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Archive for the ‘war’ Category

late hegemonic fantasy: the pacific

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Just watched the first two episodes of The Pacific on Sky Movies. Stirring and scary yes, but also can’t help but feel that what I’m watching is a some sort of desperate projection of American nostalgic fantasy about the last time that we were outgunned, undermanned, underfed, often injured and generally in dire straits but we won. (It’s no wonder that the Battle of Khe Sahn during the Vietnam War plays a similarly iconic role in the American [filmic] subconscious). The colonel in charge of the unit we’re following even at one point, in the face of throwing what’s barely left of his Marine division against the entire Japanese army, reiterates an order from above: if this goes badly, you’ll retreat to the jungle and fight as guerrillas. To which all involved respond, fuck no, sir. We’re almost guerrillas, we might well have become guerrillas, but we’re never in the end guerrillas. And we watch as the desperate Marines manning the machine guns, constantly low on ammo, mow down hundreds upon hundreds of Japanese infantrymen. (At one point, in an act of medal-winning bravery, someone has to go clear a pile of bodies from the breach in the barbed wire fence in order to create a free-fire zone…) Sometimes, after the battles, the more thoughtful of the Americans go and look at the family pictures that the Japs carry in their bags. Once, one of them even finds a child’s doll in the satchel of the dead. But in another case, when these undermanned Americans send a medic out to help a terminally injured Jap, the latter pulls the pin on a grenade to blow the aiding hands and bodies to pieces. Bastards.

So why is this necessary right now? Well, there’s this sort of thing, which I really recommend you watch, and which I found via Chained to the Cinematheque:

I keep wondering (see below) whether videos like this one, which seem to represent in their depiction of the distractedly distanced killing perpetrated by US troops (which of course continues – or in fact intensifies into the primary US tactic for dealing with international insurgencies) some sort of semi-omnipotent Playstation-style control of the battlefield, actually augur something else, a sort of existential or mass-psychological or even material over-reach. That, if I could guess, is exactly the anxiety that constitutes the political unconscious of the Tom Hanks’s HBO production that I watched tonight. But this may or may not be wishful thinking. Understandable, I suppose, for me to construct fantasies about the failure of national projects that involve severely injuring children in the back of a van that their father’s driven to pick up a dying Reuters employee and deliver him to a hospital and then denying said children proper medical treatment.

Anyway, in case you’re new to the blog, here’s a previous (and more interesting) post on a parallel topic. And actually another one here, originally written for n+1′s website but they couldn’t sort out the coding issues with the embedded videos. I’m actually currently attempting to finish a small bit of fiction on this subject that I’ve been working on forever… We’ll see – maybe the awful video above has given me the spur that I need.

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April 6, 2010 at 12:42 am

Posted in distraction, Television, war

the hurt locker and the “fog of war”

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Just watched The Hurt Locker on pay-per-view, and sure it’s wonderfully exciting and slick. But the other thing it is, or rather does, is the same pernicious thing that “higher quality” American war films, films thematically-centered on the “ambiguities of war” have been doing for decades. That is, it repeatedly puts the viewer through the most baffling aspect of counter-insurgent combat – the serial inability to discern enemy combatant from native non-combatant, the guy peddling counterfeit DVDs from the guy strapped with plastique, the “good guy” family man from the terrorist plotter, the corner-working prostitute from the would-be assassin. In focusing on these moments of indiscernability, it trains its audience not in the art of making split-section distinctions (because films are wired to surprise – thus your best guess will always be a wrong guess) but in the fact that such distinctions can’t in fact be made.

I have no doubt, in other words, that The Hurt Locker captures (albeit, I’m sure, in a cinematically intensified form) something of what it feels like to be an American soldier in Iraq. I only worry that the visceral training that it provides means something different to the GI in the field and the citizen at home seated in the court of public opinion.

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March 14, 2010 at 9:23 am

Posted in movies, war

gi cbt; or, why isn’t she picking up the phone?

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What we love in Woolf, for instance, is the infolding out of the parts of the social map that aren’t supposed to touch so that they do. Remember when Peter Walsh walks past Septimus and Rezia losing their shit in Regent’s Park (he’s talking to a dead man; she’s married to a guy who talks to dead men) and gets the whole thing so very wrong and so very right at the same time?

And that is being young, Peter Walsh thought as he passed them. To be having an awful scene—the poor girl looked absolutely desperate—in the middle of the morning. But what was it about, he wondered, what had the young man in the overcoat been saying to her to make her look like that; what awful fix had they got themselves into, both to look so desperate as that on a fine summer morning? The amusing thing about coming back to England, after five years, was the way it made, anyhow the first days, things stand out as if one had never seen them before; lovers squabbling under a tree; the domestic family life of the parks. Never had he seen London look so enchanting—the softness of the distances; the richness; the greenness; the civilisation, after India, he thought, strolling across the grass.

[...]

Those five years—1918 to 1923—had been, he suspected, somehow very important. People looked different. Newspapers seemed different. Now for instance there was a man writing quite openly in one of the respectable weeklies about water-closets. That you couldn’t have done ten years ago—written quite openly about water-closets in a respectable weekly. And then this taking out a stick of rouge, or a powder-puff and making up in public. On board ship coming home there were lots of young men and girls—Betty and Bertie he remembered in particular—carrying on quite openly; the old mother sitting and watching them with her knitting, cool as a cucumber. The girl would stand still and powder her nose in front of every one. And they weren’t engaged; just having a good time; no feelings hurt on either side. As hard as nails she was—Betty What’shername—; but a thorough good sort. She would make a very good wife at thirty—she would marry when it suited her to marry; marry some rich man and live in a large house near Manchester.

That sort of thing – the violent intersection, the missed opportunity to see what is hiding in plain sight there on the park bench all while he actually does see it. The bringing together of things already together but also not – things that should be brought together but from another perspective shouldn’t ever be brought together, not in a million years. Hard not to think of that sort of thing, anyway, when you read something like this in the NYT today:

The Army plans to require that all 1.1 million of its soldiers take intensive training in emotional resiliency, military officials say.

The training, the first of its kind in the military, is meant to improve performance in combat and head off the mental health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, that plague about one-fifth of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Active-duty soldiers, reservists and members of the National Guard will receive the training, which will also be available to their family members and to civilian employees.

The new program is to be introduced at two bases in October and phased in gradually throughout the service, starting in basic training. It is modeled on techniques that have been tested mainly in middle schools.

Usually taught in weekly 90-minute classes, the methods seek to defuse or expose common habits of thinking and flawed beliefs that can lead to anger and frustration — for example, the tendency to assume the worst. (“My wife didn’t answer the phone; she must be with someone else.”)

What a juxtaposition! Training these poor fuckers to handle, say, exposure to (or even perpetration of) the mass severing of limbs, the reduction of human beings to mist, the serial death of friends and children, intersections of metal and glass and human flesh so baroquely gruesome that Ballard would have been strained to imagine them, all via the confrontation of the most banal of domestic paranoid fantasies, the very stuff of soapy quotidianity: she isn’t picking up the phone because she’s busy being fucked by another man.

Perhaps it will work, who knows. We are strange, strange creatures and we do even stranger things to one another. At any rate, I’ve just added the Times bit into my book, the opening pages of it…

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August 18, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Posted in therapy, war, woolf

pwnd!

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Maybe, maybe not, you’d be surprised to learn that when I was a little kid I was absolutely obsessed with war and the military. OCD-type obsessed. “Playing war” in suburban backyards, military simulators on the computer (I think the last Xmas when I can remember what I actually got was the one when I received this, and they played it for something like twenty-four straight hours….), reading Jane’s Guides and the like. Best of all, was this – which I never actually played with another human being, but whose modules and rule books I read and reread and tried to play by myself but you can’t, really.

Anyway, memoirs of a lonely, semi-Aspergersy childhood in late cold war America I guess. All this is prologue introducing a childhood epiphany, one of those little tiny moments of philosophical insight that you have when you’re a child but which stick with you. Maybe you, if you were like me, thought miniscule thoughts about causality (I remember discussing, basically, Zeno’s arrow problem with my mom long before I’d heard of Zeno’s arrow – she was, erm, unhelpful. I can’t even imagine, actually, what she thought but I remember the day like it was yesterday…) or had the thing that everyone has when they set vanity mirror parallel to the bathroom mirror and, boom, infinite regress.

But the one that I’m thinking about tonight is a little less abstract. I remember realising, all at once, that one of the presumptions that I had about soldiering was – had to be, mathematically – all wrong. The presumption was this: that if you served in the armed forces during a war, likely you would kill several members of the opposing side during the course of that war. That is, that say the average veteran of, say, WWII would have killed several people during his tour or tours of duty.

Simple math shows that this simply cannot be the case. Imagine a war in which there are 100,000 front-line troops on each side. If on side A, the average soldier killed even 1.5 enemy combattants, well, that would be 150,000 dead, just from the start. Of course, some on side A would die before they had killed, and then there are injuries to account for and the like. But I think you see the point: I realized that it must be relatively rare for one solider to kill another soldier during a war. That is, it would be a fairly hotshit thing to have killed even one of the enemy. (In WW2, about 3 million of 17 million German soldiers died – a fairly high percentage, but only 17 percent… So it’s very unlikely that whatever grandpa told grandma to get her in the sack and / or justify his drinking was true…)

Huh. This came as a great shock to me, and it’s really no wonder that it did. Movies make killing seem common, depending on the realism of the picture in question. Video games, of course, arc the issue into absurdity. Remember all those scrolling Nintendo games, where you fight your way through level after level of the enemy, killing thousands and thousands of bad guys before you’re done?

Then again…. We know tonight that semi-final tally of the current war on Gaza comes to 1200+ / 13, a set of numbers that seems preordained to force newswriters into the absurd position of putting an almost before the phrase a hundred to one ratio… if they were brave and honest enough to write the phrase into their work to begin with. These are movie ratios, if not numbers more appropriate to a video game. The fact that they include both military and civilian casualties only makes the point horrifically worse.

Perhaps, then, what was unrealistic about the films and game when I was a kid, and which led to the misunderstanding that gave way to mathematical revision, has actually now been reversed. It’s not the cold war any more, which had a tendency to turn asymmetrical battles symmetrical through direct or indirect support of the “other side.” But the counterweighting effect has long since passed….

But it’s interesting that the newest war videogames both enact and critique at the same time this turn toward hundred-to-one ratios in war. Call of Duty 4, from which the images in this post are drawn, has two modes of play like most “first-person shooters” today. There’s a conventional game, where you follow a storyline from training to, well, something to do with seizing a post-soviet missile silo, and in which you fight against all of those computer directed badguys that we’re all long familiar with from videogames. On this side of the game, since you play as a single named character (OK – two named characters, one from the British SAS and the other from the US Marines), the presumption is that, yes, in the course of the game “you” kill hundred and hundreds of Middle Easterners and Russians without dying yourself. This was once unrealistic, but since your solidiers go into battle in this game with the ability to summon Air Force bombing runs and helicopter gunships, UAV flyovers and the like, well, maybe not as unrealistic as it once was…

The other mode of play, however, offers what we might call a utopian revision of the game played in the first part – if a vision of war can ever rightly be called utopian. This is the multiplayer mode, where you sign on and can join a game set in one scenario or another against other human beings who have logged on to play against you. In each case, you pick a side to join – the Americans, or in the case of most of the scenarios, some sort of Middle Eastern army or resistance movement, a hybrid I suppose of the Iraqi national army and Hamas. But, in order to make the game fair and attractive to players, whichever side you select you choose from the same sets of weapons, and have the same ability to call in airstrikes or UAV reconaissance missions. Asymmetrical war has been rendered symmetrical for the sake of fun and sportsmanship – it is an odd sight to see, F16s flying over a photorealistic Falluja dropping clusterbombs on American Marines, but one that you accept for the sake of the game. Suspension of disbelief, a fair fight, a kill-to-die ratio of approximately 1-1 in the case of all but the best and worst players, whichever side they prefer to fight on.

And it all leads me to wonder what it would be like to write a videogame in which one dies a hundred times over before one successfully kills a single antagonist. The boredom of waiting to fight the enemy would be punctuated, in all but the rarest of cases, by sudden death from the air. After hours of waiting, the screen would simply go blank, over and over and over, without the player ever getting to fire a shot. The sole variety, perhaps, would come from death by other means – a sniper’s shot to the head or a round from a tank. But no matter how, the screen goes blank just the same way – you probably shouldn’t even get to appreciate the difference in the way that you just died again.

And it further leads me to wonder whether the ability to countenance the deaths of others on our fields of battle arrives via the fact that, when confronted by numbers like 1200 or 600,000, we have no more sense that each of those individuals had a backstory, independent subjectivity, a fully human life than we are able to believe that the programmers of games give each of the computer-contolled enemy figures independent initiative, fuzzily human logic, and the rest of the markings of existence equivalent to those that play the game and, eventually, win the game. The bad guys circle their programmed rounds, follow the strings and orders of the code, fire more slowly and less accurately that we do as we kill them. They are robots, bots, spam, studio-manufactured figments. And they all look the same with their swarthy skin and balaclavas and with the AK-47s that they grip and sometimes fire.

Their corpses, as in the games, fizzle and melt back into the earth a few seconds after they die. If they didn’t, their mouldering bodies would litter the field, the screen, and make it impossible to see the next one for the piles of previous victims.

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January 18, 2009 at 2:55 am

Posted in distraction, videogames, war

what’s on teevee

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From the IHT yesterday:

For example, Nanabhay said that Al Jazeera planned to announce this week that all its video material of the war in Gaza would become available under a lenient Creative Commons license, which effectively means it can be used by anyone – rival broadcaster, documentary maker, individual blogger – as long as Al Jazeera is credited.

Smart, that. Al Jazeera is only available, according to the article, in the following US cities: Burlington, VT; Washington, DC; Toledo, OH. (Toledo, OH?) It’s replaced CNN International as our nightly dinnertime TV fare. (Yes, we eat in the living room! Yes there’s a tv in our living room! Yes it’s a big tv!) And while I’m sure we’re all well practiced in US/UK entre les lignes work with US/UK TV news (oh, that falling bomb likely caused death on the ground, even if we’re not going to see it), I must say it’s rather startling to watch the coverage on AJ.

(By the way. If you happen not to have a TV and live in the UK or selected countries in Europe, you might want to download this. You can only watch Al Jazeera in Arabic as of now… Which isn’t all that helpful for most of us. But you can, you know, watch a lot of other things slickly and without trouble… It’s a pretty amazing service….)

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January 13, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Posted in teevee, war

Ulysses and the past disaster

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Read this post as an extended footnote to my previous one. It’s very easy to forget, I suppose because it’s set in 1904, that Joyce wrote Ulysses during and after the First World War. For instance, Badiou does in The Century:

The twentieth century kicks off in an exceptional fashion. Let us take the two great decades between 1890 and 1914 as the century’s prologue. In every field of thought these years represent a period of exceptional invention, marked by a polymorphous creativity that can only be compared to the Florentine Renaissance or the century of Pericles. It is a prodigious period of excitement and rupture. Consider just a few of its milestones. [...] This period also sees the publication of the vast novels of James and Conrad, the writing of the bulk of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and the maturation of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Badiou is making a point here about the relationship between culture before and after the First World War, so it does matter that he’s a few years off with the dating of the development of Ulysses. And it mattered to Joyce, apparently, that we take heed of the dates of the texts “maturation.” Remember what happens at the very end?

watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921

The dates and places mark the text as itself marked by the particularly brutal time and place it was written. They are arguably – traditionally – considered to be a part of the text itself, rather than “supplementary” materials added on like an author’s note on the last page of the text.

What do we miss when we read Ulysses without attending to what Joyce clearly wanted us to know (if only retroactively, retrospectively) about his novel? One way to put it is that this novel about 1904 wants to announce itself as a sort of dialectical image, if a strange sort of one. Here are the requisite quotes from Benjamin, the first from the Arcades Project, the second two from the Theses. You’ve probably read them before…

It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. ‘The truth will not run away from us’: in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)

The historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time takes a stand [einsteht] and has come to a standstill. For this notion defines the very present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism offers the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called “Once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers – enough to blast upon the continuity of history.

I’d argue that the dates at the end of Ulysses, particularly if they’re taken (as I take them) to be part of the text proper, force us to take the novel as something in line with Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical image rather than, say, simply a “historical novel.” 1904 is summoned / presents itself because it was 1914-1921 in Trieste-Zurich-Paris, rather than the alternative.

But it’s a strange sort of dialectical image or collection of dialectical images. First of all – but I suppose this is true of all images of the sort – it’s not clear what exactly we’re supposed to take from what Joyce has collected. Franco Moretti in Signs Taken for Wonders brilliantly claims that Ulysses is a sort of retrograde dystopia, one that predicts the worst of all possible bad futures, the bad future that has already come to pass:

Ulysses is indeed static, and in its world nothing – absolutely nothing – is great. But this is not due to any technical or ideal shortcoming on Joyce’s part, but rather his subjection to English society: for Joyce, it is certainly the only society imaginable, although he just as certainly condemns it, through a hyperbolic presentation of its worst features, to a future of paralysed mediocrity (a future that Joyce, with a stroke of genius, places in the past, as if to underline his consummate scepticism: one can always hope never to reach the negative utopias of science fiction, but if a negative utopia came into being twenty years ago, and no one realized it, then the die is truly cast…)

But there’s something else that’s strange and complicating about all this. June 16, 1904 is also (we know, we know) the date when Joyce first went out with his future wife Nora Barnacle and when, according to semi-official legend, she gave him a handjob. * This fact somewhat over or underdetermines all that I’ve written above, hard to say which, but nevertheless does lead on to the next of my thetically arranged series of posts, in which I attack Benjamin for always fantasizing about explosions where none were to be found…. Coming soon….

* I’ve always been a bit curious about this whole handjob thing, as the letters indicate that it really did mean quite a lot to JJ, but also JJ clearly had been with women – prostitutes – before Nora and assuredly in a more than manual sort of way. Somehow the handjob from a non-prostitute was more, well, epiphanic than anything else that had happened with prostitutes. Which makes sense…. And doesn’t. No it does actually. But for a good time, read this exchange. Just found it.

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January 11, 2009 at 11:50 pm

Posted in badiou, benjamin, joyce, war

too weak to stand up

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From an op-ed by Rashid Khalidi Wednesday in the NYT:

This war on the people of Gaza isn’t really about rockets. Nor is it about “restoring Israel’s deterrence,” as the Israeli press might have you believe. Far more revealing are the words of Moshe Yaalon, then the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, in 2002: “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”

From the WSJ today:

Aid workers used a second, three-hour humanitarian cease-fire Thursday to reach neighborhoods that have seen some of the heaviest fighting. Health officials in Gaza said 50 bodies were recovered Thursday from rubble.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said it found four small children, too weak to stand up, lying next to their dead mother and 11 other corpses in a house that had come under heavy Israeli shelling.

Should go to the demonstration tomorrow. Went to basically all of them in NYC before my daughter was born, as uncomfortable as they make me, but I haven’t been since. When we were in Memphis we took her to the Lorraine Motel, and now she’s obsessed with MLK, the marches, his time in prison, and his death. (MLK might well be her introduction to the very concept of death…. There was at first a lot of “and then what did he do” after the point in the story when he dies…) And people with “black skin” and what this means and has meant in a place like Memphis… Or really anywhere we’ve ever been. Classical liberal parenting, whatever whatever. Maybe if my parents had taken me to this sort of thing (just the thought!) I’d be a bit better person in some ways than I am today. Or maybe not. Who knows, who knows….

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January 9, 2009 at 11:51 am

Posted in war

“a Keynesianism largely military”

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Letter in the Guardian yesterday:

Despite the main finding in the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that it “has been able to continue to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran”, the western media has focused on the issue of Tehran’s lack of transparency over the IAEA investigation into recent intelligence allegations (Report, September 12). These involve missile re-entry vehicle projects and have been rejected by the Iranians, who have not even been permitted to see the documents upon which the allegations are founded.

This week the US Congress is debating two non-binding resolutions which, if passed, will greatly increase the likelihood of military intervention against Iran. They call on the US president to “increase economic, political and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities”, and demand “stringent inspection requirements” of all goods entering or leaving Iran and an embargo of refined petroleum products to Iran. Although both resolutions exclude authorisation for military action, the embargo will require a naval blockade. Such a blockade could result in skirmishes with the Iranian navy which could rapidly escalate.

The US is massing the largest armada of warships in the Gulf since 2003. Two aircraft carrier task forces are already there and a third was dispatched on August 22. French and British warships and carrier groups are also reportedly on their way. This has increased speculation that George Bush might authorise military attacks against Iran before the end of his term in office in January, or before the November elections to boost to the likelihood of a McCain presidency.
Stefan Simanowitz
Westminster Committee on Iran

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September 19, 2008 at 12:16 am

Posted in crisis, war

did you get that on record or what?

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We all, today, walk around with a portable archive of Historical Video Clips in our heads. Without checking, we can picture a secondary explosion on the doomed space shuttle challenger, Germans swinging torches and axes as they exuberantly tear down that wall. We all have that green lit gamescape of the anti-aircraft guns firing aimlessly and ineffectively into the Baghdad sky the first night of the first war on Iraq. Perhaps we have Clinton and Hilary swaying to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Thinkin’ Bout Tomorrow,” though we definitely all possess a whole panoply of views and perspectives on the day that the World Trade Center fell – we have two towers burning, we have the cloud of dust, we have Bush at Ground Zero.

But in this line what do we have – all of us, or even most of us – of the new Iraq War? The firework displays of the first moments of Shock and Awe? And then the day that the huge statue of Saddam fell? Saddam as he was about to die? For a present day, ongoing event, I am willing to bet that most of us carry around precious little in the way of those little mental mpegs that start running the moment the concept comes up. The reports of the embedded journalists at the start of the war were too banal to fix in the soft gray spot, and the ugly remainder of the war seems to be strangely (is that the right word?) under-represented on the nightly news, aside from the days death toll, and, in certain situations, accompanying photographs of dead soldiers when they were clean and young and alive.

No, the current war has not been, in the way that both of the previous major US engagements were, a television war. Bad news and ugly scenes make it difficult to sell retirement services to the increasingly elderly viewers of the network’s programs and CNN alike, and from the first days of the conflict the military has done all that it can to keep its arms tightly around the shoulders of the dwindling number of journalists actually working anywhere outside of the Green Zone in Baghdad. And even if the poll numbers have changed dramatically, the news organizations still seem to be extremely hesitant to do anything at all that would provoke the “Support Our Troops!” crowd.

But even if the images and streams never quite make it to our television screens, it is not the case that we have seen nothing or that there is nothing to see. In a perverse fulfillment of some of the irrationally exuberant predictions of the late nineties and early part of this decade, the scenes that are most pressing, the most real, appear via the efforts of what in a somewhat more hopeful time we used to call “citizen journalists.” They arrive, that is, via YouTube and similar video hosting sites. There is something incredibly strange about the fact that many of the most vivid and terrifying images that I’ve seen arrive via a site whose architecture and design seem ideally suited to dumb pet videos, teenagers glamming against the backdrop of their favorite song, or collections of rim shots from yesterday’s already obsolescent sitcom. These videos are forwarded to us, bloglinked, or, especially when we’ve grown a taste for them, we search them out. We view them during stolen moments at the office, late at night in our sleeping clothes – anytime but at an pre-ordained time. They are, true to the time and its habits of consumption, on demand.

The videos are at once, in general, incredibly simple and dauntingly complex to read. They solicit from us prefabricated modes of critical approach, the automatic and issueless discovery of the message in the media and a whole series of parallel pomo-lotry. Or they simply make us cry – for the dead civilians, for the soldiers that are doing the killing, for ourselves. This has happened to me a few times, viewing them in my office. (It is an unlikely scene – I’m a large guy, I don’t look like a crier…) I get choked up, the tears come, and then, eventually, I stop crying and eventually, I do something else.

I remember having this reaction, for instance, after watching this one in my office. It was one of my first.

You cry and you think. You wonder in what possible scenario these people in the car could have be, beyond any doubt, fair targets. There is the body on the road, another that we cannot see but only hear about just inside the door of the building. Perhaps there are others, also invisible, encased in the cars. Unfortunately, perhaps irresponsibly, you think perhaps what a great title or tagline that magic utterance, the Did you get that on record or what? would be. In order to hold off the tears, or maybe just in spite of them, you wrap yourself in this little puzzle of representational intention, in the contradictions and inconsistencies of the piece. It is a trophy on digital media, today’s ear necklace or captured Luger, but how did it reach the web and why? What do we make of the almost altogether unconvincing claim at the end – that no unarmed people were hurt during the shooting, despite the fact that the dead bodies don’t appear to have been armed.

There is a large subgenre of Iraq videos on YouTube that focus on children. Fortunately they are, from what I have seen, less bloody than the ambush above, but in a distinct sense they are even more disturbing. More dangerous to say, they are perhaps the most interesting of the videos available on-line.

It sometimes seems like a generic mandate that the videos include a self-referential phrase, a mention of the fact that the video is being made…. Are you getting this? Can you see this? But what exactly is this anyway? Is it, simply put, a slice of hideous if halfhearted cruelty informed by a viciously instrumental relationship to the occupied other? Or, are we getting it wrong if our readiness to assume the worst? Is it just a game, a moment of absurd interaction between the soldiers and the children? Children do love to run, to race, after all. We are left in a bind, unable to confidently read the clip, and inevitably turn again to the meta-issues. What about this scene made it camera worthy? And what about this video, once captured and, perhaps, sent along to its initial audience, inspired the wider dissemination of it, a dissemination wide enough that we – you and I – can watch it today?

The playful humiliation of children is in fact one of the dominant themes of the posted videos.

The videos stage and restage the intersection of everyday life – and do children ever have anything other than an everyday life, whatever the circumstances? – and the very different tedium, the anxious and defensive routine, of the US soldiers as they attempt to entertain themselves away from identification with the Iraqis least like to assume the position of antagonists. They all wanna be on video. Like they’re gonna see it ever. Like they’re gonna see themselves ever on video. But they all wanna be on it. Fuckers. Recording these moments is an act of cruelty that parallels the cruelty of the soldier’s actions themselves, but both acts share

At times, and despite their brevity, the videos featuring kids threaten to evolve into semi-allegories of the situation of the whole. The never quite fit the bill, but they come close. And in the closeness, they reveal, like some of the better known iconic images of the conflict, the way that patterns of thought and behavior circle up and down the ladder of rank, the hierarchy of violence.

To be sure there are lots of other clips that feature sunnier moments of contact, soldiers who haven’t been (haven’t allowed themselves to be?), distorted enough by their context to treat children in ways that would land one in prison almost instantly back home. But even in these softer moments, violence or the playful relaxation of violence seem to be the only options available on the menu.

My collection of clips, of course is selective, but is still, I believe, representative of a large number of similar videos available for viewing on YouTube and the like. And perhaps it is just my idiosyncratic way of approaching texts (I teach literature, I am something of a formalist) that tells me so, but it seems to me that the specificities of the medium in question – the very short video clip – has everything to do with the complex feelings and questions that these pieces engender. Or, of course, it is the close synchronization, the uncanny affiliation, between the formal organization of these pieces and the content that fills the container of the form that makes me feel that they are somehow

That is these clips, because of their atomic, episodic nature, the fact that they are too short to allow for backstory or substantive development, too narrow to permit even a glance at context, and the world surrounding the shot. They bring us right up close to where the action is, the real stuff that evades the propaganda strips, only to end abruptly – always abruptly – and, quite literally, provide us only with another set of videos that the formula has deemed “related.”

At moments, I feel like these YouTube videos are the distinctive aesthetic form of our time and place. They show us what we know, and hide what we cannot know. Often what is revealed during these disjunctive moments is a dead body, innocence or guilt unknown, there is no time for that. Or a smiling child who should be crying, or a crying child who should be smiling, but we have to go – there isn’t the bandwidth or server space to stay. And what would we do if we could stay?

They are like episodes, one starts to feel, in some sort of inchoate dystopian work, one which borrows extra intensity from the fact that it is composed of nothing that isn’t drawn from the real world, the world that we share with the children in the videos. Considered together, watched in a sequence, as I have had you do (if with a few interruptions) they come to seem a slow montage rather than a collection of autonomous shorts. As such, we might well expect them to have the disruptive effect that we have long heard arrives of such starting juxtapositions.

One of the persistent tropes of the “speculative” literary works and films involves the fantasy of the subject transformed by the forced viewing of images. Whether the object is reformation or ruin, submission or transformation, nightmares about the idea that somehow we might be reached and altered, or even controlled, by locking our eyes to a series of disjunctive images, a montage.

And in a sense the reach of this trope extends far beyond the realms of speculative and science-fiction and art film into media theory and notions of ideology, as well as more vulgar conceptions about the relationship between, say, represented violence and violent actions, school shootings and the like.

We wait for the image, the conjunction, that will blind us or make us at last see, that will reset the operating system and let us move under a power “not our own” but all our own, just differently, newly, once and for all.

But the right image, the effective conjunction, never comes. We have flags and mothers and cheerleaders, we have the soft core and the hard core, the lynchings, the bombings, and the children. We have the ambush and the dead and the dirty jokes about tiny girls and the flag, and we pang and parallax, but we do not snap.

These film clips lend us access to a world that has passed. The YouTube videos bring us back to the present. We see them, you have seen them, and they will stick, but they will not transform. Nothing does the trick anymore. It is hardly an appropriate message to draw from the digital stuff that we’ve just watched and the bodies that we can barely imagine behind it, but I am not sure what else there is to say.

Just as Theodor Adorno once argued for the reduction of speculation about emancipated society to a basic, simple demand – “There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more” – perhaps we need to develop an aesthetic, a form, that could ground itself in the coarse demand to stay close to children like these, to follow them from start to finish, and not look away in shame and boredom. We must, in short, find an aesthetic with which to break ourselves into compliance with our baser, animalian, that is to say human, enlightened, imperatives.

Written by adswithoutproducts

September 5, 2008 at 11:10 pm

testmarketing the October Surprise

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Ah, interesting, horrifying. Every summer on the summer in the run-up to major elections…

WASHINGTON — Israel carried out a major military exercise earlier this month that American officials say appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Several American officials said the Israeli exercise appeared to be an effort to develop the military’s capacity to carry out long-range strikes and to demonstrate the seriousness with which Israel views Iran’s nuclear program.

More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters participated in the
maneuvers, which were carried out over the eastern Mediterranean and
over Greece during the first week of June, American officials said.

The
exercise also included Israeli helicopters that could be used to rescue
downed pilots. The helicopters and refueling tankers flew more than 900
miles, which is about the same distance between Israel and Iran’s
uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, American officials said.

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 20, 2008 at 10:17 am

Posted in distraction, war

systemic fallacy

with one comment

The following paragraph is from an essay by WJT Mitchell in The Life and Death of Images, a new collection of essays published here by the Tate itself, in the US by Cornell.

Although the Abu Ghraib image is generally reproduced as a singular, isolated, iconic form, it implies an address to and relation to other that is a central feature of the tortured and dying imago dei in Christian iconography. We know that the torturers are not far away, and we know from the pornographic images that they were having a good time, giving the ‘thumbs-up’ sign to the camera as they gloated over their victims. But this, too, is a central feature of the photographs, which, like the canonical scenes of the passion of Christ, incorporate the torturers as an essential part of their iconography. Did Lynndie Englund know that a frequent motif in scenes of the mocking of Christ is the leading of him on a leash? Certainly not. These tableaux are not to be taken as expressions of the intentions of the torturers, but symptoms of the ‘system behind the system’ that brought them into the world.

I’m interested in the last line. That is, I’m interestedly resistant to the last line. What do you think? I’m not going to show the images again – they’ve been shown enough, and those are human beings that we’re seeing, the purpose of the photos was to humiliate, and that’s that. But, remembering back, are they “symptoms of the ‘system behind the system’ that brought them into the world”? And what does that have to do with traditional Christian iconography?

I am nervous about a quasi-Jungianism that’s slipping back into the game. I guess I don’t believe in any “system behind the system,” at least not one that looks like the one Mitchell seems to be leaning on here. But then again, I’m definitely not an intentionalist either, in the Hirsch / Michaels mode…

I’ll put it this way. Unless the complex history of Christian representation is bracketed as “what I, and I alone because of my training, can find in this image,” I am not sure what the top of the paragraph is up to, especially given what happens at its end.

What does it matter? We dance over the particularities of the thing. We lose sight of the beam in our own eye, the suffering human being in the shot, as we paranoiacally speculate about the sprinkler systems that run under the image’s lawn.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 8, 2008 at 1:21 am

Posted in aesthetics, torture, war

“possible manipulation in the oil markets”

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From the NYT today:

The split on the gas tax is a relatively rare one for Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, who agree on the broad outlines of policy in most areas. They have both called for the suspension of purchases for the national strategic petroleum stockpile, a supply of oil to protect the country against sudden supply disruptions; new taxes on oil companies; measures to curb global warming; and heavy federal spending on renewable energy sources. They have also called for a federal investigation of possible manipulation in oil markets.

Ha! You mean, like, this? 

Just to be clear, the wars and threats of future wars are not responsible for the entire run up in price, as there’s clearly an enormous increase in demand / plateauing of supply at foot that at the base of this. But the “war premium” ensured that the oilcos were receiving a nicely inflated price from 2002 on, despite the fact that the US economy was falling into recession. The “axis of evil” speech, which turned loose talk into an announcement of imminent action, was given on January 29, 2002. Look again at the graph… 

Nothing would have sucked more, for certain parties, than running the last stable years of oil supply down at $10 / barrel. 

One needn’t believe in direct conspiracy, only capitalist over-determination (that, on its side, looks like underdetermination…) Things happen because they can – fields of benefit fall into place, everyone’s happy and lobbying, and then you get this sort of thing. 

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 29, 2008 at 1:52 pm

Posted in distraction, war

winter soldiers

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(saw it first at pas au dela)

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 20, 2008 at 11:11 am

Posted in video, war

misuse of literature

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We don’t grow beasts like Hitchens in the US. Filled to the brim with satanic figures we surely are, but they rarely have reams of poetry by heart. Ours slick and equivocate, but not with the likes of Yeats and Shakespeare on their forked tongues.

Here he is with his latest and perhaps worst piece to date:

I was having an oppressively normal morning a few months ago, flicking through the banality of quotidian e-mail traffic, when I idly clicked on a message from a friend headed “Seen This?” The attached item turned out to be a very well-written story by
Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times. It described thedeath, in Mosul, Iraq, of a young soldier from Irvine, California, named Mark Jennings Daily, and the unusual degree of emotion that his community was undergoing as a consequence. The emotion derived from a very moving statement that the boy had left behind, stating his reasons for having become a volunteer and bravely facing the prospect that his
words might have to be read posthumously. In a way, the story was almost too perfect: this handsome lad had been born on the Fourth ofJuly, was a registered Democrat and self-described agnostic, a U.C.L.A. honors graduate, and during his college days had fairly decided reservations about the war in Iraq. I read on, and actually printed the story out, and was turning a page when I saw the following:

“Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there
was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens
on the moral case for war deeply influenced him … “

Did you notice that the moments of ethical adding up that happen in the piece, the places where Hitchens “solves” the problem of his own complicity with this horrible thing (the war, the death of this kid), involve the deployment of literature. Literature that serves here as a cloud of easy equivalence, as permission to say mistily what you couldn’t possibly say without the screen of metaphor and allusion.

For the piece relies upon the equation: Hitchens is to Iraq what Yeats is to the Easter Rising and Orwell is to Barcelona. But of course Iraq is not the Easter Rising, nor is it Barcelona, unless perhaps you’re seeing it from the other side of the lines.

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 5, 2007 at 9:46 am

Posted in distraction, literature, war

hearts and minds

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From the NYT tonight:

SHABAK VALLEY, Afghanistan — In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian anthropologist named Tracy.

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team’s ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations — in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe — has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results

One wonders about what it’s like to receive that phone call or email or whatever way the initial pitch comes, what it’s like to systematically forget all the horrifying mistakes your discipline has made in this or other parallel directions, and say, sure, yes, I’d like to hear some more about this opportunity. Yes, sure, I’d like the informational packet. What is the pay like? And so on. It’s the same sort of doublethinking self-deception, I imagine, that gets otherwise sane and reasonable people to agree to appear as talking heads on cable news shows… 

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 4, 2007 at 10:26 pm

Posted in academia, war

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