Symposium Introduction

“Signs and wonders” is a biblical trope that signifies variously. It can mark spectacles of salvation or judgement, miraculous events of healing or exorcism, shows of prophetic and apostolic authority, or confirmations of authentic faith. However, it can also mark sites of temptation and deception. Demons and false prophets are capable of signs and wonders, and both Matthew and Luke have Jesus warn that seeking after a sign is “evil and adulterous.” The only sign that will be given, Jesus announces, is that of the prophet Jonah, that prophet who fled from the divine call and was swallowed up at sea. In “postmodern” lingo, we might say that “signs and wonders” announces a textual slippage or undecidability. Neither decidedly good nor decidedly evil, the Bible’s “signs and wonders” place its reader in ambiguous territory—between the divine and the demonic, both of which lure through spectacle. Theology too occupies this fraught territory, where the struggle to read signs, to discern the difference of icon from idol, is never-ending.

The “signs and wonders” of Ellen Armour’s Signs & Wonders likewise signify variously and ambiguously. Four recent American events and their photographic traces structure the telling of a Foucaultian-esque “history of the present” (15) and its theological architecture: the ordination of Gene Robinson (ch. 3) , the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib (ch. 4), the medical and ethical conflicts surrounding Terri Schiavo (ch. 5), and the aftermath of hurricane Katrina (ch. 6). Like the four gospels of the New Testament, these four events are gathered and interpreted together as theological portraiture. What they open to sight is the current status in America of “Christian theology as cultural capital” (12). Each event and its accompanying photographic traces display Christianity theology metabolized within / as “bio-disciplinary power,” which names for Armour (following Foucault) the structuring element of “modernity.” The photographs give signs of Christian theology caught up in the modern episteme of bio-power, but they also show modern systems of “knowing, doing and being” (3) under strain, suffering their fragile foundations and uncertain futures. What do such signs portend, both for modernity and Christian theology?

Across her narration of the four photographed events, Armour posits a Heidegger-inspired “fourfold” that makes up the inner architecture of modernity: “man, his divine other, his animal other, and his raced and sexed others…Man occupies the center, while his others surround him like a network of mirrors that reflect him back to himself, thus securing his sense of identity and of mastery—over self, over nature, and over his others” (2-3). Resisting hasty proclamations of modernity’s / Man’s end or defeat, Armour sees in our current moment Man’s “slow erosion” (202), a slowness that is mirrored in Armour’s patient attention to photographs. Entering deeply into some of modernity’s spectacles by way of the modern medium of photography, what the reader is invited to enter is a process of askesis, “a discipline of attending and undergoing that aims at transformation” (10).

At the end of the book, the reader will perhaps have learned to see differently, having learned of one’s formation within modern bio-disciplinary power and therefore of the exigency of knowing, doing, and being otherwise. For Armour, the otherwise possibility to be desired is “a new ethos rooted in shared vulnerability” (204). The slow erosion of Man’s mastery is an opportunity to cultivate a desire for and affirmation of life not grounded in a disavowal of finitude. Armour proclaims no apocalyptic end to modernity nor any apocalyptic future to replace it. She patiently magnifies modernity’s fragility and limits not in order to rush past them, but to find in them the material of creative possibility.

The subtitle of Signs & Wonders is Theology After Modernity. Armour identifies two senses of “after,” one temporal, the other spacial. Theology coming after modernity temporally evokes the notion of “postmodern theology,” which, for Armour, is too clean and confident a signifier under which to do theology. She prefers the spacial sense of “after,” as in, theology in wake of modernity, or theology in the aftermath of modernity. I want to suggest a third sense of “after” that I think is also true to the work this text does. One might call it the inquisitive sense of “after,” as in, theology seeking after modernity. One of the gits of this book is that it helps us to ask more patiently and carefully, “what exactly is modernity?” And it offers no ready-made or self-serving answers. It leaves us with problems and difficulties to work on, which is what good theology always does.

The four essays that follow all engage with Armour’s important work in critical and generative ways. Anita Monro queries Signs & Wonders narration of modernity and its relation to postmodernity, and wonders about the relation of sight and touch to mastery. Linn Tonstad poses critical questions about valorizations of vulnerability and whether such strategies are the best way to resist Man’s mastery. Kent Brintnall discusses photography as technology and also questions Armour’s account of vulnerability. And finally, Shannon Winnubst explores how modernity (and its photographic traces) might be seen differently if the concept of race, rather than rational man, is recognized as its organizing root. Each of these essays helps deepen and make more difficult the problems and difficulties, the signs and wonders, that Armour draws to our attention.

Anita Monro


Embodied Precarity Rather Than Touch over Sight

Signs and Wonders (2016) (hereinafter S&W) interrogates the state of bio-disciplinary power at the end of modernity through a process framed as Foucauldian askesis—“a discipline of attending and undergoing that aims at transformation” of subjectivity, both individual and communal (10). Such an interrogation is both modern and postmodern. It is ultramodern in the sense that the “putative” postmodern (cf. 7, 10 . . .) is characterised by a constant inquisition whereby nothing is permitted to be taken for granted (or as read or viewed or heard or touched) without inquiry. Such a mode of examination is a key characteristic of the modernity which gives rise to the contemporary scientific quest for knowledge, an extraordinary exercise of bio-disciplinary power in its own right. For S&W, modernity is an attitude (cf. Foucault) “embodied in critical investigation of the past in the service of furthering freedom” with “man” as object and subject (8).

S&W conducts this process of askesis upon a series of photographic images connected to four critical events for the US (and conceivably the global) human community in the first decade of the twenty-first century. That process seeks to examine the “fourfold” of modernity: “man, his divine other, his animal other, and his raced and sexed others” (2): a bio-disciplinary order that “gives shape to our being-in-the-world prereflectively” (4). S&W reflects on this order and implicit human complicity in it in an attempt to muster resources—“discursive and material, sensory and affective, individual and social, local and global, visual and tactile (and more)—to live into modernity’s end.” S&W wants to know and be and do “otherwise” than the order probed through these images: “We need a new ontology and a new ethos rooted in shared vulnerability” (204).

What then are the “theo-logics” that undergird the “fourfold” order and the search for a new ontology? As S&W observes, theology is more concerned with sapientia (wisdom) than with scientia (knowledge); and the pursuit of such wisdom is for the sake of “ordinary (Christian) living” (11), although no human enterprise can ever be free of the taint of the exercise of bio-disciplinary power. From a theological perspective as well as a postmodern philosophical one, we are all implicated; and no scientific or sapiential quest promises a rising above this quagmire except in purely eschatological or idealistic terms. S&W asserts that the modern fourfold paradigm has been an exercise of bio-disciplinary power which attempts to defy precarity and stave off mortality. This defiance has been expressed through empires, economies, encyclopedias, technologies and other universalising attempts at mastery. The “drive for mastery . . . is rooted in the disavowal of vulnerability”:

Man’s claim to forms of mastery modelled after (but not equivalent to) those ascribed to his divine other move him to disavow the vulnerability that he shares with his sexed, raced, and animal others. The structures created to contain and control bio-disciplinary power also aim to master vulnerability. The fractures and fissures in those institutions and structures emerge precisely where mastery meets its limits. (207)

S&W suggests a shift in focus from “vision to touch” (203) in order to deal with the present context and the twin dilemmas of the failure and the impossibility of mastery. This move to touch is just to a different area for interrogation though. Touch, as S&W observes, is not immune to the vagaries of bio-disciplinary power, like everything else within the biosphere. Sight and touch both may contribute to the interrogative process, or detract from it. What makes this move attractive is its novelty as an arena of interrogation, not its promise as a new resource for mastery (albeit mastery of a desired different order).

S&W privileges sight as a colonising tool for the bio-disciplinary order dominated by the fourfold: “not just the content of these photographs . . . the visual technologies that produced them are part and parcel of modernity and its putative end and were integral to the fourfold’s emergence and its subsequent deployment” (7). The exercise of bio-disciplinary power is the attempt to gain mastery, whether that comes as a reinforcement of the fourfold or its inquisition and prospective dismantling. Merely shifting from one resource (i.e., sight) to another (i.e., touch) does not in and of itself achieve the dismantling rather than the reinforcement, although the process of askesis of any resource may. The question of vulnerability and the way in which we deal with it is the key to the concerns of S&W as it “presses toward an ontology that acknowledges rather than obfuscates finitude and vulnerability, including the finitude and vulnerability of the fourfold itself” (4).

Along with “the death of the subject, of credible metanarratives, or reason and truth,” ultramodernity demands a confrontation with the ambiguous position of both acknowledging the impossibility of mastery and earnestly seeking after it. This newly (re-)envisioned theo-logic is a mastery that, rather than overcoming or repudiating vulnerability, seeks to enter into it. “Rather than a weakness to be disavowed, it is a reality to be worked through and worked with—lovingly, with humour and patience where possible, and in collaboration with others” (218). Consequently, it is not the move to touch that is demanded by a new theo-logic, but rather the constant appeal to new arenas in order that interrogation is renewed and the confrontation with vulnerability is reinvigorated. In order to achieve a different way of knowing, being and doing, any solidification of theo-logical interpretations must be avoided, thwarted and undermined continuously not just engaged as an impossible unequivocal termination. Modernity persists and indeed must do so for the sake of the pursuit of scientia. Ultramodern interrogation is its legacy. So then, what are the pragmatic clues to sapiential living in this marshland of subjective ambiguity?

S&W both identifies the crux of the matter and bypasses it by its appeal to touch rather than to its own interrogative method for confronting and dealing with ambivalence. Not touch but the identification of touch as “(im)possible possibility” (209) offers the conceptual framework for the ambiguity that is key to the confrontation with vulnerability required by ultramodernity. If Kant understands subjectivity as ground; and Foucault, as product and project (9), then ultramodernity grapples with subjectivity as impossible possibility, precarious and vulnerable—a beingness open to unbeing.

S&W connects touch as key to navigating an ultramodern theo-logic with incarnation: “In becoming incarnate in Christ the Son, the merciful hand of God the Father literally reaches out to touch—and through touch to become—human flesh” (213). For a theo-logic to really grapple with the ultramodern project, it is the very nature of the assumed subjectivity that must be confronted rather than the means by which it might be assumed. Hence, it is not God touching, but God becoming a vulnerable subjectivity that would seem to make the right connections. As S&W professes, “precariousness and precarity . . . [are] constitutive of human being” (183); and incarnation is about the entry of the divine into that precarious beingness (215–20).

S&W declares a Foucauldian and Butlerian ontology (4) and it is precisely such an ontology that holds the clue to the necessary theo-logic for the ultramodern: “The infinite God becomes truly finite by dying on the cross” (214). Not touch but finitude itself “(un)does the masterful knowing, doing and being that embodies man’s displacement of God and in so doing (un)does the logic that distinguishes man from his (sexed, raced, and animal) others” (215); and the entry of God into that finitude, precariousness, vulnerability is the trope that offers both the affirmation of that finitude and the possibility of celebrating it (cf. Kristeva jouissance).

What we might understand as the relentless and repetitive mortality of the body cannot be addressed or relieved by human action. . . . To seek a form of human action capable of overcoming death is itself impossible and dangerous, taking us further away from a sense of the precariousness of life. In this perspective, the body imposes a principle of humility and a sense of the necessary limit of all human action. (Butler 2015, p. 47)

A confrontation with the necessity of mastery not overcoming or despairing of mortality but entering into it is the key to a viable ultramodern theo-logic which offer a means of knowing, being and doing “otherwise.”


Armour, E. T. 2016. Signs and Wonders: Theology After Modernity. Gender, Theory and Religion Series. New York: Columbia University Press.

Butler, J. 2015. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Mary Flexner Lectures of Bryn Mawr College. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Ellen Armour

    Ellen Armour


    Reply to Monro

    My thanks to all four respondents for their rich and thought-provoking engagements with Signs and Wonders—no easy task given its unusual mix of theology, philosophy and photography. All four treat the dimensions of the project they engage seriously, thoughtfully, and critically bringing their particular (and considerable) expertise to bear on it in exceptionally fruitful ways. I am particularly grateful for the critical questions they raise and the additional insights they offer as a result. For example, Tonstad and Winnubst both articulate dimensions of what the photographs in the Abu Ghraib chapter open up and onto that I omit (the troubling question of pleasure, in Winnubst’s case, the troubling theo-logic of the second Iraq war itself, in Tonstad’s case).

    I want to focus my reflections on what I hope readers will take away from this vital conversation about Signs and Wonders; insights that might help them understand the challenges it argues we face in our time and place, the temptation of bio-disciplined docility, and where we might find resources to resist it.

    I’m very much on board with “ultramodernity” as a way to capture our time and place and the challenges that confront us. And yes, undertaking the labor of recognizing and responding to ultramodernity’s disavowal of vulnerability will require the pursuit of wisdom (sapientia)including theological wisdom—that can as Monro aptly puts it, enable us to “enter into” vulnerability rather than repudiating it. It will require not just understanding but practicing subjectivity differently—as (again in Monro’s words) “impossible possibility, precarious and vulnerable, a beingness open to [because constituted by, I would add] unbeing.” I appreciate as well Monro’s repurposing of Butler’s work on precarity (which figures critically in Signs and Wonders, but not constructively) in the service of this important insight.

    Monro boldly puts forward the Christian theo-logic of incarnation as a source and ground for this wisdom; one she finds more compelling, I gather, than my turn to (theologies of) touch. I find this very intriguing and generative. How deliciously ironic that (Foucaultian) Man—as much project as product of bio-discipline, recall—is placed once again in the position of aspiring to be like God! This time, though, not by striving to master vulnerability but by submitting fully to it. Of course, in Christian tradition, God’s submission to vulnerability is ultimately (eschatologically, that is) its end. As Shelly Rambo reminds us in her work on trauma and theology, Christians tend to skip from Good Friday to Easter bypassing Holy Saturday. To make good on the promise Monro sees here would require acknowledging Jesus’ death as a real loss arising from real vulnerability (his, ours, and God’s, no?). I am reminded of the story in John’s gospel (20:24–29) of “doubting Thomas,” as we’ve come to call him. This disciple was not present with the others when the resurrected Jesus first appeared to them. When told of it, Thomas responds that, unless he not only sees but sticks his fingers and hands into Jesus’ wounds, he will not believe Jesus is risen. Rather than a lack of faith, might we read Thomas’ insistence as grief that refuses easy consolation? As a claim that the true Jesus is the vulnerable-unto-death Jesus? Note that, when Jesus appears again, he offers to let Thomas touch his wounds. Thomas does not take him up on it; the offer itself is enough, it seems. Indeed, Jesus attributes Thomas’ jolt into recognition to vision and contrasts his need to see in order to “believe” with those who believe without seeing. Yet, still, the wounds signify. Vulnerability is simultaneously overcome and rendered present. And in that context, might that momentary disruption of sight by touch, of faith by doubt, of joy by grief, align with Monro’s suggestion? If so, then touch might yet be needed to help us access Monro’s alternative Christo-theo-logic of vulnerability.

Linn Tonstad


The Seen and the Unseen

The Theology of Photographs

Ellen Armour’s wonderfully rich Signs and Wonders: Theology After Modernity takes the reader on an ascetic journey through a modernity both strong and weak, or perhaps better, both established and yielding. This modernity, in Armour’s account, is characterized or held up by “a ‘fourfold’ made up of man, his divine other, his animal other, and his raced and sexed others” who “surround him like a network of mirrors that reflect him back to himself, thus securing his sense of identity and of mastery” (2–3). Armour offers “an ontology that acknowledges rather than obfuscates finitude and vulnerability, including the finitude and vulnerability of this fourfold itself” (4). To this point, Armour remains in tune with many theoretical, and some theological, projects characteristic of our time. The search for—even insistence on—vulnerability, alongside an emphasis on difference without identity among the many others who stabilize “man,” mark most potent theoretical engagements with the legacy of colonization and the Enlightenment, as does the invocation of a theo-logic underlying that legacy. Indeed, attaching the label “crypto-theological” to a cultural thought-form (or the work of another scholar) remains among the most devastating tools in the toolbox of scholars in religious studies.

The hunt for theology’s repressed remnants and revenants, however, is not Armour’s primary agenda. Instead, invocation of the theological in part marks out a space for what a theologian might say to and about a cultural form as seemingly untheological, or demystified, as photography (see especially 92–95). After rehearsing photography’s role in the formation of the modern episteme, Armour turns to her case studies: Gene Robinson, Abu Ghraib and the archive of lynching, Terry Schiavo, and Hurricane Katrina. Already the innovative nature of Armour’s approach becomes apparent. It is not particularly uncommon for theologians to engage various cultural forms or artifacts, but to write theology as a series of meditations or patient engagements with photographs is decidedly unusual—and welcome.

Armour’s patience—her ability to stay with her subject—is a particularly compelling aspect of the book. In her discussion of Gene Robinson, for instance, she avoids easy conclusions; by tarrying with complexity she leaves the reader, as she hopes, “(un)made,” for “who can say anything at all?” (114). The multiple currents that converged around Robinson’s ordination are both within and beyond modernity, within and post colonial, within and after Christianity. Together, they render the ground on which the reader stands—the stable interpretive categories she may have brought to her reading—unstable, conflictual, and shifting, complex like the planetarity that Armour adapts from Gayatri Spivak.

This attention to complexity bears particular rewards at the end of Armour’s discussion of Terri Schiavo’s case. “If, however, anyone actually had the opportunity to preserve the sanctity of Ms. Schiavo’s life within the context of the political, legislative, and media circus of her last days, I would submit that it was the hospice workers who bathed her, turned her, and diapered her from the day she entered their care until the day she died” (180–81). Consonant with Armour’s journey from visuality to touch, this moment opens the possibility of “an ethical response to precariousness—and precarity . . . an opening toward ways of living under bio-disciplinary power as modernity declines” (181). Touch reflects and insistently reminds us of the vulnerabilities that mark our entire lives, collectively and individually. Touch heals, but also wounds; it is not the deus ex machina of ethical life.

Touch also marks the work of the theologians to whom Armour turns in the final sections of the book: Sharon Betcher, Shawn Copeland, and Mayra Rivera Rivera. Touch, rightly approached, “undoes [the] surface logics [of mastery] and, in the process, renders impossible what they purport to pursue. . . . Touch, then, (un)does the masterful knowing, doing, and being that embodies man’s displacement of God and in so doing (un)does the logic that distinguishes man from his (sexed, raced and animal) others. It clears space for other forms of knowing, doing, and being to take root—forms that figure relationality and thus responsibility differently.” (215) Because theology helped to create those logics, theology must help undo them.

How might theology help? Armour finds promise in Copeland’s invocation of freedom and Eucharistic transformation (216–17), Betcher’s love of finitude from the slanted direction of Spirit (217–18), and Rivera Rivera’s touch of transcendence, in which “divine transcendence configured through planetarity works as much from the inside out as from the outside in. The planetary ‘God’ enfolds all that is in an embrace of abyssal depth and infinite generativity” (218). God, who elsewhere in the text appears almost only in the form of the (fictionally masterful) Man who replaced Him, now takes on a different guise: that of a planetary God caught up in the futility (but also resilience) of finite, fleshly existence (219).

I do not include myself among those theologians who believe a return to the premodern will rescue theology after modernity’s ravaging of its terrain (nor does Armour, of course). Neither human temporality nor historicity is as simple to evade as all that. And I too have found resources in touch as a way to think the always-already of relationality in bodied—indeed, in all—existence (as distinguished from the need felt by some to set putatively autonomous subjects in relation by rupturing their autonomy). Yet I found myself wondering, at the end of Signs and Wonders, about the views implicitly imputed to the audience of the book, despite the insightful and illuminating readings of the photographs in the text.

Who, in the humanistic and academic contexts that form this book’s audience, continues to dispute that Man was made in relation to his raced, sexed, animal others, alongside and after the death of God? Who praises sovereignty and despises vulnerability? Who does not insist on finitude? Who values autonomy over relation, or imagines that there is an a-relational autonomy at all? That is, whose views are presumed to change, to be destabilized, on the basis of an encounter—even one as sensitive as this one—with a theological-cultural logic in modernity? Does anyone deny the potential (and need) for difference-in-relation to shape an ethic of being differently?

I can think of a few answers, none quite satisfactory. One possible audience might be theologians and Christians committed to a view of God different from Armour’s. But that audience, I think, would typically reject the automatic equation of divine sovereignty with the sort of sovereignty that constitutes Man’s impossible dream. Such readers would likely grant Armour’s general account of modernity, but would be rather less likely to accept that the “theological cultural capital” she identifies as important for interpreting photographs constitutes an indictment of any particular theological view. Another possible audience would be the cultured despisers of religion, or let us say more specifically the cultured despisers of Christian theology in the academy. Armour seeks the recognition of theology’s engagement in the production of the cultural logics she traces, and therefore argues its necessity in undoing those logics. But might not others argue that it is precisely because theology helped to produce this modernity that it cannot help in the latter’s dismantling? The most likely audience is those who straddle the same disciplinary borders as Armour does, scholars who engage theology, continental philosophy, and theory, in some mixture or another. But that brings me back to the basic question: who, in that audience, still needs to discover vulnerability and finitude as antidotes to modernity’s false promises? Are those not the very premises that make such conversation possible? Here I would appreciate Armour’s help.

Armour’s revealing discussion of photography left me with another set of questions. Armour lauds the capacity of photos to mobilize but acknowledges their ambiguity. “Accidental Napalm,” she reminds us, “helped mobilize and intensify antiwar activism by arousing viewer sympathy, pity, and outrage” (89). While “Accidental Napalm” made viewers aware of the horrors of using napalm, it also played a significant role in mobilizing wider opposition to the Vietnam War, so that the injustice not merely of the how but the that of prosecuting the war became evident. In contrast, Armour laments that the Abu Ghraib photographs did not result in “support for prosecuting the architects of Bush administration policies for the treatment of detainees” (90). Armour interprets the difference in part as the effect of what she calls “photographic ambivalence” (90). Photographs link us in a “contract” (90–91) in which “photographer, subject, and spectators share responsibility for the photograph, but none is its master” (91). The discussion ends with Armour’s rehearsal of the theological cultural capital photography reflects (92–95).

Photographic ambivalence, then, helps explain the different effects and identifications photographs mobilize. The Abu Ghraib photographs teach mastery to “the beneficiaries of Orientalist racism,” including, “arguably, Americans in general” (149). From the perspective of the relation between mastery and vulnerability, made evident in the photographs, “what has passed for response to the images in the form of political resistance, protest, or outrage must be judged anemic, at best” (153).

Armour is entirely right in that assessment. I wondered, though, about the possible consequences of focusing the discussion of Abu Ghraib in the way Armour does. Starting with 9/11 (itself a highly political choice), Armour traces the unfolding of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) through an examination of the photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib. The chapter discusses surveillance, extraordinary rendition, and drones, as well as lynching photographs, Orientalism, and the vastness of suffering human beings impose on animals through factory farming and similar practices (150–51). Mostly absent from the text is the actual context within which Abu Ghraib became a possibility. The Abu Ghraib photographs are, despite their evil, not representative of official US policies on the treatment of detainees (even though there is much to be said, as Armour does in tracing modernity’s unfolding, about the thought- and practice-world within which something like Abu Ghraib can happen at all). “Official torture” at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo (with other secret CIA sites), seldom resulted in photographs (for many reasons, including the sonic nature of some of the torture).

Armour thus discusses Abu Ghraib in relation to broad cultural logics, but not in relation to its proximate conditions of possibility, of which I want to mention two. Bush, to a degree, and Blair, far more explicitly, justified the invasion in explicitly theological terms. Supposedly Blair viewed it as a “Christian battle” while Bush thought God was leading him to war.1 Bush’s “selection” to the presidency was, like the current US president’s, significantly smoothed by white American Christians’ concerns about threats to religious freedom. Why is Orientalism present in Armour’s examination, yet these explicitly theological claims are not? There’s good evidence that torture strategies both in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib were funded by beliefs about what would bother Muslims the most—another explicit theological logic, but one irreducible to Christianity.

It was in this chapter, too, that I most missed significant, direct engagement with capitalism. Capitalism is mentioned throughout the book, of course, but is seldom made the direct object of examination. Earlier chapters include discussion of colonialism, especially in the nineteenth century, and colonialism and capitalism are deeply interwoven. But the Iraq that we know—both in its creation and in its destruction—is a product of twentieth-century colonialism. Its borders were drawn by the League of Nations after World War I (in which my Iraqi grandfather served as a supply officer for the Ottoman forces). Even more saliently, Iraq as we know it results from capital’s and empire’s shifting needs, especially for oil.

Armour may be right about what the Abu Ghraib photographs make visible, but there is much more regarding the conditions of their own possibility that they do not seem to represent and which she herself doesn’t seem to see. Although the massive demonstrations that accompanied the Bush- and Blair-led drive to the second invasion of Iraq represented broad opposition to the war, such opposition was ultimately without effect. Doesn’t such futile opposition also illustrate something about the conditions within which the Abu Ghraib photographs emerged yet failed to generate greater political will to end the war?

Under what understanding of Man and his others do we pay attention to the (at least purportedly) extraordinary aspects of the US invasion of Iraq (i.e., torture), but not its arguably more ordinary aspects? Armour discusses the theo-logic within which lynching photographs emerged, as well as the broader context of Orientalism and its association of Arabs and animality. But there still seems to me to be something missing from the discussion. The second Iraq war, the events leading up to it, and the events resulting from it, have caused human suffering and devastation on a scale that, quite literally, exceeds the capacity of human imagination to visualize. The suffering is so extensive, and so vast, that it cannot, perhaps, be seen directly. Most recently, the photograph of Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach and the photograph of four-year-old Hudea raising her arms in surrender to a camera in a refugee camp have achieved iconic status in representing the devastation caused by the destabilization of Syria following US-led actions in Iraq. Those photographs illustrate once more the ambivalence of photography, since they have resulted in calls for yet further US-led infliction of human suffering by bombing and imposing no-fly zones.

It may be that numbers cannot move us like photographs might, so reckoning with the horrors of the war would require us to await iconic photographs of Iraqi war dead. Since such photographs do not exist, at least in public consciousness, the analysis in Signs and Wonders cannot extend to consider the conditions under which we can see the horror of Abu Ghraib but not the horror of which Abu Ghraib is only a small part. Armour’s discussion depends to some extent on Judith Butler’s Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, which is an engagement with just this problem: the care we, the “public,” show for (some) individual American lives, and our carelessness regarding the innumerable Iraqi dead with whom we do not identify. Yet Armour invokes Butler’s book primarily in relation to lynching photographs and Terri Schiavo, rather than the Iraq war. Thus the innumerable war dead—in a war funded in part by the taxes that Armour and I pay out of our earnings teaching and writing theology, even if opposed by us both—are left outside the frame, to use Butler’s terms. The ambivalence of photography in this regard strikes me at a deep level.

  1. See among many sources, and (both accessed June 5, 2017).

  • Ellen Armour

    Ellen Armour


    Reply to Tonstad

    I agree with Tonstad; the failure of the photographs of Abu Ghraib in particular to generate potent protest is not simply a matter of photographic ambivalence (though that’s my focus), but of all kinds of forces well beyond the photographic, so I welcome Tonstad’s naming of some of them. And yes, the same applies to the responses to the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach that Tonstad mentions. Certainly, journalists are right to credit that photograph with mobilizing and energizing rescue and resettlement efforts—in Europe and Canada, at least, if not in the United States. But that is not the end of the story. In a forthcoming essay, I analyze the impact of Kurdi’s photograph using Derrida’s work on sovereignty, cosmopolitanism and the death penalty.

    I also appreciate Tonstad’s question about my intended (or imagined) audience for Signs and Wonders and my goal in writing it. To be honest, I didn’t think much about intended audience while writing. Perhaps that reflects my Derridean formation, which persists despite the Foucaultian turn this book takes. (Derrida troubled the notion of authorial control over what we [mean to] say in a number of ways, recall.) If, as Tonstad suggests, the diagnosis I offer of vulnerability’s disavowal as the root of what ails us postmoderns is widely shared, that would be great, but my goal was primarily to raise awareness of the way photographic subjection perpetuates the illness that afflicts us in the first place (if I may stick with the medical metaphor a bit longer).

    That project seems, if anything, even more important in this era of technologically fuelled image overload (see also my response to Brintnall). Saidiya Hartman calls attention to the numbing impact of repetitive images, and rightly so. We are bombarded with stills and videos of killings of black people (by police or by self-appointed vigilantes), of child refugees separated from their parents at our southern border, of white men and women yelling at people of color to “go back to” wherever the yellers imagine their targets “came from.” It’s quite simply overwhelming, at times. Some of us do go numb and have the luxury of turning away and thus avoiding vulnerability. Others of us need to look away for a while; a mode of self care rooted in acknowledging vulnerability.

    Both responses point to the need to cultivate a more self-reflective engagement with photographic practice (taking, posing, sharing, looking) as a channel of bio-discipline. But that’s just a first step. As my concluding chapter suggests, it’s my hope that photographic askesis will motivate us to reach out and touch the resources available in ourselves, in each other, in our communities, in our traditions (theological, philosophical, literary, poetic, visual and musical) for the much larger task of living into modernity’s end.

    That said, more needs to be done by way of crafting and cultivating those resources. Tonstad’s response is a reminder of the resources available from fellow travelers—especially in theology—who see confronting vulnerability as critical. It is a reminder, as well, that those resources lie in sometimes unexpected places. I hope that Signs and Wonders helps to expand that group of fellow travelers and to call attention to similarly unexpected resources.

Kent Brintnall


Technologies of Vulnerability

September 26, 2006.

This date is relevant to thinking about the askesis Ellen Armour performs using images, events, and evocative language in Signs and Wonders: Theology after Modernity. Armour’s book outlines not only the “Fourfold” that defines biodisciplinary power in the modern age—Man, his divine other, his animal other, his raced and sexed other; it also explores four representative events, and photographs that typify them, to map the terrain and identify the texture of the Fourfold. The ordination of Gene Robinson, the death of Terri Schiavo, the abuses of Abu Graib, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina constitute the ingredients from which Armour develops an exfoliant that might strip away attachments to mastery and enhance practices of shared vulnerability.

September 26, 2006.

This date is relevant to any assessment of Signs and Wonders because it falls after the events the book discusses. And starting on this date, anyone who was thirteen years old and had a valid email address could open an account on Facebook. Since then, more than one billion people have availed themselves of this opportunity, and many of those use the technology on a daily, or hourly, or more frequent basis. Signs and Wonders—and its examination of how we perceive the world, our relation to the world, our ability to master the world, and our vulnerability in the world—relies on photographs and events that circulated in a world untouched by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever similar technologies have sprung into being between my typing these words and their appearance in this Syndicate forum.

There’s something wistfully nostalgic—even quaint—about how Armour presents some of her material. In her discussion of the photographs accompanying the New York Times’ coverage of Gene Robinson’s ordination, for example, she explains that a photograph memorializing resistance and objection appeared on the front page of the paper (she chooses not to reproduce this photograph), whereas a photograph depicting Robinson’s relationship with his male partner was relegated to the paper’s “interior pages.” The scene of someone reading a physical newspaper, with front and interior pages—the scene of someone reading the New York Times at all—almost has to be visualized in sepia tones. The version of this story available on the New York Times’ website includes no photographs—and is available in one, uninterrupted block of text. The version available through my university’s library has a different interior page than Armour’s endnotes, with both photographs appearing on the interior/second page of the story, undoubtedly due to the use of a different print run of the paper to produce the .pdf now available electronically. I report these details—and describe the presentation as nostalgic—not to malign the carefulness of Armour’s scholarship, but rather to highlight the sea changes in technologies through which photographs are presented and consumed since Robinson’s ordination in 2003.

Similarly, given that the country almost ground to a halt as people tried to figure out if a dress was black/blue or gold/white, can we imagine what chaos and rancor would have ensued if the film clips of Terri Schiavo would have been circulating in October 2006 rather than March 2005? Or, worse yet, do we want to conjure the memes that might have been produced using stills from those videos—or from the Abu Graib archive? Related to this question of technology change, what comfort does Signs & Wonders offer—what hunger for mastery does it feed—by consistently referencing still photographs, with their static, immobile, contained form that enables careful study, analysis and reflection?

Armour, of course, is fully aware of the difference that technologies make. Signs and Wonders notes the shift from analog to digital photography, even though it doesn’t fully explore how that shift alters photography’s capacity to touch the world. Referencing the Boston marathon bombing, Armour explains how the penchant for documenting every moment of one’s life on social media enabled the quick apprehension of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. But she considers this solely as an example of surveillance, rather than also thinking about the confessional aspect of self-documentation. The former exemplifies mastery being imposed on our bodies; the latter exemplifies a desire for self-mastery; both are implicated in biodisciplinary power. Why this drive for self-mastery?

A longing for self-mastery, a desire to overcome vulnerability, may, in the final analysis, have everything to do with photography as a medium, albeit with a different inflection than Armour’s account. In her chapter devoted to explaining how photography is a key mechanism of biodisciplinary power, Armour undermines any notion that the photograph has some veridical relation to the “real world.” Photographers choose what they photograph; they choose how to frame, light, compose, and develop their images. Other people and institutions, with other aims and priorities, then distribute and consume these images. And, of course, in this digital age, photographs are even more susceptible to manipulation and transformation. The medium originally celebrated as offering a window onto the world is now no more trustworthy as a recording device than the painterly techniques it was feared it would replace. But if we must, in part, rely on photography—and other visual media—to perceive the world, to know the world, to interpret the world, to understand the world, and if we have very good reasons to be suspicious about these media and whether they represent the world accurately and fairly, if we are required to be cautious about the reliability of what we are seeing, then photography is not primarily a mechanism through which we can master the world, its others, and its otherness, but is yet one more dimension of the world that must be mastered. Insofar as learning how to evaluate, interpret and “read” photographs is and-yet one more skill we must master in order to survive modernity, then photography may not enhance our sense of mastery over the world—an informed understanding of photography (like the account Armour gives us, and the accounts on which she relies) may, in fact, undermine our sense of mastery and exacerbate our sense of vulnerability and its attendant anxieties.

In her closing chapter, Armour counsels a shift from an ontology and ethics organized around sight to an ontology and ethics organized around touch. She contends that such a shift will compel us to move away from the disavowal of vulnerability that fuels our desire for mastery. I would contend—in light of the very materials that comprise Signs and Wonders—that the close of the modern age is typified not so much by a disavowal of vulnerability as a hyperawareness of it. Our longing may not be for mastery, but for survival, in an era and environment when that survival is or, at the very least, feels like it is exceptionally precarious. To make the same point somewhat differently, I would want us to think through Armour’s suggestions remembering the Freudian sense of disavowal, which is not a singular denial, but rather an admixture of denial and recognition. In disavowing our vulnerability, we understand that we are incredibly vulnerable and hope to secure invulnerability at the same time. Or, to make this quotidianly concrete, we constantly crave ways to sever our connection to and reliance on email, Facebook, and phones. We want to stop being touched.

Prompted by Armour to think about vulnerability and touch, I cannot help but think about French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche who rereads Freud’s account of sexuality and the development of the self to privilege and foreground our enmeshment in relationship. As Laplanche (and Lacan before him) emphasizes, human beings share, universally, the trait of premature birth. Unlike other animals, even when we are born past our due dates, we enter the world well before we can care for ourselves: we are born into fragility, helplessness and vulnerability. We require touch in order to survive. This requisite touch—this caring, comforting, and nurturing caress; this indifferent, distracted, frustrated manipulation; this hostile, angry, abusive grasp—is the source of stimulation, excitement, mystery, anxiety, wonder and danger. What do these touches mean? What are they communicating? Why won’t they stop? Laplanche identifies the touches that comprise our care as enigmatic signifiers—as messages that neither we nor our caretakers fully understand. We become human both because of and in opposition to the touch of others. Our primal vulnerability must be overcome. We have no choice but to develop (a desire for) mastery—the challenge is to not exaggerate or magnify it, not to be triggered by every subsequent experience of vulnerability with (only) responses of detachment or domination. Some level of aggression toward the world is necessary simply so that we might be. (In addition to helping Christian theologians to think about incarnation, ethics, and relation, Laplanche might be a vital resource in reformulating a doctrine of original sin.)

If the world were constituted by still photographs, it would be much easier to manage the appropriate balance between self-assertion and self-hyperbolization. But the world comes at us fast and furious, in rapidly moving images, in quickly unfolding feeds of information, much of it untrustworthy or hard to decipher. We do not have to facilitate a capacity to be touched; we are constantly subject to touch. We do not need to acknowledge our vulnerability; it is the consistent bass line of our movement in the world. Consequently, our response to both good and bad touches—a response we necessarily learned during our earliest moments and carry with us from our earliest memories—includes some form of wariness. We undoubtedly need the disciplined attention to the ways in which we have been made, and might be unmade, that Armour advocates. At the same time, we may need affective and aesthetic transformation that allows us to dwell in the pleasures of being unmade, pleasures that linger in the traces of those primal touches. An askesis of attentiveness, after all, requires the remainder of a self capable of managing—if not mastering—the processes of (un)making, in order to interrupt and forestall the exploitative, dominating, and dehumanizing touches that comprise far too much of modern life. We may require a more thorough-going askesis that strips away the remnants of our longing for attention.

  • Ellen Armour

    Ellen Armour


    Reply to Brintnall

    Brintnall’s observation about the dramatic changes in photographic practice since 2003–2005, when the events indexed by the photographs in Signs and Wonders took place is spot on and very important. (Indeed, that’s precisely what my current book project is about so stay tuned!) The advent of social media and the smart phone cum camera (now video capable) have made photography even more ubiquitous (and thus more banal, to be sure). He is right to ask whether Signs and Wonders can even begin to address the increased speed and volume of photographic traffic and our (newly) willing self-subjection to it. Yes, I would argue, at least to a degree. First, it’s certainly true that one can scroll through a Facebook feed far more quickly than one can flip through the pages of a newspaper. But it’s a rare photograph—pre- or post-Instagram—that truly grabs our attention and makes us linger with it. The new photographic regime still allows for that; it may even amplify and democratize photography’s capacity to “move” us. Kurdi’s photograph is a case in point. It “went viral,” as we say, on social media before being picked up by newspapers; indeed, its virality is what made it worth publishing.

    That said, though I agree with Brintnall that we subject ourselves quite willingly to this photographic onslaught, I would argue the ground for that was laid long ago. I think the account I give of surveillance in Signs and Wonders resists dividing external surveillance too strongly from self-subjection. Recall how the panopticon works, according to Foucault. Placing prisoners (or school kids or assembly line workers) under constant surveillance aims to encourage their self-subjection. Photographic self-surveillance encourages us to (re)make ourselves into docile subjects and we are rewarded for doing so, punished for not. Social media are arguably more democratic arenas of self-surveillance, for good and for ill, but they, too, must navigate bio-discipline—in more complicated ways, to be sure. We control what we post (about ourselves and about others). We want to project our best selves and often these are the selves that conform with dominant narratives about our happy family lives, our blissful vacations. However, unless we’re really vigilant, we don’t always control who sees what we post. And we don’t control what others post about us. Thus, social media also amplify our vulnerability with often dire or deadly consequences for those who fail to conform to those dominant narratives. That said, non-conformists also find community on social media, but those communities can also get caught up in battles over their own norms.

    Brintnall also questions my claim that bio-disciplinary power succeeds in encouraging us to disavow vulnerability. (I meant “disavow” in precisely the psychoanalytic sense that he lays out, by the way, so I’m grateful to have the opportunity to clarify that.) I’m inclined to agree with him that we are, if anything, hyperaware (though mostly subconsciously, still, I’d argue) of our vulnerability these days. But that hyperawareness does not make us any less tempted to disavow it; it may, in fact, make (some of) us more so. Brintnall’s metaphor of vulnerability as “the consistent bass line of our movement in the world” strikes this former music major as quite apt. When we listen to rock and roll, say, it’s typically the melody that captures our attention, not the bass line. Although the bass anchors the song (and often propels it forward), it impacts most listeners subliminally unless we really listen for it. And most of us have to learn to listen for it.

    Listening to this particular bass line will require us to learn to sit with our vulnerability and all that it awakens in us. The photographs in Signs and Wonders remind us that, under our modern bio-disciplinary regime, the burden of vulnerability has been offloaded onto Man’s sexed/raced/animal “others” where it is often exploited in the name of protecting (various versions of) “us” from “them.” Recognizing the costs to those made to bear it and relinquishing the benefits of that offloading is difficult but necessary labor. (Consider, for example, the phenomenon of white fragility.) But a significant number of us are committed to undertaking it, so perhaps there is cause for hope even in these dire and frightening times.

Shannon Winnubst


After Modernity

Whose? Which? When? And, Perhaps Most of All, How?

Ellen Armour has written a remarkable book, Signs & Wonders: Theology After Modernity—an audacious title for an audacious project. A capacious and fearless thinker, Armour pursues one of the most daunting questions of these historical times: living and dying amidst the decline and demise of modernity. To do so, she curates a specific photographic archive that, by functioning as a hall of mirrors, offers a glimpse of such living and dying. With intentional emphasis on the genre of photography as a quintessentially modern aesthetic, Armour cultivates an askesis of disciplined attentiveness to the photographs that aims to unmake modernity’s Man. Armour implicates us as readers into this unmaking through a persistent interlacing of this modern Man and “us”—a move that haunts my remarks today. Finally, with attention to the mixed pain and pleasure of that unmaking, Armour concludes the book with how this unmaking might open onto new possibilities of living and dying after modernity—particularly through a shift from the distance of the ocularcentric to the relationality of touch.

The book is, as I have said, audacious. In an effort to respond with the askesis she describes and engages, I focus on the conceptualization of modernity that grounds Armour’s arguments and meditations: whose modernity? When and where do we locate it? And how—in what register—do we understand its initiation?

Armour takes her point of departure, perhaps unsurprisingly, from Foucault, especially The Order of Things, with its iconic closing image of the figure of Man “erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (OT, 387). She thereby frames her attempt to think “after modernity” primarily as the task of thinking amidst the decline of an episteme. In order to get to my central engagements with Armour’s work, I first emphasize two aspects of this inheritance from Foucault that frames her work:

First, she assumes Foucault’s distinct conception of modernity as an episteme, an episteme that emerges out of particular shifts—as she puts it, “from Renaissance to Classical to modern” (16). Accordingly, Armour elaborates a fairly orthodox Foucaultian account of this shift into modernity: As modern “man” emerges as “a strange empirico-transcendental doublet” (22) that is both knower and known—both subject and object of knowledge—so too can we trace the shifts in the objects and subjects of knowing. In general terms, the objects of knowing shift from the Renaissance’s God (wherein “knowing was essentially divination”) to the Classical episteme’s conceptualization of nature, which eventually becomes a self-reflexive meditation on the act of knowing itself (natural history and philology mark the classical episteme), to modernity’s turn to life (la vie, bios), conceived eventually as a force or power invested differentially in varying forms of living (and dying). Alongside these, the subjects of knowing also shift. As Armour puts it, “If the Classical episteme brought human beings as knowers and namers closer to God (as source of order) than in the Renaissance, Man essentially replaces God in the modern episteme” (22)—especially Man as the one armed with reason. Across both registers of this object-subject doublet, the same overarching move prevails: modern rational Man replaces God as knower and known. (I will return to this.)

The second inheritance from Foucault I underscore is the particular understanding of change itself as “epistemic.” As Armour explains in the opening chapter, Foucault’s attempts to map epistemic change require painstaking attentiveness to details, nuance, and varying levels of analysis. As she writes, “Movement from one episteme into another happens piecemeal, here and there, in fits and starts, for the most part. . . . Think of epistemic change as a matter of morphing from one to the other rather than of either gradual (logical, linear, or progressive) development or radical endings and dramatic beginnings” (16). She likens the attempt to map epistemic change to the fraught attempt to gauge the change in the size of beach dunes over the course of a week: from one spot, the changes seem dramatic, even seismic; while to another spot, change is indecipherable. Impossible to achieve in toto, the process of such observation requires askesis—“a disciplined attentiveness” (11) that Armour invokes repeatedly across the text as her precise method of reading her archive of photographs. While Armour is particularly careful to connect epistemic change to the materiality of epistemic practices, noting the productive and pervasive aspects of power that Foucault brings to the fore, she nonetheless frames the decline of modernity, again following Foucault in The Order of Things, fundamentally as an epistemic process.

* * * *

With this epistemic framing set, Armour sets her creative energy loose. First, she injects a delightfully non-Heideggerian Heideggerian twist into this Foucaultian schematic: the fourfold. From the outset, Armour tells us that this book “will trace the emergence in modernity of a ‘fourfold’ made up of man, his divine other, his animal other, and his raced and sexed others” (2). For Foucaultians, this may read as the attempt to bring a later Foucault—say, the Foucault of The History of Sexuality, and 1974–79 lectures (“Abnormal,” “Society Must Be Defended,” “Security, Territory, Population,” “The Birth of Biopolitics”)—into contact with the epistemically framed Foucault of The Order of Things (1966). It is certainly an attempt to bring the Foucaultian understandings of power (sovereign, disciplinary, biopolitical) and the specific Foucautlian accounts of sexuality and race (derived from Del McWhorter’s accounts) into contact with the epistemic framing of modernity. Armour refers to this as the joined framing of “modernity as episteme (a way of knowing) and ethos (a way of doing and being)” (45). As Armour explains, the epistemic shifts of modernity, “by producing new ways of knowing, produced as well new ways of individual and collective being and doing. Life, it will turn out, is not only something Man seeks to know, but also something Man seeks to manage” (25–26). And he manages this foremost through the normative, disciplinary, and biopolitical grids of his raced and sexed others and animal others. Armour’s creative ontology of modernity as a fourfold captures this merging of episteme and ethos and serves as the backdrop of her photographic archive.

I am sympathetic to this rather queer Heideggerian fourfold, particularly as it brings the theological into contact with modernity’s techniques of race and sexuality, which are uniquely expressed in the human/animal division. I have long wondered about a similar kind of framing that Bataille develops, wherein the human is suspended in a trifold relation to God, animals and things (Theory of Religion; Accursed Share, Volume Two)—a trifold that is very similar to Armour’s, once we understand how race reduces humans to things. Armour’s emphasis on the theological aspects of this fourfold provokes critical considerations about the ongoing, persistent theo-logic—i.e., a logic of transcendence—that structures these categories of race, sex, and animal and their attendant mechanisms of production. Put differently, Armour provokes us to consider the “godliness” of modernity’s concepts of race, sexuality, and animality. If, as I have argued elsewhere, a crucial aspect of epistemic change comes through the intensification of, rather than clean break from, a previous episteme, then Armour’s work provokes us to consider how these concepts of race, sexuality and animality might function as intensified concepts of God?

Again, I am deeply sympathetic to this line of argument. I would like to approach it, however, from a different account of modernity. In the terms of Armour’s approach and arguments, I am asking two fundamental questions:

  • In Armour’s account, derived from Foucault, the relation of episteme and ethos is temporalized, rendering the emergence of ethos (especially as expressed through biopower and its management of life [26]) as coming after the epistemic shifts. What alters (historically, affectively, materially) if this temporalizing of ethos following upon episteme is reversed?
  • More directly, what if we follow a very different account from this Foucaultian narrative (God àrational man à race/sex/animal) and read modernity as spawned directly out of the concept of race? That is, what shifts (historically, affectively, materially) when we follow Sylvia Wynter’s provocation that race replaces god—and that this occurs alongside the fifteenth-century colonizing ventures out of the Iberian peninsula? How does this alter the figure of man, when derived in and through the racializing violence of colonialism, including the transatlantic slave trade that it develops? And how, finally, might this different account of modernity—as an episteme grounded by race, not the figure of man—alter both Armour’s fourfold and the readings of the photographic archive she curates?

To sketch this with some details, I take up one group of the photographs Armour curates: the photographs from Abu Ghraib and the photograph of a lynching. These are, as Armour explicitly notes, complex photographs. I will not cue them up visually for this discussion, because to do so is to enact some of the racializing mechanisms that concern me.

Armour curates this group of photographs for several reasons: the Abu Ghraib photos capture “the spectacular visibility [of the] Global War on Terror [as] iconographic and iconoclastic” (124); the pairing of the Abu Ghraib photos with the photo of lynching brings the issues of ethical “spectatorial responsibility” (127) to the fore; these scenes of willful, celebratory torture by white subjects against persons of color bring forth the performative, perhaps even interpellative, power of photographs; and, finally, the photograph of lynching brings the role of Christianity and religious practices directly into play in a manner that refracts back into the photographs of Abu Ghraib, recentering religion in this display of nationalism. Armour engages the question of how these photographs position viewers explicitly through the work of Susan Sontag. As she quotes Sontag: “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain” (127). And yet, I find that, despite the accounts of how black newspapers ran the photograph of the lynching, Armour writes from and towards the construction of a white (even white Christian American) viewer in her descriptions of the effects these photographs have on “us.” Put more generally, the account of modernity as centering “man” foreshortens Armour’s accounts of these photographs’ performative powers, especially in the affective register.

Across her discussion, Armour explores a range of affects stirred by these photographs: outrage, shame, and guilt come forth most readily; pleasure emerges more slowly and problematically. The former—outrage, shame, guilt—are the hallmarks of what Saidiya Hartman incisively labels “liberal sentimentality” in her Scenes of Subjection. Working on the broad archive of torture in abolitionist literature, Hartman forcefully argues that scenes of torture are the foundation—indeed, the “bread and butter,” to use a phrase as colloquial as the scenes—of this liberal sentimentality, with its expressions of outrage, shame, and guilt. As Hartman writes, these scenes are reiterated with such ease and circulated with such casualness that “the display of the slave’s ravaged body” (3) becomes routine. In this vein, the twist of the Abu Ghraib photographs may be that, living as we are in societies of spectacle, the routine is rendered spectacular and the “exceptional” status of this torture is trotted out with routine repetition to resituate “good, white liberals” in their safely insulated distance from it. When Armour assumes this sentimental range of responses as, first, the shared response of “us” and, second, the dominant response of “man,” this historical racialization of such sentimentality should become central to the analysis.

From this perspective of liberal sentimentality, it is clear how the question of pleasure is more troubling for Armour and her readers (“us”). The pleasure of violence—or what Lacan helpfully calls jouissance—is, indeed, taboo for the sentimental liberal subject. But as Hartman, once more, shows relentlessly, this pleasure is the motor of the casual, numbingly repetitive images of torture. Coining the term that is now enjoying a renaissance through Alex Weheliye’s work, Hartman diagnoses the circulation of images of whites torturing persons of color concisely: pornotroping. Armour leans in this direction in her discussions of the spectacle character of lynchings, aiming to produce both “a docile black population” (132) and a violent white masculinity (133–34). But even in her discussion of the “relic” of the lock of hair, she elides one of the most religious aspects of these spectacular lynchings—namely, the festivity of the event. As Ralph Ellison captures in his short story “Party Down at the Square,” lynchings were powerfully religious festivals of sacrifice, stirring up the group identification with gross acts of violence in the most primitive, visceral, and profound manners. They are a direct reenactment of the founding violence of colonialism—the founding violence of a modernity that is centered in race, not rationality (or its affective sibling, sentimentality).

Circling back to Hartman, I argue that there is nothing new at all in the photographs of Abu Ghraib. Capturing the intense psycho-social energies of these religious festivals of violent sacrifice, these scenes of torture and their circulation are still the lifeblood of colonial modernity and its treasured god, race. While the circulation may now present greater psychic conflict—and thus more outrage—among upstanding, good white people (as Shannon Sullivan has helpfully named us), this is just the flipside of the religious ecstasy. The images still racialize viewers, exposing the underside of whiteness for our disavowal, while still performing the power of whiteness—especially and still sponsored by the state—to exert violence against persons of color; consequently, in the same gesture, the photographs and their circulation racialize non-white viewers as always already vulnerable to this kind of violence, then and now. From this perspective, there is nothing new in the Abu Ghraib photos (nor of those of Katrina, if in different manners); nor do they offer any reflection of modernity in decline. To the contrary, I repeat, these are the images and thus the lifeblood of colonial modernity.

* * * *

I do not offer these remarks as a corrective to Armour’s work, but as a challenge to push the “unmaking” power of these photographs further. If we approach this archive from a different concept of modernity, one that is founded by colonialism and animated by the figure of race, do these photographs still signal a modernity in decline? What and where are the cracks that show the demise of colonial modernity? And, to invoke Armour’s closing meditations on touch, how could such an “ethics of touch” overcome an implicit ontology of equivalences to account for the relentlessly violent touch of race?

  • Ellen Armour

    Ellen Armour


    Reply to Winnubst

    On Winnubst’s read, I understand modernity as first and foremost an episteme (a way of knowing) that only secondarily gives rise to an ethos (a way of doing). The order in which I lay out episteme and ethos in the first chapter may lend itself to that reading, but that is not actually how I understand the relationship between them. One never has an episteme absent an ethos; knowing and doing (and therefore being) always go together—and they impact each other. Doing isn’t simply the application of knowing, in other words; rather, knowing is shaped by doing. But Winnubst’s concern, I take it, is not with this particular chicken and egg per se, but with its import for another set of chickens and eggs: modernity, Man, and racism. What difference would it make to Signs and Wonders, she asks, if modernity and Man are the products of colonialist racism (as Sylvia Wynter argues) rather than its source (as implied if episteme gives rise to ethos)? Moreover, what if Man displaced God well before modernity (as Wynter also argues)? I have not yet done a deep dive into Wynter’s work, but am compelled by what I have learned about it so far. I suspect I would find much of it persuasive as an account of critical features of modernity’s antecedents—and thus an important corrective to Foucault’s version (on which I largely rely, but not exclusively, especially on race and colonialism). But my focus in Signs and Wonders is on what I take to be a quintessentially (late) modern form of racism (and the other “isms” that serve it)—bio-disciplinary racism—anchored not just by (Foucaultian) Man, but the fourfold of which Man is a part. I focus there not because I think that’s where racism originates, but because that’s the context in which photography was (literally) born and raised.

    That said, as I tried to make clear in the book, while bio-disciplinary racism (and the specific version of Man that constitutes its normative subject) is distinctively modern, racism is not—nor is colonialism. I understand bio-disciplinary racism to be a modified version of the (often colonialist) racisms that preexisted it and (Foucauldian) Man to be a modified form of the versions of normative subjectivity that preceded him. No doubt, new insights on those shifts and perhaps even features of bio-discipline would come from a deeper dive into Wynter’s work, but absent that deeper dive, I’m not able to anticipate what they might be.

    Winnubst also worries that the photographs I treat in the chapter on Abu Ghraib simply continue a long line of visual images of racist torment and torture that shows no sign of ending. Where is the evidence, then, of the loosening of modernity’s—particularly modern racism’s—hold on us? These photographs are indeed episodes in that long line. And such violence and photographs of it (still and moving) have only grown more common since Signs and Wonders’ publication, not less. But just as modernity’s emergence wasn’t the beginning of racism (or of any of the other “isms” imbricated in it), modernity’s end won’t necessarily be racism’s end. One might actually expect instead its intensification. (I’m tempted to repurpose Monro’s term “ultramodern” as a way to capture that.) Winnubst’s ultimate concern, though, is not just with what the photographs index, but with what I argue that these photographs open up and open onto. She rightly worries that my analysis of photographic affectivity here risks getting mired in what Saidiya Hartman calls “liberal sentimentality.” The route from resistance to docility—particularly for those who are subjected to bio-discipline’s carrots rather than its sticks—runs straight through liberal sentimentality. Finding resources to live (well) into ultramodernity requires confronting what motivates those seduced by bio-discipline’s carrots (“good white people,” say) to submit to bio-discipline in the first place: the promise of mastery over vulnerability, I argue, through “our” mastery over “them.” Liberal sentimentality is one of mastery’s affects. Photographic askesis—slowing down to look deeply and carefully into what these photographs open up and open onto—can reveal ways the photos trouble mastery and thus trouble liberal sentimentality. But that alone is not sufficient to stop the torments undertaken in “our” name, much less end mastery’s allure. More is, of course, needed than Signs and Wonders provides, on this count. Still, it is my hope that requiring “good white people” to confront the impact on us of these images and that impact’s connection to deeper systemic realities is at least a start.