Apparatus, Capture, Trace: Photography and Biopolitics
I wish to propose to you nothing less than a general and massive partitioning of beings into two large groups or classes: on the one hand, living beings (or substances), and on the other, apparatuses in which living beings are incessantly captured…. I call a subject that which results from the relation and, so to speak, from the relentless fight between living beings and apparatuses.—Giorgio Agamben1
Today, fewer and fewer subjects escape the camera’s gaze. From Fukushima to Libya to London, cameraphone-carrying citizens habitually document disasters, uprisings, riots, acts of terror, and crimes in progress, publishing and distributing photographs in near-real time with the push of a button. At national borders, security forces employ cameras to scan the intimate topographies of the individual human iris, policing the movements of populations. In city squares and private homes, electronic billboards and computer and television screens flicker with an unceasing stream of digital images, advertisements often blending almost seamlessly into the larger flow. And in the infinitely editable space of the social media profile, personal histories are built, broadcast, refashioned, and erased at whim in sequences of photographs snapped, posted, altered, reposted, rearranged, and deleted—with extraordinary ease and often broad public exposure. Across these and innumerable other contexts, photography today supports an unprecedented scale and immediacy of image production, generating reportage, data banks, commercials, fungible identities, and an ongoing maelstrom of images in the digital vernacular.
The increasing ubiquity of the digital camera, the growth of the Internet, and a proliferation of nodes of dissemination have accompanied these profound alterations to the medium and practice of photography, whose traditional role as tool of mass media, instrument of administration, arbiter of identity, and mediator of memory has assumed previously unimaginable dimensions. As an ever more mobile and pervasive technology, photography is fundamental to the decentred, diffuse relations that are emerging in the rapidly dematerializing economies of global capital. Just as it is becoming central to the radical transformations of volume and speed that mark these economies, it is also becoming more and more integral to our everyday social and affective exchanges. Its traces are swiftly accumulating in a virtual and physical sphere that seems overwhelmingly diverse.
Yet while photography appears nearly infinite in this era of multiplying meanings and uses, it is not limitless or unbounded. Formally and discursively, it is a politicized phenomenon in its every historical appearance, and today it is becoming entrenched within a new set of political relations, a set of relations that implicates it in particular ways in the artificial production and regulation of not just the body but the human lifespan itself. These new relations are rendering photography’s politicization at once more and less visible—that is to say, differently visible.
In a certain sense, all of us are, and have long been, photographic subjects. Yet the character of the photographic subject is always in flux, as are the politics within which it acts. As an approach to understanding the politicization of photography in the current era, its new patterns of visibility and invisibility, and the various subjects that emerge in diverse and irregular relationship to it, it is useful to consider photography a dispositif, or apparatus. Michel Foucault described the dispositif as a set of strategies that appears at the junction of relations of power and knowledge to address a historically specific exigency: a “formation, so to speak, that at a given historical moment has as its major function the response to an urgency.”2 Elaborating on the Foucauldian idea, Giorgio Agamben has proposed that a subject is that which emerges from the relentless struggle between living beings and the various apparatuses in which they are captured.3 Agamben argues that such apparatuses are proliferating at a massive scale in the current extreme phase of capitalism—a growth that “corresponds to the equally extreme proliferation in processes of subjectification.”4
Taking Agamben’s suggestion as a point of departure, I would like to introduce a new series for Fillip titled Apparatus, Capture, Trace: Photography and Biopolitics. This series is intended as an opportunity to reflect upon the ways processes of subjectification today shape and are shaped by the intertwining of the apparatus of photography—as technology, medium, performance, event, imagistic affect—with another apparatus of current concern, namely, biopolitics. I refer to the latter in the specific sense first articulated by Foucault, who, in the 1970s, described biopolitics as a knowledge-power relation in which life itself and the course and processes of living are central to dynamics of power. For Foucault, biopolitics refers to a range of institutions and practices designed to normalize the quality of life of human beings. It is a power relation that operates at the level not of the management of the individual but of the administration of aggregate populations, seeking “control of life and the biological processes of man as species and of ensuring that they are not disciplined but regularized.”5
In contrast to uses of the term denoting racist modes of governance, political battles aimed at defense and preservation of the earth’s biosphere, or the ethical implications of scientific developments in biotechnology or biometrics,6 Foucault’s analysis of biopolitics is one that addresses historically specific transformations of power and life processes—and of the relationship of power to life processes. For Foucault, the emergence of biopolitics signalled a historical shift from the classical sovereign’s repressive power to “take life or let live” to a more productive and socially immanent power that administers and manages life over time: a power to make life or let die, “to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.”7 Biopolitics thus signalled the threshold of modernity, constituting its defining moment—the moment in which life became the subject and centre of political order.8
While Foucault suggested that this historical shift took place around 1800, he located the moment of its intensification in the 1960s, the same decade in which some of the major shifts in spatiotemporal relations that we are experiencing today—a decentring of power9 and a speeding up of time10—first appeared in observable force. These spatially and diachronically altered experiences of living seem intimately linked to the ever-accelerating circulation of digital images in the contemporary virtual sphere, in which the photograph, or, more specifically, the photographic serial, appears increasingly to serve as a stand-in for life itself.
Boris Groys, one among a few writers11 who describe the work of art today as like life—or even as a form of life—suggests that artists’ current interest in documentary forms and documentation is bound up with the new relationship of life to time in our era of biopolitics, in which the lifespan is being produced and regulated through technoscientific and bureaucratic interventions. Formally, he says, documentation operates in the same way that life in the biopolitical era operates—as time artificially fashioned. Neither time nor life can be shown directly; they can be shown or referred to only indirectly, through documentation. For this reason, Groys contends, artists’ engagement with documentation is an almost inevitable product of biopolitics.12
Artistic engagement with documentation also seems linked to a poignant reassertion of the centrality of the “real” today in the larger cultural sphere—an apparently melancholy focus in an era in which the “reality” genres of reality TV and virtual reality are at once widely viewed as artificial yet evidently more and more an integral component of life. As Slavoj Žižek suggests, reality television is one phenomenon that has brought about a “tragi-comic reversal” of the old panoptic logic devised by Bentham: “Today, anxiety seems to arise from NOT being exposed to the Other’s gaze all the time, so that the subject needs the camera’s gaze as a kind of ontological guarantee of his/her being.”13 If documentation—or what was once understood as a record of life unfolding over time—is now emerging as an analogue or counterpart to life, then, in life as in art, the photographic and cinematic forms of self-documentation that dominate blogging, Flickr, YouTube, live webcam feeds, and DIY Netporn can arguably be conceived of not just as self-regulatory or self-defining practices but as life-building ones. Social media is another kind of “reality” platform, after all, and the phenomenon in which the posting of a few snapshots to Facebook actually establishes rather than simply records a particular dimension of a persona is familiar enough today. (In this, the expression POIDH—“pics or it didn’t happen”—realizes perhaps its most literal meaning.) While the idea of art as life—art as constitutive of life or as a substitute for life—is at least as old as Allan Kaprow and Alfred Gell,14 these post-panoptic, deterritorialized forms of photographic self-surveillance and self-simulation are bringing new meaning to the notion. Today, the aim of these forms seems to be the production of reality not as a precursor to representation but as its effect and ultimate end. This move from the realm of the reproductive to the productive is perhaps one definitional aspect of a biopolitics of photography.
Exposure via photographic or cinematic means to the gaze of the other is a media-driven phenomenon of our time in which “personal branding” is, for some, an earnest pursuit. This pursuit has emerged alongside new expectations concerning not just the definition but also the design of the body and the self.15 In the realm of self-design, as in many others, photographic technologies record and construct the individual and the peculiar at the same time they exert normativizing pressure, through sheer force of scale; the cameraphone snapshot and the profile picture, for example—especially in the new milieu of Internet-wide social media identities—function at specific and global levels at once, differentiating while standardizing. Photography is thus implicated as a collective, transindividual affective practice that, through processes of internalization, contributes to the constitution of the individual as a distinct yet historically contingent person with a particular identity, thoughts, and points of view.16 Of course, photography has long operated in much the same way through such forms as the tourist’s snapshot and the family album. But today it is doing so to a dramatically amplified degree, thereby affecting much larger groups of people, much more rapidly—at a scale and speed that is utterly new. In fact, biopolitics itself seems to be driven by precisely these conditions: increased scale and accelerated speed, and the regulation of populations instead of the discipline of the individual body.
While photography is important to the biopolitics of self-design in the global market, it also assumes biopolitical agency in larger arenas of reception and representation. And it is in these larger contexts that we are reminded frequently today that while the photograph lends itself to the constitution of certain realities and subjectivities, it is at the same time indexical—and often brutally so—of others, in varying shades; this is a crucial aspect of its power in an environment increasingly saturated with photographic images of terror, torture, and catastrophe that index some of the most wrenching biopolitical realities of our time.
Photography has long been rhetorically associated with truth, and it often provides a certain access to external realities, but that access is never direct or simple. Manipulation has been integral to the medium since its earliest days—think of the famous removal of Trotsky from a 1920 photograph of Lenin speaking to Soviet troops in Moscow, or the effacement of the Gang of Four from a 1976 photograph of Chinese officials attending Mao Zedong’s funeral in Tiananmen Square. But the doctored photo became a site of special consternation as debates over photographic truth value intensified in the 1990s, when the penetration of social and mass media through Internet and satellite communications began to dramatically change the way we make and view photographs, and digital post-production technologies began to offer an infinity of ways to edit, retouch, and alter photographic images. These changes in production and display, along with the popularization of the digital camera, were described by some in that decade as heralding the “end” of photography, or at least of its historical and spatiotemporal specificity.
Given the continuing urgency of these concerns, it is unsurprising that photographic truth value remains a vital topic in today’s media. Almost daily, headlines point to debates over problems of indexicality ranging from the trivial to the solemn: what a rifle-brandishing Sarah Palin would really look like in a stars-and-stripes bikini,17 whether a photographic copy of Barack Obama’s birth certificate was digitally altered,18 whether a still-absent photograph of Osama bin Laden’s corpse could ever serve as adequate proof of his death.19
Indeed, the killing of bin Laden, far from signalling the end of the so-called War on Terror, revealed new dimensions of a particular biopolitics of photography that was established during that war—one in which truth value emerged as crucial. Hence the evidently widespread desire to verify the al Qaeda leader’s death through examination of a photograph of his corpse, or to physiognomize the bin Laden who appears in videographic images seized from his Abbotabad compound, huddled, wrapped in a shawl, clutching a remote control not in order to initiate his next terroristic project but to manipulate the videographic constitution of his own body on the television screen in front of him.20
It is in this “War on Terror” that Groys sees yet another factor that is adding complexity to the debate over photographic indexicality. Approaching the subject of biopolitics this time implicitly, he argues that the terrorists who since 9/11 have been using historically novel strategies of shock, blackmail, and intimidation to compel us to recognize certain photographic and videographic images of terror and torture as true are seeking to end the postmodern critique of representation, which for a long time seemed to have demonstrated incontrovertibly that the photograph is never neutral. By trying to create images that have an incontestable claim to truth, the terrorist challenges this notion. For Groys, the graphic images of violence generated by the terrorist are indeed valuable at an empirical level, for their truth value and consequent ethical implications. But they have a second kind of value as icons of the political sublime—in the precise Burkean sense of the sublime as the terrifying, the unbearable, the ugly—in a new symbolic economy of exchange. That they dominate our collective imagination belies our nostalgia for the auratic, true image that modernism promised.21
If we accept Groys’s suggestion that we are experiencing a return to the political sublime, we find ourselves in the curious historical position of, on the one hand, returning with new technologies to an optic that was previously dominant in the centuries before the Enlightenment, while, on the other hand, we approach a culmination of the period marked by biopolitics, or the appropriation by power of life—a period that, as we have seen, Foucault described as having begun around 1800,22 the “biological threshold of modernity,” just as the Enlightenment was ending and that earlier optic of the sublime was waning and becoming depoliticized. This is a historical juncture that deserves further consideration.
Biopolitics and photography are emerging in striking coincidence as high-stakes political issues, and both are being explored in diverse and compelling ways in philosophy, art criticism, visual culture, and contemporary art today, but the implications of their mutually imbricated operations for the formation and maintenance of subjectivity have only just begun to be explored. While much has been done in recent decades to examine the role photography plays in the production of knowledge, truth, power, and subjectification,23 only a handful of recent criticism specifically address the point at which photography and biopolitics meet.24 Apparatus, Capture, Trace is intended to extend these nascent discussions.
The new series begins in the current issue with two essays. In the first, “Bin Laden’s Death Mask: Notes on Photography, Biopolitics, and the Sovereignty of the Image,” New York–based writer Saul Anton offers a complex meditation on the role of photography in the recent killing of the al Qaeda leader. The second essay, “Exhaustive Images: Surveillance, Sovereignty, and Subjectivity in Google Maps Street View,” by Toronto-based writer and curator Gabrielle Moser, explores the normative production of the citizen-subject of global capitalism in Google Maps Street View photographs, with special attention to artist Jon Rafman’s project The Nine Eyes of Google Street View (2008–). In the next installment of the series, we will present a visual essay by the Israeli curator, writer, and scholar Ariella Azoulay.
The photograph is mutable. It does not fix or ossify; to the contrary, as Roland Barthes has written, it is an enemy of memory: it “blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory.”25 Just as it is often interpreted differently by the various parties who participate in its creation,26 it acts and is used in multiple ways that shift continually across time and space, fluidly negotiating ever-changing subjectivities and realities in an ongoing here and now. This series is aimed at illuminating the changing character of the subjects who emerge and re-emerge in multidimensional relation to photography in a time of biopolitics, generating and transforming it as much as they are affected or even constituted by it within the larger network of apparatuses Agamben envisions. At the same time, the series is intended to shed light on the various strata within which photography operates and bears meaning today—whether as intersubjective event, social document, bureaucratic instrument, object of exchange, archival record, journalistic testimony, high art, terrorist publicity, state propaganda, site of ethical and aesthetic debate, apparatus of pornography (or war porn), or otherwise.
Felix Guattari has said that one of the primary tasks of power today is the freeing of information from its connections to truth and signification. In an increasingly biopolitical era—an era in which, alongside a proliferation of Photoshopped reminders that the photograph is anything but a transparent reflection of reality,27 the photograph is emerging as a constituent of life—it seems impossible to ignore the need to seek new ways to understand photographic information if we are to remain compassionate, politically active photographic producers and viewers while maintaining a critical stance toward representation. My hope is that the particular focus of this series will lend itself to negotiating this exigency. To this end, I also hope it will provide us with even a slightly better grasp of the adequacy of postmodern critical strategies in understanding photography within the discursive limits of such an era.
About this Article
Apparatus, Capture, Trace: Photography and Biopolitics was first published in Fillip 15 in Fall 2011. For more articles from this issue, see the Table of Contents.
- Giorgio Agamben, “What Is an Apparatus?” in What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 13.
- Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. C. Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), quoted in Agamben, “What Is an Apparatus?” 2.
- Agamben, “What Is an Apparatus?” 13.
- Ibid., 15.
- Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–76, eds. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 1977), 247–48.
- I make this distinction not to imply that biotechnology, biometrics, racist governmental policies, or eco-politics are irrelevant to biopolitics in the Foucauldian sense but to make clear the specific sense in which I am using the term “biopolitics,” which today suggests a wide range of meanings. For an excellent overview of different uses of the term, see Thomas Lemke, Biopolitics: A Short Introduction (New York: NYU Press, 2011). Lemke argues that Foucault’s concept of biopolitics is a historical and relational one in which neither life nor politics act as stable, ahistorical referents; instead, they constitute one another.
- Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge (London: Penguin, 1998), 138.
- Foucault elaborated fairly little upon this notion, which he discussed mostly in his later work. Since the 1970s, the Foucauldian dimensions of biopolitics have been elaborated upon—in various and often divergent ways—by a range of writers, including Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and Roberto Esposito, to name but a few. Deleuze, for example, has argued that the biopolitical marks the transition from disciplinary society to the society of control. Agamben has drawn on the work of Foucault, as well as that of Hannah Arendt and Carl Schmitt, among others, to analyze the role of medical and governmental practices and institutions in the biopolitical production of populations. He has argued that biopolitics began at the moment the ancient Greek concept of zóe (bare life, biological life, or the life property of an organism) became indistinguishable from biós (qualified life, or “way of living proper to an individual or a group”); in Agamben’s analysis, this moment occurred when the politicization of zóe transformed all politics into biopolitics. See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).
- For a discussion of biopolitical spatial relations, see Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon, 1973). In “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (October 59 [winter 1992], 3–7), Deleuze also discusses the dissolution of spatially confining structures under biopolitical conditions. And in Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in a discussion of Deleuze’s ideas, write that in the society of control, power is decentred and discipline functions in a more capillary and penetrating manner, becoming, with the collapse of physical institutions, “less limited and bounded spatially in the social field” (330).
- The spatial diffusion of power is accompanied by new experiences of time. Indeed, as a relation of power that manages the lifespan, or life as it is lived over time, biopolitics bears a special relationship to the temporal. Paul Virilio has written extensively about time as a critical driver of contemporary endocolonization, or of the inscription of bodies into technologized apparatuses of power under neoliberal conditions. He argues that the human body is now constituted by speed and functions according to technological rather than biological time; this contemporary experience of increasing speed he characterizes as “dromology,” or the logic of speed, of “chronopolitics.” See, for example, Virilio Live: Selected Interviews, ed. John Armitage (London: Sage, 2001). Pamela M. Lee argues that a fracturing and multiplication of time has produced a fear of time’s acceleration, or “chronophobia,” in digital culture today. She suggests that this fear first arose in the sixties in parallel with the dramatic technological changes—such as space travel, television, and the advent of the computer—that signalled the birth of the Information Age. See Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
- Others include W. J. T. Mitchell, in Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), and Judith Butler, in Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2006) and Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009).
- Boris Groys, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation,” in the documenta 11 catalogue (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002), 108–14.
- Slavoj Žižek, “Big Brother, or, the Triumph of the Gaze over the Eye,” Ctrl [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, eds. Ursula Frohne, Thomas Levin, and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 224–27.
- See, for example, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Allan Kaprow: Art as Life, MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles), http://moca.org/kaprow/ and Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
- Hal Foster touches upon the idea of self-design in his broader discussion of the contemporary “political economy of design”—a culture in which marketing, the branding of identity, and the spectacularization of commodities create an almost seamless loop of production and consumption. Foster argues that the postmodern “constructed subject” in this economy has now become, largely, the “designed subject” of consumerism and of an increasingly technologized capitalist sphere in which “the product in question is your home or business, your sagging face (designer surgery), or your lagging personality (designer drugs), your historical memory (designer museums), or your DNA future (designer children).” See Hal Foster, Design and Crime and Other Diatribes (London: Verso, 2002). Boris Groys has also discussed this topic in “The Obligation to Self-Design,” e-flux journal, November 2008, http://e-flux.com/journal/view/6.
- My thoughts about photography as a transindividual affective practice have been deeply influenced by Moira Gatens’s fascinating essay “Privacy and the Body: The Publicity of Affect,” in Privacies: Philosophical Evaluations, in ed. Beate Rossler (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 113–32.
- For an interesting discussion of the problem of truth in photography, see Errol Morris, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography (New York: Penguin Press, 2011). On the photograph of Sarah Palin in a bikini, which was faked, see, for example, “Sarah Palin Bikini Pictures: Fake Photos Hit the Web,” The Huffington Post, September 2, 2008, http://huffingtonpost.com/charlotte-hilton-andersen/sarah-palin-bikini-pictur_b_123234.html.
- See, for example, “Birtherism: Where It All Began,” Politico, April 22, 2011, http://politico.com/news/stories/0411/53563.html.
- On Abu Ghraib, see, for example, “The Abu Ghraib Files,” Salon, March 14, 2006, http://salon.com/news/abu_ghraib/2006/03/14/introduction Dora Apel, “Torture culture: Lynching photographs and the images of Abu Ghraib,” Art Journal 64 (2005), 88–100; Stephen F. Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect (London: Reaktion Books, 2007); Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, The Ballad of Abu Ghraib (New York: Penguin, 2008); Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2004; and essays by Jon McKenzie, Tony Perucci, and Peggy Phelan in Violence Performed: Local Roots and Global Routes of Conflict, eds. Patrick Anderson and Jisha Menon (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). On the debate over whether the White House should release putative photographs of a dead Osama bin Laden, see, for example, David Brooks and Gail Collins, “The Power in a Photo,” New York Times, May 4, 2011, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/the-power-in-a-photo/?scp=1&sq=bin%20laden%20photograph%20release%20white%20house%20situation%20room&st=cse.
- See, for example, Dina Temple-Raston, “Videos Pull Back Curtain on Bin Laden’s Hidden Life,” NPR (National Public Radio), May 7, 2011, http://npr.org/2011/05/10/136088993/home-videos-offer-glimpse-of-osama-bin-ladens-life?ps=cprs.
- Groys writes: “We cannot say that these images are not true, because we know that these images have been paid for by a real loss of life—a loss of life that is documented by these images. Magritte could easily say that a painted apple is not a real apple or that a painted pipe is not a real pipe. But how can we say that a videotaped beheading is not a real beheading? Or that a videotaped ritual of humiliation in the Abu-Ghraib prison is not a real ritual? After so many decades of the critique of representation directed against the naive belief in photographic and cinematic truth, we are now again ready to accept certain photographed and videotaped images as unquestionably true.” Boris Groys, “The Fate of Art in the Age of Terror,” in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 972.
- Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge, 143.
- Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula, for instance, in their respective artistic and activist practices and writings, have each produced uniquely incisive bodies of work exploring photography, particularly documentary photography, as a tool of domination, colonialization, and globalization. See, for example, Rosler’s work Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (1967–72), as well as Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975–2001 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), a collection of her writings. For Allan Sekula, see, for example, War without bodies/Krieg ohne Körper (Vienna: Generali Foundation, 2003); Photography Against the Grain (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984); and Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes (with Gary Dufour and John O’Brian) (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997). John Tagg has drawn on Deleuze and Guattari’s Foucauldian notion of the state as “apparatus of capture” to analyze the medium as a means of surveillance, documentation, subjectification, and truth-making that operates differently within historically particular discursive and representational frames; see his The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truth and the Capture of Meaning (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
- In Precarious Life and Frames of War, albeit with limited reference to the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics itself, Judith Butler offers a moving analysis of the role of photography as a mediator of war at Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan in representing certain lives as more authentic and therefore more grievable than others. With more explicit reference to Foucault, W. J. T. Mitchell, in Cloning Terror, discusses the role of the photographic image in the “War on Terror,” employing what he describes as a “bioinformatic” model to link the current “plague” of photographic images directly to the historically particular machinations of contemporary international terrorism. In his analysis, cloning is conceived of as a central symbol for an array of biopolitical phenomena that lie beyond the strictly biotechnical and, particularly in the realm of new media, as a “metapicture” representing the practice of image-making itself—an “image of image-making.” Another analysis of an inherently biopolitical problem is Ariella Azoulay’s recent study of vulnerable citizenship and states of exception among female victims of rape and Palestinian non-citizens of Israel. In that study, The Civil Contract of Photography, Azoulay engages critically with Giorgio Agamben’s work on biopolitics in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, among works by other writers, to examine the ways photographic meanings emerge from relations of power that bind photographer, subject, and viewer. Agamben himself, one of the more visible analysts of biopolitics today, has written, briefly, about photography. In Profanations (trans. Jeff Fort [New York: Zone Books, 2007]), he meditates on photography and particularly the pornographic image as a potentially effective form of profanation. Profanation for Agamben is a gesture of resistance that opposes the separating effects of capitalism; such a gesture offers the possibility of retrieving the image from its reduction to spectacle. See also Vikki Bell’s essay “On Fernando’s Photograph: The Biopolitics of Aparicion in Contemporary Argentina,” Theory, Culture, and Society 27, no. 4 (2010), 69–89, and Caren Kaplan’s “‘A Rare and Chilling View’: Aerial Photography as Biopower in the Visual Culture of ‘9/11’,” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 11, no. 2 (2011), http://reconstruction.eserver.org/112/Kaplan_Caren.shtml, as well as the critical texts on the Abu Ghraib photographs cited in note 19.
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 91.
- See Azoulay’s Civil Contract of Photography for an excellent discussion of photography as a collective act with diverse and conflicted meanings.
- As David Levi Strauss has put it, “We manipulate images, in part, to obscure how much they are manipulating us.” He writes: At a time when any photographic image, old or new, can be digitized and altered at will, we should not believe any image that we see in print or online or anywhere else. But we still do, because it is still in our interest to do so. Why? Because we need to believe in this visual connection to the real in order to make sense of what is happening in the world. I argue that we still believe photographic images, at least with a certain measure of skepticism, not only to satisfy our impulse to make sense of the world but to be receptive to—and thus responsible to—the partial access to reality we know they offer. See David Levi Strauss, “Doctored Photos: The Art of the Altered Image,” Time LightBox, published June 13, 2011, http://lightbox.time.com/2011/06/13/doctored-photos-the-art-of-the-altered-image/#1.
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