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Taking Life: Sovereignty, Spectrality, and Images of Death


Taking Life: Sovereignty, Spectrality, and Images of Death

Fulton, Gwynne (2019) Taking Life: Sovereignty, Spectrality, and Images of Death. PhD thesis, Concordia University.

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Ever since Plato’s Republic banned the poetics of mourning from the ideal polis, political power has been thought in relation to images of death. In recent years, theorists such as Foucault, Mbembe, and Derrida have examined the inextricability of sovereign power and the field of the visible, yet, their specific linkages remain undertheorized. In response, Taking Life draws on intersecting fields of photographic, critical race and poststructural theory, as well as curatorial practice, to develop an account that connects sovereignty to images. I demonstrate that the concept of sovereignty we have inherited from political modernity is “phantasmatic” insofar as it imagines itself as pure life cut off from death. This phantasm is governed by a double logic that I aim to expose through an analysis of images of death circulating in contemporary art and media. My account shows that sovereignty is made possible by the alterity of death and time, which it nonetheless attempts to repress and control when it “takes life,” for example, by executing a death penalty or by representing death in spectral images. Yet, images also amplify death and finitude in ways that render sovereignty fragile and precarious.

I formulate this double logic as general infrastructure that, following the work of Derrida, I call the “optic of spectrality.” I use this optic to read a series of discrete visual provocations, including death penalty photography in the analogue era and beyond; bystander recordings of antiblack police violence circulated on mobile platforms; and works by Harun Farocki that interrogate image operations in the context of global electronic warfare. These counter-histories of visuality agitate for an understanding of sovereignty that is exposed to death and spectral time. In exploring intersecting themes of sovereignty, spectrality, finitude, and technicity, I argue for the continued relevance of deconstruction for debates in visual cultures about visibility and violence, spectacle and surveillance, and the aesthetics of necropolitics. Focusing questions about the status and power of images in our post-photographic era of global media, Taking Life contributes to debates about capital punishment, drone warfare, and the trajectories of radical Black politics.

Divisions:Concordia University > Faculty of Arts and Science > Humanities: Interdisciplinary Studies
Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Authors:Fulton, Gwynne
Institution:Concordia University
Degree Name:Ph. D.
Date:18 March 2019
Thesis Supervisor(s):Fritsch, Matthias and Huneault, Kristina and April, Raymonde
Keywords:sovereignty, visual cultures, photography, deconstruction, continental philosophy, necropolitics, antiblack violence, drone warfare, death penalty
ID Code:985890
Deposited On:30 Jun 2021 15:04
Last Modified:31 Aug 2021 01:00
Additional Information:Me Alison Beck Associate Legal Counsel / Conseillère juridique associée University Secretariat/Secrétariat général Concordia University: "I would suggest that the images appear in the dissertation in a manner where the ‘tags’ on those images, when posted online, are removed to make the images more difficult to be searched and therefore making it even more unlikely that there will be any negative commercial effect of the student’s use of the images upon the rights holders (i.e., the images themselves will be more challenging to search for those who may be looking to potentially obtain/purchase a copy). This should further support the assertion that the use of the images is fair dealing. It goes without saying that the images should still be cited in conformity with proper academic practice."


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