War and the Sentence Fragment

Anne Shea

It was 2004 and I was driving—slowly—west on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Staring aimlessly out of the window, I caught sight of a billboard to my left, above a commercial building. In simple black type against a white background, the billboard read: I will be happy when the endless war is o. The “o” bumped right up against the billboard’s edge. The sentence spilled out of the frame and out into the space that surrounded it, the relentlessly commercialized visual space of the Los Angeles streets. The billboard didn’t look like anything else out there, with its crisp print—black type on white background.1

Empty sidewalks, streets congested with cars— these are commonplaces in representations of the city of Los Angeles. The experience of public space is reduced to looking out of the car window at advertising and traffic signs. The billboard I saw that day interrupted the commercialized city streets through its visual simplicity and its discursive potential to engage me as a citizen rather than a consumer. Later, I learned that David Thorne had created the billboard, be happy, for Julia Meltzer’s Clockshop Public Speaking project.2

The billboard’s towering words play with the visual dimension of written language. When we look at the billboard we see the letter “o” at the edge, hovering. As a letter, the “o” can hover, it can float, or it might roll. The “o” looks open or empty. I might put my hand through it or peep into it. Like a frame, its outside is inside too—there in the middle, there’s a nothing that’s needed for it to be read. What’s the nothing that’s needed for the script to be read? What’s the unspoken on which it relies? What makes something intelligible and another thing not? Do we read the negative space as something or nothing? The billboard begins with an “I” and ends with an o. I, O,…U? What do I o(we) you?

To whom is my language indebted? More than any play with the graphic quality of script, Thorne’s work asks us to investigate how we appropriate discourse to ourselves. How have we taken up and used the rhetoric of endless war? The billboard takes the occasion of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to remind us that just as we speak we are also spoken by language. The billboard has long since disappeared from Wilshire Boulevard, replaced first by others within the Public Speaking series, and later by commercial messages. Wherever it stood on Wilshire Boulevard, we might locate it, more significantly, within the discourse of war.3

The sentence fragment as a formal strategy signals its status as incomplete, as partial. The fragment produces self-consciousness as the reader falters toward the completion, or incompletion, of the sentence. We end with our mouths open in an “o,” sense interrupted or suspended. As we falter, failing to make a complete sentence, or completing the sentence on our own, the piece reflects back upon us our own participation in the making of meaning, particularly the making of meaning of war, confronting us with the ways in which our own sensory, emotional, and intellectual lives are shaped in relation to these political and historical discourses. The edge of the billboard fractures the utterance. Our desire for a complete, grammatical sentence is frustrated. We make sense, not just through grammatical structure, but also within the field of meaning created by the discourse of war.

Written in future tense, Thorne’s sentence fragment foregrounds the manner in which the discourse of war projects certain kinds of futures.4We might interpret the endless war in the billboard in a number of ways. On the one hand, it references what has been called the perma-war status of the war on terrorism. Not a traditional war by any definition, it constructs a constant state of emergency, of fear, a permanent state of war without a clear end. On the other hand, the endless war of the billboard might be thought of as referencing the way in which a culture of war produces an endless iteration of war narratives that prepare the society for future war. If I think, for example, of my own life, I could see it through the lens of an experience, although mediated, of endless war. From the oral history of my father’s World War II experiences told to me as a child, to the televised images of the Vietnam War that “came into my living room” as a young girl, to the testimonies of those who witnessed the covert wars of the Reagan Administration in Latin America and the CNN broadcasts of the first Gulf War during my college years, my life might said to be an experience of viewing endless war. And this brief accounting doesn’t even consider the many others ways in which Western society constructs and commercializes war. From G.I. Joe toys to camouflage fashion, history books, holidays, Hollywood movies, and Hummers, war saturates our visual culture and public sphere. In saying that my life might be understood through the lens of endless war, I do not want to erase the differences between my mediated experience and the experience of those whose lives have been shaped by direct involvement in the violence of war. Thorne’s text produces a reflection upon my own knowledge of war, mediated by the discourses of war that seek to define its meaning.

David Thorne, <em>be happy</em>, 2004.

David Thorne, be happy, 2004. Billboard, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Julia Meltzer.

If we take up Thorne’s fragment, as we’ve taken up bits and pieces of the discourse of war, we engage with its projections into the future. And this is as true for me now as it was when I first saw and read the piece in 2004. The future tense will always position itself in relation to the now of speaking and reading.5 And this might be another way in which the discourse of war produces itself in endless iterations.

Thorne does not make a definitive political statement about war as much as he draws us into syntactic relationship to it. As readers, we occupy the place of the “I,” the grammatical subject of the unfinished sentence. Much depends upon the pronoun and its unusual behavior. In his essay Subjectivity in Language, Émile Benveniste observed, “there is no concept ‘I’” in the same manner that “there is a concept ‘tree.’”6 Walking down the street, I can’t point to an “I” to illustrate the pronoun the way I might point out a tree to illustrate its referent. We can all become the referent, as well as the speaking subject, of the pronoun “I.” The unique characteristics of the pronoun led Benveniste to argue that we declare ourselves subjects through language. In positioning us within a grammatical sentence, the billboard prompts us to examine our own production as subjects within this discourse, the discourse of endless war.

Thorne, then, offers us this occasion to take up the pronoun “I” by asking us to consider how as subjects we are formed in language. Driving down Wilshire Boulevard, I came upon the billboard; the billboard stages a scene in which I encounter language. The words on the billboard are banal, they sound like something we’ve heard before. They sound like something we might have said. They are distinctly unoriginal. We can hear in them what Roland Barthes called the “off-stage voices” that “de-originate the utterance.”7 In reading the billboard I’m conscious of the processes through which my own language about the war has been generated outside myself, in the mouths of previous speakers, the missives of the state, and the experts who have produced much of our knowledge about the war. Demonstrating how we take up discourse that we do not necessarily consciously select reveals what Judith Butler described in The Psychic Life of Power as our “fundamental dependency on a discourse we never choose.”8 If, as Kaja Silverman argues, what we say is determined by what has already been said, then “the speaking subject is not really in control of his or her subjectivity.”9 Not only are we “constrained by the rules of language” but also by culturally and historically specific codes of meaning making.10

David Thorne, <em>be happy</em>, 2004.

David Thorne, be happy, 2004. Billboard, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Julia Meltzer.

The billboard implies that we cannot stand outside the discourse of war to regard it, to analyze it, to oppose it. Instead, we have to acknowledge that we are produced within it. We are accustomed to thinking about power as external to us, something that acts on us. Michel Foucault writes in his 1982 essay “The Subject and Power”: “The form of power that applies itself to immediate everyday life categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity.”11 Power, rather than being something outside, “makes individuals subjects.”12 Power produces, rather than stifles. And it doesn’t stop there, as Foucault points out, “the individual which power has constituted is at the same time its vehicle.”13 For these reasons, Foucault argues that we might seek “to refuse,” rather than “to discover” ourselves.14

By using the edge to fracture the sentence, Thorne makes us aware of the frame, or in this case, the border of the billboard itself. Frames, like language, articulate things, making them intelligible; they create orders with which we are familiar. But here, the frame and the articulation are misregistered, and the incongruity pulls us up short with an “o” in our mouths and minds. In this way, the words seem to break the margin, dissolving it as container. What happens if the distinctions between, inside and outside become difficult to ascertain? The strategy may visually represent the undoing, or rather the permeability, of various kinds of borders, an unraveling of distinction between various categories: the sentence, the individual, and the nation-state.15In the long tradition of “conflate[ing] visual and social order,”16 Thorne’s piece implies, if not disorder, then a kind of skewing.

This billboard, obeying its own conventions, offers up happiness. We could think of emotion as another kind of framing device. As Sara Ahmed writes in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, “emotions create the very effect of the surfaces and boundaries that allow us to distinguish an inside and an outside in the first place.”17 Emotions generated within the discourse of war produce various kinds of boundaries, various insides and outsides. If the fragmentary structure of the billboard reminds us that we make sense within grammatical structure, the affective register of the billboard foregrounds the way that we are shaped by the codes of culture and connotation. In the United States, happiness is always at the tip of the tongue.

When I first read this fragment, sitting in my car, I thought, “I will be happy when the endless war is over.” But then I paused. Was that it? Would I be happy? Ahmed helps us think about the emotion, writing: “If injustice is not simply about feeling bad, then justice is not simply a matter of feeling good,” adding, “being happy is not itself a sign of justice.”18 Ahmed argues that the nation becomes “installed as the ‘hope’ of the subject” that “guarantees the ‘pursuit of happiness.’”19 “Such optimism,” Ahmed claims, “does not originate from a subject, but is generated through promises made to the subject, which circulate as ‘truths’ within public culture.”20 As Ahmed and Lauren Berlant have argued, happiness may be the reward for acting as a good citizen or conforming to a social norm. Ahmed’s work may provide us with a tool to pry open the lock by which we may have been secured to state sentiment. In this piece, I am confronted with my inscription into narratives that feature the pursuit of happiness, even within the framework of war. Thorne implies the regulation of our affect through these discourses. Art, operating on our senses and affects, works in a field marked by previous inscriptions. While art may not produce, to use Butler’s phrase, a complete “deregulation of affect,” it may make these previous inscriptions visible and trace new outlines in the process.21

By focusing on the framing of our speech and affect, it may seem as though the subject is helpless, caught in larger determining structures. However, this isn’t how these theorists, nor this art piece, need to be read. In Frames of War, Butler argues that the frame “is more fallible than it might first appear,” that it “never quite determined precisely what it is we see, think, recognize, and apprehend.”22 “The point,” argues Butler, “is not to eradicate the conditions of one’s own production, but only to assume the responsibility for living a life that contests the determining power of that production; in other words, that makes good use of the iterability of the productive norms, and hence, of their fragility and transformability.”23 We cannot “eradicate” the conditions that produce our speech, yet we can make the most of the “fragility” and “transformability” of language. Butler builds upon Derrida’s concept of the “iterability” of language. Iterability, although difficult to define, refers to the way that “every utterance in being repeated, is resituated, recontextualized, and rearranged.”24 Thus, even if our language has been given to us, Derrida reminds us that the meaning cannot be fixed: “that structural potential for rearrangement, not knowing in advance how it will next appear, is what makes for the undecidable.”25 Language is always open to resignification.

In a 1981 interview, Foucault responded to the charge that he was “pessimistic” with these words: “My optimism would consist rather in saying, ‘So many things can be changed, being as fragile as they are, tied more to contingencies than to necessities, more to what is arbitrary than to what is rationally established, more to complex but transitory historical contingencies than to inevitable anthropological constants.”26 Three years later, in another interview, Foucault responds to those who see his work as deterministic or nihilistic, saying “analysis reveals the precariousness, the nonnecessity, and the instability of things. All this is absolutely linked to a practice and to strategies that are themselves unstable and changing.”27

Thorne’s billboard doesn’t articulate an opposition to the particular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, it makes visible the problem of articulation in the time of war. It presents us with the problem of speaking through and getting spoken by the language we have received and by the scripts we have inherited. But if we have been handed language shaped by culture and granted selves formed by history, then neither language nor self are fixed forever in place. One possible reading of the fragmentary nature of the billboard’s utterance is to see it as open to shifting historical and cultural determinants, open to the generative capacities of language, and open to an undoing of sense as already made.

Anne Shea lives in Los Angeles.


  1. In the winter of 1969, a billboard appeared simultaneously in several cities around the world, including Times Square in New York, stating, “WAR IS OVER / IF YOU WANT IT. / PEACE AND LOVE / JOHN AND YOKO.” Created by Yoko Ono and John Lennon, the billboard strikes me as a utopian enunciation, expressing a deep belief in the individual’s ability to alter history and to transform the conditions of his or her existence. We might read it as an open letter, signed, as a letter would be: “Peace and love from John and Yoko.” The second line makes use of the fact that in English, the second person pronoun represents both the individual and the collective. Thus, “you” can work as an individual call to consciousness and as a collective rallying cry. I think of this sentence—the “war is over”—as aspiring, if not occupying, the status of a performative utterance. In How to Do Things With Words, J.L. Austin distinguishes between a constative utterance, which describes, and a performative utterance, which performs the action referred to in the uttered statement. To use one of the examples Austin provides, the utterance “I declare war” doesn’t just say something, it does something. When Ono and Lennon say, “War is over,” however, readers are reminded of the failure of this statement to achieve the status of a performative utterance. Saying the war is over doesn’t make it so, although this depends upon who utters the statement. If one were, say, the President of the United States, this utterance might be performative. Because the Ono/Lennon billboard plays with the concept of the performative, it foregrounds language as human action. The billboard makes visible the uneven ability to use language as a performative utterance, pointing toward the intersections of language and power. The implicit message of the billboard might be that if this utterance, spoken by an individual speaker, fails as a performative action, then perhaps the utterance, spoken by thousands, might succeed as one. Thus the billboard imagines a collective utterance that could attain the status of collective action.
  2. In an email correspondence with the artist on May 10, 2011, David Thorne described the billboard as part of a “series of text pieces called cut-offs,” explaining that each work within the series has a subtitle. This piece is called be happy. A small book/pamphlet created in conjunction with the Clockshop project describes it this way: “Public Speaking, a series of artists’ billboards, appeared in June, August, October, and December 2004 at 6150 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Four monthlong exhibitions were selected to spark curiosity, conversation, and debate about contemporary social and political concerns. This project was produced by Clockshop with support from Viacom Outdoor.” Clockshop, a nonprofit media and arts organization, was founded in 2003 by Julia Meltzer.
  3. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004). Kwon argues that we might understand contemporary art as “discursively determined.”
  4. In a presentation at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School on their collaborative work 9 Scripts from a Nation at War, a ten-channel video installation, the artists Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander, and David Thorne discuss how the discourses of war engage in the construction of certain kinds of futures. A videotape of their presentation can be viewed on-line at http:// fora.tv/2007/09/17/9.
  5. “The ‘verb form’…is always and necessarily actualized by the act of discourse and in dependence on that act.” Émile Benveniste, “The Nature of Pronouns,” 220. Cited in Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 44.
  6. Émile Benveniste, “Subjectivity in Language,” Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1971), 226.
  7. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 21. Cited in Silverman, 50.
  8. Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 2.
  9. Silverman, 50.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in Power, ed. James D. Faubion (New York: The New York Press, 1994), 331.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures,” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books), 98.
  14. Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in Power, 336.
  15. “State violence often articulates itself through the positing of the sovereign subject.” Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London/Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2009), 178.
  16. Laura E. Baker, “Public Sites Versus Public Sights: The Progressive Response to Outdoor Advertising and the Commercialization of the Public Sphere,” American Quarterly 59.4 (December 2007), 1198.
  17. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 10.
  18. Ahmed, 196.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Butler, Frames, 52.
  22. Ibid, 9.
  23. Ibid, 170.
  24. David Willis, “Derrida and Aesthetics: Lemming (Reframing the Abyss),” in Derrida and the Humanities: A Critical Reader, ed. Tom Cohen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 321.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Foucault, “So is it important to think?” in Power, 458.
  27. Foucault, “Interview with Actes,” in Power, 399.

Further Reading