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Photographing the Guillotine (theappendix.net)
53 points by omnibrain on Oct 14, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 30 comments

In some ways, the U.S. has done to executions and automated foreign assassinations what the supermarket has done to eating meat. We are distanced from the act so that we aren't overly burdened thinking about about what is done in our names, both as citizens and voters. Hence, we do not oppose something that we normally would, were we only more aware of it.

In some ways it's a bit more dramatic than that.

Oklahoma's being sued by the ACLU and newspapers because the state restricted the press's access to what was happening during Claton Lockett's botched execution:


People sometimes forget that while the press is often accused of being lurid and prurient, they do actually serve a civic function. (Or really, the Press is an overly broad category, and there are good investigative journalists whom people throw under the bus because CNN is terrible)

I don't think so. You're dramatizing both situations, I assume based on personal bias.

The US executes about 40x people per year (with a brief higher spike in the late '90s and early '00s); in the 1980s it was maybe 15 to 20 per year.

Texas accounts for not quite half of that.

So remind me again how your statement is meaningful among a population of 317+ million in which the radical majority of Americans live in states that either have abolished executions or execute people very rarely.

How is that some kind of large scale desensitized system of execution? Where are the thousands of annual executions that would take place in such an actual case of desensitization?

"The public was scandalized by their own violence; the government embarrassed."

One wonders, if there was better coverage of drone strikes and police brutality and everything else, if the American public might lose taste for their current regime.

I'm not sure if people would lose their taste for drone strikes. The reason people were upset about Vietnam had nothing to do with how many NVA or VC were killed (despite the fact that more than 10 times as many North Vietnamese soldiers died as did Americans, and often in much less palatable ways) but everything to do with the number of Americans slaughtered in living color for what seemed like no good reason.

With drone strikes, the harm only happens to the other guy (and yes, civilians can be "other guys"), and currently the other guy is pretty widely reviled in the US. There is already widespread guncam footage of drone strikes, as well as helicopter rocket attacks, gunship strafing, and bombing runs which give you pretty much the best seat in the house to view them. The aftermath can frequently be seen in mainstream news sources. I think the American public likes drone strikes just as much as "the current regime" and more videos won't really change that.

Could not agree with this more. American establishment has so successfully managed to utterly caricaturize the victims that they dont register as people to the average populace.

And excuse my awkward historical observation: USA has had no trouble bombing the crap out of a non-white populations. Its only when some of that killing comes near home that it becomes an issue for debate. I dont think it would be drastically different this time.

Just the other day I was in a cab, the driver was American. He suggested one should carve up a nuke in the shape of Iran and Iraq and then set it off there, end of problem. Of course this is an extreme position and just an anecdote, but just that its not as fringe a belief as I think it should be. Such a view enjoys more sympathy than it should.

Yes, I think so. The current language around drone strikes is one of precision, sanitation, and infallibility. It's a one-way message that's easy to swallow. Faced with widely-reported counter information, such as actual photographs of "collateral damage", that spin must surely crumble.

This is obviously well-known to the military, having learned from their abject failure to control reporters during Vietnam. And is why reporters are now "embedded" within the military rather than be allowed to roam free (the spin for that, of course, being "safety").

The language describing the guillotine was also scientific and technical. Likewise it was the politics of its employment that had to cope with violent currents in human emotion.

That's hard to look at, even now.

Absolutely. The media access to the Vietnam War taught the American military to keep journalists away from the business end of things.

Yes, of course. Don't you remember the massive controversy surrounding the Wikileaks video titled "Collateral Murder" that was released back in 2010?

It's important to note that while, as the article notes, the last public execution via the guillotine occurred in 1939, it was used out of sight by the French govt through 1977. [1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guillotine

> This is what Roland Barthes called photography’s “catastrophe,” the photograph’s unique ability to make a viewer “observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake.” But this catastrophe is not the brutal performance of an execution. Rather, it is a poignant bruising of the self that occurs while looking at photograph [sic], that dreadful recognition that everyone photographed is dead or will be dead.

Everyone "is dead or will be dead", photographed or otherwise. Presumably it requires a professional philosopher to imagine that there is about this fact something extraordinary, or that there is about its recognition something other than a necessary stage in the transition between infancy and adulthood.

I think there's definitely something uncanny about being able to look a dead person in the eyes. It's not so much the recognition that everyone will die as the ability to simultaneously see them as a living being and know them to be gone. Granted, it's debatable whether photographs actually do anything new in that regard. I get the same uncanny feeling when I look in the eyes of the Hellenistic Egyptian mummy paintings:


Maybe photographs don't do anything new but the fact that they are more realistic helps makes it easier to get that feeling, maybe?

I think that's right. Part of why the Fayum mummies are so startling (to me at least) is that they aren't as damaged as other ancient art. Many Greek bronzes originally featured inlaid mother of pearl or jewel irises, for instance, and I like to think of the loss of their eyes as a metaphor for the distance creating by time. With photos that distance is reduced because they're so easy to duplicate that the images they encode can never really be damaged, in a way. At least not in the way that things like Greek bronzes can.

> I think there's definitely something uncanny about being able to look a dead person in the eyes.

Not really. It's also not like looking at a photograph.

"Presumably it requires a professional philosopher to imagine that there is about this fact something extraordinary"

One of the purposes of philosophy is to deeply reflect on things that most people take for granted. Sometimes this leads to the observation that the "ordinary" is actually rather strange.

It's a bit unfair to act as though nihilism simply removes all profound meaning from things. After all, life has a terrible mortality rate, but it's oddly not 100% [0]. We tend I live as though we'll keep living, a delusion that takes hold pretty hard for most people. A photograph helps reset that, as it's always showing a point in the past that's now lost, but does so with clarity; normally the past is fuzzier than that, and that can be a bit disquieting.

Heck, I'm not a professional philosopher by any stretch, though. Just someone who putters with stuff.

[0] http://what-if.xkcd.com/27/ "I plan to live forever. So far so good!" (Note: statement may need TimeStamp to remain consistent)

Who said anything about nihilism?

It's philosophically difficult to say 'someone is dead' in the present. Post-life, it's very difficult for your subject to verb. When you are consuming media of a person that is dead, though, like video or photographs, the dead subject is verbing before your eyes.

Ceci n'est pas une pipe, but by all means feel free to go on imagining that it is.

The entire point of the exercise is imagination, not literalism. If you want to be pedantic, it's impossible to see anyone, you can only see the light that's bouncing off of them.

Easy there, tiger. I'm just trying to point out the conflation of imagination and reality that's cheerfully running rampant both here and in the article which spawned this discussion.

>Easy there, tiger.

You really talk to strangers like that?

>I'm just trying to point out the conflation of imagination and reality that's cheerfully running rampant both here and in the article which spawned this discussion.

I don't understand what you're trying to point out, or why you think it's interesting. The article is about how reality is brought into imagination via imagery; about the distinction you seem to think everyone but you is confused about.

Without imagery, you're free to imagine executions however you would prefer. With imagery, your imagination is restricted to conform with what you've seen, narrowing the range of possible rationalizations for inaction or support.

I gotta note that grammar rodeo was nicely put. Mind if I use that later in conversation?

It was difficult to write, so please do.

"And Weidmann was, of course, executed for his crimes. His execution was widely covered, and even Franz Kafka was dispatched by Paris-Soir to cover the anticipated event."

Err, what? Kafka died in 1924, 15 years before Weidmann's execution. He also never worked for Paris-Soir or any other newspaper.

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