Discussion with Giroux

Prior to publishing Beyond the Spectacle of Terrorism: Global Uncertainty and the Challenge of the New Media (Paradigm Press, 2006), Henry Giroux--the Global Television Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University--shared a draft copy of the cover of his book with me. [See image reproduced below]. That exchange prompted the following e-mail discussion about visuality and torture.

Spectacle of Terrorism Cover

      David Clark: That's an unnerving photograph, to be sure, at once mesmerizing and evocative and obscene. And profoundly saddening too. Here are some thoughts, albeit written too quickly and coarsely: a man, unnamed here but in possession of a name, a person with hopes, fears, and desires, with a history and a family and a future, however violated or circumscribed, is under that horrid mask; this is the irreplaceable location of an individual's trauma whose singularity is precisely what calls for justice and for untrammelled respect. --And never more so than in this scene of abjection, torture, and the abrogation of anything resembling respect. A "scene"? I tremble at the violence of making him, this unnamed one, into an "illustration" or "image" or "example" of anything. Men and women, Iraqis, if there are such a thing, yesterday and today, are being tortured: "this man, for example". . . as if one could ever, in any circumstance, for whatever purpose, write or produce an image that says, implicitly or explicitly, "this man, for example." I cannot bring myself to say or to think, "this man, for example." But I cannot not say this either. What then does it mean for this image to be on the cover of a book, your book? Is this making a spectacle of the spectacle of terrorism, inadvertently abandoning this faceless man to the dissolution of the simulacrum? What are the referents of this photograph? I peer from this safe height at the man behind the mask, at his humiliation, at the erasure of his dignity. Hateful, this. I think: he no more gave himself to be photographed or for the photograph to be circulated (yet no photograph is ever taken that isn't always already circulated; no representation without repetition, tele-communication, etc., without exposure to loss and re-appropriation, use and misuse) than he did to be tortured. So this is hard, Henry, as you well know. If it weren't, you wouldn't be writing about it, and god knows you must, must write about this, and say what needs to be heard, compel us to look at this photograph. But who, us? When we look at the photograph "what" or "who" are we looking at? The difference between the "what" and the "who" is, as Derrida points out, crucially important, as is the identity or subject position, the historical and cultural location, of the spectator. Who are we when we gaze at this unreturned gaze, when we claim to look but in fact are already pre-empted, caught, held hostage, and looked at by this blinded and gagged face? --The photograph, the photograph here, on this cover, in this place and time, and of this absolutely singular man. . . As I say, I'm saying this all too quickly, so much more to consider here, revise, rethink, understand and experience otherwise. You will of course have done that and are doing it now. But according to a logic that Derrida describes in Spectres of Marx as "the visor effect," one thing seems certain: I feel scrutinized by this photograph, this image of a man whose gaze I am violently forbidden from returning. Yet nothing could be more uncertain than the consequences and the significances of the asymmetrical relation that obtains between the spectator and this image.

      Henry Giroux: In choosing an image for the cover of this book, I wanted to use a representation that was not news-specific, one whose representational politics captured less the singularity of a particular spectacular event, expression of suffering, or form of abuse than an image that signified a more general, ambiguous representation of both the spectacle of terrorism and the barbarism it evokes. I decided right off not to use an image with a literalness that might be exploitative--images of the Twin Towers burning, photos of specific people injured and bleeding, individuals wounded, or context specific acts of barbarism such as an image of someone about to be beheaded. Hence, I did not want to use either historically specific images such as those that would be unmistakably associated with Abu Ghraib, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Chechnya, or those directly related to the events of 9/11. Instead, I chose this non-news specific image because of its ambiguity. In an age when the appeal to terrorism--the spectacle of terrorism to be more exact--is used by state and non-state terrorists alike to appropriate fear as a pretext for the most horrendous crimes, I think the image reminds us not of the singularity of the particular person behind the hood--is it a woman, a victim of CIA counter-terrorism, a journalist captured by extremists groups in Iraq who is about to be beheaded?--but the larger political forces that create such horrors through conditions that make such horrendous images and crimes even possible. The cover illustrates an ambivalence about the image that ranges from diplomats who have been kidnapped, Iraqis who have been tortured, dissidents who have been abducted, black men abused in US prisons, students tortured by the police by any one of a number of oppressive regimes--and invites the most awful play of imagination suggesting that the image could be me, you, any of us and that our lives are not so removed from the play of these forces so as to be either complacent about such acts, or even worse, morally and politically indifferent. And even if the image cannot be imagined so privately, it evokes the question of what our responsibility might be to this person behind the hood, not merely/only/exclusively as an ethical question (which is impossible) but also as an educational and political issue. What kind of responsibility do we have to the man, woman, or child who is masked? The image coupled with the "beyond" in the title begs the question of not simply our own vulnerability but also of our complicity. After all, that image is everywhere and it indicts us all. What I like about the ambiguity of the image is that it does not register one specific historical moment such as Abu Ghraib. It is decontextualized in the same way the figure is--this could be anyone including one of us and says something about both our vulnerability and more importantly our responsibility to address the conditions that create not just the image but the suffering it suggests--a form of suffering that takes place within particular forms of material and symbolic relations of power.

      David Clark: I don't think the photograph is exploitative, but rather that the image unavoidably raises the spectre of exploitation (in the sense that Derrida uses the term "spectre," as a constitutive haunting of the other by the other, or rather by others). In other words, I don't think the photograph can be used without exposing itself to the threat of exploitation, or to the threat of a certain exploitation, much less without the risk of it being experienced or understood as exploitative. What makes it important, and in the ways you so well describe in your note to me, is profoundly connected to what makes it exploitative, even and especially if what makes it important cannot be reduced to the exploitative. And this assumes that "exploitative" comes close to describe the kind of thing that occurs to me looking at the photograph. Believe me, I'm not speaking from a position of "liberal" anxiety here about whether the photograph should be used or not, even if my opening allusion to the picture's "obscenity" invariably invokes the rhetoric and thus the politics of that liberality. I'm wanting to think instead about ethics and politics in a more Derridean or Levinasian register, one which acknowledges the necessity of the contamination of the ethical by the political. The ethical is always already caught up in the educational and the political, this, not as an accident befalling an otherwise imagined purity but as constitutive of the ethical. No way to evoke the particular without a violence by which it becomes politicized, generalized. So I don't think the photograph is intelligible, ultimately, without being involved in some way with the singular person of which it is unmistakeably an image. One could equally say that the political and the educational is then contaminated by the ethical. There is of course a generalization at work here--there must be, language itself demands this, and it is this generalizing power that enables us to think, precisely, about different violences, humiliations, incarcerations, complicities, their differences as well as their similarities. Without this "ambiguity," as you put it, there is no way to put the photograph to use, as it were, and to activate the activism that is your forthcoming book. Without this "ambiguity" there are no responsibilities, no responses. But there is singularity here too, the irrevocable interruption of the general by the particular. I would say that history itself is this interruption. What makes the torture of this man history is this interruption. In a way that Cathy Caruth's work has helped me understand, the photograph is the trace of an impossible history in which a tortured individual himself becomes "the symptom of a history" that he "cannot entirely possess (and thus which possesses)" him.

      Henry Giroux: Thanks, the comments are helpful. Actually, the general/particular dialect gets worked out for me in an odd way--the image in the context of the title does not correspond to a particular convention or act of barbarism; instead, the image invokes a generalized condition of terror for which the issue of singularity is evoked in the possibility of responsibility and, god forbid, agency. The ethical, yes, is always contaminated by the political and educational, for many reasons, but whether that contamination translates into a self-reflexivity is another question which now foregrounds the political in a particular way for me--an issue I hope the representation foregrounds, however ambiguously.