(In)Visibility of Death: Neda - Constructions of Gender and Identity in the Media

Master's Thesis, 2010

92 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1. Introduction

2. Value of life, Death and the Individual
2.1 Theoretical Approach
2.1.1 Heidegger and Simmel on Individuality and Death
2.1.2 Freud on War and Death
2.1.3 Death-Experience in Society
2.2 The Value of life and Death - or which lives are bemoaned
2.2.1 Value of life (and Death)
2.2.2 Whose Life Counts in the Context of War and Armed Conflicts

3. ‘And so, what is it that we see?’
3.1 Iconic and Pictorial Turn
3.1.1 Photographs
3.1.2 Video Images
3.2 Media and Mass media
3.3 (In)visibility of Death in the Media
3.3.1 Violent Death in the Media
3.3.2 Images of Death in the News
3.4. The public Death: 40 seconds on YouTube

4. Framing Neda Agha-Soltan´s death
4.1 Situation in Iran
4.2 Situation in ‘the West’

5. Description of the Methodological Approach
5.1. Method
5.2 Object and Purpose of Investigation
5.3 Analytic Procedure

6. Neda Agha-Soltan - ‘Angel’, ‘Martyr’ and ‘Face’ of the Iranian Revolution
6.1 Introduction of the Object of the Analysis
6.2 Exploration of Neda’s Identity - Newspapers
6.2.1 Keyword Analysis
6.2.2 Further attributive Passages
6. 3 Exemplary Analysis of ‘In a Death Seen around the World, a Symbol of Iranian Protests’
6.3.1 Background
6.3.2 Layout and Build-Up of the Article
6.3.3 Indicators for Identity Subscriptions
6.3.4 Constructing Neda in the Articles
6.4. HBO -Documentary For Neda
6.4.1 Stylistic, Visuals and Audio
6.4.2 Sections and main themes
6.4.3 Main Characters
6.4.4 Symbolic and Metaphoric Instruments
6.4.5 Ideologies and Interpretative Approach
6.4.6 Constructing Neda in the Documentary

7. Conclusion and Outlook

List of References



First of all, I would like to thank my family and friends for their continuous support during my university years.

Furthermore, I would like to thank Sabine Schindler who was my tutor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg. Thanks to her, I was introduced to Judith Butler and was inspired to study Gender and Media.

Most of all I want to thank Ilka Sorg for her advice, editing skills and time she put in to make this work possible. Without you I would have lost patience and focus.

Berlin, November 2010

Nathali Basten

1. Introduction

Identity is not in the main an individual affair.

Linda Martin Alcoff (2003: 2)

The protests after Iran’s Presidential Elections in June 2009 have cost the lives of an unknown number of political opponents, protesting against the regime of former and future president Mahmud Ahmadinejad and the revolutionary and militia forces. Yet one particular death seemed to be particularly horrifying; the video of a young woman being shot was circulating on the internet and soon extensively reported on by the mass media.

I remember the first time someone sent me the link to the 40-second video where Neda Agha-Soltan was filmed being shot and bleeding to death on the streets of Tehran. In a first reaction, I held my breath for a second, awestruck by the sudden confrontation with death; then started deliberating about whether to watch this or not. I soon noted certain group dynamics within my extended circle of friends - people started sharing links on various blogs on the internet, discussing the case via social media platforms etc.

One of them directly approached me on Facebook and demanded immediate action; either by submitting the video onto my personal Facebook -wall or, as this did not seem to be sufficient, supporting the Iranian demonstrations by attending them. I declined both requests. Instead, I openly asked if we really have to watch this video over and over again, observing this woman reiteratively die although we know that people are dying in Iran and: not only there. What made her death so different to all the others which died on the same day or days or even weeks before? As a reaction I was called an uneducated person who had no idea how things really are. Soon after that incident I was deleted from this person’s friends list by either being too uneducated or not actively acting, I will never know.

My refusal left me wondering about the value of life, or rather the value which is credited to some whereas others seemed to be invisible. Having followed the news coverage on the situation in Iran during that time, I had already heard that a number of protesters were killed in the demonstrations. Why did this person stand out?

In the course of events after Neda Agha-Soltan’s death, a struggle developed over her status as icon and symbol for the Green Movement, as opposition leader Mousavi’s followers were called. On the one hand, the regime in Tehran fought hard to diminish the effect which arose from this video while on the other hand Western media, politicians and artists picked up the story and reproduced it - each with their own agenda in mind. These latter efforts were, amongst others, expressed by protests in several Western cities, carrying placards with Neda´s face and media publishing more and more background information on her ‘prior’ life. Beyond that, there were also single actions which stuck out: Paula Slater, an artist from the USA had built Neda sculptures, Queen’s College at Oxford University (UK) introduced a scholarship for Iranian students named after Neda and she was appointed The Times ‘Person of the Year’. Additionally, an unknown number of internet homepages emerged as a new way to express worldwide sympathy.

On the opposite, the regime in Iran pursued a strategy of falsifying the world wide coverage by presenting various other versions of her death. The contra campaign mainly targeted the media who brought the case to international attention and involved accusing the CIA of having staged the murder as well as claiming that the BBC was involved in the killing in order to put the regime in Iran in a bad light. It all climaxed in the version that Neda was an actress and that the video was fake. Part of promoting their own perspective through the media was an attempt to mirror the Western coverage on the person Neda by issuing a documentary on the state channel Press TV. The broadcast was entitled ‘Cross Roads: A closer look to Neda Agha-Soltan death’ which was an answer to several Western documentaries amongst others produced by the BBC, PBS and HBO.

Looking beyond this conflict fought by the means of media, the political positions clashing and the demonstration of power lying within, the question still remains: Why did this particular death have such an impact? Of course, the video was a shock as it shows a life being taken by brute force. It shows the process of dying, something which is not openly shown in the media. Nevertheless, there must be more than the pure graphic nature of the video. It appears, and especially the coverage later in the case suggests this, that the subject of the video, the main character so to say plays an important role. With Neda, a young, modern, beautiful and white woman was killed, which moved many people in the Western world as e.g. her appearance and position in life made it easy to relate to her.

Therefore, the object of this work is the discursive event of Neda´s death; subsequent to this, the question how Neda’s identity is constructed and why her death became visible while bearing in mind the Western hegemonic discourse which is intersected with discourses on media, gender, politics and ethnicity.

In order to provide a theoretical background on the subject of death, the study will begin with general thoughts on death, supported by theories of philosophers (2.1). Beginning with Heidegger and Simmel (2.1.1) who mainly influenced the theory that through the realization of death, life gains in value; continued by a brief summary of Freud´s considerations on death in times of war (2.1.2). This part will then be completed with a brief excursus to the perception of death in Western society (2.1.3). Afterwards, the value of life and death will be outlined (2.2) under certain dimensions e.g. war and finally, the concept of grievable life, according to Judith Butler, will be shortly introduced.

Beginning with the introduction of the terms iconic turn and pictorial turn (3.1), Chapter 3 will be evaluating the dimension of visibility and the concept of media and mass media (3.2); it will be of further interest how deaths are generally chosen for media coverage (3.3) in cases of war or other armed conflicts (3.3.1) and on a daily scale (3.3.2). As an example and likewise bridge to the analysis on Neda Agha-Soltan, the video of her ]dying is shortly introduced (3.4). Chapter 4 will provide a brief framing of the political atmosphere in Iran and ‘Western’ countries in the forefront of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death.

In Chapter 5, the method of discourse analysis is briefly presented (5.1). Subsequently, the object of research will be addressed and described (5.2), followed by an introduction on the analytic procedure for the material preparation. Chapter 6 deals with the analysis of 36 online articles from the USA, UK and Germany on Neda Agha-Soltan, in the time period starting from the day of her death until one year later (6. - 6.2.2), giving a first insight into the coverage of selected Western media. An exemplary analysis of an article from The New York Times from June 23rd 2009 (6.3-6.3.3) will be provided and then following all results are brought together in a summary (6.3.4). Further focus is laid on the analysis of an American documentary from the private channel HBO, titled For Neda (6.4 - 6.4.6), explicitly deconstructing the build-up and giving statements on identity attributions, as well defining general hegemonic ideologies within the documentary.

2. Value of life, Death and the Individual

Life itself has to be rethought as this complex, passionate, antagonistic, and necessary set of relations to others. Judith Butler (2010: 44)

Our perception of death is never the same. As all other parts of life it differs in every culture, region and even between families: ‘There is no such thing as universal equality in the face of death. Socio specific causes of death such as expectancy of life, rites of mourning and funeral forms - not only count for modern societies’ (Hahn 2002: 55 own translation). In modern societies, death has become increasingly of interest not only for medical but also for social sciences. On the one hand, scholars claim that death is more and more admonished from everyday life (see also Eagleton 2009, Hahn/ Hoffmann 2009: 121, Hahn 2002, Assmann 2002: 13, et al.). On the other hand we find an increasing number of movies, books and documentaries about death and dying which exemplifies the controversy over this subject (see Mischke 1996: 7). Christianity e.g. treats death as a part of life. Although, especially the Old Testimony defines death rather pessimistically, ‘In comparison to life which is filled with relations, death is the complete loss of any relatedness. With death ends the relationship of the human being to his social and natural environment’ (Jüngel: 187), death gains a different meaning in the New Testimony with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. ‘In the centre of Christianity stands the Believe that the love of God will overcome death’ (ibid: 189). In John 11:25-26 Jesus himself addresses: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he lives and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die’.

In the context of distinctive death experiences, the question of whose death is worth of grieving and commentator ship is raised. Is there an inequality in death? What are the criteria for reporting on a dead person or being affected by their death? Butler (2010:1) in particular points to the controversy over ‘what is a life’: ‘If certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are never lived nor lost in the full sense’.

2.1 Theoretical Approach

Death is a life-time companion. As soon as we are born there is the certainty of our death as the end of all life. It can be cursed or fought but in the end it will always occur (Baumann 1995: 127, Mischke 1996: 10). Scientists who strongly influenced recent theories about death in the Western world were amongst others psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856 -1939), and the philosophers Martin Heidegger (1889 - 1976), Georg Simmel (1858 - 1918) and Philippe Ariés (1914- 1984).

2.1.1 Heidegger and Simmel on Individuality and Death

In his famous book ‘Being and Time’ (1962), Heidegger thoroughly discusses death. He conceptualizes lifetime as ‘being towards death’, where death actively influences every part of life.

He stresses life-made decisions such as job and marriage as something which is always to some degree depending on others, thus concluding that experiencing death is the only real private incident. Meaning when the time has come, no one else will or can do our dying. One could die for somebody figuratively but it will not take away one’s own death which will certainly come (see Hinman 1978). This means that death is a non-relational event which separates ‘me’ from the outside world. He argues then that most of ‘my’ possibilities in life are not choices of ‘my own’ but influenced by the outside (they) world which becomes clear through the realization of death as the only definite possibility. Heidegger (1962: 253 f.) also argues that there is a distinction between the deaths of others ‘everybody dies’ and the fact of one’s own death ‘I am going to die’.

Taking this into consideration, the later discussed imbalance of the appearance of death in the media as well as public sphere and in private life becomes more obvious. Heidegger was mostly criticized for this one dimensional focus on the individual human being (Taylor 2003: 32). Critics argued that not only our own death influences our lives but also death of others. He was furthermore questioned for his assumption that death is the regulating drive which dominates life and life- plans. Sartre e.g. has a reversed approach for what gives life meaning. He imagined life as the basis for human decisions which conversely stands for the definition of the human itself. For him, death is then the negation of life-concepts because it hinders the individual to successfully plan and succeed life:

‘On the contrary, the final value of this conduct remains forever in suspense; or if you prefer, the ensemble (particular kinds of conduct, expectations and values) falls suddenly into the absurd. Thus death is never that which gives life its meaning; it is, on the contrary that which on principle removes all meaning from life‘(Sartre 1969: 539).

Heidegger on the other hand does not negatively value life or emphasizes death as the destruction of what was before. Although he defines life as ‘being to death’ accompanied by the constant fear of death, we could positively assume that with the dispute over the subject, life gains in importance and meaning (Baumann 1995: 127) and people begin to live ‘authentically’ (Heidegger 1962:439 f.). Johnson (2009: 94 & 95) on the opposite disagrees with Heidegger’s approach:

‘Since death cannot be authentically met with, we can conclude that these forms of reward can never be collected […] death lies at a distance in time from the present, and so cannot offer any lessons on how to live life intensely or spontaneously’.

In Heidegger’s view, death is the abstract constant which we are facing. Being aware of our own mortality provides a frame which is not yet defined by other constants e.g. time of death. Although, as Sartre and Johnson proposed, life itself is the constructing component for its shape, authentic life according to Heidegger, and thus maintained by Simmel, can only exist because it is framed by an end: ‘In every single moment [Moment] of life we are the ones who will die. That moment would be different if dying were not our endowment, if it were not the determination that is somehow at work in the moment’ (Simmel quoted by Krell 1992: 93).

Simmel like Heidegger assumed that death is not just a determination factor which simply constitutes the end of life. Death is a shaping entity which influences the human being. Critics on both Simmel and Heidegger argued that the knowledge of death is not a priori inherited in the awareness of the human mind. Thus they overlook the social aspect of death awareness or as Hahn (1995: 82) put it: ‘The deeper insight is missing that it is not a given fact that one concerns themselves with death; that the intensity of dealing with it and above all the concrete image of its reality are social facts’ (own translation).

Both Simmel and Heidegger are bound to the idea of a free individual human being although especially Simmel defined individuality in its interdependency with others: ‘The individual is the entire person, not only the part which remains if you subtract from it the things shared with others’. The ambivalence of individuality and others is also seen in the way our individuality is constructed with the help of the other in form of communication with language: ‘It is a matter of the way in which my existence figures within their own lives in ways of which neither I nor they can ever be fully conscious. […] It is only in the speech I share with them that I can come to mean anything at all’ (Eagleton 2009: 101).

2.1.2 Freud on War and Death

Freud has been working on several aspects of death. His opinions about human concepts on death changed throughout his work but were always influenced by his psychological theories on the suppression of undesired psychological content. According to Freud, death, although its occurrence is known to be inevitable, was put aside from everyday life (Freud 1918).

Being under the impression of World War I, Freud wrote an essay about the act of war and human perception of death. In the 2nd part of the essay, ‘Our Attitude towards Death’, which deals with the origin of death awareness, he argues that through war, death becomes visible: ‘Death is no longer to be denied; we are compelled to believe in it’ (ibid.). He focused further on the reaction of the survivor to the death of another person. But in contrast to Heidegger and Simmel, Freud negatively assesses the impact of death as a definite constant in the life of a human. Freud relates this fear of dying to the relationships we have entered during our lives, ‘Our emotional ties, the unbearable intensity of our grief, make us disinclined to court dangers for ourselves and those belonging to us. We are paralyzed by the thought of who is to replace the son to his mother, the husband to his wife, or the father to his children, should an accident occur’ (ibid.). For Freud the death of a beloved person as well as the death of foreigners and enemies is the remarkable event which forms an emotional understanding of death. Contrary to philosophical approaches, he defines emotions, deriving from the other’s death, as liable for the preoccupation with death.

Interestingly, Freud compares the alleged civilized human to the so called ‘primitive races’ in regard to morality towards killing. He assumes that killing will not be seen as wrong during times of war implementing that ‘when the fierce struggle of this war will have reached a decision every victorious warrior will joyfully […] return home […], undisturbed by thoughts of the enemy he has killed either at close quarters or with weapons operating at a distance’. Following this line of argument, Richard Norman (1995: 39) examines the meaning of war and death: ‘Often even the regret [for killing] is muted; wars have been heralded as glorious, and the successful completion of a war has often been the occasion for celebration’. Based on this knowledge, Freud (1918) recommends returning death into reality and our awareness because ‘to bear life remains, after all, the first duty of the living. The illusion [of life without death] becomes worthless if it disturbs us in this’.

2.1.3 Death-Experience in Society

Studying the role of death over the past centuries in Europe like Philippe Ariès in his work ‘L’homme devant la morte’ demonstrates that death, as also Hahn has argues in his work (2009: 124 f.), has been perceived quite differently in every epoch. Philippe Ariès distinguishes amongst others four types of death experiences: 1. tame death, 2. death of the self, 3. death of the other and 4. invisible death.

Tame death thus describes the time when death was part of the everyday life in a society. Dying persons were integrated into the life of the family in order to have the person close until death arrived. Thus all family members, even the children were aware of death as a part of life. The concept of death involved a ceremony which was primarily build on three pillars: the active acceptance of the person who would die, the farewell process of family members and the mourning rituals. Ariès explored that varieties of death-experiences evolve from the increasing individualization of the human being. Likewise Baumann argues that death at that time could not be perceived differently due to the lack of challenges ‘in a world in which identities were given, everything was stuck in its place in the great chain of being and things ran their course by themselves’ (1992: 97).

Taking the focus away from the human being as a part of a family/group to a self- determined and self-identified human being, the traditional role of death began to change. The concept death of the self arose from the awakening of individuality, dating back to the 11th century and even earlier. At that time only a few privileged and wealthy persons rethought the traditional concept of self and other and gave the individual more meaning over the collective destiny (Robben 2004: 42). Shared rites, like visiting gravesites with children, and public mourning slowly began to disappear. The third concept of Ariés, the death of the other, dating back to the 18th century, describes the realization of relatedness with specified others; especially the newly evolved construct of family (also see Freud 1918). Consolidating both previous concepts of tame death and death of the self, death was now experienced through the fear of losing a beloved person. Death itself was not the primary focus anymore but the loss of the other and with it the destroyed earthly bonds (ibid: 45).

Invisible death then is the concept of denial. With the beginning of the 20th century, death was outsourced to hospitals and private caring stations, due to new developments in technology and the belief that death can be, at least to some degree, defeated: ‘Death, was a common occurrence, and more people noticed the process of dying as groups of people lived closer together […] with the advent of secularization, death began to be seen as something that could be avoided (Hanusch 2010: 17)’.

As Hanusch (2010) and Hahn (2002), amongst others, characterized, the evacuation of death into hospitals which started in the beginning of the 20th century was fully established in the middle of the century. Thereby, death became more and more invisible to the public eye which had tremendous effects on the character of dying; not only for the person affected but also for the bereaved. Death has become a dimension, which is partly determined by the ability of medicine and technical devices. Nowadays, it seems like one just has to live healthy enough in order to avoid death or at least evade death at young age: ‘We regularly lay stress upon the unexpected causes of death; we speak of the accident, the infection, or advanced age, and thus betray our endeavor to debase death from a necessity to an accident ‘(Freud 1918). The invisible death thus has been related to the modern era whereas Walter amongst others (1994) introduces another concept for the postmodern era until today. He noticed an increase in death related institutions such as organizations for people with cancer or medical research centers but wonders if that had changed the individual awareness of death. In his introduction to ‘The revival of Death’ (1994), he stresses questions about exactly this perceived individuality in death. Do distinctive patterns and advices on how to either die or bereave leave room for individuality at all? What does revival of death mean and how do Christian values and believes contribute to the virtual concept of secularization?

Apparently, death has gone through different stages of development over the past centuries. While the individual case of death has vanished from the public eye, it seems death has become a topic in fiction. Also, with news coverage on crises and armed conflicts in many parts of the world, death - possibly a more distant form of it - is taken into people’s living rooms on an almost daily basis. If individuals not only consume news, there is an intrinsic question on how, why or in what ways death is made a topic. Visibility of death depends to a great extend on the visibility and the value the lost life has had in the past or what its value could be for other purposes (political strategies, financial interest, etc.).

2.2 The Value of life and Death - or which lives are bemoaned

It is not only war, in which the religious coined commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ is mistreated or ignored.

However, is there a fixed assumption of valuable life? And if that is a fact, for whom does it count? ‘Is a Muslim life as valuable as legibly First World lives? ‘, asked Judith Butler in her work ‘Precarious Life’ on the aftermath of 9/11 (2006: 12) and ‘is our capacity to mourn in global dimensions foreclosed precisely by the failure to conceive of Muslim and Arab lives as lives ? ‘.

However, nationality and religion are not the only determinants for the value of life. These factors can be manifold and their weight within the individual concept of value with regards to the life of ‘the other” may be individually different. This is due to multiple affiliation concepts, such as political, cultural, sexual etc, resulting in the fact that every individual has a different set of moral standards concerning the death of ‘any other’.

2.2.1 Value of life (and Death)

Reflecting moral positions on the value of life implicates the involvement of any life form on earth, including germs, plants and animals. The assumption that life is sacred arose from the Christian belief that anything which has been created by God is holy. As a logical consequence, killing deer and plants for food would be as wrong as killing another human being.

Unfortunately, this position is held by some individuals and groups but is widely neglected: ‘[…] the wrongness of killing can sometimes be overridden by other considerations’ (Norman 1995: 41). These considerations, which Norman addresses in the chapter on Utilitarian concepts in his book ‘Ethics, Killing and War’, are responsible for any decision made concerning killing or not killing. Although Utilitarianism cannot be seen as the all explanatory principal to the question of life and death, it provides some thought-provoking input on how killing could be legitimated e.g. by taking one life in favor of thousands of other lives. Discussing the value of an individual life cannot be done without considering other individuals. To a certain degree, the value of another person’s life is also depending on the bonds the individual has entered with others.

Nowadays, death of the other, as shown in the previous chapter, does affect individuals in the inner social network the most. Thus it can be concluded that moral acting depends on the status we attribute to others. There is either respectful interaction with the lives of others; meaning that we accept others living their lives as they like, or relations which are based on sympathy, which mostly include personal affectedness towards each other. Therefore, respect is maybe providing awareness for life itself, which implicates the denial of killing, but does not guarantee an active position when it comes to defending, rescuing and grieving the life in question. Friendly relationships however will rather bring forth the desire to participate in maintaining life of others and protecting it by all means (see Norman 1995: 79 f.).

Judith Butler takes on a different position which goes further than Norman’s conception of either respectful or sympathetic concepts of relatedness with others. She emphasizes ‘grief’ as the defining component for a life’s value. Grief, although normally used for describing a status after someone has died, already affects the new born child. Meaning is given or declined to the future life of the child by either anticipating that ‘this will be a life that will have been lived’ (Butler 2010: 35) or the opposite, which denies the worthiness of the life to come.

2.2.2 Whose Life Counts in the Context of War and Armed Conflicts

Ungrievable lives are those that cannot be lost, and cannot be destroyed, because they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone; they are, ontologically, and from the start, already lost and destroyed, which means that when they are destroyed in war, nothing is destroyed ‘ Judith Butler (2010.: xix).

Deriving from above, one must ponder - in accordance with Freud - on whether life counts in war and armed conflicts at all. Looking at e.g. the 2nd World War, the intervention of the Great Powers is not the primary target of moral concerns because we consider that much more harm would have been done without their participation. Of course, questions still remain: Does any kind of action morally legitimatize killing millions of people? And is there a point, when killing is no longer ‘necessary’ but arbitrary? And who is to decide that?

In her latest work ‘Frames of War’ (2010), philosopher Judith Butler embraces the theory of Talal Asad who wrote a book on suicide bombing: ‘If, for instance, someone kills or is killed in war, and the war is state-sponsored, and we invest the state with legitimacy, then we consider the death lamentable, sad and unfortunate, but not radically unjust’ (41). On the other hand, if groups who were not considered to be legitimate fulfill this violence, our perceived feeling would change to the opposite (ibid.). Hence, there seems to be a connection between giving either actively or passively the legitimization to kill and having an affiliation with e.g. a nation which separates ‘me’ from ‘the other’.

Considering further New York’s former mayor Giuliani’s statement on the attacks of 9/11, where he declares: ‘There is no moral equivalent to this attack. There is no justification for it… The people who did it lost any right to ask for justification for it …‘(Giuliani 2001). Although not said directly, it can be assumed that there is an intrinsic statement on the right of existing beyond the statement on being given the right for justification:‘… the attacker, by his aggression, has forfeited his right to life and that is why his potential victim has a right to kill in self- defense’ (Norman 1995: 122). Norman’s proposition which he later assesses as mainly wrong (ibid.) thus meets the events which followed the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Moreover, not only have the identified manipulators lost their right to exist, but also others, who were by choice or coincidence at close quarters in the wars which followed.

Again, the question remains, are these actions of an undefined number of people ‘enough’ for starting a war against a whole nation, putting up with thousands of dead citizens (see Butler 2010: xviii)? Judith Butler holds the ignorance of the USA ‘as a militaristic power with no respect for lives outside of the First World ‘(2004: 17) responsible for the actions taken in the aftermath of 9/11. Likewise argues Norman, six years before the attacks in New York, that war in self-defense could only be considered if a political community (in this case the USA) can assure that its life is of the same value as human life itself (see Norman 1995: 137). In creating an enemy, ‘the other’, for the security of the USA, Presidential and Governmental decision to invade Afghanistan (and then later Iraq) were popularized and justified.

This justification process especially took place by claiming the interest in the situation of women in Afghanistan (Dietze 2009: 41-42, Wenk et al. 2008: 40). The role of women was described as inhumane, stressing the argument that they are deprived of their rights by the Taliban who are falsifying Islamic law and religion. With that, U.S. invasion plans could be somewhat legitimated actions in the favor of these women (see Fergusson et.al 2010). The actuality and importance of this mechanism has been recently seen in the public debate on remaining soldiers in Afghanistan. A picture of a mutilated woman looking towards the camera was put on the cover of Time alongside the description: ‘What happens if we leave Afghanistan’1. The corresponding article, written by Richard Stengel, Managing Editor of TIME, gives a description of women´s situation in post-war Afghanistan and warns against a total pullback of military forces, trying to shed a better light on the war itself. : ‘I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan’ (2010). Women´s life is thus presented as valuable dimension in the context of having to legitimize the controversial mission in Afghanistan and re- proving actions of going to war.2

Another controversy over the value of lives during war affects the distinction between civilians and soldiers: Is there any moral or legal rule that puts a civilian’s life over that of a soldier? It could be easily argued that soldiers choose to fight and therefore risk the consequences which might be death, whereas civilians do not. However, by implying that there is a difference, killing itself is legitimized: ‘To assert that the killing of non-combatants is wrong, because they are innocent, is also to assert that the killing of combatants is permissible, because they are not innocent’ (Norman 1995: 161). Judith Butler´s thoughts on the labeling of someone in Palestine as Hamas follow a similar line of arguments. In her view, even being under the suspicion of belonging to Hamas can result in the denial of a person’s innocence and therefore legitimize killing. How could one be absolutely sure, that the person killed was indeed a member of the Hamas ? Besides, can a person, who is said to be in favor of the Hamas, still be called a civilian and thus be protected by international law? And in the end, could a civilian in favor of the war be still considered a civilian?

Are we supposed to understand Palestinian children as nothing but so many shields? We are asked to believe that those children are not really children, are not really alive, that they have already been turned into metal, to steel, at which point the body of the child is conceived as nothing more than a militarized metal that protects the attacker against attack. If one were to conceptualize the child as something other than part of the defensive and manipulative machinery of war, then there would be some chance of understanding this life as a life worth living, worth sheltering, and worth grieving (Butler 2010: xxvii).

Concluding remarks and outlook

In this chapter, the dimension of death has been examined from a philosophical and psychological point of view in order to understand how death is constructed and experienced in Western societies.

Additionally, several considerations on the value of life have been stressed. Thus, it must be detained, that value of life is not an axiomatic fact. Being alive does not equal value at all; the dimensions of value and approval of a life depend to a grand scale of concepts concerning constructions of ‘us’ and ‘the other’. ‘The other’, is then defined as a counterpart to an imagined community with a shared set of believes; whom is not only denied the value of life but is more likely to become a victim of rage than a member of the community.

In this chapter, value of life was looked at from an angle of hegemonic power relations, exemplifying how value is attributed to some but not all. Examples were chosen in order to demonstrate how especially the occidental hegemonic discourse influences the perception of life and value of the constructed otherness, the Orient; one the one hand to raise acceptance for military actions or on the other hand to legitimize killing. In consequence, the personified ‘other’, deprived of value, will not be subject of mourning in a community which does not account thy life as life. In contrast, grief will be applied to members of a community or social group and also those regarded as sympathizers who will then also be visible in the context of media coverage.

Next chapter will reflect on the constructiveness of ‘us’ and the ‘other’ in line with the visibility of life and death in the media in order to identify mechanisms of ideology. Ideology is here defined as a ‘broad but indispensable, shared set of values and beliefs’ which ‘is manifested in social assumptions about not only the way things are but the way we all know things should be’ (Sturken 2001: 21). Therefore, especially images and presentation in the media are forms of ideology ‘through which we persuade others to share certain values or not, to hold certain values or not’ (ibid.).

3. ‘And so, what is it that we see?’

The quotation in the paragraph above taken from Judith Butler´s essay on ‘Torture and the ethics of photography’ (2007), demonstrates how precarious images are absorbed in the media. Especially when it comes to the controversy over authenticity, the audience is alarmed because no one wants to be fooled by a pre- edited picture; we want to see the truth. What is then the understanding of authenticity?

Sturken and Cartwright have described the perceived ability of the photograph to depict reality as a ‘myth of photographic truth ’ (2001: 17). Authenticity then is defined as ‘the quality of being genuine or unique’ (ibid: 350) and what is crucial; not staged or orchestrated. However, nowadays the value of an image is not longer depending on the uniqueness, given that with the rise of digital images and reproduction techniques there exist far more than one exemplar, but more on social and cultural worth (ibid: 124). Through reproduction and replacing an image or a video in another context, it is made visible to much more people and can become an icon.

With the invention of digital photography, the reception of authenticity has taken yet another shift; with the ability to construct images without any referent, digital production has altered the perception of truth. If the image seen is not referring to an actual event, how can we possibly talk about photographic truth?

Moreover, have digital programs extended the room for re-editing photographs. It is counterfeit to assume that earlier photographs were exempted from manipulation but nonetheless, digital photography has made this process much easier; since pictures do not have to be printed anymore to be reproduced and reworked (compare Sturken/Cartwright 2001: 30,139 et al.).

Authenticity and truth are two concepts which bear a controversy in themselves, since their meaning is always determined by their context. Thus, Butler´s tends to go further by addressing the consciousness of what we can and cannot see at all in an image. The ability to make meaning of what we see is determined by the sets of conceptions we have inherited in forms of ideologies, believes, norms etc.

3.1 Iconic and Pictorial Turn

Still, although it has been a long discussed and well known subject, images as well as moving images are used as synonyms for reality or truth (compare Hanusch 2010). The often recalled iconic turn is the term describing the change in the hierarchy of text and images which has gained more importance over the last years.

The neologism iconic turn has been formed as a counterpart to the 1967 developed linguistic turn by Richard Rorty. Latter describes the relativity of cognition, awareness and reality which are all only constructed by the possibility of language. Historicity was questioned as well and newly reckoned with the knowledge of the constructiveness which is essential for all human interaction. Iconic turn was firstly introduced by Gottfried Boehm in 1994 and is amongst others, as Bredekamp analyzed, ‘a call for a methodical sharpening of visual analysis tools for any field and any medium, in which static or moved pictures are seen’ (2004:16 own translation). The outside world, which for a long time was expected to coexist with our perceived lives, can only be experienced by forms of representation; ‘we actually construct the meaning of the material world through these systems (Sturken/ Cartwright 2001: 13). Boehm focuses on the essence of pictures, which do not only receive their meaning by explanatory texts or through being embedded into a context but are the message, themselves. His approach is strongly bonded with the idea of an art historical science of images which has been criticized, bearing in mind the entanglement of previously labeled art and images in the media which, as supposed, has already been fulfilled. More adequate then seems the usage of the term pictorial turn which was invented to similarly describe the shifting in favor of the image over the text but rather to establish a concept on how to describe the priority images have gained within communication processes in society (Sauerländer 2004: 411).

Guided by the sensed superiority of images in today´s media landscape, Sauerländer even favors iconoclasm in order to out rule the misleading effect of images and their iconographic influence, proclaiming that as citizens we do not accept wrong arguments; thus we should not let ourselves be misled by illusory images (ibid.: 425). Iconoclasm, a term dating back to the first destructions of religious figures and pictures, addresses the meaning which images, as well as moving images can embody. It also describes the fear of images which are believed to have an immense power on people. The consequences of the ideology behind this term are ambiguous because on the one hand it may prevent Iconization but it also leads to Schauverbote (restrictions in viewing) which could be misused politically and institutionally. Instead of a destruction of images, in fear of their unpredictable power, awareness should be raised, as has been already indicated by many scholars, on the power and possibilities which images obtain.

3.1.1 Photographs

On the one hand, they are referential; on the other hand, they change their meaning depending on the context in which they are shown and the purpose for which they are invoked. Judith Butler (2007)

The discussion on the relation between a photograph and the person or subject depicted is exemplary for the importance of the iconic turn. Photographs were and still are perceived as an item which could objectively display reality; based on the technical appliance which was trusted as evidence for truth: ‘…because cameras are seemingly detached from a subjective, particular human viewpoint’ (Sturken/Cartwright 2001: 17). However, it is not possible to erase the ‘human viewpoint’ from the scenery because the camera can only depict a small part of a scene, which s election remains in the choice of the photographer. Consequently, photograph depends on selection and valuation of the human. Reality is then not only not depicted but even changed or distorted, ‘by focusing on one part of the scene but not another’ (Hanusch 2010: 30). Additionally, other factors contribute to the assumption that photographs can depict the truth; ranging from the setting of lights to the alterations a person would undergo while being aware of the camera pointing at him or her: ‘If so, the photograph is already at work prompting, framing, and orchestrating the act, even as the photograph captures the act at the moment of its accomplishment’ (Butler 2007).

In his work ‘Camera Lucida’, Barthes defines three factors which are constitutive for a photograph: ‘Spectator’, ‘Spectrum’ and the ‘Operator’ (1980: 9). Former describes the viewer, the observer, thus the person or the audience who looks at Ithe photograph and the depicted object or person. The ‘Spectrum’ according to that, is the displayed figure which is seen on the photograph. At last, accountable for the actual shooting, including the act of choosing which angle or part should be photographed, is the ‘Operator’. This categorization is just the basic statement which can be made on a photograph but as manifold studies have stated, there is much more to say. Not only does the photographer influence the photographed but so does the viewer and vice versa. Even the camera itself has a share in the outcome of the picture, depending on age and technical equipment, the photograph will vary in color, sharpness etc. All these circumstances will influence the perception of the viewer in the interaction between spectator and spectrum.

According to Barthes semiotic model, interpretations of images primary focus on the signifier and the signified. Former describes the subject, person or scene depicted; while latter is the ascribed interpretation of, and association with it. In their unification, the sign comes into being. Thus the signifier may be a constant variable but the form of the signified is always in the eyes of the viewer. Therefore, social, historical and cultural contexts are crucial factors which must be considered when talking about signs. Assuming that this concerns all kinds of images (and also texts), static or moving, it is in question if a universal ‘truth’ or ‘authenticity’ can even apply for them.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The above illustration of Barthes model also further demonstrates how a sign, already consisting of signifier and signified is again modified to the status of myth. Abstractly speaking, three stages of meaning are examined and given and attributed to an image: the denotative meaning, describing what is seen in forms of shapes etc, the connotative level which is the interpretation of what we see e.g. also associations - and finally the concept of myth which is consistent of ideological cultural patterns, deriving e.g. from discourses on gender, politics and identity.


1 (09.08.2010). Time Cover. Retrieved from: http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20100809,00.html

2 For further information: Baker, Aryn: Afghan Women and the Return of the Taliban, Time 2010.

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(In)Visibility of Death: Neda - Constructions of Gender and Identity in the Media
European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder)
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death, neda, constructions, gender, identity, media
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Nathali Basten (Author), 2010, (In)Visibility of Death: Neda - Constructions of Gender and Identity in the Media, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/177878


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