Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode, I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
Human cultures seem compelled to share images. They speak 1000 words, after all. Objects produced by the ancient cultures of the Middle East continue to inspire meanings thousands of years after they were first produced. They can be very striking and memorable; they can become iconic. They carry different meanings, which vary according to place, time, and the political persuasion of the presenter, or the viewer.
When ancient sculptures were brought to Europe in the 19th century, images of them presented one meaning. Similar images in Saddam’s Iraq presented quite another. And then there were images of their destruction at the hands of ISIS in videos that were shown around the world–yet another meaning. Objects, and images of the destruction of objects, have been created since antiquity. Our guest explores these different images and how we use them to come together and to separate ourselves into rival groups. What can political science teaches about our complex relationship with images? Can they be perfect? How do we separate the good ones from the bad? Can we, or should we, try and do without them?
Our guest’s focus has been on these questions in relation to Iraq. But of course, similar questions can be posed in the west too. This year, a lot of attention has been brought to bear on statues, for example; statues of slave traders in the UK, or Confederate generals in the US. What functions do they really serve? And what should we do with them? How we relate to images is a question we share just as much as the images themselves. So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Well, thank you for having me, Jon. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Aaron Tugendhaft. And I currently teach humanities at Bard College Berlin.
You’ve been working on images, idolatry and iconoclasm. Could you explain what you mean by each of those, please?
Sure. So these are words that can have many meanings. And I’ll try and share a little bit the way that I use them myself. So by iconoclasm, I mean simply the destruction of images. The real question is, what do I mean by images? Because I use the word in a somewhat specific sense in this book that I’ve just finished writing. By images. I’m speaking specifically of political images; images that make politics possible. What’s this relationship between images and politics? Well, what I tried to argue in the book is that for a community to cohere, to hold together, we need images that will help us identify what we hold to be valuable, because each of us individually, we’re so different from each other. Images are these things that can give us a sense of belonging and common purpose. And so, in this sense, images don’t necessarily need to be visual. I also would include stories as images, though the book itself is focused on visual images, because it’s focused on iconoclasm, the destruction of those images.
And so what’s the relationship between images and idols? Idols, we might think of as false images. But what I’m really interested in showing is that there’s no subset of images that can be identified as idols such that the remainder of images are not false. Rather, all images, because they always only tell part of a story, they only show part of an issue. They put the focus on something, while leaving something else in the dark. Well, all such images are partial, and there can always be some other image, some alternative image, that’s proposed, that would put the emphasis somewhere else. And so in that sense all images are false, because they don’t give you the whole complete truth. And so if an idol is a false image, well, then all images are idols. The problem, as I was saying before, though, is that political life is impossible without images. And so therefore, political life depends on these imperfect, humanly made images. And so if we identify them as idols, and say, because they’re idols, they must be destroyed, we are undermining the very possibility of political life. And so that’s really the tension that I’m trying to explore in the book.
Your particular focus has been on these issues in relation to Iraqi heritage. Could you give us a summary of some of the different ways in which images related to that heritage have been used over the years, and what meanings were being projected in them?
So the book arose out of a response to a video that the Islamic State released in 2015, of men smashing ancient sculpture in the Mosul Museum in Iraq. And so it got me thinking about the meanings that ancient Iraqi sculpture have had since the discovery in the 19th century. And it turns out that there’s a whole host of meanings that have been attributed to these objects. And so it’s really important when thinking about political images to realise that no image has a set political meaning, but rather, in order to get at any meaning, one has to understand the way that the image is used, the context that it’s put in. And in this case, thinking about the museum as a place that provides such context is really important. And so just to answer your question about the range, well, there’s so many, but I tried to trace, for example, how in the 19th century, initially, the competition between France and England in excavating in northern Iraq, was tied to certain imperial projects and the prestige of those competing countries. And putting those objects in the Louvre, in the British Museum, was connected to the political projects of those two countries. I also explore how modern artists became inspired by these objects that they saw in those museums, when they were trying to find ways to go beyond the classicism of ancient Greece and Rome.
And then I really also focus on how these objects have taken on different meanings in Iraq; and that it wasn’t simple, right? So when Iraq was founded as a modern nation state, there was a lot of pressure and interest in using ancient Mesopotamian sculptures as a way to hold what was a very diverse country together by providing a kind of common heritage to all of Iraq’s citizens. On the one hand, that was great. On the other hand, though, there were those in Iraq, who objected, because, for example, among the pan-Arabists in the new government, the objects that come from ancient Iraq, set Iraq apart from other Arab nations. And so were seen not as a valuable way of holding people together, but rather as a way of dividing Iraqi Arabs from other Arabs. There were also Islamic objections to the use of these Mesopotamian objects for this purpose. As I tried to trace in the book, from the founding of Iraq through Saddam Hussein’s obsession with ancient Iraqi objects, and up through this video that ISIS released, which itself frames Mesopotamian objects in new ways, there have been countless ways that these objects have been given political meanings.
That brings us to the image that inspired your recent work. We all saw the video made by ISIS of their attacks on objects in the Mosul museum. Could you explain the intentions behind those attacks? What meanings were they trying to displace? And what do they want instead?
So I can say a little bit about that, although I want to preface it by saying that early on in the project, I tried to give up on that goal of reading the Islamic State’s mind. Here, I can give you a little anecdote which was early on, I was invited to the West Point Military Academy in the United States to give a lecture on this material. And after the lecture, all of the cadets, really, they only had one question in mind. They were “What does ISIS want? How do we stop them?” And it was at that moment that I I realised this is not what I most wanted to be thinking about or what I was most qualified to talk about. And so I say that and yet nevertheless, I can share certainly one thing about this particular video, right, which is the video was certainly made for primarily a western audience, by which I mean, an audience that the Islamic State knew was going to get all up in arms about the destruction of these objects. These objects that many in Europe, in the United States, are familiar with, from having visited museums like the Louvre, the Metropolitan, the British Museum. And it worked. The video really did spark a lot of outrage in the so called international community for this reason.
I’d like to connect this video produced to outrage the international community to an article that the Islamic State published around the same time. The article called for the “eradication of the grey zone”. And it said that the Islamic State’s purpose was to divide the world, to polarise the world into two clear groups: one group of the faithful and one group of the apostates. And they wanted to have no space in-between. And I think it’s really important to recognise how that video was successful in furthering that goal of polarisation, and how if we think about problems of polarisation more generally–which I think a lot of our societies are dealing with–this is an opportunity to think about the dynamics involved in that. And to realise–and this is to go back to an understanding of politics that I tried to present in the book that I borrow from the work of Hannah Arendt–to say that if we really want to live politically together, then we need to find a way to avoid that impulse to polarise into two clear groups: one good, one bad, however you want to define it, because it’s certainly not only the Islamic State that can think in terms of that kind of binary. But rather to celebrate the so called grey zone. It’s precisely that space that’s messy in which real pluralistic politics can take place. And so part of my goal in the book is to think about how we must reorient ourselves towards images in order to have images that encourage that kind of pluralism, of our space for pluralism, rather than images that aim to polarise us into two groups and make politics impossible.
Iconoclasm is nothing new. You’ve been looking at the Assyrian equivalent of this, haven’t you?
Well, yes, so when I first saw the video that ISIS released, I was struck by a similarity, really an uncanny parallel, between one of the scenes in the video and a relief sculpture that I was familiar with from Sargon II’s palace at Khorsabad. Both images show three men with sledgehammers, smashing the sculpture of a king that’s lying horizontally on the ground. Even the statue of the king is similar and each wearing a similar conical headdress. We actually don’t have the relief in our possession anymore. The relief itself was rediscovered in the mid 19th century by the French excavations. But when it was being shipped on its way to France, it never actually made it and it actually probably is at the bottom of a river. We now know about this image rather from a drawing that was made in situ at the excavations, which was then published in this magnificent volume called Monuments de Ninive in the 19th century.
What’s the message being presented in that particular relief?
So the first thing to say, and I think this is really important, is that the image of the three men with the sledgehammers engaging in this act of iconoclasm is only a small part of a much larger program, both in terms of its place within the relief panels for that wall, and then, of course, within that room as a whole, where that panel is only one of many panels in the program. What is the place of iconoclasm or specifically the images of iconoclasm? We need to understand them in the context of the other images that they appear in. In the case of the Assyrian relief from Sargon II’s palace, we need to understand that image in the context of the larger Assyrian palace artistic program. The same holds true for the ISIS video. The ISIS video is but one of many, many videos that ISIS was producing at the time. One can think of the whole set of images that ISIS is producing as a kind of virtual palace to make a parallel with the Assyrian case. Of course, the Assyrian palace existed physically in a specific location in stone. The virtual palace that the Islamic State has built exists everywhere and anywhere in the sense that it exists on our screens.
And it’s also part of a wider project in terms of controlling images, isn’t it? It’s not just a matter of targeting one specific image as an exceptional event.
Absolutely. The image that’s being destroyed is almost certainly the image of a king from Urartu, which was a kingdom north of Assyria. Why would the Assyrian king depict this statue of another king, of a competitor king? We’re seeing it being destroyed, so we might think that it’s just showing Assyrian strength over competing kingdom. But Assyria understood itself as the only legitimate polity in the world. It thought that its place was to rule the entire world, and that any other claims to rule by other kings were fundamentally illegitimate, and therefore needed to be suppressed. One of the ways of ruling is ruling through political images. Why would the Assyrian king show the existence of alternative political images? On the one hand, it’s being shown being destroyed. And I think that that’s obviously very important. But I think one could go even further–again, you’re working with the context in which the image is seen–argue that the image is actually being shown being reduced to its material, to the gold and to the metals that constituted the raw materials from which it came. And so in a way really disembodying it, or really undermining it as an image and turning it just back into material stuff. And I say this because next to the image on the wall, we see members of the Assyrian court weighing different objects. There’s a big scale, and recording these acquisitions in bureaucratic documentation. We see the Assyrian king, so to speak,, taking what other kings might present as their ideological positions, and showing how all of that just melts away into a kind of quantitative bureaucracy that Assyria controls.
Statues are a particular type of image, aren’t they? They’re physical images, they’re objects. And they’re also public, to some extent, at least. This is very familiar from the modern world, of course. Why do you think we do or should care so much about this particular type of image?
Really, what’s needed is judgment and cultivating judgment about the images that we live with. And so I’m not capable of saying specifically, this image good, that image bad. I don’t think that there are specific rules for that. But rather, what I’m trying to focus on is the need for judgment about that.
Another fundamental idea that seems to run through your work is that in order to live together happily, we need diversity, not uniformity. But are there limits to that? Coming back to statues, whether slave traders in the UK or Confederate generals in the US–and we can maybe include here also statues of Saddam in Iraq–people increasingly feel that some of these images are divisive; they celebrate something that shouldn’t be celebrated, so they ought to be removed. Is there then a kind of virtuous iconoclasm?
There is a kind of virtuous iconoclasm, if we recognise that iconoclasm, really, is about producing new images, or very often, it’s about producing new images, not about the eradication of images, or the eradication of what is false or evil. We’re constantly evolving as political communities. And there’s hard work to be done to finding the right images that we want to orient us. And so what I want to be encouraging is precisely the kinds of conversations that are required for thinking seriously, and thinking critically about the images that we’re using. And that means sometimes doing away with some, replacing them with others, but it should always be done in my opinion, in … in the spirit of politics, which is a spirit of recognising human limitations, and the inability to completely live in line with truth or the good. But rather, it requires a way that recognises our human limitations. What’s really needed in these situations is constant negotiation, there’s never going to be a simple answer or a rule that we can just apply, that says, “these images in, those images out”. Instead, what we need to do is cultivate judgment, which is not an easy thing to cultivate. It’s complicated and annoying, because it doesn’t have strict rules that it can follow. But at least for me, I see no better way forward than trying to cultivate judgment if we want to live in a pluralistic, democratic society. We might not want to, some people might not want to; some people might prefer a kind of homogeneity, in line with what they declare to be the truth. But if we want instead to have that space for disagreement, and yet also coexistence, we’re not going to be able to find that through rules, but we’re going to have to cultivate that through judgment. And so in a sense, I would say in the deepest sense, my book is a book about education about how we cultivate judgment. And in that sense, it’s also very much connected to what I do most of my time, which is not write, but rather teach, and try and help my students to see the limitations of all positions, so as not to throw them out, because then we’re left with nothing. But rather to be able to do the hard work of making judgments about them, and seeing their relative merits.
A large part of your book is dedicated to museums. Museums have been putting a lot of effort into working out how to represent the different meanings attached to images, and to represent the meanings attached to them by modern communities. Some parts of history are uncomfortable, some are still very raw. How might museums display the range of images and meanings to visitors, without spreading propaganda or potentially re-traumatising people?
So again, I don’t think there’s a simple answer, and there’s no simple rule that one can follow. One of the things that I would say is the most important is simply to have that question constantly in front of us, right, and to constantly be thinking about how we can try to achieve that. That honestly achieves a lot, at least in my opinion. I’d also want to say that museums for all of their fraught past can be really wonderful spaces for achieving the kind of education and cultivation of judgment that I was speaking about a minute ago. And so I wouldn’t want to throw out that possibility.
A couple of examples come to mind. One thing I like–this has to do more with ancient Egypt than with ancient Mesopotamia–but one thing I liked that I noticed in the reinstallation of the Neues Museum in Berlin, which happens to be where I live right now. I like the fact that objects from the excavations like excavators’ notebooks and such are included in the gallery together with the ancient Egyptian objects, sort of alerting the audience to the fact that there’s a history here of how the objects were found and how they ended up in Berlin. And so that the gallery starts to be telling a multiple set of stories, both about ancient Egypt, such that an audience can actually learn about ancient Egypt, but also about the modern interaction and excavation of ancient Egypt, including the politics involved there.
There’s a small special exhibition going on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the ancient Near East galleries, which includes works by contemporary Lebanese artist, Rayyane Tabet. And he was invited to install some of his own works next to some of the Met’s ancient Near East objects in very interesting ways that by going into that gallery, and thinking about the play of the objects against each other, gets an audience to think in complicated ways, without providing a specific narrative that the audience is supposed to adopt. I think it’s really important to try and generate questions and wonder and thinking rather than providing closed narrative, and that’s a very difficult thing to do in a gallery, but it’s also I think, one of the things that is very exciting about curating, which I’ve done a little bit of.
What do you hope a reader will do differently having read your book?
I’d hope that a reader would begin thinking about the political images that he or she encounters in new ways. And I hope that the book provides examples for how to do that, and how to find the things that an image leaves out and hides, right? I think one of the things that’s so important is once we realise that our political images are always leaving something out, well, then we can become more alert about that. And we can seek out the things that are being left in the shadows. And I’d say that today, that’s true for sure about the statues that you were asking about a minute ago, right, that might show a certain person in a particularly heroic pose, leaving in the dark, some of the more nefarious elements of that person’s career. And so such an approach certainly is relevant in those cases. But I’d want to say that today, especially since we are more and more moving online, this is an approach that becomes incredibly important as we try to navigate our social media, and the images that flow into our world through the screens that we’re constantly looking at. And I think that in a lot of ways, those images, these ephemeral images, these images that aren’t placed in a park on a pedestal, right, and therefore, they’re ones that we might not think are that important, or ones that we might not think of as particularly powerful, that actually, those are the images that are constantly forming our political identities and our political allegiances. And so those are the ones perhaps more than any others today that we need to cultivate an ability to think critically about.
Before we finish, I should just mention that Aaron’s book is available now. It’s called the Idols of ISIS: from Assyria to the Internet. It’s very affordably priced for an academic book. And it’s also very accessibly written; you don’t need to be an expert to be able to understand what he’s talking about.
Thank you very much.
Well, thank you, Jon, for having me. This has really been a pleasure to talk about the book with you.
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