Bee­jay Sil­cox

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Bee­jay Sil­cox

Forty-five years ago, in the na­palm­scorched fields of Viet­nam, an As­so­ci­ated Press pho­tog­ra­pher took a pic­ture of a nine-year-old girl, clothes burned from her body. The pic­ture gal­vanised op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War: a vi­o­lent, silent scream that echoes still. When Face­book at­tempted to ban the im­age last year (cit­ing child nu­dity con­cerns), the global op­pro­brium was swift and vo­cal, a po­tent re­minder that inhuman im­ages com­mand hu­man re­sponses.

In Draw Your Weapons, Amer­i­can crit­i­cal the­o­rist Sarah Sen­tilles as­sem­bles the case for art as a weapon against weapons. It’s a premise that may sound painfully ide­al­is­tic, but to dis­miss the book on that ba­sis is to miss a thought­ful con­ver­sa­tion with an au­thor whose eyes are wide open.

Sen­tilles is will­ing to in­ter­ro­gate her own be­liefs, on the page and in life. Draw Your Weapons took her a decade to write, be­cause it took her a decade to live, as she ex­plains: I be­gan writ­ing these pages after see­ing two pho­to­graphs. In one, an old man in a plaid shirt held a vi­olin, his eyes shin­ing; in the other; a prisoner stood on a box, a hood cov­er­ing his face, wires at­tached to his body. I was a grad­u­ate stu­dent in di­vin­ity school at the time, pre­par­ing to be a priest … but those im­ages made that life im­pos­si­ble. I left the church, wrote my dis­ser­ta­tion about pho­tog­ra­phy, and got a job teach­ing at an art school. The changes took years … the United States has been at war the whole time.

The man with the vi­olin is Howard Scott, a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor who be­gan craft­ing the in­stru­ment in a prison wood-shop while serv­ing a two-year sen­tence for re­fus­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the in­tern­ment of Ja­panese Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War II. The man atop the box is Ali Shal­lal al-Qaisi, an Iraqi de­tained at Abu Ghraib, ter­rorised by US mil­i­tary guards in the name of the war on ter­ror. Their twin sto­ries catal­yse Sen­tilles’s en­gage­ment with the ques­tions that haunt us: “How to live in the face of so much suf­fer­ing? How to re­spond to vi­o­lence that feels as if it can’t be stopped?” Draw Your Weapons By Sarah Sen­tilles Text Pub­lish­ing, 320pp, $32.99

While this book con­tains these and other nar­ra­tives (no­tably of the au­thor’s grand­fa­ther, and of a for­mer guard from Abu Ghraib), it is a point­edly non-lin­ear work. With it, Sen­tilles joins the rapidly ex­pand­ing ranks of ‘‘col­lage writ­ers’’ who cre­ate their work out of in­ter­dis­ci­plinary frag­ments — anec­dotes, mem­o­ries, quotes, rever­ies, ques­tions, data — ar­ranged to con­jure a whole from the sum of its parts.

At its best, as seen in Mag­gie Nel­son’s ex­tra­or­di­nary Bluets, or Kate Zam­breno’s Book of Mut­ter, col­lage writ­ing is im­mer­sive. It recre­ates (and sparks) the ex­pe­ri­ence of think­ing, rather than sim­ply pro­duc­ing for­ward mo­men­tum as if its read­ers were trains on a track.

Think­ing isn’t lin­ear: it is re­cur­sive and gen­er­a­tive, am­bigu­ous and con­tra­dic­tory. Mem­o­ries stir. Con­nec­tions spark be­tween dis­parate im­ages. The same ques­tion doesn’t al­ways gen­er­ate the same an­swer. It is a chal­leng­ing but re­ward­ing kind of reading. It re­quires a reader will­ing to work to com­plete the neu­ral cir­cuitry.

At its worst, col­lage is wil­fully ex­clu­sion­ary and self-in­dul­gent: an overly cu­rated se­lec­tion of epi­grams trussed up as pro­fun­dity; writ­ing that is too de­lighted by its own clev­er­ness.

Draw Your Weapons is mostly the for­mer. In­tel­li­gently po­etic, the book ad­vances a se­ries of provoca­tive jux­ta­po­si­tions: drone war­fare and bib­li­cal om­ni­science, lynch­ing and cru­ci­fix­ion, bap­tism and wa­ter­board­ing, fear­ful mice and the Holo­caust.

While some of these pair­ings are more pro­duc­tive than others, Sen­tilles has an ear well tuned for cul­tural res­o­nances, sym­bol­ism and irony. She fal­ters only when the voice of God threat­ens to drown out her own, when Draw Your Weapons be­comes less a me­di­a­tion than a prayer.

Sen­tilles writes: “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.”

It’s an apt de­scrip­tion for the lim­i­nal ex­pe­ri­ence of reading this book. The deep may claim you, or it may send you gasp­ing back to shore.

There is noth­ing rad­i­cally new about Sen­tilles’s ob­ser­va­tions. War is mon­strous, but also yields beauty; the people we love are ca­pa­ble of hor­rors, and the people we hate are hu­man. The power of this book comes from its fo­cus on Sen­tilles’s field of ex­per­tise — pho­tog­ra­phy — and her en­gage­ment with grand the­o­rists of im­age such as Roland Barthes, Su­san Son­tag, John Berger, Vir­ginia Woolf and Han­nah Arendt. These are loud voices, but Sen­tilles mar­shals them into har­mony.

“The in­ven­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy was not merely a tech­no­log­i­cal in­ven­tion,” she writes, “not just the in­tro­duc­tion of a new ma­chine; rather it was the in­ven­tion of a new en­counter.” The na­ture of that en­counter is slip­pery. Pho­to­graphs can be en­gines of em­pa­thy and ap­a­thy. They can ex­ploit and pro­tect, il­lu­mi­nate and ob­scure, crit­i­cise and val­orise. They can break stereo­types and en­trench them. They can tell the truth and they can lie. What is clear is that pho­to­graphs “gen­er­ate a new kind of cit­i­zen­ship”.

“Or­di­nary cit­i­zens can take pic­tures of other or­di­nary people — but they can take pic­tures of dic­ta­tors and fas­cists and states com­mit­ting vi­o­lence. With the cam­era the body of cit­i­zens was given the means to in­sti­gate change.”

And it is change that mat­ters to Sen­tilles. She un­der­stands that “be­ing philo­soph­i­cally against war is not protest enough”. And so she turns her at­ten­tion to the trans­for­ma­tive power of art and artists. Draw Your Weapons is there­fore less a ti­tle than an en­treaty to ac­tion: “Bring­ing a phys­i­cal ob­ject into the world where there pre­vi­ously was not one … il­lus­trates on a small scale what’s pos­si­ble on a larger scale.”

In a cul­ture where the arts are too of­ten dis­missed as friv­o­lous, Sen­tilles’s work of­fers a ro­bust and nec­es­sary re­tort, an im­por­tant re­minder that “the world is made and can be un­made. Remade.” is a writer and critic.

Sarah Sen­tilles be­lieves in the trans­for­ma­tive power of art

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