The War In-Between
Because we’re both fascinated by wartime visual phenomena that are apparently unremarkable, uneventful, even boring—like images where nothing much seems to happen or spectators who find themselves unmoved by the sight of suffering—Wendy Kozol and I decided to write a book about them. This project is currently titled The War In-Between.
On October 27, 2014, a video of the British journalist John Cantlie “reporting” from Kobani, Syria appeared on YouTube. Utilizing the visual and narrative conventions of Western news reportage, he calmly broadcasts from atop a building overlooking the city. With sporadic gunfire in the background, he reflects on the month-long battle for control of the city between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a coalition of military forces including the United States, Kurdish and Syrian independence fighters. Amid the array of international media coverage of the wars in Syria and Iraq, this apparently routinized and formulaic video is distinguished by its star: Cantlie has been held hostage by Islamic militants since November 2012. Given this, the slickness of the video and simultaneous impenetrability of Cantlie’s reporting seems suspicious. Intuitively, we know that he must be suffering as a hostage, yet his performance is convincing and he betrays no apparent discomfort. Devoid of any signs of visible injury or physical trauma, and delivering a narrative without any apparent coercion, the video becomes scarcely comprehensible. The Cantlie video reminds us of the limitations of the gaze that seeks graphic and visible evidence of harm to verify wartime injury, and is also emblematic of the objects of analysis we focus on in The War In-Between.
Rather than trying to decode the video, sift from it a trace of evidence that would definitively explain Cantlie’s actions or demeanor, we look to it instead as a reminder of the limits of visual texts to represent and convey the knotted truths of militarized violence and their thoroughgoing inscrutability. Part of this inscrutability is emotional—without knowing what drove Cantlie to make this broadcast, we don’t know how to feel about it. Moreover, the speculation that the video provoked underscores how epistemologically dependent visual cultures of militarized violence are on signs of spectacular injury.
And so, we wonder: what if looking at images can never give us access to the terrors experienced by their victims, or the reasons for Cantlie’s appearance in the video? What if we query the politics of compassion only to find that “we” can never “know” much less empathize with the experiences of the visual subjects we observe? What if the subjects of these images do not need, or want, our empathy? What is the purpose of our looking? This book is our attempt to grapple with the critically vertiginous feeling of confronting these questions about affect, visuality, and the politics of spectatorship.
The War-Between examines “in-between” images that visualize cataclysmic yet undramatic moments when everyday living collides with war, images that evoke a range of complex and sometimes contradictory emotional responses from viewers. Rather than casting images that do not provide graphic records of war as failures, we argue that such “in-between” images collectively pose a valuable dilemma for viewers expecting visual media to depict spectacularized forms of suffering. We take as our objects of inquiry visual artifacts that operate in contradistinction to traditional documentary strategies reliant on visceral scenes and emotional intensities to mobilize viewers’ sentiments.
Our argument hinges on two twinned, and troubling, premises – or, more precisely, is an experiment with what kinds of visual culture scholarship are possible when we begin from contentions that:
- Others who are suffering before the camera do not truly need our spectatorial recognition;
- There is an ineluctably asymptotic relationship between militarized violence and the visual artifacts that endeavor or purport to document it.
To concede these points—or even to seriously entertain them—is to abandon the motive forces that underlie nearly all critical scholarship on visual cultures of war, which is predicated on claims about the importance of spectatorial responsiveness and the importance of the search for better or truer representations of war. We begin, then, from a place of conceptual incapacity, but also methodological unboundedness.