Text: quotation from ‘frames of war: when is life grievable?’ by Judith Butler (2010)

October 2010


The quotation below is a follow up to the posting of my new body of work Missing in Action (red kenosis) 2010. It is a wonderful meditation on the link between image, frame, war, the senses and the successful conscription of the public into a complicit view of the world or, in opposition, resistance to that view. This is especially relevant at the moment with the current debate about Australian troops in Afghanistan. Butler is never less than a fascinating and insightful writer. This book is no exception; Butler’s ideas continue to inform my work.

Dr Marcus Bunyan



Efforts to control the visual and narrative dimensions of war delimit public discourse by establishing and disposing the sensuous parameters of reality itself – including what can be seen and what can be heard. As a result, it makes sense to ask, does regulating the limits of what is visible or audible serve as a precondition of war waging, one facilitated by cameras and other technologies of communication? Of course, persons use technological instruments, but instruments surely also use persons (position them, endow them with perspective, and establish the trajectory of their action); they frame and form anyone who enters into the visual or audible field, and, accordingly, those who do not. But further, under conditions of war waging, personhood is itself cast as a kind of instrumentality, by turns useful or dispensable. How is the public sphere constituted by the visual technologies of war? And what counter-public emerges over and against the ideal postulate? We think of persons as reacting to war in various ways, but communicable reactions to war also variably constitute and de-constitute personhood within the field of war. Is there some way to register war in a way that transforms the senses? And what role do transformed senses have in the demands for the cessation of war? If those of us who watch the wars our governments conduct at a distance are visually solicited and recruited into the war by embedded reporting and publicly approved media reports, under what conditions can we refuse that recruitment effort? What restructuring of the senses does that require and enable?

To approach this question, we have to understand how the senses are part of any recruitment effort. Specifically, there is a question of the epistemological position to which we are recruited when we watch or listen to war reports. Further, a certain reality is being built through our very act of passive reception, since what we are being recruited into is a certain framing of reality, both its constriction and interpretation. When the state issues directives on how war is to be reported, indeed on whether war is to be reported at all, it seems to be trying to regulate the understanding of violence, or the appearance of violence within a public sphere which has become decisively transformed by the internet and other forms of digital media. But if we are to ask whether this regulation of violence is itself also violent in some way, part of violence, then we need a more careful vocabulary to distinguish between the destruction of the bomb and the framing of its reality, even though, as we know, both happen at the same time, and the one cannot happen without the other. In the same way that Althusser (drawing on Spinoza) once argued that there can be different modalities of materiality, there can surely be, and are, different modalities of violence and of the material instrumentalities of violence. How do we understand the frame as itself part of the materiality of war and the efficacy of its violence?

The frame does not simply exhibit reality, but actively participates in a strategy of containment, selectively producing and enforcing what will count as reality. It tries to do this, and its efforts are a powerful wager. Although framing cannot always contain what it seeks to make visible or readable, it remains structured by the aim of instrumentalizing certain versions of reality. This means that the frame is always throwing something away, always keeping something out, always de-realizing and de-legitimating alternative versions of reality, discarded negatives of the official version. And so, when the frame jettisons certain version of war, it is busily making a rubbish heap whose animated debris provides the potential resources for resistance. When versions of reality are excluded or jettisoned to a domain of unreality, the specters are produced that haunt the ratified version of reality, animated and de-ratifying traces. In this sense frame seeks to institute an interdiction on mourning; there is no destruction, and there is no loss. Even as the frames are actively engaged in redoubling the destruction of war, they are only polishing the surface of a melancholia whose rage must be contained, and often cannot. Although the frame initiates (as part of weaponry) or finishes off (as part of reporting) a whole set of murderous deeds, and seeks to subordinate the visual field to the task of war waging, its success depends upon a successful conscription of the public. Our responsibility to resist war depends in part on how well we resist that daily effort at conscription.

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso, 2010, Introduction pp. xi – xiv.




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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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