The Image of Violence (HUM415/ HUM425)

As I’ve been thinking about doing for some time, today I watched the ISIS video of James Foley.

The video does not actually show Foley being decapitated. He makes a statement to the camera from a kneeling position while a man in black stands beside him. There is an edit and the man in black, now holding a knife, gives a short speech. The man moves behind Foley and for just a split second raises the knife to Foley’s throat and appears to move it back and forth. There is a sound like a muffled voice and the image goes black. The next shot seems to be of Foley’s severed head resting on his body.

I have seen more disturbing images on the internet and in film– graphic documents of terrible violence. Yet this video is very troubling, in part because I knew in advance what it was said to represent. I could barely pay attention to Foley’s words because I was so anxious.

Already, claims are being made that the video was faked. Not that Foley was not killed, but that his murder was not filmed. (See

Perhaps that’s correct. In any case the only reason I might disagree is because my reception of the images have been to some degree prepared in advance by the media’s authentication. There is also the “truth” of what my eyes tell me. It looks real.

This video, of course, is a direct provocation, one that has already been accepted. If the goal of the video is to draw the US once again into a war in the Middle East, then that goal is rapidly being achieved. According to polls– which, we should always remember, serve not simply to assess a situation but produce it– a majority of Americans now favor the bombardment of those areas of Syria and Iraq under ISIS control.

Yet the response to the images made by ISIS inevitably includes the production of more images. Consider the New York Post’s front page of Aug. 20.

ISISThe post appropriated a “frame” of the digital video and resignified that image by “pinning down” its meaning with verbal symbols. “SAVAGES” tells us all we need to know. That this is a term used often historically in the West to describe its (often colonized) “Others” in Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East doesn’t even come up for discussion. The image is so powerful that any objections to the language of dehumanization are easily cast aside. The image seems to demand if not justice then revenge.

As Peter Maas notes, in a nation almost totally unacquainted with “real-world” images of its own citizens as the objects of foreign violence, the image of Foley galvanizes an immediate, visceral response, the consequences of which are all too easy to predict.  “It is a strange twist: Instead of pushing us away from war, as the Vietnam generals feared, images of American casualties are now driving us into the vortex.”


2 thoughts on “The Image of Violence (HUM415/ HUM425)

  1. lilacelluloid

    Can’t “like” any part of this, really, but thank you for working into & through the images. I have no idea where, or if, conversations of the sort you’re offering are happening on my campus.


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