Aaron Tugendhaft on the politics of iconoclasm

15 February 2021

Danielle Charette and Atman Mehta interviewed Aaron Tugendhaft about his new book, The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Their conversation covered the politics of iconoclasm, why a healthy polity needs images, and what this might mean for contemporary challenges to democracy. The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.


Danielle Charette: The Idols of ISIS is a short book but with an incredible range, from Nimrud to Saddam Hussein, from Abu Nasr al-Farabi to Facebook. The central event is the destruction of sculptures in the Mosul Museum by members of ISIS in 2015. Can you tell us what captured your attention about this moment?


Aaron Tugendhaft: I first saw the Mosul Museum video on Facebook, posted by many of my colleagues in ancient Near Eastern studies. I was immediately struck by the similarity between a moment in the video and an ancient Assyrian relief from Sargon II’s palace at Khorsabad. Both the video and the relief depict three men with sledgehammers smashing the sculpture of a king lying horizontally on the ground. (I was familiar with the relief sculpture because I’d chosen it for the cover of Idol Anxiety, a book I’d coedited years earlier.) Though separated by over 2,500 years, the two images were made only 25 kilometers away from each other. This uncanny resemblance got me started thinking, which led to my writing the book. The goal was never to “explain ISIS” so much as to build a series of reflections around this one video that could help us better understand ourselves.


Atman Mehta: The relationship between politics and images seems to lie at the heart of the book. You argue that any conception of politics without images is either misguided or defines “images” too narrowly. Why does politics need images?


Aaron Tugendhaft: Because images define the parameters within which we live our political lives. I tackle the issue with help from the medieval philosopher al-Farabi. In his writings on politics, al-Farabi develops the idea of a prophet-lawgiver who provides his people with images that help individuals cultivate shared commitments and ideals so that they can unite with others as a political body. The law on its own can’t achieve this because its rules are experienced as an affront to individual freedom unless individuals internalize the need for them through a commitment to a higher communal good. Prophetic images help us imagine that good in a way that binds us together as a community. They make the law lovable. Without them, political life would be impossible—or constituted purely through violence, which amounts to the same thing.


Images, in this sense, are really anything that help form the imagination of individuals in a particular communal direction. Their meaning is the product of human art, not unadulterated nature. (The physical material that constitutes Mount Fuji might exist by nature, but as an image Mount Fuji’s significance in the Japanese imagination is a product of human making.) A choice is always involved; certain aspects of the world—be it nature or the historical record—are singled out as politically meaningful, and others are not. The very idea that politics requires images implies that the natural order isn’t sufficient for grounding political life, that it isn’t possible to just let the facts speak for themselves. This humanly-made aspect of images can generate anxiety. Images risk being experienced as false (as “idols”) and so one might seek to displace them in the name of living according to the truth. This desire to escape images—to destroy idols—puts political life at risk. It arises from a false, but all too common, conception of what human life is able to attain.


DC: The book emerges out of your dual training in ancient Near Eastern studies and comparative political theory. But there’s also a personal element. The book is dedicated to your “Iraqi family.” Can you tell us a bit more about that connection?


Aaron Tugendhaft: Though you wouldn’t be able to tell from my last name, I have Iraqi heritage. My maternal grandfather was born in Baghdad to a Jewish community that had lived along the Tigris since antiquity. As a young man, he was involved in the collective activity of trying to build the modern state of Iraq—together with Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians, Kurds, Marxists, and others. Iraq was as incredibly diverse place, culturally and religiously. Unfortunately, homogenizing forces have periodically put pressure on that plurality. In my grandfather’s case, the Farhud, the June 1941 pogrom against the Jews, led him to leave Baghdad for Tehran, where my mother was born, and then take his family to Tel Aviv, and eventually New York. This personal element certainly motivates my theoretical interest in how people maintain plurality in a political community.


DC: Speaking of heritage, in your middle chapter on museums, you note that, after the destruction of the Mosul museum, a number of cultural organizations like UNESCO condemned ISIS’s actions as an attack on our “common heritage.” Are such appeals to a shared heritage helpful?


Aaron Tugendhaft: They are well-meaning, but I think ultimately misguided. The idea of a shared human heritage is rooted in the notion of “civilization” as something that unites us at a level deeper than any of our political divisions. This might sound wonderful at first, but I think there is something deeply troubling about its implicit disdain for politics. Rather than focus on the multiple ways that different human groups can choose to organize their collective lives, it posits a deeper level that treats those political differences as irrelevant. Instead of political diversity we get a simple binary: “civilization” versus “barbarism.” Barbarians aren’t living human lives differently from you and me, in the way that the British might say about the French; they are subhuman and therefore hostility towards them is qualitatively different than political opposition. Those who fail to meet the standard of civilization are beyond the pale—they become an object for eradication rather than political engagement.


ISIS attempts something similar when it claims that the world must be divided into two groups, the faithful on the one hand and apostates on the other, with no “grey zone” in between. When certain segments of the Left claim to be fighting “all forms of oppression” they are likewise reducing matters to a moral binary that is more concerned with purity than politics. There is a longing to escape the mess of politics in all these cases. (A version of the distracted boyfriend meme encapsulates this fairly well.) To fight off this longing, we need to become better at seeing the complexities that these binaries tend to hide. The second chapter of my book tries to do this by narrating the many ways ancient Iraqi sculptures have been incorporated into competing political projects, thereby complicating their portrayal as a common heritage.


AM: Lots of statues came down in the United States this year, and we’ve all seen the images from the attack on the Capitol on January 6. The American public seems to be questioning what kind of polity it is. Is there a way for the public to engage with images more productively?


Aaron Tugendhaft: The first thing to keep in mind is that iconoclasm is a way of producing new images. When a statue is torn down and that act is captured as a photograph or video, we are dealing with a performance meant to be seen. The new image comes to replace the old one. We don’t only need to be able judge the appropriateness of the statues as political images, but also to assess what work their replacement images are doing. Because these images of image destruction are doing political work just like a statue of Robert E. Lee nobly astride a horse. We need to become better attuned to how political images operate and why we can’t simply say, with David Olusoga in a recent piece in the Guardian, “enough now, surely, of the comforting myths.”


DC: I noticed the book begins with an epigraph to John Quincy Adams. It reads: “Democracy has no monuments; its very essence is iconoclastic.” Adams seemed to think of this as liberating. But Americans seem pretty guilty of iconoclasm as of late. Is that a sign of a weakened democracy?


Aaron Tugendhaft: I don’t think you can have a healthy polity whose essence is iconoclastic. Thinking so ignores basic human and political realities. It’s possible, though, to hold iconoclasm up as an ideal for a political community—to make the image of iconoclasm one’s primary political image. Perhaps that’s what John Quincy Adams was trying to do when he said that about democracy. Islam accomplishes something similar with the stories and pictures of the young Ibrahim smashing the images of his neighbors. Islam doesn’t thereby escape images; rather, the image of Ibrahim the iconoclast becomes essential to constructing its self-definition. So, the real question to ask of John Quincy Adams is not whether democracy is fundamentally iconoclastic but whether it’s healthy to make the image of iconoclasm one’s political ideal.


The book includes a second epigraph from the twelfth-century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi: “The incapacity of Harun (i.e., the biblical Aaron) to restrain the followers of the Calf…was a wisdom made manifest in existence: that He be worshipped in every form.” Somewhere between serving God in every humanly-made image and believing that democracy can work without any images at all—that’s the space where we need to build our political lives together.


AM: I was struck by your discussion of judgment. Political life requires mediation. How can citizens engage with images in more productive ways?


Aaron Tugendhaft: Al-Farabi’s scheme imagines a wise prophet who knows which images would be best for any particular political community. The prophet provides them for the people, and that’s that. We don’t have it so easy. Though we certainly inherit images that have been passed down to us, as democratic citizens we are involved not only in the consumption of our images but also in their production. That means that the framework within which we can act as citizens is constantly shifting and open to reinterpretation. Obviously, we are going through a moment of heightened struggle over images in America today—whether it’s the (in my opinion appropriate) removal of Confederate statues or the renaming of San Francisco public schools. We can’t avoid making judgments about what images we want around; we can moderate our expectations and, thereby, reign in the iconoclastic impulse.


The book ends with a discussion of Nietzsche’s late text, The Twilight of the Idols: Or How to Philosophize with a Hammer. Nietzsche suggests that we can wield a hammer as a tuning-fork and tap images instead of smashing them. This is also an alternative to simply submitting to them. Nietzsche’s image-tapping is a model for doing philosophy, but we might also want to draw on it for conceiving of democratic citizenship. Free citizens may need to be capable of keeping enough distance from their political images so that they can engage in reflection and judgement, while remaining moderate enough to forgo the iconoclastic drive that seeks a regime uncompromised by imperfect images. If that’s so, then we need to become better tappers. One way of doing this is by “tapping” images against one another. Each image exposes something left hidden by the other. It’s a procedure that I model throughout the book.


AM: The book also contains an argument about social media algorithms. Do these algorithms stand in the way of judgment?


Aaron Tugendhaft: Though debates continue to focus on things like public monuments in parks, the primary site for the circulation of political images today is through social media. These digital images exert an extraordinarily strong hold on us, in part because we experience them as ephemeral and so not as something to be concerned about. But if we don’t come to understand the nature of online platforms as vehicles for the distribution of political images, we will be evermore at their mercy. This was apparent during a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. When questioning Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, most senators treated social media platforms as if they were just updated versions of newspapers, TV and radio—completely failing to recognize how algorithms have transformed the distribution of information.


My third chapter ends with a discussion of what I call “algorithmic iconoclasm.” If iconoclasm aims at ridding our world of offensive images, our clicking fingers have become more powerful than any hammer. The more we “like” or share or even linger on one type of image, the more we will see similar images in our feed. The more we engage with our online worlds, the less likely images at odds with our sensibilities will appear on our screens. These virtual worlds offer a respite from the stubborn fact of politics—that we live together with people who disagree with us. It’s appealing to inhabit such a world. And so, we keep turning to our screens. And with every click the iconoclasm intensifies.


Photo Credits: The British Museum, Sam Barber via Unsplash. 2019.

Cover image of The Idols of ISISUniversity of Chicago Press. 2020. Fair use.


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