War Culture and the Contest of Images

War Culture and the Contest of Images

War Culture and the Contest of Images

War Culture and the Contest of Images


War Culture and the Contest of Images analyzes the relationships among contemporary war, documentary practices, and democratic ideals. Dora Apel examines a wide variety of images and cultural representations of war in the United States and the Middle East, including photography, performance art, video games, reenactment, and social media images. Simultaneously, she explores the merging of photojournalism and artistic practices, the effects of visual framing, and the construction of both sanctioned and counter-hegemonic narratives in a global contest of images.

As a result of the global visual culture in which anyone may produce as well as consume public imagery, the wide variety of visual and documentary practices present realities that would otherwise be invisible or officially off-limits. In our digital era, the prohibition and control of images has become nearly impossible to maintain. Using carefully chosen case studies--such as Krzysztof Wodiczko's video projections and public works in response to 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the performance works of Coco Fusco and Regina Galindo, and the practices of Israeli and Palestinian artists--Apel posits that contemporary war images serve as mediating agents in social relations and as a source of protection or refuge for those robbed of formal or state-sanctioned citizenship.

While never suggesting that documentary practices are objective translations of reality, Apel shows that they are powerful polemical tools both for legitimizing war and for making its devastating effects visible. In modern warfare and in the accompanying culture of war that capitalism produces as a permanent feature of modern society, she asserts that the contest of images is as critical as the war on the ground.


In modern warfare and the accompanying culture of war that capitalism produces as a permanent feature of modern society, the contest of images is as critical as the war on the ground. We might say that the contest of images is the continuation of war by other means, affecting not only our political understanding of the present, but also of the past, in ongoing battles for meaning that are fought out on the field of visual representation. At stake are the prevailing myths of national identity and the social and political policies of the state in relation to the lives and liberties of domestic populations as well as other peoples and nations. We begin from the understanding that the documentary image is always framed in order to control the visual and narrative dimensions of war and its ramifications. This framing is structured by the choices and conditions that are part of the image production, by what is included and what is excluded, and by the agencies, institutions, groups, and discourses that surround the circulation of the image. As Judith Butler has shown, the frame is not merely a passive device but must be understood as a structuring device that actively interprets what is real and what is not. Thus our critical attention must be focused on the conditions of the frame and how it limits or presents what may be seen and what may count as reality. Yet even as the state solicits our complicity in the normalization of war and the destruction of targeted populations, the effects of war can never be fully contained by the frame; reality can never be fully controlled. In different contexts, the meanings of the same images may even contradict one another or contradict the original intentions of their producers, demonstrating the instability of the frame. Furthermore, the excluded or repressed excess to the frame provides “the potential resources for resistance.” “In the destructiveness of war,” writes Butler, “there is no way to restrict the trajectory of destruction to a single visualized aim. Invariably, the fantasy of controlled destruction undoes itself, but the frame is still there, as the controlling fantasy of the state, albeit marking its limit as well.” Examining how the controlling fantasy of the state “undoes itself” is one of the aims of this study.

The understanding that images are mediated in terms of both the production of the image itself and how the image is framed through context has been a given in photographic theory for two or three decades and has called into question the truth value of the documentary image while placing traditional documentary in a disputed and unstable position in relation to the field of artistic production. Yet the power of the documentary image is greater than ever, emerging during a period of social and political crises . . .

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