Saturday, December 26, 2020

Aaron Tugendhaft's "The Idols of ISIS"

Aaron Tugendhaft teaches humanities at Bard College Berlin. He is the author of Baal and the Politics of Poetry and co-editor of Idol Anxiety.

Tugendhaft applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet, and reported the following:
The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet is only 115 pages long (including acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography). Page 99 is the central page of the book's five-page coda, which makes it the antepenultimate page of the entire text. Though neither idols nor the Islamic State, Assyria nor the Internet, are mentioned there, I can think of no more crucial page in the entire book.

I learned the word "antepenultimate" when I studied Ancient Greek in college. (It comes in handy when determining a word's stress.) Though my book's focus is Mesopotamia, it is ancient Greece that appears explicitly on page 99. The page provides a brief discussion of a work by the contemporary German photographer Thomas Struth:
Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin [...] depicts small groups and loan museumgoers in a brightly lit room filled with fragments of ancient Greek sculpture. While the composition recalls the engraving in the Illustrated London News [of visitors to the British Museum's Nineveh Room in the 19th century] it doesn't advertise the importance of museumgoing so much as ask us to consider why we take museumgoing so seriously. Encountered on a museum wall, Struth's large print (which measures five by seven and a half feet) confronts us with an image of people doing what we ourselves are doing---but the activity appears strange. We see that there are museumgoers in the picture, but we're not quite sure why they are there.
More important than the ancient Greek sculptures that inhabit the photograph is the effect the photograph has on its viewers: it makes us wonder. As I remind readers on the very next page, Socrates once explained that philosophy begins in wonder. Whereas most of the book deals with what I call prophetic images (developing an insight by the medieval Baghdadi philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi), i.e., images that hold a political community together by providing them with shared purpose to care about their law, page 99, by contrast, introduces the possibility of Socratic images:
If all images are incomplete, not all are incomplete in the same way. Some, like the [Islamic State] Mosul Museum video [of antiquities destruction] and the Illustrated London News engraving, hide their incompleteness by presenting matters as settled. Other images are overtly incomplete and pose questions more than they provide answers.
This is the most important point in the book. It suggests that there may be an alternative to either simply submitting to the always imperfect political claims that images make on us or smashing them because they don't live up to the demands of truth and justice. Whether we think of Socrates as a gadfly or (following the recently published pseudo-Aristotelian treatise "On Trolling") as a troll who disrupts the self-assuredness of our online echo chambers, thinking remains an ever-present possibility. Borrowing an image from Nietzsche, who recommends tapping idols with a tuning fork rather than smashing them with a hammer, I suggest that we might live better with the imperfect but necessary images that surround us if we learn to think critically about them. "Tapping images can make us keener critics of ourselves as well as others" (I write at the very top of page 99). Is such thinking necessary to democratic life? How might it be obtainable? These are questions that I hope my book provokes readers to think about.
Learn more about The Idols of ISIS at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue