Journal of Visual Culture
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DOI: 10.1177/1470412906062286
2006 5: 81 Journal of Visual Culture
Suhail Malik
The War in Iraq and Visual Culture - An Introduction
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journal of visual culture
The War in Iraq and Visual Culture – An Introduction
Editor: Suhail Malik
journal of visual culture []
Copyright © 2006 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)
Vol 5(1): 81–118 [1470-4129(200604)5:1]10.1177/1470412906062286
April 2006 marks the second anniversary of the initial public release of
images of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Though these images
remain to date perhaps the most powerful public visual memory of a
continuing war, they are only one moment in what has been a relatively new
configuration and global politics of the visuality of warfare in general culture
since September 2001. Further images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib held
by the US Government are due to be released, subject to the decision of the
American courts (American Civil Liberties Union: ACLU, 2005), but for all
their notoriety the images from Abu Ghraib – and the dominance and power
of these images over all others from the Iraq war to date is to be noted – are
in many ways not unique. They are by no means the only record of atrocity
or (quasi-)criminal activity during the current Iraq war. In fact, on the
contrary: in regard to the public distribution and consumption of violence,
atrocity and brutality this conflict has perhaps been the most publicly
immediate, which is to say image-ready, war to date.
The writings compiled in this collection begin to open out various
approaches to recognizing and reflecting upon this configuration of visual
culture, initial responses to a condition whose overall determination is still
open, partly because it is still in the making and partly because it has yet to
be recognized as such.
Unhindered by scholarly framing, the ambition is
that these short, incisive analyses and critical insights may together spur the
continued discussion on this crucial aspect of the current conflict, involving
as it does a world-public.
The pieces that follow have been written in a temporality between the
immediate commentary of journalism and the long, measured undertakings
of academic reflection, in an intermediate time of a historically restricted
analysis and critique which, though it is part of that live history, is not subject
to the necessarily reactive demands of journalism and its opinionating. The
essays gathered here by invitation are furthermore subject to the usual
contingencies of any such undertaking: contributors were asked to take up
the matter in their own way and to address their own concerns, leading to
overlaps of concerns and subject; some invited contributors were unable to
participate (the timeline of its production was short), and so on. These
necessary limitations and the primary interest in opening up further
discussion require us to insist that the following pages should not be
understood as an attempt to be representative of, or comprehensive with
regard to, how the visuality of the Iraq war might be conceptualized. No final
idea of this war is brought to fruition here.
The essays are arranged in roughly three sections. The first directly addresses
the images from Abu Ghraib that, at the time of writing (October 2005), have
been publicly released. Jean Baudrillard proposes that these images and the
abuse they portray demonstrate a truth of contemporary American power;
Sharon Sliwinski considers them in the history of atrocity photography and
its ethics; Pal Ahluwalia takes up the question of a general complicity of these
images with regard to the Australian Government’s political and logistic
support for the war. The second section takes up questions of how the war
is seen and understood – and what is to be understood of it – through its
reporting and the conditions of that journalism. Johannes Maier and Chris
Kraus examine in different ways the transmutations to received notions of
journalism and registers of reportage in the Pentagon’s strategy of
embedding reporters within combat military units. With Kraus, Gerry Beegan
demonstrates how, while claiming to be presenting the reality of the war,
human interest journalism contributes to an important obfuscation of its
political reality for the domestic audience, a visual obfuscation with long
historical precedents. Jamal Abdel-hai signals the challenge al-Jazeera
presents to Western media framing of the war even as it duplicates the latter’s
form. In the third loose section Suhail Malik examines the continuity of what
is imag(in)ed in and of the war with a general aspect of contemporary visual
culture, suggesting an indistinction between war and peace, or between
mediation and action. Benedict Seymour and then Richard Dienst take up
the importance of hurricane Katrina for accessing the politics and visual
culture of the Iraq war in America; Seymour highlights the rupture of the
otherwise smooth media image of American might in that media’s diverse
imaging of recent disasters while Dienst considers the Katrina disaster in its
continuity with the Iraq war, their contiguity enabling a revelation of what is
otherwise not seen in the visual plethora of this war.
These articles are bookended by reflections from Alphonso Lingis and Adrian
Rifkin. Lingis’s article presents a powerful overview of the majoritarian
culture from which the images from Abu Ghraib arose and how that
importantly visual culture contributed to Bush’s political success in 2004.
Rifkin’s article concludes this anthology by refusing the constituted geo- and
religio-political formation of the Iraq war, drawing attention through the
power of counter-memory to another Iraq than the one comprehended on
all sides as a battlefield.
The singularity of Rifkin’s adventure cannot be generally re-iterated by a
loose gathering of reflections such as the one presented here. However, its
ambition and demand for discourses, practices and affects other than those
journal of visual culture 5(1) 82
by which this war is now dominated is what the several analyses and critiques
of this small collection of pieces also seek to advance, each and together.
1. Nicholas Mirzoeff ’s recent book on the Iraq war and global visual culture (2005)
also begins this task. Mirzoeff was not asked to contribute to the writings
presented in this section partly because of the general availability of his book.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (2005) ‘Court Orders Release of Images of
Detainee Abuse at Abu Ghraib’, 29 September:
Mirzoeff, N. (2005) Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture.
New York: Routledge.
The Effects of the Pictures
Alphonso Lingis
1945, pictures of Auschwitz. Pictures of naked bodies piled up on top of one
another. During the war, the conflict was defined as a conflict of ideologies,
Nazi, Fascist, Democratic, and Socialist. After the publication of these
pictures, Germany, land of Max Planck, Heisenberg, Kant, Hegel, Schelling,
Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, became the land of death camps.
1972, Vietnam. Pictures of a nine-year-old girl running naked, screaming,
burning with napalm. This picture is what remains of the war. The strategic
importance of the Indo-Chinese peninsula, of containing the spread of Soviet
and Chinese Communism, the domino theory – this discourse has been
2004, Abu Ghraib. Pictures of naked bodies piled up on top of one another.
Derisive laughter of the torturers. Laughter of Spc. Sabrina Harman, her head
bent next to the crushed head of a captive bludgeoned to death in Abu
Ghraib prison. For Muslims from Morocco to Mindinao, from South Africa to
Uzbekistan, the rhetoric of liberation collapses before these pictures. For the
judgement of public opinion across the world, the reality of the American
occupation of Iraq is defined by these pictures.
Governments that practiced torture of prisoners – Czarist Russia, Chile, and
Argentina, and France in Algeria – do not make public the practice of state
torture; people are just ‘disappeared’. When the German public, after the war,
came to know, their representatives acted to institutionally ban torture, and
capital punishment too. The lithographs of Goya entitled The Disasters of War
were published 49 years after the end of the Napoleonic occupation of Spain,
the photographs of Auschwitz were published immediately after the war, but
Malik The War in Iraq and Visual Culture 83