- What to Do About Looking
How do we know about war in its ordering, and disordering, of the senses? In the immediate aftermath of the coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, televised and tweeted in real time, the Western world mourned with and for France. Superimposing the French tricolor flag over social media avatars, corporate logos, and state buildings, many produced what Negar Mottahedeh might call a collective sensorial solidarity.1 However, as so many others observed, Islamic State also detonated lethal bombs in Beirut the previous day, yet the Western world did not mourn for the Lebanese killed or those who survived. Drawn in response to this discrepancy, a penciled cartoon circulated on my Facebook feed featured two hands, their thumbs and forefingers extended to create a rectangle and inscribed with “WORLD MEDIA,” framing the Eiffel Tower as a single bomb flies toward this recognizable Parisian monument; just outside the frame, a cavalcade of bombs falls on Kenya, Syria, Beirut, Iraq, and Palestine. This cartoon reminds us that so much of war is perception; or as Rey Chow observes, “As knowledge, ‘Hiroshima’ and ‘Nagasaki’ comes to us as representation, and specifically, as a picture.”2 Drawing on Martin Heidegger, Chow argues that the process of visual objectification has become so indispensable in the age of the world target that understanding is now inseparable from the act of seeing—which is a certain form of “picturing.”3
With the advent of photography capturing “a harvest of death” in the battlefields of the Civil War, and the innovation of the halftone process for [End Page 835] photomechanical reproduction in mass quantities, this world picture has cohered since the mid-nineteenth century through such emergent technologies of seeing. These technologies include not just the photograph, film, and pixel, and their mechanical and digital reproduction, but also the development of aerial technologies including the hot air observation balloon, the airplane, the helicopter, the satellite, and the drone. All these technologies changed our practices of visualizing war, whether mapping territories for reconnaissance, rendering war at a distance possible, or bringing the war “home” in immediate, visceral images (familiarly, televised footage of a live execution or in the digital images of prisoner torture from the US-administered prison Abu Ghraib). Such technologies have also dramatically transformed how we as organic beings are trained to sort, analyze, and interpret the wealth of visual data these technologies produce into understandable, and in some cases usable, forms for seeing, tracking, and targeting.
These technologies for seeing bear profound consequences for the ethical imagination. In this epistemic shift characterized by Chow as “the preemptiveness of seeing-is-destruction and the normalization of technology-as-information,”4 how do both war and peace marshal moral arguments and technological visions together in the name of empire, or the human? What coheres and falls apart in the visual positions (aerial, vertical, horizontal), stages for spectatorship (the checkpoint, the smart phone), modes of appearance and surveillance, as well as disappearance, concealment, and the refusal to appear? What do these arguments and visions render possible, or impossible?
In their new books, both Wendy Kozol and Gil Hochberg are concerned with those acts of seeing that target another for control and interference, whether through war or occupation, humanitarianism or traumatic seizure, and turn to creative interventions to model our collective sensorium anew. Kozol’s Distant Wars Visible focuses on the “ambivalence of witnessing” and considers the efficacy of conflict photography and other forms of visual advocacy for “looking elsewhere.” The promise of witnessing is sensual or perceptual insight or knowledge about another’s suffering, and photographs or images in particular “must act upon viewers in ways that have a direct bearing on the kinds of judgments...