Friday, January 7, 2011

On Nakedness at Abu-Ghraib

I'm about to start teaching a class on "The Modern Nude" (i.e., beginning with the Olympia, of course) and in preparing for it, and looking through all my notes on the subject, I found a proposed op-ed piece I sent to the New York Times in 2004, shortly after the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced. (I almost wrote "a rejected op-ed piece," though of course no such rejection ever comes, one's submission is just ignored and that's it.) It may seem years out of date--and it is, of course--but upon reading it I realized that the ethical turn toward which it builds has since been my main interest in the study of the nude; indeed the reading list for this semester includes Levinas as well as other ethically-oriented philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, and maybe even Stanley Cavell, though I may end up just having to summarize Cavell's arguments. (At the same time, I'm trying to downplay Marxist/ideology-critique/Lacanian readings, not that they're wrong as far as they go, but that they don't quite go far enough--but I'll elaborate that argument another time.)

In any case, without any further prefacing, here is the text of my submission, all nicely dusted off and blinking in incomprehension as it sees the light of (some kind of) print for the first time in the almost seven years since it came into existence. In op-ed-ish, NYT-ish layman's terms (clearly, I was trying to hew as close to formula as I could) it expresses, or at least suggests, pretty well the ethical concerns at which I'm aiming:


The images of abused Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison disturb not only through their simple documentation of horrific acts; they also have a visual power of their own, though one that has little to do with the designs of their makers. After all, though details of the abuse have been known since January, it has been only with the publication of the photographs that the scandal has entered public consciousness. What accounts for the power of these images? One answer lies in their depiction of nakedness; thereby, the images unintentionally take their place in the complex history of representations of the nude, history that stretches back at least to the days of archaic Greece. Of the many art-historical images with which they resonate, we can select a few that can help us better understand the meanings these photographs suggest, and the reactions they elicit in us.

The pyramid of naked bodies seen in several of the photographs offers us a convincing image of hell. Indeed, very similar imagery was used to represent the damned cast into the netherworld in depictions of the Christian Last Judgment from the Middle Ages until at least the seventeenth century. In relief sculptures such as Lorenzo Maitani’s early 14th century façade for the Cathedral of Orvieto, or in frescoes such as Giotto’s at the Arena chapel in Padua, the damned are shown piled atop each other, naked and frail. They make up a seemingly undifferentiated, wriggling mass of flesh, condemned to be devoured by the infernal fire-pits. They are always contrasted with the saved, who more often than not are depicted clothed, and whose more idealized beauty is supposed to suggest their spiritual nature, as opposed to the unredeemed corporeality of the sinful lost souls. They are also always shown being controlled by the devils, who kick them, shove them, and gleefully manhandle them in many other ways.

Another image the photographs may recall, perhaps by way of contrast, is Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleonic-era “Leonidas at Thermopylae.” The large neoclassical canvas, which shows scores of nude warriors embracing each other tenderly the morning before the battle, makes explicit and celebrates the homoerotic bonds that hold an army together. It’s hard to imagine, however, that any modern military force would acknowledge such an explicit statement of the unconscious forces that hold it together; Napoleon certainly did not approve of David’s canvas, though its overt homoeroticism was never mentioned as the cause of his dislike. The behavior of the Abu Ghraib guards looks like a case-study demonstration of the repression and projection of similar psychosexual impulses. Forcing the detainees to simulate homosexual acts, as well as simply forcing them to lie nude against one another, the guards could project homoeroticism upon their demonized enemies, disavowing it in themselves while at the same time taking a very evident pleasure in its display.

Most importantly, however, the images invite comparison with other photographic representations of the human body. Since its invention, the photographic medium has been noted for its power to record the shock value of nakedness. Most photographers, however, have recoiled from this very power. One need only think of the aestheticization of the nude in the works of Imogen Cunningham or Edward Weston, where the naked body is converted into abstract plays of light and shadow, or of the parallel objectification that can be seen every month in the pages of Playboy. In such cases, formal abstraction or the deft use of the airbrush prevent the viewer from experiencing the actual corporeality of the naked body, and, implicitly, the subjectivity of the depicted individual.

A parallel kind of objectification can be seen at Abu Ghraib, carried out for the sake of neither aesthetics nor eroticism, but to strip the prisoners of their most elementary human dignity. Ironically, however, the guards’ own grotesque choice to commemorate their acts visually has helped to reverse that objectification. The deciding factor here was that the photographers were not professionals but amateurs, and thus incapable of, as well as uninterested in, shielding us by aesthetic means from the power of human nakedness. Looking at the photographs, we not only feel ashamed that our own troops have perpetrated such horrors. A further shame arises from our simple identification with those debased bodies, and from our realization that, as human beings, we are always in danger of ending up in the very same situation as theirs.

The French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas thought that at the root of all ethics lay the simple encounter with the face of the other. In the Abu Ghraib photographs, in a further attempt to dehumanize the prisoners, all the faces are hooded. And yet, isn't there a sense that the process envisioned by Lévinas can still take place—that it is not the faces, but the humiliated, objectified, yet all too real naked bodies of the other that will force a sense of ethics upon us?


  1. I think you're right about the hell iconography. What do you make of the way the press tended to select for reproduction (ad nauseam, ha ha) of, above all, the one picture that had a certain haunting formal beauty?

    This one:

    Which was cropped down from this:

    Oh yes, silly me... the Crucifixion.

    (How nice of us also to recast Muslim martyrs as Christian ones, with just a soupçon of KKK.)

    And then this one, I think, has a certain formal beauty:

    Not that they're good art or that the beauty, such as it is, or the iconography, such as it may be, was intentional; it's maybe just that it seems to me that the composition, and the iconographic echoes (not sure what those might be in the last case, though I sense there may be some) made the effect of horror aesthetically stronger than it is even in the shots of men's heads bashed in, and so on.

  2. BTW, this "ethical turn" of which you speak -- is this another French import I missed, or is it something personal?