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COURSE NAME: "War, Terrorism, and Violence in Visual Culture"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Fall 2020

INSTRUCTOR: Donatella Della Ratta
EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: MW 1:30-2:50 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 testDetailed guidelines will be provided20%
Final research paper and presentation Paper & Library assignment (25%) + Visual Presentation/Video Essay (10%). Students are required to write a research paper related to the course material. Each student will make a visual presentation /video essay based on the paper at the end of the semester. Detailed guidelines will be provided.35%
ParticipationParticipation includes doing the assigned readings and actively contributing to class discussions. Each student has to lead at least a group discussion based on the assigned readings during the semester. 10%
Online projectAt the beginning of the semester, students are required to choose a digital platform (Tumblr, Wordpress, etc.) where to build their own space to post updates and reflections about the assigned readings on a weekly basis. Students are encouraged to connect the weekly readings to relevant examples from contemporary visual culture (e.g. a meme; a YouTube video, etc.). Project will be assessed and graded in two phases, midterm and finals (10+15%). Detailed guidelines will be provided.25%
'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.


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:
 Introduction to the study of visual culture

Introduction to the class topic and general overview of the syllabus 21 Sept

A vocabulary for understanding visual culture: modernity, colonialism, slavery, warfare 23 Sept


Week 2: Visuality and the Right to Look

What is visual culture as a field of study? What does ‘visuality’ mean? 28 Sept

How is visual culture related to the study of war, terrorism and violence? 30 Sept

Visuality at work: ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ (Errol Morris, 2008) 2 Oct


Excerpts from:

Mirzoeff, N. (2009) “Introduction: Global Visual Cultures.” In An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge.

Mirzoeff, N. (2016). How to see the world : An introduction to images, from self-portraits to selfies, maps to movies, and more. New York: Basic Books.


Week 3: Looking at images of violence: Abu Ghraib and the ‘aesthetics’ of torture

Visuality and the Right to Look: class discussion 5 Oct

The ‘invisibility’ of Abu Ghraib 7 Oct


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

Excerpts from:

Antoon, S. (2019). The book of collateral damage. Yale University Press.

Watching: selected images from Abu Ghraib; videos from the series “Dangerous Games” by Harun Faroucki; art performance “Virtual Jihadi” by Wafaa Bilal'; Ronak Kapadia on Wafaa Bilal; Monira al Qadiri's work.


Week 4: Looking at images of violence: violence on black bodies from Rodney King to George Floyd

Looking at images of violence: class discussion 12 Oct

Visual interpretations of the violence performed on black bodies 14 Oct


Dorlin, E. (2019). ‘What a body can do’, Radical Philosophy

Butler, J. (1993) ‘Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia’, in Gooding-Williams, R., Reading Rodney King Reading Urban Uprising, New York and London: Routledge.

Watching: a selection of visual media on Rodney King, George Floyd, etc.


Week 5: Biopolitics and Necropolitics: The ‘right’ to rule over people’s life and death

**Visual essay due 

Looking at images of violence: class discussion 19 Oct

Who has the power to decide who may live and who must die? 21 Oct


Mbembe, A. (2003) ‘Necropolitics’, in Public Culture 15(1)

Excerpts from:

Mbembe, A. (2017) Critique of Black Reason. Durham and London: Duke University Press


videos from Forensic Architecture and Forensic Oceanography, footage from refugee camps, etc.


Week 6: What an image can do: from operational images to networked ‘evidence’

*online project midterm review

Biopolitics and Necropolitics: class discussion 26 Oct

A journey into operational images, networked images and what they can do to war and peace 28 Oct


Excerpts from: Image Operations : Visual Media and Political Conflict, edited by Jens Eder, and Charlotte Klonk, Manchester University Press, 2017. 


Stein, R. (2017) ‘GoPro Occupation: Networked Cameras, Israeli Military Rule, and the Digital Promise’ in Current Anthropology, 58 (15)

Watching: visual analysis of images such as that of Aylan Kurdi and Omar Daqneesh; selected works by Omar Daqneesh.


Week 7: Regarding the pain of others in the networked age 

*Midterm test 6 Nov

Class discussion and Midterm Recap 2 Nov

Regarding the pain of others: distant suffering in the media and the politics of war and humanitarian intervention 4 Nov


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

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


Week 8: Visual economy of war and surveillance 

An emerging visual economy of war 9 Nov

Vertical warfare and drone aesthetics 11 Nov


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;
Drone Witnessing project.


Week 9: Surveillance cultures post 9/11

Class discussion on visual economy 16 Nov

Surveillance from pop culture to the performance of terror 18 Nov


Excerpts from:

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

Payne, M. T. (2016). Playing war : military video games after 9/11. New York University Press. 

watching: movies “Saw” (2004).


Week 10: Globalizing the aesthetics of terror and torture 

Class discussion on surveillance cultures 23 Nov

Killer images and the performance of violence 25 Nov


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).


Week 11: Focus on Syria’s visual culture at the time of networked warfare

Class discussion on the aesthetics of terror and torture 30 Nov

Syria and the debate on the ‘dignified image’: 2 Dic


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 12:
Wrap up week

Class discussion on Syria’s visual culture 7 dic

Class wrap up 9 dec

**Final paper due  

Final exam: visual presentation of the final paper