Abu Ghraib and the Magic of Images

And Earth had lost another portion of the infinite!

America: a Prophecy, William Blake

This piece will neither begin nor end. In spite of appearances, apocalyptic events are like that. “Now for the first time in history.” But it is an eternal incursion that sets all watches new. Writing itself is like that. It waits upon an incursion to gather the thoughts that swarm about it. The thoughts neither begin nor end. But the images of Abu Ghraib that burst upon us in the spring of 2004, as the images of the planes striking the two towers, seem incursions with their own matter, their own weight, hurtling the realities they carry and that carry them, through the barriers of consciousness, at once unreadable and too readable, setting the mind in motion, ever-once-again attempting to integrate the incommensurable…Magic is like that. It neither begins nor ends. It casts its images upon a field that it composes.

Historian Ioan P. Couliano [1] indicates that what the Renaissance theory of magic handled under the head of the  phantasmatic (in the thought of Giordana Bruno, say) becomes divided in the modern world between political persuasion, advertising, and the psychology of eros.

I don’t know what magic is, but that it is something fearsome, that it has its darkest patches, that it overwhelms good sense, and that it revels in images.

The phantasmatic is the economy of images. For the magician there was a substance, the pneuma, that cosmos and person held in common. (“Pneuma” is Greek for spirit or breath. The Stoics deployed this ordinary term to indicate a special substance common to the individual soul and the universe at large. On it images travel, and, because of it, commerce between the individual person and a more common space is possible.) The pneuma receives and processes phantasmata: images emanated by persons and things. The soul receives the influence of the stars because the astral substance was thought to be pneumatic too. Phantasmata are the stuff of eros: by means of them the image of one person can enter the being of another and take possession of their will. Or, indeed, images can replace one’s very being. Couliano writes: “The phantasm that monopolizes the soul is the image of an object. Now, since man is soul, and soul is totally occupied by a phantasm, the phantasm is henceforth the soul. It follows that the subject, bereft of his soul, is no longer a subject: the phantasmatic vampire has devoured it internally.” [2]

In general, images flow from entities and enter the eye. They pass along internal conduits until the ventricles of the brain receive and process them. They, and the pneumatic substance on which they travel, supply the media by which magical intentions and intensities transmit. Magic is the erotology of the image. Manipulation and desire are its mundane fields of play.

Modern science arose as a set of practices that define the magical by exclusion. Science lives where magic is not; though, interestingly, the converse is less clear: whereas science cannot countenance magic as a serious ontological region, magic has little difficulty finding in scientific practice fit tools for its arsenal. Be that as it may, science proceeds by putting magic to rest. Thus, the manipulations of reality performed through the configurations of the phantasmata and their pneumatic vehicle were supplanted by various methodologies appropriate to several domains—politics, advertising, and erotic psychology, as mentioned above.


Begin with image as information etched in light: its essence is no longer light at all. Light itself is but a stage in information’s passaging.  Flashed around the internet, its positions as printout or presence on a computer screen are but transitory moments in the image’s problematic identity.

But what of the Abu Ghraib pictures in the face of all of this? These strange, perfectly composed cross-sections of horror, like amateur porn shots, “the real thing”— as if you could “click on it” and have the whole action: the howls of the victims, or their moribund silence; the jeers of the guards, or the business-as-usual shuffling of persons on the prison staff who just happen to be milling around; or the perfectly professional demeanor of the “dog handler.”

Consider that the transmission of the Abu Ghraib images flow from the largely unexamined ontological space of the public internet to the private video screen, and you will see immediately where I am going. The video image grasps the psychic pneuma more immediately than the photograph.  It enters the “soul” by a certain effluence of information that is more physically palpable than the reflection of image from page of print or emulsion. Electrons from the older screens and sheaves of incident light from the newer ones imprint images on the retina with a certain viscosity, a certain tactility. Thus, if I make an exposure with my digital camera and hurl its information across the internet to your video screen and thence into your eye, I may be performing a gesture that magicians of old only dreamed of. [3]

But video screens tune in to a domain that crosses national and cultural boundaries, rendering common the psychic emission and reception of images by the ever-growing multitudes that have access to them. Images propelled for political, commercial, and erotic purposes, and images sent from friends or relations, now flash across the same electronic circuits, sharing the same forms of point-and-click receptivity. Thus reunited, they are reacquiring, through technical means, the phantasmatic functions of a pre-modern, magical cosmos.

It should be clear, however, that, ontologically considered, these functions were never truly divided. We do not routinely remind ourselves that the physicalist ontology that governs and limits the technological does not at all comprehend the nature of consciousness itself; but surely we cannot know what an image is apart from such comprehension. How the phantasmatic functions in our being and in the being of the cosmos is not finally controlled by the thinking that, until now, has effected its division into the political, the commercial, and the erotic. The subject of the reunification of the phantasmatic function is therefore certainly on our agenda if we are to grapple with the import of the Abu Ghraib images, their peculiar immediacy and charge. It is quite as if the pneuma of the old magical theory were being reconfigured before and within our fascinated gaze.

A part of this reconfiguration has to do with how our use of images is changing as the technology of images changes. It seems that we now take place within a world-wide culture that allows us to obsess and delight in the discovery of our own being through video images that we retrieve from the air and flash across the internet to friends and relatives, or store for immediate auto-delectation. In such a context the image document has primary ontological status. Representation and thing represented collapse into each other and coincide. How the image serves as evidence for another reality than its own electronic immediacy is a matter for negotiation and interpretation. But to manipulate the image is to manipulate the self. To make an image of another under conditions of violent restraint is to engage a magical efficacy of the darkest water.

The primacy or autonomy of the image has clearly been observable in advertising, politics, and erotology for as long as images have circulated through public media, but the immediacy of the transformation of the image fact into public force is something new. It is this immediacy that calls or recalls into configuration the magical pneuma. Image strikes reality with a swiftness and acuity that reality cannot correct or resist but can only confirm and sustain. And this is true not only where the image is newsworthy broadcast material of a conventionally public event. It is just as true for a snapshot, or, as in the case of Abu Ghraib, the documentation of private acts as image trophies. The private is public by virtue of the common media by which the images of both are constituted. And when a private image finds itself caught in a web of global import, its dark magic may well work its way into the pneuma, that is, the collective soul of the world and, through that, into the destiny of nations.

The Abu Ghraib images, indeed, piggy-back on their position in a global configuration that made their publicity an instantaneously universal acquisition. Everybody knows them. The entire world (that is, the world not immediately under the heel of the American military yet subject to its economic hegemony) already felt every gesture of the occupation of Iraq as legible and relevant. But with the release of the images, the predatory character of American will, long in formation in the global imagination, has taken definitive pictorial shape.

In America, of course, the images are subject to a different series of transformations, of exposures and suppressions…suppressed as military secret, leaked as part of the still partially clandestine struggle between governmental bureaus, posted on front pages and news shows as exposé, but also flashed as gleeful breakout of nocturnal pornographic image forms into the daylight of the “news-day” for all to see—on newsstands for an instant, a splash on the surface of urban consciousness. (“Did you see them?” “Yes I saw them. I wanted to look away, but I saw them.”)

In the U.S., the suppression of visual information regarding America’s military operations has been in effect since the first Gulf War and its invisible 100,000 slaughtered Iraqis. We have seen no images of the million and half children and adults lost to disease and hunger during the “sanctions,” and none of the current Mesopotamian holocaust. This suppression of imagery has surely produced a hugely charged though empty, domestic “image space,” if I can quickly invent a concept.

In addition to this, consider the focus of the Abu Ghraib images on the human body in attitudes of what would be the very archetypes of abjection were it not for the fact that the circumstance itself causes instance to precede and override archetype. Nothing is left for the symbolical imagination to elaborate. You are presented with the literal fact of the image and what it represents, fully “read,” saturated with meaning, and, at the same time, eerily intimate, cold, and, I want to say, transcendentally illegible.

Something is accumulating in these images, quite as if they were ancient portraits of an impossible humanity; the concentrated horror of the phenomena themselves, projecting violently into the information that light carries—the events in no way essentially informational—but thrown adventitiously into the light that transmits  them—that MAN, that MAN, that MAN, under the weight of an unending regression and darkness, at the edge of the concrete character of the real itself, not modified, not integrated, not contextualized, not KNOWN—overwhelming its own representation—that HEAD on that BODY, on tiptoes, by command, or fallen on the stinking prison floor. Or that thumbs-up grin of sexy guard girl—the accomplishment of a sarcastically degenderized military—leering over a bagged and  processed corpse; and that other gestureless, faceless creature, standing there, leash in hand, while a mass of prime matter, hairy and not yet insensate—the very “image” of sentience itself—lugs its weight almost out of the eyeshot of its indifferent captors, dumped by its cage.

In the public sphere, imagery has always been wielded for power—to coerce or induce action, political or mercantile. But the Abu Ghraib images seem to be out of control—at once snap shot, espionage, blackmail, pornography—at once representation and emergence of the thing itself. They seem to lay open a wound in the “astral plane,” whose “lower vibrations” have always been the denizens of lust, sadism, torture, and, in general, a dark economy housing partially differentiated agencies and the urgencies of disordered power. This quasi-metaphysical disorder feeds on the disorder of the physical situation in which it arose. The chaos of Abu Ghraib—the filth, the inappropriate staffing, the overcrowding, the daily subjection to bombardment, the rat- and insect-infested food—surely contributes to the underlying darkness of the situation and, even if not depicted there, is subliminally registered in the images themselves.

And it is finally the images that, in bearing (say it!) a demonic charge, are the site of the demonic itself. Representation and thing represented coincide, particularly here where the represented thing (torture as practiced in a contemporary American prison) has been so utterly repressed that many of us, upon seeing these images, felt that we couldn’t see what they were at all. The testimony to the contrary of black Americans, for whom the reality of prison torture and racist abuse is familiar indeed, shows a major split in the psychic reality of the races in this country and provides qualifying detail regarding the “image space” and its dynamic characteristics that I hazarded a moment ago. Different regions of that image space—one might say different vicinities in the public pneuma—are differently charged, differently potentiated, relative to different populations and their experiences. [4]

In Iraq and throughout the Arab world, the images, banned as such by orthodox Islam, are distributed to disclose the true character of the American occupation, to stimulate resistance / resurgence, but also to awaken approbation for the more severe imprecations of the Moslem faith and thus to stimulate “Coalition” outrage at the Arab Press for propagating the images and creating disorder. (As I write, [August 8, 2004] I learn that Al Jazeera has been silenced in Baghdad by the American puppet, Allawi.)

The image space in the Arab world, of course, has its own dynamical characteristics, not the least of which is a general interdiction on representational imagery—an interdiction that it shares with the main line of Orthodox Judaism. The sentiment behind this interdiction shows a cultural sensitivity to the magical pneuma and an attempt to control magic by a total elimination of its most salient means.

For Islam in general, the trichotomization of the phantasmatic may not have occurred at all, or may have done so only partially. Couliano sees that the magical ontology that Giordano Bruno develops late in the European Renaissance has features delivered to it from Medieval Islamic culture, features that by no means have passed away in modern Islam, whose resistance to the West is as much that of a surviving high culture as it is the expression of its fundamentalist wing—a high culture for whom the magical pneuma and the necessity of its suppression have an urgency that the culture of the West can little appreciate or understand. And yet the “image space” into which the Abu Ghraib images have fallen and which they have so powerfully reactivated is, in spite of these vast differences, now, a common one.

…Back in America, remember that the prelude to the Abu Ghraib images was the “scandal” of the leaked photos of flag-draped coffins,  “and now this!”

Now nothing. The day of wanton images subsides into the most arcane legal wrangling about the technical definition of torture. Imagine: two lawyers standing in a hall at Abu Ghraib, while a naked animal cringes in his offal. They are discussing just which strokes and lashes, hoods and probes and positions are licit instruments for extracting vital information (“the ticking bomb defense”) from one of the pieces of dirt the indiscriminate steam-shovel of “intelligence” has scarfed up from the random streets of Sadr City to wring out for secrets only to dump them back again if still alive—if female, to be murdered by her very family for the shame of her submission; if male forever emasculated and diminished before his world.

Violated religious feeling, sexual exposure, inexculpable shame, impotent outrage, betrayal, a sense that the worst fears of minds most generous towards the American “liberators” had come true, must swarm like gnats around these pictures, charging them with a fury that we in our incomprehension can still pick up through their very forms: that naked man on a leash knocked over besides his cage, those hooded ikons.

The first Abu Ghraib image I saw was the one with Lyndie England holding that man on a leash, humanity irrelevant, physical, fallen by his cage. If nothing else, the world of images performs magic on the world of images. For me, a thousand images of abject humanity were sucked up and expunged by this one. Only certain drawings of Goya—but suddenly, an understanding of those uncanny late Philip Guston hooded creatures with the cigarettes—withstand. (Guston’s hooded figures always suggested Ku Klux Klan members, but the hoods on victims in the Abu Ghraib pictures reverse the sense of Guston’s cartoons, increasing, retrospectively, their uncanny quality.)

Where and when exactly are we?—do we pretend to perch in some Celestial Academy of Kabbalistic justice when we contemplate such matters as the staggering stupidity of the American response to the terrorist response to America’s world-wide staggering stupidity—when we think to respond to the Abu Ghraib images?

If there is no Academy on High, perhaps there is one still meeting in dens and caves, still watching for snakes and tigers, still ready for beheadings by blue goddesses with beautiful blood hungry eyes. The images of the tantrikas, however, are set to test our consciousness: to strengthen awareness before a terror that, for us, is limited by the possibility of our own demise. But the horror and menace of these images strike at our very humanity, or, if we identify with our country, break the very spirit of national honor. Something more than tantric presence of mind would be required to transmute what is registered there.

The business of magic in the end is to compel ontology: to force what is in us to awaken to the ontological force of what we are. If an image can vampirize the soul, it is here in the soul’s conviction of the real that it does its work. It has always been the case that the only antidote to the magic of an image is the magic of passing beyond all image, that is, beyond  magic itself. If the Abu Ghraib images surpass in darkness and efficacy all images before, can it be that they herald some unheard of soteriological possibility? But where the soul at stake is not that of an individual but of a nation…

The Shadow

One doesn’t have to be a Jungian to appreciate Jung’s reflections on what he calls the “Shadow” and its phenomenology: that the psychic growth of the individual or of a collective like a nation depends upon an awakening to the images of evil with which the soul, individual or collective, is resonant: not only that each of us is capable of the whole gamut of viciousness that contemporary event makes hideously manifest, but that in the failure to experience the fullness of our nature, we project what we deny and enter upon struggles with others that are truly struggles within ourselves. Can we doubt that the images of Abu Ghraib have opened a new phase in the reality of these phenomena?

Hear, then, “the many minds of the Shadow” as they find themselves into the Abu Ghraib images:

1. The brute materiality of my somatic existence renders me susceptible to torture: unendurable positions, probings, beatings, electrostimulations: My bodily pain is my most intimate state, and in its extremity it is utterly universal and anonymous.

2. Our physical vulnerability renders us ineluctably susceptible to shame: the brutal words of our tormentors meld our physical vulnerability into a palpable sense of moral depravity: we are what we are made to feel, are what we are made to seem, are what we are named by those who despise us or ignore us in our misery.

3. We ourselves are these tormentors. We too need to obey our commanders, to perform adequately in their eyes, to transcend our merely personal sensibilities so as to be able to perform the brutal deeds our country, in its need, demands that we perform. To be who we are—the protagonists in an international drama where there is only terror on every side—we must overcome our squeamishness, our consciences, our fear.  Only our abjection corresponds to our edification; only our will to destroy and punish the evil of our enemy guarantees our elevation above him.

4. Our fear and our boredom, our discomfiture, our camaraderie—our identification with our fellows—we are all in the same boat, all able to endure the brutality we suffer at the hands of our commanders, from the virulence of the enemy, from the cruel conditions of nature itself—only by accepting the terms of our servitude, of our duty to the ikons of country, democracy, freedom…

5. We too are these commanders—we see the Big Picture, the cause of the benevolent empire, the work of God, the impossibility of retreat, the necessity of preserving the chain of command. Or we too are utterly compromised, slowly having abandoned all commitment to truth or conscience, having given ourselves over to sadistic ecstasies,  having come up through the ranks and endured whatever brutalities, whatever seductions by the thrill of power, the habits of avarice, the alienation from the creative life within us, the need to stave off our own smallness, vulnerability, and self-doubt through the pleasures of rank and command.

6. We too are the callous witness; the implacable eye; the quality of divine detachment that because it IS divine, authentically atemporal, beyond all suffering, all abjection, all need—can BE the implacable universal eye of information—can Be Being reduced to information, Being reduced to the state of a pure witness, the ancient camera flashing what goes down across the internets of eternity without compassion or fear of consequence or the susceptibility of interestedness of any kind.

The moral matrix into which all of this dissolves cannot arise in Being without an awakening that passes through these states and, no doubt, infinitely more besides. But it is the very intensity of these images and the thoroughness and pitiless depravity with which they call upon our Shadow that the possibility of an awakening of a commensurate intensity depends.  If the images and their dark magic, however, pertain in the end not to individual conscience but to the spiritual vitality of a nation, it is doubtful that any such transformation is in the offing.

America A Prophecy

On a global scale, it is an image that sustains a possibility, and certain images seem, for a time, to sustain Possibility itself. The institution of such images is a mystery, as is their downfall. The geniuses of Madison Avenue might work at it, the spin doctors in their think tanks or offices as well, but even they know that they work with probabilities alone and cannot fathom when or how they will succeed or fail. It is not every day that an image ruins a nation, but these tortured images have proclaimed a great divide in the history of the United States, a moment when a sustaining idealism sustains no more. It was an idealism that had weathered every chastening revelation, every call to conscience: slavery, the subjugation of women, the atrocities of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima,  Vietnam, East Timor, rebounding qua idealism as something living within the collective soul precisely as other than the facts of the matter, riding above the facts of the matter as the spirit of possibility, the Goddess Possibility, under the name of America.  With the Abu Ghraib images—and I mean the images, not the facts—because the facts are no more true of Abu Ghraib than of the hundreds of imageless American prisons, the hidden dungeons of Tadjikistan or wherever they are around the American world—but the advent of the images have dealt a death blow to the Goddess Possibility in her American incarnation. That incarnation is no more. The United States can never again don that mask. It is finished. And it was these images (and the reconstituted pneumatic space of their distribution) that brought her down.

1) Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Ioan. P. Couliano, Chicago, 1987.

2) ibid. p. 31.

3) This only seems to contradict the common observation that viewing a video screen or computer monitor suppresses somatic consciousness, that we become disembodied zomboid awarenesses when our gaze is thus absorbed. But consider how this occurs. With video, the eye is captivated by incident rather than reflected light and by the subliminal movement of the raster process: the lightening fast inscribing of the image across the screen by infinitesimal dots and lines. This makes its impact upon the eye far more complexly and violently than an emulsion or print-based image where the picture is delivered by milder, reflected light and doesn’t involve anything like the raster dynamic. The hyper-involvement in the video image is suppressed as one becomes engaged with image content, so, in effect, a greater part of one’s somatic being is simply put out of play, i.e. rendered unconscious in order to sustain identification with what occurs on the screen.

4) Couliano’s remark that, for magical theory, the soul itself is so close to being an image that it can be replaced by one, perhaps makes it possible to grasp the magical efficacy of the Abu Ghraib images by reading them into a Lacanian perspective. Lacan took an interest in the phenomena of Courtly Love in his late seminar Encore, and, of course, it is in Courtly Love that the magical concept of the image has its most vivid instance, i.e. the fascinating image of the beloved enters the soul of the lover and renders it incapable of functioning in any way but oriented toward her.

Lacanians connect image and language by observing the relation between Lacan’s early conception of the “Stadium of the Mirror” and the formation of the ego as the subject of discourse. The infant becomes an ego at the moment when she sees herself in a mirror as the object of her mother’s gaze. Similarly, the swarming universe of speakers encroaches upon the infant and awakens her desire to speak. In both cases, the ego is formed externally: the person assumes a place in a world that exists before her. The ego in itself is a blank, a cipher, a lack, that is filled by an image or a signifier.

In the application of Lacanian theory to cinema and art, the process by which the viewer comes to identify (spontaneously and subliminally) with an image is related to this originary emptiness: the emptiness is filled by the hero or heroine of the film or the subject of the photograph or portrait.

Now consider the Abu Ghraib images. Where can the viewer’s ego rest in an identification with the image? The tortured victim. But a spontaneous recoil accompanies the spontaneous attempt of the ego to locate itself in this way. It is simply too horrible, too demeaning. The torturer? Again, the series of images of these people is too morally distressing, too unacceptable to allow identification. Finally, there is the eye of the camera, the field of consciousness that includes both torturer and victim. But again, the complicity of the camera in the act of torture even to the point of being part of the torture apparatus itself eliminates this option. In short, the identification cannot stabilize: the point of identification circulates virulently among the positions and will not come to rest.

While this analysis jibes with the responses of sensitive liberals and much of the American population, it requires comment regarding American Blacks, Arabs in general, and those Americans whose political attitudes are formed  or confirmed by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk. Clearly Arabs and Blacks may indeed identify with the torture victims, and the demented followers of “Rush,” for whom the Abu Ghraib pictures look like college hazing pranks, seem to have little difficulty identifying with the torturers. Interestingly, Donald Rumsfeld’s initial reaction to the pictures before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was like that of most of us, not like his demented constituency. This does not show him as a man of conscience, particularly, but only that the structure of his ego refuses to locate itself in the position of the torturer in spite of his own role in allowing the conditions of Abu Ghraib to develop and his apparently having given the orders to turn the torture screws up a notch.

Charles Stein

Barrytown, August, 2004


This text was originally published in Abu Ghraib: The Politics of Torture, The Terrra Nova Series, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2004.