1. Family of Patriots Revisited
I wrote a short essay a few years ago about Vanity Fair’s photographic spread of the Bush Administration during wartime, circa 2002. The administration was pictured on the cover of the magazine – family portrait style: some cabinet members sat, like Condoleeza Rice and Dick Cheney, while others stood, like G.W. Bush and Colin Powell. The picture was taken in a parlor room, complete with fireplace and a seventeenth century(-esqe) history painting above the mantle. The image conjured the feeling of nineteenth century family portraiture, that staple of bourgeois American culture, but this time with a colorful twist.
Unlike the portraits of yore, wherein a careful viewer could catch glimpses of the “help” flanking the mistress or master of the house, this portrait is a sign of the times, as it were, indexing our multicultural present with Rice and Powell repositioned as serious policy makers in their own right. Vanity Fair’s image heralded the expansion of the “family of man.” It now accommodated, or in civil rights parlance, included, those bastardized children of Men whose very status as human was seriously debated not too long ago. Now, without question the “Black” and “Woman” (and it seemed, that doubly-damned creature: black-women) were folded into the human family and the boundaries of otherness had been redrawn. If “we” were all “human,” then how can we figure that which is other to the human? In the geopolitical context there are no other players besides “humans,” right? We are not negotiating the veracity of global warming claims with Polar Bears, nor are we deciding the future of Amazon forests with its animal inhabitants. If all humans have been “included” in the family of man, who then becomes the enemy-other? And, most importantly, how is that “other” represented visually?
The answer to this question was conveniently circulating in the CIA anti-terrorist unit long before I wrote my little essay. During the period of ideological shift from a “communist threat” to the “terrorist threat,” the CIA created a logo to help visualize its enemy. Its anti-terrorist logo is called “terrorist busters” and as you can guess, takes its iconographic cue from the 1984 blockbuster hit, Ghostbusters. Instead of a ghost at the center of the stylized “no,” there was a spectral human-ish creature without any racial, or ethnic markers. The figure holds a machine gun though, and this prosthetic arm triggers a sense of violent unease that made me feel like the amorphous terrorist was male. While gendering still seemed to be at work, the image definitely attempted to signify an otherness that was wholly unhuman, alien, and spectral. The CIA’s “terrorist-enemy” exists outside the “human family”, and as such, “humans” were under no ethical or moral obligation to engage such a “thing” (person would be the wrong word, no?), within existing international legal frameworks. Hence the very conceivability of the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
What is so brilliant and simultaneously horrible about the CIA anti-terrorist image is the way it insists upon collapsing visual specificity in favor of visual ambiguity and undecidabilty. Whereas 19th/20th century racialization practices relied upon phenotypic differences (color differences, hair texture differences, nose size, lip size and so on) to identify the “other,” contemporary racialization, under the auspices of liberal multiculturalism, can no longer afford to operate on this register. Ambiguity, fungibility and spectral alterity become the locus of other-making. Diffrence is unmoored from the body as such, which enables its articulation to different bodies when it’s politically expedient.
This representational strategy is of the utmost importance if we are to understand how racialization operates in a “post-racial,” multicultural context. Moreover, as Barack Obama’s upcoming presidency is erroneously billed as the end of “race,” understanding that “race” was about the “human” all along will help us see how the “nonhuman” is now where racism makes its mischief. And, if I may spoil the fun a bit more, we’d have to regard the Obama administration as a continuation of US racial politics, US imperialism, and blasted capitalist totalitarianism, not as a marker of a break.