Seeing Machines

VIRILIO Vision machineIn a series of posts on photography Trevor Paglen provides some ideas that intersect with my own work on Militarized Vision and ‘seeing like a military’.  First, riffing off Paul Virilio, Trevor develops the idea of photography as a ‘seeing machine‘:

‘Seeing machines is an expansive definition of photography. It is intended to encompass the myriad ways that not only humans use technology to “see” the world, but the ways machines see the world for other machines. Seeing machines includes familiar photographic devices and categories like viewfinder cameras and photosensitive films and papers, but quickly moves far beyond that. It embraces everything from iPhones to airport security backscatter-imaging devices, from electro-optical reconnaissance satellites in low-earth orbit, to QR code readers at supermarket checkouts, from border checkpoint facial-recognition surveillance cameras to privatized networks of Automated License Plate Recognition systems, and from military wide-area-airborne-surveillance systems, to the roving cameras on board legions of Google’s Street View” cars.

What’s more, the idea of seeing machines I’m sketching out here isn’t confined to the imaging devices and systems I’ve described in broad strokes. The definition extends to include the images (or data) produced by such imaging systems, the digital metadata associated with those images, as well as additional systems for storage, archiving, search and interpretation (either human or algorithmic). Finally, and crucially, seeing machines encompasses not only imaging systems, search, and storage capacities, it encompasses something a bit more abstract, namely the “styles” or “practices” of seeing that different imaging systems enable (i.e. the difference between what a view camera and an automated license-plate reading camera “want” to do and how they see the world differently).  Crucially, the definition of photography I’m proposing here encompasses imaging devices (“cameras” broadly understood), the data (“images” being one possible manifestation of that data) they produce, and the seeing-practices with which they are enmeshed.’

In a subsequent post on Geographies of Photography Trevor then links these seeing-practices to what he calls the production of space (and what I now prefer to think of as performances of space), and uses the example of the Reaper to illustrate what he has in mind:

What exactly is a Reaper drone? In essence, it’s a camera attached to a remote-controlled airplane. Sometimes it carries missiles. What’s particular about a Reaper drone (and other drones in its larger family, including the Predator and the Sentinel) is that airplane, pilot, navigator, analysts, and commander don’t have to be in the same place. The aircraft might be flying a combat mission in Yemen by a pilot based in Nevada, overseen by a manager in Virginia, and supported by intelligence officers in Tampa (geographer Derek Gregory has written about what he calls “Drone Geographies.”) The drone creates its own “relative” geographies, folding several noncontiguous spaces around the globe into a single, distributed, “battlefield.” The folding of space-time that the Reaper drone system enables is a contemporary version of what Marx famously called the “annihilation of space with time,” i.e. the ability to capitalize on the speed of new transportation and communications technologies to bring disparate spaces “closer” together, relatively speaking.

I think that’s more or less right: these new, networked political technologies of vision have been instrumental in the production of a non-linear and discontinuous battlespace, threaded by wormholes that connect one site to another.  But, as I’ll try to show when I eventually get to my post on Uruzgan, the process is far from seamless, the folds are more fragile than most of us realise, and the discontinuities and ruptures are as important as the connections for the administration of military violence.

The vision machine

Vision Machine

News this morning from Roger Stahl of a wonderful new resource and site, The vision machine: media, war, peace.  I’ve admired Roger’s work for an age, and his Militainment Inc.: war, media and popular culture has been an indispensable source for my own work on military violence in its various forms; you can find his blog here.

But the new, collective project (for which Roger is a co-director) is even more ambitious; the subject obviously speaks directly to my own concerns, but so too does the format – see the last paragraph below.

TheVisionMachine is a scholarly platform for critically engaging the intersection of war, peace, and media. Using a multimedia approach, the site incorporates pod/vodcasts, media analysis, documentary clips, and links to larger bodies of work. The site is operated by a global group of scholars in the fields of International Relations, Media Production, and Communication Studies.

Thematically, TheVisionMachine is comprised of three components. The first is historical, focusing on the dual development of colonial and media empires from early days of the panorama, photography, print media, radio, TV, to today’s Internet (web 2.0), and social media – thus covering the history of and evolution from old to new digital media. The second is theoretical, using classical and critical theory to examine media as the product and instrument of cultural, economic and political struggles, resistance and revolt. The third is practical, using media production such a micro-documentaries, regular pod/vodcasts, and interactive social media to disseminate research, generate interactive debate, and raise public awareness. As one might guess, The Vision Machine takes direct inspiration from Paul Virilio’s book by the same name, though the site is certainly not limited to his style of thought.

TheVisionMachine is…

1. A Multimedia Journal. TheVisionMachine seeks contributions from a range of prominent thinkers, from academics to activists, media producers, military professionals, journalists, public intellectuals, and more. These contributions range from audio/video profile interviews to short-form original pieces of criticism, theory, observational essays, and documentary work. The driving impulse of the site is to provide a venue for airing cutting-edge ideas and exposing work to larger audiences. If you are interested in becoming involved, please contact us here.

2. A Discussion Platform. TheVisionMachine operates as a hub for an ongoing community conversation. The site hosts a social networking function, discussion boards geared around specific topics, and comment clouds for individual exhibits. Subscribers are encouraged not only to partake of the various articles and micro-documentaries featured on the site, but also to contribute to an expanding range of expertise and perspectives.

3. A Media Production Clearing House. One of the ultimate goals of TheVisionMachine is to operate as a media center, a place for creative collaboration and media production. The structure of the site provides opportunities to “crowdsource” material for larger projects. These could range from academic endeavors to the production of documentary films on relevant subjects. TheVisionMachine is partner with the University of Queensland Media Lab, a $180,000 media monitoring and recording facility, one of the first of its kind housed in a non-corporate, non-military institution.

TheVisionMachine is driven by an explicit attempt to rethink and revamp archaic academic practices of knowledge creation and dissemination. The site aims to move from the average global readership of academic articles in the social sciences (which currently stands at 4.5 readers per published journal article!) to actively engaging a wider public through digital new media. TheVisionMachine is designed as a truly interactive multiplatform space where those with an interest in the infotech/war/peace complex can participate in debates through discussion threads, audio/video postings, and micro-documentary production. Thereby, TheVisionMachine aspires to be a rosetta stone to the complex contemporary global media environment, a tool for interfacing a world where satellite, Internet, cell phone, and other recent technologies directly affect questions of war and peace, control and resistance.

If you need to find the site without using the link above, you should note that there are several ‘vision machines’ on the web – but only one is ‘‘.  Note, too, that the site takes its title from Paul Virilio‘s book (which is available here) but isn’t limited to his style of thought…

Emergency cinema

The Arab uprisings heightened interest in the politics of new social media, and much attention was directed at platforms like Twitter (which is emphatically not to say that any of this can be reduced to a ‘Twitter revolution‘).  Swirling around these discussions, breaking the 140-character limit of a tweet, was an insistently visual thematic, though this too was often limited to cellphone videos uploaded to YouTube and other sites (and then retransmitted by mainstream news media).  But there are other ways in which film/video can function as witness.

The use of film as witness is usually traced back to the International Military Tribunals in Nuremberg after the Second World War: see in particular Lawrence Douglas‘s classic The Memory of Judgment: Making law and history in the trials of the Holocaust (Yale University Press, 2001) – you can also read an early version of the key essay, ‘Film as Witness: Screening “Nazi Concentration Camps” before the Nuremberg Tribunal,’ in The Yale Law Journal,  105 (2) (1995) or access the book version (so far as I can see, without the accompanying images) online from Yale here.

Douglas’s thoughtful essay is, in a sense, framed by a remark that appears mid-way through it.  When reporter Ed Murrow described Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 he ended his broadcast by saying: ‘I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald.  I have reported what I saw and heard, and only part of it.  For most of it, I have not words.’  When the prosecutors at Nuremberg elected to show a film compiled by former Hollywood director Lt Col George C. Stevens from black-and-white footage shot by Allied troops when they liberated the camps – Nazi Concentration Camps – they claimed , as one of them put it, that the film ‘represents in a brief and unforgettable form an explanation of what the words “concentration camp” imply.’  A horror, then, that transcended words – or, as Walter Benjamin confessed in a different context, ‘I have nothing to say, only to show’.

‘This use of film in a juridical setting was unprecedented’, Douglas notes, but it also raises a crucial question – ‘What exactly did the tribunal see when the prosecutors screened Nazi Concentration Camps?’ – that cannot be answered from the trial transcripts. These simply record:

[The film was then shown]

COL. STOREY: That concludes the presentation.

[The Tribunal adjourned until 30 November at 1000 hours]

The question is vital because it invites another: if images took the place of words that could not be found, then how was the tribunal ‘to submit unprecedented horror to principled legal judgments’ that necessarily returned to the verbal and textual?  Douglas’s pursuit of the question is what gives his essay such a compelling narrative force.  He shows in detail how even the visual faltered in the face of such horror: how the camera was confused, confounded, embarrassed – in a word, unsteadied.   He describes, too, how the film incorporates witnesses viewing the atrocities as a moment in its own witnessing: ordinary Germans being forced to view the exhumation of corpses, GIs and generals filing past dead bodies and emaciated survivors.  What these scenes do not  – cannot – do, Douglas concludes, is adjudicate responsibility:

‘Though the film provides a picture of a crime scene so extreme that its horrors have unsteadied the camera’s idiom of representation, it does not translate its images into a conventional vocabulary of wrongdoing.  Instead, the very extremity of the atrocity captured on film challenge sone to locate terms capable of naming and condemning these crimes.  How, then, was the prosecution able to assimilate evidence of unprecedented atrocity into a legal category of criminality?’

This is film as retrospective, but the questions about witnessing are no less difficult to answer when we turn to film shot ‘in the moment’ (and sometimes as a hideously staged moment of the horror). Helen Lennon carries the story forward from the Second World War tribunals to the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda in ‘A witness to atrocity: film as evidence in International War Crimes Tribunals’ in Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman (eds), The Holocaust and the moving image: representations in film and television since 1933 (Wallflower Press, 2005).   She discusses the need to interrogate, even ‘cross-examine’ the visual testimony, but she concludes with two questions that loop back to Nuremberg:

‘It is necessary to confront the question of what is not shown at these trials, asking: In what ways are these moving images directing our attention toward certain violations, and away from others? What is the law refusing to see when ‘[the film was then shown]’ and ‘[the videotape played]’?

These are still sharp questions, but it is possible to use documentary film in ways that are not evidentiary (in the legal sense) and which deliberately avoid showing ‘the horror’ – and yet still offer a powerful, critical perspective.  I’ve been watching the work of a remarkable group of Syrian film-makers – Abou Naddara (very roughly: “Man with glasses” or, since this is also slang, something like “Goggles”) – who use film both to document and to mobilize events in Syria through what they call ‘emergency cinema‘.   The group publishes a short film on the web every Friday here (also on Vimeo) and they are, of course, also on Facebook here.  These aren’t conventional documentaries, and they certainly aren’t the YouTube uploads that I imagine most of us have become (too?) familiar with: fuzzy, jerky, grainy shots of the fighting or the shelling.

Cécile Boëx interviews the group over at Books & Ideas here.  They explain that they were already  ‘lying in wait’ for the revolution:

‘… we took up the position of a sniper, lying in ambush behind apparently harmless short films distributed anonymously on the Internet in 2010. We were hoping to reach our public right under the censors’ nose. And our hopes seemed to be coming true, because a few months after our website went live, we had already found the means to produce two series of short documentary films that also had to be made more or less clandestinely. In short, we were already lying in wait when the revolution erupted in March 2011. We were even preparing another skirmish, strengthened by the public support we were beginning to receive. The question was not, therefore, whether or not we should get involved in the revolution, but rather how to do so, and what was the best approach to take. After a month of trial and error, we made what was to be our first very short weekly film, entitled The Infiltrators, a disparaging expression used by Bachar al-Assad to refer to the anti-regime demonstrators. The film portrayed an elderly Damascan artisan letting loose against the Assad regime in a monologue that showed the personal, deep-rooted resilience of the Syrian revolt.’

As these remarks imply, their primary audience is inside Syria, and their involvement in the revolution is directed, in large measure, at reaching those who support the Assad regime.

Despite the sniper imagery, their presentations do not treat violence as spectacle – usually they avoid its direct representation altogether.  In the interview they connect this to the conditions under which they are forced to work, but they also insist that these burdens produce a paradoxical freedom:

‘Our project is basically part of the tradition of original documentary cinema, as shown by most of our very short films offering sequences from people’s lives or extracts from interviews, which we choose to film with closeness and empathy. However, we are working in a state of emergency and are subject to constraints that may or may not be justified, including access to film sites, safety of those filmed, social developments or the state of the Internet connection. We can also say that we take pleasure in working in an emergency situation because we feel an unprecedented sense of freedom. And that feeling of freedom carries us from one register to another by happily blurring the boundaries, including the one that separates documentaries and fiction. Besides, that confusion is a general characteristic of our films (Everything Is Under Control Mr. PresidentMy name is MayThe Mufti Wants to…End of Broadcast). We make aesthetic and political choices that portray the way in which our reference points have been turned upside down by the revolution. It also conveys our pledge to represent our people’s enthusiasm by ensuring they are not reduced to stereotyped characters, places or formats.’

So this isn’t ‘film as witness’ in the sense discussed by Douglas and Lennon, and it’s profoundly critical of the way in which the mainstream media now demand ever more scenes of violence that violate the Syrian people all over again.  Here is a pointed example (the screen isn’t blank, and the video takes only two minutes – do watch it).

‘When there’s talk of a ceasefire, for example, they tell us “send us images of shots being fired.”‘

When I watch these short films – some of them so short that they may be visual tweets, I suppose, but they are all carefully composed – I don’t see a parade of heroes or victims, or any of the usual cartoon characters, but a studied indictment of the ways in which the visual and the violent can otherwise lock together: an insight that will be no surprise to readers of Paul Virilio‘s War and cinema (1984; Verso trans. 1989) or to followers of David Campbell who, among many other important contributions, underscores the close relationship between the gun and the camera. (What else did you think ‘shooting’ meant?)

For more on the films (and the tradition from which they derive) see Nehme Jameli here, and for brief reports that situated the project within the wider cultural politics of resistance in Syria see Donatella Della Ratta at al Jazeera here and Amélie Rives at Near East Quarterly here.

‘The terrain as medium of violence’

News from my friend and colleague Gaston Gordillo about his proposed paper for the Violence and Space sessions at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles next year.  An extract from the abstract (!) for The Terrain as Medium of Violence:

In this paper, I draw from [Eyal] Weizman and also from Paul Virilio’s work on violence and vision and Derek Gregory’s research on aerial bombing and drones to examine a key principle of a theory of the terrain: the decisive importance of verticality in the deployment of state violence as a three-dimensional vector. The history of aerial bombing and the recent rise in the use of drones reveal that the control of the skies and the atmosphere —and the speed and global reach their spatial smoothness allows for— has become fundamental to imperial power.
Yet the politics of verticality pose spatial paradoxes that can only be appreciated through the actual, tangible material-political terrains in which it operates. Contra the image of absolute deterritorialization it tends to evoke, the verticality created by drones is always-already subsumed to a spatial principle as old as warfare: that the ultimate aim of controlling a higher ground through towers, mountaintops, or the sky is to create a view from above to visualize, localize, and inflict violence upon targets located primarily on the ground. In short, drones patrol the skies not to control high altitudes per se but in order to control an opaque terrain below that limits the state field of vision. And despite their capacity for unleashing massive levels of destruction, drones reveal something else about the terrains of Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen endlessly scanned by their cameras: that imperial ground forces do not control those spaces. This political voiding of imperial space by local insurgencies is made possible by another ancient principle of guerrilla warfare: the fact that the mastery of heavily striated terrain (mountains, forests, urban spaces) by flexible and mobile forces allows them to avoid visual capture by the state and, in the long run, wear down and defeat more powerful militaries. The verticality generated by drones, in short, reveals not only the vast spatial reach of imperial violence but also the profound spatial limits it encounters amid the political and material striations of the global terrain.
More at Gaston’s Space and Politics blog here, with links to his other postings on these ideas and news of his book project, The After-Life of Places: Ruins and the Destruction of Space, forthcoming from Duke.  He promises more to come!
The Violence and Space sessions will evidently be very lively: Stuart Elden has also published his abstract, “Urban Territory: Violent Political Technologies in London and Kano”, on his Progressive Geographies blog here.
Horizontal notes on the vertical: I expect most readers will know of Eyal’s work on the politics of verticality, most obviously through his book Hollow Land: Israel’s architecture of occupation (2007 – paperback out this year), and Stuart has become interested in similar issues: see the video of his Secure the Volume: vertical geopolitics and the depth of power here.  Steve Graham has also called for a ‘vertical turn in urban social science‘: you can listen to it here, and read his essay with Lucy Hewitt, “Getting off the ground: on the politics of urban verticality”, in Progress in human geography (Online First: 25 April 2012) doi:10.1177/0309132512443147.  Enough to make you giddy.