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L'ère électrique. The Electric Age

 | 
Olivier Asselin
, 
Silvestra Mariniello
, 
Andrea Oberhuber

Le corps électrique/The electric Body

Death by Media: Warhol’s “Electric Chairs”

Pamela Lee

Texte intégral

1My paper concerns a body of work critical to the historical imaginary of the state and its publicity—Andy Warhol’s “Electric Chairs”— but I want to argue this work is critical in ways not expressly visualized by the images themselves (Figure 1). With these silk screen paintings, part of a suite from the early 1960s collectively known as the “Death and Disaster Series,” Warhol produced what may well be his most incisive commentary on questions of power and the media. That may seem an odd claim to make given the received wisdom on his practice. Power is a word not commonly invoked in the same breath as Warhol; and to be sure, compared to the images and objects typically associated with this blankest of modern masters—the Campbell’s soup cans, the ever-multiplying Marilyns, the alternately glamorous and glazed portraits of A-listers and wannabes—the Electric Chairs confront thematically darker stuff than the pop confections to which his name is usually attached. Along with other pictures in the Disaster Series, which include race riots, car crashes, and suicides, they have been treated as something of a one-off as a result: a brief nod toward the socially incendiary in the United States of the early 1960s. If Warhol’s usual fare consists of commodity trifles and media spectacle, the chairs seem something of a compensatory gesture. The one group appears an idyll, a distraction; the other, deadly serious.

2The former is everywhere visible, noisy as the evening news; the other inspires silence for the gravitas of its subject.

3How, then, to square the urgency of the subject represented—its explicitly topical source material—with the wasteland of American media culture that is Warhol’s preferred stomping ground? Do these pictures simply confirm the rather banal observation that Warhol’s entertainment values have drifted south into the terrain of blood sport? And in what ways does this work advance a particular argument on power and media apart from the iconographic treatment of the chair itself? In this paper I mean to avoid neither the issue of capital punishment in general nor the electric chair in particular, but to look at both askance, as I will argue Warhol entreats us to do. I am concerned with the contradictions of publicity and privatization, visibility and invisibility, instantiated by electronic media in images like the one Warhol used for this series. For this is an image that speaks to the question of the symbolic representation of state power, as well as the very appearance of these representations in the United States. Indeed, I mean to highlight the nationally-specific perspective on this issue granted by Warhol.

4As many art historians have noted, the Electric Chairs were first shown in Paris in 1964 in a show called “Death in America.” In what follows, I will chart this peculiar territory by means of a temporally distorted path, wending its way from Warhol’s series of the 1960s to the chair’s historical origins in Buffalo, New York, in the late 19th century to very contemporary visual phenomena that confirm both the canniness and prescience of his insights.

  • 1 This text, given as the keynote address for the CRI conference on electricity, represents an abbre (...)
  • 2 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA : Meridian Press, Stanfor (...)
  • 3 Agamben 120.
  • 4 Agamben 15.

5To make this argument, I consult Giorgio Agamben, who has discussed the state’s capacity to administer life, to at once produce and destroy it, as the central feature of modernity’s elaboration of sovereign power. Here we find ourselves in the realm of biopolitics, most famously articulated by Michel Foucault in the History of Sexuality (1978). The biopolitical for Foucault referred to the ways in which the sphere of life (and sex implicitly) had been integrated into the mechanisms, and thus politics, of sovereign authority: “the right of death and power over life. Life, in other words, had become subordinate... to the sphere of political techniques.”1 Taking up where Foucault’s profoundly influential reading left off, Agamben considers the biopolitical beyond the history of sexuality. Regarding the biopolitical at the threshold of “bare life,” he sees its ramifications in the long history of political theory, from Aristotle to Carl Schmitt to Hannah Arendt. “The entry of zoe into the sphere of the polis,” he writes, “the politicization of bare life as such—constitutes the decisive event of modernity and signals a radical transformation of the political-philosophical categories of classical thought.”2 For Agamben, the consequences of this shift are catastrophic, its most venal paradigm to be found in the concentration camp.3 Sovereign power, by this view—and whether totalitarian or democratic in its constitution—enacts an unruly paradox. In its inordinate capacity to administer death, to “kill without a sacrifice,” the sovereign at once stands outside the law as much as it wields and determines that law. “The paradox of sovereignty,” he writes, “consists in the fact the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order.”4 Agamben will call this prerogative the sovereign’s state of exception, and it is the example set by Carl Schmitt to which he will repeatedly return.

  • 5 Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, translation, introduction, and notes by George Schwabb (...)
  • 6 George Schwabb, “Preface,” in Schmitt xxii.

6Indeed, Agamben’s book turns around a haunted lineage of sorts, one that cuts its disastrous path from Carl Schmitt’s Germany to the Beltway, from the waning years of the Weimar Republic to its dark mutation in the welter of neoconservative policy. Controversial for this role as a Nazi jurist, Schmitt is today read by radically disparate constituencies for the severity and, as it turns out, prescience of his observations. His thinking on sovereignty in both The Concept of the Political (1932) and the earlier Political Theology (1922) lies at the base of Agamben’s recent investigations; his far-reaching excoriation of liberalism and his account on the theocratic dimensions of political speech resonate a little too well with current events. Mostly, though, Schmitt is read for his theory of the political: that autonomous sphere of life, as opposed to aesthetics or morality, organized around the dualism of “enemy and friend.” What constitutes politics for Schmitt might be described as an inverted alterity, an antagonism towards the Other so strenuously expressed, an enmity so implacable, that politics itself is a matter of life and death. The political enemy, Schmitt writes, is “the other, the stranger... something different and alien.”5 One’s status as a political subject as such demands the “existential negation of the enemy.” This is one species of bare life, the kind in which sovereign power is determined by the annihilation of the Other. And it is the sovereign’s prerogative to both give and withhold life—to “kill without sacrifice,” as Schmitt will describe it—that licenses its exceptional power: to be both within the law and outside it, “to remove from politics any possibility of justifying one’s action on the basis of a claim to a universal moral principle.”6

7Now how might this inform our reading of Warhol? In a regime dominated by media spectacle—one in which Warhol labours as an alternately dutiful and critical citizen—the state of exception turns around a conflicted visual logic. Sovereign power, we shall see, will rule at the threshold of the visible and invisible, between self-publicity and self-censorship. Few artefacts of modernity are more in keeping with the ethos of bare life than the electric chair, and its role in the cultural imaginary Warhol envisions will have everything to do with the state’s relationship to the media. What’s critical to note is that media takes on a double resonance in this work, referring both to new and spectacular modes of communication and to a form of lethal technology. Electricity and electronic media is that which binds these two modalities together, acting as a relay between these alternating currents.

8To get there, let us begin with first impressions of the work. For all the heat that comes with discussions of capital punishment—its promises of vengeance and moral furor—the scene Warhol depicts is strangely drained of affect, “bloodless” one is tempted to say. This is an observation critical to numerous interpretations of the Death and Disaster series—in particular, the brilliant reading on Warhol advanced by Hal Foster—but I raise it here to different purposes. The tone of the work runs the gamut from declension to sensationalism, hot to cold and back again; and in the end, both positions effectively negate each other. It is a zero-sum game. Based on stock photographs of the death chamber at New York’s Ossining prison taken in 1953, the artist presents us with serialized images of an exquisite chilliness, projecting a kind of hard, glacial beauty in stark contrast to the dread scenario we can barely summon. From one work in the series to the next—and with all the politesse of a neon sign—the seat of capital punishment blithely flashes the colors of a rainbow spectrum. Reds, blues, pinks, and oranges saturate the surface of these images so that the figure floats like a hallucination against a lurid ground. Here as elsewhere, Warhol’s vibrant palette is equal but opposite to the compositional sobriety of the image appropriated. The rigid geometry that organizes the images—think grids, repetitions, and serial permutations— serves to rationalize a scene that, for the vast majority of us, is utterly beyond rationalization, utterly beyond imagination.

9This failure of imagination may well be the point of the exercise. The scene is that much more unimaginable because the work refuses easy identification on the part of its audience. Invariably the Electric Chairs draw commentary for their striking lack of human bodies, activity, or for that matter appearance of empathy. As the official literature on Warhol will tell us, they are “devoid of human presence,” and this observation, bland though it may be, will prove not only instructive but critical. In order to take some measure of the work’s singularity for Warhol, compare them to other images from the Death and Disaster series, which picture the mangled victims of car wrecks, hapless African-Americans savaged by dogs, suicides crumpled on cars, soft flesh losing the battle to heavy metal. These are images, in other words, choked with ruined and powerless bodies. By contrast, the electric chairs sit in silent judgment on the other side of the power divide, with no visible body to take the bench or throw the switch, neither victim nor executioner present.

10Instead, at the centre of the work, the empty chair is set at a slightly oblique angle to the picture plane; three doors frame the otherwise empty space; the space is a formal nulle. A sign in the upper right corner telegraphs the only explicit means of human communication by a cruel taunt. “Silence,” it admonishes the viewer. To which viewer it directs this message, however, is a matter of more than passing interest. For the question of who looks and how figures prominently in what one critic of capital punishment has called “the spectacle of state power” dramatized by the chair. The sign, an oft-noted feature in discussions of Warhol’s work, inadvertently registers these ambiguities. There seems little recourse to talk back to this scene. The picture is self-censoring in advance of any imagined exchange.

11With these last few passages, I have dwelled on the visual properties of the image to the apparent exclusion of the chair itself, as well as the ideological and ethical issues it necessarily raises. Colors, grids, lines—you might well ask: what does this have to do with a subject so charged as capital punishment? A formal reading of this work, though, one which privileges the abstracting tendencies within the series (at least initially), is in keeping with the tenor of my argument, which stresses the virtual muteness of the image relative to its testimony in the court of public opinion. Of course muteness and its psychic corollary, blankness, are among the most familiar Warholian tropes. In what follows, however, they will assume an especially historical resonance when considered in light of the Electric Chairs.

  • 7 Warhol quoted in The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, George Frei and Neil Printz, ed. (London: Pha (...)

12Now we all know that death held considerable sway over Warhol’s imagination, but the inspiration for the work appeared to come from elsewhere. “It was Henry (Geldzhaler) who gave me the idea to start the Death and Disaster Series,” Warhol recalled. “We were having lunch one day in summer and... and he laid the Daily News on the table. The headline was ‘129 Die in Jet.’ And that’s what started me on the death series—the Car Crashes, the Disasters, the Electric Chairs.”7 In a famous interview with Gene Swenson in 1963, Warhol further elaborated on the nullifying effects of the media on the subject of death:

  • 8 Swenson, “What is Pop Art?” 235.

I guess it was the big plane crash picture. The front page of a newspaper: 129 DIE. I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or Labor Day—a holiday—and every time you turned on the radio they said something like “4 million are going to die.” That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.8

  • 9 See Thomas Crow, “Saturday Disaster: Trace and Referent in Early Warhol,” and Hal Foster, “Death i (...)
  • 10 Crow, “Saturday Disaster,” in Andy Warhol: OCTOBER Files.

13This quote has provided much grist for the Warholian mill. The two most important readings of the Death and Disaster Series more generally—by Thomas Crow and Hal Foster—variously debate the role of this “blankness” with respect to Warhol’s morbid obsessions.9 Is this a slyly subversive means to sneak a political message into the work stripped bare of affect, or is it a psychically charged response to the traumas of media? Crow’s essay prizes an iconographic reading of the chairs as a veiled critique of commodity culture. “The thesis of the present essay,” he argues, “is that Warhol, though he grounded his art in the ubiquity of the packaged commodity, produced his most powerful work by dramatizing the breakdown of commodity exchange.”10 Crow sees this “breakdown of commodity exchange” in the ways in which the Marilyn pictures situate celebrity as a commodity in its own right. The representation of Marilyn, who had recently committed suicide, he argues, is one such allegory of a failed commodity as are Warhol’s “car crashes”. Crow’s Warhol is a necessarily political Warhol, whose stance is conditioned by the “reality of suffering and death” in the content of the phenomena depicted.

14For his part, Foster identifies two trains in the reading of Warhol— the simulacral Warhol, for whom his critics opine that it’s all about the emptiness of the signifier, and the referential and even humanistic Warhol described by Crow. Foster argues for the necessity of mediating those positions, but he wants to do so through the affective dimensions of what he calls Warhol’s “traumatic realism.” He treats the Warholian subject as neither blank nor iconographic so much as the bearer of shock: shock in the face of a new media republic. For shock is that immanently modern condition by which the subject psychically insulates itself against the repeated stresses of urban life; and for obvious, even literal reasons, its evocation here might well apply to media representations of the electric chair. It was, of course, Walter Benjamin, taking his cue from Freud, who famously theorized the condition of shock in his account of Baudelaire’s Paris. Shock was what enabled the modern subject to survive the overstimulation of the new urban spectacle. Foster takes recourse to this theory via Jacques Lacan to understand Warhol’s repetitions in the Death and Disaster series as necessarily traumatic: as an effort to master and work through the endless experience of a public sphere gone pathological for its media excesses.

15In short, Crow argues for Warhol as an engaged and critical spectator of commodity culture, whereas Foster means to recode the familiar notion of Warholian blankness to the psychic economy of shock. Here, I want to preserve some place for blankness in this work. But it’s neither Warhol’s studied air of disaffection that engages me nor the work’s putatively simulacral dimensions as much as the work’s functioning as a kind of blind spot. In the language of psychoanalysis, the notion of scotomization, of that blanked out as a defence mechanism against specifically traumatic events, comes close to Foster’s reading of shock and the erasures it produces in Warhol’s work. What is blanked out in this image is more than a matter of dissociation on the part of the viewer, however. What is blanked out is the figuration of power on the part of the chair’s maker.

16To this end consider Gerard Malanga’s view of the electric chairs. On the occasion of one of the first group showings of Warhol’s Little Electric Chairs, a diminutive offshoot of the originals, the long-faithful factory worker narrates a trip he took with Warhol to Canada in 1965. He writes of taking an overnight train to Toronto and he is, like the proper Warholian subject, properly bored. He speaks of awakening, confused and out of sorts, the next morning in Buffalo, where the train has momentarily stopped and the conductor has alerted them that the border is fast approaching. Is it just one of those unfortunate coincidences of geography and history that the idea for the Electric Chair was first proposed in Buffalo; that in the 19th century, Buffalo was known as “the Electric City of the future” and the base of George Westinghouse’s operations; that the assassin of President McKinley, in Buffalo, would later fall victim to the electric chair? Whatever the case, Malanga’s recollections indulge the usual factory anomie. He recalls,

On March 18, 1965, Andy and I embarked on the New York Central departing Grand Central Terminal around 4 pm. We sat across the aisle from each other immersed in Vogue and Bazaar and the New York Times, killing time as it were.... Neither of us had ever been to Toronto before, so we didn’t know what to expect, simply not knowing anyone there who could show us around....

  • 11 Peter Halley and Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol: Little Electric Chair Paintings (New York: Stellan H (...)

Imagine the premiere of Andy’s Electric Chair paintings in Toronto! Electric Chairs assembled four up and six across or am I just making this up? It could be an entirely different installation altogether. Each painting seemed identical, yet no two were really alike. Every color imaginable. I remember, then, while slowly looking at them, Andy’s remark how adding pretty colors to a picture as gruesome as this would change people’s perceptions of acceptance. Suddenly the space of the room cancels everything else out. The chair is no longer a weapon and it’s not the chair anymore....11

17The passage is unremarkable in its elaboration of all the standard Warholian motifs: the sense of boredom momentarily relieved by a glossy magazine, the dim recollections of a recent event, a feeling of alienation brought on by an unfamiliar place, the killing of time. But Malanga lets drops some pointed observations. He speaks to the way in which the room “cancels everything else out”. To repeat his words, “The chair is no longer a weapon and it’s not the chair anymore.” If the chair is no longer a weapon and it’s not a chair anymore, what it is it? And to what does this act of cancelling refer?

18No doubt, you could answer this question in myriad ways—Warhol, after all, is the undecidable artist par excellence—but we might start with the most literal form of cancellation in Warhol’s technical arsenal, and that is his selection (and thus de facto editorializing) of images (Figure 3). In 1953, the World-Wide Photo Agency was distributing this picture of Sing Sing’s death chair; it was the year of the most infamous execution by the chair of all time, that of accused Soviet spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Warhol used a photograph that, while widely circulated, volunteered little in the way of that event, and he pressed it repeatedly into the service of availing progressively less and less information (Figure 4). In Silver Disaster of 1964, for example, not only does he double the image of that chair in the tinselled hues of the silver screen, a reading further suggested by the vertical stacking of its repeated frames, but he has also positioned them against a vast monochrome panel, equal parts hard edge painting and television monitor. Notably, Warhol introduced this format with the electric chairs. He referred to these panels as “blanks.” Later we will have occasion to reflect on this image in order to question its visibility, not to mention its strangely prophetic implications today.

  • 12 On the “theater of power” and the performative dimensions of the work, see Peggy Phelan, “Andy War (...)
  • 13 On this paradox, see Austin Sarat, When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condi (...)

19Indeed, when sorting through the sparse archive of electric chair images, one glimpses an alternative view of its representation from Warhol’s, acknowledging the presence of a viewer in the proceedings themselves (Figure 5). This picture, for instance, grants us a perspective on the scene that suggests having a perspective is even possible, offering a point of negative identification made that much more brutal by the prisoner’s inability to return the gaze. As the image shows, the electric chair is stationed across from a seat of witnessing: a pew in the church of state power. If the sign that reads “silence” effectively quiets any communication, the chair confronting the instrument of capital punishment dramatizes the cruel—and covert—theatre about to unfold.12 When taken together with Warhol’s electric chair, the two propose a blunt dialectic underwriting the visual mechanisms of state authority. In short: the chair must be seen as a figure of that authority, as that which both punishes those outside the law and instructs those functioning within the law. Yet, as we will discover, the chair cannot be too visible “to a public witness enlisted to support its deterrent power.”13 My claim is that Warhol’s chair—and its relation to the other images in the Death and Disaster Series—highlights, if blankly, the gradual withdrawal of sovereign visibility within the culture of spectacle over which it reigns. In contrast to the rash of morbid bodies populating his other death and disaster works, not to mention the commodity and celebrity culture colonizing his art in general, here Warhol presents the visual figuration of the state of exception. He bids us to witness the privatization of public death at the historical moment of the information society’s ascendance. Crucially he does so through an especially spectacular medium— the electric chair—whose very history turns around this grotesque intertwining.

II

  • 14 On this history in the modern period, an important account is Pieter Spierenburg, The Spectacle of (...)
  • 15 See Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: Essays (New Y (...)
  • 16 See Spierenburg, Spectacle of Suffering.
  • 17 See Branden Joseph, “Nothing Special: Andy Warhol and the Rise of Surveillance,” in CTRL [Space]: (...)
  • 18 Jennifer Gonnerman, “The Last Executioner,” Village Voice, January 24, 2005.

20Just how Warhol’s work might do so demands recourse to a longer tradition, of which the chair’s conflicted origins serve notice. As long as there has been capital punishment—as long as there has existed a social relation, in other words—the visibility of execution has been critical to both the ideology of deterrence and the politics of the power of state authority over bare life.14 “The public execution,” Foucault wrote, “has a juridico-political function. It is a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is reconstituted. It restores sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular.... Not only must the people know, they must see with their own eyes.” In 1791, a French revolutionary put it more bluntly: “It takes a terrifying spectacle to hold the people in check.”15 The public execution was indeed conceived of a spectacle far in advance of Guy Debord. How strange, and yet appropriate, that the word “gala,” with its ring of festivals and mass entertainments, is etymological cousin to the word “gallows”; and how fitting that early modern accounts of these events lavishly detail the carnivalesque passions flooding their witnesses.16 Of course Foucault also taught us, through the example of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, that modern technologies of surveillance shifted the nature of these modes of social control. The Panopticon was a new form of prison architecture, in which the warden remained concealed from view in his central watchtower, and as such the prisoner remained uncertain as to whether he was being watched. In the prisoner’s state of perpetual unknowing, in which he checks his every behaviour for fear of reprisal from the state, the Panopticon shores up a new model of control, that of the self policing the self. Something slightly different happens with Warhol’s death chair imaginary, however, even as the role of surveillance technology plays no small role in his practice.17 For the representation of the chair admits neither to a sovereign agent nor to a victim nor to the presence of an audience over which it holds sway. Critics of the chair have argued that “maintaining public support for the death penalty has long depended on keeping the act of killing prisoners private.”18 It is this tension that Warhol’s work so hauntingly exploits, its air of blankness configuring a double logic of what I’ve called both self-censorship and self-publicity.

  • 19 On Kemmler’s execution and its implications for the body, see Tim Armstrong, “The Electrifiction o (...)
  • 20 See Madow 462–556.

21That double logic was there from the chair’s 19th-century beginnings. From its brilliantly botched debut in 1890, when one William Kemmler became its first pathetic victim at New York’s Auburn Prison, rancorous debate turned around its relative visibility.19 The history of the chair, one can go so far as to say, is the history of its place both within and in excess of the media, a position befitting the chief instrument of the state of exception. For the symbolization of the chair’s exemplary power must be—in an inescapably violent formulation—politely expressed. In the 1830s in the United States, the progressive withdrawal of public executions began, from public streets and squares to prison courtyards to within the walls of the prisons themselves.20 The transformation of death work technology in the United States followed suit. From the gallows to firing squads to the chair—which for most scholars represents its principle modern iteration—its operations became increasingly tidy, bureaucratized, and medicalized. The techno-rationalization of capital punishment coincided with the event becoming less visible to the public. Emblematic of that shift, its witnesses became less present, and represented, as well (Figure 6). Significantly, when representations of the chair do include the presence of a witness, they usually picture an event at some distance from the polite speech associated with conventional state authority. On the one hand, as demonstrated by this rendering of Kemmler’s execution, the visual rhetoric is sensationalistic: the illustrator has attempted to capture something of the chaos—and, inadvertently, lawlessness—that pervades the scene. If, on the other hand, the images portray the scene of witnessing but are not used to sponsor an abolitionist program, the prisoners largely represented are African-American, telegraphing the racist ideologies that are at the base of the chair’s indiscriminate application against black citizens.

22This perverse visual economy underscores the chair’s deeply embattled status between public displays of power and its increasingly private (or rather secreted) interests, a relation for which the media is not just ancillary but formative. It must be stressed that this is a history that Warhol’s images do not and cannot literally describe. Its absence of any historical referent in his work—its lack of narrative content—is to the point: it is why I emphasize a certain kind of blankness in my reading at the expense of iconography. For there can be no useful iconography to decode without a store of representations, no buried history to uncover without clues or a paper trail. The chair’s pre-Warholian history endlessly confirms that alternation between privacy and publicity.

  • 21 On this history, see Craig Brandon, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History (Jefferson, (...)

23This is a story undoubtedly familiar to many, and one that I can only gloss over in this context. And yet the constellation of figures and phenomena it involves speaks volumes to the issues Warhol’s work will raise. In the 1880s, the New York State Gerry Commission was formed to investigate the possibilities of creating a new and more humane means of capital punishment.21 Several recent botched hangings had proved “distasteful” to their official witnesses, walking that precarious line drawn by the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. Hence the potential to exploit the new medium of electricity to affect a quick and painless death was considered. The motivations, it turns out, were not purely humanitarian but rather far more complex. In 1882, Thomas Edison had begun the electrification of New York City; four years later, George Westinghouse turned Buffalo into the “Electric City of the Future.” Whereas Edison used direct current (DC), Westinghouse sponsored the introduction of alternating current (AC) in the United States, which was soon acclaimed as the superior medium—cheaper and more efficient and capable of being transmitted over greater distances. As a result, Edison stood to lose big in the public utilities game, and so the great American inventor did what any upstanding capitalist would do: he went on a smear campaign attacking alternating current as especially dangerous. Thus one of the era’s most infamous media spectacles was born.

  • 22 On the temporality of these two Edison films, see Mary Ann Doane, “Dead Time: The Cinematic Event, (...)

24In this regard, Edison had a particular, if covert, ally in Harold Brown, who developed numerous prototypes for the electric chair. Both he and Brown mounted an increasingly visible program to discredit widespread public use of alternating current. Brown wrote numerous papers and tracts speaking to the brute power of the other inventor’s medium, which he deemed “the electrifying current.” The two conducted sideshow-like demonstrations in which they electrocuted animals with alternating current in front of slack-jawed audiences of scientists and lay people alike. Dogs, horses, cows, and even an elephant were felled in this electrified spectacle–cum–negative advertisement, a kind of death circus in the culture of Gilded Age invention. Indeed the filmed “execution” of an elephant—and the dramatic re-enactment of a presidential assassin— would prove startlingly popular as actualities.22 Edison would go on to argue that the electric chair provided a quick and painless death, but only if alternating current was used. The strategy was transparent: he was attempting to render AC equivalent with death in the minds of potential consumers—that is to say, readers of media outlets, including the NY Post, Scientific American, and the New York Times.

  • 23 See “Witness to an Execution,” Robert Johnson, Death Work: A Study of the Modern Execution Process(...)

25The war intensified to the point where Brown called for a public duel; a law suit was brought forward by Westinghouse, and Edison ultimately achieved his goal by having Kemler electrocuted by alternating current. (“Westinghoused,” he called it.) In my necessarily brief take on this history, I mean to stress the contradictions attending the invention of the electric chair as a media instrument falling somewhere between public and private spheres of influence. And this is in keeping with even more outrageous recent controversies. The tradition of having official witnesses present at an execution remains law in the thirty-six states maintaining capital punishment; on average, states require somewhere between six and twelve witnesses representing a cross-section of state citizenry. A few from the media, a few from law enforcement, and a few professionals attend these events23 (Figure 6). As this document shows, however, there is no shortage of individuals who desire to take part in this atrocity exhibition, whether out of a sense of vengeance or in the interest of the state’s accountability. In its dialogue with other forms of capitalist spectacle—mass entertainment and the celebrity culture of the 1960s— Warhol’s work points to one of the most charged debates surrounding death by the electric chair: the potential for the act to be transmitted through photography, film, and finally television.

  • 24 On debates regarding the broadcasting of executions on television, see Sarat 205.
  • 25 Camus 181.

26A long history of this controversy occurred well in advance of Warhol (Figure 7). This horrific and illegal image of Ruth Snyder’s 1928 execution, taken in the death chamber by a reporter with a hidden camera, appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News and caused such an uproar that the protocol for witnessing state executions was changed as a result. In 1957, Albert Camus wrote on capital punishment in terms that resonate well with Warhol, foreshadowing current debates about public executions on pay-per-view cable, the Net, talk shows, and closed-circuit television24: “If the penalty is intended to be exemplary,” Camus challenged, “then not only should the photographs be multiplied... but the entire population should be invited and the ceremony should be put on television for those who couldn’t attend.”25 A staunch opponent of capital punishment, Camus uses this reasoning to unmask the central paradox of state-sponsored executions: while it is authorized in the name of the public good, it can only function out of sight of the public sphere.

Figure 7 Ruth Snyder, photographed by Tom Howard at the moment of her electrocution at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, January 12, 1928

III

27In bringing these concerns to bear on the Disaster series, the following question remains: What exactly can we see? To claim, as I have, that the chair figures the state of exception means we have to grapple with what is visually exceptional about it. As Foster notes in his discussion of Warhol, the classic imagery of the sovereign is organized around a unified body politic, which centralizes, subsumes, and ultimately subordinates a mass of individuals into the totemic profile of the Leviathan. A democratic sovereignty is an infinitely more fragile thing, far more difficult to represent, because it is constituted not around the one but the many. Its prevailing fiction is that we are all integrated in the mechanisms of state power, which logically suggests we are encoded in its visual representations.

  • 26 Printz 205.

28Yet Warhol’s electric chairs give the lie to this conceit, and they do so by his steady manipulation of the image. Take, for instance, the formal repetitions that form the bedrock of his practice and the way in which they position state power in these works on the cusp of visibility. The electric chairs are organized around the same structural device as other pictures in the “Death and Disaster” series: and in their seriality, their on-and-on-ness, they attest to the formative power of repetition within a media culture. But reproducibility, in this case, is not the same thing as visibility, and repetition, as Deleuze painstakingly reminded us, is no guarantor of either identity or sameness. “You get the same image but slightly different each time,” Warhol remarked of his production, and in this simple statement lies the complexity of the electric chair’s visual program.26 (Figure 8) The repetition of the chair does not so much consolidate its force as a visual icon, a unified and singular thing, as much as it describes its virtual dispersal. Warhol’s particular figure/ground reversals, in tandem with these serial effects, are marshalled in the service of disaggregating the image. There is, I want to say, a strikingly aniconic tendency at work here. As the repetition produces a kind of visual stutter from one frame to the next, with Warhol’s brilliantly saturated grounds overwhelming the chair’s figuration in black, the work becomes progressively abstract and allover in quality. Paradoxically, as a result of this alloverness, the image cannot be confronted head on. The oblique angle at which the chair is set is underscored by the repetition of the frames; and this in turn produces a subtle sloping motion, directing the viewer’s attention less to the centre of the picture plane than off screen, as it were.

  • 27 Printz 331.

29In a number of other works from the series, including Silver Disaster, discussed earlier, this perspective is exploded to monumental scale, with the chair rendered even more marginal to the larger composition. In large part this is because Warhol introduced his “blanks” with the Electric Chairs. These “blanks”—large monochrome panels of the same color— function to offset our relationship to the images viewed. Notice that that placement of the blanks never works to bisect the larger composition evenly; Warhol is not providing us with a binocular perspective, or giving equal visual weight to each element in the diptych, but decentralizes our larger reception of the image as a whole. In 1964, when the series was first shown in Paris, a critic could write of the blue version of this novel composition: “Warhol juxtaposes a monochrome panel with the painting in the same blue.... The color signals the crime of an absence, become empty, become dead, become the systematic annulment of life. Such a diptych accents the expression of anguish with a moment of truth lived in the absolute.”27 Though such existential turns of phrase are of limited use here, the critic well addresses something of the nullity of the image: it is the nullity of life at the edge of death. And yet the color of Silver Disaster in particular inflects our current reading somewhat differently. We should note that Warhol used silver for the first time with the electric chair series, as he also did the blanks. The authors of Warhol’s catalogue write that the color suggests cold metal, conduction, associations that work plainly enough with the chair. But in a manner that may have little to do with his intentional design, it seems fitting that the greater part of this field is also the space of a blank screen, like a monitor absorbing and thus pulling at the share of the spectator’s attention, or a mirror withholding the image of the viewer it is supposed to reflect. In either case, vision is partially and tendentiously blocked.

30In a regime in which pictures of celebrity and commodities routinely trump meditations on politics, the sovereign’s prerogative is to remain outside visual mediation. Warhol will obliquely point to this place with his electric chairs. Let me emphasize, though, that this is not simply a politics of simulations—of the roaring emptiness of the signifier—so much as it underscores the deeply material consequences of that which stands in excess of such images, or, to follow Agamben, is exceptional to it. To close, I want to dramatize the continuing relevance of the larger issue the electric chairs articulates (Figures 9). Here, then, we might compare two images that are at once horribly familiar and yet hardly familiar enough. Sometime in the late summer of 2004, the poster based on the photograph appeared in the New York subway system and elsewhere. Its crisply buoyant design and jaunty colors were an explicitly negative homage to the Apple Universe and its endless relay between media images and media props. From where I’m sitting, though, the poster brings Warhol’s lessons catastrophically up to date. A shadow figure of Abu Ghraib appears as a kind of blind-spot persona—a phantom blankness—stamped out from the very fabric of commodity culture, an advertisement. In turn that blankness is seized by an electrical current, a potential or deterrent threat, itself held out of sight. In the poster’s appeal to the iPod’s ubiquity, it radically collapses the public language of private capital with the ever more cryptic scene of state authority. And like the “Electric Chairs” before it, it reveals the ways in which an electrified body, a tortured body, is drafted by media in the paradoxically invisible spectacle of sovereign power.

Bibliographie

Bibliography

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA : Meridian Press, Stanford University, 1998.

Armstrong, Tim. “The Electrifiction of the Body at the Turn of the Century,” Textual Practice 5.3 (Winter 1991): 303–325.

Brandon, Craig. The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc., 1999.

Camus, Albert. “Reflections on the Guillotine,” in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: Essays. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Crow, Thomas. “Saturday Disaster: Trace and Referent in Early Warhol,” reprinted in Andy Warhol: OCTOBER Files, Annette Michelson, ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

Doane, Mary Ann. “Dead Time: The Cinematic Event,” in The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency: The Archive. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Foster, Hal. “Death in America,” reprinted in Andy Warhol: OCTOBER Files, Annette Michelson, ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Printz, Neil, and George Frei, eds. The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné. London: Phaidon, 2002.

George Schwabb, “Preface,” in Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political, translation, introduction, and notes by George Schwabb. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Gonnerman, Jennifer. “The Last Executioner,” Village Voice, January 24, 2005.

Halley, Peter, and Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol: Little Electric Chair Paintings. New York: Stellan Holm Galleries, 2002.

Johnson, Robert. “Witness to an Execution,” in Death Work: A Study of the Modern Execution Process. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing, 1998.

Joseph, Branden. “Nothing Special: Andy Warhol and the Rise of Surveillance,” in CTRL [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, Thomas Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.

Madow, Michael. “Forbidden Spectacle: Executions, the Public, and the Press in 19th-Century New York,” Buffalo Law Review 43 (1995): 462–556.

Phelan, Peggy. “Andy Warhol: Performances of Death in America,” in Performing the Body/Performing the Text, Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson, eds. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Sarat, Austin. When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political, translation, introduction, and notes by George Schwabb. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Spierenburg, Pieter. The Spectacle of Suffering: Executions and the Evolution of Repression: From a Preindustrial Metropolis to the European Experience. London: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Swenson, G.R. “What is Pop Art? Interview by G.R. Swenson,” Artnews 62, no. 7 (November 1963): 206.

Notes de fin

1 This text, given as the keynote address for the CRI conference on electricity, represents an abbreviated version of a longer work in progress on problems of power and the media in contemporary art. In it I have drawn on several passages, particularly those on Agamben and Carl Schmitt, which have also found their way into my other research on this topic, as in “My Enemy/My Friend,” Grey Room 24 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006). I am grateful to the organizers of the conference for the invitation to present and publish this material. Special thanks are due to Anne Lardeux.

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1990) 142.

2 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA : Meridian Press, Stanford University, 1998) 4.

3 Agamben 120.

4 Agamben 15.

5 Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, translation, introduction, and notes by George Schwabb (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 27.

6 George Schwabb, “Preface,” in Schmitt xxii.

7 Warhol quoted in The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, George Frei and Neil Printz, ed. (London: Phaidon, 2002) 181.

8 Swenson, “What is Pop Art?” 235.

9 See Thomas Crow, “Saturday Disaster: Trace and Referent in Early Warhol,” and Hal Foster, “Death in America,” reprinted in Andy Warhol: OCTOBER Files, Annette Michelson, ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001).

10 Crow, “Saturday Disaster,” in Andy Warhol: OCTOBER Files.

11 Peter Halley and Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol: Little Electric Chair Paintings (New York: Stellan Holm Galleries, 2002) 8.

12 On the “theater of power” and the performative dimensions of the work, see Peggy Phelan, “Andy Warhol: Performances of Death in America,” in Performing the Body/Performing the Text, Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1999) 223–236.

13 On this paradox, see Austin Sarat, When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) 205. As Sarat notes, “The public is always present at an execution. It is present as a juridical fiction.”

14 On this history in the modern period, an important account is Pieter Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering: Executions and the Evolution of Repression: From a Preindustrial Metropolis to the European Experience (London: Cambridge University Press, 1984). Also see the extremely useful review essay on this debate within the 19th-century American context by Michael Madow, “Forbidden Spectacle: Executions, the Public, and the Press in 19th-Century New York,” Buffalo Law Review 43 (1995): 462–556. Madow outlines the three arguments for why public executions progressively withdrew from public spectacle from the early 19th century forward. “Until recently,” he writes, “historians tended to read this sweeping transformation of penal practice as a simple and inspiring narrative of ‘progress and reform’” (Madow 492). Referred to as the “Whigghish” account, the changes in public executions in the late 18th to mid-19th century were seen as an achievement of reason over barbarism: writing by Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, among others, were mobilized to suggest a growing outcry against the public spectacle of punishment. Madow sees the work of Foucault and other scholars as representing an important rejoinder to this reading: it is social control, and not any ostensible shift in morality or ethics, that underlies the changes in penal technology in the modern period. Finally, the third wave of interpretations (as represented by historians such as Spierenburg) challenge the Foucauldean reading in considering class-based sensitivities to capital punishment and their public spectacles.

15 See Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: Essays (New York: Vintage, 1995) 181.

16 See Spierenburg, Spectacle of Suffering.

17 See Branden Joseph, “Nothing Special: Andy Warhol and the Rise of Surveillance,” in CTRL [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, Thomas Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel, eds. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002) 236–252.

18 Jennifer Gonnerman, “The Last Executioner,” Village Voice, January 24, 2005.

19 On Kemmler’s execution and its implications for the body, see Tim Armstrong, “The Electrifiction of the Body at the Turn of the Century,” Textual Practice 5.3 (Winter 1991): 303–325.

20 See Madow 462–556.

21 On this history, see Craig Brandon, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc., 1999).

22 On the temporality of these two Edison films, see Mary Ann Doane, “Dead Time: The Cinematic Event,” The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency: The Archive (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).

23 See “Witness to an Execution,” Robert Johnson, Death Work: A Study of the Modern Execution Process, (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing, 1998) 169–175.

24 On debates regarding the broadcasting of executions on television, see Sarat 205.

25 Camus 181.

26 Printz 205.

27 Printz 331.

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