PhD Oral Exam - Gwynne Fulton, Humanities - Arts and Science
When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.
Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.
Ever since Plato’s Republic banned the poetics of mourning from the ideal polis, political power has been thought in relation to images of death. In recent years, theorists such as Foucault, Mbembe, and Derrida have examined the inextricability of sovereign power and the field of the visible, yet, their specific linkages remain undertheorized. In response, Taking Life draws on intersecting fields of photographic, critical race and poststructural theory, as well as curatorial practice, to develop an account that connects sovereignty to images. I demonstrate that the concept of sovereignty we have inherited from political modernity is “phantasmatic” insofar as it imagines itself as pure life cut off from death. This phantasm is governed by a double logic that I aim to expose through an analysis of images of death circulating in contemporary art and media. My account shows that sovereignty is made possible by the alterity of death and time, which it nonetheless attempts to repress and control when it “takes life,” for example, by executing a death penalty or by representing death in spectral images. Yet, images also amplify death and finitude in ways that render sovereignty fragile and precarious.
I formulate this double logic as general infrastructure that, following the work of Derrida, I call the “optic of spectrality.” I use this optic to read a series of discrete visual provocations, including death penalty photography in the analogue era and beyond; bystander recordings of antiblack police violence circulated on mobile platforms; and works by Harun Farocki that interrogate image operations in the context of global electronic warfare. These counter-histories of visuality agitate for an understanding of sovereignty that is exposed to death and spectral time. In exploring intersecting themes of sovereignty, spectrality, finitude, and technicity, I argue for the continued relevance of deconstruction for debates in visual cultures about visibility and violence, spectacle and surveillance, and the aesthetics of necropolitics. Focusing questions about the status and power of images in our post-photographic era of global media, Taking Life contributes to debates about capital punishment, drone warfare, and the trajectories of radical Black politics.