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Maria Janina Vitale
James der Derian
From images of war to war of images
No images more profoundly define our world than those of war, as demonstrated by the visual contents as well as political context of the Manipulating Reality exhibition at the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina in Florence. Both trigger memories of one of the most notorious instances when a lethal combination of political pathology and information technology produced not only a brave new worldview but a disastrous world war. Although ideologically opposed to the Russian Revolution, German and Italian fascist movements in the 1930s mimicked its innovative techniques of “agitprop”, capturing power as well as reality through a manipulation of photography, radio and film. Writing a powerful series of essays on the political significance of the new mass media, Walter Benjamin came to three critical conclusions that resonate with this exhibition as well as our current predicament:
• The history that showed things “as they really were” was the strongest narcotic of the century.
• History decays into images, not into stories.
• In times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in a situation where he has to play detective.1
One century passes, and after 9/11 a new one is born of theological extremism, technological fundamentalism, and a surfeit of violent images. Jihadists used email, cell phones, flight simulators and the Internet to amass the knowledge and to coordinate the machinery that killed 3000 people and, at the cost of several hundred thousand dollars, caused over 250 billion dollars worth of damage. Before 9/11 there was one Al Qaeda website – after, hundreds. The US in retaliation used along with conventional forces global surveillance, networked communication, smart weapons, robotic aircraft, real time simulation and information warfare to fight hightech, low-risk “virtuous wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the periphery of the real wars a virtual battle space flourished, in the form of blogs full of conspiratorial rants, hip-hop videos by “digihadists” of the “Dirty Kuffar”, shifting swarms of activism against the war, and, in the shadows, private contractor “cut-outs” executing new techniques of surveillance and data-mining. Old and new media converged in the identification of friend and foe, and the fear of the other magnified and multiplied. Reality once again became a bad dream from which we seemed unable to awaken. Walter Benjamin’s warnings come back to haunt us.
Uncovering, indicting, let alone eradicating these dark expressions of political conflict is not an easy task. Images carry many meanings, images of war no less so. The temptation to attach single captions to polysemic images – to reduce them singularly “as they really are” – is the powerful but “unrealistic” narcotic of the Sovereign. No State or state of mind can exercise full authority in the contemporary infosphere – which of course does not stop many from trying. As powerful new actors emerge in an increasingly hetero-polar world, a fractalization as well as balkanization of politics is inevitable. And as the spectacle of war gives way to a war of spectacles, Clausewitz’s famous dictum is fully and finally inverted: politics becomes a continuation of war by virtual means.
But then something happened in the streets of Fallujah and the Al Anbar Province: the reality principle of war returned with a vengeance, in the form of dead bodies that could not be virtualized away. “Shock and awe” gave way to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, and the problem of signifying violence – of captioning its meaning – did not disappear; indeed it multiplied. “Terrorism” came now in many faces and forms, becoming in effect the political pornography of modernity: whether delivered by IED or errant air-strike, in the name of Allah or under the rubric of just war, terrorism could not be defined nor distinguished from war: we only really knew it when we saw it. However, because of the proliferation of actors and profusion of media, not everyone saw it the same way, making it all the more difficult to condemn or justify one form of violence over another. Or once again, as Benjamin put it: “The harshest most disastrous aspects of imperialist war are in part the result of the gaping discrepancy between the gigantic power of technology and miniscule moral illumination it affords”.2
Benjamin might be able to point us in the right direction but he did not live long enough to witness, post- Holocaust, post-Hiroshima, and (as videogames sales exceed theatre box office) post-Hollywood, the formation of an unholy alliance of so many new destructive and seductive technologies. When flickering newsreels have been replaced by the ubiquitous YouTube, intermittent radio broadcasts by the instantaneous Twitter, we need new guides to lead us out of the labyrinth created by the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment network (MIMENET). Others have taken up the challenge. To jump the rails of spectacle where “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation”, Guy Debord offered the subversive power of the “psycho-geographic drift”, the preferred Situationist method for studying the pathological effects of a geographical environment on inhabitants as well as the transient observer.3 To counter the hazards of simulacra, Jean Baudrillard warned of “a group which dreams of a miraculous correspondence of the real to their models, and therefore of an absolute manipulation”.4 And to avoid becoming one more casualty of “the war of images”, Paul Virilio declaimed that “winning today, whether it’s a market or a fight, is merely not losing sight of yourself”.5
Not losing sight of oneself requires a willingness to recognize the gaze of the other, that there can be no identity without difference. Again, no easy task when defence, entertainment and media industries “make ready”, through war games, video games and language games, the eradication rather than the recognition of the other. Peaceable alternatives, like light being sucked into a black hole, are disappeared by the Simulation Triangle of the Pentagon, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. It becomes understandable why we come to accept the seductive simulation over a blighted reality, the map over the landscape. But what happens when, like Borges’s famous map of the empire, the image becomes truly global, a map without an edge? Where then will the monsters go?
The contributors to this exhibition provide some troubling if incomplete answers. They deserve credit for going where scholars and policymakers fear to tread, offering a historically-sensitive, politically-informed, aestheticallyalluring response to an Age of InfoTerror. Countering the myopia of politics with the oxyopia of art, the contributors force us to turn our gaze back on the war and media machines, to imagine better ways to resolve political conflict. Injecting a homeopathic dose of bad humours into an ailing body-politic, they might just help cure us from what is killing us.
1 Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982) and Charles Baudelaire: Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1955).
2 Jeffrey Mehlman, Walter Benjamin for Children: An Essay on His Radio Years (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
3 Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (Paris: Editions Buchet- Chastel, 1967).
4 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacres et Simulation (Paris: Galilée, 1981).
5 Paul Virilio in Block 14, Autumn 1988.
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