The Abu Ghraib Effect by Stephen F. Eisenman


London : Reaktion , 2006 .

In The Abu Ghraib Effect, renowned historian of 19th-century art Stephen F. Eisenman asks a series of far-reaching questions as to the impact of the now notorious photographs taken in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by military police in 2003 and 2004. He begins by suggesting that the photographs themselves have not been studied in sufficient visual detail and then argues that the tools created by art history for the interpretation of images have much to offer toward this (10). Specifically, he revives an idea of early 20th-century scholar Aby Warburg, known as the Pathosformel or pathos formula, which describes how Western art has long made a central figure out of the victim of torture who appears to collude in their suffering. Arguing that Western art should be re-evaluated in this light leads Eisenman to critique the notion of the West itself. All this in 122 pages! Eisenman is to be commended for taking such a wide-ranging approach to this crucial issue and turning it around to ask hard questions of the academy, rather than presuming our own innocence in this matter.

The book is a polemic, not a scholarly, tome. As is perhaps inevitable in a short, timely response of this kind, The Abu Ghraib Effect raises as many questions as it answers. I engage them here in what I take to be the spirit of Eisenman's enterprise to create a collective response to the problem. That is to say, if we hold a debate in the wake of The Abu Ghraib Effect, the book will have achieved its purpose even if we disagree with its main proposals. For it cannot be entirely true to say, as Eisenman does, that there has been “very little serious consideration” of the visual content of the Abu Ghraib photographs (15), particularly when one recalls the works of Dora Apel, Hazel Carby, Allen Feldman, W. J. T. Mitchell, or even the present reviewer. The oddest omission from this text is Susan Sontag's widely discussed volume Regardingthe Pain of Others (Picador, 2003), given that her New York Times essay on Abu Ghraib is cited and discussed.

Sometimes the insights generated by a comparison with art history do not convince. Eisenman points to Francisco Goya's painting Third of May, 1808 (1814), which depicts the shooting of a revolutionary for his involvement in the uprising against Napoleon, as a precursor to the notorious photograph from Abu Ghraib of a hooded man standing on a box with outstretched arms connected to wires (19, 20). The victim in the Third of May is shown with outstretched arms to make a visual homology with the Crucifixion. Some have suggested that the Abu Ghraib photograph of the man on the box should be interpreted along the lines of this Christian tradition as well. I would suggest this is only the case because crucifixion was itself a form of torture. Holding limbs in what the military likes to call “stress positions” is well known to become intensely painful after a brief period without leaving marks of duress. By the same token, the sandbag on the prisoner's head has been pressed into service as a blindfold across Iraq, but bears no resemblance to Ku Klux Klan hoods that were used to terrify their victims (13), not blind them. Eisenman concludes that such art historical references are indeed “fundamentally mistaken” (39) but then turns the discussion inward to the history of art, rather than toward the visualized depiction of torture.

The book then develops Eisenman's identification of a tradition in Western art in which “tortured people and tormented animals … appear to sanction their own abuse” (16), ranging from classical art via Michelangelo to Goya and then the Abu Ghraib photos. That there is a certain pleasure to be seen in figures such as Michelangelo's Dying Slave and its Greek and Roman antecedents is well demonstrated by Eisenman. Can it be sustained, though, that the Abu Ghraib photographs “depict torture as if it were something erotic, or at least pleasurable for the victims” (44), as he goes on to claim? The sexualized humiliations inflicted upon the prisoners were designed to “break” them more quickly and make them “talk.” If it were the intention of the unnamed U.S. government agencies in Abu Ghraib that directed these investigations to increase the humiliation by a degree of complicity in the carrying out of acts such as mock fellatio, it cannot be visually deduced that prisoners gained any pleasure from this. It would have been interesting to see Eisenman compare his assessment to the idea of homo sacer, the person who can be killed but not sacrificed, which has been widely circulated following Giorgio Agamben's 1998 book of the same title.

Indeed, the “pathos formula” developed by Aby Warburg, and promoted here, emerged from the same scholarly conjuncture of classics and anthropology that provided for certain equivocations between the idea of homo sacer and Polynesian notions of tapu in the early 20th century. The “pathos formula” was defined by Warburg as a “heritage stored in the memory,” and Eisenman has adopted this idea to create a new form of transhistorical universal, stretching from “ancient times to the mid-nineteenth century,” whereupon “it infected industrial or mass culture” (17) in the 20th century. He quotes Warburg (from the biography by E. H. Gombrich) as arguing that the pathos formula had its origin in “the region of orgiastic mass seizures” that are recalled in “the expressive movements of the extreme flights of emotion” (53) depicted in classical sculpture. There is no further substantiation of this primary thesis, which one must then either accept or reject at face value.

This somewhat startling concept overshadows the less contentious but perhaps more useful insistence that the Abu Ghraib photographs are relatively unexceptional when seen in the context of European colonial practices and, indeed, the violent subject matter of much of Western art. A promising section on “Orientalism” is only three pages long, having barely begun to address the topic. At this point, the book pulls up short and begins to address a different topic altogether, namely whether there is such a thing as “Western art.” Here Eisenman usefully concludes: “If there is in fact any essential continuity to Western art during the past half-millennium, it is that many of its greatest artistic monuments have either depended on the unaccounted toil of oppressed men and women, or else justified or even made beautiful human suffering” (121). Why the time frame is now limited to five hundred years when it was previously some 2,000 or more is not explained. Nonetheless, as far as we now are from the Abu Ghraib photographs, there is here the beginning of a different form of art history that I for one hope the author will undertake in greater detail.