Monthly Archives: November 2015

‘Because of who we are’: American Exceptionalism, Images, and the War on Terror

“Let us remember,” Barack Obama remarked in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, “that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” (qtd. in Kennedy 272).

Post-9/11 American ‘identity’ (whatever that may mean, and however problematic a term it may be) has undoubtedly been caught up with the War on Terror, a “perpetual war” of words and of images (Kennedy 262). In his essay “Cracks in the Edifice of the Empire State,” David Harvey highlights that the attacks on the World Trade Centre were “reported across the world as attacks ‘upon the main symbols of global U.S. financial and military power,’” while in the American media they were reported as “an attack upon ‘freedom,’ ‘American values,’ and the ‘American way of life,’” (qtd. in Kennedy 272).

Obama’s comments after bin Laden’s killing, then, seek to re-establish America’s power. The president “conjures up the potent mythology of redemption through violence and promotes a new American exceptionalism” (Kennedy 272). What is also potent in this exceptionalist rhetoric, though, is its religious tone; the United States appear to be ‘chosen’, set apart, powerful enough to capture and kill bin Laden all “because of who [they] are.”

Such religious rhetoric has surrounded the War on Terror (WOT) since the day of the 9/11 attacks. In Fig. 1, we see what is now known as the World Trade Centre (WTC) Cross. This cross, built from beams in the wreckage of the WTC, still remains at Ground Zero today as part of the 9/11 museum – although not without protest. The cross, crudely tied together with whatever materials could be found, almost appears to burst forth from the rubble. It is in the centre of the frame, surrounded by a bleak landscape which fades and blurs as one looks further into the background. “Don’t focus on the rubble,” the image seems to scream, “focus on the cross, the symbol of hope.” Yet, just whose symbol of hope is it? Those who died in the 9/11 attacks were not all of one faith. Some may not even have had any faith at all. Yet the image here suggests a monolithic, wholly Christian society. Indeed, General Boykin’s post-9/11 “speeches to Christian audiences included declarations that ‘the God of Islam is an idol, and that the war on terror is a war against ‘Satan,’” while Bush typified it as a ‘crusade’ (Mitchell 198).


World-Trade-Center-Cross-620x410
Fig. 1: The World Trade Centre Cross

Enter the image of a tortured prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison (Fig. 2). Mitchell notes that “the terrorist is often portrayed as a clone, a headless or at least faceless automaton, masked and anonymous […] comparable to a virus” (182). In this image the man, as is frequently noted, adopts a Christ-like pose. We see how tenuous his position is; one wrong move or moment of weakness, and he will fall from his crude pedestal and be sharply electrocuted. The fact his face is hidden behind a dark hood removes all sense of his identity and agency, effectively dehumanising him.

Corporeality, then, is a key issue here. What we are presented with in this image is what Baudrillard terms the “acephalic clone.” He writes: “Why bodies without heads? As the head is considered the site of consciousness, it is thought that bodies with heads would pose ethical and psychological problems” (4). Judith Butler subscribes to this mode of thinking, reminding us that “if […] it is the face of the other that demands from us an ethical response, then it would seem that the norms that who allocate who is and is not human arrive in visual form” (77). Indeed, I think it is quite obvious here that the soldier to the right of the frame has little ethical response whatsoever; note he is casually checking his camera, perhaps seeing if he’s ‘happy’ with the shot he’s taken. We wouldn’t want the image capturing this moment of obscene torture and humiliation to be blurry, after all…

hooded-man
Fig. 2: ‘Hooded Man’, a subject of torture at Abu Ghraib prison

And yet, the opposite effect of the ‘acephalic clone’ is achieved; the viewer is invited “to empathise and identify with the figure despite (or is it because of?) its hooded anonymity.” Moreover, the iconology of this image echoes “the particular stages of the passion narrative” (Mitchell 200). Consequently, then, rather than being viewed as a ‘terrorist’ or potential threat, the prisoner becomes a figure of empathy. The roles America assigned in its ‘holy war’ are reversed; suddenly it is the soldier checking his camera who is ‘Satan-like’, while the prisoner in Abu Ghraib instead becomes “the passive, suffering trophy of American power” (Mitchell 207).

Giorgio Agamben writes that “a state which has security as its sole task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to become itself terroristic” (qtd. in Slome 83).  Terrorism, Slome notes, “is a war of words and images […] a form of psychological warfare whose aim is the demoralization of the enemy and not the direct estruction of military personnel or equipment” (86). Who then, in the case of Abu Ghraib, is the terrorist? The obscenity of the torture in Abu Ghraib and other questionable practices in the WOT have been glossed over by Obama as “the costs of war” (qtd. in Kennedy 273). Indeed, accountability appears to be a recurring issue for the United States. “No action has more severely compromised the United States in its prosecution of the war on terror than its inaction when faced with irrefutable evidence of American wrongdoing,” Danchev writes, noting the country’s “conspicuous failure to trace responsibility to its source” (176-77). In the remarks I earlier referred to, Obama highlights that “the American people did not choose this fight” (qtd. in Kennedy 272). Debatable, Mr. President, but the fact remains that the casualties of this “fight” are the physical manifestation of a war of words, emotions and images which is perpetually justified by the American exceptionalist rhetoric;  “because of who [you] are.”

 By Jennifer Gouck

 

Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. The Vital Illusion. Ed. Julia Witwer. Columbia; Columbia University Press, 2000.
Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? Verso, 2009.
Danchev, Alex. On Art and War and Terror. Edinburgh; Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
Kennedy, Liam. “Seeing and Believing: On Photography and the War on Terror.” Public Culture 24:2 (2012): 261-281.
Mitchell, WJT. Cloning Terror: The War of Images 2001-04. Chicago; Chicago University Press, 2011.
Slome, Manon. “Aesthetics of Terror.” On Curating. Issue 22 (2014): 84-90.

Photo Credits

1. Fig. 1 World Trade Center Cross via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Fig. 2 ‘Hooded Man’ via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Babel, Borders and Bodies: An Inquiry into the Equality of State Sovereignty.

In an interview with Australian television network SBS Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu stated “Babel is about how our everyday lives are affected by walls, miscommunication and barriers” (Michael “Babel: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu Interview”). Drawing on scholar Elizabeth S. Anker’s discussion on the politics of enclosure and Michel Foucault’s theories in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), this blog intends to address the movie Babel in terms of it’s messages with regards to state sovereignty. Does Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu suggest through this movie that he believes current border policies are inherently racist? What are his suggestions to resolve this issue and what realistically could happen in terms of improving equality between these nations?  I will use these questions to provide insight into the possibility of Babel’s equality rhetoric becoming a reality with the relaxation of sovereignty laws.

(Inarritu 1:22)
(Inarritu 1:22)

In her analysis of Babel, Anker believes that “law officials play crucial roles in all four narratives, in each a vector for enforcing and codifying the exclusions that sustain the body politic” (Anker 968). Foucault also originally explored state policing as a means of enforcing laws in the interest of the sovereign body and creating exclusions that enclose ‘accepted’ citizens within a border through his discussion of “the art of distributions” (Foucault 141). Applied to Babel, America, Mexico, Morocco and Japan are all spaces enclosed by borders in which the leaders of their jurisdiction control the lives of citizens through laws and coercive policing. Anker takes this idea further to analyse the smaller distributions of citizens within the cars and buses travelling through these countries. She notes that the Americans abroad are in a privileged position of “sovereign immunity” (Anker 968). When Susan and Richard are in the bus, they are in a position of power as outsiders looking into the poverty stricken Morocco. Inarritu through these visual images in Babel helps to address the inequalities caused by state policing and state sovereignty laws by placing us in the position of both powerful and non-powerful sovereignties, making the public issue personal. This is particularly evident when the Mexican characters attempt to return to America. Due to Mexico’s less powerful political stance, Anker notes that the Mexican citizens “undergo the reverse treatment. (They are) unduly prone to surveillance, representing an antithetical space of suspended legality” (Anker 968).  In the images below, we can see the difference in camera angles. Observe the close up on the eyes of Santiago as if he is already under surveillance in comparison to the Americans who travel in a sovereignty of their own- a large bus separate from the surrounding desert.

(Inarritu 1:45)
(Inarritu 1:45)
(Innaritu 31:22)
(Inarritu 31:22)

To make the public issue of sovereignty personal in order to evoke an emotive response from his audience, Inarritu also focuses on the bodies of different citizens during symbolic scenes. This perpetuates the idea of a commonality amongst these nations. Foucault also explored this idea of the personal body as a target of public state power.

“Forced labour… has never functioned without a certain additional element of punishment that certainly concerns the body itself: rationing of food, sexual deprivation, corporal punishment and solitary confinement” (Foucault 16).

Although Chieko has not been starved or corporally punished she is certainly victim to some of these methods of state power reinforcement. Chieko experiences exclusion within her own sovereignty due to her body’s limitations as deaf woman. She struggles in a society built for those who can hear, experiencing a degree of “solitary confinement” that forces her to attempt to conform through her appearance instead of through conversation. Chieko sexualises herself through wearing short skirts and acting flirtatious with men in alignment with the expectations of the patriarchal society she lives in. Yet she also experiences sexual deprivation due to these high patriarchal standards of beauty. In the eyes of the state, she is unable to fully contribute towards society through forced labour and is therefore punished through sexual deprivation. This scene below in which Chieko shows her genitalia to the adjacent group of boys forces us to see this effect patriarchal society has on women. Chieko has been led to believe she will gain a higher status of power if she is visibly attractive to men, however her disability causes her to act out of sync with social cues, causing an uncomfortable viewing experience and an emotive reaction from the audience.

(Innaritu 27:39)
(Inarritu 27:39)

Susan’s shooting is another symbolic scene in which the body is under attack. As discussed earlier, the bus previous to this was in the position of a privileged sovereign state. When this was penetrated by the bullet of a Japanese and Moroccan man’s gun, this power status was also taken away and the rules of sovereignty broken, causing the plot to descend into chaos.  In this symbolic act, Inarritu suggests the frailty of the paradigm of sovereignty. With this gunshot, Inarritu poses the idea that no country is safe unless it co-operates with its’ fellow nations as Susan eventually did with the Moroccans, aiding her survival.

(Innaritu 19:15)
(Inarritu 19:15)

To conclude, although America has reinvented itself many times, its political ideology of state sovereignty will very likely not change to promote equality with its surrounding nations. Through symbols of the body, Inarritu signifies the importance of embracing cross-culture influences and in Chieko’s case, embracing the ‘otherness’ of people with differently abled bodies into society. However, to suggest that America should remove it’s borders for Amelia also suggests letting in drunk drivers and dangerous gun carriers such as Santiago.  This representation of Santiago was possibly influenced by the American funders of this film, subtly suggesting the benefits of borders when ultimately sovereignty laws benefit America. An example of this benefit is when “U.S. forces entered Pakistan- without the Pakistani government’s consent- to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden… Former President Musharraf complained that the operation violated Pakistan’s sovereignty” (Deeks 1) However America as a more powerful nation still has yet to face repercussions for this violation of sovereignty yet will happily punish others for the same offence.

Case Study

Babel (dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2006).

Bibliography

Anker, Elizabeth S. “In the Shadowlands of Sovereignty: The Politics of Enclosure in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel.” University of Toronto Quarterly 82:4 (2013): 950-973. Project Muse. Web 4 Nov 2015.

Borjas, George J., ed. Mexican Immigration to the United States. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 7 November 2015.

Deeks, Ashley S. “Pakistan’s Sovereignty and the Killing of Osama Bin Laden.” Insights 15:11 (2011): 1-5. American Society of International Law. 8 Nov 2015.

Elden, Stuart. Terror and Territory : The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty. Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 8 November 2015.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Allen Lane, 1975. Print.

Michael, David. SBS Online. “Babel: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu Interview.” 26 Feb 2014. Accessed 6 Nov. 2015. Web.

<http://www.sbs.com.au/movies/article/2009/05/22/babel-alejandro-gonzalez-inarritu-interview>

Shaw, Deborah. “Babel and the Global Hollywood Gaze.” Situations: Projection of the Radical Imagination 4:1 (2011): 11-31. Web 4 Nov. 2015.

The Desert of the Real: Las Vegas

Las_Vegas_desert_city

Jean Baudrillard writes, ‘Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal […] The desert of the real itself. (1)  Simulacra are copies without originals which construct a non-referential ‘hyperreality; a reality dominated by symbols and signs bereft of profound meaning. Vegas, a bastion of capitalist extravagance and postmodern city, boasts a hyperreal society and culture.  Rothman writes that Scorsese’s depiction of Vegas in Casino is ‘more fairy tale than social commentary’(308). Casino privileges simulacra over the complex intricacies of Vegas and Nevada integral to the non-scripted actuality on which the film is based.

Scorsese draws on pastoral ideals and situates them in a hyperreal world of depthless stereotypes.  A key element of national identity, pastoral idealism provides America with a blank page on which to write a new, ‘revised’ story of its self, dissociated from history. Vegas, the magician of rejuvenation, spellbinds with its offer of self-reinvention and actualisation of fantasies. In the eyes of Casino’s Rothstein, Vegas is the manifestation of Eden. He reminisces, ‘I was given paradise on earth’. Like R.W.B. Lewis’ ‘liberated’ ‘forward thrusting’ American Adam (28), who detaches himself from his past to embark on his autonomous adventure, Vegas purifies the sins of the past and glorifies the individual. He claims, ‘Anywhere else in the country, I was hassled by cops’ but in Vegas, he continues, ‘I’m Mr Sam Rothstein’. Representations of the West as the Promised Land depict it as a land of spiritual fecundity abundant with treasures.  The conflict between spiritual renewal and the intoxicating allure of riches is mollified by Rothstein who unashamedly boasts that Vegas is a ‘morality car wash’.  Scorsese’s sprinklings of Christian iconography, exemplified by statues of Christ and Santoro’s scourging, evocative of the flogged Christ, comprise a mosaic of simulacra in a world operating on hyperreal constructions and superficial appearances. The ungodly Santoro is morally bankrupt and his exhibition of brutality reveals his lascivious preoccupation with carnality.

Frederick Jackson Turner describes the ‘frontier’, as a ‘line’ between civilised and savagery where American social development; ‘perennial rebirth’ and ‘expansion westward with its new opportunities’ was established (2). He represents the West as a wilderness to be won by generating ‘progress out of the primitive’ (Milner 2). Akin to pastoral representations of the West as Virgin Land, for Casino’s Santoro, Vegas is ‘untouched’.  Santoro intends to colonise it with unrestrained imperialist values which breed competition and greed. The psychosexual dynamic of the mythologised West’s coalescence with capitalist ideologies is embroiled in Rothstein’s relationship with his wife Ginger.  Unsurprisingly, in a world which deifies money, where the ‘sacred’ count room is ‘the holy of holies’, Rothstein and Ginger’s marriage is centred on ownership and possession. Ginger perceives Rothstein’s marriage proposal as a business offer, asking ‘What’re you pitching me, here?’ Ginger, formerly a prostitute, represents not the Virgin land but the reification of the utopian ideal. Rothstein muses, ‘But my greatest pleasure was watchin’ my wife, Ginger, work the room’. In a world which ‘[sells] dreams for cash’, Ginger, like the elusive American Dream, is a fetishized object in which Rothstein libidinally and financially invests. Tellingly, Ginger explains to Amy that, ‘Daddy gave me all this jewellery because he loves me so much’. The pursuit of happiness now resides in capital and simulacra. Santoro’s, Ginger’s and Rothstein’s voracious appetites for wealth and simulacra enflames their self-ruination and descent into damnation rather than self-renewal.

The pervasive influence of hyperpastoral idealism is nurtured by a lack of historical memory. Vegas lives in the millennial present as its chameleon skin, its skyline and visual history peel away when culture and capital demand. Unlike Vegas, Scorsese’s characters cannot overwrite their histories. Although Rothstein attempts to sever Ginger’s ties with the past reminding her ‘That part of your life is over with’, she is possessed by history. She returns to her former lover and prostitution. History haunts Rothstein for it is through Santoro’s notorious reputation and friendship with Rothstein that we witness the return of the repressed.

Las_Vegas_Boulevard_Road_(7314948198)

Like the recurrent content and structure of Casino, Vegas’ reinvention is cyclical but its reconstructions are whitewashed with Vegas’ magical wand.  Umberto Eco contends that mini-cities exemplify America’s desire for the real which is attained in the ‘absolute fake’ (8). They don’t simply imitate or reproduce reality, they attempt to improve it. Today, Vegas is the quintessential postmodern city which produces sanitised reconstructions of historical epochs and ‘miniature cities’ (Jameson 12). To illustrate, the ‘Middle Ages’ is dehistoricised and rejuvenated in fantastical medieval castles. Against the backdrop of national panic following the atrocities of September 11th, Vegas’ New York exorcises the ghosts haunting the real New York and offers tourists the (arguably xenophobic) illusion of holidaying abroad without having to undertake potentially dangerous journeys. Although Venturi et al. argue that  Vegas, ‘includes at all levels’ (53), Vegas’ symbolic swallowing and rescaled regurgitation of Venice, New York and Paris domesticates and contains the ‘exotic’ other within American borders. Vegas controls and compartmentalises culture akin to Turner’s attempt to unify and corral the complex histories of the West at the expense of marginalising others. Such compartmentalisation reduces reality to a set of symbols representing white homogenised middle class American perspectives of the world.

Rothstein informs us, ‘It’s all been arranged just for us to get your money’. Tourists buy into a reality no less hyperreal than ‘everyday reality’ but one infinitely more spectacular where the question of which historical epoch to visit supplants the banalities of Vegas’ ‘environmental terrorism’: its water shortage and air pollution (Davis 95). Although Vegas is superfluous and fantastical it is simultaneously centred on a lack; a desert city whose pastoral water displays, foliage and lighting are simulacra. Just as Casino quenches viewers’ thirst for cinematic spectacle, Vegas paradoxically satisfies tourists’ desire for the real by bombarding them with the ‘absolute fake’. Both the hyperreal Casino and mutable Vegas Strip are manipulated representations lacking authenticity.

Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Casino. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Universal, 1995. Film.

Davis, Mike. “Las Vegas Versus Nature”. Reopening the American West. Ed. H.K. Rothman. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998. 85-105.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. London: Pan Books Ltd, 1987.

Jameson, Frederic. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998. London: Verso, 1998.

Lewis, R.W.B. The American Adam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Milner, C.A. Major Problems in the History of the American West. Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1989.

Rothman, Hal K. “Colony, Capital, and Casino; Money in the Real Las Vegas”. The Grit Beneath the Glitter: Tales from the Real Las Vegas. Eds. Hal K. Rothman and Mike Davis. Berkley: University of California Press, 2002. 307-334.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. Ed. R. Billington. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962.

Venturi, Robert., Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. Learning From Las Vegas. 1972. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.

 

Photo Credits

Las Vegas Desert City Image by Jon Sullivan Via Wikimedia Commons.

Vegas Boulevard Road Image by Russavia via Wikimedia Commons.