Passion of the Christ in Abu Ghraib: Toward a New Theory of Ideology

Walter A.

The Misfit’s Dilemma

“It’s no real pleasure in life.”
-- The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

“When thinking comes to a standstill in a constellation saturated with tension—there the dialectical image appears.”
-- Walter Benjamin

This is an essay to illustrate a method and to advance a neglected concept of ideology and ideological critique. My focus is on the glue, the thing that holds other ideological formations in place, giving them the power to compel allegiance, often long after their contradictions have become apparent. Emotion is that glue, and the way it takes root in us—through images, symbols, and symbolic actions—is what we must develop a way to analyze if the study of ideology is to overcome the intellectualist traditions that have dominated and severely limited it.1 Ideology is thought of as primarily a study of the ideas, beliefs, commonplaces, and attitudes that blind people to a correct understanding of their historical situation. Ideological analysis so conceived is a focus on quasi-conceptual matters that can be combated by rational demonstration.  Analysis is conducted as if the primary thing about us is a world of ideas that are constructed and maintained through quasi-cognitive processes.  The psyche, which is where the real action takes place, escapes detection and critique. We fail to direct our attention to what is the primary thing about us: that we are creatures ruled by emotions which we refuse to examine or alter even after those emotions have proven themselves thoroughly incompatible with our situation.

Ideology is so hard to subvert not because the beliefs and ideas are solid but because they draw on and satisfy underlying emotions.  Get people to invest enough emotion in a flag or an image (Christ on the Cross, the Twin Towers aflame) or a symbolic act (the fantasy of ridding the world of Evil through a War on Terror) and it is a thing of trifling and comparative ease to enlist their continuing support for thoroughly discredited ideas and policies—lies readily embraced because they feed the underlying emotions. To dislodge ideological blinders we have to get at the emotional and psychological register where the actual processes of ideological formation and manipulation take place.  This requires a new kind of ideological analysis, which, as we’ll see, breaks with central assumptions and assurances that the left has relied on even, perhaps, to protect itself from self-analysis and the discovery of things it doesn’t want to know about itself.

These are big issues, of course, and my primary effort here will be to engage them concretely by offering the reader an example from which the larger issues will emerge naturally and gradually, becoming concepts only after having been concrete experiences.  Such a method, I should add, is demanded by the theory I’m developing.  If I’m right, the primary thing that any discussion of ideology must engage is the reader’s emotions. It must in fact run the risk that the reader will refuse and actively resist the opportunity it offers.  The result is a mistaking of intellectual objections to the argument for what they often signify: psychological defenses which have become peremptory yet must take the form of apparently rational objects in order to conceal and project the emotions that the argument has stirred up in the reader. By insisting on shifting everything to a purely intellectual space, one deflects discussion from emotions one doesn’t want to admit or confront. As we’ll see, we on the left are just as guilty of this act/tendency as those on the right. To confront it we must engage it and the intellectualist objections whereby it masks itself.

Concrete examples are of the essence here, and I have two that I’ll turn to shortly: one a film, The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson; the other a body of photographs from Abu Ghraib. The two events are united, I will show, by the secret they share: that of their psychological connection as pivotal developments of what has happened to the Amerikan psyche since 9-11.2 I use the term Amerika rather than America throughout in hopes of preventing any misunderstanding.  My subject is a collective disorder which may in fact be the dominant condition of Americans today but which is not universal.  My concern is not with sociological, statistical analysis; rather, I offer a psychological diagnosis of a condition that is shared by vast numbers of Amerikans for reasons too complex to go into here.  Gibson’s film is significant not just because of its unprecedented popularity—a box office blockbuster of record-setting proportions when it opened; now over 1 billion in ticket sales worldwide with a big Blockbuster promo advertised in connection with its DVD release—but because of what that popularity signifies in terms of the emotional experience that the film offers its audience and the work that it consequently performs in their psyche. Abu Ghraib is, as I’ll show, the sequel, with its significance also lying in what it reveals about what is taking place in depth in the Amerikan psyche.

Before turning to that examination, a few more words about the theory underlying it will be helpful. This is an essay in psychoanalytic cultural criticism. One of its primary purposes is to show what a radically rethought psychoanalysis offers those of us engaged in the ideological critique of Amerikan society.3 This method focuses on the Image as the reality that lays bare the disorder and (following Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno) the secret dream life of a culture.4 The image is the primary object of ideological examination because it reveals what others conceal. This is so because in the formation and self-regulation of the psyche, Image is primary from start to finish. We don’t know our world primarily through concepts that have been arrived at via some quasi-deliberative process; we know it through images that engage us emotionally because they embody our dreams, our fantasies, and our discontents.5

Image is where psyche lives the life of its deepest emotions. As such it is the primary process6 through which one apprehends the world and acts upon it.  But if we return to the image as the primary object of ideological analysis, we return to it in a world far different from the one Benjamin and Adorno inhabited.  Always historicize. This, the first and last commandment of leftist inquiry, implies a search for Images that reveal what is unique about our historical situation, how it differs from the past. Historical inquiry is an attempt to defeat the hypnotic power that the concept of “human nature”—and the search for essences and universals—has over thought.  An effort of almost equal importance to such inquiry is the need to challenge the tendency to explain events as the continuance of the hegemonic principles of a given social order. Historical inquiry is the search for those Events that are singular because they reveal something new, because in and through them the collective psyche takes a leap toward a new development of a ruling disorder.  The task of historical, ideological critique is to identify and conceptualize such events. That is also its challenge and the source of the characteristic theoretical resistances to such an effort.  Nothing is harder to understand than the new—an Event such as Hiroshima, the Shoah, 9-11.  For such Events bring before us the spectre of a contingency that is ontological and that shatters extant ways of thinking.  Thought is challenged to think in radically new ways. For the most part it resists that challenge.  What follows is an attempt to embrace it.

In keeping with the power of the image and the challenge it poses to traditional ways of thinking, I will follow a procedure based primarily on presenting the reader with images, and discussing them in a way that engages the reader psychologically and emotionally. The aim of that procedure is to unsettle the tendency to confine the discussion of ideology to a purely intellectual space.  As long as we remain wedded to intellectualism in the study of ideology we are prevented from knowing two things: (1) the real “reasons” why people are bound to ideologies that we can combat only when we learn to work at the same register of the psyche, and (2) the equally challenging recognition that we are prevented from doing so by our desire to remain in a purely intellectualist space lest we have to apply to ourselves the same kind of emotional and psychological scrutiny that this essay will practice on the “enemy.”  (Both of these considerations will be crucial in the last two sections of this essay.)

I offer one brief example as capsulized overview of the new orientation.  The Bushian neo-cons are quick to proclaim their Straussian intellectual legacy, but that is not what led to the disaster of their project for the Middle Ease.  The preposterous belief that following the “liberation” of Iraq democracy would sweep the Middle East was a belief held not because it was backed by any realistic political ideas but because it fulfilled a fantasy.  That is also why it refused correction by subsequent events.  Fantasies formed from bizarre readings of texts purporting to define the Arab Mind and backed by equally essentialistic and racist fantasy about the “clash of civilizations” fulfilled psychological and emotional needs of a fundamentalist and authoritarian character that result in policies backed by no more than the omnipotent designs fueling those fantasies.7 Here then in its simplest terms is the perspective that a psychoanlaytically informed understanding brings to the study of ideology:  (1) Official rationalizations (Samuel Huntington’s essentialistic clash of civilizations, neo-con babble, Bushsprach) conceal primitive emotions.  (2) The images underlying the ideations reveal the centrality of unconscious fantasies and projective identifications in determining the policies and the actions of those who make history.  (Projective identification is the act of taking something one finds unacceptable or avid in oneself and investing it in another so that one can wage an attack on it.)  (3) The study of Images thus enables us to reconstruct the psyche behind the ideological masks and thereby to articulate the nature and inner condition of a dynamic, collective, historical Unconscious.  (4) The emotional condition of that psyche is thereby made the object of a rigorous scrutiny. The last point is the most important because it enables us to identify major shifts in a psyche that has no "human nature” to protect it from history.  Those shifts are fundamental changes in the way human beings feel and what they are capable of feeling.  As we’ll see, that condition is today a psychotic one.  This is a condition that neither Adorno and Benjamin nor Freud foresaw, requiring a psychoanalytic theory that bases itself on the most radical—and, for ideological reasons, neglected—currents in psychoanalysis.8

In terms of rigorous criteria, few things that happen qualify as Events. Previously I argued that the American response to 9-11 constituted an Event.9 I want here to argue that the same status should be given to Gibson’s film and to what happened in Abu Ghraib. Moreover, I hope to show that the three events are necessarily connected in the development of a single disorder.  We can’t combat it, however, until we know how image and emotion operate on the psyche.  Thanks to Mel Gibson we have at our disposal a particularly revealing example.

Moviegoers in the Hands of an Angry Filmmaker: Ideology as Emotion Forged Through Image

Here, at the start, is my core thesis.  As Nietzsche said, “The desert grows; woe to him who harbors deserts within.”  The death of affect defines the Amerikan condition. The primary sign is the desperate narcissism visible everywhere, the effort to give oneself a phantom identity in order to conceal an inner void.  And thus the failure of all but the most extreme measures—such as the conversion experience of George W. Bush—to provide what is incessantly sought and never attained: a strong, powerful, lasting identity. The consequence is the need to flee the inner void by the only kind of actions that can give one the momentary sense that one exists: violent acts of projective identification that satisfy those sado-masochistic emotions that provide the only relief to the state of inner deadness. Affectlessness requires extreme affects brutal and self-brutalizing as in the effort of the serial killer to flee a sense of inner deadness through acts of murder, with the corpse becoming as externalization the fulfillment and the defeat of this project (a project that has, as I’ll show, much in common with the Amerikan condition).

Enter Mel Gibson, offering Amerika an experience of what Christianity has become for it.  We should take seriously the testimony of vast audiences that watching this film was the deepest experience they’ve had of their religion, because a demonstration of what that film has actually done in and to their psyche enables us to gauge the extreme emotional register at which religion today works and what it feeds for a large and growing percentage of Amerikans. For Gibson is a master of the Image and its ability to work on the deepest registers of the psyche.

The following scene occurs early in Gibson’s film.  As the bound Jesus is being led to prison he is dropped over a wall.  The rope catches just in time, before he hits the ground.  We hear the crunch of bone, see the broken Jesus dangling, suffering what must be a shock to the entire system.  (We would see the same image again, soon, in the news, April 4, 2004.  Only this time it will come to us from Fallujah, in the photograph of the charred body of an American hung from a bridge over the Euphrates.)  The scene in Gibson’s film has no biblical source and thus is particularly revealing in a film that claims absolute fidelity to Gospels that Gibson refuses to submit to an iota of historical scholarship.  “It is as it was,” such was the imprimatur that Gibson’s publicists claimed John Paul II pronounced after viewing the film.  The scene is in the film because it serves a far greater exigency than the “truth.”  Gibson knows what films do, what his audience craves.  He is impatient to get the blood sport underway, to offer us what follows this scene: two hours of unrelieved sado-masochism, making Passion the longest piece of snuff porn on record.

The day I saw the film—the morning it opened, and as what I took to be my atheistic responsibility—the theatre was packed as theatres throughout the country would be for the next few weeks. There they sat with buckets full of buttered popcorn, larger containers full of coke, working men in shirt sleeves and pot bellies together with their even larger Fraus (the McDonald’s generation), tears streaming down their faces, moved as they had not been by any film in memory.  Some actually cried out.  Others gasped.  Repeatedly.  (I alone could not suppress a laugh when after being beaten beyond human endurance for nearly two hours Christ has the temerity to say “I thirst.”)

How do we account for the unprecedented success of this film, its status as a true Event in the development of Americkan fundamentalist religiosity?

Gibson as filmmaker pays strict allegiance to the lesson that for him forms the totality of cinematic art:  the systematic administration of repeated shocks to the nervous systemin order to create visceral effects that operate by a mechanism that delivers the psyche of the audience to the ministry of the special effects department. For Gibson we live indeed in unprecedented times. Film has finally attained the development that will enable us, for the first time in Western history, to experience the Passion as it was for eyewitnesses.

Gibson knows—and the unprecedented popular success of his film testifies to the fact—that the mass audience is only capable of a single operation, which must perforce be repeated endlessly through the production of new and greater shocks to the system. The ooohs and aaahs, the gasps of shocked amazement at each new special effect are the audience’s tribute to the filmmaker’s success in devising new and bloodier ways to assault their sensibilities.

Film is, as Bertolucci said, an animal act, the immediacy of a convulsive experience that eludes all reflective consciousness.  As such film is the greatest tool of propaganda yet invented.  Here is the inherent power of film: to work directly on the response mechanism of the human being in a way that can effect permanent alterations and corruptions in one’s ability to feel.  (Think of Gibson as the anti-Kubrick, Passion as an unrepentant Clockwork Orange.)  Such is the danger of this medium and, judging from audience responses, the achievement of Gibson’s film. He knows what the audience wants.  How much of it they want.  And he’s smart enough not to let anything get in the way. All complexities, any possibility of representing Christ’s passion as more than a spectacle, any attempt to know anything about the inwardness of Jesus, is and must be sacrificed to the bloodbath.  Christ’s suffering must remain a spectacle outside us.  About all one can say about this Christ is that he is the greatest athlete of his time, in perfect shape for the marathon he must run.

Of necessity everything about the Passion is for Gibson reduced to a mechanical sequence of sado-masochistic shocks which must be repeated, each more brutal and with less time intervening. The inability to feel in any other way—even over the Christ—is the true testimony Gibson’s film offers in its fealty to the ruling principle of mainline Hollywood cinema. Gibson knew his film would be the hit of the season because it makes the Amerikan audience the offer they can’t refuse:  the pleasure of sado-masochistic cruelty.  Piety disguises what is the true object of this film: to brutalize the audience by offering them the most extreme experience yet captured on film of the primary thing they now go to the movies for—a feast of violence.  Gibson’s project is to indulge in an orgy of violence masked as an act of piety.  Thereby the audience is given through their tears a way both to deny and to feel good about the sado-masochistic process needed to generate those tears.  Having paid that price they get a final benefit: identification with God’s rage.

For Gibson’s audience is crying only on the outside.  Inside they have been ripened for projective identification. Their sole need is violent sado-masochistic stimuli.  At film’s end they have supped full with that horror and leave the feast full of rage.  But with a new need—for a target on which to vent their violence.  It is a mistake to confine this to the film’s patent anti-semitism. Gibson’s true achievement is the creation of a war readiness readily transferrable to Islam.

Rene Girard, ever hopeful that Christianity holds the solution to escalating violence, said this: “religion puts a veil over the subject of vengeance.”  Gibson rends it, letting us see beneath that veil the insatiable lust of a mindless cruelty.  This is not only what the murderers of Christ indulge themselves in.  It is what the filmmaker takes repeated, orgasmic delight in.  (We are told it is Gibson’s own arm we see driving the nail through Christ’s hand, Gibson’s own blood-curdling scream the sound track offers in response to that blow.  Such is true autoaffection for a compulsive sado-masochist.) Gibson also delights in cruelty because he understands the true inner condition of the audience.  The death of affect requires extreme affects repeated and with accelerating violence.  Otherwise the audience sinks into lethargy, returning to the void.  Sado-masochist spectacle is the only thing that keeps them alive. In this sense Gibson is their Saviour, the savage god.

The goal of Gibson’s film is not purification or faith or love or piety.  His goal is the sado-masochistic bludgeoning of the audience so that they will become abject subjects on their knees, but full of rage, eager to find some way to “do unto others” the  violence that has been done unto them. There is no contradiction here; rather an insight into the way in which eros and thanatos become one in Gibson’s film. The libidinous and the violently aggressive are fused in a new constellation. Sado-masochistic spectacle is now the condition of cinematic pleasure.  Contra Laura Mulvey the gaze of the camera is now fixated not on eroticized (though passive) women but on suffering male bodies in extremes of excruciating pain.10 The Nazi pleasure dome is achieved. In the Christ Gibson finds the homoerotic ur-text behind the Nazi love of the beautiful blonde boy his taut body blossoming with his own blood at each bite of the whip.

Gibson’s film is a sign of the desperate sado-masochism that underlies the pieties of mainstream American religiosity.  This is both Gibson’s “genius” and his hidden despair.  He may loudly proclaim his Christianity but the world he lives in is one of utter brutalization.  His project as a filmmaker is the same as the one that informs porn: to reduce the psyche of the audience to a mechanism that responds by command whenever triggered by the one thing that excites it: sado-masochistic cruelty.  As such it offers us a privileged insight into the fundamentalist Amerikan psyche, a way to understand what’s really going on in the prayer breakfasts that have now become a daily necessity at the White House.

And there they were, afterward, those same men and women I’d heard gasping and shrieking for the past two hours, standing in the lobby, dazed and confused, unable to leave the theatre, tears streaming down their faces but with a new look in their eyes—that of a rage already on the lookout for anyone who did not share or dared to question the truth of their feeling and the depth of their belief.  Such are the glad tidings according to Mel: when most devout and most perverse, the Amerikan is the same, a psyche excited only by extremes of sado-masochism.  Marx was wrong.  Capitalism won’t dispense with religion.  It will require one kind of religion.  Gibson gives us its true visage.  Thus, the film was not just an expression of what I term 9-11 syndrome; it was a blueprint for Abu Ghraib. I hasten to add what should be obvious. This is not a sociological question of whether the seven perpetrators of Abu Ghraib saw Gibson’s film or are born-again Christians.  My concern is to comprehend a collective psyche that operates in many places and in many ways. Gibson offers it one way to act out, as ritual, its sado-masochistic needs.  The geniuses of Abu Ghraib found another. What Gibson offers us is an in-depth look at what is actually going on in the fundamentalist psyche, and how its extremities mirror the desperate narcissistic needs of the culture at large.  Prior to Gibson over 50 million Amerikans declared themselves fundamentalist or born-again Christians.  Such sociological data are helpful though far from sufficient to explain his appeal.  Gibson in fact is a traditional Catholic anti-Vatican-II reactionary who represents beliefs that are covertly supported by Karl (John Paul II) Wojtyla.11 Gibson’s significance, however, extends well beyond his religion and the designs of Opus Dei.  Thanks to Gibson many more have joined the ranks of the born again, if not officially in a far more important way: psychologically. Such is the power of Art and why works of art and cultural practices should become the center and primary object of ideological study.  Once a film like Gibson’s becomes the only or primary way in which audiences can react to a representation of experience—and the signs from Hollywood are that this is largely the case now—it is just a matter of time before the political manifestation of those feelings will find its leader.  That is because subjects formed by images to feel a certain way will of necessity act on what they have felt.  Those feelings are the true content of their beliefs, the essence of their religion.  They will thus of necessity take the psyche formed by Gibson and seek those actions that will bring it jouissance: in the orgiastic pleasure that comes from abolishing all inner restraints and doing the kind of deeds that make one feel better than one has ever felt before.  Abu Ghraib beckons.

Two theoretical points by way of transition to Abu Ghraib.  Thanks to Gibson we now have a better understanding of image as emotion.  Image is emotion in the assault it makes upon us and in what that assault opens up in our psyche.  We will only begin to understand this ideological process when we develop a theory of emotion that breaks with the understanding of it that has characterized the intellectualist tradition in its abiding attempt to make emotion something secondary: as when emotion is seen as a mere byproduct of ideas; a discharge mechanism; a sign of loss of rational control; a release of tension; a sign of irrationality; a merely biological or neurological event.12 In contrast to all these views and their common effort to isolate rationality from taint, we must begin to see emotion as the primary way in which the psyche regulates itself and empowers itself in a world where knowledge is not primarily a matter of logic or rationality but rather the projection of emotional needs and complexes upon events. (I hasten to add that the corrective is not the pursuit of a standpoint outside or above emotion.  That is impossible.  The corrective, as we’ll see in sections 4-5, is a full engagement of the possibility that is implicit in emotion: tragic self-overcoming through the development of emotions that have the power to deracinate the kinds of emotions Gibson indulges.)

There is a second reason to be thankful for Gibson.  His film reveals that today everything is played out at the psychotic register of the psyche.  That register is what was rent open by 9-11, what Bush and Co. have been acting out ever since, what Gibson brings to a grotesquely sublime and finalizing condition.13 Psychoanalytic theories that remain within the orbit of neurosis and normality are unable to deal with the present historical situation.  The psychotic register of the psyche is opened when events create catastrophic anxiety—the anxiety of an endless falling of the psyche into fragmentation and self-dissolution under the sway of a nameless terror. Such was the impact that 9-11 had on a collectivity already desperate to deny its inner condition.  It now faced a new task.  But experiencing emotional release from its condition through a film is one thing.  What’s needed is action, new rituals to consecrate our worship before the savage god of sado-masochistic excess. We are ready to enter Abu Ghraib.

The Non-Accidental Tourist: Ideology as Fantasmatic Projection

If The Passion of the Christ is the high point in the emotional expression of fundamentalist Christianity, Abu Ghraib is equally extreme in its attempt to attack and belittle another religion.  The two acts derive, moreover, from the same psychodynamic principle: sado-masochistic activity, extreme images of brutalization and suffering that are repeated, maximized in order to create in a mass audience the only feeling of which they are capable: the overwrought glee that comes from participation in spectacles of cruelty.

Abu Ghraib, as Seymour Hersh has shown, had its genesis in a reading by the neo-con luminaries of the Bush Administration of a text—Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind (NY: Scribner’s, 1973)—and specifically a single chapter in that unremarkable book, Chapter VIII “The Realm of Sex.”14 Reading no doubt with their hands in their pants, a light went on in the neo-con darkness: the way to control the other, the Arab, is to use the disorders of their sexuality to humiliate them and thereby destroy their attachment to whatever principle gives their life meaning.  Abu Ghraib is the acting out of that project.  The languages of transmission—how the idea got from Perle to Rumsfeld to Sanchez to Garner, England et al isn’t all that important.  What matters is the message.  And it is assured, at each step along the way, because it addresses the same shared disorder of the psyche.

Ideological hyperconsciousness is fantasmatic.  We’ve now learned much about the naïve beliefs that inform neo-con thinking, such as the assurance that following the Blitzkreig in Iraq Democracy would sweep the Middle East.  (We also know how adroitly Chalabi played on that pipe.)  Abu Ghraib gives us the other side of the neo-con fantasm, the perverse corollary to the airy nothing on which it bases its articles of faith.  This is the genius of the actors who arrange the tableaus and pose themselves for the camera eye in Abu Ghraib.

A terrible envy underlies Abu Ghraib, one that has been working on the psychotic register of the American psyche since 9-11.  Islamic fundamentalists have something we lack.  They are willing to die for their religion.  We can have only one response to such an affront.  They must be forced to violate their religious beliefs and to do so as part of a perverse ritual.  In this regard two images from Abu Ghraib are especially revealing: the man masturbating before his torturers, forced while doing so to curse Islam; the father and son, hoods ripped off, confronting one another’s nakedness.

Just as any piece of writing has an implicit audience, any posed photograph is self-representation before an ideal viewer.  As photography, the key to the project of Abu Ghraib is the desire to be the one in the picture-frame whose gaze is directed simultaneously at the prisoner’s abjection and at the camera’s eye.  One is thereby assured of a triumph over the abject otherness that the former represents and the identity that the latter alone confers.  As such Abu Ghraib is the staging of oneself for what Lacanians call the Big Other—that ultimate paternal principle of authority and meaning whose approval one seeks.  Abu Ghraib tears away the other masks, revealing that the true Father of the American Imaginary is not Billy Graham or Bush or Scalia or even Reagan.  The true father is “the obscene father of enjoyment.”15 But in confirming this Lacanian idea Abu Ghraib gives it a new twist.  For in epiphanizing the commandment to enjoy it overturns that imperative.  Contra Lacan, enjoyment fails because it is meant to relieve a psychotic condition.

That is why it must take horrifying forms, in a repetition compulsion that must follow a quantitative logic—that of increase, multiplication—since for the commodified self no inner source of creative invention remains.  One is condemned to the incessant aping of the idiot grin, the phallic pose that mimes the identity one seeks.  Which is why one must be photographed and those photographs endlessly circulated to the only audience they can have: those who will gape back interpellated by them, hailed as subjects who say the yes of recognition to this mirroring of their own mindless stare.  Abu Ghraib reveals the Amerikan as a serial killer trapped in the necessity that defines that condition: repetition but always with a new excess because every action returns one to a psychic void.  That void is the condition of affectlessness.  Its result: the inability to feel except through the extreme sado-masochistic acts through which one tries to convince oneself that one is alive.

Abu Ghraib also signals a transformation in the nature of Tourism.  As we all know, our boys and girls now go off to war armed with digital cameras from which those left behind on the homefront receive a daily supply of photographs.  Many of these photos bear a family resemblance to those taken at Abu Ghraib.16 We, not the Japanese, are now the tourists who must photograph everything.  And with a fundamental difference.  The Japanese tourist is a subject respectfully posed before the object—be it the Grand Canyon, the Mississippi, Disneyworld, the World Trade Center, the Golden Arches.  The American tourist, in contrast, focuses the camera on the self: on the grin, the leer, the phallic posturing, the gesture of appropriation, the need to crow one’s mastery over the other.  Abu Ghraib is a stark revelation of the perverse desire that fuels that need.

One goal of these pictures is to give the folks back home a taste of what they’re missing: Abu Ghraib as an Amerikan Kasbah, true Orientalism.  And if there is any cruelty toward that audience in these pictures, it is a function of their smug assertiveness:  This is what I got by enlisting, what you’re missing out on.  Another function, of course, is to send back home the message that the media refuses to broadcast.  This, rest assured, is what we’re doing to those Arab fucks who were behind 9-11.

The most striking thing in the faces and postures of the Americans at Abu Ghraib is their commodified nature.  Nothing can be spontaneous about their pleasure.  One has seen all of this before.  Countless times.  In porn.  Such is the mindless leer on Private England’s face, the staple of the woman in porn, offering herself to the camera in that look that epitomizes the Playboy bunny, the idiot look of one trying to persuade herself and the male viewer that this is what female pleasure looks like: “the come take me any way you want me I live just to please you” come-on.  Such is the phallic assertiveness of Spc. Garner’s posture, the smug assurance that brutality is the mark of the true macho man.

In Abu Ghraib sexual debasement is staged as an act of violence on a passive victim who is forced to perform perverse actions for the sexual satisfaction of a power that makes no attempt to hide its perversity nor the glee it derives from that perversity.  Thus Abu Ghraib is not the staging of sexuality but a perverse parody of it. The attempt of these soldiers is to convince themselves that they have what the photographs reveal they lack: an autonomous sexual identity.  The empty mindless looks on the faces are the most revealing thing about these photographs.  Like Gibson’s Passion, Abu Ghraib is the actions that must be taken to escape the void, to escape a condition in which the death of affect is the truth of subjectivity.  Sado-masochism again strides forth to fill the breach because it is the one expression adequate to the fascism of the heart: the attempt to reduce the other to the conditions of a thing in order to celebrate a feeling of power free of and contemptuous of all moral and human restraints.

Friends and relatives are quick to tell us that the Americans pictured at Abu Ghraib were typical kids, kind, helpful, friendly, all round regular guys and gals.  There is no reason to doubt this account.  For it points to the condition that characterizes the American subject today: the split between a benign, average public self and the underlying void that self-hypnotic conformity is meant to conceal: a festering disorder wedded to the perverse fantasies that alone give one a sense of being.  Abu Ghraib is a message from the heart of the American psyche back to the heartland.  It broadcasts the good news: the pleasure and the certainty that comes from cruelty.

It is easy to say that Abu Ghraib represents the acting out of a fantasy.  But this idea should be developed in the most rigorous way, with a rigorous concept of fantasy.  For fantasy is serious business.  It is an attempt by the psyche to imagine or perform an action that will realize a project capable of freeing it from its conflicts while realizing its deepest desires. By this definition Abu Ghraib is an act of genius, a psychoanalytic masterpiece.  For everything here is sexual both in terms of the humiliation forced upon the victim and the identity claimed through that action for the perpetrators.  This identity however is a sham, as the commodified looks reveal. The mindless grin, the obscene leer is the copy of a copy of a copy, an imitation that has no source because it was already in its pornographic genesis an attempt to counterfeit pleasure and sexuality for the camera.

Abu Ghraib stands as homage to and in imitation of the psyche of George W. Bush.  The parent text is Bush on the aircraft carrier, unable to delay his orgasm any longer, unable to resist the need to gloat “We’re #1” with that smug smile of superiority that is the only thing he learned at Yale.  But this too is imitation the military garb and the phallic posturing a reincarnation of President Bill Pullman in Osama bin Laden’s favorite film, Independence Day.  Abu Ghraib mirrors as privilege and pleasure the Bush doctrine of unilaterism in its contempt for the rest of the world and for all conventions, Geneva or otherwise, that would restrain the thrust of Empire.  What the Bush doctrine proclaimed abstractly, Abu Ghraib acts out at the psychotic register.  Mindless bullying is the American sublime.  The grinning, idiotic face is its objective correlative. There is only one way we can respond to the trauma of 9-11—by surplus revenge since that is the only way we can once again come to feel good about ourselves.  Hiroshima vivant.  As Private England said: “this wasn’t punishment. This was sport.”  Because the actors of Abu Ghraib—and they were nothing if not performers—acted from the psychotic register of the American unconscious, their actions are uniquely revelatory: of what official rationality and its policies conceals and solicits.  These Americans thus deserve a word of congratulation: they made public the underside of official policy.  And let there be no doubt about it, this was an act of worshiPress, the creation of a ritual, like the Mass, celebrating the fundamental article of faith: the sanctity and magic of psychological cruelty.

In all these ways Abu Ghraib is far more than an Atrocity Exhibition.  Like Gibson’s film, it offers us a privileged window into the collective psyche.  Two things come from the void: the desire to exploit suffering—especially the suffering of Christ—for sado-masochistic pleasure and, whenever the opportunity presents itself, to take perverse pleasure in doing onto helpless victims what the torturers of Christ, in Gibson’s film, did to Him.

We may now turn to an explicit ideological critique that applies to more than the obvious targets.  We’ve been offered a series of explanations for Abu Ghraib.  All are wrong and all are necessary because they supplement one another thereby revealing the working of a shared collective ideology.  This ideology cuts across differences between liberals and conservatives, those on the right and those on the left.  It gets at something shared which must be uprooted if we are to attain a theory of ideology adequate to our situation.  It is also, I assume, where the most strenuous objections will arise since our inquiry here challenges guarantees17 which claim wide allegiance because they satisfy the one superordinate thing that all ideologies offer: the belief in certain a priori ideas and values that can be placed outside history, safe from the danger of eradication by traumatic events.  Thus, we are offered a series of “explanations” which supplement one another in their combined effort to limit the disruptive significance of the event and exorcise what we don’t want to think (that history cuts to the quick, with nothing in the order of nature or guarantees that can protect us from what can come to pass in it): (1) Abu Ghraib was an exception, not a sign of a systemic disorder.  (2) It was the act of a few bad apples (in contrast to the 99.9% of our boys and girls in uniform).  (3) No, it was a result of instructions from above, reflecting a pathology in the upper reaches of the Bush administration and not in America in general.  (4) It was a function of the situation—of what Robert J. Lifton calls “an atrocity-producing situation.” Such things always happen in wars of oppression. There is nothing new under the sun, no evidence in Abu Ghraib of a new pathology nor of a historical change in the psyche. Accordingly Lifton and other left liberal humanistic commentators can simply repeat analyses done previously and use them to reaffirm, once again, a system of ahistorical values and guarantees.18 (5) And so we can rest assured, as reported in one of the first psychological essayson Abu Ghraib, that “the U.S. troops who abused Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were most likely not pathological sadists but ordinary people who felt they were doing the dirty work need to win the war, experts in the history and psychology of torture say.”19 The situation is like when members of Congress put aside “partisan disagreements” to issue a report on matters we can all agree on.  It’s then that we should get nervous and keen in our interest.  For one thing then is sure: some ideological commonplace is forthcoming dressed in the demand that the public at large concur.

With respect to the above series of explanations, take your pick.  It doesn’t matter.  For the function of the series is to assure that history is denied.  That is,it becomes impossible to see Abu Ghraib as a singular event revealing a collective pathology enacting what makes this Event unique: the use of their religion to destroy subjects and thereby justify the contempt one feels for their religion. Abu Ghraib, I suggest, is in fact the coming of something new under the sun.  This is the understanding we must try to produce because it is the one that sets our teeth on edge, the one capable of maximizing rather than short-circuiting the trauma of that event.  Ideology works best when it tricks us into accepting false alternatives.  Our debates thereby assure that we will miss the necessary connections.  Abu Ghraib is not a matter of either/or, as in the above series, but of both/and revealing a unity of purpose—a mindset—that stretches from top to bottom because it derives from the underlying pathology that informs the whole.  Making the necessary connections that ideology strives to render impossible is the goal of dialectical or marxist understanding.  For those are the connections that reveal the disorder of a collective psyche that found in Bush its leader, in Gibson its poet, in Abu Ghraib its savage feast.

In their combined functioning, the explanations offered of Abu Ghraib prevent our knowing Abu Ghraib as an unprecedented event, a historical singularity and as such a break with the past and a tiger’s leap into the future.  It is easy to say that sadistic sexual torture is endemic to wartime.  In that, of course, Abu Ghraib is hardly unique.  What’s unique here is the religious connection.  In Abu Ghraib sexual humiliation is used to force individuals representative of a people to violate their deepest religious beliefs so that they will be reduced to a condition of permanent abjection.  Let us not understate the goal of torture at Abu Ghraib: to destroy the soul—the ability to go on being—of those one tortures.Lest one miss the point, walk for five minutes in the shoes of the men who had to say to themselves:  I betrayed my religion in order to save my life.

Abu Ghraib, like Gibson’s Passion, is the antithesis of a purification ritual.  Nothing is discharged.  That is the not the American desire.  It dances to a different necessity.  The desire is to inflict one’s condition on the other.  If you eat shit, that means I don’t have to.  The pleasure Gibson offers is the same one that one finds on the faces of the Americans at Abu Ghraib.  That is so because both draw on the same disorder.  The void.  The death of affect the lethargy that ensues until one is delivered from it by a new shock to the system through a brutalization that is inflicted on one or that one inflicts on another.  Only so can one feel or, what amounts to the same thing, convince oneself that one feels.  Inadvertently Gibson gives out the truth.  When being its most devout and its most perverse, the American is the same.

A Spinozistic conclusion, a lesson in how to use mechanistic explanations when they are historically appropriate. To summarize with the bluntness the subject deserves, this is what feeling now is for the American psyche.  There is one constant—sado-masochism—because it offers the only way to feel one is alive.

When we indulge it on behalf of those we “love” we get choked up with emotion.  When we indulge it on behalf of those we hate we take joy in expressing the manic triad: triumph, contempt, and dismissal projected onto an object of rage in order to give one a braying sense of victory over all inner conflicts.  The Amerikan psyche oscillates between the two behaviors because it is, qua psyche, no more than the underlying need: for new and ever greater shocks to the system as the only way to convince oneself that one is alive.  From which follow a few of what Spinoza would term adequate ideas, of use perhaps in aiding our philosopher King, Dubya, in attaining concepts for the words he so glibly employs for transparent ideological ends.  To know what terror, fundamentalism, and evil are, one need go no further than Abu Ghraib.

What are terrorism, fundamentalism, and evil?  These three words have been on all our lips since 9-11.  By ideological demand.  If, unlike Bush and the media, we want to understand them in non-jingoistic ways there is no better place to begin than Abu Ghraib.  Terror is the attempt (1) to humiliate others in a way that renders their psyches permanently abject in order (2) to confer on oneself the absolute status that comes with the liberation of a psychological cruelty beyond restraint, indulged in as an end in itself. What is fundamentalism? Here’s a definition offered by many historians of religion: voluntary enslavement in the joy of mindlessness and obedience. The Germans have a word for it: Kadavergehorsamkeit—obedience like that of a corpse. In this too Abu Ghraib provides a chilling model of how true believers behave; nay, how they worship.  George W. Bush likes to use the word evil.  Here’s a definition that might give even him pause. Evil is the desire to eradicate anything and everything that stands in the way of achieving the absolute status the unlimited power that one craves. It is the effort to humiliate people in order to destroy their soul.

Two theoretical points here by way of transition to our concluding sections.  Image is where the psyche gives itself away, revealing what other ideological formations conceal.  Consequently, the primary object of ideological scrutiny/study is what, following Adorno and Benjamin, I term the dialectical image.20 Such images lay bare the contradictions at the center of a society.  They arrest both heart and mind because they reveal a historical situation in terms of a defining disorder.  In our time that disorder is, as Gibson and Abu Ghraib reveal, the eroticization of thanatos21 and the underlying psychosis that makes that eroticization the only way the Amerikan can respond to events. Gibson and Abu Ghraib offer this sensibility images that are sublime in the full Kantian understanding of that term: i.e., images that represent the innermost needs of the psyche realized in phenomena.22 Such images are sublime because they attempt to finalize a way of being that will bind, hypnotize, and compel the psyche into worship.  All inner conflicts and discontents are resolved, banished by an unchecked, utterly unbound expression of Thanatos.  Thanatos finds in such images objects of worshiPress, celebrations of cruelty that are unchecked by any other motive.  The rage, wrath, death-work defining the Amerikan psyche finds in them ritual embodiment.  Destructiveness is celebrated both as an end in itself and as a force that persists in the desire to destroy after it has done so and in contempt for any humane restrictions.23 If we want to get inside Thanatos and see how it works—and we must if we are to find a way to reverse its telos—we must comprehend the function that such images have in the sick psyche. The dialectical image has the power to compel allegiance because it speaks directly from and to the psyche’s deepest conflicts.  It cuts through all defenses, displacements, and delays, offering the bliss of a massive unbinding.  (The only way to combat such images, as we’ll see, is to create images of an equal power and an opposed telos: i.e., images in which Eros is reclaimed, Orpheus- like, from the realms of death.)

But before we can undertake that task we must purge ourselves of the thing that stands in the way. I have termed it the guarantees.24

By that term I refer to all those assurances we set up a priori to protect ourselves from the reality of historical Trauma. The significance of Events—the Shoah, Hiroshima, 9-11— is their power to call such guarantees into question: (1) by exposing cherished beliefs to the claims of darker views and (2) by forcing us to think in radically new ways, considering things about the human that we’ve persistently marginalized and denied.  One dimension of any traumatic event is the shock it brings to traditional ways of thinking.  That is why the dominant response to any historical trauma is the attempt to restore the guarantees by finding some way to impose them on the event in order to contain and interpret it.  The ideological function of the guarantee is thereby attained. One has found a way to limit the impact of the Event by picturing it as an aberration, a temporary departure from values and beliefs that can always be recovered because they constitute something essentialistic or universal about “human nature”something trans- or a-historical.  History may disrupt the essence but it cannot destroy it.  The concept of human nature—in all the variants that make up its philosophic and psychological history from Plato and Aristotle to American ego and self psychology—is the primary way in which we have endeavored to deny history.

An Event is traumatic precisely because it suggests that history occurs beyond the limits we want to impose on it and therefore may move in directions that have nothing to do with “human nature” or any of our cherished beliefs and values.  There is nothing in human nature that protects us from it.  Events put us as subjects—and as thinkers—into a traumatic relationship to both our selves and our world.  The hole at the center of the psyche and the socius is revealed.  Ideologues rush in to fill the void and restore the guarantees.  Our effort must be to do the opposite.  It is through ideology that the true and vital possibility implicit in the Event is denied.  That possibility is to sustain a break with the guarantees and find for history a radically different way of thinking.  To put it concretely, a trauma cannot be resolved until it has been constituted.  The Western logos is a monument to the effort to avoid that task; indeed, to render it impossible a priori.  To take it up there is one thing above all we must get rid of: the desire and demand for resolution.  That is, the persistent recycling of the guarantees must give way to an existentializing imperative: to constitute trauma, sustain it, and find a way to work within it that will address the psyche at the same register that Gibson and Abu Ghraib do by creating images, symbolic actions, and emotions that are of equal depth but that move us in an antithetical direction—toward the inner transformation needed to purge ourselves of Thanatos.  But this effort can involve no guarantee, no assertion of Love and Eros as ahistorical values.  If anything the possibility of Love is far more difficult and exacting than death because it can only arise by reversing the prior force that death has within us.  To do so requires activating emotions of far greater force than those that serve Thanatos, ones that, as we’ll see, make far greater demands upon us.  Sections 4-5 offer a brief picture of the kind of agonistic process such an effort will entail.  For one thing should be evident by now: the critique of ideology cannot be a merely intellectual exercise.  It must be the activation within our psyche of a countervailing drama.

The Principle of Hope: or, “The Late Late Late Show

“The last image was too immediate for any eye to register.”
--Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 760

“Paranoia is the ability to make connections.”
--the sayings of Thomas the Elder

In ideological analysis we so often fail to attain anything truly hopeful because the need for hope clicks in too early, preventing us from perceiving the depth of the problem. People keep asking for a principle of Hope for those of us on the left and keep looking for it in some set of intellectualist guarantees, as if there is some essentialist humanism that remains untrammeled by history; some Habermasian communicative competence that can provide a fixed a priori norm for what counts as thought, some set of values or beliefs that will always enable us to rise phoenix-like from our analyses restored to an ahistorical essence

My analysis suggests that we’ve got to start looking for and constructing the principle of hope in a new way.  All is action in and on the emotions.Reason is but the cutting edge of passions. Drama is our destiny, the process of symbolic action and interaction that shapes us as subjects. What we needaccordingly is analyses thatwill begin with the Waste Land and dramatize within it forces, tendencies, directions that generate the possibility of genuine reversals by taking the disorder to the end of the line. Taking up this task of course entails admitting that a film such as Gibson’s taps into feelings that we are far more caught up in than we want to admit.  Be that as it may, our task is similar to the motto of the great community activist Saul Alinsky: “rub raw the sores of discontent.”  Ideological critiques that stay in the ballpark of reason are fine, but the only ones that really address and can change anything are those that attempt to act on the psyche at the register where the real determinations are made.  To undertake that task two things are needed: (1) the construction of fantasies that take the horror manifested in Gibson and Abu Ghraib to the end of the line in order (2) to engage the resulting possibility of unleashing the emotions required for real change to take place.

One of the reasons we areunable to understand contemporary history and the psychotic bases of American ideology is that we have not yet learned how to read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.  I hope on another occasion to offer an extended discussion of all that this seminal work offers the student of ideology, the revolutionary nature of its insight into the capitalist mind and how it teaches us both to read and to practice the discipline of the image.  For now I must condense Pynchon’s contribution into three postulates: (1) Official rationality is characterized by a constitutional stupidity and an underlying madness, as in the fetishizing of any and all information (as if there was a precious secret that each inmate of Abu Ghraib could render up to Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Perle et al).  (2) The excessive actions that official rationality necessarily gives birth to are a result of the underlying paranoia and the consequent desire for omnipotent control.  (3) This disorder is fatally wedded to the effort to transform eros into thanatos so that there will finally only be one thing—the imposition of technoscientific rationality on the entire globe.  Such is the categorical imperative of late capitalism in its Empire phase.  Study of the image remains the way to combat it because the image reveals what the imperative conceals.  In doing so, image addresses us at those psychological and emotional registers of our being that we are losing contact with more each day.  They can be reawakened only by desperate measures.

Since 9-11 we’ve been given three commands with respect to the image.  First, not to picture the World Trade Center (now cropped from many movies) because, as one psychologist put it, that image only reawakens traumatic pain.  Second, not to picture the faces of our own dead lest that image deliver them from statistical abstraction and make the human costs of an unnecessary war evident to the national consciousness.  Third, not to view, or, now that the cat’s out of the bag, to severely restrict the viewing of (by all means cropped) images from Abu Ghraib.

This last command however will prove impossible to follow because it violates a deeper imperative.  And so in September of 2005 to coincide with the 4th anniversary of 9-11, a new show will take to the airwaves becoming a megahit of unforeseen proportions, the most watched show in Television history, a surprising occurrence given the fact that the show will be aired nightly, from 1:00 to 7:00 a.m., ending only when a sleepless nation readies itself for work with its morning prayer, the morning news.  Only one restriction will be placed on this new show.  By order of the Attorney General no one will be allowed to tape it under penalty of being incarcerated in Guantánamo on suspicion of terrorist activity.  (Those who don’t know that everything we do electronically is now monitored must go immediately to the back of the class.)  There will be one other condition, operating at first spectrally. Each night our show will be preceded by Ted Koppel’s Nightline, which is always the same now—a processional of the faces of our dead from the Iraq conflict, one by one filling the screen while their names enter our ear:  Therrel Childers…Paul Smith…Matthew Milczark…Jocelyn Carrasquillo…Thomas Thigpen Sr…Henry Ybarra III…Fernando Mendezaceves…Nathan Brown…Algernon Adams…  Ninety minutes of this or however long it takes for all those faces to have their moment on the screen.  And then, what everyone awaits—“The Late Late Late Show.”  It too takes the same form nightly, the endless repetition for six hours of a film composed of all the images that have now been collected from Abu Ghraib.  Uncropped genitally, but with the eyes covered.  Looped into one another in a film that never ends—a perpetual orgy.  (Mel the Baptist is long forgotten, his film but a dim prefiguring of a pleasure that has now found its properform.)  But be reminded of the prohibition against taping.

And so there they sit, every night, a hungry public waiting for the show to begin, eager to spend another sleepless night transfixed before those images that must be seen again and again because they alone have the power to produce a paroxysm of pleasure.  Soon most viewers find they prefer to watch the show with their neighbors and co-workers.  Super Bowl type parties with wife swapping and group sex become a national craze.  Every night—starting at 1:00 a.m. sharp.  But then almost immediately, despite the clamor one can now hear from every household, the show does not begin on time. 1:01, 1:05, 2:10, the hour of the wolf, 4:07, 6:15 as images from Koppel’s show spill over, taking up more and more airtime, invading the temple of pleasure with the detritus of history.  Until there comes a desperateness in the audience as the pressure builds to wring some last tortured pleasure from the night.  Until eventually nothing remains of the images the public craves except the last few that flicker in the moments just before dawn.  In those few moments fevered viewers grope one another in a violent effort to get off one last time before the images that trigger their orgasm vanish forever, and the audience can only sit gaping at the faces of those dead sacrificed to what might finally be perceived as another Amerikan folly.  Only there’s no one left who can see it that way, but only the undead gazing at the dead in blank incomprehension.

To clarify the central concept of Event and as a contrast both to the paragraph above and to Gibson’s film, let me offer a few comments here on Michael Moore’s fine film Fahrenheit 9-11.  Moore’s film is a significant political act and a dazzling piece of propaganda, but it is not an Event in the meaning I’m giving that term.  It isn’t and can’t be—even if (as one can only hope) it attracts as many viewers as Gibson and propels John Kerry into the White House—because Moore does not speak to, from, and within the psychic register that Gibson works on.  Moore’s film does not descend to the inferno in the psyche where the action is.  As a result it cannot alter that condition.  Moore is a superb gonzo-satirist who has done wonders in alerting a mass audience to the corruption and venality of corporate Amerika and our political leaders.  What he can’t do—because he doesn’t try to—is get into that deeper psychic terrain.  And that is why after Moore “the desert grows”—and audiences leave the movie with the Gibson (the Nazi) in them unaffected.

But to engage it directly, tragically, is to enter the dangerous terrain of the massive resistances that are activated the moment one tries to get an audience to experience how sick they are.  The chances of success when one does that are, of course, slim, especially when one suggests to liberal, rationalistic, academic audiences that they are part of the problem and will remain so as long as we continue to try in studying ideology to occupy a purely intellectual space.  In contrast I want to suggest in closing that our situation is a tragic one and that we must start thinking about and responding to it tragically, shorn of guarantees, and ready to feel in radically new ways.  Section 5 is an attempt to complete what has been the overriding purpose of this essay by activating those tragic emotions in the reader.

Endgame: The Christ of Abu Ghraib

“And if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signalling through the flames.”
--Antonin Artaud

And yet there is in Abu Ghraib one photo that escapes the camera: the photo of a hooded prisoner standing on a box with his arms outstretched and electrical wires attached to his hands, his feet, his genitals, the arms extended downward, palms open—in a gesture of supplication, acceptance, forgiveness?  This image is uncanny and arresting because of its allusive, iconic power.  For those aware of it, an unmistakable allusion to the beginning of Beckett’s Endgame. “Me to play.”  For the general culture, an echo of another kind, a resonance of the image that enters the Amerikan psyche in the momentary arresting of desire.  The allusion is unmistakable.  How could the prisoner know it?  How dare he…. This is the Christ being given over by Pilate to his crucifiers, extending his arms downward, his open palms toward the crowd in the expression of his inconceivable willingness to take on their sins.  There is a delicacy to this figure and a tense athleticism.  Forced on the stage of another’s disorder, he performs as Artaud said the actor must.  “The actor is an athlete of the heart.”  Which is why this man triumphs over the camera.  They will not be able to look at this image for long and yet they will not be able to forget it.  Like the image of the dying Joe Christmas, it will haunt them.  But it will not be able to work within them because the psychic register it addresses has already been rendered irretrievably dead.  The image can only call them to a shame they are no longer able to feel, a change of heart they find impossible.  Thanks to Mel Gibson and his ilk.  And in spite of them the miraculous occurs.

The theatre of cruelty that Antonin Artaud called for is incarnated by the Christ of Abu Ghraib.  As Artaud taught, “an image is true insofar as it is violent.”  But this violence is the antithesis of that practiced by Mel Gibson and the torturers of Abu Ghraib.  Emotion here shatters all stimulus-response mechanisms.  We are forced to live out an agon of primary emotions in their power to strip away all the hiding places of the psyche.  We feel the full burden of death and of what would be required to reverse the force of thanatos that ideology and mass culture have planted and nurtured in us.  Artaud’s theatre of cruelty is the search for images that are cruel because they wrench us free from the cycle of mechanical, repetitive sado-masochism that porn, Gibson, and Abu Ghraib feed on.  We are jolted back into life as the struggle to purge our psyche of the forces of death. Gibson or Artaud—that is the choice we face. This is not the place to offer a full explanation of Artaud’s concept of a Theatre dedicated to the agonistic experiencing of what I call primary emotions.  Suffice to say that Artaud is concerned with eradicating all defenses and displacements so that the psyche is brought before the anxiety of its condition and the need to take up a task that was perhaps best formulated by what de Sade (the Artaudian protagonist of Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade) says to one of the first great revolutionary critics of ideology: “Marat, these cells of the inner self are worse than the deepest stone dungeon.  And as long as they remain locked, all your revolution is but a prison mutiny to be put down by corrupted fellow prisoners.”25

Mel Gibson’s project, in effect, is to destroy the possibility of Artaud’s theatre of cruelty by reducing our ability to feel to the mechanical reproduction of shocks that jolt the conditioned subject back into its only source of vitality: cruelty.  Artaud’s project is to destroy this mechanism so that we can recover the agon of what it is to feel.  That project finds one of its transcendent embodiments in the actions of a prisoner in Abu Ghraib who found a way to signal through the flames.


1. For a historical survey of concepts of ideology from Marx through Althusser, see Walter A. Davis, Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, and Freud (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), chapter 3.  An earlier non-theoretical version of the present essay appeared in Counterpunch, June 20, 2004.

2. I offered this interpretation of 9-11 and its aftermath in two Counterpunch articles: January 6, 2002 and September 17, 2003.

3. Psychoanalysis in America is unfortunately and for the most part the mental health, social adaptation wing of capitalism. Lacan provides a significant alternative and Slavoj Zizek has done a fine job applying his thought to ideology.  I am attempting to construct what I think is a more radical psychoanalytic theory.  I offer an extensive development of it and its application to history in Deracination: Historicity, Hiroshima, and the Tragic Imperative (New York: SUNY Press, 2001).

4. The Marxist thought of Benjamin and Adorno is deeply psychoanalytic.  Unfortunately this is what was lost in the subsequent development of the Frankfurt school until by the time one comes to Habermas it is but a distant memory, thoroughly repressed by a rationalistic super-ego dedicated to communicative competence.

5. For an extended development of such a theory of the image, see Deracination, Chapter 6.

6. The conceptual pun is deliberate here.  Image is the way the primary process described by Freud works throughout all areas of quotidian life.  It shows that we are always simultaneously, qua psyche, in the real and in the dream.  The attempt in this essay is to show that this connection also extends to ideology.

7. The book that was a favored reading among the neo-cons is Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind (New York: Macmillan, 1973).  Needless to say there is no evidence of their making the acquaintance of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Samuel Huntington, with his essentialistic clash of civilizations, is of course the primary architect of the ideology behind the application of essentialism to politics and culture; he is the Hegel of the right.

8. As we’ll see, such a theory must begin with Thanatos, with the force of death-work in the psyche.  For a theoretical articulation of that position, see Deracination, pp. 133-150.

9. In the aforementioned articles in Counterpunch. For a theoretical discussion of the concept of Event and the application of that concept to Hiroshima as example, see Deracination.

10. Mulvey’s article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” has dominated film theory for close to two decades.  Her concern is the way woman is represented in cinema for pleasure of the male viewer.  But even then woman remains a threat, a presence that can disrupt the camera.  Consequently, male-fixated  (and officially homophobic) filmmakers such as Gibson have shifted the gaze of cinema to the male subject.  Eventually women, only present in Passion as witnesses gazing on the male, can be excluded from their films.

11. Garry Wills has a fine essay on the connection between Gibson’s film and reactionary movements within Catholicism. See “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners,” New York Review of Books, vol. LI, no. 6 (April 8, 2004) pp. 68-74.

12. A number of recent books have struggled to reverse these views and to rehabilitate the cognitive and psychological significance of emotion. See, for example, Richard Wolheim, On the Emotions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of the Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Nancy J. Chodorow, The Power of Feelings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Charles Altieri, The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).  None of these works to my mind go far enough, but that’s another story.  Telling it begins, as section 5 suggests, with Antonin Artaud.

13. I return below to the subject of the sublime.  For a full discussion of this concept through a psychoanalytic reading of Kant on the sublime, see Deracination, pp. 47-97.

14. On Patai and the neo-con fascination with “Arab sexuality,” see Seymour M. Hersh, “The Gray Zone,” New Yorker (May 24, 2004), p. 42.

15. For a quick and insightful study of this concept see Todd McGowan, The End of Dissatisfaction (New York: SUNY Press, 2004).  Zizek is of course the master in the application of Lacan to ideology.  His concept of ideology as fantasmatic consciousness has much in common with the theory I’m developing.  However, Zizek’s fixation on enjoyment prevents him, as it did Lacan, from getting at what underlies it—thanatos. Dialectically, his theory is thus a moment in the recovery of that perspective.

16. On this phenomenon see the fine recent article in Counterpunch by Shakirah Esmail-Hudani, “Inside Abu Ghraib: The Violence of the Camera” (May 17, 2004).

17. More on this concept below.  For fuller discussion, see Deracination, esp. pp. 30, 35ff, 162ff, 172ff, 185f.

18. See Robert Jay Lifton, “Conditions of Atrocity,” Nation (May 31, 2004), p. 4f.  For a critique of Lifton’s application of his thought to 9-11 and its aftermath, see my  “Robert Jay Lifton, or Nostalgia,” Counterpunch, January 4, 2004.

19. See Shankar Vedantam, “The Psychology of Torture,” Washington Post, May 20, 2004; also Dr. Michael A. Weinstein, “Abu Ghraib Means Impunity” in PINR (Power and Interest News Report) Dispatch of May 24, 2004.

20. On the concept of the dialectical image, see Deracination, pp. 214-222.

21. On historicizing the dialectic of Eros and Thanatos and a critique of Freud’s ahistorical formulation of this dialectic, see Deracination, pp. 133-150.

22. See Deracination, pp. 79-96.

23. For Bion’s psychoanalytic development of this concept, see Wilfrid Bion, Cogitations (London: Karnac Books, 1992), pp. 1-98.  See also Michael Eigen The Sensitive Self (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004).

24. The critique of the guarantees has a larger target which the present essay can only touch on.  The logos is a system of guarantees.  It founds and controls the history of Western philosophy, providing the concepts and guarantees on which other disciplines draw.  Among efforts to dislodge it: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida.  My argument, developed at length in Deracination, is that we cannot overcome it until we move beyond its conceptual critique and engage its psychological deracination.

25. Artaud of course never developed an explicit philosophic theory of emotion. His thought on the subject is the explosion that occurs throughout his work.  Thus see Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, Edited, and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).  I have tried to develop a theory of how a tragic drama works on and within the psyche of an audience in Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama, and the Audience (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994).