Intelligence and War

Vue d’artiste de l’évolution de l’Homme peinte sur un mur, stencil graffiti on Vali-ye-Asr Avenue in central Tehran. By Paul Keller, 4 November 2007

A new edition of the ever-interesting Mediatropes is now online (it’s open access), this time on Intelligence and War: you can access the individual essays (or download the whole issue) here.  Previous issues are all available here.

The issue opens with an editorial introduction (‘Intelligence and War’ by Stuart J Murray, Jonathan Chau, Twyla Gibson.  And here is Stuart’s summary of the rest of the issue:

Michael Dorland’s “The Black Hole of Memory: French Mnemotechniques in the Erasure of the Holocaust” interrogates the role of memory and memorialization in the constitution of post-World War II France. Dorland hones in on the precarity of a France that grapples with its culpability in the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up, spotlighting the role of the witness and the perpetually problematized function of testimony as key determinants in challenging both the public memory and the historical memory of a nation.

Sara Kendall’s essay, “Unsettling Redemption: The Ethics of Intra-subjectivity in The Act of Killing” navigates the problematic representation of mass atrocity. Employing Joshua Oppenheimer’s investigation of the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966, Kendall unsettles the documentary’s attempts to foreground the practices of healing and redemption, while wilfully sidestepping any acknowledgment of the structural dimensions of violence. To Kendall, the documentary’s focus on the narratives of the perpetrators, who function as proxies for the state, makes visible the aporia of the film, substituting a framework based on affect and empathy in place of critical political analyses of power imbalances.

Kevin Howley is concerned with the spatial ramifications of drone warfare. In “Drone Warfare: Twenty-First Century Empire and Communications,” Howley examines the battlefield deployment of drones through the lens of Harold Innis’s distinction between time-biased and space-biased media. By considering the drone as a space-biased technology that can transmit information across vast distances, yet only remain vital for short periods of time, Howley sees the drone as emblematic of the American impulse to simultaneously and paradoxically collapse geographical distance while expanding cultural differences between America and other nations.

Avital Ronell’s essay, entitled “BIGLY Mistweated: On Civic Grievance,” takes direct aim at the sitting US president, offering a rhetorical analysis of what she calls “Trumpian obscenity.” Ronell exposes the foundations of the current administration, identifying a government bereft of authority, stitched together by audacity, and punctuated by an almost unfathomable degree of absurdity. In her attempt to make sense of the fundamentally nonsensical and nihilistic discourse that Trump represents, Ronell walks alongside Paul Celan, Melanie Klein, and especially Jacques Derrida, concluding with a suggestive, elusive, and allusive possibility for negotiating the contemporary, Trumpian moment.

In “The Diseased ‘Terror Tunnels’ in Gaza: Israeli Surveillance and the Autoimmunization of an Illiberal Democracy,” Marouf Hasian, Jr. explains how Israel’s state-sanctioned use of autoimmunizing rhetorics depict the lives of Israelis as precarious and under threat. Here, the author’s preoccupation is with the Israeli strategy of rhetorically reconfiguring smuggling tunnels as “terror tunnels” that present an existential threat to Israeli citizens. In doing so, he shows how the non-combatant status of Gazan civilians is dissolved through the intervening effects of these media tropes.

Derek Gregory’s essay, “The Territory of the Screen,” offers a different perspective on drone warfare. Gregory leverages Owen Sheers’s novel, I Saw a Man, to explore the ways in which modern combat is contested through a series of mediating layers, a series of screens through which the United States, as Gregory argues, dematerializes the corporeality of human targets. For Gregory, drone warfare’s facilitation of remote killings is predicated on technical practices that reduce the extinguishing of life to technological processes that produce, and then execute, “killable bodies.”

But how is the increasingly unsustainable illusion of intelligence as being centralized and definitive maintained? Julie B. Wiest’s “Entertaining Genius: U.S. Media Representations of Exceptional Intelligence” identifies the media trope of exceptionally intelligent characters across mainstream film and television programs as key to producing and reinforcing popular understandings of intelligence. Through her analysis of such fictional savants, Wiest connects these patterns of representation to the larger social structures that reflect and reinforce narrowly defined notions of intelligence, and those who are permitted to possess it.

We end this issue with a poem from Sanita Fejzić, who offers a perspective on the human costs of war that is framed not by technology, but through poetic language.

My own essay is a reworked version of the penultimate section of “Dirty Dancing” (DOWNLOADS tab) which we had to cut because it really did stretch the length limitations for Life in the Age of Drone Warfare; so, as Stuart notes, I re-worked it, adding an extended riff on Owen Sheers‘ luminous I saw a man and looping towards the arguments I since developed in ‘Meatspace?

The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence

I commented on Joshua Oppenheimer‘s film about the Indonesian genocide in 1965, The Act of Killing, here and here.  There his focus was, unwaveringly, upon the killers.

But his new film, The Look of Silence, takes up the story of the victims.  Oppenheimer explains:

The Act of Killing exposed the consequences for all of us when we build our everyday reality on terror and lies. The Look of Silence explores what it is like to be a survivor in such a reality. Making any film about survivors of genocide is to walk into a minefield of clichés, most of which serve to create a heroic (if not saintly) protagonist with whom we can identify, thereby offering the false reassurance that, in the moral catastrophe of atrocity, we are nothing like perpetrators. But presenting survivors as saintly in order to reassure ourselves that we are good is to use survivors to deceive ourselves. It is an insult to survivors’ experience, and does nothing to help us understand what it means to survive atrocity, what it means to live a life shattered by mass violence, and to be silenced by terror. To navigate this minefield of clichés, we have had to explore silence itself.

The result, The Look of Silence, is, I hope, a poem about a silence borne of terror – a poem about the necessity of breaking that silence, but also about the trauma that comes when silence is broken. Maybe the film is a monument to silence – a reminder that although we want to move on, look away and think of other things, nothing will make whole what has been broken. Nothing will wake the dead. We must stop, acknowledge the lives destroyed, strain to listen to the silence that follows.

You can find out more about the production here, and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro interviews Oppenheimer about his general project and The Look of Silence in particular at Harper’s blog here.  He describes his focus on interior space in the new film – in contrast to The Act of Killing – like this:

‘I think one of the things that I realized very early on, with The Look of Silence, was that the best way to make the viewer feel what it means to have to build a life in a place that feels wrecked by endless fear, is to feel that in the most intimate way. Because those are very subtle personal things. And to understand something of what that’s really like, I thought, I would need to be incredibly microscopic. You’re entering a space where people are not putting words to what they experienced, where they’re too afraid to talk about it. I felt that I should try to create a kind of poem to a silence borne of fear, a poem to the necessity and trauma that comes with breaking that silence. The idea was to home in on the smallest details—the wrinkles in the ancient skin of Adi’s father, a crease in the brow of Adi’s mother—and to really focus on the silence, listen to that silence, and hear what it has to say.’

And he also glosses the image that appears on the poster above:

In The Look of Silence, we see an optometrist who probes the silence that his family has lived under, and then confronts the killers. If we made that a fiction story, it wouldn’t have at all the same interest. In fact the metaphor of the optometrist would be all too neat. Similarly, a death squad that makes a musical about their killings would be ridiculous as a fiction. But when it’s real, what we’re watching is the transformative effect of the process on the people. And I think that’s why I make film. It’s why I make nonfiction film. And it’s also why, in all of my films, I don’t hide the apparatus of filmmaking by pretending to be a fly on the wall, or by being a transparent interviewer eliciting testimony from the subject. Because I believe that if one is honest, then the genesis of the drama, and the genesis of the transformation, is also the filmmaking process itself.

Not only Openheimer, then, but Heisenberg too.

Not the Manhattan Project

The Act Of Killing

I’ve only just caught up with this…. Joshua Oppenheimer‘s surreal-documentary film The act of killing (2012).  It’s so surreal I need to let the synopsis speak for itself:

‘The unrepentant former members of Indonesian death squads are challenged to re-enact some of their many murders in the style of the American movies they love.’  

Killer ImagesIt’s a deeply serious work; Oppenheimer has worked for years with militias, death squads and their victims to explore the relationship between political violence and the public imagination, and his co-director, Christine Cynn, is a founding member of the Vision Machine Film Project in London and has worked on the AHRC Genocide and Genre project. Oppenheimer has also co-edited Killer images: documentary, memory and the performance of violence (2013).

Here’s a more prosaic version of the synopsis from the University of Westminster, where Oppenheimer is based in the International Centre for Documentary and Experimental Film:

Made as a Danish/Norwegian/British co-production, The Act of Killing is a highly controversial account of the year following the 1965 Indonesian military coup in which pro-regime paramilitaries killed more than a million alleged Communists. These murders went unpunished and the perpetrators are still powerful, influential people who can rely on the support of corrupt politicians.

In the film, these men proudly recall their struggle against the Communists and demonstrate their efficient methods of slaughter. Slim Anwar Congo and portly Herman Koto are delighted when the film’s directors ask them to re-enact these murders for their documentary. They zealously set about finding actors, designing elaborate costumes and discussing possible scenarios. They see themselves as film stars who will show the world Indonesia’s truepremen or ‘free men’. But eventually the film project gets these men to talk about and reflect upon their actions as they have never done before. Congo says that for the first time he felt what his victims must have felt. It begins to dawn on him exactly what he did to hundreds of people. The reconstruction of reality has become more real for these men than their actions originally were.

The Act of Killing 2

Errol Morris (an executive producer for the film with Werner Herzog) has this to say about it:

“An extraordinary portrayal of genocide. To the inevitable question: what were they thinking, Joshua Oppenheimer provides an answer. It starts as a dreamscape, an attempt to allow the perpetrators to reenact what they did, and then something truly amazing happens. The dream dissolves into nightmare and then into bitter reality. An amazing and impressive film.”

Joshua OPPENHEIMERYou can watch the trailer here, and read interviews with Oppenheimer about the research for and the making of the film here, here and here.  The historical and geographical context for the film is summarised here (scroll down).

According to the Jakarta Post, many survivors have praised the film but others have criticised Oppenheimer for marginalising the role of the military in the massacres.  The same production team is now developing a follow-up, The Look of Silence, which reportedly will deal with ‘the other side of the story’, how survivors and victims’ families co-exist with the perpetrators.

A host of questions here, not least about aesthetics and violence and about the incorporation of art-work into the research process, but also about the question that inevitably haunted me during my visit to Auschwitz, and that returns again and again as I work on my bombing project: how could people do such things?  A question that finally returns us to my title and to J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Julius, in case you’re wondering: not Joshua.