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© 2007 Rochester Institute of Technology | Sociology and Anthropology Department | College of Liberal Arts

Cultural Images of War and Terror


(course syllabus)

Course description

This course examines the visual culture of war and terror in a global world from an anthropological perspective. Images of violence are endlessly transmitted on television, on the internet, in print media, in cinema, and recreational games to become part of our everyday visual culture. Whether disseminated as news, documentary truth, or entertainment, the ubiquitous encounters with violence require a new form of visual literacy that not only highlights the intersection of the local and the global, but also recognizes the ways in which visual technologies, cultural politics of memory and history, media practices, and national ideologies intervene in the formation of a visual culture of war and terror.

Goals of the course

In general, after completing this course, students should be able to assess, from an anthropological perspective how the visual culture of war and terror is shaped by specific socio-historical contexts and, more specifically, how visual culture is constituted by subject positions, political ideologies, visual technologies, and hegemonic media practices.

Course schedule
Part I: Introduction and Overview
WEEK 1: Critial Media Literacy

Ahmad, Aijaz. 2003. “Contextualizing Conflict – the US ‘War on Terrorism’.” In: War and the Media: Reporting Conflict 24/7 (Daya Kishan Thussu and Des Freedman, eds.). London: Sage Publications, pp. 15-27.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas. 2005. Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture. New York/London: Routledge. (chapter selection)

Film Clip: The Iraq War Lies 2006 (You Tube), 4 min.

Exercise: What are the prevailing images of Muslims and Arabs in Western Media Culture? What sorts of stereotypes and truth claims are produced about “violent others” by connecting terrorism and suicide bombings with religion and/or ethnicity?

WEEK 2: The Violent “Other” in Western Visual Culture

Ferguson, Brian B. 2004. “Tribal Warfare.” In: Violence in War and Peace(Nancy Scheper-Hughes & Philippe Bourgois, eds.). Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 69-73.
Rosaldo, Renato. 1984. “Grief and a Headhunter's Rage.” In: Text. Play, and Story. Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society edited by Edward Bruner. Washington, D.C., pp. 178-195.
Rosaldo, Renato. 2000. “Of Headhunters and Soldiers: Separating Cultural and Ethical Relativism.” Issues in Ethics 11 (1): 2-6.

Film: Dead Birds (DVD 982) 60 min. Discusses the culture of the people of New Guinea and emphasizes the role of war and violence in their lives. Film by anthropologist Robert Gardner. (RIT: CC)

Exercise: What are the prevailing images of violence that shape our view of the inner cities in the United States? How are images of violence imposed on ethnic minorities and specifically on the black urban poor and what forms of counter terror (such as “war on drugs” and “war on crime”) are launched against nationals and citizens? How is violence visually essentialized? What are the optical differences between the zones of violence in the national interior and national exterior?

WEEK 3: Violence Unseen: The Global Traffic in Bodies, Weapons, and Fear

Hoskins, Janet. 2002. “Predatory Voyeurs.” American Ethnologist 29 (4): 797-828.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 2006. “Alistair Cooke’s Bones: A morality tale.” In: Anthropology Today 22 (6): 10-15.

Film: Cambodia: The Betrayal 1990 (51 min). Film by John Pilger. An examination of the continued secret support given by Western governments to the Khmer Rouge.

WEEK 4: Imagining Violence

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. 2005. Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture. New York/London: Routledge. (Chapter selection)
Turner, Fred. 2003. “This is for Fighting, this is for Fun: Camerawork and Gunplay in Reality-Based Crime Shows.” In: Gender, Race, and Class in the Media(G. Dines & J. M. Humez, eds.) 2nd edition. London: Sage, pp. 642-650.
Allison, Anne. 2001. “Cyborg Violence: Bursting Borders and Bodies with Queer Machines. Cultural Anthropology 16 (2): 237-265.

Part II: Visual Culture of Violence

WEEK 5: Violence and Vision

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. 2005. Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture. New York/London: Routledge. (chapter selection)
Feldman, Allen. 2006. Ground Zero Point One: The Cinematics of History. Duke University Press. (chapter selection)

WEEK 6: Visualizing War and Terror

Theweleit, Klaus. 1987. "Mountains of corpses". In his Male Fantasies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), p. 269.
Feldman, Allen. 1994. "On cultural anesthesia: from desert storm to Rodney King". American Ethnologist 21(2): 404-418.

Film Clip:“Tale of Two Cities”: Atomic Bomb: Hiroshima and Nagasaki WWII. Produced by the U.S. War Department 1946, Army-Navy Screen Magazine: A Pictorial Report for the Armed Forces Only, Issue No. 74 (12 min). Prelinger Collection (public domain—free download).

Film excerpt: “Truth Games”1983 (16 min). Produced by Australian documentary film-maker and journalist John Pilger. When the two American atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, they were code-named 'Fat Man' and 'Little Boy', and President Truman announced after the event: "The experiment has been an overwhelming success." "These", says Pilger, "were words used to describe the awful and horrific carnage of nuclear war. By using reassuring, even soothing language, this new kind of propaganda created acceptable images of war and the illusion that we could live securely with nuclear weapons". Official 'truths' are examined in connection with the bombing of Hiroshima (and subsequently the nuclear arms race).

Film clips: Bombs on Iraq (4 min).
Film clip: Iraq War 2003 (You Tube), 4 min. What has changed?

Film: The Hiroshima Pictures 2005 (You Tube), 50 min. Sixty years after the dropping of the first atomic bomb, the Memorial Peace Museum in Hiroshima has commissioned and assembled an extraordinary collection of paintings and drawings made by the survivors. They create a vivid and intense record of the horror experienced that day. For many survivors who have never had the opportunity to express their emotions, these paintings provide evidence that will bring closure -- an end to torments that have lasted six decades. Shown on BBC Channel 4 in the UK on 27th of August 2005.

Exercise: Identify how visual representations of war are inflected by political ideologies as attested by the selectivity of images, perspective, and visual technologies of warfare. Examples will focus on a comparison of the Iraq War I (Operation Desert Storm) in 1991 and Hiroshima 1945.

WEEK 7: Visual/Sensory Memory: Turning the Gaze toward Human Suffering

Kleinman, Arthur, and Joan Kleinman. 1996. “The Appeal of Experience, the Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times.” In: Daedalus 125 (1): 1-23.
Petryna, Adriana. 1995. “Sarcophagus: Chernobyl in Historical Light.” Cultural Anthropology 10 (2): 196-216 (text).

Film: War Photographer 2001 (VH 449) 96 min. A documentation about the work of war photographer James Nachtwey.

Film Clip: Chernobyl and its People 1991 (google video), 13 min. Zeitfilm
Film Clip: Chernobyl- revisited 20 years since the disaster 2006 (you tube), 16 min.

WEEK 8: Perilous Memories: Remembering Genocide

Handler, Richard. 1994. “Lessons from the Holocaust Museum. American Anthropologist 96 (3): 674-678.
Huyssen, Andreas. 2003. “Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia.” In his: Present Pasts. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 11-29.
Hinton, Alexander L. and Kevin O’Neill (eds.). 2007. Genocide, Truth, Memory, and Representation: Anthropological Perspectives. Durham: Duke University Press. (chapter selections).

Film: The Liberation of Auschwitz 1989 (VH 1448)

Part III: War, Propaganda, and the Militarized Media

WEEK 9: Mediating Truth, Fabricating Fiction

Chomsky, Noam. 2004. “The New War against Terror.” In: Violence in War and Peace (Nancy Scheper-Hughes & Philippe Bourgois, eds.). Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 217-223.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 2004. “Violence Foretold: Reflections on 9/11.” In: Violence in War and Peace (Nancy Scheper-Hughes & Philippe Bourgois, eds.). Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 224-226.
Umansky, Eric. 2006. “Failures of Imagination: American Journalists and the Coverage of American Torture.” Columbia Journalism Review (September/October): 16-31.

Film: Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror 2003 (VH 1506) 51 min. Directed by Steve Connelly and John Pilger. (RIT: close captioned)

Film clip: Gulf War I Lies (You Tube), 3 min. Produced by Canadian television journalist Barry Zweiker: outlines the publicly available evidence that the first Bush administration orchestrated an elaborate conspiracy to gain support for the first Gulf War.

Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre 2005 (google video), 27 min. An Italian documentary by journalists Sigfrido Ranucci and Maurizio Torrealta. Broadcast on the Italian state television network RAI news 24. Using filmed and photographic evidence, eyewitness accounts, physicians, international journalists, and the direct testimony of American soldiers who took part in the attacks, the documentary catalogues the U.S. military use of white phosphorous shells and a new, "improved" form of napalm that turned human beings into "caramelized" fossils, with their skin dissolved and turned to leather on their bones. Produced by Italian state broadcaster RAI TV, the documentary charges U.S. warplanes illegally dropped white phosphorus incendiary bombs (chemical weapons) on civilian populations.

WEEK 10: Eroticizing Domination: Terror as Entertainment

Caputi, Jane. 2003. “Everyday Pornography.” In: Gender, Race, and Class in Media (G. Dines & J. M. Humez, eds.) 2nd edition. London: Sage, pp. 434-450.
MacKinnon, Catharine. 1994. “Turning Rape into Pornography: Postmodern Genocide”. In: Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina (A. Stiglmayer, ed.). University of Nebraska Press, pp. 73-81.
Lingis, Alphonso. 2006. “The Effects of the Pictures.” In: Journal of Visual Culture 5: 83-86.
Malik, Suhail. 2006. “Fucking Straight Death Metal”. In: Journal of Visual Culture 5: 107-112.
Baudrillard, Jean. 2006. “War Porn”. In: Journal of Visual Culture 5: 86-87.

WEEK 11: Media Wars: Collusion of Military, Government, and Journalism

Compton, James R. 2004. “Shocked and Awed: The Convergence of Media and Military Discourse.” International Association for Media and Communication Research (July 25-30), pp. 1-36.
Maier, Johannes. 2006. “Being Embedded: The Concept of ‘Liveness’ in Journalism.” In: Journal of Visual Culture 5: 96-98.

Film clip: Gulf War I: The Pentagon (google video), 10 min. Michel Parbot on the government censorship of news coverage of Operation Desert Storm. The American news coverage of Gulf War 1 was severely managed, filtered, censored and staged by the military. It is essential to look at the innovative ways the Pentagon kept control over the media during that war.

Iraq-The Hidden Story 2006 (google-video), 49 min. How our news is sanitized to prevent the destruction and suffering created by the U.S. occupation of Iraq from entering our reality. BBC Channel 4 Investigates. Images of Iraq dominate our TV news bulletins every night but in this film, award-winning journalist Jon Snow questions whether these reports are sugar-coating the bloody reality of war under the US-led occupation. He shows the footage used by TV news broadcasts, and compares it with the devastatingly powerful uncensored footage of the aftermath of the carnage that is becoming a part of the fabric of life in Iraq. Producer and Director: Christian Trumble; Exec Prod: Stephen Phelps; Prod Co: Zenith Entertainment Ltd - 2006

WEEK 12: Catastrophic Realism and Mass Spectatorship

Sturken, Marita. 2004. “The Aesthetics of Absence: Rebuilding Ground Zero.” American Ethnologist 31 (3): 311-325.
Low, Setha M. 2004. “The Memorialization of September 11: Dominant and Local Discourses on the rebuilding of the World Trade Center Site.” American Ethnologist 31 (3): 326-338 (text).
Feldman, Allen. 2005. “On the Actuarial Gaze: From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib”. Cultural Studies 19 (2): 203-226.

Part IV: Representation and Refraction

WEEK 13: Terror and Representation

Keenan, Jeremy. 2006. “Conspirary Theories and ‘Terrorists’.” Anthropology Today 22 (6): 4-9.
Abdel-hail, Jamal M. 2006. “Al-Jazeera at War.” In: Journal of Visual Culture 5: 105-107.

Film: Weapons of Mass Deception 2004 (google video), 1 hour 38 min. Film produced and directed by independent journalist and former network producer Danny Schechter. An indictment of the role media played in promoting and misreporting the war on Iraq. It is an analysis of the failures of journalism and the collusion of media companies with the Bush Administration. A comprehensive, updated and insider look at the media complicity that Schechter argues "made the war possible." According to Danny Schechter: "The government orchestrated the war while the media marketed it.” There were two wars going on in Iraq - one was fought with armies of soldiers, bombs, and a fearsome military force. The other was fought alongside it with cameras, satellites, armies of journalists, and propaganda techniques. One war was rationalized as an effort to find and remove WMDs - Weapons of Mass Destruction; the other was carried out by even more powerful WMDs, Weapons of Mass Deception. A Global Vision Production.

WEEK 14: Witnessing, Testimony, and Visual Advocacy

McLagan, Meg. 2006. “Introduction: Making Human Rights Claims Public.” American Anthropologist 108 (1): 191-195.

Case 1: Philippines’ massacre of indigenous people: Gregory, Sam. 2006. “Transnational Storytelling.” AA 108 (1): 195-204.
Case 2: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Avni, Ronit. 2006. “Mobilizing Hope.” AA 108 (1): 205-214.
Case 3: Turkey’s genocide of Armenians: Torchin, Leshu. 2006. “Ravished Armenia.” AA 108 (1): 214-220.

Exercise: Analyze visual strategies for representing human suffering in a manner that does not dehumanize victims and can promote compassion, empathy, and political action.

WEEK 15: Conclusions: Toward a Visual Culture of Peace

Sundar, Nandini. 2004. “Toward an Anthropology of Culpability.” American Ethnologist 31 (2): 145-163.
Student project presentations