My initial responses to the Abu Ghraib photos, as well as the Nick Berg beheading, were framed within the context of my own subject position and the ways in which I conceive of my own identity with regard to Islam. Blogs being what they are, this sort of criss-cross between personal and political reflection was appropriate, but since then I've had a chance to think more critically about the matter. I'd like to record that critical perspective here.
The feminization of the native is nothing new. Franz Fanon writes of the "North African Syndrome" in which the pain of the native cannot be articulated nor understood by the colonizer, in which the colonizer even goes so far as to believe that the pain is made up. These two aspects--feminization and a dehumanization through a racialized denial--follow closely alongside the politics of colonialism and occupation. I have yet to encounter a situation of occupation in which the feminization of the native male, or the dehumanization of what is horrible human suffering, do not occur.
These aspects are apparent when one looks at the prison photos. Forced masturbation and simulation of sex acts between adult males, as well as forced sodomization by objects, demonstrates this feminization in a stark, chilling way. The dehumanization is also apparent--the notion that one can even speak of going on with the business of war, rebuilding quickly, and forgetting about the photos to do the "real work," reflects the ways in which, as Judith Butler said during her lecture at the University of Washington last night, human suffering is labeled ungrievable because the subjects are labeled not human. By "labeling" I am not referencing any text or literal discourse, but rather the discursive formation of the realm of the human through our own liberal framework of property rights. When 70-90% of the occupiers of the prison are arrested by mistake, and when the subsequent violence enacted upon them is photographed, we witness inhuman treatment of subjects who had no rights to begin with by their very presence in that facility, and whose rights could not even be conceived once there because they became animalized, dehumanized, and hence, forgettable.
The insistence on remembering the photographs, on bringing to justice those responsible for the acts of violence and humiliation, and on addressing the systemic functions which allowed these acts to happen, is an insistence that these are human beings, that they did indeed experience suffering, that they have always been outside the framework of "rights" because that framework has always been one that is contingent upon racialization and dehumanization based on that racialization, and that this can only be addressed through forcing that act of looking, that act of not forgetting. We use this act of not forgetting to facilitate our own patriotism--we proclaim, "9/11--Never Forget!" This allows the image--in this case the signification of the images of death and destruction through the invocation of the words--to remain with us always, to facilitate our action. In other words, by reminding ourselves constantly of the image of the two towers, we ensure that we will continue to act in response to those images. We use the frame of the image to frame our own experience. Representations of the real frame our search for the ideal, never satiated in order to ensure continuing action.
Hence I argue that the drive by some to want to forget the Abu Ghraib photos--indeed, the articulation that one is "tired of" the photos--acts in a similar way, in this case for the opposite purpose. While we proclaim "Never forget!" with regard to 9/11, we simultaneously want to forget this other image of the prisoner abuse, this reminder that the system of rights and responsibilities we use to justify our own act of domination incorporates a racist and neocolonial logic to sustain itself. When Iraqis don't dance in the streets at our soldiers' arrival, when our soldiers understand so little about the cultural practices of the people they seek to "liberate," when "sand nigger" is used by soldiers to refer to the objects of their attempts at "liberation," violence justified by a racialized logic (invoking barbarism and inferior cultural and religious practices) ensues. Covering up that logic, in fact the very images which display that logic, ensures that we will "Never forget!" in the spirit of patriotism--one that relies on death and destruction historically and economically.
I seek not to condemn the insistence on remembering the victims of 9/11, and I do not advocate applying our selective amnesia to ourselves. In fact, I suggest that applying a critical understanding to our framing of a liberal rights discourse reveals that not only is the present occupation irrevertably bound in that rights discourse, but that a strict adherence to that rights discourse is needed to save it. But how, one asks, can one advocate that such a rights discourse be sustained when it hinges on racial violence?
This is the bind that those who opposed the war, such as myself, currently find ourselves in. We cannot simply proclaim from a distance that we opposed this to begin with. We cannot absolve ourselves from personal responsibility. What is most definitely true is that we cannot attempt to erase those photos from our memories, either. And we cannot accept the representations of dehumanization portrayed in them. As Stuart Hall notes, one can form variable readings of an image, and I suggest that we form an oppositional reading to images of degradation. I implore that we imagine how we would feel if the man on his knees forced to keep his mouth open as the man above him is forced to masturbate, is our father, or brother, or uncle, arrested by mistake and made to perform these acts--and then photographed. Imagine that the unmuzzled guard dogs are snarling at your naked, shaking cousin. I say this not to attempt some sick decontextualization, but rather to reinstill the human quality into those bodies that were emptied of such quality. We get that quality in the Berg video as Nick Berg recites the names of his parents and siblings, but it is abstracted from the prisoner images of Abu Ghraib. It is easy to imagine those Iraqi bodies as anonymous bodies rather than human beings, involved in systems of kinship and family, social and emotional ties. It is easy to forget, but that is precisely what we must not do.
Furthermore, an insistence on forgetting what has occured at Abu Ghraib ignores the fundamental role of the prison in facilitating a rights-based society. Power is contingent upon disciplinary apparatuses, as Foucault notes. The social contract which we use to mediate a system of personal rights within civil society makes the role of the prison central to maintaining that society. The fact that most prisoners were arrested by mistake, in addition to the subsequent treatement that they received, calls the system of rights we attempt to enforce into crisis, since the very institution of discipline necessary to sustain rights-based society robs subjects of rights that they have not given up their claim to through unlawful action. Hence, the insistence that we forget about the photos in order to go on with the business of rebuilding sabotages its own logic by at once privileging the prison system (a key factor in establishing disciplinary society--a goal of the "rebuilding") and at the same time denying the systemic operations of that system.
This is the first time I have attempted to lay out my feelings about this issue using a critical framework. It has taken me a long time to do so, it seems. I am sure I might reconceptualize some of this later. I do know that my work is knowledge production, and I intend through my work to act on my ethical obligation in the service of activism--meaning that, just as Judith Butler applies her scholarship on power and sovereignty to pertinent events, I intend to speak on this matter and not stop speaking--to do my part to ensure that the critical engagement I advocate will take place. I will also enact my activism in non-academic ways, although I am currently working out exactly what shape that will take.