Matteo Pasquinelli | 27.10.2004 14:00 | Analysis
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Autonomous videopoiesis in wartime
How do you think you can stop war without weapons? The anti-war public opinion that fills squares worldwide and the cosmetic democracy of International Courts stand powerless in front of the raging US military. Against the animal instincts of a superpower reason cannot prevail: a homicidal force can be arrested only by another, stronger force. Everyday we witness such a Darwinian show: history repeating itself through a cruel confrontation of forces, whilst what rests is freedom of speech exercised in drawing-rooms. Pacifists too are accomplices of instinctive forces, because animal aggressiveness is inside us all. How do we express that bestiality for which we condemn armies? Underneath the surface of the self-censorship belonging to the radical left (not only to the conformist majority), it should be admitted publicly that watching Abu Ghraib pictures of pornographic tortures does not scandalize us, on the contrary, it rather excites us, in exactly the same way as the obsessive voyeurism that draws us to videos of 9/11 videos. Through such images we feel the expression of repressed instincts, the pleasure rising again after narcotized by consumerism, technologies, goods and images. We show our teeth as monkeys do, when their aggressive grin looks dreadfully like the human smile. Contemporary thinkers like Baudrillard and Zizek acknowledge the dark side inside Western culture. If 9/11 has been a shock for Western consciousness, Baudrillard puts forward a more shocking thesis: we westerners were to desire 9/11, as the death drive of a superpower that having reached its natural limits, knows and desires nothing more than self-destruction and war. The indignation is hypocrisy; there is always an animal talking behind a video screen.
On the videowar battleground
Before pulling the monkey out of the TV set, we have to focus on the battleground on which the media match is played. The more reality is an augmentation of mass, personal, and networked devices, the more wars become media wars, even if they take place in a desert. The First Global War started by live-broadcasting the 9/11 air disaster and continued with video-guerrilla episodes: everyday from the Iraqi front we received videos shot by invaders, militiamen, and journalists. Every action in such a media war is designed beforehand to fit its spectacular consequences. Terrorists have learnt all the rules of spectacular conflict while imperial propaganda, much more expert, has no qualms about playing with fakes and hoaxes (for instance the dossiers on weapons of mass destruction). Bureaucratic propaganda wars are a thing of the past. New media has generated guerrilla combat, opening up a molecular front of bottom-up resistance. Video cameras among civilians, weblogs updated by independent journalists, smart-phones used by American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison: each represents an uncontrollable variable that can subvert the propaganda apparatus. Video imagery produced by television is now interlaced with the anarchic self-organized infrastructure of digital networked media that has become a formidable means of distribution (evidenced by the capillary diffusion of the video of the beheading of Nick Berg). Today's propaganda is used to manage a connective imagery rather than a collective spectacle, and the intelligence services set up simulacra of the truth based on networking technologies.
The videoclash of civilizations
Alongside the techno-conflict between horizontal and vertical media, two secular cultures of image face each other on the international mediascape. The United States embodies the last stage of videocracy, an oligarchic technocracy based on hypertrophic advertising and infotainment, and the colonization of the worldwide imagery through Hollywood and CNN. Nineteenth century ideologies such as Nazism and Stalinism were intimately linked to the fetishism of the idea-image (as all of western thought is heir to Platonic idealism). Islamic culture on the contrary is traditionally iconoclast: it is forbidden to represent images of God and the Prophet, and usually of any living creature whatsoever. Only Allah is Al Mussawir, he who gives rise to forms: imitating his gesture of creation is a sin (even if such a precept never appears in the Koran). Islam, unlike Christianity, has no sacred iconographic centre. In mosques the Kiblah is an empty niche. Its power comes not from the refusal of the image but from the refusal of its centralizing role, developing in this way a material, anti-spectacular, and horizontal cult. Indeed, on Doomsday, painters are meant to suffer more than other sinners. Even if modernization proceeds through television and cinema (that paradoxically did not have the same treatment of painting), iconoclastic ground remains active and breaks out against western symbols, as happened in the case of the World Trade Centre. To strike at western idolatry, pseudo-Islamic terrorism becomes videoclasm, preparing attacks designed for live broadcasting and using satellite channels as a resonant means for its propaganda. Al-Jazeera broadcasts images of shot-dead Iraqi civilians, whilst western mass media removes these bodies in favour of the military show. An asymmetrical imagery is developing between East and West, and it will be followed by an asymmetrical rage, that will break out with backlashes for generations to come. In such a clash between videocracy and videoclasm, a third actor, the global movement, tries to open a breach and develop therein an autonomous videopoiesis. The making of an alternative imagery is not only based on self-organizing independent media, but also on winning back the dimension of myth and the body. Videopoiesis should speak - at the same time - to the belly and to the brain of the monkeys.
Western media and awareness was woken up by the physical force of live-broadcasted images not by the news of tortures at the Abu Ghraib prison or of Nick Berg's beheading. Television is the medium that taught the masses a Pavlovian reaction to images. It is also the medium that produced the globalisation of the collective mind (something more complex than the idea of public opinion). The feelings of the masses have been always reptilian: what media proliferation established is a video mutation of feelings, a becoming-video of the collective brain and of collective narration. The global video-brain functions through images whereas our brains think out of images. This is not about crafting a theory, but recognising the natural extension of our faculties. Electronic and economic developments move at too high a speed for the collective mind to have time to communicate and elaborate messages in speech, there is only time for reacting to visual stimuli. A collective imagery arises when a media infrastructure casts and repeats the same images in a million copies, producing a common space; a consensual hallucination around the same object (that afterwards becomes word-mouth or the movie industry). In the case of the TV medium such a serial communication of a million images is much more lethal, because it is instantaneous. On the other hand, the networked imagery works in an interactive and non-instantaneous way, this is why we call it connective imagery. Imagery is a collective serial broadcasting of the same image across different media. According to Goebbels, it is a lie repeated a million times that becomes public discourse, part of everyday conversations, and then accepted truth. Collective imagery is the place where media and desire meet each other, where the same repeated image modifies millions of bodies simultaneously and inscribes pleasure, hope and fear. Communication and desire, mediasphere and psychosphere, are the two axis that describe the war to the global mass, the way in which the war reaches our bodies far from the real conflict and the way image inscribes itself into the flesh.
Why does reality exist only when framed by a powerful TV network? Why is the course of events affected by the evening news? Collective imagery is not affected by the video evolution of mass technologies only, but also by the natural instincts of human kind. As a political animal (Aristotle), the human being is inclined to set up collective narratives, that represent the belonging instinct to its own kind. Let's call them animal narratives. For this reason television is a "natural" medium, because it responds to the need of creating one narrative for millions of people, a single animal narrative for entire nations, similarly to what other narrative genres, like the epic, the myth, the Bible and the Koran, did and still do. Television represents, above all else, the ancestral feeling to belong to one Kind, that is the meta-organism we all belong to. Each geopolitical area has its own video macro-attractor (CNN, BBC, etc.), which the rest of the media relate to. Beside the macro-attractors, there are meta-attractors, featuring the role of critical consciousness against them, a function often held by press and web media (the Guardian, for instance). Of course the model is much more complex: the list could continue and end with blogs, which we can define as group micro-attractors, the smallest in scale, but suffice it to say here that the audience and power of the main attractor are ensured by the natural animal instinct. This definition of mass media might seem strange, because they are no longer push media that communicate in unidirectional ways (one-to-many), but pull media that attract and group together, media in which we invest our desires (many-to-one). Paraphrasing Reich's remark on fascism, we can say that rather than the masses being brainwashed by the media establishment, the latter is sustained and desired by the perversion of the desire to belong.
Digital anarchy. A videophone vs. Empire
Traditional media war incorporates the internet and the networked imagery (with television, internet, mobile phones and digital cameras) turns into a battle ground: personal media such as digital cameras bring the cruelty of war directly into the living room, for the first time in history at the speed of an internet download and out of any governmental control. This networked imagery cannot be stopped, and neither can technological evolution. Absolute transparency is an inevitable fate for all of us. The video phone era seriously undermines privacy, as well as any kind of secrecy, state secrecy included. Rumsfeld's vented outrage in front of US Senate Committee on Armed Services about the scandal at Abu Ghraib is extremely grotesque: "We're functioning... with peacetime constraints, with legal requirements, in a wartime situation, in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had - they had not even arrived in the Pentagon". A few days later Rumsfeld prohibited the use of any kind of camera or videophone to the American soldiers in Iraq. Rumsfeld himself was the 'victim' of the internet broadcasting of a famous video that shows him politely shacking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983. New digital media seem to have created an unpredictable digital anarchy, where a video phone can fight against Empire. The images of torture at Abu Ghraib are the internal nemesis of a civilization of machines that is running out of control of its creators and demiurges. There is a machine nemesis but also an image nemesis: as Baudrillard notes, the Empire of the Spectacle is now submitted to the hypertrophy of the Spectacle itself, to its own greed for images, to an auto-erotic pornography. The infinitely repeatable character of digital technology allowed for the demise of the copyright culture through P2P networks, but also for the proliferation of digital spam and the white noise of contents on the web. Video phones have created a networked mega-camera, a super-light panopticon, a horizontal Big Brother. The White House was trapped in this web. Digital repetition no longer delivers us to the game of mirrors of Postmodern weak thought - to the image as self-referential simulacrum - but rather to an interlinked universe where videopoiesis can connect the farthest points and cause fatal short circuits.
Indeed, what came to light with the Abu Ghraib media scandal was not a casual short-circuit, but the implosion into a deadly vortex of war, media, technology, body, desire. Philosophers, journalists and commentators from all sides rushed to deliver different perspectives for a new framework of analysis. The novelty of the images of Abu Ghraib and Nick Berg (whether fictional or not is not the point) consists in the fact that they forged a new narrative genre of collective imagery. For the first time, a snuff movie was projected onto the screen of global imagery and internet subcultures, used to such images, suddenly came out of the closet: rotten.com finally reached the masses. Rather than making sense of a traumatic experience, newspapers and weblogs worldwide are engaged in drawing out the political, cultural, social and aesthetic repercussions of a new genre of image that forces us to upgrade our immunity system and communicative strategies. As Seymour Hersh noted, Rumsfeld provided the world with an good excuse to ignore the Geneva Convention from now on. But he lowered the level of tolerance of the visible as well, forcing us to accept cohabitation with the Horror. English-speaking journalism defines as war porn the popular tabloids and government talk-shows fascination with super-sized weapons and well-polished uniforms, hi-tech tanks and infrared-guided bombs, a panoplia of images that some define as the aseptic substitute of pornography proper. Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down is war hardcore, to name one. The cover of Time, where the American soldier was chosen as Person of the Year, was defined pure war porn by Adbusters: "Three American Soldiers standing proudly, half-smiles playing on their faces, rifles cradled in their arms". War porn is also a sub-genre of trash porn - still relatively unknown, coming from the dark side of the net. It simulates violent sex scenes between soldiers or the rape of civilians (pseudo-amateur movies usually shot in Eastern Europe and often passed as real). War porn is freed from its status of net subculture: its morbid interest and fetish for war imagery become political weapons, voyeurism and the nightmares of the masses. Is it a coincidence that war porn emerges from the Iraqi marshes right at this time?
The metaphorical association of war with sex that underpins much Anglo-American journalism points to something deeper that was never before made so explicit: a libido that, alienated by wealth, awaits war to give free reign to its ancestral instincts. War is as old as the human species: natural aggressiveness is historically embodied in collective and institutional forms, but several layers of technology have separated today's war from its animal substratum. We needed Abu Ghraib pictures to bring to the surface the obscene background of animal energy that lied underneath a democratic make-up. Did this historic resurfacing of the repressed occur today simply because of the mass spreading of digital cameras and video phones? Or is there a deeper connection between the body and technology bound to prove to be deadly sooner or later? As the mass media are filled with tragic and morbid news, the framing of digital media seems to be missing something from its inception. This could be that passion of the real (Alain Badiou) which, exiled onto the screen, explodes out of control. New personal media are directly connected to the psychopathology of everyday living, we might say that they create a new format for it and a new genre of communication, but above all, they establish a relation with the body that television never had. War porn seems to signal the rejection of technology by subconscious forces that express themselves through the same medium that represses them: this rejection might point to the ongoing adaptation of the body to the digital. Proliferation of digital prosthesis is not as rational, aseptic and immaterial as it seems. Electronic media seemed to have introduced technological rationality and coolness into human relations, yet the shadows of the digital increasingly re-surface. There comes a point when technology physically unbridles its opposite. The internet is the best example: behind the surface of the immaterial and disembodied technology lies a traffic of porn content that takes up half of its daily band-width. At the same time, the Orwellian proliferation of video cameras, far from producing and Apollonian world of transparency, is ridden with violence, blood and sex. The next Endenmol Big Brother will resemble the movie Battle Royal, where Takeshi Kitano forces a class of students on an island and into a game of death where the winner is the last survivor. We have always considered the media as a prosthesis of human rationality, and technology as the new embodiment of the logos. But new media also embody the dark side of the Western world. In war porn we found this Siamese body made up of libido and media, desire and image. Two radical movements that are the same movement: war reinvests the alienated libido, personal media are filled by the desperate libido they alienated. The subconscious can not lie, the skeletons sooner or later start knocking on the closets door.
War results from the inability to dream, after depleting all libidinal energy in an outflow of prosthesis, commodities, images. War violence forces us to believe again in images of everyday life, images of the body as well as images of advertising. War is an imagery reset. War brings the attention and excitement for advertising back to a zero degree, where advertising can start afresh. War saves advertising from the final annihilation of the orgasm, from the nirvana of consumption, the inflation and indifference of values. War brings the new economy back to the old economy, to traditional and consolidated commodities, it gets rid of immaterial commodities that risk dissolving the economy into a big potlatch and into the anti-economy of the gift that the internet represents. War has the "positive" effect of redelivering us to 'radical' thought, to the political responsibility of representation, against the interpretative flights of "weak thought", of semiotics and postmodernism (where postmodernism is the western image looking for an alibi to its own impotence). The pornographic images of war, as we said, are the reflux of the animal instinct that our economic and social structure has repressed. But rather than a psychoanalysis that reactively justifies new customs and fashions, we seek to carry out a 'physical' analysis of libidinal energy. In wartime we see images re-emerge with a new autonomous and autopoietic force. There are different kinds of image: war porn images are not representations, they speak directly to the body, they are a cruel, lucid and affirmative force, like Artaud's theatre, they are re-magnetised images that do not provoke incredulity, they are neural icons running on the spinal motorways, as Ballard would put it. Radical images redeliver the body to us, radical images are bodies, not simulacra. Their effect is first physical then cognitive. The movement-image and the flux-matter are rigorously one and the same thing (Deleuze). The damned tradition of the image is back, with the psychic and contagious power of Artaud's theatre, a machinic image that joins together the material and the immaterial, body and dream. Fiction is a branch of neurology (Ballard). In a libidinal explosion, war porn liberates the animal energies of Western society like a bomb. Such energies can be expressed through fascist reactions as well as liberating revolts. Radical images are images that are still capable of being political, in the strong sense of the word, and they can have an impact on the masses that is simultaneously political, aesthetic and carnal.
Videopoiesis: the body-image
How can we make an intelligent use of television? The first intelligent reaction is to switch it off. Activists collective such as Adbusters.org (Canada) and Esterni.org (Italy) organize yearly TV strikes, promoting a day or a week's abstinence from television. Can Western society think without television? It cannot. Even if we were to stop watching TV because of a worldwide black-out or a nuclear war, our imagery, hopes and fears would carry on thinking within a televised brainframe. This is not about addiction, the video is simply our primary collective language: once upon a time there were religion, mythology, epic and literature. We can repress the ritual (watching TV) but we cannot repress the myth. We can switch television off, but not our imagery. For this reason the idea of an autonomous videopoiesis is not about practicing of alternative information but about new mythical devices for the collective imagery. In its search for the Perfect Image - that is the image that is capable of stopping the War, subverting Empire and starting the Revolution - the global movement has theorised and practiced video activism (from Indymedia to street TVs) and mythopoiesis (from Luther Blissett to San Precario). However, it never tried to merge those strategies into a videopoiesis capable of challenging Bin Laden, Bush, Hollywood and the CNN at the level of myth, a videopoiesis for new icons and formats, like for instance the video sequences of William Gibson's Patter recognition distributed on the net. Videopoiesis does not mean the proliferation of cameras in the hands of activists, but the creation of video narratives, a new design of genres and formats rather than alternative information. The challenge lies in the body-image. Through videopoiesis we have to welcome the repressed desires of the global movement and open the question of the body, buried under a para-catholic and third-worldist rhetoric. While Western imagery is being filled with the dismembered bodies of heroes, the global movement is still uneasy about its desires. War porn is a challenge for the movement not to equal the horror but to produce images that awaken and target the sleepy body. Throughout its history, television has always produced macro-bodies, mythical giant bodies magnified by media power, bodies as cumbersome as Ancient Gods. The television regime creates monsters, hypertrophic bodies such as the image of the President of Unites States, the Al-Qaeda brand and movie stars, while the net and personal media try to dismember them and produce new bodies out of their carcasses. Videopoiesis must eliminate the unconscious self-censorship that we find in the most liberal and radical sections of society, the self-censorship that, behind a crypto-catholic imagery, hides the grin of the monkey. Once crypto-religious self-censorship is eliminated, videopoiesis can begin its creative reassembly of dismembered bodies.
Warpunk. I like to watch!
Watching cruel images is good for you. What the Western world needs is to stare at its own shadows. In Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition war news and violent scenes improve adults' sexual activity and the condition of psychotic children. War lords are filling the collective imagery with brute force. Why leave them to do it in peace? If in the real world we are always victims of the blackmail of non-violence, in the realm of imagery and imagination we can feed our wet dreams at last. If American imagery is allowing a drift towards Nazism and is offering an apology and justification for any kind of violence, our response can only be an apology of resistance and action, that is warpunk. Warpunk is not a delirious subculture that embraces weapons in an aesthetic gesture. On the contrary it uses radical images as weapons of legitimate defense. To paraphrase a Japanese saying, warpunk steals from war and empire the art of embellishing death. Warpunk uses warporn in a tragic way, to overcome Western culture and the self-censorship of its counter-culture. Above all we are afraid of the hubris of the American war lords, of the way they face any obstacle stepping over all written and unwritten rules. What is the point of confronting this threat with the imagery of the victim, that holds up to the sky hands painted in white? Victimhood is a bad adviser: it is the definitive validation of Nazism, the sheep's baa that makes the wolf even more indifferent. The global movement is quite a good example of "weak thought" and reactive culture. Perhaps this is because, unlike war lords and terrorists, it never developed a way of thinking about the tragic, war, violence and death. A tragic thought is the gaze that can dance on any image of the abyss. In Chris Korda's I like to watch video (download available on www.churchofeuthanasia.org) porn scenes of oral sex and masturbation are mixed with those of football and baseball matches and with well-known NY911 images. The phallic imagery reaches the climax: the Pentagon is hit by an ejaculation, multiple erections are turned into the NY911 skyline, the Twin Towers themselves become the object of an architectural fellatio. This video is the projection of the lowest instincts of American society, of the common ground that bind spectacle, war, pornography and sport. It is an orgy of images that shows to the West its real background. Warpunk is a squadron of B52s throwing libidinal bombs and radical images into the heart of the Western imagery.
Matteo Pasquinelli (matATrekombinant.org)
Bologna, May 2004