May 26, 2024

The attractive fantasy of complete control

I've been ruminating on Susan Sontag's essay in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday, "Regarding the Torture of Others". You can read the essay here. I've been thinking a lot about the nature of fantasy--my own fantasies, the fantasies of others, the fantasies that play out in the 'privacy' of the internet when your spouse isn't home, the fantasies that play out publicly in the media. We have these photos now, that despite their specificity (a few Americans did this to a few Iraqis), have nonetheless proliferated to the edge of saturation, a point we don't like to admit.

As Sontag writes, the real horror of these photographs is not necessarily what they depict, but that the horrors they show cannot be separated from the horror that the photos were taken in the first place. Individuals use photography to capture memories in memoriam. We use cameras primarily to record events, moments, situations that we're proud of. Here's me standing beside Mount Rushmore (read: I took a vacation). Here's my son at his graduation. Here's my granddaughter. Sontag calls the photos from Abu Grahib souvenirs of a collective action, akin to people posing below the bodies of lynching victims. What could it mean to think of these photos as tourist snapshots? Certainly there isn't a soldier in Iraq who feels like he or she's on vacation, that sees palm trees and architecture and markets and thinks, "quaint." Yet the photos signal at the very least moments of relaxation. Perhaps they were letting off steam, as Limbaugh suggests. Admitting such doesn't condone their acts. Fantasies are about letting off steam, and the fantasy of having complete control over another human being might be an attractive one to soldiers in the field who are constantly in fear of being killed. Are there better ways of 'letting off steam'? Of course. That's not what I'm interested in. I'm more interested in the conditions that must be present in order for one person to completely objectify another human, to in fact turn him or her into a fantasy. I'm interested in what Lynndie England has encountered in Iraq, that she can beam so compellingly at a masturbating prisoner.

Here's an uncomfortable question: do these photos turn you on? Is the idea of complete control over another human being (both physically and sexually, just like the photos of Abu Grahib), an attractive idea for you? I'm not asking if you'd actually do what they did in real life; rather, I'm asking what sorts of fantasies we might possess in the cellar, pleasurable to imagine, morally reprehensible to act out upon an unwilling subject. Most of us make the distinction between fantasy and real life -- we enjoy certain thoughts precisely because we know it would be wrong to act them out. These photos will continue to proliferate. Soon many will be on the internet, where they'll end up as wank material, the visual heirs to a multitude of private fantasies.

Sontag's essay seems to make the common argument that pornography causes violence and sexual abuse, specifically, the home-grown pornography now common on the web.

But most of the pictures seem part of a larger confluence of torture and pornography: a young woman leading a naked man around on a leash is classic dominatrix imagery. And you wonder how much of the sexual tortures inflicted on the inmates of Abu Grahib was inspired by the vast repertory of pornographic imagery available on the Internet--and which ordinary people, by sending out Webcasts of themselves, try to emulate.
That's a rather awkward phrase. Most people do not post 'webcasts' of themselves on the internet, though they do consume amateur, voyeuristic, and fantasized images of every stripe. I disagree with the argument that the visuals cause the fantasy, because, while It's a much nicer way of looking at the human mind, I'm rather of the opinion that such fantasies already exist within the individual, and find their forms of expression in the tableaus of certain images The expansive palate of sexual imagery available on the Internet, and the photos of Abu Grahib, show not the potential of the visual image to influence us, but rather reveals the extent to which sexuality can be deployed into other spheres of expression. Sex doesn't have to be an expression of love, or even affection. Sex can be an expression of addiction, anger, sadness, evil, or fear. This burgeoning economy of sex can be liberating, or it can be horrific. That's what you get with our unfettered capitalism of sex. It's been around forever; only now, at Abu Grahib, are the photos available for download.

Posted by jason at May 26, 2024 08:00 AM


When an intellectual like Sontag gets a chance to sound off in the NY Times Magazine, you can expect some important distinctions to get fuzzed. I was reading along admiringly, until I got to: "the photographs are us." Uh oh. Probably can stop reading, the rest is likely to be posturing in the guise of thinking.

The nature of performance, the nature of spectatorship, the forms of interaction--participation, identification, displacement, surrogacy. The relationships among sex, power, control, violence. The impulse to record, the nature of reality in photographs. These are overlapping spheres, but they're not the same sphere.

When Sontag suggests that people who watch sex on the web are somehow responsible for what happened at Abu Ghraib--well, she's off in theory land. The theory-term is "implication." But you'll note that despite her use of first-person pronouns, Sontag clearly doesn't consider herself implicated in Abu Ghraib, not even when she jumps at the chance to use it as an opportunity to display her erudition (and reproduce the photos again).

Yes, of course, there's something to it. But Sontag doesn't really explore that; she goes for the facile generalization.

When I read something like Sontag's essay, I think it's good to remember one of the best novels I ever read, "The Assault" by the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch. "The Assault" tells the story of a young boy whose parents are killed by the Nazis in reprisal for anti-Nazi incidents in which the parents weren't involved. It's the Nazis who make the argument that all Dutch are implicated in the violence because it's happening, it's being done in their name, and they know or at least suspect that it's going on. Logically this is pretty close to Sontag's "photographs are us" argument. But in Mulisch's book, when the young boy is agonizing over his parents' death and who is responsible, somebody says to him, simply: "the people who are responsible are the people who did it."

That's over-simple too (and my summary oversimplifies the novel). But it's probably a sounder ethical perspective than we get from New York Times intellectuals.

Posted by: glen at May 26, 2024 12:32 PM