Volume 9, Number 1 (January 2012)
Books About Baudrillard
Baudrillard Reframed [London: I. B. Taurus Press, 2011]
(Sociology and Gender Studies, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia)
Chapter Four: Screens
The realms of film, television and the virtual held a fascination for Baudrillard. A self-confessed film fan, he has spoken about the magic appeal of the cinematic experience and often refers to movies when illustrating his theories. He has discussed Pleasantville (1998), Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and The Truman Show, starring Jim Carey (1998), to make a point about the transparency of the screen (2005:198-99). In one of his best-known books, Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard looks to 1970s disaster film The China Syndrome (1979) as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s war classic Apocalypse Now (1979) to demonstrate the operations of the reality effect. His later writings are littered with references to popular films as diverse as The Piano (1993), Being John Malkovitch (1999) and Minority Report (2002). Television and computer screens also rate a mention. How could they not, given Baudrillard’s reputation as feeder of the popular zeitgeist with his journalistic observations on all manner of cultural, social and political issues from Formula 1 racing and the fatwa on writer Salman Rushdie to ‘mad cow’ disease and the chess machine Deep Blue.
Amidst this preoccupation with the happenings of an ever-changing world, what is it about the screen that interests him so much? In this chapter I want to explore Baudrillard’s thoughts on the role of images relative to electronic media, focusing specifically on reality TV and the depiction of war in the news media and Hollywood film – areas that he has commented on at length. In doing so, the ideas and concepts presented in this chapter span a wide range of Baudrillard’s books and articles, from early works like the essay ‘Requiem for the media’ in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, through to some of the last essays he wrote on terrorism and globalisation before his death in 2007. In order to better understand what Baudrillard has written about screen culture, it is useful to explore some of his theories of mass media and communication technologies. Concepts like the ‘non-event’ and ‘the murder of the Real’, as well as Baudrillard’s interpretation of the voting process, are explained here. Although it is impossible to cover every aspect of what Baudrillard has written about the electronic media in one chapter, I do think that a selective overview of his key writings can help illuminate and clarify his approach to screen culture, which is especially relevant given the importance of television, film and digital images to the visual arts.
Initially inspired by Marshall McLuhan – the commentator who gave us the catchphrase ‘the medium is the message’ – Baudrillard extends this proposition to evaluate what happens to individuals and societies when visual technologies like film and television become central to human communication. Neatly explaining his position, Baudrillard says,
The ‘message’ of TV is not in the images it transmits, but the new modes of relating and perceiving it imposes, the alterations to traditional family and group structures. And we may go even further and say that, in the case of TV and the modern mass media, what is received, assimilated and ‘consumed’ is not so much a particular spectacle as the potentiality of all spectacles ( 1998).
This approach should be fairly familiar by now, given that our explorations of art, fashion and advertising so far have stressed that Baudrillard’s methodology is quite different to that of other analysts of visual culture. Rather than focusing on the content of images and their interpretation, he is more interested in reflecting on how images circulate, as well as their forms and effects in contemporary culture.
With the exception of his 1984 lecture-turned-book The Evil Demon of Images, Baudrillard doesn’t spend much time distinguishing film as an experience or technology that is different to, say, television or computer games in its mode of communication. What he is more concerned about is observing how the distinction between these forms is eroding in the information age, and what this means for our sense of reality and illusion – especially in terms of the role images play in fostering our construction of these categories. Although we could accuse Baudrillard of not fully defining how the moving images he discusses differ from each other in terms of their audiences, formal and spatial aspects, or content, he is consistent in understanding each of these forms as no longer distinct from reality but of belonging to the order of hyperreality. That is, according to Baudrillard, television, film and computer screens don’t just reflect a reality that is somehow separate from the ‘real’ world, but become our reality. The common thread that runs through Baudrillard’s study of images on the screen is his preoccupation with the illusion of the world, and the consequences that arise when illusion – as well as reality – disappear.
II. Reality TV
Even though June Deery describes reality television as ‘the dominant new TV genre of the 21st century’ (Deery, 2004:1), it was way back in the 1980s that Baudrillard identified and discussed the cultural significance of this now ubiquitous genre, making him one of the earliest commentators to do so. Baudrillard’s main claim is that reality TV, or what he calls at times ‘TV verité’, tells us more about the operations and effects of television and the mass media in a hyperreal age that it does about the private world of others. To illustrate his point, he discusses the Loud family, who were filmed over seven months and their lives watched by millions of Americans during the 1970s ( 1994). In later writings, he turns his attentions to Loft Story, the French version of the reality TV phenomenon Big Brother (see especially “Dust Breeding” and “Telemorphosis” in 2005 and “The Violence Done to the Image” in 2006).
What Baudrillard finds intriguing about these cases of reality TV is the hype that they generate, despite the fact that audiences are watching quite ordinary and often boring daily situations. In wondering why so many people are captivated by the banal routines of others, he poses various theories for our obsession with reality TV.
One aspect of reality TV that is particularly appealing to Baudrillard is the way that it mixes up, or complicates the distinctions between the audience and the event, or the observer and what is being observed. Whereas once we considered the pictures on the TV screen as separate from what was going on in our living rooms, it seems that now we can’t be so sure. For reality TV to exist, ‘the viewer has to be brought not in front of the screen (he has always been there, and that is indeed his alibi and refuge) but into the screen, taken to the other side of the information set-up’, Baudrillard tells us (1996). In an interesting twist, Baudrillard likens this interactive ‘playing out’ of reality TV to Duchamp’s ready-mades to argue that ‘we have all become ready-mades’ in the sense that when an object or individual is taken out of one context and placed in another, an ambiguity, as well as a nullity, is created by this transference. Duchamp’s bottle rack, for example, turns art – which was once revered as unique and different from ordinary things – into something mundane. Reality TV resembles the readymade in the sense that it kills off the distinction between once knowable categories. In doing so, it makes reality a useless term for explaining our existence relative to images – just as the readymade renders an everyday object useless by elevating it to an art form. Baudrillard argues that putting the viewer into the screen creates an excess of reality that complicates the divide between television and reality to the point where what television presents us with is an ‘ultra-reality’.
What’s more, every viewer is a potential reality TV contestant, who by virtue of existing is fully qualified to participate in a series of Big Brother. Just as audiences watch ‘real life’ on the screen, someone is watching them on CCTV monitors connected to strategically placed cameras in the city square, the shopping precinct and the airport. Webcams go even further by bringing the surveillance camera into personal spaces like the bedroom and living room. They allow for the documentation of a person’s actions in the privacy of their own home and their circulation in real time across computer networks. It seems that the whole world can be visualised, making us all potential stars of the screen, whether we like it or not. Nor do we have much say in the matter. As Baudrillard observes in The Perfect Crime, the fact that we can be filmed anywhere and anytime without knowing it turns us into ‘actors in the performance’ (Ibid.:26). More often than not someone is around who can take video footage with their mobile phone and then post it on YouTube. Online satellite maps like Google Earth allow your home to be located and viewed from anywhere in the world. You may be online, watched by millions and never be aware of your virtual presence. And it is when our existence is mediated through screens that we question the once concrete distinctions between television and life. Reality TV realises the ‘dissolution of TV in life, dissolution of life in TV’ ( 1994:30).
In explaining this erasure of distance, Baudrillard insists that ‘There is no separation any longer, no empty space, no absence: you enter the screen and the visual image unhindered. You enter your life as you would walk on to a screen. You slip on your own life like a data suit’ (2002:177). This erasure is fuelled by reality TV’s attempts to make the scenes that we are watching look unstaged, unscripted and natural. Its methods obscure the fact that what we are watching is an illusion. Programmes like Big Brother do this by hiding those elements that might suggest we are viewing an artificial construct. These elements include cameras that record the contestant’s every moves behind mirrored walls, and the use of regular people, rather than popular actors, in the Big Brother house. That said, the spin-off series Celebrity Big Brother complicates this idea even more by implying that watching famous people during their private moments will reveal insights into what they are ‘really’ like. Elements like these give the appearance of an indistinctness between life and the screen, along with a hyper visibility that seems better than or realer than ordinary existence.
Another related point that Baudrillard makes about reality TV is that the spectator has a new role in the viewing process – that of judge. When the hosts of Australian Big Brother proclaim that ‘YOU have the power to decide’, they are referring, of course, to the interactive voting process so common in TV competitions like Big Brother, Dancing with the Stars and the worldwide Idol franchise. When the viewer at home takes part in determining the outcome of the competition by voting for their favourites and voting off those they don’t like, the relationship between the subject and the media changes. The viewer doesn’t just passively watch the screen but seems to become involved in the events being portrayed in a way that affects the outcome of the programme. Some media analysts applaud this trend, seeing it as proof that TV audiences are not lazy, unresponsive and disengaged consumers but active participants in the TV-watching ritual (Meers, VanBauwell and Sofie, 2004). Taking a different stance, Baudrillard suggests that the increasing interactivity between the viewer and the screen (which also includes the Internet, video games, multimedia etc.) actually diminishes any distance from which the viewer might cast a moral judgement. Through interactivity, the viewer is no longer outside the screen. Instead, practices like voting implicate the viewer in the event to the point where they actually play a part in determining its outcome. Baudrillard claims that ‘The television universe is only a holographic detail of global reality. Down to our most daily existence, we are already in a situation of experimental reality. And that is where the fascination comes from, from immersion and spontaneous interaction (2005:182).
While a process like interactive voting complicates the perception of television as a one-way form of communication that transmits information to a passive receiver who can’t respond, what is important to note here is that Baudrillard doesn’t think this gives viewers any more power or agency. For Baudrillard, the televisual emphasis on participation, interactivity and media convergence makes it harder for audiences to escape the media sphere. Rather, whenever we text to vote off an annoying housemate, post our thoughts on a blog or take part in an online opinion poll, we become more and more immersed in communication technologies, to the point where the subject and the masses become part of the information circuit. This becomes a problem for Baudrillard when these technologies demand our immediate attention. Because they don’t allow much room for contemplation or critical distance, Baudrillard thinks that we are losing the art of meaningful communication or dialogue. So the interactive voting that is often championed as a form of audience participation is recast as a kind of non-response by Baudrillard.
Baudrillard has spoken about the electoral system in these terms, claiming that a referendum-style ‘yes’/‘no’, ‘accept’/‘reject’ format abstracts the process of communication by narrowing it down to a set of pre-determined responses ( 1981:171). This idea can be applied to TV polls and voting processes, where the response is already there for the voter – the answer has been decided in advance by the question posed to the viewer. When the programme’s host asks ‘Who should be evicted from the Big Brother house?’ audiences can only vote for the few options they are given. Because feedback is fixed within an already existing pattern (housemate A, B, C etc.), any attempt at communicating something different, spontaneous, original or beyond this predetermined set of answers is impossible. What this means is events like public-opinion polls and audience voting give the appearance of individual empowerment and democracy but actually create its opposite – indifference. As with the case of art appreciation discussed in Chapter 2, audiences are aware of how popular-opinion polls work, so they become complicit in a game of call and response, in which the polls ‘no longer really ask questions and masses…no longer reply’ (2002:189). Both just play along with the semblance of communication. It’s a kind of staging of communication or a simulation of a response, if you like. After all, who really cares whether housemate A or B is voted out – nothing is really at stake, nothing much will change in the Big Brother compound. The show must go on. Baudrillard interprets this audience non-response as a strategic tactic used by the masses to beat the system at its own game. The more fixed the questions and answers TV polls throw at us, the more mindless and random responses we instantly flick back.
On another level, Baudrillard considers reality TV programmes like Big Brother to be typical of the tendency towards visualising everything – from the mundanity of brushing one’s teeth to the equally personal intimate whispers between housemates as they lie in bed after dark, picked out by night-vision cameras. What we are consuming is not just the content of these shows, but access to what we perceive to be a hidden reality. Baudrillard refers to this as a ‘forced visibility’, which he argues is typical of how all images circulate nowadays, and when ‘everything is given to be seen, we discover that there is nothing left to be seen’ (2003a). It would be wrong to think that we accumulate more information about contestants on Big Brother by seeing dimensions of their private lives that we might not otherwise be privy to – how they take their tea, their naked bodies, the way they put their socks on. For Baudrillard the opposite is true. The more we see, the less we know. If we accept Baudrillard’s take on how the media works, then the truth behind the image will always elude us because there isn’t one. Baudrillard explains that we can never know absolute reality because the seemingly unscripted, unmediated and entirely transparent nature of reality TV is in fact an ‘artificial microcosm’ or ‘human zoo’ that can only give the illusion of a real world. The problem is that we don’t know it’s an illusion because any semblance of illusion has been eradicated by hyper visibility of the scene, which seems too real not to be true. We are watching a simulation. And as we know from the first chapter, one of the key conditions of hyperreality is too much information.
Baudrillard has used a number of terms to describe this phenomenon across his writing. What he calls the ‘murder of the Real’, the ‘zero degree’, ‘obscenity’, is characterised by a disappearance that comes about because there is too much of everything – we are saturated by an endless parade of images, ranging from the banal to the explicit, which seem to come at us from everywhere and all the time. This notion of disappearance is quite different to conventional thinking, whereby disappearance is associated with something being absent or lacking, and the obscene elements of culture are often censored, prohibited and marginalised. Baudrillard’s vision of the world is one where everything is transparent and made visible. This pushes society to the point where it reaches an ecstatic state typified by an overload of information, data, signs, interpretations and opinions (1990:11). Big Brother assaults us with too much reality, which generates more information in the form of online blogs, the show’s website, 24-hour live streaming on the Internet, numerous opinion pieces and articles in the popular press and wider media, as well as academia. Being bombarded with so many images and texts across a range of media risks taking us to a point where nothing is left to the imagination, resulting in very few instances of genuinely novel situations, new encounters or fresh perspectives. When every possibility is exhausted, when all scenarios have been imagined and played out, the potential for secrecy is all but eradicated. Baudrillard thinks that this excess of meaning manages to violate the image because any ability that images once had to capture the mystery and illusion of reality is shattered when everything is made visible to us.
III. Virtual War
The violence that is done to the image in contemporary TV formats can also be said to play out in war imagery. Arguably, Baudrillard’s most controversial and topical writing is on postmodern warfare and its representation in the mass media. Yet well before he began contemplating depictions of the Gulf War or the attacks on the World Trade Centre and its aftermath, Baudrillard wrote about the visual documentation of the Holocaust. Prompted by a 1970s TV drama of the same name, Baudrillard questions whether television can ever truly capture the horror of an event like the mass genocide carried out by Nazi Germany during World War II. Unlike critics who think that these types of TV reconstructions serve as reminders of the atrocities of war to prevent them being replayed (except on the screen, it seems), Baudrillard suggests that television can’t provoke fear and revulsion commensurate with the scale of this event. Sure, it may give viewers a sense of ‘being there’, but they are hardly in danger when taking it all in from the comfort of their living rooms ( 1998:34).
More radically, perhaps, Baudrillard likens the fictional reconstruction of the Holocaust to the gas chamber. Both technologies annihilate lived experiences, emotions, memories and history. In the case of television, the event is recast through dramatic portrayals that aim to get us closer to the truth of the situation but instead create the opposite effect of distancing us from the actual event. This experience of distance isn’t one of being alienated from a supposed ‘truth’ that is hidden behind ‘false’ images. What Baudrillard is talking about is more like being saturated with so many images that we can’t determine what the original is anymore. It is this consumption of events like the Holocaust from a distance – retrospectively as well as through a sea of images – which makes television a ‘cool’ technology, as opposed to the ‘hot’ immediacy and singularity of the moment of war, which is lost when it is filtered through media networks ( 1990:161).
Sometime later, Baudrillard returned to exploring the effects of media portrayals of war in a series of controversial articles about the Gulf War. Respectively titled ‘The Gulf War will not take place’, ‘The Gulf War: is it really taking place?’ and ‘The Gulf War did not take place’, together they provide a useful assessment of the impact of televised images on Western perceptions of contemporary warfare. Although news and fictional images of earlier wars have been screened on television (like the Holocaust drama mentioned above, or footage of the war in Vietnam or the Falkland Islands), the Gulf War was unique for the vast amounts of live media coverage it generated. It was a war depicted in ‘real time’ on our TV screens. In a more general sense, Baudrillard’s response to this media moment can tell us something valuable about the changing nature of images and their role in a media-ted world. His notion that we are moving away from the actual towards the virtual as our dominant mode of conceptualising reality gives visual-arts proponents a way of understanding how images operate in the electronic age.
What does Baudrillard mean when he says ‘the Gulf War did not take place’? And what part have images played in generating this perception? It can be argued, as a critic like Christopher Norris does, that Baudrillard turns a blind eye to the fact that lives were lost and horrendous damage and destruction caused by this seemingly ‘virtual’ war. He accuses Baudrillard of paying more attention to virtual images than the material reality ‘behind’ the virtual images (see Norris, 1992). The general view – one shared by Norris – is that the Gulf War did take place. It involved real people and real events and to suggest that it didn’t happen because lots of the footage shown on television looked like a computer game is absurd. Other critics, namely Victoria Grace, William Merrin and Paul Patton, reject Norris’ reading as way off the mark. They defend Baudrillard on the grounds that he is observing a new type of warfare driven by electronic media and virtual images, rather than simply saying that nothing happened.
Baudrillard highlights that what is occurring in our current media landscape is a case of ‘exchanging war for the signs of war’ (2006:62). War has become virtualised in the sense that our understanding of it is filtered through media footage that is put together to provide the semblance of a real event. Because of a lack of images to act as evidence that the war was occurring, networks instead created the perception of war by televising a steady stream of ‘talking head’ experts, graphs and maps, intelligence reports, night-vision footage of missile attacks, and opinion polls. As far as Baudrillard is concerned, these media tactics did more to construct a vision of the war, than to actually report on events as they occurred.
Looked at this way, Baudrillard isn’t necessarily ignoring the suffering of war, but criticising the construction of the war via media images, which denies our perception of the event and distances us from it. In fact, Baudrillard is at pains to note the obscenity of this virtualised mode of war, which did not seem to effect discernible change to the global order or ensure the safety and well-being of Americans, Kuwaitis or Iraqis, despite the death and destruction it generated and the widespread media coverage it elicited. So it is in the context of war being eroded under the weight of its own image that Baudrillard claims ‘the Gulf War did not take place’. It is also important to recognise, as Baudrillard does, that the Gulf War wasn’t like those of the past, where troops faced each other on the battlefield or in the air, each with a shared idea of what war meant and involved. War as we once knew it is changing: ‘war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract, electronic and informational space’ ( 1995:56). The enemy appears at a distance as a computerised target, allowing for smart bombs, heat-seeking missiles and other devices to be engaged from the computer screen. Under these circumstances, one has to wonder where war is taking place and who the enemy is. A war conducted in virtual space also makes it harder for media to ‘prove’ that war is happening through the use of photojournalistic images, hence the reliance on the signs of war by news outlets. At the same time, the abstract and indeterminate nature of contemporary warfare makes it harder to discern when a war is over, as the following section on the ‘non-event’ illustrates.
One of the most useful insights Baudrillard offers us to understanding the changing nature of the moving image is the idea of the ‘non-event’. Television coverage of the Gulf and Iraq wars is a good example of the non-event, as it is conceptualised by Baudrillard. Like TV news reporters who arrive on the scene of a disaster before emergency services, the Iraq War traded in such moments. Take the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein from its pedestal in central Baghdad. Aided by US soldiers, this seemingly spontaneous gesture of Iraqi freedom played out with the cameras rolling. The ease with which TV news cameras managed to document what was claimed to be an unprompted and spur-of-the-moment act became the talking-point of the news media. Speculation about the staging of this moment for television and news media came to overshadow the actual event. In other words, television no longer simply reports on events, it becomes an event in itself – and then reports on it.
For Baudrillard, it is when television attempts to erase any temporal or spatial delay between the event and its coverage that the actual situation risks being subsumed by the TV moment, ‘lost in the void of news and information’ (2006:122). When a banner proclaiming ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’ was displayed behind US President George Bush in 2003 to accompany his declaration of the end of major combat in Iraq, most of the subsequent media debate involved speculating on the truthfulness of this claim rather than reporting on the end of the war. The supposed information provided by the government and media can be understood as an attempt to generate the event – making the Iraq War end by visually and verbally sending us the message that it has ended. By anticipating the end of the war, its potential conclusion becomes a non-event, upstaged by Bush’s pre-emptive message. In this sense, the semblance of victory is more important than actual victory, which is harder to pin down in a visual depiction. Instead, the end of the war is anticipated and eclipsed by media images like the broken statue of Saddam Hussein and the ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’ banner. The tendency Baudrillard is describing here isn’t confined to television news reporting, though. This situation – where the medium starts to generate events instead of depicting them – is a problem that affects television and other broadcast forums more generally, from reality TV to Internet streaming.
At the same time, the Iraq War was a non-event because it was based on preventing Saddam Hussein’s regime from using against the West weapons of mass destruction that were never verified to have existed. This pre-emptive gesture precedes the event, so that ‘the crime is nipped in the bud on the strength of an act that has not taken place’, and thus stops a possible event from occurring (Ibid.:118). Baudrillard cites the Steven Spielberg film Minority Report to demonstrate this point, alluding to the role police play in the film to arrest criminals before they commit an offence. Problem is, there is no way of knowing whether the situation would have played out as predicted if the intervention had not taken place. But the non-event isn’t just about preventing things in the future, but also works retrospectively, as is the case with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which ‘aim to defuse the terrorist event of 11 September’ through eradicating the enemy, and in turn, the humiliation, death and suffering that ensured from the twin towers attacks (Ibid.:119). These descriptions show that the non-event isn’t a case of nothing happening, but of trying to make something happen before it actually occurs.
While the wars in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq are deemed ‘non-events’ by Baudrillard for the reasons outlined above, he puts September 11 in another category altogether. He considers the destruction of New York’s twin towers to be one of the rare instances of what he calls an ‘absolute event’ in contemporary culture, because what occurred on that day is outside the realm of pre-existing frameworks of understanding (2003). It could not be predicted or foreseen. It was utterly catastrophic. When the images of September 11 flashed up on our TV screens ‘how many of us first thought, somehow, this must be the movie channel’ (McMillan and Worth, 2003:120). How else could we possibly make sense of what we were seeing? What we tend to find, however, is that these moments of rupture are swiftly reabsorbed into the hyperreal mode by the media. The attack conforms in many ways with the non-event in the sense that it was instantaneously beamed around the globe in real time to audiences who avidly consumed an ‘image event’, described here by William Merrin:
The crucial moments and footage of the plane’s explosion, the fireball’s growth and the tower’s collapse and spreading dust clouds were continuously repeated, blurring temporality: As Sky News unnecessarily added, relishing the detail, ‘slow motion pictures reveal the full force and horror of the crash…’ (Merrin, 2005:102).
At the same time as recognising the hyperreal nature of September 11, Baudrillard concedes the unintelligibility of this event by noting that while the CIA had intelligence pointing to the possibility of a terrorist attack, even they couldn’t predict something like this occurring – ‘It was beyond imagining’ (2006:133). This kind of event – one that can’t fit into our known frames of reference, which forever changes the way we perceive the world – is what Baudrillard describes as a singularity. How can such an act be matched? Surpassed? Responded to? It is a force that Baudrillard claims is hardly present anymore, as he observes in his study of art, which like the media non-event, seems to only replay what has come before.
IV. Post-September 11 films
News coverage of war on the small screen has its complement in Hollywood portrayals of America’s military involvement in the Middle East and its after-effects. After a series of Gulf War films, which included Courage Under Fire (1996), Three Kings (1999) and Jarhead (2005), came those dealing with US occupation of Afghanistan (Lions for Lambs ) and most recently the Iraq War. In the latter category we can single out Home of the Brave (2006), Redacted (2007), In the Valley of Elah (2007), Battle for Haditha (2007) and Stop-Loss (2008) as distinct, for their focus on the personal cost to American soldiers on their return to civilian life. Generally, the moral of these stories is that the consequences of war come home to roost. Most of these movies are based on actual events and seek to expose the failure of the US invasion of Iraq at home and abroad. They explore the how war has damaged individuals, families and communities without eradicating the global threat of terrorism. Interestingly, very few of these films were critical successes and most were written off as box-office flops. Even though Brian de Palma, the director of Redacted, believes that ‘The pictures are what will stop the war. If we get these pictures and stories in front of a mass audience, maybe it will do something’ (Corliss), up until now his strategy doesn’t seem to have worked so well. And if audience reception to this type of movie is anything to go by, interest in visual depictions of the war in Iraq is waning at a rate that inversely correlates with their escalating production. This phenomenon was picked up on by American comedian Jon Stewart in his opening speech as host of the 2008 ‘Oscars’ ceremony:
Not all films did as well as Juno obviously. The films that were made about the Iraq war, let’s face it, did not do as well. But I’m telling you, if we stay the course and keep these movies in the theatres we can turn this around. I don’t care if it takes 100 years. Withdrawing the Iraq movies would only embolden the audience. We cannot let the audience win.
Like former president George W. Bush’s decision to stick with an unsuccessful and unpopular war, the continual assault on cinema goers with unsuccessful and unpopular cinematic portrayals of the war in Iraq doesn’t appear to be drawing more fans. Nor can we register a discernible shift in people’s perceptions and attitudes toward the war as a result of these films.
How do we make sense of this strange irony? After all, there appears to be a general consensus that war is hell and suffering continues for those involved long after the fighting has ceased. And despite their lack of mainstream success, why shouldn’t these movies play a part in helping us better understand the dire effect and realities of war? I’m pretty sure Baudrillard would not disagree on either of those counts. Possibly, we could put it down to audience taste, or maybe just concede that these are ‘bad’ films, although what counts as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ film is highly debatable. And anyway, who’s to say that ‘bad’ film-making equates to box office-failure? Perhaps the answer lies beyond a judgement of the quality of these films to attract audiences. Baudrillard’s style of thinking can come in useful here because it asks us to reorient this question so that we consider images in another way – that is, beyond aesthetics, taste or critical interpretations (a point that I have stressed in earlier chapters). Rather than questioning whether these films present an alternative ‘truth’ about the ‘war on terror’, or considering their relevance to better understanding the hidden effects of war on ordinary people – an approach that Baudrillard would consider as revealing very little about the operations of images in contemporary culture – a Baudrillardian focus would question why these moving pictures have generated such an indifferent response, especially given the topicality and gravity of the subject matter being portrayed. His theories can help us account for the failure of these films at this particular time.
One of the ways Baudrillard suggests we can explain this kind of indifference is to think about how this group of films contributes to the virtualisation of war, and what kinds of reactions this shift from the actual to the virtual generates. The 2007 release In the Valley of Elah, directed by Paul Haggis, offers a neat example of the consumption of war – and its traumatic after effects – as a sign. Constant reference to the screens of information and communication technology throughout the film is one mechanism by which the movie screen itself is virtualised, or put another way, utilised to create a sense of reality. Right from the outset, it is made apparent that personal communication technologies are a central component of the film’s narrative, plot and form. For a movie that claims to be inspired by actual events, these devices give the semblance that the viewer has access to an alternative account of the war in Iraq – a reality that is usually obscured by all the gloss and spin of mainstream media.
The film begins with some undecipherable visual footage. Its fragmented and pixelated grain makes it seem as though we are watching a corrupted digital file or a scratched DVD. This footage appears at various points throughout the film, hinting at the circumstances yet to be deciphered. This uncertainty drives the movie, which revolves around the disappearance of a soldier gone AWOL shortly after returning home to the United States from a stint in Iraq. The soldier in question is Mike Deerfield, whose father Hank receives a phone call about his son’s disappearance in a scene just after the opening sequence. Immediately after putting down the telephone Hank checks his email for news from his missing son, then calls him on his mobile. No word from Mike. What we can be certain of, however, is the film’s reliance on the virtual screens of the mobile phone and computer to reconstruct the pattern of events surrounding Mike’s disappearance.
In another early scene we see Hank watching news coverage of the war on television. This public version of events can tell him little about his son’s experiences, his predicament and his whereabouts. A retired military policeman, Hank takes matters into his own hands, stealing his son’s mobile from the army barracks where he was last seen and getting the phone analysed in the hope that he can retrieve enough data to find out what happened to his son. It seems that the video files on Mike’s phone are corrupted. What little the technician can retrieve is incomplete and damaged, although vision of American troops playing football with Iraqi children is discernable. Presumably, it is Mike’s unit. It is now apparent to the viewer that the grainy, broken-up footage at the start of the movie was from Mike’s phone. The technician offers to unscramble the rest of the data and email each file through to Hank. It will take a while we are told, hence setting the pace for the unravelling of events throughout the film as each bit reveals another piece of the puzzle of Mike’s experiences in Iraq.
To get to the bottom of this mystery, Hank relies on more images – this time some digital photos Mike had taken and sent to his parents – documenting his tour of duty. He scours this ‘evidence’ for clues, with little luck. Any hope of finding his son alive is shattered when Mike’s burned remains are found and Hank finds himself poring over forensic photographs of his son’s charred body. Soon enough Hank receives more digital footage from Mike’s phone, which, along with other sources of personal documentation he collects, enables him to eventually piece together the truth about what went on in Iraq and the circumstances leading to his son’s death. It turns out that Mike was killed on American soil, in cold blood, by the soldiers who had been his friends. Yet Hank isn’t vengeful when he uncovers the truth. The cruel realities of war that Mike captured on his phone explain to Hank (and the viewer) how individuals become desensitised to human suffering through the experiences of warfare.
There are certainly resonances here with Baudrillard’s observation about Apocalypse Now being a case of war becoming film and film becoming war. Similarly in a movie like The China Syndrome, from 1979, Baudrillard makes the point that the film generates the effect of reality by constructing everything outside of the screen as ‘real’. We can see a similar things happening in a film like In the Valley of Elah. By relying on ‘documentary’ evidence in the form of digital photographs and video footage, the screen serves to provide us with an alternative version of events, a personal narrative of the effects of war that is distinct from the ‘official’ line proffered by the military, politicians and the media. The virtuality of these films pivots on the use of unmediated images – digital data whose function is to act as a form of proof, hence imply the ‘truth’ or actuality of the trauma of war from the perspective of an insider.
Furthermore, the use and depiction of virtual screens of personal communication technologies on the cinematic screen operates to downplay the film’s status as a fictional reconstruction. It attempts to represent a reality, to offer another vision or version of events. The way that this is undertaken through the use of digital devices is significant. The film-makers could have drawn on other filmic conventions like flashback scenes to convey to the audience Mike’s experiences. By documenting the soldier’s account of the war, as captured by do-it-yourself forms of communication, those once personal or unknowable situations that soldiers go through are made visible. Any of the uncertainty or mystery of what happened in Iraq, as well as what occurred to Mike once he went AWOL, is fully exposed to the viewer. War is understood via the process of making once-private information public through interactive and virtual information technologies. By letting the viewer into the insider’s world of war through mobile phone video, emails and alike, the movie generates the sense that we are witnessing a side of war otherwise ‘hidden’ from view.
In this scenario, we are not simply consuming the story being represented in the film, but the mediums by which the content is being represented. Any message these films might convey ‘disappears on the horizon of the medium’ ( 1987:23). What ensues, Baudrillard suggests, is a situation whereby the image can no longer mediate between representation and reality. Images become our reality of war, not a representation of it. Baudrillard concludes that the image’s ability to act as a representation is denied by its lack of differentiation from reality when the image telescopes with reality. Daily life for a soldier in Iraq becomes cinematographic – their intimate experiences are made accessible to everyone in an act of over signification that leaves nothing to the imagination. As a result of watching screens within screens the trauma and suffering brought about by war is experienced as information.
So while one could argue that the indifference of an audience to these films could simply be put down to ‘war fatigue’, a Baudrillard-inspired interpretation suggests another cause. If we take it to be that case that images are what generate our reality, then it is more accurate to call this a case of ‘image fatigue’ or ‘reality fatigue’. Instead of convincing people of the injustices of war through the portrayal of American soldiers returned home, an excess of reality in the form of immersive virtual technologies has created indifference, which is the opposite effect to that intended. For Baudrillard, cinema is no longer an ‘enchanted universe’ that generates a sense of illusion by being different to reality (Ibid.:52). Baudrillard calls for a return to illusion as an antidote to the ‘integral reality’ we are experiencing, and which he claims creates an indifference to images of suffering. In the cross-over from illusion to disillusion, the image has lost its critical function. This is the violence that is done to the image. The question he leaves us with is how do we reinstate the power of the image? And is it even possible?
V. Screened Out
Screened Out (2002) is the title of one of Baudrillard’s books. An apt one, I think, given the changing nature of images in an age of instantaneous and pervasive electronic media. What is the fate of the image – and the subject, for that matter – when everything becomes screened out? And where does this leave the visual-arts scholar, critic and practitioner when one can no longer speak about ‘representation’ on the screen as something different to ‘reality’ outside of the screen? Baudrillard shows us how these distinctions become complicated in the information age. Through his writings about various modalities of screen culture, Baudrillard provides us with a way of analysing the role of images in the mass media in terms of an ‘ultra reality’. Instead of understanding televisual, filmic and computerised images as illusions that reflect or represent reality, they are recast by Baudrillard as our reality. This is in part due to instantaneous forms of media like reality TV and live news footage of the war, which chip away at conventional notions of time, space and distance. When television itself rather than what it depicts becomes the focus, television loses its function to provide information. What we get instead, as with the case of the Gulf War, is television that promotes information to construct an event.
This confusion has been helped along by the convergence of media forms. As we see in the case of Big Brother, programming isn’t confined to the TV set. We can also watch the show on the Internet via webcasts that are streamed live 24 hours a day. Often, controversial events that are edited from the daily programme later appear on YouTube, as was the case with the notorious ‘turkey slapping’ incident that occurred during the sixth season of the Australian franchise. It involved a female housemate being held down by a male housemate while another rubbed his genitals over her face. Even though the incident happened in the early hours of the morning and did not appear on television, those watching the live Internet feed certainly saw it, and it was subsequently made available online to watch, generating an enormous amount of traffic once the event was picked up and reported by the media, including TV news. What this incident tells us is that we don’t just watch the TV screen for entertainment anymore. Instead we turn to the Internet to make sure we don’t miss a second of what is going on with reality TV contestants, and to follow up on issues and events by getting online and trawling for more and more information. Like the point made in the previous chapter about the embedding of ads in TV shows, the visual examples discussed in this chapter illustrate the changing way we watch moving images when once-neat distinctions like those between the television and the computer screen, or between editorial and advertising content, are blurred.
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