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Passion Of The Christ In Abu Ghraib

By Walter A. Davis

20 June, 2004


I. The Misfit’s Dilemma

“It’s no real pleasure in life.”

The Misfit in “The Misfit” by Flannery O’Connor

“When thinking comes to a stand still in a constellation saturated with tension—there the dialectical image appears.”

Walter Benjamin

If we exclude the recent funeral of the Gipper, the past year has witnessed two important Events. (The term Event is a philosophic one referring to those singularities in history (there are few) that evidence a fundamental change in the psyche. Two events: (1) a film, The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson; (2) a body of photographs from Abu Ghraib. The two events are united by the secret they share: that of their psychological identity and what that fact reveals about what has happened to the American Psyche since 9-11.

But first a brief theoretical preliminary setting out what I take to be the primary object for those of us engaged in the ideological critique of American society. The task of the leftist or dialectical critic of ideology is to find those images that lay bare, in its historical development, the disorder at the heart of the American psyche. Image reveals the dream life of a culture. And in our time, as I’ll show, it reveals that life to be a psychotic one. Here in its simplest terms is the perspective that a psychoanalytic understanding brings to the study of ideology. (1) Official rationalizations (Samuel Huntington, neo-con babble, Bushsprach) conceal primitive emotions Image reveals what is concealed: the centrality of unconscious fantasies and projective identifications (the act of taking something one finds unacceptable or avid in oneself and investing it in another so that one can wage an attack on it) in influencing the actions of those who make history. The study of images enables one to reconstruct the dynamic, collective, historical unconscious and to show the necessary connections among those things that offical ideology demands we keep apart lest we apprehend the underlying disorder of the whole.

Always historicize, this is the first and last commandment of leftist, Marxist inquiry. Its cardinal implication: historical inquiry is the search for those Events that are singular because they reveal something new under the sun, something that cannot be subsumed under “human nature” nor explained as a continuation of the hegemonic principles of a given social order. The task of historical interpretation is to conceptualize that newness. (One reason for the resistance to such an effort: an event is the eruption of a contingency that shatters extant ways of thinking, demanding new ways of thinking. Thought is challenged to think in radically new ways.)

In terms of these criteria few of the things that happen qualify as Events. Previously I argued that the American response to 9-11 constituted an event. I here want to argue the same not only with respect to Gibson’s film and the Abu Ghraib but in terms of a larger argument: that there is a necessary connection between these two events in the development of a single disorder. Its articulation is my overarching goal.

Finally, in keeping with the power of the image and the challenge it poses to traditional ways of thinking, I will follow a procedure based primarily on presenting the reader with images aphoristically apprehended. The aim of that procedure is to address and engage the reader at what is the correct psychological and emotional register.

II. Moviegoers in the Hands of an Angry Filmmaker

Here, at the start, my core thesis. Both Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ and Abu Ghraib are results of what I’ve shown elsewhere to be the condition of the American psyche: the deadening of emotion and the attempt to flee that inner state through violent acts which are needed to confer the momentary sense that one exists. Gibson’s film is for many Christians a high point in the emotional expression of their religion. Abu Ghraib is equally extreme in its attempt to attack and belittle another religion. The two acts derive, however, from the same psychodynamic: sado-masochistic activity, extreme images of brutalization and suffering repeated, maximized in order to create in a mass audience the only feeling of which they are capable: the overwrought glee that comes from spectacles of cruelty.

The following scene occurs early in Gibson’s film. As the bound Jesus is being led to prison he is dropped over a wall. The rope catches just in time, before he hits the ground. We hear the crunch of bone, see the broken Jesus dangling, suffering what must be a shock to the entire system. (We will see the same image again and soon, in the news, April 4, 2004. Only this time it will come to us from Fallujah, in the photograph of the charred body of an American hung from a bridge over the Euphrates.) The scene in Gibson’s film has no biblical source and thus is particularly revealing in a film that claims absolute fidelity to Gospels that Gibson refuses to submit to an iota of historical scholarship. “It is as it was,” such was the imprimatur that Gibson’s publicists claimed John Paul II pronounced after viewing the film. The scene is in the film because it serves a far greater exigency than the “truth.” Gibson knows what films do, what his audience craves. He is impatient to get the blood sport underway. To offer us what follows this scene: two hours of unrelieved sado-masochism, making Passion the longest piece of snuff porn on record.

The day I saw the film--the morning it opened and as what I took as my atheistic responsibility--the theatre was packed as would be theatres throughout the country for the next few weeks. There they sat with buckets full of buttered popcorn, larger containers full of coke working men in shirt sleeves and pot bellies together with their even larger Fraus (the McDonald’s generation) tears streaming down their faces, moved as they had not been by any film in memory. Some actually cried out. Others gasped.

Repeatedly. (I alone could not suppress a laugh when after being beaten beyond human endurance for nearly two hours Christ has the temerity to say “I thirst.”)

How do we account for the unprecedented success of this film, its status as an icon of American fundamentalist religiosity?

Gibson as filmmaker pays strict allegiance to the lesson that for him forms the totality of cinematic art: the systematic administration of repeated shocks to the nervous system in order to create visceral effects—the counterfeit of emotion—that operate by a mechanism that delivers film to the ministry of the special effects department. For Gibson we live indeed in unprecedented times. Film has finally attained the development that will enable us, for the first time in Western history, to experience the Passion as it was for eyewitnesses.

Gibson knows—and the unprecedented popular success of his film testifies to the fact— that the mass audience is only capable of a single operation, which must perforce be repeated endlessly through the production of new and greater shocks to the system. The ooohs and aaahs, the gasps of shocked amazement at each new special effect are the audience’s tribute to the filmmaker’s success in devising new and bloodier ways to assault their sensibilities.

Film is, as Bertolucci said, an animal act, the immediacy of a convulsive experience that eludes all reflective consciousness. As such film is the greatest tool of propaganda yet invented. Here is the the inherent power of film: to work directly on the response mechanism of the human being in a way that can affect permanent alterations and corruptions in one’s ability to feel. (Think of Gibson as the anti-Kubrick, Passion as an unrepentant Clockwork Orange.)

Such is the danger of this medium and, judging from audience responses, the achievement of Gibson’s film. He knows what the audience wants. How much of it they want. And he’s smart enough not to let anything get in the way. All complexities, any possibility of representing Christ’s passion as more than a spectacle, any attempt to know anything about the inwardness of Jesus, is and must be sacrificed to the bloodbath. Christ’s suffering must remain a spectacle outside us. About all one can say about this Christ is that he is the greatest athlete of his time, in perfect shape for the marathon he must run.

Of necessity everything about the Passion is for Gibson reduced to a mechanical sequence of sado-masochistic shocks. Which must be repeated, each more brutal and with less time intervening. The inability to feel in any other way—even over the Christ—is the true testimony Gibson’s film offers in its fealty to the ruling principle of mainline Hollywood cinema. Gibson knew his film would be the hit of the season because it makes the Amerikan audience the offer they can’t refuse: the pleasure of sado-masochistic cruelty. Piety disguises what is the true object of this film: to brutalize the audience by offering them the most extreme experience yet captured on film of the primary thing they now go to the movies for—a feast of violence. Gibson’s project is to indulge in an orgy of violence masked as an act of piety. Thereby the audience is given through their tears a way both to deny and to feel good about the sado-masochistic process needed to generate those tears. Having paid that price they get a final benefit: identification with God’s rage.

For Gibson’s audience is crying only on the outside. Inside they have been ripened for projective identification. Their sole need is violent sado-masochistic stimuli. At films end they have supped full with that horror and leave the feast full of rage. But with a new need—for a target on which to vent their violence. It is a mistake to confine this to the film’s patent anti-semitism. Gibson’s true achievement is the creation of a war readiness readily transferrable to Islam.

Rene Girard, ever hopeful that Christianity holds the solution to escalating violence, said this: “ religion puts a veil over the subject of vengeance.” Gibson rends it, letting us see beneath that veil the insatiable lust of a mindless cruelty. This is not only what the murderers of Christ indulge themselves in. It is what the filmmaker takes repeated, orgasmic delight in. (We are told it is Gibson’s own arm we see driving the nail through Christ’s hand, Gibson’s own blood-curdling scream the sound track offers in response to that blow. Such is true autoaffection for a compulsive sado-masochist.) Gibson also delights in cruelty because he understands the true inner condition of the audience. The death of affect requires extreme affects repeated and with accelerating violence. Otherwise the audience sinks into lethargy, returning to the void. Sado-masochist spectacle is the only thing that keeps them alive.

In this sense Gibson is their Saviour, the savage god.

The goal of Gibson’s film is not purification or faith or love or piety. His goal is the sado-masochistic bludgeoning of the audience so that they will become abject subjects on their knees, but full of rage, eager to find some way to “do unto others” the violence that has been done unto them. There is no contradiction here; rather an insight into the way in which eros and thanatos become one in Gibson’s film. The libidinous and the violently aggressive are fused in a new constellation. Sado-masochistic spectacle is now the condition of cinematic pleasure. Contra Laura Mulvey the gaze of the camera is now fixated not on eroticized (though passive) women but on suffering male bodies in extremes of excruciating pain. The Nazi pleasure dome is achieved. In the Christ Gibson finds the homoerotic ur-text behind the Nazi love of the beautiful blonde boy his taut body blossoming with his own blood at each bite of the whip.

Gibson’s film is a sign of the desperate sado-masochism that underlies the pieties of mainstream American religiosity. This is both Gibson’s “genius” and his hidden despair. He may loudly proclaim his Christianity but the world he lives in is one of utter brutalization. His project as a filmmaker is the same as the one that informs porn: to reduce the psyche of the audience to a mechanism that responds by command whenever triggered by the one thing that excites it: sado-masochistic cruelty. As such it offers us a privileged insight into the fundamentalist Amerikan psyche, a way to understand what’s really going on in the prayer breakfasts that have now become a daily necessity at the White House.

And there they were, afterward, those same men and women I’d heard gasping and shrieking for the past two hours, standing in the lobby, dazed and confused, unable to leave the theatre, tears streaming down their faces but with a new look in their eyes—that of a rage already on the lookout for anyone who did not share or dared to questioned the truth of their feeling and the depth of their belief. Such are the glad tidings according to Mel: when most devout and most perverse the Amerikan is the same, a psyche excited only by extremes of sado-masochism. Marx was wrong. Capitalism won’t dispense with religion. It will require one kind of religion. Bush and Ashcroft represent its benign—if mindless –face. Gibson gives us its true visage.

I can’t leave this rebarbative film without offering the antidote to it. Listen to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion repeatedly, for an entire week, until your heart becomes one with the spirit of charity that breathes through every note of it.

III. The Non-Accidental Tourist

Abu Ghraib, as Seymour Hersh has shown, had its genesis in a reading by the neo-con luminaries of the Bush Administration of a text—Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind (NY: Scribner’s, 1973)—and specifically a single chapter in that unremarkable book, Chapter VIII “The Realm of Sex.” (2) Reading no doubt with their hands in their pants a light went on in the neo-con darkness: the way to control the other, the Arab, is to use the disorders of their sexuality to humiliate them and thereby destroy their attachment to whatever principle gives their life meaning. Abu Ghraib is the acting out of that project. The languages of transmission--how the idea got from Perle to Rumsfeld to Sanchez to Garner, England et al isn’t all that important. What matters is the message. And it is assured, at each step along the way, because it addresses the same shared disorder of the psyche.

Ideological hyperconsciousness is fantasmatic. We’ve now learned much about the naïve beliefs that inform neo-con thinking, such as the assurance that following the Blitzkreig in Iraq Democracy would sweep the Middle East. (We also know how adroitly Chalabi played on that pipe.) Abu Ghraib gives us the other side of the neo-con fantasm, the perverse corollary to the airy nothing on which it bases its articles of faith. This is the genius of the actors who arrange the tableaus and pose themselves for the camera eye in Abu Ghraib.

A terrible envy underlies Abu Ghraib, one that has been working on the psychotic register of the American psyche since 9-11. Islamic fundamentalists have something we lack. They are willing to die for their religion. We can have only one response to such an affront. They must be forced to violate their religious beliefs and to do so as part of a perverse ritual. In this regard two images from Abu Ghraib are especially revealing. The man masturbating before his torturers forced while doing so to curse Islam. The father and son, hoods ripped off, confronting one another’s nakedness.

Just as any piece of writing has an implicit audience, any posed photograph is self-representation before an ideal viewer. As photography the key to the project of Abu Ghraib is to desire to be the one in the picture frame who bears that gaze that is simultaneously directed at the prisoner’s abjection and the camera’s eye. One is thereby assured of a triumph over the abject otherness that the former represents and the identity that the latter alone confers. As such Abu Ghraib is the staging of oneself for what Lacanians call the Big Other—that ultimate paternal principle of authority and meaning whose approval one seeks. Abu Ghraib tears away the other masks, revealing that the true Father of the American Imaginary is not Billy Graham or Bush or Scalia or even Reagan. The true father is “the obscene father of enjoyment.” (3) But in confirming this Lacanian idea Abu Ghraib gives it a new twist. For in epiphanizing the commandment to enjoy it overturns it. Contra Lacan, enjoyment fails because it is meant to relieve a psychotic condition. That is why it must take horrifying forms, in a repetition compulsion that must follow a quantitative logic—that of increase, multiplication—since for the commodified self no inner source of creative invention remains. One is condemned to the incessant aping of the idiot grin, the phallic pose that mimes the identity one seeks. Which is why one must be photographed and those photographs endlessly circulated to the only audience they can have: those who will gape back interpellated by them, hailed as subjects who say the yes of recognition to this mirroring of their own mindless stare. Abu Ghraib reveals the Amerikan as a serial killer trapped in the necessity that defines that condition: repetition but always with a new excess because every action returns one to a psychic void. That void is the condition of affectlessness. Its result: the inability to feel except through the extreme sado-masochistic acts through which one tries to convince oneself that one is alive.

Abu Ghraib also signals a transformation in the nature of Tourism. As we all know our boys and girls now go off to war armed with digital cameras from which those left behind on the homefront receive a daily supply of photographs. Many of these photos bear a family resemblance to those taken at Abu Ghraib.(4) We, not the Japanese, are now the tourists who must photograph everything. And with a fundamental difference. The Japanese tourist is a subject respectfully posed before the object—be it the Grand Canyon, the Mississippi, Disneyworld, the World Trade Center, the Golden Arches. The American tourist, in contrast, focuses the camera on the self: on the grin, the leer, the phallic posturing, the gesture of appropriation, the need to crow one’s mastery over the other. Abu Ghraib is a stark revelation of the perverse desire that fuels that need.

One goal of these pictures is to give the folks back home a taste of what they’re missing. Abu Ghraib as an Amerikan Kasbah, true Orientalism. And if there is any cruelty toward that audience in these pictures it is a function of their smug assertiveness. This is what I got by enlisting, what you’re missing out on. Another function, of course, is to send back home the message that the media refuses to broadcast. This, rest assured, is what we’re doing to those Arab fucks who were behind 9-11.

The most striking thing in the faces and postures of the Americans at Abu Ghraib is their commodified nature. Nothing can be spontaneous about their pleasure. One has seen all of this before. Countless times. In porn. Such is the mindless leer on Private England’s face, the staple of the woman in porn, offering herself to the camera in that look that epitomizes the Playboy bunny, the idiot look of one trying to persuade herself and the male viewer that this is what female pleasure looks like: “the come take me any way you want me I live just to please you” come on. Such is the phallic assertiveness of Spc. Garner’s posture, the smug assurance that brutality is the mark of the true macho man.

In Abu Ghraib sexual debasement is staged as an act of violence on a passive victim who is forced to perform perverse actions for the sexual satisfaction of a power that makes no attempt to hide its perversity nor the glee it derives from that perversity. As such Abu Ghraib is not the staging of sexuality but a perverse parody of it. The attempt of these soldiers is to convince themselves that they have what the photographs reveal they lack: an autonomous sexual identity. The empty mindless looks on the faces is the most revealing thing about these photographs. Like Gibson’s Passion, Abu Ghraib is the actions that must be taken to escape the void, to escape a condition in which the death of affect is the truth of subjectivity. Sado-masochism again strides forth to fill the breach because it is the one expression adequate to the fascism of the heart: the attempt to reduce the other to the conditions of a thing in order to celebrate a feeling of power free of and contemptuous of all moral and human restraints.

Friends and relatives are quick to tell us that the Americans pictured at Abu Ghraib were typical kids, kind, helpful, friendly, all round regular guys and gals. There is no reason to doubt this account. For it points to the condition that characterizes the American subject today: the split between a benign, average public self and the underlying void that self-hypnotic conformity is meant to conceal: a festering disorder wedded to the perverse fantasies that alone give one a sense of being. Abu Ghraib is a message from the heart of the American psyche back to the heartland. It broadcasts the good news: the pleasure and the certainty that comes from cruelty.

It is easy to say that Abu Ghraib represents the acting out of a fantasy. But this idea should be developed in the most rigorous way, with a rigorous concept of fantasy. For fantasy is serious business. It is an attempt by the psyche to imagine or perform an action that will realize a project capable of freeing it from its conflicts while realizing its deepest desires. By this definition Abu Ghraib is an act of genius, a psychoanalytic masterpiece. For everything here is sexual both in terms of the humiliation forced upon the victim and the identity claimed through that action for the perpetrators. The latter however is a sham and that is what the commodified looks reveal. The mindless grin, the obscene leer is the copy of a copy of a copy, an imitation that has no source because it was already in its pornographic genesis an attempt to counterfeit pleasure and sexuality for the camera.

Abu Ghraib stands in homage to and imitation of the Chief. The parent text is Bush on the aircraft carrier, unable to delay his orgasm any longer, unable to resist the need to gloat “We’re #1” with that smug smile of superiority that is the only thing he learned at Yale. But this too is imitation, the military garb and the phallic posturing a reincarnation of President Bill Pullman in Osama bin Laden’s favorite film, Independence Day. Abu Ghraib mirrors as privilege and pleasure the Bush doctrine of unilaterism in its contempt for the rest of the world, for all conventions Geneva or otherwise that would restrain the thrust of Empire. What the Bush doctrine proclaimed abstractly, Abu Ghraib acts out at the psychotic register. Mindless bullying is the American sublime. The grinning, idiotic face is its objective correlative. There is only one way we can respond to the trauma of 9-11—by surplus revenge since that is the only way we can once again come to feel good about ourselves. Hiroshima vivant. As Private England said: “this wasn’t punishment. This was sport.” Because the actors of Abu Ghraib--and they were nothing if not performers—acted from the psychotic register of the American unconscious their actions are uniquely revelatory: of what official rationality and its policies conceals –and solicits. These Americans thus deserve a word of congratulation: they made public the underside of official policy.

And let there be no doubt about it, this was an act of worship, the creation of a ritual, like the Mass, celebrating the fundamental article of faith: the sanctity and magic of psychological cruelty.
In all these ways Abu Ghraib is far more than an Atrocity Exhibition. Like Gibson’s film it offers us a privileged window into the collective psyche. Two things come from the void: the desire to exploit suffering—especially the suffering of Christ-- for sado-masochistic pleasure and, whenever the opportunity presents itself, to take perverse pleasure in doing onto helpless victims what the torturers of Christ did to Him in Gibson’s film.

And so to proceed to explicit ideological critique. We’ve been offered a series of explanations for Abu Ghraib. All are wrong and all are necessary because they supplement one another thereby revealing the working of a shared collective ideology. Thus, we are told (1)Abu Ghraib was an exception, not a sign of a systemic disorder. (2) It was the act of a few bad apples (in contrast to the 99.9% of our boys and girls in uniform). (3) No, it was a result of instructions from above; reflecting a pathology in the upper reaches of the Bush administration and not in America in general. (4) It was the function of the situation—of what Robert J. Lifton calls “an atrocity-producing situation” (5) Such things always happen in wars of oppression. There is nothing new under the sun, no evidence of a new pathology. (5) Or, in psychological terms as reported in one of the first interpretive essays on Abu Ghraib: “The U.S. troops who abused Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were most likely not pathological sadists but ordinary people who felt they were doing the dirty work need to win the war, experts in the history and psychology of torture say.” (6)

What we can’t confront about history is thereby denied: the possibility of seeing Abu Ghraib as a singular event revealing a collective pathology enacting what makes this Event unique; the use of their religion to destroy subjects and thereby justify the contempt one feels for their religion. Abu Ghraib, I suggest, is the coming of something new under the sun. This is the understanding we must try to produce because it is the one that sets our teeth on edge, the one capable of maximizing rather than short-circuiting the trauma of that event. Ideology works best when it tricks us into accepting false alternatives. Our debates thereby assure that we will miss the necessary connections. Abu Ghraib is not a matter of either/or, as in the above series, but of both/and revealing the unity of a purpose—a mind set—that stretches from top to bottom because it derives from the underlying pathology that informs the whole. Making the necessary connections that ideology strives to render impossible is the goal of dialectical or marxist understanding. For those are the connections that reveal the disorder of a collective psyche that found in Bush its leader, in Gibson its poet, in Abu Ghraib its savage feast.

In their combined functioning the explanations offered of Abu Ghraib prevent our knowing Abu Ghraib is an unprecedented event, a historical singularity and as such a break with the past and a tiger’s leap into the future. It is easy to say that sadistic sexual torture is endemic to wartime. In that, of course, Abu Ghraib is hardly unique. What’s unique here is the religious connection. In Abu Ghraib sexual humiliation is used to force individuals representative of a people to violate their deepest religious beliefs so that they will be reduced to a condition of permanent abjection.

Let us not understate the goal of torture at Abu Ghraib: to destroy the soul—the ability to go on being-- of those one tortures. And lest one miss the point walk for five minutes in the shoes of the men who had to say to themselves I betrayed my religion in order to save my life.

Abu Ghraib like Gibson’s Passion is the antithesis of a purification ritual. Nothing is discharged. That is the not the American desire. It dances to a different necessity. The desire is to inflict one’s condition on the other. If you eat shit that means I don’t have to. The pleasure Gibson offers is the same one that one finds on the faces of the Americans at Abu Ghraib. That is so because both draw on the same disorder. The void. The death of affect. The lethargy that ensues until one is delivered from it by a new shock to the system through a brutalization that is inflicted on one or that one inflicts on another. Only so can one feel or, what amounts to the same thing, convince oneself that one feels. Inadvertently Gibson gives out the truth. When being its most devout and its most perverse the American is the same.

A Spinozistic conclusion, a lesson in how to use mechanistic explanations when they are historically appropriate. To summarize with the bluntness the subject deserves, this is what feeling now is for the American psyche. There is one constant—sado-masochism-- because it offers the only way to feel one is alive. When we indulge it on behalf of those we “love” we get choaked up with emotion. When we indulge it on behalf of those we hate we take joy in expressing the manic triad: triumph, contempt, and dismissal projected onto an object of rage in order to give one a braying sense of victory over all inner conflicts. The Amerikan psyche oscillates between the two behaviors because it is, qua psyche, no more than the underlying necessity: for new and ever greater shocks to the system as the only way to convince oneself that one is alive. From which follow a few of what Spinoza would term adequate ideas, of use perhaps in aiding our philosopher King, Dubya, in attaining concepts for the words he so glibly employs for transparent ideological ends. To know what terror, fundamentalism, and evil are one need go no further than Abu Ghraib.

What is terrorism, fundamentalism, evil? These three words have been on all our lips since 9-11. By ideological demand. If, unlike Bush and the media, we want to understand them in non jingoistic ways there is no better place to begin than Abu Ghraib.

Terror is the attempt (1)to humiliate another in a way that renders their psyche permanently abject in order (2) to confer on oneself the absolute status that comes with the liberation of a psychological cruelty beyond restraint, indulged in as an end in itself. What is fundamentalism? Here’s a definition offered by many historians of religion: voluntary enslavement in the joy of mindlessness and obedience. The Germans have a word for it: Kadavergehorsamkeit—to obey like a corpse. In this too Abu Ghraib provides a chilling model of how true believers behave; nay, how they worship. Evil is the desire to eradicate anything and everything that stands in the way of achieving the absolute status, the unlimited power that one craves. It is the effort to humiliate people in order to destroy their soul.

IV. Apologies to Pynchon or “The Late Late Late Show”

“The last image was too immediate for any eye to register.”
Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 760

“Paranoia is the ability to make connections.”
From the sayings of Thomas the Elder

We are unable to understand contemporary history and the psychotic bases of American ideology because we have not yet learned how to read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I hope on another occasion to offer an extended discussion of all that this seminal work offers the student of ideology, the revolutionary nature of its insight into the capitalist mind and how it teaches us both to read and to practice the discipline of the image. For now I must condense that contribution into three concepts: (1) Pynchon reveals the constitutional stupidity of official rationality and its underlying madness; as in the fetishizing of any and all information (as if there was a precious secret that each inmate of Abu Ghraib could render up to Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Perle et al). (2) The excessive actions that official rationality necessarily gives birth to are a result of the underlying paranoia and the desire for omnipotent control that results. (3) This disorder is fatally wedded to the effort to transform eros into thanatos so that there will finally only be one thing—the imposition of technoscientific rationality on the entire globe. Such is the categorical imperative of late capitalism in its Empire phase. Study of the image remains the way to combat it because the image reveals what it conceals. In doing so image addresses us at those psychological and emotional registers of our being that we are losing contact with more each day. They can be reawakened only by desperate measures.

For since 9-11 we’ve been given three commands with respect to the image. First, not to picture the World Trade Center (now cropped from many movies) because, as one psychologist put it, that image now only reawakens traumatic pain. Second, not to picture the faces of our own dead lest that image deliver them from statistical abstraction and the human costs of an unnecessary war become evident to the national consciousness.

Third, not to view, or now that the cat’s out of the bag, to severely restrict the viewing of (by all means cropped) images from Abu Ghraib.

This last command however proved impossible because it violated a deeper imperative. And so late in 2004 a new show took to the airwaves becoming a megahit of unforseen proportions, the most watched show in Television history, a surprising occurrence given the fact that the show played every night, from 1:00 to 7:00 a.m., ending only when a sleepless nation readied itself for work with its morning prayer, the morning news. Only one restriction was placed on this new show. By order of Attorney General Ashcroft no one was allowed to tape it under penalty of being incarcerated in Guantanamo under suspicion of terrorist activity. (Those who don’t know that everything we do electronically is now monitored must go immediately to the back of the class.) There was one other condition, but it operated at first spectrally. Each night our show was preceded by Ted Koppel’s Nightline, which was always the same now—a processional of the faces of our dead from the Iraq conflict one by one filling the screen while their names entered our ear. Ninety minutes of this and then what everyone awaited: “The Late Late Late Show.” It too takes the same form nightly, the endless repeition for six hours of a film composed of all the images that have now been collected from Abu Ghraib. Uncropped. Looped into one another in a film that never ends—a perpetual orgy. (Mel the Baptist is long forgotten, his film but a dim prefiguring of a pleasure that has now found its proper form.) But be reminded with the prohibition against taping. And so there they sit, every night, a hungry public waiting for the show to begin, eager to spend another sleepless night transfixed before those images that must be seen again and again because they alone have the power to produce a paroxysm of pleasure. Soon most viewers found it most satisfying to watch the show with their neighbors and co-workers.

Super Bowl type parties with wife swapping and group sex became a national craze. Every night—starting at 1:00 a.m. sharp. But then almost immediately despite the clamor one could now hear from every household the show did not begin on time. 1:01, 1:05, 2:10, the hour of the wolf, 4:07, 6:15 as images from Koppel’s show spill over, invading the temple of pleasure with the detritus of history. Until there comes a desperateness in the audience as the pressure builds to wring some last tortured pleasure from the night. Until eventually nothing remains of the images the public craves except the last few that flicker in the last few moments before dawn for viewers who now grope one another in a violent effort to get off one last time before they vanish forever, those images without which the audience cannot come, and nothing remains but the faces of the dead sacrificed to what might finally be perceived as another Amerikan folly. Only there’s no one left who could see it that way. Only the undead gazing at the dead in blank incomprehension.

V. Endgame: The Christ of Abu Ghraib

“And if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signalling through the flames.”

Antonin Artaud

And yet there is in Abu Ghraib one photo that escapes the camera. The photo of a hooded prisoner standing on a box with his arms outstretched and electrical wires attached to his hands, his feet, his genitals, the arms extended downward, palms open—in a gesture of supplication, acceptance, forgiveness? This image is uncanny and arresting because of its allusive, iconic power. For those aware of it, an unmistakable allusion to the beginning of Beckett’s Endgame. “Me to play.” For the general culture an echo of another kind, a resonance of the image that enters the Amerikan psyche in the momentary arresting of desire. For the allusion is unmistakable. How could the prisoner know it? How dare he…. This is the Christ being given over by Pilate to his crucifiers, extending his arms downward, his open palms toward the crowd in the expression of his inconceivable willingness to take on their sins.

There is a delicacy to this figure and a tense athleticism. Forced on the stage of another’s disorder, he performs as Artaud said the actor must. “The actor is an athlete of the heart.” Which is why this man triumphs over the camera. They will not be able to look at this image for long and yet they will not be able to forget it. Like the image of the dying Joe Christmas, it will haunt them. But it will not be able to work within them because the psychic register it addresses has already been rendered irretrievably dead. The image can only call them to a shame they are no longer able to feel, a change of heart they find impossible. Thanks to Mel Gibson and his ilk. And in spite of them the miraculous occurs.

Artaud’s theatre of cruelty is incarnated in Abu Ghraib. “An image is true insofar as it is violent.” But this violence is the antithesis of that practiced by Mel Gibson and the inmate inventors of Abu Ghraib. Emotion here shatters all stimulus-response mechanisms. We are forced to live out an agon of primary emotions in their power to strip away all the hiding places of the psyche. We feel the full burden of death and of what would be required to reverse the force of thanatos that ideology and mass culture has planted and nurtured in us. Artaud’s theatre of cruelty is the search for images that are cruel because they wrench us free from the cycle of mechanical, repetitive sado-masochism that porn, Gibson, and Abu Ghraib feed on. We are jolted back into life as the struggle to purge our psyche of the forces of death. Gibson or Artaud—that is the choice we face.

Mel Gibson’s project, in effect, is to destroy the possibility of Artaud’s theatre of cruelty by reducing our ability to feel to the mechanical reproduction of shocks that jolt the conditioned subject back into the only thing that is life for it. Cruelty. Artaud’s project is to destroy that mechanism so that we can begin to feel again the agon of what it is to feel. That project finds one of its transcendent embodiments in the actions of a prisoner in Abu Ghraib who found a way to signal through the flames.

Walter A. Davis is professor emeritus of English at Ohio State University. He is the author of Deracination: Historiocity, Hiroshima and the Tragic Imperative. He can be reached at: [email protected]


(1) This is the method of interpretation I develop in Deracination. I offered illustrations in two previous Counterpunch articles: January 6, 2002 and September 17, 2003.

(2) Seymour M. Hersh, “The Gray Zone,” The New Yorker (May 24, 2004), p.42.

(3) For a quick and insightful study of this concept see Todd McGowan, The End of Dissatisfaction (New York: SUNY P, 2004).

(4) On this phenomenon see the fine recent article in Counterpunch by Shakirah Esmail-Hudani, “Inside Abu Ghraib: The Violence of the Camera.” (May 17, 2004).

(5) See the article by Robert Jay Lifton, “Conditions of Atrocity,” The Nation (May 31,2004) pp.4-5.

(6) See the article by Shankar Vedantam, “The Psychology of Torture” in The Washington Post, May 20, 2004. See also Dr. Michael A. Weinstein “Abu Ghraib Means Impunity” in PINR (Power and Interest News Report) Dispatch of May 24, 2004.