Why did ISIS film its destruction of ancient Assyrian artifacts in the Mosul Museum?
Aaron Tugendhaft says all acts of image-breaking are also acts of image-making.
In 2015, men carried sledgehammers into the Mosul Museum and shattered dozens of ancient Assyrian sculptures. They filmed the destruction; edited the clips; added dialogue, a soundtrack, and slow motion; and uploaded the resulting music video to social media. The global intelligentsia condemned the video’s producers (who were members of ISIS) as boors, barbarians, and madmen. But the video was powerful because it juxtaposed ancient and modern, artistry and violence. There is nothing uncultured about systematically destroying an enemy’s artwork or using cutting-edge technology to edit a video. Only scholars know which books to burn.
Aaron Tugendhaft, a Near Eastern studies scholar of Iraqi Jewish heritage, responded to the video by writing a biting work of political theory and art criticism that sympathizes more with ISIS than with UNESCO. He centers on two theses. First, “images . . . are what make political life possible.” And second, therefore, all acts of image breaking are also acts of image making.
Quoting Nietzsche’s Götzen-Dämmerung, Tugendhaft says his method is “to tap images against one another”—that is, to scrutinize formal parallels between temporally and ideologically distant pieces of art and literature in order to sharpen his reader’s judgment. The book abounds with astonishing parallels: between ISIS propaganda and PlayStation games, between writings of French revolutionary Henri Grégoire and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.