Photographing Torture at Abu Ghraib:
Gendered Violence and the Other
An Honors Thesis
The Faculty of the Interdisciplinary Studies
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the
Degree of Bachelor of Arts
Peter Winthrop Pawlick
March 18, 2005
Table of Contents
Introduction: Blind Spots……………………………………………………………..5
Chapter II: Theoretical Foundations
The Arab Mind…..…..………………………………………………………….…14
Chapter III: Analysis:
(Re)Presenting Abu Ghraib………...……………………….…………………..42
Chapter IV: Conclusion (Looking Beyond Violence)….…………………………76
Supplementary Images. …………………………………………………………78
Photographing Torture at Abu Ghraib:
Gendered Violence and the Other
This thesis considers how the images of American soldiers torturing Iraqi
“detainees” at Abu Ghraib prison represent more than the physical atrocities
they depict. Arab bodies are used as a medium to advance specific claims
about Arabs: that they are emasculate, salacious, uncivilized, and
interchangeable. The images employ visual tropes, such as simulated sex,
which rely on the viewer’s a priori knowledge about Arab culture in order to
convey meaning. In other words, the images are meaningful because they have
a history; they do not inform so much as visually confirm a historically
imagined truth. What is exceptional about the images, then, is not what they
say, but what they do. I argue that the dehumanizing potential of the tortures
is only fully realized with the dissemination of the images.
Introduction: Blind Spots
Now, as when the Abu Ghraib prison photographs were published last May, my
instinct is to see the tortures as a crime: an event with determinate motives and design, a
wrong that can be righted by rational appeals to justice, and by punishment. With the
notable exception of Rush Limbaugh’s notorious apologia1, few at this point hesitate to
acknowledge the criminality of what occurred at Abu Ghraib Prison, Tier 1 A, between
October and December 2003. Casting Abu Ghraib as a crime helps to make moral sense
out of what happened. Demarcating “right” and “wrong” and assigning blame according
to relative degrees of authority and proximity to the event makes it possible to dissociate
CALLER: It was like a college fraternity prank that stacked up naked men –
LIMBAUGH: Exactly. Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones
initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and
then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being
fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional
release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off? (Limbaugh 2004)
from the “bad guys,” whether “a few bad apples”or a whole bad tree. This perspective
affords the observer a great deal of critical distance and a safe space from which to
express dissent. However, it is only the first step toward understanding.
Having reached this safe space, the task turns to gathering information and
constructing an explanation of what happened and why. “Injustice” becomes the focus,
and statements rather than actions become the topic of discussion. Who knew this was
going on all along, and who worked to keep it a secret? Who decided to use sexual
humiliation to interrogate Arab detainees, and why? There hides a true story, we believe,
beneath many layers of cant and rhetoric, bona fide ignorance and abject duplicity. We
need to get the story right, and tell it.
But injuries sustained by victims of torture at Abu Ghraib will not be healed by
journalism. Exposure incriminates; it does not liberate, nor erase. Still, journalism is
appropriately disruptive, and if anyone has demonstrated this, Seymour Hersh has. When
Richard Perle, former chairman of the President’s Defense Policy Board, resigned last
year because of an article Hersh wrote that exposed Perle’s business interests in Iraq, he
called Hersh “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist” (McIntyre 2003).
The Pulitzer-laureate who exposed the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam thirty-five years ago,
and now Abu Ghraib, has been similarly endorsed by President Bush: “Seymour Hersh is
a liar” (Woodward 2002). With alacrity and clarity of purpose, Hersh made Abu Ghraib a
scandal. His allegation, developed in a series of articles in The New Yorker and
culminating in Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (2004), is that the
tortures occurred as a direct result of government policy, not merely the sadism of a few
guards on the night shift. Were it not for Hersh, it is likely that the affair would have
never been made public. Indeed, to an administration that depends so heavily on
deception, Hersh presents a formidable threat.
To date, seven soldiers from 372nd Military Police Company (800th MP Brigade)
have been sentenced in courts martial for their involvement in the tortures; two still face
trial. As for Hersh’s allegations, the Pentagon’s internal investigations (Schlesinger
Report and Fay/Jones)2 have yielded reprimands and, in a few cases, resignations, but no
criminal charges. For some, it was clearly a narrow escape. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld
revealed recently that he has twice offered his resignation to the President, and twice
been refused (Shankar 2005). German Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm has declined to
investigate war crimes allegations against Rumsfeld, as well as former C.I.A. director
George Tenet, a senior defense official and seven military officers (Reuters 2005). Yet,
Alberto Gonzales, despite his involvement in the Abu Ghraib scandal, has been appointed
Attorney General and confirmed by an overwhelming majority of the Senate (Seper
2005). It is not surprising that the administration should entrench itself against such
damning allegations as it now faces. But what is truly disturbing is the complacency of all
who might stand in opposition, including the American people.
Now, nine months after the photographs first appeared on “60 Minutes II” and in
Washington Post and The New Yorker, the event is so thoroughly embroiled in scandal
that it may seem impossible to step back and consider another angle of attack. Calling the
event a crime localizes it, making it more manageable. But it also reduces motives to
monochromatic caricatures of villainy tantamount to Bush’s “evil-doers”. Looking for
Three reports have contributed to what we now know about the Abu Ghraib tortures: the Taguba Report,
the Schlesinger Report, and the Fay/Jones Report. Each focused on a different section of the chain of
command that lead from the Chief Executive to the 372nd MP Company. They address, respectively, the
activities of the Military Police, Military Intelligence “and, in effect, the state of the investigations into
detention operations” (Danner 278).
more systemic explanations, on the other hand, threatens to blur the series of concentric
circles that show us where to aim our criticism. Say the tortures are not exceptional, but
rather exemplary of an “intrinsic and pivotal module of power relations” (Puar 2004: 13).
What then? If nothing else, this rationale shifts the focus away from individuals and
toward the society that produced them. I worry about diffusing accountability, about
getting too caught up in abstract or deterministic explanations to acknowledge individual
I see minimal value in drawing parallels between Abu Ghraib and the Stanford
Prison Experiment (1971), a study conducted to see how “normal” people would behave
when asked to play the roles of prisoners or guards in a mock prison setting. The
experiment, which Stanford University Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo designed
to last two weeks, was terminated after six days when an outsider reported that the
situation was out of control. Indeed, many of the tactics employed by the 372nd MP
Company resemble those adopted by guards in the study, including blindfolding, “stress
positions,” sleep-deprivation and even simulated sex. However, unlike the methods
described by detainees in Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Stanford students did not tailor
their program to the specific religious and cultural identities of their captives. Further,
though the Stanford Experiment was monitored by surveillance camera, it never became
a visual media event as Abu Ghraib did; the abuses were not choreographed with
dissemination in mind. All of this is not to deny the need for a socio-psychological
investigation of Abu Ghraib— on the contrary, it is to encourage the rigorous
examination of an event that is without obvious (publicized) precedent. Some aspects of
Abu Ghraib—for example, the decision to photograph the tortures—do seem to reflect a
logic distorted by psychological circumstance, perhaps the “present-oriented time zone”
which Zimbardo (2004) calls the Mardi Gras effect.3 However, there also seems to be a
more pervasive and instrumental logic at work, the consistency of which is demonstrable
over time. Ottosen (1995: 98, citing Kelly & Michela, 1980; Ross, 1977) explains: “The
creation of a borderline between ‘us’ and the ‘other’ is a sociopsychological mechanism
that occurs in all human relations; in the neighbourhood, community and society, people
will include some but exclude others on the basis of different criteria.” On the other hand,
Ottensen notes, there is no evidence that ethnic differences are a psychological basis for
hostility. So, rather than defend the platitude that humans will dehumanize Others if
given the opportunity, why not consider the discourse that uses ethnicity to support
Observers have commented from the beginning on the cultural implications of the
photographs, particularly on their exploitation of Muslim taboos pertaining to sex and
sexuality. In the following chapter, I address the issue of “cultural intelligence,” looking
closely at The Arab Mind (Patai 1973), the “national character study” that informed the
Pentagon’s use of torture in Cuba, Afghanistan, and Iraq—those tactics, in particular, that
could be considered “culturally specific.” Cultural anthropology has a history of
collaboration with military strategy; I will consider some of the issues this raises, from an
ethical as well as an anthropological standpoint. Having grappled with the problem of
using anthropology as a weapon, my analysis will turn the issue on its head. Stated
simply, the question has already been formulated this way: how did the military use Arab
“culture” to conquer Arab bodies? However, the question also needs to be asked this
“These people were trapped in a time -- a present-oriented time zone in which you never think of the
future, you never think of the past. So at no point did they ever say, "Gee we will be in trouble if these
pictures ever come out” (Zimbardo 2004)
way: how did the military use Arab bodies as a medium to advance specific claims
against (or to conquer) Arab “culture”?
Prior research has addressed the function of visual media as an instrument of
virtual colonization, especially within the context of post-Holocaust and late-capitalist
modernity (Adorno: 1973). Allen Feldman (1994) reveals two features of mass media
that anaesthetize the viewing public to representations of violence: objectification of the
Other’s body, and disembodiment of the Other’s pain. “Relations of domination are
spatially marked by the increase of perceptual (and thus social) distance from the body of
the Other. In turn, this body is essentialized by material constraints that deny it
recognizable sentience and historical possibility” (Feldman 1994: 407). Feldman
discusses two events, the media coverage of which epitomizes his theory of cultural
anaesthesia: the “erasure” of Oriental bodies in video broadcasts of “smartbomb” attacks
Operation Desert Storm, and the “dissection” of the black body during the televised trial
of Rodney King. Both Desert Storm and the King trial may be interpreted as examples of
performative representation, insofar as domination is articulated first through violence
and then again through represented violence (see pages 28-29 below). However, in
neither case is the motivation to represent (i.e., to capture on film and disseminate) such a
self-conscious and direct extension of the original motivation to inflict pain as it is in the
Abu Ghraib photographs.
The need to reexamine Abu Ghraib by these terms is underscored by the recent
decision to drop one of the charges against Specialist Sabrina Harman because the
detainees she tortured were wearing hoods (ABC 2005). Harman’s defense was that
because the victims could not see that they were being photographed, they could not have
been humiliated. Consider what a narrow definition of humiliation this ruling supports:
humiliation is a visual experience, the occasion of which can only be confirmed by a
source other than the person who has experienced humiliation. The ruling is particularly
confounding because it privileges vision (the sense) but discounts visuality (the
expression) in its understanding of shame. On the one hand, it begs the question: what
about the other senses? Remember that victims have described, under oath, not only how
they were abused but also when photographs were taken, which they could discern by the
sound of the flash (see, for instance, sworn statement taken from Abdou Hussein Saad
Faleh and Hiadar Sabar Abed Miktub Al-Abood. Reprinted in Danner 2004: 230, 245).
On the other hand: what about the photographs? Is a visual representation of a
humiliating event not capable of causing shame, regardless of the victim’s awareness?
The photographs of dead bodies are a prime example. Are these not an assault on the
dignity of the victims? Certainly this is the reason why American caskets are not allowed
to be shown on television, and why the photographs confirming the identity of Saddam
Hussein’s sons caused an outrage. The ruling implies a skewed understanding of how
visual representation works. It is not the “taking” of a photograph per se that causes
shame, but rather the potential for dissemination that is activated by the taking.
As Sarah Boxer (2004) notes, the photographs are more than evidence, more than
just a transparent view of what happened. “Cameras engender their own violence,” she
writes (2004:E3). “Some of the torment may have been done solely for the photo op.”
The current narrative of what happened at Abu Ghraib looks no further than the physical
bodies harmed. To see the complete picture, we need to begin with the bodies as and
follow the course of representation.
I approach this problem from two angles, each of which I discuss at length in the
following chapter: Theoretical Foundations. On the one hand, there is the question of
content: What do the images say? My interpretation of the photographs is informed by
my critique of The Arab Mind (Patai 1973) and also by Foucault’s (1978) analysis of
confession. On the other hand, there is the question of form: How do the images work?
Photography functions in this context as something more than a mere instrument of
documentation, insofar as the dehumanizing intent of the torture is only fully realized in
the dissemination of the images. I use Catherine MacKinnon’s essay, On Pornography
(1993), as a reference point for talking about the performative function of visual media. I
argue that the Abu Ghraib images are performative insofar as they not only represent but
also realize dominance and conquest: they not only describe but do.
In the Analysis section, I identify specific archetypes and themes that attack Arab
culture in particular, and show how their deployment reflects a language of power that is
more general. The poignancy of the imagery can be attributed both to the cultural
references it makes, and also to our familiarity with the constellation of rhetorical
postures that have historically given “voice” (or, in this case, visual form) to domination.
I conclude by considering what we should do about the Abu Ghraib images. I
discuss how the images have been taken up and redeployed as cultural expressions.
Finally, I reflect on my own relationship with the images: why I chose I look at them, and
how they have affected me.
Chapter II: Theoretical Foundations
The following section seeks to accomplish two goals: to address the “cultural
knowledge” that may have informed the tortures at Abu Ghraib and to synthesize an
analytic framework for interpreting their photographic representation as a cultural
artifact. Two principle works anchor my literature review: Raphael Patai’s The Arab
Mind (1973) and Catherine MacKinnon’s Only Words (1993). First, a deconstruction of
Patai’s monolithic “national character study” of Arab culture serves as a foil against
which I discuss alternative ways of understanding identity in the context of
postcolonialism and transnationalism. I then address some of the specific stereotypes
supported by the corpus of Western knowledge about the Orient, namely those
concerning sexuality. Next, informed by Foucault’s analysis of confession (1978), I
follow Marcus’s (1995) lead and consider how we might locate this particular trope
within the various discourses surrounding Abu Ghraib. Having provided an introduction
to the discourse surrounding and informing the tortures, I then address the issue of
representation, seeking to understand how the dissemination of the images serves to
protract ad nauseum the dehumanizing potential of the physical tortures. MacKinnon’s
essay introduces J.L. Austin’s performative speech act theory to the context of visual
culture. A critical assessment of her statements on pornography will help lay the
groundwork for my analysis of the Abu Ghraib images.
Stated simply, this thesis seeks to interpret a performance. A performance is one
way people relate to one another, a way we as humans tell each other stories about
ourselves and about each other. In order to understand any performance, it is helpful to
know something about the context in which it takes place: about what ideas people might
feel compelled to communicate, and how they might be inclined to communicate them.
But certain ways of understanding the way people relate to one another may not only be
epistemologically deficient, but also socially destructive. It is critical that questions about
context be formulated not in attempt to reveal the essence of a group, but rather at the
discourses that produce knowledge about those groups.
THE ARAB MIND
A serious consideration of a notoriously Orientalist ethnography may seem an
unfortunate (or at least unlikely) way to begin a discussion on stereotyping. However, it
would be a critical oversight to treat Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind (1973)—the book
that ostensibly informed US military policy regarding the torture of Iraqi prisoners (Hersh
2004)—as somehow below the academic radar or otherwise peripheral to “legitimate”
discourse on the Orient. Try as many scholars may to dismiss Patai’s work as pseudo-
anthropology, the fact is that “national character studies” have a history of acceptance
within anthropology and endorsement by US military and political establishments to a
greater extent than some would care to acknowledge. Consider retired Army Colonel
Norvell B. De Atkine’s forward to the 2002 edition of The Arab Mind: “It has been about
30 years since the majority of The Arab Mind was written…[but] it has not aged at all.
The analysis is just as prescient and on-the-mark now as on the day it was written,”
particularly insofar as it illuminates, “the social and cultural environment…and the modal
personality traits that made [the 9/11 hijackers] susceptible to engage in terrorist actions”
(De Atkine 2002: x). De Atkine still assigns Patai to the officers he trains at the John F.
Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, NC.
One of the theoretical postures underpinning this thesis is that identity is a
constructed reality: that racial, cultural, and gender divisions are created and maintained
through discursive practices. But theoretical support notwithstanding, it is easy to see
how the task of addressing these discourses is deflected and obscured by red herring
assessments—exceptionalist and essentialist alike—that look for cultural explanations for
why the tortures took place. Neither the question of whether the tortures “reflect the
nature of the American people” (Bush 2004: A1) nor that of how well the torturers
understood Arab cultural and psychological vulnerabilities has any real consequence, one
way or the other. As Lauri King-Irani quips, “anyone might be ashamed when their
rectum is being torn by a light stick or they’re being threatened by a snarling German
shepherd” (quoted in Starrett 2004: 3). Still, cultural knowledge may be a phantasm, but
its consequences are not: we must not underestimate the significance of how Abu Ghraib
is received. Whether motivated by dutiful obligation, personal life-history, or “a
systemic, intrinsic, and pivotal module of power relations” (Puar 2004: 13), the events
form part of the “created consistency” of Orientalism, both referencing and evidencing
“that regular constellation of ideas”(Said 1978: 5) that is translated, with calamitous
consequences, into group identity.
Suffice it to say, pro-war neoconservatives are not the only minds for whom the
notion of “modal personality”—Patai’s term (used interchangeably with “national
character”) for “the sum total of motives, traits, beliefs, and values shared by the plurality
in a national population” (1973: 18)—maintains currrency. The genesis of “national
character studies” is the culture and personality school, notably, the work of Ruth
Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson. During World War II, the social and
behavioral sciences were recognized as a way for the US to better understand its
adversaries, primarily Germany and Japan (Wolfskill 2002). Techniques developed for
the study of small-scale societies would now be used to analyze so-called complex
societies (see Fromm (1941): Escape from Freedom; Benedict: (1946) The
Chrysanthemum and the Sword). However, since fieldwork was impossible during
wartime, culture could only be studied “at a distance,” through published sources, film,
and interviews with recent immigrants. Geoffrey Gorer (1962), a student of Mead, would
later use Freudian psychoanalysis to establish a theory of that isolated the Russian
practice of swaddling infants as the key to Soviet “national character.” The revitalization
of psychological anthropology in the 1970s and new research on nationalism in the 1980s
are the avatar of national character studies (Starrett 2004, Eriksen and Nielsen 2001).
The Arab Mind is not a “handbook for American torturers”(Qureshi 2004: 3), as
some have suggested, any more than The Catcher in the Rye (the novel said to have
motivated Mark David Chapman to kill John Lennon) is a guide to murder. This is not to
say the text is innocent or benign, but that its prevailing doctrine is far more damaging in
its assumptions than in its assertions. The text’s capacity to manufacture consent—to
validate, for example, an interpretation of the tortures that (re)emphasizes sexism,
homophobia, and patriarchy in Muslim society4 and, in effect, blames the victims for
their own suffering (Puar 2004: 6, Qureshi 2004)—depends for its viability on the
reader’s suspended disbelief regarding a single, impossible feat: the compression and
reduction of culture (Said 1978: 309). It is our task, then, to enlist all of the means at our
disposal in order to expose both the process whereby the Orient is rendered inert, and the
discourse that ascribes to it certain traits, namely: a perverted and repressed sexual drive.
My analysis of The Arab Mind will focus on three particularly problematic
sections: (I., 2.) Who is an Arab? ; (II.) The Group Aspects of the Mind; and (VIII) The
Realm of Sex. Together, these sections provide sufficient context for an in-depth
evaluation of Patai’s theoretical framework. This analysis will also serve as an
introduction to some of Orientalism’s interlocutors, whose work will inform my analysis.
Who is an Arab?
In the first chapter of The Arab Mind, after defining (with reference to Gamal
Abdul Nasser)5 three concentric circles denoting the Islamic world, the Arab World, and
the Middle East, Patai proceeds to delimit Who is (and Who is Not) an Arab. He lists
some of the criteria commonly used to define Arab identity—Arabs are those who speak
Arabic, are brought up in Arab culture, live in an Arab country, believe in Muhammad’s
teachings, cherish the memory of the Arab Empire, are members of any of the Arab
See Andrew Sullivan’s Weblog: The Daily Dish, for an example of this kind of interpretation.
Patai credits Nassar (and “his little book Egypt’s Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution”) for the
concentric circle model.
nations (Patai 1973: 13)—then proceeds to enumerate the ways in which some Arabs
may evade definition by meeting some but not all of these criteria (or, conversely, how a
non-Arab may meet most of the criteria but still not be an Arab). Ultimately, Patai (1973:
14) arrives at a single, infallible diagnostic: “an Arab is anyone who speaks Arabic as his
own language and consequently feels as an Arab.”6 He addresses the problem of Arabs
who conflate Arabism with Islamism, but attributes the confusion to two possible
sources: ignorance and ethnocentrism. On the one hand, “this tendency can be observed
… among uneducated Arabs who cannot be expected to know too much about the
existence of non-Arab Muslims” (Patai 1973:14). On the other hand, “the indiscriminate
usage of “Arab” and “Muslim”…is a significant characteristic of the ethnocentricity of
Arab students of Arab history…despite the fact that they know very well, of course, that
Islam underwent important extra-Arab developments” (Patai 1973:14).
Patai frames the problem of defining the Arab subject as if ambiguity and
hybridity were obstacles preventing access to the truth of identity. However, one of the
central themes of postcolonial theory is that the truth of identity is ambiguity and
hybridity (Said 1979, Bhabha 1984, Spivak 1988, Gilroy 1993, Hall 1993). Emran
Qureshi (2003:28), commenting specifically on the reductionist model of culture
maintained in the “clash” theory of Samuel P. Huntington (1993), responds generally to
the problem of essentializing identity:
At any given time a person may identify primarily with one identity, but
without losing the others. From the perspective of clash theories that
divide the world into clearly bounded, antagonistic camps based on what
Huntington calls the widest group affiliation, the man who calls himself a
Parisian in Paris and a Muslim in Morocco becomes incomprehensible, as
do all of us who identify in different ways at different times.
Again, Patai is careful to legitimate this definition by noting that its original source was an insider, as it
were: Jabra I. Jabra, a Baghdadi critic, novelist, and poet.
Patai’s insistence upon isolating and reifying Arab identity fails to acknowledge the
effects of temporality and movement, which characterize not only the postcolonial
situation, but the human situation in general. The very fact of existing and interacting on
multiple and overlapping social planes (i.e., communities) naturally gives rise to multiple
and overlapping associations (i.e., identities) (Qureshi 2003: 28). The result of Patai’s
condensation of identities into a single, monotonic essence is, according to Said (1978:
309), “to eradicate the plurality of differences among the Arabs (whoever they may be in
fact) in the interest of one difference, that one setting Arabs apart from everyone else.”
Separation, needless to say, may be precisely what Patai intends.
The Group Aspects of the Mind
What does it mean to “feel as an Arab”? Assuming “feel as” is not synonymous
with “identify as,” which would make the definition tautological, “to feel as an Arab”
must be mean something on the order of “to perceive the world through Arab senses.”
Does the “Arab feeling,” ostensibly the result of speaking Arabic, eclipse all other
identities, such as “doctor,” “sister,” “refugee,” or “bereaved”? In any case, it appears to
indicate a trait that is empirically (externally) verifiable. Patai, armed with his diagnostic,
appears to have the ability to cut through the ruse maintained by those Arabs who also
pose as Muslims. James Clifford (1988:94) argues specifically against attaching identity
to language “in a world with too many voices speaking all at once, a world where
syncretism and parodic invention are becoming the rule, not the exception.” For Patai,
however, the Arabic language is not only the lowest common denominator that unites all
of its speakers; it is also instrumental in shaping Arab consciousness. His philology
isolates certain characteristics of Arabic (its proneness to exaggeration, its chaotic noun
system, its mystical rhetoric, and so forth) and shows how they carry over into the Arab
identity (Patai 1973: 41-72). Many of his observations, he warns, would not be
welcomed by Arabs, who are arrogant in their conviction that Arabic is the best and most
beautiful language, and react to observations about its idiosyncratic elements with “strong
resentment and hostility” (Patai 1973:45).
The premise that Arabs are dependent upon the omniscient Western scholar for
insight into their own culture is made explicit later in The Arab Mind: “In historical
perspective, the Arabs see the West as a young disciple who has overtaken and left
behind his erstwhile master, medieval Arab civilization. Now it is the turn of the Arabs to
sit at the feet of their former pupil, a role that is beset by emotional difficulties” (Patai
1973: 274). For now, however, Patai is careful to qualify his statements about the mind
within a positivist psychoanalytic framework, citing “statistical,” demographic evidence.
He explains that “if the national population is fairly homogenous as far as ethnic
composition is concerned, one will find that the modal personalities of any two or more
sample groups will be sufficiently similar to warrant extrapolation from them to the
character of the national population at large”(Patai 1973:19). Patai also enlists the
concurrence of local “authorities” to endorse his own argument: “that there is such a
thing as the “mind” of a national entity was discovered by at least one Arab intellectual…
Taha Husain” (Patai 1973: 22). Indeed, as Starrett (2004: 3) observes (see also Spivak
1990: 219-39), the essentialist perspective may well find indigenous cooperation: “many
of the ‘Arab’ stereotypes Patai outlines differ little from the characterizations Arab
leaders and intellectuals articulate about their own cultures.” This should come as no
surprise, for nationalism depends for its political staying power on the same strategies of
exclusion, compression, and reification as its extrospective counterpart, that is, the
production of truths about the Other. “The demand of identification—that is, to be for an
Other—entails the representation of the subject in the differentiating order of otherness”
(Bhabha 1994: 45). Identity does not subsist in introspection. It is by definition relative to
the Other, and by extrapolation, subject to constant shifts in emphasis depending on the
register of discourse.
The Realm of Sex
Having demonstrated how easily cultures may be essentialized, Patai goes on to
enumerate and describe specific traits of the Arab mind. He uses an analogy to explain
the seemingly paradoxical Arab outlook on sex, which is at once repressed and obsessive.
“The ‘pink elephant’ in the alchemy of Arab life…” Patai writes (1973:118), referring to
the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice who, told he must not think of the “pink elephant”
when performing alchemy, could not help but think of that forbidden subject, “…is the
sex taboo.” The many rituals aimed at the repression of sexual desires and contact, Patai
argues (1973:118), “have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the
Certainly, Patai is not the first to make such an observation. Said (1978) takes
great pains to isolate, enumerate, and discredit a litany of statements to the same effect,
spanning as many Western historical contexts as have, in one way or another, had cultural
access to an experienced or imagined Orient. Rather than recapitulate the many
formulations of this same ramified thesis, let us see if we cannot pose a new question:
what about this perceived characteristic of the Arab mind is so fascinating to the Western
mind? Stated simply, why are we7 so preoccupied with this particular “preoccupation”?
Showalter (1990) and Boone (2001) consider how Western representations of
Oriental sexuality may reflect back onto their proper cultural contexts. For example, as
Showalter (1990:81-82) notes, the fin-de-siècle genre of male quest romance represents
“a yearning for escape from a confining society, rigidly structured in terms of gender,
class, and race,” and depicts the Orient as a space beyond the pale of Victorian morality,
where repressed sexual fantasies might be realized. But because Said’s ultimate objective
is, according to Clifford, to “describe retrospectively and continuously the structures of
an Orientalism that achieved its classical forms in the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries”(Clifford 1988: 257) his analysis gives minimal consideration to parallel or
synchronic discourses. While a “genealogical” or diachronic assessment may be useful in
linking contemporary issues of representation with their historical antecedents and
bringing subjected forms of knowledge into play, it cannot respond to our question
because it traces a single discourse (Foucault 1969). However, Foucault’s (1978:53-73)
statements on the genealogy of confession and its importance in Western discourse as the
locus of truth and sexuality may prove relevant. Said explains how knowledge about the
Orient is produced; Foucault explains how knowledge about sexuality is produced—we
will attempt to relate both of these discourses laterally or “archaeologically.”
Let us revisit Patai’s “pink elephant” metaphor and extend it to so that it more
accurately describes the issue of sexuality in discourse. The story describes a secret
process—a ritual of sorts—that is performed in order to produce a precious element,
valued expressly because it is rare and eternal and cannot be produced synthetically. For
I use “we” simply in reference to anyone who considers Arab sexuality a topic worthy of consideration,
i.e., the author, and not in attempt to stabilize or condense perspectives.
our purposes, let us consider the element to stand for “truth.” In addition to the practical
steps of the ritual, there is an important injunction: a forbidden or taboo subject of
thought, set apart and interdicted (Durkheim 1915), as it were: the “pink elephant.” In
the end, the sorcerer’s apprentice cannot help but think of this forbidden subject, and so
reproaches his master, “why did you have to tell me not the think of the pink elephant? If
you had not, I would never have thought of it”(Patai 1973:118). A reasonable question,
which leads us to wonder whether the master did not have some ulterior objective: an
oblique pedagogy, designed to instruct his pupil as to the alchemy of “truth.”
Foucault’s analysis of confession (1978:61) may help us to see this story in a
different light. “From the Christian penance to the present day,” he writes, “sex was a
privileged theme of confession. A thing that was hidden, we are told. But what if, on the
contrary, it was what, in quite a particular way, one confessed?”(Foucault 1978:61).
Foucault speculates that the imposition of various taboos upon the discourse of truth
concerning sex obscure the true power relationship at work, that is the millennial yoke of
confession. “Suppose the obligation to conceal [the subject of sex; the “pink elephant”]
was but another aspect of the duty to admit it”(Foucault 1978:61). Patai’s interpretation
of the story, when subjected to a Foucauldian analysis, seems to have an “inverted image
of power”: Clearly, the ritual unfolds within a power relationship, but the master’s
authority is not expressed in his injunction per se, but in the transparency of mind he
requires of his pupil. In other words, the injunction—the power of censorship—has no
authority in itself, but is complicit in “the internal ruse of confession” (Foucault
In addition to correcting the chronically skewed perspective on how confession
works, Foucault also discusses the centrality and particularity of confession to Western
discourse. We must take care not to allow a binary opposition between discourses to
stand for a binary view of cultures: Foucault does not say anything about why these
discourses seem to differ, and I will not attempt to extract any such pretension from his
analysis. However, we can appreciate the existence of what appear to be two discreet but
parallel genealogies. Foucault identifies two procedures for producing truth about sex:
ars erotica and scientia sexualis.
On the one hand, the societies—and they are numerous: China, Japan,
India, Rome, the Arabo-Moslem (sic) societies—which endowed
themselves with ars erotica. In the erotic art, truth is drawn from pleasure
itself, understood as a practice and accumulated as experience; pleasure is
not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the
forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost
in relation to itself.
Whether or not this is an accurate representation of the discourse surrounding sex in Arab
societies is beside the point. The aspect of Foucault’s analysis that I seek to apply to my
own is that the power relationships we are looking for (in the Abu Ghraib tortures,
ultimately) may not reside where we expect them to reside. The Foucauldian perspective
makes it possible to do more than merely recast in different terms Patai’s insistence upon
a mental preoccupation with sex in the Arab world: it allows us to address the discordant
interval between two parallel discourses. With a view to this objective, consider
Foucault’s characterization of the Western counterpart to ars erotica-- scientia sexualis.
His primary evidence in support of his assertion that the episteme of scientia
sexualis employs a “form of knowledge-power [—the discursive formation known as
confession—] strictly opposed to the art of initiations and the masterful secret” is that in
scientia sexualis, “the agency of domination does not reside in the one who speaks (for it
is he who is constrained), but in the one who listens and says nothing; not in the one who
knows and answers, but in the one who questions and is not supposed to know”
(1978:62). Elaborating on the mechanics of the discursive formation, Foucault (1978:61)
The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is
also the subject of the statement…A ritual in which the expression alone,
independently of its external consequences, produces intrinsic
modifications in the person who articulates it; it exonerates, redeems, and
purifies him; it unburdens him of his wrongs, liberates him, and promises
However, the “redemptive” potential of confession is necessarily bound by the threat of
coercion: “When it is not spontaneous or dictated by some internal imperative, the
confession is wrung from a person by violence or threat; it is driven from its hiding place
in the soul or extracted from the body” (1978:59). Foucault thus draws a connection
between confession and its dark twin: torture (1978:59).
The Foucauldian perspective is instructive in addressing the question of
Orientalist discourse consistently represents Arab sexuality as simultaneously repressed
and amoral, why it seems to be obsessed with this particular feature. Recognizing the
primacy of confession in Western discourse allows us to consider the difference between
two modes for the production of truth about sex. From these differences, we may begin to
develop a causative hypothesis as to the potential discursive catalysts for the cultural
violence witnessed at Abu Ghraib.
In my final analysis of the Abu Ghraib tortures, Foucault’s statement on
confession will help to reveal obscured discourses. However, it will also require
adaptation to the context. In Foucault’s model, sex is the content of a discourse aimed at
the production of knowledge about sex. However, in the Abu Ghraib tortures, there are
two simultaneous discourses. The explicit content of the coerced confession is
“intelligence,” i.e., information about terrorist activities. Sex, in this case, is both the
explicit means of coercion and also a secondary, implicit aspect of the confession: the
tortures also force the victims to admit “truths” about their own sexuality—that it is
perverse, and that it is vulnerable because of its irrationally repressive taboos.
In order to contend that the photographs taken of American soldiers torturing Iraqi
prisoners at Abu Ghraib not only represent but also ‘do’ gendered and racial violence, it
will be necessary to prove that images can in fact ‘do’ anything at all. Catherine A.
MacKinnon (1993:108) argues that constructing pornography as ‘speech’ effectively
grants constitutional protection to what it does: subordinate women through sex. Her
argument, supported by linguist J.L. Austin’s theory that some speech can be action
(Austin 1962 in MacKinnon 1993: 118n), will serve as my point of departure. However,
my aim will diverge from MacKinnon’s on two points. First, on the performativity8 of
photographic discourse: MacKinnon maintains that a photographic representation of rape
is itself a kind of rape (Dworkin 1994: 127). This aspect of her argument depends on the
physical response evoked in men, rather than the materialization of subordinating
discourse as experienced by women. I will take issue with her approach. Second, on the
issue of censorship: whereas MacKinnon concludes that the damage done to women by
pornography warrants its censorship by the State, the case of Abu Ghraib problematizes
the value of dissemination. On one hand, because the Abu Ghraib tortures have not been
I use Judith Butler’s (1993) reformulation of Austin’s concept advisedly, as it more effectively treats the
relationship between discourse and the body. See Bodies That Matter.
constructed as ‘consensual,’ the images may function as evidence to a crime in a way that
pornography rarely does9. In the public eye, one might argue, censoring the images from
mass media would silence the voices of the victims. But on the other hand, the
panopticism of mass media (Foucault 1978) may also serve to depersonalize suffering by
rendering it flat, static, anonymous, and Other (MacKinnon 1993, Feldman 1994:407).
Further, publishing the images ‘as evidence’ allows the spectator to view them from a
safe distance, i.e., with impunity and moral ascendancy, effectively supporting the
exceptionalist apologia (see Puar 2004). The simulacrum of scandal, to paraphrase
Baudrillard (2001: 176), functions to conceal the fact that there is none.
I will begin with a synopsis and critique of MacKinnon’s case. Pornography is
‘real,’ says MacKinnon (by my interpretation), at three critical moments: production,
consumption, and reiteration/imitation. The productive moment is demonstrable: real
women must be abused in order to produce pornography. MacKinnon (1993: 103) argues
that the construction of pornography as consensual obscures the fact that “all
pornography is made under conditions of inequality based on sex” and is therefore
coercive even without overt violence.10 The reiterative/imitative moment is persuasive,
but still highly conjectural: that pornography is incitement to rape. MacKinnon
(1993:100) states that linear causality can be proven empirically; men who rape because
of pornography are not responding to the ideas or emotions it conveys, but to sexual
stimuli in the form of pictures and words. Rape is not the only way for sexist discourse
MacKinnon (1993: 114n) cites the prosecution of Trish Crawford against her husband for marital-rape, in
which the defendant was acquitted in spite of a thirty-minute videotape of the assault. ‘Acquittal of
Husband Spurs Anger; Wife Accused of Raping Her’, Houston Chronicle, 18 April 1992, sec. A, p.3.
I recognize that this point may constitute a critical flaw in MacKinnon’s argument: some women may
produce pornography voluntarily.
conveyed in pornography to materialize; MacKinnon (1993:102) enumerates more subtle
imitations of pornography that men act out, “depending on their sphere of operation, to
keep the world a pornographic place so they can continue to get hard from everyday life”.
However, the argument still depends on the moment of consumption to pick up slack for
consumers of pornography who do not proceed to “live out [rape] in three
dimensions”(1993:102). MacKinnon claims that the very act of consuming pornography
realizes its referent, that pornography does not merely convey ideas about sex, it is sex.
Men who use pornography as masturbation material are having sex “in their own three-
dimensional bodies, not in their minds alone” (1993:101). Insofar as pornography’s
referent is the subordination of women, the performative hypothesis applies: pornography
is itself the reality it describes. But is masturbation aided by photographs tantamount to
rape? I will address the problem of whether this reality is discursive or material, and
evaluate the extent to which the same logic can be applied to the context of Abu Ghraib.
The ‘collateral damage’ realized by the Abu Ghraib photographs is not just an
idea, but real11—as real as the tortures themselves (though not indistinguishable).
Publication by ‘reputable’ news media does not neutralize the images, but rather
“[facilitates] cultural anesthesia for all those who could be rendered directly or indirectly
accountable for the pain of the Other” (Feldman 1994: 409). The images are never
disarmed; they never become mere evidence. For those enslaved12 by the conditions of
postcolonialism, the ‘ideas’ conveyed by the images are not merely offensive13—they
Though a relevant and fascinating tangent, I will not address the cultural mediation of physical pain in
this essay. See Bordo (1999) for a discussion on why sensory perception (pleasure, in her example) is never
“just a question of nerve endings, always a collaboration with the imagination, and therefore with
Referring to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, in which the master's position of dominance presupposes the
slave's position of debasement (Hegel 1977).
I do not mean to speak from someone else’s perspective as if it were my own, but merely to emphasize,
in line with MacKinnon (1993; see below) and also Said (1978), the omnipotence of cultural hegemony as
constitute the very chains of oppression14. The rest of us, as spectators, are neither jurors
nor witnesses but rubberneckers who continue to gawk as an Iraqi man stands at
attention, faceless and sleepless, on a box, threatened with electrocution of his fingers and
penis should he fall.
The Productive Moment: Simulated Pleasure, Real Rape
The most readily accessible of MacKinnon’s (1993:106) assertions is that
pornography is not simulated, that when a “penis is shown ramming up into the woman
over and over…this is because it actually was rammed up into the woman over and over”.
Pornography that shows women being raped, beaten, tortured, or murdered is made
possible through the rape, beating, torture, and murder of real women. MacKinnon rejects
the proposal that pleasure is real, while refusal and resistance are acting. This
configuration of reality and simulation simply reflects the male rape fantasy: “[T]he
consumer’s pleasure requires him to abuse her and her to like it”(MacKinnon 1993:107).
The fact of payment does not constitute consent, but further undermines a justification
that the experience of pornographic sex is pleasurable for women. Neither does payment
signify a mutually beneficial agreement between pornographer and “actress,” any more
than it does between pimp and prostitute. Coercion, whether physical or economic, is a
fact of the industry.
Pornography is protected under the First Amendment on the premise that it is “a
vehicle for the expression of ideas”(MacKinnon 1993:100). It is not necessary to exploit,
extending far beyond emotional constitution.
“Law is only words. It has content, yet we do not analyze laws as mere expressions of ideas. When we
object to a law—say, one that restricts speech—we do not say we are offended by it. We are scared or
threatened or endangered by it. We look to the consequences of the law’s enforcement as an accomplished
fact and to the utterance of legal words as tantamount to their reality…As Andrea Dworkin has said,
‘pornography is the law for women’”(MacKinnon 1993:114).
abuse, torture and murder women in order to express the ‘ideas’ that pornography
expresses. “It is essential,” according to MacKinnon (1993:100), “to do [these things] to
make pornography.” In sum, MacKinnon claims that sex cannot be ‘represented’ as
fiction without first taking place in reality. Therefore, the State cannot protect
pornography without also absolving the abuses required for its production.
The Reiterative/Imitative Moment: Reality Realized
MacKinnon’s argument employs two distinct versions of Austin’s performative
speech act. On one hand, she argues that some statements are legally treated as acts, for
example: “white only” or “help wanted—male”(1993:99), because they do not merely
convey ideas of segregation or discrimination, they also actualize these notions. Her
argument that pornography should be legally defined as an act is valid on these grounds:
pornography that objectifies and subordinates women does so first in its production, then
again in its representation. I refer to this application of Austin’s theory as the weak form.
However, MacKinnon also argues that pornography is incitement to rape, and
therefore should be treated as the action it describes. “Saying ‘kill’ to a trained attack dog
is only words. Yet it is not seen as expressing the viewpoint ‘I want you dead’—which it
usually does, in fact, express. It is seen as performing an act tantamount to someone’s
destruction, like saying ‘ready, aim, fire’ to a firing squad” (MacKinnon 1993:99).
MacKinnon equates pornography’s message to these kinds of commands. I refer to this
application as the strong form.
Austin’s distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary acts is helpful in
illustrating the difference between MacKinnon’s applications (1962:100). Illocution, by
Austin’s definition, is essentially the content of the statement, while perlocution is the
determinate effect. In some cases, illocution and perlocution are inseperable, as in the
cases of betting and bequeathing (Austin calls these statements explicit performatives;
this is what is conventionally meant by performative). But in others (primary or implicit
performatives), the consequences are distanced from the content of the statement by
cognitive processes. Austin uses the imperative (implicit performative) statement ‘shoot
her!’ to distinguish between illocution (‘he urged me to shoot her’) and perlocution (‘he
persuaded me to shoot her’). Perlocution, in this case, is not a fact of illocution, as it is in
betting, for example.
The same distinction can be applied (quite readily, by coincidence) to what
MacKinnon defines as the essential ‘message’ of pornographic material, which is ‘get
her’, “pointed at all women”(1993:104). If this is indeed what pornography ‘says,’ the
perlocutionary act is that men are persuaded to ‘get her.’ That he may be persuaded to do
so is undeniable, however he may also refuse. ‘Get her’ is not a command in the same
way that “kill” is to a dog or “fire” is to a firing squad. Thus, the strong form
MacKinnon’s application qualifies as an implicit performative, but is not performative in
the conventional sense.
On the other hand, the statement that‘ women are objects’ may meet some of the
conditions of performativity, but by Austin’s measure the statement is nonetheless
constative because it describes a referent. Granted, this may simply illustrate the need to
expand and adapt Austin’s theory to fit the context, but it also illuminates a critical gap in
MacKinnon’s argument: ‘women are objects’ and ‘get her’ are not the same kind of
statement; they do not work the same way. By fusing the determinism of the weak form
with the physicality of the strong form, MacKinnon produces a version of the truth that is
convincing, but ultimately synthetic. For example, MacKinnon writes that pornography
“gives men erections that support aggression against women in particular (1993:101).”
Pornography may literally ‘give men erections’, but erections do not support aggression
against women— discourse does. In other words, MacKinnon replaces perlocution with
stimulus and so dispels with cognition.
However, this is not to say that Austin’s terms do not apply. Rather, it is to correct
MacKinnon’s presumption that discourse can be made physical. Judith Butler (1993: 187)
For discourse to materialize a set of effects, “discourse” itself must be
understood as complex and convergent chains in which “effects” are vectors
of power. In this sense, what is constituted in discourse is not fixed in or by
discourse, but becomes the condition and occasion for further action (Butler
Pornography as discourse may indeed have the capacity to ‘incite’ aggression, but
incitement is not to be confused with stimulation. MacKinnon’s most persuasive
argument as to the effects of pornography, in the end, is not that it incites rape, but that it
makes men want to “keep the world a pornographic place so that they can continue to get
hard from everyday life”(1993:102). This is the kind of effect Butler is talking about:
“discourse becomes the condition and occasion for further action.”
It is conceivable that the Abu Ghraib tortures incite physical violence against
Arabs. However, a more immanent prospect is that the images will serve to strengthen the
“vectors of power” that objectify, subordinate and dehumanize the Other, thus keeping
the world a Colonial place.
The Consumptive Moment: Two-Dimensional Women, Three-Dimensional Sex
We have already discussed two aspects of MacKinnon’s argument: that producing
pornography involves real abuse, and that pornography produces real abuse. We have
taken issue with her claim that there is a performative relationship between pornography
and the violence it may encourage, but we have concurred with her assessment that the
statement made by pornography—that women are objects—is also a discriminatory act.
Now we will consider her claim that pornography does not merely represent sex, but that
it is sex.
“Pornography consumers are not consuming an idea,” writes MacKinnon (1993:101)
“any more than eating a loaf of bread is consuming the ideas on its wrapper of the ideas
in its recipe.” A loaf of bread nourishes the body; pornography gives men erections.
MacKinnon’s hyperbolic analogy may be an effective stratagem for debunking the legal
status of pornography as speech, but it also grossly oversimplifies the way pornography
works and, in the end, weakens her argument. MacKinnon’s ultimate claim is that
pornography is not speech, and should not be protected as speech, because ‘pornography
it is what it does, not what it says’. This is true at the moment of production, and again in
the case of imitation: at each of these times, subordination (rape, torture, or murder) is
experienced by a conscious, sentient, three-dimensional woman. However, the moment of
consumption involves only the consumer. He may continue to get off on what is, before
him now, a representation of her body—her pain, her humiliation—but he does not inflict
this pain. He has merely purchased the ‘right’ to access it. In this sense, it is true that he is
not consuming an idea, but neither is he taking direct part in the physical abuse. His
money pays for the moment of production and therefore supports the first abuse, his
imitation of the experience or reiteration of discrimination may result in a second abuse,
but his ejaculation does not constitute a third abuse. His collusion is undeniable, but
MacKinnon’s charges are insupportable.
The Issue of Censorship
I now depart from my critique of MacKinnon to consider how images of power
function once disseminated by mass media. The term ‘mass media’ is problematic from
the outset—given the frequency with which information (visual and otherwise) now
circulates globally, it may be difficult to define the term by volume alone. Perhaps, then,
it may be defined in terms of what it does. ‘Mass media’, for the purposes of this essay,
refers in particular to the institutionalized production and commodification of visual
truth, not just facts about the world but, as Feldman (1994:406) describes, “facticity
itself.” I refer to the authoritative gaze that hierarchizes, universalizes, and disciplines the
senses (Foucault 1978), the effect of which is to “materially mold a subject and a culture
of perception” (Feldman 1994:406).
The ‘eye of power’ (Foucault1987) categorizes and compartmentalizes visual
knowledge, delimiting which violence is admissible (e.g., civilian casualties in Iraq) and
which is not (e.g., the coffins of American soldiers). It moralizes and justifies by
producing a simulacrum of morality and justice (Baudrillard 2001:175). For example,
CNN (2004) cordons off its internet “gallery” of photographs taken at Abu Ghraib with a
warning: “Contains graphic content. Viewer discretion advised.” This semblance of
modesty or consideration for sensitive and impressionable viewers conceals the fact that
the exhibitor and the moralizer are one and the same. Likewise, the ascription of
“scandal” to Abu Ghraib emphasizes the ensuing legal and political imbroglio—a ‘media
event’ in itself—while obscuring the fact that the tortures actually took place, that they
could have taken place without being photographed, and that the vectors of power that
inscribe visual meaning onto the physical bodies of the victims are systemic, not
In this sense, the Abu Ghraib photographs are functionally indistinguishable from
the pornography discussed by MacKinnon: both depend for their meaning [what Feldman
(1994:406) calls their “communicative and semantic legitimacy”] on a preexisting
cultural scenario. Sexualized violence undoubtedly predates its visual representation and
mass consumption, as do the subordinating discourses (misogyny, racism, homophobia,
Orientalism) that make it possible. MacKinnon’s analysis also applies to Abu Ghraib
insofar as the photographs reiterate their formative (discursive) geneses. MacKinnon
argues that pornography first exploits conditions of gender inequality by commodifying
(pimping) women as sexual objects, and then perpetuates them by persuading consumers
of pornography to imitate the same objectifying practices. Similarly, the Abu Ghraib
torturers exploited a host of conditions (‘postcolonial’ does not encompass the many
forms of subjugation imposed upon the victims before they were captured) in order to
bleed ‘truth’ from the victims (the ‘truth’ that they were terrorists, and the ‘truth’ that
they were homos), and then perpetuated them by promulgating a schizophrenic and
mythical characterization of Us and Them. Casting the event as exceptional allows the
US to preserve its own national narrative, indeed, to emerge “more tolerant of
homosexuality (and less tainted by misogyny and fundamentalism) than the repressed,
modest, nudity-shy Middle East” (Puar 2004:6). On the other hand, the photographs
indisputably reiterate American masculinity and Arab effeminacy. It is a hypothetical
challenge, restrained by a simulacrum of pacifism: in a fair fight, even our women could
take you down.
Feldman (1994:408) describes how, in the televised beating of Rodney King, “the
black body broke through the nets of [cultural] anesthesia.” Like these images, the Abu
Ghraib photographs “showed the state making pain” and, consequently, required the state
to respond in order to normalize its use of force. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld
would be assigned the task of defining the semantics of violence: abuse, humiliation,
torture, terrorism, and so forth. “Does [the “the military’s mistreatment of detainees”]
rank up there with chopping someone’s head off on television?” he asked “It doesn’t”
(Associated Press 2004). He also denied that the procedures constituted “torture.” More
recently, some of the abuses have been defined by military authorities as “torture”(CNN
2004). Defining the terms of “defiant” violence simply serves to vindicate “acceptable”
violence relative to a constructed and malleable principle of civility. The rhetorical
strategy employed here is similar to the legal battle over the constitutionality of nude
dancing, as characterized by MacKinnon. A G-string is ascribed with meaning, as if it
actually made a difference, as if it could be proven that “men are measurably more turned
on by seeing women expose their sexual parts entirely to public view than almost entirely
(MacKinnon 1993:109). Likewise, definitions like “torture” and “terrorism” are
constructed realities. They correspond only with the perspective of the institution that
authorizes their meaning.
My critique of MacKinnon’s assessment of the way pornography works is not
intended simply to provide a metanarrative within which the Abu Ghraib photographs
might be understood. It would serve no one to conclude, at this time, that the Abu Ghraib
photographs do constitute pornography, and that we may analyze them as such. My
ultimate objective is to understand how gendered and racial violence can be inflicted
through visual media. One hypothesis is that some forms of visual media have
performative aspects: they are incitements to action, or are themselves acts of
discrimination or racism. Visual media may serve to reify identity, to condense and
compress it so that it conforms to a binary model that defines “Us” and the “Other”.
Another possibility is that visually mediated violence is capable of changing the
way we interact with Others—in particular, by increasing our capacity to inflict pain on
people separated from us by distance or culture. This change may be brought about
through a variety of strategies, all of which serve the ultimate purpose of legitimating the
State’s monopoly on the use of violence. I seek to intercept these processes, not because I
think they obstruct the essentially benevolent nature of mankind, but because I feel that I
have been co-opted by them, that I am an accomplice to the Abu Ghraib tortures and my
government’s countless other atrocities, in spite of myself.
Chapter III: Analysis
So far, my discussion has focused on locating intersections of knowledge, power,
sex, and culture. First, I considered how “national character studies” serve to produce and
maintain cultural stereotypes. I then examined the reductionist theoretical framework
used by Patai in The Arab Mind to support his claim that Arabs are uniquely preoccupied
with sex. I proposed a new application of the Foucauldian perspective on confession,
which serves to bridge the theoretical gap between Said’s survey of the historic
association of the Orient with perverse sexuality and the (re)production of cultural “truth”
at Abu Ghraib. I reviewed MacKinnon’s critique of pornography, evaluating her
argument that some images may be performative, and considered how certain aspects of
her analysis might apply to the Abu Ghraib photographs. Now, I turn to the images
This chapter is divided into three major sections. I begin with a brief discussion of
the methodological issues surrounding my interpretation of the photographs as a cultural
artifact. Next, I look at how the photographs arrived in the public sphere, and how I
approached the task of representing them. I then introduce the images and offer a short,
literal description of each. Finally, I analyze the images, address four prevailing themes
or archetypes: Arabs as Uncivilized, Arabs as Interchangeable, Arab Sex Revealed and
Arab Sex Concealed.
More than 1,800 images of torture at Abu Ghraib, including videotapes, were
shown to Congress under the supervision of the Pentagon two weeks after the initial “60
Minutes II” broadcast (Kiely and Welch 2004). Some of the materials depict female
prisoners being forced to expose their breasts and male prisoners being forced to have sex
with each other. To my knowledge, 32 still-images of the Abu Ghraib tortures have been
released to (or obtained by) the public. Out of these 32, I have selected 27 for analysis.
All are reprinted in the appendix, along with a chart I have used to “code” the images
(after Lutz and Collins 1997), breaking down common features such as “nudity” and
“restraint” in order to isolate more specific signifiers such as “the threat of pain.”
My only basis for omitting a photograph was if one image seemed to represent the
same event as another, without conveying significantly different information. In some
cases, I decided not to omit what might be considered complementary images because I
felt that differences in composition significantly altered the meaning of the image.
Whether or not I decided to catalogue two such images separately (see Figures 14 and 15)
or together (see Figures 7(a) and 7(b)) had to do primarily with differences would be
articulated on the “coding” chart. But ultimately, since the factors I chose to code for
were qualities I personally felt were significant, these decisions were somewhat arbitrary.
Most important to me was that I present and discuss images that have become, for various
Looking for meaning in an artifact is problematic, since meaning does not in fact
reside anywhere at all. Questions of meaning demand the active voice: not “how is the
artifact perceived?” but rather “how do we perceive the artifact?” The “spectacle”—Guy
Debord’s term for the detached, inverted world of visual meaning—cannot be seen
merely as “a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is
mediated by images” (Debord 1994: 12). There is also the pronoun problem: does “we”
refer to the world? The West? The non-Muslim, non-Arab West? Further complicating
the matter is the instability of identities in general. To ask, “how do we, as ‘x’, perceive
the artifact?” assumes that the identity ‘x’ remains consistent over time and independent
of context. Finally, there is the question of who made the artifact and why. What if the
guards from the 372nd MP company photographed detainees masturbating and piled
naked with plastic sandbags over their heads simply because, as Pfc. Lynndie England
explained, “[they] thought it looked funny?” (Zernike 2004)
A study of this kind must remain open to questions like these. However, it need
not be debilitated by them. At root, each of these questions is epistemological, each is a
reminder of the instability of knowledge. It is therefore crucial that I acknowledge the
limitations on what I can hope to know.
I arrive at the photographs with several fundamental assumptions: 1) the images
represent sexual violence against Arab bodies; 2) sexual and racial violence are supported
by ideas that are justified and maintained through discourse; 3) photography is a medium
of discourse; 4) the relationship of power represented in the photographs is contiguous
with actual events; 5) not only did the tortures depicted actually take place, but they took
place within the context of an imperial conquest, a political manifestation of the same
discourse that supports sexual and racial violence.
The purpose of this analysis is to show precisely how the photographs reiterate
the violence they depict. As stated previously, this is not to say that the photographs
make violence, but that they make violence possible. In addition to the frameworks
articulated by Foucault, MacKinnon and Feldman, I argue also from the framework of
what Johan Galtung (1990: 291) has termed “cultural violence,” referring to “those
aspects of culture…that can be used to justify or legitimate direct or structural violence.”
Galtung explains how this works:
Cultural violence makes direct and structural violence look, even feel,
right – or at least not wrong. Just as political science is about two
problems – the use of power and the legitimating of the use of power –
violence studies are about two problems: the use of violence and the
legitimating of that use. The psychological mechanism would be
internalization (Galtung 1990: 291-292).
In the case of Abu Ghraib, the confirmation of historically imagined “truths” about Arabs
—that they are gay, sex-crazed, uncivilized, and interchangeable—serves to justify the
use of violence. “Truth,” writes Foucault (1980: 133), “is linked in a circular relation
with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it
induces and which extend it.” So long as the images of Abu Ghraib remain imprinted in
our imaginations, so long as they continue to resonate with a prescribed view of Arab
culture, then everything they say is true.
I cannot empirically prove that the photographs make further violence possible. I
will demonstrate, however, that the ideas expressed in the photographs are internally
consistent and externally dependent. The images are a conversation mediated by Arab
bodies. In order to render their medium inert and supple for this kind of manipulation, the
soldiers must remove agency and willful expression from the bodies. This is achieved by
dehumanizing and homogenizing, by portraying them as animals and as interchangeable.
Once they have been prepared, “truth” may be extracted from them by physical and
(RE)PRESENTING ABU GHRAIB
After the initial “60 Minutes II/CBS” broadcast on April 28, 2004, at which time
twelve photographs were shown, there were five major media releases by the New Yorker
(April 30, May 9), ABC News (May 20), and The Washington Post (May 6 and May 21).
In some cases, it is unclear who published an image first, since news sources apparently
obtained copies of the same photographs independently from one another. Further
complicating the issue of accreditation is the fact that most sources posted photographs
on their websites the night before (or, in the case of the New Yorker, a full week before)
going to print. In most cases, web “galleries” were updated each time more images were
released, leaving no record of when each image actually appeared for the first time. In the
introduction to Hersh’s Chain of Command (2004), New Yorker chief editor David
Remnick recalls that two days after the “60 Minutes II/CBS” broadcast, “Hersh’s story
[Torture at Abu Ghraib (2004)] and a portfolio of the horrifying pictures…(including
some that CBS hadn’t shown) went up on our website, www.newyorker.com…”
(Remnick 2004: xviii). However, when that issue was published a week later (May 6),
only two images were printed (Fig. 10 and Fig. 14), both of which CBS explicitly claims
credit for and includes in the web gallery it calls “First Photos: Abuse Scandal
I debated whether to catalogue the photographs chronologically by date stamp or
date of publication. Both chronologies are significant, for different reasons, and I have
included both in the “coding” chart. My impulse was to represent the images just as they
were presented to the public, that is, in an arbitrary chronology dictated simply by which
This web gallery may be found at: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/04/27/60II/main614063.shtml
newspaper happened to acquire which images first. In the end, as my analysis attempts to
address the “whole picture” of Abu Ghraib, it follows no particular chronology in its
treatment of the individual photographs. However, an article by Scott Higman
(Washington Post 2004: A1) persuaded me to present and describe the photographs in the
order in which they were taken.
Higman (2004: A1) argues that the date stamps accompanying the photographs
suggest that there were two distinct phases of torture: “First, sexual humiliation and crude
brutality at the hands of the MPs. Then, the more targeted use of dogs” (Washington Post
2004: A1). The coding of the images also suggests a shift away from photographing
individual prisoners in “stress positions” and toward more complex simulations of group
sex. As Higman explains, the first phase of recorded torture, which began shortly after
the 372nd arrived and “built to a crescendo of perversity, with the naked human pyramid
on Nov. 8,” may well support the position that MPs sought to intimidate prisoners for
their entertainment. But according to Higman (2004:A1), the photographs in which dogs
are being used to intimidate prisoners were taken more than a month later, during a
period when “military intelligence officers were in formal control of the prison.” Higman
concludes that the implication of MI officers discredits the official position that
individuals from the 372nd were acting on their own, “simply because they could” (Tyler
Pieron, Army Special Agent who investigated the case for the Criminal Investigation
Division, quoted in Higman 2004: A1).
Since Higman’s article was published, the ACLU has released copies of FBI
internal memos obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. One of the memos (FBI:
2004) refers to an Executive Order signed by President Bush that sanctioned the use of
MWDs (“military working dogs”), among other interrogation methods including “stress
positions,” “sleep management,” “hoods,” “stripping,” and “environmental manipulation
(e.g., loud music)” (FBI: 2004). In light of this revelation, Higman’s charge that the later
photographs depict sanctioned abuse seems very plausible, if not certain.
Assuming two distinct phases of torture were orchestrated by two different groups
of people, what would it mean if there were also common threads—recurring themes or
metaphors—spanning all of the photographs? On the one hand, small numbers of
photographs may share particularities that set them apart—sexual contact, for example, is
more or less limited to the photographs taken on the night of November 8, most of which
were aired in the original “60 Minutes II” broadcast on April 28. Nudity, on the other
hand, is ubiquitous. Ultimately, any distinction between the November and December
photographs follows a legal and not a meaningful differentiation between forms of abuse.
Insofar as the photographs are perceived as evidence of torture, Higman’s argument is
valid and useful. But the photographs are not merely legal evidence—they are also
“material evidence of the wielding of power, of the performance of conquest over an
enemy” (Carby 2004: 5). From this perspective, there is enough coherence between all of
the photographs to assure that the images will be read as a single statement.
In some cases, the order of publication did matter. For example, Fig. 22, 23, 24,
and 25 seem to tell a story, beginning with a prisoner cowering to protect his genitals
while an MP stands holding the leash of an attack dog, and ending with the same prisoner
receiving stitches from Sfc. Sabrina Harman. Thus Fig. 23, which was published twelve
days before the other photographs, functions rather like a movie trailer: the viewer gets
an idea of the plot, but is held in suspense by the question of how it will end.
On the other hand, Fig. 10 has no narrative association with Fig. 14, yet it still
made perfect sense for the New Yorker to publish theses two images opposite each other
in the same article (Hersh 2004b). Fig. 10 is the infamous shot of the prisoner standing on
a box with electrical wires attached to his body. In Fig. 14, Sfc. Sabrina Harman and Spc.
Charles Graner stand behind a pile of naked, hooded bodies. The only obvious common
feature is the use of hoods, but somehow the similarity is unquestionable. This seems
likely enough—they document the same “scandal,” forming part of the larger narrative of
“Torture at Abu Ghraib.” But there is more to the visual coherence than this. The reason
the photographs “go” together is that both reduce human beings to their most primal,
corporeal state. Fig. 10: an embodied struggle between fear and pain. Fig. 14: a pile of
In order to interpret the photographs as a whole, they must first be “read” as
individual statements. I have included the images along with the text to advocate multiple
interpretations. My interpretations are not intended to be transcriptions, but simply a first
step in committing images to text.
I have ascribed gender to the soldiers and to the guards when it seemed relevant to
the content of the photograph. I have also indicated when the prisoners’ genitals have
been pixilated or blurred. I assume that the publishers of the images are responsible for
these and other manipulations of the images (selective cropping, for instance).
IMAGES FROM ABU GHRAIB
Fig. 1 [October 17, 2003] Published May 6, 2004 (Washington Post)
A male prisoner is cuffed to a cell door. His head is covered with a black hood. He is
naked. One arm is raised above his shoulder, the other is at the level of his waist. The
image is framed/cropped just above the man’s genitals. By his posture, he appears to be
Fig. 2 [October 18, 2003] Published May 6, 2004 (Washington Post)
A male prisoner is cuffed to a metal bunk bed. His head is partly covered with a pair of
pink underwear. He is naked. His arms are bent far back. The bed frame is pressing into
the flesh of his back. The image is framed/cropped just above the man’s genitals. By his
posture, he appears to be conscious.
Fig. 3 [October 24, 2005] Published May 6, 2004 (Washington Post)
A female guard (PFC Lynndie England) holds a male prisoner by a leash. The prisoner
is naked. The image is framed/cropped just above the man’s genitals. He appears to be
conscious—his hand is positioned on the floor next to his head, perhaps to relieve the
pressure of the leash around his neck. Sheets hang from cell doors in the background.
Fig. 4 (see below)
Three male prisoners lie on the floor, naked. Two appear to be cuffed together by their
feet and wrists, one appears to have his legs free but is caught underneath the others. One
male guard is reaching towards their heads—it is unclear what he is doing. Two other
guards observe, more guards congregate down the long hall.
Fig. 4 [October 25, 2003] Published May 6, 2004 (Washington Post)
Fig. 5 [October 25, 2003] Published May 21, 2004 (Washington Post)
Two (maybe more) male prisoners lie on the floor, naked. It is unclear whether or how
they are restrained. A guard appears to be kneeling on one of the prisoner’s chest. Five
guards stand by; one looks at the camera.
Fig. 6 [November 4, 2003 (?)]Published May 21, 2004 (Washington Post)
A male prisoner hangs over a railing. His head is covered with a black hood, and his body
is covered with a blanket. His hands are cuffed to the railing. He appears to be
unconscious—his knees are buckled, his head is slumped, and his arms are limp.
Fig. 7(a) [November 5, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
Fig. 7(b) [November 5, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
A male prisoner lies on a black bag on the floor. His body is covered in ice; there is a
bandage under his bruised right eye. His stomach and hips are exposed; his mouth is
slightly opened. It is unclear whether he is conscious or alive.
Fig. 8 [November 5, 2003] Published May 20, 2004 (ABCNews/AP)
A male guard (SPC Charles Graner) squats next to the body of a prisoner. From the
bandage under the prisoner’s eye, he appears to be the same as in Fig. 7. The guard is
smiling, giving the “thumbs-up” with his right hand and “#1” with his left hand. He has
tattoos on both biceps. He is wearing latex gloves.
Fig. 9 [November 5, 2003] Published May 20, 2004 (ABCNews/AP)
A female guard(SPC Sabrina Harman) leans over the body of a prisoner, who appears to
be the same as in Fig. 7. The guard is smiling, giving the “thumbs-up” with her right hand
and supporting herself with her left. She is wearing latex gloves.
Fig. 10 (see below)
A prisoner stands on a cardboard box. His head is covered with a black hood, and his
body is covered with a blanket. His arms are outstretched, palms up. Wires stretch from
the wall behind him to his fingers. There may be a third wire.
Fig. 10 [November 5, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2003 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
Fig. 11 [November 8, 2003] Published May 21, 2004 (Washington Post)
Five prisoners lie sprawled and contorted on the floor. Their heads are covered with
hoods, and they are wearing street clothes. Their hands are bound with flexi-cuffs. It is
unclear whether they are conscious. A guard holds one of the prisoners by the shoulder.
He is wearing latex gloves. His arm is cocked, ready to punch the prisoner.
Fig. 12(a) [November 8, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
Fig. 12(b) [November 8, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
In the foreground, six prisoners are stacked in a pile, facing away from the camera. They
are naked. Their thighs are tucked up against their chests such that their anuses are prone.
Their anuses and genitals are blurred. On the right buttock of one prisoner, the word
“rapeist” [sic] is written in black marker. One male and one female guard stand together
smiling in the background, thumbs up. They are wearing latex gloves.
Fig. 13 [November 8, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
Five prisoners are stacked in a pile, positioned similarly to the prisoners in Fig. 12. They
are also naked, and they are wearing hoods (the camera is positioned differently than in
Fig. 12, such that the prisoner’s heads are just visible). One has a white streak on his back
—it is unclear what from.
Fig. 14 (see below)
In the foreground, five prisoners are stacked naked in a pile, heads forward. They are
naked and wearing hoods. Some are clutching others by the back of the neck, perhaps for
support, perhaps because they were positioned that way. A female guard is crouched
behind the prisoners, smiling. Behind her is another guard, arms crossed. He is wearing
Fig. 14 [November 8, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
Fig. 15 [November 8, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
Apparently the same event, however here the image is framed/cropped to include all
seven prisoners. In the background, one guards stands holding something in a position to
Fig. 16 [November 8, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
In the foreground, one prisoner kneels between the spread legs of another, simulating
fellatio. In the background, to the left, one prisoner holds his genitals. To the right,
another stands, facing left, head bowed. All are wearing hoods, all are naked. Exposed
genitals have been pixilated.
Fig. 17 (see below)
One prisoner kneels with his back against a wall, head in hands. A second sits facing the
wall. A third sits leaning against back the second, his hands clasped over his head. A
female guard points at his genitals, smiling and giving the “thumbs up.” All prisoners are
wearing hoods, all are naked. Exposed genitals have been pixilated.
Fig. 17 [November 8, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
Fig. 18 [November 8, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
Two prisoners sit facing the wall. One has a white streak on his back, as in Fig. 13. Two
more prisons stand in front of the other two, each with his hands clasped behind his
head. The two in front sit leaning against the backs of the others. All are wearing hoods,
all are naked. Exposed genitals have been pixilated.
Fig. 19 [November 8, 2003] Broadcast April 28, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
Five prisoners stand with their backs against a wall, hands clasped in front of their
genitals. One has stepped forward. His arms rest at his sides, his head is bowed slightly.
The back of his left arm is streaked white. A female guard points at his genitals, smiling
and giving the “thumbs up.” All prisoners are wearing hoods, all are naked. Exposed
genitals have been pixilated.
Fig. 20 [November 18, 2003] Published May 21, 2004 (Washington Post)
A male prisoner stands, back to the camera, arms outstretched, palms facing up, naked.
His back is covered with a brown substance. His legs are crossed and his ankles appear to
be cuffed. A male guard stands facing him and the camera, feet shoulder width apart. He
is holding something against his shoulder, across his chest: a club? Several hands can be
seen reaching from the cell door to the right.
Fig. 21 (see below)
A male prisoner, wearing a hood and red briefs, stands on two cardboard boxes—one foot
on each box. His arms are wrapped around his knees, possibly cuffed.
Fig. 22 (see below)
A male prisoner cowers to protect his exposed genitals from a dog pulling on a leash held
by a male guard. Another guard stands by, observing. The prisoner’s arms are raised in
defense. Both guards are wearing warm clothes.
Fig. 21 [November 29, 2003] Published May 21, 2004 (Washington Post)
Fig. 22 [December 12, 2003] May 21, 2004 ? (Washington Post)
Fig. 23 [December 12, 2003] Published May 9, 2004 (Seymour Hersh: Chain of
Command, The New Yorker)
The same prisoner stands with his back against a cell door, genitals tucked between his
legs, hands clasped behind his head, elbows together to protect his face. A guard stands
facing him, pointing to the ground directly in front of him. A guard stands on either side
of him, each holding a dog on a leash. His face is visible and he looks terrified.
Fig. 24 (see below)
The same prisoner lies on the floor, face contorted in pain. One guard straddles him,
bending his shoulder back. Another holds his ankle. His knee is bandaged with duct tape
and there is a large smear of blood on the floor in front of him.
Fig. 24 [December 12, 2003] May 21, 2004 ? (Washington Post)
Fig. 25 [December 12, 2003] May 21, 2004 ? (Washington Post)
Two guards squat next to a prisoner, stitching a wound on his leg. One is smiling and
giving the “thumbs up.” A third guard stands with one foot on the prisoner’s chest. The
prisoners pelvis is covered by a towel. Both guards are wearing warm hats.
Fig. 26 [circa December 18, 2003] Published May 21, 2004 (Washington Post)
A guard holds a dog by a leash in front of a prisoner. The prisoner, dressed in an orange
jumpsuit, sits on his heels, hands behind his back. He appears terrified. The guard is
wearing a warm hat.
Fig. 27 (see below)
A guard sits on top of a prisoner sandwiched between two stretchers. The prisoner is
grimacing, the guard is smiling slightly. The guard is wearing a warm hat.
Fig. 27 [date unknown] Published May 6, 2004 (CBS/60 Minutes II)
What can be said about an expression that that is neither fully intentional, nor
altogether accidental? Whatever their intentions may have been, the soldiers clearly made
decisions about which events to record. To be sure, as Boxer (2004:E3) observes, the
photographs are “more than mere evidence of what was already happening”—they are
what was happening. Yet, it would be an exaggeration to call the photographs
“propaganda.” The photographs may advance a nationalist agenda, but with the veneer of
“freedom” and “democracy” pealed back to expose the noxious underside of government.
One thing Rumsfeld has been honest about is his grief that the photographs were
released: “people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable
photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise,
when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon”(Dowd 2004). The US military may have
been trying to send a message to the Iraqi insurgency, but it was not supposed to be
received by the American public.
As semi-conscious expression, Abu Ghraib matches Debord’s notion of
The spectacle cannot be understood either as a deliberate distortion of the
visual world or as a product of the technology of the mass dissemination
of images. It is far better viewed as a weltanschauung that has been
actualized, translated into the material realm—a world view transformed
into an objective force (Debord 1994:12).
Debord’s choice of the word Weltanschauung is interesting. In Lingua Tertii Imperii:
Notizbuch eines Philologen (trans. About the language of the Third Reich -- Notes of a
Philologist) (Klemperer 1947), a study of how Nazi propaganda altered German
consciousness, the author observes that Weltanschauung (“worldview,” but literally:
“intuition of the world”) came into popular usage during the Third Reich. The notion of
Weltanschauung was used to legitimize invasions and atrocities through an appeal to
higher ideals (Klemperer 1947:141). The history of the term adds weight and depth to its
usage here. Indeed, the “idea” of Abu Ghraib is not so much an agenda as it is a
legitimization of an agenda. It is the actualization of the Orientalist Weltanschauung.
How does the notion of spectacle fit into our earlier discussion of pornography as
performative? Whereas a performative, such as pornography, can be understood as
realized gesture, a signifier that becomes its own signified, spectacle refers to a visualized
thought, or the polar opposite event. In other words, they describe two tides of the same
Photographing torture is performative, but the Abu Ghraib photographs are a
spectacle. The lens objectifies the body, making it a medium for discourse. The body, as
a medium, makes the idea of torture real. Spectacle is a visual confession. Both
confession and spectacle may be either voluntary or coerced. We might refer to a forced
spectacle by another name: humiliation. Likewise, we might refer to forced confession by
the name of its “dark twin: torture” (Foucault 1978:59).
Confession and spectacle both serve to bring an abstraction into the world of the
senses. So what abstraction is made manifest at Abu Ghraib? I have argued that it is
Orientalism, as represented by The Arab Mind (Patai 1973). But I also pointed out that
Patai’s book was more harmful in its assumptions than in its assertions. An assumption is
a more entrenched kind of knowledge than an assertion—it does not need to be
legitimated through articulation, but simply “goes without saying.”
So what is the Weltanschauung of Abu Ghraib? How will we know what to look
for in the photographs? The testimony of Specialist Mathew Wisdom in the case against
Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick may lead in the right direction:
SFC Snider grabbed my prisoner and threw him into a pile. . . . I do not
think it was right to put them in a pile. I saw SSG Frederic, SGT Davis and
CPL Graner walking around the pile hitting the prisoners. I remember SSG
Frederick hitting one prisoner in the side of its [sic] ribcage. The prisoner
was no danger to SSG Frederick. . . . I left after that.
When he returned later, Wisdom testified:
I saw two naked detainees, one masturbating to another kneeling with its
[sic] mouth open. I thought I should just get out of there. I didn't think it
was right . . . I saw SSG Frederick walking towards me, and he said, "Look
what these animals do when you leave them alone for two seconds." I heard
PFC England shout out, "He's getting hard." (Hersh 2004a:3)16
A testimony falls into the “ritual of discourse” Foucault refers to as confession (1978:61),
I am forced to cite Hersh, rather than the primary source, because Wisdom’s testimony has been redacted
from all public copies of the Taguba Report. In the version reprinted in Danner (2004), Wisdom’s name
and rank are included in the list of witnesses and suspects, but his and six other testimonies are absent.
in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement, and in which the
“agency of domination does not reside in the one who speaks…but in the one who
listens…”(Foucault 1978:62). Here, Wisdom reveals sentiments that he was probably not
asked to reveal. Significantly, he makes no explicit claims about the nature of Arabs. He
expresses remorse about what seemed wrong to him, but he does not say why.
I will anchor my discussion of the photographs in Wisdom’s testimony. I will
divide my analysis according to three archetypal versions of the Arab: Arabs as
Uncivilized, Arabs as Interchangeable, Arab Sex Revealed and Arab Sex Concealed.
I. “These Animals”: Arabs as Uncivilized
The trope of animality or savagery is a common focus among postcolonial critics,
who analyze the various ways in which the colonizers “other” the colonized in order to
establish their superiority. Various strategies were deployed in the Abu Ghraib
photographs to make Iraqis appear less-than-human.
It is difficult to say how many individual prisoners are represented in the
photographs. From the depositions, it seems likely that the same seven prisoners are
pictured in Fig. 12 through 19. Another prisoner’s testimony makes fairly clear that he is
the one pictured in Fig. 10 and possibly also in Fig. 6. So, by my count, there are roughly
20 prisoners pictured. Out of these, five prisoners’ faces are pictured clearly enough for
identification: those in Fig.3, Fig. 7, Fig. 22, Fig. 26, and Fig. 27.
Of these five faces, these five intimations of individual human identity, at least
four have been reduced to mere flesh, or at best primal reflex: one is dead, one is being
pulled by a leash, two are about to be attacked by dogs. By contrast, the soldiers they are
pictured with have all the critical signs of humanness, if not humanity. They wear clothes
—warm clothes, even—they impose order and discipline, they smile and gesture, they
look at the camera. Could it be clearer who is “civilized” and who “savage”?
In his analysis of the Rodney King trial, Feldman (1994) discusses the racial
connotations of a recorded statement made by one of the police officers who assaulted
King, twenty minutes prior to the event. The officer’s statement to a recent case, a
domestic quarrel involving an African-American family, Officer Powell spoke into his
communication unit, “Sounds almost as exciting as our last call, it was right out of
‘Gorillas in the Mist’”(Courtroom Television Network 1992, cited in Feldman 1994).
Feldman explains the implication of the epithet:
The phrase “Gorillas in the Mist” in this instance, clearly evokes the
jungle, the wilderness, the frontier—outside spaces opposed to a
civilizational interior. These are presocial, naturalized terrain from which
the sanctioned enforcer extracts the disciplinary subject as so-much raw
material to be reworked by the state (Feldman 1994:409).
The Abu Ghraib images deploy the trope of animality in the same way. Prisoners are not
merely represented as animals, but as animals undergoing domestication: in the process
of being reworked by the guard, an extension of the state. In Fig. 3, the leash does not
merely imply that the prisoner is an animal, but that he is a domesticated dog. Indeed, he
is the state’s dog.
SSG Frederick’s testimony links animality (“look what these animals do…”) with
sexual perversion, and Fig. 3 seems to evoke both. England’s role is at once that of
trainer or “sanctioned enforcer” and dominatrix. However, the trope of animality also
appears in other photographs independently of any explicit sexual theme. In Fig. 1 and
Fig. 2., for instance, the prisoners are cuffed such that they resemble circus bears chained
to cages. Arms raised, they appear as if they could be ferocious, but have been rendered
docile. Perhaps even more striking is the resemblance of Fig. 23 to an image of bear
baiting (Fig. 28). Cornered by men with dogs, the “beast” is helpless. The event, like Abu
Ghraib, is a public spectacle, a display of power justified by (and reinforcing) a hierarchy
Reducing prisoners to sub-human status facilitates further uses of their
bodies to express other “identities.” The more the prisoners are “othered,” the
more abstract our empathy becomes.
II. “Put Them In A Pile”: Arabs as Interchangeable
In addition to being dehumanized, prisoners were also photographed in
ways that denied them individuality or agency, rendering them interchangeable,
anonymous, and helpless.
The US military uses hoods as a means of physical and psychological coercion.
According to the Red Cross (as cited in Danner 2004: 6), hooding is used to disorient
prisoners and to prevent them from breathing freely. Hoods are particularly effective
when used during beatings, as they often are, because they increase anxiety as to when
blows will come. Hoods also afford interrogators anonymity, allowing them to act with
However, the efficacy of hooding is not limited to the context of torture—hoods
continue to violate prisoners in the photographs. First, hoods force acquiescence to the
camera. In Fig. 17 and Fig. 18, for example, the prisoners have become mannequins. No
matter how their bodies are manipulated and exposed, their faces are compliant. Without
faces, prisoners can only pantomime “shame” by hanging their heads, by holding their
heads in their hands. Their faces are not free to subvert the statement made by the
photograph; whatever the guards “say” about the prisoner is true.
Further, the use of hoods allows each prisoner to signify something greater than
himself. This way, “truths” revealed about the prisoners are truths revealed about Arabs
in general. Prisoners are no longer individuals but modal types, interchangeable figurines
of Arab men.
Why were the prisoners put in piles? Puar (2004:4) discusses the significance of
the pyramid structure, noting that it is frequently used by the State Department as a model
for terrorism. “What is significant here,” Puar notes (2004:4-5) is not that the meaning of
the pyramid has been translated from one context to another, but rather that this
Orientalist ‘knowledge of the Arab’ and its mimicry does not depend on contextual
meaning to be symbolically and politically effective.”
The use of hoods and piles both help to make prisoners into mere bodies.
III. “He’s Getting Hard”: Arab Sex Revealed
Two different strategies are used in the photographs to deploy notions of Arab
sex. In some images, sex is displayed by a soldier who poses with the prisoners. These
are the images that resemble the tourist snapshot, as Boxer observes (2004:E3): a traveler
standing in front of a monument with an arm outstretched as if to introduce it. Or perhaps
with a hand held such that it looks like she is “holding up” the Tower of Pisa, or
“squishing” the Taj Mahal. However, the inclusion of the auteur—the image’s creator—
within the frame means that these images say something more than “I was there.” Indeed,
the soldiers self-satisfaction is, in part, the subject of the image.
Take Fig. 14 and Fig. 17, for example. In both, soldiers seem to be saying, “look
what I did.” In addition to representing the subject of reference, whether a pile of bodies
or an erection, the photographs also represent the auteur’s relationship with that subject.
“Mission accomplished,” the soldiers standing arms-crossed or thumbs-up behind the
human pyramid in Fig. 14 seem to be saying. “The enemy has been neutralized.” Fig. 17,
on the other hand, “is a version of the classic ‘I caught this big fish’ photo” (Boxer 2004)
To “capture” the image is also to apprehend the subject, in this case the Arab phallus. The
subject of the photograph is not only the phallus itself, but also its discovery, capture, and
The performative function of the photographs is perhaps best demonstrated in the
pixilation or blurring of the prisoner’s genitals. As a synecdoche for hyper-masculinity,
for all that is aggressive or insurgent, the Arab phallus is the U.S. occupation’s most
important symbolic target. It must be removed, impaired, or disappeared. How better to
stage a virtual castration than by forcing prisoners to display their invisible genitals?
Censorship is the perfect deus ex machina, obscuring the collaboration between the
military and the media while absolving both parties: the military stopped short of that
crime, and the media was merely protecting the privacy of the victims. But that aspect of
censorship is a slight of hand: blurring protects the Western viewer from the prisoners’
genitals indeed—by removing them! Blurring obscures no aspect of the narrative—there
is no removing “the part in the story about their genitals.” Rather, it puts words in the
mouths of the confessors: “the truth is, we don’t have genitals.” Like in a medieval
execution, endless pageantry sets the stage for the grand finale that everyone anticipates:
First, one prisoner is stigmatized with the inscription of “rapeist” [sic] on his left buttock.
Then he and six others are forced to perform various stunts to display—to prove—that
they are sexual freaks, libidinous beyond our wildest dreams: the “human pyramid,” the
“orgy,” and so forth. Finally, all of the prisoners are lined up for inspection and, lo and
IV. “When you leave them alone”: Arab Sex Concealed
The second strategy used to deploy notions of Arab sex, in contrast to display, is
to present events as if they were merely observed, as if they were occurring
spontaneously or “naturally,” without intervention. No soldiers are pictured in Fig. 16
and Fig. 18. These photographs are not about a relationship, as Fig. 27 so clearly is, but
rather about the “nature” of Arab men, who evidently cannot be left alone without
“getting hard” and getting it on.
Western representations of Arabs as sexually “perverse” and “unnatural”
undoubtedly predate the colonial era. Said (1978) observes that from its earliest
manifestations in European consciousness, “the Orient was something more than what
was empirically known about it,” and so long as it has occupied the frontiers of the
imagination, it has been represented as beyond the pale of order and morality. Said’s
(1978: 56) discussion of The Baccae and its explicit connection of Dionysus with his
Asiatic origins speaks to the classical Greek picture of the Orient as ecstatic and orgiastic.
Medieval and early Renaissance literary representations of Islam (e.g. Chanson de
Roland and The Divine Comedy) served to reify the East/West antipode by presenting
Islam as the antithesis of Christianity; its manifold characterizations are “symmetrical to,
and yet diametrically inferior to, their European equivalents” (Said 1978: 72).
In Fig. 2, Fig. 12, and Fig. 20, prisoners have been marked with indicators of
perversion: one has pink underwear on his head, one has “rapeist” written on his left
buttock, and one has a brown substance that appears to be excrement covering his back.
Because there is no indication or explanation of where these markers came from, they
seem to be the prisoner’s own fault. Photography is not a transparent window (Boxer
2004), yet it is still quite possible for a photograph to be invisible, or to deny the fact of
its creation. The very necessity of selecting which events will be observed means that
other events will be obscured.
The most significant omission in this regard is women. Forty-two women have
been held at Abu Ghraib (McKelvey 2005). Many were released in May, shortly after the
scandal broke, and the last was released in July (McKelvey 2005) The Taguba Report (in
Danner 2004: 292) includes acts against women in its list of abuses: “Videotaping and
photographing naked male and female detainees” and “ A male MP guard having sex
with a female detainee” (note that “the ‘r’ word” is studiously avoided). It has been
reported that a letter written by a female detainee containing allegations of rape was
smuggled out of the prison (Harding 2004). Some of the victims have become pregnant,
the letter said. Photographs of women being raped and tortured were among the many
images shown to the Congress on May 12, 2004, but somewhere along the line, someone
decided that these images could not be published. For women, the consequence is
Former Abu Ghraib prisoner Dhia al-Shweiri (2004) describes what the tortures
meant to him: “They wanted us to feel as though we were women, the way women feel,
and this is the worst insult, to feel like a woman.” His comment is troubling, to say the
least. Understood in the context of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, it suggests collaboration
between various oppressive forces: most explicitly misogyny and imperialism, but also
racism and homophobia. While we may be able to recognize each of these vectors of
power, it is more difficult to locate their origins. Puar (2004) notes the irony that the Abu
Ghraib tortures should make the United States out to look “more tolerant of
homosexuality (and less tainted by misogyny and fundamentalism) than the repressed,
modest, nudity-shy Middle East” (Puar 2004:6). Indeed, my immediate reaction to the
prisoner’s account was sympathetic, but morally ascendant. And that is something to be
I chose to title one of my subsections “Locating Meaning,” despite having
claimed previously that meaning “does not reside anywhere at all.” This was intentional.
The Abu Ghraib photographs are, in many ways, an impossible artifact. “There is an
acceptable vocabulary for news photographs, and you can show whatever kinds of
horrific acts within that coded language,” explains Brian Wallis, chief curator of New
York’s International Center of Photography, one of two galleries17 that caused a stir last
fall by holding an exhibition of the Abu Ghraib photographs. The pictures, he says, “are
not within that vocabulary, and the contrast is particularly shocking” (Thomas 2004:53).
The distinction Wallis refers to, I believe, is the distinction between constative and
performative imagery. The Abu Ghraib photographs are horrific because of what they
depict, but what makes them aberrant is that they do not solicit sympathy. Usually, when
Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum was the other.
we are confronted with a disturbing image, we are in fact shielded from it by a
benevolent lens. What remains unresolved in my mind is the question of whether we can
or should study performative images. Can we stare at the sun?
Chapter 4: Conclusion
Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has
to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you
could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural
question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living (Adorno 1973:
Last summer, a series of subversive posters went up in New York City that
depicted the iconic Abu Ghraib “wired man” (whose given name, I feel strongly that it
should be noted, is Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh) in the motif of the iPod ad campaign (Fig.
29 and 30). Silhouetted against a brightly colored background, the hooded figure had the
familiar iPod wires attached to his fingers. The series used several variations on the same
idea: sometimes the figure was alone, sometimes surrounded by a crowd of the original
grooving iPod silhouettes, expressing their modular individuality. The tagline read “iRaq.
10,000 volts in your pocket, guilty or innocent.”
The “wired man” has quickly become the logo for Abu Ghraib. The simple form,
recognizable even as a silhouette, has been reinvented in thousands of new forms
designed to parody, protest, or merely reference the actual event. It should come as no
surprise that the image has been aestheticized. It was created to be. What is more
disturbing to me is that the image has become a negative, a mere shadow.
I am reminded of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where everyone confuses shadows
with the forms that cast them. The difference is that, in the cave, the forms that make the
human shadows are puppets, not real humans. “The silhouetting negates details of the
victim. Like the inherent meaninglessness of the Nike swoosh, it exists only as a vessel
to pour branded messages into” (Schmelzer 2004).”
It is one thing to pour meaning into a made-up icon. It is something else entirely
to fill a human being with meaning against his will. But now that the images are out
there, it seems that we cannot help ourselves. In order to make sense out of our relation to
the images, we become ventriloquists for the shadows that cannot speak. And this is a
very questionable role.
I remain conflicted as to the ethics of reclaiming the images as form of
empowerment. Who am I to say? A mural in Iraq depicts a hooded Statue of Liberty
poised to electrocute the iconic prisoner (Fig. 31). With the caption “Freedom For Bosh
[sic],” the image is a poignant statement on the hypocrisy of the “war on terror.” Behrouz
Mehri photographed billboards in Tehran (Fig. 32) that seem to display the images as a
public reminder or what happened. Joe Previtera was arrested for dressing as the “wired
man” and standing in front of a military recruitment center (Fig. 33). If these images do
anything to subvert the effects of their original counterparts, they should be revered.
What should we do with these images? Now, after having spent six months
looking at them, my response is shorter than when I began: mourn. I do not believe there
is another answer. We should never dwell in the safe space of cognitive distance. There is
nothing to be gained from “understanding” the images, in an abstract sense. If we cannot
feel them, we should look away.
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