February 4, 2015

Robert Hariman On ISIS and the Choice Not To Look

There’s an exception for everything, I suppose.  Today’s post is on a non-image, the image I refuse to see.  This is not an easy choice.  Once decided, it is not easy to do.

Let’s talk about the doing first.  The images are already in my head, as I’ve seen enough already, thank you.  They will continue to appear elsewhere as well.  The Google Image search for something else, the news story or documentary film on the region, an artwork, an academic paper. . . . one way or another, the ban will fail.  As perhaps it should.

The choice is choice regardless of how well implemented.  But why is it a hard choice?  There are plenty of reasons not to look.  Indeed, on this point both high-powered cultural critique and conventional norms of decorum overlap, albeit for different reasons.  A great deal of photography theory has been devoted to saying why one should not look, why the image insults those being displayed and degrades those looking at them.  More recently, some scholars and artists have pushed back: see, for example, The Cruel Radiance, by Susie Linfield, and Beautiful Suffering, edited by Mark Reinhardt et al.  Who is really being protected, they ask, by not looking, and why should the image become a scapegoat for real violence?

Frank Moller has provided an excellent analysis the dilemma, that is, of how it is both impossible to look and impossible not to look (“The Looking/Not Looking Dilemma,” Review of International Studies 35 [2009]: 781-794).  Regular readers will know that I have argued against the critique of photography’s supposed complicity with violence, and for the way that photojournalism offers a reflective encounter with the human condition, but I also have claimed that, as in classical tragedy, the most compelling and revealing images of violence and terror are rarely those of visceral horror.  Even so, I have no doubt that somehow my own moral sense and understanding of my country were fixed unalterably by seeing lynching photographs.  I may not need to look now, but I probably did need to look before.

So it is that the public needs to keep looking, even if that risks voyeurism.  And so it is that we need to look at other things instead, even though that risks denial.

Yesterday we learned that ISIS had burned a man alive.  I couldn’t bear to look at the video, and the other relevant news images weren’t able to address the horror, and so it seemed that posting today on any other photograph would make the photo, and the post, into kitsch.  As defined by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, kitsch “excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”  Kitsch is a technique for denying abjection, filth, cruelty, and other horrors, rather than facing them to overcome them.  Thus, not facing the execution seemed impossible, and yet I still couldn’t look.  So it is that I had to find a better way of not looking.

Burning a human being alive should be unacceptable to other humans, but it is not.  Those defending the action can rightly point out that humans are burned alive all the time by bombs, rockets, artillery shells, and other weapons in the modern arsenal being used against ISIS and anyone else caught in the cross-hairs of the modern nation-state.  But we knew that, and we see it from time to time, and it may matter that it wasn’t done for the camera.

ISIS isn’t merely the latest thing in the slaughter pen of history.  They are recreating a premodern way of seeing other human beings.  All you need to do is enter into their visual world of headless bodies, dismembered heads, bodies aflame, and other scenes of spectacular dehumanization, and very quickly a sickening–and surely for some, exhilarating–transvaluation of values begins to undermine every assumption of modern, liberal-democratic civil society.  At that point, looking really is dangerous–and far, far more so than photography’s critics had imagined–but for that reason perhaps all the more necessary.  If you are to pull back from the abyss, you first have to stare into it, while you still can.

So look.  Then turn away.  If you don’t need to look, I’m with you.  If you need to look, you don’t have to apologize.  Whatever you do, realize that the stakes are higher than had been imagined.  For the same reason, know that it becomes all the more important to understand why ISIS exists at all, and how to break the cycle of violence and the downward spiral that serves them all too well.  For that, we need many other images, and much more as well.  Not least, we need to appreciate how civilization is a way of seeing.

— Robert Hariman

(cross-posted from No Caption Needed.)

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Robert Hariman
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