Just looking (and shooting)

I had just finished jotting my update to the IDF’s use of social media when Alex Vasudevan drew my attention to this brilliant, searing and deeply disturbing essay by Huw Lemmey at the New Inquiry, ‘Devastation in Meatspace’:

The missile rushing over your head was processed through an Instagram filter just hours previously. As you see it pass out of sight behind the apartment block opposite some young conscript is preparing for video footage of it to be compressed and uploaded to YouTube before the hour is out. By nightfall tonight that explosion which just shook your neighborhood, in one of the most densely populated areas on earth, will have been liked over 8,000 times on Facebook. Welcome to Gaza City.

In a previous post I’d objected to the way in which some commentators advertised social media as a new way to ‘consume’ war, but  – riffing off Eyal Weizmann‘s Hollow Land –  Lemmey focuses not on the Twitter streams but on the visualizations disseminated across these digital platforms: see, for example, the IDF’s Instagram page here (and look at the comments too); more here.  You can also find a selection over at Business Insider where Geoffrey Ingersoll describes them as ‘gorgeous’, and another selection at Moral Low Ground, which reads them rather differently.

Commenting on these images, Britney Fitzgerald at the Huffington Post simply sees them as ‘the world’s newest form of war reporting” – though she does note that the ‘intimacies’ that Israel puts on display through Instagram are radically different from those with the hashtags #gaza and #palestine – but Lemmey (who describes himself as a print maker and studio technician) provides a much more compelling reading.  He shows that the IDF images do indeed resonate with a consumerist ideology – climactic versions of the desiring gaze and the lust of the eye – that has become integral to the way in which late modern war is fought:

‘[T]he [IDF] use of commercially available instagram filters replicates the visual culture favoured by much of its audience, producing images that slip easily into their feeds, naturalising the content. “These are the photos you would take if you served in the IDF,” the aesthetic says, “we are just like you, and these military decisions are the ones you would take, if you were in our situation.” They also step beyond this, including an aspirational aspect of a desirable lifestyle — impossibly handsome young troops, having fun on their downtime. This is a fighting force at play as imagined by Wolfgang Tillmans and BUTT magazine, a million miles from an occupying force…. Liking and sharing IDF visual material becomes no more controversial than sharing your favourite Nike campaign — not a matter of politics, let alone ethics, but just another part of the construction of your online persona….’

‘Like many of the more advanced lifestyle brands, the IDF are shifting the focus of image production from their own staff and creative team toward their consumers: in this case, the troops, reservists, and supporters of the IDF. Content is aggregated from individuals and fed back into the social networks of the target audience. In many ways this is an advanced form of brand-management for a such a large institution; it shows a willingness to trust the audience, allowing them to define the brand, making IDFgram perhaps the first crowdsourced propaganda campaign for a state military but also one whose identity is ever more meshed with that of its troops and supporters, emulating fashion and lifestyle brands’ movement toward consumer-led campaigns. Here the IDF becomes the avatar of a thoroughly Western consumer identity. The distance between our own lives and those of the men and women who fight in the IDF becomes ever shorter and more compressed; in collapsing this distance, the grainy and pixelated images of the Palestinian subject become more distant. This is the IDF campaign for control of the virtual environment, interjecting its brand identity into the slivers of human interaction online and thus attempting to occupy a greater portion of the market share for geopolitical allegiance.’

Lemmey says much, much more than this: please read the whole essay.

BTW: IDF stands for ‘Israel Defense Forces’, so naturally none of this should be confused with IDF Marketing, where ‘IDF stands for Innovative, Digital, Foundations’: it’s an Irish company with no connection with the Israeli military.  In case you’re now thoroughly confused, here is Arwa Mahdawi on the marketing of Israel:

Ever since it officially came into existence in 1948, Israel has gone methodically about the creation of a “Brand Israel”. This originally began with an emphasis of the religious significance of a state for the Jewish people. Then, in 2005, when it was time for a rebrand, the Israeli government consulted with American marketing executives to develop a positioning that would appeal to a new generation: an Israel that was “relevant and modern” rather than a place of “fighting and religion”. So Israel did some pinkwashing, and suddenly became a vocal champion of gay rights. It fought to retain cultural ownership of falafel, hummus, and Kafka. It poured millions of dollars into tourism campaigns that sought to replace imagery of wartorn landscapes with sun-kissed seascapes.

When it comes to winning modern wars, a robust marketing campaign is as important as a military campaign.