so my own words were gnawing at me …

In a new post for Reading the Pictures, Wendy Kozol and I reflected on the in/visibility of gendered and racialized trauma that structures the surveillance footage of Diamond Reynolds and her daughter in the back of a police car.   As we were exchanging drafts, Wendy and I noted that we were both feeling somewhat uneasy about the image archive on which we were relying.

I’ve long been concerned with questions of ethics in scholarship on visual culture, and tried a number of times to write  my way through them.  In particular, I’ve written about the ethics of reproducing and analyzing wartime atrocity or casualty photos, and argued against the perceived “right” or “duty” of academics to utilize such images in any way they see fit.  Such claims of ownership, I contend, instrumentalize the images and objectify the people within them.  I’ve never suggested that scholars shouldn’t research or publish about them (though I do think about how my own career, doing that very thing, depends in a remote but ineluctable way, on the misery of others).  But I’ve questioned the methods and assumptions underpinning those actions, and especially criticized the tendency to reproduce photos of people taken on (what I imagine to be) the worst days of their lives, without their consent.

So my own words were gnawing at me, then, as I worked through the video of Diamond Reynolds and her daughter, squinting at surveillance video of them on what was very likely the worst day of their lives.  Going second by second, artificially freezing the image, then reproducing single frames as grainy black-and-white stills … all these actions seemed to me like a kind of violence that could not be readily reduced to the categories of ‘epistemic’ or ‘representational.’  There was something deeply unsettling about the process of detaching the a single image from its accompanying audio, and from the moments that preceded and followed it.

surveillance banner

This situation different from that of the wartime atrocity photos that I’ve written about elsewhere, in that Reynolds herself apparently welcomed spectatorship of the video; her lawyer indicated that she felt strongly about enabling the public to witness this trauma. But I find myself conflicted, still, wondering about the role of the academic in that witnessing.  Wendy and I worked hard to historicize the video, and to consider the complexities that might attend its reception.  We wrote, in short, about all the factors–cultural, political, and visual–that might keep it from speaking for itself.  In the process, of course, of revealing the work that the image could have done or was kept from doing, we added another layer of mediation, in the paradoxical hope that it might somehow make the image appear more clearly.

“unremarkable suffering: banality, spectatorship, and war’s in/visbilities”

It’s shameless self-promotion time again!  Wendy Kozol and I just published an article in In/Visible War: The Culture of War in Twenty-First-Century America (Rutgers UP, 2017), edited by Jon Simons and John Louis Lucaites.  Our chapter, “Unremarkable Suffering: Banality, Spectatorship, and War’s In/Visibilities” is an extended reflection on a 2008 photography and video project by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, entitled “The Day Nobody Died.”  We describe “The Day Nobody Died ” as a “visual record of commonplace and seemingly unremarkable affective elements of soldiering that is  both exceedingly accurate and minimally precise.” Our analysis explores the revelatory potential latent in its ostensible ‘failure’ to capture the grisly truths of war.

invisible war


a similar complaint?

My efforts to manage the structural contradictions embedded in the daily practice of tenured associate professor-ing meet with varied success.  One of my perennial sources of professional frustration is the incompatibility between the three dimensions (research, teaching, service) of my job.  Pretty much everybody I know has a similar lament, so there’s no need to rehash the problem here.  Most of the time, this incompatibility is temporal or logistical, that scarcity of working hours relative to the vicious abundance of things that need doing which brings its own anxieties.   But I’m finding that this tension, for me at least, is also affective.  The three elements of my job are inefficiently discrete: none of them form a pair of birds that can be killed with one stone, and their demands on my time are mutually exclusive.  But the affective transit between them is dynamic, constant, and largely unpredictable.

The most obvious example of this is tiredness.  Usually, if I am worn out from teaching or grading or advising, that weariness translates also saps me of ambition to do my own work, or makes me resentful of my service responsibilities.  Sometimes, though, an enervating meeting or a frustrating class leaves me desperately motivated to seek out something interesting, and on the occasions when that isn’t Netflix or Elena Ferrante, it’s research.

All of those exchanges happen, straightforwardly enough, in a closed system (i.e., me), but get more complicated when other people enter the picture.  This complexity becomes most acute, I think, at the juncture of my research and my teaching.  And again – this isn’t simply a matter of spending too much time on the latter and not having enough for the former.  Instead, I’m curious about how the affects that attend these forms of labor travel, or don’t, between them.


I recently watched a short film called “Professor,” by Eli Daughdrill.  The eponymous professor is a middle-aged white man, described in the synopsis as “tenured,” “burned-out,” and a “failing writer.”  In the opening sequence, he checks both his email and his voicemail, and we watch as he is passed over by publishers, henpecked by a female administrator in voicemail, and pestered by students.  After a depressing pillage of the communal refrigerator, he returns to his office to find a student with a grade dispute waiting for him outside his office.  He makes his case for why she deserves to fail the course; she counters that she tried to do the work, and that she’s a single mother, and so (presumably) worthy of a special dispensation.  Ultimately (spoiler alert!), the professor decides to pass her, though we never learn his reasons.

The film nicely captures the pressures to capitulate to these kinds of petitions.  When resources of time and energy are scarce (and student course evaluations are looming), this path of least resistance is especially appealing.

It also suggests a structural affinity between student and professor that often goes, I think, overlooked: here, they are both unlucky and unsuccessful, believing themselves to be victimized by capricious systems of merit and reward.  The film does not adjudicate whether these portrayals are accurate, but rather emphasizes the consequences of feeling, or believing, that they are.  There’s something interesting about this.  Like many other professors that I know, I complain often that students misrecognize grades as things that I give rather than marks that they earn, and feel myself get prickly with indignation when they complain that I’ve graded them unfairly.  On the other hand, I’ve also been critical about the vicissitudes of the peer-review system in general, and found myself yowling about the nerve/arrogance/obstinacy/general dastardliness of many an anonymous reader of my own submitted work.  The possibility that my students and I are articulating a similar plaint leaves me very uneasy.

I believe that there are important differences between their gripes and mine (there, I feel better); of course, academic entitlement is a serious problem.   And for my part, I like to think that I deal pretty effectively with my own gripes.  But I also think that there are probably similar perceptions operative in each case.  So I wonder – in a way made more comfortable by the vantage of early summer –  whether the similarity of our feelings on the issue might provide the foundation for some kind of empathy, operative in both directions.  Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s possible in every instance, or what it would look like in practice.  But maybe it would make the work of grading, and being graded, a little less agonizing for everyone involved.



airports, once again

The wonderful people at the University of Massachusetts Press (who published my first book in 2014) recently asked me to write something for their blog about contemporary visualizations of American identity and terrorism.  I opted to write about airports, thinking through the key role that they have played in both the implementation of and protests against travel bans in recent months.  Airports figured centrally in my book, as loci for civilian acculturation to the rhythm
s and exigencies of the Global War on Terror and, thus, for the performance of new rituals of militarized citizenship.  And so I found it interesting that airports became sites of protest (and counter-protest) almost immediately after the announcement of the first Travel Ban, and were also transformed into sites of both grief and detention.

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