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Cloning Hype: A Kind of Reply to W.T.J. Mitchell's "Cloning Terror

Jerzy Michalowicz
Cloning Hype: Reply to W

Cloning Hype: A Kind of Reply to W.T.J. Mitchell's "Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to Abu Ghraib"

Introduction

When asked by a French reporter whether the historical consequences of the French Revolution were positive or negative, Mao's Prime Minister Zhou En Lai famously replied: "It's too early to tell." For Professor Mitchell even three or four years is not too early, not to mention two centuries. So it comes as no surprise that in his headlong interpretative rush into contemporary events, he commits blunders beyond counting; in fact, during my reading of this weird concoction of blatant ideological prejudice and wishful thinking, breezy non-sequiturs, rhetorical bet-hedging, sins of omission fiercely competing with sins of commission, turning the notion of evidence into a laughing stock, mind-boggling errors of fact, nonchalant lumping together of incommensurate entities, egregious assertions bordering on hype-mongering, and, last but definitely not least, ponderous elaborations of the glaringly obvious – plowing through all this I found myself blurting: "it's not right - it's not even wrong!"

It is virtually impossible to compress this kind of text into something resembling a sequence of argumentation; in this regard it brings to mind Henry James's description of the genre of the novel as "baggy monster", or, if one is more mathematically inclined, Gregory Chaitin's definition of randomness: impossibility to provide a description that is shorter than what it purports to describe. The bagginess and the near randomness of the whole are further compounded by the fact that often a single sentence poses intractable challenges to interpretation in more ways that one can count; the author's favorite stratagem here is befuddling his assertions by a panoply of equivocations of the "kind of" kind. And, as if this were not enough, the article is riddled with political opinions disguised as pontifications; needless to say the author is blissfully unaware that these are just that: his opinions. Politics is very much like sex and sports: nearly everyone (especially men) has strong opinions on those subjects. If one had taken the trouble to excise Professor Mitchell's political views and ideological wishful thinking from his piece, all that would remain would be a chunk of not especially tasty, to put it mildly, Swiss cheese.

In what follows I am less interested in the "what" of Professor Mitchell's cogitations than in their "how", more in his language than in his "arguments" or "propositions", not only because there is precious little of those, but also because every single one, in so far as it can be reconstructed at all, is either obvious or obviously wrong, and, in any case, sorely lacking in any empirical evidence, unless one counts as evidence the veiled and not so veiled allusions, insinuations, allegories, (auto) suggestions, flights of fancy, and countless other rhetorical pirouettes. But the more serious reason for my dwelling primarily on the "how" of Professor Mitchell's text is that it is as good example as any of the rampant post-modernist obscurantism, not to say bigotry, of the political, i.e. leftist fringe kind, not to mention the "post-colonial" studies kind. Professor Mitchell might do worse than ponder the example of Noam Chomsky, who somehow managed to keep his ideological prejudices out of his work in linguistics; one wonders what the theory of transformational grammar would look like had Chomsky chosen to bring his political views to bear on such theory. I don't think it would be a pretty sight.

I also chose not to engage the author's political views – unless it is absolutely unavoidable - because of their dreadfully predictable uni-dimensionality. I don't mind fringes so much – amazingly, there are some wonderfully profound and complex thinkers on both ends of the political spectrum – but I do have low tolerance for the sweeping, absolutist, and, very often, narcissistic cast of mind which casts everything it puts its mind to in its own mold. This is also the reason for the flippant tone I adopt throughout, for my reply is meant to be, though not entirely, satirical. It also explains why I chose to disregard large portions of Professor Mitchell's disquisition; first, I would have to create a text several times as long as his to address everything in it, and, second, quite a few of his "propositions" are simply abstruse beyond recognition. Nonetheless, I claim that my nearly random sample is more than representative of the whole.

The Clone and Its Horrors

It appears that the author seeks to demonstrate the recent emergence of a qualitatively new category of image: "bio-picture" or "animated icon" or "bio-digital picture" (take your pick). He defines it as "the fusion of the older “spectral” life of images (the uncanny, the ghostly) with a new form of technical life, epitomized by the contemporary phenomenon of cloning." This is the technical level of the phenomenon. At a deeper – "political, moral, aesthetic" (which just about covers everything) – level, it is grounded in "the twin phenomena of cloning and terrorism ", or "cloning terror", which is located at the point of convergence between two revolutions taking place as we speak: 1) "mutation of political violence into international terrorism", and 2) "technical innovations in the biological sciences". The first is "the paradoxical process by which the war on terror has the effect of […] “cloning” more terrorists in the very act of trying to destroy them," whereas the second is "a spectacle of unleashed forces of biological reproduction and simulation that activates some of our most archaic phobias about image-making."

Apart from suppressing a suspicion that perhaps Professor Mitchell is talking about a hot new video game, the most advisable thing to do when confronted with such a grim picture is to consider the language: fearsome mutations, mind-boggling revolutions we are in the midst of, spectacles of unleashed forces, archaic phobias, terror that clones itself, clone that terrorizes, specters coming to digital-biological life, evil twins – shortly put, this is the stuff of gothic science fiction (or William Gibson-Tolkien fusion, or … insert your favorite fusion here), not of a reasoned analysis. One wakes up from Professor Mitchell's musings like from a particularly nightmarish dream, only to realize that the horror is not something he purports to describe, it is simply the way he writes. Rhetorical special effects galore, but what about the substance?  Well, looking for it is very much like trying to separate chaff from the chaff. The wheat is elsewhere. Or - just an idle thought - perhaps there was no wheat to begin with?

But first things first. Just before we are freaked out of our minds by all those ghoulish spectacles, let's pause and calmly consider the fact that "cloning," when applied either to terrorism or to pictures is just a metaphor and nothing more. Images are copied and manipulated. Terrorists grow up and learn (and are manipulated). Professor Mitchell is doing his best to obfuscate this fact from the get-go in his brief disquisition on the cloning of dinosaurs in Spielberg's Jurassic Park by reminding us that in the original Latin "dinosaur" means "terrible lizard" (hence "cloning terror") and concluding that "The figure of the clone as digital raptor perfectly captures this logic, showing the monstrous new life-form at the moment when it is invading the control room of Jurassic Park, threatening to devour the controllers who created it in the first place." Strictly speaking, "the clone as digital raptor" who is "threatening to devour the controllers who created it" would have pounced on the digital animators in Spielberg's employ, but why split hairs when metaphors change places with reality?[i] In any event, coming back to earth, cloning is simply asexual reproduction. Throughout evolutionary history cloning was the only way to reproduce and that even now, as we speak, absolute majority (in terms of the number of species and the biomass) of life-forms are just that: clones. If Professor Mitchell could really have had his way with us, we would be petrified with fear just thinking of all those trillions of clones making happy living inside our intestines and populating every square millimeter of our body surface. Now, that's horror of cloning terror!

Without going into the specifics of Professor Mitchell's "arguments", I want to point out that the main characters in his morality play - "bio-picture", "cloning", and "terror(ism)" – are nowhere really independently defined in his article: bio-picture is defined by means of cloning and terror, cloning by means of bio-picture and terror, whereas terror is described by means of the bio-picture and cloning. Furthermore, all three can mean pretty different things, depending on Professor Mitchell's mood at the moment. Thus, for instance, "bio-picture" can be a 1) computer-generated graphics, 2) image that is easily replicated, stored and disseminated ("cloned"); 3) life-form[ii]; 4) corpse ("the premieval form of what I have been calling a biopicture"), 5) photograph. With all those different meanings of the word Professor Mitchell finds it much easier to talk about "the logic of the biopicture", which, of course is not defined, just "expressed".

Similarly, "cloning" itself is hardly ever referred to in biological terms; we are never told, for example, what it actually involves in terms of biological technology[iii], nor are we told about the actual extent of cloning (very, very small), because it would detract from all those exciting "horrors" that cloning "embodies"[iv] and that can be hitched so efficiently to Professor Mitchell's political wagon. As for "terrorists", well, no need to define them at all, they are just "clones" – either as images or the real thing – created by the American "war on terror".

Speaking of the main character, "cloning": the real reason for Professor Mitchell's being so enamored of the clone as metaphor is the endless vista of opportunities it affords for fear and hype-mongering. The following is the opening salvo in this unsavory campaign:

The clone […] embodies a host of ethical, religious, and aesthetic horrors:  the reduction of human beings to mere instrumentalities or commodities […]; the impious effort to “play God” with technology; the specter of reproduction without sexual difference which leads quickly to fantasies of unleashed homosexual reproduction;[…] the specter of abortion raised by the technique of cloning, which involves the destruction what some regard as an embryonic organism in order to create a new life form; the specter of the “monstrous double” or “evil twin” who perfectly simulates the “donor” or “parent” organism, and threatens to replace it with a new race of aliens, mutants or replicants."

So many specters, so little time. And then, once you are done fighting them, a swarm of monstrous doubles, evil twins, aliens, mutants and replicants sets upon your beleaguered mind. One good thing about all those horrors is that you don't have to bother with anything resembling evidence (unless saying that "the clone embodies horrors" is evidence); just dangling the word in front of the unsuspecting audience is enough to make it faint from fright. Note, for example the nonchalance of the following statement: "The specter of reproduction without sexual difference which leads quickly to fantasies of unleashed homosexual reproduction." The "specter" not only "leads" to "fantasies"; it does so "quickly". Many questions quickly rear their ugly heads: what is, exactly, "the specter of cloning" (and how it differs from fantasy to which it quickly leads);  where exactly does it reside; does "leads" mean "causes", "is associated with", or "transforms itself into"; how quick is "quickly" – a minute, an hour, a day, a month; is the fantasy conscious or unconscious; is it private, or collective; what, does actually a "fantasy of unleashed homosexual reproduction" involve (a subject interesting in its own right), and so on, ad inifitum. Well, perhaps we should desist from asking those pesky questions, because we would very quickly reach the inescapable conclusion that Professor Mitchell is saying practically nothing that can have some truth value attached to it. Or, as I said previously, he is not right, he is not even wrong.

Hooded Terrorists, Suicide Bombers and Other Headless Clones

The real howler, however, comes next: "the hooded suicide bomber": "The real horror of the hooded suicide bomber then, is not that there is some monstrous face concealed under the mask, but that when the mask is taken off, the face might be that of a perfectly ordinary person who could mingle among us, turning us against ourselves." 

Carried by the raging torrent of his metaphorical animus, Professor Mitchell missed the subtle change in the subject: from your general purpose "terrorist"(who, together with the clone forms "the mutually constitutive figures of the pictorial turn in our time" – whatever that means) to a more specific one – "the hooded suicide bomber". I don't know how things are in Chicago – perhaps over there suicide bombers, their heads covered with hoods, lumber around clueless, bumping into things - but in these parts they know better than that. The whole point of suicide bombing is being exactly the opposite of hooded; otherwise - how shall I put it, to make it crystal clear to Professor Mitchell? – one runs the risk of being recognized as someone to give a very wide berth to, which, in turn, might compromise one's (holy) mission.

By now the sentence in which the hilarious expression "hooded suicide bomber" appears, attains a meaning not quite intended by its author:  In case of suicide bomber there is no mask to begin with, and therefore not only he "could" have mingled among us, he (or she) actually does. And the "real horror" has little to do with discovering a perfectly ordinary face under the hood - in fact, it is much more mundane: the horror of being blown to smithereens by an innocently looking person sitting next to you in a bus. But then again, the words "real horror" might mean something completely different in Chicago – perhaps because of all those suicide bombers there, rendered completely harmless by the hoods they wear.

The "terrorist is often portrayed as a clone, a headless or at least faceless automaton, masked and anonymous, a mindless, pathological and suicidal life-form comparable to a virus, a cancer, or a sleeper cell that “incubates” inside the body of its host, turning the body’s defenses against itself in what Jacques Derrida has diagnosed as a socio-political form of autoimmune disorder".

The elevation of Derrida to the status of diagnostician supreme of collective maladies of the AIDS kind notwithstanding,[v] Professor Mitchell, in accordance with what by now cannot be described other than an unshakeable habit, offers no shred of evidence for his claims, except nonchalantly averring that the terrorist "is often portrayed". Is he really? How often, let's say, on a scale from one to ten? But even then, 'often' compared to what? Portrayed by whom? Where? Portrayed how? Do all the enumerated components of this composite picture (clone, automaton, mindless, virus, cancer, etc.) appear together in the alleged portrayals? And what one is to make of this stirred and shaken bag of metaphors? Headless virus? Faceless cancer? Suicidal automaton? Mindless sleeper cell? The sheer number of combinatorial possibilities can make your head spin.

As for the "portrayals" of hooded terrorists and their alleged links with cloning: how could it escape Professor Mitchell's attention that before anything else this is how they choose to portray themselves? True, in so doing they are partially motivated by the visions of inducing fear in the target audiences via dissemination of their masked countenances through the ravenous media, but let's not lose sight here of a much more potent motivation: the mundane, perfectly reasonable fear of being recognized by those responsible for hunting them down, not to mention being recognized by their own who would be willing to share this information with those who hunt them down. And, while we are at it, this is why people like bank robbers wear masks. Do they embody our "archaic phobias" too? And what about the burka-clad women, who are, in fact, the only example of hooded human beings hanging around - largely unmolested - in the midst of unmasked humanity? Cloning fantasies, anyone?

If you remain unconvinced by the clone-terrorist link, Professor Mitchell is willing to lavish you with evidence (this is the first time he does so in his article). We are talking about nothing less than the "perhaps the most vivid fantasy of terrorist as a clone" provided by Weekly World News, described by him as "online tabloid", which is as euphemistic as it gets. This juicy story – mind you, there are no others in Weekly World News - involves Iranian and Syrian plans to breed Aryan looking clones from the DNA of Hitler's SS bodyguards - to avoid racial profiling of course.[vi] This fearsome race of Schwarzeneggers (though with better accents) will be finally able to smite the infidels. To round off this mouth-watering scenario, the inevitable Israeli persona ("respectable historian and intelligence expert") makes a cameo appearance, providing the historical background of alliance between the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Nazis, which, to state the obvious, is the only part of this side-splitting story that has diplomatic relations with reality.

The question that occurs to me, as I am sure it does to other readers, is this: is the Israeli (aptly named Aviv Shimshon – he could be living right next to you!) also a part of this collective "most vivid fantasy"? While you are pondering this question, let me regale you with a tiny sample of countless other "perhaps most vivid fantasies" that infest the pages of the said august publication every single day: "Aliens Fail to Abduct Whale"; "McCain Delays Debate to Lengthen Legs"; "Palin Exterminating Bigfoot"; "Mole People Being Exploited"; "Undead Demand Health Insurance". And now, after enjoying a few hearty laughs, we can return to Professor Mitchell, according to whom those "associations of cloning and terrorism would not have any efficacy if they did not engage some level of historical reality and collective fantasy in the American populace." Neither the contorted syntax ("would have not … if they did not"), nor the nearly zero-information-content words ("efficacy", "engage", "some", "level") should deter us from detecting a trace of plausibility here: delicious as they are in their own right, stories such as those do appeal to popular imagination, residing in the minds of what Professor Mitchell disdainfully describes as "the American populace". On a second thought though, all media stories do, even in, say, Bolivia or in Qatar. That's why they are being published. There are millions and millions of such stories, all of them invariably "engag[ing] some level of historical reality and collective fantasy". But to make sense of this mess would take a little more effort than that expanded by Professor Mitchell in his diving into the bottomless tabloid cesspool and coming up triumphantly with a single story as evidence of fantasies underlying the link between terrorism and cloning. I hate to spoil the celebrations, but could we have some more evidence, please? Empirical, if it's not too much to ask? If none is coming, I wouldn't mind seeing Professor Mitchell compensating us with some serious scholarly analyses of American collective fantasies being "engaged" at "some level" by a story such as "McCain Delays Debate to Lengthen Legs," not to mention "Mole People Being Exploited". 

But the journey into the bizarre has just begun. Professor Mitchell proceeds to establish the connection between cloning and terrorism by noticing the astonishing coincidence between 9/11 and the intense coverage of the cloning debate in the American press, including "decision of President Bush to prohibit the development of new stem cell lines" ominously taken precisely one month previously, on August 9th. Hmmm. Could it mean that Bush did it what he did on purpose because had known in advance of about the imminent attack, or did Uncle Osama time his move to coincide with the spike of public interest in cloning in order to prompt the professorial chattering classes of a certain kind to delve into the connection later on? Now, that would be some serious coincidence; a conspiracy must not be ruled out.

 

At any event "the cloning issue was “buried,” as it were, by the onset of the terrorist attacks, but it seemed to hover over the ruins of the World Trade Center, as if the gray dust that hung in the air for weeks after their destruction contained traces of the DNA of the victims."[vii] Now, one can peer into this sentence until one's eyeballs pop out of their sockets and still remain clueless as to what on earth it could possibly mean. Apart from noting the glaring tastelessness of the second part of this sentence, which comes close to dabbling in the pornography of disaster, we could, if we really wanted to, toy with the spectacle of the cloning issue which was "buried" (but only "as it were"), coming back to life – courtesy of Uncle Osama - in the form of "gray dust" containing the victims' DNA (but only "as if"). We could do that, but more attractive forms of entertainment are much easier to come by. Again, notice the coyness of phrasing: 'as it were', 'it seemed', 'as if'. These prevarications are not accidental, of course; it is Professor Mitchell subconsciously recoiling from his own bold venturing into the terra of the bizarre.

 

Wishful Thinking as Politics by Other Means

As for Professor Mitchell's political bias and ideological wishful thinking that his article is literally dripping with, one can only scratch one's head in wonder: Why do it in such a convoluted, roundabout fashion, by writing a pretend academic piece, when one could just climb a soap-box and impress upon the random assembly of passers-by the following original message: "I HATE BUSH!!! THE WAR IN IRAQ IS VERY BAD!!!" The message would gain in clarity and brevity, while sparing the author the indignity of exposing to the innocent public the depths of his muddled thinking on the subject of cloning, terrorism, bio-pictures, etc, etc.

 

That Professor Mitchell intensely dislikes, to put it mildly, the Bush's administration "War on Terror" is one thing, but to clothe it in a garb of ex-cathedra pronouncements on issues such as military strategy and tactics, for example, is quite another. Thus, without thinking twice, he opines that "the aim of terrorism is, in fact, precisely to provoke this overreaction, to lure the “immune system” of the social body (its military and police powers) into responses which will have the effect of  increasing the power of the terrorists […]. Further down, he offers for our contemplation the anti-war cartoon by one Tom Paine, featuring "a graphic clone of Uncle Sam", i.e. Uncle Osama urging American viewers "I Want You to Invade Iraq." "Why?" asks Professor Mitchell rhetorically, and proudly answers his question: "As a recruitment device for al Qaeda." In case the reader hasn't grasped the depth of his strategic thinking, he adds: "The war in Iraq was a double blessing to bin Laden, and a double mistake by the U.S.  […] And it served as a recruiting device for jihadists." Needless to say, this provides Professor Mitchell with yet another opportunity to thrust "the clone" under our noses by describing Bin Laden as "the uncanny double" or, what else, "a graphic clone".  

 

My, my. While it cannot be ruled out that Bin Laden thought as Professor Mitchell wants him to think, even a simpleton like this writer cannot but point out that perhaps, just perhaps, the opposite could also be true: the war in Iraq was a device "to lure" al Qaeda operatives into Iraq so that they can be dealt with in situ. In fact, judging from the current situation in Iraq, this is exactly what happened; by all accounts, al Qaeda suffered a crushing defeat there, forcing it to transfer its main theater of operations into Waziristan and the Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan. Should we ask Professor Mitchell to eat his strategic hat? Well, we could, but he is already wearing the hat of a historian, judging Rumsfeld to be "the worst defense secretary in American history." Again, heeding Zhou en Lai's advice, isn't it "too early to tell"? Not for Professor Mitchell, who is wholly preoccupied with having his historical cake and eating it too.

 

Mutations and Other Imaginings

Let us consider another component of Professor Mitchell's metaphorical proclivities: "the mutation of political violence into international terrorism".  Now, what it could possibly mean? Even if we put aside the biological metaphor of mutation and its wholly unwarranted application to the political arena we are still left with questions like, political violence of who against whom? Where? As it stands, it's just a floating signifier. Furthermore, does every kind of political violence "mutate into international terrorism"? If so, the Tamil Tigers remain singularly uninformed, as is President Mugabe, or the Congolese insurgents, to mention just a few. All of them seem remarkably reluctant to mutate internationally. Perhaps – just another idle thought - reading Professor Mitchell's piece would show them the way? Needless to say, there is only one kind of political violence that displays an uninhibited proclivity to international mutation: the Middle Eastern kind. One wonders why Professor Mitchell is so keen on smoke-screening this rather universally known tidbit.

 

Professor Mitchell, however, does not leave us completely clueless regarding "mutation of terrorism", and deigns to offer a hint as to the catalyst of this mysterious mutation: "the paradoxical process by which the war on terror has the effect of producing more terror, 'cloning' more terrorists in the very act of trying to destroy them." Other than feeling grateful for the quotation marks around the word 'cloning,' one cannot help but wonder if this is an empirical statement, and if so, where is the evidence? Or perhaps this is an analytical statement, meaning that fighting terrorists is inherently, logically counterproductive. But this is demonstrably false. In the absence of empirical evidence and the presence of false logic we are left floating in the deep, vast, empty space of non-signification which seems to be a natural habitat for Professor Mitchell's thinking.

Having defined terrorism as "a form of psychological warfare", and, consequently the war on terror" as a "war against emotion", Professor Mitchell inexplicably changes gears declaring that "It is thus a war on a projected spectre or phantasm, a war against an elusive, invisible, unlocatable (sic) enemy, a war that continually misses its target, striking out blindly with conventional means and waging massive destruction on innocent people in the process." The image that Professor Mitchell is doing his best to convey is that of the dim-witted, nearly blind, lumbering Uncle Sam fruitlessly trying to hit a nimbly footed enemy (dancing like a butterfly?), who, furthermore, is as much a physical entity (terrorist) as he is an emotion (terror). I am afraid that this sentence, like so many others in his article, is just another example of Professor Mitchell's own "projected specters and phantasms." Even if we don't dwell on the curious phrase "waging destruction" which manages to confuse "inflicting destruction" with "waging war", everything in this sentence is either wishful thinking or plainly wrong; those thousands of AQ operatives who, in accordance with Professor Mitchell's description, thought themselves extremely "elusive, invisible, unlocatable" (never use one word when three can do the same job!) only to find themselves on the receiving end of guided missiles – they would certainly beg to differ if they could talk, which, being dead, they can't. Furthermore, let us observe that "massive destruction" with "conventional means" would simply mean carpet bombing; as things stand (pun not intended) though, the singular feature of American contemporary warfare is how little destruction – compared to earlier epochs (Dresden or Hiroshima) or to contemporary efforts, say, of the Russian military in Chechnia – is actually visited on innocent people. This is precisely one of the aims of continuing development of "smart weapons" – the exact opposite of "striking out blindly with conventional means."

 

The Other As Us

But Professor Mitchell shows his true mettle when he dissects the images of acts - which even he cannot describe as other than horrible - committed by the "Iraqi insurgents," who are better known as mostly foreign al Qaeda fighters. This vivisection is evidently designed to exonerate the perpetrators, although in his efforts to disguise his aims Professor Mitchell gets himself twisted in a knot so dense that he comes close to losing his bearings. The first method he employs is framing the decapitations and body mutilations as a poker game in which the "insurgents" are not acting of their own free will. We all know that the Eastern "other", especially the Middle one, never acts of his free will,[viii] the poor guy is just forced by the logic of the game to raise the gruesome stakes: "The justice of an eye for an eye escalates to a head for a head, and a symbolic decapitation is trumped by the staging of the real thing." So, the poker game goes like this: The American infidels hood Saddam's statue with their flag? Well, we have no choice but to "trump" their horrendous act by sawing off the real head of an infidel or two. The Americans humiliate Saddam by dental examination ("penetrating 'inside the head' of the head of state") while keeping appearances of judicial proceedings? We raise them one by reading aloud of the charges before we hack the random infidel's head off and then flood global media with snuff movies. This exciting poker game is, like nearly everything in his article, a figment of Professor Mitchell's fertile imagination. Unless, of course, he can convince us that he actually managed to penetrate inside the heads of the Al Qaeda poker players, just like those hideous American examiners of Saddam's dental cavities penetrated his head.

 

The second, even more weird, method of exonerating the atrocities committed by the "other" side is by juxtaposing them with "similar" practices of the only guilty party in town: the (mostly dead) white males. Here is a partial list of Professor Mitchell's risible accomplishments in this area:

 

"Although these images were immediately declared “barbaric” and “savage,” decapitation was a standard (and literal) form of “capital” punishment in European nations up to and including the French Revolution, which invented the guillotine as a “humane” form of quick and easy execution."

 

"On March 31, 2004, the bodies of four American contractors ambushed and killed outside Falluja were set afire, mutilated horribly in a kind of echo of the European practice of “drawing and quartering,”   

 

"Like the bystanders and participants in American lynching photographs from the early twentieth century, the assembled crowd expressed unabashed delight in the spectacle they were creating for the camera."

 

"They portray the rough, anarchic “frontier” justice carried out by an angry (and exultant) mob, a spontaneous act of violence meant to express the collective will of the city of Fallujah to be “the graveyard of the Americans."

 

What these innocuously sounding sentences present is the spectacle of Professor Mitchell bending over backwards to whitewash some deplorable "acts" perpetrated by "the other". This is nothing short of embarrassment of the riches, just take your pick. One moment "the other" is very much like medieval Europeans ("drawing and quartering"), in the next he mutates into an American lynching crowd, which changes shape into Robespierre's tribunals with their humane guillotine, only to reveal his true face as an unruly mob of the American West exacting frontier justice. So, what else is new? Well, the only thing that is new here is Professor Mitchell's hoisting Walter Kelly's adage about us meeting the enemy who is us into truly dizzying heights. Everywhere you turn all you see is your own precious cultural self, sometimes even the medieval version of it. If this is not a narcissistic nightmare, I don't know what is.

 

But even this is not enough for Professor Mitchell, whose imagination, now running full blast, is not content with representing the Eastern "other" as simply "echoing" familiar Western practices:  "Archaic forms of tribal violence designed to elicit the tribalistic reactions of the American public can make the global village a very dangerous place." They are clever little devils, those "archaic forms of tribal violence"! Who would have thought they can be "designed" to "elicit" something? But let's give Professor Mitchell a break here; just this once he sheds the armor of his patronizing attitudes to the Middle Eastern "other" allowing him to act outside the narrow circle of the hall of Western mirrors, by graciously granting him the privilege of putting up a mirror of his own in which he can recognize those familiar "tribalistic (sic) reactions of the American public." There is hope for "the other" yet.

 

A kind of interlude

Style, as Schopenhauer – who knew a thing or two about the subject – observed, is the physiognomy of the mind. So far I have mentioned, in passing, a few examples of Professor Mitchell's phrasings, which – as language always does – afford us a glimpse into the amazing workings of his thinking on the subject in question. At the risk of inflicting an unbearable tedium on the readers, I want to interrupt the flow of my random walk through Professor Mitchell's swampy landscape, by focusing on the peculiarities of writing - ranging from slipshod all the way to tergiversation - which reproduce in a most vivid fashion the muddled thinking, the incoherence, and, ultimately, the sheer whimsicality of his "argument".

 

What makes reading Professor Mitchell's article such an eerie experience is that grandiloquent pronouncements nestle cheek and jowl with astonishingly hazy and lame turns of phrase. I shall not dwell here on his pervasive use of the passive voice, which performs the task – unrelenting in its monotony – of absolving the writer of any form of accountability for his statements, not to mention the facility of constructing a picture of the world in which agents to whom specific actions can be attributed simply do not exist. But even more incomprehensible is Professor Mitchell's habit of equivocating at almost every step. Thus for instance, at the end of his introduction entitled "Cloning Terror", the author promises us he will conclude his musings "with a meditation on the Abu Ghraib photographs which I believe define a certain kind of end to this epoch." While reminding ourselves that Professor Mitchell's "I believe" can be another man's atheism, one cannot help but wonder what "a certain kind of end" could possibly mean? An uncertain beginning? A definite middle? And how can we tell? Well, we can't, which leaves us kind of uncertain as to Professor Mitchell's meaning. Or perhaps, we can "believe" there is a meaning. Or something.

 

The above is by no means an isolated example of "of kinding": "Horrible as they are, the images of decapitation betray a kind of symmetry with the hooding of Saddam’s statue…" "The bodies of four American contractors […] were set afire, mutilated horribly in a kind of echo of the European practice of “drawing and quartering."  Right, now we know exactly what we are talking about: kind of symmetry, kind of echo. Or possibly, a certain asymmetry and a sort of non-reverberation. Or kind of something completely different, as it were. Let's hope Professor Mitchell doesn't harbor any illusions he is presenting us with something even remotely resembling an argument; at the most it may be a kind of symmetrical echo of an argument, but that's the long and the short of it.

 

This kind of (pun intended) phrasing reaches the crescendo of hilarity in the following, breathless string of sentences a propos the image of the "Hooded Man" as a Christ-like icon. The said image "[…] synthesizes the phases of the passion into a single memorable icon as a kind of summary of everything accomplished by the American crusade in Iraq.  On the one hand, the image is a kind of ideological X-ray, exposing that mission as a Christian crusade […].  On the other hand, it provides […] a kind of mirror reversal of its intended purpose." I shall not give in to the tremendous temptation to parse this memorable sequence (just thinking of the possibilities opened by "a kind of mirror reversal" can send shivers up and down one's spine), if only because it would too much resemble kind of shooting a kind of fish in a kind of barrel. One thing though has to be mentioned, if only because Professor Mitchell must have been blissfully unaware of it when he penned those unthinkable thoughts: in the context of the image of the Hooded Man with both of his hands lifted in a crucified Christ-like posture, saying "on the one hand" and then "on the other hand", amounts to saying … well, I leave that to the reader's imagination.

 

Clowning Fra Angelico in Abu Ghraib

There is not much to be said about Professor Mitchell's dissection of the Abu Graib photographs, for the subject has been analyzed ad nauseam. Another reason for my reluctance to dwell upon this section of his article is that nearly all that Professor Mitchell does here is unbridled political ranting and raving of the "exposing people to the truth" kind, where "the truth" is unabashedly identified (cloned?) with the author's ideological prejudices. This, needless to say, is quite common; the unmistakable sign of every ideologue is peddling his wares as "the truth", which, of course results in inevitable resentment when "people" or, as he puts it "populace", are not eager to buy. I do, however, wish to address the three images that Professor Mitchell proudly submits to the reader as "evidence" which, in his view, speak volumes of the nefarious "system behind the system" as revealed by the whole Abu Ghraib episode.

 

The first two images are of the caricature/comics kind, and the third is a reproduction of "Lamentation" by Fra Angelico. Now, it is one thing to lump together the first two with the third, which, apart from being visual images and sharing, very roughly, similar imagery, have nothing in common. But to call the authors of those crude caricatures "artists," as Professor Mitchell ostentatiously does is, how shall we put it, pushing the envelope, especially when they are presented side by side with Fra Angelico. Let us, furthermore, observe that Sallah Edine Sallat, whom Professor Mitchell pompously designates as "an Iraqi mural artist" is anything but: Professor Mitchell should have consulted someone more knowledgeable than he is about the meaning of "mural painting"; he or she would have explained to him that "mural" is something more that drawing an enlarged, crude caricature on a wall. The fact that the photo of Sallat hard at his artistic endeavors was widely disseminated (in absolute majority of cases on left fringe sites which Professor Mitchell seems to visit a lot) says nothing about "iconological" value of the scribble, not to mention the fact that in order to gain any insight about the contextual meaning of this crude graffito we would have to be taken on a tour of a sample of hundreds of thousands of such images scribbled on Iraqi walls. It would be interesting to see what it would yield.

 

The second image was penned by another "artist", Guy Colwell, who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a political hack doing comic book illustrations for far-fringe, or "underground" publications, as well as social realist paintings of the kind that would feel absolutely at home in the heyday of the Soviet Union or East Germany. He can obviously draw better than the "Iraqi mural artist" Sallat, but his illustration "Abuse" ranks as equally crude agit-prop piece, which for unfathomable reasons is described by Professor Mitchell as making "even more emphatic the cloning of the Man with the Hood." Needless to say, the only thing it makes emphatic is his own and his academic brother-in-arms' from Chicago unexamined political beliefs.

 

The extent to which the relentless pursuit of one's ideological truths can play vicious tricks even with one's vision can be quite a depressing spectacle. In his indefatigable efforts to ram home the point of the evil of Abu Ghraib, Professor Mitchell dons the headgear of his métier – iconology – to entertain us with a long disquisition on the resemblance (or, as he puts it "echoes") of the photo of the Hooded Man to stages in the passion narrative. At first, he qualifies his bold assertion by saying that [transformation of the Hooded Man in a "Christ-figure"] "seems very unlikely that this was anyone's intention", only immediately to add "though some of the other torture images … make one wonder." At this point, of course, this reader at least wants to go down on his knees and beg: please, Professor Mitchell, just once, make up your mind! No more "seems very unlikely," no more "makes one wonder"! Professor Mitchell, of course, can't hear because he is already deep into iconological vivisection of the Hooded Man, portrayed as a "synthesis of three distinct moments from the iconography of the passion of Christ." It is here, in the third moment, the "Man of Sorrows," that Professor Mitchell, in his passion for the truth for the people, lets even his eyes deceive him: describing the image "that shows Jesus taken down from the cross, his body washed, and often displayed," he treats us to a reproduction of Fra Angelico's "Lamentation", where Jesus is portrayed "with his arms out at 4 and 8 o'clock." After looking carefully at the image, one cannot but reach the inescapable conclusion: Professor Mitchell must own a pretty weird clock. According to all the clocks known to this reader, Jesus' hands on Fra Angelico's painting are both at the same time: 6 o'clock. So what was this all about?

 

Echoing the author's description of the Hooded Man as the image "that synthesizes the phases of the passion into a single memorable icon as a kind of summary of everything accomplished by the American crusade in Iraq" we can only say that the clock blunder synthesizes the phases of Professor Mitchell's passion into a simple memorable icon as a kind of summary of everything accomplished by his crusade in his article.

 



[i] Actually the horror, at least in Crichton's book, on which the Spielberg's movie was based, has more to do with unleashing chaos on the world, in accordance with a certain version of chaos theory, i.e. instability of non-linear systems, commonly known as the butterfly effect.

[ii] When speaking of digital life form the author completely disregards truly digital life forms such as computer viruses, not to mention, other, more complex phenomenon of "artificial life" known also as "cellular automata" which began their career with the invention of "Game of Life" by the mathematician John Conway in 1971, and which opened up a lively discussion about definition of life.

[iii] Professor Mitchell's casual linking cloning with stem-cell research is meant mainly to clubber the devious Bush, so that he doesn't have to deal with the tremendous potential for treatment of genetic diseases opened by stem-cell research.

[iv] The author seems to be completely unaware of the irony of the expression "cloning embodies".

[v]  One would have thought that biological and medical metaphors applied to such complex entities as whole societies have gone out of fashion since the passing away more than hundred years ago of the crude functionalist sociology of Herbert Spencer, or the more sophisticated sociology in this vein of Talcott Parsons. That someone like Jacques Derrida seems to be unaware of the long history of criticism of these sociologies is very curious. In any event, talking about "socio-political forms of auto-immune disorder" could come about only following the AIDS epidemic, which attests to the vitality, so to speak, of medical analogies. Needless to say, "social auto-immune disorder" is little more than a journalist's metaphor.

[vi]  Elsewhere in his piece, Professor Mitchell disdainfully mentions Raphael Patai as a "racial profiler", whose book The Arab Mind is allegedly used by the American military as a guide to the mentality of the Middle Eastern Arabs. It is a truism that for Professor Mitchell everything connected with the American military smells awful, which of course makes him completely blind in those matters. This is not the place to describe Patai's work, but it should be pointed out that among his numerous books in anthropology there is also The Jewish Mind. Does it make him a "racial profiler" of his own people?

[vii] This inscrutable sentence was penned in the context of Professor Mitchell's discussion of proposals for various memorials for the 9/11 site. The proposal he favors – describing it "a more open and evocative memorial" in contrast to others which grandiosely sanctify the victims, which he intensely dislikes – is that by a New York photographer Kevin Clarke, who suggested a photo collage of the ruins overlaid with the letters of the DNA code. It doesn't occur at all to Professor Mitchell that a photograph can hardly serve as a memorial. The main reason for his preference in this area is the connection to the DNA letters, which – what else? – "create what I would call "deep portraits" or "biopictures" of human subjects. Note the transmogrification of "biopicture" from a "digital life form" to a photo-collage, which speaks volumes about Professor Mitchell's muddled concept.

[viii] As good example as any of absolving "the other" of responsibility for his act is Rashid Khalidi's description of the fighting between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip: "The foolishness and the irresponsibility of the Palestinian leadership played an enormous role, but a lot of this has to be laid at the doorstep of Bush administration and Israeli government policy. They almost willed this result." [emphasis mine – J.M.] (interview on NPR, http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=11131863). The silly evasiveness of "they almost willed it" does not, of course, obscure the overpowering urge to lay the "blame" for "the other's" acts at his perennial oppressors' door. To recall, among his other numerous accomplishments, Khalidi is the originator of the "democratic secular Palestine" idea, which, not counting "democratic people's republics," is a serious contender for the title of the most hilarious political idea of modern times.


Michalowicz is a lecturer at Theory and History Dpt., Bezalel Academy of Art and Design

The Left, the Right and the Holy Spirit, October 2008