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<nettime> Images and Official Language: The Gap or How not to Know
ed phillips on Sat, 29 May 2004 16:37:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Images and Official Language: The Gap or How not to Know


I started to write a response to Sontag's piece and rather than edit it, I
thought I might send it off to you and nettime. It is intentionally rough
and open ended.

Your thoughts are appreciated as always, Ed

Images and Official Language
How not to Know What Your Government is Doing, Almost.

Susan Sontag, in her recent essay on the images of torture at Abu Ghraib,
captures the the endless digital picture and video taking, posing, and
viewing that are so much a part of the contemporary condition. She also
conveys how unstoppable and how difficult to refute are these images of
torture, and she notes the attempt on the part of the administration to
use official language to spin and soften the "assault" of the images.

But does she capture the divide between that image realm and what she
calls the words that alter and subtract, the official language that is
disseminated first by "administration officials" and then repeated by the
talking/writing media? That official language seems to keep a large
portion of the population reassured about what their Governments are doing
in their name. Does she capture the specific nature of the violence and
the sadism and the way that it is, even in its excessive form, a part of a
larger system of pacification and detention(both inside and outside of the
G7), of restructuring that most people just don't care to know about.

I dont' think so. She seems to conflate the excesses of the so-called
personal freedoms of the day and of the image world, the porno and the vid
violence with the systematic and even systemic torture of captives by
military police. Isn't it the ways in the which the photos of torture are
not us not our daily lives or not our daily responsibility that matter?  
Isn't it the way that torture is one of the parts of our system, and I use
the denigrated term system purposively here, that people don't want to
know about that is more important. If we just jump quickly to say that the
pictures are us, we miss the gap that constitutes "us".

So what of this split? It's not so much that we are inurred to violence.
Or that liberal democracy is a sick porno S&M funhouse. Isn't the shock of
these images the revealing of a gap between what we think we know about
the bringing of democracy to "failed states" and what really goes on.
There is a huge gap between our daily lives (evident for example in the
soothing voices of reason on NPR)  and the brutality involved in
"restructuring" states, pacifying, and the large systems of detention both
inside the large democracies and in "failed" states that are a part of the
management of both. Remember Foucault's paranoid riffs on the prison,
education, health system and the production of docile bodies? Perhaps we
could use some popularized version of that kind of sociology as a
corrective to the personality play we get through the major media.

Zizek's recent attempts to theorize about the psychology and ideology of
the liberal democratic citizen are helpful at pointing out this great gap.  
He quite simply sums it up as "People don't want to know."  If the public
had thought it out when torture began to openly be discussed by certain
"intellectuals" during the intial Afghan campaigns they would have been
just as appalled as when these recent pictures started showing up in their
media tunnels.

If people thought about the violence that is entailed in 150,000 troops
bringing "democracy" to a large state, they would be just as appalled.

Zizek puts the mindset succinctly in his Doug Henwood interview "I've paid
my taxes. You do the dirty work, don't tell me about it."

What are the cognitive investments that we have made, that allow us to not
know? Why has that not wanting to know become the defining trait of our
day. We don't even have to look that far or look in hidden places to find
this will to not know. Things are hidden now in plain sight.

A word that sticks out, a missing word in most of the main stream
discourse is of course an old discredited leftist one, system and its
bastard child, systemic. Seymour Hersh (in his interviews) and Susan
Sontag here in this essay, use the apt word "systematic." By which they
mean that central plumbing and heating was involved in planning the
torture. And this torture was certainly systematic in the sense in which
they use it. Discussions will be made about how far up the chain of
command this planning went, as they should. Nonetheless, the use of the
word systemic would be helpful here, precisely because with that word an
emphasis is taken away from the individual and the personality, and placed
on the roles played by individuals, and on the violence inherent in any
occupation by a relatively small force of a large population.

One does not need to resurrect an entire sociological apparatus to start
to look at the ways that the problem of torture is systemic, to begin to
see the way that the focus on individuals, no matter how high up the chain
of command is a partial distraction from what is involved in this
occupation and more largely in the massive growth of security and
detention both inside and outside the G7 democracies.

As has been reported in less than major news outlets, some of the very
figures involved in prisoner torture in Iraq have been torturing and
abusing prisoners in the U.S. domestic prison system previous to being
recruited for duty in Iraq. Have skills, will travel.

The visible excess and the visible sadistic delight, the graphic nature of
the images of torture in Iraq are in a way an exception that show the
violence inherent in the entire process, a violence that is much harder to
capture and much harder to denounce. It may be a shock to some people that
the guards enjoy humiliating others, but not if you have ever been
detained yourself or even arrested. There are many ways for people to be
tortured without the torturers being caught. Bruises in hard to see places
are standard procedure.

The enjoyment of torturers is only kept in check, as much as it is, by the
threat of legal reprisal within those G7 democracies.

>From the perspective of Rummy and Co., the Geneva Conventions are a
hindrance and a frustration. At their moment of greatest power, they feel
impotent. If only they were not constrained, they could get the job done,
they think or thought.  It's not incompetence as some are saying that is
their problem but their impotence and their frustration with that
impotence. They are like Zizek's God at the end of the Book of Job. The
display of complete power only reveals a complete impotence. And a
frustration grows.

Increased competence can't help them. Nor can more and new concentration
enhancing drugs such as they are taking in droves. Rummy can concentrate
plenty and can project competence as well as any sleep deprived executive
on ADD drugs. Note to Rummy: you don't have ADD. Your problem has nothing
to do with intelligence or with concentration. Your problem is dare I say,
systemic and moral.

As for the public that does not want to know, the legitimacy gap widens
between what they are being told and what they begin to suspect is
happening in their name. A kind of corrosive cynicism grows in which
people watch the charade of official action play itself out. The language
and the record play themselves out in officialese, but no one believes. No
one believes that those privates are alone responsible.  That they came up
with it all these techniques of torture by themselves, under the
encouragement of subcontractors. Nevertheless, they are being
courtmartialed. The process will play itself out. Those further up the
chain of command may be dismissed, while those even further up will
express remorse that these photos and videos got out, will reassert the
putative standards, the official language.

No one believes, but the charade continues, as if the world of officialese
were perfectly detached and autonomous. Impregnable to even the assault of
the images.

Rumsfeld makes fine linguistic distinctions for the record. Senators make
a show of confronting him. After being flumoxed, looking to his chain of
command, somehow forgetting the papers in the paper trail, and turning to
his subordinates, Rumsfeld launches into a recital of the Geneva
Conventions, for the record.  And that is what was entered into the
record, a hollow recitation of the Geneva Conventions by someone who has
been railing against them for years.

Rummy will project and perform both concern and control. And his
performance will continue to reassure those who want to be reassured.  Or
will it? Nagging doubts will begin to eat away at the projected

Even those who are known as the other 50% of the probable voter pool must
see the slippage here. Those damn photographs.  They get right in your
face. Not even Rummy can speak to those photos, he can only squint and
wince for the cameras, dumfounded. No amount of ADD medication will give
him the words.

No performance by Rummy of conviction, intelligence, and control is enough
once the gap begins to show. What I want to jokingly call the sociological
parts of our brains is so atrophied that it takes some work to even point
out the gap. So much of the reportage about the war has been about the
individuals in the administration and here Bob Woodward is the glaring
example. If you were to ask Bob about the larger issues beyond these
individuals, I gather he would not even know how to answer you. The
individuals and the personality show are in many ways a distraction and I
have a hunch that Woodward knows he is somewhat duped by the personality
story. He must have known he was being duped by Bill Casey during Iran
Contra and by the Bushies now. Perhaps he does not mind being duped,
perhaps he does not really want to know the real why of Iraq.

Why Iraq? It wasn't the WMD and it wasn't because Wolfowitz is a crazy
ideologue. It wasn't about democracy per se was it? It was about the
failure of the sanctions? It was about what Bruce Sterling calls the
biggest black market in the world in Oil. It was about restructuring, or
attempting to that massive failure of sanctions and markets in one of the
most globally strategic parts of the world? The restructuring is immensely
violent and appalling. The photos of torture are a small part of that.


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