Faces of Insurgents: Visualizing The Taliban Through Judith Butler’s Ethics and Jacques Rancière’s Dissensus

Open Lecture

LCC Street Lecture Theatre
Wednesday, November 12, 2014 16:30
Dr. Jenifer Chao

This paper juxtaposes Judith Butler’s consideration of wartime visuality with Jacques Rancière’s thoughts on the politics of aesthetics to analyze a collection of studio photographs featuring Taliban soldiers. Known simply as Taliban, the compilation consists of 49 photographs that capture these fighters through studio photography practices that contrast with the visual coordinates of insurgency and warfare commonly portraying them in popular Western media. This deviating visualization propels two ongoing debates in photography concerning its own function and efficacy: first, the ethical force of the medium at the scenes of war and violent conflicts, as discussed by Butler; and second, the status of photography vis-à-vis art which has emerged out of Rancière’s broader critique of critical art. I argue that while these Taliban images might encourage a compassionate visuality informed by Butler’s notions of precarity and grievability, this potential instrumentalization is problematized by Rancière’s aesthetic dissensus, which facilitates a viewing that actually obfuscates legibility and disrupts meaning. As a result, these photographs contest a visual regime that seeks lucidity for the terrorist-enemy by provoking a more perplexing and enigmatic visual encounter with the Taliban.

Jenifer Chao is a visiting post-doctoral researcher at the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester. She received her PhD in 2013 from the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis at University of Amsterdam. She also holds a MA in English Literature (cum laude) from University of Amsterdam and a BA in International Studies from University of Washington, Seattle. Before returning to academia to pursue her post-graduate degrees, she worked for many years as a foreign correspondent in Amsterdam for the international news agency The Associated Press.