Paper: The Politics of Visibility in Contemporary Photography

An excellent meditation on publicity, photography, visibility and the frame published in Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal of Visual Culture: 

Like Taryn Simon, American artist Trevor Paglen takes up the ideology of transparency in photographic projects that address the politics of inaccessible spaces and interrogate the unseen networks that structure life under the state. He too activates questions around visibility, participation, and the relationship between aesthetics and politics in works that expose the representational limits of photography. While their subject matter and strategy differ in significant ways, Paglen’s work is likewise emblematic of a type of photography that shifts between image and information, between a seductive formalism and the carefully controlled revelation of evidence, strategically deploying visual and textual details in tandem so that the viewer becomes aware of what exists outside the confines of the frame. For each artist, their projects inhere meaning only when the viewer is able to identify the limits and restrictions imposed, limits that are often the result of a long, careful process of research. In both cases, this is an artistic strategy that moves away from the kind of aesthetic or visual research artists might typically employ and instead re-frames aesthetics in the context of their respective backgrounds in journalism (Simon) and geography (Paglen.)8

In one of his earliest photographic projects, The Other Night Sky, Paglen presents images of classified American satellites, objects that are not officially or publicly logged but that orbit the earth to covertly track or collect data. Working with amateur groups who observe and record the movements of satellites in order to calculate and predict their paths in the sky, Paglen produces visually seductive, telescopic images of the sky at night. Often shot in remote locations, Paglen’s skies are filled with stars and light, producing the familiar sense of wonderment that comes with the contemplation of the universe. Yet of course what he is showing his viewer is much more sinister, revealing as it does the satellite systems that are not part of a transparent public record. This aestheticization of surveillance processes serves to highlight a paradox of visuality itself, since the mere presence of lights in the sky discloses very little factual information even as they signify the covert processes of state surveillance.

A similar and more recent series, Untitled (Drones), shifts his focus to observing and recording the paths of American military drones, an investigation that dovetails with the increased use of drones under the Obama administration.9 Drones, or “unmanned aerial vehicles,” operate simultaneously as automatic recording devices and weapons, looking back at us with their eyeless vision to animate a geographically indeterminate space between viewer and viewed. Such indeterminacy is matched by Paglen’s visual strategy, where his large, saturated prints utilize flat, abstract fields of colour. The viewer is thrust into a vividly atmospheric space, and with no horizon line to orient us towards either earth or sky our normal sense of spatial orientation is confused. Clouds spread wide across the picture plane, serving to reflect, colour, abstract and obscure, attracting our gaze to search for what is held within them. Often only after close scrutiny does the tiny point of the drone reveal itself, reminding us that the sky is not neutral.

Heaving with “the electromagnetic waves of encrypted information that pulse through the atmosphere,” the sky bears the digital information required to keep UAVs airborne.10 Paglen’s use of striking and sublime images paradoxically articulates that the sky no longer acts as a projection of our desires for limitless freedom and the fantastical unknown; it is a space that is as mapped, linked, and virtually connected as anywhere on earth.

Paglen’s work pivots on the tension between aesthetic representation and the documentation of specific instances of state surveillance. He probes at the limits of photography and what a photographic document is able to do: is an image of a drone or a geo-stationary satellite, even with all of the supplemental text that the artist includes, capable of telling us anything about the American military complex and its secretive, violent actions? This disjunction between what Paglen would call the relational aspects of his projects, what exists external to the image, and the highly aestheticized, historically referential qualities of the image itself, is a problem set with an established history in aerial photography.


Both Butler and Azoulay provide accounts of the representational limits of photography and the political limits of public visibility. They each draw our attention to the terms that restrict visual representation and to what is at stake politically if we are not able to recognize the externalities of photography–its framing devices, its temporalities, its participants–as such. Developing a theoretical model that looks outside the image in order to construct meaning has significance not only for photographic practices but for the way we understand and consume visual information in an era that assumes data is, or should be, transparent. The “ideology of communicational transparency” is one that both Paglen and Simon take on, through recourse to the genealogies and aesthetics of photographic media.” 35 This problem has equal bearing on theories of vision, on ideas that determine how we see what we see, and on the dialectic between revelation and concealment: why do we assume that transparency is aspirational?

Political scientist Jodi Dean, writing in the early 2000s, has developed strong arguments for the critique of a transparent public sphere. For Dean, the clichéd assumption that the public has a right to know, that knowledge will come through transparent processes, and that such knowledge is a fundamental obligation of a democratic society, is a problematic assertion that veils the ideological function of the very idea of a public sphere. She points out that contemporary technoculture relies on the notion that the solution to any problem is publicity, or really, transparency, and that more information and greater access to that information is the answer 36 Her work investigates the secret–that which is purposefully kept hidden and inaccessible–as the limit of such publicity:


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ARTICLE: Digital Ontologies as Productive Process

From Cultural Anthropology, this thought-provoking piece by Olga Gorinova:

In a representationalist paradigm, such theory or data would be understood as a representation of how the world really is (a paradigm that seems to have been overcome in performative STS). Yet this paradigm is still employed by scholars when they consider data gathered around a person’s activity in virtual and real life alike as a “data double” (Raley 2013). The concept of a data double or data shadow, arguably, implies a representationalist explanation of what and how the person really is.

Like scientific truths produced in a laboratory, such a double is not only made; it also makes. It is performative and enactive.

Full text here.

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Talk | Decolonization of the Caliphate

The Decolonisation of the Caliphate SOAS 18-03-2016_001

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News 03.18.2016

2. Drivers in Bajaur decry ‘highhandedness’ of political administration

KHAR, 17 March: Drivers in Bajaur Agency have complained that the political administration officials unnecessarily tease them and confiscate their vehicles.

The local drivers alleged that despite having proper driving licences and other documents, the administration officials bother them and confiscate their vehicles to mint money. A driver told TNN that his driving licence was stuck in Timergara due to an issue.

“Despite having all other documents, they manhandled me and impounded by vehicle. They are doing it for money. We demand the administration to stop this practice of teasing peaceful citizens,” he said.

Another driver said there is no licence office in Bajaur. “Licence law does not apply on our area as we are governed under the Frontier Crimes Regulation,” he told TNN.

On the other hand, Assistant Political Agent Khar said the crackdown against underage drivers and those not possessing mandatory documents has been initiated over public complaints. He said a number of drivers have been arrested and their vehicles confiscated for violating rules. He said the crackdown will continue.

3. Mobile service restored in Bajaur

KHAR, 17 March: Mobile telephone service has been restored in Bajuar after remaining suspended for two days, local residents informed.

The signals have been restored on Wednesday evening as people from different parts of the agency confirmed the connectivity has been gradually reestablished. However, there are still complaints of poor signals in some areas.

According to sources in the political administration services of all the telecom companies were cut off as they had not obtained the no objection certificate (NOC) from the relevant quarters which is required for operation.

The sources maintained that services on more than 10 towers of the concerned telecom companies have been restored as they obtained the relevant documents.

This after cell phone service was suspended.

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Audio: What We Can Learn About Drone Strikes From 10 Million Yemeni Cell Phones

Over at Five Thirty-Eight, Jody Avirgan interviews Fotini Christia, an MIT political scientist who was given 10 million cell-phone records by a mobile phone company to do big data research. Christia explains that the motive for the phone company for handing over the records had to do with wanting to further development research in Yemen.

The audio and interview are worth a listen. Also this:

Jody Avirgan: I wonder if you can start by describing the challenge that you were trying to solve by using this data?

Fotini Christia: Yemen is a fascinating place because it is a hotspot and a place of trouble. It has been an issue for the U.S. in terms of terrorism, instability, continued conflict. And though we do have quite a bit of anecdotal evidence [about the country], it tends to be very selective. It’s usually from journalists that can be on the ground in very particular places. So there’s a lot we don’t get to hear about Yemen because it’s so hard to do social scientific or analytic work on the ground. It’s not a place that has rich census data. It’s not a place that has rich household-level data, recent survey or polling data. So people tried to be creative about where else you can get information.

That line about journalists speaks to questions of epistemology and, as someone who is anthropologically trained, its assumption that ‘evidence’ derives from mass data rather than familiarity with ‘particular places’ struck me.

In the interview, Christia describes drone attacks as an “exogenous event,” like an earthquake (her example), but this is a strange characterization for a number of reasons. For one, an exogenous event is one that has no particular relationship to the sociality of a place, but the US itself argues that they bomb particular people because they are doing militant-y things on the ground. Second, at least for FATA (and I would suspect Yemen), people are in fact making judgments about what might make them targetable (i.e. don’t talk to so-and-so; don’t make phone calls here or there or say this or that word; don’t go to this place at this hour) and are trying to avoid it. Moreover, opposition groups have repeatedly killed people they suspect to be informants in the aftermath of a drone attack. Others speculate that drone bombing is sometimes caught up in local rivalries where a person may (mis)inform or allege that his rival is a terrorist. In short, drones are not exogenous except in the theoretical frame that flattens place into blank space.

And finally, I haven’t read the paper, but in the interview at least, the deployment of the category of religion (i.e. Christia says they can see from the phone records how much religion structures life) is simplistic.

And finally, this kind of big data research opens for me all kinds of ethical questions about the researcher’s relationship to her subjects who have no idea that their metadata and information, down to the individual level it sounds like from the interview, has been handed over.

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Paper: Urbanization of Drone Warfare

Ian Shaw has an interesting new piece out on the urbanization of drone warfare, available here.

While drones are now routinely used as military technologies in the so-called peripheral spaces of the planet – Pakistan’s tribal areas, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the occupied Palestinian territories – the urbanized, capital-intensive metropolises of the Global North are increasingly becoming targets of drone surveillance.


The first decade of the war on terror saw US military and CIA drones concentrated to the mountainous and remote geographies of Pakistan (Shaw and Akhter, 2012), and later Yemen and Somalia. In recent years, however, drones in and beyond the USA have been trialed by police forces as part of a revanchist military urbanism (Graham, 2010). Gre- gory (2011), for example, discusses the existence of the everywhere war, and writes that “war has become the pervasive matrix within which social life is constituted.” Yet perhaps we need to reverse this formulation, such that it is social life that is – and always has been – the pervasive matrix in which war is constituted. The political and geopolitical crises endemic to the surplus population collapse both “war power” and “police power” in contrapuntal geographies, such that Neocleous’ (2014:162) notion of the everywhere police is a productive analytic for diagnosing our contemporary condition. Under this understanding, social problems are always-already militarized, and domestic space is always-already a battlespace. For example, the long history of aerial policing and pacification of “restive” populations (Satia, 2014) is inseparable from colonial and capital expansion.

Yet the contemporary management of surplus populations may yet prove a decisive break from the past. This paper will argue that drones, and micro-drones in particular, are generative of newer, more pervasive spaces of social control. The dronification of state violence not only embodies the ongoing robotization of state security but also materializes the logic of a permanent urban manhunt. Moreover, as the sheer volume of surplus humanity increases, the state is turning towards automated and algorithmic systems to manage them (Amoore, 2009). This, in turn, removes human administrators from the loop. In other words, a quantitative rise in surplus populations is facilitating a qualitative change in the biopolitical systems deployed by the state to manage them (Shaw and Akhter, 2014). The passage from a (Keynesian) welfare state to a (neoliberal) security state (Hallsworth and Lea, 2011) has created more capital-intensive forms of warfare and policing. This includes an armada of security apparatuses, from biometrics and CCTV to “pre-emptive” or “predictive” policing in forces such as the Los Angeles Police Department or the Metropolitan Police in the UK. And we can now can add the drone to this form of everywhere policing, which materializes a newset of technics for an older social war between capital accumulation and labor.

While Shaw points to rich questions about the transformation of policing in urban spaces through drone-tech, the conceptualization of the stark binary between the “remote” over there that is Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq (all sites of drone bombing), and the urban over here – as the site of the ‘decisive break from the past’ – is troubling. It recalls to mind Alexander Weheliye’s critique of Agamben and Foucault:

Overall, a thick historical relation defines the rise of modern concentration camps in colonial contexts and their subsequent reconstitution as industrialized killing machines in Europe during the Third Reich. Agamben briefly mentions the colonial prehistory of concentration camps, however, only to argue that the camps’ true telic significance becomes apparent when they are annexed into the legal state of exception during the Third Reich (Habeas Viscus 2014: 36).


Yet despite locating the naissance of modern racism in “colonization, or in other words, with colonizing genocide” (Society, 257), for Foucault, in a reversal of colonial modernity’s teleology that locates the temporal origin of all things in the west, racism only attains relevance once it penetrates the borders of fortress Europe. Even though the originating leap of racism can be found in the colonized “rest,” only its biopolitical rearticulation in the west imbues it with the magical aura of conceptual value. Because Foucault does not describe this ailleurs or even mention it again in the text, it materializes as a primitive topography, operating as a constitutive outside for his theory of biopolitics throughout these lectures. In logic, primitive terms or notions, also referred to as axioms or postulates, name instantly understandable terms that are used without elucidating their signification. The meanings of all other concepts in a logical system are determined by these primitive terms and by previously established expressions. Over the course of his argument about the genesis of biopolitics in the lectures, Foucault will continue to distinguish European state racism and biopolitics from those primeval forms of racism that linger in the aforementioned philosophical, geographical, and political quicksands of an unspecified elsewhere; at least, this is what we are asked to infer as a consequence of Foucault’s taciturnity about the reach and afterlife of those other modalities of racialization (pp. 57-58).

This attempt to, in some sense, get out ahead of the curve and sweepingly suggest that the current practices of drone warfare are merely a prehistory to the decisive moment when it will come to the heart of the West, to its intimate, peopled urban spaces, rehearses the move that Weheliye critiques. It may also be more productive to think of drone warfare as a relational practice (to borrow again from Weheliye) in which the urban space that may come to be drone-policed is intimately connected to colonial drone warfare — and therefore so must be resistance to it.

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Empathy; Rankine; Citizen

Elizabeth A. Povinelli. 2008. “The Child in the Broom Closet: States of Killing and Letting Die.” South Atlantic Quarterly. pp: 509-530. Here are some quick reading notes for the article I just found. They’re by Eric A. Stanley, a postdoctoral fellow in the Dept of Communication and Critical Gender Studies at UCSD.
Also worth looking at: Talal Asad’s 2009 lecture “Reflections on the Origins of Human Rights” at the Berkley Center. Asad discusses how empathy “can be a mode of manipulating others. What Lerner calls ’empathy,’ Shakespeare calls ‘Iago’.”“entering pleasurably into the pain of the other.”

A note in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen – An American Lyric reminded me of comments by E. Povinelli. In Citizen, among other incidents, Rankine writes about Mark Duggan, a Black man shot down in 2011 by Scotland Yard. Riots ensue in Hackney. Here is Rankine discussing the issue with another writer she has met at a house party in London:

Will you write about Duggan? the man wants to know. Why don’t you? you ask. Me? he asks, looking slightly irritated.

How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?

Rankine goes on to observe:

And though in this man’s body, the man made of English sky, grief exists for Duggan as a black man gunned down, there is not the urgency brought on by an overflow of compromises, deaths, and tempers specific to a profile work to and gone to sleep each day.

I mentioned in this post how some of the responses to Garner’s murder were oriented towards people for whom racism is largely a theoretical matter, that is, those who (therefore) lack the sense of urgency that Rankine discusses here. What struck me reading Rankine was the irritation of the man that she notes, when she asks why he doesn’t write about it. Why is he irritated? Where does he imagine himself to be located in relation to Duggan? Does he feel this is not a subject proper to him because he is neither Black nor a racist, that this, in other words, is a dialogue (for violence too is communication) between racist whites and people of color in which he, the empathizing liberal, has no part?

But, empathy as Povinelli and Asad separately have discussed, re-institutes the division between the self and the other that the empathizing liberal claims to be overcoming. “Empathy asks us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. What would it be like to be them?…And yet, this very act—this ethical gesture—initiates a separation between you and me.” (Povinelli 2008: 520). For, if one takes seriously that identities are co-constituted, then one is already located inside the dialogue–not beyond it. So, for instance, if whiteness and Blackness are co-constructed — one cannot have meaning without the other; being white exists only in relation to that which is not white: Blackness and vice versa — then the empathizing liberal is not beyond or outside of that conversation. The “man made of English sky” is co-constituted through and with Duggan.

Racism is not just something racist whites do to people of color. It is a systemic, structural system in which the distance the empathizing liberal feels to the subject matter of race or the way in which racism and race function largely as a theoretical matter for some — is a produced effect. It doesn’t just happen. A lot of work goes into co-constituting worlds in which so much distance can exist among people moving in the same sphere:

The distance between you and him is thrown in to relief: bodies moving thorugh the same life differently. –Rankine

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Peshawar Attack

I’d start by noting that this is not the first time that children have been killed. It’s just the first time that it became visible to the rest of us, because we chose to pay attention. A single aerial bombardment by the Pakistani military in May killed 18 children. A U.S. drone attack in 2006 on a school killed 70 children. So – it would seem that not all children are equal.

Some are saying that this is Pakistan’s 9/11. I find this deeply ironic. It is Pakistan’s 9/11 in the sense that — just like 9/11 — all the violence committed by the Pakistan military and the U.S. state on marginalized Pakistanis before the Peshawar attack seems to hardly matter at all. They make that prehistory invisible just as America is fond of doing with 9/11.

The cruelest, but perhaps, the most honest op-ed (in that it succinctly captures the mood in some segments of Pakistani society in the wake of the attack) is Fahd Husain’s article in Express Tribune. “Now you are either with us or with the terrorists,” writes Husain. I wonder whether he realizes how chilling he sounds, how much like the militants he so despises.

In the U.S., the news of the attack overlapped with the publication of the (summary of) the torture report, some 600 pages of graphic descriptions of the cruelty of American forces. When I posted a link to a Salon article reporting Seymour Hersh’s claim that US forces may have sodomized children in front of their mothers at Abu Ghraib, I noted that cruelty towards children was not the sole provence of terrorists. A Pakistani journalist who reports for the American press admonished me not to make such statements because the Taliban may use it as propaganda. And, in any case, he said it was different because, he believed (as elites who see America from afar usually believe) that the soldiers would be held accountable. (America is a PR success story. Even when wave upon wave of story crashes upon foreign shores bringing news of yet another torture committed by American security forces’, yet another story of American greed, ruthlessness, callousness and cold cruelty, the idea of America as fundamentally accountable remains. Even the unspoken thread  of each story is the idea that the horror is exceptional, even if it is the 100th time we are hearing that American’s have committed torture, even if we see the photos of waterboarding being pioneered by US troops in the Philippines as early as 1902.)

On CNN, the Navy Seal who killed bin Laden gives his view on the Peshawar attack. Apparently, invading a home in another country to shoot the man your own government created while his family is there, makes you an expert on militants who would kill children. The juxtaposition is clear: O’Neill’s attack, and America’s barbarism by extension is duly whitewashed. More important than what O’Neill says, is what we are being told by his presence: That was a respectable kill. This is not. That was honorable. This is not.

The discussion moves seamlessly from the Peshawar attack to the torture report:

CNN anchor : … ISIS is trying to sell James Foley’s headless body to his parents for $1 million. Anybody really care if we waterboard these low lives?

Obviously, you have rules of engagement. You had to adhere to them carefully in the field. That supposedly goes it what we did as detainees as well.

You believe that the ends justify the means?

O’NEILL: Well, what I was saying there and obviously this is a very, very broad subject and it can’t be described in a tweet but just with the given amount of characters I was able to bring up what these horrible people do, how it affects the families. You know, not only did they say they were going to behead the Foley’s son, but now they’re trying to sell it back as some sort of humanity and they can put it on YouTube, and if we have intelligence to have other people like this in a spot we can interrogate them, and if use a few techniques that make them uncomfortable, that make them confused, and it leads to protecting even an individual American like Mr. Foley or a greater attack on a country, I think the conversation should be had.

I think personally that torture does not work, that torture is vile. It is the worst act in which you can engage. However, we need to look at what we’re doing.

Interrogation is a process. It’s not like we show up waterboarding and he gave us nothing. It’s a long process of, you know, having them lose a sense of time, loud music, stress positions, and eventually, it all comes down to the good cop/bad cop thing. If we could turn down the music and let them sleep longer or sit down out of a stress position, eventually they’re going to talk. And that is how you build that sort of rapport that’s always talked about.

I don’t personally think it’s torture, and I think the conversation should be had how we can interrogate these people to save lives.

CNN anchor: And that’s the conversation that we’re having right now.

Thank you very much, sir, for the work for the country, and thank you for coming on NEW DAY.


The death penalty moratorium has been lifted. According to a report by the Justice Project Pakistan and Reprieve, nearly 88 percent of people tried on terrorism charges have nothing to do with what could sensibly be called terrorism.

They want to hang nearly 3000 people.


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