The one photograph I remember from my visual-studies course is one of captivity. Alexander Gardner’s Portrait of Lewis Payne takes up the entire ninety-fifth page of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, as well as much of my memory of that semester. Payne is dashing: side-swept hair, a chiseled profile, a fashionable sweater. Still, he’s not doing so hot, per the handcuffs binding his wrists. He tried to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. Seward but was apprehended and sentenced to death.
As is the case with famous portraits of which there are multiple takes, a look into Gardner’s archives complicates Payne’s presence. (Seen from another angle, his jaw is enlarged, misshapen, broken by a mule kick when he was thirteen.) But in this view, he looks quite serene, accepting of his death. The foregone look in his eyes led Barthes to isolate the peculiar way in which time works in a photograph. “I read at the same time: This will be and this has been.” Or, in Payne’s unfortunate case, “He is dead and he is going to die.”
A photograph freezes a moment and in doing so keeps all potential paths alive. Yet while we yearn for a reversible cryogenics, it’s a one-way ticket. Or, as Sontag puts it, “Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” These qualities are quite pronounced from a vantage of 150 years. Gardner died in 1882, having given up photography to found an insurance company. Seward died in 1872, having orchestrated the purchase of Alaska. Payne was executed two months later, on a ninety-three-degree day in July. For weeks leading up to the execution, he was kept with a heavy canvas sack over his head, twenty-four hours a day.
Three lives course through Sarah Sentilles’s new book, Draw Your Weapons. The writer, who teaches critical theory but spent years in a divinity school; Howard Scott, a WWII-era pacifist; and Miles, an Army Reservist and one of Sentilles’s students. Alongside recollections of lived experience, Sentilles knots a wide net of cultural references, ranging from Sontag and Barthes to the history of aerial photography, drones, torture, violin making, the history of conscription and pacifism, and animals. The panoply always returns to the central tension between creativity and destruction: how to make art in a world of war.
The book begins with a photograph of Howard on his eighty-seventh birthday. He is laughing and holding a violin, one that has been in the making for sixty years. With the help of Howard’s daughter Kayleen, Sentilles pieces together his life story and that of his deceased wife Ruane. In doing so, she reconstructs a history of American pacifism. During World War II, Howard became one of the 72,354 American men to register as conscientious objectors. At that time, COs were housed on Civilian Public Service camps and required to work in a variety of ways to keep the country running during wartime. For a time, Howard fought forest fires while living at the San Dimas CPS Camp in Glendora, California. However, he soon decided that working in a federal capacity as an alternative to the draft was still abstractly helping the war effort, and as such was at odds with pacifism. In October 1942, Howard left the camp. He was soon arrested for desertion, released, drafted again, and imprisoned again. This time he was sent to McNeil Island Penitentiary, in Washington, where he would spend nearly two years. It was there that he began to make a violin.
Some sixty years later, Sentilles sees a photograph in the newspaper. “A man standing on a box wearing nothing but a blanket. A bag over his head. Arms stretched out from his sides. Wires attached to his body.” It speaks to the power of the Abu Ghraib photographs that in this age of the ubiquitous image we can immediately recall them with only the barest outline of description. Box blanket bag wires. These are images of torture that became iPod parodies. Elsewhere, the puerile turns putrescent. Guards give a thumbs-up. Prisoners have dirty underwear over their heads.
Sentilles, paraphrasing Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, writes that “torture unmakes the world by transforming the tools of ordinary life—doors, bed frames, buckets, music, gloves, leashes, ice, water—into weapons. Think of Germany in the 1940s: ‘ovens,’ ‘showers,’ ‘lampshades,’ and ‘soap.’” What occurs is a far-reaching contamination of normal life with the logic and trauma of war, if a binary can be drawn between normal life and war, which it technically can but really shouldn’t.
Sentilles’s student Miles served at Abu Ghraib before becoming a painting major at the art school where she teaches. Early in the book, he is at work on a series of paintings depicting the children who were kept at the prison. Sentilles is taken aback. “There were children?” she asks. My mind jumped back to the Art Workers Coalition’s 1969 poster, Q: And Babies? A: And Babies., featuring a photograph of a pile of dead bodies taken at the My Lai Massacre including, yes, babies.
Miles was trained as a cook, but those positions were outsourced to private contractors, so he ended up as a prison guard. He slept in a cell with a hole blown out of the wall. He supervised the intake of new prisoners (fingerprinting, eye-scanning) and watched as they were vaccinated, trying to jokingly assuage the fears of those who were afraid of needles. His experience is one of relative tranquility (he replaced the soldiers who replaced those that photographed the torture), but is overshadowed by that torture’s legacy.
Since they meet years later, the story is a recreation, an act of remembering, gathering the past, and telling. Sentilles doesn’t ask Miles to tell his story; rather, she presents herself as a listener. (This forceful passivity is central to much of the book). After class ends, he comes up to her and asks to speak. Sentilles was the first person to ask him about his experience since he returned home, two years prior.
Miles has brought home souvenirs—coins, a poster of prison regulations (“Don’t try to escape”), a yellow jumpsuit. Like all souvenirs, their presence demands a prior loss. Or, put another way, you wouldn’t have to remember that which is still there. A religious scholar, Sentilles deftly situates Miles’s souvenirs in the tradition of the relic, a tradition which is dependent on disintegration of the whole—be it the memorial whole or the physical.
She recounts the tale of Saint Anthony’s exhumation 750 years after his death. He had no forearm, tongue, or jaw. The body was sacred, a link between the physical and the spiritual; possession of a part would bring something between salvation and good luck. Not all posthumous keepsakes are so pure of heart. After a lynching, the body would be dismembered, and people would carry away whatever they could get their hands on. (Lewis Payne’s head also went missing, turning up in 1991 in the Smithsonian Institute’s Native American skull collection.)
Remains (a word which is both a verb and a noun, Sentilles reminds us) compose the bulk of Draw Your Weapons. The author’s enterprise is to reconstitute a body of human understanding from what is left behind, preserved, or found—be it a grainy record of torture, a bit of text, or a work of art. Throughout, there are brief passages about artists’ projects, recounted almost as fables. Ann Hamilton places a piece of film in her mouth and, using her lips as the aperture, becomes a camera. Luc Tuymans repaints a postcard from Theresienstadt and a gas chamber at Dachau—rendering the horror of both as banal.
There is Guernica, of course, but Sentilles approaches the iconic work sidelong, zooming in on the light bulb at the top of the canvas, “whose light looks like the sun or like flames.” In Spanish, she notes, the word for light bulb, bombilla, sounds like the diminutive for bomb: bombia. Thus, it could be a metaphor for the destructive potential of technology.
Wafaa Bilal constructed a cell inside a gallery and remained there for a month. Inside was a remote-controlled paintball gun that was hooked up to a webcam, allowing anyone with an internet connection and a desire to shoot an Iraqi the ability to do so, from the comfort of their living room. By the end of the month, sixty-five thousand people had clicked fire.
Sentilles’s writing is pressurized and poetic, possessing the sheen of glass made from airstruck sand. Of a drowning: “In the water there is a doorway to the deep forty feet below the surface. The human body, compressed by the ambient pressure, by all that weight, becomes denser than water, and instead of bearing you up to the surface, the water pulls you down.”
The patchwork form of this book, in the vein of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, invigorates in its dissonance. The amount of white space on the page amplifies the effects of each passage, be they concussive or soothing. Among the numerous quotations and reflections about photography, war, and art, two noteworthy passages are unexpectedly instructional. A 2002 CIA memo lists and describes ten preferential interrogation techniques for prisoners. “Facial hold: One open palm is placed on either side of the individual’s face. The fingertips are kept well away from the individual’s eyes…. Cramped confinement: The confined space is usually dark.”
Just as matter-of-fact are several passages of Ruane’s letters to Howard during WWII. Howard had taken to spending time in the prison woodshop, making small gifts for his wife and infant daughter. He wanted to work up to a violin but didn’t know how. Ruane found a book on the process from 1885 and copied out the steps for Howard by hand. “Maple should be sound, without knots or cracks, grain run evenly and not in curves or waves. If wood is too hard, tone will be hard; if too soft, tone dull….” Beyond the obvious differences in vocabulary, both documents possess a calmness, a sense of purpose. Follow these simple steps and you can change the world. The only question is how you want it to be changed.