Originally published in Michael O'Donnell, Victims, Monument, Spectacle (Oslo: The Academy of Fine Arts, 2017), print. Edited by Natalie Hope O'Donnell.

Victims and Their Objects: A Threnody

Michael O’Donnell makes one wax surrogate for the body of the executed inmate, and then another, moving through forms that represent its weight. His studio is saturated with the smell of wax. I wonder whether smell has mass, like a trace mineral evaporated into the air. I wonder about the infinitesimal loss of such mass as the wax from one sculpture is broken, melted down, and reused for the next. I wonder what is released as O’Donnell works. It is this possibility in his work for release, for unbounded particles, that most severely challenges the logic of the monument.

He makes a pile of the inmates’ words, their last words. The words they say right before the state executes them. Everyone involved in these utterances—jailer, jailed, reporter, witness, executioner—understands them to be both an act of testimony and also monumental. Perhaps this mutual understanding is the crux of O’Donnell’s own interest in them. They are phrases meant to act metonymically for the whole life that is ending. “Stay Strong.” “I love you Irene.” I am struck by their brevity, the lingering sense of amputation they convey. They are words that reveal conflict about the status of the executed: is (s)he a perpetrator of violence against the innocent or is (s)he a victim of state violence? How could (s)he be both?

I am provoked by O’Donnell’s effort to give the criminal weight and language. He seems fascinated by figures that shimmer on the very edges of our ability to perceive the violence done to them. I wonder when I watch the tension in his forms: who is the victim? To whom has wrong been done? To whom is the opportunity given to raise their voice in protest against their own violation, and to which cries of protest is the value of truth accorded? I am not talking about the victim as the one without agency, the one who can do nothing. I am talking about the victim as the one who bears the mark of violence in public, the one who can accuse their perpetrator with clear and legible testimony. This category, the victim, is politically valuable especially in contrast to a situation in which violence is done but for some reason the wounded person is unable to put language to the event. There is some confusion about the truth of what she says because she is insane, or because he is black, or because she is angry, or because they are slaves, or because he is a criminal. Something about this person blocks their access to the category of victimhood in public. Something invalidates their testimony about what has been done to them—amputates it.

A second question O’Donnell’s work raises is how to smuggle unauthorized testimony into the public sphere, into discourse? How to make a victim appear as such, when traditionally s(he) has been represented only as insane, as a criminal, or as a slave? What monument would that kind of speech require? Or would such language break the logic of the monument irrevocably? In her introduction to Unclaimed Experience, Cathy Caruth argues that literary narrative—which is analogous to art in its capacity to figure forth trauma—can represent the wound that we cannot see and cannot acknowledge. Caruth writes:

Trauma is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in an attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise accessible. This truth in its delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language. (1)

Caruth suggests that the victim may be incapable of language recognizable as “proper” testimony about his injury. And if the victim, the inmate, the trespasser, cannot claim with “proper” credibility to have been wounded, he cannot claim the status of victim—the one to whom something has been done against his will. Thus the status of victimhood, like the appearance of the wound, is profoundly precarious, profoundly dependent on narrative forms capable of accounting for the “unknown in our very actions and our language.” (2)

I propose that O’Donnell’s work is—on a structural level—figuring forth such precarity and the crisis of visibility it produces for the victim. He is searching for a truth linked to the unknown in order to monumentalize it. Furthermore, he fails to produce a viable monument, over and over, and that the failing is part of his point. There is something about the victim’s testimony, the truth Caruth characterizes as delayed, belated, unconscious, that O’Donnell wants to make into a monument but that remains recalcitrantly antithetical to the ideology of the monument; and, so, he forces this contradiction into form. In order to understand the stakes of O’Donnell’s structural contradiction, I want to look at representations of the victim that do not picture the crisis of her visibility. I want to analyze images invested in making her victimization invisible. I want to read monuments built to close the space of testimony, cauterizing traumatic memory rather than acknowledging the importance of the belated address. (3)

Death //

The monument to the Army of the Orient and of Faraway Lands was erected on the corniche in Marseille in 1927, well before this strip of land was re-named for American president John F. Kennedy in 1963.4 It is supposed to commemorate those who died fighting for Allied forces deployed along the Macedonian front line during the First World War, in particular, but it is also commonly used to anchor commemoration ceremonies for all French soldiers, who died overseas. Designed by Antoine Sartorio, the monument is a giant archway built on a rock outcropping that juts into the Mediterranean. It was imagined as a two-way mirror—from land it frames the viewer’s perspective out to sea, towards the ‘Orient’; and from the sea it is a colossal freestanding gate to Marseille, the European port-city par excellence.

The structure has all the restrained, organic elegance of high Art Deco style. The arch rises with long, clean lines. Upright bodies with smooth, open chests and simply articulated musculature flank the arch without overwhelming its formal authority. Two stolid and monolithic female angels lead on the either side of the arch, while soldiers peer out from underneath the shade cast by their wingspans. A Bronze statue of Victory stands solitary in the void that the arch frames, her body arched upward and her arms extended to the sky, but her gaze firmly fixed on the City in front of her. On the side of the monument is a small granite slab added after a federal decree in 2003 to commemorate the harkis, or the people of non-European descent who fought on the side of French during the Algerian war of independence. The Marseillais response to this decree is a square roughly the size of a small person’s chest reading simply, “Hommage aux Harkis”. It faces the sea. The French largely abandoned these people after the Evian accords were signed in 1962, which effectively ended the war. Algerian nationalists massacred anyone suspected of collaboration with the French throughout the summer of 1962. To the great shame of many in the French armed forces the government did little to protect its former native agents or their families.

Tacked on to an existing structure without a date, without even naming the war for which the fallen are being honored, this gesture unwittingly undermines all the careful idealism of its parent monument. Together, they form a commemoration to the dead unwilling to think the complexity of death or the complexity of identity in death. If a Muslim subject of the French department of Algiers died in Macedonia in 1918, this monument remembers him, unequivocally. If a Muslim subject of the French department of Algiers fighting in the French Army was executed by the Algerian revolutionary army, this monument stammers in response before muttering something barely intelligible. There is contradiction here, as in O’Donnell’s work, but the tension it produces is chaotic, unconscious, disavowed. It dissipates into the sea.

In a short text entitled “The Instant of My Death,” Maurice Blanchot describes the fate of a young nobleman at the hands of the retreating army in the countryside at the close of World War II by way of two very different moments of clarity in the face of death. In the first, the young man in question faces a firing squad led by a Nazi lieutenant in front of his own property. “He was perhaps invincible. Dead—immortal. Perhaps Ecstasy. Rather than the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship,” Blanchot writes of this young man’s experience. (4) There is a selfish relief in death, which represents a kind of freedom in Blanchot’s text; freedom from further injury and also from further implication in the immoral business of life during war.

Blanchot continues: the Nazi lieutenant is called away at the moment he should have given the command to fire, the soldiers step forward to declare themselves Russian and, therefore, both aware and respectful of this nobleman’s humanity—recognizable by virtue of his nobility—and the man escapes into the woods nearby. Freedom in death is retracted from this man. The reader is made aware of how many nearby peasants have been slaughtered without a second thought and that the man’s chateau and family remain untouched, that his absence is not avenged with their lives or his property. “This is war,” Blanchot writes, “life for some, for others, the cruelty of assassination.” (5) And so often, he implies, the difference is the degree to which one’s life is perceived as valuable in the eyes of power. What effect does this reprieve from death signify for the man? Blanchot describes his clarity thus:

There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? The infinite opening up? Neither happiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already a step beyond. I know, I imagine that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained from him of existence. As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him. “I am alive. No, you are dead.” (6)

Clarity issues from the act of naming a profound conflict between the experience, on the one hand, of living, breathing, walking through the woods and back to a chateau in the French countryside, and, on the other, of the visceral understanding of the arbitrary nature of just such privileges in that time and place. That man is dead but for the nobility he did nothing to earn and so he is dead inside, even if one form of death still remains outside of him. Blanchot’s text, in contrast to the monument in Marseille, thus, functions as a quasi-monument for those who have failed to be absolved by death.

Insanity //

The Salpêtrière in Paris served simultaneously as a prison for prostitutes and an asylum for the female mentally ill from the middle of the 17th century until the beginning of the 19th century, when Phillipe Pinel gradually transformed it into something approaching a modern-day psychiatric hospital. (7) The institution before Pinel was characterized by filthy conditions and the lack of distinction it made between criminal sex-workers and insane women. Pinel’s adjustments to psychiatric confinement were widely considered less physically brutal and committed to the treatment of illness by means of careful observation and moral sensibility. (8) Pinel removed physical walls and metal restraints, as well as the older ideological framing mechanisms for inmates’ containment—such as the idea that Salpêtrière was a prison for the indigent and for sex workers. Pinel aimed to control deviance using more discursive mechanisms, and he called this instrumental shift “moral.” Tony Robert-Fleury’s painting from 1887, “Pinel Freeing the Insane,” epitomizes the myth—which was not entirely ungrounded—of the empathetic and rational character of the man. Pinel shares the center of the painting with an incandescent but visibly mute woman standing classically poised as the belt that secured her chains is removed. With an expression of intellectual intensity Pinel gazes beyond her, beyond all the women who are still enchained, towards a future structured by his vision.

Still, several signs in Robert-Fleury’s painting trouble a seamless glorification of Pinel as an agent of female emancipation—the most striking is that both of the young, relatively attractive, women freed of their manacles immediately begin to also lose their clothing. The central figure’s stockings are loose around her ankles, her dress slips off one shoulder well below her collarbone. Her gaze is downturned but sly; the look of a woman wishing for the breach. The woman on the ground behind her appears to be writhing, her fingers entwined in the fabric of her undergarments and her hair loose in the dirt of the courtyard. Her hands are rendered as though in anxious movement, tearing open the bodice to expose a breast as her head arches backwards. She appears at first to be responding to the woman behind her, whose manacled hands are outstretched in supplication, but the older woman actually looks beyond her toward Pinel. This image is about desire provoked by his presence and the freedom he bestows, rather than desire between inmates. In addition to their licentiousness, the figures have a blankness that both admits the viewer’s gaze and permits the categorical reorganization Pinel has come to implement in their lives. The two women on the left in the foreground symbolize this duality: both are clothed but with bodices loosened to reveal their breasts to the viewer as though by accident. Their faces betray their self-absorption in pain or delusion. It is as though each were distracted by some inner turmoil from the task of maintaining proprietary visual boundaries around themselves. They appear complicit in their sexualization by virtue of their madness.

The function of Robert-Fleury’s painting is not to tell the story of these women, their suffering, or the conditions that produce it, but to monumentalize Pinel and his vision for the institution. To this end, the distinction between the victim and criminal that Pinel is credited for having addressed is submerged—at least in Robert-Fleury’s painting—in the representation of uncontained and submissive forms of female sexuality. In sexualizing the mad rather than showing them and the poor as distinct groups within the Salpêtrière, or representing those who have turned to prostitution as a means of survival, Robert-Fleury forecloses the possibility that either might testify to something done to them against their will.Two things are especially important to understand the structural contradiction in the representation of the violence perpetrated: firstly, a painting that aims to monumentalize Pinel represents all the inmates as equally in need of the light of reason he embodies. There can be no differential relationship to the monumental figure among his subjects, because what is being pictured is his stature rather than their (individuated) experiences of suffering. Secondly, this equalization is achieved by sexualizing the inmates. Thus, if, on the one hand, O’Donnell’s work forces the viewer to consider some fundamental contradiction in the victim/perpetrator distinction, these two mechanisms allow Robert-Fleury’s painting, on the other, to mask any possibility of such contradiction.

George Didi-Huberman elaborates a more direct example of the role monumentalizing representation played in repressing testimony of the women of the Salpêtrière in his book, The Invention of Hysteria. He discusses painting, but the primary aim of his analysis is the institutional use of photography as a diagnostic tool the effect of which was the disqualification of patients’ speech. What is especially useful about his argument in this context is that it complicates any temptation to make an easy distinction between the picture of an event—sexualized inmates, their muteness in the face of reason’s intellectual force, monumentalized masculine power, etc.—and what happened in “reality”. Jean-Martin Charcot succeeded Pinel at the Salpêtrière and is credited with having founded modern neurology and naming hysteria or, according Didi-Huberman, isolating it as “a pure nosological object.” (9) Didi-Huberman argues that hysteria was not legible as a medical phenomenon until Charcot literally segregated its victims from those suffering from epilepsy and other disorders. Charcot invented the diagnosis by insisting on the determining nature of visual evidence of disorders. This understanding of diagnosis and the role photography played in substantiating it would have lasting consequences on the history of photography and on the history of psychiatric diagnosis. Sigmund Freud—who attended Charcot’s famous Tuesday lectures and became one of his erstwhile translators—wrote of Charcot that “[h]e was not a reflective man, not a thinker: he had the nature of an artist—he was, as he himself said, a “visuel,” a man who sees.” (10)

As such, Charcot believed that mental pathology was visible, readable, on the surface of his patients’ bodies. Writing in 1887, he argued that “where nervous disorders are concerned, psychology indeed has a presence, and what I call psychology is the rational physiology of the cerebral cortex.” (11) Phenomena occurring in the cerebral cortex could be watched by observing the play of symptoms upon the body, like the shadows cast by figures on a wall. Physiological symptoms were understood as indexical to phenomena occurring inside the brain. As Freud recounts:

Charcot used to look again and again at the things he did not understand, to deepen his impression of them day by day, till suddenly an understanding of them dawned on him. In his mind’s eye the apparent chaos presented by the continual repetition of the same symptoms then gave way to order: the new nosological pictures emerged, characterized by the constant combination of certain groups of symptoms. (12)

For Charcot, order was achieved through a prolonged act of perception. The other was not interrogated; the other was watched. Everything pertinent to the classification of a woman’s mental pathology could be ascertained by looking at her, rather than asking her to speak. This is not to say that the women in question were actually silent, but that whatever they happened to say was ancillary to their classification on the basis of the visual, the photographable. Didi-Huberman insists that while Charot’s hysterical body was an object in the theoretical sense—a nosological object—it quite tragically also became an object in the physical sense. Experiments with electrocution, isolation, and drug therapy were, by contemporary standards, the more reputable of Charcot’s repertoire. “He had no qualms about plunging his fist into a hysteric’s groin,” Didi- Huberman writes, “nor about instrumentalizing the so-called ovarian compression or prescribing the cauterization of the uterine neck, in certain cases.” (13) Didi-Huberman barely stops short of accuses Charcot of promoting the institutionalization of rape as treatment for hysteria. He asks:

how the relation between a physician and his patient, in a hospice of four thousand incurable bodies, how this relation, which, in principle, was nearly the only one besides marriage to authorize and even institute the fondling of bodies – how this relation could become servitude, property, torment. (14)

Charcot created a scientific system by which women’s own testimony of their experience of suffering – and of “inappropriate” desire – was systematically superseded by the observation of an authority figure, namely himself and his surrogate the camera/visual archive complex. The hysterical women could speak all they wanted in the profoundly phallocentric environment of the clinic, but an objective photographic discourse, nevertheless, effectively contained their speech. The result of such containment was that at no point could their language constitute a claim to victimhood or testify to abuse. In order to work in service to the kind of truth Caruth lays out as pertaining to traumatic events, photography and its agents must be willing to relinquish the objectivity of their own discourse of truth. To relinquish objectivity would be to admit that the photograph records a small fraction of what happened in the moment it is taken and that the profound truth of the event simply cannot be pictured beyond all doubt.

O’Donnell’s work to represent a subjective contradiction (victim/perpetrator) rather than the event of death at the hands of the state is one way to think about what necessary doubt looks like, formally. Some of his projects even represent doubt specifically in the context of photography –his painstaking deconstruction of crowd photography from the early 20th century, in search of Hitler, depicting nationalist populism–but the point I am making here is that doubt is a necessary element of any feminist or non-masculinist form of representation.

Muteness //

Charcot choreographs his patients’ apparent muteness because muteness is constitutive of photography’s authority. Female victims must be represented as silent about their experience of violation in order for the photographic images of their bodies to be seen as objective or scientific. Yet, Didi-Huberman does not quite ask what might be important about spectacular objectification that silences a female victim. Feminist scholar Barbara Johnson, in an essay from 1998 entitled “Muteness Envy,” puts the question Didi-Huberman neglects thus: “But why is female muteness a repository of aesthetic value? And what does that muteness signify?” (15) Johnson is superficially talking about abstract beauty as the aesthetic value in question, but I think the point is the same: the photographs (and other representations of hysteria) at the Salpêtrière are only truly valuable as diagnostic tools insofar as they replace a victim’s speech, or, only insofar as they participate in objectifying the person in question as a type (a nosological object). In both cases, muteness is the “repository” or the container for aesthetic value; apparent silence is the condition of an object’s appearance as something classifiable. Johnson goes a step further than Didi-Huberman to argue that women’s muteness doesn’t just bar them from speaking about their experiences of violence; it also produces confusion about whether or not they wanted the thing that was done to them. Johnson sees the proliferation of representations of female silence – and the confusion about the status of the victim it engenders – as integral to the structure of patriarchy. Muteness is not only a prop for Pinel’s authority or for the authority of the discourse of photographic objectivity Charcot is invested in;Johnson argues images and forms that monumentalize female muteness do so in order to bolster the binary between male and female, between marked and unmarked terms.

Women are notably silent, Johnson argues, about their pleasure and about their violation. When they speak about either their own desire or their experience as victims, they disrupt a patriarchal fantasy about the woman as the object of speech, rather than its subject. “The work performed by the idealization of silence”, Johnson notes, “is that it helps culture not be able to tell the difference between the two.” (16) If a woman’s beauty –in other words her visibility as a subject –depends on her silence both about what she wants and what has been done to her, it becomes possible to conflate the two. Patriarchy depends on a binary system in which one gender is marked as not-the other, not-male. On a structural level, patriarchy is primarily concerned with naturalizing the subordination of one term to the other, rather than simply oppressing women. When naturalization is successful, the difference in position between men and women can be argued to be the result of individual talent, aptitude, or biology, etc., rather than the product of violently enforced male privilege. Thus, on a structural level patriarchy strives to construct representations of woman as silent because, on some level, she enjoys her own violation. Female testimony is intolerable, according to Johnson, because it claims the right to make a distinction between abuse and desire. If the woman wanted it, there is no subordination, and, thus, no power dynamic that allows one term to dominate another. Testimony, on the other hand, potentially illuminates the production of a binary structure in which the female is subordinated, and, thus, undoes the careful naturalization of the male privilege to establish what counts as abuse and what counts as desire.

Perhaps what was done to women’s bodies at the Salpêtrière – both the physical violence and the relentless imaging of this violation – was misogynist, the result of some repressed hatred or fear of women. But Johnson insists that a victim’s necessary muteness goes beyond misogyny. In the context of patriarchy, “[i]t is not that the victim gets to speak – far from it – but that the most highly valued speaker gets to claim victimhood”. (17) The analogy between the role of the woman as the marked term in a patriarchal system and the role of the criminal as a marked term in the criminal justice system must be partial, but in the context of state violence the (often non-white) body of the criminal can be understood as marked in such a way as to be unable to claim victimhood. In other words, whatever is done to criminal body is mitigated by their own guilt, their own epistemological disqualification from testimony.(18) In this light, O’Donnell’s monumentalizing of the victim’s speech is a feminist move in Johnson’s vein in that his work systematically challenges the stability of the binary underpinning the US justice system between victim and criminal.

The Hysteric //

I linger on the hysteric because the semiotic seepage between the image of the 19th century (usually female) hysteric and the image of the war-hysteric, or the (usually male) body feminized by its submission to (state) violence is viscous, dense with contemporary relevance, and toxic. Two examples will, hopefully, help to clarify the structural point here.

Louise Bourgeois’ work Cell (Arch of Hysteria) (1992-1993) was an installation shown as part of the artist’s Cell series in an exhibition entitled Locus of Memory and remains a succinct critique of the 19th century fantasy of the hysterical body. In a small enclosure constructed with large steel panels, Bourgeois placed a standing antique bandsaw and a low table on which a headless body arched in the classic hysteric pose. While later sculptural versions of the Arch of Hysteria are more ambiguously gendered, this first iteration of the form is recognizably male both in its genitalia and its physiognomy.

The headless body stretches across a white sheet on which is written over eighty times in neat, red handwriting, “je t’aime.” “I love you”, it claims relentlessly. Even if the body’s interlocutor is a bandsaw and there is nothing tender in the room apart from the written admission of love: the body loves. The body without a head to reason with, whose love is rationally intoned in the most precise, school-child handwriting. The contradiction between language and form in Cell (Arch of Hysteria) is starkly illustrative of the ontological quandary of Charcot’s hysteric, that of being unable to speak the difference between pain and pleasure. As in the clinic, the victim of Cell (Arch of Hysteria) is an object whose testimony is undermined by her form. The bleak cell, the industrial bandsaw standing ready to injure, and the roughly cast bronze rendering of a thin, suffering body signify victimhood, legibly, yet the words articulate the opposite.

Compare Bourgeois’s reversal to a painting by Pierre Aristide André Brouillet, A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière, (1887). In it, Charcot is portrayed describing the arch of the hysteric using a female subject as model. Her pose is echoed by the reproduction of a charcoal drawing of the same subject by Paul Richer from 1878 on the back wall of the classroom, demonstrating the symptoms’ objective continuity as its treatment evolved. All of the light in the room is centered on the neckline of the woman’s dress as she arches backward into the arms of an empathetic medical assistant who is holding her securely at the waist. The glowing surface of her skin gives way to the soft white material of her undergarments, which gives way to the lip of her corset, which is in turn revealed by a dress that is unbuttoned to the waist, turned in on itself. Her eyes are closed. Brouillet has not pictured a victim of abuse; he has pictured a longing, ecstatic surrender to the light.

Both Brouillet and Bourgeois represent the hysteric yet, in her ability to picture the fact that the hysteric is by definition a victim, structurally decapitated, locked into torture by architecture and by the latent violence of their interlocutor (the band saw), Bourgeois is refuting Brouillet, Charcot, and the history of hysteria before Freud. She is showing another way to read the body of the hysteric and everything that contextualizes it. She is also drawing a clear and historically substantiated line between men with a form of hysteria resulting from their experiences of war (incarceration, torture) and what afflicted the women the term was invented to describe.

Abu Ghraib //

What Bourgeois makes clear is that the mechanism patriarchal forms of power use to contain women is not actually limited to women. In fact, to reduce feminism to the critique of male power is to misunderstand how dangerous patriarchy is for all subjects marked in some way – people of color, gay and queer and trans people, non-neurotypical people, people who publicly signify their religious faith as one other than the hegemonic religion. Patriarchy’s toxicity for all marked subjects lies in its relentless obfuscation of its own power.

Stephen Eisenman makes an analogous point in his book on the images of Abu Ghraib prisoners, The Abu Ghraib Effect, the title of which is a pun on Roland Barthes theory of photography’s “reality effect”. Barthes argues that photography might produce the effect of reality through careful framing and other forms of construction, but that in order to achieve this effect it must simultaneously mask its own efforts at such construction. Eisenman applies this insight to the Abu Ghraib photographs, which he argues were meant to produce the victim’s sexualized participation in their own violation using photography’s reality effect. Furthermore, Eisenman argues that the photographs follow a well-known formula in Western visual art, which was developed to produce the effect of testimony. He writes:

That feature of the Western classical tradition is specifically the motif of tortured people and tormented animals who appear to sanction their own abuse […] It is a mark of reification in extremis because it represents the body as something willingly alienated by the victim (even to the point of death) for the sake of the pleasure and aggrandizement of the oppressor. (19)

Here, Eisenman generalizes the point I drew from Johnson earlier in this text. The necessary conflation between pleasure and pain applies not only to women. Rather, it applies to all subjects whom power constructs as “rightless” or sub-human. The motif serves a function: the objectification of the victim is in service to the aggrandizement of the oppressor.

Eisenman then makes a rather startling claim: “This mythic motif [tortured person enjoying their debasement] constitutes an unacknowledged basis of the unity of the classical tradition in European or Western art.” (20) The implication is that the “pathos formula”, as Eisenman puts it, authorizes the continuity of the Western tradition in art. In other words, what ties the classical tradition together is a motif that naturalizes the subordination of slaves, women, and animals to power by representing that subordination as sexually pleasurable. The Abu Ghraib photographs, according to Eisenman, are drawing on two different authorizing discourses simultaneously; that of the pathos formula in the classical tradition of Western art and that of photography’s reality effect. In both senses, the purpose of the photographs is not limited to the debasement of individuals and cannot be reduced to the insanity or social alienation of specific military personnel. Eisenman writes,

They are the expression of a malevolent vision in which military victors are not just powerful, but omnipotent, and the conquered are not just subordinate, but abject and even inhuman. The presence of the latter, according to this brutal perspective, gives justification to the former; the supposed bestiality of the victims justifies the crushing violence of the oppressor. (21)

The pathos formula, coupled with photography’s reality effect, is used to relegate the conquered to a state outside of language, outside of victimhood. According to Eisenman, the message is similar to that of Robert Fleury’s painting of Pinel, or Brouillet’s painting of Charcot. He argues that the photographs are constructed to communicate that the prisoners at Abu Graib wanted what was done to them, therefore, they cannot be considered victims. Furthermore, since they wanted it they are not even really men. (22)

But do the photographs actually communicate this complicity with unequivocal force? Are they truly effective as monuments to the power of a patriarchal visual regime in the way Robert-Fleury and Brouillet are? Or are they paradoxically similar to Bourgeois’s work, in the sense that they open a space for doubt and contradiction rather than close the possibility for testimony? The photographs may well be responding, in some unconscious way, to the mandate of fine art in the Western context for much of its history, which was to produce stable signifiers for power through images of the naturalized oppression of others. But I think it would be a mistake to underestimate the subtly with which fine art achieved this goal for thousands of years, or to fail to recognize the ineptitude of the Abu Ghraib photographs in comparison. They don’t, in themselves, manage to produce enough ambiguity about their victim’s complicity in their own violation. They remain, therefore, primarily documents of violence.

For Judith Butler, the problem of sexuality in the Abu Ghraib photographs is a crucial one because of the response it elicits in viewers to scenes of detainees’ humiliation at the hands of US security forces agents. “[T]he problem is not that one person is exulting in another person’s genitals. Let’s assume that we all do that on occasion and there is nothing particularly objectionable in that exultation,” Butler argues. She continues:

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 a problem, while the second identifies the problem in the coercive nature of sexual acts. (23)

The images’ brutality lies precisely in that coercion is visible, that consent is manifestly absent, and that these images of detainees testify so lucidly to their abuse. Butler goes on to argue that the photographs are disturbing precisely because they are unmoored from a frame of reference that might serve to stabilize their ethical meaning, such as the grand narrative of Western Art History or the mythology of some just form of violence in war. Butler writes:

I want to suggest that the Abu Ghraib photographs neither numb our senses nor determine a particular response. This has to do with the fact that they occupy no single time and no specific space. They are shown again and again, transposed from context to context, and this history of their successive framing and reception conditions, without determining, the kinds of public interpretations of torture we have. (24)

These contexts include the art space of the International Center for Photography in New York City, on a tablet or a phone in the subway or the airport, in a print newspaper or magazine, or contextualized in an academic book. The majority of the Western art historical canon is framed, its works do not lack context. Art History assiduously maintains this context, this frame for the greatness of their aesthetic achievement. The same can be said for Charcot’s photographs: they are explicitly posited as diagnostic tools, folded into a clearly articulated apparatus for the classification of bodies. The same can be said for the gesture modern and contemporary art makes – it is defined almost exclusively by its self-identification with the epistemological category that is art.

Each kind of image is able to figure forth or to obscure the victim by virtue of its frame, the conditions of its appearance. To generalize, admittedly, all these kinds of images are embedded in a specific time and place, even if they subsequently dispersed. Butler is arguing that the Abu Ghraib photographs, by comparison, do not have a place in a specific discourse.

The Abu Ghraib photographs are a third term, then, in the binary I have been tracing. They are not monuments to the power of a patriarchal system that subjugates others by naturalizing said subjugation, largely because they do not manage to credibly naturalize subjugation. They are not images like Bourgeois’s work or O’Donnell’s that produce a structural understanding of some violent event even while acknowledging their own –necessary – representational inadequacy. Each photograph is, rather, a floating signifier for brutality, which Butler argues “becomes the public condition under which we feel outrage and construct political views to incorporate and articulate that outrage.” (25)

The Right to Remain Silent //

O’Donnell has the phrase “Mumbled something about he wished his whole life had been spent Islamic” etched on a chrome plaque that floats away from the wall. The statement was recorded by the warden as the last words of an anonymous prisoner. This and other awkward phrases in O’Donnell’s latest text work series “The Right to Remain Silent,” were preserved because the prisoner chose not to speak at the moment appointed for a final statement. Instead, the warden wrote down whatever was last thing he or she thinks they heard the prisoner say, essentially speaking for them. Having silenced a prisoner in the ultimate sense, the State, nevertheless, evinces the need to be in control of their language to the last.

“Right to Remain Silent” critically monumentalizes this need in order to render the violent contradiction inherent in refusing the prisoner the right to silence at the end of life. An anti-monument to the suffering of others, I have argued, is a representation that refuses to stabilize meaning. Its function is rather to figure forth the impossibility of comprehension. It must fail to master an event through representation, while persisting in the attempt.

When victims speak for themselves, their words are recorded by the State, and O’Donnell uses this record to objectify their language, the event being monumentalized is the moment these people become victims of state violence. O’Donnell’s work renders their objectification visible. But when the warden speaks for the victim, or monumentalizes his or her own assumption of words uttered, and O’Donnell uses this record, it is not the testimony of the prisoner/victim that is monumentalized. The event O’Donnell represents in the second instance is the State’s attempt to naturalize a binary power relationship between itself and the prisoner.

I have read Didi-Huberman and Johnson together to argue that objectification is a process by which subjects are rendered mute through the exclusion of their speech from their subjective representation. I also argued that this is a patriarchal process in so far as it manufactures confusion about what the marked terms wants done to her, a confusion that is used to justify her subjugation to the desire of the un-marked term. I would put death row-prisoners in the category of objectified person because they are marked by the State and their marking is naturalized. The narrative of naturalization goes like this: a prison’s function isn’t to produce and perpetuate unequal power relations; its function is to sanction “bad people.” What O’Donnell pictures—namely, that the State refuses these people the right to silence—undoes for just a moment the careful naturalization of its violence against them. The State slips to reveal its need control, its need to maintain the prisoner as the marked, subjugated term, even beyond the end. And yet the State fails in this. Because it is possible to lift the words out of the forms in which they were lodged by a given warden, it is possible to read them as a record of violence. Like the Abu Ghraib photographs in structure, although certainly not in degree or content, phrases like “The attorney said back to him I love you too” or “Profanity directed towards staff” are homeless. The works’ brutality lies precisely in that State coercion is visible, that consent is manifestly absent. These sentences, unlike those uttered self-consciously by the victims themselves, are unmoored from a frame of reference that might serve to stabilize their ethical meaning.

These sentences are valuable, then, not as some contradiction materialized but because they provide the viewer with an opportunity to feel outrage or some more subtle form of discomfort about what they are reading and, as Butler suggests, to “construct political views to incorporate and articulate that outrage.” (26) It is through the representation of speech that we recognize mechanisms used to silence the marked subjects in our society, which, in turn, allows us to discern that which we will not tolerate and do not excuse.

The author wishes to thank Michael O’Donnell, Natalie Hope O’Donnell, Riga W. M. Chymann, and Thomas Keenan for their insightful critical feedback, and for their tireless support of this work.


(1) Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 3.
(2) I borrow this insight about the relationship between art and Caruth from Rosalyn Deutsche, who writes: “But, since by definition the event that caused the trauma was so overwhelming that it could not be fully known or experienced at the time it occurred, the victim suffers from incomprehension, and, if the witness claims to understand the experience, he claims to understand too much, and so betrays the victim. This poses a problem for aesthetic representations that want to respond to the suffering of others, for while traumatic suffering calls out for the event to be witnessed, it creates a need for a new kind of witnessing—what Caruth calls the witnessing of an impossibility, the impossibility of comprehending trauma. Witnessing in the ethical sense of responding thus necessitates a critique of images based on notions of representational adequacy.” Rosalyn Deutsche, Hiroshima After Iraq (New York: Columbia University, 2010), 69.
(3) I should say that while I make a binary comparison in what follows, beyond its use as a means to understand something structural about O’Donnell’s work, the binary itself is uninteresting. It should be fleshed out as a spectrum, complicated.
(4) Maurice Blanchot, Elizabeth Rottenberg, and Jacques Derrida, The Instant of My Death (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2000), 5.
(5) Blanchot, The Instant of My Death, 7.
(6) Blanchot, The Instant of My Death, 8–9.
(7) See Guillain and Mathieu, La Salpêtrière (Paris: Masson, 1925), 41.
(8) Richard Keller, in a book that traces Pinel’s legacy in colonial North Africa, confirms the emphasis on moralism. He writes: “As the legend goes, in a fit of utopian fervor, Pinel brought the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity to those most marginalized of citoyens, replacing the bonds of the insane with the invisible chains of the asylum and its injunction to moral responsibility.” Richard Keller, C. Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 21.
(9) Georges Didi-Huberman and J M. Charcot, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003), 19.
(10) Cited in Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria, 25.
(11) J M. Charcot, Leçons du mardi à la Salpêtrière. Policlinique, Course notes by Blin, Charcot, and Colin (Paris: Progrès médical/Delahaye & Lecrosnier, 1887–1888), 115. Cited in, Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria, 25.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria, 176.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Barbara Johnson, The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race, and Gender (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998), 133.
(16) Johnson, The Feminist Difference, 136–7.
(17) Johnson, The Feminist Difference, 153.
(18) It is worth pointing that testimony from women and from people abused by the criminal justice system do exist and are enormously valuable. I am not trying to present a totalizing argument here, just an analysis of the structures that makes regular acknowledgement of the abuse of women and of inmates in the criminal justice system possible.
(19) Stephen Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect (London: Reaktion, 2007), 16.
(20) Ibid.
(21) Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect, 17.
(22) For an examination of how homophobia gets projected onto “terrorist subjects and their nations” as a way of deflecting the socio-sexual conservatism of American empire, see: Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).
(23) Judith Butler, “Torture and the Ethics of Photography,” in Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010), 86–88.
(24) Butler, Frames of War, 78.
(25) Ibid.
(26) Ibid.