Rebecca Stein on her book, Screen Shots

Interview by Areeg Faisal

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=31376

Areeg Faisal: Screen Shots is an ethnography of photography, cameras as colonial barometers, in the hands of a broad range of actors and institutions, including both Palestinians and Israelis. To get started, how would you describe the main argument of the Book?

Rebecca Stein: Screen Shots is the second in a two book project that studies the relationship between the Israeli military occupation and the changing media landscape in Israel and Palestine. The first book in this series was Digital Militarism, co-authored with Adi Kuntsman, which examined the Israeli occupation in the social media age. We started writing this book in 2010 at the time of Arab uprisings, amid considerable investment among activists, both in the region and beyond, in the capacity of new digital technologies to serve as tools of grassroots activism and mobilization. Then, there was a shared hope that the networked camera phones held aloft by activists would be decisive in their liberation from authoritarian regimes. There was a dream of liberation technology, as some scholars have dubbed this phenomena.

Digital Militarism began as an attempt to temper some of this period’s techno-utopianism through a study of how digital technologies also function as perpetrator tools in the Israel/Palestine contexts.  For example, we studied the phenomena of Israeli soldiers carrying their mobile technologies on patrol into the West Bank, and considered how these consumer technologies could function as repressive instruments.  We also investigated everyday acts of digital complicity, such as the ways that ordinary social media platforms and practices, like the selfie, could be pulled into the apparatus of military rule.

Screen Shots pivots to the question how this political playing field has changed in the era of proliferating camera technologies. This is an ethnographic study which focuses on camera usage among many different political constituencies, from Israeli soldiers and settlers to Palestinian activists and human rights workers.  Screen Shots is interested in how all were pulling these new camera technologies into their political toolboxes, all taking aim at the scene of state violence.

Across these radical political divides, I argue, all were invested in a version of the same digital dream: namely, that greater visual exposure of the scene of state violence – resulting in an ever more perfect image — would advance their respective political agendas.  Screen Shots is an ethnographic chronicle of the ways that these digital dreams break down, albeit in very different ways, for these varied communities and institutions.  

Areeg Faisal: Thank you so much for such an insightful overview of the book. In this regard, how would you describe the scholarly contributions of Screen Shots to the existing body of literature that focuses on the entanglement between state violence and digital technologies, especially in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and Israel? I am particularly interested in learning more about the methodological shift Screen Shots demonstrates by focusing on what precedes image-making rather than what comes after.

Rebecca Stein: In the last 15 years, we’ve seen a growth in anti-colonial visual studies, including a wave of important Israel and Palestine studies scholarship.  While most of these works have focused on the politics of representations, Screen Shots is interested in the politics of image production, curation, and brokerage.  I am particularly interested in what precedes and enables the image-making practices of Israelis and Palestinians – the infrastructure, the labor, and the multiple constraints generated by a repressive and often violent military occupation.  Rather than merely attending to what comes after images arrive into the world – which tends to be the propensity of scholarship on the politics of representation —  this book considers what precedes and sometimes frustrates them.

In the process, I pay a lot of attention to images that fail at their point of origin. For example, I chronicle the story of Palestinian videographers working with the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem in a period well before the onset of social media and smartphone proliferation in the West Bank.  They were documenting, with video cameras, instances of military and settler violence against Palestinian communities living under occupation, using the rather rudimentary technologies of their day.  I focus on instances in which they failed to move their VHS cassettes or memory-cards, and associated footage of state violence, out of the West Bank.  For example, I tell the story of footage filmed during a military closure of the West Bank.  By the time the closure was lifted, and videographers were able to travel, the footage was no longer considered relevant to the Israeli media – one of the outlets of choice, employed by the Israeli NGO.  I conclude this chapter with an image of a pile of VHS tapes, filmed by a veteran Palestinian human rights videographer, gathering dust in his Ramallah home office.  This is a chronicle of state violence on camera.  But it’s equally a chronicle of how Israeli state violence has, historically, also made that footage impossible as a circulatory form.

Areeg Faisal: The term state violence is central to Screen Shots and has been utilized widely by scholars to different ends. That said, I’m interested in learning more about your definition of the term and what does count as state violence in Screen Shots?

Rebecca Stein:  Here, the history of terminology is interesting, and particularly where Israeli discourses are concerned.  When I started this project, settler assaults were not officially categorized as state violence within the Israeli human rights community – at least, not within much official human rights discourse.  While these organizations were very concerned with modes of state-abetted violence by settlers – with an emphasis on soldiers “standing idly by” in the midst of settler assaults — the language of state violence was not yet employed.  It was only a decade later that the state violence framing would be adopted, as we can see in recent reports from the Israeli NGO B’Tselem.  This shift is very interesting, as it suggests a substantial realignment in human rights paradigms. 

Digital Militarism, my previous book, focused on an allied issue: namely, the ways that Israeli civilians support and abet state violence through their ordinary social media practices.  As we propose, even as something as a banal as a selfie can be its vehicle.  And when one shifts one’s lens to ordinary cultural practices, the very notion of state violence is redefined.

Areeg Faisal: As I read your book, I can’t help but think of some methodological, political, and/or ethical challenges that might have arisen throughout the fieldwork. Would you mind speaking about that?

Rebecca Stein:  The most challenging work happened with the official branches of the military – in particular, in the military spokespersons’ unit, where I conducted research.  I was given very limited access to their offices, but always on the basis of an ethnonational presumption that I — as an American Jew who spoke Hebrew – would be an ally, bent on supporting the state story.  After one interview that I conducted with a senior military spokesperson about the 2008-9 war on Gaza, and the military’s emerging social media work, I was asked: “you’re going to blog about this, right?”  It wasn’t a question, but an invitation.  At that time, the military’s social media unit was actively courting bloggers.  That was part of the bargain that enabled me to enter their offices.  As I published more, my ability to get into those offices broke down.  But the terms of my original access were very clear.  I presume that Palestinian ethnographers wouldn’t have been granted the same access.

Areeg Faisal: Thanks for sharing all of this honestly. Finally, last year witnessed a surge of the Israeli state violence against Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza, greatly captured by Palestinian activists on various social media platforms. This digital uprising and activism provoked a unified flow of solidarity and support for Palestinian liberation and influenced some of the Israeli supreme court decisions regarding the forced removal of Sheikh Jarrah families. Given that Screen Shots is concerned with moments of breakdown and failure, how would you situate those recent moments within this analytical framework of failure? Is the camera letting Palestinian activists down again?

Rebecca Stein: It’s a great question.  Many activists and pundits have positioned the May 2021 war on Gaza as a landmark shift in global media ecosystems and positions regarding Palestine.  Israeli state violence was viral as never before. There was sudden flooding of social media and mainstream media spaces with Palestinian imagery from Gaza and Jerusalem, with Palestinian voices. 

I’m proposing a degree of skepticism about this formulation, based on a longer historical view.  Here, we hear a familiar dream rearticulated: if only the pictures of injustice and atrocity are crisper, clearer, and more abundant, then justice will follow. Alas, there is nothing new about this dream. We saw it rearticulated in the midst of the Syrian revolution, once dubbed the YouTube revolution.  And we saw it tragically fall short.  This drive for the perfect visual archive, or the total archive, is particularly pronounced in times of war and conflict, especially when there’s a concurrent shift in media regimes.  I’m proposing that our political investment can’t be in visibility or media alone.  That’s not adequate for the job. 

Omri Grinberg takes the p. 99 test

Sarah Mitchell’s admirable avoidance of “gaming” the pg. 99 test (link) ironically inspired me to not avoid the temptation of doing so, mainly because despite “cheating”, the test’s results are two particularly unspectacular fragments of non-ethnographic, all-too-academic writing. The way I’m “rigging” the test is by presenting together a “fake” and a “real” pg. 99: the fake is pg. 99 of the PDF document, which is actually pg. 88 of the dissertation, and the real one is pg. 99 according to the page count of the dissertation text.

Both pages are part of the first chapter, which is essentially the second part of the Introduction. The chapter combines a historical survey of Israel’s occupation and its violence, the emergence of human rights NGOs and their characteristics, and literature reviews about human rights, NGO-state dynamics, and colonial intermediation. It culminates in the two sub-sections in which the two pages play a significant role: an attempt to think about agency and ethics in bureaucratic structures, while signaling the uniqueness of witnessing and testimony contexts. As I show, this uniqueness persists even as these core aspects of human rights are shaped and disciplined—as an experience (of witnessing) and text document (as testimony)–by the synthesized influence of different types of violence Israel uses (brute-direct, structural, symbolic) and the genres of human rights narration and documentation. These are what I define in the fake pg. 99 (below) as “contexts and considerations”.

The fake pg. 99 bridges between a review of anthropologies of agency and ethics in the Middle East, and the following sub-section, in which I focus on the role of testimony in Israeli NGOs and use the insights from the review to challenge some dominant anthropological perspectives about witnessing and testimony. The real pg. 99 is the final page of this sub-section, and of the whole introductory phase.

If apart and as stand-alone fragments, the two pg. 99s do not say much. Together, I think, they convey some of the main points of the dissertation. Other than place them in sequence and some clarifications [in square brackets], I made no significant changes in the two text fragments.

[FAKE PG. 99]

These contexts and considerations [see above] are fundamental to my effort of avoiding re-producing two common tendencies in studies of human rights (or humanitarianism) and NGOs: (i) overlooking (and hence denial) of the critical valences of the vernacular of human rights practices themselves by deterministically assuming the totalizing appropriation of human rights by colonial actors (cf. Perugini and Gordon 2015; Zigon 2013); (ii) The equally problematic assumption that the political subjectivities of those participating in these practices hinge on the benevolent option of practicing them, which is offered by visiting-experts from the Global North as agents constituting a new “global” ground of political morality (cf. Fassin 2008).

These foundations do not negate the relevance of insights from neither the harshly critical take, nor from the latter approach, that formulates a political philosophy of contemporary ethics based on anthropological studies of humanitarianism. What is at stake here is the important avoidance of assigning conscripting meaning to “testimony” while simultaneously maintaining clarity about what testimony is and does (Dean 2017). The careful framing of agency and ethics in relation to witnessing thus promotes studying and theorizing testimony as a multi-dimensional process and from different perspectives of scale.

 

[REAL PG. 99]

As I will show, Palestinian witnesses often demand the NGOs document their cases but refuse to let them use it for the NGOs’ own appeals to various state branches. Thus, the witnesses re-shape what the NGOs do and challenge organizations’ positioning vis-à-vis the state, even if the production of the text itself does not change.

For NGOs, testimony does indeed signify political change and an ethical obligation, but it is also—and perhaps, mainly—a system of archiving through disciplinary writing: codes of qualities and quantities, formalized categories and means of documentation, classification, determination, comparison, accounted for and transcribed in certain ways that constitute simultaneously both the power and authority of the documenting actor—NGOs—through the legal-bureaucratic apparatus of writing human rights testimony (cf. Cody 2009; Foucault 1995, 189–90; Messick 1993). These modes of documentation take part in affirming certain models and modes of political subjectivity while marginalizing others (Fassin 2012; Marshall 2014). NGO practices then have apparent and immediate repercussions on contemporary political realities, and in parallel, impose a historiographic authority – frames of in/validation[*] that perform what Michel de Certeau termed as “…a selection between what can be understood and what must be forgotten in order to obtain the representation of a present intelligibility” (1988, 4).

 

[PG. 99 REFLECTION AND APPRECIATION]

* “Frames of in/validation” is a term I use to theorize NGOs’ procedures of incessant verification and adaptation of Palestinian experiences of violence into simplified narrative structures, that conform to legal-moral discourses and definitions of human rights. As I claim in the dissertation, NGOs rely on frames of in/validation to sustain the paradox of human rights, at least in its Israel/Palestine vernacular: a genre of anti-colonial historiography that is itself based on colonial reason, mainly genealogies of surveying and bureaucratic writing. Thanks to the pg. 99 test, I now realize what I have probably always known on some level: that I do the same, only displaced into the disciplinary confines of academic writing.

Cliched academic self-deprecation aside, this exercise re-highlighted for me one of the main tensions I had to constantly work-through in my research, yet did not truly acknowledge in writing and only rarely discussed otherwise. Namely, between my focus on the bureaucracy of Palestinians’ testimonies in Israeli NGOs, and taking Palestinian witnesses and their testimonies into analytical consideration. That is, making this a study (and an ethnography) of colonial violence, and not (just) an anthropological analysis of representations of violence (whether those representations are themselves colonialist or not).

Omri Grinberg. 2018. Writing Rights, Writing Violence:  The Bureaucracy of Palestinian Testimonies in Israeli Human Rights NGOs – Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Anthropology and Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Toronto.

Works Cited

Cody, Francis. 2009. “Inscribing Subjects to Citizenship: Petitions, Literacy Activism, and the Performativity of Signature in Rural Tamil India.” Cultural Anthropology 24 (3): 347–80.

Certeau, Michel de. 1988. The Writing of History. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Dean, Carolyn J. 2017. “The Politics of Suffering: From the Survivor-Witness to Humanitarian Witnessing.” Continuum 31 (5): 628-36.

Fassin, Didier. 2008. “The Humanitarian Politics of Trauma: Subjectification Through Trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Cultural Anthropology 23 (3): 531–58.

———. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present Times. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Marshall, David Jones. 2014. “Save (Us from) the Children: Trauma, Palestinian Childhood, and the Production of Governable Subjects.” Children’s Geographies 12 (3): 281–96.

Messick, Brinkley. 1993. The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.  

Perugini, Nicola, and Neve Gordon. 2015. The Human Right to Dominate. [S.I.]: Oxford University Press.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2013. “Human Rights as Moral Progress? A Critique.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (4): 716–36.