The spectacular nature of the 9/11 attacks as the first plane was followed by the second one.

The second plane.

The double irony of the Jessica Lynch rescue was that the staged Hollywood style rescue was, until exposed, set to be made into a movie! First reported as a brilliant rescue, the rescue was later exposed as a news management exercise. See essay by Steven Lipkin, "Saving Jessica Lynch" in Jump Cut no. 47.

Another PR exercise in Iraq war image management was around Saddam’s statue. Toppling it seemed the spontaneous outburst of jubilant Iraqi crowds. That image was contradicted by long shots that showed a small crowd of Iraqis surrounded by U.S. armored tanks...

...  and a close-up, such as this one, which showed a U.S. soldier wrapping the statue's head in a U.S. flag.

Caption: "Caitlin Hadley, the 10 year-old girl who Jaimie Reynolds led many people to believe was Kodee Kennings, sits on her bed Saturday afternoon at her Montpelier, Ind., home. Caitlin thought she was an actor in a movie during her many trips to Southern Illinois and was coached by Reynolds on what to say and how to act." In their investigations following the discovery of the hoax, the Daily Egyptian revealed to readers the events that led up to this clichéd narrative of a motherless girl with a father in Iraq and the story that had so clouded their judgment.

See below one of the series of letters that the reporters received as evidence. Here, for example, the letter appears handwritten as a letter written by Kodee to her mother.  

"Dear Mommy, I miss you. Did you get your wings yet? I ring lots of bells. I ve been trying to be good Mom. Are you waching me? Me and you need to talk Mom. Can I see you again. I got to explane somehing. Ryan got called to duty and he had to go to Iraq. Tell God to fire the Presudent. It's not fair. Can you wach over him like you wach Daddy? Prom iss not to let him die ok mommy. Dady says he misses you me to. Dady says your still in his hart. Mom I love you when you walk with God. wach out for rockets mommy. Today tell him to make Ryan stay a live. I love you. Love, Kodee"

In Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) Stanley Kubrick satirized the war games of the generals.

According to a show broadcast on NOVA on current technological developments in warfare, future surveillance UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) may evolve into MAVs, or micro-aerial vehicles. Thse lilliputian spies are so tiny that they can take off and land in the palms of their operators' hands.


Shock and awe:
the aesthetics of war and
its confrontations with reality

by Jyotsna Kapur

Soon after September 11, 2001, an acquaintance recounted to me her eight-year-old’s reaction to the incessant replays of the collapsing WTC Towers on different TV channels. Her son, she said, could not believe that it was really happening and claimed that it all seemed like an alien movie, with aliens attacking the Towers. In telling me the story, the point she wanted to make was that her son’s reading was in essence, if not in fact, true. According to her, those who had attacked the WTC were, indeed, aliens. I learnt first-hand then about the ideological sway of U.S. exceptionalism made explicit in the question: Why would any one attack “us” unless “they” were literally from another planet or, as George W. Bush soon called them, just plain evil? This foreclosed any discussion we might have had about the historical, political, or economic causes underlying the attacks because to do so would have seemed to justify the terrorist actions. There was also another lesson here: about just how blurred the relationship between representation and reality had become. While the adult was projecting reality onto the screen of a sci-fi or disaster movie her child was grappling with the awesome fact that the screen had become real — figuring that it must be so, if for no other reason than the fact that all the TV channels were simultaneously carrying the same screen.[1][open notes in new window]

That the current so-called global war against terrorism is as much a war of representation as it is for military and economic domination should be clear by the media-generated hoaxes around the breaking of Saddam’s statue and the Hollywood-style filming of Jessica Lynch’s rescue while the pictures of the tortures in Abu Ghraib (until their public exposure internationally) or the more recent ones of the dead Abu Musab al-Zarqawi served as war-trophies to cast the U.S. as winning the war. The notion of shock and awe — of war as spectacle — is shared both by the U.S. planners of this war and some of their combatants. The latter have shown their arsenal in their understanding of the spectacular impact of the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the horrific videotaped sequences of beheadings and hostages.

Closer to home, the student paper, The Daily Egyptian, at the university where I teach and the local paper, The Southern Illinoisan, fell for a hoax engineered by a former student and writer at the newspaper.[2] For almost two years, the newspaper carried letters and reports on an eight-year-old girl, Kodee Kennings, whose mother was reportedly dead and father, Dan Kennings, was fighting in Iraq where he was eventually killed. Kodee and Dan had visited the newsroom and the town and befriended the reporters. It was not until the hoax was carried to the length of organizing a funeral for Dan Kennings that reporters learnt from the Department of Defense that there was no one by the name of Dan Kennings who had either served or died in Iraq. It followed then that there was no Kodee Kennings either. Dan and Kodee were fictional characters whose parts had been played by actors.

What was fascinating about this episode was not that the student journalists fell into a race to tell a tale they thought would get them recognition and awards — afterwards they carried out a thorough self-critique and investigation which would have set an example for national papers like the New York Times. What was fascinating was that those who had pulled off the hoax were able to convince the parents of the girl who played the part of Kodee and the man who played Dan that they were making a “documentary” — apparently, tricking them into believing that they were acting in a movie shot with hidden cameras. On a larger level, these three adults appear to be tricked by the conceit of Reality TV that people can just go around being themselves while under observation from all sides. However, this sense of living as if in a movie (the subject of The Truman Show, Peter Weir, 1998) or in someone else’s computer game (as in Matrix, Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, 1999), although substantially radicalized at the end of the twentieth century in the world’s leading imperialist nation, did not occur overnight or suddenly with television.[3] We have been socialized into it over the course of a century of capitalistic expansion through war.

In his incisive work on war and cinema, Paul Virilio suggested that our widespread inability to penetrate images is the end product of a century-old osmosis between the development of industrial warfare and media technologies.[4] Over the course of the twentieth century, he explained, both modern war and mass media coalesced not just to distort or manipulate reality, through propaganda, but to shatter the notion of reality itself. For instance, it was the underlying aim of Goebel’s propaganda machine, not just to make people believe in whatever false reports came from the Fuehrer but to give up on the concept of reality itself. Virilio cites Goebel’s total war speech, given on February 18, 1943, where he asked, “Do you want the war to be still more total, more radical than we can imagine it today?”[5] As E.J. Hobsbawm explains, the wars of the 20th century, in comparison to those of the previous century, could be characterized as total because of the global reach of the imperial rivalries that begot them and the communication technologies that made them possible. In the hands of the extremists within Hitler’s party, Virilio elaborates, war could expand to have neither limits nor purpose and to turn against reality itself.[6]

War and representation are inextricably intertwined, Virilio explains, because at the heart of every war is the intent to terrorize, to create the fear of death (6). What changed in the twentieth century was the radicalization and blending of both the weapons and the means of representing warfare. Vision itself became cinematic as wars from the first half of the twentieth century destroyed reality and annihilated space with a speed that could be matched only by cinema. For instance, Mussolini’s son’s commented about “the effect” he produced upon dropping an ariel torpedo right in the middle of a group of Galla tribesmen who then, according to him, “opened up just like a flowering rose.”[7] Virilio compares this vision to that of a film editor who has just edited a scene with one scene fading into another in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Walter Benjamin, writing under the shadow of Hitler’s assent to power saw the same cinematic vision amongst the futurists and, as evidence, he quoted Marinetti in concluding his essay on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction:[8]

"War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it imitates the dreamt-of metallization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others…Poets and artists of Futurism!...remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art…may be illuminated by them."

For Benjamin, such an aesthetic sensibility was the ultimate expression of capitalist human alienation, such that humanity could “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” (242) Amidst this fetishization of technology over the human, Benjamin exclaimed,

“The sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.” (235)

Since then, however, the arsenals of weapons and technologies of vision have been geared towards widening the distance between the target and the killer. Now the target is reduced to a ghost or line of perception while the killer is cosseted within the sterilized space of a game room from where targets can be affixed and finished — to enact war as a film, Virilio writes, in which ghosts or dematerialized bodies perform for an audience. (76) The first instances of such theaters of war were the war rooms in London, where the electro-magnetic radar beam invented by Watson-Watt had made it possible for the generals to see the war on a large screen on which both the home and enemy pilots appeared as blips on the screen. The generals, assisted by female assistants, spoke to pilots, warning, guiding and consoling them. The pilots in turn, could visualize the audience in the war room, and they punctuated their feats with commentary and exclamation marks. It was not only the war film, Virilio remarks ironically, that had become a talkie. (76)

The logic of this line of militaristic perception is to eliminate the humanity of both the killer and the victim. It performs war as a play of images, eliminating cinematic narratives in favor of the rapidly changing imagery of video games. On the one end is the disembodied target, not so much to be destroyed as de-realized because it is reduced to an optical blip or a trace to be sensed by sensors, infra-red flashes, light enhancing television cameras, and thermographic pictures that identify through temperature. At the other end, the goal is the “sight machine,” the weapon meshed with the eye that will recognize the target and exercise its decision with efficiency and the speed of light. As an example, Virilio describes the "homing image," which joins an infra-red ray and an explosive projectile fitted with a device that acts like an eye that picks up the image of the infra-red-lit target. The projectile then makes its way towards the image, i.e., the target — with all the ease, Virilio adds, of someone going home. This was indeed, how the First Gulf War was televised.

All this, ultimately, to reduce human error and the costs of war for the ruling class within the aggressor nations — the body counts, war injuries, and the panic that strikes the soldier when faced with his own ruin or the consequences of the destruction wrought by him. Quoting from Ernest Junger’s Steel Storms, published in 1920, Paul Virilio depicts a first-person account of the war experience:

"In this war where fire already attacked space more than men, I felt completely alien to my own person, as if I had been looking at myself through binoculars … I could hear the tiny projectiles whistling past my ear as if they were brushing an inanimate object … the landscape had the transparency of glass."

Alienation is the word that comes to mind to describe a sensibility that looks at oneself from the outside, confronting oneself as at an image. The beauty industry, in turn, over the last century, has been socializing civilians to prefer the non-sensory image, which can be endlessly touched up and perfected, over the sensory image of the human body, which is necessarily diverse and grows older in time. One of the enduring promises of consumer culture has been eternal youth, whether through products directly geared towards maintaining youthful appearances or through its larger seduction, that life itself can be an endless pursuit of novelty, spontaneity, self-invention, and play; a privilege granted to children and youth since the invention of childhood in modernity. Its ultimate promise is a break from history. Its lure is that one can live without accumulating life’s traces, its wrinkles etched in the body, heart, and mind.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde gets to the gothic core of this fantasy of consumer culture.[9] In the novel, a painter falls in love with, Dorian Gray, an exquisitely beautiful aristocratic young man, and paints his portrait. Dorian wishes upon the picture that he could remain forever as young and uncorrupted as his portrait. In what, with the hindsight of history, we can now recognize as an artist’s profound insight into the logic and pulse of his age, Wilde draws a vision in which Dorian remains unchanged, but the portrait, in a series of cinematic dissolves, ages and accumulates all the ravages of his excesses and personal corruption. In the end, Dorian slashes the painting, only to be discovered as an old, loathsome man with a knife in his heart while the painting is restored to its original beauty.

Written in 1890, amidst the first burst of consumer culture in Victorian England, Dorian Gray epitomized the first consumer (the aristocratic philanderer) who gathers experiences, acquaintances, women, objects, and is attached to none. Dorian’s wandering can certainly be interpreted as the restlessness of unfulfilled homoerotic desire, but the references to his relentless pursuit of life as art or self-improvement through consumption are unmistakable. “You are the type what the age is searching for and what it is afraid it has found,” is how another character describes Dorian:

"I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days have been your sonnets." (223)

For all his riches, the companions and objects he has gathered, what Dorian wants most desperately is to forget the past and live endlessly in the moment. “…if you really want to console me,” he asks the painter when the latter comes to console him upon learning of the suicide of the woman Dorian had previously loved, “teach me to forget what has happened, or to see it from a proper artistic point of view.” (113) “To become the spectator of one’s life,” he concludes, “…is to escape the suffering of life.” (114) In the end, Wilde restores the image and the human to their proper place: the marks of life appear on Dorian’s body and not his image.

Marx’s entire life-work was driven by the passionate conviction that capitalism diminished the human putting it in the service of accumulating capital, a dead thing which grew vampire-like by exploiting or sucking the lifeblood of the living worker. So for Marx, estrangement was the defining experience of capital. It manifested itself in the complete lack of control workers had over what they produced and the conditions they produced them. Work and the products of labor appeared to them as an alien power. The relation to one’s body was torn apart by the mental and manual division of labor. Antagonistic relations with others and nature turned nature and others into instruments to be used. And finally, the experience of alienation through capital meant experiencing separation from one’s own true creative capabilities as a human being. The ultimate embodiment of this alienation was money, which held the human in a tyrannical hold, limiting one’s activities to the amount of money held and not to one’s capabilities or interests:[10]

"…all the things which you cannot do, your money can do. It can eat and drink, go to the dance hall and the theater; it can travel; it can appropriate art, learning, the treasures of the past, political power — all this it can appropriate for you — it can buy all this for you: it is the true endowment."

It is hard to miss the anger with which Marx speaks against this loss of reality, the turning of “image into reality and reality into a mere image” on account of the power of capital over labor. For Marx, the real was that which came from

“man as man or from human society as society.”[11]

We can now appreciate why to restore power to the human might appear radical in our historical trajectory. The spread of capitalism has increasingly disembodied the human into an abstraction and human alienation reached the extent that far from feeling in control of the world we feel we are at its mercy. One aspect of this is that the very technologies of vision, from cinema to now the Internet, that could have helped us locate ourselves in an increasingly globalized world, appear to have taken off a life and logic of their own — making them untrustworthy allies in such a practical knowledge. At the other end, these very technologies are now capable of keeping the entire planet under surveillance and tracking a war in real time. In the final analysis, the technologies of vision and warfare are both products of human invention and society and, consequently, reveal its internal conflicts and contradictions.

What is missing from Virillio’s analysis is a consideration of the ability of collective history and individual memory to unite the past, present, and future and to use these technologies of vision in stubborn resistance to the erasure of history wreaked by war and media manipulation.

In other words, the very technologies that serve to question the notion of reality as part of the destructive apparatus of war are also our means of grasping reality — a point not missed by early theorists of the still and moving image, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, and Bertolt Brecht, whose insights on the relationship between war, fascism, capitalism, and the subjective experience of history, memory, and the body are absolutely compelling today, in the midst of our very own state of permanent war. Their insights are sharp because of the relative newness of the technologies of war and representation in their times, both of which were being pressed into large scale social transformations to alter the course of history, i.e., fascism and socialism. The same question has been at the center of the non-fiction film, whose core concern has been to understand and engage with the real. Consequently, it is entirely appropriate to see this cinema also as a theory about reality and to regard the work of filmmakers as expanding our concept of reality itself.

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