Contested Terrains: Visualizing the Nation within Global Military Conflict
Cahill, Susan Elizabeth
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In this study, I use visual and material culture that addresses the contemporary war in Afghanistan to critically assess the ways in which national conflict history is envisioned. I focus in particular on cultural production related to the involvement of Australia and Canada in the conflict. I do so to question the ways in which Australia’s and Canada’s engagements with this particular conflict are visualized in relation to their official narratives, which posit their military activities in Afghanistan as undertaken in the name of security, peacekeeping, and rebuilding. Such a query is important, because it allows me to investigate which visualizations contribute to the history and narrative of national engagements with conflict, and which are ignored. Moreover, it allows me to ask how visual and material culture not only constitutes, but also legitimates national conflict narratives. And finally, it allows me to locate examples within this field of cultural production that renegotiate, contest, subvert, and resist state representations. These lines of inquiry help to situate my study of visual and material culture by suggesting that such objects can act as lenses through which to address what Jon Stratton and Ien Ang describe as the “unstable, provisional and often jeopardous status of the national” (1996, 381). Following Stratton and Ang, I approach the concept of the “nation” as “a contested terrain between historically specific ‘cultures’ structured in relations of dominance and subordination to each other” (367). Using exhibitions and cultural objects produced post-9/11 in Australia and Canada (that is, after 11 September 2001), I analyze the visual and material culture of conflict within the “contested terrain” of national/ist narratives. The particular process of culture-making exemplified in exhibitions and cultural objects is crucial when it comes to advancing national/ist narratives, since as I argue throughout this study, it represents part of the larger historical transition from the state enlistment of cultural production in support of nation-building to the neoliberal mobilization of visual culture for the global marketplace.