The Most Important Image of the '00s and How We Should Read It

Content Warning: Graphic Descriptions and Images of American Torture at Abu Ghraib

2004, Iraq. A post-9/11 world. A post-American Empire world. In April of that year, CBS publishes dozens of leaked photographs displaying the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners (most of whom were guilty of minor crimes unrelated to the ongoing war) as perpetrated by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib. One image in particular stood out among those collected. It shows an Iraqi prisoner being made to stand on a box while his hands are wired to electrical equipment. However, the most striking part of the image is the prisoner’s garb. His body is draped in cloth and his head is covered with a conical hood.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of reading Joan Copjec’s landmark psychoanalytic theory book Read My Desire. Published in 1994, this book marked a major shift in Lacanian analysis. Included in this book is an analysis of one professor’s obsession with Moroccan clothing. Gaeten Gatian de Clerambault was a French psychiatrist and professor who gave lectures on hysteria and other elements of psychology, but had an idiosyncratic passion for tribal clothing. He took somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 pictures of people dressed in traditional Moroccan garb. For him, the clothing transcended its use-function and became a fetish object.

The images were taken at the height of French colonialism in the early 20th century. During this era, clothing in Western culture was taking on a new form, especially in masculine circles. Clothing was becoming fully utilitarian. Beauty was being removed from its essence. For Clerambault, the Moroccan drapery represented a divine, unattainable beauty being lost from Western culture. This so obsessed him that he began to give lectures on the aesthetics of clothing and drapery in particular, eschewing his usual psychological studies. Eventually, his obsession became so pervasive that he was fired from his teaching position. He committed suicide at age 62.

So, how does this relate to the infamous Abu Ghraib image? With the context of Clerambault’s clothing fetishism and the obsession with images, we can now acknowledge two things: the fetishism of drapery and the medium of the image.

First, fetishism. What is so striking about the photograph is not what we “should” find shocking. While we acknowledge the humiliation of being made to stand on a flimsy cardboard box and the torture of the electric equipment, what shocks us is the drapery of the cloth. While most of the pictures from Abu Ghraib featured the prisoners nude, this image maintains some of the prisoner’s dignity by covering him, which makes it all the more degrading. While prisoners are reduced to objects quite literally in many of the images, being sat upon and forced to masturbate, this image acknowledges some semblance of personhood left in the person. The subject is still present. The clothing then represents the present subjectivity. We feel that this person is alive, which is perhaps why it was the image that The Economist used for the cover of its magazine on Abu Ghraib.

Second, we recognize the power of the medium of the image. 9/11 was one of the first media events to happen almost entirely through live mass media. Abu Ghraib took the victimhood narrative of 9/11 and flipped it on its head. The image was now not a representation of our suffering, but of our perpetration of suffering. While stories about what happened in Abu Ghraib were repeated in the news ad nauseum, it is the images that have persisted as part of our culture. The lasting stain of the image damns us. Words can only be spoken once and reappear only in video. Images are irreducible. This image in particular contains a special aura (in the Benjaminian sense) as shown by the context in the previous paragraph. Its unmoving medium keeps us in a moment of liminality forever. We don’t know what precisely is happening, yet we feel it. The cloth in the image can never be removed, thus we are allowed to fantasize about whatever is beneath it. We fantasize about the face and the genitals covered. The covering of face gives us anonymity, which we might think would relieve us from relation to the victim. However, it actually does the opposite. It allows us to imprint our own fantasy onto the victim. Anonymity means that it could be anyone: you, your significant other, your best friend, your parents, etc. While the showing of genitals in other images of Abu Ghraib torture may seem more shocking on the surface, it is the covering of them that strikes us because it in a sense neuters the victim. The visual castration in the image compels our sympathy. The clothing becomes the object of our desire rather than the body. Clerambault’s obsession has finally become ours.

One could even argue that it is the multiplicity of images that makes the image at Abu Ghraib so powerful. Like Clerambault’s many photographs or Monet’s many productions of the same image at different times of day, the one image is contextualized by the images surrounding it. The image stands apart by being one of the least objectively brutal images of torture. This makes it one of the most subjectively brutal images. The use-value of torture for information has been removed creating pure sadistic jouissance.

Another thing to note is its lack of perpetrator. While most of the images showed a soldier sadistically grinning or pointing at the suffering victims, this image dehumanizes the perpetrator further by not showing them at all. While showing the perpetrator allows for some recognition or relation, not showing them releases all humanity from the villain and gives it all to the victim. What we do see is a guard carelessly messing with a camera, not even looking at the subject. His apathy recalls the stories of Nazi guards who simply went about their jobs as millions suffered and died. Thus, the image is the ultimate image of suffering in the post-autonomous age. In fact, it documents the documenting with the visual of the guard messing with the camera. We do not see torture, but the documentation of torture, making us further removed from the humanity of the perpetrator. It brings forth what scares us about modernity and what Bruno Bettlheim wrote about in relation to his experience in Auschwitz: death and suffering are now impersonal and bureaucratic. What scares us is not that a human could commit such atrocious acts, but that a human can be capable of building a machine or being a machine which can. We can sympathize with a villain; we cannot sympathize with a machine, yet, in the case of Abu Ghraib, we have gone beyond the modernity of automated murder. We have reached postmodernity. We no longer create the machine, we are the machine.

The final element of the image that has gone as yet unexamined in this essay is the prisoner’s stance. He is on top of a box, literally elevated, with his arms outstretched. His position immediately evokes that of Jesus on the cross. The conical hood is his crown of thorns; the electrical equipment tied to him the nails in his hands. We can view the aforementioned guard as a Roman. He is not a cruel killer, but a member of the state carrying out an order. The idea of an anonymous sacrifice of course castrates our figure of Jesus. The crucifixion of Christ only has power because he is Christ. His phallus is God himself or, in the instance of the crucifixion, the crown of thorns which represent his holiness. The hood on the prisoner does not function as a phallus, but as a lack. It shields identity rather than affirms it. An anonymous Iraqi prisoner being crucified keeps us in the liminal space where this figure might be Christ, but also might not. Thus, the image stirs a feeling of unsettlement. Our sins might be forgiven, but they might not. The image, unlike the millions of crucified Christ, does not contain salvation, it merely suggests it. Juxtaposing this image against the image of Christ on the cross, we can see a reversal at play. Jesus’s crucifixion was a degrading of the elevated messiah. The image of the prisoner shows us a common, vulgar prisoner being elevated, both literally and figuratively. There is a nihilism we can read here as well. While Jesus himself asked God why he abandoned him at the moment he most needed him, we cannot see such a cry in the Iraqi prisoner. Without a facial expression to read, what we obtain is stoic acceptance of fate. Rather than the purity of divine suffering, we are given the heresy of cruel imposement.

In 2013, this image was reproduced on the cover of the seminal electronic album Virgins by Tim Hecker. Here we can see the obvious comparison to both previously discussed subjects. The figure is positioned in yet another liminal space, what seems like a decaying church complete with ladder and construction equipment. While we are certain of the atmosphere of a prison, we have no context for the album art of Virgins. Perhaps the symbol of the tortured prisoner in a lost place of worship is proof that we can never go back to the way we were. Our image of ourselves was shattered in the postmodern era by Abu Ghraib. We see the cloth draped as in Clerambault’s images, covering the whole of the body, while the figure is quite obviously positioned in the same way as the Abu Ghraib victim. We see the silhouette of the figure, but not the figure itself. Instead, we have a complete lack. We are not even sure if there is a person beneath the drapery. Finally, the fetishization is complete. We have sealed the fantasy space. The fetishization has been turned towards us so that there is no use-value in the cloth. Like in Clerambault’s fetishistic images, it covers a symbolic nothing so that it is not the figure that is our object-cause of desire, but rather the cloth itself. It is pure enjoyment. This jouissance comes from the split in the subject of the photograph. While we expect to see a whole person, what we see is their silhouette in drapery, which is the bare unconscious on which we can imprint anything and from which anything can be created. This bareness is what generates our voyeuristic jouissance. Paradoxically, nakedness is created by the covering of the body. Rather than a nakedness of the body, it is a nakedness of the soul, which is far more terrifying.

The music within the album evokes the idea of ‘hauntology,’ the idea that elements from a social past return to the present as ghosts of their former selves. The music is indescribable (as all music is through language). It is ambient, beautiful, and harrowing. It evokes a nostalgia for a lost future, as does much electronic music from this vein (Burial and Oneohtrix Point Never are artists frequently associated with hauntology). Organic woodwinds are mixed with reverbed pianos and synthesizers to create an eerie atmosphere, yet the music is not dissonant or necessarily creepy. Samples are mixed with live recordings to create something wholly new. We hear distortion and tape hiss along with melodiousness. It sounds like a decaying memory. Hecker even titles one of the songs ‘Incense at Abu Ghraib.’ It is a short ambient piece which evokes the paradoxical nature of the title. We smell the sweetness of incense and feel the harshness of the torture. Abu Ghraib itself has become a signifier with its signified being not the location, but the torture which took place in the prison there. The two are inseparable. Perhaps Hecker is attempting to separate the signifier from signified with his cryptic title, or perhaps his juxtaposition of incense and torture is meant to make the bond that much stronger.

And so, with this understanding of cloth-fethishism and the power of the medium of the image, we now understand what is so striking about the image of the covered Abu Ghraib victim. The cloth presents us with an encounter with the Real. While it could be easy to call the entirety of the Abu Ghraib scandal an encounter with the Real, since we could see it as a failure of the Big Other to maintain itself, it is rather this one image which encounters us with the Real. The Big Other is still upheld in the images except this one. While the Big Other exists in the subjectivity of the perpetrators in other images, the “perpetrator” in the image being discussed is object while the victim is subject: a reversal of what is present in the other images. We can readily view the dehumanization of prisoners present in other photographs for the same reason we derive pleasure from looking at a car accident. However, it is the covered image which scares us because, as previously mentioned, it maintains the subjectivity of the victim. It fails to maintain the symbolic as the other images are able and becomes pure jouissance. The subject being covered means we can no longer view him as an Iraqi Other (distinct from the Big Other which is present in the soldiers who are metonymic for the invisible bureaucracy which controls them) or an object of suffering as we can in other images. It lays bare the unconscious and strikes us at our deepest core.

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