Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Gary Kafer reviews Guantánamo Frames

Rebecca Boguska. Guantánamo Frames. Lüneburg: meson press, 2022. 276 pp.

Review by Gary Kafer

6 September 2023

“What do we see when we look at Guantánamo?”, asks Rebecca Boguska in her new book Guantánamo Frames (p. 143). It is a question that is as provocative as it is baffling. Since opening in January 2002, Guantánamo Bay has been shrouded in secrecy. Nonetheless, the US government has made available photographs, videos, and documents that purportedly record the conditions at the detention facility for public scrutiny. However, as Boguska claims, such materials conceal as much as they reveal. Following Judith Butler’s Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009), Boguska demonstrates how the US government has exerted colossal efforts to manage the ways Guantánamo can be witnessed through various institutional frames of representation. These “Guantánamo frames,” she argues, refer to the nonvisible technological, political, and legal operations of power that delimit the visual field of state violence. They are an invisible staging apparatus that controls how we perceive the camp and its standard operating procedure: “a form of power that has no figurative form” (p. 12). Boguska traces these frames across 4 chapters, each of which exposes how the US government intentionally crafted a visual culture around the facility to justify the exercise of extrajudicial violence, especially torture. Throughout, Guantánamo remains a highly productive site through which we might encounter the disorienting effects of war in the twenty-first century.

A film and media scholar, Boguksa approaches Guantánamo as a complex economy of images and information strewn across a range of bureaucratic materials. Less important here are the specific legal issues surrounding the facility than how particular kinds of media give form to the operations of power that take place within it. At its core, then, Guantánamo Frames is a pedagogy on how to approach the “minor media objects” of state violence: photography manuals, virtual tour videos, excel spreadsheets, and various other often-neglected memoranda (p. 12). Any scholar who studies state violence knows precisely how intractable a task this can be, especially when certain kinds of materials are lost, withdrawn, or censored. In Boguska’s hands, however, such materials are inherently “polysemic,” such that even when they seem to successfully hide information, they also fail to do so (p. 65). And in that failure we might discover new possibilities for critical interventions. This is the case, for example, when Boguska examines a PDF of 198 photographs of detainees’ bodies published on the Pentagon’s website in 2016 alongside a letter within a 2005 federal case report detailing a firsthand account of torture within the detention facility. Such a “counter-forensic approach” resists the reifying logics of state violence while also uncovering submerged stories that reframe how such media come to operate as evidence of anything at all (p. 152).

Guantánamo Frames enters contemporary debates on war and human rights with an insightful urgency. It is a call to scholars, activists, and artists across fields to (re)turn attention to Guantánamo to account for how state violence is exercised in often subtle and covert ways through processes of media production. And yet, some readers might leave the book unsated. Many of its claims are decidedly familiar: that the US government stages the representation of military bases; that declassified materials obscure information; that bureaucratic procedures dehumanize detainees. To be sure, the two decades of scholarship on Guantánamo have already made apparent the lengths to which the US government will go in order to conceal its torturous practices and protect its perpetrators. Missing too is a more comprehensive account of the racialized biopolitical processes through which US imperialism reduces life to an object beyond legal recognition (for example Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus [2014] or Joseph Pugliese’s Biopolitics of the More-Than-Human [2020]), or a more thorough engagement with the genre of prison writing that participates within Guantánamo’s visual culture (for example Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary [2015]). Such is perhaps the difficulty of writing a book about the historical present where even events from yesteryear can seem so trivial compared to the impending crises of today. But, as Boguska repeatedly demonstrates, Guantánamo is not over (as of this writing, the facility is still open, despite President Biden’s promise to close it by the end of his term). Indeed, we live among many Guantánamos, from the furthest reaches of US imperial detention centers to the carceral geographies of domestic life. To trace their media violences, now and in the future, is to wrestle with the difficult task of encountering images which disappear before our eyes and to tell stories that were never meant to be told.