Book reviews

Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film, by Art Simon. Philadelphia, PA:
Temple University Press, 1996. 257 pp., illus. 

Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett
Vol. 22, Cineaste, 01-01-1996, pp 59.

    The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the most photographed murder in history, with more than 500 films and stills taken of the November 22, 1963 tragedy by eyewitnesses and newsmen. Many of these images have become graven in popular culture and the mass imagination, and have spurred meditations by artists such as Andy Warhol and novelists such as J. G. Ballard and Don DeLillo. Frames from the famous Zapruder footage of the actual shooting, images of the bereaved Jackie, and the well-known still of Jack Ruby executing Lee Harvey Oswald appear on T-shirts, punk-rock album covers, and in avant-garde collages. The use of these images suggest much about how this event has been fetishized into a hugely complex, mythic status, and how the public has become inured to violence in the age of the media spectacle. They also represent a continued wrangling over the truth of the assassination, as these pictures symbolize a distrust of state power that began to ferment with the Warren Commission verdict on the crime. Art Simon's Dangerous Knowledge charts all of this territory in a sophisticated study that at times is so ambitious it produces divergent agendas.
    Simon's chief focus is on the long debate over the issue of conspiracy in the JFK murder and the ways by which the assassination images have been crucial to establishing what really happened in Dealey Plaza. Simon argues that the endless debate about the assassination, centered (so he assumes) on the photos of the crime, came to constitute an "epistemological crisis," as each official and nonofficial investigation refuted a previous truth claim, and interpretation formed a huge Moebius Strip that traps the body politic and renders truth itself indeterminant but continues to provoke discussion. Assuming the importance of looking and images to a concept of power, Simon invokes Michel Foucault's remark that "Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes." This simultaneously compelling, obtuse, and arid remark is emblematic of much postmodern discourse, which tends to look for power's location everywhere but in political economy and the ideology it generates. Foucault's linkage of the gaze to power is not the sum and substance of Simon's method, but it does much to turn this work into a studious, eloquent, but labored exercise lacking a real political and moral center. It is not helped by a tripartite structure that makes the book read more like a survey of a variety of issues esthetic, philosophical, and political, rather than an interrogation of one that passionately concerns the author.
    The first section of the book contains an overview of the assassination debates that recounts the history of and arguments concerning some key pieces of photographic evidence, such as the Zapruder film and the autopsy photos of JFK. Simon has read deeply into the assassination literature, but he wants to discuss this record as a series of "discursive practices" (each of which shows the tenuous nature of truth claims in post-modernity) rather than a political struggle. Simon states that insofar as the assassination debate is a political contest, it is one characterized by interpretive strategies and polemics rather than activism, which for Simon is a unique characteristic of the controversy. This is a dubious notion, especially given the number of researchers of a left orientation long involved in the issue. Simon sketches the history of several New Left organizations that questioned the Warren Report; most of them were engaged in traditional grassroots activity. Both Mark Lane's Citizens Commission of Inquiry and the Assassination Information Bureau saw the need to examine the JFK murder from a radical perspective, to avoid notions of secret cabals, and to link the assassination to a broad array of crimes that flowed from the standing political-economic order.
    Simon recognizes the complexity of this issue very well, but in so doing gives it a kind of organic quality, as if the assassination debates had a peculiar aspect that made them an inherently complex morass. While acknowledging that there are numerous historical issues about which there is little clear consensus among scholars, Simon tends to make some questionable claims that return the assassination to the domain of the postmodern, including the notion that some critics have resisted "narrative closure" by insisting on continuing the debate. If the JFK assassination debate has been prolonged, it is perhaps simply because many people protested the notion that a single government panel can disingenuously authorize history without any adversarial procedure, and this protest has been resisted adamantly by conservative voices in and out of state power.
    Perhaps more troublesome, Simon tends to separate the filmic representations of the event and their use by researchers, artists, and the media from the rest of the evidence in the case, and from the assassination' s political/historical context. While Simon claims that he wants to speak of the filmic record not as free-floating signifiers but as materials in a larger body of discourse, his specific sense of context is obscure. The early arguments of such Warren Commission critics as Vincent Salandria, Sylvia Meagher, Mark Lane, and Harold Weisberg are recounted, but Simon doesn't note that a concern for the photos was never very central to the massive body of work these critics produced. Salandria, perhaps the dean of all assassination critics, argued in a 1964 issue of the Philadelphia Legal lntelligencer that the Warren Commission's case against Oswald was manifestly bankrupt on a number of basic legal grounds. Salandria, an attorney, did indeed question the media's representation of the JFK photographic record, but he is one of a number of Warren Commission critics who criticized the fixation of some researchers on the photographs in establishing the issue of conspiracy, given the questionable legal status of photographic representation and the ability of the photos to take research only a relatively short distance. Many of the more prominent critics were well aware of the issue of subjectivity associated with interpretation of photographs.
    Also missing from Simon's overview is any sense of how this murder and its investigation fragmented the left and consequently represented a distinct political crisis, beginning with I.F. Stone's vicious attacks on Bertrand Russell for having the audacity to criticize the honorable men of the Warren Commission, apparently because Stone was concerned not to upset Earl Warren, who shut down discussion of Oswald-the-leftist and thus prevented a new witch hunt. The postmodern epistemological crisis that Simon imposes on his argument takes him away from the more consequential realities of this political assassination and its aftermath.
    The middle section of the book, on the use of JFK imagery by avant-gardists such as Bruce Connor and Andy Warhol, does not flow very naturally from what comes before. While Simon offers a thoughtful, well-theorized discussion of the uses of assassination imagery within modern art and camp (the discussions of Bruce Connor's pioneering avant-garde short Report and Warhol's silkscreens are especially interesting), his tendency is to give all discourse equal footing, so that avant- garde videos share a conversation about the assassination with congressional documents, journalistic accounts of the murder, and the eyewitness and professional photographs. This is a kind of postmodern conflation, not of high with popular culture, but of art with criticism and with the proclamations of state power. This archetypal postmodern position reduces all debate to "text"no single discourse enjoys any privilege or integrity over any other. Certainly each discourse on this very provocative subject has a different stake in the establishment of truth, and Simon's distinctions among these (he does make attempts at such) become lost as one moves through the book.
    The last section of the book is a review of films dealing, sometimes obliquely, with the assassination. Simon's concern here is less with the different depictions of the assassination than with Hollywood' s changing representations of conspiracy, paranoia, and disempowerment in the wake of the assassination. The problem here is that some of the films discussed (Winter Kills, Executive Action) have little interest even to the specialized reader; they are simply bad movies with little status in film history or in intelligent discussion of the assassination' s repercussions on American consciousness. Only his discussion of Oliver Stone's JFK serves him well in this chapter, particularly since Stone has spoken of his film as "more philosophical than political," and as "splinters to the brain" that uses the esthetic strategies of postmodernism to challenge received wisdom about history and to enter precisely the debate that Simon frames.
    There are some gaps and minor errors (Robert Cutler's name is spelled "Kutler") in this book, inevitable given the vast landscape the author has staked out. Surprisingly absent is any discussion of the numerous video and' film documentaries on the assassination, a genre that began years ago and burgeoned in the wake of JFK. A noticeable omission is the Mark Lane/Emile de Antonio documentary Rush to Judgment, based on the historic bestseller by Lane. Dangerous Knowledge is important for its recognition of the Kennedy assassination as a formative moment both for culture and political consciousness. It is unfortunate that the book's hypertheorized strategy replaces a political focus that would inform us why exactly knowledge about this subject is so dangerous.

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