Volume IX, Number 2, Fall 2013

"'We Own Them' – A Review of W. J. T. Mitchell’s Cloning Terror. The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present" by Eszter Szép

Eszter Szép is a doctoral student at the Modern English and American Literature Doctoral Program, Eötvös University, Budapest, Hungary. Her research areas include word and image relations and comics journalism. Email:

Cloning Terror. The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present
W. J. T. Mitchell
Chicago, IL.: The University of Chicago Press
ISBN 978-0-226-53259-2

W. J. T. Mitchell’s collection of essays elaborates his theory introduced in What Do Pictures Want? (2005) on present-day anxieties about cloning and terrorism, both centered on the fear of images. This is a technoscientific incarnation of previous fears about image making and image destruction. According to Cloning Terror. The War of Images: 9/11 to the Present, cloning and terrorism are contemporary manifestations of our fears of certain images coming to life, and the book attempts to find possible explanations for this anxiety by examining it from an iconologial point of view. The methods of iconological investigation are summed up already in the introduction of this book. According to Mitchell, “[I]conology, traditionally, has been an interpretive discipline that inquires into the meanings of images in their historical context,” that has recently put an increased “emphasis on the power of images to influence human behavior” that needs to be supplemented “with an even older model of the image as a living thing” (xix). And indeed, it is in human imagination that brings pictures to life: idolatry, fetishism, and totemism are some of our ways of relating to certain living images. The approach to images advocated by Mitchell is to acknowledge that pictures have the power not only to denote, express and represent but, equally, to seem or be alive, to move, to evolve or even to mutate (xix).

This model of the living image has been one of Mitchell’s groundbreaking innovation in his former book entitled Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (1994) and also in What Do Pictures Want? (2005). Cloning Terror further proves that this model has legitimacy in interpreting cultural phenomena. Accordingly, Mitchell in his new book writes that “the iconic ideas of cloning and terrorism are not merely linked […] by historical coincidence, but are connected by a deep cultural logic that began to manifest itself visibly after 9/11” (19). This logic is under strict scrutiny in the essays of the volume, and the method is that of the “archeology of the present,” advocated earlier in What Do Pictures Want? and defined then as “a rethinking of our condition in the perspective of deep time” (Mitchell 2005, 324).

The first essays of Cloning Terror. The War of Images: 9/11 to the Present provide both a description and criticism of the metaphors and the events of the War on Terror while discussing society’s exaggerated fear of cloning and clonophobia. The argument moves gradually to the examination of how most iconic images of terrorism and torture take on new meanings and find their ways into the art world and popular culture. The question of possible archives for digital images of torture is also raised in the book, especially in the last chapters that place the corpus of artworks alongside photographs of torture into the mostly Christian iconographic tradition of representations of suffering. As Mitchell says, “[I]nsofar as this war produced a new iconography of the archenemy in a global holy war against an ultimate evil, an Islamic fascism that threatens Western civilization itself, the image of a faceless, hooded duplicate, the clone or ‘uncanny double,’ of that central icon of Christianity will continue to haunt all attempts to understand this period” (117-8).

Mitchell defines terrorism as violence against “symbolic targets” (12.) Unlike war, terrorism is not about occupying a given territory, it is rather seen as “a war of words and images carried by the media, a form of psychological warfare whose aim is the demoralization of the enemy” (64.) Cloning Terror is a shrewd critique of the Bush administration’s reaction to the attack of the twin towers, which led to the declaration of the War on Terror. As the title hints, Mitchell regards war as an instrument that cannot stop terrorism; quite on the contrary: it leads to an increased number of terrorist organizations and terrorist acts. In his discussion, Mitchell builds on Jacques Derrida’s concept of terrorism as an autoimmune disorder, and on Marshall McLuhan’s notion of a global nervous system, interconnected by the media. He proposes the substitution of the war metaphor with that of a world health crisis, and urges the embracing of more positive alternatives, such as the strengthening of the global immune system (53).

Parallel to the discourse on terrorism, the book focuses also on the origins of the practice of cloning traced back to botany. Mitchell shows that there have been two shifts in the meaning of the word ‘clone.’ First, the word was applied to non-sexual reproductive processes of animals; second, cloning was used to describe behavior: imitation, copying, loss of autonomy (27). Cloning questions our logic of identity (34) because the clone represents both a singular organism and a collective identity (39) as well. The collective identity cluster is one of the spheres where the paradigm of the clone has strong similitude with the paradigm of the terrorist: both are imagined faceless, mechanical and fearful. Furthermore, as Mitchell claims, “cloning has now taken on a new range of metaphoric lives, well beyond its (new) literal meaning, and has been applied to machines, to buildings, to institutions, and even to images themselves” (29.) The author of the book interprets the clone also as “an image of image-making itself” (29), that is, a metapicture. At the end of the 20th century, new conditions brought about by genetical engineering and computer science made it possible to see the image making in a biodigital or biocybernetic context, issues that were analyzed by Mitchell already in The Last Dinosaur Book (1998), then elaborated in detail in What Do Pictures Want?, and now applied to the reproduction of images of terrorism and torture in his last book.

The second part of Cloning Terror gradually abandons the metaphor of cloning but retains its iconological perspective with considerable ethical considerations. In the part about about the Abu Ghraib archive and the pictures of the torture of prisoners, Mitchell notes that “these images were, after all, paid for with the tax dollars of American citizens. We own them, and must own up to what they tell us about who we are, and what we are becoming in the age of the biodigital picture” (109). He analyzes Rory Kennedy’s and Errol Morris’s documentaries about Abu Ghraib prison stating that traditional forensic methods can hardly be applied in the case of these photos, where “the actual identity […] is irrelevant to the power of the image” (135). The final chapter traces the symbolic value and formal characteristics of the Hooded Man photograph that has, meanwhile, become a metapicture of the War on Terror, which the author inserts into an iconographical tradition defined by Fra Angelico or the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Undoubtedly, these chapters are the most innovative parts of the book.

Mitchell’s Cloning Terror. The War of Images: 9/11 to the Present is interwoven with critical remarks on George W. Bush’s administration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the rhetoric behind these wars and Bush’s conservative policy regarding human cloning. However, Mitchell is only faintly critical about Barack Obama’s policy despite the fact that his election did not end the waging of war. The book itself was published in 2011, two years into the Obama administration, at a time when the War on Terror was not yet officially undeclared; it was simply not spoken about, or merely renamed as Overseas Contingency Operations.


Works Cited

  • Mitchell, W. J. T. 2009. “Obama as Icon” Journal of Visual Culture. 8(2): 125-129.
  • Mitchell, W. J. T. 1994. Picture Theory. University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.
  • Mitchell, W. J. T. 1998. The Last Dinosaur Book. The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
  • Mitchell, W. J. T. 2005. What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.