Many thanks to the generous colleagues who helped me compile this conference report. These people include Asbjorn Gronstad, Oyvind Vagnes, Arild Fetveit, Chuck Kleinhans, Julia Lesage, Linda Williams, Bill Nichols, Irina Leimbacher, Jonathan Kahana, Vivian Sobchack, and Janet Walker. I quite literally could not have finished it without you.

1. For evidence, see
Accessed March 24, 2010. See also Oyvind Vagnes, “Picturing Poses: The Reenactments of S.O.P.,” unpublished conference paper (Los Angeles: Society for Cinema and Media Studies; March 17, 2010), p. 9.
[return to page 1 of essay]

2. Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” The New York Times, May 23, 2004. Accessed March 27, 2010. Available at
23PRISONS.html?scp=1&sq=regarding the torture of others&st=cse

3. This is a thesis of Richard Rorty’s excellent book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). See pp. xiii-xvi.

4. In The Fog of War (2003), Morris details Robert McNamara’s concerns about the criminality of his role in the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945. See Julia Lesage, “Torture Documentaries,” Jump Cut 51 (Spring 2009). Accessed March 23, 2010. Available at
See also Chuck Kleinhans, “Imagining Torture,” Jump Cut 51 (Spring 2009). Accessed March 23, 2010. Available at

5. The Abu Ghraib pictures show human torture and have the potential to upset anyone. They remind us of what we are capable; they offer us human tragedy. This is part of what informs their tremendous “affect” (in the sense that Lesage uses in “Torture Documentaries”) when a documentary re-contextualizes them. But it stands to reason, I think, that their known U.S. dimension has fueled much of the moral passion that they—and Standard Operating Procedure—have stirred up in the U.S.

6. Bill Nichols, “Feelings of Revulsion and the Limits of Academic Discourse,” unpublished conference paper (Los Angeles: Society for Cinema and Media Studies; March 20, 2010), p. 7.

7. Bill Nichols, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008), pp. 72-89. See Vagnes, “Picturing Poses,” pp. 4, 10.

8. Jonathan Kahana, “Introduction: What Now? Presenting Reenactment,” Framework 50.1-2 (Spring and Fall 2009), pp. 48-49.

9. This Wednesday panel, it should be noted, was a holdover from the scheduled, but sadly canceled, 2009 Tokyo SCMS conference.

10. Vagnes, “Picturing Poses,” p. 3.

11. Ibid., p. 11.

12. Asbjorn Gronstad, “Explaining Ourselves to the Image: Ethics and Form in Morris, Folman, and Haneke,” unpublished conference paper (Los Angeles: Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference; March 17, 2010), p. 2.

13. Ibid., p. 9.

14. Ibid., p. 10.

15. Arild Fetveit, “The Power of Photography and the Material Aesthetics of Standard Operating Procedure,” unpublished conference-presentation abstract (Los Angeles: Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference; March 17, 2010), p. 1. Whereas I could work from Vagnes’s and Gronstad’s actual papers, I had to work from an abstract of Fetveit’s presentation—and from an assurance from the author that the actual presentation reflected that abstract.

16. Asbjorn Gronstad, “Re: quick question,” personal email to the author (March 26, 2010), p. 1.

17. Vagnes reported the probable Americanness of the audience. Oyvind Vagnes, “Re: quick question,” personal email to the author (March 26, 2010), p. 1.

18. Nichols, “Feelings of Revulsion,” pp. 1, 8. The “retreat” quote is applied by Nichols to tactics that he sees interlinking Mr. Death, The Fog of War, and Standard Operating Procedure.

19. Ibid., pp. 2-4.

20. Ibid., pp. 5-6, 8-9.

21. Linda Williams, “‘Cluster Fuck’: The Forcible Frame in Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure,” unpublished conference paper (Los Angeles: Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference; March 20, 2010), p. 1. A variant of this talk is soon to be published in Camera Obscura.

22. Nichols himself asserts that this idea should have been the point of Standard Operating Procedure; but unlike Williams, he apparently misses the fact that it was the point, or one of the points, of the movie. Thus Nichols writes, “I understand how they were used as scapegoats by the administration but sometimes scapegoats are also guilty”—a proposition that the movie also seems to make and that Morris himself states in various ways in his DVD commentary. Nichols, “ Feelings of Revulsion,” p. 5.

23. Williams, “‘Cluster Fuck,’” p. 2.

24. Williams includes a lengthy disclaimer to this effect. Ibid., p. 5.

25. Ibid., pp. 5-6.

26. Kleinhans reminds us in “Imagining Torture” of a number of different social experiments that have shown that otherwise ordinary people will torture if placed under particular conditions. Kleinhans, “Imagining Torture,” p. 6. To me, this indicates that the greater responsibility lies with those who set the conditions. What they cannot do without implicit criminality is to give orders that sound like an invitation to torture or to create circumstances that encourage underlings to torture.

27. Vivian Sobchack, “Re: SOP Panel,” personal email to the author (March 22, 2010), p. 1.

28. As I recall, Williams discounted this linkage—which I view as correct. If there were such a linkage, it would probably reflect the way that both pornography and Standard Operating Procedure discombobulate viewers in their roles as critics and scholars, such that their usual analytic powers are replaced by moral rhetoric. When it comes to Standard Operating Procedure, I am no exception to this observation.

29. Vivian Sobchack, "Re: SOP Panel," p. 1. In her reconstruction of her comment—generously provided to me in an email—Sobchack went on to say that what she was getting at in this comment was that

“the film in its insistent hermetic structure—the structure that Bill Nichols found revolting—was also insisting on and pointing to (in their absence) the hermetic and solipsistic military governmental structures that constitute a ‘prison-house’ both for the prisoners and the torturers—an enclosed and self-perpetuating form of thought and behavior that no longer has any referent but itself. This is where I see the film as a potent critique that goes deeper than letting the prisoners speak, etc.” Ibid., pp. 1-2.

30. Janet Walker, “urgent/SOP panel/JUMP CUT update,” personal email to the author (March 24, 2010), p. 2. In her generous email reconstruction of the question that she posed in the question-and-answer session, Walker wonders

“whether the panelists, especially Bill (who, granted, was invoking the traumatization of the spectator—himself as spectator) and Jonathan, would agree with me that, when the traumatization we are speaking of is that of the perpetrator, our field may well benefit from a necessary expansion and adaptation of the ‘trauma paradigm’? Raya Morag—in her paper at this conference on the psychological disturbance of Israeli soldiers interviewed in the documentaries Waltz with Bashir, Z32, and To See If I’m Smiling—makes a very productive distinction between ‘testimony’ and ‘confession’ and the distinct (if related) traumas of victims and perpetrators.”

Walker ends her question by asking,

“in what ways, if any, do you think we will need to develop our field’s use of concepts of trauma if we are to effect this shift from considerations of the trauma of the ‘victim’ to considerations of the perpetrator testimony or confession in documentary film?"

Ibid., pp. 2-3. All emphasis is Walker’s.

31. Morris acknowledges in his DVD commentary to Standard Operating Procedure that the guards were "not innocent of wrong-doing," but he immediately follows that point up by wondering if they were really "at the evil center of what happened at Abu Ghraib"?

32. Kleinhans, “Imagining Torture,” p. 6.

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