Category Archives: Consitution

The Seductive Killing Screen

Rachael Thompson

 

In 2008, the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) uploaded a video of a missile strike conducted by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to youtube.com. The one minute 18 second video has 2.7 million views as of May 2013. Anyone with an internet connection can watch short, tightly edited videos that include munitions strikes resulting in death. A typical UAV video is a low-contrast dark grey video image in a small video window. The subject of the video is an incomprehensible mass of swirling pixels that vanish in a flash. For example, watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNNJJrcIa7A. An interested audience member can follow links to more videos of strangers being blown up by Predator, Reaper, and Apache helicopters. Over and over again, I can watch little rectangles dissolve in clouds of black. Devoid of narration or text, the videos are ambiguous. The formal qualities of the videos produce a sense of texture and little else. If many people thought the events of 11 September 2001 felt more like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie than real life, UAV videos are more like the peeping tom’s camera shoved in a hole in a bathroom wall that seduce the viewer to looking closer at scenes of killing.

In her description of haptic cinema, Laura U. Marks describes a way of viewing that “puts the object into question, calling on the viewer to engage in its imaginative construction. Haptic images pull the viewer close, too close to see properly, and this itself is erotic.” The pixelated textures of UAV videos obscure the gruesome imagery of people being blown to pieces. There is no blood, no body parts, no fire.  Instead, the viewer sees incomprehensible shapes and textures that appear, disappear, and swirl around in a sea of grey pixels. In this seductive way, UAV strike videos pull the viewer in, face close to the screen, and seduce him or her into watching intimate scenes of horrific violence. UAV kill videos are a dirty thrill that can be accessed from the comfort of your home. 

Drones operate in a curious space of both distance and proximity. The distant war is brought incredibly close to drone operators and image analysts. In a Benjaminian sense, drones are the ultimate form of mechanical reproduction. Drones bring their subjects closer but completely remove the authenticity of the subject. Benjamin calls the “aura” of movie stars the “phony spell of the commodity.” The subjects of drone strikes often have the “spell of the terrorist.” For long shifts, drone operators and image analysts watch video feeds from areas where the US government has decided there might be terrorists. The operators may observe the same family over the course of several days or weeks watching for suspicious activity or waiting for the women and children to leave before a strike is ordered. Watch the video again. How do the operators on the kill chain know what they are looking at? How do operators sort through the hours and hours of collected footage to determine with the certainty that allows them to end a life that the person they are looking at is a terrorist? The interpretation of the images is already partially determined by the controllers of the image-making technology.

The United States is engaged in multiple conflicts where the use of UAVs is, as Leon Panetta famously quipped, “the only game in town.” Much has been written and said about the use of UAVs, including investigations of the moral and legal implications of fighting wars from a distance, the benefits to United States military personnel, and, to a much lesser extent, the physical and psychological impact on drone-monitored communities. One comparison that is frequently made is that operating UAVs is like playing a video game. The implication is that UAV operators can behave like video game players and detachedly kill enemies. While the apparatus of a UAV does share similarities with a video game such as screens, buttons, and joysticks, the experience of looking is quite different.

UAV operators resist the comparison between their job and video games. Instead, they comment on the closeness they experience in the course of performing their jobs. In the New York Times, UAV operators talk about watching families for hours, getting to know their routines, and perhaps even coming to identify with them a little. In addition, UAV operators feel a sense of closeness with their deployed counterparts. UAV camera technology allows the operator to have a strong sense of being-there through visual proximity. They watch over troops. They communicate with troops on the ground during take-offs, landings, and strikes. While people on the ground have a limited view, a UAV operator appears to have unlimited visibility. From their seats in remote US locations, UAV operators appear to have access to an all-seeing eye, but instead, they actively participate in the imaginative construction of terrorists.

When you are looking for terrorists, everyone can be a terrorist. The choice to send drones to a particular place to look for particular behaviors constrains what can be apprehended by drone operators. In one particularly vivid account recounted by Gregory in his 2011 article “From a view to a kill: Drones and late modern war”, drone operators who were providing air support for ground troops identified a group of people as militants, possibly Taliban. A strike was authorized. In the aftermath, the targets turned out to be women, children, and families. Jonathan Landay (2013) utilizes US intelligence reports to sharply contrast the Obama administration’s discourse of precision with the deaths of people who were inaccurately identified as terrorists. Landay identifies the following inconsistencies of precision: groups targeted were not on a list of terrorist groups prior to the 9-11 attacks, many who are killed are unidentified individuals, approximately half of the people killed in attacks Landay reviewed were not al Qaeda but simply determined by the US military to be extremists, and finally, drone operators have difficulty making identifications when men dress similarly and openly and routinely carry weapons. 

Mechanically recorded images are not mere documents; they are framed in multiple ways. Drone images are framed first by the choice of where to deploy them. The images are then framed by what the administration and military hope to find. The operators of drones are on the hunt for terrorists and therefore they find terrorists everywhere they look. Viewers are drawn into the seductive killing screen to see whatever they want to see in these mechanically produced and reproduced images of more anonymous deaths conducted by an increasingly barbaric state.  

Rachael Thompson is a MA candidate in communication at University of Colorado Denver. Her research interests include media erotics and vernacular media texts. She is particularly interested in texts that cross boundaries and create discomfort.

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June 17, 2013 · 8:43 pm

Digital MLK

If MLK Day 2013 taught us anything, it is that after the internet, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., has become one of the most contested of all American legacies. While relevant examples abound, one viral YouTube clip from the day was sufficient in itself: “Cornel West Explains Why It Bothers Him That Obama Will Be Taking the Oath with MLK’s Bible.” Reshared by thousands of MLK-memorializing Twitter and Facebook users, as well as dozens of media venues ranging from The Huffington Post to The National Review, the West clip asserts that the POTUS’s swearing-in on MLK’s Bible devalues MLK’s radical critique of racism as fused with the militarism and capitalism that Obama’s position facilitates.  However, the virality of the clip hardly indicates that genuine political debate has suddenly became visible in the age of social media. To the contrary, while the broadcast media predecessors of YouTube and Twitter reframed American society as mass culture, digital culture has, in David Weinberger’s terms, reframed “everything [as] miscellaneous.” 

This includes, of course, West’s attempt to set the record straight on MLK. For liberals, MLK has long appeared as an icon of collective progress, one summed up almost exclusively by the collapse of de jure segregation. The West clip, however, went viral not only because it pointed out the more radical aspects of MLK’s critique ignored by liberals but also because it appealed to all of the POTUS’s detractors, wherever they might stand politically.  

For twenty-first century conservatives, the West clip was assimilable because MLK has also emerged as a primary source for the creeping opposition to civil rights; within the libertarian subsect, racial inequality is understood as having become sufficiently minimal that it is now time to judge individuals by the content of one’s character rather than the color of one’s skin.  Such sentiments are so common amongst conservatives that The National Review’s article accompanying West’s YouTube clip didn’t even reproduce the substance of West’s argument. The paragraph-long piece simply recited the most usable sound bites: that the POTUS had invoked MLK’s “prophetic fire as just a moment in presidential pageantry”. 

Not only MLK’s words then, but West’s, too, were renarrated by the herd mentality he sought to displace, only this time via the conservative rather than liberal herd. As one YouTube commenter would then go on to confidently proclaim, “MLK would have voted for Ron Paul.” It is plausible that this may be the fate of ideas in the age of the social media sound bite; as Susan Sontag once remarked in a different context, abbreviated thinking often takes the form of “aristocratic thinking” since sound bites are decontextualized by default. Thus, very differently positioned stakeholders appear to agree, even if they are far from any such state. Just as the abbreviation MLK accommodates 140 characters more easily than the extended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then, so too does concise rhetoric become resharable rhetoric, which then becomes renarratable rhetoric. This perhaps, is the truth of the comment accompanying one user’s retweet of the West clip: “do I even want to read what he said?” 

Of course, MLK really did assert the inseparability of racism, militarism, and capitalism, as West asserted. The question, though, is how does this remain so undigested today? Does digital culture promise genuine political debate while delivering cloaked consensus, just as Karl Marx claimed liberal secularism promises theological diversity while delivering cloaked Christianity?  Perhaps the answer is to be found in MLK’s political theology. Shortly before his assassination, MLK gave one speech that, to invoke one of West’s terms of art, is particularly characteristic of the black prophetic tradition. Indeed, so much so, that ever since “Where Do We Go From Here?” rumors have circulated about his affiliation with democratic socialism. As he put it therein: “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.” Just as West’s words were largely lost to the virality of digital culture on MLK Day 2013, the theological roots of MLK’s antimilitarist, post-Communist “democratic socialism” have also been lost and for quite some time. Twelve years prior to that speech, MLK wrestled with the question of collectivism vs. individualism in remarkably resonant language, in his dissertation: “Wieman’s ultimate pluralism fails to satisfy the rational demand for unity. Tillich’s ultimate monism swallows up finite individuality in the unity of being. A more adequate view is to hold a quantitative pluralism and a qualitative monism. In this way both oneness and manyness are preserved.” The dissertation, accepted by Boston University’s School of Theology in 1955, was entitled “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” Concerned with the tension between impersonalist, all-engulfing monism and personalist, ultimate pluralism, MLK’s theology, like his later politics, asserted a “higher synthesis.” West, along with scholars like Gary Dorrien, Dwayne Tunstall, and others, show how this higher synthesis eventually grounded his political convictions; for MLK, racism, militarism, and capitalism devalue the diversity of human personality while also violating the divine oneness upon which it is grounded.  

Translated to digital culture, if American society seems as shallowly individualist in the conservative sense as it does narrowly collectivist in the liberal sense, perhaps something reducible to neither would require more than just viral, renarratable sound bites; at the same time, it may be precisely the substance of those ubiquitously reshared MLK quotes, if read carefully. 

Jason Adams teaches in the departments of philosophy and liberal studies at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Michigan.

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OCCUPY CHICAGO CHARGES DROPPED!

In a major embarrassment for the Chicago mayor’s office, all the charges against Occupy Chicago were dropped a few minutes ago.  The opinion has not been released yet, but it reportedly upholds the fundamental first amendment right to free speech and assembly as trumping the Chicago Park District ordinances about closing hours.  I attended the hearing on Chicago Occupy last spring, and the judge seemed to dismiss the constitutional arguments as nothing but “interesting theories.”  Meanwhile, the Occupy Chicago protestors who had been arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted, and compelled to post bail were prohibited from travelling outside the state of Illinois while their case was pending.

Critical Inquiry will be hosting further comments on this development as the opinion becomes available.   WJTM

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REPORT FROM CAIRO ON THE ELECTIONS

I believe these elections should be listed as one of the biggest treasons in history. While we were being attacked in Tahrir Square, completely desrted by all the political parties, and accused of all nasty things in the media, the voting polls opened and received people who were standing in lines (out of fear from paying the fine which is 100$). All legal violations were allowed by the police and military, i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood were waiting at the gates for the people telling them whom to vote for. Nontheless, all the world raved about the Egyptian elections!! The final results are not out, all we know is the results of the individual candidates (not the lists), and it is apparent that the MB and the Salafis (the very strictly fundamental ones similar to those of Pakistan_) are gaining ground. While the whole society is in panic, the US issued a statement to bless them: “we are proud of democracy and we are able to deal with any government”!! The problem is that nobody is paying attention to the real problem: it is the military rule!! This parliament is absurd, here is the funny process as designed by the military council: elections of the MP’s, writing the constitution, presidential elections, then again elections of a new parliament. Can you believe that? So this parliament is nothing since it is not going to stay, it does not have the authority to dismiss the military council, and it is not allowed to make any decisions concerning the government. Talking of the government, they (MC) resurrected a prime minister who has been a member of Mubarak’s gov., his discourse and rhetoric are poorly senile, his weakness cannot be mistaken, he held a press conference yesterday and it was pathetic.
As I told you the situation is very fluid and every 5 minutes there is something new, and so the head of the Culture Council has become the Minister of Culture! Just like that, over one night…
As we have been completely dumped by all politicians and parties we decided- after a voting- to suspend the sit-in. Many of us have died and several are dangerously injured, not to mention those who lost their eyes permanently.

To be cont.

warmest regards

Shereen Aboueinaga

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Filed under Arab Spring, Consitution, Revolution