Masculinities and Terror: The Abu Ghraib Atrocity, Article Review Example

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Article Review

In his text, “Invisible Empire: Visual Culture, Embodied Spectacle, and Abu Ghraib”, the author Nicholas Mirzoeff examines how various gendered subjectivities and political discourses are present in the scandal concerning the Abu Ghraib photographs. These photographs are not only notorious because of their inhumane depiction of prisoners during the Iraqi War, but in terms of the sexual nature of this humiliation. Namely, the U.S. soldiers used references to homosexual sexual practice as a means of degrading the prisoners. Here, masculinity and notions of masculinity clearly interact with forms of violence and the assertion of power.

Hence, the scandal of the photographs demonstrate the intersection of two crucial themes according to Mirzoeff: on the one hand, a dominant political discourse, embodied in the U.S. military’s imperialistic intervention into Iraq, and, on the other hand, how such a dominant political discourse re-enforces its hegemony through the equation of homosexuality with humiliation. As Mirzoeff writes, this incident is an “assertion of the imperical body…over the confused sodomitical mass of the embodied spectacle that is the object of empire.” (28) Empire or the imperial body is the dominant body, demonstrating its power and control by forcing the “mass”, in this case the prisoners, into humiliating poses that re-iterate their dominance.

The notion of empire, taken from the philosophers Negri and Hardt, entails that the new formation of empire in the capitalist age is one that is de-centralized. There is no longer, as in previous empires, a clearly defined center, such as in the classical example of Rome. Rather, this empire, closely related to capitalism, is concerned with the control of a fluid mass of bodies. Mirzoeff cites Negri and Hardt’s definition of empire as follows: “Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open expanding frontiers.” (22) The Abu Ghraib photos thus become a direct visualization of this process of empire. Masses of bodies are heaped upon each other in deliberate poses that emphasize their subjugation to the soldiers, who are agents of empire.

It can be said that the gender performance of homosexuality is staged by these agents of empire. This can be considered as a reflection of the “shame” related to homosexuality and its marginal status within society. By evoking homosexual acts one intends to shame the prisoners, portraying them as deviants. Here, it is clear that the dominant discourse decides who or what is deviant, as they arrange the entire degrading “spectacle.” This is the clear rejection of any concept of homonormativity in favor of a heteronormativity that posits the homosexual act as the supreme example of deviance.

The Abu Ghraib atrocity, committed against the backdrop of the War on Terror, thus shows how the War on Terror is precisely a War of Terror. The forced spectacle is a terrorizing of the Iraqi prisoners under custody. If terror can be considered to be a spectacle, one that intends to seize the attention of the viewer through the forces of its visual spectacle (i.e., the collapse of the World Trade Center towers), then it is clear that the Abu Ghraib photographs are a reflection of this exact same notion of terror. Yet the difference here lies in Abu Ghraib’s explicit linking of sexuality and terror. This is where one sees the terror of empire: the deliberate manipulation of bodies into positions that are conceived of as deviant by the dominant discourse. The interweaving of violence and sexuality demonstrates that, according to the logic of empire, the power to make decisions about sexuality is always a decision of violence. Perhaps it is precisely this interweaving of sexuality and violence that may provide a key insight into the particular terror practiced by empire. That is, the terror of empire directly intervenes in the most intimate areas of subjectivity – that is, sexuality – in order to continually demonstrate the extent and scope of its power.

Works Cited

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “Invisible Empire: Visual Culture, Embodied Spectacle, and Abu ž

Ghraib.” Radical History Review. Issue 95, Spring 2006. pp. 21-44.

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