Chapter 3: Death's Dream Kingdom: Passion of the Christ in Abu Ghraib

London: Pluto Press, 2006.


Book cover: “Death's Dream Kingdom#8221;

I. The Misfit’s Dilemma

“It’s no real pleasure in life.”
The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
“When thinking comes to a stand still in a constellation saturated with tension—there the dialectical image appears.”
Walter Benjamin

The previous chapters reveal emotion as the glue that holds together the entire ideological edifice. My focus here is on how it takes root through images, symbols, and symbolic actions. It is here that we’ll find the psychological forces that hold other ideological formations in place, giving them the power to compel allegiance, often long after their contradictions have become apparent. Unfortunately, ideology is still 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 concentrates on how a world in the head is maintained through a sort of reasoning, however flawed. The psyche, which is where the real action is, thereby escapes detection and critique. We lose sight of the primacy fact: that human beings are creatures ruled by emotions that we refuse to examine or alter even after those emotions have proven themselves thoroughly incompatible with their situation. How else explain tearful, cheering throngs transfixed by the words “Habemus Papam” (We Have a Pope) heralding the ascension of a reactionary beyond belief? 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) and it is a thing of comparative ease to enlist their continuing support in discredited ideas and policies, lies readily embraced because they feed underlying emotional needs. To dislodge ideological blinders we have to get at the emotional and psychological register where the actual processes of ideological formation take place. This requires a new kind of ideological analysis. As Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno saw, it is in image that the historian finds the secret dream life of a culture. Image must, accordingly, become the primary object of ideological analysis because it reveals what other ideological formations conceal. That is so because from the beginning image is foremost in the formation and self-regulation of the psyche. We don’t know the world of our most intimate concerns through concepts that are arrived at through rational, quasi-deliberative processes; we know it through images that engage us emotionally because they embody our dreams, our fantasies, and our discontents in forms that drawn on the primary processes through which the psyche relates to itself in depth. [1]  The world of image to which we would return is, however, far different from the one that Benjamin and Adorno inhabited. Always historicize! This, the first and last commandment of leftist inquiry, implies the search for images that will reveal how our historical situation differs from the past. 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 something new and potentially irreversible.[2] The task of ideological critique is to identify and comprehend such events. This is also its inherent challenge, since nothing is harder to understand than the new—an Event such as Hiroshima, Auschwitz, 9-11. Such events shatter extant ways of thinking. That shattering persists in the images that define those events. They point thought toward places it cannot go unless one allows the image to continue to work emotionally and psychologically within one’s consciousness.

In terms of rigorous criteria few things that happen qualify as events. And seldom is the response to an image developed with the frightening clarity of the American response to 9-11 as analyzed in Chapter 1. I want to argue here that the same revelatory status should be given to a recent film by Mel Gibson and to what happened in Abu Ghraib. I hope to show, moreover, that the three events are necessarily connected developments in the historical unfolding of a single disorder. To combat that disorder, however, our first order of business must be to comprehend how image and emotion operate in the psyche. Thanks to Mel Gibson we have at our disposal a particularly revealing example, a privileged sign of the times and of what Christianity has become in Amerika.

II. Moviegoers in the Hands of an Angry Filmmaker

We should take seriously the testimony of vast audiences that watching this film was one of their deepest religious experiences. Demonstrating how the film operates in the psyche will thus enable us to gauge the extreme emotional register at which religion today works. 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 before he will hit 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 comes to us from Fallujah: the photo 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 the Gospels, which Gibson refuses to submit to one 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 under discussion is in the film, however, 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 in what will become 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 in what I took as my atheistic responsibility—the theatre was packed as would be theatres throughout the country for the next few weeks. There they sat with buckets full of buttered popcorn, larger containers of coke, working men in shirt sleeves with pot bellies beside 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.

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. Cinema makes possible the systematic administration of repeated shocks to the nervous system, creating visceral affects 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 is the art form that enables 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 today’s 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 reflective consciousness. As such film is the greatest tool of propaganda yet invented. Its inherent power is to work directly on the response mechanism of the human being in order to effect permanent alterations in one’s ability to feel. (Think of Gibson as the anti-Kubrick, Passion as an unrepentant Clockwork Orange.) Gibson has mastered the single principle that informs this art. 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 attempt to represent the inwardness of Jesus, is and must be sacrificed to the bloodbath. Christ’s suffering must remain a purely physical spectacle. 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 Gibson reduces the Passion 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 to the ruling principle of mainline Hollywood cinema. Gibson knew his film would be a megahit because it makes the Amerikan audience the offer they can’t refuse: the pleasure of sado-masochistic cruelty. Protestations of piety disguise 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 go to the movies for—a feast of violence. By masking an orgy of violence as an act of piety Gibson offers the audience a way through their tears 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’ve been ripened for projective identification; i.e., an evacuation on some target of the cumulative rage that has built up in them. At films end, having glutted their appetite for sado-masochistic stimuli, they leave the theatre full of rage and with a new need: a target on which to vent that rage. It is a mistake to fixate on the film’s patent anti-semitism. Gibson’s true achievement is the creation of a war readiness readily transferable 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.” [3] Gibson rends it, letting us see beneath that veil the insatiable lust of a mindless cruelty. This is not only the pleasure that the murderers of Christ indulge. It’s what the filmmaker takes repeated, orgasmic delight in. It’s Gibson’s own arm, we are told, that drives 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. No doubt the pleasure of repeated reviewing is why he recently re-cut the entire film, just in time for an Easter re-release. But Gibson’s delight is one he fully shares with the audience. The death of affect requires extreme affects repeated and with an accelerating extremity. Otherwise the audience sinks into lethargy, returning to the void. Sado-masochism pleasure has become the only affect that assures them that they are alive. In this sense Gibson is their Saviour, the savage god.

The goal of his film is not purification or faith or love or piety. It’s the sado-masochistic bludgeoning of the audience so that they will become abject subjects on their knees, but full of rage, eager to “do unto others” the violence that has been done to their psyches. There is no contradiction here; rather a confirmation of the way in which eros and thanatos become one in Gibson’s film. The libidinous and the violently aggressive here fuse in a new constellation that transforms the basic 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.[4]  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 thus stands as a sign of the desperation 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 filmmaker the same as the one that informs porn: to reduce the psyche of the audience to a mechanism that cums by command whenever triggered by the one thing that excites it: cruelty. As such Passion 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 become a daily necessity at the White House.

For there they were, afterward, those same men and women I’d heard moaning 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 questioned the verities of their feelings. 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. Bush and Ashcroft represent its benign—if mindless –face. Gibson gives us its true visage.

His significance for an ideological and historical understanding of emotion is considerable, since what his film dramatizes with unexampled clarity is how an ideology operates directly on the psyche to bring about fundamental changes both in the principles of its self-regulation and the actions that will be required to provide that psyche the satisfaction it seeks. As such Passion is not just an expression of what I term 9-11 syndrome ; it’s 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 one way for it to act out, as ritual, its sado-masochistic needs. The perverse artists of Abu Ghraib found another.

Gibson gives us an in depth look at what is actually going on in the fundamentalist psyche and how its extremities mirror the psychotic and narcissistic needs of the culture at large. Prior to Gibson, over 50 million Amerikans declared themselves fundamentalist or born again Christians. Such sociological data is helpful though far from sufficient to account for Gibson. For Gibson is a traditional Catholic anti Vatican II reactionary who represents beliefs that are covertly supported by Karl (John Paul II) Wyotka.[5] Gibson’s significance, however, extends well beyond the designs of Opus Dei. Thanks to Gibson the ranks of the born again have grown, if not officially, in a far more important way: psychologically. Such is the power of art and why cultural practices should become a primary object of ideological study. Once films like Gibson’s become the primary way in which audiences react to the cinematic representation of experience, the thing they crave in going to the movies—and Gibson’s film is but one example of the prevailing sado-masochism of mainline Hollywood cinema—it’s just a matter of time before the political manifestation of this way of feeling will find its Leader. Which, of course, it has. Subjects formed by images to feel a certain way will of necessity act on what they’ve felt. The way they’ve been formed to feel will perforce become the content of their being, the essence of their religion. Psyches formed by the Christianity Gibson represents seek of necessity actions that crave a particular form of jouissance: one in which orgiastic pleasure comes from abolishing all inner restraints and committing the kind of de-humanizing deeds required to make one feel better than one has ever felt before. Abu Ghraib beckons.

Two theoretical points by way of transition to the theatre of cruelty fashioned in Abu Ghraib. Thanks to Gibson we now have a better understanding of image as emotion. Image is the assault that emotion makes upon the psyche and what is opened up to transformation as a result. We will only begin to understand this ideological process when we develop a theory of emotion that breaks with the understanding of emotion that has characterized the intellectualist tradition in its abiding attempt to make emotion something secondary: as when emotion is seen as a byproduct of ideas; a loss of rational control; a release of tension; a sign of irrationality; a purely biological or neurological event. 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 and empowers itself in a world where knowledge is not primarily a matter of logic or rationality but rather the projection of psychological needs and complexes upon events. (I hasten to add, the corrective to the ideological manipulation of emotion is not the impossible pursuit of a standpoint free of emotion, but as sections 4 and 5 will show a full and historical engagement of the radical possibility implicit in emotion: the discovery, through tragic self-overcoming, of emotions that have the power to deracinate the kinds of emotions Gibson indulges.

There is reason to be thankful for Gibson. For the main thing his film reveals is that today everything is played out at the psychotic register of the psyche. That register is what was rent open by 9-11, what Dubya and Co. have been acting out ever since and what Gibson brings to a grotesquely sublime and finalizing condition. Psychoanalytic theories that remain within the orbit of neurosis and normalcy are unable to deal with the present historical situation, which is defined by what happens when traumatic events create catastrophic anxiety in a collectivity threatened with psychological fragmentation and dissolution under the sway of a nameless terror. Such was the impact of 9-11 on a collectivity already working overtime to deny the void at the center of a desperate narcissism. It now faced a new task. But getting the necessary emotional satisfaction of its condition through a film is one thing. What’s needed is action, rituals to consecrate worship to the savage god of sado-masochistic excess. We are ready to enter Abu Ghraib.

III. The Non-Accidental Tourist

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: the sado-masochistic need for extreme images of brutalization and suffering that must be repeated and maximized in order to create in a mass audience the only feeling of which they are capable: the glee that comes from participation in spectacles of cruelty.

Abu Ghraib, as Seymour Hersh has shown, had its genesis in a reading by Bush’s neo-con luminaries of Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind (1973) and specifically a single chapter in that unremarkable book, Chapter VIII “The Realm of Sex.” [6]  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 their sexual beliefs and practices to humiliate them and thereby destroy their attachment to the principle that gives their life meaning. Abu Ghraib is the acting out of that project. The languages of transmission—how the idea got from Perle and Wolfowitz to Rumsfeld to Sanchez to Karpinski to Garner, England et al isn’t all that important. What matters is the message, which is assured at each step along the way because it addresses the same shared psychological disorder.

Neo-con ideology is a fantasmatic dream state. 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. The tortures devised by ordinary American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison give us the other side of the neo-con fantasm, the perverse corollary to the airy nothing on which it bases its political articles of faith. Such is the genius of the actors who arrange the tableaus and pose themselves for the camera eye in Abu Ghraib. A terrible envy underlies what happened in Abu Ghraib, an envy that has been working on the psychotic register of the American psyche since 9-11. Islamic fundamentalists have something we lack. They’re willing to die for their religion. Only one response to such an affront is possible. 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 who bears the gaze that is simultaneously directed at the prisoner’s abjection and 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 self for what Lacanians call the Big Other—that ultimate paternal principle of authority and meaning whose approval one seeks. Abu Ghraib tears away all other masks, revealing that the true Father of the American Imaginary is not Billy Graham or Dubya or Scalia or even Reagan. The true father is “the obscene father of enjoyment.” [7]  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 dictated by a quantitative logic of increased cruelty since for the commodified self no inner source of creative invention remains. The torturers of Abu Ghraib are condemned to the incessant aping of the idiot grin, the phallic pose that mimes the identity they seek. That, in fact, 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 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. Writing is a dying art, but those left behind on the homefront can expect a frequent supply of photosographs. Many of these photos bear a family resemblance to those taken at Abu Ghraib. We, not the Japanese, are now the tourists who must photograph everything. But with a fundamental difference. The Japanese tourist is a subject respectfully posed before the object—be it the Grand Canyon, the Mississippi, Disneyworld, the Golden Arches. The American tourist, in contrast, focuses the camera on the self: Kilroy in Baghdad, the grin, the leer, the phallic posturing, the gesture of appropriation applied to every aspect of the domestic space of 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. If there is a measure of cruelty toward that audience in these pictures, it’s a function of their smug assertiveness. “This is what I got by enlisting, what you’re missing out on. “A deeper function, of course, is to send back home the message that the media can’t broadcast. “This, rest assured, is what we’re doing to those vermin who caused 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, Duke Wayne proud above a tangle of naked Arab men, secure in the smug assurance that brutality is the true mark of macho identity.

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 agents who make no attempt to hide the glee they derive from their perversity. As such 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 is the most revealing thing about these photographs. Like Gibson’s Passion, Abu Ghraib is a desperate attempt to flee the void which only serves to reveal it. The death of affect is here the truth of subjectivity. That is why sado-masochism again strides forth to fill the breach as the one sexual expression adequate to the fascism of the heart: the reduction of the other to the conditions of a thing in order to celebrate a feeling of power that is openly 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 or the uncanny way it witnesses 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. The result: 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 self-certainty that comes from cruelty.

It is easy to say that Abu Ghraib represents the acting out of a fantasy. But rather than mitigate what happens there, this idea should be developed in the most rigorous way. For fantasy is serious business. It is an attempt by the psyche to imagine or perform an action that will free it from its deepest 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 the humiliation forced upon the victim and the identity claimed through that action. The latter however is a sham, which is what 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 a fantasy meant to counterfeit sexual pleasure for the camera.

Abu Ghraib is both homage to and imitation of the Chief. For the parent text is Bush on the aircraft carrier Lincoln, unable to delay his orgasm any longer, needing to crow “We’re #1” to the world 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 contempt of Bushian unilateralism for the rest of the world, 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 the objective correlative of the only response that the Amerikan can have to the trauma of 9-11, since surplus revenge has historically provided us with the only way post-trauma to once again 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 policies conceal –and solicit. For about one thing there should be no doubt: Abu Ghraib was an act of worship, the creation of a ritual like the Mass, celebrating the fundamental article of the new faith: the sanctity 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 proceed from the void: the desire to exploit suffering for sado-masochistic pleasure and, whenever the opportunity presents itself, to take perverse pleasure in doing onto helpless victims what the torturers of Christ did to Him in Gibson’s film.

Ideological scrutiny here applies, however, 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 in the support of a shared collective ideology. This ideology cuts across differences between liberals and conservatives and points to something shared that ideological critique must expose. This is moreover where the most strenuous objections will arise, since our inquiry will now impinge on guarantees that claim wide allegiance because they satisfy the one superordinate thing that all ideologies offer: the belief that there are certain values and ideals that can be placed outside history and that no traumatic events can eradicate. In support of this underlying need we’ve been offered a series of explanations of Abu Ghraib that supplement one another in their effort to limit the disruptive significance of that event and thereby exorcise the thing we refuse to think: that history cuts to the quick with nothing in the order of “human nature” protected from what it may bring to pass.  (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) It was a result of instructions from above reflecting a pathology confined to the upper reaches of the Bush administration and not America in general.  (4) It was a function of the situation—of what Robert J. Lifton calls “an atrocity-producing situation;” i.e., such things always happen in wars of oppression. [8]  The combined weight of these explanations assures us once again that there is nothing new under the sun, no evidence in Abu Ghraib of a new pathology nor of a historical change in the psyche.  (5) And so we can rest assured, as reported in one of the first psychological essays on Abu Ghraib, that “experts in the history and psychology of torture say” 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.” [9]  Explanations of Abu Ghraib thus present something like what happens when members of Congress put aside “partisan disagreements” to report on matters we can all agree on. It’s then that we should get nervous—and keen in our interest. Because one thing then is certain: some ideological commonplace is forthcoming, dressed in the demand that the public at large concur. So, with respect to the above series of explanations, which one you pick doesn’t matter, since the function of the series is to assure that history is denied. What could have been known is thereby lost; namely, that Abu Ghraib is 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. Moreover, this is the understanding we must try to produce because it’s 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’ll miss the necessary connections. Abu Ghraib, however, is not a matter of either/or, as in the above series, but of both/and, revealing the unity of a purpose 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.

The explanations offered of Abu Ghraib prevent our knowing it 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 in order to reduce them psychologically 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. And lest one miss the point, walk for five minutes in the shoes of the men who had to say this 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 not the Amerikan desire. It dances to a different necessity. To inflict one’s condition on the other. If you eat dung 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 as the lethargy that gnaws at one from within until one is delivered from it by a new shock to the system through a brutalization one suffers or one that one inflicts. Only so can one feel or, what amounts to the same thing, convince oneself that one feels. Inadvertently Gibson reveals the truth. When at its most devout and its most perverse the Amerikan 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, Abu Ghraib enacts what the life of feeling now is for the average American. Sado-masochism is the one constant because historically it now constitutes the only way to convince oneself that one is alive. When we indulge it on behalf of those we “love,” we get choaked 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 us the sense of victory over all inner conflicts. The Amerikan psyche oscillates between these two behaviors because it is, qua psyche, no more than their underlying necessity: for new and ever greater shocks to the system as the only way to deliver oneself from despair. From which follow a few of what Spinoza would term adequate ideas regarding three words that Dubya glibly employs for transparent ideological ends. To know what terror, fundamentalism, and evil are one need go no further than Abu Ghraib. If, unlike Bush and the media, we want to think about these topics in non jingoistic ways there is no better place to begin than Abu Ghraib. Terror is the attempt through humiliation and cruelty to destroy another’s psyche in order to confer on oneself the absolute status that comes with the liberation of a power free of restraint that can be indulged 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—to obey like a corpse. In this too Abu Ghraib provides a chilling model of how true believers behave; nay, how they worship. There is, of course, no word quicker to Dubya’s lips than evil. Here’s a definition that might give even him pause. Evil is the desire to destroy people in their soul and to feel righteous in doing so.

Two theoretical points by way of transition to our concluding sections. Image is where the psyche gives itself away, revealing what other ideological formations conceal. Accordingly, the primary object of ideological study is what, following Adorno and Benjamin, I term the dialectical image. Such images lay bare the fundamental contradictions of a society, arresting both heart and mind because they reveal the disorder that defines a historical situation. As Gibson and Abu Ghraib reveal, in our time the disorder is the eroticization of thanatos [10]  and the underlying psychosis that makes that eroticization the only way Amerika can respond to traumatic events. The images Gibson and Abu Ghraib offer are sublime in the full Kantian meaning of that term: they represent the innermost needs of the psyche realized in phenomena. The sublime power of such images is a function of their effort to finalize a way of being in a way that will hypnotize the psyche and compel submission to a power that overcomes all resistance. It is thanatos that finds in Gibson and Abu Ghraib images that transform the rage defining the Amerikan psyche into an object of worship. In these images destructiveness is celebrated both as an end in itself and as a force that persists long after it has destroyed everything opposed to its will. [11]  If we want to get inside Thanatos, see how it works, and thereby find a way to reverse its telos, we must comprehend the function that such images have in the sick psyche. A dialectical image has the power to compel allegiance because it speaks directly from and to the psyche’s deepest desires. It cuts through all defenses, displacements, and delays, offering the bliss of a massive unbinding. As we’ll see, the only way to combat such images is to create images of an equal power and an opposed telos: i.e., images in which Eros is reclaimed, Orpheus- like, from situations dominated by death.

But to undertake that task we must purge ourselves of the thing in ourselves that stands in the way. I have termed it the guarantees. 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 by exposing cherished beliefs to the claims of darker views and by forcing us to think in radically new ways, considering things about the human being that we’ve persistently denied or marginalized. One dimension of any traumatic event is the shock it brings to traditional ways of thinking. That’s why the dominant response to any historical trauma is the attempt to restore the guarantees by finding a way to impose them on the event in order to contain and interpret it. The ideological function of the guarantee is thereby demonstrated. A way has been found 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-historical. History may disrupt our essence but it cannot destroy it. The concept of human nature—in all the variants constituting the philosophic and psychological history of that idea from Plato and Aristotle through American self psychology—is the primary way in which we endeavor 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 the cherished beliefs and values we derive from that concept. Events put us as subjects—and as thinkers—into a traumatic relationship both to ourselves and our world. The anxiety at the center of thought is revealed. Ideologists rush in to fill that void and restore the guarantees. Our effort must be to do the opposite and thereby sustain the vital possibility implicit in an event. That possibility is to sustain a break with the guarantees and thereby find for history a radically different way of thinking. To put it concretely, a trauma cannot be resolved until it’s been constituted. The Western logos is a monument to the effort to avoid that task; indeed, to render it impossible a priori. To reverse that tradition the one thing above all we must rid ourselves of is the desire and demand for resolution. The recycling of the guarantees must give way to an existentializing imperative: to constitute and work within trauma in a way that addresses the psyche at the same register as 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. Such an effort, however, cannot itself be yet another variant of the guarantees as happens when Love and Eros are posited as a-historical 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. Sections 4-5 offer a brief picture of the kind of agonistic process such an effort entails in order to whet our appetite for something that should by now be evident. The critique of ideology cannot be a merely intellectual exercise. It must be the activation within our psyche of a countervailing drama.

IV. The Principle of Hope: or, “The Late Late Late Show”

“The last image was too immediate for any eye to register.”
— Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
“Paranoia is the ability to make connections.”
— From 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 leftist principle of Hope and keep looking for it in some set of intellectualist guarantees, as if there were some essentialist humanism that remains untrammeled by history, some Habermasian communicative competence that can provide fixed a priori norms for what counts as thought, some system of values that will somehow enable us to rise phoenix-like from our darkest analyses restored to an a-historical essence

My analysis suggests that we’ve got to start looking for hope and constructing that principle in a new way. All is action, image, emotion. Reason is but the cutting edge of passions. Drama is our destiny. We are shaped as subjects through process of symbolic action and interaction. What we need accordingly is analyses that will begin with the Waste Land and find within it forces, tendencies and directions that generate the possibility of genuine reversals, reversals that come perhaps only when we push the disorder to the end of the line. Taking up this task entails admitting that a film such as Gibson’s taps into feelings that we are far more central than we want to admit. Our task, like that articulated in the motto of the great community activist Saul Alinsky, is to “rub raw the sores of discontent.” Ideological critiques that stay in the ballpark of reason are fine but the only ones that can produce change must attempt to act on the psyche at the same register Gibson gets to but in a way that reverses what a work like his does there. As we’ll see shortly, we need to construct fantasies that take the horror manifested in Gibson and Abu Ghraib and reverse it by activating within the same conflicted space emotions of an antithetical order.

Perhaps one reason we can’t fathom contemporary history and plumb the psychotic bases of American ideology is that we’ve not yet learned how to read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon’s achievement derives from his effort to write from within the psychotic space that the Bomb tore open in the psyche. I hope on another occasion to offer an extended discussion of what this seminal work thereby offers the student of ideology. For now I must condense that contribution into three concepts:  (1) Pynchon reveals the constitutional stupidity of official rationality and its underlying madness. Thus, for example, the fetishizing of any and all information, as if there was a precious secret that each inmate of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo could render up to Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, et al).  (2) The excessive actions that official rationality requires are a result of the underlying paranoia in its insatiable search for omnipotent control.  (3) The System as a whole 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 globally. Such is the categorical imperative of late capitalism in its Empire phase. Interrogation of images remains the way to combat it because image reveals what rationality conceals. Its full power to work in us can today only be reawakened by desperate measures. For 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 now only reawakens traumatic pain. Second, not to picture the faces of our own dead lest that image deliver us from statistical abstraction into an awareness of the human costs of an unnecessary war. Third, not to view, or now that the cat’s out of the bag, to severely restrict the viewing of the (by all means cropped) images from Abu Ghraib.

This last command proved impossible, however, because it violated a deeper imperative. And so early in 2006 a new show took 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 played every night from midnight to 7:00 a.m., ending only when a sleepless nation readied itself for work with its daily prayer, the morning news. Only one restriction was placed on this new show. By order of Attorney General Gonzalez no one was allowed to tape it under penalty of being incarcerated in Guantanamo under 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 was one other condition, but it operated at first spectrally. Each night our show was preceded by Ted Koppel’s Nightline, which was always the same now—a processional of the faces of our dead from the Iraq conflict filling the screen one by one while their names entered our ears: Paul Smith… Therrel Childers…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 the faces of the dead to have their moment on the screen. Followed by what everyone eagerly 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. Images looped into one another in a film that never ends—a perpetual orgy. Mel the Baptist is long forgotten, his movie but a dim prefiguring of a pleasure that has now found its proper form—but be reminded with the prohibition against taping. And so there they sit, every night, a hungry public waiting for the show to begin, avid 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 in fact found it most satisfying to watch the show with their neighbors and co-workers. Super Bowl type parties with wife swapping and group sex became a national craze. Every night—starting at midnight sharp. But then almost immediately, despite the clamor one could now hear from every household, the show did 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 air time, 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 last few moments just before dawn. But in those 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 they 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 could see it that way. Only the undead gazing at the dead in blank incomprehension.

To clarify the concepts of image and event 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. It isn’t and can’t be—even if it has attracted as many viewers as Gibson and propelled Kerry into the White House because Moore does not speak to, from, and within the psychic register that Gibson works on. Except for a few brief moments, Moore’s film does not descend to the place 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. What he can’t do—because he doesn’t try—is get into the deeper psychic terrain.

But to engage it directly is to engage it tragically and to activate the massive resistances that rise up whenever art tries to get an audience to experience how sick they are. The chances of success of such projects are today slim, especially when one suggests to liberal, rationalistic, academic audiences that they’ll remain part of the problem as long as we continue to approach ideology as if we could in studying it occupy a purely intellectual space and not a tragic one. A concluding effort on behalf of the latter possibility follows.

V. 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, signaling through the flames.”
— Antonin Artaud

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, 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, the resonance of the image that enters the Amerikan psyche in a momentary arresting of desire. For 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, palms open 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, this prisoner 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. It will not, however, be able to work creatively within them because the psychic register it addresses has already been rendered irretrievably dead. This image can only call them to a shame they are no longer able to feel, a change of heart they will find impossible. Thanks to Mel Gibson and his ilk. And yet in spite of them the miraculous occurs. An image calls the psyche to itself.

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.” This violence, however, 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 feel and live out an agon of primary emotions that have the power to strip away all the hiding places of the psyche, revealing the rule of thanatos. As this image works within we feel the burden of all we’d have to change in order to reverse the force of thanatos that ideology and mass culture has planted and nurtured in us. The theatre Artaud dreamed of 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. [12]  Suffice to say that Artaud is concerned with eradicating all defenses and displacements so that the psyche brought before the anxiety of its condition experiences the need to take up a task that was perhaps best formulated by what deSade, the Artaudian protagonist of Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade, says to one of the first great revolutionary students 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.” [13]

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 the only thing that exists for it. Cruelty. Artaud’s project is to destroy that mechanism so that we can begin to feel again 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. The conceptual pun here is deliberate. Primary process ideation operates whenever the psyche cognizes through image or is affected by image. As such, primary process ideation is present in all areas of quotidian life, both in the way ideology plants structures in the psyche and in the rupture that occurs whenever a radical image enters the psyche. We don’t live in two worlds, but in one; one where, qua psyche, we are always simultaneously in the real and in the dream; or, better, in a process in which knowledge is the mediation of experience through all the process whereby the psyche responds to phenomena. See Deracination, pp. 151-153, 193-222.
  2. On the concept of the Event, see Deracination, pp. 35-39, 106-7,153-162,235-6.
  3. Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins P, 1977).
  4. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Visual and Other Pleasures (Hampshire:Macmillan,1989).
  5. 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,” The New York Review of Books, vol. LI, no. 6 (April 8, 2004) pp.68-74.
  6. 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 (New York: Vintage,2000). Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Making of New World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster) is, of course, the primary architect of the ideology behind a quasi-Hegelian application of an a-historical cultural essentialism to world politics. On Patai and the neo-con fascination with “Arab sexuality,” see Seymour M. Hersh, “The Gray Zone,” The New Yorker (May 24, 2004), p.42.
  7. For a quick and insightful study of this concept, which is central to Žižek and to Lacan’s late thought, see Todd McGowan, The End of Dissatisfaction (New York: SUNY P, 2004).
  8. See Robert Jay Lifton, “Conditions of Atrocity,” The Nation (May 31,2004) pp.4-5.
  9. See Shankar Vedantam, “The Psychology of Torture” in The Washington Post, May 20, 2004. See also Dr. Michael A. Weinstein “Abu Ghraib Means Impunity” in PINR (Power and Interest News Report) Dispatch of May 24, 2004.
  10. On historicizing the dialectic of Eros and Thanatos and a critique of Freud’s ahistorical formulation of this dialectic, see Deracination, pp. 133-150.
  11. 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 UP, 2004).
  12. For discussion of this key concept, see below pp. 000-000. Artaud of course never developed an explicit theory of emotion. His thought on the subject is the explosion that occurs throughout his work. Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, Edited, and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag (Berkeley: U of California P, 1976). I have tried to develop a theory of how tragic drama works on the primary emotions of an audience in Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama, and the Audience (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994).

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Chapter 3: Passion of the Christ in Abu Ghraib
Chapter 4: Weapons of Mass Destruction Found in Iraq
Chapter 7: Bible Says: The Psychology of Christian Fundamentalism

Table of Contents:

Preface: The Way We Were
2Living in Death’s Dream Kingdom: The Psychotic Core of Capitalist Ideology
3Passion of the Christ in Abu Ghraib
4Weapons of Mass Destruction Found in Iraq
5A Humanistic Response to 9-11: Robert Jay Lifton, or the Nostalgia for Guarantees
6A Postmodernist Response to 9-11: Slavoj Zizek, or the Jouissance of an Abstract Hegelian
7Bible Says: The Psychology of Christian Fundamentalism
8The Psychodynamics of Terror
9Evil: As Psychological Process and as Philosophic Concept
10Men of Good Will: Toward an Ethic of the Tragic