Fillip 15 — Fall 2011

Bin Laden’s Death Mask
Saul Anton

On May 1, 2011, US President Barack 
Obama made a late-night television appearance 
to announce that Osama bin Laden was dead. Hours earlier, he had given the order for a team 
of US Navy SEALs to fly into Abbottabad, a Pakistani suburb seventy-five miles from Islamabad, the country’s capital. According to official accounts, after a brief firefight, the SEALs had shot and killed the leader of al Qaeda in the presence of one of his wives. 

Right or wrong, legal or not, the killing was unquestionably the greatest political success of Obama’s administration. It immediately put an end to the racist “birther” theories that were then being enthusiastically espoused by presumably mainstream figures such as Donald Trump, and it instantly banished the spectre of what has traditionally been assumed to be a flaw of Democratic presidents: a weak national security policy. Obama’s poll numbers immediately went up as he basked in the limelight of having brought an inglorious end to the man who provoked a decade of American wars in the Middle East by flying jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. 

A great many questions emerged in the following days about the details of the raid. How and why was bin Laden shot? Why couldn’t he have been taken alive? Was the killing legal and justified? The questions became all the more pointed as the Obama administration revised its account repeatedly. Yet, perhaps inexplicably, at one point it seemed that no question was more pressing in the twenty-four-hour news cycle than why photographs of the raid, and in particular of a dead bin Laden, were withheld from the media by the Obama administration. Within days, members of the US Congress, Middle East potentates, and the international punditocracy were calling for the release of photos and videos in order to establish, once and for all, that the leader of al Qaeda had indeed been killed. Moreover, as if to prove the notion that the media abhors a vacuum, digitally manipulated, faked images of a bloodied bin Laden quickly spread on the Internet and appeared on television in Pakistan and elsewhere. 

Why was the US so reticent to publish pictures of the vanquished “face of evil,” a man who had justified a decade-long war on “terror”? Some of the reasons are both well known and obvious. The United States, like nearly all industrialized countries, has practiced official censorship of photographs of war and military operations for over a century; before President Obama’s term began, the most recent example of this was the Bush administration’s ban on the publication of images featuring the flag-draped coffins of dead American soldiers returning from Iraq—a first when it was introduced in 2003. Although Obama lifted the Bush-imposed ban in the first year of his administration, he imposed a ban on the bin Laden pictures. He was thus able to claim the moral high ground, characteristically turning to sports analogies: “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.... We don’t need to spike the football.” Late-night comedian Jon Stewart even got a chance to chime in: “A photo will end the speculation, just like the Zapruder film put a rest to all that JFK business,” he quipped, wryly. 

In the age of Photoshop, as Stewart’s comments made clear, demands for the release of photographic evidence verge on the absurd. Not only do they ignore important legal questions raised by such a killing—which was, for reasons I hope to make clear, both a state execution and the execution of a state—they blur the difference between historical information, to which the public clearly has substantial rights, and photographic images, which are “information” (as is just about everything else today) but do not constitute “knowledge” of facts that the public necessarily has a claim to, at least within the framework of current law. 

The increasingly fuzzy line between photographic documents and photographically mediated action, however, operates on many levels. In a strange twist, and as if to dig the dagger deeper into those who demanded the release of the bin Laden photos, the administration released images of the president and top officials watching the raid live in the Situation Room of the White House, like a group of college students watching the finals of the NCAA. Not quite realizing the implications of its move, it seemed, the administration believed that releasing only indirect evidence of bin Laden’s death was sufficient. Perhaps unconsciously, what appeared to really matter to them—and what perhaps even constituted the true historical event here—was not the killing of the most wanted man in the world, but rather the fact that the president had personally seen it take place live on video feed.

Oddly enough, in a certain way, the administration was right. What the latter publicity photo reveals is that whereas photographic images are traditionally understood as documents and used by the state apparatus as such, they are increasingly integrated into the direct, real-time operation of governmental power and state violence. The US, according to recent news accounts, has created a vast database of fighting-age men in Afghanistan and Iraq that allows it to scan millions of faces in a matter of seconds.1 This marks an increasing divergence between the state and the fifth estate: for the latter, photographs remain historical documents belonging to the public record and doing the crucial work of establishing and maintaining that record; for the former, they are increasingly sources of “actionable” information linking the executive power to its executioners—the military—in near-real time.

One should resist announcing the dawn of a new technological era here. Rather, it would seem that the latest technologies are simply realizing the undeveloped potential of photography in its broadest possible uses. Moreover, although photography is generally considered within the framework of the emergence of memory and its technological prostheses—one can readily think of the long tradition leading from Charles Baudelaire through Marcel Proust and surrealism to W. G. Sebald’s “photographic” writing of Europe’s twentieth-century history in novels such as Austerlitz (2001)—it has also long been recognized as having a power over its subjects, oft-identified with the power of life and death. One can invoke Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, which helped give rise to a minor field of social theory and criticism. Yet the power of photography over its subjects was noted from nearly its invention in the nineteenth century and was already well theorized by the first decades of the twentieth.2 Ernst Jünger, who wrote on the aesthetics of war after his experiences in WWI, saw a profound link between photography and war: Photography is a weapon that the new type of person makes use of. For him, seeing is an act of aggression. And correspondingly, the desire grows to make oneself invisible, as with the use of camouflage during the World War. A military position became untenable at the moment when it could be detected in an aerial photograph. These conditions push us inexorably toward a greater flexibility and objectification. Already there are guns equipped with optic cells, and even aerial and aquatic war machines with optic steering mechanisms.3

The photograph objectifies, and in doing so, it turns its subjects into targets—never more instantly than today, with the advent of video and its transmission of the image of a person or a place anywhere in the world. Jünger here correctly anticipated the emergence of the so-called “smart” weapons that are the norm of modern technological warfare—and that, with the emergence of the live-feed battlefield, have become a technological extension of the sovereign body and an instrument in its projection of force. Nothing demonstrates this more conclusively than the Obama administration’s increasing use of deadly remote-controlled drones operated by CIA officers stationed in the US to attack jihadists and the Taliban—to the tune of about 1,500 kills in two years—even as it has ceased combat operations in Iraq and is beginning the pullout of ground forces in Afghanistan. You might say that we are confronted here with the dark side of crowdsourcing and social media, which have been held up as playing a critical role in the “Arab Spring” throughout Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. The instantaneity and unification of the body politic through technology also allows it to express sovereign violence in a highly efficient way. The mediatization of the photographic image that has empowered the new social media masses is doubled by the real-time telerobotic violence of modern state power. War, in other words, expresses the link between photography and the state insofar as it is the situation in which an individual is necessarily identified as either a citizen or a foreigner, a friend or an enemy. There are good reasons to feel paranoid on Facebook.

What the aftermath of the bin Laden killing highlights, then, is that traditional formulations of the role of photography in society, which have aligned it with the emergence of the democratic ethos ever since Ralph Waldo Emerson described the daguerreotype as “the true republican style of painting,” have ignored its crucial relation to state power and sovereign violence.4 One thinks of Walt Whitman, who famously expressed the democratic and anti-aesthetic ideal of photography when he wrote, “The majesty and the beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world.... I do not doubt there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, slaves, dwarfs, weeds, rejected refuse, than I have supposed.”5 Yet in “The Body and the Archive,” Allan Sekula gave a classic account of how the photograph became a fundamental tool of the police.6 Thus, both photography’s paradigmatic function in democratic representation, the depiction of the citizen (think of “social documentary” photography, from August Sander, who sought to create a typological archive of German individuals in their daily lives, to the social photography tradition of Lewis Hine, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and others who documented and presented individuals in the concrete conditions of their existence) and the constitutive role of the photographic image in the deployment of sovereign force, which could be only indirect with traditional photographic methods (police mugshots, intelligence gathering, etc.), are significantly amplified and realized by the new media. To be sure, the “anyone can do it” aspect of photography has been, if anything, further extended by digital technology. Today, not only can anyone take a picture, anyone can produce high-quality visual and print media. Everyone, in effect, can operate as a broadcaster, even if what is broadcast is little more than the details of daily life. If, theorists have long argued, twentieth-century democracy was determined by the mass media that gave it its final form and shape—what Guy Debord understood as “capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image”—it’s safe to assume that the emergence of new media will have genuine consequences not only for forms of entertainment and interaction, but also for its political forms and tendencies.7 The corollary of a mass social media culture and the incorporation of live feed into the state’s political machinery is the propagandistic use by terrorists of videotape and the Internet, as in the famous 2002 beheading of the kidnapped American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi. As Susan Sontag noted, after the video was briefly posted on the Web site of a Boston newspaper, the outcry calling for its immediate removal clearly demonstrated the power of the image to wound—i.e., to serve as a weapon.8

How, then, do we understand this violent aspect of photography?

Here, I would like to suggest—without, however, having the space to demonstrate it—that the highly technicist perspectives of thinkers such as Paul Virilio and Friedrich Kittler, who give technology a determining role in social and political reality, cannot provide an adequate account of it, precisely because they assume this violence is technological. Instead, I would like to turn to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who has developed a far-reaching account of modernity over the past two decades as defined by what he calls biopolitics, a term he borrows from Michel Foucault’s late work on governmentality. Yet if Virilio and Kittler are too technicist, Agamben is perhaps too much of a philosopher. In stark contrast to Foucault, for who the term designated a heterogeneous and always-shifting nexus of relations and forces that escape the traditional framework of political philosophy and practice, Agamben has sought to use the idea in order to extend Debord’s analysis of the spectacle beyond its Hegelian-Marxist framework and develop an ontological account of Western political thought and its modern history. Nevertheless, it is worth following Agamben here, for he leads us, I would like to show, back to an important insight into photography and its relationship to politics.

Following Foucault, Agamben has argued that we must distinguish between, on the one hand, the domain of traditional political theory and the juridical state that it gives rise to, and, on the other, the technologies and techniques of power that society deploys against life: The Marxian scission between man and citizen is thus superceded by the division between naked life (ultimate and opaque bearer of sovereignty) and the multifarious forms of life abstractly recodified as social-juridical identities (the voter, the worker, the journalist, the student, but also the HIV-positive, the transvestite, the porno star, the elderly, the parent, the woman) that all rest on naked life.9 The scission between naked life and political identity Agamben describes in this passage is not, however, merely a recent phenomenon. According to Agamben, it has its roots in the inattentiveness of Western political thought to its dual and conflicted origin in the Greek notions of bios and zoē: In carrying out the metaphysical task that has led it more and more to assume the form of a biopolitics, Western politics has not succeeded in constructing the bridge between zoē and bios, between voice and language, that would have healed the fracture. Bare life remains included in politics in the form of the exception, that is, as something that is included solely through an exclusion.10 What Agamben calls “naked life” represents concrete forms of existence in society that escape the abstract universality of the “citizen” in modern political thought. 

Returning to our discussion of the death of bin Laden and modern telerobotic war, it isn’t hard to suggest that these technologies represent biopolitics as the other side of modern politics and that at the heart of these technologies lies the photographic image. It is easy enough to imagine the “enemy combatant” embodied by the terrorist and, more ominously, by the Guantanamo Bay camp set up by the US in order to detain him without due judicial process, precisely in terms of Agamben’s paradoxical inclusion into Western biopolitics through an exclusion from its mechanisms of political and human rights. Televisual war thus finds its correlate in the images of starving children, often African, who regularly appear on American public broadcasting, and testifies to what Agamben sees as the separation between the rights of man and the rights of the citizen: “In the final analysis, however, humanitarian organizations—which today are more and more supported by international commissions—can only grasp human life in the figure of bare or sacred life, and therefore, despite themselves, maintain a secret solidarity with the very powers they ought 
to fight.”11

For our purposes, what is crucial here is that this separation of the order of politics from the order of life is also why bare life as Agamben understands it corresponds to the “referent” that Roland Barthes identified as the “absolute Particular” of photography in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, his celebrated late work: The Photograph always leads the corpus I need back to the body I see; it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid, the This (this photograph, and not Photography), in short, what Lacan calls the Tuché, the Occasion, the Encounter, the Real, in its indefatigable expression... the fact of being this, of being thus, of being so.12

For Agamben, biopower is the concrete and material face of the modern juridical state, the point at which the “society of the spectacle,” theorized by Debord as the ultimate form of the economic system, touches the modern state form and, by doing so—in being capable of not only “taking” the picture of but also “targeting” its 
“referent”—always grasps the individual citizen as the bare life that constitutes, according to Agamben, the secret heart of modernity: The state of the spectacle—inasmuch as it empties and nullifies every real identity and substitutes the public and public opinion for the people and the general will—is precisely what produces massively from within itself singularities that are no longer characterized either by any social identity or by any real condition of belonging: singularities that are truly whatever singularities.13

“Whatever singularities,” the term Agamben uses to speak of bare or “naked” life here, is what the citizen and the individual can become beyond the domain of Western political representation and juridical modes of social organization, or the domain increasingly dominated by the spectacle. Although these “singularities”—i.e., human beings considered outside of and beyond their individual identity and subjectivity—represent the object of biopower, in Agamben’s quasi-messianic scheme, they also represent what he terms “the coming community,” the foundation of a new post-political politics that will transcend the liberal parliamentarian forms that are ever-increasingly compatible with biopower: The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for a conquest or control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organization.... Whatever singularities cannot form a societas because they do not possess any identity to vindicate nor any bond of belonging for which to seek recognition.14

This implies, however, that the politics of singularity operates in the field of an ongoing and generalized state of emergency—that is, within the “space” of a suspension of the law and the status of the legal subject. The spectacle undermines the rational field of liberal democratic consensus, individuality, and public opinion that it creates and organizes. Yet rather than leading to political crisis, change, or revolution, as traditional Marxist accounts would have it, the juridical structure of political representation under the spectacle gives way to a “naked” or “bare” life that is eventually deprived of juridical status, and, ultimately, of the political status of the citizen. The end result is that biopower operates by grasping “bare life” as life that “can be killed,” that is, as life that can be excluded, physically and legally, from the domain of the law. For this reason, even though the confusion between juridical theories of the state and biopower can be traced back to classical thought, Agamben argues that biopower assumes its first genuine geospatial and territorial form in the rise of the modern concentration camp in the early twentieth century: The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule. In the camp, the state of exception, which was essentially a temporary suspension of the rule of law on the basis of a factual state of danger, is now given a permanent spatial arrangement, which as such nevertheless remains outside the normal order.15

Modernity thus remains politically unstable and problematic not because of the vagaries of political forms or history, but because sovereign power, which is conceived as the expression of the will of an abstract body politic, has the power to establish the state of exception whereby specific bodies—defined by race, ethnicity, gender, etc.—are excluded from the body politic. This power, which is traditionally identified with the figure of the dictator in times of mortal danger to the state, is thus implicit in the shift from a regime of individual subjects to a condition of whatever politics that is ambivalent and biopolitical.

As thought-provoking and useful as Agamben’s account of biopower is in considering recent shifts in American politics, it nevertheless poses some questions from the perspective of both political philosophy and theories of photography. According to Barthes, the absence that photography reveals is existence, or, rather, the fact that existence is merely a being-there that lacks the ontological grounding that Agamben’s conception of biopolitics assumes. That is, Agamben’s is a “strong” ontology of politics that demands a resolution of the aporia between the order of political life, bios, and the order of existence, zoē. By contrast, for Barthes, photography is not the representation of “bare life” but rather the revelation that life is “lifelike”—that, in effect, the world is theatrical, the domain of the pose: Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.16

The becoming-image of the body in this passage implies an account of “spectacle” that differs substantially from that of Debord and Agamben. Barthes sees the photographic referent not as the image of a “bare life” that is the secret foundation of modern politics, but rather as revealing the fact that this same “bare life” is always of the order of theatre and theatrical gesture and thus belongs to the regime of the image, which hollows out “life” from the very beginning. Photography, in other words, marks the field of desire that opens the very possibility of subjectivation in the first place precisely in the absence of a “bare life” that would, in Agamben’s view, be redeemed by a politics of “singularities”:17 What I want, in short, is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs, altering with situation and age, should always coincide with my (profound) “self”; but it is the contrary that must be said: “myself” never coincides with my image; for it is the image which is heavy, motionless, stubborn (which is why society sustains it), and “myself” doesn’t hold still, giggling in my jar: if only Photography could give me a neutral, anatomic body, a body which signifies nothing! Alas, I am doomed by (well-meaning) Photography always to have an expression: my body never finds its zero degree, no one can give it to me (perhaps only my mother? For it is not indifference which erases the weight of an image—the Photomat always turns you into a criminal type, wanted by the police—but love, extreme love).18

For Barthes, “bare” life can be apprehended only in the form of a pose because it “is” only the pose, not some thing that assumes one. Above all, it can only be given by a mother who is absent, ontologically speaking, and thus, paradoxically, it cannot be given at all. The mother represents—and here we come to see Barthes’s reflections on photography as a critical fable of ontology—the absence of the “father” that has long governed Western thought. What defines photography, then, is that it reveals the subject’s lack of ontological solidity at the moment of its eruption into the world. And this eruption is its own eruption into the world as a pose that expresses its desire to be, without, for all that, granting such a desire. The “mother,” in other words, is only a mother not because she represents some kind of naked existence, but because she is absent. Here, we encounter the cryptic message of Part II of Camera Lucida, in which Barthes introduces the figure of his mother as the absent referent that organizes his book. Barthes is thus able to speak of the erotic dimension revealed by photography, a desire to fill the “wound” that exists in the world and that should be set apart initially from Freudian accounts of consciousness, precisely because this desire arises as the first moment of “bare” life, but it cannot be reduced to an Id in the classical Freudian model 
of the self.19

What Barthes’s account of photography brings into relief, then, is that Agamben’s conception of bare life and the coming community of “whatever singularities” is founded on the paternal order of the law. In other words, Agamben continues to formulate the subject from the perspective of the power over life that he claims defines political sovereignty. By contrast, Barthes sees in photography the underlying impossibility of a photographic politics founded on the live feed, telepresence, social networking, etc., because the theatricality of photography reveals any pre- or post-political “coming community” to be a contradictory idea at the outset insofar as it must spatialize rather than merely repeat and display singularity. In fact, by thus offering a spatial account of singularity as being constituted in the camp (as the camp prisoner), Agamben can be said to risk a merely aesthetic account of existence as a generalized “community” defined by its lack of identity. Barthes saw a similar problem in Bertolt Brecht’s conception of epic theatre: “Brecht was hostile to photography because (he said) of the weakness of its critical power; but his own theater has never been able to be politically effective on account of its subtlety and its aesthetic quality.”20

Bin Laden, too, appears to have understood this at some level. Recognizing, intuitively or unconsciously, the aesthetic quality of what Agamben has sought to establish as an ontological ground for Western politics, he set out to produce the drama of a divine and sovereign violence that would exploit and attempt to fill the absence that defines the absolute Particular referent of Western photographic spectacle. In doing so, he was able to push Western politics to its limits—that is, to the point where it would begin to turn against itself and transform itself, as it had done in the 1930s and on other occasions, into a totalitarian politics. By presenting the photographic image of the destruction of the World Trade Center, bin Laden for an overtly theological figure in the place of the covertly still-theological yet ostensibly secular image of America embodied by the World Trade Centers—that is, the idea of a capitalist, democratic, and pluralistic society. 

Now, although the American self-image is deeply invested in its uniquely paradoxical combination of capitalism and democracy, it is also deeply invested in the figure of the president and his team, that is, in the leader who represents the sovereign body politic—the people.21 Obama’s election as president unquestionably represented a first step at healing the deep political and social wounds of American slavery: racism and the exclusion of African Americans and other minorities from the body politic. However, another of bin Laden’s achievements may have been to establish his own image, the head of an Islamic body politic, the caliphate, as a counter-figure to this traditional image of the liberal democratic Western political leader. In this sense, the picture released in the wake of the Pakistan raid of bin Laden watching himself on television is telling. This is not because it reveals him to be a shrewd manipulator of his own image, a skill basic to leadership anywhere and at all times, but rather because it shows that he understood that only the force of the image would allow him to challenge the West, that in fact the image is sovereign in a democratic West, for only it can embody the people, and it can do so only in a form that allows them to be seen—that is, following Barthes, in the guise of a pose: for instance, in the war photograph or, in the Situation Room picture we have discussed above, the photograph of the president attending to the people’s war. Indeed, it is tempting to say that the Situation Room photograph represents, in this regard, an attempt to push back against bin Laden’s image as a theological leader and the implied narrative of divine justice that his image, and the image of the terrorist in general, assumes. In other words, Obama’s Situation Room is an attempt to symbolically reassert the sovereignty of the people and the juridical order of the Law, that is, to end the state of exception that came into being after 9/11—a promise that Obama made in calling for the closure of Guantanamo while he was a presidential candidate. That is why the Obama administration sought to present it in place of the image of a now-dead sovereign terrorist, i.e., bin Laden. Behind the ban on the bin Laden photographs is the need, from the American perspective, to replace the picture of sovereign violence with that of a cautious, deliberative, and circumspect Harvard-trained executive. The war on terror, Obama has understood, was a war of images, for bin Laden himself had offered the American public an image of what was, in effect, sublime or divine violence, in order to provoke the United States to respond with an equal amount of sublime violence—in order to reveal that the political order of the West was grounded not only in the representation of a real and specific body politic, but also in the photographic violence that is its hidden double and that always threatens the rational and pragmatic regime of representation. 

To say this differently, the ban on pictures of a dead bin Laden was not merely pragmatic. It was also an attempt to reassert control over the violence implicit in the photograph and the photographic pose, the way that this pose upsets the identities of liberal democracy and the limits of a liberal juridical political paradigm. Let us consider the following: From the American legal and political standpoint, bin Laden could neither be tried as a criminal nor captured as a “non-combatant.” There were only two possible outcomes of a bin Laden trial, and both would result not in the confirmation of the law but in its delegitimation. If he were found guilty—and it is clear that there could be no other outcome for a US administration—the verdict inevitably would be rejected by a great many across the world, since no one would believe the trial was a fair one or that the US had preserved the possibility of innocence; yet if he were found innocent, one could at the very least expect the downfall of the Obama administration and, perhaps, a more profound political crisis in the United States. In either case, rather than ensuring that justice being done, the trial would reveal the limits of justice—the limits, in other words, of the very logic of exclusion that makes a subject either guilty or innocent. This is something that anyone who has ever exceeded the speed limit can immediately grasp. The law, in itself contingent and an expression of general will, will always contain grey zones that represent sites of legal and moral contention. Should the speed limit be 65 or 75 mph? When does the law decide to enforce it? Stated in more philosophical terms, a bin Laden trial would have simply overwhelmed the pragmatics of the law and brought into glaring focus the distance between human and divine justice. 

It would simply not have been possible to put bin Laden on trial without creating a crisis in the American legal and political system, since a trial would have brought the limits of this system into the open at the place where it touches on a theologically grounded violence. Bin Laden had established himself as a counter-sovereign who challenged, in claiming the position of terror, the laws of nations, and he had done so through the power of the photographic image. In destroying the Twin Towers in such a way that it was sure to become a live television event, he established the image of those buildings’ destruction as an exemplary challenge to the Western order and thereby effectively shattered the possibility of being subject to the order of legal and juridical representation. This, however, was not because he assumed the position of bare life, which Agamben sees as being a structural condition of Western biopower. Rather, it’s because the television images of a plane flying into the Twin Towers were intended to constitute images of sublime or divine justice, of an action that could not be judged by the standards of human justice, that exists at the level of the image itself. In producing such images, one might say that bin Laden asserted the priority of the photographic over the rational word of the law—that is, the pragmatic and economistic parsing of language that forms the basis of a legal liberal order and its consumer economy of spectacle—and he sought to present it as an expression of divine justice. Bin Laden claimed for himself the absolute image as a violent imposition that can shatter the order of representation, and thereby he became someone who exceeded the very mechanism of law—an outlaw who had to be killed because not only did he commit a crime, he sought to make himself a counter-law. One can certainly try heads of state, but one cannot try the law itself in its autoproduction as image, that is, in the advent of the law as the terrible power of a sublime destruction, as originary violence. In the essay “Image and Violence,” philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes: If violence is exercised without responsibility to anything other than itself, without reference to a higher authority (including, of course, when violence invokes such a moment of authorization and justification), this becomes apparent through the essential link that violence maintains with the image. Violence always makes an image of itself, and the image is what, of itself, presses out ahead of itself and authorizes itself.22

The example of the bin Laden killing and its aftermath, however, reveals not only that the Bush administration brought American politics to the limits of democracy, but also this: Photography’s transformation into information and video reveals the stakes of this limit, the point at which modern politics is an unauthorized eruption of a pose, the production of a sovereign image. The fuzzy line between document and action, knowledge and power—what the Enlightenment theorized as the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime and what modern linguists refer to as the difference between the constitutive and performative dimensions of language—turns out to also mark the ambiguous role of the photographic image in modern mass politics. The erotic excess of the posing subject whom Barthes sees in the photograph is not, as Agamben believes, a “bare life” constitutively excluded from juridical power—though this always remains a possibility that we must remain vigilant against—but rather a linguistic excess that we see being widely cultivated by a media increasingly interested in producing and maintaining conditions of crisis and emergency. The liberal ideal of a stable body politic, which is also, paradoxically, Agamben’s ideal, is haunted by the sovereign violence resulting from the absence and impossibility of that body, the sovereign violence that affirms the existence of the body politic always first as an image. 

What is clear, however, is that the technological shift underway with the advent of live media technologies has political consequences that cannot be easily anticipated. In a world of near-instant connectivity, the line between action and the document of an action, between the “instant of a Wreck and when the wreck has been,” to quote Emily Dickinson, has grown increasingly blurred, and the media has little interest in re-marking the distinction.23 New media has thus only heightened and intensified what had long been promised by photography as a medium: instantaneous presence and a public realized, for the first time, not only virtually through the intermediaries of various media, but in a simultaneity and identity realized in moments of crisis or danger that become experiences sustained aesthetically. The media, in seeking to produce and sustain perpetual conditions of crisis, seek also to crystallize a public—a body politic—that is at once viewer and viewed, victim and spectator. The destruction of the World Trade Center was perhaps one of the first attacks to be witnessed in medias res, to adapt an old rhetorical notion, and that is one reason the German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was led to make what quickly became very controversial statements comparing the attack to a “cosmological” work of art. What Stockhausen seemed to grasp, however insensitive his remarks may have been, was that the rise of a live televisual media and the information network had made evident the ambiguous relation between mediate knowledge and immediate aesthetic experience that photography makes possible, that is, the potential of sublime or sovereign violence that we are exploring here. As I write this, on September 9, 2011, only days before the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, when a memorial is finally set to open, American officials have announced that “credible threats” have emerged to repeat terror attacks on the anniversary day. Action and image blur into memory and crisis of memory, repetition and fracture. It is this potential violence of the image, rather than any fundamentally new digital condition defined technically, that opens a great number of questions regarding the relations among democracy, politics, and media today.

Let us step back to recapitulate. At first sight, the bin Laden killing appears to conform quite closely to Agamben’s theory of biopower. In banning the death mask photograph, the Obama administration seems to have sought to disguise, if not entirely banish, the fact that its killing of bin Laden was an expression of biopolitical power over bare life—as if the death mask photograph were the picture of “bare life” itself. The troubling legal status of the “enemy combatants” being held to this day at Guantanamo Bay and of bin Laden’s execution appear to exemplify an extrajudicial projection of sovereign power, the creation of a “state of exception” that remains in force almost a decade after 9/11. Agamben writes: “What, then, is the life of homo sacer, if it is situated at the intersection of a capacity to be killed and yet not sacrificed, outside both human and divine law?”24 Bin Laden came to be a homo sacer; the US did not wish to elevate him to the status of an Islamist martyr or provide the basis for a sacrificial narrative that can, as history testifies, emerge as a powerful challenge to the imperial logic of American and Western power. 

At the same time, the ban on bin Laden’s death picture points to another understanding of the dynamics of sovereignty, representation, and media. As counterintuitive as it might seem, the Obama administration’s decision to kill bin Laden and refusal to make a spectacle of him reveals its desire to reaffirm and re-establish the domain of the juridico-legal order and political representation that the Bush administration was willing to suspend with few qualms—and this precisely because it was bin Laden who represented, if we may say it in this way, a “pose,” that of “terror” rather than serenity, that challenged the liberal order that a juridico-legal politics makes possible. Yet this challenge was not from the perspective of a “whatever being,” a “bare life” that is both post-political and represents the reattachment of politics to life, of bios to zoē, that Agamben calls for, but rather as the unleashing of a photographic desire that necessarily exceeds the Western order insofar as the latter is unable to incorporate into itself the eruption of the absolute Particular as a pose, one that erupts, like the image appears magically on photographic paper, as a divine violence that transcends any particular body or image. It is this posing that many in the nineteenth century described as the power of photography to steal your soul and to reduce you to your pose.

For the Obama administration, therefore, more important than the death of bin Laden was the death of the image of bin Laden. Only with the death of his image could the violence of the image be once again veiled, and thus reclaimed by a liberalism seeking to reassert itself and re-establish the reign of legal identity and representation as a medium for the production of political identity. In putting the destruction of the World Trade Center on television, bin Laden had, consciously or not, unleashed the image itself, as it were, in order to short-circuit and overwhelm the framework of representation that underwrites and sustains the liberal order and its claims to globality and universality. The image as terror and the possibility of terror, however, is ultimately that which the Law will always seek and fail to contain, because it is that which the law is when the word is understood as medium, that is, as spectacle.

  1. Thom Shankar, “To Track Militants, US Has a System that Never Forgets a Face,” New York Times, July 13, 2011.

  2. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989). 

  3. Ernst Jünger, “Photography and Second Consciousness: An Excerpt from ‘On Pain’,” trans. Joel Agee, in Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940, ed. Christopher Phillips (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Aperture, 1989), 208–09.

  4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1820-1872, vol. 6, eds. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), 110.

  5. Walt Whitman, “Faith Poem,” in Leaves of Grass (1856), Walt Whitman Archive,

  6. See Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October no. 39 (Winter 1986), 3–64.

  7. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994), 24.

  8. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 69.

  9. Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 6–7. Agamben makes what is clearly a far-reaching claim here in suggesting that naked life supersedes the categories of “traditional” political theory, and a rigorous assessment of his work would have to involve asking what he means when he says that naked life is the ultimate bearer of sovereignty. He seems to be talking about the traditional claim that sovereignty lies ultimately in the power to put to death—that is, power over naked life. Yet the legitimacy of sovereign power could never lie in the simple mortality of its victim, nor in the idea that the victim’s death represents the trace of the historical event of power’s exercise, which would, in effect, make the photography of death into the basis of political sovereignty. This, one might also point out, is the mistaken idea that is explored by a recent study of the ethical potential of photography, Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

  10. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 11.

  11. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 133.

  12. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 4–5.

  13. Agamben, Means Without End, 86.

  14. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 85–86. Italics are Agamben’s.

  15. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 169. Italics are Agamben’s.

  16. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 10.

  17. One should note that Agamben is hardly the only thinker of “singularity” in recent decades. Jean-Luc Nancy, for one, offers a markedly different view of singularity. See, in particular, his Being Singular Plural (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

  18. Ibid., 12.

  19. On the subject of eros in Camera Lucida, I would like to mention Eduardo Cadava and Paola Cortés-Rocca’s unpublished Notes on Love and Photography.

  20. Ibid., 36.

  21. In this respect, one wonders what the “Freedom Tower” and the memorial for the victims of 9/11 will symbolize when this notion of freedom became the ideological face of its restriction domestically and neo-imperial war abroad. 

  22. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 20.

  23. Emily Dickinson, “The difference between Despair (305),” The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little Brown, 1960), 144.

  24. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 73.

About the Author

Saul Anton is the author of Warhol’s Dream (2007) and writes about art, literature, and aesthetic and cultural theory. He is the translator of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Discourse of the Syncope: Logodaedalus (2008) and is currently writing two books: an extended essay on Lee Friedlander’s Little Screens for Afterall’s One Work series and The Vestige of Art: Painting and History in Diderot. He currently teaches literature at the New School for Social Research, New York, and critical theory of art and culture at the Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia.

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