The iconography of war and terror

by February 15, 2011

In this media and advertising-saturated age, the power of images is hardly a point of debate. At their most banal, they grab our attention to make a sale; at their most elevated, they hold us spellbound in an art gallery. Yet there is another form of image, that of the icon, which combines powers both visual and symbolic. The icon is a representation of something–an institution, a phenomenon–much bigger than itself. The image of a cross calls Christianity into our minds; in a similar though less deliberate way AP photographer Nick Út’s picture of naked children fleeing a napalm strike stands in for the cruelty and tragedy of the entire Vietnam War.

University of Chicago professor of English and art history W.J.T. Mitchell has long been fascinated with the power of icons, and with the role they play in our culture and politics. His new book, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present, studies the iconic imagery of the War on Terror–one of the most notorious examples being that of the hooded and wired prisoner standing on a box at Abu Ghraib–and the ways that it has both reflected and influenced American thinking about war and terrorism. Most provocatively, Mitchell argues that there may be deep parallels between the debate over cloning (relevant icon: the famous photo of Dolly the cloned sheep), with its “uncanny” implications of replication, and the war itself, with its hooded prisoners and its (seemingly) multiplying and faceless terrorists.

In a fascinating exchange hosted on the University of Chicago Press blog (see Parts I, II, and III), Mitchell discusses these themes with Tzvetan Todorov, author of The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations:

You [Todorov] choose to situate your discussion within the age-old debate on barbarism versus civilization, with “culture” playing the role of a kind of currency between these two polarities. My framework is more narrowly focused on what I call the “iconological” dimension of the conflict, with an emphasis on the verbal and visual images, metaphors, and pictures that define the symbolic and imaginary elements of the conflict. That is why, for me, the figure of cloning is so crucial. It not only helps to clarify the curious and paradoxical reversal in which a war has the effect of making the enemy stronger; it also captures, in my view, a whole range of specific features of the imagery that defines the war on terror.

In 2006, Mitchell spoke on the same topic to the Case Western Reserve University’s Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities: