“Fictive Intimacies of Detention: Affect, Imagination, and Anger in Art from Guantánamo Bay”

I presented a shorter version of this paper at the Affect Theory: Worldings, Tensions, Futures conference in October 2015, and I’m just delighted that our panel organizer, Sarah Cefai, wants to include it in the special issue of Cultural Studies that she is editing.  

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, 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 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 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.  I begin the paper with a brief history of anti-detention activism, tracing its evolution into the present.  From there, I turn to an overview of theoretical work on affect emphasizing its relational quality.  These form the backdrop for my subsequent analyses of detainee artwork, specifically the collection Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak (University of Iowa Press, 2007) and the recent journalistic releases of paintings and drawings created during art classes at the detention center.  Instead of reading these artifacts as manifestations of detainee interiority, I look instead at how the individuals and institutions that circulate them promote the illusion that such interiority is visible within them, while filtering out any anger that might appear and thus inviting others to be righteously angry on behalf of the detainees.  Tracing these short-circuits of affect, I demonstrate that they obscure not only the unknowability of the detainees but also the destructive transformations wrought by detention itself.