Enemy combatants. Enhanced interrogation techniques. Indefinite detention. The language we use to communicate Guantánamo’s recent history is both legally precise and frustratingly indirect. It also comes loaded with politicized connotations.
Given the confusing and high-stakes nature of Guantánamo’s language, students at the University of California, Riverside, felt it was important to create a linguistic “intervention” when the Guantánamo Public Memory Project’s traveling exhibit came to our campus and the California Museum of Photography (CMP). The goal of this intervention was to deconstruct the language that describes and simultaneously obfuscates Guantánamo’s history and to represent – in simplified form – the complex legal documents that dictate the fate of the 166 men still imprisoned there today.
I was one of the public history graduate students who worked on this language component for the exhibition, Geographies of Detention: From Guantánamoto the Golden Gulag, which opened at the CMP on June 1. From the beginning,we were faced with a daunting challenge: How to condense thousands of words of inscrutable legalese into a meaningful and evocative exhibit piece? We found our solution in word clouds.
Word clouds are visual depictions of word frequency. The concept is simple – the more a word is used in a text, the larger it appears in the cloud. (We are not the only ones who have found word clouds useful. Students at the University of Minnesota created a word cloud to display the ideas their peers associated with Guantánamo.)
More than just good design, word clouds can expose biases and rhetorical strategies. A striking example of this is the word cloud made from the so-called torture memo, written by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee. The prominence of the words “torture” and “pain” make clear how explicitly this document talks about humiliating acts of physical and psychological abuse.
But there is also meaning to be found in the small, easily overlooked words in the clouds. Little words, we realized, represented what a text was trying to minimize. In Bybee’s memo, acts of torture are described almost as if they were victimless. In the word cloud this document generates, only a handful of diminutive and impersonal terms – “individual,” “defendant”– reference the people enduring the abuse.
In consultation with our professors and the CMP staff, we decided to turn our word clouds into a video projection. On the second floor of the museum, overlooking paintings and photographs of prisons, hang the traveling panels of the Guantánamo Public Memory Project. The panels line a long catwalk. At its end, the projected word clouds draw visitors’ eyes, and hopefully their interest.
The final product ended up being much more expansive than we had originally envisioned. Moving beyond the language of Guantánamo, we considered our local Golden Gulag – California’s extensive prison industrial complex. The Supreme Court has determined that conditions in California prisons to amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.” Despite this ruling, unconstitutional overcrowding continues to this day. By displaying word clouds related to California prisons, we hoped to challenge visitors to think about detention both at Guantánamo and closer to home.
Our ultimate goal was to use the language of detention to tell a new story. In the video projection, key quotes are followed by word clouds generated from the same document. Watching the entire sequence traces the shifting legal definitions and public debates surrounding Guantánamo and California’s Golden Gulag. The projection ends with the Constitution of the United States. For detainees living in legal limbo at Guantánamo and inmates crammed into California’s overcrowded prisons, the rights promised by this document are just words.
The Guantánamo Public Memory Project traveling exhibit will be at UC Riverside until August 10. ‘Geographies of Detention’ will remain on display until September 7.
Posted by Jennifer Thornton, PhD student at the University of California, Riverside