PERFORMANCES OF WAR

AN ESSAY BY LAURA SJOBERG

“On April 18, 2006, I had my first confirmed kill. This man was innocent. I don’t know his name. I called him ‘the fat man.’ …. I shot him in front of his friend and his father. The first round didn’t kill him. After I’d hit him up here in his neck area and afterwards he started screaming and looked right into my eyes. So I looked at my friend who I was on post with and I said, well, I can’t let that happen, so I took another shot and took him out … My company commander personally congratulated me.”[1]

This is the testimony of former US Marine and Iraq veteran, Jon Michael Turner. As he was talking, Turner provided photos of his attacks on civilians, on mosques, and on households in Iraq – pictures he had taken himself of dead bodies and destroyed property. He explained that he was talking about the war crimes he committed and showing images of the human suffering he had caused because he had come to realise it was wrong and wanted to speak out for the people who were, because of his actions, unable to speak out for themselves. As he talked, images of dead and mangled bodies ran in a slideshow behind him.

I listened intensely to Turner’s words the first time I watched the video. I thought about how similar they were to the words of a number of jihadi martyrdom videos that I had heard over the years. I thought of Zizek’s warning – we need to see in the “other” what we deny but hate in ourselves, in order to have the tension of desire and hatred outside of ourselves.[2]

The second time I watched Turner, though, I found myself watching the pictures rather than listening to Turner’s words. I watched the bodies move, then be shot, and writhe in agony until they died. I watched the bodies’ relatives and friends trying to decide whether to help, mourn, or hide. Death, sickness, sadness, and depravity dominated the four-minute-long reel of images. As I watched, I thought for the first time that I was actually experiencing something related to Julia Kristeva’s abject – the disgusting reminder of my own materiality and the primal repression of both the evil and the material within. In Kristeva’s terms, Turner’s pictures function to “show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death.”[3] I watch the images and think to myself that Kristeva would see the abject in the images, but also in the catharsis of the self-justifying and self-condemning testimony reporting them.[4]

I wondered where that left me as the audience to this horror – other than physically ill. After all, I was the audience in a number of different ways. I was Turner’s intended audience – Americans with a predisposed objection to fighting the war in Iraq and an interest in publicising and stopping the atrocities happening there. I was the intended audience of the work of Zizek and Kristeva that I used to think about Turner’s presentation – an academic interested in peeling away the layers of meaningfulness mapped onto the meaningless. I was also, in some sense, my own intended audience. I went looking for soldier testimonials about the war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to watch myself and show my students. I was looking for in the other (here, American soldiers) what I hate in myself (a propensity to violence), Just as they were looking for in the other (here, Iraqis; more often than not civilians) what they hated in themselves (whether that was fear and insecurity or some more fundamental similarity/difference).

As I chased the authorship of the moment that I watched the video (or days that I repeated it) down a proverbial rabbit hole of infinite regress, I tried to think of the appropriate framework with which to “make feminist sense” of my simultaneous condemnation of and attraction to watching Turner’s testimony.[5] It was in this moment that I realised I could (and should) instead make feminist nonsense out of it.[6]

Jack Halberstam talks about gaga feminism in terms that felt eerily familiar to my reception of Turner’s performance. S/he describes gaga feminism as “performances of excess; crazy, unreadable appearances of wild genders, and social experimentation.”[7] The gaga feminist, in these terms, “advocates for being the fly in the ointment, the wrench in the machinery, the obstacle to the smooth, the seamless, and the quiet extension of the status quo.”[8] In the gaga feminist’s world, “the homo-hetero binary seems less definitive of sexual orientation than it did at the turn of the last century.”[9] Still, “compulsory heterosexuality is a system that makes it seem as if heterosexuality, with all of its imperfections and flaws and glitches is the only game in town.”[10]

Halberstam’s gaga seems almost diametrically opposed to Kristeva’s abject – Halberstam’s gaga is appealing in its irreverence, sexy in its chaos, jubilant in its damage; Kristeva’s abject is the very source of disappointed desire through the breakdown of the distinction of subject and object. At the same time, I cannot help but see the potential productivity (or at least appeal) in applying Halberstam’s analysis to the abject in Turner’s presentation.

I rewrite (here) and replay (in class) Turner’s testimony as “performances of excess; crazy, unreadable appearances of war, and social experimentation,” looking to be and to throw “the fly in the ointment of war, the wrench in the machinery of the war system, the obstacle to the smooth, the seamless, theoperation of war,” and seeing that “the war-not war binary seems less definitive of violent practice than it did at the end of the last century.” Compulsory militarism is a system that makes it seem as if violent practice, with all of its imperfections and flaws and glitches is the only game in town. War is normal, it is present, it is us – talking casually about and casually watching images of senseless killing is an absurd rehearsal of the grotesque in the everyday, and the everyday in the grotesque.

My initial reaction to gaga feminism (now that I mention it, not unlike my initial reaction to Turner’s testimony or Kristeva’s analysis that makes it “make sense” to me) was a combination of disgust and appeal – I agree; I can’t help but be attracted to it; it is my politics and my excess all at the same time. Turner tells the Marines “eat the apple, f— the corps, I don’t work for you no more.”[11] Jack Halberstam talks about the gaga feminist as transgressive: s/he “cannot settle into the house that culture has built for her. S/he has to tear it down, reimagine the very meaning of the house in form and function and only then can s/he rebuild.”[12] I identified with the transgression in Halberstam, and in Turner’s irreverent rejection of American militarism.

My second reaction to both phenomena emphasised the disgust. Turner’s performance was self-indulgent, and took less responsibility for his heinous actions than I thought was fair. He was hating in the system what he was refusing to hate in himself – senseless violence and a scary disregard for human life. Halberstam’s gaga feminism is also self-indulgent, “you can do damage, take others out, move at will” – the appeal of “big moves, bold moves, aggressive moves.”[13] The explicit sexualisation of femininity and queerness inherent in Halberstam’s analysis comes from the position of privilege of wealthy, white, Western culture; much like the admission of brutality in Turner’s testimony comes from the position of privilege of an American veteran who survived the horrors he inflicted on others. Perhaps the sense in the nonsense is in its self-indulgent absurdity: I should stop watching testimony and reading first-world feminism and go try to make the world a less evil place in some less ridiculous way.

My third reaction, however, rejects both of the first two, and is the way that I ultimately settle with Turner, Halberstam, Kristeva, and even feminism. In Kristeva’s words, “there looms, within abjection, one of those violent dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable.”[14] The stories that Turner tells are known but the images of what he did are ejected beyond the scope of possible – their very recognition internally contradictory to the advocate, just as the critic of “the war”, though for different reasons. The impossible presence, indeed, celebration, of these “dark revolts of seeing” isconstitutive of the fly in the ointment and/or the wrench in the machinery – it takes not only the horror to be objected to, but the absurd celebration of that horror to interrupt, the operation of war. The gaga feminist moments in my consumption of Turner’s testimony fold back onto themselves: his glorification of the abject, my seductive attraction both to the abject and his glorification of it, the transgressive interruption of both war and anti-war narratives – “the retching that thrusts me to the side”[15]; together, these factors make feminist nonsense out of (the Iraq) war.

This, however, is some very serious nonsense. As Halberstam explains, gaga feminism “is a form of political expression that masquerades as naïve nonsense but actually participates in big and meaningful forms of critique.”[16] This critique is not the surface level critique of the war itself in Turner’s testimony, of American exceptionalism in my presentation of his testimony to my classrooms, or of traditional gender roles in Halberstam’s analysis. Rather, it is a critique that also functions as acritique of the critique – the glorification of the abject grotesque as a form of (self-indulgent) intervention in the normalisation politics of war – successful precisely because of its absurdity and its over-determined doom. I can see in that contradiction a lesson for my studies of war, and for my pedagogy – but maybe also for my feminisms.

Halberstam aspires that “gaga feminism will abandon the norm the way a hiker might throw out her compass – once the compass has been lost, every direction is right, and getting lost becomes both a possibility and a pleasure.”[17] I felt that as I watched Turner throw his dog tags into the audience and as I watched him simultaneously apologise to/for and exploit bodies he killed. Perhaps this is what Kristeva talks about in terms of discovering “what war was, the whole war,” and parallels can be drawn for the Iraq War, civilian victimisation, and even (gaga) feminism(s).[18] Perhaps the whole (war, feminism, America) is ugly, disjointed, and disgusting – a reality recognised as much in its reification and celebration as in its condemnation.

**

[1] This was testimony at a conference in the Spring of 2007 called “Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan,” hosted by Iraq Veterans Against the War by a soldier, Jon Michael Turner, who was a member of the US military in Iraq. The video of the testimony can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZTyfrg06Xc.

[2] Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002), in the chapter on Happiness after 9/11.

[3] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p.3.

[4] e.g., ibid., p.17.

[5] This is a term used by Cynthia Enloe, first in Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); then most recently in Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

[6] The following analysis is inspired by Judith Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012).

[7] Ibid., loc 86.

[8] Ibid., loc 2141

[9] Ibid., loc 150

[10] Ibid, loc 1063

[11] See note 1

[12] Halberstam, Gaga Feminism, loc 95.

[13] Ibid, loc 2243

[14] Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p.1.

[15] Ibid., p.2.

[16] Halberstam, Gaga Feminism, loc 231.

[17] Ibid., loc 592.

[18] Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p.192.

Emma SapersteinComment