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<nettime> "Moore or Less Morality": James Der Derian on Fahrenheit 9/11
J Armitage on Thu, 15 Jul 2004 05:59:38 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> "Moore or Less Morality": James Der Derian on Fahrenheit 9/11


Moore or less morality

Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 911 has broken US box-office records
during its opening week. But rolling back the tide of imperial politics will
require more than simply piquing moral sensibilities, writes James Der
Derian* 

US foreign policy has always been a struggle between morality and power, and
when politics escalates into war the first casualty is -- as California
Senator Hiram Johnson famously remarked in 1917 -- the truth. With the
casualty list growing every day in the war against terror, the opening of
Michael Moore's documentary, Fahrenheit 911, has assumed huge importance in
this homegrown struggle between morality, truth and power.

Promoted in the film trailer as the "true story that will make your
temperature rise", duly attacked by Bill O'Reilly as "Leni Riefenstahl Third
Reich propaganda", and challenged by the right-wing group Citizens United as
a violation of federal election laws, Fahrenheit 911, all about the news,
has become the news. The polarised reaction, I believe, comes from Moore's
uncanny ability to evince powerful moral and emotional responses from
images. Like the Rodney King video (or the sequel with Stanley Miller), the
looped shot of the twin towers falling, Bin Laden's home movies, the Abu
Ghraib digital snapshots and the Richard Berg snuff film, Fahrenheit 911
plays to a thoroughly modern sensibility -- politicians can, and often do,
lie but images cannot. Guilt by association with images replaces
argumentation by evidence.

Numerous print reports of earlier instances of dissembling, self-deception
and outright lies by the US government, from claims about Iraqi ties to
Al-Qaeda to the presence of weapons of mass destruction and the likelihood
of a swift post-war transition to peace and democracy, surface, sink and
bubble-up from a variety of newsholes. But the image seizes our attention.
Why?

"In the photograph," writes Roland Barthes, "the power of authentication
exceeds the power of representation." What the word can only represent, the
picture supposedly proves. The traditional print media have been slow to
understand how the Internet, with its real-time transmission and global
circulation of images, has force-multiplied this effect and transformed the
political game.

But when the age of terror fully confronts the age of Adobe photoshop, one
begins to wonder just how profound and lasting these effects truly are. The
King video incited plenty of righteous anger, but notably failed to indict
the perpetrators. Regardless of photographs and videos to the contrary, a
French nonfiction bestseller arguing that 9/11 was fabricated found a
credulous audience. The Abu Ghraib images of simulated sex, dominatrix
bondage and mock KKK-lynching shocked us but have yet to cause any heads to
roll (or at least not any adorned with stars).

As we are exposed to loop-images of prisoner abuse, Islamicist hip-hop
videos and, most recently, Moore's splice-and-dicing of the war against
terror, at some point (a point rapidly shrinking in duration) between the
initial shock produced by the images (are they just too unbelievable?) and
the "banalisation" of evil through replication (have they become too
familiar?), political realities begin to disappear with a flick of the
channel and the click of the mouse. After the serial buzz of the fast edit
comes the crash, then the search for greater visual and moral stimulation.

How long can it be before photographic immanence loses its power of
authenticity and we stop believing what we see? How long before the
significance of the image itself is called into question? How many times can
the truth take a beating before the American public just stops believing
anything it hears, reads and sees? Not soon enough?

It may well be that the newspaper ads promoting Fahrenheit 911 -- Moore and
Bush frolicking hand-in-hand in front of the White House, with
"Controversy...What Controversy?" underneath -- contain a hidden answer to
these questions. Bush and Moore have tapped into a great insecurity in which
the search for authenticity becomes inseparable from the desire for moral
superiority. In their projection of exclusive truths, they each have found
their mirror other.

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche exhorts us in our search for meaning to
eschew easy moral judgements in favour of more arduous semiotic
investigations. "Morality is merely 'sign' language, merely symptomology,"
he writes, "one must know what it is about to derive profit from it."

So what is it about? Here's a historical clue: semiotics emerged in the 16th
century in the arts of war and medicine. It referred to new methods of
military manoeuvre based on visual signals, as well as new medical
techniques for identifying pathological symptoms. From day one signs had the
power to kill as well as cure. In the 21st century we need to develop a new
semiotics for the war against terror. Otherwise we will continue treating
its most morbid symptoms as morality plays rather than creating a remedy for
the all-too-real disease of imperial politics.

* The writer directs the InfoTechWarPeace Project at Brown University and
produced the documentary After 911 . 

=============================
"Moore or Less Morality" Op Ed by James Der Derian in Al-Ahram Weekly 
demonstrates immediacy of web in action 
[http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/697/cu5.htm] 

James Der Derian reviews Fahrenheit 9/11, questioning the power of the 
image to challenge U.S. foreign policy. "Moore or Less Morality" first ran 
as piece for Chris Lydon's blog 
[http://www.bopnews.com/archives/000926.html], was picked by Egypt's 
leading English weekly, Al-Ahram [http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/], and then 
posted on Gary R. Bunt's blog Virtually Islamic 
[http://www.virtuallyislamic.com/], leading to a surge in emails and 
interest in InfoTechWarPeace. Having recently completed the After9/11 
documentary with the InfoTechWarPeace team, Der Derian proposes that 
rolling back the tide of imperial politics will require more than simply 
piquing moral sensibilities. 
He wonders, "How long can it be before photographic immanence loses its 
power of authenticity and we stop believing what we see? How long before 
the significance of the image itself is called into question? How many 
times can the truth take a beating before the American public just stops 
believing anything it hears, reads and sees? Not soon enough?" 

See the Press Release at http://www.watsoninstitute.org/news_detail.cfm? 
id=209 

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