defacement

 

 

On a peur de l’image. On préfère un déluge de paroles.

Jean-Luc Godard

 

 

 

Beirut, May 16, 2004

 

Early last month in Falluja a jubilant and exclusively male mob, with lots of overtly excited kids around, defaced the bodies of four American contractors in a public ceremony that we’ve become accustomed to read about only in the anthropology manuals of the colonial period. The killings of the four contractors, the burning of their bodies in the SUV they were driving in downtown Falluja, and the desecration ceremony that followed, were all carefully archived and videotaped by photojournalists who were conspicuously present at the murder scene, as if they had been waiting all night long for such an event to happen. Obviously, scenes of public desecration in modern Iraqi history are numerous, beginning with the immediate slaughtering of the Hashimite monarchy the day of the 1958 coup, and ending (temporarily) with the beheading of the Saddam’s statute on Firdos Square back in April of last year. Curiously, though, the toppling of Saddam’s statute did not release as much of the repressed libidinal (sexual) and political energies that the desecration of the bodies of the American contractors did. Maybe the presence of American tanks and the defacing of the statute with an American flag, prior to defacing it with an Iraqi flag, created an atmosphere of further repression, opting for a postponement of that great moment when all energies would be finally “liberated,” and human bodies, gestures, statutes, prisons and repressive spaces, and money, all belonging to the now defunct ancien régime would finally be defaced for good. But difficulties abound in that direction: a Lebanese journalist, who has been meticulously covering Iraq through regular visits in the last few years, rightly described that bizarre ambiance in Iraqi cities where all that unsaid has been accumulating for years, creating a wall of silence with every visitor, even among Arabs. The unsaid of decades of humiliation, torture, and public lies, towards which Iraqis in all their factions have become all too conniving, while hiding too much of an unspoken implicit encouragement and consent towards the régime’s wrongdoings. It is that unsaid which haunts Iraqi society today and keeps it mortified in a terrible silence that every foreigner must immediately feel, precisely the kind of silence that has no remedy. How to represent torture? How to show evil, decades of wrongdoings, at a time when the ex-perpetrators have now joined the ranks of the other “ordinary” human beings? How to represent a history where the “colonial” Hashimite monarchy looks all too human compared to every episode that followed its demise?

 

Barely few weeks have passed that images of defacement have come to haunt us all over again, but this time, however, from the notorious Abu Ghraib (or is it Abu Gharib, the father of the stranger?) prison at the outskirts of Baghdad. Hooded Iraqi prisoners were shown in digital photographs collectively naked, in situations that simulated orgies and onanisms, with male and female American soldiers poking fun at them. In one photograph, however, there was only one Iraqi prisoner, lying hooded and naked on the ground, with a young female soldier (which a week later was identified as twenty-one year old and four-month pregnant Lynndie England) dragging him like a dog with a leach. If it’s generally assumed that each photograph bears the imprints of three parties—the photographed object itself, the photographer, and the outside viewer (who could be miles away, from another time, culture, or society)—then those digital photographs of the Abu Ghraib inmates and their torturers have something strange about them: it is as if, indeed, there was no photographer—a banality of evil redux. Or, it is as if the photographer had such a “neutral” and “immoral” eye, one that did not want to enforce any perspective—any meaning—on any one of the shots. How so? For one thing, all the participants seem well at ease—bien dans leur peau—standing right in front of the lens, with gestures of laughter and satisfaction, while performing their sado-masochistic acts. Their attitude is one of (ideological) postmodern (postmortem) indifference. We were told, during the Congressional hearings, by secretary of defense Rumsfeld, that the worst is yet to come: apparently, photos depicting rape and murder—even a video might be released. The photos that we’ve seen have that embedded touristic banality: the photograph (among the second set published by the Washington Post) of a young female soldier leaning in front of the face of an Iraqi detainee, who was lying terrified on the floor, with her thumbs up and a big smile, could have as well been taken in front of the Pantheon or Forum in Rome, with that same banal “I was there!” attitude. When Rush Limbaugh likened the Abu Ghraib events to a “fraternity prank,” he probably wasn’t exaggerating. Not only the soldiers do not manifest any concern towards their detainees, but there was no apparent interest in getting anything out of them—a truth—either. The detainees all looked as if they had to be grabbed into that horrible place for some security reason, but then no one could figure out what to do with them, so why not some digital images in the meantime? Nazi images of detainees in the World War II era, look by contrast, in their black-and-white sharp contrasts (the Germans still produce the best lenses in the world), like stuffed with ideological connotations, to the point that it would have been unthinkable for the torturers to happily pose with their detainees. It was after all the age of the grand ideological debates—fascism, communism, and liberalism—while today with the irreversible consolidation of liberalism in the western world—Fukuyama’s end of history—there’s no genuine interest in all those civilizations that lag behind. In all that debate that opposed the anti-war pacifists to the staunch supporters of the war in Iraq, what has been forgotten is the Iraqi civilization itself, and why it has encountered such difficulties at modernization.

 

The only break—at least for now—from these pictures has come from another depressing image: the gruesome beheading (by the Jordanian Zarqawi?) of a Pennsylvania man, Nick Berg, in Iraq. And to push even further the civilization gap, one might add, on the Iraqi side, all those photographs taken in the aftermath of suicide bombings and the like: an endless array of randomly damaged and decapitated bodies, which to be sure do not point to actions that respect individuals and their bodies.

 

Understandably people were shocked by the Abu Ghraib episode. (It’s also understandable why the much more graphic images of Falluja did not shock—something that anti-war activists feel indifferent to and never question—the barbaric nature of the Middle East is so much taken for granted that even the thought of an investigation would have looked cynicism at its best.) Yet, that’s partly due to the ignorance of the history of the American penitentiary system and the crude reality of its prisons. An astute observer like Alexis de Tocqueville had already noted in the 1830s that “while society in the United States gives the example of the most extended liberty, the prisons of the same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism.” In his subsequent study of Democracy in America, de Tocqueville would built upon this social insight afforded by punishment to show the subtle dialectic of freedom and restraint which operated within American society as a whole. If Americans would like their delinquents and criminals to be harshly treated, and if among the group of the top industrialized nations the U.S. is the only one not to have abolished the death penalty, it must then be that most Americans perceive their society as some kind of a realized democratic utopia, and that the transgression of its sacred rules must be severely—if not brutally—punished. The soldiers at Abu Ghraib did therefore no more than apply general moral principles common to American society towards its inmates: it’s that strange combination of harshness coupled with indifference—an indifference that even overweighs the tragic side of colonialism—the indifference of those young faces who were not even aware of the gravity of their situation.

 

In western civilization, and with the rationalization and individualization of sexuality—and we should add, pace Michel Foucault, its medicalization since the nineteenth century, hence its subjection to that scrutinizing medical gaze—transgressing “normal” sexuality—the missionary position—has become the norm among middle and upper classes in particular (even the popular classes might be on the verge of getting sucked into the great fun theory). That sado-masochism has become such a big entertainment is probably a reflection of the impersonal relations of authority that one is subjected to in the real world out there. Sexual deviance had been acknowledged as a “medical problem” in nineteenth-century Europe—the age of the industrial revolution and the bourgeoisie—long before Freud even began compiling his case histories. It was in effect with the German physician and neurologist Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) that sexual deviance received its first honorable treatment in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). Since then, and pace all Freud’s case histories, sado-masochism, among others, is perceived as an honorable bedroom exercise as long as it’s mutually consensual, while western arts and sciences have come to acknowledge that such deviant practices are attractive due to their laborious rituals of initiation—it might be love at first sight after all. The main point, however—at least as far as the Abu Ghraib episode is concerned—is that all such deviant practices, in spite all the respect that they’ve accumulated, are usually practiced in the privacy of the bedroom, while their public transgression is less of a political act than an exercise in banalizing even further post-Victorian bourgeois sexuality. With the so-called sexual revolution in the 1960s such practices have become even more fashionable in (public) “wild” parties in cities like New York and Los Angeles. Yuppies, however, and later middle-popular classes, would push that game even further and have their most “private” fantasies be recorded for posterity. It’s that doubling mimetic natural act that is of interest here, and the camera naturally comes as the most common of all tools to reproduce and frame reality. It is no secret therefore that supposedly wild college parties are digitally recorded and then archived on the Internet. There is a notion of the mirror in western civilization that requires a doubling through the representation of everything one is involved with, beginning with the workings of the mind, up to our daily acts and sexuality. That need to see oneself prior to being seen by others—or the need to see myself in a mirror, prior to sharing that representation with others—has as its root the notion of diary in western civilization, or the consciousness of the self. The digital has democratized that need for an image of the self in action.

 

It has often been noted (most notably by Michel Foucault in numerous interviews) that sado-masochism reflects a power relation. But if in the real world the power relationship is between dominant and dominated, teacher and student, boss and employees, colonizer and colonized, in sexuality, the likes of Foucault claim, it would be reversed: the secretary, for instance, might be sexually in the “dominating” position, assuming the role of a dominatrix and “reversing” the traditional role of domination through the rite of passage that in this instance would be the sexual act itself. But then, following such an interpretation, we are presented, regarding the Abu Ghraib episode, with a curious anomaly: in this case, the colonized are, once more, in a dominated position—no change from the real world! To get out of this vicious circle, some have argued that there’s nothing “sexual” in the first place in the interrogation practices as revealed in the humiliating pictures that were released to the world: the detainees were after all not arrested for traffic violations, and they had to be intimidated in order to talk; the military, private contractors, and their guards might have transgressed the usual norms, but they did not do so with sexual innuendos in mind. I find such a hypothesis hard to maintain, in particular that non-released photos, which have circulated between the Pentagon and Congressional committees, are even more explicit than the released ones, and allegedly portray rape and murder. The sexual interpretation, which I’m attempting to promote (with some difficulty, I must admit), has yet to explain the need to torture detainees beyond the commonly accepted norms, and to push them into sado-masochistic sexual representations, mirrored, in turn, through the digital lens. (The digital has undeniably rendered sexual representation much more democratic, by eliminating the need for third-party processing of the “intimate” images, and limiting the relationship only to the parties involved in the sexual act or its simulation, and to the photographer as an “outsider,” in case he or she is not a direct participant.)

 

The curious thing about all those events, from Falluja to Abu Ghraib and the Berg’s beheading, is that both colonizers and colonized, dominant and dominated, all share a similar ambition to deface the body of the other—hence, the common assumption that a reversal of roles would occur does not seem to be the motivation here. We’re always deliberately looking at the political in all those events: prisoners-cum-terrorists being harshly—if not sadistically—interrogated for the sole purpose of pulling the “truth” out of their tortured bodies (notice here the western notion of “truth” that emerges from the body only after a painstakingly tortured effort); terrorists, in turn, beheading a young American “in response” to the Abu Ghraib scandal; and, finally, the Falluja male mob which is reacting to the harshness inflicted upon the Sunni triangle. Moreover, the politicization of Abu Ghraib has this week taken another turn: that of pulling the responsibility off the ones we see performing at ease in the pictures, and placing it in the hands of those higher in command—Why not Bush himself, since he is the commander in chief? Why not Rumsfeld and Myers for a change? But in all such instances (re-)politicization has either deliberately or de facto implied desexualization, particularly when it comes to Abu Ghraib, considering that the first reaction was spontaneously sexual (and probably more so in the west than in the Arab-Islamic world). As to Falluja and Berg, their sexual implications never came through in the first place. What do we gain then in reassessing the sexual alternative? Or, more precisely, what are the advantages of looking at the politics of colonialism and anti-colonialism in light of their respective hidden sexualities?

 

The first reaction to Abu Ghraib was of the kind, “such photos must be terribly felt throughout the Arab-Islamic world, considering that the body in such societies is looked upon with great shame and respect.” Why then the mob in Falluja showed no respect for the four dead bodies, and atrocious acts were shamelessly committed right in front of the reporters’ cameras? Why had Berg to be beheaded “on the internet” so to speak? I consider the Abu Ghraib episode to be part of the tradition of the European Enlightenment, with which the rationalization of sexuality transformed the sexual act into an intimate (private) relationship between two consenting partners; a relationship that has ever since been under the tutelage of the medical and legal professions, both of which are a major source of normative values. When individuals in their work environment transcend the accepted sexual norms, they de facto politicize sexuality, and mock all inherited medical and legal perceptions. In short, their purpose is to precisely create a political scandal: hence the importance of photographically representing their deeds. There was no place, therefore, at Abu Ghraib for a “moral” photographer, one that would have instinctively framed those pictures within a humane distance. (We’ve later learned that the “anonymous” photographer has a name—but does it really matter?—U.S. soldier Specialist Jeremy Sivits, who was the first in the “group” to face a non-televised court martial in Baghdad on May 19.)

 

In Falluja, by contrast, the male mob showed neither signs of self-restraint nor of self-relief, and desecrated the dead bodies with great pleasure. (There was a report, I was told, on the Arab al-Jazira satellite station apparently showing that one of the four was not dead yet when the enraged mob pulled his burning body from the SUV.) The assailants posed in front of the world-media photographers as if they’ve just emerged from a crucial combat and won a great victory. Surely they did. But what they did not achieve was even more crucial: a sense of remorse, or a self-criticism, which would have been typical of the modernity of the Enlightenment. Nor was that sense of remorse and shame manifested among Arabs, their ulama and leaders, and their mass media. The barbaric episode, as mirrored through the lenses of the reporters’ cameras, has no one to put it on trial, to assess it, to ask for redemption and foregiveness. It was enough to bring it to the world in that crude televised medium. To begin with, we’re dealing with a mob and not with individuals. How can a mob be brought to trial? What for? The process of individualization and rationalization of the lebenswelt is clearly still far away in such societies. The male mob acted collectively like primitives in a public ceremony where the powers of magic were finally released, and those colonizers who had been pushing the natives to “civilize” were defaced, and the magic of their powers finally brought to justice. Since unmasking and defacing release great libidinal energies, the mob must have been fully satisfied of its great talent at desecrating bodies, as other mobs, upon the fall the ancien régime, desecrated statutes, banknotes, hospitals, schools, and public institutions; they also looted every unprotected space, as if private property did not matter—or as if its existence is a crime all by itself.

 

 

 

 

 

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