Suzie Linfield, a professor at New York University, argues in a recent Op-Ed, “The photographs, which document the deaths of some 11,000 detainees, were taken not by the opposition but at the behest of Mr. Assad’s regime. Wouldn’t such a government — wouldn’t any government — want to hide its crimes rather than record them?
Well informed and written primarily from a critical/cultural perspective, Linfield’s position provides a framework for understanding how these recent images are part of a pictorial legacy of shame and moral debasement. Historically, as she points out in her essay, images of suffering, what she calls “torture porn” are not new. In this case, the images may play an important role in the Syrian negotiations as well as in the court of public discourse.
At the same time, more, much more, a conversation considering the relationship between authoritarian regimes and the atrocities they commit, must begin with an understanding of a cultural pathology of pain, apathy, anguish and the collective unconscious.
While observing schizophrenic patients at the Burgholzli psychiatric hospital in 1900, psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung began to develop theories to shine some light on why people act they way they do toward one another.
Jung’s concept of collective unconscious, in the case of photographs such as those made in Iraq, Sierra Leone, or Cambodia in the 1970s, may edify why people being tortured and killed constitute a type of archetypal layer within the human psyche.
In his essay, “The Structure of the Psyche”, Jung observes, “The collective unconscious … appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents.” Jung goes on to suggest how the collective unconscious can be examined in two ways, “either in mythology or in the analysis of the individual.”
For Jung, the collective unconscious is comprised of archetypal images - forms or representations manifest in dreams, fantasies, or cultural influences. Jung describes an archetype as a predisposition, which transforms a person’s consciousness through inherited symbolic thought and images. Archetypes such as the shadow, can affect ethical, moral religious and cultural behaviors.
As early as 1870, people have been using photographs to record the spectacle of the shadow archetype. The shadow or “black side” of a personality, in this case the perpetrators of abuse and torture project upon others repressed fantasies such as sexual conquest. Linfield’s use of the term “torture porn” certainly makes this connection. Susan In her book “Regarding the Pain of Others” Susan Sontag observes, “To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.”
In the 1870 hand-tinted postcard depicting the lynching of J. L. Compton and Joseph Wilson in Montana, a group of vigilantes pose dutifully for the photographer. As a symbol of frontier justice, torture and death reveal a form of Jung’s shadow archetype. Even though the lynching picture, as well as all images depicting suffering, demonstrate a dispassionate bearing towards the human condition, the collective unconsciousness irrevocably tied or our “dark side” prevails. Today, the image surfacing from the Syrian situation is considered by many as morally and irrevocably despicable and shameful this may not have been the case in the lynching photographs made throughout the late 1800s and through the mid-1960s.
Another difference between the Syrian images and those of public lynching is symbolic consciousness. Symbols occupy the mental images of the mind and inform attitudes and beliefs. Moreover, symbols have an implicit and explicit influence on self and national identity as well as social order and organization. The authority of pictures depicting torture and death subsume or invalidates a victim’s archetypal sense of self/being and places them in a class often dismissed by the abusers as either incomprehensible or incredulous. For example, Syrian governmental claims pronouncing how the images of brutal beatings and strangulation were digitally manipulated demonstrates both the collective conscious and unconscious state of denial and denouncement.
Illustration: Dennis Dunleavy/Credits:TIME/via Anadolu Agency/Getty Images