Last week, I turned in an article on the Iraq War. There were some major sections that I cut – they didn’t fit and distracted from the main argument. They’re interesting enough to share, however, so here they are.
While the primary strategy was to oppose the Iraq War through speech, it is sight that has come to dominate how most people experience war. On a basic physiological level, the direct experience of violence – such as shooting bullets that rip into someone’s body and spilling their blood, or cleaning up someone’s splattered guts after the scene – will rountiely overload the mind and result in trauma. Direct experience is not common, however, as most people experience through visual technologies. The twenty-four hour news cycle feeds war to the people by playing stock footage featuring political officials giving press conferences, missiles sailing through the air, and military personnel on the move. The result is that the body gets trained to experience war as if every organ was an eye. War in such a media environment becomes structured by the characteristics of what Lacan calls “the scopic field.” In particular, it is scopophillia, the primordial and narcissistic pleasure of looking, that structures the feelings behind war. As a result of the built-in pleasures of watching war, the experience of war is delivered through a cascade of images that carries with it a binary logic of identification – us versus them, good guys and bad guys – that sets up a scopic exchange between the viewer and what is viewed. To know war, one watches guns, bullets, bombs, and bodies. But after the bombs explode, the camera shuts off and reporters then cut to sports highlights, which prevents the audience from experiencing the horrific devastation they wreak. The cinematic perspective is purposeful, as it “was designed to mobilize the home front.” By aiming the explosive power of the bomb at the Iraqis, “its implosive power was aimed at us to produce identification with the bomb rather than its anonymous victims.” To symbolically compensate for the unavoidable trauma caused by a lack of resolution, the overwhelming violence of war is cloaked in the nationalist signifiers of Democracy, Freedom, and Heroism. But even with symbolic compensation, sitting back and watching one’s nation go to war is still upsetting, even uncanny, simply because it is a part of their national body is being put in harms way, and there is little to do to keep it safe. One cannot reach into the TV to strike at enemies or help friends. But one can yell at it, as if to show that even in an age of obsessive image control, the linguistic drive is still the primary means to manage the overwhelming desires of a nation at war. It is those weird, strange, and indirect verbal expressions of desire that set the discursive backdrop that made the careful leaks to the press, the presidential addresses, and numerous declarations of heroism meaningful. And conversely, it is this strange world of words that also showcases the successes and failures of working to end wars.
After the convention, the radical filmmakers Glass Bead Collective put together a film that documents the violence used to suppress the convention protests. The trailer reveals the mediating images and fantasies that connect signification and subjectivity in the politics of identification, which it dramatizes by showing activist bodies deprived of their rhetoricality and the quest to resignify them through police violence, collective chanting, and authoritative speech. Given that the filmmakers’ ability to weave together numerous threads that show how direct action loosens, strengthens, or even unravels the script of McCain’s speech, it is worth describing the trailer in full:
The trailer opens with a television commentator talking about the Republican National Convention in 2008. “So, in all of their exuberance to express her [Palin’s] qualifications, they should, at the moment, still realize that McCain is at the top of the ticket.” Applause grows, and the film cuts to frame a row of officers wearing gas masks walking their bicycles down the street. Two of the officers repeatedly ram their bicycles into a prone woman propping herself up in the street with one hand while holding up her other hand to give a peace sign, as if it to fend off the attack or dramatize the violence.
The film cuts to the convention center crowd as they cheer “USA! USA!” during John McCain’s acceptance speech. For a moment, the camera cuts to the gallery seats to show security dragging out a Code Pink protestor who had just disrupted the speech. McCain continues, trying to stop another round of “USA!” chanted by spectators to drown out the protestor: “Please, please, my friends, my dear friends, please, please don’t be diverted by the ground noise and the static!” When the camera returns to McCain, his blue backdrop has been replaced by a parking lot full of police vehicles as smoke wafts from recently set grenades. McCain confidently chuckles, and the crowd breaks into an exuberant applause.
The shot of McCain fades to reveal a hand-held shot of protestors being fired on in the smoke-filled street. The sound of McCain’s speech continues, “In America, we change things that need to be changed…” Some stun grenades spark in the corner of the frame. “…Each generation makes its contribution to our greatness…” One gas round hits someone in the chest. Stun grenades go off a foot above the heads of a small crowd. McCain’s image returns to the frame with the street still set as his backdrop. “…We believe in the values of families, neighborhoods, and communities. We believe in a government that unleashes the creativity and initiative in America…” And a few more stun grenades go off inches from the camera.
The background cuts to two rows of riot police officers in full gear on the march. “…I know how the world works, I know the good and evil in it. I know how to work with leaders who share our dreams of a freer, safer, and more prosperous world and how to stand up to those who don’t…”
McCain’s image fades to reveal a riot officer chasing a petite woman dressed in black around a parking lot filled with dozens of other officers. She accidentally runs into one of the other officers. He knocks her down and shoots pepper spray into her face. The chasing officer catches up, and jabs her with his baton while shouting for her to “Get up!” She tries to stay on the ground, but he continues, “No, get up! Get up!” As she rises to begin the chase again, McCain comes back into view, saying “Stand up! Stand up! Stand up and fight! Nothing is inevitable here…” The woman runs past a dozen riot police, one grabs her, sits her down, and shoots her with pepper spray again. “…We’re Americans, and we never give up. We never quit…”
Shots of the convention center and the smoke-filled streets continue as McCain finishes his speech. “We never hide from history, we make history.”