Sunday, May 23, 2004

"3 Impacts: An Introduction"

Perhaps it is the elitism of our newspapers that has led them to consult critics, artists, linguists and other non-politicians to help us sort through Abu Ghraib. Certainly, those war supporters who wish to silence the dissent of the Creative Class will claim it is. Personally, I’m pretty sure it’s the utter uselessness of our politicians on both sides of the aisle that has led us to finally, out of necessity, contact a few skilled writers and say “guide us”. This is not to say that the inquiry into Abu Ghraib isn’t important, or that there isn’t good work being done. There is good work, much of it being done by Republicans like McCain, working against Republicans like Inhofe and Democrats like Lieberman to get to the bottom of the Abu Ghraib outrages. It’s simply that while the investigation may eventually create a coherent narrative of events, causes, people, places, things, this determination will be ultimately unsatisfactory.

It will be unsatisfactory because while the hearings will construct an “official story”, we are living in this postmodern hell of complete media coverage, where everyone can have a voice as long as their story is sexy enough and there is no single tale to be told. We live in a Rashoman world of multiple narratives grasping at something like truth, always out of reach, always the next street over, always, ultimately, non-existent. We have seen this time and again with official calamities. Who really thinks the Warren Commission got to the bottom of things when Kennedy was assassinated? Who really thinks we know what happened in the lead up to 9/11 that made it possible? We respond to these things with convenient answers- in the case of Kennedy, we pick an explanation and hold onto it as an article of faith, in the case of 9/11, we claim it as an act of God so beyond the pale that no one was really to blame. With Abu Ghraib, we are already seeing the contrasting narratives taking shape: It was an isolated incident or group of isolated incidents involving these several bad apples. It was authorized from the highest levels of government. It was merely a translation of tactics already approved elsewhere and applied in the Iraqi prison. It was the result of a culture of laxity vis a vis human rights in the DOD. It was pornography. It was a Skull and Bones hazing ritual. It was the result of women in the military. It was necessary to finding the terrorists. It was totally unnecessary to finding the terrorists. The people who killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11 never apologized, so that’s explanation enough. It was the United States’ fault. It was the Iraqi’s fault. It was Don Rumsfeld’s fault. It was Charles Grainer’s fault. It was the digital camera’s fault.

What we are really searching for is a Platonic Ideal of a congressional report. We want the Senators to call down from a misty metaphysical plane hereby untapped by NASA satellites or Sunday morning sermons some distant codified version of real events that led up to the torture, A-to-B-to-C style. Somewhere deep inside us, however, we know that even that wouldn’t do, for facts have no meaning for the current government of the United States and facts would not explain anything about Abu Ghraib. The fact that Grainer was (let’s assume for just a moment) ordered to torture inmates would not explain why the order was given, or why he followed the order or anything like that.

And so it is that we turn to the very same people we often make fun of for not living in the real world: the creative class. Unbounded by facts, our architects of fiction, our champions of subjectivity, our lords of postmodernity finally have found a use. When all else fails, call an artist. At least they’ll tell you how to screw in the light bulb in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

I have this to say to those now seeking the counsel of artists: be careful what you wish for. Call on a cultural critic, and you’ll get a critique of culture, and there’s a good chance it won’t be one you’re particularly interested in hearing. After all, the artists America derided before the war were more on target than the so-called experts, including Presidents Clinton and Bush, PM Tony Blair, multiple secretaries of state, many functionaries at the UN and the majority of public intellectuals on both sides of the political aisle. Can you blame us for saying “I told you so”? Can you blame us for letting America know we have a use? If we dabble in self-righteousness from time to time, can you forgive us for seeking this small comfort in a world so actively hostile to what we have to say?

I say this all as a rather lengthy preamble to some thoughts on Abu Ghraib. I don’t know why Ghraib happened and as I’ve written above, I’m not sure its possible to know. I want to suggest answers as to why the impact of the photos is so powerful in American culture. I have three thoughts on the subject. I’ll post at least the first one later today or tomorrow.

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