Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 18, 2007
Stephen F. Eisenman The Abu Ghraib Effect London: Reaktion Books, 2007. 142 pp.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $19.95 (1861893094)

The language of war in the post-Vietnam era is all about clinical precision: as in “surgical strike,” “smart bombs,” or “friendly fire.” Designed to communicate the idea that brutality, risk, senseless killing, and torture are qualities of the past, this language promotes the belief that war has somehow become clean and non-lethal. The 2004 appearance of photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison, which showed in horrific detail U.S. soldiers violating the human rights of supposed Al-Qaeda terrorist and Iraqi insurgency suspects, came as a clear challenge to this perception. And yet, as Stephen Eisenman argues in his new book, The Abu Ghraib Effect, these pictures failed to instigate radical political change in the United States. George W. Bush was re-elected just months after their release; Secretary of Defense and key architect of the war in Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld, managed to keep his job; and Alberto Gonzalez, author of the so-called “torture memo,” which argued that the United States possessed the right to abuse detainees and violate the Geneva Convention Against Torture, was eventually appointed Attorney General. (Rumsfeld and Gonzalez both later resigned, though not directly due to any Abu Ghraib fallout.) Eisenman interprets this political status quo as evidence that by and large Americans took a “so what” attitude toward the Abu Ghraib torture images, an attitude he labels the “Abu Ghraib effect”: “What if the US public and the amateur photographers at Abu Ghraib,” he writes, “share a kind of moral blindness—let us call it the ‘Abu Ghraib effect’—that allows them to ignore, or even to justify, however partially or provisionally, the facts of degradation and brutality manifest in the pictures?” (9)

Eisenman explains the Abu Ghraib effect not through a sustained analysis of growing racism in the United States since the 9/11 attacks, or via an administration whose condoning of torture and abandonment of Geneva is a substantial change in U.S. policy, but rather through what he calls, after the early twentieth-century art historian Aby Warburg, a Pathosformel or pathos formula. In the Western classical tradition, the pathos formula is the motif of eroticized, rationalized torture as found in select art-historical examples. As Eisenman succinctly articulates, “It is the mark of reification in extremis because it represents the body as something willingly alienated by the victim (even to the point of death) for the sake of the pleasure and aggrandizement of the oppressor” (16). Interrupted in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century by art that showed torture as degrading and closed to eroticization, the pathos formula reemerges, Eisenman argues, in the twentieth century with the rise of fascism and remains alive and well today in popular culture. His evidence spans the canon of Western art. The cruelty of the Battle of the Gods and Giants on the Pergamon Altar (ca. 180–150 BCE) serves as one example. Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave (ca. 1513) is another. He describes Raphael’s Battle of Ostia (1514–17) as an “image of the infidel who willingly embraces his own chastisement and captivity” (66). The painting depicts the defeat of the Saracens (Muslims) and their surrender to Pope Leo IV at Ostia in 849; as Eisenman points out, the lower left portion of the image shows the captives in postures of “ostentatious self-abasement” (66). The text, then, is not so much an examination of the Abu Ghraib pictures, as an analysis of how Western art is largely a history of “the representation of collusion between torturer and victim” (97).

There is much in this book to commend. It provides, for instance, a model of engaged, critical scholarship, one that makes art history relevant to today’s political concerns. Eisenman’s political commitments, moreover, are evident without ever feeling preachy or overly didactic. Dedicated to holding art history accountable for its racist representations, he debunks, in easy flowing prose, the myth that high culture somehow exists outside the desublimatory impulses that guide much of popular culture—video games, movies, pornography, etc. And in demonstrating that art’s history is not as humanist or angelic as it is often presented, he effectively shows how throughout history artists and art historians have been more than willing to service the powerful. Yet the book is not all pessimism and finger-pointing. It appears that Eisenman’s true concern is to construct a history that counters the celebration of violence as conquest and that refuses to make suffering beautiful. This counterhistory, I think rightly, is presented as the antidote to the Abu Ghraib effect. Thus, artists such as William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, Leon Golub (Käthe Kollwitz might also have been mentioned) model instances of resistance and play significant roles as examples of artists whose political commitments guide their production, situating their work for Eisenman outside of the pathos formula. Golub works as a particularly effective example here: In his depictions of the abused and the abusive—frequently referencing U.S.-military directed exploits in Latin America—Golub portrays a world where life appears expendable, and where this expendable life (this bare-life, as Giorgio Agamben might say) exists in contrast to life that has power. The torturers in his Interrogation II (1981), which is reproduced in the text, smoke cigarettes, talk among themselves, and gaze out at the viewer, as if assuming our complicity in their brutality. This assumption, as well as the physical rawness of Golub’s representational mode of painting, precludes the viewer’s (erotic) pleasure in the scene. In essence, Eisenman writes, Golub turns “[the ancient pathos formula] upside down,” rendering “it useless as a weapon in the war of the powerful against the vulnerable” (107).

But there is also much in this book that does not quite sit right. To begin with, it seems unfair to characterize the U.S. general population’s response to the Abu Ghraib pictures as morally blind—or worse, erotic. There is no question that any critical observer cannot help but to be appalled by the public’s relatively passive reception of the Abu Ghraib images. On the other hand, this point should not be exaggerated. Bear in mind, for instance, that reports of torture and mistreatment in U.S. detention facilities had been leaking out for at least a year prior to the revelation of the pictures. Whatever disciplinary action taken by the military and whatever political consequences experienced by the Bush administration—and in retrospect many would argue that the Abu Ghraib images absolutely contributed to the overall decline of support for the war—are the direct result of the images becoming public and of the pubic reacting precisely with moral outrage. In fact, the Bush administration was terrified that additional pictures and video, reportedly more horrifying than those we already know, would be leaked to the press and provoke further protest. Reports of solemn Senate and House members filing into secure rooms in the Capitol in order to view additional images of abuse filled newspapers, always with the accompanying explanation that these pictures were more graphic than those already known and than members of Congress had expected. It is truly one of the most amazing feats of Bush’s White House that it succeeded in keeping so many of the Abu Ghraib pictures from the public. In her essay, “Regarding the Torture of Others” (New York Times, May, 23, 2004), Susan Sontag observes that the problem with the Abu Ghraib images for Bush and his defenders is not the fact that the pictures depict torture, but rather that they exist, that is, that the pubic suddenly had access to a visual analogue of long-standing written policy. While Eisenman references Sontag, he focuses on her (and other critics, such as Dora Apel’s) comparison of the Abu Ghraib images to lynching photographs from the early part of the twentieth century, overlooking the element of her argument that engages his own.

Consideration of Sontag’s insight points to other missed opportunities in Eisenman’s book. For instance, Eisenman (and he is not alone in this) writes about the Abu Ghraib pictures without ever addressing them phenomenologically: as digital pictures that exist without negatives but with infinite potential for mass distribution. Nor does he engage the fact that soldiers and outsourced military personnel, not artists—not even amateur artists—produced these pictures. Instead, the images are addressed unproblematically as photographs, and this only briefly in the very beginning of the book. This short-circuits the consideration of the images as documentary digital images. What the Abu Ghraib pictures prove—and this seems a powerful statement to make about the future possibilities of documentary imagery—is that even digital images, which have often been theorized as a kind of fiction, as a “photographic” picture divorced from reality in the sense that there is an expectation of artifice, nevertheless still present themselves as a legally actionable trace of the real. In other words, digital images retain, to use Roland Barthes’s psychoanalytically inflected term, a punctum, or visual shock, that is well capable of striking the viewer with a force not even considered by Barthes. As the documentary mode reemerges in contemporary artistic practice, and as it establishes itself as a key component of popular culture, the digital image’s ability to function simultaneously as fact and fiction might be seen as evidence both of the continuing power of the photographically based image and of its potential to operate with massive ramifications in the political public sphere. For while photographs may lack to a certain degree the authority they once possessed, the heightened awareness that a digital picture contains great potential for artifice means they demand an interpretative element, which can prompt political disagreement and discussion.

But perhaps my biggest concern with The Abu Ghraib Effect, and this despite a clear and admirable intention otherwise, is that Eisenman, by placing the Abu Ghraib pictures into, or alongside, a history of Western art, actually seems to remove them from the very specific political history that formed their context. There is reason to question whether the pathos formula of beautiful suffering as represented in Michelangelo’s Dying Slave or the Pergamon altar constitutes a meaningful comparison to the Abu Ghraib pictures in any way except perhaps in general formal terms. Can such an analysis really get at the heart of what these images, however provisionally or problematically, represent? Without gainsaying the challenges posed by a politicized rethinking of aesthetics, I worry that The Abu Ghraib Effect leaves out too much of the history and politics that formed the Abu Ghraib images’s reception and thus runs the risk of falling prey to the very reifying tendencies against which Eisenman struggles.

Terri Weissman
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign