Weapons of mass deceit
WHAT is the testimony of a photograph worth, in these times of light-room manipulation? Virtually nothing; and I use the modifier advisedly. We live in an epoch when photographers routinely flip, crop, air-brush and digitally enhance their productions to suit taste and exigency. Should we then complain if the blessings of Photoshop, and the advanced image-transformation technologies that stretch beyond it, have been garnered by those who wage the ongoing war for control over the popular imagination?
The Bush regime prepared us carefully for its prize trophies last week, taking us through the process in easy stages. First, we heard that President Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusai, had been killed in a gun-fight. Then, we were shown their faces. Finally, we were shown their half-naked bodies. This gruesome demonstration was justified by patriotic mutterings about the display of dead U.S. combatants by the Iraqi army. The key question, however, remains unanswered: Can we know for certain that the two mutilated bodies, the two heads spattered with blood and marl, belong to Uday and Qusai Hussein?
So far as mainstream publications emanating from the U.S. are concerned, the military rulers of occupied Iraq enjoy immunity from the reasonable-doubt clause of serious reportage: they never claim or allege anything. What they choose to say about the situation in Iraq is unquestioningly assumed to be the truth. No doubt this suspension of disbelief is in the American national interest; at any rate, the immunity continues, despite the severely damaging information that has emerged, regarding the weapons of mass deceit employed by the Bush and Blair regimes to sustain their programme of aggression against Iraq and their occupation of that sovereign nation. This immunity from reasonable doubt is also extended to what the occupation army chooses to show of Iraq.
Even more important than the proveable ownership of the bodies is the symbolism of their display. The callous exhibition of the supposed corpses of Uday and Qusai Hussein reminds me of that peculiarly American form of public art: the lynching photo-postcard, thousands of examples of which genre were mailed by Americans to one another through the late 19th Century; the practice stopped only in 1908, when the U.S. Post Office at length exerted itself to order a ban. These pictures once afforded grim amusement to torch-carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan, and gave vicarious pleasure to ordinary white citizens who rued the passing of the good old days "when the nigger knew his place". Once banned, they became collectibles, or their production and circulation went underground. Today, these ghastly artefacts are found in museums, testimony to the unique capacity of the human species to brutalise its own in hideously imaginative ways.
Typically, such a photo-postcard shows the bloodied, bludgeoned body of an African American, mutilated and murdered by a white lynch mob (between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 African Americans died at the hands of lynch mobs). The act of preparing the victim for the photographic session sounds almost more chilling than the actual chase, cornering and slaughter of the lone black individual by a white swarm. One man painted the dead African American's face white and black, then stuck bits of cotton on his or her head, no doubt to invoke the plantations from which the victim's ancestors had unfortunately been freed by the laws of emancipation. Another man propped up the body against a chair, or held up the limp head with a rod. The mise-en-scene having been arranged to his satisfaction, the photographer then found the best angle and took his time composing the image. After which the printers and the publishers got into the act, accomplices to the continuing mass-murder-by-image of a person whose natural course had been violently ruptured.
As the scholar Margit Rosen points out in her recent essay, "Shooting the Dead", the men who produced these postcards "committed an iconoclastic act of desecration... They attacked the already lifeless body, the corpse... The derision of the material remains affects the murdered individual: corpse and absent person, sign and signified cannot be thought of separately. Even in the situation of death, the harm done to the body is harm done to the individual... . The card thus provides information about the function of representation in the completion of humiliation and about the worship of images by murderers who profit from the power of visual representation."
It is important to remember that these practices of lynching and post-lynching photography did not take place at some remote period in American history. They flourished during the years when the U.S. was exporting civilisation and democracy to the rest of the globe, replacing tribalism with consumption, even as it was decimating and penning in the Native American population, colonising the Philippines, dropping the atom bomb on Japan, proposing charters of global peace, order and prosperity, and planning to put a man on the moon (the last recorded lynching took place in the year before Neil Armstrong edified us with the news that mankind had taken a giant leap forward).
But the image is an unpredictable entity: the weapon of mass deceit can become the instrument of resistance. Of course, it may not be wholly appropriate to compare the once-powerful Qusai and Uday to the anonymous and powerless African Americans set upon by white lynch mobs. But, in time, ordinary Iraqis, Arabs, Muslims and people subjected to neo-imperialism everywhere may not recall the tale of Qusai and Uday as one of majestic arrogance humbled. Rather, they might memorialise the Hussein brothers as representatives of a militarily weak and economically oppressed nation who were broken for daring to oppose the One Power. We ought to bear this possibility in mind, even as the Bush regime's emissaries arrive in Delhi, demanding that Indian troops be despatched to serve under the star-spangled banner in occupied Iraq.
Send this article to Friends by