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systemic fallacy

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The following paragraph is from an essay by WJT Mitchell in The Life and Death of Images, a new collection of essays published here by the Tate itself, in the US by Cornell.

Although the Abu Ghraib image is generally reproduced as a singular, isolated, iconic form, it implies an address to and relation to other that is a central feature of the tortured and dying imago dei in Christian iconography. We know that the torturers are not far away, and we know from the pornographic images that they were having a good time, giving the ‘thumbs-up’ sign to the camera as they gloated over their victims. But this, too, is a central feature of the photographs, which, like the canonical scenes of the passion of Christ, incorporate the torturers as an essential part of their iconography. Did Lynndie Englund know that a frequent motif in scenes of the mocking of Christ is the leading of him on a leash? Certainly not. These tableaux are not to be taken as expressions of the intentions of the torturers, but symptoms of the ‘system behind the system’ that brought them into the world.

I’m interested in the last line. That is, I’m interestedly resistant to the last line. What do you think? I’m not going to show the images again – they’ve been shown enough, and those are human beings that we’re seeing, the purpose of the photos was to humiliate, and that’s that. But, remembering back, are they “symptoms of the ‘system behind the system’ that brought them into the world”? And what does that have to do with traditional Christian iconography?

I am nervous about a quasi-Jungianism that’s slipping back into the game. I guess I don’t believe in any “system behind the system,” at least not one that looks like the one Mitchell seems to be leaning on here. But then again, I’m definitely not an intentionalist either, in the Hirsch / Michaels mode…

I’ll put it this way. Unless the complex history of Christian representation is bracketed as “what I, and I alone because of my training, can find in this image,” I am not sure what the top of the paragraph is up to, especially given what happens at its end.

What does it matter? We dance over the particularities of the thing. We lose sight of the beam in our own eye, the suffering human being in the shot, as we paranoiacally speculate about the sprinkler systems that run under the image’s lawn.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 8, 2008 at 1:21 am

Posted in aesthetics, torture, war

One Response

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  1. “And what does that have to do with traditional Christian iconography?”

    I’d presume the theology is this: Christ’s torturers were acting on behalf of the Empire, but behind that system the satanic forces of evil were at work. And behind that evil system was the grander purposes that God was enacting through the unwitting cooperation of the Evil One and his minions. So, relative to Abu Ghraib, is this guy saying that the American Empire isn’t really its own cause, that a deeper evil is moving it, and yet this evil American puppet of Satan is still acting as an ironic agent of God’s will, that God has some greater purpose in mind by allowing those prisoners to be tortured by the American guards? That’s a disturbing aesthetic.

    ktismatics

    May 8, 2008 at 4:37 am


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