The Abu Ghraib Spectacle - Fear as a Forger of Perception

The Abu Ghraib Spectacle: Fear as a Forger of Perception
Words by Liisa Neste (originally published in prism #02)

On April 28th 2004, American television viewers were shaken by the CBS news programme 60 Minutes II report on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. forces in Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad. The information itself was not new – The Red Cross and Amnesty International had complained about the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees all through 2003 and on the 21st of January 2004, CNN was the first to report how U.S. soldiers posed for photographs with partially naked Iraqi detainees. But the dozen still photographs featured on the 60 Minutes II report were arguably of the sort rarely seen before. This perpetuated their widespread circulation and exposure in the media sphere and beyond.

What makes the Abu Ghraib imagery so intriguing and important to study is the way in which the images’ role appears to be forever changing, as is their influence in all those involved. The torture, which once was an inside joke of the soldiers serving in Abu Ghraib, had fast been addressed in critical news media and art contexts, finally to return to having entertainment value, as the shock appears to have worn off and a large portion of the Western news consumers found themselves detached from the once-horrific events. The various contexts in which the Abu Ghraib imagery have come to appear, it can be argued, follows a logical route of mechanized modern perception guided by social forces and capitalist desires. A deeper look into these two areas should illustrate how and why, but first, a brief recap of the said viewing contexts is perhaps in order.

In Tier 1A of Abu Ghraib prison, where the most suspicious and potentially dangerous Iraqi prisoners of war were kept, photographs of abuse were used both to illustrate what would happen to the interrogated detainee should he or she not cooperate, and as a threat of humiliation by the dissemination of the images to the detainees’ family and relatives. They were also a recording of the soldiers’ everyday life, as Judith Butler suggests (2010: 54), since in those same three memory cards which contain the visual evidence of the torture, were also photographs of, for example, the local bazaar, views of the neighbourhood, soldiers watching dvds, eating their dinners and themselves simulating sexual acts, such as fellatio, with a banana. From the soldiers’ point of view, the nature of the images in their original context was fairly casual, as is further illustrated in the way in which they were carelessly circulated within the unit; they were uploaded from computer to computer, burned onto compact discs for anyone who so requested and even used as screen savers (Mirzoeff: 2006: 24).

On the 10th of January 2004, Specialist Charles Graner gave a compact disc containing hundreds of photographs and video clips to his friend Army Reservist Joseph M. Darby, who worked in the same 372nd MP Company as the notorious night shift responsible for the abuse photographs, but was in Abu Ghraib on a different assignment. Not being used to the depicted scenes, he explained it ‘violated everything I personally believed, and all I’d been taught about the rules of law’ (Zimbardo, 2007: 330). Three days later Darby forwarded a copy of the disc to the Criminal Investigation Division, who began questioning Staff Sergeant Ivan ‘Chip’ Frederick, the head of Tier 1A, the following day. Before the questioning started, Staff Sgt Frederick wrote down his version of the events in a journal and sent copies of it, along with images, to his family, whom later got in touch with the CBS news out of frustration, when their efforts to clarify Staff Sgt Frederick’s status from the Congress proved fruitless.

Once the 60 Minutes II report aired, the shocking images quickly spread worldwide. The follow up of the initial reportage was crucial in marking the significance of the scenes – there had been a few singular reports on the abuses in media before, but since these reports did not attract the interest nor support of other media outlets, they remained primarily unheard and ignored. More images as well as video clips began to surface over the coming months, but it was mainly the first abuse photographs published, that gained an iconic value, which soon resulted in them being appropriated in various mediums and contexts beyond the news sphere.

In September 2004 the abuse photographs were exhibited in an art context for the first time, when they were put up on the walls of the International Center of Photography, New York, and the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. One could argue, that while the images themselves were by then already well known, it was more so the gallery, used as a medium for critical discussion of the photographs, that was exhibited. Around the same time the first satirical takes on the images surfaced, as ‘Doing a Lynndie’ website was launched. The concept behind it was to encourage the public to share their imitations of Specialist Lynndie England’s infamous ‘point, grin and thumbs up’ pose, whilst encountering a worthy prank victim, such as a drunk or a clamped car. By 2007 and since then, the Abu Ghraib events and images have been widely discussed and analysed by theorists of various disciplines and they have been further appropriated into arts, of which some of the more interesting examples are Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings (2005), Clinton Fein’s Torture photographs (2007) and the San Francisco based Abu Ghraib death metal band (2007).

Nicholas Mirzoeff claims in ‘What is Visual Culture’ that an image’s relationship to its exterior reality is not a solid one, but it keeps changing ‘at particular moments of modernity’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 7). His use of the words ‘exterior reality’ suggests that an image is somehow separate from what it represents. This is a common understanding in and of the modern world, upon which most theories on visuality are based. Perhaps the most comprehensive model that can be applied on the matter is Guy Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ theory. In his influential book published prior to the 1968 French student revolution, Debord claims that we live in a world of concepts and representations, where nothing can be experienced at first hand, for such experiences hold no meaning until the spectacle allocates significances for them (Debord, 1967). The spectacle can be thought of as a culturally constructed consciousness, which has no direct link to the physical world, for images and appearances become independent entities separate from what they represent. Such a distinction is enabled by the principle of separation, caused by industrialization and mechanical reproducibility, resulting in the alienation of man from the products of his labour. What specifically comes into question when examining the Abu Ghraib case is Debord’s idea ‘what is good appears; and what appears is good’. This suggests that the information that gets through to the public has to be ‘good’ by someone’s standards. The changing relationship between the image and reality that Mirzoeff refers to could therefore be thought to rely on what benefits the specific social context, discourse or institution in which the image appears.

Debord further explains that when economy began to dominate social life, being was no longer measured in what one was, but in what one owned (Debord, 1967). Following this, ownership has been overtaken by the exhibition of one’s possessions, and in effect ‘all individual reality has become social, in the sense that it is shaped by social forces and is directly dependent on them’ (1967: ch 1). He concludes, that: ‘individual reality is allowed to appear only if it is not actually real’ (1967: ch 1). In other words, only that which appears in numbers can be accepted as real and therefore singular appearances and that which is prevented from appearing, is not real and as such has no value. This explains the necessity of saturation, which the spectacle charges as the only means of ensuring the endurance of information in the public consciousness.

Gregory Berns enforces Debord’s theories from a scientific point of view in Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How To Think Differently. He illustrates how social pressure largely influences human perception and pinpoints ‘the law of large numbers’ as the conductor of this (Berns, 2008). Berns argues that as a result of evolution, the human brain has learned to prioritize social contacts above all else. While belonging to a group has a great social value, it is also wise in the mathematical sense, since it is a statistical fact that the average of a group is closer to the truth about something than any individual member of a group (Berns, 2008: 99-102). People are very likely to form their opinions based on what they believe the majority to think and this often happens without even noticing the undeniable influence. Psychological experiments by Solomon Asch (1951) and later by Berns himself, support this view with the latter bringing it further by illustrating how the view on something is shifted towards the group opinion already at the stage of perception, rather than it being a conscious choice, as revealed with the aid of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). It instead requires a conscious choice and mental preparation for a threat, if one is to believe his or her senses and in effect oppose the situational forces.

While Berns understands the prioritization of social contacts and the resulting law of large numbers as a product of evolution, many theorists working in the field of visual culture would, like Debord, more specifically point to the influence industrialisation has had on human perception. In ‘On The Actuarial Gaze: from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib’ (2005) Allen Feldman argues that perception has been mechanized and this mechanized perception is used against the masses through visual saturation and intentional conventionalization of threat. He further clarifies the link between the described modern perception and industrialization in his interpretation of Peter Sloterdijik’s work on autosuggestion in Weimar Germany (2005: 215):

Sloterdijik captures the technological colonization of modern consciousness in the political passage from unconscious to automatic consciousness, and to a politics of suggestion as a function of mass spectatorship. The coupling of such a politics with an automated consciousness is possible when perception has been mechanized, mediatized and detached from the individual spectator and given over to an apparatus of interpellation formative of a collective subject of perception and witnessing.

What Feldman highlights here is the significance of a collective viewing experience as formative of the modern perception, thus drawing a direct link to the law of large numbers, social pressure, as well as the weakness of singular opinions, for it requires the agreement of masses to construct reality in the spectacle. Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ also raises the notion of how along with the conventionalization of mechanical reproducibility works of art have been increasingly made specifically for mass consumption (Benjamin, 1936). He remarks how this is most obvious in cinema, where the contagious mood of the audience determines how a film is received, since ‘the moment these responses become manifest they control each other’. While the phenomenon may well be most obvious in places such as cinemas, where the viewing occurs in the same physical space and the audience’s responses are instantly observable by others, this does not rule out the appliance of the same principles in other mediums intended for mass consumption, such as television programs and newspapers.

Each social sphere, it can be argued, forms an entity or a ‘spectacle’ of its own. The same norms and rules do not apply outside the social sphere, and hence, in order for the groups’ practices to continue, its borders must be protected from outside scrutiny. The digital photographic image, namely by its effortless reproduction and sharing, contests confidentiality and physical boundaries; the image does not cease to exist, should it leak outside the initial context from which it was taken. It is this sovereign power of the digital image that broke the boarders of the context, within which the abuse in Abu Ghraib was perceived as acceptable.
Consciousness, however false or realistic, is according to Asch’s and Berns’ findings stimulated by what appears to be normal in a specific social context. The shamelessness of the grinning and thumbs up-posing in the Abu Ghraib photographs, as well as their wide and careless circulation in the prison, strongly indicates how within that specific group of people there was nothing perceived to be strange or questionable by such behaviour. It was only when the photographs were seen by a soldier not belonging to the same unit, and thereby not used to the depicted scenes, that the photographed humiliation and abuse was first seriously questioned. By the logic of the law of large numbers, the majority of the social group to which the whistle blower Army Reservist Darby believed himself to belong, can be claimed to have been against humiliation as a means of softening-up techniques, and for that reason, Darby had the courage to oppose it.

As the images escaped their original social sphere, it was only a question of time until they reached a viewing context, whose majority was against the abuse, rather than perceiving the practices to be normal. In such a moment, the soldiers belonging to the original context had to either conform to the opinions of the new majority, or be judged by it. The change in the soldiers’ reasoning is manifested in comments such as: ‘At first I had to laugh… But I don’t know if I could take it mentally. What if it was me in their shoes?’ This shows evidence of consideration over how the photographs would be received in other contexts and how the soldiers’ initial comments would be judged accordingly. The change in opinion is a result of a conscious choice, as illustrated by Berns’ experiment.

When the images entered the public domain, it is crucial to consider what was there before the existence of Abu Ghraib photographs, in order to determine the situational forces of the new viewing context and how the previous attitudes, as per the law of large numbers, would be modified. This is where understanding modern perception becomes relevant, it being a term defining what the human perception in modern age consists of, and which, in effect, can be thought of as the ultimate viewing context determining how the Abu Ghraib case settles in the historical narrative. As previously described, theorists working in the field of visual culture understand modern perception to primarily consist of the omnipresence of threat. The sheer multitude of images of faraway suffering that surface on a daily basis from multiple outlets has assured the public that the flow of similar pictures will never end, as the image-making and publishing establishments cannot appear to even keep up with the ongoing tragedy. This observation gives rise to a seemingly logical conclusion that threat is everywhere or at least it could be anywhere.

Such a consciousness cannot, however, be let stand in the way of everyday life and so people are forced to find methods to distance themselves from the fear. Perhaps the vastness of visually perceivable threat, especially in the entertainment industry, can be thought as a defence mechanism against the threat, comparable to parents telling their children that the monster in the closet is only a figment of their imagination. The subject of fear is substituted for something else, something manageable, thus diminishing its area of existence to only consist of the observer’s psyche. The obvious problem with this, in regard to Abu Ghraib, is that it allows the image-consumer to escape the actual issue and rather focus on things like how the events were dealt with in the media, how were they received by the public and what do the photographs mean in the semiotic sense, all of which have little to do with the destiny of the Iraqis depicted, but a lot more to do with the pastime of emotionally detached Western technocracy. Feldman calls this ‘cultural narcissism’, which ‘takes the form of the desire to virtual and symbolic disaster as a prophylaxis against the real’ (Feldman, 2005: 223). But, it can be argued, the spectacle driven society leaves no room for anything else. The event is experienced through the spectacle, as a spectacle, and hence it is only the spectacle that can be addressed and referred to in the lack of an alternative.


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Abu Ghraib Brochure (2004) [Online]. [Accessed: 29 November 2010]

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