Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

"Dead Citizen" and the Abject Nation: Social Death, Haiti, and the Strategic Power of the Image

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

"Dead Citizen" and the Abject Nation: Social Death, Haiti, and the Strategic Power of the Image

Article excerpt

We need to accountfor not just the power of images but their powerlessness, their impotence, their abjection. We need... to grasp both sides of the paradox of the image; that is it alive-but also dead; powerful-but also weak; meaningful-but also meaningless.

W.J. T. Mitchell'

At 4:53 p.m. on Tuesday, January 12, 2010, for thirty-five seconds, a catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti's capital, Portau-Prince. An estimated 300,000 lives were lost, nearly 1.5 million homes were destroyed, neighborhoods vanished, government buildings toppled, and historic sites were decimated.2 For a country that engaged in a long and bloody struggle for freedom and continues to battle the ramifications of enslavement-underdevelopment, neoimperialism, and internal political conflicts-this was another disaster. For weeks afterward, the North American news media was inundated with images of Haitians being rescued from the rubble of destroyed buildings. An unprecedented outpouring of North American and European aid amounting to nearly $1 billion was promised to Haiti.3 As days passed, more images of mangled, dismembered, and dead bodies appeared in the national and global news media. Stories of bodies buried under buildings, rescued by Haitians and international rescue teams, captivated the global community. They accompanied images that captured the confusion, pain, and trauma launched on that horrific day. While most of the news coverage was filled with compassion and sympathy for the "poorest country in the Western hemisphere," it was also peppered with narratives that reinforced the well-known and persistent stereotypes, misrepresentations, and pernicious clichés about Haiti and its people. The descriptive words and images paired with these narratives further emphasized a sense of perpetual hopelessness for Haiti. Posting on the blog of the Social Science Research Council, Colin Dayan wrote,

In their coverage of the earthquake, the media represented Haiti as a passive, neutered object of disaster, with no history, no culture, nothing except images of rubble, pain, dirt, and misery. How did the news dare to show piles of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves after the earthquake? To talk about the smell of urine? To focus on women in postures that could only be called abject? What do the representations of Haiti tell us about the force of metaphor? And why are these metaphors so crucial to North Americans? What is a metaphor a metaphor for?4

What is the appeal of metaphors about Haiti? What do they tell us?

These images circulated in the dominant US public culture as representatives of a grand narrative of the "shadowy specters of death" that, according to former presidential candidate and Christian televangelist Pat Robertson, permanently loom over Haiti.5 Something systemic, deeply rooted, and profound was revealed in the wake of the earthquake: the fact that such graphic images and descriptive vocabularies have a sustained historical legacy. They are part of longstanding narratives and stereotypes that constitute Haiti as a perpetual and permanent ward of the global community, incapable of being rehabilitated due to its inherently flawed nature. While we may have heard and read stories of Haitians helping Haitians (through friends, family, and Caribbean-based media) what we saw in the popular US and international media were images that dehumanized individuals and rendered them anonymous beings to be pitied and aided, yet again.

I watched the images on the television screen as a member of the Haitian diaspora-one who feels Haiti deeply in her heart and celebrates its people, history, arts, literature, music, dance, food, and language in her private life and academic work; one who is shielded by US walls from Haiti's precarious economy and random violence; one who is pained by its bittersweet past, its tumultuous present, and its unknown future. I remained safely in my house, staying informed by the modern phenomenon that is twenty-four-hour media coverage brought to me by the "specialized tourist," the journalist and the photojournalist? …

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