March 30, 2008


"How does a collective deal, finally, with its vulnerability to violence? At what price, and at whose expense, does it gain a purchase on 'security,' and in what ways has a chain of violence formed in which the aggression of the United States has wrought returns to it in different forms? Can we think of the history of violence here without exonerating those who engage it against the United States in the present? Can we provide a knowledgeable explanation of events that is not confused with a moral exoneration of violence? What has happened to the value of critique as a democratic value? Under what conditions is critique itself censored, as if any reflexive criticism can only and always be construed as weakness and fallibility?
Negotiating a sudden and unprecedented vulnerability -- what are the options? What are the long-term strategies? Women know this question well, have known it in nearly all times, and nothing about the triumph of colonial powers has made our exposure to this kind of violence any less clear."

--Judith Butler, Precarious Lives

Philip Gourevitch's and Errol Morris' New Yorker piece, "Exposure" -- about the army m.p., Sabrina Harman (above) -- presents the psychic fissures introduced by an unbearable intimacy with human violence. Once upon a time, some of Harman's photographs of Abu Ghraib were the momentary talismans of imperial destruction; U.S. torture exposed. Now that acts which shock any conscience worthy of the name have become the lawful prerogative of this state, the images are no longer shocking, no longer indicative of anything that can be addressed as an "issue" for reckoning.

The forms of cruelty her photographs, among others, brought to light have receded into the realm of the historical facts of the war (still being) waged. They have dissolved into the long disquisitions on the ways modern man, from the Inquisition to today, abuses the human. Those photographs are ready relics of what seemed at the time to be the excavation of ruined civilization.

But by presenting the eye that saw, the woman who worked along the edge's of Abu Ghraib's systemic chaos and destruction of human beings, the horror that the "issue" of torture deflected is finally introduced. (Morris, who presented so insistently the internal deceptions and categorical divides of Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, has made of film of Harman called Standard Operating Procedure). The horror is that Harman participated without being able to process the implications of her participation. The camera seems like her last defense, a device of transference with which to work through the wretched. For whatever decency she exudes in the conversation with Morris and Gourevitch, she participated in the military's brutalization of men, women, and children in that prison.

And still, her conscience was shocked. She also photographed the violence there with the aim, she says, of giving it an afterlife; of creating an indicting residue of the policies that operated as the standard reduction of human beings to soft targets. And still, she does not see the impossibility of simply showing, or simply getting close to the carnage as a recorder. So she participates (to a degree) and protects her fellow soldiers, and then, like a form of flinching, places a camera before her conscience and the crime.

And when she appears in the photographs, there is the same defensive gesture -- the sweet sign of open, youthful enthusiasm; a willed innocence, a tactical naivete -- no matter the proximity to death.

The theme of "forced" participation in cruel policies saturates "Exposed." From an American perspective, the effects of that participation is where the horror of torture will have to be rooted if there is to be any recognition of the stakes. In this way, the article by Gourevitch and Morris will offer the temptation of a moral exoneration of Sabrina Harman. For she is certainly negotiating a sudden and unprecedented vulnerability. But the determinations to come, the struggle for which will be, one expects, the intellectual nerve-enter of Morris' forthcoming film, is how the individual is to be armored with the recognitions necessary to withstand the participation and dissolve immediately the defenses against the vulnerability.