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