The Art of Invisibility

Introductory remarks to panel on "Cinema and the National-Security State" (Representing South Asia on Film series of screenings and talks, Queens College, November 8, 2012)

Some of you might recall that immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the artist Damien Hirst both remarked that the attack was nothing less than a spectacular work of art. Stockhausen and Hirst were quickly condemned. Some of the condemnation seems justified, since the remarks came across as callous, to put it mildly. But it can also be pointed out that seeing art in disasters, crimes and atrocities is a very large part of our culture. If that sensibility did not exist, and if it did not enjoy a pretty broad public acceptance, the war movie as we know it would not exist. TV shows like 24 and Homeland would not exist.

The modern state, as George Orwell suggested sixty years ago, is inseparable from anxieties about security and fantasies of violence: images of mushroom clouds, images of cruise missiles being launched from warships. These anxieties and fantasies lend themselves extremely well to art. It is, I think, fair to say that without that art – the war movie, the TV show about terrorism, the photograph of the raising of the flag in Iwo Jima, the movie about that photograph – our culture and our state would both have to be reimagined. These are the aesthetics of citizenship, i.e., the prettiness or the majesty of the relationship between the individual and the state. Even the September 11 event, in spite of the criticism of Stockhausen and Hirst, was almost immediately treated as art, not just by avant-garde composers and provocative artists, but also by photographers, illustrators and editors who looked for the most dramatic angles and the most moving montages, and by the citizens who found the images striking.

But the aesthetics of citizenship is not a simple structure, because citizenship is constituted by a series of power relationships or inequalities. Not only is the individual not equal to the state, not all individuals are equally unequal. Here, we can make a crude but useful generalization. Mainstream or popular art, like commercial cinema, either takes the side of the state over the individual when there is a conflict, or refuses to acknowledge that there is a conflict. In this vision, the state is the extension, the representative and the absorber of the individual. Through policemen, or soldiers, or CIA agents, it thinks, decides and acts. And that agency is not only legitimate, it has aesthetic substance, which enhances the legitimacy.

Then there is the art of how the state acts upon the individual. This can, of course, be characterized in various ways: resistance art, guerrilla art, non-commercial, non-mainstream, non-monumental, and so on. I think, however, that a more useful characterization is to see it as the art of impotence, or of passivity. This is not to say that it is art without agency: obviously, the act of making a film, any film, is a form of agency. But the kind of cinema that I am talking about, and that we are going to be looking at this evening, comes out of a particular ideological space within the modern state where agency is fraught with difficulties. I want to explain this very briefly with reference to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

In two books that he wrote on either side of September 11, Agamben argued that at the heart of the modern, democratic state is a moral and constitutional black hole, which he called a state of exception. The state of exception is a situation in which what is abnormal – illegal, unethical, impermissible – becomes the norm, and the lines between legality and illegality become blurred. The constitution effectively suspends itself, at least in some contexts. You can think of it as a permanent state of emergency, in which the specifics of the emergency and the specifics of constitutionality are both forgotten. You can also think of it as a particular institution, such as a concentration camp or a CIA ‘black site,’ or a legal regime like the Patriot Act in America and the Prevention of Terrorism Act in India. The name of each of those laws, I want you to notice, is deliberately bland and blank, showing you nothing except complacence, anxiety and a citizenship that calls for its own renunciation. It functions very much like a generic image of a waving flag, or a burning skyscraper against a hard blue sky. It’s a rhetorical technique that Norman Mailer called ‘Bureaucratic Technologese’: an inscrutable, vanilla language that makes the violence of the state invisible.

For the person caught in a state of exception, Agamben suggests a name: Homo Sacer, which translates roughly as ‘bare man,’ or ‘empty man.’ Homo Sacer is a person, or a demographic, that has absolutely no rights. He is included in the body politic by virtue of being excluded. His place in the law is that he has no legal status. He cannot be killed through the legal or constitutional process, but he can nevertheless be killed at any time, by anyone, without it constituting murder.

The most obvious example of modern Homo Sacer in a state of exception, Agamben suggested, was the Jew in Nazi Germany. But his point is that we do not need such dramatic examples for the model to work. In any case, extreme examples can be misleading, because they suggest that the problem is far away and rare, when in fact it is ubiquitous. The commonest Homo Sacer, Agamben wrote, are the inmates of detention camps for illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, which can be as small as a cell tucked away in a corner of an international airport, or as large as the French facility at Sangatte, which was closed down a few years ago. It can be as remote as Guantanamo and Bagram, and as nearby as New York City itself.

These camps are not prisons, Agamben reminded us. This is a crucial distinction in the history of the modern world. Michel Foucault argued, back in the 1970s, that the prison is the defining institution and metaphor of modern society. But Agamben argued that the detention camp has surpassed the prison in its utility as a model. Prisoners have rights, they have access to lawyers and appeals, they have an existence in the public record, they have been through a constitutional process of trial and conviction, and their sentences are definite (although this is changing in the era of sex-offender registries and similar systems of information-based control and permanent probation). Camp inmates do not have those things. The detention camp is a place with rules but no rights, and it exists within a constitutional state but the constitution does not exist within it. These dynamics make it the perfect example of a state of exception.

After September 11, America acquired a more or less new archipelago of states of exception, and a new population of Homo Sacer. These are for the most part Muslims, although non-Muslims have not been immune. They are mostly non-citizens: immigrants, foreign students, people on work visas, people who have been kidnapped overseas by the military or the CIA. But they also include US citizens, and the citizens of countries that are allied to the United States. They include scientists, office managers, and people who looked suspicious to a flight attendant or a fellow passenger on a plane. These are people who are included in America by virtue of their exclusion from the constitutional protections of citizenship, and simultaneously, by their subjection to the power of the state.

It is not surprising that South Asians have been at the very heart of this particular state of exception. This is not only because of the American military adventures in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also because of the large population of South Asian Muslims in America, and because even those that are not Muslim seem to fit the profile. (It is, I think, a remarkable phenomenon that the image of the ‘terrorist’ in America has shifted eastwards from the Arab in the 1980s, to the Pakistani and even the Bangladeshi in the present day.)

The documentary films that we are showing you today reflect the experiences of these South Asians, and they were made by a group of artists and activists, the Visible Collective, that includes quite a few South Asians. In that double sense, they are the art of passivity as well as of agency: art that comes from the intersection between a metaphorical detention camp that captures us all, and the actual camp that captures some but not others. The film-makers may disagree with that characterization, but I’ll leave it to Uzma Rizvi (of the Pratt Institute) and Prerana Reddy (of the Queens Museum of Art) to address that issue, if they choose.

I want to make a couple of quick points first, before I shut up. One has to do with the South Asian diaspora in America. And this point is that there is really no such thing as the South Asian diaspora. There are many South Asian diasporas. They are separate by class, by education, by country of origin, by language, by religion, and very importantly, by legal status. By the terms of my analysis, they can be divided into two broad groups: the visible and the invisible. The visible are people like me, and like Uzma and Prerana. We have some money, some social status, American passports, command of the English language, acid tongues, colleagues who can and will stand up for us when the acidity gets us into trouble.

The invisible are the cab drivers and waiters, who typically remain unseen by us even when they are in plain sight. They see themselves, of course, but their sight is unconnected to the political power that makes the difference between rules and rights. If they were to earnestly declare at the airport, ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist,’ nobody would understand their accent and the consequences would be unpleasant. So they remain invisible when they are secretly approached and intimidated by the NYPD or the FBI, and when they disappear into a detention site without a charge or a trial, not knowing when they will reemerge, and under what conditions. What the visible group sometimes attempts to do, as Visible Collective has tried to do, is recover these people from invisibility, even if it is for the seven or eight minutes of a short film. The short film format is particularly appropriate, I think, because it constitutes an aesthetic of anti-monumentality, doing without grand spectacles, slow-motion video montages, and even pretty pictures. The stripped-down starkness that we see in these films is the aesthetic of Homo Sacer, glimpsed from the perimeter of the camp.

My other point – the last one, I promise – is that the visible people, the ones who are not in the camp, are in fact within the orbit of the camp. Sometimes even Imran Khan and Shah Rukh Khan must explain that they are not terrorists. The state of exception is not just a concrete box or a razor-wire fence for people without passports and credit cards. The camp, as I said before, is also a metaphor: a fate that can befall anyone, including citizens and film-makers and the visible, including people who are not South Asian or Muslim, or even brown. The shadow of Homo Sacer – the predicament of being excluded from citizenship – falls on all citizens of the modern state. 

As promised, I will now shut up. We will be showing you four short films, imbedded in the talks by Uzma and Prenana. Following that we can have a discussion with the audience. 

The films shown are: