… which is not to say that opacity is better …

Just published a short piece in The Conversation about transparency, spectatorship, and the detainee photos released by the DoD two weeks ago.


It’s a little uncomfortable to critique transparency, especially because I think the argument is so easily misread as a defense of secrecy or tacit endorsement of the conduct being pictured.  But part of the problem with the discourse of transparency is that it equates the act of exposure with the work of protest, so that arguments against exposure start to look like advocacy for what is being exposed.  From my perspective, the most urgent task is to find an alternate path toward accountability, one that detours widely around the question of what is happening ‘in our names.’  The difficulty of thinking about accountability in the absence of transparency reveals the extent to which the framework of transparency has itself become hegemonic.

apparently even the pentagon needs a snow day

There should have been a story today about new photos of prisoner abuse by the U.S. military.  This should have been the denouement – albeit partial, as apparently there were over 2000 photos in question – to a legal fight between the ACLU and the Department of Defense that started in 2004.  Today should have been the day that the Department of Defense finished ‘processing’ the photos and released them.

But (blame it on Jonas) not.

The American media is apparently not super interested in this latest chapter of the long, long story about torture photos.  I learned about the impending release yesterday on Al Jazeera.  The longest story, and most durable link, I could find was on Russia Today.  There was a quick mention, since disappeared, was on Yahoo! News.  So I’ve been depending on Jameel Jaffer’s Twitter feed for updates.  And the latest is that the DoD needs more time, because of the snow.


I can understand the ACLU’s exasperation.  I get the argument about transparency.  A court order is a court order, and to the extent that we all benefit when the DoD follows the law, there are reasons to demand timely compliance.

For my part, however, I don’t see much reason to be enthused about the release of these new photos, and the victory for the crusading forces of transparency that they seem to represent.  Not because I agree with the President’s contention that the photos should be kept secret because they pose a danger to American military personnel.  I am not in a position to assess the accuracy of that prediction.

I have a different objection: to the veneration of ‘transparency’ and the implication that it serves as a meaningful, and harmless, redress for the people whose abuse will be made public in these photos, and for the fact of the abuse itself.  I’ve argued elsewhere that the mandate of transparency in the Global War on Terror often settles on the bodies of the most vulnerable.  When the government complies, whether begrudgingly or voluntarily, with a call to be more transparent about its detention and interrogation practice, the result is often hypervisibility of the detainees themselves, on terms set once again by the state that holds them captive.

Whether or not the DoD is being ingenuous in its explanation for the cause of this delay, this workweek will end without any new photos for us to gawp at.  It’s a tiny, and not catastrophic, encounter with the recalcitrant temporality of the state, a feeling with which its detainees are presumably quite familiar.

Maybe the interim affords some time to mull over the complex ethics of transparency, the claims of entitlement upon which it rests, its limitations, and its costs.