VANISHED BODIES

Image Analysis
2019




©Walid Raad


©John Moore




The state of exception, which derives from the French état de siège, describes a contiguity or intersection between politics and law. Within the state of exception, which in turn can define extraterritoriality, sovereign power may transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good. Bodies in particular, when they are used to represent a sovereign power, may reproduce or become exempt from global power structures and national political spaces. In a political sense, an embodiment of the state of exception implies that a person is no longer subject to civil rights, but rather an absent, hollow figure upon which new taxonomies of control may be projected.

The primary image, an artwork created by Walid Raad, depicts a black square with what appears to be a piece of off-white paper in the centre. The smaller square of paper is partially covered by a paper clip, and the edges are slightly darkened and blurred, like a vignette. Sitting upon the paper is an outline of a seemingly male figure. The figure is shadowed but blurred, giving the sense of erasure; a void within a void. The image is presented as if it is an archived scrap of identity papers, a photograph from which both the subject and the background have vanished. This is particularly prescient considering Raad’s work, both under his own name and as The Atlas Group, documenting the Beirut war through both fictive and real narratives. The Atlas Group project aims to “locate, preserve, study, and produce audio, visual, literary, and other artifacts that shed light on the contemporary history of Lebanon” (Raad, 1999). Beirut existed in a state of ongoing conflict - from both domestic and exterior forces - for fifteen years. The lack of visual identity of the figure in the image suggests displacement or loss, as potentially experienced by those affected by war.

War itself may give rise to a state of exception. The establishment of a de facto constitution and the lack of normative law during times of war allow the state of exception to function as an ““illegal” but perfectly “juridical and constitutional” measure that is realised in the production of new norms (or of a new juridical order)” (Giorgio Agamben, 2005). Within this framework, the human body itself may function as a space of exception, by which “the biopolitical significance of the state of exception as the original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension”. The legal status of the individual is thus erased, producing a being that is both legally unnameable and unclassifiable.

This erasure of self is perhaps most noticeable when entering the physical infrastructure of a state of exception. The system of governance in place beyond the site simply does not apply within. The second image depicts the entrance to Guantanamo Bay. The foreground of the image is bisected by the lines of a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. In the background is the roof of a gated entrance to the prison grounds. The prison is located in Cuba, yet represents an extraterritorial (island) space of the United States of America, as boldly written on the sign: ‘Republic of Cuba, Free Territory of America’. The U.S. may dictate the legal framework used upon the body of any


persons who enter. As such, Guantanamo has frequently been described as a lawless place, which relies upon the confluence of two contradictory legal geographies; one allowing the indefinite detention of prisoners due to the placement of the prison site outside of the United States, and another that places the prison within the United States to allow so-called “coercive interrogation” techniques to be utilised.

Prisoners within Guantanamo are subjected to classification as terrorists who do not represent a nation, nor wear a uniform that signifies alignment with a greater power, thus allowing for this murky paradigmatic of extraterritorial law. The lack of civil rights renders persons within Guantanamo neither “prisoners nor persons accused, but simply “detainees”... they are the object of a pure de facto rule, of a detention that is indefinite not only in the temporal sense but in its very nature as well, since it is entirely removed from law and from juridical oversight” (Agamben, 2005). As such, “bare life reaches its maximum indeterminacy”.

The potentially violent transformation that takes place when an individual body becomes a state of exception is also replicated through current trends in identification technologies. An individual’s identity, when questioned by a sovereign authority, may be subject to “a cost-intensive, biological series of tests that assist in the detection of the origin, identity, and age of the unwanted intruders” (Eyal Weizman, Anslem Franke, 2003). The human body becomes a site for the collection of digital evidence or physiological clues, such as x-ray scans of dentistry, carpal bone lengths, genital characteristics, which each serve the designation of age, and “salivary tests (DNS) for relatedness, the hidden analysis of language and dialects help to ascertain the national origin of those without ocial documents”. Moving beyond more traditional methods of identification from the exterior of the body, the interior is instead scanned and unique markers are tagged to determine the right a body has to exist within a certain territory. Beyond simple identification documentation, and as suggested by Raad’s image, the interior space of the body is no longer privatised, but rather a void to be interrogated - and thereby filled - as a means to validate and offciate existence.

Raad’s image treads an interesting duality in which the figure is both contextualised and decontextualised by its surroundings (or lack thereof). Both the absent figure and its background are left floating in darkness, held in place only by a paperclip. This state of indeterminacy is echoed in the state of exception when applied to the biopolitical. Somewhat similarly, Guantanamo’s place, among others, as an extraterritorial island under the governance of the United States, is held in place by a suspension of juridical order, in which the state of exception “defines law’s threshold or limit concept” (Agamben, 2005). A such, the complex relations between sovereign power, law, and political exception are enacted upon the hollow figures who occupy and are projected upon within such spaces; they are rendered voids within voids.




Weizman, E., Franke, A. and Geisler, I. (2003). Islands. The geography of extraterritoriality. [online] Volume. Available at: http:// volumeproject.org/islands-the-geography-of-extraterritoriality/, p. 2.


Agamben, G. (2005). State of Exception. [ebook] Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Available at: http://cscs.res.in/dataarchive/textfiles/ textfile.2008-07-22.3968004064/file, p. 28.


Raad, W., (1999). The Atlas Group. [online] Available at: <https://www.theatlasgroup1989.org/>