Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present
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University of Chicago Press
Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present

Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present

by W. J. T. Mitchell
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The  phrase “War on Terror” has quietly been retired from official usage, but it persists in the American psyche, and our understanding of it is hardly complete. Nor will it be, W. J. T Mitchell argues, without a grasp of the images that it spawned, and that spawned it.

Exploring the role of verbal and visual images in the War on Terror, Mitchell finds a conflict whose shaky metaphoric and imaginary conception has created its own reality. At the same time, Mitchell locates in the concept of clones and cloning an anxiety about new forms of image-making that has amplified the political effects of the War on Terror. Cloning and terror, he argues, share an uncanny structural resemblance, shuttling back and forth between imaginary and real, metaphoric and literal manifestations. In Mitchell’s startling analysis, cloning terror emerges as the inevitable metaphor for the way in which the War on Terror has not only helped recruit more fighters to the jihadist cause but undermined the American constitution with “faith-based” foreign and domestic policies.

Bringing together the hooded prisoners of Abu Ghraib with the cloned stormtroopers of the Star Wars saga, Mitchell draws attention to the figures of faceless anonymity that stalk the ever-shifting and unlocatable “fronts” of the War on Terror. A striking new investigation of the role of images from our foremost scholar of iconology, Cloning Terror will expand our understanding of the visual legacy of a new kind of war and reframe our understanding of contemporary biopower and biopolitics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226532592
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/01/2011
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

W. J. T. Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, the Department of Art History, and the College at the University of Chicago. He is the author, editor, or coeditor of fourteen previous books, including What Do Pictures Want?, winner of the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association. He is also editor of the journal Critical Inquiry.

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Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-53259-2

Chapter One

War Is Over (If You Want It)

Hence, in war prize the quick victory, not the protracted engagement. SUN-TZU, The Art of War

The question of ontology—"What is the enemy?"—hardly surfaces, and when it does ... it is only too quickly rendered almost ephemeral and a testimony to the vanishing, the drawing away of the enemy. GIL ANIDJAR, The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy

For quite a long time, I thought I would never finish this book. This is not just because it is a history of images of the present moment, and by definition, it will always be the present. The problem is more specific than that, and has to do with the very particular character of this present moment, and the peculiar icons and metaphors that dominated the first decade of the twenty-first century. My subject matter, the master image of a "Global War on Terror," and all its attendant images and media, seemed inherently endless. Like George Lucas's Clone Wars, the War on Terror seemed to promise an endless supply of faceless warriors, massed for interminable combat. The concept of a war on terror has brought something radically new into the world, perhaps at last forcing a confrontation with the question of what—not "who"—is the enemy. Traditional wars, the kinds that fill history books, usually have fairly definite antagonists, and though they may drag on for years, a concluding settlement is usually reached. Even the Hundred Years' War, which lasted from 1336 to 1453, only went seventeen years over its titular life span. But a war on terror is different. Taken literally, it is something like a war on anxiety. How could it ever end? How could it be won? Even the nominal author of the phrase, George W. Bush, admitted in a 2004 TV interview with Matt Lauer that he didn't think the war on terror could be "won" (although he continually conjured with images of "victory" in Iraq, and in fact Iraq had the function of giving a local habitation and name to a nebulous enemy, providing a "front" to a war that had no front). How, then, could one write a history of a war that was by definition unwinnable, without that history going on forever?

Then history took a remarkable and improbable turn that drew a bright line marking the end of a period and the beginning of a new one. Within a month in the fall of 2008, the world economy began to collapse, and Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Rarely has a historical epoch announced its beginnings, endings, and turning points with such iconic clarity as the first decade of the twenty-first century. Framed at each end by world-historic crises, and by the deeply antithetical images of Bush and Obama, the era of the War on Terror and the Bush presidency will also be remembered as a time when the accelerated production and circulation of images in a host of new media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter) ushered a "pictorial turn" into public consciousness.

Images have always played a key role in politics, warfare, and collective perceptions about the shape of history, but there is something new in the emergence of public imagery in the period from 2001 to 2008. This is partly a matter of quantity. The development of new media, especially the combination of digital imaging and the spread of the Internet has meant that the number of images has increased exponentially along with the speed of their circulation. But it is also a matter of quality. Images have always possessed a certain infectious, viral character, a vitality that makes them difficult to contain or quarantine. If images are like viruses or bacteria, this has been a period of breakout, a global plague of images. And like any infectious disease, it has bred a host of antibodies in the form of counterimages. Our time has witnessed, not simply more images, but a war of images in which the real- world stakes could not be higher. This war has been fought on behalf of radically different images of possible futures; it has been waged against images (thus acts of iconoclasm or image destruction have been critical to it); and it has been fought by means of images deployed to shock and traumatize the enemy, images meant to appall and demoralize, images designed to replicate themselves endlessly and to infect the collective imaginary of global populations.

The onset of the war of images was the spectacular destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the launching of the iconic counterattack was the invasion of Iraq, complete with the televised "shock and awe" bombing of Baghdad and the destruction of Saddam Hussein's monuments, as well as untold civilian casualties and the looting of Iraq's magnificent museums as "collateral damage." The invasion of Afghanistan, by contrast, was a relatively minor engagement in the war of images because, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted at the time, it was not a "target rich environment," either militarily or symbolically. For a variety of reasons, Osama bin Laden seemed less than satisfactory as an iconic figure of the enemy in the ill-advisedly named "crusade" or holy war to stamp out radical evil. It proved easier to focus attention on Saddam Hussein, a more visible and locatable target. Hidden away in an ungovernable border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, bin Laden's only presence as image was as a soft-spoken cleric who occasionally appeared in videotapes of uncertain origin. No statues, monuments, palaces, or regimes could be leveled as ways of performing the destruction of bin Laden. Hussein, by contrast, portrayed himself as a classic Arab warlord, brandishing weapons in his photo ops and monuments, and he had a long pedigree as the anointed villain of American fantasies of its archenemy, a Middle Eastern successor to Hitler and to Cold War adversaries like Stalin. It is no wonder that a deliberate effort was made to attribute the spectacular wound of 9/11 to Saddam Hussein, to declare Iraq as the "front" in the War on Terror, and to produce a kind of composite image of the enemy as a figure of "Islamo-fascism" that could freely confuse Osama with Saddam and vice versa.

If Iraq seemed to provide ample opportunities for icons of victory (the Mission Accomplished photo) and defeat of the enemy (the capture of Saddam Hussein), at the level of reality things were going quite differently. The combination of insurgency and civil war defied all the attempts to produce imaginary victories, and the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs in the spring of 2004 sent a deeply antithetical message of moral defeat for the United States. Given the growing public awareness that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, no connection to al Qaeda, and no role in 9/11, the iconic photo of the Hooded Man on the Box drastically undermined the last remaining alibi for the war, namely, that it was a moral crusade to liberate Iraq from tyranny. The image immediately became a recruiting poster for jihadists throughout the Arab world, and the international antiwar movement seized upon it as the emblem of the war's futility and illegitimacy. An artist's collective known as FreewayBlogger .com put the message of the image in the most starkly emphatic terms: "The War Is Over" (fig. 2).

Of course the war was (and is still) not over. The image was deployed to represent a wish, not a fact. Like John Lennon's famous song, "War Is Over (If You Want It)," it appeared in a conditional, not an indicative mood. And like the iconic photo of moral defeat in Vietnam, the image of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing her burning village, the photograph of the Hooded Man and the whole archive of torture and official criminality that it symbolized, took several years to have its effect, and its meaning has yet to be exhausted. The photo of Kim Phuc, we must recall, appeared almost three years before the end of the Vietnam War. Tens of thousands of Americans and many more Vietnamese died after the appearance of this iconic signal of the end. A similar delayed reaction occurred with the Hooded Man, a parallel that was captured with stunning accuracy by the cartoonist Dennis Draughon in his composition, "Abu Ghraib Nam," depicting the Hooded Man as a kind of baleful shadow or afterimage of its Vietnamese counterpart (fig. 3).

From Terror to Panic

A war, and a historical period that should have come to a conclusion in 2004 with the removal of the Bush administration, lingered on for another four years, and the war is still not really over as of this writing. But the fall of 2008 will undoubtedly be remembered as the decisive moment in the war of images and the collective emotions associated with them.

Terror is a form of affect that tends to express itself as paralysis, the "deer in the headlights" syndrome. Since the terrorist enemy strikes without warning, and is invisible and unlocatable, it is not clear what action to take. And indeed, the main recommendation of the Bush administration to the American people after 9/11 was to do nothing—except to go shopping and enjoy its tax cuts—or simply to "be vigilant" and give the government unlimited powers to violate laws in the name of the war on terror. Someone else—an undermanned army and a very well paid cohort of independent contractors—was to handle the war on terror. Panic, by contrast, tends to produce immediate, badly focused actions that work at cross-purposes—runs on banks and poorly designed bailouts to the very institutions and individuals that produced the crisis in the first place. If panic is not arrested with timely, calm, and intelligent action, it can, of course, lead to depression, in both the emotional and financial senses of the word.

The iconic avatar of the historic period that began in terror and ended in panic was, of course, none other than George W. Bush. The image strategists of the Obama campaign understood this very clearly, and staged the war of images in the 2008 election as a contest, not with John McCain, but with Bush. They consistently portrayed McCain as "McBush," a clone of the deeply unpopular president, and by the end of the campaign, McCain himself was running against Bush.

It is worth pondering in more detail, then, the images of the two presidents that frame this era. The contrasts at the level of race and political positions were so blatantly obvious that they caused many to think that there was nothing further to say about the electoral war of images in 2008. But the actual image-contrast between the two men is not reducible to polarities such as black and white, liberal and conservative. A more accurate characterization would note that Bush's image was clearly defined from early on, and changed very little, while Obama's is a paradigm of ambiguity and indeterminacy. Bush consistently portrayed himself as the cowboy president, the incarnation of white American Texas manhood, Christian faith, and a simple, unshakeable moral code that divided the world into good and evil. He was also depicted as "the CEO president," an image of businesslike delegation of responsibility and decisiveness, who would manage the nation like a well-run corporation.

Obama's image, by contrast, is much more difficult to specify. It comes in and out of focus. The Obama "icon" is an ambiguous and self-conscious image, a figure of multicultural and interracial hybridity that crossed the very boundaries that defined the black and white moral oppositions of the Bush era. Too black or not black enough, a Christian with a Muslim name, an American with an African father and an Indonesian stepfather, Obama scrambled all the codes that allow for easy labeling of an image. And of course the strategy of his opponents was precisely to stress this ambiguity, to raise questions about his real identity, his credentials, even his birth, and to use his celebrity against him by comparing him with superficial pop culture icons. Meanwhile Obama faced an opponent who was as sharply defined as Mount Rushmore, a visage of determination and decisiveness, a self-styled "maverick," and "man of principle" who would never compromise on anything, in contrast to Obama's conciliatory centrism. Given the further contrast between McCain's experience and Obama's almost complete lack of same, it was astonishing that Obama won the election. He had never been in an executive position, and had absolutely no credentials as a "decider." His formative political experience was as a community organizer, a branch of work that (so far as I know) has never produced a president before.

Simply considered at the level of the image, then, it is something of a miracle that Obama won the election, and indeed, he often joked during the presidential campaign about the improbability of his candidacy and his image, including his big ears, skinny body, and funny name. The fact that he did win decisively is as much due to the fact that he came across as the non-Bush, the anti-Bush, a distinctive antidote to the Bush image, as to any specifically positive features of his own image. As a blank slate, he could attract both positive and negative projections, both the hope for change, and the need for change driven by revulsion at the whole sorry panorama of hypocrisy, incompetence, and criminality that characterized the Bush era.

But to gauge the real improbability of Obama's victory, we need to look beyond the visual image of racial ambiguity to the sound image of a name that should have been the kiss of death, politically. At the level of the poetic sound image his name was a virtual composite of the two figures of the enemy in the war on terror—"Hussein Obama." To those who "think with their ears," as Theodor Adorno once put it, the election of Obama was nothing short of revolutionary, in the most literal sense of the word. It was as if the American people had decided to elect as their sovereign representative the figure of the enemy they had been fighting throughout the War on Terror. If this seems like a fanciful notion, it is; but it was also the central operational fantasy in the political tactics of the Republican Party during the 2008 election, in their tireless attempt to transform Obama into a Muslim, to emphasize his middle name, and to portray him as "palling around with terrorists." Since the election the tactic has shifted to Cold War imagery, and Obama is now routinely portrayed as a socialist or communist.

There were at least two other factors that made it possible to overcome the long odds against Obama's election. First, his fascinatingly complex and ambiguous visual image was accompanied by the most masterful auditory style in modern politics, a perfectly nuanced blend of soaring oratory trained in the black church, on the one hand, and a quiet, professorial grasp of history and policy, on the other, all leavened by a sense of calm, cool confidence. At a rally in Milwaukee, he told a story about a Republican voter, one of the new "Obamicans," who approached him to confide, in a whispered aside, that she was crossing party lines to vote for him. Obama thanked her for her vote, but then asked her, "Why are we whispering?" This line, uttered in a stage whisper before an enormous crowd, captured perfectly the auditory range that accompanied the optical spectrum comprehended by Obama's visual image. As a cultural icon, he managed to be simultaneously monumental and intimate, passionate and coolly rational, even ironic. He also enjoyed a streak of political luck throughout the election cycle that threatened to become a bit spooky when it appeared that he was arranging absolutely perfect weather for mass outdoor rallies at his nomination and election. God himself seemed to be on his side, and among the satiric caricatures of his image was, unsurprisingly, his portrayal as Jesus Christ walking on water. If the Hooded Man of Abu Ghraib was a reminder of the dark, violent side of Christian iconography (torture and mockery), Obama seemed endowed with the gift of tongues, reaching across classes, state boundaries, and beyond to preach peace and reconciliation to a global multitude that welcomed his coming.

The second factor was Obama's grasp of the new media that have established the battlefield on which contemporary political struggles must be waged. Obama is not just the first black president, but the first wired president. If Jack Kennedy was the first president to understand the power of television, Obama is the first to understand the new forms of social networking? made possible by the Internet, and to actually create a political campaign rooted organically in a cluster of social movements. From Web fundraising to the organization of caucuses to the spontaneous emergence of media images produced by his supporters—even some, like "the Obama Girl," that were not especially welcome—Obama made e-mail and YouTube central arenas of political struggle. It is symptomatic of the shift that he pioneered in the location of democratic, grassroots politics, that the leading graphic icon of his campaign, the remarkable Shepard Fairey poster, was not produced by his campaign, but by an independent artist working on his own.

The historical period and the war of images that are the subject of this book may best be personified, then, by the Shepard Fairey poster as its termination and the caricature of George W. Bush that appeared on the cover of the Nation magazine as its beginning. (See figs. 4 and 5.)


Excerpted from CLONING TERROR by W. J. T. MITCHELL Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface. For a War on Error

1 War Is Over (If You Want It)

2 Cloning Terror

3 Clonophobia

4 Autoimmunity: Picturing Terror

5 The Unspeakable and the Unimaginable: Word and Image in a Time of Terror

6 Biopictures

7 The Abu Ghraib Archive

8 Documentary Knowledge and Image Life

9 State of the Union, or Jesus Comes to Abu Ghraib

Conclusion. A Poetics of the Historical Image




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