ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 11, Number 2 (May, 2014)


War Porn: an image of perversion and desire in modern warfare

Dr. Andreja Zevnik
(School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, UK)

Due to their omnipresence, due to the prevailing rule of the world of making everything visible, the images, our present-day images have become substantially pornographic. […] they embrace the pornographic face of the war. (Baudrillard, 2005a: 205 – 206)

For its cruelness and brutality, albeit organised, the space of war is a highly contended and emotionally loaded landscape. Over the past few decades the fascination with the phenomenon of war, its space and in fact even with its cruelty – manifested in a desire to make suffering visible – permeated political and social discourse. War is no longer a distant affair affecting only those ‘on the ground’ (and the families of the wounded soldiers), through television and media war became a virtual and an entertaining phenomenon (Der Derian 2003). From the Vietnam War where media turned into an unwelcomed partner on the battlefield via the First Gulf War when embedded journalism became an integral part of a military-complex, to the most recent soldier-driven accounts from the battlefield (Kozol 2012), media and reporting from the frontline radically re-shaped public perception of war. Not only is there a desire to see more, further and to a greater detail, but also, when there is nothing to see, an expectation (to see, create or produce) persists.

It seems that that which cannot be represented (or is excluded from the realm of the visible) simply does not exist. Such an attitude to war and to the space of war, I argue, poses an interesting question about the relationship between not only war and the media, but most importantly between war and ‘reality’. What war in fact is: is it real, virtual or is it a simulation?; and is the state of war at all a worthy research question? Video games or simulations of war on the one hand and real-time broadcasting and TV images of ‘real war’ suffering on the other hand both mediated directly into the living room of an every day person constitute what James Der Derian (2003) calls the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment (MIME) complex. As the question of whether war is a game or a reality loses its edge this paper aims to interrogate the simulative power of war. With the focus on Baudrillard’s short text War Porn the paper explores the intricacies of war, law, desire and their excess(es) through the logic of simulation, which permeates modern production of war. In the eye of danger, where there might be nothing more or new to see, the desire to see is taken to its extreme; the spectre of visibility no longer uncovers, but begins to create. It ‘creates’ reality, it creates that which can later be exposed.

Baudrillard’s oeuvre includes a number of essays and observations on war: from the most well-known ones: The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1995); The Intelligence of Evil Or the Lucidity Pact (2013) to War Porn (2005a); The Spirit of Terrorism (2003); Screened Out (2002). And, to perhaps some of the rather more concealed musings on war can be found in Simulacra and Simulation (1981). Such a vast war-focused oeuvre is of no surprise as it is indeed the spectre of war as one of the most salacious yet seductive practices of human species that in the past few decades with the support of technological progress and emerging media complexes arguably underwent most radical change. In this essay the focus is on what at first appears a light read but on the second or third look the text – War Porn – reveals its full critical potential. With the help of Jacques Lacan and Baudrillard’s own observations in Simulacra and Simulation I, in turn, unpack key puzzles this short text brings to the forefront. On the one hand the event of 9/11 and on the other hand the images of abuse in Abu Ghraib prison. Both cases are testimonies of invoked violence without an end, and both a direct relic and products of the simulacra of war.

The focus in Scene One is the logic and the structure of violence the two images reveal; in particular, manifestations of violence in the context of the idea of war: in war on terror as a practice and in laws of the war on terror as their simulative product. The focus in Scene Two is the content of the two images; but instead of condemning and discussing the extent of the abuses and humiliations, the paper turns to the structural and political assumptions these abuses reveal and highlight the politics of which the two are products of. In other words, Scene Two looks at how the two images of war testify of a particular desire and of a particular form of perversion that drives narratives, representations and realities of war and violence. Through such an engagement with Baudrillard’s essay I aim to show how War Porn, despite its brevity, foresees political and ethical struggles posed to modern society by the phenomenon of the war on terror, and equally how answers to external threats are not a surprise but in fact symptomatic to and reproductive of the existing political structures.

Scene One

… tomorrow there will be nothing but the virtual violence of consensus, the simultaneity in real time of the global consensus: this will happen tomorrow and it will be the beginning of a world with no tomorrow (Baudrillard 1995: 84).

The absence of difference or of that, which contests dominant narratives (or has a capacity to do so) is what is at stake in today’s production of politics, so Baudrillard argues (1995: 82 – 84). In the above quote Baudrillard speaks of a particular response to the virtuality of violence, in particular he speaks of the violence of consensus, which evacuates difference and thus disarms politics. This is not a novel way of looking at the political, Ernesto Laclau (1985) and Chantal Mouffe (1985, 2013), for example, see antagonism or agonistic politics as a driving force of political change. In sameness, such, it seems is Baudrillard’s position, politics becomes impossible. The First Gulf War was a warning against the disappearing difference masquerading under a label of global consensus, and thus also a warning against politics which used its strengths to eradicate anything that could contest the emerging ‘democratic consensus’ of ‘the West’. (Baudrillard 1995) The 1990ies were in terms of global and international politics known as the years of post-ideology, liberal democracy, multiculturalism, growing globalisation and interconnectedness which, when its goals were to be achieved, was to considerably reduce the chance of war or a violence conflict. While in 1991 the call to preserve the difference was still more of a call than a warning, by 2004, as the writing of War Porn suggests, politics focused on the eradication of difference became a reality.

It should come as no surprise that Baudrillard opens his short text, War Porn, with a reminder of his statement good ten years earlier. But with the Event (in the sense of Alain Badiou, 2013) of 9/11, the long gone difference Baudrillard spoke about returned with a full swing. If he was right, and if 9/11 saw a return of difference and a break in the consensus that was put in place in 1991, what was the response of politics to such re-imagining of a long forgotten narrative (that is a narrative whereby politics is defined by conflict)? In the scope of war – in particular the war on terror – two reactions can be identified: one is the self-reproduction of war (war for the sake of war), whereas the other is the simulation of laws (in particular the laws of war, the treatment of the prisoners of war and different detention practices). With this observation I am not suggesting that these two reactions are specific and distinct to the production of war(s) post 9/11, but rather that the war on terror, as perhaps Baudrillard himself indicated, generates a distinct logic of simulation that not only produces reality but also turns it into an automated ideological narrative.

In War Porn the two images to which Baudrillard draws our attention– 9/11 and the abuses of prisoners in Iraq – both testify of the automatism of simulation. It is not, as many would acknowledge, that the two images are to represent, explain, imitate or perhaps event create reality. As representation is no longer a domain of an image, as Baudrillard (1981) reminds us, it becomes impossible to analyse the production of images on a discursive or symbolic level. In other words, images become much more than just interpretations, imitations or descriptions of reality. In modern politics as in warfare the two images are reality, are embodiments of productive powers of ideology devoid of any reference to signs, language or in fact what theory of ideology would describe as ‘ideological interpellation of the subject’. “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody”, as Baudrillard (1981: 2) himself puts it, “It is a question of substituting signs of the real for the real [in] an operation [whereby] a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes”. Simulation is thus a production not an imitation. It is not an act of pretending along the lines of as if something more real than that which we face is to take place.

The real depth of simulation is further described in relation to medicine, war or religion. Medicine, to follow Baudrillard’s (1981: 3) discussion, bears most relevance whereby the difference between pretending and simulating is that in pretending, when one is ill, one simply retreats to bed and claims not to feel well. Whereas if one is to simulate illness, one actually produces some of the illness’ symptoms. The two phenomena are of a different level. Pretending plays with the effects of illness, the as if cannot produce symptoms only the behaviour of what one commonly does when one is ill. The act itself – to pretend about something – has no impact on illness or on its symptoms as it only engages and imitates the context in which illness emerges. Whereas simulation with its production of symptoms, in contrast, poses an entirely different problem; it addresses the definition of illness itself: of what constitutes illness, what symptoms it produces and when it is to appear. It does not only pose a question over the psychosomatic power of individuals to make themselves ill, but also questions the conditions in which illness is to emerge. Such a simulation, and this is what Baudrillard sees as the greatest power of simulation, no longer distinguishes between that which is true and that which is false, that which is real and that which is imaginary. Are symptoms real or not and thus, given the presence of true symptoms, is the simulator sick or not (Baudrillard, 1981: 3)? These turn out to be irrelevant questions. Psychoanalysis already showed that the reality of symptoms is not always material; symptoms are thus transferred from a realm of materiality (organic state) to a realm of the unconscious. The two while different remain of the same order – that is they are produced and simulated. Thus there is nothing specific or distinct to organic or non-organic symptoms that might make one simulatable and the other resistant to it (Baudrillard, 1981: 3). In fact, there is no difference between real or simulated, conscious or unconscious symptom; such a question becomes irrelevant. In the realm of simulation and postmodern world, the symptom, whatever it is, simply appears.

From a perspective of the above-described logic of simulation the causes of modern war and warfare can appear as symptoms (those real or others simulated) driving and producing war(s). From a historical perspective, an argument can be made whereby wars of the past were not (always) simulated. The distinction between a simulated war and a dissimulated one (assuming that that is a possibility) is located in questions of temporality and political goals: when war takes place and what war is to achieve. The two questions refer back to questions of strategy and an old Clausewitzian (Clausewitz 2008) saying where war is a mere continuation of politics by other means. Dissimulated war is a war where strategy and tactics are put in place in order to secure a victory and where that victory is supported by an identifiable cause following a simple linear logic: once the cause is resolved, the war ends. The initial staging of war took place on a remote and in advance designated where armies met, combated and experienced defeats or victories. Victory or defeat brought wars to a close. In modern warfare, in contrast, victory has little capacity to bring conflicts to a close. That is not because of the power of images, manipulations of representation, portrayals of war, or for war’s virtuality but because of war’s unidentifiable goal. It is thus not the illusion-like reality of war but the absence of a cause of war and its goal, which could determine war’s end, that changes the character of war.

In modern warfare causes of war exist, in all likelihood there are even more of them as they are constantly re-produced for their re-production is to satisfy the desire for more war, for the continuation of war up to the point of someone’s verbal intervention. In the moment of verbal intervention into the machinery of war, war is transformed or can be stopped. As it was with an end of the war on terror when Obama proclaimed an end without war’s path-changing event taking place and without a change in post wartime endeavours (Shinkman 2013). The end of war on terror did not bring an actual end to war but rather a change in tactics of warfare. A shift in war endeavours and tactics are clearly outlined in Obama speech: "We must define our effort not as a boundless 'Global War on Terror,' but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America" (Obama in Shinkman 2013).

Not only for its ‘alleged’ end but also for its beginning the war on terror is an interesting study-case for understanding the simulation of the causes of modern war. First, the causes for US-led coalition war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan were directly linked to the event of 9-11. War efforts thus focused on overthrowing the Taliban regime, making Al-Qaeda inoperable, capturing Osama bin Laden and other masterminds of the attack. The war was within the international community largely considered a somewhat justifiable but not legal. As the United Nations Security Council (Res 1368, 1373) withheld its mandate with which they have the power to authorise the intervention they also denied the US their request to proclaim the attack as an act of aggression which would according to the Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations grant the US, as a nation under attack, an automatic right to self-defence. The UN’s post-intervention conduct (whereby with Resolution 1386 in December 2001 the framework for a deployment of 5000 international security assistant forces was laid down) only added blurriness to the status of the coalition’s intervention in Afghanistan (Smith and Thorp 2010).

While causes were somewhat stated they never turned into a reference point in relation to which a success or a failure of war was to be judged. When, for example, one Al-Qaeda operative was taken out, another appeared. When the Taliban regime fell, another enemy entered political scene or even when Osama bin Laden was caught and killed and the world accepted an end or a redefinition of the undergoing conflict, the war proceeded as if one of the major goal’s of the war on terror had not been met. Again, a good example of the logic of the perpetual conflict that ends or continues irrespectively of its goals and causes is President Obama’s statement about the end of war on terror in Afghanistan (Dreyfuss 2009). As mentioned earlier Obama’s proclamation of a close did not mean that the causes or the objectives of war were met, and neither did the declaration brought war to a close, instead the proclamation stated an end to a particular narrative about this war, while war (military actions) proceeded as normal.

The Iraq War of 2003 is a similar example. In the case of Iraq weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Saddam Hussein’s lack of compliance with UN resolutions from 1991 (Res 687 and Res 689) and 2002 (Res 1441), and his collaboration with international terrorism were brought in to justify the intervention and a change of regime (Horowitz 2004). As those were recognised as goals and causes of otherwise, in a language of the UN, illegal war (and also illegitimate), the intervention turned into an almost farce-like search for WMD, a search, as later transpired, for something that did not exist (but did bring down the regime). The point of realisation that no weapons exist must have provoked another policy-level rationalisation:  If weapons are not there it does not mean that that has always been the case, they must have been there, but the Hussein’s regime used them on its own people (Thompson 2012). Or as more recent speculations indicate, Saddam Hussein sold weapons to Syria (Greenfield 2013). This is a rather common narrative describing the state of US and UK justifications for the Iraq war. Even though that later the report on the existence of weapons was revealed as untrue, as a failure of intelligence, that was no longer of importance (Norton-Taylor 2013). The war was on-going and all forces were mobilised in order to keep it going. In the hindsight, the causes for Afghanistan and Iraq wars were produced, re-produced, as needed, but at the same time they were always distant enough to never truly impact the actual proceedings of war. In other words, what drove war were not its causes but something rather different – a particular desire to portray war in a particular way.

A war of simulation is a war that is no longer directed towards winning by defeating the enemy or fulfilling the cause. War of simulation is a war where causes of war are simulated; such simulated wars create their own enemies, rules of play and justifications for actions taken. They create their own symptoms, which they are designated to cure. Only that in the war on terror these symptoms are never addressed or gotten rid of entirely. Instead they are further simulated to the point at which they are no longer needed. In other words, causes are simply forgotten or turned into commonsense and thus never questioned further. In simulation war becomes ideology, which, as Slavoj Zizek wrote (1989), is at its best when one is no longer aware of its existence. At the moment when one thinks they are free of ideology, that is the moment in which ideology has a full grip over them. In war, when one no longer questions its presence, necessity or its aims, at that point, to paraphrase Zizek, war becomes a simulation of its highest order. Such war of simulation, as the example of Obama’s proclamation of the end of war demonstrates, is stopped with a decision and not with a fulfilment of goals. When war no longer serves the purpose of simulation at that point it is no longer needed. When the enemy has been humiliated or difference eradicated, that marks the end of war. War is thus no longer about the perpetuation of violence. While violence remains present and certainly disfigures and leaves deep scares on the bodies of those involved, violence and bodies are not the landscape on which war is to be lost or won.Or as Baudrillard (1981: 40) puts it:

The war is no less atrocious for being a simulacrum – the flesh suffers just the same, and the dead and former combatants are worth the same as in other wars. […] What no longer exists is the adversity of the adversaries, the reality of antagonistic causes, the ideological seriousness of war. And also the reality of victory or defeat, war being a process that triumphs well beyond these appearances.

The space of law is the other realm in which simulations enter the space of war. Simulation, as this sections aims to show, is particularly relevant for explaining the relationship between law and the war on terror or how recently laws concerning the treatment of detainees (prisoners of war) have been managed and altered. Baudrillard in War Porn contrasts the two images – 9/11 and the abuse of prisoners – to highlight not only the nature of war but also the absence of law or legal concerns in circumstances of detention and prisoners’ humiliation. Commonly laws can be seen as simulacra of the second order whereby laws preserve some appreciation for reality. They draw on the signifiers of reality, are their copies, but similarly to photography where camera somewhat distort reality, laws to distort reality. For their very particular simulated character and the narrative they carry, the legal reality can be entirely independent from the actuality of reality. One of the central legal categories – legal subjectivity – is an example of such distortion. Within the realm of human rights discourse human being is often considered to be the subject of human rights, yet the figure of human subject within law is not universal (Agamben 2000). In other words, it does not apply to ‘entire humanity’. Instead only someone who is a citizen of a state is considered to be a full legal subject and beneficiary of human rights (Ibid.). Perhaps the most distinct element of the simulations taking place in the context of laws of the war on terror is that new laws do not only distort the image of reality but they take a life of their own.

Baudrillard (1981: 21) states that: “Simulation is infinitely more dangerous because it always leaves open to supposition that, above and beyond its object, law and order themselves might be nothing but simulation”. If laws are consider as having some relation to reality and its signifiers, or are an attempt to govern aspects of reality that need governing, then these laws remain grounded in an image of what a good society is to look like and how laws are to operate in order to facilitate it. In this context, laws of war and humanitarian law are such laws. They aim to govern the space of war that is not only the battlefield but also spaces off the battlefield to where wounded or captured soldiers, civilians or refugees are brought. On the one hand such laws cannot be made sense off without the object which they are to govern or an image of a good society they are striving for, yet on the other hand they produce – simulate – an illusion of that very same order, truth or general good. They are shaped in accordance with an image of common good (something that does not exist in practice), and when put to work they are to produce an outcome that resembles this common good.

However, what such laws create is only an illusion of the common good. Laws are thus produced and are productive of illusion of common good and universal humanity. They mask the fact that such ideas are indeed only illusions, dreams covering up a lack or an absence of a transcendental universal truth. Or as again Baudrillard (1981: 1) himself acknowledged: “The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true”. Such an observation comes very close to Jacques Lacan’s idea on the structure of justice according to which law operates. According to Lacan (2006a, 2007), laws are ordered around the void which is filled with never-attainable categories such as truth, justice or ethics. They protect the void and create an illusion of closeness or proximity to these ethical imperatives, while in fact laws prevent an encounter with them. Laws of the second order of simulation assume the existence of the as if. That is as if truth exists whereas law is there to cover up its actual absence. In contrast to laws of the second order of simulacra, laws of the war on terror lack the as if; instead of presupposing the existence of simulacra, they act as if they are simulacra. The laws of the war on terror claim their validity without any reference to the existence of a universal truth.

Laws of the war on terror impact provision concerning individual rights and freedoms, civil liberties and human rights in national and international arena (see Patriot Act); however, most striking are laws that emerged in the space of conflict. The US National Strategy (2002), for example, specifies condition under which a pre-emptive attack on a foreign nation is permissible. Such a pre-emption works as a form of defence and deterrence against potential attacks on the US soil, on the US allies or on the buildings, and other spaces of strategic importance for the US (US National Strategy 2002). Not a great stretch is needed to first, place both aforementioned interventions (Afghanistan and Iraq) under this category; and second, as the right to pre-emptive strike relies on top-secret intelligence information, to scrutinise the accountability of such strikes.

Along similar lines, the initial treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo testifies of a similar lack of accountability but also of a simulated reality of detention. When the facility opened in 2002 it was generally believed that only worst of the worst will be brought to Guantanamo where in a safe and secured space removed from the battlefield interrogation and intelligence gathering can take place (Chaney 2009; Rumsfeld 2002). In order to gain information and to protect guards at the facility the US was willing to break the laws of law and detention practices concerning the capture and detention of the prisoners of war. Claiming that Guantanamo detainees are not prisoners of war but illegal enemy combatants call for a new framework outlining the limits of detention. Foreign Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (2002) signed off on a document outlining the use 24 enhanced interrogation techniques that not only fail to condone torture, but actively facilitated conditions under which it can take place.

The new legal framework was beginning to take shape in early 2002 when legal counsels to the US Government (John C. Yoo, Alberto R. Gonzales, Jay S. Bybee and William H. Taft) discussed the status of detainees in particular in relation to Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law (Gonzales 2002; Yoo 2002). The key outcomes of the new framework of detention and the question of torture were that the detainees in Guantanamo – categorised as unlawful enemy combatants – cannot invoke their rights stated under the Geneva Conventions or under US domestic criminal law (Presidential Military Order 2001; Detainee Treatment Act 2005); and that the US administration re-stated the definition of torture and re-define acts that constitute or can lead to torture. The definition of torture has been re-framed whereby the new definition stated that torture stands for an intentional infliction of physical pain that amounts to the failure of an organ or can be compared to the pain of dying. Everything else, including psychological torture is excluded from this new framework (Torture Memo 2002; Rumsfeld 2002). Yet the US administration persisted in their claim that they treat detainees humanely or in a humane way (Memo 11 2002). Such reality of the war on terror including the detention and interrogation practices at Guantanamo was largely accepted up until 2006 when the first public realisations and demands for explanation as to what is taking place at the facility began to emerge. (Center for Constitutional Rights 2006; UN Human Rights Committee 2006) Coupled with extensive reports from human rights organisations testifying that the individuals imprisoned in these facilities are often not terrorist but people (Amnesty International, Human Rights First, Centre for Constitutional Rights, Reprieve) – often foreigners visiting or living in a country where they were captured – who were randomly caught and sold, as dangerous terrorists or member of Al Qaeda, for bounties to the US. (Stafford-Smith 2007; Worthington 2007) It was no earlier that 2006 was information different to the initial official story available for public scrutiny (Hamdan v Rumsfeld 2006). Yet international out-cry was left impotent in their attempts at putting pressure strong enough to close the facility or to put a stop to the abuses.

Arguably, today detention practices are indeed less severe, but they continue, and laws, which put them in place, remain unchallenged. They continue to produce conditions they were set out to facilitate, and more, they level out the critique that they face. For example, Barack Obama during his first Presidential campaign promised to close Guantanamo (Obama 2009). Almost eight years later, Guantanamo still exists; moreover, Obama further categorised the reality of detention at Guantanamo. In his speech at the National Archives Museum Obama (2009) differentiated between five categories of detainees, from those who are cleared for release, via those who should be trailed by the US courts to those in the final category who despite the lack of evidence are deemed to be too dangerous for a release. With such act Obama constituted another order of simulation within the already existing orders: in this case the dismissed laws of the second order of simulacra are instituted by the laws of war on terror, which are laws of an order superior to the laws of the second order. The laws of the war on terror no longer bear resemblance or are distortions of reality. In such new political reality laws are always laws of simulation and thus, as Baudrillard (1981: 22) again reminds us: “they are already inscribed in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media, anticipated in their presentation and their possible consequences”. No longer is simulation a simulation of an event, it is also a simulation of its counter-event or a non-event that proceeds and challenges it.

The significance of the new laws and re-definitions of what constitutes a human and humane treatment lies not in a different reality of warfare that a new legal framework produces; instead re-definitions of what is human and what is humane re-state the aforementioned ideas of what a victory and what a defeat in war is, and furthermore, it removes laws from its signifiers of reality turning them into pure simulation machines. As Baudrillard writes in War Porn, the aim of wars in Iraq or Afghanistan in not to win the war, winning is no longer enough. The goal is to expose, shame, humiliate and symbolically enable the ‘enemy’ (Baudrillard, 2005a: 207 - 209). Even if they are ever to return home, their return to life they knew before will be impossible. Forever they will remain marked by their experience. In the war on terror, as Baudrillard predicted, an individual turns into a tool of another universal struggle against difference. In a new struggle against difference laws produce a reality and a distinct space in which the struggle is to take place. New laws depart from the old laws and thus set out new foundations on which new wars are fought. An old distinction between friend and enemy (Schmitt 2007) is now coupled with an even older binary, that between civilised and barbarian nations where barbarians (Ralph 2009), those who culturally and economically endanger the Western idea of life, need to perish. The laws and binaries channel public’s attention on the treatment of detainees to the carefully selected and isolated spaces, while the war continues. They channel attention onto questions of human rights and humane treatment while the eradication of difference on a global scale continues. Regardless of the liberal discourse and ideas of multiculturalism, in the new political space debates surrounding cultural sensitivity and human rights are met with arguments of patriotism, national security, and exceptional circumstances. Without such new foundations the language on the war on terror would lack fuel for the production of new reality, as it not only redefines the space of combat, it also re-thinks what constitutes a victory and what a defeat.

Scene One looked at the context of the two images Baudrillard draws upon in his text War Porn; and how 9/11 and the abuses in Abu Ghraib emerge as defining moments of the war (Mitchell 2011). The images are thus productive of the simulations of new wars and its laws, but they are themselves already simulated through such wars and laws. In the following section I turn to the content of the two images; by looking at perversion and desire, the two images emerge as part of a common sense in the new logic of warfare.


Scene Two

For the images … have become today as virtual as the war itself, and for this reason their specific violence adds to the specific violence of the war (Baudrillard, 2005a: 207).

The two images that signify and drive Baudrillard’s investigation in War Porn are images of 9/11 and the images of prison abuse in Iraq. The two, while different, are in fact flip sides of the very same coin: the event of 9/11 is juxtaposed to a non-event of prisoner’s abuse in the prison of Abu Ghraib. While at first they appear as two responses to the abuse from one yet differently manifested source of power such an observation would come rather short. What is at stake in these images is a duality of one power – the power of the US – to provoke a response as well as to generate and mould that particular response. If the first scene looked at the simulative power of the two images and drew out how what they embody impacts war and law, this section looks at the simulative/productive power of the two images – the excess of production and the desire to see.

Baudrillard in Simulation and Simulacra explains that images and signs simulate something in steps. At first images and signs are reflections of a profound reality. In second stage they mask and denature that very reality before, in stage three, they begin to stand in for the absence of a profound reality and loose any relation to it and, finally, they turn into their own pure simulacrum. (Baudrillard, 1981) In simulation images loose resemblance to reality or to what they were initially set out to represent, instead they continue to simulate and re-produce according to their ideological inclinations, constantly feeding desires to see more, to see further but also to experience and to experience more authentically. Paul Virilio (2009: 4) writes that “the war of pictures and sounds [which is] replacing the war of objects (projectiles and missiles)” leads to a change of a scopic regime. Technological developments in media and representation create the illusion that war can be brought closer and thus seen and experienced more authentically. The illusion of authenticity and visibility is coupled with a need to rule out accidents and surprise, as the public (as demonstrated by the Vietnam War) cannot and does not wish to see dead bodies or the suffering of one’s own soldiers. Thus new regime of visibility does not only perpetrate the desire to know all and to see more, but also the need to censor out the disturbing moments. The new regime of visibility creates new reality which is on the one hand driven by the desire to see and know more, but on the other hand to also censor out parts of discomfort and trauma. It is precisely this dialectics of desire that needs to be looked at further.

The gaze (the act of seeing) and desire are interlinked on a very intimate level. Jacques Lacan in Seminar XI (1977) addresses the intricacy between the two through the object petit a (desired yet illusive object). At the heart of seeing and desiring is object petit a. In psychoanalytical theory this is an object which has been forever lost with child’s separation from the mother and its socialisation into society. Most commonly mother’s breast is object petit a. But the logic of a lost object transcends psychoanalytical explanations and can be read as subjects’ partial desires and ways in which the subject interprets reality. While on the one hand desire is directed towards attaining that which is lost, on the other hand, there is fear of actually attaining the desired object or fulfilling the ultimate desire. What happens to desire if there is nothing else to desire?; or to knowledge when all is known or to the ultimate truth when it is revealed? These are all socially significant questions that concern the constitutive relationship between the subject and authority (the Other). As desire is always a desire of the Other, as Lacan (2006a: 825) would say, what happens when the Other is exposed?

Lacan (1977: 53 – 90) writes that the gaze threatens to undo all our desires by the eruption of the Real. In other words, it threatens to expose that which the subject cannot experience or that which in the context of social living cannot be exposed. Namely, the Real exposes that in place of authority or truth there is nothing; there is only an illusion – the as if - which codifies our relation to authority or truth. Thus, the closer we come to the supposed space of truth (the space of lack) the greater the anxiety or the feeling of unease. The desire, as Zizek (1991) writes, thus constitutes the subject around a fundamental lack (desire is in fact a relation of being to lack) - a lack of being properly speaking. “It isn’t the lack of this or that”, as Lacan (1991: 223) put it, “but lack of being whereby the being exists. […] This lack is beyond anything which can represent it. It is only ever represented as a reflection or a veil”. The desire proceeds out of this radical finitude or lack, and seeks, as Lacan in Ecrits writes, “to cover it by generating an endless metonymic chain of substitute signifiers, an endless displacement” (Muller and Richardson, 1994: 321).

To create an illusion of our perpetual and never-ending nearing or coming-closer to truth simulations and simulacra are needed. With their metonymic chains, repetitions and unstoppable circular movements fuelled by their ideological background (the desire to consume, see, and experience more) they produce new realities and new scenarios that are to be ‘uncovered’ and that are to satisfy at least momentarily subject’s social desires: the more present (or imminent) the lack, the greater the need to satisfy the desire for more reality but also the greater the need to produce an excess of reality. It should not come as a surprise then that everyday is a simulation. Simultaneously it creates but is also trapped in a circle whereby it momentarily fulfils desire to see more, to experience more, while behind the production of reality it hides the unbearable truth that at the end there is in fact nothing to see or experience. There is no higher authenticity subjects can experience, as simulation is the entire truth attainable to the subject. In this dialectical movement, desire drives simulation while simulation is also subject’s defence or a safety net “against going beyond a limit” (Lacan 2006a: 825). Trapped in the movement of desire and simulation the subject is left unable to distinguish between that which is true and the other, which is false. The chain of dialectal movement between the production and the consumption of reality continues regardless of its ends. The as if (there is an end or a truth) takes over and simulations continue.

Despite the knowledge that illusions rein social reality or that the Last judgement no longer belongs to God, the simulation continues to operate according to the as if logic. Lacan (2004, 2006b) sees the ignorance and social insistence on the as if logic as perversion. In perversion the act continues in its chartered path despite the knowledge that the act is a failure or does not do what it is set out to do. Moreover, the obliviousness to the acts that produce perversion is accompanied by the obliviousness of those taking part in perversion. Yet the actors take part in perversion rather consciously by offering their bodies to the Other. They are turning themselves into tools for the Other who is giving orders that they merely follow (Zizek 2007). Most recent example of such tooling is a revelation by US Army psychologist who designed abusive interrogation techniques, James Mitchell. In his testimony Mitchell (and Leso) repeatedly denies any moral responsibility on grounds that he was only following orders and, as a good patriot, defending his country and values it stands for (Ackerman 2014; Leopold 2014). To deflect moral or ethical responsibility for his actions, he refuses to take on political agency, and instead performs a role of a tool or an object that is put for someone else’s disposal. The images Baudrillard discusses in War Porn fall in the category of perversion depicting that precise act of refusing responsibility and turning one’s body into a tool of sovereign power. But images of the abuse in Abu Ghraib, for example those where US soldiers pose next to a pyramid of naked prisoners, grinning next to a corpse, or others where detainees stand wired and hooded on a card-box simulating electrocution, depict another side of perversion. Not only are soldiers tools of sovereign power, they actively celebrate their ‘becoming a tool’. The soldiers took pictures to celebrate their own heroism and to demonstrate their allegiance to the sovereign power. Thus international public outcry upon seeing the images of abuse came as a shock to soldiers. What could they be doing wrong if they were only following what they were told to do? This is precisely the other element of perversion Lacan spoke about. The act of perversion continues despite the realisation that something does not work, whereas the structure of perversion on a personal level turns individuals into mere tools of the sovereign power (Zizek, 2007). Liberated from moral and ethical obligations the soldiers asked ‘but what have I done wrong?’. Their actions of abuse embodied the language or ideology of the war on terror. They exposed precisely the kind of thought that lies at the bottom of such a war that drives it and re-produces all the different scenarios. These soldiers took too literally what the hidden message of the new war is: not to kill but to humiliate, to symbolically enable, shame and degrade the other, the difference, that threaten the US.

What the images exposed is the obscenity of the war on terror. Yet, again this is not obscenity that relies on the content of representation but instead obscenity of a hidden underlying logic of war: that of the lack of a cause, that of enemy humiliation rather than their defeat. In hitting this wall of obscenity, as Baudrillard (2005b: 187) writes, “is to sense that precisely there is nothing to see, that we will never know the punch line and thus verify a contrario the ultimate power of seduction”. The excess of images should only push towards a realisation that there is nothing to see, the excess itself is obscene, whereas the content remains irrelevant. It is also no longer the obscenity of the hidden, the repressed, or the obscure, as Baudrillard (2012: 27) writes, but of the “all-too-visible, the more-visible-than-visible” as that search, or a vivisection into the guts of war, exposes nothing. The obscenity of war imagery is obscenity of that, as Baudrillard (2012: 27) continues, “which no longer contains a secret and is entirely soluble in information and communication”. The obscene, thus, “lies within an image where there is nothing to see” (Baudrillard, 2012: 32). The point of such blindness is in pornography. It is of no surprise then that for Baudrillard, porn, images and desire are indistinguishably linked. “In porn [as in war]”, as he writes, “nothing is left to desire. After the orgies, the transparency of sex, with signs and images erasing all its secrets and ambiguity. Transsexual, in the sense that it now has nothing to do with illusion of desire, only with […] the image” (Baudrillard, 2005c: 25). In the overly exposed images, in a desire to make visible-things-more-than-visible, imagination, or that, which could be in that place but we do not know, is absent. Images of simulated or staged electrocution of prisoners of war close any space for imagination; yet the precise ‘staging’ of these images, a hooded individual threatened to be electrocuted reveals something else. Instead of concealing or depicting reality of an act, these images brought to light history and ideology of the US. Baudrillard (2005a: 209) concludes War Porn essay with an intriguing sentence: “the prisoner threatened with electrocution and, completely hooded, like a member of the Ku Klux Klan, crucified by its ilk. It is really America that has electrocuted itself”. In this statement Baudrillard suggests that a simulacrum in fact repeats that which it already knows; in the images of prisoners’ abuse that which is known sees a daylight in a perverted form. Through the other, on which the US again enacted some of its own historical reality, the truth – the ideological force of simulacra – was revealed.


… pornography becoming the ultimate form of the abjection of war which is unable to be simply war, to be simply about killing, and instead turns itself into a grotesque infantile reality-show, in a desperate simulacrum of power (Baudrillard, 2005a: 206).

Pornography of images Baudrillard exposed in his essay War Porn is pornography of abjection, of an act of exposure and of a desire to see behind the veil, which aligns images with war. No longer are images a source of information, for images need to be different from war if they are to inform, instead they are as virtual as war itself (Baudrillard, 2005a: 207). Their violence adds to the violence of war. Instead of looking for information images are seduced by violence of war, the exposures of gruesome, disturbing, and the obscene aspects of war. But also they themselves seduce with their content, that is a depiction of violence. They seduce and sterilise for they remove the secretive, hidden, imaginary aspect of war; they reduce war to a series of mechanical acts, repetitions, enactments, or exposures. By exposing and making everything visible (or even beyond-visible) they evacuate imagination and turn war into pornography. Thus, as Baudrillard (2005c: 25) writes: “In reality there is no pornography, since it is virtually everywhere. The essence of pornography permeates all visual and televisual techniques”. The only reality left is a reality of simulation – there is nothing more to representation but that which is seen, visible and is constantly presenting itself as such. The perverse power of images Baudrillard discusses in his essay derives from their complacency with the simulation of war, from their production of simulation, and from their failure to resist the seductive power of war. What these images depict fails to resist war simulation; instead they are its continuative element as they reveal the ideology of war itself (that is a struggle for the eradication of difference).

This paper looked at one particular text of Baudrillard – War Porn – and aimed to in turn discuss aspects of war simulation as depicted in the two images, the image of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib and 9/11. Instead of looking at the content of these images the paper aimed to tease out the underlying ideologies and logics driving war simulations: those that in the first instance make such images possible (law and war), but also those that the two images reproduce (desire and perversion). Thus scene one looked at the simulative power of war and law in the context of the war on terror and laws concerning the detention at Guantanamo Bay, whereas scene two focused on the intriguing relationship between desire, perversion and image. In doing so the paper aimed to show how the two images have a capacity to reveal the simulative power of the war on terror. War Porn shows that any power – when it no longer knows what to do with itself – turns on the side of the pornographic and the obscene. When power is no longer accountable, when it sees itself as serving its own purpose, at that moment a strategy of overpowering, defeating, subjugating the enemy is no longer enough, the enemy has to be humiliated, exposed and symbolically exterminated. Or as Baudrillard (2005a: 209) put it by drawing upon Elias Canetti: “the goal [of such] war is to abolish the enemy, extinguish the light of his sky”. Pornography of war: violence for the sake of violence, virtuality for the sake of seduction.

Dr Andreja Zevnik is lecturer in international politics at The University of Manchester; she is working on psychoanalytic and aesthetic politics, political violence and critical legal studies. She’s a convener of Poststructural and Critical Thought Cluster (Political Horizons) at Manchester. Her book (with Samo Tomsic) entitled Jacques Lacan: between politics and psychoanalysis is forthcoming with Routledge in 2015.


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