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Abu Ghraib: ceremonies of nostalgia

Allen Feldman
17 October 2004

President Bush’s proposal that Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq be demolished encapsulates the core ideology of that occupation and its incomprehension of the situation and nation it seeks to transform. The erasure of Abu Ghraib – scene of so many human rights violations by Saddam Hussein’s regime and the current American occupation – and its replacement by a sparkling, up–to–date American–designed prison would simply extend a motivating logic of the war.

The United States military adventure in Iraq was intended and designed as an exercise in American modernisation: the propulsion of Ba’athist Iraq from its totalitarian dark age into the bright transplanted malls of an Americanised middle east, including the latest in prison design.

The United States has one of the largest prison populations per capita in the world, and alongside military deployment it has become expert in the use of penal architecture as an entrepreneurial form of development for America’s economic peripheries, a strategy evidently to be deployed in an immiserated Iraq. The Bush administration’s vision of democratisation in Iraq looks to new penal facilities as both social–control apparatuses, and as economic engines for a postwar Iraqi society.

Beyond planning the Iraqi future, the proposal to tear down Abu Ghraib is a statement about the Iraqi past and an attempt to manipulate Iraqi collective memory through the technology of modernisation. Its logic is to architecturally modulate the collective witness of the American occupation – to soften the memory of abuse by starting afresh with new buildings and institutions which are expected to generate new identities: the classic American frontier–renewal myth.

However, like the South Africans who have preserved the notorious former penal facility of Robben Island as a national memorial, the Iraqi people may want to embody their sense of the past and hopes for the future by preserving Abu Ghraib, this house of pain and suffering, as a space of national memory, and possible healing. Iraqis may even anticipate that many of their future and needed political leaders will have had their political consciousness and will tempered in the prison crucible of Abu Ghraib.

A campaign of visual dominance

To understand what Bush seeks to forget with his proposed penal mall, we have to appreciate that the photographs of American soldiers humiliating and terrorising Iraqi detainees are not incidental documentary records or a recreational pastime of the jailors, but central to the meaning of the war and occupation.

Since the first day of “shock and awe”, visual violence and visual dominance has guided American military strategy in Iraq. This was a war whose main objective was to make elusive terrorists and their hidden weapons visible, a war that sought to reduce an elusive transnational cell structure to a fixed national location, to fashion an identifiable and stable object of American retribution. Making elusive others visible and demonstrating control through advanced optical technology – from the Iraqi “theatre” to the American living–room – was a central political tenet of this mediatised war.

“Shock and awe” is more than a military tactic; it is simultaneously an exercise in war as visual media for the consumption of the televisual audience and an ideology of American modernisation. The march of an army across a national geography materialises the idea of progress, Hegel noted in reference to Bonapartism, and the procession of televised aerial bombing across a civilian terrain has much the same effect.

In 1900 the sociologist George Simmel identified sensory shock as the price of progressive modernity; perceptual shock was the psychological medium by which the modern announced itself and refashioned new forms of personhood. Modernity’s shock was a conversion experience creating new social subjects amenable to emerging technological and economic regimes and new social disciplines. The current ideology of “shock and awe” fuses technological and theological norms, for it too is a form of accelerated conversion: the rapid Americanisation of the non–western “other” though technological onslaught and subsequent postwar therapeutic treatment and rehabilitation. Thus it is not coincidence that the new, supposedly torture-free wing of Abu Ghraib, has been baptised “Camp Redemption”.

The workings of this mediatised treatment regime are made visible in the exercises of humiliation Iraqi detainees were compelled to rehearse at Abu Ghraib. The first series of photographs made public had the surrealistic aura of souvenir postcards sent by jokesters to the folks back home. They had the celebratory and horrific carnivalesque atmosphere of the postcards sold as mementos of the lynching and mutilation of African Americans in the 1920s. They also resembled the practice of “battle–proofing” endemic in the Vietnam war in which freshly–arrived soldiers were ordered to bayonet piles of Vietnamese corpses, thereby desensitising the greenhorn soldier to the human consequences of violence.

But the second wave of released Abu Ghraib photographs revealed another, more operational, reality: the mundane logistics of a systematised sensory–deprivation and behavioural modification regime. These photos are frequently taken from a prison tier above the enacted violence and capture the viewpoint of omniscient clinical spectator surveilling a series of experiments in which the objects of the experiment are meant to emit certain signs of subjugation obedience, confusion and change.

Here the camera is not just a recording instrument but also a penetrative device appropriating the psyche, sexuality and gender identity of the hooded Iraqi detainee as his body is turned inside out by the Abu Ghraib regimen. There is nothing shameful or hidden here, nothing clandestine, the photographer is part of the apparatus of intimidation and exposure – a well–oiled apparatus going through its daily round of exercises. His picture–taking completes the regimen’s visual and spatial command over the hooded and rigid Iraqis who have been deprived of sight, bodily mobility and sexual integrity.

As in the televisual dynamics of the invasion, that fused spectatorship at home with visualising smart bombs abroad, the Abu Ghraib photos are a continuation of American media control of the recalcitrant body of the “terrorist” other. The Americanisation of Iraq has first to be experienced as a visual reality if it is to be credible and tangible to those charged with carrying it out on the frontline. Like the war and occupation itself – a visual reality, dependent for its domestic political support on an orchestrated flow of identity–sustaining images – the Abu Ghraib scenes were devised as a post 9/11 dramaturgy of American power for the pleasure of its military audience.

The pornography of power

The cultural addiction to military–political visual command and control also explains the carnivalesque photographs of American soldiers celebrating their sexual humiliation of Iraqi men. The “porno” photos and tableaux are a projection of American fantasies and sexuality as power onto Iraqi bodies – an annotation to the more routine photographs of day–to–day sensory deprivation and engineered terror. This burlesque imagery was directly produced by the behavioural modification culture of Abu Ghraib.

The figure of the woman as the agent of humiliation, subtended by those pictures of detainees wearing women’s underwear or leashed like sado–masochistic actors, is axial to this fantasy formation. The Iraqi detainees are subject to a gender inversion through the exposure of their bodies; they are feminised through the visual elaboration of the vulnerability of their bodily orifices by and for their custodians, and conversely their Americans abusers are being (re)–masculinised by their acts.

The women soldier depicted in these photos is the transitional and emblematic figure of these rites of gender inversion. In her pose of dominance over naked Iraqi men, she acquires male gender power. The female figure is the medium through which male identity and sexual power is extracted from the Iraqi “terrorist”, and is symbolically transferred to her male colleagues through these very images.

Here, there is an intimate link between the visual display of American “power” at Abu Ghraib and its wider military and strategic “weakness” in Iraq. For the photos also reveal the failures of Iraqi liberation. The scope and effectiveness of the Iraqi insurgency, the chronic attacks, the relentless casualties, the general antipathy of the Iraqi masses towards their putative liberators – all have positioned American soldiers in a “feminised” position of vulnerability and lack of control over the integrity of the American military body confronted with unmanageable terror: the very post-9/11 condition the invasion of Iraq was designed to end.

The Abu Ghraib rituals are thus ceremonies of nostalgia by which the perpetuators reacquire, if only in an allegorical idiom, their former sense of mastery and command in a situation that is rapidly lurching beyond their grasp. That is why we know that the extraction of information was not the terminal goal of these rituals. For the hooded and faceless bodies that are being manipulated and posed are depersonalised specimens and not information-bearing individuals - merely emblems of a collective, recalcitrant Iraqi identity that has to be subdued.

In Abu Ghraib the relationship of occupier and occupied was not cushioned in platitudes of democracy and freedom, rather these roles have been performed to their extremity to reveal their basic asymmetry and violence. Demolishing Abu Ghraib will not erase the memory of this limit situation, nor soften the hard-edged boundary of the occupier-occupied nexus.

Abu Ghraib is a photograph that Americans have taken of themselves – a self–portrait that refracts a collective identity whose spokespersons have conflated pre–emptive war and invasion with liberation. The picture–shock of Abu Ghraib in this political context will not readily recede from historical memory irrespective of what is built in its place.

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