POST #12 :: The Arms of the Chancellery

UC Davis, November 18, 2011. Photograph courtesy of Louise Macabitas.

One of the most infamous images to emerge from the nightmarish abattoir of Abu Ghraib is the photograph of the hooded prisoner standing atop a cardboard box, wired and displayed, his arms outstretched in a position of faceless submission. But there is a somewhat less iconic image from those same moments. It shows the same humiliated prisoner, standing atop the same box, his body splayed in much the same position of supplication, but in the far right of the picture frame we see just a bit of one of the U. S. soldiers in profile (belt, watch, wedding band), his body perpendicular to that of the prisoner whose picture he’s taken. In this photograph, which is in its own way even more harrowing than the image of the prisoner standing alone, we see the soldier gazing at other photographs of the same scenes on the digital camera that he clutches near his chest. As with Velásquez, who positions the back of the massive artist’s canvas in Las Meninas so as to deny us a direct glimpse of the painting itself while indicating elsewhere what that canvas will contain, the photograph of the prisoner and one of his photographer-captors denies us (with far less artistry, but much more truth) the exact view of the tiny screen that the soldier beholds, and yet indicates elsewhere in the image just what it is that so fascinates him there. Not the least among these is the imagined distance between himself and the tortured man standing terrified just a few feet from him.

In a sense, we’re seeing the soldier regarding a minor variation of the picture that he himself inhabits in this moment. Because the engrossed soldier sees only a tiny, reproducible screen image of the tortured man standing in actual flesh and horror just to his right, this is not quite the mise en abyme that it might have been (the soldier regarding himself regarding the prisoner, etc.), but it is a disquieting step in that direction, toward the infinite regress of the angular perversions that occur where cruelty and power grow unchecked, and where we have developed mechanisms that allow us to gain proximity and intimacy toward the objects of our cruelty, but to interact with them in a way that actually seems to place that cruelty at arm’s length. If the moment of torture had been the last moment where one might have hoped that recognition or humanity was possible, that hope is displaced further in the transition to posing the victim of torture for pictures, which is itself just another variation on classical forms of torture: first the depravities of bodily violence, psychological torment, degradation, and humiliation, and then the staging of those acts or their aftermath for the further amusement of the jailers. Black ops beget PSYOPs beget photo ops.

But in this slide from direct violence to the degradations of spectacle, new and further displacements can occur, and in the image of the victim and the perpetrator we see another one of these: the spectacle within the spectacle, the funhouse mirror of police-state power and violence. Not only are the soldiers inflicting acts of shocking brutality and cruelty upon the prisoners; they can now regard the images of themselves doing so in real time, and thereby, perversely, see themselves as being somehow outside of the acts themselves. The camera not only documents their depravities but helps to authorize them, while the accoutrements of military power supply the rest. Dressed in their uniforms, invested with the belief that they are acting on behalf of the state, the foot soldiers of state power not only behave here in inhumane and disgusting fashion, but are composed in doing so — composed in demeanor, as happens with those who believe they are officially invested with special authority and strength; and composed in a formal sense, their bodies and expressions calm, relaxed, laconic, self-assured, even joyful. Their bodies cannot help but express in these moments the authoritarian mindset and profound self-regard that each of them carries within himself.

So it is in so many other instances. Agents of state power dress in their finery, equip themselves with their weapons of choice, and proceed to coerce their subjects into positions they feel are sufficiently compliant and satisfactorily composed, confident in the belief that they are invested with every authority to do so. (As the many lifelong victims of brutality can tell you, they clearly are.) If the paramilitary man decides that he’s displeased with the formal arrangement of bodies, he can offer whatever further violent inducements to submission he deems fit or pleasing. There is no need for ‘justification’ because the fact of the office is itself interpreted as sufficient justification: if I do it, it is because it can or must be done. The man with the gun and the pepper spray can remain composed in every sense because he seems to have so little to fear. He knows that, in nearly every instance, the powers that be will not only tolerate his acts of cruelty, but will actively consent to it, in word or in policy, if not both in equal measure. This was the case in America’s torture chambers, and has been the case across the land for centuries, and it continues to be the case on today’s campuses and public spaces as well.

Every UC Davis student who dared to sit quietly on a patch of ground here is calm, unmoving, compliant. They are also faceless, their bodies interlocked and hooded against the bright repellant. In contrast: the strong verticality of the man in uniform, his regal posture, the calm and leisurely pace of his amble amongst the rabble, the emotionless expressions of his nearby comrades bespeaking their approval, the free roaming space around him like a fire zone cleared of dead undergrowth. His arm is not the arm of some vague construct called ‘the Law,’ dispensing Order or Justice. It is nothing more nor less than the arm of the chancellery. As with so many other sites of cruelty, those responsible for allowing these police actions are themselves beyond the frame most of the time, watching the acts unfold on-screen, preparing their press releases and convening their task forces to investigate the policies they themselves have prescribed.

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