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“The Split-Screen Syndrome”: Structuring (Non)Seeing in Two Plays on Abu Ghraib

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 46, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 427-450 | 10.1353/cdr.2012.0035

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According to Karen Greenberg’s review of Peter Morris’s Guardians,1 the play is “a theatrical version of split-screen cinema” that symbolically reflects what might be called the split-screen syndrome of the American people after 9/11.2 In cinema, “split screen” is a division of the visible into two or more frames that ruptures the illusion of unity of the represented reality, stressing the dramatic disconnectedness of simultaneous actions and often announcing the possibility of conflict or loss. Greenberg uses “split-screen syndrome” to talk about theater and political consciousness metaphorically, to reflect her belief that after 9/11 the American people did not have a realistic picture of the world that surrounds them, but rather were confused by disconnected, opportunistic narratives of victimized and victimizers, and lacked awareness that we are all responsible for the oppression perpetrated on others beyond our territory. Philip Gourevich expressed a similar belief in a debate at the New York Public Library about the documentary that he made with Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure, when he announced that the Abu Ghraib pictures are about us. The film’s title refers to the fact that a team investigating the Abu Ghraib abuse had classified the actions recorded in the photographs as “S.O.P.” (Standard Operating Procedure). The international press had considered these same photographs, among them the hooded man standing with open arms on a box, as shocking.

A difference in perception of what really happened in Abu Ghraib marked the debate from the beginning. What is it, then, that those images revealed to some and concealed from others? How is it that ways of (non) seeing can be responsible for torture, political abuse, and death? No art is better equipped to address these questions than theater, its very name derived from the Greek word theatron—translated as “a place to see.”

In an attempt to show how theater spectacles make their public aware of its responsibility for what happens in the secret prisons of our “empire,” I compare two plays that I believe contain the most interesting commentaries on this issue: Morris’s Guardians and Juan Mayorga’s La paz perpetua (Perpetual Peace).3 This essay reflects on how these two playwrights construct a commentary on the ways of (non)seeing that contributed to what happened in Abu Ghraib and also examines (non) seeing in the reception of the photographs. In this context, I will use Greenberg’s concept of “the split-screen syndrome” to refer to the split between victimizers and victims in the contexts of race, gender, and species, but also to mean the split between seeing and knowing. Before analyzing the plays, however, I will place them in the context of the critical debates on what was concealed about what happened at Abu Ghraib.

I. Mapping the Debate on (Not) Seeing of Abu Ghraib

In an article on Abu Ghraib, Anne McClintock reminds us of two master narratives produced in order to manage the scandal.4 First, there was talk of the so-called “bad apples,” which explained the events as the result of aberrant behavior on the part of a few perverted individuals. McClintock refers to Alfred McCoy’s book A Question of Torture5 to remind us that historically this has been the first argument used in response to accusations of torture since it became a standard investigative practice of the CIA in diverse US wars beginning with Vietnam. The evidence of torture in the Abu Ghraib pictures was thus dismissed as an exceptional event rather than being treated as revealing a more widespread practice. According to the second narrative, gay pornographic photographs inspired soldiers to engage with prisoners in the ways presented by the Abu Ghraib pictures, creating the false impression that it was not torture, but pornography, that constituted the problem. Thus, according to McClintock, the needless debate about pornography replaced the needed discussion of torture. Susan Sontag similarly noticed in the New York Times that the term torture had been “banned” in the official debate on Abu Ghraib, while it was the only accurate word to focus properly on the question.6 W. Lance Bennett et al. arrived at similar conclusions...

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