Thursday, May 14, 2009

Transparency and Affectivity

Yesterday's decision by the Obama administration to bar the release of more than 2000 additional photos of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan has been criticized from the left by groups like the ACLU as an about-face in Obama's earlier claim that these photos would be released. Refusing to release these photographs, Obama's critics argue, makes a mockery of his avowed commitment to "transparency" in government. Obama justified his decision to keep these photos from the public by arguing that “The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals. . . .  In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.” 

"Transparency" is indeed the crux of the issue here, but not in the way that the ACLU (or perhaps the Obama administration) understands it. What underwrites the ACLU's position is a commitment to the idea that photographs provide transparent evidence of unconscionable, illegal behavior by US soldiers. For the ACLU photographs are understood chiefly as evidentiary; the right of the public to know about their government's behavior is the fundamental principle on which their argument rests. This right to know is more important than considerations about the consequences of making the photographs public. Transparency, not affectivity, is foremost for the ACLU.  

For the Obama administration, on the other hand, knowledge of the existence of the photographs and the kinds of behavior they show is enough. Or perhaps more accurately, the need for the American public to have photographic evidence of this behavior is outweighed by the global affective and military consequences that releasing these photographs would produce. Obama's argument for withholding the photographs is based not upon what the photographs depict, about the knowledge they would provide about unlawful, inhuman behavior by US soldiers, but about how the photographs would act in the world as media artifacts.  The photos "would not add any additional benefit to our understanding," he insists, but would "further inflame anti-American opinion" and endanger "our troops." Affectivity, not transparency, guides Obama's decision to bar the release of these photographs. 

My aim in unpacking the assumptions underlying this debate is not to make a strong case either for or against the release of the photographs (although as an academic scholar I generally tend to favor accessibility to and availability of the historical record). Rather I invoke this debate because of its affinities to the argument I make about Abu Ghraib in my forthcoming book--that the outrage produced by the release and distribution of the Abu Ghraib photographs derived less from their evidentiary transparency than from their affectivity as media artifacts. Obama's justification for barring the release of these 2000-plus additional photographs, because of their affective potential to inflame anti-American opinion and thus further endanger US troops, restages part of my argument about the Abu Ghriab photographs--that their powerful global impact can be explained less by what they showed the public than by what they did. While I have sympathy with the ACLU's arguments about transparency of government I find their single-minded focus on the evidentiary transparency of the photographs to be medialogically naive.


Giovanni Tiso said...

I suspect that the people who lament how the arrival of coffins at Dover or the images of torture and abuses by American soldiers be released are conscious of what these images achieve medialogically precisely in the way that you mean, by touching the public affectively and giving a far more complete 'picture' of what war in general, and this war in particular, actually means. By the same token, key images of the suffering of civilians in Vietnam did more to turn public opinion than written reports of the very things. It remains however a matter of transparency, in that certain realities are being obfuscated, hidden from the public view, whilst only a very partial set of images are allowed to operate as media artifacts.

Justin said...

It seems that few (in the Obama administration or in the media) have considered the possibility that the very act of suppressing these photos might "further inflame anti-American opinion." Most assume (perhaps correctly) that the photographs themselves represent a greater danger than a mere cognitive awareness of both the abuse and the cover-up. This seems to support your thesis that the concern is ultimately with the affective results of seeing the photographs (as opposed to the information they deliver).

Giovanni Tiso said...

Upon further reflection: did you ever come across the 9/11 The Falling Man documentary? It's all about the status of media artifact of the picture of the falling man, and how it was absconded by the media early on in the public narrative. It also ties in very nicely with the DeLillo novel by the same name.