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Tag: iraq

Sisterfucking up the Euphrates

In German, the prefix ur- is used to indicate the now deeply unfashionable sense of an originary, primal form of a thing, which is also its end. Something ursprünglich is the first of its kind, so you’ll have the Uraufführung, or the début performance; the Urtext, the lost first draft of the Hebrew Bible that supposedly existed before all the various priests started fucking around with it; the Urwald, the dense dark forest that once covered the whole of central Europe. The word itself is of good Old Germanic stock, and it’s probably just a coincidence that this caveman’s grunt of a syllable is also the name of a city: that built by ‘Ara son of Kesed, where he made graven images and unclean simulacra, where evil spirits seduced him into wrong and sin, and where the sons of Noah first began to make war on each other. It’s a word from the oldest of the old histories, from when the world was still new; the brutal hoary infancy of civilisation. Before the Romans or the Greeks or the Persians or the Babylonians or the Egyptians, there was Ur, the city on the mouth of the Euphrates where Abraham smashed the idols of his father.

Freud tells a nice parable about the origin of the superego, what could be called an Ur-über-Ich. Once, among a band of squatting cannibal ape-men that would one day become the refined intellectual circus of Vienna, there lived a great and powerful father. This father had many wives, and he took many wives for himself: some were the captured daughters of smaller bands, some were his own daughters. Such was his power that his sons were left with neither food, nor loot, nor wives, and were reduced to contesting among themselves for what scraps they could gain. Eventually, in the face of his unbearable potency, the brothers grouped together, overwhelmed their father, and clubbed him to death. That night they held a great feast, at which their father was the main course. At this moment, the superego was brought into the world. The brothers were jealous of their father, but at the same time they still loved him; out of their guilt the rapacious greed of the father became internalised as a moral code, with its first commandment being a restatement of his paternal rights: Thou shalt not fuck thy sisters.

Like most myths of the land of Ur(-), it doesn’t really matter if any of this actually took place or not. Hobbes and Rousseau were both happy to admit that their states of nature never really existed; Marx was equally unconcerned by the historicity of primitive communism. Freud has a particularly good get-out clause – as he has his ‘exasperated reader’ exclaim, so it’s immaterial whether one kills one’s father or not! While some fathers might have a different opinion on the matter, Freud concedes the point: wanting to kill your father and actually doing so both produce the same psychological effect; the same guilt, the same internalisation. It’s in this context that the story of Abraham begins to make sense. When he lived with his father Terah in the city of Ur, the family sold graven idols; Abraham destroyed these unclean simulacra and went with his wife Sarah into the desert. It doesn’t matter that Terah died peacefully at the age of two hundred and five: the idols, rooted in the paternal totem of the victorious brothers, represent what Lacan calls the name-of-the-father; the Symbolic father that maintains the prohibition on incest. It’s possible to advance an alternate reading of Abraham’s flight to Canaan: when he lived in Mesopotamia he was married to Sarah but still he couldn’t fuck her, not in the house of his father. The book of Genesis explains their childlessness by claiming that Sarah was barren, but the book of Genesis was also written by men, who are always a little squeamish when it comes to male impotence. Sarah was the daughter of Terah by his second wife: she was Abraham’s sister.

Lacan’s concept of the name-of-the-father is a triple pun: le nom du père recalls le non du père (the ‘no’ of the father, the prohibitive function of the superego) but also les non-dupes errent (the non-dupes err). Those who refuse to be ‘duped’ by the process of castration and induction into the Symbolic order – the kind of person who might, for instance, take it upon himself to smash the idols of his father – are not in fact seeing the world as it really is; they’re stuck among the horrors of the Imaginary. The book of Genesis is full of hints towards Abraham’s singular neurosis. Several times in his journeys, as he comes across various unfriendly peoples, he has Sarah pretend to be his sister – in other words, pretend to be what she really is – so that kings and pharaohs will try to sleep with her. For this God punishes them with plagues and nightmares: none shall disrupt His holy incest.

All this is by way of approaching an understanding of the current instability in Iraq. The land of Ur is, for the Western powers that have been steadily clubbing it for the last century, a feared and hated father. All the paternal functions of society first sprung up in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates: alphabetical writing, codes of law, economic class, monotheism. In the pre-Oedipal stages of infantile psychology there is no recognition of sexual difference and the fantasy of anal birth is common, so it’s no wonder that the Iraq-Father assumes a hemaphrodite form. One vast leg stretches down the Arabian peninsula, the other is cocked between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Between these lie the damp muddy openings of the rivers, passages leading up into the womb of civilisation, while beyond their fertile banks the desert stretches for miles. An old, decaying parental presence that refuses to die. No wonder everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Winston Churchill felt the need to invade Iraq.

On the plane of grand strategy, nobody’s Middle East policy makes any sense. Saudi Arabia props up the secular Sisi regime in Egypt, and has threatened to blockade Qatar over the latter’s support for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time Sisi supports the Assad government in Syria, which the Saudis have spent millions trying to overthrow, and is making friendly overtures towards Iran, while his deposed predecessor Morsi tended to align himself with the Saudi-Israeli anti-Tehran axis. The United States is now considering intervention in support of Iran against Islamist movements in Iraq, fighting the same people it’s armed and funded (through Saudi proxies) to fight Iran’s allies in Damascus. The ‘war on terror’ was never really a consistent programme: while Western imperialism made some efforts against Sunni salafism (Afghanistan in 2001, possibly Iraq now) it’s mostly been used to attack secular Arab nationalist governments (Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Syria from 2012). This is diplomacy as a dialectic. Its model isn’t the Nile, with its divisions along the axis of a straight line, but the swampy chaos of Mesopotamia. There are no fixed power blocs, not even Sunni and Shia, only a series of fluid phases successively subsumed in their own contradictions. It’s a grand process of decoding, the untethering of signification, the struggle against the Symbolic, the denial of castration, the murder of the father.

In 2003, the occupying US Army set up Camp Alpha, a huge military base in the ruins of Babylon. Helicopters buzzed around the ancient bricks, Humvees rolled through the Ishtar Gate, defensive trenches were dug through the strata of five millennia. As symbolic erasures of the name-of-the-father go, it ranks up there with Abraham’s destruction of his father’s idols. Still, after the father is killed, it still remains to eat his corpse. Iraq must be consumed. In recent weeks a small armed outfit calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or of Iraq and al-Sham, or of Iraq and the Levant, or Daash – such signifiers tend to only refer to each other) has captured a string of cities in the country and is advancing, or at least making a feint, towards Baghdad. Reports in the Western media claim ISIS funds itself from the territory it already holds and doesn’t require any state support. They’re known to be selling oil to the Syrian government forces they’re supposedly fighting, and (this is a nice touch) are reportedly profiting from the sale of looted antiquities from archaeological digs. All this is pretty dubious, but in any case the Saudis seem rather nonchalant about the peril to the Iranian-aligned Maliki government. Even if ISIS aren’t receiving direct Western support it’s almost certain that arms supplied to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels are filtering through to them. The terrors and massacres in Mesopotamia are as Western-manufactured as Big Macs and banking crises. Of course, when imperial adventures cause chaos, the solution is more imperial adventure. There’s a growing clamour for intervention; aircraft carriers are heading up the Gulf, the hideous grinning hobgoblin that is Tony Blair returns to haunt the political discourse with its carefully considered opinion. There’s a very real chance that we might be about to enter a third Gulf War. In the face of this danger, it must be kept in mind that when imperialists press for action, all they really mean is that they want to be able to fuck their own sisters.

Why George W Bush is the greatest living painter

Political violence is the continuation of art by other means. Wherever there are shock troops marching in the streets or big pyres of burning books or the sounds of mysterious gunfire near the parliament building at night, you can bet that behind it all flutters the soul of a sensitive young boy who always wanted to be an artist. Brutishness is easy; anyone can commit an atrocity in the right conditions. Violence requires a highly rarefied aesthetic sensibility.

Painters carry out wars of aggression. They’re in love with the image of things. Poets go for internal ethnic cleansing. The word must be properly spoken. Prose writers like revolutionary terror. The text is radically open. There have been fewer dictators from the other arts, but we could extrapolate. Photographers make good use of death squads; the gaze and the judgement are united in the click of a shutter. Sculptors are big on mass internment; the body is always already buried in the rock. Playwrights tend towards bureaucracy, musicians to exemplary massacre, film-makers to redistributive looting. Lenin and Mussolini wrote prose. Stalin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh were poets. Saddam Hussein wrote poetry alongside his anonymous novels. Churchill was a painter. Hitler was a painter, but he penned a few verses as well. George W Bush is a painter.

 This is the void. A line of detainees goes in, shackled, shuffling along in orange jumpsuits. Paintings of dogs come out. Nobody knows exactly what happens inside, or if they do, they don’t say.

George W Bush has produced fifty paintings of dogs. For every drone strike he ordered, he has produced one painting of a dog. For every round of golf he played while in the White House, he has produced two paintings of a dog. For every million Americans left unemployed at the end of his administration, he has produced five paintings of a dog. George W Bush has produced one painting of a dog for every thirteen US soldiers killed in Afghanistan during his Presidency, one painting of a dog for every hundred Palestinians killed by the IDF, and one painting of a dog for every two thousand, two hundred and thirty-seven civilians killed in Iraq since the invasion. Bush’s art teacher told reporters that he would go down in history as a great artist. I think she’s right.

There have been a couple of critical pieces on Bush’s paintings, and they all ask the same question: what do these paintings tell us about George W Bush’s inner life, or his psychology, or his presidency? They’ve all got it arse-backwards. If you follow that line you’ll only ever end up with trite reductive analogies. The running water represents Hurricane Katrina, or Bush’s need to atone for his crimes, or his fear of death; it’s a vaguely amusing parlour game, but not much more. If you want to know the truth, there’s no point looking at Bush’s self-portraits. You have to look at his paintings of dogs. The real question is: what do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about contemporary society? What do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about violence? What do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about art?

Imagine a creature from another world, something impossibly old and infinitely curious. Drifting between silent stars, she picks up a single stray transmission from an unknown planet in an uncharted backwater of the Milky Way. A picture of a dog. If our alien has eyes to see, she’ll be able to extrapolate our entire world from George W Bush’s painting of a bichon frisé on a blue background. A hierarchical class society looks out from its sad round eyes, capital accumulation can be inferred from the downwards tilt of its mouth, its outstretched paws tell you everything you need to know about the long slow decline of the nation-state. Most of all, though, our history is inscribed in the featureless blue plane on which the dog reclines. In fact, it’s swarming with tiny figures: child miners coughing dust, factory workers plunging from rooftops, women with acid scars bursting across their faces, people who wake up shaking from the bombs going off in their dreams, people who wake up shaking from the bombs going off in their ears. A society capable of producing that shade of blue leaves a lot of bodies in its wake.

Spend enough time looking at George W Bush’s paintings of dogs and it all starts to make sense. The war in Iraq was little more than the geopolitical expression of kitschy sentimentality. Imperialist universalism is the logic of the dog painting extended to nations and peoples. Radical evil is the weaponisation of bad taste. We’ll be greeted as liberators: of course we will, we love our dogs. History is on our side: of course it is, we like nice things. Our war will usher in a new age of peace and stability in the region: of course it will, we leave bright colours in our wake. George W Bush’s paintings of dogs represent a new height in Western society’s struggle to decouple art from violence. (This is why his nude self-portraits are all in bathrooms: only in the cleansing ritual is nudity non-erotic, and eroticism is after all only another form of violence.) It’s an impossible task. Violence and art are inseparable; the more you try to scrub the canvas clean of everything not clean and pleasant, the more hideous it becomes, the heavier the rain of bombs.

That’s why George W Bush is our greatest living painter. Nothing expresses more clearly the horror of existence than the most hated man in the world’s loving portrait of his dog. More than any gloomy conceptualist, Bush gives us the truth, the undisguised omnicidal violence of the nice and friendly. His paintings of dogs point towards the one subject all other contemporary art shies away from: the final extinction of the human race. Bright eyes and wagging tails, cities in ruins and skies scorched black. Art kills.

Ten years gone

Today’s media is, of course, dominated by those four catastrophic characters, in an orgiastic display of symbolic fetishisation, as if the date were more important than the dead. The regurgitation of traumatic memories, the pseudo-sagacious surveys of the past decade, the groundless arrests of suspicious-looking Muslims, bring out the bunting, it’s an anniversary!

I will say this, though: the biggest lie about 9/11 is that it changed everything. The greatest tragedy about 9/11 is that it changed nothing. All it did was give certain people an excuse to do what they had always been doing. There is not, nor has there ever been, a War Against Islam, despite the fantasies of cultural essentialists on both sides, and the insistences of otherwise level-headed leftists. The United States is doing in the Middle East exactly what it has always done: defending its interests, acting with idiotically myopic pragmatism. The myth of American invulnerability may have been briefly punctured, but it’s not as if that hasn’t happened before – remember our little adventures in Indochina? And the security of American existence has always produced a kind of paranoia: millennialism, reds under the bed, Geronimo on the warpath, gangs invading the suburbs.

Not that 9/11 didn’t have its political and cultural ramifications. But when it comes to assessing its impact, our focus should be, if anything, narrowed: it should be on those who died on the planes and in the towers, and those that survive them. Politically, 9/11 is an empty signifier: its pathetic impact was so broad that now it can be used to advance any idea; it has become functionally meaningless. As a human tragedy, it is still very real – but it is not our tragedy, it belongs to its victims (victims who have been, it must be noted, sickeningly ill-treated in person while being canonised as political symbols). Everything is political, yes, but 9/11 has become saturated with politics. Perhaps it is time to return it to the human. Perhaps the most dignified and sensitive way to commemorate it would be to not commemorate it at all.

P.S.: As it seems to be impossible to talk about 9/11 without delving into the chthonic lairs of the conspiracy theorists, has anyone considered that Bush or Cheney might have been Iranian sleeper agents? In the last ten years the United States has all but acted out Iranian foreign policy: it has toppled Saddam Hussein, Iran’s most indefatigable enemy, and in his place installed a Shi’ite procedural democracy that is for all intents and purposes an Iranian vassal state; it has replaced the impenetrably monolithic fanaticism of the Afghan Taliban with a seedily pragmatic government entirely open to a bit of mutual back-scratching. Wake up, sheeple! Cauterise your eyes, bleach your skin, rend your clothes, VEVAK is running the whole charade.

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