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McKenzie Wark on Thu, 27 Mar 2003 09:18:10 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> from the archives.... (1)

For those interested in the similarities and differences
between the media envelope of this Gulf war and the
previous one, here is an extract from Virtual Geography,
in which I tried to tell the story of that war, and develop
some concepts for it.  -- Ken

1. Saddam / Sodom

Dateline: Baghdad, Thursday, August 23th, 1990. Iraqi
television shows President Saddam Hussein sitting in a
television studio surrounded by fifteen British citizens.
These people, now hostages, were residents of Iraq and
Kuwait when Iraq invaded its Gulf neighbour. Saddam
Hussein appears in a suit and tie with a little white
handkerchief neatly folded in his left breast pocket. The
Iraqis allow the foreigners to talk to their families while the
rest of the world watches on. They listen as Saddam
explains that the Western media have misrepresented the
situation. "In the past few days," he says, "I have come
across articles published in the Western papers urging
President Bush to strike Iraq and actually use force against
Iraq despite your presence here." Responding to a
mother's worries about her child's education, Saddam
Hussein offered to send "experts from the ministry of
education." Putting his hand gently on the head of seven
year old Stuart Lockwood, he remarked, "when he and his
friends, and all those present here, have played their role
in preventing war, then you will all be heroes of peace."

While the broadcast appeared on Iraqi television, the
program seemed entirely aimed at a Western audience.
Western media picked it up quickly and broadcast it
around the world the next day. It drew instant and
predictable official and media responses. The British
Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd called it the "most
sickening thing I have seen for some time." Rupert
Murdoch's English tabloid press dubbed Saddam Hussein
the "Butcher of Butcher of Baghdad". The American State
Department called this event "shameful theatricals". A
"repulsive charade" said the British Foreign Office.

More than moral outrage at the hostage taking fuelled this
response. Two rather more elusive factors emerged in this
extraordinary attempt at direct political communication
along the media vector between widely differing cultural
sites. One was that Saddam Hussein confounded our most
cherished beliefs about the genres of television and the
kinds of stories they legitimately tell us. Looking like a
cross between Bob Hope and Geraldo Rivera, Saddam
Hussein appeared to Western viewers as a demented talk-
show host, in gross breach of the etiquette even of 'reality
television', where only crooks, pimps, prostitutes and
unscrupulous used car salesmen may be treated to raw acts
of intimate verbal violence on camera.  Or perhaps the
format of the program looked uncomfortably close to
Oprah Winfrey on a bad day, talking about bondage or
child abuse.

This offence to contemporary American sensibilities was
compounded by another, much older and deeper one.
Saddam Hussein unwittingly presented us with a
repetition of an ancient and fearful superstition about
Arabs, and what Slovenian psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek
calls the threat to our sense of national enjoyment. "We
always impute to the 'other' an excessive enjoyment; s/he
wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our way of life)
and/or has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment."

The 'fundamentalists', the only adherent of Islam one ever
hears about, fall into the first category.  The Iranian
revolution, that otherwise unintelligible blow to the
forward march of 'modernization', was the fault of the
fundamentalists, who had stolen the pleasures of the
modern consumer way of life not only from the Iranians,
but threaten us too, with hostage takings and other high
profile media events. That sacred libation of our everyday
enjoyment was at stake here: oil.

Until now, Saddam Hussain had in this scheme of things
been 'our' Arab, a 'moderate', not an 'extremist'. As such he
could be accommodated. When Saddam Hussein
complained to the then American ambassador April
Glaspie about a report on Voice of America radio critical
of human rights abuses in Iraq, the ambassador informed
him that its author had been sacked from the State
Department.  ‘Moderate’ means, in other words, that the
official story will moderate the worse abuses of tyrants
who are compliant allies, so long as they remain as such.

When the Western television news and the front pages of
the newspapers carried the close-up of Saddam Hussein's
hand stroking the boy Lockwood's head, he changed
characters in the ‘Orientalist’ vision the West has of the
Middle East. Orientalism is a legacy of the colonial days,
a collection of stories in which, as Edward Said says,  it
was axiomatic that the "attributes of being Oriental
overrode any countervailing instance."

Saddam Hussein touching Lockwood forced Western
viewers to place the gesture in a frame of cultural
reference. He did not appear to be a Muslim
‘fundamentalist’, a denier of pleasure. In the absence of
any other cultural memory of images of the Middle East,
the focus on the gesture of touching encouraged the viewer
to read it in terms of the other legacy of Orientalist story.

His hand on that boy’s head connects not the prohibition
on enjoyment enjoined by the cartoon fundamentalists of
journalistic cliche, but its opposite. From Wilde's Salome
and Flaubert's Salambo, to Burrough's interzone of
Tangiers and Trocchi's Carnal Days in the sultry sun,
there is another string of stories of excessive enjoyment, of
"harems, princesses, princes, slaves, veils, dancing girls
and boys."  Not least of which, the mythic story of the
Arab pederast, which turned up most recently in the film
Galipoli. A scene contrasts 'our' Australian soldier-boys
buying prostitutes ('normal enjoyment') with the hint of
Arabs buggering little boys (excess). This is the flip-side of
the story about the puritan fundamentalism of Islam: the
Arab "whose libidinal energy drives him to paroxysms of

When Saddam Hussein opened a vector of communication
to the West he obviously did not have these Orientalist
fantasies and fears in mind. They are only absurd Western
fantasies, after all. According to Egyptian journalist
Mohamed Heikal, Iraqi television frequently pictured
Saddam Hussein kissing babies during the war. "This had
succeeded in Iraqi terms, and officials though they could
make it work internationally, but they were wrong,"
Akbar Ahmed, a Moslem scholar at Cambridge, likewise
reads the image in terms of how he thinks the dictator's
own people would respond. "In his culture an elder, or
figure of authority, often displays affection to children by
patting the child or tousling the hair. It is socially
approved and appreciated."  Even a dictator must practice
the political arts of affect. He must tap the common font
of feeling with actions and images which cultivate popular
acquiescence to his rule. Only at home he gets feedback on
how his message goes over from the secret police. In the
international area, there is no such closed loop to confirm
and confine meanings.

The trouble starts when one opens a vector between
cultures which are not usually in communication with each
other and tries to tap the affective responses of peoples
one knows only through other images, transmitted along
other media vectors. The audience has to decide whether to
read the image in terms of ‘our’ frame or reference, or in
the frame of what we know about the other. What we
know about the other of the Middle East is mostly
fantasy: images of our unspoken fears and desires,
projected onto a few scraps of landscape and decor,
costume and legend collected by long dead travellers of the

The problem compounds when an Arab dictator speaks to
those Western populations brought up on Orientalist
understandings of the Middle East of Western
manufacture. As Edward Said says, "The entire premise
was colonial: that a small Third World dictatorship,
nurtured and supported by the West, did not have the
right to challenge America, which was white and
superior."  It is not just that the other place is a refuge for
our lost desires and fears. Built in to the spatial mapping is
an assumption of the marginality of the Middle East, a
zone which in our presumption, is beyond the bound of
the only moral and reasonable law — ‘ours’. This
presumption is not as frankly spoken today as it was in
the old world’s colonial heyday. The vector creates enough
contact between places to create a sort of narrative
prudence. Underneath, the assumptions are much the

One can, and must, critique such vile cultural
presumptions, which is what Edward Said does.  One
must critique the distortions perpetrated by the American
media and the damage this does to American democracy, as
Douglas Kellner does.  One must speak the truth out the
imperial designs of the American state and their effects, as
Noam Chomsky does.  One must use theory as Avital
Ronell does, to explore the perverse logic by which
America needs to create a theatre of operations, in which it
attempts to localize and cauterize foreign bodies, unknown
pleasures, addictive creeds.  I trust those tasks are in
numerically few but trustworthy hands. All around what
Paul Gilroy once called the 'overdeveloped' world there are
people working tirelessly and painstakingly, in the wake
of the event, to put the vast slew of flotsam thrown up by
it into the sort of perspective the more reflective time of
critical writing provides.

What is lacking, particularly in the voluminous reflections
on the Gulf War coming out in the United States, is a
writing about the kind of global media trajectories capable
of producing such an event.  Sure, there are criticisms of
the American media coverage of the war. That is not what
I mean. The criticisms, even good ones, are part of the
same matrix of relations as produced the spectacle of the
Gulf war in the first place. Many of the things conveyed
in what George Gerbner calls the media's 'instant history'
of the war were distortions or outright lies.  Quite a few
people know that now. How do we know? Through other
media. More slow and considered media, like articles in the
highbrow monthlies,  but media all the same. Both the dangers
and our ability to do anything about it tie in to our
everyday experience of the vector. It is that experience
that this book is about.

from: McKenzie Wark, Virtual Geography: Living With Global
Media Events, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1994


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