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Atrocity and Aporiae: Teaching the Abu Ghraib Images, Teaching Against Transparency

DOI: 10.1177/1532708613507887

Adelman, R A. “Atrocity and Aporiae: Teaching the Abu Ghraib Images, Teaching Against Transparency.” Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies 14.1 (2014): 29–39. Web.

p.30: In this article, I consider the practice of teaching with or about the Abu Ghraib images, and argue that such pedagogy is inherently founded on ethical and visual aporiae: dilemmas that are irresolvable but nonetheless demand solutions. These aporiae originate in the inseparability of the torture from its being photographed, as the images are documentary evidence of that violence, but also instruments of it. Because the idea of “transparency” underestimates the complexities of the visual questions posed by Abu Ghraib and misleadingly implies that they can be satisfactorily and permanently answered, I suggest that the first step for any ethical teaching on Abu Ghraib is to query transparency itself and dispense with its concomitant pedagogical emphasis on cultivating “visual literacy” in our students and empowering them to critically decode images. Because our students are already so much more powerful than the subjects of the Abu Ghraib photos, I argue instead for an emphasis on self-reflexivity, visual epistemologies, and the politics of spectatorship. This shift has the potential to illuminate our enmeshment in state visualities and our vexed relationships to the tortured prisoners themselves, rather than forcibly rendering them visible and transparent once again, this time in the name of education. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.30: I then provide an overview of approaches to teaching the visual culture of the War on Terror in general, and Abu Ghraib in particular. Much of this pedagogy emphasizes “media literacy,” a classroom praxis predicated on a faith in transparency— evidenced by its emphasis on accessing suppressed information and decoding images to discover and make explicit their “truth”—that I suggest is a problematic approach to the Abu Ghraib photos. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.31: Rachel Hall (2007) observes that “transparency” in the War on Terror has been refigured as a mandate for citizens, who perform their allegiance by rendering themselves transparent or “see-through” for the state, an analysis that suggests a connection between the discourse and practice of transparency and more generalized scopophilia. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.31: Throughout the War on Terror, critics of U.S. policy have posited that transparency might solve the problems of torture, indefinite detention, atrocities committed by U.S. military personnel, and even the War itself. Repeatedly, however, transparency has failed to live up to this potential, as when the release of photos of coffins containing U.S. military personnel did not elicit widespread opposition to the War and, more dramatically, when the revelation of torture at Abu Ghraib occasioned no major policy changes in the prosecution of the war and, indeed, barely registered at all in the 2004 presidential election (Mirzoeff, 2006). -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.32: “Everything,” as Charles R. Garoian and Yvonne M. Gaudelius (2008) note, “that is said and done has become a photo op,” and consequently, “spectacle begets spectacle” (p. 80). This cycle has crucial implications for teaching with spectacular images of atrocity and suffering; spectacle and its attendant harms replicate themselves readily, and teaching against this reproduction first requires acknowledging its perils. Showing the Abu Ghraib images in class places us in an ambiguous position vis-à-vis international law, even if we want to teach in support of it, because doing so is an act dependent on that originary breach. The vexed status of the pictures complicates transparency by troubling the legal and ethical status of transparency itself. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.33: Wendy Kozol (2009), in her discussion of a family collection of photographs from an uncle’s time in World War II, directly acknowledges the “unanswerability” of the questions she poses about the images, so as to productively “explore this unknowability in relation to the various kinds of violence that hover over this archive” (n.p.), rather than accepting a logic of transparency that presumes images to be self-evidently meaningful. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.34: Mitchell (2008) recasts this obligation in the language of ownership, with a reminder that “these images were, after all, paid for with the tax dollars of American citizens. We own them, and must own up to what they tell us about who we are, and what we are becoming” (p. 206). For the pictures to have any chance of doing this work, we need to be explicit about the ethical problems sutured into the images themselves and consider the possibility that academic work can be complicit in visual forms of violence. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.34: We need an education, he asserts, that will train everyone to view them with a gaze that is not pornographic, and ultimately inspires students to “dialogue,” “dissent,” and “agency” (pp. 184-185) rather than mere visual consumerism. The goal is to “think critically and act courageously,” and to help our students do the same, within a larger pedagogy of democracy, ethics, and morality (pp. 194-195). -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.35: Susan Sontag (2003) wrote eloquently of the anxiety that arises in viewing a difficult photograph, which she locates in the realization that “there is nothing you can do when you look at a photograph” (p. 64). If our students experience this, our job is not necessarily to assuage it, but rather to analyze it with them, to think about their geopolitical positions and the various relationships that they have with the detainees. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.36: “Ethical witnessing,” as Wendy Kozol (2012) suggests, is “the process of critically engaging with the historical complexities of representing social violence, including the ways in which the viewer is implicated in those complexities” (p. 24). Showing the Abu Ghraib images in a classroom means entering into a visibility transected by myriad, often conflicting obligations: to the people unwillingly pictured within them, to our students, to our institutions, and to whomever else is affected by what transpired at the prison, what transpires in our classrooms. These obligations can never be fully reconciled—we cannot teach our way out of aporiae, only through them, a process that might actually draw us deeper into them. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014