University Distinguished Professor of Law and Humanities, Patricia Williams, took to the podium at the Northeastern University Alumni Center on October 10 to discuss the state of fear and political uncertainty gripping the U.S.
She was introduced by various faculty members across disciplines, including the Dean and Professor of Law at the Northeastern University School of Law, James Hackney, Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities (CSSH), Uta Poiger, and Provost and Senior Vice President for academic affairs, James Bean.
In her opening remarks, Dean Poiger spoke highly of Williams’ book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, calling it her “seminal work,” and highlighted a personal connection to the distinguished professor: when she witnessed Williams give a keynote address at the very first conference that she attended to give a professional paper, the Berkshire Conference of Women.
“It was in the austere, or maybe somewhat decorated but dark halls of Vassar, that you gave a very, very moving address,” Poiger said. “An address that was very moving also for a young woman who had come to the United States and had decided to work on gender and racial formations.”
In addition to the faculty and staff who commended Williams for her transformative work, students across campus and disciplines were also drawn to her talk. One of these was first-year Northeastern Law School student, Jenny Ruymann, who said that Williams’ work had shown up in many of her courses, particularly regarding critical race theory and how it relates to the law.
“Everything that I’ve read that she’s written has been sort of this very much needed antidote to the rigidness of some of our first year classes,” Ruymann said. “[It’s] a lot of decontextualized property, civil procedure, these things that it’s sort of hard to contextualize what they mean in the world, and Patricia Williams’ footnotes and all of her textbooks do that.”
As part of her talk, “Unthinking the Politics of Fear,” Williams listed three components she wished to deconstruct.
The first, visual echolalia, or the “history of images that is embedded in every image that we see that invokes the shape of other scenes or scenarios or prior histories, but that are out of place because they are displaced or put to new use,” as Williams put it, is seen often in our everyday lives.
The second, images that construct a sense of siege, “rehearse a sense of being haunted, eeriness, or uncanniness, a sense of precedence and apprehension.”
Finally, the third, gesture vocabulary, which “directs our gaze by misdirecting it,” is something particularly experienced through images rather than written or spoken word.
She began her analysis with the heavily circulated image of Dallas Judge Tammy Kemp hugging the former Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger, who was convicted of murder for killing her unarmed black neighbor. This was set right next to an image of Guyger hugging the murder victim’s brother in the same court.
She juxtaposed these images against those of Sammy Davis Jr. hugging Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton embracing Monica Lewinsky, and even more recently, Michelle Obama sharing a hug with George W. Bush.
“This particular image is as divisive as it gets, in the long history of controversial huggery,” Williams said.
She highlighted the ‘Stroop effect,’ in which the words and images that should correspond to each other do not, and as a result, become convoluted in the viewer’s mind. She argued that this could explain the controversy behind Guyger’s photograph.
“I think a lot of what one is responding to is this mashup of black and white bodies” Williams said, asking her audience to consider the image subjects’ skin color.
Throughout her analysis, Williams placed an emphasis on the multidisciplinary nature of these images, from the sociological aspects that proliferate within them, to the almost allegorical religious nature that they possess, seen through the comparison drawn between President Trump surrounded by secret service agents as a man tries rushing the stage at a rally and The Taking of Christ, a work by the Italian painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
She also used incidents such as the 2016 presidential campaign rally in Iowa, where Trump, who at the time was running for office, jokingly said he could “shoot somebody and not lose any voters.” Williams said that this was a linguistic message historically associated with Uncle Sam’s “I Want You”, a call to arms for his supporters to join his army.
“I think it’s important for all of us, but particularly lawyers to be visually literate in a world of Instagram and political propaganda,” Williams said, “and this is an easy example to unlayer and to make the points I want to pursue in other contexts,” referring to her analysis of the Guyger image.
After studying several photographs, each with qualities that pointed toward the nature of the three points Williams wished to highlight, the discussion opened up to a Q&A, moderated by the Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, Ronald Sandler.
Williams illustrates a point that resonates with a lot of the younger generations in our society—a blatant gesture toward meme culture in a world where social media is the vehicle for establishing norms and spreading all rhetoric.
In turn, she ends on a questioning note about whether any rhetoric can be apolitical in such a politically divisive environment, and in a context that is increasingly visual over verbal, how important it is to educate oneself on the stories that images can tell.
“I [think] that maybe finding the words to describe what happens in these kinds of narratives is a way for grappling with the enormous complexity of what drives particular outcomes and makes them seem so out of control, so irremediable,” Williams said.