Rewriting Trauma: You, Me, and the Violence

Through the striking juxtaposition of puppets and military drones, Catherine Taylor’s You, Me, and the Violence investigates the question of how ordinary American citizens relate to the violence of warfare as it becomes increasingly automated and distanced from first-person experience. Taylor connects puppets and drones by drawing out their similar natures: passive objects manipulated by unseen forces, both the puppet and the drone are also uncanny objects, suggesting a power and hold over the humans who operate them. And both, under Taylor’s expansive analysis, reveal truths about the contemporary subject: “In the object of the puppet, we glimpse the subject of the human. In the object of the drone, we glimpse the subject of society.”

At the convergence of the puppet and the drone we find an engaging, complex book that employs the experimental essay as a means of unpacking this complex and pressing subject: the trauma we have been kept, and keep ourselves, so distant from. Mirroring the complexity of her topic, Taylor employs different strategies than a conventional essay. Rather than clean lines of thought unifying research, meditation, and experience that coalesce into a tidy package of knowledge, the majority of the book is constructed in paragraph-length sections separated by white space and typographical markers. Movement between sections happens via association and multiplicity, leaping from point to point or developing a series of related observations and then shifting, prior to resolution, away. The book’s research also feels associative and gathers a field of knowledge from disparate types of sources: experiential, archival, and everything in between. Taylor’s combination of associative form and expansive source material requires her readers to be active participants in constructing connections. This active reading experience elegantly maps onto one of the book’s central questions, which is how the individual citizen might become a less passive subject.

Not only is the American citizen almost never a primary witness to the trauma of global warfare, but, in drone warfare, military personnel are also distanced, watching via the mediation of satellite and screen. Given this separation, what kind of knowledge of trauma is really possible? What kind of subject, what mode of being, is such a citizen, so distant from the forces carrying out missions in its name? How can writing, itself a form of mediation, create knowledge without totalizing, without filling in gaps that are impossible to fill?

Given these questions, the book opens with a particularly apt paragraph-length section, which calls to mind Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Western culture’s ur-text problematizing the equation of first-person experience with knowledge:

In a scene from Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, in a darkened room, we see the faces of children at a puppet show. They appear, at first, transfixed. Still. Lifeless. Then their mouths drop open wide as if unhinged…

Taylor describes the children as they watch the show. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, the children are innocent, ignorant of the mechanisms throwing the figures before them into action. They don’t see the puppeteers and “They don’t see us. They don’t see Truffaut’s camera.” Watching the children, Taylor makes an observation that will become essential to her book: the children take on the properties of the puppets before them. “We watch them manipulated by the puppets and by Truffaut […] we see them only as they become puppets, become objects, and thus, paradoxically, become themselves.” Just as Plato’s Allegory critiques the equation of first-person experience with knowledge as he builds towards the ideal nation-state, Taylor’s opening scene points to the central condition of the contemporary American citizen. We, like the children, exist in a passive state, distanced from the action of the world. We watch the puppets around us and have become puppets ourselves.

With 24-hour access to news and the President’s Twitter feed, it can be easy to feel constantly and intimately connected to global trauma. Yet, in the course of reading You, Me, and the Violence it becomes evident that this is a categorical mistake rather like diving into Taylor’s cinematic description of The 400 Blows and feeling as if we can, ourselves, see the children watching the show. In truth, however, we are not in the puppet theater at all. Taylor herself is not even in the puppet theater: Truffaut’s camera watches the children, Taylor watches Truffaut, and we read an account of Taylor watching. Plato famously resolves this collapse of knowledge and first-person experience by moving the foundations of knowledge — the foundations of truth — away from the physical world and into the realm of Forms. Taylor’s world, our world, provides no such anchor.

Taylor’s questions about agency — particularly through puppets — lead her to performances at the Bread and Puppet Theater of Vermont with her sons, to information about the Theatre du Soleil, the use of puppets in performance protest, Pina Bausch’s puppet-like motions in Café Müller, puppets used for therapy for veterans, the story of Pinocchio, marionette theaters, Beckett’s frequent mention of characters as puppets, puppet-like aspects of films like The 400 Blows, Fanny and Alexander, and Solaris. In her quest to more deeply understand contemporary drone warfare, she turns to her brother, an air force pilot who within the course of the book goes from flying actual planes to flying drones to retiring from the military and “flying for a contractor somewhere over Africa.” She broadens out this familial knowledge into research about PTSD and other effects of drone use and technology. In one of the most striking sections of the book, she includes excerpts from a transcript of a conversation transcribed by Voices for Peace with Karim Khan, a Pakistani man whose teenage son, younger brother, and a guest were killed by a drone attack at his home while he was away at work. Positioned towards the end of the book, this excerpt comes as close as possible to providing first-person witness: “And the place where these drone strikes are, I sent my cousin to have a picture to have a record of this place […] They are not only killing us — they are burning us […] I think they don’t consider us as a human being.”

Connections between puppet and drone, puppet and citizen, citizen and soldier, solider and drone are often built by juxtaposition and the power of suggestion. In other sections Taylor overtly draws together puppet and drone, soldier and citizen: “Like a puppet, the drone is both an extension of the operator and an object unto itself. Something manipulated. A body with a distant mind […] Drones have the strange appearance of autonomy found in robots, automata, and puppets…The bulging head, the high-pitched whine, even the nasty nicknames.” And while careful to draw a distinction between soldier and citizen, she also insists on their connection: “Here, the drone as puppet slips behind the curtain and instead produces the stage itself, the proscenium screen framing the view from the pilot’s Naugahyde Barcalounger or from our own comfy chair.” “Soldiers,” she writes, “are our surrogates,” refusing to allow the essay to fall into an “us” versus “them” pattern and using the overlap of puppet and drone to suggest that insofar as we are citizens we are complicit in our technologies of war and their destruction.

The texture of Taylor’s language is as foundational to the book as the structure and patterning of content. Some paragraphs are lyric — “A dream of words. Butterfly, mariposa, amapola, poppies, opium, Pasiphae. Typed white on black” — and particularly resonate when directed toward drones, articulating the uncanny nature of the object with glimmering language. Other paragraphs, research-oriented, include references, quotations, and endnotes in a scholarly manner. Philosophical texts such as Theodor Adorno’s “The Essay as Form” and Negative Dialectics; Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle; and Paul Virilio’s Pure War: Twenty-five Years Later are consulted and incorporated, providing theoretical underpinnings to the book’s sensibility of association and constellation. Balancing this, conversational tones and small runs of narrative are particularly strong in moments where Taylor includes her family members. Throughout, Taylor often employs the imperative (“See us transfixed. See how the puppet in turn puppets us”) and asks question upon question (“When is war justified, and what is acceptable in war? Is it used only as a last resort? Is it proportional?”). While this multiplicity of textures manifests a collage-like sensibility, the overall result achieves the effect of an individual subject thinking. Thought might take on the flavor of what it attends to, but also maintains the particular inflection and drive of its thinker.

Taylor is an inclusive thinker, drawing her reader into the text and accentuating the experience of reading and writing as a form of discovery, of knowledge-making that never arrives at totality. Underscoring this rejection of totality Taylor disrupts the fabric of her larger structure with two different series — black-and-white photographs of an alligator hand puppet and a series of drone strike reports. Visually, formally, and texturally different from the fabric of the whole, these two series weave throughout the book, puncturing Taylor’s reflective flow with outside source material that is charged with enigmatic, performative energy. The hand puppet image appears at page nine and reappears throughout the book as an expressive and opaque object. The drone attack series, set in a different typeface than the rest of the text and hovering at the tops of otherwise blank pages first appears on page four of the book, continues for three pages, and then disappears only to reappear every six to 10 pages from then on. From its very first instance we are thrown into the action-based text without introduction or context:

*Broken Radio Comms*      maneuvering on all four sides      garbled radio

copies you broken from Jaguar        understand      you’re     experiencing

movement all around last known location                    no movement   here

at this time     We are now tracking three vehicles and standby             Copy

As these sections appear across the book, a fragmented narrative unfolds of military personnel attempting to discern whether or not they’ve honed in on a valid target. Not until after the series is complete near the end of the book does Taylor name the source of her material, David S. Cloud’s “Transcripts of U.S. drone attack,” which first appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Explaining her process Taylor states, “I removed some sections and some words, but I kept close to the original sequence and tried to stay faithful to what I found to be the central elements of the transcript.” In so doing, the drone strike reports hover over the text, an unsettling and uncanny presence rather than a contained and knowable source.

In these moments the essay itself is as estranged and uncanny as the puppet and the drone — blazing with artifice and compelling us to think about the role of art in a time and place of distant devastation. Taylor brings this line of questioning into the foreground in the last 16 pages of the book, which follow Khan’s testimony about the loss of his family members. On the page spread directly following Khan’s words are two captioned black-and white images of shadow puppets shaped like the recurring alligator puppet but made, this time, by the projection of a bare hand. “At first, this book ended in despair,” says a caption underneath the image on the left. “But I made myself rewrite it,” says the caption under the image on the right. In the pages that follow Taylor engages three scenes to “rewrite” despair.

First she includes an interview with her newly decommissioned brother about drones, warfare, and violence. Taylor’s questions show an interest in civilian resistance, an objection to taking innocent lives, and the hope that war might be waged in a less harmful way. Her brother’s answers reject the idea that war might be rendered less violent and reflect the belief that war is a brute, inevitable fact of reality: “War is violent and there will always be war.” Furthermore, while Taylor operates throughout the book from an ethos of multiplicity, her brother states that the cause of war is multiplicity: “I think there will always be wars,” her brother says, “because the world is full of people who see things differently.” However, even though the siblings don’t agree, the interview models the way that an artwork might serve as occasion for honest dialogue about difficult issues between two people who have profoundly different points of view.

Next, Taylor provides a meditation on the puppet theater in Fanny and Alexander which brings to light something new for Taylor about puppets: “all things, even inanimate ones, possess something like a spiritual essence, a consciousness — and it pulses, too, with the ‘omnipotence of thought’ wherein thinking itself gains agency.” Aesthetic objects are sites we can return to for deepening thought and advancing agency. Lastly, she brings the book full-circle: Walking through Paris’s Jardins du Luxembourg, she and her now nearly adult son return to the same puppet theater that begins the book, the puppet theater from The 400 Blows. They are in time for a show and join the children to watch the puppet show of all puppet shows: Pinocchio.

While the puppet show is still (necessarily) an experience of images and representation, this time Taylor and her readers are one step closer to action. The importance of this narrowed distance is accentuated by the fact that the show includes audience participation orchestrated by Guignol, the puppet Master of Ceremonies, blurring the line between art and life. No longer are the children-witnesses passive. When in the play puppet-Pinocchio has been replaced by a puppet that looks like a “real” child, Guignol encourages him to ask the children if it is true that he has been turned into a real boy. The audience of children knows that he is still a puppet, but when he faces them, the children lie. They have a choice: they can “hurt Pinocchio’s feelings and ruin the moment, or they can ignore everything they’ve been taught and follow what is clearly an exhortation, here and now, to lie.”

In this scene Taylor draws forth the capacity of art to show people how to speak against the official story, reflecting: “There is no one way to be real. We all grow up to be puppets, there is nothing outside of the manipulations we live within, but we are real enough, we can act on our little stage.” While art might not have the power to end violence or manufacture the empathy of first-person witness to traumatic events You, Me, and the Violence shows that it does have the capacity to push us beyond the forms we have been given, drawing us closer together and activating the agency to articulate truths that without art we cannot know.

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