Cloning Terror

After nearly ten years the phrase “War of Terror,” coined on September 11, 2001, continues to capture the attention and imagination of the American public. Despite being retired from use with the election of Barak Obama, the war against nameless and faceless terrorists conjures images of soldiers surveying desert landscapes or of foreign combatants waving guns. By virtue of new media and Internet technologies such images are made easily accessible to be reproduced, parodied and put into unintended situations.  This is the starting point of W.J.T. Mitchell’s tome Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present, which is an extended historical and visual analysis of the photograph of the Hooded Man from Abu Ghriab, arguing it as an icon of the War on Terror. The text is a call to arms to reveal the government’s  “torture regime, and the way a ‘faith-based’ foreign policy made it into a holy with that threatened the American Constitution.”

Mitchell stresses that despite its inanimate nature, the photograph of the tortured detainee is brought to life in the viewer’s consciousness to have intentions, desires and agency.  He draws our attention to the Hooded Man’s anonymity to explore the visual legacy of war in the age of digital reproduction, where a nameless figure can become “as famous as advertising logos and brand icons like the Nike Swoosh or the Golden Arches.” Mitchell argues that the “the pictorial turn,” a phrase he coined in 1992, has been replaced by the “biopicture,” that which occurs when the icon is “given motion and the appearance of life by means of the technosiences of biology and information.” Roughly translated, for over a millennium images have been compared to life forms, now life forms can be compared to images created by virtual and digital technologies. In this discussion he highlights Forkscrew Graphics’ iRaq which inserted a silhouette of the Hooded Man among Apple’s advertising campaign for the iPod of “wired” dancers wearing headphones.  He draws parallels between the endless flood of images of torture and advertising logos. The spectacle of digital culture, as allowed by Photoshop, neutralizes even the most evocative images into aesthetic parody and exploitation.

Mitchell begins Cloning Terror by conflating the public’s fear of terrorism with the fear of cloning. The front cover of the New York Times on September 11, 2001 was a report form the National Academy of Science urging for continued stem cell research despite the Bush administration’s deep hostility to all forms of cloning. This aversion is what Mitchell terms as “clonophobia,” a host of anxieties when confronting an uncanny double. This fear is similar to that stimulated by the “plague of images” of terrorist violence. Cloning and terror share an uncanny resemblance and Mitchell generalizes the American public’s fear with a personalized reading of varying media: George Lucas’ movie Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), the comic strip The Boondocks, artist Paul McCarthy’s statue Clone (2004) and Magadalena Abranowicz’s public art installation Agora (2008). As a result, his argument reads as disjointed and the links between cloning and terrorism is lost in translation.

The crux of Mitchell’s argument comes in chapters seven and nine, providing an elaboration of why the Hooded Man has become an icon. He suggests that the digital camera which captured these torture tableaus is not at all different than the ones that capture private family moments.   These intimate images are easily disseminated in a virtual global network where they are critically assessed, parodied and historicized.  Furthermore, Mitchell suggests that the posture of prisoners mimic Judeo-Christian iconography of redemption and shame. In regards to the later, the photographs verify the lack of civility during this war and why President Bush argued, “nobody wants to see images like this.”

Early in Cloning Terror Mitchell admits to the timeliness of his text, as the War on Terror is still raging on the battlefield and in American consciousness. It is improbable to formulate a full image of this war without historical hindsight. This text is premature  in critiquing the rhetoric of war, as  was Nicholas Mirzoeff inWatching Babylon and Jean Baudrillard in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. What Mitchell does not recognize is that the digital revolution quickly replaces one icon with another and the figure of the Hooded Man has lost its status in the public imagination.

The new icon, or lack there of, is the corpse of Osama Bin Laden who was killed just as I was preparing this review. The Obama administration has reiterated that it would not release any images in fear of retaliation from those loyal to the terrorist leader. Why does the public demand such images? Why do they persuade us, seduce us, or even lead us astray? Without them the public is blinded, because icons of trauma and tragedy inform the experiencing of  the present and past.

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One Response to Cloning Terror

  1. Tessa says:

    I have just finished reading this book and I completely agree with you on the disjointedness of Mitchell’s argument about clonophobia and terror. It seemed like as very forced argument to me. Great review!

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