Monday, February 27, 2012

Phillips 8-9, This American Life, and Finnegan

Phillips chapter 8 and the Finnegan article were especially difficult for me to get through this week. I had a hard time getting through both of these because the stories were so intense, but most of all, I was frustrated. In chapter eight, Phillips tells the story of Torin Nelson, an experienced interrogator that worked in both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Nelson went through extensive training in the United States, and was finally deployed to Guantanamo Bay in 2002. He mentions having a very positive experience there under the command of Major General Michael Dunlavey. Dunlavey’s main concern during his time at Guantanamo was the integrity and safety of their mission. The interrogations that happened during Nelson’s time there led to quality information, yet many of the men were not happy with what they were getting. Nelson talks about how many of the interrogators began working towards the wrong goal: confessions. In class on Thursday we discussed the Luban article about when Liberals are and are not okay with torture. One of the five reasons opposing torture was because the goal was to extract confessions from the detainees. Interrogating a prisoner in hopes of obtaining a confession is a completely backwards way of trying to find information- one assumes the guilt of the person they are questioning, without proper evidence. Steven Kleinman, an interrogator that Phillips talked to, mentions that confessions that come from interrogation are rarely of any value (169). Confessions extracted through torture could potentially be counterproductive in finding out what is really going on. Going back to the Luban article, I want to bring up the question of when does it end? Nelson mentions that many of the interrogators that he came in contact with throughout his time in GTMO, Abu Ghraib, and Afghanistan had the wrong goals when it came to interrogating prisoners. At the time he was leaving GTMO, many interrogators began to resort to inflicting pain to gain a confession. But to gain a confession from someone who did nothing wrong must take time and energy. How long does one keep a detainee, and torture them, in order to extract a confession? At what point do you stop and believe that they are telling the truth? How can you trust anything they say after weeks of torture? It’s frustrating to know that people like Nelson, experienced interrogators who were intent on maintaining the integrity of their mission, could end up not being able to find a job because they tried to do the right thing. How come, when the Abu Ghraib pictures and stories were released to the public, the demand for Nelson went down instead of up? It seems as though the amount of information received is more important to the military and US government than how the information was received.
The Finnegan article was also frustrating to me. Travis Twiggs was a well-loved man who acted as a mentor to the majority of the men that he worked with. He had a loving wife, children, parents, and siblings. Yet the war completely changed who he was. Although many people didn’t notice his PTSD at first, the more he returned to combat, the more severe it got. He was committed to Bethesda Naval Hospital twice for his PTSD, and was but on 12 (or 19) medications at a time to fight the symptoms. He wrote an article about the symptoms he was experiencing and his battle against PTSD. And yet the military never did anything to help him. He continued to volunteer his services to the war in Iraq. Despite all his signs and his hospital time he was continuously allowed to serve overseas. But at what point should someone say, “stop?” In the Finnegan article, Major Valerie Jackson states that there needs to be a point where someone says, “enough is enough. You’ve done your part.” When a soldier is so overcome by the guilt and trauma that they experienced, sending them back overseas into the line of fire can only worsen that pain and make it more difficult for them to ever lead a normal life. The military needs to know when to release soldiers from their duty. The source of the pain and guilt that the soldiers feel is the experiences that they have while serving our country. There is no doubt that we need these men and women to serve our country and protect us so that we can live our lives in safety and peace. But it is difficult for me to grasp the fact that the military pushes these men and women to fight for our country, yet once they exhibit any sort of PTSD or weakness they are made to feel incompetent and worthless. Not only do they feel guilt for their actions and what they saw during combat, but they feel that they are weak and unable to live up to the expectations that were set for them.  When soldiers begin to lash out against their loved ones, like John in the podcast and Tebeaux in the Finnegan article, the military must recognize that their experiences affected them. I know its not this simple, but I think at some point something needs to be done to prevent this from happening, or to provide treatment when it does. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Phillips8-9, This American Life 359, Finnegan

I agree with Kate about what she says about the soldier’s story in The American Life.  Because the soldier was subjected to those types of environments during war he was unable to separate the two realities of being in war and being at home with his family.  Also I thought it was hard to envision him putting a knife to his wife’s throat.  Immediately I thought of the movie “Brothers” with Toby Macguire and Jake Gyllenhaal.  Toby played a U.S Soldier about to be deployed away from his family and Jake was his sort of reject brother.  Toby went to war, was captured, tortured, and deemed dead.  Jake developed a relationship with Toby’s wife.  When we found out that Toby wasn’t dead and was rescued from being held captive, he started to lash out at his family, including his kids, wife, and brother.  At one point in the movie he almost killed himself and his family.  I do think that the institution of war has a significant effect on the minds of our soldiers.  Being subjected to that much violence and being in stressful situations can cause anxiety and things like PTSD. 
Much like the Podcast, the Finnegan article about Travis Twiggs had some of the same concepts.  I believe the article said that he did 4 tours in Afghanistan.  For anyone I think one tour is enough but this man did four.  In the article his wife stated that he would often get flashbacks of instances he experienced in the war, which caused him to lash out, much like John in the podcast.  I also see another theme which Kate pointed out and which we spoke about last week, which is hyper-masculinity.    For these soldiers they are taught to be tough, hard, individuals and if they aren’t they are told they aren’t worthy of the job they do.  I believe this puts a lot of stress on these people causing them to do things out of their nature to prove that they are competent.  When these men come home they continue to identify with that masculine approach.  Thus making it hard for them to revert back to the lives they once had. 
I don’t think for anyone it is an easy to come home after you have served in the military for long periods of time.  I think when they come home it is awkward for them to face the reality that they once had because they have been away for so long. I couldn’t imagine being a part of a family where our family member who was subjected to the violence and politics of war couldn’t separate the two realities.  It defiantly takes a strong individual to cope with that type of suffering because it is a type of suffering.  The internal battle of separating war from your present reality is suffering.  During this course we have struggled with defining what suffering really is.  I think suffering can be both mental and physical.  For these soldiers its not just enough to go to war and subject themselves to all that it has to offer.  Don’t get me wrong I defiantly appreciate all that they do but sometimes we don’t take into consideration that in protecting us they have to deal with unimaginable things and in turn almost suffer themselves so that we can have a life.     


                  In our previous unit on images of suffering we discussed the extent to which photos have the capacity to haunt us. Sontag argues that this recurrent haunting is so persistent because photos are still frames—unlike in a film where images are fleeting, a photo places acute emphasis on a single moment in time; that moment burns onto our memory. This haunting, I feel, is contingent upon feelings of guilt; when one looks at a photo portraying suffering, both acknowledging and situating themselves within the power structures the photo illustrates, one then confronts feelings of guilt. Guilt for past actions is the common thread woven through the readings/podcast for today, a guilt that our soldiers experience upon return from the warfront. Like the viewer of photos of suffering, these soldiers bear witness to violent images that prove indelible—as Travis Twiggs reflected, “‘I wish that I could erase that…from my memory…but I can’t’”.

                  The VA psychologist interviewed in the “This American Life” podcast explains that there are two types of trauma—that which arises from bad things that occur to you (he uses the examples of shelling and IEDs) and that which arises from the bad things you do unto others. The psychologists argues that it is this latter subset that underwrites PTSD; soldiers that are exposed to the high stress, extremely violent atmosphere created in war are unable to leave that experience behind and instead carry those memories with them back to the civilian sector. I found John’s story in which he “disassociated” and attacked his family unbelievably difficult to fathom. Just the slightest build up of tension caused John to lose his grasp on what was the reality, and suddenly he had a knife pressed against his fiancée’s throat. As John looked back on this break in perception, he admitted that he was not the least bit surprised by his behavior, and it was because of this that you must limit your time around the people you care for most. While listening I tried to imagine what it is like to be John’s fiancée, or Kellee Twiggs, to imagine what it feels like to be the spouse anxiously waiting for a loved one to return from a tour, and instead welcome home a stranger. I could not wish that on anyone.

                  Throughout each of the stories I noticed that the guilt associated with PTSD was interlaced in the degrees of control and powers structures held by soldiers and the military at large. Guilt is a feeling that completely consumes an individual and renders them helpless, that permeates the being to its very core—the “soul”. When John disassociated, he lost total control over his actions, as his violence was a manifestation of his guilt. As members of the military, soldiers measure their self worth and competency on their strength in the face of pressure, on their ability to give and take orders. The chain of command in the military is oriented such that those that carried out the torture at GTMO and Abu Ghraib are expected to follow orders without batting an eye. PTSD, then, becomes challenging for a soldier as the guilt they are feeling both second-guesses their previous actions but also their integrity as a soldier; does this guilt I feel make me less of a soldier? Travis Twiggs wrote in the Marine Corps Gazette, “I got to the point where I believed PTSD was nothing more than an acronym for weak Marines”.  That is what I think I found most sad surrounding the trauma and guilt in the readings for today—not only is it abominable that the torture and violence occurred in the first place, it really is troublesome that soldiers are made to feel incompetent if they do experience the most human and natural response to witnessing it, guilt. It was in this regard that my feelings really resonated with Cindy Chavez (Adam Gray’s mother) in her statement, “How does one come out of that and become a normal person? They live it and relive it and relive it. To me the government has robbed them blind of a big chunk of their soul because they were instructed to do something that was inhumane” (185). Soldiers are haunted both by their actions while at war, and by their lost humanity that debases their competency as a soldier. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Phillips, Puar, and Hyper-"Masculinity"

Let me begin this post by saying how difficult it is to judge the actions of the soldiers involved. Not to make a judgment on anyone’s character and including myself in the mix, I truly do believe that each of us is susceptible (though we may have different levels of susceptibility) to commit the same actions that each of the soldiers implicated did. We are all exposed to the same hyper-“masculine” ideals rampant in U.S. society, so it would only make sense that we are all capable of committing such actions.

Puar and Phillips both comment on this hyper-“masculine” ideal prevalent in the U.S. These hyper-“masculine” ideals very roughly and briefly include a need to be “strong”, violent, in power, etc. I believe this is a climate that engulfs all of the U.S. despite Bush claiming that “their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people” (Puar 14). It is precisely this nature that created the atmosphere for the torture, especially the type of torture.

Puar talks about this hyper-“masculinity” in regards to homophobia. It is a well-known fact that there is a lot of homophobia in the military. I believe this is partly to do with the stereotypes we have about gay men as being effeminate (which not all gay men are) contradicting with the “fact” that “real” men are “masculine.” As Puar details, this also touches upon the fact that femininity is viewed down upon in American society. Women in the military, such as England, are thereby more inclined to act masculine (sometimes even surpassing men’s actions) in an attempt to fit in with their male counterparts. Just to illustrate the reality of this situation for women, I know that when I was in an all-male, hyper-“masculine” organization, I began to feel this sort of pressure. Between talking derogatorily about women and boasting their own perceived image of masculinity, it was an exhausting situation to be in. I ended up leaving the organization because I did not want to try to fit into their standards; however, if I had not left, the way I carried myself would have had to change drastically in order for me to be able to survive in the organization. I image this pressure for women to be all the higher in the military. In that way, England’s actions are logical (not synonymous with excusable) in that type of hyper-“masculine” setting.

Moving past that tangent about women and femininity in the U.S., sex between men is still viewed as particularly taboo/disgusting. (Sex between women, on the other hand, is disgustingly viewed as “sexy” and it is particularly “masculine” to watch two women have sex.) For men to take on a “feminine role” of having sex with other men is degrading. That, in concurrence with how queerness is perceived in the Muslim world, is why American soldiers focused so heavily on sexual acts between men as forms of torture. If there were not a climate of homophobia and anti-femininity in the U.S., the thought of “gay sex” (do not like this phrase, but it is what the article kept using) would not have crossed the soldiers’ minds as a possible mechanism of torture. I think it would still not have crossed their minds regardless of whether or not homophobia were a problem for Muslims. The reason I believe this is because the “sexual acts simulated are all specifically and only gay acts” (Puar 33). Even though American soldiers raped women detainees, they did not force women upon other women or men upon other women. They only forced men upon other men. This means that the American soldiers themselves thought there was something particularly degrading or exceptional about forcing men upon other men.

Phillips also describes a hyper-“masculine” environment, but in a different light. He talks more about violence and the need to feel physical domination (as opposed to the mental domination/humiliation that Puar refers to). One quote that particularly stood at to me was when Keller spoke about his first experience with torture (Phillips 59). He said that it was “uneventful”, anticlimactic in a sense. This type of boredom then fostered the environment that allowed for increasingly torturous and violent tortures to occur. (I will stop here so as to not make this post too long.)

Phillips and Puar both note the importance and influence of this ideal of hyper-“masculinity” in the military and American society in general.

Phillips, chs 3-4/ Puar

In this week’s readings, Phillips and Puar explore the various circumstances that led to U.S. prisoner abuse during the war on terror. In his attempts to investigate and comprehend U.S. prisoner abuse, Phillips becomes frustrated by the U.S. government’s unfailing ability to justify, mitigate, and deny acts of torture. One of the questions that Phillips tries to answer in these chapters is who should be held accountable for these acts of torture. In a terrorist search that lacked necessary detailed intelligence to make arrests, received minimal explicit instructions from superior military officers, and depended on make-shift/ rudimentary interrogation techniques based on hearsay stories and improvisation, Phillips puts most of the blame on superior government and military officials.  The soldiers received impossibly general leads and even the photographs of suspects they carried with them were blurry, which resulted in the arrest of “anyone who resembled them” (Phillips, 58). While Phillips blames military superiors for giving implied consent to their troops to carry out cruel interrogation techniques, he is unconvinced that U.S. troops were “doing the best they could.” In class last Thursday we talked about national myths and stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions. While I’m more likely to blame the actions of these soldiers on the extreme situations in which they were thrown and a lack of guidance from superiors, it is inaccurate to say there were doing the best they could because they took pleasure in degrading and terrorizing prisoners. It is more accurate to say that these soldiers were doing the best they could to protect themselves and national security. The argument and the myth is that concerns for national security take priority over any considerations for human rights and anti-torture laws. Similarly, in the face of enemy threats, the soldiers did not regard their prisoners as vulnerable beings, but rather blood-thirsty, American-hating terrorists. As we learned from Butler, if we do not recognize someone as vulnerable, we dehumanize them and cannot grieve for them. When one of the soldiers physically assaulted a prisoner, he “wasn’t thinking about another human being-wasn’t worried about how he thought, if he was embarrassed” (Phillips, 63).
While I did sympathize with stories of innocent prisoners who were tortured by U.S. troops, I couldn’t help but feel a guilty satisfaction when reading about the story of Mohammed al Qahtani’s suffering. Qahtani, who would have been one of the hijackers in the 9/11 attacks if he wasn’t stopped by U.S. authorities in Florida, was sent to Guantanomo to be interrogated. They subjected him to intense isolation for three months and he “was tortured so badly that his heart rate droopped to thirty-five beats per minute-about half the average heart rate of a healthy adult” (Phillips, 70). Before finding out the identity of the prisoner, the story rattled me and provoked sympathy from me; it “shocked my conscience.”  Upon learning he was a would-be hijacker, I was satisfied with the cruel way they treated him and I can understand how a soldier could succumb to savage behavior. The 9/11 attacks hit home in such an intimate way that I feel disgust and hatred for anyone involved in the plot and because of that I ceased to regard them as human. Puar states,”the reaction of rage, while to some extent laudable, misses the point entirely-or perhaps more generously, upstages a denial of culpability” (Puar, 13).  Is it the human response to punish an inhumane act with inhumane torture? While Phillips focuses on physical pain inflicted on prisoners, Puar examines humiliation and sexual torture. As noted in class on Thursday, colonialism is always closely connected to power relations, owning, and rape. But, are these acts of rape and torture distinctly American or are they just the products of war mentality? Also, another question that I thought about when reading: Is there any way that we can justify torture? Both authors seem to suggest that there is no science that indicates torture works during interrogation. Moreover, the instances of torture that they cite suggest that U.S. torture has been cruel, misguided, and unforgiveable. If torture is an unacceptable part of the interrogation process, how are we to get information from suspected terrorists? Or, would you argue that these authors make a case not only against torture, but against war worldwide?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Complicity in Action: Our Passive Role

The readings for this week have made me seriously consider the questions I posed in my comment last week; namely, how have we (the greater American populace) created, or at least submitted to, a society which views torture as acceptable?

Before the gloves come off and the rage at confronting each of our personal complicity in this simple fact of American society, let me expand on my question. I do not doubt that the majority of our classmates believe that torture is wrong. But we are all living in a country where we benefit indirectly, and directly, from torture. We get oil for our cars, we get to feel safe knowing our army is out there fighting the terrorists, we get to buy our cheap consumer goods, we get to be happy. So whether or not we say we are okay with torture, our actions show that we are, actually, okay with it.

Phillips gave us some clues as to how this issue is being glossed over. He carefully lays out the idea, not in the main subject of his chapters, but along the way, that our government is legitimating torture. Moreover, who's really playing the terror card? 9/11 has lasting effects, but our government went out of their way to label Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and North Korea as members of an "Axis of Evil" (Phillips, 50). This terminology is a throwback to World War II, playing on historical fears from previous wars. The torture memos read for last class provide the paper trail of government officials laying the foundation for the legitimization of dehumanization. This use of semantics to sidestep actual ethical problems is also addressed when Nowlan and Benson made the distinction between "interrogation" and "tactical questioning," (Phillips, 60). The government plays on the public's fears, our fears, that we aren't safe, that another 9/11 could happen if we don't fight this war. Even better, were it not for the photos from Abu Ghraib, we wouldn't have see the effects of the war at all. In not directly addressing topics, the government sings us a sweet lullaby, encouraging up to look the other way, or if we do look, to not look to closely. We, the public, were, and are, afraid of terrorists attacking our homes. Phillips writes, "It turned out that senior government officials and low-ranking troops at Guantanamo had much in common. Everyone feared terrorist threats," (85). But our government took that fear and used it to sign off on torture, and assuming one guilty before proven innocent. That is what most goes against the US's honorable nature. The entire military hierarchy is in on torture, not just a few out of control, low-level foot soldiers.

In addition, our government is making this behavior legally acceptable. How can we show we're not okay with it?  In an ideal sense, maybe we could try getting involved in the politics, or at least voting for people who will take a stand against it. I usually like Obama, but his stance on Gitmo is unfortunate in that it continues the legacy of torture in a place that does not legally exist, on people who do not qualify as human. Phillips takes all of Chapter 4 to demonstrate that torture is not even an effective means of getting information from someone. So why does the military continue to do this?

Puar provided evidence, explaining "torture is neither antithetical nor external to the project of liberation; rather, it is part and parcel of the necessary machinery of the civilizing mission," (Puar, 15). This makes something like the Holocaust argument we discussed in class on Thursday, in addition to my CORE Modernity course. Normalized and sanctioned torture is not an aberration of modernity, but just the flip side of the coin. The symptoms of modernity include the high-handed goals of industrialization and progress, and with them come efficient  means of dehumanizing people. Puar's summary of the Orientalist effect on torture in Abu Ghraib, notes "[The] eroticization of enemy targets . . . triggers the objectification process," (Puar, 18). He then refers to Lynndie England's role in this as showing what can happen with gender equality. It's extra poignant because, the same way torture comes with modernity, can't women's growing power provide the opportunity for the abuse of that power? 

I don't have a clever segue, but here's the other thought that comes to mind when reading about the US fighting our noble wars abroad: Do we want to fight a real war on terror? Why don't we start with dismantling the KKK? They may not have hijacked a plane, but they are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. Would bringing the war home make us realize what actually goes into a war? instead of playing into the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality?

Also, on a related note, I was in CORE Middle East for my Communities and Identities course, and we watched a film called "Shocking and Awful" which further detailed bombings like Fallujah. If you feel ambitious, here's a link: It's sickening and saddening, and it's hard to keep seeing ourselves as the good guys in this equation.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Feb 14. A Soldiers Life.

In my opinion our class is really starting to come together with this weeks reading and radio shows. We've talked in class about how to view a picture, what responsibility that photographer has/doesn't have and who has the write to view these photos of people in distress. We had multiple reading to do for tomorrow's class, all of which get at extremely different yet similar points. Now is when I think the classes thoughts are going to takes some individuals turns.
I'll start with that radio podcast because it stood out to me because you were able to listen to it, hear it coming out of other people instead of reading it yourself. It was very eye opening to say the least. the first part was a segment of a movie entitled "will they know me back home?". It was about three soldiers coming back from war and the small segment that was played was talking about whether going home would be the same. The older man said they were nervous out of the service, that honestly hit me pretty hard. I then began to think, I can't even begin to comprehend the adjustment that these men and women make to fight in a war, but then later to come back home; if they are lucky enough. How do you turn that switch on and off? That question came up at perfect timing because then the radio show started to give actual account of people that went to war and what it was like to make those traditions from normal life to war and vice-versa. The letters from husband to wife were difficult to hear, you could hear in the letter their connection drifting apart. In war the see stress as an injury and will dismiss you but as a medical case. It's rough to hear these soldiers tell their stories and say that they had suicidal thoughts. What I took from this podcast was what does a war really do to a person? It changes you inside how?
Moving on to the Phillips' book chapter ones starts off bringing up some really wonderful questions. What does the uniform of a soldier mean? Why is their first priority to change clothing? We heard the same thing in the second half of the podcast. First thing these soldiers did when getting off the plane was change into normal civilian clothes. Why? Does not being seen as a soldier change what and who they are viewed as? Does it make them feel more at home? It goes on with this very heart touched story about this man named Adam Gray. He was an energetic full of life kid who went to war that way but came back a totally different man. That's where the question arises for me if you go to war are you being tortured yourself? In this book it mentions the post-traumatic stress disorders and how they are on a steady incline. Is fighting a war an automatic torture for both sides?
In my opinion trying to answer some of these question, one can never honestly know what it feels like to experience these things. I look at a soldier and I think wow that person is risking their lives to fight for our countries freedom. One thing I never really thought of, is the only way you can realize a person is in the service is by their clothing. Maybe that's the reason they want to get rid of their clothing as soon as they can, to be able to blend in without drawing attention. I have nothing for respect for them, but I never really have had to think about what it is that they are risking. Phillips almost go as so far as to say that it's not just that individuals life that is at stake, but all the people who are close the them and love them; parents, spouses, children, friends.


In think Phillips brought up some important questions in the opening pages of his book. Thus far, we have focused largely on photographs and their efficacy, or possible lack thereof, in preventing violence.  As Sontag concludes and as we discussed on Thursday, such excessive analysis of photographs creates distance and can be problematic in that people begin to obsess over the photographs themselves instead of acknowledging the actual content of the photographs, a far more challenging task. Photographs serve a function in so far as they can make things “real,” as Sontag discusses regarding the Bush administration and the photos of Abu Ghraib.  However, once photographs have brought such issues to light it is critical that we shift our focus from the photographs to the actual content they depict in order to make any sort of progress in understanding and preventing violence. 

Phillips asks the important question of why American soldiers turned to torture. Moreover, what causes soldiers to deem torture acceptable in the context of war?  In his introduction, Phillips briefly outlines various psychological studies that suggest that perfectly normal, moral human beings will engage in violent and abusive behavior under certain conditions.  This is exemplified in Phillips book and the This American Life episode, both of which elucidate the transformative effects of war on soldiers.  I also saw evidence of this in the Brody article when he discusses the labeling of Afghan prisoners as “enemy combatants” as opposed to soldiers, which one U.S. soldier expressed made him more comfortable with abusing detainees.  When I read this I couldn’t help but wonder why this distinction made a difference. What circumstances led this soldier to reason that torturing soldiers was morally wrong, but torturing enemy combatants was justified?  Phillips also briefly questions why torture is still permitted when most Americans oppose it and scientific evidence suggests that torture is a relatively ineffective means of obtaining information.  Thus, it seems that lower level soldiers turn to torture more as the result of psychological turmoil than as an attempt to advance a political agenda.

When looking to understand torture from a political perspective, as Brody argues, it is critical to acknowledge the structural causes that have led to the acceptance of the use of torture.  Criticizing the lower level individuals who actually carry out torture is relatively useless when we recognize this as a psychological phenomenon.  As Phillips suggests, many individuals can be moved to abusive and cruel actions under unimaginably stressful circumstances.  The real issue, then, is why individuals in higher positions of authority have approved such tactics.  This is particularly critical to question, as Sontag points out, when our entire justification for using torture in the first place is the prevention of similar acts being taken against the U.S.  It is difficult to declare to want to liberate Iraqis from oppressive situations when we ourselves our oppressing them.  In other words, how can we possibly expect other countries to take seriously our claims that we want to liberate them by establishing governance rooted in virtues that we clearly lack ourselves?

What Falls in the Frame: Torture Images

I think that the four assignments we had this week – the three readings and radio show – interact in very interesting ways. Due to our class discussion and focus on photography, gazes and framing in the past couple of weeks, it is impossible not to approach the topic of torture without our established “viewing” framework in mind.

Though none of the texts lay this out explicitly except maybe the Sontag article, torture is a form of objectification and the creation/performance of symbolism (as photography inevitably is as well) beyond the mere means to an end. Sontag went in depth into comparisons that highlight this fact, for example the thematic crossover between torture images and pornography. Although the example both she and Brody use, Abu Grahib, was captured on film, I think it is important to understand the symbolism and humiliation that would have been present even without a camera there to snap the picture.

I would take issue with one of the claims Sontag makes in her article in particular: she suggests that whereas photographs used to be collected as “trophies” to be stored, now they are “less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated.” I think that though she may be right about the difference in the impact of photographs, that “in our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren’t going to go away,” these images were still taken as trophies. And it is the very fact that such actions were considered by soldiers on the ground to be trophy-worthy that suggests the structural realities of the military (discussed in Phillips) that would lead soldiers to conduct and defend such practices.

Phillips’ argument leads us to understand that our lens of analysis is too narrow when attempting to understand the experiences and actions of American soldiers on the ground. He even mentions Abu Grahib in his introduction, saying that we hone in on this isolated incident and on the level of the individual soldier without adequately scrutinizing the system. This tendency, literally and figuratively, takes the government structure and the military higher-ups out of the chain of blame – it takes them out of our frame of analysis, shielding them as the eye of the camera and the public turns us elsewhere. Brody argues a similar claim, saying that “true accountability requires that those at higher levels who approved or tolerated crimes against detainees also be brought to justice.”

I think that our tendency to focus on the individual rather than the system is not one that emerged with photography, just as the collection of obscene trophies did not stop or start due to advancements in photography and the idea of justice in war cannot end with a “war on terror.” These ideas are all longer-standing, more permanent, but are molded in the present day based on the media we have access to. Perhaps this does nothing concrete to further my claim, but I found it fascinating how drawn inI was to the first chapter of Phillips and to “This American Life.” I found them interesting because they were the stories of individuals, they were relatable but distant from my being. Structures, systems and hierarchies, on the other hand, work largely invisibly but affect us all daily. This is a harder place to look, where the lens never falls. I’m just wondering, is there a way to get at this bigger picture through a lens pointed at the individual?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Lutz/Collins & Berger

The Lutz and Collins article does something very interesting by introducing this idea of an ‘intersection of gazes’ ultimately becoming the “root of a photo’s ambiguity, each gaze potentially suggesting a different way of viewing the scene” (105). We’ve been discussing how different interpretations/understandings can come from a photo but I don’t think we’ve explored how these different views interact with one another, either supporting or even negating ideologies within society. They state, “the power of the pictorial representation is that it can ease that anxiety (the realization of the gap between our ideal identity and the real)… photos of the ethnic other can help relieve the anxiety provoked by the ideal of the other’s gaze and estimation of us” (92-3). I feel that photography can create a bridge to the other while simultaneously creating a barrier of protection from considering the gaze that Other has upon us. It provides accessibility to the Other while maintaining a distance from them. 

These authors discuss the idea of the position of the spectator stating that this, in combination with the multiplicity of intersecting views, “allow viewers to negotiate a number of different identities for both themselves and those pictures” (91). With this comes an inherit position of power of the viewer, as they have the freedom of not only changing interpretation but also identities in contrast to that being photographed (or the Other), who is identified and understood not by their own identity but that imposed by the viewer. They speak on this notion of the mirror, but more specifically the camera, as “tools of self-reflection”(101). The camera provides the one being photographed to not only become self-aware or solidify self-identity and how others see them but also allows the individual to see his or her own self as the Other. I think it’s important to be conscious that the identity of the photographer and how they photograph an individual can help create and mold which facet of this self-identity is being captured and then perpetuated.

Berger’s article explores something a little different. When the author states, “how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated”(46) and then continues to explain how the actions of either gender are perceived and then labeled brought up a great point. I think this notion can be related back to this idea of identity, specifically the formation of the Other (one being viewed). Any thought or perception of who the women, or rather the Other, is based on what the viewer associates with them. Berger says “men act and women appear”(47) so again, applying it to a larger dynamic, the viewer (Westerner) acts and the Other appears. But I think this raises another point, that many times assume that the Other is not conscious that they are being watched and in some sense this solidifies the power dynamic between the photograph and the one being photographed. In the case we do acknowledge that they are aware they are being watched, the photograph provides this distance from owning up to what we're doing, viewing.

Although I understand the ideas and viewpoints of all these readers I still wonder, are reading too deeply into the photographer-person being photographed-viewer dynamic? Are the analytical tools of dissecting and understanding the power and purpose of the photo in fact adding to the confusion and apathy we tend to have towards images?

Power and the Gaze

    In the two text we had to read, one of the themes I saw emerge were that photographs have the potential to other. They often other those not in power, or not “like” the intended viewer. In “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes,” the authors explain how brown bodies, especially non-American bodies are constantly objectified, while, Berger focuses on the ways that women are subject to the same gaze and objectification. In addition to distancing “ourselves” from an “other,” photographs have the potential to show us how the other sees us, however Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins posit that the gaze of the other is often “manipulated... [to allow] us to see ourselves reflected in their eyes in ways that are comfortable, familiar and pleasurable” (p. 92). 
     This keeps us from critical reflection and evaluation of ourselves. However, photographs have the power to cause us to reconsider things that we have previously accepted. Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins sate that the “mirror and camera are tools of self-reflection and surveillance. Each creates a double of the self, a second figure who can be examined more closely than the original - a double that can also be alienated from the self - taken away, as a photograph can be, to another place” (p. 100). I found this statement especially interesting, but it made me wonder how often do we see ourselves in this way; when do we view things from a new perspective and step outside ourselves? How often do we see photographs that ask us to do so? Too often we remain in our comfort zone looking at pictures that reinforce our preconceived notions and don't challenge us, that are “comfortable, familiar and pleasurable.” Both of these articles seem to come back to the question of power dynamics, and how taking a picture allows the photographer to compose and aestheticize the picture in a way that influences the viewer’s perception. It seems that too often the subject of the photograph is left voiceless; their face and body appropriated to convey someone else's message. This results in a multitude of smiling faces looking out at you from national geographic covers that Lutz and described.

Surveyed and Surveyor

            For this Tuesday’s class, we engaged in two readings to further our understanding of photography (and the notion of looking or seeing).  These two readings have many overlapping points of view, as they discuss the multiple dynamics of a painting and/or photograph. 
            Lutz and Collins, in “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes”, focus on seven specific types of “looking”, of which they refer to as “gazes”, which vary depending on who is viewing the photograph.  Although each one of these “gazes” represents something different, similar questions can be raised after reading the descriptions for each “gaze”.  For example, do we look at photographs of others simply because we “desire to control or denigrate”?  Do we look at photographs of others because we want to distance ourselves from the subject in the photograph?  Or, do we look at a photograph to draw comparisons between the subject and ourselves (whether it makes us feel better or worse about ourselves and our current situation)?  In other words, are we always looking at a photograph to draw comparisons between the subject and ourselves?
            Lutz and Collins also suggest that history has allowed some people to look at photographs because they are “supposed to”, whereas others look “illicitly”.  I find this point fascinating, as it seems to follow history over time.  These authors might suggest that the Colonial white male has always been expected to look and gaze.  On the other hand, minorities such as women or people of color have been the subjects of the photographs.  If they intend to look, they must do so illicitly.  In summation, Lutz and Collins seem to suggest that photographs maintain power relations and reflect the hierarchy that exists during the time of the photograph.  Do you agree with this understanding?  Do you believe that photographs maintain or perpetuate a cycle of repression?
            John Berger, in his piece titled “Ways of Seeing”, depicts the possibilities of how one sees nude women throughout decades of art.  He constructs the idea that the social presence of a woman is quite different from that of a man, and therefore a photograph of a nude man suggests power and what he’s capable of, whereas a photograph of a nude woman suggests weakness and the acceptance of what can and cannot be done to her.  For a nude woman, this is portrayed in her facial expression, the pose of her body, or props incorporated into the photograph (such as a mirror).  “Men act and women appear”.  A photograph is for a man to look at it, and a woman to watch her being looked at.  Berger’s understanding of photography, specifically the relation between men and women, seems rather critical of both subjects involved in the “looking” or “gazing” process.  In a simplistic view, women are choosing to be exploited and men are choosing to exploit them.  I think this point is interesting, and I think that as a class we can dive into this point a bit deeper.  Due to the fact that we have grown up in a world of photography, and have been photographed our entire lives, do you think that you fit this mold?  Why do you take a photograph, and why are you the subject of a photograph?  What do you think photographs represent in the 21st century?