Drifters,

It has been a few months since I’ve written Drifting. I have been slammed with The Hill of the Skull and some usual end-of-semester obligations.

As I wrote on my Creator’s Log, I’m finally done with the semester. And, let me tell you… it was a doozy. The use (misuse?) of artificial intelligence in higher education is rampant. In one class alone, no fewer than half of the students submitted generated term papers as if they were original work. Let’s just say I’m glad the semester is over.

But despite the pressure valve of working in/for a corporate institution being released, I don’t yet feel at ease. Today, as this goes out, I’m en route to visit my mother. Before going on holiday breaks, I fantasize about how much work I’ll get done. Reality always has different plans. To-dos rush into the void, as does a fair bit of unwinding. This also means personal projects don’t march forward as dutifully as we hope.

Paperbacks and square prints

Speaking of personal projects, The Hill of the Skull is now live! You can find the book on my shop and on the evil empire’s website. The book found on my shop is materially superior to the one found on Amazon — the print quality is better, the paper is better —, and buying directly from creators means more money into the pockets of creators, authors, and artists (instead of Amazon’s).

On my shop, you will also find new square prints for sale. These prints were inspired by the annual Magnum square print sale. Artifact International members get a huge discount on my shop, so consider joining if you’re going to order books/prints.

Square Prints

Downtown Orlando

There are cities in the world that you understand, that just feel right. I suppose it is not unlike falling in love; its hard to define but easy to know. These cities feel like home, yet you don’t take them for granted. They’re familiar and comfortable, yet you’ll find something that always surprises you. You don’t wish to escape them. In fact, it is the opposite. You just want to embody the city. To fuse yourself with it, somehow. To take it all in.

Orlando is not one of these cities. It never has been. It feels like a non-place to me, a generic American space. It could be any other medium-sized city in the United States. What is so special about it that can’t be said about other places? I’ve tried to connect with it, forcing myself to give it another chance. But when I do, I’m always disappointed. Maybe it is not unlike meeting up with an ex-girlfriend; it doesn’t take long to remember why it didn’t work.

The weather was cool one day, so I walked to downtown Orlando at the golden hour. I was setting myself up for disappointment, that all-too familiar empty feeling of living in a place one doesn’t really love. But I suppose in disappointment one can find a kernel of truth.

Downtown Orlando

Images of war

I must have been around 13 years old the day my older brother and his henchmen brought a VHS tape home from school. On the cover of the box, next to a skull and in a forbidding typeface, was the title: Faces of Death. My brother’s friend explained to me that the film was banned, illicit because it shows a series of vignettes of people dying, caught on film. That night, we watched and winced as people (and a monkey) took their final breaths. We wanted to look away, but we couldn’t.

I only found out much later than the vignettes — the monkey brain scene, the electric chair scene — were all fake. I feel better for having been duped.

But now, real faces of death stare at us on our screens. And while I don’t seek them out, I’m having a hard time looking away. Not because I lack resolve, but because the algorithm is pushing them on me. On Threads for some reason, and not elsewhere, I am being served the images and videos of death and destruction from Gaza. Uncensored images of severed limbs pulled from some twisted object, the pale faces of children wrapped in white cloth, mourning parents, flatted buildings and neighborhoods, arms dangling out of rubble. Perhaps the algorithm thinks I need to see them. Perhaps it thinks I like to see them. Neither is true. Yet I can’t look away.

In light of this, I cracked open a book that had been sitting unread for far too long. It was Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, which is the perfect kind of book to read and reread because it asks a lot of questions and refuses to give many answers. I first came to this book in the early 2000s, just as the US began its campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. It sat atop a “free books” pile in a hallway next to a professor’s office door. The title called my attention, as did the Goya etching on the cover. I remember finding the book too demanding at the time. But, for some reason, the book — along with the post-it notes and marginalia from my professor — survived many moves.

The title, Regarding the Pain of Others, is a good one, for it captures the essence of the book. To regard is “to consider” or “to think about.” To regard is also “to look at, to gaze at.”1 If I were to summarize the book, I’d say something like: “thinking about looking at images of war, destruction, death."

And in this moment, when we’re bombarded with images of the destruction, the dead, the suffering, the lifeless, the once-was, Sontag reminds us that we are obliged to regard the images of war. We’re not necessarily obliged to look at them, but perhaps we’re obliged to consider what it means to look at them (and confront them, or not). Her book asks, What purpose does looking at, and disseminating, images of death and destruction serve? Do they mobilize us to end the war, to call for the end of hostilities? What other outcome could the images of pools of blood produce? Sontag points out that these images could produce the opposite effect. That is, instead of serving to end hostilities, they might actually provoke more bloodshed. Or, perhaps, these images desensitize us to the terror.

Sontag writes:

The understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of these images. […] The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.

And with that, I leave you until next month.

JB


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Footnotes


  1. Remember, the word “regard” comes from the French regarder: to watch again, to look back. ↩︎