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The Abu Ghraib Effect

von Stephen F. Eisenman

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The line between punishment and torture can be razor-thin--yet the entire world agreed that it was definitively crossed at Abu Ghraib. Or perhaps not. George W. Bush won a second term in office only months after the Abu Ghraib scandal was uncovered, and only the lowest-ranking U.S. soldiers involved in the scandal have been prosecuted. Where was the public outcry? Stephen Eisenman offers here an unsettling explanation that exposes our darkest inclinations in the face of all-too-human brutality.             Eisenman characterizes Americans' willful dismissal of the images as "the Abu Ghraib effect," rooted in the ways that the images of tortured Abu Ghraib prisoners tapped into a reactionary sentiment of imperialist self-justification and power. The complex elements in the images fit the "pathos formula," he argues, an enduring artistic motif in which victims are depicted as taking pleasure in their own extreme pain. Meanwhile, the explicitly sexual nature of the Abu Ghraib tortures allowed Americans to rationalize the deeds away as voluntary pleasure acts by the prisoners--a delusional reaction, but, The Abu Ghraib Effect reveals, one with historical precedence. From Greek sculptures to Goya paintings, Eisenman deftly connects such works and their disturbing pathos motif to the Abu Ghraib images. Skillfully weaving together visual theory, history, philosophy, and current events, Eisenman peels back the political obfuscation to probe the Abu Ghraib images themselves, contending that Americans can only begin to grapple with the ramifications of torture when the moral detachment of the "Abu Ghraib effect" breaks down and the familiar is revealed to be horribly unfamiliar.… (mehr)
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A brilliant examination of the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs within the context of art history, “The Abu Ghraib Effect” has already entered into popular jargon – a testament to its power as a popular political meme. The value of this brief study, however, is that it provides a germane and enlightening perspective on the Abu Ghraib photos that is more refined than that stemming from traditional political analysis.

The upshot of Stephen Eisenman’s thesis is that the discernable traditions of Greco-Roman art point to a way of seeing and understanding images of pain, torture, and suffering that, contrary to bolstering the repugnance of the Abu Ghraib photos, make them strangely palatable – even soothing – in their familiarity. This isn’t a book about how awful (either politically or personally) the incidents at Abu Ghraib were; it’s a book about how we psychologically process such images within their historical, political and aesthetic contexts. ( )
  Narboink | Dec 3, 2009 |
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The line between punishment and torture can be razor-thin--yet the entire world agreed that it was definitively crossed at Abu Ghraib. Or perhaps not. George W. Bush won a second term in office only months after the Abu Ghraib scandal was uncovered, and only the lowest-ranking U.S. soldiers involved in the scandal have been prosecuted. Where was the public outcry? Stephen Eisenman offers here an unsettling explanation that exposes our darkest inclinations in the face of all-too-human brutality.             Eisenman characterizes Americans' willful dismissal of the images as "the Abu Ghraib effect," rooted in the ways that the images of tortured Abu Ghraib prisoners tapped into a reactionary sentiment of imperialist self-justification and power. The complex elements in the images fit the "pathos formula," he argues, an enduring artistic motif in which victims are depicted as taking pleasure in their own extreme pain. Meanwhile, the explicitly sexual nature of the Abu Ghraib tortures allowed Americans to rationalize the deeds away as voluntary pleasure acts by the prisoners--a delusional reaction, but, The Abu Ghraib Effect reveals, one with historical precedence. From Greek sculptures to Goya paintings, Eisenman deftly connects such works and their disturbing pathos motif to the Abu Ghraib images. Skillfully weaving together visual theory, history, philosophy, and current events, Eisenman peels back the political obfuscation to probe the Abu Ghraib images themselves, contending that Americans can only begin to grapple with the ramifications of torture when the moral detachment of the "Abu Ghraib effect" breaks down and the familiar is revealed to be horribly unfamiliar.

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