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COURSE NAME: "War, Terrorism, and Violence in Visual Culture"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Fall 2019

INSTRUCTOR: Donatella Della Ratta
EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: MW 4:30-5:45 PM
PREREQUISITES: Prerequisite: Junior Standing

This course examines violence and terror as inherent structural components of contemporary politics and media. Students will study how the performance of violence in the contemporary media landscape has shaped new visual cultures, such as emergent modes of producing evidence, bearing witness and archiving personal and collective memories of traumatic events. Conversely, the course examines how visual culture has dramatically impacted on the way in which we understand and consume violence and terror. Subsequently, students will examine the relationship between violence and visibility, the performance of terror and its representational regimes, through a variety of global visual media from around the world. Example include Hollywood movies; art documentaries; amateur films; photographs; art projects and performances; user-generated videos (including audiovisual material produced by armed groups and terrorist organizations); and state produced media.

This course will explore relevant questions related to the politics of violence, such as: how do visually compelling representations of violence inform and transform our understanding of it? What are the ethics of looking at and participating to the pain of distant others through networked communications technology? How does participatory media shape our understanding of violence and the performance of the latter in contemporary conflicts and terrorism acts? And how does this change our understanding of concepts such as citizenship or humanitarianism? These questions will be addressed through a deep discussion of examples from the current media landscape, and exploration of foundational theories, and research projects.


  • Identify the major debates, controversies and concerns in the study of visual communication, visual culture, media, technology, and human rights.

  • Acquire conceptual and empirical understanding of key concepts and critical vocabularies related to terrorism and political violence, war on terror, radicalization, religious extremism, surveillance cultures, politics of humanitarianism and intervention.

  • Be able to account for and critically discuss representations of violence and terror in different visual media, and analyze their historical, philosophical and aesthetic dimension.

  • Apply multidisciplinary critical theoretical perspectives to the analysis of visual representations of war, terror, violence.

  • Develop ability to identify and address relevant research and critical questions, and demonstrate competency in communicating it in a variety of formats (oral, written and multimedia)

  • Develop a critical approach to be able to make relevant, historically and theoretically grounded assessments of the representation and performance of violence in different visual media informed by a multidisciplinary perspective




Midterm classroom testClassroom test 20%
Visual Media Project/Video EssayEach student will create a presentation that deploys visuals (slides, videos, etc.) to illustrate an argument developed using the theoretical perspectives analyzed in class.15%
Final research paper and presentation Paper & Library assignment (25%) + Presentation (10%). Students are required to write a research paper related to the course material. Each student will make an oral presentation based on the paper at the end of the semester. Detailed guidelines will be provided.35%
Attendance and participationAttendance includes a mandatory session with the Library which is connected to the research work for the final paper. For attendance policy see details below. Participation includes doing the assigned readings and actively contributing to class discussions. Each student (alone or in team with another, depending on total number of students) has to lead at least a group discussion based on the readings during the semester. 10%
"Bring your own example": weekly reflectionsEvery week students are required to provide a short paragraph connecting the weekly readings to a relevant example from contemporary visual culture (e.g. an Instagram/Facebook/etc post; a YouTube video; an advertising campaign; a selfie, etc.). The paragraph (including weblinks to the selected digital objects) should be sent via email the night before the first class of the week.10%
'Deconstructing Visuality'Visual essay -detailed guidelines to be provided 10%

AWork of this quality directly addresses the question or problem raised and provides a coherent argument displaying an extensive knowledge of relevant information or content. This type of work demonstrates the ability to critically evaluate concepts and theory and has an element of novelty and originality. There is clear evidence of a significant amount of reading beyond that required for the course.
BThis is highly competent level of performance and directly addresses the question or problem raised.There is a demonstration of some ability to critically evaluatetheory and concepts and relate them to practice. Discussions reflect the student’s own arguments and are not simply a repetition of standard lecture andreference material. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions and provides evidence of reading beyond the required assignments.
CThis is an acceptable level of performance and provides answers that are clear but limited, reflecting the information offered in the lectures and reference readings.
DThis level of performances demonstrates that the student lacks a coherent grasp of the material.Important information is omitted and irrelevant points included.In effect, the student has barely done enough to persuade the instructor that s/he should not fail.
FThis work fails to show any knowledge or understanding of the issues raised in the question. Most of the material in the answer is irrelevant.


Please note that the library session on citing (calendar will be provided) is mandatory and absences will automatically lower your participation grade. 

Also please consider that more than 4 absences will automatically result in lowering your participation grade by one letter grade for each absence.
Anything above 8 absences will result in failing the course.

If you have a serious health problem which causes you to miss more classes than allowed here, please contact the Dean's Office.

Lateness: If unexcused, students more than 10 minutes late are marked as absent. Late arrival (less than 10 minutes) is marked as such, and 3 late arrivals are counted as one absence. 

Class procedure:  Use of cell phones and laptops affects your participation grade and is strictly forbidden during class. Please make sure that your cell phone is turned off (and not just muted) when class starts. Kindly note that any infringement of such policy shall automatically result in a F grade in participation. 
As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.


Course Schedule

Week 1: What is visual culture as a field of study? How is this related to war, terrorism and violence?


Excerpts from: Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “Introduction: Global Visual Cultures.” In An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge, 2009: 1-20.

 Watching: a selection of visual media


Week 2: Visuality and the Right to Look


Excerpts from: Mirzoeff, N. (2011). The right to look: A counterhistory of visuality Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

 Watching: a selection of visual media


Week 3: Looking at images of violence part I


Excerpts from

Mitchell, WJT, Cloning Terror: The war of images, 9/11 to the present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Baudrillard, Jean, The Spirit of Terrorism. London: Verso, 2013

Watching: a selection of visual media


Week 4: Looking at images of violence part II


Mirzoeff, Nicholas,“Invisible Empire: Visual Culture, Embodied Spectacle, and Abu Ghraib.” In Radical History Review, vol. 95 (spring 2006), 21-44.

Feldman, Allen. “On the actuarial gaze: from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.” In Cultural Studies, vol. 19 issue 2 (2005) 203-226.

watching: videos from the series “Dangerous Games” by Harun Faroucki; art performance “Virtual Jihadi” by Wafaa Bilal', 9/11, Abu Ghraib, Errol Morris' “Standard Operating Procedure” (2008)


Week 5: Visual economy of war and surveillance 

**Visual essay due 


Parks, Lisa. “Zeroing in: overheard imagery, infrastructure ruins, and a datalands in Afghanistan and Iraq.” In Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed), The Visual Culture Reader. London: Routledge, 2013: 196-206.

Gregory, Derek. “American Military Imaginaries and Iraqi Cities: the Visual Economies of Globalizing War.” In Lindner, C. (ed), Globalization, Violence and the Visual Culture of Cities. New York: Routledge, 2010.

 art installations and performances in US military bases from the series “Incendiary traces” by Hillary Muskin; drone films; selected works by Richard U Wheeler; Forensic Architecture collective.


Week 6: Surveillance cultures


Excerpts from:

Zimmer, Catherine. Surveillance cinema. New York and London: New York University Press, 2015.

watching: movies “Saw” (2004), “Benny's video” (1992).


Week 7. 

**Class recap (14 Oct) and midterm test (16 Oct)


Week 8: Globalizing the aesthetics of terror and torture 


ten Brink, Joram and Joshua Oppenheimer (eds). Killer images: documentary film, memory and the performance of violence. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2012.

Austin, J. (2016) ‘Torture and the Material-Semiotic Networks of Violence Across Borders’, International Political Sociology, 10(1): 3–21.

Watching: Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” (2012) and “The Look of Silence” (2014).


Week 9: The spectacle of terror from al Al Qaeda to Isis


Devji, Faisal. “Media and Martyrdom.” In Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed), The Visual Culture Reader. London: Routledge, 2013: 220-232.

Ignatieff, David. “The terrorist as auteur”. The New York Times, 14 November 2004.

Winter, Charlie. “Media Jihad: the Islamic State 's Doctrine for Information Warfare.” ICSR Report, 13 February 2017.

Watching: Isis & Al Qaeda produced videos, user-generated propaganda videos, Zain phone company Ramadan commercial 2017, anti-Isis graphic novels.


Week 10: Regarding the pain of others in the networked age 


Excerpts from: Sontag, Susan. Regarding the pain of others. New York: Picador, 2013.

Butler, Judith. Frames of War. London: Verso, 2009.

Chouliaraki, Lilie. “Distant suffering in the media”. In Professor Lilie Chouliaraki Inaugual Public Lecture, 27 February 2008, London School of Economics.

Watching: art performances “Domestic Tension” by Wafaa B’ilal & “Rhythm 0” by Marina Abramovich.


Week 11: Meaningful life, bare life, and the politics of humanitarian intervention 


Excerpts from: Agamben, Giorgio. Homo sacer: sovereign power and bare life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Chouliaraki, Lilie. “Post-humanitarianism: humanitarian communication beyond a politics of pity.” In International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol 13 issue 2: 2010: 107-126. Chouliaraki, Lilie. “Digital witnessing in conflict zones: the politics of remediation.” In Information, Communication & Science, vol 18 issue 11: 2015: 1362-1377.

Watching: Syria and the refugee crisis, images of Aylan Kurdi, Omar Daqneesh, etc.

Week 12: Visual projects presentations


Week 13: Killer images, dignified images, networked images: a focus on Syria’s visual culture in a time of war 


Excerpts from: Della Ratta, Donatella. Shooting a Revolution. Visual Media and Warfare in Syria. London: Pluto Press, 2018.

Watching:  a selection of visual media from Syria


Week 14: Reclaiming Visual Justice

A showcase of the most interesting projects from a variety of countries to reclaim the ‘right to look’

**Final paper due  

Final exam: oral presentation of the final paper