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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007)

The Pornographic Barbarism of the Self-Reflecting Sign1

Dr. Paul A. Taylor
(Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, United Kingdom).

I.  Introduction

Fundamentally, such violence is not so much an event as the explosive form assumed by an absence of events. Or rather the implosive form: and what implodes here is the political void… the silence of history which has been repressed at the level of individual psychology, and the indifference and silence of everyone. We are dealing, therefore, not with irrational episodes in the life of our society, but instead with something that is completely in accord with that society’s accelerating plunge into the void.2

Despite the heated debates and huge mass public demonstrations about the rights and wrongs of Gulf War II in 2003, the biggest shifts in the British and American publics’ perception of the conflict occurred through a series of vivid, defining images at various crucial stages. Thus, what proved to be undue optimism was at its peak during the fall of Baghdad and the Ozymandias-like toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue, complete with a forewarning of the cultural misunderstandings to come when a US soldier momentarily draped the Stars and Stripes around the statue’s face. Further grounds for Western triumphalism were provided with the images of a disorientated and disheveled Saddam shortly after his capture on December 13th 2003, with the bathos of his last underground hiding-place that contrasted markedly with the pictures of abandoned palaces. In early May 2004 the flip side of this ability of images to dictate the political climate became apparent when President Bush and Prime Minister Blair came under sustained pressure because photographs of prisoner abuse in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib jail appeared in the world’s media. There are two key aspects to the subsequent furor that are illuminated by Baudrillard's notion of the ob-scene and the consistent attention he pays throughout his work to the excessively explicit, de-symbolized nature of the contemporary mediascape.

1) The unequal relationship between the effect the pictures had compared to the words of previously unheeded imageless reports. Amnesty International, for example, had reported months earlier, in February 2004, allegations of torture and serious human rights violations without any impact; and,


2) The question arises as to why did these images make so much more of an impact compared to the large number of previously witnessed scenes of more conventional military violence and its civilian victims?

            The thesis offered here as an answer to this question is that, even if only for a short while and for reasons perhaps still not adequately articulated or fully recognised, the “Pornographic” nature of the Abu Ghraib photographs spoke to a strong sense of unease in the public. Despite politicians’ protestations about a few bad apples spoiling the barrel, the Western public had an intuitive sense that the photographs represented something deeper about the society that sent out such troops. It is this “something” this paper seeks to explore.

            Perhaps the most iconic and evocative of all the abuse photographs was that of an Iraqi man being subjected to the faked threat of electrocution. The prisoner is perched atop a box in a makeshift shroud, covered with a hood reminiscent of the Ku-Klux-Klan and pretend electrodes attached to his hands. The image is particularly evocative for Christian viewers. It resonates with connotations of the crucifixion and the representation of Christ the Redeemer with welcoming hands outstretched at his side. This article explores the profound implications such a poignant tableau has for our conceptualization of political violence and what it says about the nature of a society that could create the image of an abused, Christ-like figure standing on a box. For those who remain relatively impervious to any unusual level of moral disquiet over the Abu Ghraib pictures, the paper also raises a pragmatic political issue for consideration. This is the extent to which there is a link between the social processes that constructed the prisoner abuse scandal and the wider political environment of the international Coalition’s "War against Terror".

The paper concludes by arguing that a keen understanding of the West’s unhealthy relationship to the mediated image may lie behind the malevolent orchestration of such heavily mediated events as the 9/11 tragedy. Marshall McLuhan3 offers the myth of Narcissus as a defining metaphor for the West’s problematic relationship to the screen. Following McLuhan and Baudrillard, it is argued that the failure of military intelligence which led to 9/11 is at least partially due to a myopic perspective upon our own culture. Dealing with international terrorism might be a lot easier if we stopped waging very real and bloody war on an abstract noun (terror) and instead sought to emulate the malevolently keen media savvy of such figures as Osama bin Laden. Although it is obvious the West desperately needs to develop a more sophisticated and less reified understanding of the Islamic Other, this would actually be much easier if we were more sensitive to the processes of meaning-construction within our own heavily mediated culture. This culture is increasingly pornographic in a manner both reflected in the Abu Ghraib photographs but also perhaps somewhat obscured by the misleadingly exceptional status claimed for them by our politicians.

II. The Self-Reflecting Sign

From the mutation and conflation of confessional culture and mediated ‘real life’ had emerged the broader trend of the barbarism of the self-reflecting sign.4

Bracewell refers above to the “self-reflecting sign” as a defining feature of the contemporary mediascape. It is not the self-reflexive sign, which would involve a sense of reflection upon an image’s substantive meaning – rather, this article uses the conventional concept of pornography and Baudrillard’s concept of the ob-scene to explore how the self-reflecting sign refers to the image that has no meaning beyond its own tautological facticity. We shall see how literal Pornography – [upper case “P”] – acts as a trope for the dominant social values of self-reflecting signs and their visual excess – pornography [lower case “p”]. I  examine the present day manifestations of this extenuated social porn, and its profound political consequences, evident across a spectrum of confessional, confrontational, and violent media formats. Just as the obsessively repetitive attention paid by the media to the terrible images of the 9/11 tragedy occluded more substantive considerations of the event’s significance, so too do debates about the Abu Ghraib images threaten to obscure the deep social causes and consequences of the symptoms they reflect.

The images of abuse caused widespread shock in the West (interestingly, in the Arab world, instead of shock, the pictures tended to be met with a mixture of anger and a resigned sense of déjŕ vu5. There may also, however, be an element of denial in the Western response. Thus even some US Senators and Congressional Representatives highly critical of Donald Rumsfeld during his evidence to both Houses, took the opportunity to emphasize how this behaviour was not representative of US forces in general (see, for example, Senator Joseph Lieberman’s comments6). Similarly, speaking to the media while standing alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan in the White House garden on May 6th 2004, President Bush said “sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners”. He then went on to say that he was “as equally sorry that people seeing these pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America”.7 Although these assertions may be true, they still distract from a key element of the disgust the images produced which is the central focus of this chapter: their pornographic rather than Pornographic nature.

In Britain, the distraction from the deeper significance of the Abu Ghraib photographs came in the form of a debate over whether similar pictures of British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners elsewhere were fake or not. In May 2004, Piers Morgan, the editor of the UK’s Daily Mirror tabloid newspaper, was fired when the photographs he printed were proved to be false. It is interesting to note that when doubts were raised as to their veracity, at least some debate took place as to whether they were still accurate representations of actual events not originally photographed. In this particular instance, although the issue of authenticity dominated proceedings, possibly fake pictures nevertheless did allow more substantive discussion about actual abuse that had taken place. The debate over The Daily Mirror pictures provided an interesting example of Bracewell’s assessment of the contemporary status of the image where: “’authenticity‘ is the hallmark of truth, and hence the gauge of social value  …there is now the sense that authenticity itself can be sculpted to suggest veracity as an image, in which truth remains ambiguous".8  Whilst the fact remains that both the US and British images of prisoner abuse had a disproportionately powerful political impact, the pictures also illustrate the ambivalent political power of images.

Normally the postmodern concept of the hyperreal (typically in Baudrillard and Eco’s work [Simulations and Travels in Hyperreality9]) the paradoxical notion of a mediated phenomenon that is more real than the real itself) has negative connotations. Baudrillard argues that the hyperreal often distracts attention from the real issues. For example, in Simulations he suggests that the public investigation that followed the Watergate scandal merely hid the innate corruptness of US politics, and Disneyland’s main purpose is to disguise the fact that American society at large is really modelled on a Disney-like ethos of commodified fantasia. In the particular instance of the British photographs, however, fake pictures provoked a valuable self-examination of the Coalition’s practices and values. Unfortunately, more often, the process tends to be reversed: real images often produce inauthentic discourse. Images determine politics largely irrespective of their truth or objective significance.

III. Redefining Violence

But why should we hear about body bags, and deaths, and how many, what day it’s gonna happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it’s, it’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that? And watch him suffer.10

Notwithstanding his mother’s reluctance to confront the full implications of the war in Iraq, the President’s concern about the effect of the pictures upon people’s perception of the United States is an indication of the need to broaden our understanding of the concept of political violence and the media’s role in its portrayal. Political violence can be reinterpreted by concentrating upon:

1)  the connotations that lie beyond its primary definition of the exertion of physical force.

In addition to great physical harm suffered by the prisoners, the word violence also denotes the following:

2) a powerful, untamed, or devastating force;

3) great strength of feeling, as in language, etc.;

4) an unjust, unwarranted, or unlawful display of force, esp. such as tends to overawe or intimidate;

5) “do violence to”, as in:

a. to inflict harm upon; damage or violate: they did violence to the prisoners.

b. to distort or twist the sense or intention of: the reporters did violence to my speech.11

            Contra President Bush, I argue that the true nature and heart of America is in fact revealed by those photographs, and the media does violence to the fundamental nature of our political discourse. The Abu Ghraib images effected a response that mere words had failed to unblock:

It was the photographs that made all this ‘real’ to President Bush and his associates. Up to then, there had been only words which are a lot easier to cover up in our age of infinite digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination.12

The violence Western reporters do to political speech occurs when, for example, the term “abuse” is used rather than “torture”, or in the prevailing use of the euphemistic term “contractors” to describe, in post-War Iraq, what were previously conventionally referred to as “mercenaries”.

            We will see in the following sections that definitions 2, 3 and 4 are each  directly relevant to the media’s images from Iraq. However, I will predominantly focus upon definition 5 and use the term violence to explore the harm done to the body politic by a societal excess of images of which the Abu Ghraib pictures are but a particularly offensive and malign example. The impact of the prison photographs brings together all the different definitions of violence. Their effects on public opinion were untamed and produced a great strength of feeling (definitions 2 and 3) and the activities they recorded involved an unjust and intimidating display of force (definition 4). Definition 5, however, encapsulates the wider social harm of the image.

IV. “They did violence to the prisoners” – The Pornographic Society and  Ritual Humiliation

• Porno is far bigger than rock music and far bigger than Hollywood.


• Americans spend more on strip clubs than they spend on theatre, opera, ballet, jazz and classical concerts combined.


• In 1975 the total retail value of all the hard-core porno in America was estimated at $5-10 million. Last year Americans spent $8 billion on mediated sex.13

The Abu Ghraib photographs are Pornographic because of their explicit sexual content but they are also pornographic in a more attenuated and abstract manner. The pornographic nature of the abuse was part of a ritual humiliation of the Iraqi prisoners. Such ritual abuse is but an extreme example of a ubiquitous, voyeuristic aesthetic that now pervades wider Western society. It is increasingly Pornographic in the obvious literal and quantitative sense that Pornography is much more socially acceptable and widely available.  In addition, more qualitatively, according to Amis, Porn, “is much, much dirtier than it used to be, but Gonzo porno is gonzo: way out there. The new element is violence”.14  “Gonzo” refers to wild, eccentric, or bizarre behaviour and was first used to describe the almost ethnographic, drug-fuelled, direct experience journalism of the American reporter Hunter S. Thompson, who rose to prominence with Hells Angels (1966) a vivid account of his travels with the infamous motorcycling gang.

In more recent years gonzo is a label applied to a genre of Pornography. The advent of increasingly sophisticated hand-held cameras has added a new amateur look (and indeed amateur involvement) to the more glossy Hollywood-influenced aesthetic that previously dominated the US Porn industry. The Abu Ghraib pictures can be read in the light of this recent evolution in both Porn and its mirroring in the wider trend of social porn. More than this, the permeation of the gonzo aesthetic is much evident in the Reality-TV formats that have evolved to produce increasingly extreme forms of ritualized humiliation. The retrospectively benign formats of such shows as Candid Camera15 have been replaced by a new harsher range of programmes.

            In the hubris-generating/puncturing celebrity-obsessed genre, we have recently witnessed the conspicuous consumption/defecation of MTV Cribs and Celebrity Detox or MTV’s Jackass.16 A much darker, but at first glance semantically related format to both JackAss and Celebrity Detox is the recent best-selling gonzo-violence video Bumfights. This is an US-produced underground video that has recently gained mainstream notoriety for showing homeless people bare-knuckle fighting in return for food, money, and alcohol.17 In May 2004, British Channel 5 used a “documentary” entitled Bumfights: A Video Too Far as a vehicle for showing footage from the video.

The sociological thesis that a general cultural climate is the underlying cause of the Abu Ghraib symptoms has recently received support from an unusual source. Rush Limbaugh, the US right-wing radio shock-jock, said that too much was being made of the Abu Ghraib pictures. He claimed obtusely that they were very similar to the hazing ritual common in US fraternities: “This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it, and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time”.18 We can now examine in more detail the exact nature of that “good time” by exploring the roots of social porn.

V. The Pornographic Zeitgeist


… I have seen in the windows the pale blue glow of at least one television in every home. And I am told that many family meals are eaten in front of that screen as well. And perhaps this explains the face of Americans, the eyes that never appear satisfied, at peace with their work, or the day God has given them; these people have the eyes of very small children who are forever looking for their next source of distraction, entertainment, or a sweet taste in their mouth.19


… we need tits and arse because they have got to be available to us; to be pawed, fucked, wanked over. Because we’re men? No. Because we’re consumers. Because those are things we like, things we intrinsically feel or have been conned into believing will give us value, release satisfaction. We value them so we need to at least have the illusion of their availability. For tits and arse read coke, crisps, speedboats, cars, houses, computers, designer labels, replica shirts. That’s why advertising and pornography are similar; they sell the illusion of availability and the non-consequence of consumption.20


… we were just that bit too old to buy into the rumble of a world described by advertising and products … That was the world where everything had turned into an idea of itself, where life no longer had an inner life … It’s a process which just seems to have built up, like an accumulation of fat around the heart’s weary muscle.21

I have argued elsewhere22 for the importance of fiction as a useful resource with which to understand the social zeitgeist better. The effect of the Abu Ghraib pictures has been so shocking because, whether explicitly acknowledged or not, they evoke in the viewer recognition of a disturbing Western cultural trend that is only belatedly and involuntarily being faced. The symptoms have been previously acknowledged within contemporary zeitgeist-capturing novels such as those quoted above. The first quotation is particularly apposite to our purposes given that it presents a Middle Eastern perspective on US culture. In The House of Sand and Fog, through the voice of an exiled Iranian army officer, Andre Dubus highlights the childlike dependence upon distraction and entertainment that he perceives to be deep at the heart of US culture. The second quotation is taken from Irvine Welsh’s Porno, a novel he wrote in response to the growth of gonzo-style, DIY porn he had observed in Britain. Given the sexual element to the events at Abu Ghraib, the key point to be taken from Welsh is the link between Porn and the essential values of a consumer society. Welsh’s claim that commodities provide  “things we intrinsically feel or have been conned into believing will give us value, release satisfaction “ resonates closely with Rush Limbaugh’s exculpatory rationale for the abuse: “You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people. You ever heard of emotional release”?23 The third quotation, from Bracewell’s Perfect Tense, gives an office worker’s account of metropolitan ennui, and his expression of  “the insistence of image over substance” provides a fictional variation of Baudrillard and Eco’s concept of the hyperreal. Bracewell’s phrase, “ the rumble of a world described by advertising and products“ speaks directly to how the US Government’s explicit couching of America’s overseas image functions in terms of a consumer brand.

VI. Branding or Branded?

… there is a fundamental flaw in the American view of "perception management" on an international stage … It emanates from a Harvard MBA type of mentality that if you get the marketing right, anything will sell. One of the case studies on that MBA programme was …Charlotte Beers, formerly of Madison Avenue (she once led J. Walter Thompson Worldwide and Ogilvy & Mather), and until last year under secretary of state for public affairs and public diplomacy. Colin Powell is famously on record as saying "Well, guess what? She got me to buy Uncle Ben's rice, and so there's nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something." Well, Uncle Sam isn't Uncle Ben and you can't sell something to people who have no water to boil it with. But now they do have oil on which to pour yet another troublesome example that Uncle Sam might not be who Uncle Sam says he is. Uncle Sam is looking more and more like the Ugly American…  the soldiers who were photographed in these "trophy" pictures are of a different breed of Americans. They are the Jerry Springer elements of American society, and they are not pretty …Seeing is believing, whether it's on the Jerry Springer show or in this week's newspapers.24

            There is a certain morbid symmetry in the fact that, in addition to the literal imprisonment they depict, the controversy caused by the Abu Ghraib pictures reflect how US society is confined by its excessive reliance upon the image. The visceral disgust they caused can, however, be seen as the flip side of the image-driven boosterism that is an intrinsic part of America’s self-presentation. Its political use of images is violent in the sense of the above definitions 2, 3 and 4, and a failure to adequately understand the negative consequences of this is at the core of the US’s poor “image” within international public opinion. Ironically, this image is so poor because of its desire to micromanage excessively the process of image-creation (definition 4). The concept of ideology is doubtless for some a quaint relic of Marxist theory and media effects are notoriously difficult to irrefutably “prove” to the satisfaction of all. Perhaps a fresh perspective upon both, however, can be gained by looking at the intimate relationship the concept of ideology has with the production of images and how the single most important contemporary ideology is an image-driven discourse of which Jerry Springer is but the (il)logical conclusion.

Mitchell emphasizes the iconic basis of ideology, arguing that the concept is etymologically grounded

in the notion of mental entities or ‘ideas’ that provide the materials of thought. Insofar as these ideas are understood as images – as pictorial, graphic signs imprinted or projected on the medium of consciousness – then ideology … is really an iconology, a theory of imagery.25

For Burke, ideology is thus related not to truthful images, ”but of falsely reductive images that could only lead to political tyranny”.26 For Coleridge:

…Any  ‘idea‘ worthy of the name …is distinguished precisely by its inability to be rendered in pictorial or material form: it is a ‘living educt’ of the imagination, a  ‘power‘ that can be rendered only by the translucence of a symbolic form, never by a  ‘mere‘ image.27

An idiosyncratically expressed preference for the cultural richness of the symbolic over the essential emptiness of the overloaded, hyper-realistic, and technologically-mediated images forms the basis of Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the ideology of media images and is explored through his concept of the obscene.

VII. The Obscene Image

 … this is the enterprise of our entire culture, whose natural condition is obscene: a culture of monstration, of demonstration, of productive monstrosity.28


… this viral contamination of things by images, which are the fatal characteristics of our culture.29

Jean Baudrillard has compared the West’s relationship to images in terms of obscenity. In the light of events in Iraq, frequent accusations that his work is willfully abstruse should be reconsidered. Baudrillard takes the notion of the obscene literally. An etymological analysis of the word gives us “ob” – a prefix meaning hindering – and “scene” – from the Latin and Greek words for “stage”. Ignoring its conventional connotation of depravity, his re-reading of the term obscene gives us the notion that Western media-dominated society is ob-scene because its proliferation of images has imploded the traditional, symbolically coded distance between the image and viewer that is implied with a stage. Baudrillard’s writing contains the repeated theme that in the West we suffer from a virus-like proliferation of immediate images that replace the distance needed for either considered reflection or a developed sensitivity to the ambiguities of cultural meanings.

            Baudrillard’s analysis illuminates the present mediascape. For example, he argues:  “… we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the obscene, its power to exterminate all ambiguity and all seduction and deliver to us the definitive fascination of bodies without faces, faces without eyes, and eyes that don’t look”.30 This has chilling pertinence to the dehumanized images of Iraqi prisoners in which their faces are hooded, deliberately pixilated, or only appear as minor details within a broader tableau (e.g., the naked man cowering in front of snarling guard dogs). Originally used in a different context, Baudrillard also provides an unwittingly prescient description of the furor over the Daily Mirror pictures’ authenticity:

…we don’t look for definition or richness of imagination in these images; we look for the giddiness of their superficiality, for the artifice of detail, the intimacy of their technique. What we truly desire is their technical artificiality, and nothing more.31

Beyond the manifest obscenity of the Pornography of the Abu Ghraib photographs, Baudrillard’s broader theoretical point relates to how their staging paradoxically relies upon the actual absence of a stage. A surfeit of images is presented to us so that: ”Obscenity takes on all the semblances of modernity. We are used to seeing it, first of all, in the perpetration of sex, but it extends to everything that can be perpetrated in the visible – it becomes the perpetration of the visible itself”.32 In a form of semiotic potlatch, images become their own justification for the decontextualized consumption for its own sake of such formats as MTV Cribs and Bumfights. Everything becomes a potential image for the voyeuristic gaze and less and less is ruled out on grounds of taste or any other consideration. The pornography of the image lies here in its explicitness. Nothing is left to the imagination and all is revealed to the passive viewer. An apparently overwhelming sexual will-to-reveal that Welsh identified in the rise of gonzo porn may at least partially explain the sexual aspect of the Abu Ghraib pictures. As Sontag recently argued, we live in a world where, increasingly:

An erotic life is for more and more people what can be captured on video. To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one’s life, oblivious or claiming to be oblivious to the camera’s non-stop attentions ...Ours is a society in which secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given nearly anything to conceal, you now clamour to get on a television show to reveal.33


VIII. Media Tautology: Reality TV and the Democratization of Celebrity

Today this critical energy of the stage …is in the process of being swept away. All that theatrical energy goes into the denial of the scenic illusion and into anti-theater in all its various forms …illusion is proscribed; the scission between stage and audience is abolished; theater goes down into the street and everydayness… This is no longer the famous Aristotelian catharsis of the passions …Illusion is no longer valid here: it is truth which bursts into free expression. We are all actors and spectators; there is no more stage: the stage is everywhere; no more rules: everyone plays out his own drama, improvising on his own fantasies. The obscene form of anti-theater, present everywhere.34

In the Ecstasy of Communication among other works, Baudrillard develops the theme of modern communication’s tendency towards uncontrollable circulation (definition 2). The roots of this uncontrollable circulation can be found in Sontag’s earlier examination of photography’s defining status as the groundbreaking technology of the image where she asserts that: “Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of family, friends, neighbors”.35 This resonates with Welsh’s previously cited linking of pornography with consumerism and is poignantly prescient in terms of the distress caused to the families of such US soldiers as the Porn-star sounding Lynndie England. The lack of values with which to judge the appropriateness of the image is for Sontag an intrinsic part of the conceptually reductive nature of the technology. She argues that: ”there is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera” and that it is responsible for “an ever increasing spread of that mentality which looks at the world as a set of potential photographs”.36

Specifically in the light of Abu Ghraib, Sontag points out that, although “trophy” pictures have been taken in many previous military and social conflicts, these particular photographs:

… reflect a shift in the use of pictures – less objects to be saved than evanescent messages to be disseminated, circulated …now the soldiers themselves are all photographers – recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities – and swapping images among themselves, and emailing them around the globe ...since the pictures were meant to be circulated and seen by many people, it was all fun. And this idea of fun is, alas, more and more – contrary to what Mr Bush is telling the world – part of the ”true nature and heart of America.37

Again, the link between fiction and reality is instructive here. In Italo Calvino’s short story about the increasingly obsessive mentality of a photographer in Trieste entitled The Adventure of a Photographer, for example, he portrays the tautological self-generating tendencies of the need to photograph. The person who feels the urge to photograph is, he argues: 

… already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore in order really to live you must photograph as much as you can, you must either live in the most photographable way possible or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second, to madness.38

Calvino compares Trieste’s photographers to game hunters, describing in a relatively benign form the innately aggressive and violent nature of the photographic act identified by Sontag:

When Spring comes, the city’s inhabitants, by the hundreds of thousands, go out on Sundays with a leather case over their shoulder. And they photograph one another. They come back happy as hunters with bulging game-bags…”39

Particularly apposite to the case of the Iraqi photographs, Oliver Wendell Holmes predicted that:

every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt for cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth.40

Although they would seem unlikely bedfellows, Baudrillard’s notion of the ecstasy of communication was implicitly acknowledged by Donald Rumsfeld who complained that it was much harder nowadays to control the information sent back home by soldiers serving overseas. Unlike conventional letters in which the censors can black out the offending parts, Rumsfeld bemoans the fact that US soldiers were “running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise”.41 With US troops thus acting like an extremely malevolent form of Trieste’s Sunday promenaders, Calvino’s story gives an imaginative account of photographic excesses whilst Rumsfeld’s complaint provides a more practical illustration of its dynamics. Sontag’s, Calvino’s and Wendell Holmes’ descriptions are all seen combined in the aggressive, acquisitive, trophy-seeking behaviour of the Abu Ghraib photographers which so dramatically undermined the Coalition’s attempts to brand itself as Occupation-Lite.

IX. The Geo-political Consequences: the Post 9/11 War of Images

Of all nations in the world, the United States was built in nobody’s image. It was the land of the unexpected, of unbounded hope, of ideals, of quest for an unknown perfection. It is all the more unfitting that we should offer ourselves in images. And all the more fitting that the images which we make wittingly or unwittingly to sell America to the world should come back to haunt and curse us.42

I have focused here on the Abu Ghraib pictures but their significance can be more broadly linked to the events of 9/11. Daniel Boorstin feared that America’s over-reliance upon images would come back to haunt it. With the events of September 11 2001, Osama bin Laden confirmed Boorstin’s foresight in a terrible fashion with an attack deliberately designed to be consumed as a media event. Writing a full forty years before 9/11, Boorstin feared the displacement of ideals by images. His fears have been realized to the extent that the emotional charge of the 9-11 images has been skillfully manipulated for the non sequitur of The War on Terror. Writing at the height of the Cold War, Boorstin focused upon Communism, but his words are now painfully relevant to the gulf that exists not only as a geographical area to which troops are periodically dispatched but also and more significantly as an ever-widening gap between Western and Islamic sensitivities:

Accustomed to live in a world of pseudo-events, celebrities, dissolving forms, and shadowy but overshadowing images, we mistake our shadows for ourselves. To us they seem more real than the reality …Our technique seems direct only because in our daily lives the pseudo-event always seems destined to dominate the natural facts. We no longer even recognize that our technique is indirect, that we have committed ourselves to managing shadows. We can live in our world of illusions. Although we find it hard to imagine, other peoples still live in the world of dreams. We live in a world of our making. Can we conjure others to live there too? We love the image, and believe it. But will they?43

The images of prisoner abuse reflect the West’s narcissistic obsession with the screen and it is this unhealthy obsession which increasingly fuels Said’s concept of neo-Orientalism.44 A keen awareness of this process arguably marks the malevolent acuity of Bin Laden. He is the latest in a string of key Islamic hate-figures that previously included the Ayatollah Khomeni and who all have in common being bracketed within a discourse of evil.45 Bin Laden fulfills the role portrayed in Baudrillard’s work of the Manichean demiurge who creates the evil illusions against which God and goodness avail themselves. The biggest danger for the West, however, is that Bin Laden and others play this role self-consciously. They know which buttons to press in order to produce effects that go right to the core of the West’s own deeply embedded social pornography of which Abu Ghraib was but a particularly shocking example. An implicit notion of this paper is therefore, that the media’s role in the facilitation of America’s increasingly myopic separation from the Islamic Other has been incorporated into the terrorist game plan.46

In his Contributions to Analytical Psychology, Jung argued that an individual’s psychology could be profoundly, albeit unwittingly, influenced by an underpinning dependency of the wider society47. He used the example of the average Roman citizen who was inevitably infected by a general social atmosphere permeated by slavery and claimed that the individual is powerless to resist such an influence. McLuhan and Innis48 used a similar argument to describe the cultural impact of media technologies through history. This paper suggests that social pornography now permeates media discourse in the West and the Jerry Springer nature of the Iraqi pictures implies the validity of Jung’s analysis. The social pornography of the image is a fertile resource from which Bin Laden and others base their media-savvy strategies. Social pornography facilitates the post 9/11knee-jerk and unfocused political responses and provides Bin Laden with opportunities to further exacerbate the situation with such politically pornographic events as the tragically iconic 9/11 attack.

The true malevolent ingenuity of Bin Laden’s outrage thus resides in his knowing incorporation of the West’s inability to look beyond its own biased and distorted social porn. His malevolent success has been heightened by the repetitive nature and simply overwhelming presence of 9/11 images and their displacement of more considered debate. For example, Osama Bin Laden’s image is now readily familiar to all but a tiny proportion of Western populations but a similarly small number are likely to be aware of the more substantive issues lying behind the image. There is, for example, no significant public discussion of the historical parallels and links that can be made between his acts and the Royal House of Saud’s uneasy yet perennially intertwined relationship with the Ikhwan bedouin fighters and the Wahabi fundamentalist strand of Islam. The US was traumatized yet fundamentally unenlightened by the shocking yet constantly repeated images of the twin towers being hit. Unaccompanied by significant efforts to understand, mere repetition of the images reflected the fundamentally distorted perspective of a society increasingly incapable of thinking outside the self-referential media realm alluded to throughout this chapter.

Despite the very real effects experienced by those New Yorkers in the immediate vicinity and aftermath, the rest of the US experienced the WTC attack Hollywood-style. The pictures of destruction were already disturbingly familiar to a public regularly exposed to the Hollywood imagination of disaster films. Soon after the tragedy US intelligence services consulted Hollywood figures to brainstorm scenarios for possible future terrorist attacks whilst the release of several movies was postponed because of their perceived similarity to actual events. The media’s post 9/11 coverage consisted of an excessive, pornographic dose of the act of destruction and then a matching pornographic exploration of the personal suffering by the victims’ families. The emergency workers of Ground Zero quickly became emotive icons and fodder for daytime TV. Hollywood’s image-driven influence was much in evidence in the post-September 11 political response as Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars-sounding Cold War “Empire of Evil” was quickly revised to the “Axis of Evil” and discussed in colloquial terms borrowed liberally from the Western film genre. In terms of Calvino’s previously cited characterization of the photographic impulse, the madness of Bin Laden’s designed-for-TV terrorist act was quickly matched by the stupidity of the media’s mediated response.

X. Conclusion: Gulf War II As the Revenge of the Image

The same law holds for evil as pornography. The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings, just as the surprise and bemusement felt the first time one sees a pornographic movie wear off after one sees a few more.49


Have you seen the cicadas? These insects wake up every 17 years. These cicadas are brazen. Just today they made some cockroaches line up in a pyramid.50

A key element of Pornography is the short-lived nature of the viewer’s attention span. Its nature is such that once consumed there is an almost immediate demand for fresh images. The same tendency is evident in social pornography in which political discourse requires fresh images and the impact of the old ones fades rapidly. This perhaps at least partially explains the insensitivity of David Letterman, the most successful late-night talk show host on US television, and his above “joke”. It was made less than a month after the Abu Ghraib pictures first appeared in the US press and when delivered produced a large amount of laughter in the New York theatre audience to whom Letterman presents his show each weeknight.  Žižek delineates two major post September 11 options open to America:

it can either further fortify its sphere from which it watches world tragedies via a TV screen or it can ‘finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen that separates it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival in the Real World.51

The Letterman incident suggests that Žižek’s second option is unlikely to be taken up by America in the near future and the complex reasons for this is a major theme of Baudrillard’s work, and something we have only been able to touch upon here. What I have tried to show, however, is the deep-rooted nature of the West’s unhealthy relationship to the image and the way in which this has repeatedly prevented the West from stepping through that fantasmatic screen and engaging meaningfully with the Muslim Other. This is a failure that has typified the post September 11 political response, from its immediate aftermath right up to recent events in Iraq.

The apparently benign concept of branding the US like any other commodity image is in fact a stark indication of how "The Land of the Free" is in fact imprisoned whether it is thought of in terms of Narcissus’s pond surface or Žižek’s screen. In keeping with Jung’s above insight, social pornography reveals the darker, slavish element of the term brand. In order to provide the video’s publicity shot, Rufus Hannah and Donnie Brennan, two of the homeless protagonists from Bumfights, were paid $200, whilst drunk, to have the show’s logo tattooed in ink on the former’s knuckles and the latter’s forehead.52 Sometimes a brand connotes more than we would wish.

XI. Postscript

            Almost immediately prior to publication of this article, I encountered a series of photographs presented as a fashion shoot in Italian Vogue magazine.

It reminded me of an interview in which Baudrillard mentions how he is no longer read much in Japan because the perception is that his work has been overtaken by reality. This seems to be the fate my article has already suffered. I naively thought that the jokes David Letterman made about the Abu Ghraib abuse could represent the nadir of Western insensitivity to the Muslim other, but I seriously underestimated the recuperative ability of a media system in which moral condemnation and visual titillation are inextricably intertwined in an unprecedentedly malignant form of caducean commercialism.

            At the recent Engaging Baudrillard conference held at the University of Swansea, Mark Poster interpreted the US TV series The Swan via Foucault's notion of care of the self in a positive light rather than as a panegyric for culturally endorsed, narcissistic self-mutilation. Contra Poster, I would suggest that The Swan is of a part with the images from Italian Vogue. They portray much more eloquently than mere words, the seamless web between the darkest parts of our abusive, pornographic social psyche and institutions as nominally distinct as the US army and the Italian fashion industry. Notwithstanding cultural populism's on-going attempts to create a more palatable brand of Baudrillard-lite, we should not forget that the real import of Baudrillard's work resides in his unabashed critique of our society's seemingly inexhaustible (and highly profitable) appetite for such recuperations.  It is difficult to envisage a better example than these Italian Vogue images of the “Cold collage” and “cool promiscuity”53 that constitute the current evil demon of images.


Paul A. Taylor is a senior lecturer in communications theory at the Institute of Communication Studies, University of Leeds (see http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/staff/details.cfm?id=17). He is General Editor of the International Journal of Zizek Studies (http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/zizek/) and his research interests focus upon digital culture and critical theories of mass culture. His recent work includes (with Jan Ll. Harris) Digital Matters: The Theory and culture of the Matrix (Polity, 2006); (with Tim Jordan), Hacktivism & Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause? (Routledge 2004). He is grateful to Salman Sayyid of the University of Leeds, John Roberts of Brunel University, and Michael Higgins of the University of Sunderland for their helpful comments during the writing of this paper.


1 This paper is an edited version of a similarly entitled book chapter from: Media and Political Violence. Hillel Nossek, Annabelle Sreberny and Prasun Sonwalkar (Editors). New Jersey, Hampton Press:2005:349-366.

2 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Semiotext(e), 1993:76. Emphasis in original.

3 Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media (c 1964) London: Routledge, 1995.

4 Michael Bracewell. The Nineties: When Surface Was Depth. London: Flamingo, 2002: 72.

5 Jonathan Raban. “Emasculating Arabia”. The Guardian (G2 Section), May 13,  2004:6.

6 Washington Post. “Rumsfeld Testifies Before Senate Armed Services Committee”. See: http://washingtonpost.comArticles/Rumsfeld. (Checked May 25, 2004).

7 Susan Sontag. “What have we done?” The Guardian (G2 Section), May 23, 2004:3-5.

8 Michael Bracewell. The Nineties: When Surface Was Depth. London: Flamingo, 2002: 66.

9 Jean Baudrillard. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983 and Umberto Eco. Travels in Hyperreality. London: Picador, 1987.

10 Barbara Bush speaking on the American television show Good Morning America. March 18, 2003.

11 Oxford English Dictionary.

12 Susan Sontag. “What have we done?” The Guardian (G2 Section), May 23, 2004:5.

13 Martin Amis. “A Rough Trade”. The Guardian Online March 17, 2001. Available at: http:// books.guardian.co.uk/departments/politicsphilosophyandsociety/story/0,6000,458058,00.html.

14 Ibid.

15 A 1970s US and British TV show that caught unsuspecting members of the public on camera in foolish situations.

16 Cribs is an MTV series that takes the viewer into the homes of various celebrities for an unabashed celebration of their conspicuous consumption. Celebrity Detox was a May 2003 programme in which British B List celebrities were filmed at a heath spa in Thailand undergoing a rigorous programme of enemas. Jackass involves a group of US friends performing dangerous physical stunts, involving either violence, nudity, bodily excretions, or, at times, all three.

17 Ghetto Brawls is a similar product.

18 Susan Sontag. “What have we done?” The Guardian (G2 Section) May 23, 2004:4.

19 Andre Dubus.  House of Sand and Fog. London: Vintage, 2001

20 Irvine Welsh.  Porno. London: Jonathan Cape. 2002: 450.

21 Michael Bracewell. Perfect Tense. London: Vintage, 2002: 8-9.

22 Paul A. Taylor “Hackers: Cyberpunks or Microserfs?”, Information, Communication & Society, 1(4) 1998:401-419; and  Paul A. Taylor “Informational Intimacy and Futuristic Flu: Love and Confusion in the Matrix”, Information, Communication & Society, 4(1) 2001: 74-94.

23 Susan Sontag. “What have we done?” The Guardian (G2 Section), May 23, 2004: 4.

24 Phil Taylor. “Image and Reality”, Al-Ahram Weekly 20-26 May. Issue No. 691, 2004. See: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/691/re9.htm . Checked May 25, 2004. Emphasis mine.

25 William Mitchell.  Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. University of Chicago Press,1986:164.

26 Ibid.:167.

27 Ibid.

28 Jean Baudrillard. Seduction. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1990:35.

29 Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e),1988: 36.

30 Jean Baudrillard Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e),1990: 60.

31 Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e),1988:44.

32 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e),1990:58

33 Susan Sontag. “What have we done?” The Guardian (G2 Section), May 23, 2004:3-4.

34 Jean Baudrillard. Seduction. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1990:63.

35 Susan Sontag. On Photography. London: Penguin, 1979:9.

36 Ibid.:7.

37 Susan Sontag. “What have we done?” The Guardian (G2 Section), May 23, 2004:3.

38 Italo Calvino. The adventure of a photographer” in Difficult Loves. London: Picador, 1983:43.

39 Ibid.: 40.

40 Joshua Gamson.  Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994:20 (emphasis in original).

41 Susan Sontag. “What have we done?” The Guardian (G2 Section), May 23, 2004: 5.

42 Daniel Boorstin. The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (c 1961). New York: Vintage, 1992:245-6. Emphasis mine.

43 Ibid.:249.

44 Edward Said. Orientalism (c 1978). London: Penguin. 2003.

45 See “Whatever Happened to Evil?” in Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Semiotext(e), 1993 for a full discussion of this theme).

46 Editor’s note: Baudrillard has also recently noted that those who live by the image may die by it. See Jean Baudrillard. “War Porn” in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 2, Number 1, January 2005. Translated by Paul Taylor. See: http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol2_1/taylor.htm

47 Jung (1928) cited in Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media (c 1964), London: Routledge, 1995:21.

48 McLuhan (Ibid) and Harold Innis. The Bias of Communication (c 1951). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

49 Susan Sontag. On Photography. London: Penguin, 1979:20.

50 David Letterman. The Late Show. May 26, 2004.

51 Slavoj Žižek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso, 2002: 49.

52 J. Doward and S. Deen.  “Outrage as TV plans to screen brawling tramps”. The Observer May 16, 2004:11.

53 Jean Baudrillard. The Evil Demon of Images. Power Institute Publications, Sydney, 1987.


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