Every episode except the pilot of the wonderful and troubling TV show Burn Notice begins with this image:
Burn Notice was created by Matt Nix and stars Jeffrey Donovan as a spy who has been excommunicated — "burned" — from the CIA and is trying to get back in. The deciders at the CIA have ousted Donovan's character, Michael Westen, who worked freelance for them, because they've been led to believe he has done something bad, not regular spy bad but, presumably, against-America's-national-interests bad. They have frozen Westen's accounts, revoked his passport, and banished him to Miami. The short arc of each episode of Burn Notice consists of him helping some innocent who's being threatened by a gang or has been bilked by a con man or whose child has been kidnapped by a bad guy (the terms good guy and bad guy come up a lot in the Manichean world of this show). To do this he draws upon his prodigious spy skills and inexhaustible resourcefulness. The long arc of each season of Burn Notice consists of Westen's efforts to get himself back in the CIA's good graces.
In keeping with this week's informal theme of looking and reading, let's scrutinize the screen grab above. We see, in the center of the frame, a white man wearing dark sunglasses and a sleek gray suit of probably American or European origin. He's looking at his watch, which means, in the language of bodily gestures, that he's waiting for somebody. (
Which puts me in mind of a book by the philosopher and social theorist Judith Butler Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, in which she argues, among other things, that cameras can be used as instruments of warfare — that they can reinforce a set of values wherein some lives are less recognizable as lives than others, and therefore more expendable. "The frame does not simply exhibit reality, but actively participates in a strategy of containment, selectively producing and enforcing what will count as reality." This means that the image above assists in creating what Butler calls "the differential distribution of grievability upon which war depends." Knowing that Michael Westen was in Nigeria in that scene, and that his $750,000 payoff to a "warlord" to protect a local refinery "went south," doesn't decrease the interchangeability of the people in the opening montage of Burn Notice whose function is to establish the foreign ground where Westen was performing the spy activities from which he has since been banished.
Butler also says, "[T]he frame is always throwing something away, always keeping something out, always de-realizing and de-legitimizing alternative versions of reality, discarded negatives of the official version....When versions of reality are excluded or jettisoned to a domain of unreality, then specters are produced that haunt the ratified version of reality, animated and de-ratifying traces."
Specters. What do they look like? Maybe like this:
This is from somewhere deep into the, I think, second season of the show. Michael needs some kind of serviceman's uniform to allow him to slip past the security in a highly securitized building where he is going to steal something or find out something relevant to one of his noble missions that constitute the plots of this show. (And if I sound arch in that last sentence and any other sentences in today's guest blog it's probably because
I didn't pause the episode on this fleeting facial expression because I noticed it; I noticed it because I paused it, probably to go get a snack or something. I don't know whether the actor Jeffrey Donovan intended to show us this face or it just happened. In my reading or fantasy of this face, I regard it not just as the psychological effect of a dead mean dad, but also as an instance of the kind of specter Judith Butler is talking about above. Here is a man who so fervently believes that there is no better use for his particular set of skills and talents than spying on behalf of the U.S. government that he is willing to risk his life repeatedly to be able to do so even when said government — Michael's surrogate abusive father — doesn't want him to. For him to perform well in a self-appointed job that requires lightning reflexes and unwavering concentration, he can't risk much conscious contemplation of the moral ambiguity of what he's doing. He won't last very long as a spy or would-be spy if he considers too deeply that the Nigerian oil industry he's making a payoff to sustain benefits the multinational oil corporations and a few Nigerian officials while causing tremendous suffering to a large portion of the Nigerian populous in the form of massive oil spills, bloody turf wars, and violent political repression — that his payoff may well exacerbate the "unstable," "corrupt" environment he finds southern Nigeria to be. But Michael is a smart guy. In some part of his soul he must contemplate that whatever good it may be doing, this vocational path he has chosen out of a mix of psychological need and patriotic duty also causes harm to a lot of people. And therein lies the sorrow of Michael Westen.
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Books mentioned in this post
Matthew Sharpe is the author of You Were Wrong