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Mosaic: a journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature, Volume
46, Number 1, March 2013, pp. 19-36 (Article)
DOI: 10.1353/mos.2013.0004

For additional information about this article

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This essay examines Joe Saccos graphic strategies for representing the pain of others in his first collected work,

Palestine. In particular, I argue that Sacco draws on a kind of haptic visuality when representing pain and suffering and, in doing so, reformulates standard forms of looking at the other.

Shaking Hands with

Other Peoples Pain:
Joe Saccos Palestine

n the very beginning of the graphic novel Palestine, Joe Sacco recounts his own
ignorance and prejudice when it came to thinking about Palestinians. Growing up
mostly in the U.S., he did not question the picture of Palestinians as terrorists:
Terrorism is the bread Palestinians get buttered on, Id swallowed that ever since airliners went sky high in the desert, do you remember that, do you remember Munich
and the blown up athletes, the bus and airport massacres? (7). Yet in the present of
the text, which takes place over two months in the winter of 1991-92 as the first
intifada begins to run out of steam, Sacco finds himself in Israel and Palestine seeking to give voice and face to these terrorists, to rethink his own notions of prejudice
and pain, and to convince others to do the same. As Saccos first sustained graphic
work, Palestine represents the beginning of his career drawing in the realm of atrocity. Two later texts dealing with atrocity have received wide recognition: Safe Area

Mosaic 46/1 0027-1276-07/019018$02.00Mosaic


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Gorade, which documents a phase in the Bosnian war, and his follow-up to Palestine,
Footnotes in Gaza; yet both of these display a hard-boiled perspective toward the cost
of war. It is the authors nave, eager attitude toward documenting the pain of others
that marks Palestine as unique in Saccos body of work, as a sense of discovery permeates all nine collected comic books that comprise the volume.
In Palestine, Sacco also lays out the stylistic and formal foundations that characterize all his later works. In Saccos basic format, the reader follows the character of Joe
Sacco as he enters a war zone and encounters various people deeply affected by war and
atrocity. In terms of the graphic sequences, Sacco moves between his present encounters and others past experiences. Hillary Chute says of Saccos work that it strives to
materialize visually an archive of oral testimony [. . .] reconstructing the bodies of others, bodies that have been ignored by official discourse (114). But this reconstruction
of others bodies is mediated and complicated by the ways that Sacco reconstructs his
own body, transforming himself into a major character. Charles Hatfield calls this autobiographical tendency ironic authentication, by which he means a strategy authors use
to reenact or speak to the making of the work itself. More importantly, the distance
that such irony creates both pictorially and cognitively allows for artists to approach
subjects that are almost impossibly hard to handle, where questions of truth and artifice are fraught with special urgency, both psychologically and politically (131). Saccos
works thus fuse documentary and autobiographical methods, dramatizing the tensions
between personal revelation and public political and social discourse.
Saccos peculiar visual style, based on the exaggerated and ugly aesthetics of the
underground comix movement, constantly calls attention to Sacco as artist/creator
whether or not Joe Sacco the character is present within the frame; in other words, at
first glance the consistent, striking style renders all the sequences ostensibly selfreferential, even when the sequences represent the perspectives of others who are
recounting their own past suffering. This seemingly contradicts Palestines purpose of
engaging with the rhetoric of testimony and the documentation of human rights violations. Sacco must therefore engage with particular evidentiary strategies in order to
communicate the realness of the various scenarios he presents. How, then, does the
graphic work of a single author/artist present itself as evidence of others truths? What
kind of truth is Sacco dealing in here? What I propose in this essay is that Saccos form
of truth-telling happens in the exchange between reader and text and is based on a
kind of emotional and corporeal form of evidence that occurs through a haptic, visceral engagement with the pain of others. While this is not the kind of evidence that
can stand in a court of law, it acts as a forceful form of evidence in the court of public opinion, which has its own power to enact change in the world.

Rebecca Scherr


Palestine is a political work in that it represents real human suffering that is the
result of both local and international politics; at the same time, Saccos project reveals
a deeper politics, a corporeal politics of pain and the circulation of images of pain in
an international context. In one of the opening segments, Sacco uses a poignant
phrase to encompass what he sets out to do in his project: But now my buddy on the
West Bank wants to make some introductions, to set me up, he wants me to shake
hands with his peoples pain (8). This phraseto shake hands with other peoples
painis a vivid statement that hints at the intricacies of Saccos position as witness
and to our own position as readers. To shake hands is to greet, to make contact, to
enter into a contract or agreement, one that by its unspoken rules connotes fair play.
This is not to say that all handshakes signify mutual understandingsometimes they
are simply empty gesturesbut in Palestine Sacco seems to use the idea and image of
the handshake as a gesture that signifies connection. A few pages after the initial handshake, we see an angry Sacco refuse a proffered hand after he has been ripped off by
some Palestinian children; a man on the street interprets the refusal: See! He doesnt
want peace! (24). By and large, then, the handshake in Palestine is a gesture pointing
to the willingness to meet the other. On a more basic level, the handshake is a statement of corporeality, as touch is a primary bodily sensation. In Palestine, this gesture
calls attention to the fact that the comics genre is in many ways as much of a haptic
form as it is visual; in order to process the image-text relationship, readers must draw
on various sensory and cognitive modalities that render the reading experience as
physically intimate. The handshake can thus also be read as a visual metonym for the
process of haptic readership.
In attending to tactility, Saccos graphic work engages in what Laura U. Marks
calls, albeit within a different context, haptic visuality, which is a vision that is not
merely cognitive but acknowledges its location in the body (132). According to
Marks, haptic visuality highlights a reader or viewers involvement in the world of
representation, rather than calling attention to the more distancing aspects of visual
media (176). The term haptic connotes both literal touching and the realm of feeling
and emotion more generally; thus, the term acknowledges that haptic experience
need not only be an immediate bodily encounter, but that it can also be a kind of
emotional engagement experienced as bodily feeling. In terms of an artistic strategy,
haptic visuality can be understood as a connective readerly address incorporating sensation and emotion in its communicative reach; it is therefore a strategy that calls particular attention to the role of affect in the encounter between work and audience.
Yet while haptics are part of what makes reading the graphic narrative such an
emotional and engrossing experience, making it connective, haptics also maintain a


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kind of separation. This separation is different from the distancing aspects of visual
media I mention above; this kind of separation is one in which the subject recognizes
involvement in the world of seeing and feeling while simultaneously recognizing a
kind of radical autonomy. For to touch is always, also, to be touched; there is an element of this exchange that reminds us that we are not the other and the other is not
us. Thus a haptic aesthetic highlights connection and separation simultaneously, as
touch is a threshold activitysubjectivity and objectivity come quite close to each
other, but they do not become entirely indistinguishable (Stewart 178). Similarly, as
the gesture of the handshake can suggest, we can have contact with the other, we can
enter into an understanding, but we cannot become the other. For Sacco, this aspect of
textual tactility will become important as a way to maintain an ethical stance in the
face of looking at, and in a sense touching, other peoples pain. For in order to rethink
normative notions of looking at this pain, it is important to grant autonomy not only
to ourselves, but, even more crucially, to the other.
illian Whitlock writes that comics possess a unique vocabulary and grammar
that has the potential to produce an imaginative and ethical engagement with the
proximity of the other (978). One powerful component of Saccos work that creates
this sense of proximity is the way he represents hands. This representational strategy
is twofold: it includes, quite literally, Saccos close attention to human hands; at the
same time, the resonant, emotional quality of many graphic memoirs depends on the
readers apprehension of the hands of the author, that is, the trace of the authors presence in every curve and line of the text. Saccos engagement with hand imagery resonates strongly with Art Spiegelmans Maus. In Spiegelmans text, the brief use of
human hand imageryespecially as it appears in the Prisoner on the Hell Planet
sequencecalls attention to emotive intensity, in the case of Maus, to the desire to
recover what has been personally lost, and the impossibility of doing so (100).
Simultaneously, this attention to the emotive quality of hand imagery becomes a
reminder of the materiality of the authors body: a trace, a reminder that there is
really a person who holds, narrates, and feels; a link to life beyond the text.
Even a cursory glance at the imagery of Palestine reveals Saccos close attention
to his characters hands and the role that hands play in expressing emotion: a hand is
spread in fright (23), hands grip a machine gun (37), an oversized hand is extended,
silently declaring halt! (49), hands are held in solidarity (53); these are only a few
examples of hand imagery that resonate so powerfully that it seems to leap off the
page, indicating not only the image of the hand itself, but, much more to the point,
the various affective states that these hands signify. This close scrutiny calls attention

Rebecca Scherr


to, in the most direct way possible, the importance of tactility for Saccos project as a
whole. While tactility does not require the touch of hands per se, hands symbolize
touch as much as they are instruments for touching. We can think of images of hands
as visual metonyms for haptic visuality because the affect of hand imagery depends
on both visual apprehension and tactile understanding; our visual apprehension of
these hands leads us to feel, on some level, what these hands themselves are depicted
as feeling. They move us from purely visual apprehension to a more corporeal realm.
Haptic visuality, examined from this angle, is very much about the ways that haptic imagery affects a reader. Chute, in her analysis of Alison Bechdels Fun Home,
examines the layers of touch present in Bechdels text, but keeps her analysis focused
on how hand imagery functions within the text, as a form of connection between the
artist and her representations.1 What I am suggesting is that such haptic moments also
constitute a palpable form of readerly address, where the invocation of the hand can
create the conditions for affective forms of reading. Will Eisner suggests such a haptic
readerly address when he writes that body posture and gesture occupy a position of
primacy over text. The manner in which these images are employed modifies and
defines the intended meaning of the words (106). Eisner is pointing out that it is in
the readers perception of the gesture that the experience of emotional resonance
stands out most poignantly. Thus the sensitivity of the drawn hands holds the power
to shape the written component of the text. The affective charge of the bodily image
is primary in our apprehension of the narrative, and Sacco depends on the readers
encounter with bodily gesture in order to express the emotional realness that is key
in persuading us to engage with the pain of others. The gestures of hands seem to be
his preferred medium for conveying this.
One of the most moving images of hands is that of the elderly mother of one of
Saccos Palestinian informants. We hear from the son about the familys traumatic
experience of being attacked by Israeli settlers, who rampaged through their town one
evening, smashing peoples windows with stones. This woman was so frightened by the
experience that she developed psychological problems. Sacco draws a panel of the
woman next to her stove, broken windows in the background. In the foreground are
her oversized hands, drawn so large that they become the focal point of this fairly
detailed panel: Shes turning the bread and rearranging the coals with her fingers. . .
Christ, shes gotta have some kinda calluses to handle that heat (66). While the linguistic meaning here can certainly be interpreted as a double entendre, it comes across
mostly as simple observation. The image of the womans hands in combination with
her facial expression lend the panel its powerfully emotive and disturbing qualities; this
is a clear example of how bodily gestures can have primacy over text. This depiction of


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the direct touch of hand to coal is a very intense moment signifying sensation itself, of
heat and burning, of pain. Yet it also speaks of numbness, of the absence of pain where
it should logically be. This comes across most powerfully in the womans face, which
appears impassive in relation to her hands touching the heat. Thus Saccos image
encompasses physical sensation and its connection to psychological suffering. Here, too,
we are shaking hands with Palestinian pain, and Sacco is quite literal in his depiction of
this, making sure that we as readers clearly understand that the pain he repeatedly represents is not conceptual but is instead immediate, corporeal, as well as psychological.
The detailed and expressive presence of hands, however, is only the most obvious
signifier of a kind of textual tactility that permeates Palestine. That this graphic novel
is entirely drawn by hand, including the accompanying text, is a reminder that the
genres very form calls attention to the labour of the authors hands. Line drawing
itself seems to communicate the almost living presence of the artists hands, and
therefore has the capacity to communicate something ineffably human and present,
imbuing all the drawn content with an intense subjectivity. Jared Gardner writes: We
know the line of the graphiateur is no more natural than are the words of the author
and yet the line compels a physical, bodily encounter with an imagined scene of
embodied enunciation [] the line brings us back to the embodied author whose signature on the page remains as unique and idiosyncratic as an autograph or a voiceprint (66). In other words, the graphic forms tactile quality, as expressed in the line
drawing and experienced by the reader on a visceral level as a trace of the artists presence, continually communicates the subjective and affective dimensions of the content presented. So many affective states are generated merely through our perception
of the drawn image and how we perceive that drawn image as referring to a particular body. Especially in the case of graphic memoir, where we attach the line drawing
to a specific albeit imagined authorial body, the suffusion of this bodily presence is
what constitutes the ground from which we engage viscerally with the content.
Through a kind of intimate contact with the author via line drawing, we become a
part of the text, or perhaps its more correct to say the text becomes a part of us.
Many scholars of comics and graphic novels follow Scott McClouds lead in arguing that the sense of a reader experiencing him or herself as a part of the text is
achieved through the act of closure, referring to the necessary act of using the imagination to connect individual panels, using our full range of sensuousness in order to
surmise what happens when we move from panel to gutter to panel again (69). While
this is certainly one of the ways that the comics genre frames the reader as a part of
the text, the haptic charge of drawing itself represents an even more primary level of
reader identification, one that operates within individual panels and across panels as

Rebecca Scherr


well. This haptic charge can be considered a dimension of what Thierry Groensteen
calls the comics pages iconic solidarity, which is the necessary condition so that
visual messages [can], in first approximation, be assimilated within a comic (20, emph.
mine). In other words, the haptic charge of line drawing is part of the initial encounter
that draws us into the page, while closure can be thought of as a secondary action.
The imagined hands of the author that suffuse every element of Palestine, in combination with the much more literal representations of hands that are scattered across
numerous panels, together produce the foundation through which we as readers can
access affective, visceral, haptic forms of reading. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin: the
traces of the potters hands are not just all over this text, but the potters hands constitute the text itself, and it is the readers perception of this that awakens in us an affective engagement with the content. As Benjamin points out, these traces convey far
more than mere information; what is told in this manner is passed on as experience to
those listening (159, emph. mine). Reading the graphic narrative itself is a bodily, resonant experience, and when the resonant content we are experiencing is other peoples
pain, pain that is directly attributable to human rights violations, we are framed as a
kind of emotionally invested witness to that pain. In Saccos work, the affective charges
his drawings elicit are not simply ends in themselves, but point to the political and ethical dimensions of feeling as they manifest in the realms of testimony and spectatorship. In other words, he takes something that is part of almost all comics workthe
haptic charge of line drawingand channels this charge into particular discourses
aimed at waking people up to an affective reality beyond the page itself.
he presence of literal and imagined hands in Palestine work to communicate haptic
visuality on a formal level, while at the same time revealing a corporeal politics of
pain. In other words, Sacco uses haptic visuality politically and strategically. More
specifically, such an aesthetic leads us readers to examine the ethics of representation.
Sacco sets up specific scenarios throughout Palestine where he attends quite precisely to
difficult questions regarding what it means to look at and feel the pain of others. In
doing so, his work provokes questions that probe the ethical dimensions related to the
act of haptic looking, such as: do we become voyeurs in reading this text, or does haptic viewing entail something more or even other than voyeurism? What is the responsibility of the one who looks? In order to raise such questions pictorially and narratively,
Sacco engages with a specific discourse or form of imagery that has been and continues
to be the most widespread form for communicating human rights violations and
depicting the pain of others more generally: the photograph. While Sacco very much
engages with the narrative strategies of the literature of human rights,2 the text enacts a


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dialogue between its own comics format and photography in both clear and subtle
ways, and it is through this dialogue that Palestine touches on the ethics of spectatorship. My claim is that Saccos haptic aesthetic works to touch images of pain and
suffering, and in touching the image, reworking habitual (i.e., photographically mediated) forms of looking at the pain of others.
Susan Sontag argues that drawn images of atrocity signify a synthesis rather
than direct evidence of something that actually happened; drawings of suffering
claim, according to Sontag, that things like this happened (47, emph. Sontags). This
synthesis, this approximation that graphic works indicate through their very form,
lends them the weight of evidence of atrocity without the referentiality associated
with the photograph. Because of the sense that drawings seem to communicate that
something like this happened, the drawn image is not anchored so strongly to a particular moment in time. Its implied temporality floats more freely, unlike the temporal implication of the photograph. The photographs capturing of a specific moment
communicates that something happened in the past, and while photographs of suffering might affect a kind of immediate emotional charge in the viewer, it is easy for
the viewer to then place this image irrevocably in the past.
In their evidentiary role, human rights photographs depend upon being received
as transparent documents of suffering, and thus they often do not communicate that
same sense of the subjective; it is this seeming objectivity that allows the photographic
image to serve as a form of evidence in a court of law. (This is despite the fact that
scholars have long problematized the status of photographic evidence, pointing to
such issues as the transformative power of photography as well as the narrative and
ideological framing of images through captioning.) The intervention of the human
hand on the surface of the photograph is rendered purposefully invisible, while, as I
argue, the evidentiary power of the drawing entirely depends on making such intervention visible. In the context of documenting human rights abuses, both kinds of
evidencethe photograph and the drawingare meant to move us, but in different
ways. In fact, all human rights iconography is specifically designed to participate in
an affective economy that transforms others into objects of feeling and sight
(Hesford 57). All too often, however, the feelings produced are those of a kind of sympathy that does not question or critique the site of looking itself, and all too often the
purpose of such images is precisely to obscure the dynamics of power inherent in such
sympathetic modes of looking.3
It is to intervene within this specific affective economy that Sacco exploits the
uniqueness of the comics format. He fuses and fractures texts and images to create
instances in which seeing is transformed into questionable, uncomfortable feelings:

Rebecca Scherr


states of haptic awareness that in many ways question the efficacy of our sympathies
toward the suffering other. Graphic narrative is, in some ways, perfectly poised to
address the growing consensus among critics that we need a more nuanced, critical
mode for thinking about human rights imagery. One of its strengths is that because it
possesses a visceral, resonant dimension, and because it is made up of sequences of
panels that give the impression of the movement of time and space, the format can
communicate the experience of pain, not just the existence of pain. Photographs, conversely, are traditionally used to document the existence of suffering.
Moderate Pressure, Saccos famous sequence that depicts the torture inflicted
on a Palestinian man named Ghassan (102-13), is an example of the uniqueness of the
graphic narrative in its ability to communicate the experience of pain. Ghassans torture continues day after day; much of the time he is locked in a room, handcuffed to
a pole and hooded. As the sequence continues, Saccos frames grow increasingly
smaller. Not only does this allow him to increase the number of panels per page,
crowding the pages with images that depict deep discomfort, but the use of such a
form gives the reader a visceral sensation of something closing in and claustrophobic:
thus the framing itself communicates or mimics for the reader, albeit only very
slightly and at a certain distance, Ghassans experience of pain, which translates as a
deep discomfort for the reader. Of course, the reader does not experience Ghassans
actual pain, but the visceral dimension of this scenario acts as what Sara Ahmed
might term a call of pain, which asks the reader for more than empathy and witnessing. Because the specific context of this sequence is torture, it calls for a certain
amount of political positioning via the feelings that arise as a result of the encounter
with such imagery (32).
Such a focus on the importance of haptic experience does not mean that photographic rhetorics are less important in Palestine. Sacco expresses the significance of
photography for his whole project by often drawing himself taking photographs; by
always, when representing himself as a character, drawing his camera bag at his side
even when not taking pictures; and Sacco bases much of his drawing in general on
photographs. He has stated that he is mostly photographing when he is collecting stories and statements, taking out his sketchbook if its inappropriate to take out a camera (Vgnes 201). In addition, Saccos frequent use of perspectival distortion gives
the impression that we are viewing the panels through a kind of photographic lens.
Sacco, however, also points out the limitations of the camera, for he understands
that one of the graphic narratives particular powers is its ability to go places the camera cannot: The camera cannot go into the past, he says. Referring to Moderate
Pressure, Sacco says that the camera cannot go into the room where people are being


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tortured (Vgnes 200). The implication, of course, is that his graphics can evoke
these experiences, based on others testimony. Photography is therefore not the last
word when it comes to evidence of human rights abuses. As one of Saccos informants
says before describing in detail his experiences of being tortured, The door closes,
and the world cannot see (94). This is interesting up against some of the implicit
claims of human rights photography. Often the atrocity on view is so extreme that the
message seems to be that the viewer is looking upon something meant to be hidden
from view, to not be seen, a form of obscenity. Saccos point is that there are further
layers of invisibility where the camera cannot go, but graphic work can evoke the
unseen, thus exposing the limitations of photographic evidence.
At certain points in Palestine, Sacco goes even further in his critique and indicates
that the camera is a potentially dangerous weapon in representing the pain of others.
In one chapter, Sacco draws himself and his photographer friend Saburo documenting a protest in East Jerusalem, and he draws Saburo readying his camera. This camera appears oversized and is unmistakably meant to resemble the tear gas gun held in
the hands of an Israeli soldier on the bottom right of the same page. The caption
accompanying the image of Saburo reads: Hes setting f-stops and screwing lenses the
size of Saturn V rockets (54). This link clearly problematizes the role of the camera
in documenting this scene that speaks of suffering, here playing on the homonym of
shooting both photographs and guns. The camera/gun connection is also one of
power: the power to shoot, the power to represent.
As events further unfold, Sacco is able to capture some shots, but when he excitedly brings them to the offices of a local Palestinian newspaper, he is disappointed
when the editor tells him, Theres nothing here (58). The images themselves turned
out; the problem was that Sacco did not capture the faces of the protesters. This
reveals that human rights photography is ruled by a kind of aesthetic form; the photographs that are worthy of publishing do not simply capture the moment, but are
instead framed in a specific manner. As Wendy Hesford points out, in recent years the
most widely recognized human rights images are head shots of young Afghan girls (12). Interestingly, the affective charge of facial iconography is closely related to haptic
forms of experience. In writing about the power of photographic portraiture as it
relates to the iconography of suffering, Andrea Liss quotes Levinas: the face is in
search of recompense, an open hand. That is, it needs something. It is going to ask you
for something. Liss interprets this phrase to mean that the others face [. . .] conveys
a forceful demand on the subject to open the tense and impalpable space between self
and other (112). In alignment with haptic aesthetics, the image of the suffering face
forces a connection between subject and object, between seer and seen, and this

Rebecca Scherr


explains why the face is such a sought-after icon when it comes to photographing
human rights violations. Sacco, too, claims that capturing individuality by way of
drawing detailed faces is part of the political dimension of his work (Vgnes 198).
While this connectivity is certainly productive in potentially allowing for an ethical
engagement between self and other, Saccos meditations on photography in Palestine
reveal that this seer/seen relationshipespecially when the other is the other
(i.e., economically disadvantaged people of colour from poor and/or despotic
countries)is a priori shot through with uneven power dynamics.
Sacco explores this dynamic in one particularly powerful chapter, aptly titled
Public and Private Wounds, where he depicts his experiences visiting a hospital in
Nablus. This visit came about through the intervention of some informants who showed
Sacco their war wounds and scars: Wounds!! exclaims Sacco excitedly to himself, clearly
fascinated by the tactile narrative of the body told through wounding. When one of
these informants asks, You want to see more? Sacco is thrilled; this is the real thing, he
tells himself: Of course! Gunshot injuries! Broken bones! Amputees! (30). At the hospital, Sacco tours the bedsides of various adults and children. In a voice dripping with
self-irony, he shows his eagerness in snapping pictures, contrasting the usually mindless
snapping of a photographSay Cheese! he tells one of the injured menwith the seriousness of the situation. He even draws photo corners around this panel, giving the
impression that this page is akin to a page torn from a photo album (see Figure 1).
At the very top of page 33, Sacco depicts himself being pulled to a bedside by a
grim Palestinian man, and he adds a very telling element: he draws his right hand as
oversized and bleeding over the border into the panel below (see Figure 2). By having us pay attention to this hand through the technique of exaggeration, much like we
did with the woman handling hot coals, we are forced to look closely at this hand,
which appears to be clutching the panel frame below it. This renders the held comics
frame as being like a photograph, in that it becomes a framed image, a thing: it appears
as a comic book panel but also as a snapshot that Sacco is holding in his hand. In combination with the panels framed by photo corners, this implies that these images are
drawn directly from the photographs Sacco shows himself taking here. In effect, Sacco
overlays the two kinds of evidence drawings and photographs claim: the emotional resonance of a drawn image is underscored by the referential evidence of human rights
photography. At first glance, Sacco seems to attempt a balance between these modes.
Yet Sacco also reveals that lurking in this overlay are difficult questions concerning the ethics of looking at other peoples pain. This becomes evident in the way the
sequence on page 33 relates to the sequence on the previous page. On page 32, Sacco is
brought to the bedside of a gravely wounded man, who says no to having his picture

1. Joe Sacco. Palestine, 32. 2012 Joe Sacco. Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

2. Joe Sacco. Palestine, 33. 2012 Joe Sacco. Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.


Mosaic 46/1 (March 2013)

taken, and yet Sacco decides to depict this scene anyway. Furthermore, the panel
showing the mans refusal is linked horizontally to the snapshot sequence on page 33;
thus, Sacco places in a row, across the bottom of two pages, panels on the left of someones refusal to be photographed, and panels on the right of a little girl who eagerly
asks for Sacco to take more pictures. Linked horizontally, they represent two ends of
the spectrum when it comes to the participation of the other in the act of representing other peoples pain, but the outcome for both is the same. In fact, Sacco writes
in the caption accompanying the image of the man in his bed, Okay okay. Io capisco.
Say no more. A private wound (32). In relation to the title of the chapter, this implies
that the little girls consent renders her wounds as public; yet his statement must be
seen as highly ironic, since the private and public wounds both find their way into
representation. The fact that Sacco so self-consciously does this raises a number of
issues and questions related to the seer/seen dichotomy.
Crucially, in terms of the politics of spectatorship, human rights photography has
emerged within an iconographic history that places the viewer into a specific relationship to the image, to the others depicted. Sontag is direct in describing this seer/seen
relationship, arguing that the frankest representations of war, and of disaster-injured
bodies, are of those who seem most foreign, therefore least likely to be known (61)
and, furthermore, Generally, the grievously injured bodies shown in published photographs are from Asia or Africa. This journalistic custom inherits the century-old
practice of exhibiting exoticthat is, colonizedhuman beings [. . .] the other, even
when not an enemy, is regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone (like us) who
also sees (72). One of Sontags main points in Regarding the Pain of Others is that
human rights photography is meant to inform relatively safe people about atrocity
occurring elsewhere, and to do so by evoking the viewers sympathy, but all of this
occurs within a dynamic or trajectory whose imperialistic dimensions are so much a
part and parcel of viewing habits that the politics of such spectatorship remains invisible. This is, perhaps, what Sontag means when she thinks of photographs of atrocity
as things that might initially move us but ultimately produce a kind of political paralysis (Butler 825). Page 32, then, is a moment when Sacco purposefully takes on the
imperial power of the seer, when the others refusal is given representation anyway; the
patient is transformed, against his will, into an object of the gaze. Yet is it more ethically correct for us to look at the little girl just because she seemingly enjoys having her
picture taken? She probably does not know how the images of injured Palestinian children circulate in networks of human rights imagery. And we as readers, who have consented to align our gazes with Saccos, must confront what this means for us, as we
are inextricably pulled into this voyeuristic relationship whether we like it or not.

Rebecca Scherr


By depicting this mans refusal, Sacco creates a moment of real awkwardness,

both in terms of self-representation and in terms of how the reader is framed at this
moment in the text. In representing this spectrum of consent, Sacco suddenly shows
himself, as author and collector of trauma stories, as ethically compromised. He
seems to be asking us as readers, Can one create images of others suffering without
relying on this imperialistic gaze? Also, what does it mean to draw someone who
refuses to be photographed? What does it mean to look at these drawn images? Is
Sacco indicating that this is somehow more ethical, more permissible, because it communicates something like this happened? Does he use the graphic form, then, and its
less referential implications to appease our consciences, at the same time challenging
and exposing our voyeuristic attitude? If the photographs themselves were displayed,
they might evoke our sympathy, even our empathy; but the way Sacco overlays a photographic rhetoric with graphic sequencing goes even further: his images evoke the
readers empathy while at the very same time pointing to a cluster of more difficult
emotions underlying this empathy.
This is also a moment where Sacco uses a kind of fissuring technique to bring us
to attention. These questions can only be asked because we are meant to ask them:
Sacco uses the graphic form to enact an almost palpable clash between photography
and drawing, yet this clash and its effects are only possible in the graphic format. It is
through the form of an unfolding scenario, as we move across graphic axes that mimic
time and space, that the awkwardness and questioning are produced. This is in great
contrast to the more singular framing of the photograph, while the graphic novels
fusion and fracture of text and image across time and space allow for a kind of dialectic to take place. In this case, Sacco highlights an ethically problematic moment of
representation, which we as readers experience viscerally as a kind of shove or slap
meant to awaken us to the various ethical dilemmas of representing the pain of
others: he makes us feel uncomfortable, and then he gets us to think about this discomfort and investigate its various dimensions.
The awkwardness and discomfort presented in Private and Public Wounds is
experienced by the reader as feeling, that is, as bodily and emotional resonance. While
Sacco uses both drawing and a photographic discourse to call attention to our imperialist modes of looking at the other, he uses them to invoke sensation and emotion,
thus using the objects of vision in a very haptic manner. Our visual apprehension of
the comics frames and sequences transforms quickly into raw emotion: in this chapter, these emotions include sympathy, anger, numbness, horror, and shame. Yet Saccos
text as a whole leads his readers to understand that what we may experience as raw
emotion is connected to larger events and discourses and to a whole history of seeing


Mosaic 46/1 (March 2013)

that implicates the presumed viewer in a seemingly paradoxical position of both

power and ignorance; thus a haptic aesthetic can also work to call attention to the politics of emotion. This is a text that asks us to feel, but to also place these feelings into
larger political contexts, both specific and general: the politics of seeing, the politics
of empathic reading, the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is the way in
which Sacco touches the image so as to rework habitual modes of spectatorship
when it comes to looking at the pain of others. In response to the scenarios Sacco sets
up, we see and feel our own situatedness as readers and as spectators; we cannot take
the expected route of a sympathetic reaction. This recognition grants us a certain
amount of autonomy, the perception of a kind of space, if you will, between ourselves
and the objects of vision. Using the gesture of the handshake as an example of Saccos
project, in such a trajectory we do not become the other but rather recognize the
others situatedness within a larger world and larger discourses as well: we are connected to the other in the moment of looking and touching, but in a sense the other
is looking back at us, teaching us lessons about what it means to look.
hile Whitlock looks at the potential ethical encounters between self and others that
the graphic novel can mediate, Suzanne Keen examines the empathic responses
that graphic novels can produce, what she calls invitations to narrative empathy proffered by graphic storytelling. The intended effect of this kind of empathy, according to
Keen, is for recognition and justice and [. . .] to form citizens sense of responsibility for
suffering others (135). This resonates very strongly with Markss claim about the
intended effects of haptic visuality, whereby the reading subject comes into being not
through abstraction from the world but through compassionate involvement in it
(141). All of these ideasWhitlock, Keen, and Markssspeak of the haptic and strategic functioning of texts and images, of the ways artists and writers draw out their audiences emotions and, in doing so, draw us ever more powerfully into the larger world
beyond our own small sense of self. As with human rights discourse, in this scenario our
encounter with the object of vision becomes a site of empathic feeling where the gap
between self and other is bridged or eclipsed by emotion. This empathic encounter is
what Saccos artistry achieves, yet he also qualifies this encounter; that is, he invokes a
readers empathic response and questions it at the same time. It is this questioning of
empathy that gives Saccos work its particular political edge.
I do not disagree that narrative empathy is important, but at the same time there
is an assumption that the teaching of literature as a form for evoking empathy is
unqualifiedly a good thing. Keen in particular advocates this point of view: while the
readers empathy might take on slightly different forms depending on the reading

Rebecca Scherr


context, the idea that empathy is the goal of narrative, and that this is a good thing, is
not refined or made more complex.4 Yet, as Sontag writes, Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers (101). While Saccos
text does not necessarily inspire the reader into action, it does go beyond the simple
evocation of empathy as an end in itself. Because his haptic aesthetic mimics the gesture of the handshake in which self and other find themselves in a relation of mutuality, Saccos work allows for a dual perception: that we are both connected to the
other and we stand in a position of autonomy vis--vis the other. This autonomy is
crucial for maintaining a critical stance in the face of looking at the pain of others,
and it is also this notion of autonomy that is missing in most accounts of the power
of haptic aesthetics, for example in Markss celebration of haptic aesthetics as a
method for closing the distance between seer and seen. To do both things at once
to close the gap and to simultaneously sense the impossibility of eclipsing the other
means that we are able to see our privileged position as observers of the pain of
others; we do not consume the other, so to speak. In the case of Palestine, Sacco leads
us to see our own privilege in the form of our ingrained, imperial modes of looking.
Thus we can see that, in the words of Sontag, our privileges are located on the same
map as their suffering (102, emph. mine); that is, our ways of looking are inextricable from the imperialistic landscape that has produced the situation of the Palestinian
peoplethey are contiguous, touching each other. Saccos Palestine carefully maintains that the politics of spectatorship and the world of suffering are embedded in one
another, that the one is instrumental in producing the other, and that recognizing this
can, perhaps, be the beginning of action.

1/ See Graphic Women (New York: Columbia UP, 2010. Print) 197-200.
2/ See Sidonie Smith and Kay Schaffers Human Rights and Narrated Lives (London: Palgrave MacMillan,
2004. Print) and Joseph Slaughters Human Rights Inc. (New York: Fordham UP, 2001. Print).
3/ See Lauren Berlants The Subject of True Feeling in Cultural Pluralism, Identity Politics, and the Law
(Ed. Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1999. 48-84. Print), Hesford, and
4/ See A Theory of Narrative Empathy (Narrative 14.3 [2006]: 207-36. Print).
Ahmed, Sara. The Contingency of Pain. Parallax 8.1 (2002): 17-34. Print.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968. Print.
Butler, Judith. Photography, War, Outrage. PMLA 120.3 (2005): 822-27. Print.
Chute, Hillary. Comics Form and Narrating Lives. Profession (2011): 107-17. Print.


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Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. New York: Norton, 2008. Print.
Gardner, Jared. Storylines. Narrative 14.3 (2006): 53-69. Print.
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2007. Print.
Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2005. Print.
Hesford, Wendy. Spectacular Rhetorics. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.
Keen, Suzanne. Fast Tracks to Narrative Empathy: Anthropomorphism and Dehumanization in Graphic
Novels. SubStance 40.1 (2011): 135-55. Project Muse. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.
Liss, Andrea. Trespassing Through Shadows: Memory, Photography and the Holocaust. Minneapolis: U of
Minnesota P, 1998. Print.
Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. Print.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper, 1994. Print.
Sacco, Joe. Footnotes in Gaza. New York: Metropolitan, 2009. Print.
_____ . Palestine. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic, 2001. Print.
_____ . Safe Area Gorade. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic, 2002. Print.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Print.
Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Stewart, Susan. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002. Print.
Vgnes, yvind. Inside the Story: A Conversation with Joe Sacco. Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics
1.2 (2010): 193-216. Routledge. Web. 10 Aug. 2011.
Whitlock, Gillian. Autographics: The Seeing I of the Comics. Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (2006): 965-79.

REBECCA SCHERR is Associate Professor of American literature in the Department of Literature,

Area Studies, and European Languages at the University of Oslo. Her research and publications
focus on literature and visual culture. She is currently working on a monograph about the politics
of the graphic novel.