Cultural Studies recently published a special issue on the theme of “Mediating Affect” (edited by Sarah Cefai). I’m so pleased to be a part of it with my article, “Fictive Intimacies of Detention: Affect, Imagination and Anger in Art from Guantánamo Bay.” This project is, essentially, a critique of the fetishization of detainee cultural production, on the grounds that it frequently shades into a minimization of the harms of detention and depends on the occlusion of detainee political subjectivity.
For many American critics of the ongoing war on terror, the detainees held at places like Guantánamo Bay function as objects of intense affective investment,generating anger, sympathy, or pity. But with very few exceptions, the people who experience such feelings for the detainees will never meet them. Kept unbridgeably distant from outsiders, these detainees embody political subjectivities that are unknowable (and perhaps unthinkable) to the people inspired to outrage by their circumstances. In this paper, I query the role of mediation in sustaining these lopsided affective connections, which depend on imagining the detainees: who they are, what they want, and how they feel. This imagination has lately been facilitated by access to artistic productions by the detainees, their writings, and visual art; I argue that these objects provide outsiders with a tantalizing but fictive experience of intimacy with their creators. Heavily promoted and explicitly framed as windows on detainee interiority, these works are generally circulated without any explanation from the detainees themselves, as if their meaning is self-evident and their emotional content is transparently expressive. Yet, the anger of the detainees cannot fully appear in any of these displays, and this occlusion enables the art to function as a conduit for affective investments in the detainees. Most descriptions of affect emphasize its essential intersubjectivity, the ways it spreads, catches, and circulates between bodies, but the desired affective linkage in this case is predicated on, and perhaps animated by, the inaccessibility of the other bodies involved. The imagination required to sustain it, I suggest, depends on the construction of the detainees as passive and apolitical, with their artistic productions as supporting evidence.