Today was the first meeting of Gottlieb’s “Theory after 9/11” Seminar. During class we read Slavoj Zizek’s In These Times article What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib. Zizek argues that despite the claims of the media and Bush administration that the humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was not symbolic of the United States military and were instead “isolated crimes,” that these abuses are actually part of a systemic system of American humiliation and initiation:
To anyone acquainted with the reality of the American way of life, the photos brought to mind the obscene underside of U.S. popular cultureâ€”say, the initiatory rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo to be accepted into a closed community. Similar photos appear at regular intervals in the U.S. press after some scandal explodes at an Army base or high school campus, when such rituals went overboard. Far too often we are treated to images of soldiers and students forced to assume humiliating poses, perform debasing gestures and suffer sadistic punishments.
The torture at Abu Ghraib was thus not simply a case of American arrogance toward a Third World people. In being submitted to the humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture: They got a taste of the cultureâ€™s obscene underside that forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy and freedom. No wonder, then, the ritualistic humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was not an isolated case but part of a widespread practice. On May 6, Donald Rumsfeld had to admit that the photos rendered public are just the â€œtip of the iceberg,â€ and that there were much stronger things to come, including videos of rape and murder.
We discussed during class “initiation,” because it seems that the prisoners at Abu Ghraib can never fully be initiated into America, because they can never be America. This brought us to alterity: it seems that one can only be fully initiated once one becomes fully American: that is, once one is fully white, male, straight, middle class, able bodied. The humiliation continues as long as one remains not fully American: a person of color, women, queer, poor, disabled, and so forth. I was immediately reminded of Sandra Lee Bartkyâ€™s â€œThe Pedagogy of Shame,” in which she discusses this very act of shaming our culture engages in towards women (I discussed Bartky here).
When I took Creative Democracy last year, we discussed very early in the term what it meant to be American, and some of us came up with: white, male, straight, middle class, able bodied. Those outside the center, those disenfranchised by the system, are never quite fully American. And if you are not, you are attacked consistently with this cultural pedagogy of shame: a regimen of humiliation that continually tries to initiate you into the system until you are finally straight, man enough, middle class enough â€” or, for women, impossibly, male enough, and since, without undergoing transition, a woman is not a man, she is forever shamed. Indeed, all these folks are forever shamed, for shame and humiliation is something we carry with us. The poor person who becomes middle class carries with the self the shame of internalized classism. The queer person who “reforms” and “becomes” straight surely carries with hirself shame: I was once abhorrent and can only cast aside this abhorrence by casting it as sin and myself as a sinner.
But the prisoners of Abu Ghraib, stateless, homo sacer, can never become Americans: They are too brown, too Muslim, too militant…