Frames of War by Judith Butler

Frames of War by Judith Butler

Author:Judith Butler
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Penguin Random House LLC (Publisher Services)

the people taking the photographs exult in the genitals of their victims. There is no moral confusion here: the photographers don’t even seem aware that they are recording a war crime. There is no suggestion that they are documenting anything particularly morally skewed. For the person behind the camera, the aesthetic of pornography protects them from blame.19

So perhaps I am odd, but as I understand it, pace Bourke, the problem with the photos is not that one person is exulting in another person’s genitals. Let’s assume that we all do that on occasion and that there is nothing particularly objectionable in that exultation, and that it may even be precisely what is needed to make for a good time. What is clearly objectionable, however, is the use of coercion and the exploitation of sexual acts in the service of shaming and debasing another human being. The distinction is crucial, of course, since the first objection finds the sexuality of the exchange to be a problem, while the second identifies the problem in the coercive nature of sexual acts. This equivocation was compounded when President Bush emerged from the Senate chambers after viewing some of the photographs. When asked for his response he replied, “it is disgusting,” leaving it unclear as to whether he was referring to the homosexual acts of sodomy and fellatio or to the physically coercive and psychologically debasing conditions and effects of the torture itself.20 Indeed, if it was the homosexual acts that he found “disgusting,” then he had clearly missed the point about torture, having allowed his sexual revulsion and moralism to take the place of an ethical objection. But if it was the torture that was disgusting, then why did he use that word, rather than wrong or objectionable or criminal? The word “disgusting” keeps the equivocation intact, leaving two issues questionably intertwined: homosexual acts on the one hand, and physical and sexual torture on the other.

In some ways, the faulting of these photographs as pornography seems to commit a similar category mistake. Bourke’s conjectures on the psychology of the photographer are interesting, and there is doubtless some mix of cruelty and pleasure here that we need to think about.21 But how would we go about deciding the issue? Don’t we need to ask why we are prepared to believe that these affective dispositions are the operative motivations in order to approach the question of photography and torture critically? How would the photographer’s awareness that he or she is recording a war crime appear within the terms of the photograph itself? It is one thing to affirm that some of what is recorded is rape and torture, and another to say that the means of representation is pornographic. My fear is that the old slippage from pornography to rape reappears here in unexamined form. The view was that pornography motivates or incites rape, that it is causally linked with rape (those who watch it end up doing it), and that what happens at the level of the body in rape happens at the level of representation in pornography.


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