Cloning Hype: A Kind of Reply to W.T.J. Mitchell's "Cloning Terror
Cloning Hype: A Kind of Reply to W.T.J. Mitchell's "Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to Abu Ghraib"
When asked b
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 b
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 simpl
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 ver
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 b
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, the
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 actuall
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
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
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 nonchalantl
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 the
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 finall
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 realit
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
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
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 strateg
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
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 ver
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 b
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.
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." The
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".
reading Professor Mitchell's article such an eerie experience is that
grandiloquent pronouncements nestle cheek and jowl with astonishingly haz
is by no means an isolated example of "of kinding": "Horrible as the
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
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
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 the
The second image was penned b
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
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
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 b
[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. The
Michalowicz is a lecturer at Theory and History Dpt., Bezalel Academy of Art and Design