Reading Recommendation: “Capturing the Void(ed)” by Safiyah Rochelle

As my research concerns the legal, ethical, and political ramifications of computer vision technologies, I’m interested in any commentaries on the relationships between law, politics, and vision. I was therefore pleased when came across this fascinating dissertation by Safiyah Rochelle, entitled “Capturing the Void(ed): Muslim Detainees, Practices of Violence, and the Politics of Seeing in Guantánamo Bay.” She wrote about the “complex relationship between visuality, power, violence, and the making and unmaking of subjects and bodies” (p. 20) – specifically male Muslim bodies in the context of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

Intelligently and beautifully argued, Rochelle’s thesis skilfully maintained an appropriate balance between scientific detachment from the subject matter, and the emotional sensitivity the images of Guantánamo Bay demand from us as human beings. A reflection that particularly struck a chord with me:

How should I contend with the fact that when I look at images of Guantánamo detainees, I see them (even when they are barely discernable), but I also see my family, my friends, members of my community – all of whom could easily, but for a few twists and turns of fate or politics or war, be made subjects of and to the camp?

p. 18

The thesis relies on Critical Visual Analysis, to analyse the way in which the images of Guantánamo Bay are produced through, along with, and in spite of legal practices. In addition, Rochelle analysed how the images in turn produce legal and political realities.

(…) the visual is a deeply relational phenomenon. Indeed, it not only shapes relations – it is also a relation in and of itself. It is also, then, closely tied to power, (…)

p. 8

These power relations not only quite literally censor and mediate what or who is allowed to be seen or not seen, but are also central to the making and unmaking of legal subjectivity and material embodiment.

p. 10

Rochelle explained how the legal and visual practices around Guantánamo Bay at the same time represent a rupture of ‘normal’ circumstances, and a continuation of the historical practices:

(…) the indefinite deferral of Cuban sovereignty and the American holding of this space in perpetuity imbue it with a particular kind of temporal and legal-political relation to American imperial rule, “making it a chillingly appropriate place for the indefinite detention of unnamed enemies in [the]…perpetual war on terror”.

p. 27

In other words, the language of exceptionalism, which operates as a discursive claim and a legal and political strategy, emphasizes the singular nature of the camp to the detriment of locating it on a continuum of historical state violence.

p. 29

The ‘state of exception’ – both a characteristic of the War on Terror which justified the camp, and a characteristic of the state in which the camp continues to exist – plays a significant role in defining who/what is visible before the law, and who/what is made visible through images:

Agamben argues that the “production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power.” Through “inclusionary act(s) of exclusion”, sovereign power demarcates those within and, more importantly, those outside of politics and law. More broadly speaking, for Agamben, these exclusions and contortions of law make the notion of the “exception” as one which is “increasingly … the dominant paradigm in contemporary politics”. In the exception, where states may kill at will through making exceptions to, or exempting themselves from norms of law and politics, the concentration camp is not a relic of the past, but is rather a concrete and ever-present expression of this paradigm.

p. 35 (emphasis mine)

Rochelle points out that the mere ‘absence of law’ does not adequately capture the position of the men detained in Guantánamo Bay:

While the classification, hierarchizing, and categorizing work necessary to conceptualize these subjects as such is to be found within distinct historical and cultural forces, it can also be found in law that is legitimized under the cover and claim of legal exceptionalism.

p. 51

The detainees are “in thrall to law while simultaneously being outside of its grace” (ibid) (how beautifully put!).

Rochelle argued that the subjects of this violence perpetuated under the guise of legal exceptionalism are constructed through biopolitics:

“[B]iopolitical practices of security take a naturalized body as their object to be protected, while a deeply ‘unnatural’ body is constituted as threatening. Such bodies are constituted as unreasonable, excessive bodies that cannot be dealt with through normal politics, but only through violence. In this way, contemporary practices of security produce certain bodies as normal and others as aberrant and unmanageable. Violence against these deviant bodies is made necessary in order to preserve these naturalized bodies [and] is framed as a technical problem to be managed using expert knowledge, rather than as an existential threat or a violation of norms. (…)”

p. 58, quoting Lauren B. Wilcox, Bodies of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 26-27 (emphasis mine).

According to Rochelle, the ‘Muslim man’ is constructed through such biopolitics, as his ‘Muslimness’ is understood as something that can be read off his body, something that lives and dies with his body, and something that is discursively connected to violence:

They rely on an understanding of the specific forms of violence that are thought to adhere to and reside in the bodies of Muslims; these forms go beyond the kind of violence that “merely” murders and maims; rather, they are geared towards the ideological and material destruction of a world(view).

p. 78 (emphasis mine)

The connection between the Muslim man’s body and ideological violence is reinforced through visual practices:

Processes of racialization and the use of the photographic image are intimately connected. From the invention of photographic technology, images were used as a method for racial categorization and classification, and worked to inscribe deviance and otherness onto “dark” bodies. It is precisely, according to Mariana Ortega, the “indexicality” of photography and its relation to the body, or its ability to “point to an existing thing in the material world, in the body” that grants images this hierarchizing force.

p. 90 (emphasis mine)

It is then the combination of legal pratices (which render some people and practices invisible before the law) and visual practices (which portray certain visible charachteristics of certain bodies as threatening), which serves to subject Muslim men to state violence, without granting them full legal protection:

Legal processes and the visual practices employed by the state thus share a reverberating and revelatory kinship, wherein the legibility and authority of each is underwritten by the functioning of the other.

p. 105

The “profound and persistent unrecognizability” of the detainee as a full legal subject is rooted in the particular forms of (un)recognizability that attach to this body, and these both emerge from and echo within visual practices and legal work.

p. 106

“In considering state visual practices in relation to moments of legal intervention, it is also possible to summon both law and visual practices as interdependent and interrelated sites of meaning. Approaching these visual practices as entwined with (but not bound by) law means also that such practices may operate equally as the vessel for the dissemination of legal categorization and as that which draws boundaries around which such categorization may proceed. State visual practices and law thus work in tandem, even when seeming to diverge, to vindicate certain legal categories, exclusion from and inclusion within the normative bounds of law, and to normalize who can become a recognizable legal subject.”

p. 149 (emphasis mine)
Some Reflections

– ‘Extra-legality’ is more than just the absence of law. Referring to state violence as happening within an ‘extra-legal’ space, does not entail that there is no law in that space. ‘Extra-legality’ is necessarily defined by the presence of law. The law itself defines what is in its remit, and therefore the law contributes to the making visible/invisible of certain forms of state violence and its victims.

– In the context of my own research on computer vision technologies, I am wondering who and what is ‘made visible’ through computer vision – particularly what types of violence are made visible/invisible through computer vision. Violent crimes like robbery and assault are viscerally visible, and can easily be picked up on by computer vision algorithms. However, more structural forms of violence are less easily detectable from images. For example, compare the following two images:

The image of the left shows CCTV footage of theft. A computer vision system trained to recognise ‘crime’ easily picks up on the violence in this image – it is highly visible. The image on the right is an image of a 19th century woman with her slave girl. Although slavery is an inherently violent phenomenon, the violence in this image is not ‘visible’ to a computer vision system – there are no clear violent cues in the image itself. Structural violence, or ‘quiet’ violence perpetuated through institutions might be made ‘invisble’ through computer vision systems.

– The combination of legal practices which render certain people ‘invisible’ and computer vision technologies which render structural violence ‘invisible’ seems to me to create particularly worrisome situations. Computer vision technologies are deployed in contexts in which certain individuals are already not considered to have full legal subjectivity, e.g. border control, warfare, counter-terrorism surveillance. If both the subjects of the violence and the violence itself is rendered invisible, what recourse is there for those who are subjected to the violence? What use are ‘AI ethics’ frameworks in this context?

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