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Sounding out the Idols: Images, Ideology & ISIS

By Gilah Kletenik.


The images of militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham ransacking the Mosul Museum have captivated the world. Surely, this video is not as emotionally searing and ethically transgressive as the execution videos for which ISIS is notorious. Yet, watching this video is discomfiting. Bearing witness to the tragic destruction of cultural artifacts is enraging and agonizing. However, there is more to the international fixation with this video than immediately meets the eye: there is something striking and galvanic about images of people destroying images. As Ovid has it: “believe me, the image is more than it appears.”[1] These developments and this insight invite an interrogation of the image.

By posting this video displaying systematic destruction of what UNESCO estimates to be 173 antiquities, the militants sought to parade their power and instigate global ire. The video explains their ruinous behavior as the fulfillment of religious duty: “The Prophet Muhammed commanded us to shatter and destroy statues.” The irony here is perspicuous: threatened by the potency of the image, these militants undertake drastic measures to destroy it, yet in so doing engrave an immeasurably more powerful image before the entire world by uploading their video. This perplexity runs deeper than this incident and gestures towards a paradox at the origin of the aniconic and philosophical traditions.

The artifacts demolished include remnants from the Akkadian and Assyrian cultures of Mesopotamia, which, as the video notes, incorporated idols into their rites. Such practices were widespread throughout the ancient Near East, albeit not without exception. Akhenaton is believed to have inaugurated a short-lived and anemic iconoclasm in ancient Egypt. The most enduring aniconic effort is that of the Hebrew Bible, associated with the exilic and post-exilic programmatic reforms of the 6th century BCE.

The Hebrew Bible is rife with iconoclasm, repeatedly proscribing the worship of sculpted images, most famously as engraved in the Ten Commandments. In addition to legalistic pronouncements, there are extensive narrative parodies of the folly in worshipping idols. These pericopes deride the icon for having “no breath inside of it”[2] and detail how idols are fashioned by humans out of mundane materials. Psalms ridicules iconodules: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see.”[3] This mockery of idol worship echoes across iconoclastic cultures. Athenagoras, the second-century Christian apologist, declares: “But the matter is bronze! What can bronze do of itself?”[4] The Qur’an similarly notes: “And those they call upon, apart from God, created nothing, and themselves are created, dead, not alive, and are not aware when they shall be raised.”[5]

Despite these thoroughgoing parodies of idol worship propagated by ancient Israel, early Christianity and Islam, iconodules of Mesopotamia, whose treasures were pulverized by ISIS sledgehammers, were not blind to the provenance and limitations of images. Yet, in lieu of denouncing images as lifeless and powerless, they developed intricate practices to enliven and condition them for worship. The most prominent of these is the Mesopotamian mīs-pî, mouth-washing ritual.

An Akkadian and Sumerian incantation reflects mīs-pî’s objective: “This statue without its mouth opened cannot smell incense, cannot eat food, not drink water.”[6] Mīs-pî effectively enlivens the image. The ritual also emphasizes the divine origin of the icon, by jettisoning the tools used to manufacture it and symbolically severing the hands of its artisans. This is likewise expressed by the account of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon’s renewal of idols, which his father Sennacherib, whose palatial relics were among those destroyed in the museum, had captured and perhaps destroyed, in a military campaign against Babylon. A recounting, from the 7th century BCE asks: “Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where man dare not trespass?”[7]

Mīs-pî and its iconoclastic detractors proffer two paradigms for the negotiation of images. While iconoclasts denounce images as lifeless, iconodules present an alternative. Before mīs-pî, the idol is a lifeless object, however, through the ritual it becomes an image; it comes to life. This emphasizes the potentialities of the image. Of course, the idol is a unique kind of image; it is either the deity or the receptacle of its presence. Still, the association of a deity with an image bespeaks an immense regard for the image. Iconoclasts, however, insist that images are lifeless, no different than the mundane objects from which they derive. In proclaiming the materiality of images and commanding their destruction, iconoclasts paradoxically affirm their power, even more than iconodules. Jean Baudrillard observes: “One can see that the iconoclasts, whom one accuses of disdaining and negating images, are those who accorded them their true value.”[8] The iconoclastic crusades of medieval Christian Byzantium and the ongoing destruction of relics in the name of Islam are cases in point.

Religionists are not the only ones beholden to the image. Western philosophy begins with the Platonic suspicion of images epitomized by the Allegory of the Cave, while Cartesianism opens with the dubiety that the objects of perception are merely painted images. Immanuel Kant echoes this in maintaining that metaphysical knowledge is mere illusion. Francis Bacon casts the philosophical project as iconoclastic by identifying idols of the mind, which Ludwig Feuerbach develops further. The commodity fetishism of Karl Marx epitomizes his employment of idolatrous imagery in developing his critique of ideology and capitalism. Friedrich Nietzsche practices the “sounding out of idols,” while Ludwig Wittgenstein declares: “All that philosophy can do is destroy idols. And that means not creating a new one.”[9]
Manifestly, the image has been the idée fixe of prophets and philosophers for centuries. Yet their concerns sustain relevance today. Not least due to the recent video, but also as images loom large in our lives. We are tethered to devices that enable the consumption and production of seemingly infinite amounts of images. Recent furor surrounding the colors of a dress draws attention to how we encounter and process images. Not to say the least of the uses and misuses of videographic surveillance.

Watching the video, beholding images of image-destruction, underscores our subordination to images. As Wittgenstein observes: “A picture held us captive.”[10] In response to this, the question is whether to act in accordance with iconoclasts who react to the image by destroying it or to seek to negotiate it like ancient iconodules.

Edmund Husserl liberates philosophy from captivity to the Cartesian picture of reality and in so doing enables negotiating the captivating image itself. Images, Husserl maintains, are not intrinsically and independently sovereign: “One should not talk and think as if an image stood in the same relation to consciousness as a statue does to a room.”[11] Rather, images need humans to be meaningful. “Only the presenting ego’s power to use a similar as an image-representative of a similar … makes the image be an image … the constitution of the image as image takes place in a peculiar intentional consciousness.”[12]
It is only through human consciousness and interaction with images that they become real. Husserl demonstrates that the relationship with images is not unilateral. Our consciousness and the context in which we place images are what transform them from meaningless objects into meaningful images. This negotiation is precisely what the ancient Mesopotamian iconodules appreciated by maintaining that objects become gods solely by dint of human engagement and contextualization.

Iconoclasts and iconodules are united in appreciating the vitality of the image. Crucially, they diverge in their negotiations with it. The ISIS militants embodied the unparalleled puissance of the image. Yet, the irony of their behavior is unmistakable. Not only did they betray their subordination to the image by dint of decimating it. Through their exhibitionism they chiseled themselves and their ideology into a new icon in place of the sundered images. This is ineluctable to iconoclasm. As Stanislaw Lec cautions: “When smashing monuments, save the pedestals – they always come in handy.”[13]

[1] Ovid, Heroides, XIV
[2] Habakkuk: 2:19
[3] Psalms 115:4-5
[4] Legatio 26
[5] XVI: 20
[6] STT 200 Incantation as quoted by Christopher Walker and Michael B. Dick in “The Mesopatamian mīs-pî Ritual,” Born in Heaven Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East ed. Dick, Michael D. (Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1999), p. 99
[7] Ibid
[8] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila F. Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1994, p. 5.
[9] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. §88, “Whence the Feeling that our Grammatical …” The Big Typescript: TS 213: German-English Scholars’ Edition; [kritische Zweisprachige Ausgabe Deutsch-Englisch]. Ed. And Trans.Charles Grant Luckhardt and Maximilian A. E. Aue. Malden, Mass. [u.a.: Blackwell, 2005, p. 305e.
[10] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations: Third Edition. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan, 1968, § 115.
[11] Husserl, Edmund. Logical Investigations, Vol. 2. Trans. J. N. Findlay. New York: Routledge, 2001, p. 126
[12] Ibid p. 125
[13] Lec, Stanislaw J., Unkempt Thoughts. Trans. Jack Galazka. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962, p. 50.

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Gilah Kletenik is a doctoral candidate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 7th, 2015.