08 May 2009

Thinking With Photographs: Punishment & Humiliation

Wang Shouxin refuses to kneel down but the soldiers force her
by kicking her knee. Photograph © Li Zhensheng.

Wang Shouxin prepares for death. Photograph © Li Zhensheng.

Journalists take pictures over Wang Shouxin's body.
Photograph © Li Zhensheng.

I have, on several occasions, posted on the mis-uses of capital punishment in the U.S. [1] [2] [3]; in general I find the practice reprehensible. Among the things I believe is that we are very good at hiding state sanctioned murder away and that Americans ought to be susceptible to being selected at random to serve as witnesses at executions. Think jury duty with some bite to it. The premise of that argument if we had to actually witness 'cruel and unusual' punishment we might well re-consider our enthusiasm for killing.

This morning Mike Budd* emailed me a link to this story in The Telegraph regarding the response to the photos I've lifted above. It turns out that Wang Shouxin, a government official, was executed in 1980 for corruption. The recent appearance of the images of her final moments has had a thought-provoking effect. Not only have they been viewed more than a million times, but they seem to have encouraged popular enthusiasm for executing corrupt officials. This brought to mind this story I heard last night on npr about corruption and lack of accountability in the aftermath of last year's earthquake in southwest China. It also raised questions about the premise of my thinking about compelling people to witness executions. Would this simply have the effect of encouraging greater support for cruel punishment?

Interestingly, I recalled this essay by Susie Linfield on the slightly earlier work of the photographer Li Zhensheng who made the images above. Li has recently published a book containing his images of the cultural revolution (1966-76) about which Linfield remarks:
"In any case, photographs are terrible at making sense of history. They are adept, however, at showing us how things looked, and at conveying the feeling of events—or, rather, at clarifying the viewer’s feelings as she contemplates those events. (The feelings of the characters in any photograph are never decisively known.) And the feeling that emerges when I look at Li’s photos is one of almost unbearable discomfort verging on shame: discomfort that I am viewing the humiliation of others, and shame that I belong to the human race that inflicts such cruelty. (This may mark the beginnings of the misanthropy that, the political philosopher Judith Shklar warns, can result from hating cruelty.) The key question, though, that Li’s photos present for me (as opposed to the feelings they evoke) is this: how does it happen that the deliberate infliction of humiliation develops from a private, personal form of pathology into an organized, public tool of political change?"
The distinction that Linfield highlights - between accountability or responsibility on the one hand and humiliation or cruelty on the other - seems to be crucially important for politics generally and for state sponsored punishment in particular. And, in some fashion, this is the sort of distinction that I would want to compel witnesses to executions to confront. Witnessing, as I see it, is not the same as spectacle or prurient, voyeuristic looking. Instead, it would involve looking at the consequences of our legal practices, seeing that we are implicated in them, and that the cruelty is ours and reflects back on us.
* Thanks Mike!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yiyun Li, the author of the novel "The Vagrants," a story about a Chinese community that witnesses the execution of a dissident writer, said in an interview that in Mao's China, townspeople actually made a day of public executions. Schools were closed, parades were held, musicians played live music, the elderly handed out candy to children. It was an excuse to have a good time in an otherwise miserable condition.

08 May, 2009 22:14  

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