figuring violence

Figuring Violence: Affect, Imagination, and Contemporary American Militarism

My next book!  Under contract with Fordham University Press!  

“Stand here and look as long as you like.  They can’t see you.”  ‘Here’ was a designated spot on an uncannily clean concrete floor, before a large pane of one-way glass slotted into a painted cinder block wall.  ‘They’ were a group of detainees finishing up their art class, a dozen or so men in jumpsuits, setting aside their drawing projects and tidying up their supplies in preparation for midday prayer time.  And the promise that I could see them surreptitiously and at my leisure was guaranteed by the rather rudimentary technology of the facility (a corridor outside a recreation area for compliant detainees at Guantánamo Bay).  Superficially, this little mediated encounter was a surveilling one.  But not only.

I couldn’t help but see the men before me.  Looking intentionally at them seemed to constitute a violation, though it struck me as likely that, even if they could not know exactly when some outsider was watching them, they would be aware of the possibility of such an audience, and I wondered if their apparent indifference to the large reflective surface on their wall was studied and deliberate, rather than genuine.  At the same time, my inability to see what they were sketching seemed not only a happenstance of my vantage but also a metaphor for the ways that these visual systems occlude the subjectivities of the people they identify as enemies.

Rather than a truly illuminating look at the detainees (even if I had wanted one), this encounter offered me instead the shadowy experience of having seen them, and a place from which to imagine, credibly, that I had acquired meaningful information about them in the process.  Although I moved on quickly from the detainee viewing area that afternoon, this book marks something of a return, an extended reconsideration of the promise that the guards made to me there.  Materially enacted on both surfaces of the one-way mirror, that promise was fundamentally made and fulfilled also by the various structures that apportion visibility and power, coordinating the limitations and capacities of our sight as they linked us all, in disparate ways, to the state. 

Figuring Violence is a book about imagination and affect in wartime, the beings around whom they converge, upon whom they settle.  It explores the intersections of fantasy, violence, and sentimentality as they coalesce around certain militarized bodies.  In the process of this coalescence, these bodies are abstracted into figures that appear not as political subjects but as receptacles for affect and imagination.  The most troubling paradox of this figuration is that it affords affective and imaginative visibility at the cost of eclipsing the actual beings upon whom those figures are patterned.

The figures in this book have in common their status as objects of intense emotional and discursive investment but also as political subjects that are partially or fully unknowable.  They are arranged in order of decreasing knowability—children, military spouses, veterans with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, detained enemy combatants, and dogs—a continuum that also corresponds to a decreasing number and complexity of affects surrounding them.  Each of the figures I discuss is an anchor point for these affects, starting with the affection, admiration, pity, gratitude, and anger operative around children affected by war; as we move along the continuum into successively less knowable figures, affective layers drop off, leaving anger at the case of a puppy killed (and filmed) by two U.S. Marines.  The book thus provides not only a catalog of these figures and the emotions that comprise our fictive intimacies with them, but also a study of how affects circulate in wartime, carried along by deeply political fantasies.  Each chapter is followed by a reflective interlude (called “apertures”) that poses the critical—if potentially unanswerable—questions that arise at the limits of our fantasies about the figure in question.  Like the aperture of a camera (the small opening through which light passes and exposes the film), these writings aim to capture that which might otherwise be invisible in the discourses surrounding these beings.

As the Global War on Terror spills into its thirteenth year and onto new territories, always moving toward a horizon that recedes almost as quickly as it appears, this book offers a fresh consideration of the bodies that populate its discursive landscape and the affects that animate it.  Much of the scholarship on recognition of and ethical responsiveness to others during wartime is predicated on the notion that attention, care, or empathy are remedies for disinvestment—affective or otherwise—in marginalized bodies.  But for the figures I study, this is not the case, because recognition itself has been militarized.   Figuring Violence explores the role of imagination in constructing them as repositories for feelings like affection, admiration, pity, gratitude, and anger and the profoundly problematic consequences of these imaginings: the development of a shallow ethics in response to their suffering, the erasure of their political subjectivities and, ultimately, propagation of the very militarism that begets their victimization.