hugo Münsterberg rappelle l'évidence qui forme "l'essence de l'art : l'œuvre nous attire par ses prétentions à la réalité, tout en se distinguant radicalement de la nature et de la vie par ses moyens propres." C'est ce saut conjugué de la sensibilité et de l'esprit qui saisit devant La Cocina, la cuisine. Je ne sais si en espagnol le mot a ces connotations, au sens où c'est proprement la "cuisine" élémentaire de la formation des images qui se livre dans cette installation. Dans la notice de musée qui accompagne l'œuvre (collection du Musée Reina Sofia de Madrid), on qualifie ainsi la transformation calculée des torchons de couleurs en carrés noirs : "La même chose survient lorsqu'à cause de tel événement, différents souvenirs viennent à l'esprit simultanément, effaçant toute distinction de temps, de lieu ou de sens entre leurs divers référents." Tel est bien l'effet de double projection, externe et interne, qui se trouve retourné sur lui-même, provoquant un sentiment léger mais très vif de sublime : celui qui accompagne la sensation se muant en pensée sans pour autant s'y résorber, de sorte que le corps entier reste attaché à la  vibration qui l'a capturé. Sublime, au sens de "l'offrande", par laquelle le qualifie Jean-Luc Nancy, quand il dit par exemple : "Le sublime, c'est qu'il y ait de l'image, donc de la limite, à même laquelle se fait sentir l'illimitation". Et c'est ce double mouvement qui en fait l'émotion.

Euliala Valldosera a conçu depuis La Cocina (1992), une de ses premières œuvres, des installations beaucoup plus complexes, plus vastes, plus peuplées, toujours à partir d'un même principe de projection en acte, dont l'effet se trouve démultiplié à travers des variétés d'écrans et d'objets, grâce à tous les mouvements qui les lient. On pouvait, à quelques mètres de La Cocina, l'éprouver à Lyon devant El Period (2006-2009), où des verres alignés sur des tables se trouvaient projetés sur un écran, selon les mouvements d'un landau que le visiteur pouvait faire avancer sur des rails circulaires. Ou plus encore, de façon très magique, dans la gigantesque installation montrée à la Biennale de Venise en 2001, Provisional Home, où le visiteur se trouvait capté à l'intérieur de projections multiples, fixes ou mobiles, tournantes, opérant à partir du sol jonché d'objets hétéroclites; de sorte que les images se mêlaient en tous sens et selon divers rythmes sur les quatres murs de la salle. On peut imaginer que c'est pour réaffirmer la nature élémentaire d'un principe depuis lors sans cesse démultiplié que l'artiste catalane a tenu à associer, pour la Biennale de Lyon, à une œuvre récente, une œuvre aussi ancienne. Si la simplicité de La Cocina bouleverse, c'est qu'elle est aussi un rappel de l'idée sensible dont la saisie a si fort ému une première fois son auteure que son oeuvre en a comme naturellement découlé. 






In November 2006, cartoonist Chris Ware published four different covers simultaneously for the Thanksgiving issue of the New Yorker. (For subscribers, which cover one received was happenstance.)  On the New Yorker website, however, Ware published a fifth cover—one that didn’t make it into print to grace the face of the magazine—and called it “Leftovers.”  (The image is no longer available online.) The following year, Ware came out with a large-format portfolio of all five of the covers, 15 by 20 inches each, numbered and titled: in order, we have “Stuffing,” “Conversation,” “Family,” “Main Course”—and “Leftovers.” [1]

The covers tell a story, although not a chronological one. They are linked by intergenerationality, and by space, tying 1942 to the Twenty-first Century through a single edifice, a residential apartment building in New York City, and through the figure of a man—sometimes he’s a man, sometimes he’s a boy—in yellow. In the first cover, “Stuffing,” he sits on a park bench, elderly and alone on Thanksgiving, in a yellow coat, feeding pigeons and staring up into his former domicile on the fourth floor of the building. In the last, “Leftovers,” he is the narrator. And while it is his decidedly adult voice (“Wait… It was Downtown…It was called a Downtown candy bar. How could I forget that?”), appearing in thin, wavery, uppercase black letters, which recollects in “Leftovers,” we see the narrator, visually, grow from small boy to young man in this final, proliferated installment of panels.  Ware’s first Thanksgiving cover is a single-frame image, as are most covers of the New Yorker; the second is halved into two images (locating us in the forties on top, followed by the aughts at the bottom); the third is comprised of four panels; the fourth is based on a grid of sixteen panels… And the fifth is based on a virtuosically dense grid of 256 panels. 

“Leftovers” is a stunning collocation of words and images of all shapes and sizes, of jagged zones and clusters of memory captured on the page that yet remain in unfixed relation to each other.  Its sheer visual weight is breathtaking. Taken on the whole as a graphic unit, an architected page à la Winsor McCay, it’s beautiful in the way a fully constructed, evidently difficult puzzle is; it rhymes and echoes, even on first brief glance; one sees that Ware has fit the pieces, the shards of past and present, together. One’s eyes flit up and down to the rich red, and the elegant forties typeface of the doubled “Up-town” and “Down-town” Milk Chocolate bars, and side to side to the echoing baby blue and white vertically elongated panels lining the margins—the Empire State Building on the left, and a life-size pencil on the right. Anchoring the profusion of fragments and bursts is a grey-shaded soldier in the center. 

And yet despite the design abstraction of its visual surface, within the space of the many subdivided frames, there is a complex story to be apprehended. The story, as one discerns it by reading clusters of panels that move both horizontally and vertically—there is no “right” way to read it—is about two brothers, one of whom died in 1942. In the way “Leftovers,” associative and non-linear in its organization, asks us to read and to look, constantly searching back and forth to fill in meaning, it is an image that is thematically about and yet also itself suggests in its form the act of memory.  As Art Spiegelman, one of Ware’s fellow cartoonists, has remarked, “Comics work the way the brain works: Picture-signs mixed with little bursts of language. PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE all scrambled and butted up against each other—the perfect medium for depicting MEMORY.” [2] Ware’s image makes this dazzlingly legible in the way practically no other comics work to date has been able to do. [3] The poetics of comics is one of distillation and condensation, a procedure of putting essences into play, and here we might say, following one of Ware’s own stated goals, that a single page image has the density of a novel. 

The savvy of “Leftovers,” both visual and intellectual, stems from the fact that it is about media and it is about genre (including those comics staples, superheroes and funny animals). It not only carries the inherent self-reflexivity of comics, a hand-drawn form that unfolds in juxtaposed boxes, but it also further calls our attention to different media—radio, drawing, movies, photographs, and the relationship of these media to each other. A 1942 photograph of the narrator’s soldier brother, evident as such because of its black and white shaded coloring, sits at the exact center; I like to think of “Leftovers” as offering us a picture and a picture frame at once, in which the latter is comprised of hundreds of tiny colorful memories, surrounding the supposedly more indexical stand-in for the dead. (In Ware’s rendering of this photograph, which makes an appearance in other of the New Yorker covers, the subject’s eyes are curiously elided; he seems to have no gaze at all, while the construction of the page focuses our gaze intently upon him, therefore aesthetically inscribing his frozenness and what Barthes calls the “flat Death” of the Photograph.) [4] In this way, “Leftovers” takes up and makes literal the question of: how do we “frame” an image of a loved one? 

“Leftovers” is about a cartoonist-soldier.  Discussing the work, Ware says, “I was surprised at the number of illustrated letters that soldiers sent home from World War II…. It surprised me, the number of letters that were illustrated and had little cartoons in the corners.” [5]  In panels at the top of the page, the narrator describes how he and his brother liked to listen to the radio—“Our favorite show was ‘The Adventures of Superman’”—and silent panels show them listening, “…until he grew out of it.”  They also “loved movies,” and “we both read the Sunday funnies and read comic books, too, when we could afford them.”  “For a while,” spidery text in an otherwise blank white space proffers, almost at the right-hand edge of the page, before an image of Rizzi drawing, “he decided he wanted to be a cartoonist.” Five panels earlier, in the same horizontal row, under an image of the two brothers walking, the smaller in yellow, accompanying the single declaration “He hated football,” Rizzi has one speech balloon: “Maybe you could write the story.” Here we have a typical example of the way the piece unfolds its narrative fabric: Rizzi’s comment, which in traditional left-to-right reading precedes any context with which we could understand its referent, finally makes sense if we return to it again after an illuminating anecdote. But before we may have the chance to even piece out this connection, we may notice that the pencil—“one of his pencils,” even, “sharpened with a pocket knife… and chewed…down to the wood” has practically the visual status of the Empire State Building in “Leftovers”; it is the only other panel, aside from the photograph, that takes up as much space.  It is also the only figurative panel that is unbordered; the pencil stands snugly, vertically, tucked in among the panels on the vertical edge of “Leftovers,” but it is uncontained; one feels, and the visual suggestion is, one could reach in and grab it.

As the visual predominance of this chewed, knife-sharpened archival pencil indicates, the status of drawing—and the idea of his dead brother as a drawer—is key to “Leftovers.” Rizzi receives a used 1928 Ford Model A for his birthday, devotes his waking hours to the car, and despite the fact that the narrator describes their parents as “Isolationists,” he “enlisted the day of the school Christmas dance,” presumably at 18. “Betsy Vanderbilt cried and cried,” Rizzi tells his little brother, “But it was worth it, because she finally let me feel her up.” The narrator’s brother is dead by Thanksgiving 1942, which the family, as yet unaware, celebrates by putting blueberry pie on the sideboard next to his picture. They find out later through a Western Union telegram—Ware draws both the telegram itself, and the envelope it arrives in, each as discrete, and not even continuous panels—that the brother was killed in basic training a day before Thanksgiving. And then his letters arrive—some weeks after, some months after. It is in this post-death space that the very last row of “Leftovers” finally gives us the auratic hand of the older brother. First, in the bottom left, we see a tiny unfinished comics story, “Ace Smith.” This comic-within-a-comic has two pages, each half an inch high; the panels are tiny, but the beginning of a story is discernible. “Looking back on it,” the narrator tells us, “I was still a little sore about how our one and only ‘collaboration’ had gone. I’d scripted a long adventure comic book, but he never even finished drawing the second page.” We also get two of Rizzi’s letters, each one-and-a-quarter inches high, in expressive longhand and covered with remarkable little doodles: ships, soldiers, superheroes, planes, hula girls, and a soldier with a thought balloon filled with a ready-to-serve turkey.

I go on at such length with these details because the “Leftovers” image Ware creates he creates as the final collaboration between older and younger brother. Like so many comics, Ware’s piece instantiates the thing that it is about. Rizzi—as he signs his letters—was to draw the story his little brother wrote. In their youthful partnership, the older brother, occupied with cars and girls, and then the army, leaves a collaborative story unfinished.  Here we have the little brother visualizing a different kind of “adventure comic book”; he picks up, in a sense, where Rizzi leaves off, filling out an unscripted story of his brother’s life in images from their life together. “Leftovers” represents the visual memory of the little brother, but we can see it further as the actual materialization of memory, and in that way its comics form is a continuation of the brothers’ initial co-created story. “Leftovers” draws our attention to the notion of memory itself, however intangible, however fleeting, as a medium. Ware has posited the form of comics as “a possible metaphor for memory and recollection” [6]. Here it is no metaphor. The shape of memory is concretized in comics form, and the pre-war collaboration, then, initiated between the brothers continues (with Rizzi as the reality-pocked superhero of his little brother’s life).  

Ware’s piece, appearing in 2006, is certainly about war, death, and commemoration, and its focus on WWII does not at all mask its intent to be a relevant commentary on the fallout of the Iraq War on the occasion of an American holiday centered on the family. In fact, its focus on the past makes its commentary on loss in the present all that much more forceful, if tacit. What is “leftover” in our memory of a person? What is leftover from a life? Ware captures fleeting bursts of words and images—and materializes those objects, however prosaic—that take shape to create memory. In its refusal to offer a fixed reading pattern, and its setting of the reader into a visual volume that forces an intimacy with details, “Leftovers” not only amplifies the interactive nature of the encounter between the image and the viewer, but it compels us interact with the materiality of memory’s durée.

[1] Ware, Chris. Thanksgiving (Acme Novelty Library 18.5).  Chicago, IL: Acme Novelty Library, 2007.  References to “Leftovers” will be to the printed edition. On its website, the New Yorker calls “Leftovers” a “companion strip” to the circulating covers.
[2] Spiegelman, Art.  “Meet Art Spiegelman.”  Bookpage.
[3] This piece is kind of a secret gem of the comics world, a piece about ephemerality—of memory, of life—that itself has appeared in ephemeral contexts.
[4] We might see “Leftovers,” then, as setting up a tension, despite rendering all of its elements by hand, among media of commemoration. Perhaps it indicating, with its central photographic image, what Barthes suggests: “Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory (whose grammatical expression would be the perfect tense, whereas the tense of the Photograph is the aorist), but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory." Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 91.
[5] Ware, Chris. “A Thanksgiving Feast” [Audio]. New Yorker, Nov. 27, 2006.
[6] Ware, Chris. “Introduction.”  Best American Comics 2007, Chris Ware, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), xxii.




Ten Years Later: Re-Viewing 9/11's Suppressed Images

Lauren Walsh

Richard Drew/ The Associated Press, September 11, 2001

This essay was published in late August 2011.

On this occasion of the ten-year anniversary of September 11th, we are, instead of remembering the events of that fateful day, concealing them under a mountain of American mythology. [1]

The New York Philharmonic announced in June that it will hold a memorial concert to mark the anniversary. A result of this, said Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s president, is that the free summer concerts, held in city parks across the five boroughs for the past 45 years, must be canceled. This unfortunate undoing of a tradition of collective cultural appreciation will make way for a commemorative performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, the “Resurrection.”

The New York Times noted that this is “[o]ne of the first major 9/11 cultural remembrances announced so far.” [2] Not only will many others follow, but they will be exceedingly similar in tone. They will acknowledge loss, but primarily they will celebrate resurrections. They will foreground the heroes. They will mark our resiliency, as a city and a nation. They will continue to construct a triumphal narrative of 9/11 that began shortly after 8:46 a.m. nearly ten years ago. [3]

If the recent past is any predictor, these cultural remembrances will also carry on the practice of ignoring some of the gruesome details of that date, especially the manner in which an entire category of victims perished. These victims constitute approximately 7% of those who died in New York City—they are the men and women who fell and jumped to their deaths from the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center.

The Forgotten 7%
In the United States the photos of victims falling and jumping from the World Trade Center towers generally ran in the newspapers for one single day—September 12, 2001—and then never again. [4] Those photos were deemed too painful, too much a violation of the dying moments of the victims depicted.

A similar situation occurred with the videos of falling and jumping victims. CNN, for instance, initially aired video in which the bodies were too blurry to be recognized, but quickly decided that they would not run that footage at all, and NBC broadcast an image of a jumper one time but then not again. [5]

An estimated fifty to two hundred men and women died most publicly that day [6]; they plummeted outside the Towers that were to crush to ruins everything—and everyone—inside, and yet curiously, they have disappeared from the public’s eye. In fact, charges of voyeurism, escalating to claims about the pornography of catastrophe, have led to the widespread removal of these images from the shared and readily accessible historical record. [7]

But such censorship was not always so in American journalistic history. Indeed, readers of news publications have long seen disturbing photographs of the dead and those who are about to die—all the way back, for instance, 100 years ago, to the mangled bodies of garment workers who jumped from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Far more recently, New York Post readers glimpsed one of the last moments of an NYU student as she tumbled to her death, committing suicide from a high rise in 2004. [8] But no one is looking at those who fell from the World Trade Center towers. One way to account for this is to recognize the role of the triumphal myth; these particular victims don’t fit the narrative we desire to construct about 9/11 and about our nation in the aftermath.

In light of indictments of voyeurism and pornography, we realize that the act of looking becomes utterly entangled with feelings of shame. These pictures literalize our frailty and vulnerability. The call to “look away” is not simply about protecting those pictured, but also about protecting those who are looking. But as a nation that has self-censored these most horrific images, are we inappropriately selective when it comes to the victims for whom we will bear witness? In closing our eyes to the falling bodies, what else are we excluding?

Perhaps unexpectedly, the answer is that in shutting our eyes, we are also, metaphorically, closing our ears and not listening to what these images communicate. Even a visit to the museum collection that is currently available via the website for the in-progress National September 11 Museum turns up no mention of these deaths. [9] Interestingly, one audio clip in the Oral Histories category of the museum collection features a photojournalist, Catherine Leuthold, who offers a compelling if heartbreaking case for, in fact, looking at these images. Positioned right nearby as the South Tower fell, she says of that experience: “I took a picture of me in the mirror. I thought I was going to die. […] I realized later what seeing yourself in this situation meant for the people that I had taken pictures of. It was like a reaffirmation that you were actually there and that it really did happen and that it was as big as you thought.” [10]

Instead, the past decade has seen the continual non-affirmation of the falling victims. While seemingly no one wants to engage this subject, a recent novel—one of the few places, albeit a fictional space, where this manner of WTC death has been treated publicly—forces these issues onto the table, at a moment in our own history when such reflection is absolutely necessary. Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007) compels us to confront the ways that those falling body images—even if they have been all but removed from the record—still in fact haunt, and to consider what those images say to us now. They speak to us, ultimately, not only about the past and the events of one fateful day, but about our role in an urgent and ongoing dialogue on censorship and state control of information.

Now, nearly ten years later, we have just witnessed an eerie echo of the suppression of gruesome documentation in the Obama administration’s decision to withhold the photos of a dead Osama bin Laden from the public. 9/11 and the death of bin Laden are offered as the bookends of a story, tragic at the outset and victorious in conclusion. But these two moments are also linked by the uncomfortable suppression of information—in one case largely by public opinion, in the other by our president’s administration. Like the two beams of blue light that are projected each year from the footprints of the absent World Trade Centers towers, these acts of suppression mark their own kind of absence—an absence of memory and knowledge.

The close scrutiny of the history of the falling and jumping images may not, in the end, provide easy answers for the case of the bin Laden photos, but it does teach us about the dynamics of suppression. Taking the time to look at what has been withheld through the disappearance of the 9/11 photos reveals much about how we remember, the myths we depend on, and the dangers of this type of “moving on.”

The Falling Man
In his novel, DeLillo follows one of the survivors of the North Tower down a rubble-strewn street, through the chaos and cacophony, past the ashy landscape of lower Manhattan, and finally toward safety—to the home of Lianne, the wife from whom the survivor protagonist, Keith, had been estranged prior to the attacks, and with whom he has a young son. Set mainly in post-9/11 New York City and focused largely on the experiences of Keith and Lianne, DeLillo’s novel emphasizes that the effects of trauma aren’t only physical, as the event ruptures more than just the cartilage in Keith’s wrist; he does not walk out of the Trade Center tower a whole man, even if, in ways, his life looks more whole after 9/11 for his having reconciled with the family he’d left behind some years before. Lianne, meanwhile, finds herself fusing the public circumstances with private memories; her confused and anxious response to the terrorist attack intertwines with a trauma suffered years earlier when her father, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, shot himself in the head. In bleeding the personal trauma into the collective suffering, DeLillo implies that despite the vastness of September 11th, despite the collective experience of death and the public coming-together in the aftermath, despite the unity that New Yorkers and Americans both felt and heard as politicians asked us to “stand together”—despite all that, DeLillo urges us to remember that collective cultural trauma comprises, engulfs, and breaks individuals.

This is made abundantly clear through the work of a minor character who plays a major role in articulating the unspeakable. As a performance artist, he travels around New York City enacting falls from buildings and other structures, “one leg bent up, arms at his sides. […] always upside down.” [11] The pose he assumes replicates the fall pictured in a photograph that was taken by Richard Drew, a photographer with the Associated Press. It portrays a man plummeting from the North Tower.

Drew’s photo, which ran on page 7 of The New York Times, among many other publications, on September 12th, is a striking, frightening image. It depicts a man vertically parallel to the Towers, and thus aesthetically in harmony with his backdrop. Frozen in the photograph, the victim is suspended forever in what some have referred to as a “swan dive.” It is—as far as the single frame of this photo reveals—graceful, and that of course is, in turn, what makes the image so ghastly. Something so horrendous has become, in a photograph, compositionally beautiful, a phenomenon Susan Sontag has discussed: “Photographs tend to transform […] and as an image something may be beautiful […] as it is not in real life.” DeLillo gestures, seemingly deliberately, to this observation, as his character Lianne thinks about the subject of Drew’s photo: “dear God, he was a falling angel and his beauty was horrific.” [12] While the public tends to recoil from this sort of union of the beautiful with the atrocious, the photograph, Sontag reminds us, “bears witness.” [13] Looking away, in the form of suppressing, becomes ethically fraught.

Like the actual man pictured in the photograph, whose identity remains unconfirmed, the performance artist works anonymously. But DeLillo also shows up a glaring difference between his art and the actuality; in DeLillo’s fictional world, readers learn this character’s name from his obituary. This is something that can never happen for the real-life victim of Drew’s photograph. Educated guesses have been made as to who that man was, but to no certain outcome. One tenacious reporter, Tom Junod, recognized the value of this image and worked, with limited success, to track down the victim’s identity. [14] If in 2003 Junod was already questioning the disappearance of the falling and jumping photos in a celebrated investigative piece, the concern only resonates more profoundly today as the ten-year anniversary reveals a firm public commitment to looking away from that 7 percent.

Moreover, the very lack of a name attached to the victim in Drew’s photo facilitates a stripping of his humanity. With no identity, that victim is no longer treated as an individual, but has become a symbol of death we will not consent to view. Notably, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner did not officially determine death by jumping for a single 9/11 victim. [15] Formally, then, we have a whole category of deaths we can “shut our eyes to” because the official records have already done so. Yet in shutting our eyes, we also stop listening.

DeLillo’s performance artist battles against that, demanding an attentive appreciation of silence. In fact, he never talks, never explains why he performs the fall. But his silence speaks more powerfully than an explanation could; it suggests the silence of the victims who, at a literal level, went unheard. Reports from Ground Zero confirm that the falling and jumping victims could not be heard save for the sound created by the impacts of their bodies with the ground. [16] And so, and as at the Towers, the performance of the fall relies upon reaction in its witnesses, presumably those who gasp and scream as they see the unthinkable—those who give voice to silenced victims.

At least that is how it might work in the realm of fiction. In reality, the loudest voices screamed out against any acknowledgement of these images.

“That Picture Just Made Me Angry”
The falling and jumping men and women are victims of a double violation—they were murdered by terrorists and are now denied recognition by the American public. Instead of bearing witness to this particular horror, the public unleashed an angry and vocal torrent against the falling body images that ran on September 12th: Such photos are obscene; they're an invasion of the victim’s final moments; they undermine his dignity. The thunderous voices of public opinion were heard and obeyed, as they drowned those victims further in silence, despite what should have been evident. What was obscene was the attack, not these victims. The photographs don’t undermine dignity, but refusing to bear witness does.

In the past decade, there has been one film made that substantively treats these images (and which grew from Junod’s reporting), a documentary titled 9/11: The Falling Man (2006) by director Henry Singer. [17] It features irate citizens, disgusted by Drew’s photo. One reader of a local paper in Allentown, PA says of his reaction to the publication of that image: “I’m not an angry guy. I’m pretty much a very passive person. Nothing fazes me. I’m very light hearted. But that day, that picture just made me angry.” But the question remains, at whom is he angry? Was it really directed at the newspaper? More likely, he was unable to productively channel the overwhelming shock, grief, and horror experienced in the wake of the attacks. One editor interviewed in Singer’s film describes such reader reactions as “misdirected anger.” What begins as an emotional response to an image has tangible repercussions for the way we write an event into history.

Indeed, the public demand was to deny the existence of Drew’s painful image, and all others like it, despite the fact that newspaper editors describe thinking it was a Pulitzer-worthy picture, as Singer points out. But imagine if we had excised from history other agonizing images, such as Nick Ut’s napalmed girl, or even imminent death photos, like Eddie Adams’ shooting of the Vietcong prisoner. [18] Suggesting that a culture of shame surrounds the viewing of these 9/11 photos, the narrating voice of Singer’s film says, “[Junod] wanted to clear the name of all the jumpers.” The ten-year anniversary, however, makes certain an uncomfortable revelation: In place of clearing any stigma, these victims remain, instead, cleared from our sight, and this presents a threat to our collective memory.

DeLillo alludes to this suppression, and to the ferocious cries of public opinion, in one of the performance artist’s episodes, when passers-by are “outraged at the spectacle.” But they are simultaneously subject to it; the artist’s suspended body, we read, “held the gaze of the world.” [19] The communal outrage stems from the terror that scene induces, and as the performance is a simulation of Drew’s photo, this moment also gestures toward the terror the photograph produces. That photo may have captivated the world, but in the United States it only “held” us for one day. Why, since September 12th, have we betrayed that potent image? Because, in part, its power to possess scares its viewers—both in the novel and outside of it. Witnesses now too become victims as they’re arrested by this image that works a strange and tragic power over them. It forces them into a space that admits an identification with the falling man. Even if it is a most minimal identification, it acknowledges the terrible choice he may have faced: To burn or to fall? In looking away, we compromise that acknowledgement, even if we couch our actions in the language of protecting another’s dignity.

It is easier and certainly less painful to scream “You don’t be here” at DeLillo’s performance artist, as one witness does [20], than to consider the message his work helps to convey—that such images of death do have a place in public remembrance. They speak to survivors and for the dead, and they bear witness to the only public fatalities that occurred that day in lower Manhattan.

Mythologizing the Event
Of course, today rethinking that fateful date as the anniversary creeps closer, we should question that message. DeLillo’s performance artist forces us to consider what we remember and what we shut our eyes to. But is he, precisely in showing up what we repress, actually also holding us back? What about the idea of moving forward, of releasing the past, of acknowledging and honoring the grief that still exists even if certain images are censored? DeLillo’s fear, it seems, is that loss of the past is already and always ensured. As James Fentress and Chris Wickham observe in Social Memory: “the natural tendency of social memory is to suppress what is not meaningful or intuitively satisfying […] and substitute what seems more appropriate or more in keeping with [a] particular conception of the world.” [21]

But why, the performance artist seems to defiantly ask, is our conception of 9/11 unable to sustain the memory of the jumper victims? Why is that more appropriate? Why is it more proper that the dominant visual records of this history portray either images of the burning but still standing towers, or heroic scenes, like the one that echoes a historic moment of American triumph at Iwo Jima? [22] Why are the dying victims absent from our conception of an attack that took 2753 lives? [23]

In fact, the very examples of the Ut and Adams photos beg the following question: Which victims are we willing to look at? In the case of the falling and jumping photos, couldn’t we say that those images would only strengthen a national discourse of resurrection? We’ve been to the depths, we’ve seen the most unfathomable deaths—the people who plummeted—and still returned stronger as a nation. And yet our mythology doesn’t sustain these photos. Why not? Stepping into that space that allows an acknowledgement of the falling man’s predicament, we also admit a position of utter defenselessness. It may be that our mythology works better without being confronted by dire images that highlight such an extreme moment of vulnerability—moments that make us exceedingly uncomfortable. And in our discomfort we look away and thereby strengthen the narrative that has elided these victims, coarsening it into history.

Numerous examples, from the immediate aftermath right through to today, demonstrate that we do not want these images to be part of our collective remembrance. One post-9/11 event, here is new york, a gallery show organized in the weeks after the attacks, invited professionals and non-professionals alike to submit the photos they had taken on and just after September 11th. Presumably the goal was to voice our collective grief in the wake of a splintering attack—and to allay the pain of the experience by sharing its visual artifacts. There were more than 5000 photos submitted, but in the “Victims” section of the gallery website, only one depicts bodies falling from one of the towers. [24] While the organizers strove for “a democracy of photographs,” the public came back with a narrative that did not represent everyone equally.

In similar fashion, the National September 11 Museum operates an Artists Registry, a virtual gallery on the museum website, where artists, from novices to professionals, can share art created in response to the attacks. As of the end of July, the site hosts 580 individual artists, each of which has a portfolio, some showcasing just one work of art, others displaying many. There are, potentially, thousands of works in this gallery. While the registry doesn’t evince a direct repetition of the outcome in here is new york, a combination of targeted searches (on the words “jump” and “falling”) and random forays into the portfolios yielded only eight visual artists who have contributed work that overtly depicts falling bodies. (None of these are photos.) Instead, what one sees with unmatched frequency are elegiac images of the standing, if sometimes also wounded towers, and iconic symbols of our nation—the American flag, the bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty, and also the New York firefighters, who have transcended their local affiliation. [25]

We find comparable results with the web-browseable image collection of The September 11 Digital Archive, which “uses electronic media to collect, preserve, and present the history of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath” and encourages submissions from the public. Organized by the American Social History Project and the Center for History and New Media, this is another extensive website and devotes a section entirely to images. That portion is broken down further into five categories, some of which possess limited numbers of images, others of which are much larger in scope. Across all five categories—Digital Photos (the largest category with 1450 contributions), Digital Art, Artwork, Library of Congress artwork, and Thank You Rescuers—there appear to be just three images, all of which are drawings, of discernable falling bodies. Interestingly, two of them look like they were made by children; perhaps kids are not yet conditioned to the public insistence to look away. Moreover, the same iconic symbols that appear in the Artists Registry show up here in great numbers as well. The Digital Archive is affiliated with the Library of Congress, but that seems to be, currently, in limited web-accessible capacity. Yet going directly to The Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Online Catalog we encounter a similar pattern. A search on “September 11” yields 1086 results, while a search on “September 11 jump” returns one photograph of a victim mid-air, and “September 11 falling” returns three such photos. Each is only viewable online as a thumbnail. [26] If these major institutions and organizations reveal a trend, it’s alarming. There are, of course, other establishments that possess 9/11 photographs and art, but in terms of what the public seems to be contributing and what these institutions are making readily accessible, the 7% are hardly acknowledged.

It perhaps comes as little surprise, then, that in the past ten years, two public works of art in New York City—one at Rockefeller Center, the other at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning—that made concerted attempts to visualize and thereby reflect on the victims who fell to their deaths, have met with outrage from the public. Both installations were shut down ahead of schedule. Meanwhile DeLillo’s character of the performance artist may have been based on a real artist who staged a one-day performance, influenced by and evocative of the 9/11 falls, in 2005 in Chicago. In response, New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the artistic act “nauseatingly offensive” while then-Governor George Pataki described it as “an utter disgrace.” [27]

And not only do visual representations themselves encounter this extreme resistance, but text-based references to the images do as well. For instance, in 2006, 7 WTC, which had also collapsed from the attacks, was rebuilt with an art installation, a collection of written works focusing on New York City, designed by artist Jenny Holzer. Among the literary pieces Holzer selected to be part of her project was a poem by Wislawa Szymborska titled “Photograph from September 11.” It describes a photo of 9/11 jumpers, characterizing a moment of these victims’ descent, and in so doing it acts as a textual version of a falling bodies photograph. The poem, however, was removed from the project; an advisor overseeing the planning felt that certain of Holzer’s choices “would bring back images that people might want to forget.” [28] Though well meant, such efforts to aid the forgetting have worrying consequences. And yet this type of censoring behavior has occurred again and again, as both the public and administrators work to construct a story of unity, heroism, and healing—a story of resurrection and moving forward.

Lauren Walsh

"STEEL STANDING" Photography by Anthony Whitaker

An item for sale through the September 11 Memorial and Museum encapsulates this phenomenon. The photo for purchase is called “Steel Standing” and shows a portion of South Tower that did not collapse from the attacks. The description of it reads: “This striking image of the gothic styled steel remnant of the South Towers [sic] facade serves as a vivid memorial and an inspirational symbol of strength, rebirth, courage, and defiance against terrorism because it refused to fall.” [29] The implication, of course, is that the refusal to fall is somehow more defiant and more courageous. This type of motivational language overshadows our memories of this date and tacitly affirms the accepted decision to look away from that which did fall.

As if in response, a DeLillo character makes the following comment: “From this point on, you understand, it’s all about loss.” [30] If the way forward is paved too much in the inspirational language of “moving on,” then the cultural loss—and precisely the memory of individuals’ deaths—is too dangerous, too great. Paradoxically, even as we write a history of resurrection, we also, in disquieting ways, evoke Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, who, looking back over the course of time, saw nothing but a stretch of unending catastrophe piling ever higher. Our treatment of these falling body photos threatens to toss aspects of 9/11 directly onto the angel’s mountain of indistinguishable death, as we actively disregard the individuality of those who fell. Healing, here, takes the odd form of suppressing. But as one victim’s sister says of the fact that she has no knowledge of what happened to her brother, who worked in the North Tower on the 104th floor: “The truth hurts, but it also heals.” [31]

Compelling us to envision this horrible act, DeLillo’s performance artist speaks not only for the pictured victim, but for those individuals who were not photographed, and he obliges us to remember them. He insists that we not collectively look away, because over time this blends into a cultural forgetting.  He thus demands that we ask questions about the suppression of information. This is not necessarily an easy way to cope with the trauma, now ten years old, and negotiate the ongoing remembrance of 9/11. But it is the responsible way, and protects against, as with too many examples from history, state-determined myths that are circulated without regard to truth. Both Stalin and Mussolini had photographs altered, removing unwanted figures, to propagate the narratives of their choosing. This, of course, does not exist on the same scale in the US, but these examples still have a sobering effect. What DeLillo’s novel shows is that if this is the climate we live in, fiction can be a way for us to step outside prevailing mythologies and consider the effects of suppression.
Wanted – Dead, Alive or Photoshopped
On May 4, 2011, The New York Times ran an article titled “Wanted—Dead, Alive or Photoshopped.” The villainous subject of this Wild-West-meets-digital-culture headline is Osama bin Laden, who was, Obama’s administration announced, killed by US forces on May 1, 2011. [32] Despite this culmination to what has been painted as a ten-year-long story of terrorist attack and American resurrection, the most visceral part of the story, indeed the most spectacular—in the very sense of spectacle—has been withheld. President Obama will not make public the photographs taken by a Navy SEAL of the dead bin Laden.

In the absence of photographic evidence from the government many resourceful digital artists doctored old photos of bin Laden and passed them off as the official death images. They were, rather quickly, identified as fakes, and yet still they made the Facebook rounds.

Interestingly in this case, the suppression of images has been carried out by the federal government, not the public. Yet despite this distinction, the suppression of the falling bodies photos has much in common with the suppression of the dead bin Laden pictures.

If the responses in New York City on the night of May 1, 2011 are any indication, the death of bin Laden was received and heralded as a jubilant, celebratory end to the story that began almost ten years ago. Times Square and Ground Zero were crowded with revelers, carrying noise-makers and partying almost as if it were New Year’s Eve. [33] This was another moment of collective coming-together, this time for a joyous reason. But this again slips too easily into the narrative of resurrection. Not only will we prevail, but now we have prevailed. The national tendency toward creation of heroic myths crowds out the simultaneously necessary work of scrutinizing how our myths and histories are written.

Speaking not in the language of censorship or suppression but rather of good old American sportsmanship, our president said of the decision to withhold the bin Laden photos, “We don't need to spike the football.” [34] The photographs, which were taken to run facial recognition analysis in order to confirm the identity of bin Laden [35], are here made equivalent to criticizable end-zone showiness. Strangely, they are not given the authoritative weight of historical evidence even though that is precisely why they were taken.

Leon Panetta, then-Director of the CIA, advocated for making the photos available, but Obama voiced concerns for retaliatory violence should those images go public. If the idea of the images, as opposed to the actual killing of bin Laden himself, as incurring violence is at least somewhat odd, it is stranger still in light of Obama’s confident assertion that “Certainly there’s no doubt among Al Qaeda members that he is dead.” [36] The photos in this capacity can offer no extra proof to what is already known and what can already be acted upon, or retaliated against.

On the other hand, perhaps there is some logic to Obama’s argument. While Al Qaeda loyalists assuredly understand, as an objective fact, that bin Laden is dead, the President fears that exposure to a graphic reminder will ignite in those loyalists a murderous emotional reaction—one more virulent and uncontrollable than the reaction has been to the mere fact of bin Laden’s death. The President’s fears demonstrate his understanding of the very dynamic at work in the suppression of the photos of falling 9/11 victims: suppression of the images cannot undo historical fact, but it can blunt some of the outrage, shift the focus, and thereby hasten the forgetting. Accordingly, there are good reasons to suppress painful reminders with regard to our enemies, but, counterintuitively, to recognize that painful reminders should be an integral part of our own “moving forward” process.

But the debate over the bin Laden photos does not simply begin and end with concerns about what violence might be perpetrated should these images go public.  In the final analysis, this may well be the most important consideration; but it is by no means the only. The reception of unadulterated information is something we ostensibly prize in this country. Yet the triumphal myth we have written over the past ten years seems to forget this principle. While it’s true that photographs of a dead bin Laden would fit the we-have-prevailed narrative, in the end, it turns out they are not necessary. The mythic narrative can come to a jubilant, triumphant conclusion regardless of the presence or absence of those photos, perhaps because the mythology itself is so embedded it does not require additional affirmative documentation.

This isn’t to say that there is reason to doubt bin Laden’s death. But if the public’s participation in the myth marks an uncritical reception of information, this is worrying. It becomes a problem, more generally, if history begins to write itself through preconceived storylines that don’t demand evidence (or that superficially accept a fake on Facebook in absence of other visual confirmation). At the least, we should always feel troubled when we know that material is being suppressed.

Photographs record—and in turn, become a part of the historical record, as the photos of Saddam Hussein’s dead sons Uday and Qusay did. Their bloodied bodies were not censored from the media. While the images of bin Laden are no doubt horrendously graphic, we find ourselves in a strange position when the state decides what we can and cannot see of our military involvements. This was the case until recently with the ban on news depictions of flag-covered coffins of dead soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. That particular suppression of images contributed to notions of American exceptionalism. It’s easy to believe we’re exceptional when we never see documentation of our own vulnerability. The suppression itself—the very absence of information—has meaning that can be misconstrued. This is so both with the images of our vulnerability as well as those that expose our strength, as presumably with the bin Laden photos.

Suppression is thus a fraught practice, and more to the point, the slope from suppression to censorship is slippery. What may appear prudent from one perspective is dangerous from another. And it is potentially more dangerous when it occurs without public knowledge (how often, we have to ask, does that happen in the US?), or even occurs in an unthinking manner by the public itself, as it adopts a censorial behavior in its raging public outcry.

“Once Upon a Time”

Lauren Walsh

From Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Another post-9/11 novel, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), also treated the images of falling and jumping victims. His novel, in fact, reproduces what appear to be photo stills, fifteen in all, of one of those victims. But instead of showing the figure plummeting downward through fifteen photos to certain death, Foer runs the images backward. The flipbook, which closes the novel, depicts the victim ascending back up to the heights from which he fell.

The book's last page of text, just before the concluding flipbook, is written in the pluperfect conditional tense, as the young protagonist thinks backwards through all of his father’s probable motions on September 11th, all the way back to the known—to their last night together, September 10th, when his father told him a bedtime story, from “the end to the beginning, from ‘I love you’ to ‘Once upon a time…’."  The protagonist imagines that “We would have been safe.” [37]

The flipbook images that directly follow are the visual equivalent to this textual conditional tense. In reversing the chronology, the child narrator essentially reinstates the pictured body—which has come to stand for his father, who died on 9/11 and whose body was never recovered—back into a safe place inside the World Trade Center tower.

Lauren Walsh

From Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

There is a tremendous poignancy to this reversal of events, as surely this ability to go back in time is what the protagonist ardently desires. But pressing questions also arise: Does this rewriting of the narrative reflect something sinister? Can images like these, because they are not seen and not given voice in the public consciousness, be appropriated in bizarre manners, pulled out of their context, and used in “Once upon a time” fairy tales that don’t admit the crushing realities of broken bodies? As it turns out (and forging an unexpected connection with the bin Laden pictures that surfaced on Facebook), these particular images appear to have been photoshopped, an observation made by Laura Frost of The New School, who points out that the depicted figure - instead of tumbling and flailing - holds the same position in every frame. [38]

Many critics, in vehement denunciation of the concluding photo stills, objected in particular to the way in which Foer incorporated "an indelible image of desperation and death." [39] In turn, some described the novel as profiting from grief. And yet perhaps we, the public, have created these very conditions in refusing to look at these images in any other context. They are labeled sensational and find themselves, altered and photoshopped along the way, now residing in a house of fiction because they are no longer part of our history, no longer records of our past. In its representation of the topic of the jumpers, Extremely Loud allows us to consider some of the consequences of suppression.

DeLillo offers a related episode, but moves away from the child’s perspective into the knowing vantage of adults. Lianne is horrified by her son’s insistence that the towers have not fallen: “This repositioning of events frightened her in an unaccountable way. He was making something better than it really was.” He, too, tries to reverse time, but ultimately, this invention is “a failed fairy tale.” [40]

It is perhaps easier to argue against writing a historical narrative that works through the heroic mode to the exclusion of 7% of NYC’s victims than to demand that all military photos go public; yet the analogy with the bin Laden pictures—and the fact that these, too, are not a part of the public official record—at the least raises important questions. In controlling the release of photographs, the government affirms that they are powerful tools. What agenda, we should always ask, is being served? In the case of the falling and jumping images this points us toward another question: What does this elision mean about how we remember as a nation? Photographs function as testimony. When and how do we “listen” to them?

The National September 11 Museum at Ground Zero, which will open a year from now (the Memorial affiliated with it opens this September), is in position to be the first major institution to give attention to the falling body photos and thereby act against this trend of suppression. In 2002, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History ran an exhibit called “September 11: Bearing Witness to History” (portions of this show toured nationally from 2003 to 2006), but elected not to show a single image of a falling victim. [41] But a representative for the September 11 Museum has said that “absolutely the museum plans to acknowledge” these deaths, although currently the museum will not make public what shape this acknowledgement will take—and whether or not it will be visual. [42] Will we in fact see these victims, or will we, even as the museum encourages us to remember their deaths, simultaneously look away? This is not to ignore that these are incredibly difficult images to view nor is this to say that museum-goers should even find themselves forced to look; but these are documentation of the experiences that day and should have a space in the cultural memory.

On a certain level, the construction of historical narratives always involves silences and blindnesses. But if we accept that as a fait accompli, if that’s an adequate excuse for suppressing parts of the history of 9/11, then we are dupes. We are not thinking about what those silences and blindnesses mean, yet we should be—even in cases where the public has no control over the suppression.

While the historical narrative has looked away from the falling and jumping victims for ten years, perhaps the way back in is, precisely, through more conventional narrative forms—spoken and written word. Storytelling itself may evidence the first real signs of more engaged attempts at “facing” those victims. DeLillo and Foer, of course, have tried to tackle this taboo subject in their writing, as have a few other authors. And in the 9/11 Artists Registry, which also includes text-based art—poetry, reflections, plays, and so on—a search function brings up a handful of instances of “jump” in the written works of the 580 artists. At The September 11 Digital Archive, the search on “jump” returns many more stories and testimonials. Maybe this suggests a trend, although the pervasive public language of heroism and resurrection speaks, without doubt, most volubly right now. We have to learn to listen to those who speak for the 7%, and we must not omit the visual documentation and what it says to us. The past decade has largely written these victims out. That needs to change—and there is still time.

Despite the public presentation of a decade-long story that moved from tragedy to triumph, the “9/11 narrative,” regardless of bin Laden's death, has not concluded. “Once upon a time” is not a suitable framework for this ongoing history. The suppression of the images that document it is not an acceptable way to tell it.


[1] James Young, in characterizing historian Martin Broszat’s observation, has written: “in their references to the fascist era, monuments may not remember events so much as bury them altogether beneath layers of national myths and explanations” (1993, 5).
[2] Wakin (June 27, 2011).
[3] As of late July, various similar events had been announced. For example: A choral group will be performing in Washington, D.C. “with a program to uplift and inspire” (accessed July 27, 2011) and a 5K commemorative race in Colorado is called the American Heroes Run. Their website states, “No politics; just patriotism” (accessed July 27, 2011).
[4] Tom Junod, writing for Esquire magazine (Sept. 2003), first reports on this, especially as regards one particular falling body photo that was widely printed on the 12th: "The next morning, it [...] appeared in hundreds of newspapers." I will return to Junod's work later. See also, for instance, Barbie Zelizer, who offers this information in About to Die: How News Images Move the Public (2010), where she focuses on the temporality of photography with regard to historic journalistic images that capture a moment shortly before the subject’s death. She adds, “By the weekend [after September 11, 2001, these] images of people about to die were virtually gone, appearing in very few of the newsmagazines, retrospectives, or other overviews of that first week’s events” (47).
[5] Junod and Zelizer (43) report on CNN; The New York Times reports on NBC (Rutenberg and Barringer, September 13, 2001).
[6] The New York Times gave a conservative tally of 50 jumpers, based on the bodies they could count in a review of footage and photos they had access to. USA Today, using footage and photos, as well as eyewitness accounts and other evidence, estimated “at least 200 people” (Cauchon and Moore, September 3, 2002). The higher figure is thought to be the more accurate, which means that approximately 7.3% of those who died in the WTC attacks were falling or jumping deaths. Of note, the federal investigation into the collapse of building 1 and 2 of the World Trade Center analyzed footage of jumpers, not to learn about the jumpers themselves, but for the purpose of understanding the progression of the fire and its destruction of the buildings. The New York Times quotes Michael Newman, a spokesman for the National Institute of Standards and Technology: “What data we have in this area are being used to better understand the movement and behavior of the fire and smoke in the towers” (Flynn and Dwyer, September 10, 2004).
[7] While a limited number of falling and jumping pictures can be found online, by and large, these photos do not exist in public commemorative spaces and hardly ever show up in the types of sources that traditionally command authority with regard to historical evidence and which, long term, determine a certified record of history.
[8] New York Post, March 10, 2004. Cover image, “Suicide,” by Scott Schwartz. Zelizer notes that some critics and journalists denounced the publication of this photo (51), though the decision to run it at all, especially in a paper with the 7th highest circulation in the country, reveals that the 9/11 falling body images—and their nearly immediate suppression from the public eye—didn’t result in a moratorium on other falling body photos.
[9] Over the course of the week of July 6 to July 13, 2011, this author spent up to six hours each day on the website for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum (www.911memorial.org), listening to audio, reading text, and looking at images, timelines, renderings of the planned museum, and so forth. Beyond the museum collection portion of this extensive site, one finds few references to these deaths. I will return to this as it pertains to another section on the website, the Artists Registry. Research on the registry was conducted on July 30, 2011.
[10] The website for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
[11] DeLillo 2007, 33.
[12] DeLillo 2007, 222.
[13] Sontag 2003, 76.
[14] Junod’s 2003 article, “The Falling Man,” charts the early resistance to 9/11 falling body imagery as the author tries to find the identity of the man in Drew’s photograph. Junod retraces the work of journalist Peter Cheney from The Globe and Mail, who thought he had identified the “falling man.” Junod discovers that Cheney’s finding is likely incorrect and identifies another man, a sound engineer from Windows on the World, as possibly the victim pictured in this image.
[15] A spokesperson for the office says: “We don't like to say they jumped. They didn't jump. Nobody jumped. They were forced out, or blown out” (quoted in Junod).
[16] Many have related that the sound of the bodies slamming into the ground was incredibly loud. Two brothers, Jules and Gedeon Naudet, French documentary film makers, were working on a project on New York firefighters. They were nearby and on site at the Towers with the FDNY that morning. Their footage records the sounds of jumpers’ impacts with the ground. The Naudet brothers’ film is titled 9/11 (2002).
[17] Singer has made the most thorough film to date, although a very limited number of other films have included small amounts of footage of these victims. In addition, in 2006 Kevin Ackerman directed an 11-minute-long dramatization about a Windows on the World employee and the conditions that may have led to jumping. It was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, where organizers had to provide Ackerman with a bodyguard after he received hate mail in response to the film (Riley).
[18] In fact, one of the subjects in Singer’s film, an editor at The Morning Call, even compares Drew’s photo to Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.
[19] DeLillo 2007, 33.
[20] DeLillo 2007, 164.
[21] Fentress and Wickham 1992, 58-59.
[22] Of note, and in keeping with the “story of 9/11” that is being written into history, Thomas E. Franklin’s image - the echo of Iwo Jima - was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize and a photo, by Steve Ludlum for The New York Times, which depicts the wounded yet standing towers, was awarded the Pulitzer.
[23] Others have noted the post-9/11 dominance of the heroic. See, for instance, Singer’s film, where the narrator says, “the world preferred to remember the heroic images of the rescuers and how the American spirit had prevailed.” In “Still Life: 9/11’s Falling Bodies” (2008), Laura Frost responds to “positive” approaches of memorialization, as she discusses the temporalities of photography, trauma, and narrative, in her analysis of post-9/11 literature that “refuse[s] to perform that imaginative work” of delving into the experience and “larger symbolic” significance of the falling victims (196); works that handle “9/11 imagery gingerly,” she says, sustain “the myth of American invulnerability” (200). Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream (2007) provides an interesting take that connects the attacks—and subsequent feelings of American impotence—with a cultural resurgence in traditional notions of the dominant male and the helpless female. The death toll is reported in The Daily News (June 18, 2011).
[24] See www.hereisnewyork.org (accessed July 31, 2011) and Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs (2002); Junod. The book that grew from this event, which consists of almost 1000 photos to “give the most coherent sense of the whole” (9), also has the same one picture from the “Victims” section of the website and no other falling body images.
[25] http://registry.national911memorial.org/ The work of two artists encountered for this research is abstract enough that it cannot be easily labeled falling or jumping victim artwork; it is hard to tell if the figures in this art represent these particular victims. Another artist has posted YouTube video, but the videos do not load through the registry. Leaving the Artists Registry, going directly to YouTube, and searching for these videos does yield one that has two photo stills, on screen for a few seconds, of falling victims, but for whatever reason these are not accessible through the registry.
[26] Both The September 11 Digital Archive and the Library of Congress online catalog were accessed by this author on July 29, 2011. The 9/11 Digital Archive possesses publicly viewable collections, which were searched for this article in the interests of gauging what images are most readily accessible on this subject; but one can also register for a “researcher’s account,” which gains access to other content, such as personal notes. The first three categories in the Images section are contributions “from site visitors.” The website also explains that organizers still accept contributions from the public, but the website stopped being updated in June 2004. The Library of Congress artwork, through the Images section of the 9/11 Digital Archive, contains no falling or jumping victim art, though does have a Reuters photograph of people crowded at windows high up in one of the towers. The American Social History Project is at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the Center for History and New Media is at George Mason University. The Library of Congress search on “jump” revealed two photos that apparently include the remains of jumpers, though this aspect is not visible in the thumbnail image available on the site. See http://911digitalarchive.org/gallery_index.php and http://www.loc.gov/index.html.
[27] On the New York City works of art: Both occurrences were covered in multiple New York City newspapers. See, for example, The New York Times, “After Complaints, Rockefeller Center Drapes Sept. 11 Statue” (September 19, 2002) and the Daily News, “New Furor Sparked by Falling-Bodies Art” (September 21, 2002) and “WTC Display Yanked after Uproar” (September 25, 2002). On the Chicago artist: See Camper (July 10, 2005), who quotes Bloomberg and Pataki, and refers to the event as a “performance-cum-photo shoot.”
[28] Klara Silverstein quoted in Collins, The New York Times (March 6, 2006). Frost provides a more developed reading of this incident as well as the poem itself. Her article also briefly references Paul Chan’s 1st Light (2005), a work of art that included moving silhouettes of people falling. While Chan’s art may represent an act of “looking toward” the falling and jumping people, it still does so only obliquely; the work does not explicitly reference 9/11, these are not photographs, the art is rather fantastical (cars and cell phones float into the sky), and the setting of the scene evokes a space that is more suburban than it is Manhattan. Though this could be a comment on how the American public has treated the memory of these victims, Chan himself won’t make that move; he states that his art is not political, and deems political art “ineffective” (Holland).
[29] Both the image (photo by Anthony Whitaker) and its description were accessed here July 7, 2011.
[30] DeLillo 2007, 60. This comment is spoken in discussion of Alzheimer’s by a doctor who accepts this particular type of loss, that is, into dementia; but as we know, DeLillo’s novel analogizes the private disease and the public attacks, and thus this statement simultaneously harbors ominous social and historical meaning.
[31] Suzanne McCabe quoted in Flynn and Dwyer, The New York Times (September 10, 2004).
[32] The local date of bin Laden’s death was May 2nd; it was still May 1st in the United States.
[33] For photos, see the Village Voice (accessed May 8, 2011).
[34] Obama said this during an interview with Steve Kroft on CBS’s 60 Minutes (air date: May 8, 2011).
[35] Obama addressed this during his interview. See also, “The Death of Osama bin Laden,” The New York Times (Updated May 9, 2011).
[36] Interview with Steve Kroft, CBS’s 60 Minutes (air date: May 8, 2011).
[37] Foer 2005, 326.
[38] Frost 2008, 194. Frost provides an extended analysis of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Also, a related aside to my reading of Foer: Zelizer discusses what she terms the “as if,” or the visual subjunctive in journalistic photography. While her analysis addresses single images (not series of images run in reverse), her characterization still has value here: the “as if” allows “what is depicted [to be viewed] in an interpretive scheme of ‘what could be’ rather than ‘what is’” (14).
[39] Hughes, The Wall Street Journal (March 18, 2005).
[40] DeLillo 2007, 102.
[41] This point was confirmed in an interview (July 11, 2011), conducted by this author, with Shannon Perich, a curator in the Photographic History Collections who worked on this Smithsonian exhibit, which was open at the museum from September 2002 to July 2003.
[42] Amy Weisser, Director of Exhibition Development, interview with this author (July 8, 2011).


9/11. Dirs. Jules and Gedeon Naudet. 2002.
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“After Complaints, Rockefeller Center Drapes Sept. 11 Statue” The New York Times.
(September 19, 2002). Accessed March 13, 2011.
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Shocken Books, 1968.
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_____. “WTC Display Yanked after Uproar.” Daily News. September 25, 2002. Accessed June 1, 2011.
Camper, Fred. “IDEAS, Is Art Defaming 9/11 Deaths?” Newsday. [Nassau and Suffolk Edition]. July 10, 2005. Accessed March 4, 2011.
Cauchon, Dennis and Martha Moore. “Desperation Forced a Horrific Decision.” USA Today. September 3, 2002. Accessed March 6, 2011.
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Confused by Photography:
From the Weimar Republic to the Arab Spring

This is based on a talk originally given at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts on March 31, 2011, and updated since.

I’d like to share a few thoughts about the Frankfurt School critics--especially Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Benjamin’s friend and comrade, Bertolt Brecht -- all of whom developed their enormously influential ideas about photography, and indeed about mass media in general, in the midst of the traumatic convulsions of the Weimar Republic. These critics were brilliant, and they were also quite confused--for good reasons--about the vast cultural changes that they were witnessing. Then I’d like leapfrog several decades--actually, almost a century-- and discuss the deluge of new media forms--digital photography, citizen journalism, Facebook, etc.-- that we have encountered the past five or 10 years. In particular, I’d like raise some questions about their relationship--if any--to the political uprisings that we are witnessing in the Middle East. Like our precedessors in Weimar, we, too, are quite confused--also for good reasons.

Weimar was modernity’s workshop, and much has been written about its explosion of creativity in social mores, sexuality, intellectual life, and the arts. Less frequently noted is what a wonderful town Berlin was for journalism and photography--especially press photography--in the Weimar years. Germany’s abolition of press censorship in 1918 unleashed a torrent of newspapers, magazines, and tabloids; by the 1920s Berlin alone boasted a phenomenal 47 daily newspapers. A photograph of the time suggests the rich abundance of the Berlin press: it shows a wide Potsdamer Platz newsstand veritably dripping with papers, like a plump bourgeois lady loaded down with jewels.

Photographs became a key part of the new journalism, which documented everything from the latest fashions and film stars to social problems, natural catastrophes, and political crises. Many criticisms can be, and were, lodged against these photography-laden newspapers and magazines. It is true that they were slow to understand the political crisis, and the depth of anti-Semitism, of the later Weimar years (although many of those publications were politically liberal and, often, edited by Jews); that they flooded their viewers with an undifferentiated mass of images, as Siegfried Kracauer charged; and that they often sought the most sensational rather than the most meaningful images. In 1932, for instance, editor Kurt Korff of the prominent weekly, BIZ, challenged the photographer James Abbé to “get me photographs of Hitler coming out of a synagogue!”

But the illustrated magazines also taught their readers new ways to see, and they made their readers’ worlds wider and more cosmopolitan. Political events became more like news and less like history: cataclysmic upheavals, such as the Communist revolt of 1919, were brought to readers almost in real-time. Politicians were shown as never before: unposed, candid, flawed. Political demonstrations, revolutions, even executions, as well as life inside mines, factories, slums, homeless shelters, drug clinics, and progressive schools, were documented; so were events in far-away countries, which now seemed not quite so far away. Pioneering editors developed a new form, the photo essay, which used photographs to create film-like narratives rather than viewing them in isolation. And to feed this voracious new press, a new institution, the photo agency, sprang up; one of the most prominent, called Dephot, was founded by a Hungarian émigré, Simon Guttmann, who was close to both the Dadaists and the Sparticists, and who gave Robert Capa his first job. Unlike Kracauer and Brecht, Guttmann viewed photography as a politically progressive force; Dephot, he wrote, was “committed to cross[ing] all frontiers between nations and classes” and to “siding with anyone who did something new and non-conformist.”

For two crucial years--before the triumph of barbarism -- this experimental, democratic culture of journalism flourished: a culture where words and images, radical politics and the avant-garde, reporters and intellectuals, fluidly mixed. (Capa frequented the same café as Walter Benjamin.) Weimar was home to members of the astonishingly fertile Hungarian diaspora of photographers, including László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi; of famed journalists and editors; and of prominent, or soon-to-be-prominent, photojournalists like Capa and Alfred Eisenstaedt. Hitler set out to eradicate this vital, rambunctious press, which he considered “too Jewish” in its skepticism, its creativity, its personnel, and its ownership. Starting in early 1933, many of Berlin’s journalists and photographers became marked men and women; in August of that year, a list of working photographers identified as Jewish or foreign was published, leading to mass purges. The journalistic community scattered with rapidity, though by the standards of the time--a time when, as Brecht would write, refugees changed countries “oftener than our shoes”--many of its members were lucky, eventually settling in Palestine, England, or the United States.


The melancholy writers of the Frankfurt School had, as my students would say, some serious “issues” with regard to the emergence of this mass press and the mass visual culture it created--especially since those new media forms were being created simultaneously with what was then a new, populist form of mass politics: that is, fascism. These critics were living in the increasingly dark shadow of an increasingly dark Europe, and it is impossible to separate their work from the maelstrom in which they lived--a maelstrom that ended, of course, in the utter catastrophe of Sobibor and Auschwitz.

Though Benjamin was in some ways highly critical of the photographic enterprise, it would be false to say that he disliked photographs. On the contrary: as a dialectician, he believed that the photograph held out liberating, indeed revolutionary, possibilities. In his essay “Little History of Photography,” originally published in 1931, Benjamin argued that photography had created a “new way of seeing,” one that brought masses of ordinary people closer to the world and would enable them “to achieve control over works of art.” Several years later, in his now enormously influential essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he wrote of the ways in which film and photography contributed to the smashing of tradition: “Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. . . . Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.”

For Benjamin, photography was part of the descralization of the world, which is to say part of the painful but necessary task of modernity. Equally important, Benjamin understood the subjective power of the photograph: its spooky ability to make us want to enter the world it depicts--and even, sometimes, change it. Indeed, it is this potential spur to identification and action that so distinguishes photography from other visual arts, such as painting and sculpture.

But all the negatives--the critiques of photography that would come to the fore with Susan Sontag and, then, the postmodernists--were also true for Benjamin. He was highly suspicious of the passive, aestheticized society that he feared photography was helping to create: mass events--from “monster rallies” to sports events to war--were all “intimately connected with the development of the techniques of reproduction and photography,” he wrote. He believed that photography was a form of mystification, for it “can endow any soup can”--did he foresee the age of Warhol?--“with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists.” He distrusted photography’s ability to beautify: photography, he warned, had turned “abject poverty itself . . . into an object of enjoyment.”

Yet Benjamin also distrusted photography’s opposite attribute: its facticity. For Benjamin, photography’s claim to depict an obvious, unquestionable reality was a threat to independent, dialectical thought. With the rise of photography, he wrote, “a new reality unfolds, in the face of which no one can take responsibility for personal decisions”; instead, “One appeals to the lens.” Benjamin feared that the presumably infallible, objective judgment of the camera would conquer the subjective, flawed judgment of mere men: the simplicity of the photographic world would obscure the complexity of the human world. The seductive power of film--what he called the “shock effect” of moving images-- also filled him with trepidation.

Even more than Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer regarded the photograph as a kind of diminution. Rather than presenting us with the exciting immediacy of a human character, as its advocates promised, Kracauer insisted that “the photograph is not the person but the sum of what can be subtracted from him or her. The photograph annihilates the person.” Kracauer could sound almost enraged--almost like Baudelaire, that other great foe of photography--when he wrote about photography: “In order for history to present itself, the mere surface coherence offered by photography must be destroyed,” Kracauer wrote. And far from revealing previously hidden realities, Kracauer believed that the photograph occludes: “In a photograph, a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow.”

In the Weimar years, Kracauer wrote as a journalistic critic rather than a theorist, publishing almost two thousand articles and reviews in the Frankfurter Zeitung, a liberal daily newspaper. Yet he was alarmed by interwar Berlin’s cacophonous, newly uncensored, photography-drenched press.  For some of his contemporaries, this press, and especially its new and sometimes startling use of photography, was a glorious herald of modernity. “Photography!” the artist-photographer Johannes Molzahn exulted in a 1928 article. “This greatest of the physical-chemical-technical wonders of the present--this triumph of tremendous consequence!” Molzahn called photography “one of the more important tools for elucidating current problems.”

But Kracauer was decidedly unimpressed. “The flood of photos sweeps away the dams of memory,” he charged. “Never before has a period known so little about itself. In the hands of the ruling society, the invention of illustrated magazines is one of the most powerful means of organizing a strike against understanding.” For Kracauer, photography was, quite simply, the enemy of thought. He insisted, “The ‘image-idea’ drives away the idea. The blizzard of photographs betrays an indifference toward what the things mean.” Photographs, Kracauer believed, fight contemplation; even if the new photojournalism was practiced by thoughtful people, or political radicals, or intellectuals--which it sometimes was--it did not appeal to the intellect, and was therefore highly suspect. Still, Kracauer, like Benjamin, believed that modernity’s cultural disintegration--which these new forms of media represented to him--might radicalize the masses, and he saw photography as a key instrument in this world-historic process. Photography, by opening up the possibility of a radically altered consciousness, was, Kracauer allowed, “the go-for-broke game of history.”

Not all of Kracauer’s colleagues on the left shared his antipathy to the mass media. The Communist artists George Grosz and John Heartfield sought to disseminate their work in popular, accessible forms such as pamphlets, posters, book covers, and newspapers: the cheaper and more vernacular, the better. Heartfield’s work was inconceivable without mass-market photographs and mass-market papers, and Grosz was a fan of American popular culture. But it was Kracauer’s mandarin, often censorious tone that would flourish among successor generations of cultural critics who write about photography.

Most of all, though, it is Brecht whose shadow hangs over photography criticism and whose sensibility continues to define it. Brecht, I think it’s fair to say, really did loathe photographs, or at best deeply distrust them; in 1931 he wrote, “The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about the conditions in this world. On the contrary, photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth.” Later, Benjamin would quote Brecht: “Less than ever does the mere reflection of reality”--by which Brecht meant photography-- “reveal anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG”--the massive German armaments and electric companies, respectively--“tells us next to nothing about these institutions.”

On one level, there is no doubt that Brecht was right. Photographs don’t explain the way the world works; they don’t offer reasons or causes; they don’t tell us stories with a coherent, or even discernible, beginning, middle, and end. Photographs can’t burrow within to reveal the inner dynamics of historic events. And though it’s true that photographs document the specific, they sometimes blur--dangerously blur--political and historic distinctions. A photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Barcelona from 1937 looks much like a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Berlin in 1945, which looks much like the bombed-out buildings of Hanoi in 1972, Belgrade in 1999, or Kabul from last week. Similarly, the very recent photographs of Japanese villages reduced to rubble by the earthquake and tsunami look a lot like the Japanese cities reduced to rubble by the atom bomb. But only a vulgar reductionist would say that the events these various photographs document represent the same circumstances, the same histories, or the same causes.

But if Brecht was right about some things, he was utterly wrong about others. Far from being monopolized by the “hands of the bourgeoisie,” documentary photography has, in most times and in most places, been the purview of liberals and the left. Indeed, at about the time that Brecht was writing against photography, Robert Capa was in Barcelona and Madrid, documenting the anti-fascist struggle with an immediacy, and a passion, that had never before been captured on film. And there is no doubt that photography, precisely because of its ability to capture and to conjure emotion--its ability, that is, to help us make empathic leaps across barriers of race and nation--has been absolutely key in enlargening our concept of the human and in forging the idea of universal human rights: however partial, fitful, and unrealized that idea remains.


I’d like to turn to the present, now, and to posit that it may be as hard for us to understand our new, chaotic visual environment as it was for Weimar citizens to master theirs; we are as conflicted as were Benjamin and Kracauer. Images flood into our world in the old ways--through the printed press, films, and television--but also through cell phones, iPods, satellite dishes, social-networking sites, and the Internet. How to respond? Anxieties abound, and for good reason. On the Internet all photographs are equal: including doctored, manipulated, or constructed photographs and those without any meaningful--or with entirely false--contexts. How can we distinguish between them--and what of those who do not care about such distinctions? Thus the photography critic Andy Grundberg has warned,  “Those in power benefit from this abandonment of discernment; they get to make the choices for us. Thus the liberty of an unchecked image environment may prove to be less a blessing than a subtle form of tyranny, and the democracy of the camera [may prove to be] a perverse kind of fascism.”

Certainly the new visual technologies have changed the relationship between information, propaganda, and war. The Taliban, for instance--which used to ban photographs, movies, and television as ungodly--now has its own video production unit, called “Ummat,” which sends its photographers to photograph and film its atrocities as they occur, and which then posts its advertisements for jihad--its videos of suicide bombings and beheadings--on the web; so do Al Queda and other terrorist groups. Daniel Pearl’s beheading is only the best known of these horror films.

Still, as the photojournalist Gilles Peress and many others have argued, digital photography in particular and the Internet in general might also herald unprecedented possibilities for new, more egalitarian forms of visual participation, and be a boon to human-rights activists everywhere. If digital photography has made viewers more skeptical about the reality-quotient of photographs--just what the postmoderns had hoped--it has also made the making, transmitting, and seeing of pictures incomparably easier, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before, and has given to rise to all sort of organizations--such as PhotoVoice, Pixel Press, and scores of others--that use photography and film as part of their human-rights work.

The inspiring, and sometimes bloody, photographs we saw from the 2009 Iranian protests--and, more recently, from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria--lend credence to the optimistic, pro-democracy interpretation of the new media. Many of those photographs were taken by non-professionals on their cell phones, then quickly circulated all over the world; one could find them everywhere from the front pages of major newspapers to Facebook.

Yet the techno-utopianism these photographs have prompted--some writers have hailed these movements as “Twitter Revolutions,” YouTube revolutions, Facebook revolutions, Internet revolutions--strikes me as premature, vastly overblown, and just plain wrong for several reasons. (Frank Rich, then a columnist for the New York Times, noted--correctly--that this analysis is itself a form of “Western chauvinism.”) First, cell phones, the Internet, Facebook, etc., have been a presence in many parts of the Arab world for over a decade; and so in looking at this explosion of mass protests, we must look further for both the candle and the match. Second, the vast majority of people in Arab and Muslim countries have no access to Twitter feeds or the Internet--indeed, in some of these countries, there are large numbers of people, especially women, who are not even literate--which means that if in fact these revolutions are “caused” by social media, they have zero chance of building democratic, mass movements: Social media is, generally, the province of elites--and of young elites at that. And alas, it must be noted that the constitutional referendum held in March of 2011 in Egypt was a resounding defeat for the forces of secularists and the left.

In fact, the building of democratic institutions--establishing the rule of law, of independent trade unions and political parties, of a free press, etc.-- requires something very different than does mobilizing large numbers of people to attend a street demonstration. If sturdy democracies are to be built in the Arab world, they will require what sturdy democracies everywhere else require, which is the free interchange of ideas among free citizens in a genuinely open--not secretive--political space where debate can flourish. Huddling anonymously in front of computer screens and communicating with so-called “friends” whom you have never met is advantageous, indeed necessary, in a police state, but it should not be romanticized as some sort of great leap forward, and it doth not a democracy make. Democracies require trust, the opposite of secrecy and anonymity: both of which the Internet fosters. And revolutions require leadership, which means, dare I say, hierarchies--the opposite of the radical, and I would argue misleading, egalitarianism that the Internet fosters.

Iran is a case in point. It has what is almost certainly the best educated, most tech-savvy, most cosmopolitan and most politically sophisticated population of any Muslim country in the world, yet its Green Movement is--at least for now--crushed, and a state of terror reigns. Since the 2009 revolt, Iran’s courtrooms have hosted numerous, disgusting show trials; its jails have filled with political prisoners, who are subjected to rape and other state-sponsored tortures; the universities are being purged of progressive faculty; numerous publications have been silenced;and the number of executions has skyrocketed. It was the old-fashioned forces--the old-fashioned guns--of the police, the Revolutionary Guards, and the army that determined the outcome in Iran (as they did, to a large extent though to opposite effect, in Tunisia and Egypt). Tweets, it turned out, were no match for the armed force of the Iranian state. The media gurus who were so quick to hail Iran’s so-called Twitter Revolution--a revolution that did not, in fact, occur--have been strangely silent about the all-too-real counterrevolution.

Indeed, the Iranian opposition movement has launched into a painful self-critique of its reliance on the Internet. After the failure of the so-called Trojan Horse demonstration of February 2010, one Iranian blogger wondered, “Where were the Greens of Tehran?” Then he answered: “On the Internet reading about the Trojan horse plan; On YouTube learning about the ‘action’; [or] chatting online in the afternoon about where to meet in the  morning.” Or, as the Iranian opposition writer Afsanah Moqadam (a pseudonym) wrote, in his book called “Death to the Dictator!”, a first-person account of the 2009 movement:

“Iranians discover that they have an ambivalent attitude toward technology. Cell phone cameras, Facebook, Twitter, the satellite stations: the media are supposed to reflect what is going on, but they seem, in fact, to be making everything happen much faster.

There’s no time to argue what it all means--what the protestors want, [or] if they’re ready to die. The movement rolls forward, gathering speed, and no one really knows where it’s going.”

What it all means: there, surely, is the crux of any revolution, and the key to the mystery of how it will unfold. What it all means: the fear that photography and other forms of mass media would prevent a mass audience from discerning meaning was precisely what worried, indeed tormented, the Frankfurt critics.

And two can play the technology game--any technology game. Brecht thought that radio would be the great democratic tool: and sometimes it has been. Except that in Rwanda, in 1994, the  genocide was organized, broadcast, and mobilized through the radio broadcasts of the immensely popular Hutu Power stations.

And so it is with today’s new forms of media: They are undeniably populist, but certainly not inherently democratic--a distinction that, I fear, is being lost. Indeed, the Iranian government itself encouraged the use of social media sites in the run-up to the stolen 2009 election: Ahmadinejad can be found on Facebook, as can the Ayatollah.  (Yes, you, too, can “friend” the Ayatollah--or, for that matter, follow Ahmadinejad’s Twitter feed for timely updates from the dictator, such as “No Israel in new Mideast”.) As for the Iranian blogosphere: it is filled, undeniably, with opposition voices--secular blogs, leftist blogs, Marxist blogs, feminist blogs; and filled, also undeniably, with religious-fundamentalist blogs, Basiji blogs, pro-government blogs, and fans of Ahmadinejad blogs. Indeed, Qom, Iran’s religious center of fundamentalist learning, is now known as “the Internet Technology capital” of the country.

Equally important, the Iranian state has turned the use of the Internet and of social networking sites on their heads, so to speak. The police have used electronic trails to track down thousands of regime opponents; and, according to Human Rights Watch, the government has created an “online surveillance center and is believed to be behind a ‘cyberarmy’ of hackers that it can unleash against opponents.”

My point is not, however, the relatively simple one (albeit true) that virtually any form of media, and any form of technology, can be used for liberation or for reaction. What troubles me is that the fixation on media and technology--a fixation fostered by the U.S. press, but I suspect by other presses, too--is a too-easy, too-convenient evasion of political thinking. And this was, ironically, precisely what the Frankfurt School critics feared about the new forms of mass media: Recall, for example, of Kracauer warning that photographs--the “image idea”--would drive away thought.

The recent uprising in Egypt, for instance, has often been portrayed, at least in the U.S. press, as a spontaneous event fostered by Facebook. How many people know that the Egyptian activists--or rather a small, key group of them--planned for years for the events that unfolded in Tahir Square; that they went out into the streets to organize amongst urban workers; that they met with the leaders of Otpor, the anti-Milosevic student movement, who trained them in militant nonviolence; that they carefully studied the works of radical nonviolent democracy theorists such as the American organizer, Eugene Sharp? How many people can explain, or are even interested in, the politics of the Tunisian opposition--or, for that matter, of Libya’s or Syria’s? How many people know the numbers of jailed and missing political activists (yes, still) in Egypt, as opposed to the number of days the Internet was shut down? How many people know how busy the Iranian executioners have been--as opposed to how many Iranians use Twitter? A quick Google search (and yes, I know this isn’t how real research is done!) of “executions in Iran, 2010” turns up 389,000 matches; a quick Google search of “Iran and the twitter revolution” turns up over nine million.

Social media--indeed, any media--can never replace political parties, strategies, programs, or leadership. The new danger, I fear, is that information freedom will become synonymous with--that is, become a substitute for--real political and civic freedom. A corollary danger is that the accoutrements of modern technology--cellphones, digital cameras, the Internet, Facebook--will be mistaken for modernity itself.

It might behoove us to remember that the medium isn’t the message: the message is the message. The obsession with the medium is occluding our ability to understand that message: or, rather, that plethora of messages, none of which can be boiled down to a Tweet, a soundbite, or a photograph.

Iran taught us--and, I suspect, so will Tunisia and Egypt and Lebanon and Yemen and Libya and Syria--and, eventually, even China--that democratic images and populist forms of communication can inspire a democracy and strengthen a democracy, but they can not create one or sustain one. Only people--working in open solidarity with each other--can do that.

The Frankfurt School critics were, I believe, too rejecting, too critical, of the new forms of media, especially photography, that they encountered. We are making the opposite, albeit equally serious, mistake when we conflate new forms of media with democracy and, even, revolution. It would be good to remember that while technology is easy, democracy, freedom, and justice are hard.


Susie Linfield is the author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. She directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in the graduate journalism department at New York University.




72 hours in Ulaanbaatar

4:55 AM, March 15
Wow, what a night...and what a welcome to Mongolia. Arriving on the Korean Air Airbus A330 into the airport at Ulaanbaatar was quite the experience, as it seemed the plane was very close to the ground, yet there was not a single light from the ground anywhere. This really was in the middle of nowhere. Eventually when the plane did land, from the looks of about 6 feet of snow on each side of the runway, I could tell it was going to be damn cold outside. The airport wasn't anything special. It reminded me of a halfway in between Dhaka Zia Airport and the Dakar Yoff Airport, with a distinctly Soviet flavor mixed in...complete with every taxi/hotel/tour hustler in town. After getting rid of a few of these guys, I finally hopped into a metered taxi and 12 miles later I was in Ulaanbaatar.
After being dropped off at Nassan's Guesthouse (or what the taxi driver thought was Nassan's Guesthouse), I went on a wild goose chase looking for it. Apparently it is rather common for guesthouses to be inside large apartment blocks that also happen to have absolutely no signage anywhere. I spent the next half hour or so through several flights of dark stairs and Soviet style hallways and after waking up a couple of surprised Americans in the process of ringing one doorbell after another, I realized I was on the wrong block and proceeded across the street and towards the correct direction. As I was walking in front of the Turkish embassy, two young Mongolian men approached me and one said he was a tour guide and wanted to have whiskey with me. Having dealt with numerous hustlers of this kind in the past, I exchanged some small talk and then walked away from them and around the corner onto another street. At this point I finally found the sign for Nassan's Guesthouse, but for the life of me could not find the entrance. After walking to the back of the building and then to the front, my two Mongolian friends came running towards to me and insisted that we go for a drink. This was pretty close to midnight and the last thing I wanted to do was go for a drink. So after telling my new Mongolian friends that I'll have a drink with them tomorrow, I proceeded to look for the entrance to my hotel. I guess my Mongolian friends lost their patience and the taller one grabbed my glasses off of me and put them on himself. After showing me his fist, his partner then went to dig in my pocket looking for my wallet. Pretty soon I found myself knocked to the ground and hearing the straps of my bag (containing my laptop and camera among other things) being ripped away off of me. Soon after they ran off, I ran after them trying to retrieve my bag. Fortunately, there was a construction site in front and there were several people walking in the direction that we were running to. I guess the 10 kilo bag was a little too much for them to run very fast with and they threw it in a ditch and took off onto another street. Literally, out of nowhere, several policemen (both uniformed and plain-clothed) showed up and asked me to come with them. Just as abruptly the group of policemen showed up, another policeman showed up with the two men, one in each arm and asked me if these were the same ones that attacked me. Sure enough, these policemen meant business. Not only that were physically huge, but also it was clear that having grown up under the old Soviet style days of the police state that Mongolia was, they were not going to tolerate this type of behavior from these two. I have no idea what one of the policemen said to the two they just caught, but immediately afterwards they became very cooperative. We went to a little 24 hour cafe to get out of the cold where they filled out preliminary reports. Shortly after, a small Hyundai police car showed up...very different than the Ford Crown Victoria's or Chevy Impala's that I'm used to seeing driven by police at home. I found it very odd that along with 3 policemen, I shared the back seat of this little car with the same two that had just attacked me as if six adults in the back seat of a Hyundai Accent wasn't odd enough.

We eventually made it to the police station and after some attempted conversation over a few cups of coffee, it was pretty clear that we were not going to get anywhere without an interpreter. At 2 in the morning, this was not going to be an easy task. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that the US Embassy must have some sort of 24 hour emergency line that could arrange an interpreter. Sure enough, within 10 minutes there was a call from the embassy for me at the police station. He introduced himself as Tumenbayar, the Guard Supervisor at the US Embassy and that he would be over in 10 minutes. Tumbenbayar (Tumi) showed up exactly in 10 minutes as he promised and we proceeded with the police report. Turns out that there were several attacks similar to this one involving foreign visitors in Ulaanbaatar recently and the police suspect that these two may be involved with those as well. The entire experience with the Mongolian police was quite interesting to say the least. They were able to recover every single thing from the robbery except my Peruvian wool hat. While not surprising, the state of technology there was pathetic. I expected at least some computers, but instead it was all pen on paper and old manual typewriters that had seen much better days. In the end, I was quite taken by the efficiency of this police department and how professional their behavior was towards the matter. After filling out all the paperwork, they wanted me to get a medical report. I had some minor scratches and bruises on my legs, so I didn't think anything of it, but they insisted that I go to a 24 hour clinic to consult a doctor about my injuries and to verify them formally.
Tumi drove me to another part of Ulaanbaatar where we obviously woke the nurse by the loud knocks on the metal door. We walked upstairs and went on to wake the doctor as well. After about 15 minutes and 2,000 Tugrugs (US$1.64) later, I had a medical report number which was to be forwarded to the police in the morning. By now, it was about 4 in the morning and I still had not checked in to a hotel yet. And trying to find a cheap hotel that would be open at this time was pretty much impossible. Tumi invited me to sleep at his place for the night and called his wife who cleared up the other bedroom in the middle of the night. Tumi lives in an old Soviet style apartment block literally in front of the US Embassy. He said to me that he has the safest parking spot in all of Mongolia as he leaves it in front of the guards carrying military automatic rifles at the embassy. We walked around the wall of the embassy and up six flights of stairs to his modest apartment. Apparently, in many of Mongolian apartment block buildings, the elevators do not run after 11pm. We had a couple of cups of lemon tea before calling it a night.



8:13 AM
Working at the embassy for the last 4 years, Tumi has observed a few interesting traits found in Americans...or could it be the Americans that work there? He went out of his way to bring out the special coffee as he has observed that Americans like "good" coffee.  After a couple of cups, we took the elevator and walked another minute or so before entering the embassy. I met with representatives from the consular office which normally deal with tourists that are robbed as they are the ones that need to replace passports and such. Fortunately, I still had my passport with me and we just ended up chatting for a while until one of them accompanied me to the police station. I must say it was quite the opposite experience in the mode of transport compared to the night before. The consular assistant and I were driven by a chauffer in a massive Ford Expedition through the streets of Ulaanbaatar where it seemed that all the other vehicles were about 1/3rd the size of our vehicle. I guess Uncle Sam spared little expense on that one.
The formal part of the investigation took about three hours. They had already arranged a court date for the two that robbed me, but the earliest they could get was still two weeks later. Given that my flight was leaving Mongolia this Friday, they took formal legal statements right there on the spot to be used in court later. Afterwards the consular staff that escorted me to the police station dropped me off at the "State Department Store" (a name from the old Soviet days) where she arranged to have my coat repaired which was ripped during the robbery.


1:00 PM, March 16
I was walking around town looking for a place to eat. Yesterday, while waiting for my coat to get sewn, I went across the street to a Chinese restaurant (easy to spot by the Chinese writing on the sign as all the signs here are in Cyrillic and everything looks alike). I had some beef with eggplant and it was absolutely delicious. It was a little greasy, but the extra fat definitely made it taste better. So after such a good Chinese meal, I decided that maybe I should try something local. After walking around town, I finally found a really good homely kind of place. I had no idea what the sign said but there was a picture of a plate of food on it, so I figured it couldn't have been that bad. I got in and was given a menu...again all in Cyrillic script. I can sort of read the script, but when they're spelling out Mongolian words, there's no chance of me trying to figure out what it said. So in my regular fashion, I randomly decided to go with the first thing that didn't look like a drink on the menu. While waiting for the food to come out, I eventually was able to make out the word "shuul" (Mongolian for soup) on the menu, so I knew that I was getting some kind of soup. When it arrived on my table, it looked like some fatty lumps on sheep fat floating in oily water. It didn't taste any better either. I have finally experienced first hand the terrible reputation of Mongolian food which incidentally has nothing to do with what is known as Mongolian food in the US. The taste was so bad that even though I wasn't hungry at all, I had to eat another meal just to get the horrible taste out of my mouth. It really was that bad and I'm not even picky about my food either. I always took pride in the fact that I would eat anything and everything, but this really tested me. I barely finished my bowl of sheep fat and ran out of the door.
3:06 PM
I just got off the phone with the US Embassy and to my surprise they received a call from the national television station. Turns out that there was a front page article about me in the "Today" newspaper here regarding the robbery and they called the embassy to find me. The nightly talk show on the national TV station is focusing on problems in tourism in Mongolia tonight and they want to interview me! This should be really interesting.
12:54 AM, March 17
Walking into the National Television station in Ulaanbaatar was definitely an exercise in time travel back to the 1960's of the good old days of the Soviet Union. Just about everything ranging from the architecture of the place to the equipment to even the carpet screamed remnants of the old Soviet regime. The talk show had about 30 people in it, so not a lot of time to actually talk, but being the only non-Mongolian on the show, the host did ask me a few questions. The TV show was an interesting set up as the participants were split into two groups; one representing the government ministries and such and one representing the tourism agencies and other related people. So basically, to look at it in the post-Soviet days, the old state run enterprises and the new privately run commercial ventures. It definitely was a bizarre experience for me to share the stage with the police chief of all of Mongolia, the Minister of Culture, and the Minister of Transportation among other important people here. The show was an hour and then afterwards my interpreter invited me to join her and her Australian and American friends for a drink at a bar nearby my hotel. The bar was basically a modern equivalent of the typical Mongolian yurt except this one had a live band playing a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover song as we walked in. If things couldn't get any more odd, I spent the rest of the evening with two American guys, a couple of Australians and three Mongolian soldiers that just returned from Iraq while a Mongolian band was playing songs by the Cure and Coldplay right behind us. After the bill of 86,000 tugrugs arrived (US$72 or roughly the monthly wage of the average Mongolian) the night eventually ended when another Mongolian (with an afro...I didn't think Mongolians could grow afros) came and dragged away our Iraqi veterans to another bar.





The idea that images have the power to function as agents in political conflicts has, especially since 9/11, become fairly entrenched in discussions of contemporary media culture, notably in the work of scholars such as W.J.T. Mitchell, Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. In Cloning Terror Mitchell describes what he calls the image war thus: "it has been waged against images (thus acts of iconoclasm or image destruction have been critical to it); and it has been fought by means of images deployed to shock the enemy, images meant to appall and demoralize, images designed to replicate themselves endlessly and to infect the collective imaginary of global populations."

We invited a range of scholars to consider the following question: What is the lasting significance of this notion of image wars – politically, epistemologically, aesthetically?

New contributions will be posted regularly over the next weeks at www.nomadikon.net.

Asbjørn Grønstad and Øyvind Vågnes, editors

#13, July 23, 2012
W. J. T. Mitchell

I am deeply grateful to Nomadikon, and its editors, Øyvind Vågnes and Asbjørn Grønstad, for organizing this online discussion of the concept of “image war” as elaborated in my recent book, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9-11 to the Present.  The contributors have taken this concept (for which I can claim little originality since it is probably as old as the ancient human practice known as warfare) in a variety of fascinating and unforeseen directions.  Indeed, to me it is a sure sign that an idea “has legs,” as they say in advertising, that others can “run off” with it, and even “run away” with it into territories that one could never anticipate, and that may even run counter to one’s own sense of the proper limits of an idea. 

And in fact this might be the place to make clear my own sense of limits, by insisting that the notion of image war, of a war of images, is itself an image, a metaphor, and perhaps a metapicture—that is, a second-order picture of the way that pictures operate.   A war of images is not literally a war.  Images do not go into battle and kill each other; human beings do. [1] Images do not plan invasions, massacre populations, and shatter bodies.  That requires people.  Images are more like animals than humans, in this respect.  Animals fight and kill each other, but the mass mobilization of violence known as war seems a uniquely human institution, unless we anthropomorphize the natural behavior of certain species such as warrior ants, or the learned behavior of the war horse, image of the heroic cavalry of pre-modern warfare.  Images are “agents” of war in the sense that a “secret agent” works for a foreign power, or an “agency” is an instrument of a state.  Images are thus like machines, extensions and agents of human powers.  Which is to say that they can go out of control, go “rogue,” and be turned against their creators.   If images are agents, then, perhaps they should be thought of as double agents, capable of switching sides, capable of being “flipped” by acts of clever detournement, appropriation, and seizure for purposes quite antithetical to the intentions of their creators.   (Think here of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” photo op; or the trophy photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison).    My attribution of agency and affect and desire to images, as Max Liljefors notes, “runs the risk” of “mystifying pictures,” but I don’t think we can track the volatile lives of images without running this risk.   We cannot, in my view, utterly destroy the mystification of images, their tendency to take on the status of totems, fetishes, and idols.  In fact, the fantasy of a sovereign iconoclastic power, one that would annihilate falsely mystified images once and for all simply winds up mimicking the idolatry that it seeks to displace.

The opposite risk is named by Jill Casid, who questions whether my “faith in rationality” and invocation of the divide between religion and the secular is adequate to the affective complexity of the image.  She has a point.  I probably sound a bit too much like a simple-minded positivist when I urge a “cold and clinical” attitude toward image-war, and identify my position with the “reality-based community” rather than the “faith-based community” that turned the War on Terror into a holy war and a crusade.  But I would ask her to ponder a bit more closely the third way I have tried to sketch between the mystified and the de-mystified image, one that is grounded in Nietzsche’s strategy of “sounding the idols” (not smashing them) by “philosophizing with a hammer,” or (even better) with a tuning fork.  This third way is not, I hope, “founded on faith in rationality,” nor does it rely on a simple opposition between the sacred and the secular.  On this latter distinction, I would refer the reader to my essay, “Secular Divination:  Edward Said’s Humanism,” which tries to walk the tightrope between these opposing temptations. [2] Casid is right to sense, however, that if I am forced into a corner, compelled to run to one end of the tightrope, it will be toward secular rationality.  For me, the magnetic attraction of the image is not in its religious form (I had quite enough of that in my Roman Catholic upbringing), but in its irreducible tendency to produce intimations of the sacred, a phenomenon quite distinct from religion in my view.

So let me also concede what a number of commentators have noted, that the notion of image war is in no way to be understood as a substitute for thinking about real war, war in the literal sense. [3] At the same time, I would argue that no war, however brutal, grimy, and physically dense, can be understood in its tactical and strategic dimensions, let alone its political, social, and emotional motives, without some consideration of images and imagination.  The boundary between real and imaginary, literal and figurative war, in fact, is just as important a consideration in the understanding of war as the borders between nation-states.  And the crossing of those borders, their blurring by the “fog of war” (and the fog of images and language as well) is one of the most important themes for critical reflection, especially in a time dominated by a “war on terror” that recognizes no borders or limits of any kind. 

And this might be the place to note the difference between two distinct master-images in my argument, the “war of images” on the one hand and the “war on terror” on the other.  The war of images is, for me, not a specifically historical formulation, but a naming of what Joanna Zylinska calls “the ontology of images.”  This is partly a matter of Zylinska’s provocative notion of images “at war with themselves . . . within a dynamic media ecology,” and Iain Chambers’ fascnating observations on images and temporality.  But it also involves a claim to historical and anthropological universality, a claim that every war is a war of images.   I would challenge the skeptic to name one single war in human history that has not centrally involved images and imagination.  Every war I know of, from the Biblical wars over the Holy Land to the Trojan Horse, to the colonial adventures of the Athenian empire in the Peloppenesian Wars, has been a “war of images”—wars fought over images, with images, by means of images, in which everything from the casus belli to propaganda to victory to defeat was signaled by images and the “creative destruction” of images.   9-11 was just such an act of iconoclasm, in which the destruction of the iconic World Trade Center was simultaneously the production of a new image designed to demoralize the U.S. and lure it into invading and occupying Arab countries. [4]

So I think there is no chance, as Robert Hariman would like to think, that the war of images “is on its way to being a museum piece.”  On the contrary, it is certain to be with us, in my view, as long as human beings make war—or make images. [5] But the war on terror, by contrast, is a definite historical construction.  I hope Hariman is right to the extent that we could make the war on terror a museum piece, and consign it to the dustbin of history, something the Obama administration attempted to do in retiring the phrase from its policy statements. [6] It is, in fact, the specific master image or metapicture of the Bush era, the post 9-11 period.  This is clear from the moment one notices that the phrase is a metaphor, similar to previous figurative “wars” (on drugs, tuberculosis, poverty, etc.) but one which contains a crucial difference, namely that it was deliberately and consciously made literal and actual by the Bush administration.  It is as if Lyndon Johnson carried out his War on Poverty by bombing poor neighborhoods.  The phrase, insofar as it declares a war on an emotion (terror) or a tactic (terrorism) makes about as much sense as a war on anxiety or neurosis.  The fantasmatic and figurative character of the phrase, however, did not prevent it from being operationalized by the Bush administration. [7] The process of literalizing the metaphor of a war on terror illustrates precisely the distinction between image war and the real thing:  the phrase “war on terror” is merely a rhetorical ploy;  the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are the real deal.  No need to forget that distinction.  But without the rhetorical phrase, without the metaphor of the war on terror, the motivations, pretexts, and strategic, epistemological framing of those real invasions ceases to exist.  The “mere metaphor” of a war on terror “had legs”; it mobilized a generation of gullible and idealistic young Americans to volunteer for wars that were unwinnable and waged under false pretenses. 

I have said little so far about the question of technology in the war of images, but some of the most important contributions to this forum have focused on this crucial matter.  The War on Terror is not distinct from previous image wars only because of its peculiar way of literalizing a metaphor, but because it has been actualized by a radically new repertoire of spectacle and surveillance technologies.   To be clear, war is always a question of spectacle, from “shows of force” (the dazzling shield of Achilles; the blitzkrieg;  “shock and awe”; mobilization through propaganda; image cults of the Leader) and of surveillance (espionage; the commanding of high ground and observation posts; the understanding of terrain; the accurate calculation of enemy strengths and weakness).   But in the contemporary mediasphere the whole meaning of spectacle and surveillance is being re-fashioned, as the comments by Kari Anden-Papadopoulos, Chris Hables Gray, Suhail Malik, and Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen make clear.  Gray puts it most succinctly:  “Digital information has profoundly altered the role of image in war, and image as war, but has not changed that war is always about image.”  I have learned a great deal from these interventions, which are especially interesting in their emphasis on the way the new social media have provided channels of disruption and democratic resistance to the centralizing of image production and control of media around state and corporate power.  The detournement of image war--the exposure of the illusions of victory, of just war, of a demonized enemy and a heroized war machine, of the winning of “hearts and minds”—has without question been facilitated by the social media, and the emergence (as Hariman notes) of newer, more aggressive forms of documentary imagery.  Still, it is important to remember that the social media are not intrinsically democratic or emancipatory, but are vulnerable to cooptation, corruption, and appropriation by all sorts of actors.  Beware Facebook!  The friend of my friend (as Wendy Chun recently put it) may well be my enemy, surveilling my network and setting traps for it.  Like all media, the social media are simply the new ecosystem, the new battlefield, in which the wars of images will be fought.

A final thought on technology.  The emphasis of these reflections has been on the so-called “digital revolution.”  But I would argue that this only captures half of the technical dynamic of media ecology in our time.  The other half is the analog revolution made possible by information sciences.  This, after all, is the experiential payoff of digitization:  new forms of dense, sensuous sights, sounds and bodies, some of them compelling illusions and spectacles, others possessing highly accurate simulations of real situations.  Another way to put this is to stress that the cybernetic revolution has made possible a biotechnical revolution that produces new forms of life, and of “pseudo life forms.” [8] To put it in the form of reductive icons:  drones and clones.  Is there not an uncanny rightness in the rhyme?  The drone is the mechanical agent of an operator, extending the senses and the force of arms.  The clone is the living copy of a living organism, the twin or double of a donor.   The drone is the metonymic operator of contemporary technology, an extension of the hand and eye.  The clone is the metaphoric operator, the figure of similitude and mimesis.  Together they define the horizon of what Foucault called biopower in our time, a slowly evolving historical stratum of technical innovation that unfolds right alongside the contingencies and accidents (including the horrible luck of a George W. Bush presidency) that made a war on terror conceivable.  Small wonder that the Bush administration, which was so adept at framing politics as a war of images, conducted a two-front campaign, the first directed at cloning, the second at terror.  

[1] There is a wonderful print by Hogarth, however, that depicts invading troops of generic Italian paintings (mostly religious subjects) marching off ships to attack the humble realism of native English paintings.  This is the closest example I can think of to a literal war of images, and of course it is just a fantasy that appears in a picture.
[2] See Edward Said: Continuing the Conversation, ed. Homi Bhabha and W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 99-108.
[3] Toby Miller seems to think that there is some sort of choice to be made between the war of images and the real thing:  “the wider context to these issues is not imagery.  It is the place of the United States in geopolitics.”   But as should be evident, the “place of the United States” is at least in part an imaginary one:  is the U.S. to be seen as the policeman of the world, the City on a Hill, the noble experiment in democracy, or the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (Martin Luther King)?   The “place” of the U.S. is one of contending imaginative constructions; it is not to be found outside of imagery.  Miller also confuses matters by assuming that images are exclusively visual.  I hope it is clear that verbal imagery, the realm of metaphor and figuration, are equally important to my argument, not to mention sound images, as I tried to show with an analysis of the sound of the most potent names of our time:  Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Barack Hussein Obama.  To say these names in rapid succession is one way of “thinking with the ears” about the acoustic imagery of Obama’s election to the presidency.
[4] We must not forget that this is not merely an interpretation of the meaning of 9-11, but an expression of the explicitly declared intentions of Osama bin Laden.  See Richard Clarke’s account of al Qaeda’s strategic thinking in his Against All Enemies (New York: Free Press, 2004), and my analysis in Cloning Terror, 65-6, of  “Uncle Osama,” the recruiting poster parody of Uncle Sam.  One wonders, in this regard, what Jim Elkins (cited by Jill  Bennett) was thinking when he dismissed the relevance of visual culture studies to 9-11.
[5] The phrase “war of images” is, contra Hariman, not really comparable to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” an image that has a specific historical reference to the conflict between “the West” and “Islam.”  “War of Images” is the general, theoretical concept;  “Clash of Civilizations” (like “War on Terror”) is a specific version of the war of images.
[6] One could argue, of course, that the Obama administration has simply retired the phrase while maintaining the same strategic posture.  “Overseas Contingency Operations” is the Newspeak name of the war on terror, and at a tactical level, it has turned away from invasion and occupation to supposedly “surgical” measures such as drone attacks.  These new tactics are, as several of the commenters note, a distinct phase in the technical side of the contemporary image war.
[7] If one Googles the words “war on terror is no metaphor,” one will come to a host of debates from the Bush era, and (most notably) the title of the prestigious Arrow Lectures at Stanford, in which Columbia political scientist Phillip Bobbit argued that the literalizing and operationalizing of this figure is the crucial strategic framework for the 21st century.
[8] For further discussion of the double revolution in the technosciences of information and life, see my essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Production,” in What Do Pictures Want?

#12, July 16, 2012
Suhail Malik
Image – Non-image – War

As of mid-2011 the US had Special Operations covert missions underway in about 75 countries, concentrated mainly in the region from the Middle-East to Central and South-East Asia, but also to be found from the Philippines to Poland. This number looked likely to increase to about 120 countries by the end of the year  – over 60 percent of the world’s countries and double the number at the end of the George W. Bush Presidency. [1] Mostly unseen, or exposed only with publicity-friendly ‘successes’ (such as the killing of Osama Bin Laden) or calamities (the accidents or counterstrikes killing their forces, or their capture by the often weaker enemy), here is a warfare undertaken primarily without images. At least, without public images: as in all warfare images are of course primary in these military mobilizations but are here organized not towards the demonstration of strength (which assumes a public space of manifestation) but through the secrecy and invisibility of their interventions, facilitating a militarily and politically durable state of quasi-war.

The intensification of this tendency over the past ten years, and especially during the Obama presidency [2], is paradoxically not at all an diminution of image(s) in war but the enhancement of war through its image-organization (meaning here the technically produced and distributed image constituting a visual-material network or culture). Two examples suffice to illustrate how Special Operations (SO) forces rely upon images in a spectrum and mobilization extended beyond the human eye’s own proprioceptive capacities:

i) Stealth weapon technologies with ‘extremely low, all-aspect, multi-spectral signatures’ [3] increase surprise and shock as tactical advantages. Their material construction is determined not only by aerodynamic requirements or those of audio-visually unanticipated attack but moreover by obscuring technically constituted detection and image production technologies surpassing the range of optical visibility. Strategic determinations aside, stealth weaponry supposes that combat is organized in terms of trans-visual image-speed capture, relay and processing circuits; a determination of battle assumed in SO strikes.

ii) Drone or UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) weaponry mobilized in conjunction with satellite imaging notoriously enable its human control – where it still exists – to be removed from the strike or surveillance area. Incorporating the time of image analysis and prediction of an attack’s impact damage – its ‘bugsplat’ – before its implementation, involving over 180 people in oversight, execution and assessment per drone mission, remotely engaged (in, say, Nevada) with ground troops (in, say, Waziristan) for hours prior to a strike itself [3], co-ordinated through the drone’s targeting technologies in consort with ground-based information and high resolution satellite tracking images, drone strikes are premised upon the massive recording, production and construction of a ‘battlespace’ through its remotely captured image. Battlespace is partial description: it is an emblematically networked image-constituted warfare whose remote operation unilateralizes the existential threat of the conflict.

These image-predicated technologies reorganize the spatiotemporal dynamics of the war encounter (destruction-killing, capture, evasion) and, concomitantly, its juridical coherence (what is territorial integrity here? public accountability?). Such a reconstitution of battlespace is of course undertaken in the name of counterterrorism and its asymmetry: state powers no longer face a ‘frontal’ enemy with a defined border in global terrorist networks (accepting for the sake of brevity a complex and contentious term) but a distributed, mobile and molecularised target whose operational structures must remain cloaked. Counterterrorism operations conducted by SO forces duplicate the operational tactics of terrorism, notably the long surveillance of targets and then striking under cover. But whereas terrorism depends upon its final visibility to mark its successes, which are propagandistic as much as they are militaristic (the media-friendly and, better, world-distributed image), the strategic and tactical interests of SO depends for the most part upon its non-image.

If, then, there is now a war of images in the putatively public dimension of global media coverage, SO no less conduct a war against (public) images while complete relying upon the production and mobilization of full spectrum images; an image advantage that allows state power to exit from the visibility – and so accountability – of its actions while its dispersed enemy seeks to enter just that domain. Here, on the side of the (US) state, is an image-laden and -generative quasi-war against images, a war of un-images.

[1] Nick Turse, “The US military's secret military,” Al Jazeera, 8 August, 2011 [http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/08/20118485414768821.html]; Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe, “US ‘secret war’ expands globally as Special Operations forces take larger role,’ Washington Post, June 4 2010 [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/03/AR2010060304965.html]. All referenced websites accessed August 2011.
[2] Turse, op.cit.; De Young and Jaffe, op.cit.
[3] http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fighter_aircraft.
[4] Walter Pincus, “Are drones a technological tipping point in warfare?,” Washington Post, 25  April 2011 [http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/are-predator-drones-a-technological-tipping-point-in-warfare/2011/04/19/AFmC6PdE_story.html].

This piece was originally published in Ekfrase: Nordic Journal of Visual Culture in the autumn of 2011.

Suhail Malik is Reader in Critical Studies, Department of Art, Goldsmiths, London.

#11, July 8, 2012
Robert Hariman
Getting Past the War of Images

I would like to think that the “war of images” is well on its way to becoming a museum piece.  Like the “clash of civilizations” and the “war on terror,” it was an attempt to make sense of an inchoate moment within a period of political turmoil, technological change, and cultural unease.  Unlike the other terms, it was at least ambivalent ideologically, capable of being used both by and in opposition to state power.  And when used capably, the ambiguity between the literal and metaphoric registers of this “war” could become a resource for critical reflection about both US propaganda and the public culture it tried to control.  Even so, the war metaphor re-inscribes what it would contest: the discourse of the national security state. 

As images become both ends and means, weapons and targets, causes and effects, they replicate the comprehensive mobilization of modern warfare.  Other assumptions lock into place as well: images now operate in the state of exception defining international relations, where power can be a law onto itself; actors pursue fixed purposes and strategic objectives with an instrumental mentality capable of turning anything to its use; spectators, like civilians, are caught in the middle, watching and suffering actions they are largely powerless to stop.  And while intellectuals are worrying about the political spectacle, other forms of domination can be extended the old fashioned way—with money and guns.

That said, the idea of a war of images does capture some important intuitions about both war and communication today.  Warfare is not (if it ever was) limited to the clash of armies, and victory is achieved not on the battlefield alone but rather in the virtual worlds of politics, society, and culture.  Hearts and minds have to be won, both abroad and at home, and so the military is concerned with managing perceptions, often through adroit use of the most advanced communication technologies.

The war of images has the most to say about contemporary image culture—its general features and deepest anxieties.  At the least, it recognizes that images are powerful instruments of persuasion, and that they are deployed as such on all sides.  The metaphor goes beyond instrumentality, however: as images are arrayed against and engaged with each other, they become more than just copies of reality.  They function as social entities capable of acting on their own behalf.  Much like us, you might say.  But, as W.J.T. Mitchell points out, also like a clone, capable of replicating endlessly. [1] Thus, the war of images captures the sense that civilization is driven by processes of reproduction that can operate autonomously, excessively, and past the point where human means no longer serve human ends. 

Thus, it seems that images no longer document the world so much as they displace it.  Meaning is anchored not in reality but in other signs, which in turn serve everything from primal antagonisms to mindless reproduction.  This culture includes a corresponding slippage from logical inference to analogy: in the image world, things are always potentially like something else.  The hooded man from Abu Ghraib is like Christ, and a Klansman, and the Statue of Liberty, and an iPhone silhouette, and a fraternity hazing, and a penitent pilgrim, and a fighter plane, and . . . .  The metaphoric extension of an image is potentially unbounded while directed contingently by what discourses are around it for the moment.  In the war of images, meaning can be continually contested as it becomes increasingly unstable.

At this point one is not far from wishing for a sovereign to end this war of all against all, and then for Plato to lead us out of the cave into rational enlightenment.  In fact, those myths have been in place from the start.  We also may have already succumbed to an Orwellian inversion of seeing war as peace and peace as war.  The conditions I’ve described are not new and not a state of exception, but rather the ordinary lot of human consciousness as it is bound up with the use of language and other sign systems.  The implicit alternative of an image world not capable of multiple meanings, intentional use, public dissemination, and contested interpretation would be a tyranny.  Like the “war on terror,” the war of images asks us to fear too much, and to not pay attention where it really is needed.

The “war” isn’t likely to go away, but certainly one could ask whether there are better ways to develop its intuitions.   Let me briefly suggest two lines of inquiry.  First, the war metaphor needs to be discarded on behalf of other accounts of how images influence public culture.  One alternative is Ariela Azoulay’s concept of “the civil contract of photography,” a form of non-territorial citizenship that is activated within the photographic encounter and across the archive. [2] More generally, understanding photography as a public art allows examination of the many ways that images provide resources for continual negotiation of the social imaginary defining liberal-democratic societies. [3]

Second, rather than assume a war, one should consider how photojournalism is exposing the nature and scope of violence today.  State terrorism, endless insurgency, imperial occupation, outright anarchy, and the global arms trade are all part of a devil’s brew that is polluting wide swaths of the planet.  The “war of images” is too limited an idea to reveal the face of violence today.  “Images of war” would be equally inadequate.  Cloning, however, might be one of the mechanisms by which violence spreads, or at least might provide a better analogy than previous comparisons between visual technologies and violence for understanding the war meme today.  In any case, important questions remain regarding what Mitchell has called “the visual production of the social,” not least with regard to the reproduction of violence in the 21st century. [4] And because the answer to the problem of violence will depend in part on understanding images, one needs to ask, again and again, what is already being shown but not yet seen?

[1] W.J.T. Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
[2] Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008).
[3] Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
[4] W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?  The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 343, 351-352.

Robert Hariman is a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.  He is co-author with John Louis Lucaites of No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Chicago, 2007) and nocaptionneeded.com, a blog on photojournalism, politics, and culture.

#10, June 30, 2012
Toby Miller
Imperial Wars

The importance of images to war has been evident for centuries. International conflict has been depicted in painting for a very long time and propaganda has used imagery distinctively and systematically since the First World War at least. Ideas about the centrality of spectacle to popular mobilization can be found in Plutarch, while its importance for everyday life, politics, and violence is clear to textual critics from the work of Guy Debord, Paul Virilio, and Jean Baudrillard.

But it would be wrong to focus too much on imagery. Radio has been central to propaganda and militarism since it began. Consider Radio Martí, the World Service, Radio Free Europe, and the Nazi and Soviet media. Sound matters. Radio was crucial to the killings in Rwanda during the 1990s. The most important war of today in terms of lives lost is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it has a lot to do with sound—specifically, coltan mining undertaken to power telephones around the world. The coltan enriches militias as well as enticing consumers.

And words matter themselves—written arguments made for war resonate in parliaments, civil-society groups, the military, universities, and the media.

In addition, I doubt the announcement of new eras in grandiose terms, especially when undertaken at the time by those living at the geopolitical core.

The wider context to these issues is not imagery. It is the place of the United States in geopolitics. US imperialism poses many complexities for its opponents, analysts, and fellow travelers. Image-making is a small part of that. The matters we need to grasp are as follows.

US imperialism has involved invasion and seizure (the Philippines and Cuba); temporary occupation and permanent militarization (Japan); ideological imperialism (the Monroe doctrine and Theodore Roosevelt); febrile anti-Marxism (“All the Way with LBJ” and “Win One for the Gipper”); and ideological anti-imperialism (Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Obama).

Yanqui imperialism differs from the classic 19th-century model exemplified by the UK. It’s much harder to gain independence from the US than it was from Britain, because US imperialism is indirect and mediated as well as direct and intense. This produces fewer dramatic moments of resistive nation building than the painful but well-defined struggles towards sovereignty that threw off conventional colonial yokes across the twentieth century.

The difference arose because Yanqui imperialism began at a more fully developed stage of industrial capitalism and led into the post-industrial age as Washington sought to break colonialism down and gain access to labor and consumption on a global scale. This coincided with a Cold War that favored imperial proxies over possessions, due to both prevailing ideology and the desire to avoid direct nuclear conflict with an apparent equal. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the markets that had been undermined by classic imperialism in 1914 were re-established as rhetorical tropes, confirming the drive towards a looser model of domination.

The country that advertises itself as the world’s greatest promise of modernity has been dedicated to translating its national legacy of clearance, genocide, enslavement, and democracy—a modernity built, as each successful one has been, on brutality—into a foreign and economic policy with similar effects and, at times, methods. But it has principally done so through military, commercial, and ideological power rather than colonialism. Spain’s conquista de América, Portugal’s missão civilizadora, and France’s mission civilisatrice saw these nations occupy conquered peoples then exemplify approved conduct up close; Gringos invade if necessary, then instruct from afar. The methods of instruction involve a whole armature of culture, including images but equally sounds and words; and they are subordinated to military and business objectives.

I also doubt claims made for a massive watershed in war and imagery in the absence of empirical observation of the number of relevant images, the way they are spoken of, and how they are received. Without content analysis and audience study, this is largely an art-historical argument that relies on the institutional authority of criticism.

Instead of that, we need an interdisciplinary research program to examine the mixture of sound, image, verbiage, production, and reception that constitutes the media of war in the light of imperialism. Focusing on textual analysis in the conventional way—with grand claims that are equally conventional—is not enough, even though the vibrant and insightful imagination of a justly distinguished humanist is driving us in that direction.

Toby Miller is Distinguished Professor of Media & Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Miller is the author and editor of over 30 volumes, and has published essays in well over 100 journals and books. His current research covers the success of Hollywood overseas, the links between culture and citizenship, and electronic waste.

#9, June 25, 2012
Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen
The Spectacle of State Terror and Fear
With the terrorist attack on World Trade Center, Pentagon and the White House in 2001 it was again made poignantly clear that images and politics are closely connected. The image of the second plane gliding into the second tower of the World Trade Center stamped itself on everybody’s memory – with brutal precision outdoing all attempts to visualise American supremacy and omnipotence. The images of the event were historical and showed that they have a certain power or can function as a declaration of war. As Retort argues in Afflicted Powers (2005), Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attack was a carefully planned attempt to ruin the image of the Unites States as the invincible superpower and the attack was carried out with the intent to circulate the spectacle of American defeat. It was a hit and the American spectators were shocked watching the event live on their screens. In a desperate attempt to undo or exorcise 9/11 the United States declared the so-called war on terror that has been a series of attempts to react to the image attack. War with and on images has been the order of the day since 2001. Images of the former president Bush declaring the mission accomplished, videos of captured Westerns being decapitated, and images of a dethroned dictator being executed have replaced each other in an intense and accelerated tempo that does not leave any room for reflection. The images have piled up and threatened to choke all thoughts destroying the last remains of what used to be a genuine political public sphere.

Images have always been important elements in political battles and have played a central role in attempts to secure an already established rule or make possible a new order: from representations of ancient emperors to portraits of the kings of absolutism. Throughout history rulers have been conscious of the power in bombarding the population with images and representations.

In the 20th century it was probably the fascist regimes of the 1930’s that pioneered the use of images and representations in the staging of political events. The image was important in several respects for German Fascism from monumental manifestations to bulky art works and the notion of an Aryan Weltanschaung which was to be made present for the masses here and now. The German cultural critic Walter Benjamin characterised this as an aestheticization of politics, where the national-socialist regime used modern techniques of reproduction to turn the Fuehrer into an auratic icon and transform the mass into an object for aesthetic shaping and cleansing. This fusion of aesthetics, mass culture and politics seemed to pull the carpet under Benjamin’s historical philosophical utopia about a profane mass culture made possible by the arrival of new techniques of reproduction and a new aesthetic sensibility. Inspired by the contemporary avant-garde, Benjamin explored how it was possible to engage with advanced technology in a non-destructive, sensory-reflective, and collective way. The avant-garde’s use of the new technologies of film and radio could according to Benjamin potentially undo the alienation inflicted on the human sensorium in the defence against the technologically induced shock brought on by modernisation. Artists, intellectuals and counter-hegemonic forces had to operate in the new image space that the advent of new technologies had created. But confronted with Fascism the moment seemed to have passed for Benjamin’s modernist utopian aspiration.

More than half a century later the situation seems to have become even worse. Today we are confronted with challenges that seem to have rendered Benjamin’s speculations obsolete. Image-based fundamentalisms have set the pace since 9/11. Terrorist attacks and bombing campaigns orchestrated by the state have replaced each other in a continual battle without winners. The effect of this development has been the production of a culture of fear where any discussion is short circuited with a reference to the virtual threats of terror, whether in the guise of state terror or transnational terror groups. A new political demonology has taken shape reusing older images of conflict and representations of enemies. The war on terror was characterised by the absence of a definable enemy. Therefore it was necessary constantly to produce images of a recognisable opponent: dark skin, beard and veil have been the features of this figure. The formlessness of terrorism causes a transformation in the functioning of the capitalist state, whose object is now the threat. A threat that has to be visualised and reproduced on an everyday basis. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were the most obvious examples of the new security and war paradigm promoted by an American government desperately trying to preserve American interests confronted with the accelerated movements of globalization in which former bonds of social solidarity are being dissolved.

It has become increasingly evident that “the war on terror” actually constitutes an attempt to implement a wider pre-emptive anti-rebellion regime aimed at handling a number of threats like terrorism, internal disorder, or climate changes while securing the wealth of a narrowly defined capitalist power. The idea behind this anti-rebellion system is of course that it is possible to direct the catastrophes to come and let others suffer. But as the crises escalate – the food crisis, the financial crisis, the climate crisis – this idea about a secure interior and a smashed exterior appears ever more uncertain and demands further security measures.

In that situation it has of course been very difficult to produce visible resistance, to create effective counter-images able to disrupt the already established public sphere. The politics of fear has been overwhelmingly efficient when it comes to disabling possible antagonistic forces. In the blizzard of expressions produced by media spectacle and government narratives the struggle to find adequate and incisive forms of response to events and formulate alternative visions has been a difficult one. The images from Abu Ghraib and the videos made visible by WikiLeaks of killings in Iraq have to some extent been able to expose the brutal workings of state terrorism but until the rising protest movement in North Africa and the Middle East manifested itself no positive critical perspective was available. The revolutionary wave moving through the region presents a possibility of superseding the postcolonial model, but the pre-emptive anti-rebellion regime has been test driven for some time now and will not give in without a fight, in the form both of an image war and of more material and primordial expressions of power exertion.

Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen is Associate Professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen. He has published books and articles on the avant-garde, contemporary art, modern political philosophy and the revolutionary tradition. Latest publications: “On the Turn to Liberal State Racism in Denmark”, e-flux journal, no. 22, 2011, “Scattered (Western Marxist Style) Remarks on Contemporary Art, its Contradictions and Difficulties”, Third Text, no. 109, 2011, and Expect Anything Fear Nothing: The Situationist Movement in Scandinavia and Elsewhere (ed. with Jakob Jakobsen) Autonomedia & Nebula, 2011.


#8, June 18, 2012
Jill Casid
The Imperative Mood

The war on terror, according to W. J. T. Mitchell’s Cloning Terror, is to be opposed with a “war on error.” [1] This “war on error” or counter-practice of iconology is to intervene in the image wars by taking seriously the active shaping force—even the “life”—of imaging and affect. The primary structures of feeling that characterize this age of images at war, veer, according to Mitchell, between the induction of terror and of panic with the implicit imperatives to be afraid and, thus, to either freeze like a deer in the headlights or run. In defense of the resistant adoption of a tone that might seem comparatively “cold and clinical” (xvii), Mitchell instructs us to respond to such “powerful feelings” with a neo-Nietzschean “sounding of the idols” (xviii) that takes the form of “timely, calm, and intelligent action” (6). That is, while “investigating” the ways in which affect and the “religious imagination” shape our reality, Mitchell’s Cloning Terror prescribes an antidote of critical method that situates itself as part of the “reality-based” as opposed to the “faith-based” community (xvii) and, thus, one that takes affect as an object rather than a viable tactic for practice.

In responding to this blog’s burning question of the lasting significance of W. J. T. Mitchell’s notion of image wars (politically, epistemologically, aesthetically), I question methods founded on faith in rationality and on a faith vs. secularism divide that denies both the ways in which secularism developed historically out of the specific religious practices on which it still depends and the ongoing violence done in its name. [2] Instead, I advocate for the importance of working with the powers of affect, including and perhaps especially the powerful feelings incited by but also in the emphatic itself. [3] Consider, for example, the title of the recent “Now! Visual Culture” conference (New York University, 2012) organized by Nicholas Mirzoeff. [4] “Now! Visual Culture” is not just a matter of practice; it is the animating “pow,” the punctuating “bang” (as the exclamation point began to be called in the 60s) of affect as creative social and political force. What is visual culture now? To respond to the lightning bolt cue of the exclamation point (once also known as the screamer, gasper or startler), visual culture now, I would ask us to critically consider, is, more than anything, practice, yes, but not just any form of creative, political, affective and aesthetic labor. “Now! Visual Culture” is the exclamation of practice in the imperative mood. From the Tahrir Square chants of “Silmiyya” or something like “peaceful, safe, secure” to the resonant calls of “Occupy” repeated and amplified human mic-style, the imperative mood is everywhere and it is catching. In a “now!” moment marked by profound precarity and shaken by economic, social, and environmental crises, what can this imperative mood do, why and how does this imperative mood matter? While the war on terror and “images at war” issue their own sets of imperatives, how might we move off from the marching orders we are given and toward counter-practices that engage the powers of imaging and affect?

The prevailing rules of grammar teach us that the imperative mood is not a verb tense but any syntactical construction that commands, requests, exhorts. Building on Jacques Rancière’s “Ten Theses on Politics,” the lessons of critical visuality studies and its focus on the power optics of the street tell us that the commanding operations of the police take the form of such breaking and dispersing imperatives as: “Move on, there’s nothing to see here.” [5] And, as Nicholas Mirzoeff crucially shows us, seizing the right to look can also answer back by insisting that we know there is. [6] The imperative is without specific address in that its force comes through its hailings of us all.  Modes of expression without specified subjects, the imperative—as in “Workers of the world, unite!”—electrifies the powers of address to materialize subjects into being through its demand for collectivizing action. But the imperative mood, I want to insist, is not just a special case of language or a restricted subset of speech acts.  Indeed, I urge us to think again not just with the lessons in intellectual emancipation of Rancière’s “ignorant schoolmaster,” but also the figure of the schoolmistress deployed in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s “Postulates of Linguistics” in A Thousand Plateaus. [7] The schoolmistress shows us that instruction in the rules of grammar is also always a performance of the extent to which all speech acts in the educational machine are orders. But the schoolmistress does not just reveal the rules of grammar governing the classroom. She exercises the power politics of that grammar, showing us the fundamental pervasiveness of the imperative, that is, the extent to which what Deleuze and Guattari call the “order-word” is the elementary unit of all language.

If all language is made not just to be believed but to be obeyed, how can we – can we? -- maintain or draw out the revolutionary power of the order-word to counter the death sentence of State power? Deleuze and Guattari answer in their own imperative: “One should bring forth the order-word of the order-word. In the order-word, life must answer the answer of death, not by fleeing, but by making flight act and create.” [8]

This schoolmistress who always wears a tie to lecture and teach is pretty invested in Deleuze and Guattari’s lines of flight and words of passage.  I want to believe in the animating counter-point and counter-praxis of words and objects that displace, relocate, transform the master’s tools (the tie, the barking and marching orders of language) and so bring forth queer potentialities on the other side of majoritarian orders.  Given my own investments in de Certeau’s tactics of dislocation—of a place without proper place —  I have found myself profoundly challenged, even confounded, by the pervasive migration of the imperative: “Occupy!” [9] At the Clark conference I co-convened with Aruna D’Souza this fall on practices for an exploded art history in the wake of the global turn, it was impossible not to be caught up in and by the infectious call to “Occupy Art History” even as I also could not let go of the lingering and gnawing sense of it being an absurdity to occupy what is my departmental home and my occupation in Art History— despite my intellectual and creative proclivities for the trans and postdisciplinary and my employment status as what is called an interdisciplinary cluster hire (brought in to build a program in visual studies). [10]

In turning over this question of the transdisciplinary tactics in which I have been so long invested and the absurdity of occupying my occupation, I was reminded that there is something importantly bare and vitally exuberant about risking counter-imperative absurdity.  Indeed, absurdity may be the counter-imperative mood.  The example that comes to mind here (fig. 1) is a poster made by the graduate student teaching assistants in Art History at Madison in the context of the “Wisconsin Uprising” (the largest pro-labor mass mobilization in modern U.S. history which took place in Madison, Wisconsin in 2011). As part of the teaching assistants’ union’s march on and encampment in the Wisconsin State Capitol building, the poster’s declaration staked their position against the bill that, among other devastating acts, took away the right to collective bargaining. [11] A version of this sign was posted on Flickr with the caption, “Of course, there aren’t that many of them and they don’t seem exactly that motivated.” [12] Whether such instances of the minor counter-imperative mood galvanize the multitudes or not, whether they move many of what Judith Butler would call “bodies in alliance,” or just carry along a few with their affective energies, I find its absurdity inspiring. [13] Its gesture of apparent dissonance or incongruity, of matter out of place, acts on the battle-lines over the fate of the public university and insists on demonstrating and mobilizing the Art History classroom as the public but also intimately political site I’d like to insist it has always also been. “Art Historians Against the Bill” is just one instance of the counter-imperative that calls on us to care in response to a State system that tells us that education and health care are luxuries and that we are too expensive for our lives. [14]

To occupy art history is for me to never let go of the promise with which I began practicing in and against my training as an art historian, namely that commands such as never forget could be answered with burning questions and imperative counter-genealogies of the present, that the ruins of the official past could be re-occupied for a queer and different future. To occupy art history is for me to think with contemporary performance and across a range of persistent uses of analogue media as exercises in the shaping social and political force of affect, exercises in the imperative mood with capacities to engage the “as if” work of the subjunctive through material objects as vectors for bringing the “as if” of alternative queer worlds into the everyday of the here and now and across the many locations in which we practice from the dependencies and intimacies of the classroom to the many (and often overlapping) places in which we do the affective and risky aesthetic labor of making lives. That is, I want to use my conclusion to gesture to three improbable and perhaps rather perverse tactics for practice in the imperative mood that do their shaping affective labor through the performance of melancholic attachments to what one might call dead media (16 and 35 mm analogue film, dark-room photography, the live musical), attachments to the ruined and abandoned production sites of modernity from the factory to the shop to the home, attachments to seemingly outmoded tools and furnishings such as the bottle of dark-room chemicals, the mantel clock, and  the parlor chair to press against the temporality of the now and to point to the extent to which this now is enacted in and haunted—or we might say pre-occupied—by the ghosts and specters of not just failures and the forgotten but also those promises that their recycling rehabitation may yet reactivate.

1.    Castle. In velvety black and white shot on 16 and then 35 mm film, Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia’s I am Micro (screening now as part of the Guggenheim’s Being Singular Plural exhibition) takes us slowly and attentively through the abandoned detritus of an optical equipment factory in Kolkata, India (fig. 2). [15] As the camera lingers over the discarded lenses, shells of cameras, and old bottles, a voice-over interview with independent film director and screenwriter Kamal Swaroop laments the failure of his generation with the imperative, “To get into art, one must be castled” (fig. 3). Conjuring the castles of the studio system and its promises to make aspirations come true, the insistence on thinking the material conditions that would support and sustain a viable independent filmmaking practice works to project our longings and also imaginings of alternative castles not just in the air but also on the very ground of the ruins of the now defunct industrial factory.

2.    Domesticate. Domesticate radically and for freedom. While the clock may be the device of industrial regimentation and subjection, the mantel clock (fig. 4) appears magically in the 2011 film Albert Nobbs as the central fantasy vehicle by which the orphaned central character (born a woman and living and working as a male waiter in a late 19th-century Dublin hotel) can project the material, affective, and psychic supports for sustained and sustaining life as the man he wants to continue to be, enabling Nobbs to carve—in vivid, scintillating, even erotic detail—an opening, a warm parlor literally out of a little tobacco shop within the confines of global capitalism. [16] In this vivid fantasy scene the clock does not tell time, but is the highly cathected and desired object that rather makes a space in time. And its stop-time and anachronism seem a vitally important reminder, at this moment, of alternative and marvelously perverse genealogies for imagining the supports for queer forms of companionate freedom beyond gay marriage.

3.    Furnish. Furnish the props for all the many actual and imaginable bonds of care, of friendship, community, and collectivity beyond the couple form privileged by marriage. February House (which premiered at the Public Theatre in April 2012) restages an experiment in communal art and life forged out of a brownstone in Brooklyn by editor George Davis—who lures in Carson McCullers, Erika Mann, W.H. Auden and his lover Chester Kallman, Benjamin Britten and his lover Peter Pears, and Gypsy Rose Lee. [17] This musical’s reenactment of possibility begins with the flourish of furnishing, with nothing more than a recycled Queen Anne chair (fig. 5) that takes center stage, inviting us to imagine taking a seat and being held in the material realization of what we are told are the friviolous, unrealizable fantasies of other kinds of organizations of affective and creative life.
Rather than disavow the affective resonances, the beliefs, and the yearnings that stir our practices in the field of images at war, these are just a few of the queer world-making acts beyond the terms of cloning terror that gesture toward a counter-practice of visual culture in the imperative mood of melancholic longing, the poignant absurdity of never let go that engages the power of affect to project alternative futures out of the haunted and pre-occupied present.  ‘Bread and roses’ was the banner of the January 1912 textile workers’ strike (fig. 6).

On the 100-year anniversary of the strike, let us call into vibrant being a renewed version of the both/and—radical freedom of feeling, thought, practice and relational possibility but also the structural material and aesthetic supports for their flourishing and flowering! Exclamation point! Bang.

[1] W. J. T. Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[2] On these points, I am indebted to the extensive work by Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini on the violence but also possibilities of secularisms as rethought and practiced in new relations to religion. See, in particular, in addition to their co-edited anthology Secularisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008),  Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, “Bodies-Politics: Christian Secularism and the Gendering of U.S. Policy,” forthcoming in Gendering the Divide, ed. Linell Cady and Tracy Fessenden (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) and Janet R. Jakobsen, “Is Secularism Less Violent than Religion?” in Interventions: Activists and Academics Respond to Violence, ed. Elizabeth A. Castelli and Janet R. Jakobsen (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2004), 53-67. I am grateful to Ann Pellegrini for conversation during the course of writing this essay.

[3] For the important elaboration of secularism as not the opposite of strong feelings but its own state of feeling, see Ann Pellegrini, “Feeling Secular,” Women and Performance 19.2 (July 2009): 305-18.

[4] See http://www.visualculturenow.org/

[5] Jacques Rancière, “Dix thèses sur la politique,” Aux bords de politique (Paris: La Fabrique, 1998), 217. See the elaboration of Rancière’s Thesis #8 into the program for a critical visuality studies and a political praxis  in Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[6] Mirzoeff, 1-2.

[7] Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1987; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991). Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “November 20, 1923—Postulates of Linguistics,” in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (1980; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 75-110.

[8] Deleuze and Guattari, 110.

[9] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (1980; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

[10] On the conference “In the Wake of the ‘Global Turn’: Propositions for an ‘Exploded’ Art History without Borders” at the Clark Art Institute, November 4-5, 2011, see http://www.clarkart.edu/research/content.cfm?ID=378

[11] For first-hand accounts, see It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest, eds.  Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle (New York: Verso, 2012).

[12] See http://www.flickr.com/photos/schweitn/5459826089/in/set-72157625965829449, posted February 19, 2011.

[13] Judith Butler, “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” “#occupy and assemble∞,” transversal, european institute for progressive cultural politics, September 2011, http://eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en.

[14] Lauren Berlant, “Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness,” Supervalent Thought, November 2011, http://supervalentthought.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/berlant-aaa-2011final.pdf. Berlant presented a version of these remarks on the austerity state at the Public Feelings Salon (Barnard College, April 12, 2011). For my own elaboration of an alternative ethics and politics of care, see Jill Casid, “Handle with Care,” forthcoming in the TDR special issue on “precarity.”

[15] For discussion of the production of the film itself, see the exhibition catalogue Being Singular Plural with essays by Erika Balsom, Kaushik Bhaumik, Martta Heikkilä, and Sandhini Poddar (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2012).

[16] Albert Nobbs, directed by Rodgrio Garcia, screenplay by Gabriella Prekop, John Banville, and Glenn Close, Chrysalis Films, 113 min. The film is based on a treatment by Istvan Szabo and a short story by George Moore.

[17] February House, music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane, book by Seth Bockley. The premiere production at the Public Theater in NYC (in association with the Long Wharf Theatre) in April-June 2012 was directed by Davis McCallum and featured Stanley Bahorek, Ken Barnett, Ken Clark, Julian Fleisher, Stephanie Hayes, Josh Lamon, Erik Lochtefeld, Kacie Sheik, A.J. Shively, and Kristen Sieh. The musical is based on the research for Sherill Tippins’s historical memoir February House: W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Jane and Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America (New York: Scribner, 2005).

Jill H. Casid is Professor of Visual Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she founded and directed the Center for Visual Cultures. A historian, theorist, and practicing artist, her contributions to the transdisciplinary field of visual studies include Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization and her forthcoming book Shadows of Enlightenment—both with the University of Minnesota Press. She is currently at work on several new book projects: “The Volatile Image: Other Histories of Photography,” “Forms-of-Life: Bioethics and Aesthetics,” and, with Aruna D’Souza, “The Exploded Global: Art History's New Terrains” for the Clark Series at Yale University Press.

#7, June 11, 2012:

Chris Hables Gray
Image War in the Age of Digital (Re)Production

Digital information has profoundly altered the role of image in war, and image as war, but has not changed that war is always about image. War is the forceful imposition of your image of reality onto someone else. Or else. As Elaine Scarry reveals in The Body in Pain, war and torture are about The Making and Unmaking of the World. War originated as a ritual, to balance the power of women (who bleed but do not die; who die so babies live), to honor male sacrifice (Blood Rites), and to maximize procreation (heroes get laid)—all image. But humans became civilized and war instrumentalist; as charisma declined force-of-fire became the new God of War.

From sticks and stones to bullets and bombs, weapons are tools for promulgating cosmology (“what is yours is now mine” or “what I believe you must believe” or both) and killing the unsubmissive. To win by manipulating perception was the highest art. Ancient war became modern war, has become postmodern war, circling back to ritual war. Image is again more important than weapons in the struggle for image dominance, Foucault’s regimes of truth.

Ten years past 911, wars are covert (terror), guerilla (small, low intensity), civil or revolutionary. All over images in the “hearts and minds of the people.” In Vietnam, now Afghanistan, ideas beat the weapons of empires. Empires now struggle through proxies, propaganda, hacking and economic espionage. Cool war. And at the site of most political violence, where governments attack their people? We saw, starting in 1989 when the façade cracked, the Soviet Empire was just an image. It became unbelievable. We saw in the collapse of state communism in Yugoslavia ikons of ethnic purity at war with cosmopolitanism. We saw in the victories of socialist parties in Latin America the triumph of the social democratic brand over the Made-in-the-USA new improved neo-liberal product that had replaced the semi-fascist models. And we see in the protests, revolts, civil wars and revolutions from Morocco to Burma that the very image of democracy can triumph over fear and force.

It spreads in old ways and new. Most importantly, people tell each other stories. They read, in books about ancient Islamic democratic institutions and in comics of Martin Luther King. They read, in brave newspaper columns by the novelist Al-Aswany, that “Democracy is the answer.” They listen to songs of protest that are 100 years old and others that are made up now, in revolution. They watch. They watch the police in the streets and the corruption in the government. They watch Al-Jazeera. They watch YouTube. The write on walls. They write on Facebook. They send emails. They post blogs. They tweet.

Most importantly, they go into the street. They confront the police. They bring down the dictator and the Pharaoh. Or they die by the thousands trying. The Kingdom and the Caliphate, the Empire and the State of Emergency, the free market and the communist party, are all images. Yes, they have rules and soldiers, but the real power is the belief, the shared illusion that these institutions are somehow necessary, if not always beneficial. It is their image.

You and I evolved to believe. The power to make up models and to craft stories, dynamic images, in order to manipulate the world is only useful if you believe. Rationality plays some role, but most of the power of image is older than reason. We grope, almost blind, for a more reasonable world. Not because there is so little to see, but because there is so much. The profitable high definition surround sound lies of the powerful, the emotions of our friends, the ebb and flow of our culture, often digitized, saturate us.

The democratization of images is crucial. Through exposure, embodied (cosmopolitan) and digital, we develop immunities to many images, to the drone and the suicide bomber. Other images we breed, and interbreed the hybrids more. We incorporate them into our mental ecologies, cultural analgamations as our bodies are biological symbionts and cyborg organisms. We make art, technologies, stories, business, children, love, hope and revolution. As humans always have.

Ritual war was much more deadly than modern war. Early postmodern war, (Cold) was less deadly and late (Terror), is less deadly still. One nuclear weapon would ruin that statistic but it is worth noticing.  We evolve through culture, where images lives. We need to be more artists than consumers. More democracy is possible, it is necessary, it is worth dying for. Imagine that.

#6, May 29, 2012:

Marita Sturken

The concept of an image war is, in many ways, a post-9/11 concept. It denotes the idea that since 2001 we have entered into a unique moment of history in relation to the visual, in which the image is a crucial factor in the wars and conflicts of global politics. That is, this is an era in which such a concept has resonance and seems to affirm a broader structure of feeling of the times, to use Raymond Williams’s term.   Thus, this is certainly a concept that we should want to examine for the ways in which it operates as a discourse – not only as a discourse of 9/11 exceptionalism and of the uniqueness of the post-9/11 period, but also as a concept that affirms the field of the visual as one in which meaning is derived from that which one sees. 

As several theorists of the visual and visuality have noted, we are more likely to truly understand the functioning of power by examining the shifting distinctions between that which is seen/understood and that which is not.  This concept of the seen/not-seen is derived largely from the work of Jacques Rancière and his notion of the “distribution of the sensible,” which refers to the way in which power relations, enacted through sense perception, designate that which is visible (and heard/understood) and that which cannot be seen.  Politics thus creates a distribution or division (a “partage”) not so much between those with power and those without, but between that which can be seen/understood and that which can’t, that which is rendered noise. [1]

This framework is helpful in seeing how the concept of an image war is not particularly useful toward an understanding of the function of empire in relation to visual economies.  In the contemporary state of American Empire the deployment of power derives precisely from that which is absented, erased, un-visual—that which, in Rancière’s terms cannot be seen and is rendered noise.

There are two kinds of erasure at work in the post 9/11 context.  One is modern, practically old-fashioned, in its simple censorship and hiding from view.  These modern techniques of empire acknowledge that the image and the visual is meaningful and politically powerful.  Here we can include the effective erasure of particular kinds of images through military censorship (such as a ban on photos of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base in the U.S. and the embedding and monitoring of journalists) and the erasure of whole realms of conflict through secret and hidden warfare.  To this we can add the existence of hidden prisons, commonly known as “black sites,” run by the United States in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, invisible counterpoints to the hyper-visual Guantánamo.  And, the drone wars, the most prevalent form of warfare now in operation of the project of American Empire, are effectively nonvisual.  Images produced from drones are highly secret, and almost never released publicly.  The drones function as powerful weapons because of their invisibility – they terrorize because of the realization by certain anti-U.S. groups that they can always possibly be there (the release of Bin Laden’s letters recently confirms the degree to which activities of Al Qaeda were structured in relation to possible drones) and because they are often rogue, killing large numbers of civilians. 

The second erasure is precisely the kind of erasure that Rancière denotes.  The project of American Empire effectively cannot be seen as such by the American public, it is rendered un-visible, unintelligible, noise. The costs of American Empire must be denied; empire needs to be shadowed by a culture of comfort and innocence in order to be fully palatable to the American public, and the sacrifices of Empire must be erased. [2]  For the American public, the project of American Empire largely does not exist (unlike the engagement of the national publics in the history of European empires); hence it must be transformed into something else – defensive wars of national security, benevolent nation-building, revenge, etc.  So, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq effectively have been erased from public discourse, the wars’ casualties and individual sacrifices in the U.S., which are considerable, and the devastation of these wars on the Iraqis (over 100,000 of whom have died) and deaths of Afghan civilians (estimated in the tens of thousands) are effectively un-visible.  The staggering financial impact of these wars on the decimated US economy has been erased (the war in Iraq, now officially over though four U.S. bases and 4,000 soldiers remain, is estimated to have cost the U.S. government 1 trillion dollars).  They cannot be seen, and are rendered un-visible within the distribution of the sensible, as elements of the project of American Empire that cannot be acknowledged.  Thus, the financial, human, and political costs of these imperial wars cannot be acknowledged in order for the project of American Empire to exist.  We may apply significant meaning to the images from Abu Graib, for instance, but they are in a certain sense a screen for how American Empire is actually functioning. 

We need to pay attention to this screening out.  The contemporary image economy is often characterized as one of networks and viral digital circulation (indeed, this is a key aspect of Mitchell’s book Cloning Terror).  Yet, this can allow us to feel that this viral mode of distribution is one that has shaken dominant power relations when it may be a means through which empire is reaffirmed.  As we aim to make sense of the role played by images in contemporary global conflict, we must remain attentive to that which cannot be seen, that which is rendered noise, and the practices of counter-visuality that aim to bring it forward. 

[1] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2004), 13.  See also Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), Introduction. 

[2] David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, revised edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, [1992] 1998), 3.  See also Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). 

Marita Sturken is Professor and Chair of the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. She is the author most recently of Tourists of History:  Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero.

#5, May 21, 2012:

Max Liljefors
Notes on ‘Image Wars’
The day I write this, the trial begins in Copenhagen against four Swedish citizens, allegedly born in North African countries, and accused of having conspired to launch a terror attack against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The reason is claimed to be the infamous twelve caricature drawings of the Prophet Muhammad that Jyllands-Posten published in 2005, and which triggered violent demonstrations, diplomatic controversies, burnings of Scandinavian embassies, boycott actions, etc., in the Islamic world and elsewhere. To date, approximately forty people have been killed in those protests.

The caricatures, along with the 9/11 images, the Abu Ghraib photos, the footage of the 2003 Shock-and-Awe bombings of Baghdad, etc., testify to the assertion that wars are nowadays to a large extent fought over and through images — against, in defense of, and by means of pictures. However, notwithstanding the support provided daily by the media, of the idea of ‘image wars’, the idea seems to me to have certain limitations. Let me mention three.

1. As always, there is the question of what escapes visualization, what flies below the radar. Are all wars fought in equal exposure to cameras? It seems to me that most examples of ‘image wars’ belong to specific conflicts between certain interests in the Western world and certain parties in the Islamic world. If we stare too intensely into their mesmerizing pictures, may we not blind ourselves to conflicts of less extravagant appearance, that transpire in the shadows? Even in the most ‘visual’ of wars, visibility is far from omnipresent. Only a fraction of the hundreds of Abu Ghraib photos known to the US government, circulated in public, and the majority of critical commentary has focused only on three, which have acquired ‘iconic’ status.

2. The notion of ‘image’ itself tends to be accompanied by anthropomorphic figures, like ‘vision’, ‘gaze’, and ‘beholder’. But today's technologies of war often produce visibilities that do not correspond to these anthropomorphisms. The next generation of unmanned drone aircrafts will allegedly be equipped with 1.8 GB cameras, capable of monitoring sixty-five independent targets simultaneously, from an altitude of 20.000 feet. Their vast data sets will be transmitted to computers running so-called ‘swarm-recognition’ algorithms for visual analysis. On the ground, biometric technologies, currently implemented in border control systems globally, map diminutive physiological patterns of the targeted person’s fingertips, retina, etc., and match them against existing records in large databases (comparison with 70 million records is said to take approximately 10 minutes). Here visibility is produced by and distributed through advanced electronic systems, which include components of ‘the visual’ such as optical detection, pattern recognition, etc., but which nevertheless do not produce anything like a singular ‘image’ for the directed ‘gaze’ of a human ‘beholder’, in the traditional sense. Rather they render these anthropomorphisms obsolete.

3. It seems to me that Mitchell’s suggestion that we should think about images as ‘things that have desires’, captures an essential aspect of our relation to images, and yet borders to — or at least runs the risk of being misinterpreted into — a mystifying of pictures. Yes, pictures move us and compel us, offer us spectatorial positions, seem to demand to be ‘read’ by us, and urge us to take action. But from there to ascribe real agency and intent to them is a conceptual — or affective — leap that make them seem more literally in need of our support, or threatening to us… After all, Mitchell's invitation does not summon the power of pictures, but our power — or compulsion — to imagine things about them, and we should stay vigilant about the power of our imaginations over us.

Thank you to Nina Kurdve and Lila Lee, MA students, and Adam Brenthel, PhD student, for their input to these reflections.

Max Liljefors is Professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University. He is the director of the research projects Critique and Crisis: Art after 1945 and Anatomy in the Expanded Field.


#4, May 13, 2012:

Jill Bennett

In late 2001 James Elkins raised the possibility that visual culture may not have much to say about the momentous event of 9/11—an event ‘so overwhelmingly visual’ that it might well have rendered the discipline indispensible. [1] The ‘image wars’ had broken out in a way that was spectacularly obvious; symbols were no longer obscure agents in need of specialist interpretation but hypervisible and transparent to all. With nothing mystifying to decode, visual theory in its familiar semiotic form was superfluous.  Far from delivering content to a discipline dependent on visual data, the ‘image wars’ revealed the limits of an area defined by the exercise of a single sense or a class of objects.

Studies of post-9/11 mediascapes notwithstanding, the profound impact of the image wars has been to cajole visual theory away from disciplinary purity into more complex transdisciplinary territory. Elkins observed that fundamental aspects of 9/11 visual culture—namely its emotional dimensions—lay beyond the immediate purview of visual studies. He was right to caution against wandering into new territory equipped only with tired disciplinary assumptions and methods. The scope of aesthetic inquiry has indeed broadened—and, as a consequence, the sharpest ‘visual’ analysis is developing a more subtle account of the forces that animate images; in other words, of the principles and connections beyond the visual that give images life.

W. J. T. Mitchell sets up the possibility for the study of this lifeworld in the rhetorical move that anthropomorphizes the “picture” by imbuing it with its own figurative affect. [2] “Like living organisms”, he suggests, images “have desires”. But such desires do not arise purely from the images they inhabit, the ‘image wars’ themselves being a figure for a set of affective relations. The importance of this move lies, then, in making relationality the field of investigation, since the conflagration of images that characterizes the “War on Terror” requires an understanding of the relations that turn images into symbols of pride, anxiety and vengeance. Mitchell characterizes the imagery of the World Trade Center and its attack as exemplifying “the sensuous spectrum of image anxiety of our time” but it has been on the radical edges of media theory that the notion of a process aesthetics has been most fully developed, along with accounts of the fluidity of affect and its mobilization in the politics of fear. As Brian Massumi demonstrates with a further level of personification, the colour spectrum designed to calibrate the threat of terror “spoke”; it told us when to feel fear. [3] No mere symbol or representation, it was the instrument by which anxiety was inculcated and regulated.

Images in this sense are not simply the cultural expression of collective emotion but are coopted into circuits of affect; used, incorporated and entrained. Affect-at-large attaches itself to images. Such is the premise of a style of documentary inquiry that has emerged in response to the politics of fear (think of Adam Curtis’s Power of Nightmares on the neo-con project, or Mike Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, an attempt to trace the source of a fear that finds effigies in popular culture). The autonomy of affect is now itself a subject of inquiry, but rather than deferring to the cognate field of affect studies, visual culture needs to claim back the notion of aesthetic perception as one encapsulating an inquiry into the senses and emotion.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank ask “whether anyone may fully grasp the nature of any object when that object has not been perceived, wished for, missed and thought about in love and hate, in excitement and apathy, in distress and joy.” [4] This methodological observation has particular purchase in relation to the imagery of 9/11—not so much the mementos and memorials for which we already possess a ritual context and understanding, but the new aesthetics of affect: the circuits that render affect visible and transmissible, the vectors of fear and anxiety, as well as of affective resistance that surface in websites such as <wearenotafraid.com>, in the major art exhibitions that trace global relationships and their local and subjective manifestations, and in the documentary turn that makes tangible the politics of emotion and its passage through images. The domain of visual culture is no longer at issue. Any branch of cultural studies operates in an open, expansive field. If there is something for visual specialists to hang onto it is the knowledge that images operate in distinctive ways as they range across this open field and interact with other modes of practice. It is the question of how images interact that now occupies aesthetic theory. [5]

[1] James Elkins, Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, London and New York:
Routledge, 2003, 81.

[2] W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of
, Chicago: The University of Chicago press, 2004.

[3] Brian Massumi, ‘Fear (The Spectrum Said)’, Positions 13: 1, 2005.

[4] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, eds., Shame and its Sisters: A Silvan
Tomkins Reader
, Durham, N. C: Duke University Press, 1995, 55.

[5] Jill Bennett, Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affects and Art After 9/11, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.

Jill Bennett is Professor at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, in Sydney. Her most recent publication is Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affects and Art After 9/11, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.

#3, May 8, 2012:

Iain Chambers
I propose to step back a little from the seemingly implacable imagery of the Twin Towers in flames in order to consider the question of image wars in a wider context. This might both help to displace the West’s obsession with its own apocalypse and open up a further, critical interval. After all, what happened in New York in September 2001, as opposed to what subsequently occurred in Baghdad or in Afghanistan, is on a completely different scale; at least in terms of the statistics of the casualties and destruction. That, of course, is the point. While the incursion over the skies of New York City is considered the image of the opening decade of the 21st century, other images of war, destruction, refugees and migrants, involving hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people in the very same period, are given altogether less significance, and are sharply separated from the semantics of the New York imagery. In the asymmetrical relations of power – who defines the image, where, when and how? – the subjecting forces of images are themselves subjected to a precise political economy of visibility and attention.

So, to step back and shift the gaze from the stricken Occidental metropolis to other sites and images, would allow us to consider once again the arguments rehearsed almost forty years ago by Edward Said. In Covering Islam, the Palestinian critic draws our attention to the media ambiguities of ‘covering’. Images are selected, captioned and arranged both in order to concentrate explanation while simultaneously dissipating and defusing other possible understandings of the media event. Representation is always accompanied by repression. This is to suggest that the image is not so much an individual visual object as an epistemological instance. It serves not only to support and illustrate an argument or perspective, but rather to extend and render affective certain modalities of understanding as opposed to others: exploiting the eye in order to subject the body and its senses to a particular regime of truth.

If, as W.J.T. Mitchell argues, we recognise images as ‘living organisms’ that harbour desires, we perhaps need also to register their polyvalent, even anarchic, potential. Images are certainly framed in more senses than one. Their immediate cultural, historical and social anchorage never exhausts their potential. Apart from the obvious multiplicities of reading and receiving the images of 9/11, the images themselves sustain an altogether more extensive economy of meaning. The French critic Georges Didi-Huberman, drawing explicitly on Walter Benjamin’s insistence on the detonation of explosive material that lies in the already having-been of the image, insists on the ‘exuberant tempos’ of the image that explode out of the past as unruly figures of time. Images resist the rigidity of the disciplines (art history, semiology, historiography, political science) that supposedly explain them. ‘Before the image we find ourselves before time’, writes Didi-Huberman (Georges Didi-Huberman, Devant le tempo. Histoire de l’art et anachronisme des images, Paris: Éditions de Minuet, 2000). What is sustained in the image irrupts in the present as an overdetermined complexity that decomposes our own time and configurations: ‘The image has more memory and more of a future than the person who is contemplating it.’ If the image is temporarily confined in the interpretation, and temporalized in a particular history and genealogy, it simultaneously unleashes the dynamics of an involuntary memory – a ‘movement-image’ as Deleuze called it – that is neither frozen nor fixed, and which goes on to interrogate historicity itself. In this critical discontinuity with the present and its sequential codification of the past (‘history’), the rigid instrumentality and control of ‘critical distance’ is eroded: what the image proposes is the perilously proximate, critical instance of a ‘montage of heterogeneous temporalities.’ If images are most obviously polyvalent they also carry and contain multiple histories. Well beyond the threshold of historical illustration and social witnessing, images propose both another accounting of time and operate a cut on the temporality that presumes to organise and direct their semantic orientation.  

In this sense, the altogether more mundane image of a migrant – African and illegal – picked up off a sinking boat in the Mediterranean, actually throws a far more acute light into both the archive and present day configuration of the Occident than transitory terror in the hi-jacked skies of lower Manhattan. Contrary to the hegemonic order of sense and sensibility, such an image lacerates the world, our world, time and modernity with other temporalities and other worlds. As though a wound that cannot be healed, the image wars here evoked, is most precisely about our war on the rest of the planet. The images that we seek to contain exceed their unilateral location in the semantics of our world. They literally explode to shower light on a multiple modernity that is never simply ours to define and imagine.

Iain Chambers is Professor of Cultural and Postcolonial Studies at the Oriental University in Naples. Among his many publications is Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).


#2, May 3, 2012:

Kari Andén-Papadopoulos
The notion of ’image wars’ has no doubt acquired new urgency in the context of today’s global media landscape as visual images and photo ops play an ever more constitutive role in the conduct (and critique) of geopolitics. Over the past 100 years, ’perception management’ has become a central preoccupation of states at war, with civil and military leaders employing increasingly sophisticated tactics to shape the visual experience of domestic and international publics. Today, in the context of a post-9/11 global information order, the categories of warfare and visual mediation have become so closely intertwined and interdependent as to be inseparable. Whether contemporary conflicts are defined as ’simulacra’ (Baudrillard 1995), ’information warfare’ (MacDonald 2007; Tumber and Webster 2006), ’image wars’ (Kennedy 2008, Mitchell 2011), ’virtuous war’ (Der Derian 2009), or ’spectacle’(Debord 1994 [1967]; Kellner 2005), scholars from diverse disciplines agree that the virtual battlefield of images and information and the ’realities’ of geopolitical intervention are in part constituted in and through each other. Visual media are perceived to not only report and represent modern conflicts, but indeed to be capable of enacting and performing them as well (Campbell 2007; Cottle 2006). Hence, the issue of visual images’ power to affect the legitimacy, nature and conduct of contemporary warfare figures increasingly prominently in recent scholarly accounts of the complex synergy between media and conflict (e.g Michalski and Gow 2007).

On the one hand, there is growing concern that the close links within the media-military-entertainment complex has lead to the further aestheticization of war, serving to rationalize international aggression and imperialist violence as necessary, moral, and even civilizing. Beginning in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the American ’militainment machine’ has certainly done a fine job producing recent wars as entertaining media spectacles, effectively translating state violence into an object of pleasurable consumption (Stahl 2010). At the heart of the new military strategy that results from the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is the technical capability and ethical imperative to wage war from a distance, with no or minimal casualties to US forces. The new ’network centric’ information warfare differs significantly from past forms in the proliferation of superior satellite, weapons-guiding and communication technology, including the many new unmanned systems such as remotely piloted drones and robots on the ground (i.e the PackBot, Talon, and SWORDS) used not only for bomb disposal but also for street patrols, reconnaissance, sniping, checkpoint security, and guarding security posts (Singer 2009). The revolution in robotics certainly forces us to reconsider what all these stunning new technologies will mean for the next generation of war – for how it is fought and visualized - and the public’s connection to it.

For many commentators, one of the most troubling features of the virtualization of warfare is its perceived tendency to erode ethical awareness of war’s human costs. While the sanitization of war’s visual record has been a routine component of modern conflict, today’s convergence of technologies through which war is simulated, fought and represented appears to have disembodied armed conflict to the extreme.  Witnessed by its combatants and (Western) spectators alike through weapons-view footage in real-time, the new techno-war threatens to produce a further disconnect between those who watch distant violence as spectacle and those experiencing close-up the horrors a high-tech military machine can effect.

At the same time, the rapid rise of new technologies, synchronous with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has produced a global information sphere in which images and information have become ever more difficult control. Digital imagery that has not been created or distributed by mainstream media has exploded onto this global scene, putting (dead or badly injured) bodies back into the documentation of warfare that military and media elites are struggling to contain. This visual ’blowback’ includes not only the violent photo opportunities staged by insurgent groups in and beyond Iraq, but the imagery produced by civilians in the warzone and by serving US soldiers. Indeed, the personal photos and videos of individual soldiers have become the most expansive, and controversial, source of war imagery (Andén-Papadopoulos 2009a, 2009b; Christensen 2008; Kennedy 2009). Their productions include the messy, visceral, chaotic, mundane, emotional, and even depraved aspects of warfare normally beyond the gaze of the media and of their audiences. While the frames of established media and military elites remain powerful controls on perception of contemporary geopolitics, there can be no doubt that the dreaded televisual spectacle is disrupted, confined or otherwise democratically punctuated by social media. The proliferation of alternative war imagery documenting the tangible effects of violence might not in itself subvert the understandings of international relations or facilitate revolutionary challenges to entrenched powers. But the circuits of the web are not only providing a platform for the reproduction and global circulation of ’amateur’ imagery. The perhaps most significant aspect of the transformation of visual culture within digital contexts is the extended possibilities it provides for debating images both by those who produce them and those who view them (cf. Corner 2010). Digital platforms like YouTube have radically democratized practices of image appropriation and re-seeing, and have worked to extend the exchange of viewers’ critical discourse around the problematic and contested meanings of conflict imagery. 

Management of the field of vision is about much more than control of images per se. To a significant extent it is about control of frameworks of understanding. In this regard, the novel, expanded scope for the exercise of criticism and scepticism provided by digital media is certainly going to become more and more important in mediating public understanding and response to the war of images in the 21th century.

Andén-Papadopoulos, Kari 2009. ‘Body Horror on the Internet: US soldiers recording the war in Iraq and Afghanistan’. Media, Culture & Society 31(6): 921-38..

Andén-Papadopoulos, Kari 2009. ‘US soldiers imaging the Iraq war on YouTube’.
Popular Communication: International journal of media and culture, 7 (1) pp. 17- 27.

Baudrillard, Jean 1995. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Sydney: Power Publications.

Campbell David 2007. ’Geopolitics and Visuality: Sighting the Darfur Conflict’. Political Geography 26: 357-82.

Corner, John 2010. ‘”Critical social optics” and the transformations of audio-visual culture’, in Relocating Television. Television in the Digital Context, edited by Jostein Gripsrud, London: Routledge.

Cristenssen, Christian 2008. ’Uploading Dissent. YouTube and the US occupation of Iraq’. Media, War & Conflict 1(2): 155-75.

Debord, Guy 1994 (1967). The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone.

Der Derian, James 2009. Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial Media-Entertainment Network, Second edition. New York and London: Routledge.

Kellner, Douglas 2005. Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy: Terrorism, War and Election Battles. Boulder and London: Paradigm.

Kennedy Liam 2008. ’Securing Vision: Photography and US Foreign Policy’. Media, Culture & Society 30 (3): 279-94.

Kennedy Liam 2009. ’Soldier photography: visualising the war in Iraq’. Review of International Studies 35: 817-33.

Macdonald Scot 2007. Propaganda and Information Warfare in the Twenty-first Century: Altered Images and Deception Operations. New York: Routledge.

Mitchell, W. J. T. 2011. Cloning Terror. The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. Chicago & London: Chicago University Press.

Michalski Milena and Gow, James 2007. War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing Contemporary Conflict. London and New York: Routledge.

Singer P. W. 2009. Wired for War. The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century. New York: The Penguin Press.

Tumber, Howard and Webster, Frank 2006. Journalists Under Fire: Information War and Journalistic Practices. London: Sage.


Kari Andén-Papadopoulos is Professor at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication (JMK) at Stockholm University. Among her most recent publications is Amateur Images and Global News (Intellect 2011), with Mervi Pantti.


#1, April 27, 2012:

Joanna Zylinska
Life in the battlefield of vision

Joanna Zylinska, If It Reads It Bleeds (2010), video

W. J. T. Mitchell’s proposition to understand the contemporary landscape of visual culture in terms of a “war of images” goes beyond the metaphorical understanding of a sensory clash and conceptual overload generated by the incessant proliferation of images in contemporary media culture. With this concept, Mitchell foregrounds the actual, material violence that images and the varying responses to them can provoke. Yet it is primarily on the level of representation that he sees such a war as being fought. Indeed, it is the iconic aspect of photographs and freeze frames such as the collapsing Twin Towers on 9/11 that is the primary impetus for pictorial warfare. In this context, a “war of images” presents itself as an effect of particular media showing us things, and of our reactions to these things.

However, I would like to suggest we can understand images as being at war with themselves on a deeper, ontological - and not just causal - level. It is a war fought within a dynamic media ecology for images to be images, to carve themselves out of the flow of mediation (data streams, pulsations of electricity, information exchanges between various human and non-human receivers, etc.) and freeze, to be not just spatially enframed but first of all temporally stabilised. The set of processes involved in their becoming images lends itself to such a military formulation because the latter effectively conveys the inevitable conflict involved in the emergence of our shared yet conflicted field of vision, and of the things to see in that field. We could go so far as to say that warfare functions as a structuring logic through which images come to be. For me, “a war of images” is therefore the underpinning condition of the emergence and existence of all images.

One might perhaps query the implicit violence on the part of visual culture theorists in trying to understand image making in such agonistic terms. However, agonism is actually an enabling concept because, to paraphrase political philosopher Chantal Mouffe, it involves the staging of a conflict not between enemies but rather between adversaries who share a symbolic space as well as a desire to organise that space in a different way. Pace Mouffe, the adversaries in such a “war of images” do not have to be exclusively human. Images frequently emerge from the flow of mediation without our conscious human intervention: think about the production of stop-motion imagery by CCTV, speed cameras or space satellites. Also, contrary to a Clausewitz-type warfare, with a clearly defined enemy and a desirable strategy to implement in order to achieve some set objectives, in a “war of images” operational strategies and enemy posts are distributed in a horizontal and “capillary” manner.

Although they are not primary instigators of, participants in, or even an audience for such a “war of images”, human agents do play a unique role in it, a role which can be described in terms of “temporary conflict resolution”, a responsible management of iconic violence. We know from Levinas and Derrida that violence is constitutive of any process of decision-making, of differentiating between standpoints and positions, but the state of violence is not yet tantamount to war. Instead, warfare can be described as a political enactment of the philosophical condition of violence. In this light, the opposite of a “war of images” is not some kind of “iconic peace”, but rather the control, minimisation and regulation of violence in the production and circulation of images. It is a responsible way of managing a conflict of, and over, images by humans -- even if many of these images are not produced by us, for our benefit or suffering.

Such a war of images therefore has an explicit ethical significance. It foregrounds a conflict over what has the right to become an image, over who this right is granted by and to whom, over, more broadly, what can and should be seen, and, last but not least, over how it should be seen. Ethical responsibility here lies in what Sarah Kember and I have described in our forthcoming book, Life After New Media, as “making a cut” to the flow of mediation. The process of cutting reality with cameras and other image-making and framing devices takes on and reveals the agential cut which is involved in transforming matter into images. In this way, image making produces life forms, rather than merely recording them. In opposition to “live TV” - which, with its looped repetitions of “media events” such as global conflicts and disasters, deadens both the force of images and the ethical and political sensibilities of their viewers - responsible image making entails making “good cuts” to the flow of mediation. It is a way of capturing lifeness in the midst of the visual (battle)field, of making life where death hovers, against and in spite of it.


Clausewitz, C. von (1873) On War. London: N. Trübner.

Derrida, J. (1978) “Violence and Metaphysics” in Writing and Difference. London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Kember, S. and J. Zylinska (2012) Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (forthcoming).

Levinas, E. (1969) Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Mitchell, W.J.T. (2011) Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mouffe, C. (2000) The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.


Joanna Zylinska is a Reader in New Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. Among her many publications is Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process, with Sarah Kember, forthcoming in from the MIT Press later this year.