Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

One More Thing: Errol Morris's Believing Is Seeing

Believing is Seeing

I had no idea virtual book tours existed until someone contacted me to review Errol Morris's new book Believing Is Seeing in viz. Or, rather, as soon as someone contacted me to review Errol Morris's book, I was like "Of course they have virtual book tours. They have virtual everything." I just didn't realize "virtual book tour" was the Google phrase. A virtual book tour schedules reviews on blogs over time (in this case, about a month) to generate sustained buzz. You are here, at stop five on this tour. Welcome to this very special event. I start here to emphasize what we all already know (but what a colleague just reminded me of): temporality is different online. An idea moving across the country in a van is a tour. An idea moving across the internet is a meme. They are different things.

Errol Morris clearly travels a lot. But Errol Morris the person and Errol Morris the books, films, and internettings travel in different temporal soups. Morris the person travels around and interviews a lot of other people. In fact, he built a machine so he could capture on screen the kind of eye contact that happens in a face-to-face encounter. F2F encounters are not the same thing as media that circulate. They are not unconnected, but they are not the same. They travel at different speeds. And that may be the point of Believing is Seeing.

One of the people Morris interviewed was Spc. Sabrina Harman, a woman in many photographs that came out of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. We've all seen the pictures. We've read about the scandal. Morris interviewed Harman for his film Standard Operating Procedure. I haven't seen the film because I'm a grad student, and I have limited time for movies. The story is told on Morris's blog.  But blogs, too, have their own temporal qualities. Perhaps I skimmed the blog entry or passed by it completely. But then, again, the story is told in Believing Is Seeing, which found its way to me via the aforementioned virtual book tour. And so I find myself confronting, again, the smiling visage of Harman with a dead body. The body was dead long before Harman posed, all smiling and thumbs up, with it. We know this because Morris lays out the sequence of events thanks to the hidden EXIF files that come standard in images taken with digital cameras. Morris reminds us that camera make and model, clock, aperture, exposure time, etc., are all embedded in these files. We have extra data, besides the surface of the Abu Ghraib images, to analyze. All of this is reminiscent of William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition, but it is not fiction. We know the image is not fiction because the book is not a work of fiction. It is not marketed and distributed as such. It moves through the publishing systems as a set of "observations on the mysteries of photography."

Is it a good book? This is supposed to be a review, so I should at least hint at whether I think the book is good or not. But I won't. My evaluation of Morris's writing seems less important than what the book does. The idea that wrapping stories in a book-like package lends them credibility has been thoroughly interrogated by this point in the history of the book. So I won't suggest that what the book does is lend gravitas to the story. Nor will I suggest that books allow time for thoughtful reflection compared to movies and blogs and news stories. We can linger over whatever media we like. What the book does depends on who picks it up, how they read it, and what they take away from it.

I am reading the book so that I can write a review of it. I agreed to do so in exchange for a free copy. I agreed to do so because I am a fan of Morris's other work. So what a book does is contingent on many things. What the book did for me was this: it brought to my attention one more thing, an addition, a bit of supplemental information. This one more thing came in one of the many interviews transcribed in the book. The interview is between Morris and Paul Ekman, an expert on facial expressions. Ekman has written many books like Emotions Revealed, Unmasking the Face, and Telling Lies. Ekman is also behind the show Lie to Me. In the interview, Ekman talks about what different kind of smiles suggest about emotions. For example, there's a difference between the say-cheese smile and a smile of authentic pleasure. Ekman says, "I'll add one more thing. When we see someone smile, it is almost irresistible that we smile back at them" (116).  And it's this one more thing that, Morris argues, upsets us:

it is not an upsetting photograph just because we see someone smiling in the context of the horrible, but because when we look at her, we have to resist smiling ourselves. We see her smile and and start smiling ourselves. But when we see the dead man, we recoil in horror. Our 'almost irresistible' need to smile makes us feel complicit in the man's death. And it makes us angry. We 'transfer' those feelings to Sabrina. (116)

This complicity is complicated by the fact that many of the detainees are--by standard operating procedure--unrecorded, ghosts (a.k.a. OGAs, which is shorthand for the "Other Government Agencies" that deposited them at Abu Ghraib). Harman and her cohort were not just posing for photos, they were taking pictures of ghosts, recording things that our government had agreed not to record. And now Morris has recorded it again, this time in book form. And the book keeps the images moving through different distribution systems at different speeds. And this means the images will reach new audiences, or they will reach old audiences again. And some of us might realize we're all complicit in it. And it should make us angry.

Add new comment


Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
10 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.