Our inquiry into the digital reproducibility of ritual and trauma takes as its point of departure an Italian orientalist and the transfer of more than 1,050 Ta’zieh manuscripts from Iranian villages to the Vatican library in 1954. Then ambassador to Tehran, Enrico Cerulli had gathered an infamously extensive set of material pertaining to Shi’ite passion plays throughout his diplomatic mission, which include iconographies, paraphernalia, and costumes. Ta’zieh rituals have historically been performed during the holy month of Muharram, concurring with the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain in Karbala, and consisting in a staged, participatory recreation of the Event. Said to have been the first Western observer to enthusiastically acknowledge and engage with the “the scientific importance of the Persian dramatic production”, Cerulli traced the Ta’zieh within a system of religious representation popularized during the reign of Shah Esmāʿīl—“l’inspirateur premier des representations”—and framed as a means to disseminate Shiism among provinces where religious minorities had once prevailed. Now stored at the Vatican library under the Cerulli collection, the Ta’zieh manuscripts contained directives inviting actors, craftsmen, costume-makers, and community members to access knowledge on the dialogues, prayers, technicians, and props required and employed in the production of the performance ritual. The motive advanced for the uprooting of these manuscripts was preservation, at a point in time when Ta’zieh processions had been banned by the Iranian government for ideological purposes and reduced to a marginalized practice performed in remote villages to attract Western tourism. Though the abrupt unavailability and subsequent museumification of the manuscripts did not, in and of themselves, render the performance ritual in question obsolete, they did contribute to the interruption of a collective practice of subjectivity-making. How does one preserve knowledges around a ritualistic practice when said knowledges are only activated through embodied interaction?
Over a year ago, we encountered Facebook events set up by Shi'i municipal councils in Beirut and South Lebanon inviting community members to “experience” Ashura through virtual reality. Shia Islam’s commemoration of Ashura, on the tenth day of Muharram, involves recalling the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, killed by the Caliph of Damascus’ troops during the battle of Karbala in ٦۸۰ CE. VR Karbala simulates the final hours of the Imam Hussain; the virtual reality apparatus was imported by local Shi’i political figures, touring Lebanese towns and villages throughout the month of Muharram. Originally developed in the Netherlands, VR Karbala sought to respond to concerns regarding the supposed lack of safety inherent in the performance of procession rituals and its illegality in certain contexts, sublimating these rituals into virtual reality. Contemporary ritualistic performances involve believers imposing physical forms of pain on themselves, causing scars and wounds during procession marches. That the VR narrative was produced by diasporic actors is not insignificant, knowing that Ashura ritual performances could not be performed in their native intensity in the heavily regulated, hypersecular context of the Netherlands, affording the opportunity to heighten the sensorial realm through which the ritual is performed all the while eliminating the corporeal pain that accompanies the afore-mentioned ritual performances. Could it be that the performance of ritual processions around the martyrdom of Imam Hussain had come full circle in the age of digital reproduction?
disembodied, immaterial, and totalizing
To operate under the techno-optical regime imposed by a virtual reality headset allows for the realization of strategies ‘staging’ the relation between the witness—the one seeing—and the Event—what is being seen—in such a way as to obscure what is seen and the subjectivity of the point of view performing the act of seeing as such. What does the history of the Ashura ritual performance narrate in regards to the notion of the ritual as medium, and how do technological advancements contribute to, in lieu of threatening, formations of collective religious subjectivities? The lineage consisting of staged play, participatory performance, and immersive virtual reality flits in its methods of embodiment and reduction of the individual self, from disembodying the spectator in the Ta’zieh, to corporeally embodying the pain of Imam Hussain in rituals of self-mutilation, towards a passive disembodied gaze in VR Karbala. It goes without saying that the immersive qualities of the virtual reality apparatus are purposed to heighten a sense of powerlessness among users, in this case the Shi’i subject-viewer, the latter being already presumed to regret, through the doctrinal practice of their faith, the impossibility of transcending spatio-temporal barriers and participating in the prevention of Imam Hussain’s tragic death. The techné required for the completion of a Ta’zieh ritual might have been lost, stored, and museified in the annals of a colonial library, but the agony of the cosmic imam finds its perpetual reproduction in processes of digital image rendering, perhaps in the form that Shi’i Islam doctrine, as an inherent imamology, had always intended—disembodied, immaterial, and totalizing.
Here we would like to bring in an earlier and long-discussed experiment in virtual reality spawned by the US military-entertainment complex, that is Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET), namely Virtual Iraq, developed by the US military to treat war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from PTSD. The therapeutic cognitive-behavioral tool was adapted from the video game Full Spectrum Warrior by clinical psychologist Albert “Skip” Rizzo and his colleagues at the Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT) in Southern California, known by many as the epicenter of the US military-entertainment complex. VRET replaces traditional psychotherapeutic practices that involve the therapist talking the patient through a past traumatic event or gradually approaching a triggering object by visualizing the traumatic event or trigger on their behalf. The sequences in Virtual Iraq depict various desert landscapes ambiguously titled “Afghan village” or “Middle East town.” The drive towards ‘evocative vagueness’ is undoubtedly rooted in an orientalizing AmeriKKKan gaze that pragmatically deprioritizes detail and difference between contexts and locales, but also allows the veteran under therapy to project their own stored memories and first hand experiences onto the “generic realism” of the landscapes. Rather than being faithfully depicted, the devastated, formerly occupied city of Fallujah and its inhabitants are digitally rendered and experienced as ‘targets’, inscribed within a militarized vision of locale and memory imposed onto the post-traumatic subject, the US Army veteran.
Trauma processing and psychological healing thus become deeply dependent on conditions of visuality that are themselves imbricated in the production of a permanent state of war. We’ve picked up on specific maneuvers in time that these images perform in their mediations of respective traumas. A US Army veteran returns to a haunting Iraqi desert, projecting himself gun-wielding onto the receiving landscape as a Shi'i believer leaps to a neighboring desert, some 1300 years before. Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET), as a cognitive-behavioral tool, bypasses the scale of human discourse and attempts to directly alter the neural structure of stored traumatic memories by exposing the veteran to multisensory cues: a veiled village dweller or the sound of Islamic adhan at dusk, for example. Again, we may question here the enforcement of association between a generic Arabo-Islamic diorama and the trauma that is inherent to the simulation. In terms of gender performativity, the veteran returns to the rupturing space-time less as a docile clinical patient, more as a crusading gamer, and no masculinity is lost: where in the original event he is on an overseas mission to counter terrorism, in the reenactment he is back home to heroically stanch the troubling replays of his mind. The gradual virtual return to the generic Arab desert alleviates the struggling post-traumatic subject by allowing him to once again face the Other, this time by slowly testing the waters in a controlled clinical environment, in a space and time of peace.
A similar desert diorama backgrounds the temporal leap of VR Karbala, a leap equal to the lifetime of one Abrahamic religion. The simulation here does not seek to reenact any traumatic spike in the lifetime of the user, nor any sensorial content that they have themself experienced. Rather, it is what Turkish psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan termed a “chosen trauma” that is formative of the Shi'i religious subject that the simulation is addressed to, and foundational to the solidarity of the ethno-religious community. Given that the trauma in question is not a psychopathology to be treated but a collective historical wound to be commemorated, there is no longer a ceiling to the employment of pathos possible. The thanatographic sequences that ensue aim for a totalizing tragedy and for a maximal kindling of grief in the subject-viewer, as evidenced by the crying users documented in the promotional material of the VR experience. We cannot say whether the obscuring of the face of the dying Imam Hussain throughout the rendering exacerbates or dulls the tragedy of the immersive viewing, however, a tall figure on a white horse with an emanating green-tinted white light in lieu of a face is consistent with pre-VR depictions of Imam Hussain on his final journey. Within the framework of traumatic temporality, Sacred Defense is not directly addressed to any type of trauma, neither psychopathological nor theological. Rather, It is better discussed in a discursive sphere of “trauma absence.”
During Ashura in 2009, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s general secretary, remarked that international humanitarian organization have been unable to find trauma in Hezbollah subjects after the 2006 summer war with Israel: a surefire testament to the victory and continued resistance of Hezbollah in the face of its oppressors. Another instance that seems to bear rhetorical resemblance is a recent declaration in early 2019 by Samah Jabr, chair of the mental health unit at the Palestinian Ministry of Health that PTSD, as it has been formulated in the West, does not apply to the mental health pathologies of Palestinians living under occupation. The two differ greatly in that Nasrallah attempts to collectivize the condition and transform its reported absence into a sign of political victory, while Dr. Jabr merely attempts to explain that Palestinian psyche is perhaps more troubled by incoming threat than by returning violent memory after one is safe and out of harm’s way. What they do share is the decentering of “post-” in post-trauma, and traumatic temporalities that are vastly different from those of the US Army given that war is not oceans away from home and that within the lifetime of a constituent, the likelihood of another war after an initial trauma is far from negligible.
Here we may begin to speak of multiple military-entertainment complexes, beyond merely that of the US as an exceptionalized imperial power. In comparison to that of the US that eventually spawned Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy, the military-entertainment complex of Hezbollah will remain much more invested in future-proofing a young generation of gamers for upcoming wars that may be fought on their own land or in neighboring Syria than in healing aging veterans who have returned home scarred from battle. Echoing Yuk Hui’s thesis on multiple cosmotechnics that “technology is not anthropologically universal, but constrained by particular cosmologies, which go beyond mere functionality or utility,” we may extend the criteria of study for the development of said military-entertainment complex beyond geopolitical maneuvering and into the Islamic theology and cosmology that underlie it. A soldier who believes that their enrollment in battle fits within a religious calling against earthly oppressor, and one who believes in the unquestioned virtue of martyrdom, is more likely to be soothed over by their own beliefs during times of traumatic recall than a US veteran who may look back on a war as a tragedy of hawkish foreign policy.
The paramilitary-entertainment complex of Hezbollah, through its continuing forays into game production, is thus more invested in building future resilience among its constituents in the face of upcoming strife and binding that resilience to Islamic faith and values, than it is invested in creating therapeutic tools for a secular post-traumatic subject. Through these productions, a form of ethno-religious futurism is created, one that intertwines ethnic identity and conservative values with ostensibly novel appropriations of technology. For a paramilitary actor like Hezbollah with limited means, due especially to recent international sanctions on Iran and the transnational Shi’ community, the field of virtual simulation is an effective path towards ostentatious counter-hegemonic technological advancement within the insurmountable material and structural limitations of being internationally recognized as a terrorist organization. As we’re seemingly nearing the ‘end’ of unilateral globalization, i.e. the one-sided, top-down flow of the universalization of Western epistemologies and worldviews roughly since the end of the cold war until the 9/11 attacks, and as simulated battles are won against both imperial and terrorist foe, and vernacular religious practices are updated via different technological prostheses, we called on ourselves, as well as fellow thinkers and practitioners. to turn an attentive eye to the accelerating technologies that shackle us to our militarized psyches and futures.