Briankle G. Chang reviews a book that interrogates the enduring power of the image.

Aaron Tugendhaft, The Idols of Isis: From Assyria to the Internet (University of Chicago Press, 2020), 115pp.

As is often said, ours is a world of images – not only images of things, objects, events, or ourselves in as many situations as imaginable, but also images of images coming from and produced by whomever and whatever we know little and in manners as persistent as they are numerous. Ocularcentrism is not just one among the many views on the world. Rather, it says that the world as we know it comes forth first through and primarily as images, each of which leads all the way down to more of the same. All the images we see are not equal, however; some of them are more pregnant or telling than others, giving us a “detail” that, by cutting things up (de-tailler), render in welcome clarity the whole, of which it is a part [1]. Such image-details retaliate, so to speak, enabling us to discern the real complexity of what they capture at the ground level. Details detail; in and through them we not only see things with insight but also learn where and how we are here and now.

It is with such an image that The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet by Aaron Tugendhaft begins. As he tells the story, while attending the presentation on ancient Near Eastern civilizations in New York City on February 26, 2015, Tugendhaft, himself a scholar of the ancient Middle East, was alerted by the news about the destruction of Mesopotamian antiquities. Detecting a sense of urgency in the news report, Tugendhaft checked his cellphone without delay. The news feeds he found showed three men in traditional garb, who, sledgehammers in hand, were smashing a life-size sculpture in Iraq’s Mosul Museum, accompanied meanwhile by the chanting of a Qur’anic verse and the sound of a nashid declaring “Demolish! Demolish! the state of idols/ Hell is filled with idols and wood (2).” This image, Tugendhaft immediately realized, bore an uncanny resemblance to a carved relief from the ancient Assyrian palace at Khorsabad, a town not far away from Mosul. In both instances, irrepressible violence is unleashed on a certain artefact that, idle and lifeless as it is, somehow appears nonetheless so threatening as to be destroyed without compromise. “What is there to say about these two images separated by more than twenty-five hundred years yet only fifteen miles? Why this persistent drive to destroy images—and to make other images showing their destruction? (p. 3),” asks Tugendhaft? From where does this violence against images and image-making about violent acts against images come? Indeed, raising these questions reflect directly our very own obsession with images and image-making, betraying a desire that runs through the body and mind of all those who consider themselves pious, law-abiding, and moral. The desire of image shows itself as a desire for and against images, a desire whose apparent contradiction has been at work since God first spoke – not just from Assyria to the internet but also destined to continue into the future and without diminishing intensity.

Truth, Power, and the Politics of Image

The image is always sacred.
(Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image)

To put the topic of the book in context, a brief reflection on the intimate relationship among image, power, and truth is in order. That which is truly universal is called truth. Truth is universally true and is a true universal. However, since that which is universally true or truly universal is such only insofar as it transcends particularity, truth remains formal and abstract, bound, as it is, to a condition that is free from any condition. Detached from actual space and time that may or may not articulate or embrace it, truth as such lacks the capacity to ground any political order which necessarily involves differences, heterogeneity, and, because of that, conflicts. Unlike a colony of ants, a swarm of birds, or a patch of fungi, the so-called polis would be nothing if not a collective made of multiple, distinct, varying and variable individuals, a city-state, as it were, held in common by the very impermanence or lack of any being-in-common among its members. Politics, we could say, is an artefact–a man-made affair–rather than a natural or biological phenomenon. It is inevitably a matter of government, an art of mobilizing, organizing, and managing a multitude–call it the people, the public, or the citizenry—whose appearance as e pluribus unum is kept afloat by the unceasing agon of divergent interests and forces characteristic of any artefactual communities. In constant flux, it is a post-Babel formation in perpetual search of a lost harmony.

“The image is always sacred,” says Jean-Luc Nancy [2]. Something is sacred in that it exits in and by itself; like truth as such, it too is cut off, removed, separated from the profane, from where we are. Moreover, since the sacred, like truth, is full, free, and absolute, it, like truth as well, can only be invoked and brought near by an adjuvant, a medium, as it were, that connects it to life as it is lived. This medium is the image, an immediately legible representation that makes the sacred truth visible to the world, to all those who wish or happen to see it. It is in this connection we come to have in view how image, power, and politics collapse and uncoil in one operation: images are deployed to display and broadcast power and, at the same time, the use of images as an instrument for or against the given political order finds its justification in a distant, that is, sacred, origin that the image maker seeks to claim and appropriate by the display of chosen images. Images are therefore inescapably political, their making politicized time and again to run along and with the exercise of power, thus extending the fated social agon in the symbolic realm. To the extent that the condition of politics is dissension and difference, image making is irreducible in politics that makes and remakes the multitude according to the images made and remade. Through these images, we come to see ourselves, always among fellow viewers, as members of a body politic, as zoon politikon.

“No power without an image,” writes Marie-José Mondzain [3]. Accordingly, images are produced, disseminated, or held under restriction in response to the power that deploys, stifles, or regulates them. To the extent that power is relational, that it configures and reconfigures relationships in the social whole, the images made to support or burke it are also relational, differential, and multiple, constantly varying and variable in form and content across the force field they generate. Just as powers do not exist in a vacuum and are in constant contention, so too are images. As extension of war in peace time, politics unfurls in wars over images as well. Little wonder then that iconoclasm evinces the recurrent rift in political cultures throughout history, ceaselessly bred by the inevitable clashes over the absolute glory of Truth among its earthly representatives [4]. “The repudiation of images . . . is tantamount to the rejection of politics (p. 29).” Indeed, the belief that political life void of image is possible at all is itself made possible and can be sustained only by competing images that inculcate alternative beliefs to the suppression of old ones. Just as “law deems some images illicit, but not without other images enabling its authority (p. 7),” phobocracy of image is the verso of idolatry and vice versa. Images do not disappear from politics; they replace one another, often violently.

Images in Situ: From Museums to the Internet 

The image . . . is a perfect medium between the object in mind and the real thing. . . it is the trembling of the thing in the medium of its own knowability.
(Georgio Agamben, Nudities)

Images mediate. Vibrating between things and the mind, they establish a requisite horizon not only for thought but also for action; their very visibility delimits a site where competing political wills clash in their attempts to maintain, challenge, or redefine the status quo. One of the principal sites of this conflict in modern times is the museum and, not surprisingly, that is where the smashing of the statue, seen by Tugendhaft online, took place and did so in Mosul, Iraq, a hot spot in a country mired in protracted and bloody conflicts over the past decades. It is not by accident that Tugenhadft begins his reflection with the image of this incident and devotes a whole chapter, almost half of the book’s length, to the consideration of museum. As is widely known, born in the eighteenth century during the rise of the nation-state and the upheavals of the European Enlightenment, museum is a quintessential modern political institution. It is a place designed to “publicly represent the beliefs about the order of the world, its past and present, and the individual’s place within it,” a place where collective identities are wrought, celebrated, and displayed to shine into the future [5]. Just as to control what is on display in the museum is to control the representations that a community gives to itself and to others, to enter the museum is to step into a scene, against which identity politics are performed and counter-performed over and beyond time-bound identities. Museums are theater of origins in situ, a mirror stage in which is seen where we were, are, and shall be. The statue smashers in the Mosul Museum know this well.

People visit museums for different reasons and look at the exhibit with different degrees of interest. Facing the objects on display, they see the images of those objects absent their original context and at a safe distance. Through this artificial display of their collections, museums “serve” the images of uprooted things as texts, presenting them as spectacles, as visuals for guided consumption. “To serve” is “to worship.” Admittedly or not, museums are places of idolatry (“to serve images” is the literal meaning of the Greek Idol-Latria). Since “to serve images” is to worship what these images embody, represent, or signify, the objects in question easily became targets of violence in the eyes and hands of those who saw their presence in the museum as one of idolatrous abuse, and hence, were categorically unforgivable. To the three men in the Mosul Museum seen online by Tugendhaft, the statue they were smashing was not just an artefact, an ancient work of art, or a treasure of world cultural heritage representing a notable achievement in the development of a universal humanity, as Western critics claim. Following a long line of thinking and the practice of violence in visual culture since the late Middle Ages, these three men saw the statue in the museum as an emblem of a sacrilegious affront to Truth, as Valetin Groebner asserts, “one of the politically interpreted signa of that which could be by definition invisible, the Ungelstalt, an invisible foe” [6]. To them and others like them, the Mosul Museum is the residence of the enemy and this enemy is (in) the statue, and therefore smashing it was an act of war, sanctioned by the prophetic Truth and carried out as a response to the call for the justice and righteousness that Truth demands.

That museums were turned into a battlefield and an item on display was destroyed like an enemy agent makes plain the idea asserted by Tugendhaft, that “history is a struggle of statues and monuments (67),” of which ISIS’s violent act in Mosul Museum was but an example. From the construction of Jawad Salim Monument of Freedom in Tahrir Square in Baghdad in the 1960s to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in April 2005 and further eastward to the shelling of Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2015, and beyond, cultural sites inevitably turn into battlefields during wars and monuments or statues are always at the mercy of hate and destruction. There are reasons and evidence for why “’statues are too terrified to sleep at night lest they wake up as ruins (67),” as Tugendhaft demonstrates expertly in Chapter 2.

On-Screen Wars

It is because the actual images are virtualized that they can let others take their place.
(Peter Szendy, The Supermarket of the Visible)

As is shown amply in the news media and multiple other venues, the destruction of images is part of the image production. Skillfully produced and uploaded onto the internet, the video image of three ISIS men welding destruction in the Mosul Museum is itself an image of the war over images; it is an act of war that has been recorded and edited for all to see. To someone who sees the video image excerpted in The Idols of ISIS for the first time, the picture could come from multiple possible sources, as interactive social media, we now know well, have made it easy for individuals to exchange, to alter or edit, and to generate video texts of all kinds, let alone tagging, commenting, linking, recomposing, and repurposing them. In this supermarket of images, viewers are at once makers and vice versa.

It is not difficult for a thoughtful observer like Tugendhaft to detect certain parallels of what happens in the real world and what takes place in the virtual playground, in which more time than we are willing to admit is spent. Not surprisingly, life in video games resembles the games we play in life, one mirroring the other in a gameplay that is a pastime unique to our times. Drawing from commercial game designs and news on wars and under the disguise of entertainment, ISIS game designers waste no time in exploring for their cause the political power of images that is as potent as the reach of the internet is wide. “By imagining the Caliphates as a first-person shooter video game,” observes Tugendhaft, “the ISIS videos tempt the viewers with the possibility of an escape from politics (89).” Like Assyrian kings did millennia ago, ISIS’s videos too reflect a belief in a world free of politics, a world that either transcends discords unavoidable on earth or returns to a time before time, a world that is, in a word, “eternal.” To be eternal, to be not merely everlasting but “outside of time.” This is a belief in (the possibility of) the absence of politics, a belief that, we should not forget, is the most political of all beliefs. By the same token, ISIS’s acts in a museum or online is no less political than are their military acts on the battleground.

Images do not disappear on their own. As said earlier, they can only be erased, cancelled, or negated by other images. Capable of shaping the visible according to the maker’s will, image-making has long been recognized as an effective means of mass persuasion. Infinitely shapable and replaceable, it is a political techné adopted by rulers everywhere. If it is true to say that ours is world of images, it is equally true that the idols of ISIS, or of any group, are also our own, though inverted in form. Although they appear to oppose each other, iconoclasts and iconophiles are rooted in the same desire for purity beyond representation and are driven by the same conviction in the efficacy of image in achieving their desired goals.

As Tugendhaft reported, the video image described in The Idols of ISIS, went viral shortly after it was uploaded on the internet. Like viruses, images spread and they infect according to a logic all their own. All images are potentially viral idols. Like viruses, they are here to stay, ceaselessly rousing themselves up to live and die in our happy cities.

Briankle G. Chang teaches in the Communication Department, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


[1] By “detail” I mean a particular part of a whole that contains some essential information about the whole. Unlike a fragment, a random broken piece of a whole, a detail is information-rich in helping us to grasp the whole, of which it is a part. In this sense, a detail could be likened to the “authentic fragment,” as Walter Benjamin uses it. In “Author as Producer,” referring to John Heartfield’s photomontages, Benjamin writes “the tiniest authentic fragment of daily life says more than painting. Just as the bloody fingerprint of a murder on the page of a book says more than the text.” See “Author as Producer,” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (Boston, Schocken Books, 1986), 229.

[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, trans. Jeff Fort, New York: Fordham University Press, 2005, 1.

[3] Marie-José Mondzain, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, trans. Rico Frances (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,1996).

[4] We may recall here the idea of “Mosaic distinction” developed by Jan Assmann: the appearance of monotheism establishes a radical distinction between “true” and “false” religions, thus blocking the peaceful translation of incompatible deities operative in polytheistic societies. The problem of iconoclasm that began in the second century and is still raging today is a case in point. See, for example, Jan Assmann, “The Mosaic Distinction: Israel, Egypt, and the Invention of Paganism,” Representations, 56, 1996, 48-67.

[5] Quoted by Tugendhaft from Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London: Routledge, 1995), 8.

[6] Valentin Groebner, Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages, trans. Pamela Selwyn (New York, Zone Books, 2008), 64.

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