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The Abu Ghraib Effect

The line between punishment and torture can be razor-thin—yet the entire world agreed that it was definitively crossed at Abu Ghraib. Or perhaps not. George W. Bush won a second term in office only months after the Abu Ghraib scandal was uncovered, and only the lowest-ranking U.S. soldiers involved in the scandal have been prosecuted. Where was the public outcry? Stephen Eisenman offers here an unsettling explanation that exposes our darkest inclinations in the face of all-too-human brutality.

            Eisenman characterizes Americans’ willful dismissal of the images as “the Abu Ghraib effect,” rooted in the ways that the images of tortured Abu Ghraib prisoners tapped into a reactionary sentiment of imperialist self-justification and power. The complex elements in the images fit the “pathos formula,” he argues, an enduring artistic motif in which victims are depicted as taking pleasure in their own extreme pain. Meanwhile, the explicitly sexual nature of the Abu Ghraib tortures allowed Americans to rationalize the deeds away as voluntary pleasure acts by the prisoners—a delusional reaction, but, The Abu Ghraib Effect reveals, one with historical precedence. From Greek sculptures to Goya paintings, Eisenman deftly connects such works and their disturbing pathos motif to the Abu Ghraib images.

Skillfully weaving together visual theory, history, philosophy, and current events, Eisenman peels back the political obfuscation to probe the Abu Ghraib images themselves, contending that Americans can only begin to grapple with the ramifications of torture when the moral detachment of the “Abu Ghraib effect” breaks down and the familiar is revealed to be horribly unfamiliar.

144 pages | 50 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2007

Art: Art Criticism

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“Writing about events that never, ever should have happened is no small challenge, even for the citizens of a us culture that now flirts with ‘representing the unrepresentable’ and disputes any evidential role for photography. Nonetheless, Stephen Eisenman has taken up this daunting challenge with an unflinching analysis that will long endure—as will our stark memories of the horrors unleashed by the administration of George W. Bush.”--David Craven, author of Art and Revolution in Latin America, 1910 – 1990



David Craven

“In The Abu Ghraib Effect Stephen F. Eisenman claims a deeper historical root for displays of pride and complicity in torture and murder. He traces what he calls the ’pathos formula’, manifest in images of the beautiful death and the sublimation of suffering in the subordinate. . . . Eisenman gallops through the phenomenology of Western Art, the socio-geographic history of Europe and perception of Muslim cultures.”

Sally O'Reilly | Time Out London

"Scholarly, succinct, and flush with photos, Eisenman’s analysis is art history at its most compelling."

Brendan Driscoll | Booklist

"As a professor of art history he cleverly argues that the disturbing images that came out of this prison are part of a well-established artistic tradition."

Glasgow Herald

"The Abu Ghraib Effect asks how pictures of such surpassing horror can vanish in plain sight, and concludes that their disappearance is largely a matter of the very centrality of such images to Western art. . . . This argument convinces, up to a point, and Eisenman is surely right to adduce an affinity between the torture photographs and a venerable motif of Western art . . . his contention that the pathos formula perhaps constitutes the only real unity of that ostensibly humanist and progressive tradition is audacious and illuminating."

Brian Dillon | Art Review

"There is much in this book to commend. It provides, for instance, a model of engaged, critical scholarship, one that makes art history relevant to today’s political concerns. Eisenman’s political commitments, moreover, are evident without ever feeling preachy or overly didactic. Dedicated to holding art history accountable for its racist representations, he debunks, in easy flowing prose, the myth that high culture somehow exists outside the desublimatory impulses that guide much of popular culture—video games, movies, pornography, etc. And in demonstrating that art’s history is not as humanist or angelic as it is often presented, he effectively shows how throughout history artists and art historians have been more than willing to service the powerful. Yet the book is not all pessimism and finger-pointing. It appears that Eisenman’s true concern is to construct a history that counters the celebration of violence as conquest and that refuses to make suffering beautiful. This counterhistory, I think rightly, is presented as the antidote to the Abu Ghraib effect. Thus, artists such as William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, Leon Golub (Käthe Kollwitz might also have been mentioned) model instances of resistance and play significant roles as examples of artists whose political commitments guide their production, situating their work for Eisenman outside of the pathos formula."

Terri Weissman | CAA Reviews

"Illuminating and timely. . . . Eisenman’s concepts and questions constitute a challenging discourse on politics and art."

Dacid Ebony | Art in America

"A professor of art history at Northwestern, Stephen Eisenman, writes a short condensed book on the Abu Ghraib which illuminates some of the disturbing power of the images. But he is also concerned with the fact that they are absorbed into the dominant ideology."

Jump Cut

Table of Contents

1 Resemblance
2 Freudian Slip
3 Documents of Barbarism
4 Pathos Formula
5 Stages of Cruelty
6 Muscle and Bone
7 Theatre of Cruelty
8 Orientalism
Afterword: What is Western Art?
Photographic Acknowledgements

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