Image wars

Due to the current turbulence in the Middle East, images of conflict have once again become prominent in the media. On the subject of war and imagery, I have been reading a wonderful book entitled Cloning Terror, by W.J.T. Mitchell. Mitchell is a Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, as well as the editor of the academic journal Critical Inquiry. Like many before him, most notably Herbert Marcuse, he tries to bring together the theories of Freud and Marx: two behemoths of thought whose ideas are ostensibly quite different. Sexuality and economics are not commonly discussed in conjunction, except in discourses on prostitution. Yet, for Marcuse, the true Marxist revolution could not occur until we accounted for sexual liberation, as understood through Freud’s theory. Marxism, in its Leninist form at least, did not account sufficiently for subjectivity and sexuality.

Mitchell has applied this dual theoretical approach to contemporary media and its use of images. In the aforementioned work he discusses the ‘War on Terror’ as a “War of images in which the real-world stakes could not be higher” (2). He argues that 9/11 was an act of image terrorism. Without denying the “real-life” atrocities inflicted, Mitchell suggests that the wider (it is difficult to say ‘more important’) impact was upon the American (and Western) psyche. The war itself, as well as being literal and physical, is an “imaginary, metaphoric conception” (xii). The West responded with its counter-attack of imagery in the disturbingly named ‘Shock and Awe’ bombing of Baghdad, which began on 19th March 2003. I remember these images vividly, as I sat, five days before my 13th birthday, watching the evening news with my family. 9/11 itself is a more hazy memory, having occurred when I was a few years younger, but its impact on my own psyche is nonetheless still felt, and always will be. The image is still ingrained, despite the fact I didn’t fully understand its significance at the time and am still trying to comprehend it today. The shock and awe campaign, which I suspect killed very few identifiable “enemy Iraqis,” killing many civilians instead, functions more effectively (as its title suggests) in terms of imagery. Particularly memorable are the night-vision images, which enable mass human destruction to appear like a fireworks display, or a high-tech computer game. (This is all the more worrying considering recent reports about the use of video-games in military training.) Ironically, the technology which allows further vision into the darkness of night, in fact renders the “real-life” effect (death) all the more distant and aestheticized.

This second video is accompanied by a voice-over which makes the horrifying indulgence of these images explicit. For this man, the bombs are “motherfuckers;” he expresses the desire to insert “my ballistic in their asses.” He demands they “give me the footage,” leading to the culmination of the final explosion as the “the money-shot.” The sexual connotations are wholly explicit, comparing bombing footage to that of photography, the release of the bomb to the sexual ejaculatory release onto the object of desire. We might recall here the way this relationship between bombing and sexuality was satirically envisaged by Stanley Kubrick in his 1964 film Dr Strangelove:

The great irony of the “War of Images” is the paradoxical “real-life” effect. As Mitchell puts it, hereby explaining the ‘cloning’ aspect of his book, “the war on terror was having the effect of recruiting more jihadists and increasing the number of terrorist attacks” (xii). He cites political scientist Robert Pape who tells us further: “There were no suicide bombers in Iraq before the U.S. invasion and occupation, and suicide bombing in Israel-Palestine only began after decades of military occupation” (173). Despite this, the erotic and egoistic lure of images is what propelled the war onwards. Even the name ‘War on Terror’ is a part of the imaginary image-making tactic, so effective that few have of us have stopped to consider what it even means. For Mitchell, this name makes about as much sense as a “War on Nervousness” (xvii). The enemy (‘Terror’) is metaphoric and imaginary, but this has not prevented it being translated into material – or human – results: loss of life.

As I hope to have shown, an exploration of images, particularly in our media and image driven culture, is not merely aesthetic exploration. Mitchell wants to understand why the images of this war are what they are, what they signify, what desires they manifest, and hence, most importantly, what realities they produce. This is why I have considered them too and I urge you to be aware of them further as conflicts unfold and the war of images continues. I also urge you to see Mitchell speak at the Musee d’art contemporain (MACM) this coming Wednesday (March 9) at 6.30 p.m. The talk was inspired by the book I have been discussing and will be entitled “The Historical Uncanny: Phantoms, Doubles, and Repetition in the War on Terror.”