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.

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.



empathy and the “even worse” in another photo from syria

Just over a month ago, it happened again.  Another picture of a suffering Syrian child and another chorus of certainty that this picture would be the one to awaken the global consciousness, heretofore lacking, necessary to end this intractable, sprawling conflict.

Despite knowing better, I wondered if the teary-eyed optimists were right.  But at the time, busy busy, all I could do was affix a little sticky note to the inside of my planner, as a reminder to post something soonimg_1794.

Of course, many other observers beat me to it, including the newsmedia itself, which shifted into meta-commentary almost immediately, attending far more to the viral circulation of the video and extracted stills of Omran than the story of the airstrike in which he was injured and his home destroyed.  Deviating from the conventional wisdom that graphic images of casualties (especially children) elicit more sympathy from viewers, an article in the New York Times surmises instead that “it may be the relatively familiar look of Omran’s distress that allows a broader public to relate to it.”  Accordingly, it published an curated collection of readers’ responses to the photos.  And it also provided an excursus on its decision to feature this particular photo so prominently, given the steady stream of ostensibly similar images begotten by this conflict.  Ultimately, its explanation of the image’s power is essentially tautological:

One reason the photo of Omran has tugged at so many heartstrings around the world is that the boy — with his innocent stare, just to the side of the camera’s lens — triggers in many a sometimes hard-to-come-by emotion in today’s world: empathy.

The author goes on to explain that this image is ideal for social media: gritty enough to be moving but not so much as to be off-putting.

Other news outlets make a comparison that would have been unthinkable a year ago, intimating that this photo might be more powerful than those of Alan Kurdi.  A commentary published in The Independent describes this new image as “even worse” than the photos of Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach.  But of course, when Kurdi’s photo went viral last fall, observers endowed it with a similar comparative advantage.  At the time, it seemed that this photo would succeed where previous representations of the migrant crisis – like the truck abandoned on the side of an Austrian highway with the bodies of 58 migrants decomposing inside – had failed to elicit widespread compassion.

Daqneesh became the new affective frontrunner, for as long as it lasted.

Even if viewers were legitimately, verifiably moved by the site of Daqneesh’s body, feelings are fickle, and already, there is competition.  Not from any of the countless, and largely unnamed, children featured in the grim litany of new photos from Syria, Aleppo in particular, but instead from a 6-year-old American boy named Alex, who wrote President Obama a letter in which he offered Daqneesh a place in his New York home.  Now, the top results from a Google News search for “Omran Daqneesh” belong to this quixotic show of hospitality. (I’ll write more about this, and its connection to affective criteria for American exceptionalism, soon.)

Since then, the ceasefire has collapsed and the Syrian government, backed by its Russian allies, has reintensified its aerial bombardments of rebel-held territories.  According to one estimate, 192 Syrian children died in September.

Meanwhile, spectators continued to refine their emotional appetites, while the organizations that feed them insisted that any image powerful enough to gratify them would surely work geopolitical magic at the same time.



homes away from home

Home is where you make it, I guess? (The Goldfish Market in Kowloon)

Recently, it occurred to me that, to the (very limited*) extent that I believe in human goodness, I have encountered it most when I am traveling, especially when I am traveling abroad.  Whether in the form of serendipitous connections with other visitors who are following similar itineraries or the helpful local who comes to my aid as I am puzzling over a public transit map, most of my trips have been animated-and occasionally saved from ruin-by the kindness of strangers.  Of course, it hasn’t all been roses (thinking here of the guy in the Old City of Jerusalem who tried, in the span of about seven minutes, both to steal my wallet and persuade me to marry him in exchange for a whole heap of shekels).  And I’m sure I’ve given offense innumerable times through bumbling ignorance.

But in reflecting on my best experiences, and struggling to categorize the wash of feelings they elicit (relief, gratitude, even joy), I’m beginning to wonder if they provide a tiny peek into what it feels like to receive hospitality, which I’ve been thinking about more intently for the last few months, particularly because it figures in this paper I’m hashing out.

Drawing extensively from Judeo-Christian traditions of kindness to strangers and the imperative to share one’s home and resources with them, as well as a Kantian approach to cosmopolitanism rooted in the finite roundness of the earth, hospitality is an openness to others that forms the core of any ethics of responsiveness to them.  (Derrida contends that the notion of an ‘ethic of hospitality’ is redundant to the point of being “tautologous.”[i])  Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou argue that “The ethics and politics of hospitality … require, dispossession: the dispossession of the home … and the dispossession of the owner’s identity as master of the home.”[ii]  Hospitality is, in short, a radical willingness to share my stuff with strangers.

On the other side, a need for hospitality is a vulnerability rooted in placelessness: a need for somewhere to sleep, something to eat, someone to be kind when I am displaced from my usual circuits for accessing those things.  Of course, I have only encountered these needs in small, temporary, and privileged ways as a volitional traveler.  I don’t / can’t know how desperation would change the experience of receiving hospitality, whether it would amplify or subsume the positive feelings that such shows of generosity or compassion elicit.  And despite hospitality’s fundamental orientation toward otherness, we don’t hear much in the scholarship from the others at whom hospitality is directed. Even in the original parable of the Good Samaritan, which provides a fundamental template for hospitality, we don’t hear anything at all from the man who receives his help.

Of course, I’m not sure what value or effect such knowledge would have.  And it’s possible that the pleasure that we might derive from the knowledge that our hospitality made someone else feel better, profoundly and elementally, might incentivize (and thus undermine) hospitality by making its exercise self-interested.  On the other hand, perhaps a lack of curiosity about how hospitality feels to its beneficiaries evinces a lack of concern with them, or an expectation that they will be happy for whatever they get.

For my part,  my micro-experiences of hospitality have heightened my appreciation of its stakes, the outsized impact that even a small expression of generosity can have.  I find it bewildering when someone, particularly a stranger, is kinder to me than they have to be. And maybe that astonishment is a merciful wage of the precariousness of finding oneself far from home.

*With apologies to my yoga teachers for my recalcitrance on this front … it’s not you, it’s me.

[i] Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (New York: Routledge, 2002), 16.

[ii] Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, “Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 161.