"Destiny" is the Articulation of Class Power

Rob Wilkie


At first glance, Annie Leibovitz's photo-essay of U.S. President George W. Bush and his cabinet—"War and Destiny: Historic Portraits of the White House in Wartime" (Vanity Fair, February 2002)—is a "straightforward" and "no-nonsense" presentation of the Bush administration and its "war effort." The combination of the conservative portraiture of Leibovitz and an essay by former republican speechwriter Christopher Buckley seems to put forward the political agenda of Bush's presidency in clear and certain terms that are obvious and acceptable to all thinking persons.

Yet, the almost "hyper-obviousness" of the photo-essay—the way in which it presents the authority of the Bush administration as a simple matter of "destiny"—is far from straightforward about the actual interests of the war. By privileging simple images over complex analysis, the photo-essay erases the relationship between the record increase in military spending for the "unending" war on "evil" called for by the Bush administration and their proposal for the federal budget which is built upon cuts to health care insurance programs for low-income children, cuts to federal reimbursements to public hospitals, cuts to funding for clean water and other environmental programs, cuts to funding for education and job programs for the poor, the spending of funds set aside for Medicaid and Social Security, and the further eradication of welfare.[1] Political "simplicity," in other words, has become another way to present the social inequalities and class interests behind the Bush administration and the war as unchangeable and in the general interests of all.

Leibovitz's photographs, despite the various "styles"—group portraits, black and white photographs, "action" shots, and photographs that reveal their own apparatus—are linked by the appeal to a "simple" knowledge of the world and the attempt to expose the (unquestionable) "truth" behind the image. The photographs in the essay establish the "neutrality" of representation, and thus their political effectivity, through the "simplicity" and "spontaneity" of the image itself. Take, for example, the fact that in the cover photograph, which is intended to establish the seriousness of Bush and his cabinet as the rightful representatives of America in wartime (symbolized in the presidential seal belt buckle that Bush is "casually" displaying) we are able to see a quite visible band-aid on the thumb of the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. What would ordinarily be "hidden" in such a "historic" photograph—the closest members of the president's cabinet in a moment of war—is here left as a marker of the photo's "realism." The appearance of a moment of "weakness" signifies to the reader that what they are witnessing is without editing and beyond interpretation; a sign of "injury" meant to signify the "real-ness" of the Bush administration.

It is the appeal to "truth" beyond interpretation that is reproduced in the black and white photographs of the faces of George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld taken in extreme close-up. While, the use of black and white film evokes "seriousness" and "artistic" intensions, it also is meant to focus the viewer on details of form that are normally lost in color photographs. By reducing the "complexity" of the visual frame to the shades of two colors, the focus is shifted to the study of the immediacy of the face. In this sense, the "face" becomes a substitute for the politics behind the "face".  This kind of "deep superficiality"—the focus on the surface details of political "personalities" over the root social conditions that determine the quality of life for the majority of people—is symptomatic of a substitution of simplicity over conceptuality. It represents the erasure of analysis of why violent social conflicts are the consequence of a society divided into haves and have-nots in favor of what New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt celebrates as the act of "wonder":  the practice of close reading in order to find the "dark specificity" of an event and, more deeply, the "unspeakable but spoken rupture of human relatedness" (13). What connects Greenblatt's theory of an underlying "human relatedness" and the theory of "destiny" put forward in the photo-essay, and what makes both such effective modes of reading for the ruling class is that they present ideas and, more importantly, the social relations they reflect, as transcendental, and thus beyond critique and transformation. In "studying" these photos, the reader is meant to compare the faces with their face, with the faces of people they know, to examine the lines and wrinkles and blemishes, and to "see," despite the differences, an underlying "essence". In other words, the reader is meant to forget that, for example, the proposals of the Bush administration effectively eliminate the ability of thousands of working people to attend school, and instead find some inner "human" connection that exceeds politics. Like the band-aid on Rumsfeld's thumb in the cover photo, the blemishes on the faces of those in power is intended to portray a commonality that exceeds social division and provides a third space of "alliance" between the competing social, political and economic interests of those whose power comes from the exploitation of labor and those whose labor is exploited.

Although they "break" the "deep superficiality" of the portraits by foregrounding their constructedness, it is towards the erasure of history and the reduction of knowledge to the "simple" that the more "postmodern" photographs also work. The photos of Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft—in which one sees not only the subject of the photo, but also the background, the lights, and an FBI agent standing by the Attorney General—are meant to represent a complete "unconstructedness." Like the "close-ups" in which the "naturalness" of the images is meant to come through the complexity of the subject's face, here the "naturalness" is a product of the way in which the images do not "hide" their construction, as if to say there is nothing behind the image. There is not, in other words, a contradiction between the more "postmodern" photographs which reveal the photographic apparatus, and the more "conservative" portraits. In the way that the black and white photographs reduce the scope of knowledge to the immediacy of the "face"—the substitution of the personal for the social—the ability of these photographs to get "behind the scenes" covers over the way in which Ashcroft and Ridge are the representatives of the Bush administration's attack on democratic rights.  In substituting "intimacy" and a feeling of "being there" for an engagement with the policies that Ashcroft and Ridge enforce—the USA Patriot act, for example, which allows the government to monitor email and phone conversations and to demand private education and health records without a warrant—the intention is to position the reader to identify with the administration that is substituting corporate politics for democracy.

It is not surprising that the Bush administration, one of the most secretive administrations in U.S. history, has chosen the photo-essay as the primary means of its "getting its message" to the public.[2] The appeal to photography as a medium of "truth" is very much tied to the mystical idea of "destiny" and it is in this sense that—in a post-print, post-conceptual climate—the image has come to dominate contemporary culture. Perhaps more than any other media, the seeming ability to capture a moment in time in what appears to be a mirror image of reality has produced the commonly held idea that photography is a "spontaneous" (and thus ideologically "neutral") reflection of the way things really are. It is, in other words, assumed to be the nature of photography that it exists as a neutral reporter of the facts, rather than a shaper of the way in which events are perceived. This separation of events from their class interest is, however, precisely the function of ideology; to mystify social relations by presenting history as an incommensurable series of spontaneous occurrences—history as a series of snap-shots. Regardless, however, of whether it is a family portrait or an image of war casualties, photography is a social product and the way in which photographs are "read" is determined by material conditions.

It is, for example, the substitution of political simplicity over the complexities of a class analysis that are central to the essay by Christopher Buckley that is meant to provide an opening frame to the photographs and to give readers a way to "make sense" of the representation. Buckley writes that Bush is a straightforward president who "does not lie awake at night pounding his pillow, anguishing over collateral damage, or trying to figure out WHY THEY HATE US, or dwelling on the nature of evil" (85). On the contrary, Buckley declares that Bush "knows one thing rather than many little things," and has a tendency to use "that kind of strong, simple language, intolerable to the pointy headed" (84). In opposing Bush's simple-mindedness to Clinton's intelligence, Buckley concludes by ("playfully") asking the reader whether "complexity of mind [is] an asset or a liability in a commander in chief?" (85). What Buckley's essay promotes is the idea that if concern about the killing of civilians in Afghanistan or analyzing the conditions which have led to the wealthiest nation in the world bombing one of the poorest is too "complex" for the President of the United States, it is certainly above the abilities of the average reader. It is this politics of "simplicity"—which obscures the fact that it is not the poor women and men of Afghanistan but rather transnational corporations such as Unocal (an oil and gas company) that will benefit the most from the Bush administration's "war"[3]—that is central to the photo-essay's message. By reducing the scope of knowledge to the most "evident" and most "obvious," while erasing that "simplicity," "obviousness" and "evidence" are not "natural" but rather are site of class struggle over meaning, the photo-essay represents the ruling class interest in eliminating all challenges to status quo by locating its legitimacy as beyond ideology, beyond interpretation and beyond critique.

It is not accidental, given this logic, that the founding assumption of the essay is the existence of individual "destiny". It is the belief that history is a matter of "fate" and dramatic social events are merely the expression of an underlying "essence" in which people come to realize their "true" potential. In this sense, war is not a matter of who will control the social and economic resources of a region—it is, in other words, not a product of class society—but a predestined inevitability. Through the rhetoric of destiny, Bush's tenuous hold on the presidency before September 11th and the erosion of democracy that his regime represents becomes a "timeless" story of heroism and individual triumph.

It is in moments of crisis that those in power appeal to the concept of "destiny" to legitimate their rule and to situate all struggles for equality and social justice as "unnatural." The reduction of knowledge to "obviousness" and "simplicity" is part of a new American fundamentalism that operates in the interests of transnational capital to silence all those who oppose their interests. This is evident, for example, in the recent statements of Attorney General John Ashcroft that the Bush administration's "war on terrorism" is not a matter of politics, but of divine intention. "Civilized people—Muslims, Christians and Jews—all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator…Civilized people of all religious faiths are called to the defense of His creation. We are a nation called to defend freedom—a freedom that is not the grant of any government or document, but is our endowment from God" (Eggan A02). Ashcroft's location of the legitimacy of the U.S. military and political actions as an "endowment from God" and not beholden to any document (i.e. the U.S. Constitution or the documents of the Geneva conventions) is an attempt to ground the repressive interests of the Bush administration in a divine space that exceeds representation and is a matter of "faith" (acceptance) not interpretation (critique). Much like the message of the photo-essay, Ashcroft's statements say that the imprisonment of thousands of people because of their ethnicity, the attack on civil rights, the intimidation of all political dissent, and the cutting of social programs are not a matter of a growing division between the rich and the poor, but rather of divine providence (i.e. "destiny") that cannot be reduced to the concerns of those who struggle for economic and social justice since the actions of the Bush administration are ground in the laws of a "higher power."

This new fundamentalism is the necessary ideology for transnationalism in crisis. The connection between the empirical obviousness of the photo-essay and the fundamentalism of the Bush administration is that they brutally repress all opposition to the status quo and thus maintain the standing relations of power. The appeal to "destiny" as the mode of understanding the actions of the Bush administration produces a reader for whom social contradictions are merely the backdrop to the development of "great" individuals. It subtracts the fact that history is not made by individuals, but through the struggle of millions of people against oppression and exploitation. By representing history through the ideology of "fate," Annie Leibovitz's "War and Destiny" legitimates Bush's trampling on civil rights and cutting of social services by erasing the material consequences of his decisions on the lives of not only thousands of citizens in the United States but millions around the world. But the imprisonment of thousands of people based upon the color of their skin, the silencing and intimidation of all dissent, the cutting of social services that mean access to education and healthcare for the poor,...are not the product of "destiny." They are the practices of transnational capital for whom there are no rights that cannot be "sacrificed" to the interests of profit. While the editors of Vanity Fair herald Bush as a man of "destiny," it is clear upon examination of the consequences of the actions of the Bush administration that "destiny" is always written in the terms of those in power.

Works Cited: 

Buckley, Christopher and Annie Leibovitz. "War and Destiny: The White House in Wartime." Vanity Fair.  February 2002. 78-93. 

Eggen, Dan.  "Ashcroft Invokes Religion in U.S. War on Terrorism." Washington Post.  20 February 2002. A02.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Learning to Curse. New York: Routledge, 1990.


[1] Pianin, Eric. "Bush Budget About to Show its Darker Side." Washington Post. 3 February 2002. A1.

[2] It is not a coincidence that it was recently reported in The Times of India ("US planes rain dollars on Afghanistan" 2/14/02) that the United States has begun to drop envelopes containing one hundred dollar bills and a picture of George W. Bush on the people of Afghanistan as a means of reconciling the killing of innocent civilians in the U.S. bombings. In both the Vanity Fair article, as well in this instance, the image of Bush is intended to act as a "self-evident" cover over the brutality of his actual practices. 

[3] One of the first representatives named by the Bush administration to Afghanistan was Zalmay Khalilzad, a former Unocal advisor who negotiated with the Taliban for the rights to the large oil and gas deposits in Afghanistan ("New US envoy to Kabul lobbied for Taliban oil rights." The Guardian. 10 January 2002). It was also announced that one of the first acts of the new Afghanistan government was to assume responsibility for the massive debt owed to Western nations that was incurred by previous governments, an act that will only further increase the poverty of the people of Afghanistan and result in the massive sale of natural resources to transnational corporations in order to meet the $115 million (US) dollar annual interest payments. ("Debt Collection, Not Aid, Was the Real Priority of the Afghan Reconstruction Conference." 25 January 2002).

THE RED CRITIQUE 2 (January/February 2002)