Broaching the Subject of War: Toward an Ethics of Vulnerability

By Jeffrey Barbeau

Issue 2.1 | April 1, 2011

Rosalyn Deutsche. Hiroshima After Iraq: Three Studies in Art and War. Columbia University Press, 2010. 88 pp.

Rosalyn Deutsche’s Hiroshima After Iraq: Three Studies in Art and War is a slim volume at eighty-eight pages, but it represents a timely meditation on the often tense relationship between political resistance and contemporary visual culture. This remarkable work brings together psychoanalytic, feminist, and Levinasian approaches in order to question the “heroic masculinism” that animates military aggression as well as the critical analyses that are commonly brought to bare upon it (53). Deutsche’s primary target is a spirit of restlessness, what she characterizes as a “warlike anti-war criticism” among critics who demand that artists need to contribute more conventionally recognizable and politically incisive works to the anti-war effort (5). What Hiroshima After Iraq strives for, by contrast, is to test the very discursive boundaries of what can and should constitute creative production and critique in an age of conflict.

Deutsche’s studies celebrate those seemingly unconventional sites of artistic production that engage with the problem of violence and conflict on an ontological register. Rather than viewing the other as a suspicious person, at best, or an enemy combatant to be targeted, at worst, Hiroshima After Iraq presents a compelling case for a substantially different type of visuality. Deutsche ponders:

With what kind of vision shall we meet the appearance of others? Can art help establish ways of seeing that do not seek to reduce the impact of exposure? What kind of vision might overcome apathy and respond to the suffering of others? In short, what is public vision? (64).

What unites these three studies in art and war is that they tackle the contours of what it is to be a victor, a perpetrator, a victim, or a hybrid of the three. Moreover, they seriously consider the messy philosophical predicament of being-with others, whether it is as fellow citizens, or as potential enemies. And while this focus on being may not necessarily resemble the kinds of art produced during preceding periods of conflict, these current works, in rushing to the barricades at the front lines of subjectivity, do a tremendous service to the cause of resisting warlike practices wherever they may appear. This notion of a ‘public vision’, a modality of sight and action which is committed to non-domination and abundance in terms of varied subjectivities and practices, is, to my mind, a valuable conceptual framework for theorizing the questions of identity, community, and conflict in visual cultural studies.

Specifically, Deutsche offers Hiroshima after Iraq as response to a recent issue of the journal October in which artists and critics were asked to account for the generally lackadaisical creative response to military aggression at the start of the twenty-first century. Deutsche notes the prevalence of what she refers to, after Walter Benjamin, as “left melancholy”, that is, an imaginative and critical huddling around already enshrined identities and critical capacities that make novel and differential responses appear deficient in contrast (2). This yearning for a “‘traditional notion of the political subject—unitary, preconstituted, and self-possessed, one who enters an equally traditional public space of protest” serves to obscure the emergence of innovative political subjects and new tactics of resistance (5). In the interest of questioning this self-evident subject, Deutsche devotes a short chapter to three artists’ video works, and uses each to philosophically undermine the “myth of pure identity–individual, racial, ethnic and national” (27). Silvia Kolbowski’s After Hiroshima mon amour (2005-2008) is based on Alain Resnais’ 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour, and combines this original footage with scenes from the Iraq war and the devastation of post-Katrina New Orleans. Leslie Thornton’s Let Me Count the Ways (2004-2008) also draws upon archival scenes, original 8mm film, and text, in order to explore questions of trauma, memory, and personal culpability. Finally, Krzysztof Wodicczko’s Hiroshima Projection (1999) documents a two day long audio and video performance comprised of the testimonies of fifteen survivors that was projected upon the memorial Atomic Dome in Hiroshima. While it is beyond the scope of this review to give a fuller account of each video work, Deutsche does a masterful job of using these works to “undo the viewing subject’s narcissistic fantasies, fantasies that blind us to otherness, either rejecting it or assimilating it to the knowing ego or the Same” (67).  In their ambiguous play with identity, these three video works trouble the easy performance of apportioned roles, and challenge the “representational adequacy” of images as an opening for the irruption of new relations and new subjectivities (69).

Deutsche proposes a recognition of how the “enigm[atic]” nature of subjects, in both senses of the word, requires that we admit a fundamental imprecision and unknowability when it comes to engaging with the other (63). Indeed, Hiroshima After Iraq makes a compelling argument that some of the most inspiring artistic production today takes up the always shifting contours of subjectivity and affective life. The author invites us to consider an “ethics of vulnerability”, a mode of creation and critique that resists the discursive complacencies that reduce subjects and attendant ways of seeing to the normal and the instrumental (54). Here, Deutsche describes the problematic relationship between vision and the other:

Transforming the other into a distanced image or bounded entity set before the self, vision, it has been argued, is a vehicle of the human subject’s desire for mastery and self-possession. Oriented toward triumphalism rather than response, vision can, for example, take the form of a negative hallucination in which we fail to see something that is present but unknowable, something whose presence we don’t want to know about (64).

Hiroshima after Iraq, then, seeks a way of seeing beyond a visuality that simply monitors and classifies subjects. Deutsche presents these three works as exemplars of a kind of artistic production that challenges the “triumphalist fantasies” that not only fuel war-like behaviour, but also underwrite so many approaches to the autonomous, self-evident person as the seat of action (62). Hiroshima After Iraq makes an important contribution to the exploration of subjectivity as historically variable and negotiable, and points toward a potential vocation for artists as progenitors of more democratic modes of seeing and being in the world. Indeed, the strength of Deutsche’s book is that she persuasively works toward this style of visuality that cultivates the emergence of new subjectivities and novel capabilities, rather than a type of vision that merely identifies and targets opponents. What role should art play during periods of conflict? The title of Deutsche’s book itself, rendered in the form of the future anterior, gives some modest direction for this line of inquiry. Artistic production and the practice of critique may most fruitfully take place in an atmosphere of relentless creation, endless revisitation, and perpetual becoming. 

Jeffrey Barbeau is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University. His research focuses on the relationship between biopolitics, aesthetics, and agency.