Monthly Archives: January 2014

Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance, Ch. 2 “Photojournalism and Human Rights”

Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance Ch. 2

“Documents of suffering are documents of protest”. p. 33

Fits w/Agamben in that she says: the photograph shows a form of the exception–they document or display what a human without rights is or looks like. p. 37

What of images of suffering, tortured bodies where the torture is not meant as a documentation (and cannot be read of a documentation) of a human deprived of rights but instead re: Agamben is of a sacred life? Mayan codices showing sacrificed prisoners, for example.

Photography of torture, violence, suffering is defended against the charge of pornography: it shows “something that ought not to exist”. Are there photographs of tortured or suffering bodies which are about normalcy? What about Stelarc? Surgery? Boxers after the fight? Saints?

“Too-beautiful” is defended just on the notion that “portraying suffereing” is imperfect and impure. I think she’s not really coming to grips with the beautiful, interesting, enthralling, etc. of violence–but then the critics who charge “pornography” are equally not coming to grips with that. Re: Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged: this is collapsing many genres, texts, and desires into the need to read out one category or sensation and either permit or forbid it ethically.

I agree w/Linfield that “desensitization” is a nonsense argument that has all sorts of flaws in the way that it connects media observers/consumers with crimes of commission–it is a subset of all the bad arguments about media and violence. It also has within it the equally flawed assertion that somehow “good representation” creates sensitivity–this is the whole awful infrastructure of art-as-intentional-politics rising up into this space.

What does it mean, in terms of her interpretation, that all these torturers and murderers filmed themselves? What does it take for it to be a sabotage, or for these photographs to be on the side of the victims, to be accusations? Isn’t most of our reaction, re: Agamben, that they had no right? E.g., that these are only murderers? (or in the context of Abu Ghraib, “bad apples”). When a photograph is taken of an exception that is broadly granted to the sovereign–the battlefield dead, Dillinger dead, does it accuse anyone? What about Mussolini hung? Qaddafi dead?

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer

Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

This is totally an aside, but there is something in me that increasingly rebels at a philosophical or theoretical exploration that begins (inevitably, almost) with what the Greeks thought, only to conclude that what the Greeks thought is not the progenitor of a long lineage of thinking but instead to some extent another episteme, that modernity is alien or unthinkable within a classical Greek way of thought–that the Greeks are used as a way to have another possibility than the modern, but one with sufficient complexity (in part so the philosopher and theorist can show themselves adequately credentialed to do intellectual work) and without the presumed dilemmas of alterity that non-Western examples present.

Biopolitics, explored via Foucault, re: its possible extensions and further intellectual development. Liberation from power that derives out of sovereignty, to power that is a property or a field that permeates social relations, institutionalizations of all kinds, etc. Agamben wants to explore relation between biopower and sovereign power. “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power”. p. 6

“The protagonist of this book is bare life, that is, the life of homer sacer (sacred man), who may be killed and yet not sacrificed, and whose essential function in modern politics we intend to assert.” p. 8

“Bare life remains included in politics in the form of the exception, that is, as something that is included solely through an exclusion.” p. 11

Agamben is partly trying to initiate an account of Marxist/anarchist inability to understand the state–I’m not entirely sure what the inadequacy of a simpler, more classically liberal or libertarian analysis is in that respect, that many radicals underestimate the state because they regard it as simply subordinate to or sheltering capital. But this does take the thought further: what kinds of power might be distinctive to sovereignty, and what kinds of personhood and practices do they produce?

Now familiar, derived in part from Schmitt, proposition of the exception–that the sovereign is inside and outside of law or juridical power all at once. This is where “natural law” proponents come in and are pretty much dismissed out of hand–their insistence that there is some limit to the sovereign in human nature, in God, in some principle outside and beyond the sovereign (as opposed to some material or practical limit) just can’t stand up given that these limits do not function unless the sovereign describes, accepts and interprets them. E.g., the sovereign uses the juridical to describe what the juridical does not address. “Inalienable rights”, but if they were, we should not need a Constitution to specify them or identify their existence. If I set the rule that prohibits me from acting, then I can unset the rule: the rule does not exist before nor will not persist after my willingness to set it. If the protection of the citizen from the sovereign is by the magnaminous consent of the sovereign, then it is no protection at all.

I wonder a bit if this underrates the materiality of history. Take a similar position: identity is constructed. But this does not mean that one can at will unconstruct it, adopt any other identity, etc.: the history and structure of identity has a kind of materiality in the present that’s important.

For our course, it is Ch. 3, Sacred Life, that is the biggest payoff–it explains why the elaborated ritual or ceremonial setting aside of a particular kind of “exception”–essentially, why the state is not a murderer, why the sovereign is entitled to the exception. “Life exposed to death” is “the originary political element”.

“The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule”. p. 168-169

As always in this sort of work, there is a kind of presumption of descriptive universality out of the specificity of Western history–I wonder for example how highly organized stateless societies (Igbo) would work in relationship to this description.

Certainly to re-read this after 2001 is to have an interesting new understanding of al-Qaeda and “stateless actors”, especially Ch. 5 Threshold–very much explains why so many cited or turned to Agamben at that point. Osama bin Laden as the “bandit” of bare life? The exception becoming the rule in a new and different way, the world as “camp” which the sovereign can strike at will from no particular place?

Ernst Junger, “On Danger”

Ernst Junger, “On Danger”, New German Critique, 59: Spring/Summer 1993.
Stable JSTOR link.

This is my first experience reading Junger–have been catching up a lot on the context. Shows how spotty my European cultural history really is–British and French contexts so dominate my understanding due to the connection to modern empire.

Can’t help but think of the Patton speech, but also of Lawrence and the Spanish Civil War–seems a kind of carry-over of one lineage of Counter-Enlightenment romanticism, that war or violence are one kind of spectacular rupture that disrupts bourgeois rationalism. In certain ways also reminds of Fanon’s thinking on violence.

“the securing of life against fate, that great mother of danger, appears as the truly bourgeois problem”. p. 28 The way that some cultural historians have approached the role of gambling (and metaphors of gambling) in American history comes to mind here as another version of this–the deep attachment to the possibility of great luck is what keeps some people from demanding the security of equity.

Almost proto-Foucauldian reading of danger as the necessary partner of the production of order–that claims about order must produce danger in equal measure and then reproduce danger as ubiquitous spectacle, an environment out of which order must be constantly saved and produced. And the orderly have to be reminded of danger, risk, violence?

As in the photography essay, Junger is taken by the ubiquity of recording, documentation, visuality, that soon everything will be seen, photographed, archived.

“Our time is prompted by human need–which explains,among other things,the success of war literature. We already possess a new style of language, one which gradually becomes visible from underneath the language of the bourgeois epoch. The same, however, is true of our style altogether; it is reminiscent of the fact that the automobile was for a long time constructed in the form of a horse-drawn coach, or that a wholly different society has already long since established itself beneath the surface of bourgeois society. As during the inflation,we continue for a time to spend the usual coins, without sensing that the rate of exchange is no longer the same. In this sense, it may be said that we have already plunged deeply into new, more dangerous realms, without our being conscious of them.” p. 32

Really interesting. Worth talking about the “new, more dangerous realms”.

I really feel a need to read comprehensively the Counter-Enlightenment.

Ernst Junger and Anthony Nassar, “War and Photography”

Ernst Junger and Anthony Nassar, “War and Photography”, New German Critique, 59: Spring-Summer 1993.
Stable Jstor link.

“A war that is distinguished by the high level of technical precision required to wage it, is bound to leave behind documents more numerous and varied than battles waged in earlier times, less present to consciousness”. p. 24

I think this shows a bit at the extent to which “contemporary history” is sometimes too eager to pronounce the divergence or distinctiveness of the present, to see time’s arrow moving in a particular direction. Because it doesn’t seem so now: so many of the wars fought between 1993-2013 have been unphotographed, undocumented, undescribed. Even the war in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 less so in its battlefields and more so in its occupations, and most famously so against the will of those who planned the war–who were undone in part by the ubiquity of personal photography. E.g., Abu Ghraib was photographed not because of an official desire for documentation but because almost anyone can create photographic and violent spectacle now. Humanists aren’t any better at being futurists than anyone else, I think–the projection into a future seems to be the way to deliver an authority about one’s readings of the present. But I should appreciate more the context I guess in which Junger was perceived to be reading this shift or change.

“For the attentive observer, a collection of such optical documents opens the way for a valuation of war not only as a succession of battles, but in its essence, as labor as well. In particular, the viewer is offered a singular view of horror and of the desolation of a landscape that will in all probability never be repeated.” p. 25

“Weapons are becoming continually more abstract, developing in stride with the technological world in general; increased mechanization makes them more mobile and effective at greater distances. One could guess that the army of engines which will carry these weapons across the land and through the air will no longer tolerate an extended stalemate on the front…”p. 25

Seems to me a huge difference between those photographs/videos created as spectacle, those deposited as document, and those captured by presence and accident…