Vivisection vision: performing the humanimal

In This Article

Passing through the prism of a solo performance this essay filters an interpretation derived from meditating on particular themes prescient to us in the 21st century. As Mark Franko contends, "the relation between dance and the political exists within the logic of movement and its performance" (Franko, 2007, p. 11). I have chosen to extrapolate scenes by tracing associations from interrelated readings.

The first section outlines the foundational basis of the US ‘War on Terror’, and the second section discusses the performance of the figurative conditions manifest in the new order. While conscious of these themes in making the performance, not all of the ideas have been discussed.

When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross. (Sinclair Lewis 1935, in Hedges, 2008, p. 1) 1

Contextualising the performance—what is evil?

On the evening of 11 September 2001 President Bush announced "today, our nation saw evil". On many occasions since then, combining a realpolitik with an ancient Manichaean logic, 2 he consistently polarised the world as "good or evil", to mount a war which would "go on for decades" to rid the world of "evil-doers" (Bush, 2002). 3

Despite Hannah Arendt’s warning of the moment when politicians remove their public mask by associating words and action with personal belief, and Aristotle’s ‘tyrant’s need to seem god-fearing and pious’ (Aristotle, 2008), 4 President Bush declared his non-secular position in relation to the public on many occasions:

I believe God wants me to be President (In Rich, 2004). 5

I trust God speaks through me… God told me to strike at al Qaida… to strike at Saddam, which I did… (Bush, 2003) … our nation has been chosen to be the model of history and justice … The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity…. (Bush, 2003a, January 28)

I will not forget... I will not relent… I will not yield… I will not rest… until I have built a world of divine prayer. (Bush, 2001a, 20 September) 6

Complexity and scepticism are impractical for the creation of a war president, whose role it is to define the enemy ("who we fight") and the threat ("why we fight"), to ensure the people’s commitment to enduring suffering until "victory". By positioning himself as a prophet speaking for God, Bush turned the war into a blessed mission to fulfill the people’s pre-ordained future. By casting the enemy as "evil", not only Bush and the American people but God and "civilisation" were placed under threat.

For Vice President Cheney, "evil" was necessarily uncivilised and had to be defeated, not negotiated with (MacDonald, December 22, 2003):

The terrorists who struck America are ruthless, they are resourceful, and they hide in many countries. They came into our country to murder thousands of innocent men, women and children. There is no doubt they wish to strike again and that they are working to acquire the deadliest of all weapons. Against such enemies, America and the civilized world have only one option… (in Kelley, 2007, p. 101)

And so it came to pass that "evil" was re-born of Manichean, evangelical and Orientalist cliche; "a dark threat to great nations posed by small groups of evil men who could create catastrophic chaos using a combination of radicalism and technology" (Bush, 2003b).

At the legal level, in the "state of emergency" after 9/11, a "state of exception" indefinitely suspended the political rights of "terrorists" and nations "harbouring" them (Mertus, 2004, p. 65) to legitimate ‘Operation Infinite Justice’, a "crusade that [was] gonna take a while" (later retracted by Bush) (Aravamudan, in Hauerwas & Lentricchia, 2003, p. 196).

As part of the "pre-emptive war doctrine", ("taking the battle to the enemy") Bush canvassed international ‘partners’ but named the terms of the deal: weapons would be exchanged for support irrespective of human rights records, the US would not rely on the decisions of others (i.e. the United Nations), and the US could ‘challenge’ any capability that could someday become a threat.

Iraq, already debilitated, was (falsely) characterised as a perilous threat to the American people, re-imaging the offensive invasion as a defensive maneuver (Goodstein, 2003), while the CIA was authorised to kill or round-up thousands of Arab/Muslim "al-Qaida militants" from fifty countries, who were tortured in "outsourced" prisons and tried in secret military tribunals (Schmitt & Mazzetti, 2008).

At the domestic level local preachers narrated the war as a divine plan for ushering in the "second coming" of Jesus Christ. With contemporary Iraq as Babylon and Israel as Mount Zion, the Iraq War was a "dress rehearsal" for the eventual expansion throughout the Middle East and "purification" of Jerusalem. The ultimatum was clear: convert, or join the "Arab terrorist" and be crushed by American might, "your flesh dissolving where you stand" (Phillips, 2003, p. iii).

In Bush’s oleaginous 2002 speech to Westpoint graduates, he depicted "free market capitalism as an engine of social mobility [along] the highway to the American Dream", the single surviving model of human progress and the pinnacle of human aspirations, which his sacrificial listeners would not impose but would defend for the rest of the world (Bush, 2002).

Unlike the uproar over the Lewinsky affair which had precipitated Bill Clinton’s impeachment, 7 few critics offered anything other than conciliatory reflections. Did Bush’s piety persuade the philosopher Susan Neiman to reconcile, "reason stumbles when confronted by the pain of Evil?" (Neiman, 2002, p. 285). Knowledge itself had become "good or evil" depending on whether it was "for us or against us".

Some have resisted however. Joining Susan Sontag, Cornel West described the Bush administration as "evangelical nihilism drunk with power," (West, 2008) 8 while the historian Sakai Naoki contended that "in arrogating lawfulness to themselves, top US officials perceive themselves as the most human and the ultimate sovereign power" (Sakai, 2004).

Edward Said sought to defuse the "indignant passion of Western readers aroused by inflammatory rhetorical design", by pointing to the historical intermingling of ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’: "even Dante had conceded to place Mohammed at the core of his Inferno" (Said, 2001, p. 9). 9

While the unprecedented privatisation of operations (US ‘Homeland Security’ industry) has distanced ‘top US officials’ from responsibility, having been intimidated and misled during an illegal conquest to fuel the largest ever military hegemony, public concern has been diverted away from what matters. Christ, capitalism and American supremacy had been packaged for easy consumption, again. In this light, just what is ‘evil’?

Performance notes

In the program notes to my performance Vivisection Vision: animal reflections (2004, 2006, 2008) I defined the role of the preacher as one who places the image of ‘evil’ between the trigger (soldier/human) and the target (enemy/animal) (Broinowski, 2006). In making the performance, I wanted to grasp the composition of this image, its function, and the structure surrounding it, in order to take responsibility for evil as necessarily existant within me.

In the steroidal ‘super-flat’, avoiding diluted pleasures of narcissistic ‘confession’, how can our complicity be recognized? How can the misguided, compensatory violence of trauma’s repetition be assuaged? What will dismantle the structural anatomy of violence? (Broinowski, 2006) 10

Vivisection vision: hunting evil

A room of night-vision green. A figure in a fake fur blue suit with a mangled face caked in dirt, moves quietly across the space like a ghost. Taking off the mask reveals another mask pulled tightly over its eyes and nose. It cannot see. A camera is in its mouth. It walks to the edge of the stage, and falls off. It is stopped by two lengths of wire, one vertical, one horizontal spanning the theatre between the audience and the stage. It withdraws to the stage again, where it slips, and thrashes on the floor, as if trapped. Quietening, it unplugs and extracts the camera from its mouth, peels the blind from its head, to see for the first time. The body exits. (Broinowski, 2006a) 11 Photo: Heidrun Lohr, ©2006

The cross-hair wire establishes a relationship between audience and performer as binary opposites; human and animal, exotic and normal, soldier and enemy. This perspective has its origins in the ‘cognitive revolution’ of Cartesian separatisme of the 19th century, in which vision was prioritised over the other senses. 12 According to Ross Gibson (2007), the complicity between scopic regimes and imperialism was demonstrated in the way Indigenous Aborigines were seen by the white, European gaze in Australia. This new regime of vision with its ‘evolutionary’ imperative had realigned the densely nuanced Indigenous senses via an objectifying nomenclature. The prior inhabitants were displaced from the land, negating their practices, culture, values and law, even their very visibility, for unitary value in the name of efficiency and progress.

This terra nullius (literally, land of nothing) vision, might be traced to the techne of vivisection, the original purpose of which was to identify the ‘soul’ (later for procedural anatomy). The vivisector was trained to view the ‘case study’ as if it were already dead, which was then demonstrated in front of an audience of witnesses. This structure marked the beginning of the ‘forensic gaze’, a professional detachment for looking at death which colonial Europeans had so assiduously attributed to animals and savages. In the significant desire to ascend, empathy, or ‘mirror-neuron function’, had been subdued.

In lieu of Said’s insisted permanence of the Islamic presence within the West, and with regard to Merleau-Ponty’s essay (1968) The Visible and the Invisible with Claude Lefort, Derrida writes:

…in order to be absolutely foreign to the visible and even to the potentially visible, to the possibility of the visible, this invisibility would still inhabit the visible, or it would come to haunt it to the point of being confused with it, in order to assure from the spectre of this very impossibility, its most proper resource. The visible as such would be invisible, not as visibility, the phenomenality or essence of the visible, but as the singular body. (Derrida, 1993, p. 51)

Cybernetically or virtually, State-sponsored ‘seeing apparatus’ have been thoroughly embedded to track those ‘visible’ bodies, rendered ‘invisible’ within the (govern)mentality of ‘desire’. This way of seeing confuses reality with representation and creates an ‘anthropological machine’. Fortifying national boundaries as the magnified limits of Self and Other, this mentality scopes those bodies typified as potentially dangerous—different, unstable, unpredictable, non-productive. Yet, as it does so, the inverse also occurs, as is suggested at the end of this performance.

The wire conflates the cross, the camp wire and the target of the rifleman/hunter. At first glance, the audience is this hunter, but over time it becomes apparent that the inverse may also be true. The pursuing hunter is watched intently by the tracked animal. While never presuming to be as alert, my blinding helps to approximate an animal state, to make the follicles on my skin become eye-like, to see with the skin.

And so the performance begins with a ‘blinded’ figure with a camera in its mouth. Of blindness, Derrida writes:

A blind man is subjected to being mistaken and is the subject of punishment… losing one’s sight suggests sacrifice for the sake of justice, a law of retribution or compensation, of exchange and equivalence, the logic of punishment overlaps and recovers the logic of acquittal or repayment. Punishment may annul the evil or produce a benefit… revenge also reestablishes equivalence or equity. Turning to martyrdom, and thus into witnessing, blindness is often the price to pay for anyone who must finally open some eyes… (Derrida, 1993, p. 101)

While Cixous regards blindness as an opening to the mysteries, Virilio’s ‘vision machine’ predicts a sightless vision (the non-gaze) in which ‘every image is the manifestation of an unseen energy, the heart of which is blindness’ (Virilio, 1994, p. 72). Blanchot finds blindness to be a dead gaze, the ghost of an eternal vision: ‘vision still, vision which is no longer the possibility of seeing, but the impossibility of not seeing, the impossibility which becomes visible and perseveres—always and always—in a vision that never comes to an end’ (Blanchot, 1989, p. 32).

But the white vinyl masks not only the eyes but the face as well. Facelessness is the erasure of identity which can make the body more disposable, as a soldier, an animal, object or commodity. Its concealment may also elicit suspicion where the face is the site for the assessment of innocence. 13 Removing the protection of anonymity establishes identity, membership, responsibility, vulnerability and risk. If sight is equated with knowledge, its removal in this performance may be an admission of hypocrisy—a gaze that exposes the ‘animal’ of its own selective creation.

Like a Barthesian author divorced from their text, the stage performer, in masking an identity to give shape to others claims an aesthetic freedom, which may lead to arbitrariness. 14 Freedom without principle (unlimited) is to have all and none, choice from many of the same. 15 This mask might be like the condition of the public prior to the invasion of Iraq which Robert Byrd called ‘sleepwalking through history’. In his address to the US Senate regarding Bush’s war as ‘business as usual’, Byrd’s idea of evil was ‘to say that a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over fifty percent children is in the highest moral traditions of our country’ (Byrd, 2003). Indeed, this unmasking is to discover oneself as having been a sleepwalker. I leave the stage.


In the second scene I re-enter with a white balloon, which I trail on a string like a pet or a sole belonging, slowly across a deep red room. My torso is bare and I am wearing grey factory pants too small for me, held up with string. While silently conversing with the balloon, it becomes heavy and resistant, and I let go. With the arm previously attached to the balloon, I begin to hit myself, as if the arm possessed a mind of its own. After a few blows, my arm pulls my head sideways and downwards as if to pull it off. 16

Like an adult in a child’s clothes, the balloon I drag along the ground is a membranous bladder, a bag of skin, a soft organ-like thing, like a heart or stomach or even a pet. It is, as Adorno writes, ‘what philosophers once knew as life, having become the sphere of private existence is now mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own… estranged (by) the objective powers that determine individual existence even in its most hidden recesses’ (Adorno & Jephcott, 1978, p. 15). Like a transplant, I am an intrusive foreigner in another’s space, dragging my heart/belongings behind me, a half naked figure migrating between past and future. 17

In the way Norse’s poem refutes the integration of masculinity into the nation-state, this is a ‘self-criticism’ within the blood-red walls of my body, wherein I carry an ego and a hierarchy of organs (Norse (1972) in Kaufmann A., p. 133). 18 In what may seem self-destructive or humiliating, turning limb on body repudiates an ‘internal chemistry’ of conditioned violence (Levy, 1964 in Kaufmann, 1999, p. 26), 19 dilating and sensitising the skin. The border of consciousness between self and other, inside and outside, becomes (more) fluid, moving closer to a depersonalised ‘not-I’ existing with/in, behind, beyond and above: subject and object. There are many (Kierkegaard 20 , Eckhart 21 , Weil 22 ), who describe world recomposition via non-authority, which is distinct from the body that turns on itself under torture.

Having suffered a sustained attack on accreted layers of identity, traditions and behaviour; logic, belief and memory, 23 the tortured body becomes a willing accomplice in its own demise. For Kierkegaard, Roberts (2006) contends, the ‘sickness unto death’ chosen by the tortured is passive defiance, 24 as distinct from the active defiance of the torturer (magnifiying the self in the eyes of the other with unfulfilled promises bread and love). 25 In the affects of US state terror we see a nourishing of defiance (torture/despair), the normalisation of which is perhaps ‘evil’. Hitting my skin simultaneously reflects this as it creates a non-authoritarian condition. 26

Mirror: death

The light reflects on the roof as I slowly spin beneath the mirror on my back. I lie the mirror down and kneel at its edge, as if at an open grave, and begin to shake my body, trembling in increasing intensity in a single light reflecting from the mirror in the surrounding darkness. My head rolls forward and rests on its crown where it teeters and rolls like a ball.  Sliding my sweaty joints across the surface of the mirror, I come to lie face up, a body on a table. 27

In an act of ‘sousveillance’, or surveillance from below, the mirror reflects light and conceals the body carrying it. The fragility of kneeling in apology jars with the grossly asymmetrical power responsible for war crimes in my name. Perhaps ‘evil’ is crystallised in this moment, in the greatest distance between power and the body. Succumbing, this body joins a long line of bodies who have lain here before.

This moment ricochets across the historical spectrum; the zeal of the Spanish inquisitor; the Belgian coloniser’s chicotte; the bravura of the 19th century vivisector; the German and Japanese experimental surgeons of WW2; the ‘rat-targets’ of the aerial bomber; the Chilean torture gangs; the dungeons of the Stasi, the global prison network of US officials. Adorno writes, ‘Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they're only animals’ (in Patterson, 2002, p. 109). In each case, in varying intensities, the selected bodies are rendered as spectral unrealities, ubiquitously ‘animalised’.

Transformation: humanimal

The bones of my right arm are the first to lift off the glass, followed by my body, which gathers itself up and crawls off the slab. The light reflects on my back, which is streaked in black paint. Retrieving the balloon, unconcerned, unashamed, I am a humanimal clenching a bag of water in my teeth. Lifting the water from the ground, I am stood up and my arm moves through a variety of salutes, straight and bent, its finger coming to rest at my temple. Walking along the mirror I speak:

There is no animal as cruel as human
There is no animal as bright
A thousand suns,
each one brighter than the last
A desert full of empty shells
All is gone, all is gone, all...
(Broinowski, 2006)

Only death ensures the resurrection of the ‘dead body’, as a virtual repackaging of the original. Here, the body rises only to restate a vision of the apocalypse. My back is stained with black paint, as if from the heat of the light on the mirror, from an inherited oppressive system. Leaving skin behind, a body walks out of the polis (the mirror) to join the stateless multitude; humanimals, a new class akin to Agamben’s ‘bare life’, sans papiers, unknown, homeless foreigners and potential subversives. This returned figure is the refugee, the detainee, the dispossessed, the slave. While the humanimal may be given conditional access to the gated community, it remains possible that they will be tagged as ‘animal’: dirty, grotesque, ugly, wild, instinctive, and domesticated. Amiri Baraka (1969, p. 75), familiar with this process, observed:

The perversity of separation, isolation
After so many years of trying to enter their kingdoms,
Now they suffer in tears, these others, saxophones whining
Through the wooden doors of their less than gracious homes.
The poor have become our creators. The black. The thoroughly ignorant.
Let the combination of morality and inhumanity begin. Is power the enemy? 28

Neither exotic animals nor fully accepted citizens, the humanimal drifts in temporal suspension, separate from earth, people and language, attracting cursory fascination while reflecting the enviable luxury of life within the walls. This ontology is kept outside but within target range. Although the humanimal knows and is immune to the blinding power of the ‘evil’ image, it is punished for reflecting our fears, and is forced to both adhere and disadhere to our image. This humanimal echoes our message in language we can understand.

As the ‘humanimal’ is ‘saluted’, the founding violence of our law and sovereignty is reinforced. Nevertheless the distinction between human and animal, civilian and soldier, combat and non-combat zones, real and unreal is eroding. The spectacle unveiling the 21st century saw the typologies of ‘perverted dreamers [who may] loose the lightning’ in the public realm (Mollett 1999, p. 583) foster resignation in a final inevitability. In the doubtful concern for life beyond the epicenters of the aforementioned officials’ economic priorities, lies the dire need for profound change.

I leave the mirror, hanging the balloon suspended above it to resume labour, crushing aluminium cans in the corner of the stage. The projection of the image of the audience, recorded from the camera in my mouth, is projected through the wire onto the back wall of the stage. I place a candle with a naked flame under the hanging balloon, as the only light remaining. 29

Suspension, labour, naked flame

Suspended in the extrajudicial, in perpetual readiness, I am a body returned to the reality of naked capitalism upon which largesse relies, crushing cans in a dimly lit corner. Plato writes, ‘although we are frail and needy we have been enchanted and seduced by our own resources for self-sufficiency, device and artifice. Believing our power to control outcomes has blinded us to seeing that we have always been barefoot and homeless’ (in Reale & Caton, 1990, pp.555–556). Can the ‘fine and twisted shapes of the heart’, destabilise the ‘arrogant and warlike ordering of the universe’? (Cohen, 1966, p. 437).

That which has transpired between remains outside the captured and disseminated image, an opaque flaw in media mirrors. Seeing an image of themselves on the other side of the target-wire, the performance becomes one side of a barter, awaiting reciprocation from the audience.

As Derrida writes:

Perhaps without a messiah, (is the) anticipation, of what might be, a vision of potential, a promise, eternal and incomplete, but not waiting for incarnation or the coming, that which in itself is enough, the failure to manifest which does not matter. (Derrida, 1994, p. 182)

The candle beneath the balloon warns that the body—a tremulous liquid-filled bladder determined by gravity—is an object of complex and fragile value beyond quantifiable productivity, its differentiality the evidence of its existence.

Performances cited

  • Broinowski, A. (2004, June 16-18). Vivisection Vision: animal reflections Tokyo: CANVAS.
  • Broinowski, A. (2006, June 1-3). Vivisection Vision: animal reflections Sydney: Performance Space.
  • Broinowski, A. (2008, August) Vivisection Vision: animal reflections (aka NONDOG). Copenhagen: CampX.


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