Means Without End: A Paroxysm of Praxis

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. Nietzsche

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Pop-Torture in the 'City on the Hill'

*This commentary appeared on Znet

"To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability". Susan Sontag

Under the auspices of a so-called ‘war on terror,’ we often hear critics discuss serious matters pertaining to the geo-political and geo-economical consequences of the war on U.S. foreign policy, as well as the ramifications of the war for future diplomatic relations with the Middle East and the world. Those analyses typically point to the destructive construction—by both the Bush Administration (and their pundits) and al-Qaeda—of geographical imaginaries that cultivate an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality—a policy tactic whose precedence lingers from a Cold War-based statecraft. The global public witnessed the ugly result of this cancerous us/them dyad when the Abu-Ghraib photos were clandestinely released to CBS in April 2004.

The significance of these photos is complex, and is the subject of this brief commentary. But already we can see that the complications posed by the Abu-Ghraib photographs are far beyond geo-political and geo-economic concerns; instead, we have to enter into the realm of cultural significance. For, as the late cultural critic Edward Said reminds us, ‘culture underwrites power even as power elaborates culture.’ Ever since Edward Said’s publication of Orientalism in 1977, there has been a renewed focus on the power of culture in producing difference (‘us/them’) because, as Derek Gregory argues in his masterful The Colonial Present, ‘culture involves the production, circulation, and legitimation of meanings through representations, practices, and performances that enter fully into the constitution of the world.’ Therefore, the significance of the Abu-Ghraib photos is that they are insignificant—they are redundant images born out of an Americanized ‘architecture of enmity.’

The typical response to the Abu-Ghraib photos in the popular media was one of spectacle ‘shock,’ because the images of tortured Muslims having canines on the verge of attacking genitalia, or nude men being stacked in a pyramid with a smiling Lynndie England and Charles Graner giving an affirmative thumbs-up, flew in the face of an American exceptionalism that understands itself to be a beacon of democracy, freedom, and due process—as Reagan famously stated, the ‘City on the Hill.’ Instead, the American and global public witnessed in those images representations of dehumanization, humiliation, and physical brutality; in other words, a mentality of guilty-until-proven-innocent.

There are two significant features to these pitiless photographs that merit discussion. The first feature concerns the reaction of ‘shock,’ and the second underscores the insignificance of the photographs. This may seem like a strange combination seeming that shock usually implies a degree of significance, but I think the contrary is true, that it is in fact the insignificance of the photographs that provoked such a reaction, which I will now explain.

Shock and Awe

In order to understand the implications of the Abu-Ghraib photographs, we must first consider the mutable nuances of American war-imagery over the past thirty years. Ever since the images of naked Vietnamese girls running through field with their flesh aflame with napalm and American soldiers coming back in body-bags from the Vietnam War, the U.S. government and media have carefully managed war-imagery because of its power to negatively affect public opinion towards U.S. wars of aggression (Vietnam, Nicaragua, Greneda, and Iraq being examples par excellence). Since Vietnam, war imagery has moved away from a corporeal, embodied, subjective mediazation of war, to a more distanced, de-corporeal, objective experience of spectacular violence; in other words, there has been an erasure of the human body from the picture. This objective experience ranges from distanced, night-vision experiences of bombs downpouring on cities, to embedding journalists with the military in order to ensure coverage of only one side, to the insidious refusal to enumerate Iraqi casualties (though a recent John Hopkins report states that an incredible 650,000 Iraqis have been killed since the most recent invasion by the United States). Media coverage of flagdraped caskets of soldiers has also been strictly censored. As University of Chicago art historian WJT Mitchell argues, like the first Gulf War, ‘this [has been] a war without bodies or tears for [and from] the American public, but one filled, at the same time, with a sense of danger, paranoia, and spectacular violence.’

It is within this context that we can understand the unconventionality of the Abu-Ghraib photographs: they were a reintroduction of bodies back into war imagery. In a mediatized world where the political stakes are the power of fascination, it was only after the corporeal imagery of real suffering and humiliation depicted in the Abu-Ghraib imagery (and in New Orleans for that matter) that the support for the war dwindled. It is no coincidence that Rumsfeld’s first response to the public disclosure of the Abu-Ghraib tortures was to ban the possession of digital cameras. But what made these photographs seem significant? I would argue that this unconventional war-imagery was what Jacque Lacan would call a veritable ‘answer of the real.’ In other words, the unsanitized photographs revealed more about American culture than was too comfortable to acknowledge.

The Insignificance of Torture

One of the more interesting responses to the disclosure of the Abu-Ghraib photographs came from the right-wing pundit Rush Limbaugh, who attempted to do his part in quality control by likening the images to something that happens in ‘fraternity houses all the time.’ Even though Limbaugh was criticized heavily for this reaction, it was precisely his insinuation that Abu-Ghraib was unexceptional that provoked the rage, and I think he is more right than his critics suggest, though not in the ways he might believe. What makes the Abu-Ghraib photographs insignificant is the fact that they are indeed banal—they are like images that are depicted on television ad nauseum, as well as routinely performed and practiced in American culture. In other words, they fall in line with what I would call the conventions of American pop-torture.

As social theorists Bulent Diken and Carsten Laustsen argue, the pictures ‘are a testimony to the extent of voyeurism and brutalization present in today’s society… the pictures signify a normalization… of the extreme exercise of sado-masochistic ritual (e.g., Lynndie England leading a naked man around on a leash).’ One needs to look no further than shows like 24 and Battlestar Galactica (where ‘terrorists’ are routinely tortured for reasons of ‘national security’), and movies like Pulp Fiction and Hostel to see that it is no secret that the United States celebrates fantasies of ‘cool’ violence as ‘good entertainment.’ As Susan Sontag suggests, ‘depicting orgies of torture is being normalized, by the apostles of the new, bellicose, imperial America, as high-spirited prankishness or venting.’ I will never forget a commercial that was shown recently for the show 24 that started with ‘America never backs down from the threat of terrorism’ flashing on the screen, followed by the image of U.S. soldiers breaking into Iraqi houses. The commercial then continued with ‘And neither does Jack,’ followed by Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) choking an unnamed ‘terrorist.’ This kind of spectacular pop-torture has become so ubiquitous that it barely merits mentioning.

However, it is not just within the real of spectacular images that torturous violence is becoming normalized. As the famed Slovenian cultural critic Slajov Zizek enthuses, the insignificance of the Abu-Ghraib in the American context is due to similar photos surfacing in regular intervals in the US press. For instance, when ‘some scandal explodes in an army unit or on a high-school campus, where the initiatic ritual went to far and soldiers and students got hurt beyond a level considered tolerable, forced to assume a humiliating pose, to perform debasing gestures, to be pierced by needles, and so on.’ A telling example is the recent fraternity initiation gone wrong at the University of Oregon, when a rushing student had their anus penetrated in front of his peers with a beer bottle, which broke inside of him.

It is the logic behind torture that makes the Abu-Ghraib photos insignificant, because the logic of inflicting pain for security and/or fun has become all-pervasive. But why the reaction of shock that followed the release of the Abu-Ghraib photos? I would argue that it was due to their being out-of-place in the imaginary that caused the mass shudder. In other words, they exceeded the boundaries of fiction, and instead brought to bear the very real consequences of war that is more than distanced imagery. Further, those pictures revealed the surreptitious practices and performances that have become omnipresent within U.S. families and communities. Indeed, the pictures were a welcoming into the desert of the American subcultural real.


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