ASA 2018: “An Asymptotic Approach to Visualizing War”

repatriationI’m very happy to be presenting with Wendy Kozol at this year’s meeting of the American Studies Association.  Our paper, “An Asymptotic Approach to Visualizing War,” reflects on The Day Nobody Died, a project by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, to propose a radical reconsideration of the politics of spectatorship, representation, and indexicality in conditions of saturation violence.

We’re presenting as part of a panel that we organized, entitled “Secrecy, Transparency, and Power: Visual Methodologies for States of Emergency,” which includes Keith Feldman, Anjali Nath, and Carrie Rentschler.

i wonder what it’s like to love your job …

… To say this is not to make a passive-aggressive complaint about mine (it is summer, after all).  Rather, to say this is to query the nature of the experience being conjured when people say “I love my job.”

Miya Tokumitsu offers a brilliant takedown of the “do what you love” mantra that seems to define the emotional imperative of neoliberal capitalism, particularly for creatives and knowledge-workers.  The problem with this formulation, she writes, is that it begets “the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate  — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.” The do-what-you-love model banishes menial-seeming work to the realm of the unloveable, taking certain types of workers along with it and compounding their chronic undervaluation.

Clearly, unequivocally, academics do not suffer in this way, even as we are carried along by the same current.  For those of us, like academics, who ‘get’ to do work that we (are expected to) love, devaluation takes place at the intersection of the two economies –material and affective — in which we labor.  Even as the kind of work that we do is idealized as culturally meaningful and personally fulfilling and hence infused with affective worth, our actual compensation often lags.  For academics, traffic in the currency of love is especially vexed, because so much of our labor is free, or virtually  free (Exhibit A: your last royalties check).  Loving what you do becomes compensation for this, and also for being regarded with derision in an anti-intellectual culture, for the ambivalence of our students, for the bureaucratic insults of the neoliberal university.  For all these reasons, I think Marc Bousquet’s “We Work” should be first-day-of-Ph.D-program required reading for everyone.

However, I want to ask a slightly different set of questions, about the actual dynamic that a person might be referring to when she claims to love her academic job.  But first, a quick detour through postcolonial theory.  In “In Terror, In Love, Out of Time,” Asma Abbas reflects on the ways that love becomes a vector for fear because it attaches us to things that might become objects of terrorism or violence, as the most devastating forms of either target our beloved objects.  Obviously, I’m writing about a radically different context, but I think Abbas’s work is helpful as a reminder of how loving something exposes us to various kinds of predations.  (Lauren Berlant’s Desire/Love might also be useful here.)  Loving one’s job — or one’s anything, really — too much is dangerous because it leaves us vulnerable to extrinsic and intrinsic forces.

To love something is to create a soft target for another entity that seeks to do you harm.  It is also to open yourself up to an internal undoing.  This is because love, fundamentally, is intersubjective.  It necessarily involves another being, some kind of interaction, even if that interaction is only imaginary or wished-for, and that interaction rewrites us, for better or worse.

But if one loves her job, who or what is the object of the feeling?  To what, precisely, is this affection being directed?  What is the implied or imagined object when one expresses her love for an academic job?  One’s students?  The act of teaching?  Colleagues?  One’s institution?  Its administration?  The pursuit of knowledge? Some vague notion of the academic enterprise?  How the work makes you feel?  The attachment to each of these objects brings its own kinds of risks, some perhaps more readily apparent than others.  For example, love for one’s colleagues risks mystifying our shared context of labor and the competition (financial and otherwise) that it fosters or rewards, and even the most well-intentioned or benevolent of institutions are mechanisms of subject-formation that operate as easily by consent as coercion.

But I think the most dangerous might be the love of how the work makes you feel.   In any of the other instances, it is possible — if logistically difficult — to detach.  We can attempt to change jobs, renegotiate our positions, coast on tenure, invest less in teaching, etc.  But to disconnect from a feeling is far more difficult.  Even as loving one’s job with this kind of meta-feeling might increase, at least temporarily, the amount or intensity of the pleasure we can derive from our work, it opens us up to new kinds of exploitations and injuries.  We work all the time to chase, restore, or preserve that feeling, toggling between frustration when we cannot access it and greed for more when we can.

The danger of loving one’s work becomes most acute in the breach.  Personally, the the loss of love for my work often functions paradoxically to make me want to work more, as I am always certain that the next project, or the next, or the next will be the one to reinvigorate it.  So I am perpetually overcommitted and at least a little worn out or disenchanted, but still saying “yes” because some part of me reasons that working more will make me love working more.

And to the extent that I’m not alone in this pattern (and my anecdotal evidence suggests that I am not), this matters because it shows how love, and the pursuit of it, works to serve the institution’s best interest.  In the moments when we see or experience our work as something less than loveable, the illusion threatens to break, to reveal work for what it is, and all it ever was: work.  And theoretically, that revelation should make us want to work less, to take some time off for not-work.  But instead, reverses that dynamic and draws us back in more deeply, encourages us to work harder despite our circumstances being unchanged.  Of course, when we love another person, there are often very good reasons to resist the temptation to walk when they seem unloveable.  But this is not that.

Just as we can be good, or kind, to people that we do not love, I want to find an affective orientation to my work that enables me to do it thoughtfully, conscientiously, and well without ever loving it again.



visualizing the middle east as a place where other things are possible

Just yesterday, I was teaching, albeit somewhat elliptically, about the value of of images that provide a clearer view of others’ suffering than that which Western newsmedia usually affords.  In the context of my objectives for the class (like illuminating differential allocations of visibility and attention to certain kinds of suffering), this approach made sense.  But even this fuller truth is ultimately partial, perhaps even damaging, if it is all we can see.

As it happens, just a few days before I was teaching about the importance of seeing suffering, Wendy Kozol and I published a new piece in Reading the Pictures about the importance of images that expressly do not show suffering, even (or especially) in places where it is also endemic. habjouqa Specifically, we wrote about the urgency of looking at Everyday Middle East in the midst of a news cycle otherwise dominated by chemical attacks in Syria, civilian casualties in Yemen, and murderous repression of protest in Gaza.  Against the photojournalistic fascination with images of desperation, violence, and catastrophe, the photographs featured in Everyday Middle East, like this one by Tanya Habjouqa , insistently visualize the Middle East as place where life is valued, nurtured, and sustained rather than taken, ended, or degraded.

lying fallow

The end of last year and the beginning of this one was a less-than-stellar season, workwise.  Nothing went wrong, exactly … but neither did much of anything go right.  Or to be more precise: neither did anything go much of anywhere at all.   I maintained what needed maintenance (sometimes late or barely), attended to things I had already committed to do, but I didn’t make much forward progress beyond that.  At first, I narrated it as “Holiday Slacker Mode” – the semester was over, my time off had barely begun, and I made a choice to be a normal human person and spend time, laptop-less and out of range, with family over the holidays.  Then I missed my friends and also wanted to invest a little more energy in the forgotten daily pleasures of my life.  Then I was out of town.  Then I got a cold.  Then personal upheaval.  Then picking up the pieces, stitching them back together in to the shape of something functional.  All the while I was insisting that today, tomorrow, next week would mark the beginning of a new and refocused season of productivity.  Then the semester started and all I could see was everything I hadn’t done.   I have the sense that I’m starting to find my footing again but also that this re-establishment of order is tenuous.

Unsurprisingly, I have been fretting about my lull in productivity.  It’s okay, the supportive voices reassured me: you just needed a break, you have totally earned a break, so you took a break.  But that doesn’t seem quite right – it feels much more like a break took me.  Absent the initial intention to take, to give myself, such a break, the time “off” (which was really not “off” for very long at all) instead provokes a different set of stresses, and, in turn, digs me in more deeply to the whole mess.

A good friend who hails from a wide-open state in our Midwest reminded me about the necessity of letting fields lie fallow, and that helped for sure, though on reflection I wondered what my position is in that metaphor: am I the field, left to recover after seasons of taxing production, or the farmer who makes the decision to leave the land alone?

My inability to answer that question underscores the thoughtlessness in my approach to this period of rest, or whatever it has been (for the record, I don’t really feel rested).  I was intentional about my time at the outset but progressively less so as the weeks passed.  At first it was a deliberate decision to turn (mostly) away from work and be present, and that did feel recuperative.  But over time I lost control of it and whatever rest I could find seemed less of a decision and more a capitulation.

The point of all this, as part of my ongoing reflection about academic labor and how we might maintain more humane existences while we toil at it, is that I think we might need to think, and speak, more precisely about the kinds of breaks we take from work.  There are obvious kinds of breaks: the scheduled vacation, the holiday (of course, the fact that they are ‘obvious’ does not mean that they are easy to take).  There are the compulsory breaks engendered by illness, the unexpected ones demanded by emergencies.  There are lucky breaks like snow days.  But not all breaks are so readily identifiable.

Academic work is often defined by its unboundedness: temporal (because theoretically we could work all the time), spatial (because we are potentially always accessible and so much of our work is portable), and experiential (because it can be so difficult to determine where thinking for/about work ends and regular thinking begins).  This means the edges of our breaks can be amorphous too.  What if we “only” read, but do not respond to, email while on vacation?  At what point on the weekend do we start thinking about, or preparing for, the week ahead?  How much of summer is given over to recovering or digging out from the preceding academic year?  In these moments, we’re not working, but we’re not not-working either.

Doubtless, some people are quite content to have work and not-work bleed together.  I’m finally able to admit that, at this point in my life, and my career, I am not one of those people; the phrase “working vacation” makes feel a little cold and sad inside.  Beyond my own personal reservations, I believe vagueness about whether we are or are not working (and why we are or are not working) at a given moment engenders a range of problems: political, economic, ideological.  This murkiness also makes it virtually impossible to recognize when we need, for whatever reason, to be unequivocally not-working, until something gives and we are forced to give in.



witnessing chemical warfare in the digital age (presentation at SCMS)

What value do atrocity photographs carry in the digital age?  The ongoing, intractable war in Syria has generated an immense but largely ineffectual visual archive of suffering, rendering this question urgent but almost unanswerable.  New horrors unfold, new images rocket around the world, audiences insist that this photo, this time, will really make a difference, but nothing changes.

This afternoon, at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, Wendy Kozol and I will be presenting a paper, “Inscrutable Evidence: Witnessing Chemical Warfare in the Digital Age,” that provides an alternative to this strangely optimistic approach to casualty images.

poison hazard

because, really, who wouldn’t want to re-conceptualize cultures of remote warfare?


I am beyond thrilled to report that the Journal of War & Culture Studies has recently published the special issue that I co-edited with David Kieran.  What began as a hallway conversation at ASA a few years ago has finally become a real thing!  Dave and I began from the premise that it’s time for new ways of thinking about remote warfare.  Concerned that the hypervisibility of drones and the seemingly intractable debates that they prompt was foreclosing other kinds of critical conversations about war-at-a-distance, we wanted to facilite a different kind of conversation.

Organized around the theme “Re-conceptualizing Cultures of Remote Warfare,” the articles we included articles showcase the need to re-conceptualize cultures of remote warfare and the potential that innovative approaches, archives, and methodologies hold for doing so.

The special issue begins with David M. Walker’s ‘American Military Culture and the Strategic Seduction of Remote Warfare.’Walker asserts that the current embrace of aerial warfare, as recently emblematized by drones, is not new. Rather, Walker documents myriad ways in which ‘technological determinism’ has been bred into the US military since its origins.

The next article, Fabio Cristiano’s ‘From Simulation to Simulacra of War: Game Scenarios in Cyberwar Exercises,’ reveals how contemporary warfare belies the orderly arrangements that these early architects of US military policy envisioned. Although the practice, as Cristiano notes, of gaming out war is nearly as old as warfare itself, the looming spectre of cyberwar has radically reconfigured the stakes of such experimentations.

Finally, Daniel Grinberg’s ‘Tracing Toxic Legacies: GIS and the Dispersed Violence of Agent Orange’ considers how geographic information systems (GIS) technology can make visible the enduring impact of the United States’ use of herbicides during the Second Indochina War. While the war games that Cristiano considers represent attempts to gain strategic advantage in this new form of remote warfare, the GIS technologies that Grinberg explores allow for a more complete reckoning with what he terms the ‘dispersed violence’ of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Thanks to Dave, our authors, our peer reviewers, the amazing editorial staff at JW&CS, especially Rachel Woodward, for her keen eye, expertise, and superhuman patience.


art therapy for indefinite detention

artworksCultural 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.

The abstract:

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.

what would 330 suicide car bombings look like?

Figure 1

Earlier this month, Critical Studies in Media Communication published my article on ISIS and infographic visual practice.

The article is part of a special issue, edited by the Mehdi Semati and Piotr M. Szpunar entitled “ISIS Beyond the Spectacle: Communication Media, Networked Publics, Terrorism.”  I was eager to contribute not only because Mehdi and Piotr sent me a very flattering invitation, but also because their project coheres with my methodological commitment to looking past the most obvious visual artifacts and practices of militarized violence.

Here is the abstract:

Compared to the more spectacular elements of its media repertoire—the slick recruitment campaigns on social media, the artfully composed battlefield footage, the grisly executions—I.S.I.S.’s infographics may seem dull, even trivial. Indeed, these data visualizations have gone largely unremarked, eliciting more bemusement than serious consideration. Against the tendency to discount these images, however, I argue that when I.S.I.S. turns toward charts and diagrams to represent its operations, it launches a stealthy but substantial epistemological challenge to media outlets that depict it as backward and irrational and rely on command of information as an index of Western power. Comparing infographics produced about I.S.I.S. and those produced by the group, I demonstrate that, despite their obvious differences, both types of infographics evince common preoccupations. Like Western news sources, I.S.I.S. creates infographics to map attacks, plot territorial gains, tally and categorize casualties, and track the types of weapons deployed. News media and I.S.I.S. infographics diverge primarily in their affective resonance, as similar information signifies in radically different ways. Ultimately, by producing and circulating these infographics, I.S.I.S. renders simultaneously renders itself more and less intelligible to outsiders: encapsulating its story while confounding prevailing representations as it weaponizes information.


the limits of style

New year, new post in Reading the Pictures – this time about a New York Times ‘Style’ section feature on fashion in South Sudan.  The images, I think, dramatize the necessity of seeing victims of militarized violence as more than victims of militarized violence; at the same time, they highlight the dilemma inherent in photos of survival, namely that they might license us to overlook suffering.