When is Life Grievable?
Extract from Torture and the Ethics of Photography: Thinking with Sontag
Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people. —Susan Sontag, On Photography
In Precarious Life (2004), I considered the question of what it means to become ethically responsive, to consider and attend to the suffering of others, and, more generally, of which frames permit for the representability of the human and which do not.
At the time Precarious Life was written, the tortures at Abu Ghraib had not yet come to light. I was working with only the pictures of the shackled and crouched bodies in Guantánamo Bay, knowing neither the details of torture nor of other linked representational issues, such as the debates about showing the war dead in Iraq and the problem of “embedded reporting.” Throughout the Bush regime, we saw a concerted effort on the part of the state to regulate the visual field. The phenomenon of embedded reporting came to the fore with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, when it seemed to be defined as an arrangement whereby journalists agreed to report only from the perspective established by military and governmental authorities. “Embedded” journalists traveled only on certain transports, looked only at certain scenes, and relayed home images and narratives of only certain kinds of action. Embedded reporting implies that reporters working under such conditions agree not to make the mandating of perspective itself into a topic to be reported and discussed; hence these reporters were offered access to the war only on the condition that their gaze remain restricted to the established parameters of designated action.
Embedded reporting has taken place in less explicit ways as well. One clear example is the media’s agreement not to show pictures of the war dead, our own or their own, on the grounds that that it undermined the war effort and jeopardized the nation. Journalists and newspapers were actively denounced for showing coffins of the American war dead shrouded in flags. Such images were not to be seen in case they aroused certain kinds of negative sentiment. This mandating of what can be seen—a concern with regulating content—was supplemented by control over the perspective according to which the action and destruction of war could be seen at all. By regulating
perspective in addition to content, the state authorities were clearly interested in regulating the visual modes of participation in the war. Seeing was tacitly understood as linked with the occupation of a position and, indeed, a certain disposition of the subject itself. A second place in which embedded reporting implicitly occurred was in the Abu Ghraib photographs. The camera angle, the frame,
the posed subjects, all suggest that those who took the photographs were actively involved in the perspective of the war, elaborating that perspective, crafting, commending, and validating a point of view.
Before the publication of the photos from Abu Ghraib, I had sought to relate three different terms in my effort to understand the visual dimension of war as it relates to the question of whose lives are grievable and whose are not. In the first instance, there are norms, explicit or tacit, governing which human lives count as human and as living, and which do not. These norms are determined to some degree by the question of when and where a life is grievable and, correlatively, when and where the loss of a life remains ungrievable and unrepresentable. This stark formulation is not intended to exclude those lives that are at once grieved and ungrieved, that are marked as lost but are not fully recognizable as a loss, such as the lives of those who live with war as an intangible yet persistent background of everyday life.
These broad social and political norms operate in many ways, one of which involves frames that govern the perceptible, that exercise a delimiting function, bringing an image into focus on condition that some portion of the visual field is ruled out. The represented image thereby signifies its admissibility into the domain of representability, and thus at the same time signifies the delimiting function of the frame—even as, or precisely because, it does not represent it. In other words, the image, which is supposed to deliver reality, in fact withdraws reality from perception.
In the public discourse on Guantánamo Bay, the police harassment of Arabs in the US (both Arab-Americans and those with visas or green cards), and the suspension of civil liberties, certain norms have been operative in establishing who is human and so entitled to human rights and who is not. Implicit in this discourse of humanization is the question of grievability: whose life, if extinguished, would be publicly grievable and whose life would leave either no public trace to grieve, or only a partial, mangled, and enigmatic trace? If, as I have argued, norms are enacted through visual and narrative frames, and framing presupposes decisions or practices that leave substantial losses outside the frame, then we have to consider that full inclusion and full exclusion are not the only options. Indeed, there are deaths that are partially eclipsed and partially marked, and that instability may well activate the frame, making the frame itself unstable. So the point would not be to locate what is “in” or “outside” the frame, but what vacillates between those two locations, and what, foreclosed, becomes encrypted in the frame itself.
Norms and frames constitute the first two hinges for my analysis; the last of the three is suffering itself. It would be a mistake to take this as exclusively or paradigmatically human suffering. It is precisely as human animals that humans suffer. And in the context of war, one could, and surely should, point to the destruction of animals, of habitats, and of other conditions for sentient life, citing the toxic effects of war munitions on natural environments and ecosystems, and the condition of creatures who may survive but have been saturated in poisons. The point, however, would not be to catalog the forms of life damaged by war, but to reconceive life itself as a set of largely unwilled interdependencies, even systemic relations, which imply that the “ontology” of the human is not separable from the “ontology” of the animal. It is not just a question of two categories that overlap, but of a co-constitution that implies the need for a reconceptualization of the ontology of life itself.
How do the norms that govern which lives will be regarded as human enter into the frames through which discourse and visual representation proceed, and how do these in turn delimit or orchestrate our ethical responsiveness to suffering? I am not suggesting that these norms determine our responses, such that the latter are reduced to behaviorist effects of a monstrously powerful visual culture. I am suggesting only that the way these norms enter into frames and into larger circuits of communicability are vigorously contestable precisely because the effective regulation of affect, outrage, and ethical response is at stake.
I want to suggest that the Abu Ghraib photographs neither numb our senses nor determine a particular response. This has to do with the fact that they occupy no single time and no specific space. They are shown again and again, transposed from context to context, and this history of their successive framing and reception conditions, without determining, the kinds of public interpretations of torture we have. In particular, the norms governing the “human” are relayed and abrogated through the communication of these photos; the norms are not thematized as such, but they broker the encounter between first-world viewers who seek to understand “what happened over there” and this visual “trace” of the human in a condition of torture. This trace does not tell us what the human is, but it provides evidence that a break from the norm governing the subject of rights has taken place and that something called “humanity” is at issue here. The photo cannot restore integrity to the body it registers. The visual trace is surely not the same as the full restitution of the humanity of the victim, however desirable that obviously is. The photograph, shown and circulated, becomes the public condition under which we feel outrage and construct political views to incorporate and articulate that outrage.
I have found Susan Sontag’s last publications to be good company as I consider what the photos of torture are and what they do, including both her Regarding the Pain of Others and “Regarding the Torture of Others,” which was released on the internet and published in the New York Times after the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs. The photos showed brutality, humiliation, rape, murder, and in that sense were clear representational evidence of war crimes. They have functioned in many ways, including as evidence in legal proceedings against those pictured as engaging in acts of torture and humiliation. They have also become iconic for the way that the US government, in alliance with Britain, spurned the Geneva Conventions, in particular the protocols governing the fair treatment of prisoners of war. It quickly became clear in the months of April and May 2004 that there was a pattern to the photographs and that, as the Red Cross had contended for many months before the scandal broke, there was a systematic mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq, paralleling a systematic mistreatment at Guantánamo. Only later did it become clear that protocols devised for Guantánamo had been deployed by the personnel at Abu Ghraib, and that both sets of protocols were indifferent to the Geneva accords. The question of whether governmental officials called what is depicted in the photos “abuse” or “torture” suggests that the relation to international law is already at work; abuse can be addressed by disciplinary proceedings within the military, but torture is a war crime, actionable within international courts. They did not dispute that the photographs are real, that they record something that actually happened. Establishing the referentiality of the photographs was, however, not enough. The photos are not only shown, but named; the way that they are shown, the way they are framed, and the words used to describe what is shown, work together to produce an interpretive matrix for what is seen.