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Archive for the ‘torture’ Category

mia “born free” / bureaucratic banality of evil

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I really don’t know what to make of MIA’s “Born Free” video. (Can’t easily embed it so you’ll have to go here if you want to watch it…) I think I generally agree with Voyou Desoeuvre’s analysis of the political content / message. The use of redheads as the persecuted minority group is the first problem. Following from what Voyou argues, racism relies about arbitrary distinctions that in the end aren’t all that arbitrary, when considered historically… Voyou is right – socially constructed categories aren’t any less real for being socially constructed. (See also, for instance, the infamous “brown eye / blue eye” pedagogical experiment, a favorite of Oprah and a symptom of self-hating liberal do-goodery, which relies, like most “progressive” liberal arguments on a sense that I too could be a victim of racism… Which really, in the end, isn’t all that true….)

But even beyond all this, as a short dystopian fiction, the video certainly is strange, especially at the end. To my mind, staging the killing of the prisoners as a bizarre sort of game on the part of the guards humanizes the brutality in a way that leads this video in the wrong direction… The starkest horror of the sort of situation that is being half-allegorized here is, I think, the horror of cold bureaucracy rather than individual or aggregated sadism. This displacement – from the filing and list-keeping of state terror to the helmeted insanity of the guard gone wrong – is the same sort of thing that made Abu Ghraib into an ironically safe subject for media and political discussion, as it was a story grounded in human perversity (even if structurally-facilitated perversity) rather than the boring mechanics of everyday terror.

Anyway, you might want to take a look at Coetzee’s old piece on the representation of torture for more if you’ve never read it. Probably deserves a post in itself, as it’s not an uncomplicated piece of writing both in terms of the argument and Coetzee’s personal situation vis a vis these issues… If I get a bit of time perhaps I’ll write something up…

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May 2, 2010 at 11:21 pm

Posted in music, torture

ohno! noro!

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Ugh, and things were going so well! Seems that, as of 3 AM this morning, I’ve come down with the “winter vomiting bug,” aka a norovirus.

Given how bad it would be if either of the other members of my household came down with this (very infectious) malady, I’ve been quarantined up in our guest room all day. Total consumption: one bottle of Vittel, a few bites of an orange ice-pop (didn’t go well, not at all), one bottle of Lucozade, and two bowls of lovely red Jello.

It’s only been an hour or two that I’ve felt well enough to do anything other than lay in my bed and drift between half-sleep and wall-staring thought. Boring! Hideously boring! Not nice. I shouldn’t leave the house tomorrow, but I might go into the office anyway.

Anyway, viruses baffle me. They’re not quite alive – can only exist parasitically within another cell, the cell that they are infecting. Little more than a strip of RNA or DNA sheathed in fat, their sole purpose seems to be the reproduction of this code strip. Sure, that’s what we’re all for, but odd to think of something that doesn’t have any sort of independent existence doing this. My stomach and intestines are plagued with information bent of self-copying.

If something’s going to make me projectile vomit for hours on end, make me miss work and going out, and keep me sequestered up here with nothing to do but watch BBC News on my computer, I just wish it was a bit more ontologically clear and distinct!

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February 18, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Posted in torture

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.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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.

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September 5, 2008 at 11:10 pm

systemic fallacy

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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.

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May 8, 2008 at 1:21 am

Posted in aesthetics, torture, war