Volume 7, Number 2 (July, 2010)
(Media), War and Postmodernity(?)
David W. Hill
(Department of Sociology, University of York, United Kingdom).
A review of Philip Hammond (2007). Media, War and Postmodernity. New York and London: Routledge, 2007.
Working from Baudrillard’s observation in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place that postmodern war is “the absence of politics pursued by other means” (1995: 30), Philip Hammond sets out to explore the nature of post-political conflict against the backdrop of the postmodern collapse of grand narratives.
After a short introduction framing the post-9/11 debates as a culture war between conservatives and postmodernists (the former arguing that this catastrophe heralded the return of the real and the end of irony, the latter arguing for its Hollywood-style hyperreality), Hammond sets out in Chapter One the main argument of the book: that postmodern war is an effect of the crisis of meaning after the end of the Cold War. It is in this sense (only) that war is said to be postmodern: it is waged without relation to a grand political project. There are no longer any grand political projects. As such, writes Hammond, war becomes “opportunistic and reactive, responding to perceived threats and crises rather than acting in accordance with some strategic project” (16). It also becomes risk averse as governments realize that the populace will not countenance casualties without cause. Hammond eschews talk of high-tech war as a fundamental feature of postmodern war, emphasizing instead the uncertainty from which the Gulf War was waged in 1991.
Chapter Two develops this theme of uncertainty and collapse of values, sketching attempts by the West to rediscover meaning through humanitarian intervention. These interventions – Somalia and Bosnia are Hammond’s examples – were equally opportunistic and reactive, attempting to demonstrate, through self-conscious media presentation, a meaning and purpose that no longer existed. Hammond argues that this project was doomed to failure; whilst the humanism of old was about the progress of mankind though a system of strong values, this humanitarianism was merely concerned with the survival of a threatened human species through weak values: “The humanitarian spectacle, in other words, was a symptom of the crisis of meaning, not a solution to it” (58). It was not a return to the grand political project but rather the management of the present.
This attempt to rediscover meaning is shown in Chapter Three to continue through to the so-called “War on Terror”, a war, exemplified by the action in Iraq, “driven by the felt need to create the ‘right’ image” (60) – one of purpose and mission. Hammond highlights the choreographing of images and messages by the Western leaders and the military, and the media pack’s ironic remove and constant mocking. Once again, this quest for meaning is undermined by “the insubstantial and vacuous character of contemporary politics” (63), which leads to the over emphasis on image and presentation and, in turn, to cynicism. The public-relations friendly presentation of war fuelled the assumption that it was staged. Hammond is at pains to explain that this was by no means a unilateral manipulation of the media by the military, as many journalists were mostly too happy to go along with the choreography, making the war in Iraq “a triumph of media-military synergy” (70).
In Chapter Four Hammond goes back to the Vietnam War to trace the origins of the crisis of meaning. It was after Vietnam, he suggests, that America stopped aspiring to grand projects and was reduced to managing the present. It was also around this time that the postmodernists abandoned the grand narratives of the Left, disillusioned with its failure to build on the radicalism emerging with regards to Vietnam. At the end of the Cold War, instead of triumph, the West fell into crisis, no longer able to define itself against an antagonistic ideology. It is in this (loose) sense, that Hammond says the West became “postmodern”, that is, that there was a collapse of grand narratives. In Chapter Five Hammond then rewrites this state of affairs in the language of “risk society”, arguing that the management of the present occasioned by the collapse of grand narratives is the same as the risk management discussed by certain sociologists (Giddens, Beck, etc). As such, the politics of risk management is non-politics. After a lengthy discussion of various International Relations theories on state sovereignty, Hammond concludes in Chapter Six that the West has redefined sovereignty as responsibility, in the sense that non-Western states are no longer understood as sovereign but as to be held to account – a situation that Hammond describes as ethics not politics.
Hammond’s reading of Baudrillard is somewhat “reductionist”, in the sense that he condenses the latter’s thought into sober distillates appropriate for the approach taken here – itself sober and scholarly. Of course, it is advisable not to approach Baudrillard’s work at face value but some readers may find the interpretation here somewhat brutal. For example, Hammond writes: “Baudrillard couched his argument in terms of a loss of ‘reality’, but this should be understood […] as the political exhaustion of Western societies” (51). In essence, the whole of The Gulf War Did Not Take Place is reduced to the observation that postmodern war is an effect of the crisis of meaning in politics. This is, of course, an important observation of Baudrillard’s but it is one among many in so slim a tome. Hammond finds no place for a wider discussion of the hyperreality of postmodern war or of Baudrillard’s other major works, for that matter. (The Spirit of Terrorism is discussed briefly in the introduction.) Hammond fleshes out this one observation with historical detail, analysis of newspaper/broadcast news reports and arguments from International Relations.
The “postmodern” dimension of the book may well prove frustrating for the postmodernist reader, a response that Hammond anticipates – but for the wrong reasons. Hammond predicts that postmodernists will complain of his use of postmodernism, his pilfering of ideas but intellectual distance from the movement. In fact, this is fine and Hammond is to be commended for approaching postmodernity earnestly. However, it is never apparent that in approaching he ever arrives at what postmodernity is. He writes that, after Jean-François Lyotard, he takes postmodernism to be incredulity towards metanarratives – and then seems to have no more use for Lyotard (or David Harvey or Fredric Jameson for that matter). Besides the oft quoted definition of postmodernism – and Lyotard bettered this anyway in The Inhuman when he described postmodernism as “rewriting modernity” (Lyotard 2004: 24) – there is no further engagement with postmodernism or its key texts, other than Hammond’s repeated statements that postmodern war can be explained by the collapse in grand narratives and that this is postmodern, and his conflation of postmodernism with “the death of the subject” (Derrida, Foucault, etc.: more poststructuralism than postmodernism). More than this, he never goes beyond postmodernism. Hammond’s intellectual distance from postmodernism is a result, he says, of its inability to move beyond critique and become something positive; but in his conclusion there is nothing to suggest how we might go beyond this. All he will commit to is the opaque claim that although politics is dead “actual human subjects are still alive” (153). The implication, then, is that we retain the power to affect change – but how we might do this is wholly absent. Of course, this is not a political manifesto but it seems somewhat inconsistent to use postmodernism to critique, criticize it for offering “only a limited critique” (8), and then to go no further beyond that critique.
Throughout the book, Hammond is concerned with what is “new” about postmodern war, allowing him to dismiss advances in technology as core properties of postmodern war since these do not represent a radical break with modern war. As such, the key insights of Lyotard – the informationalization and commodification of knowledge – or of Harvey – technological time-space compression – are omitted. However, it is never clear quite why there has to be a radical break – and there is no such radical break between modernity and postmodernity anyway, hence “rewriting” – nor why technological advancement is seen to be inconsiderable. Why is the technological speed of contemporary warfare unimportant if it arguably transforms the phenomenological experience of warfare? Or the technologies of war and of the media themselves: are they inconsequential if they mediate experience? Hammond disregards these because there have always been technologies and propaganda in war. Well, yes: but they have developed. There is no radical break between modernity and postmodernity – only a rewriting – and so, by extension, no radical break between modern war and postmodern war. The developments are important. How is the notion of war being rewritten by its technological conduct and coverage, we might ask? Hammond does not.
As a result of this stance, the book focuses more on the conflicts themselves than the technologies – media or military – that mediate and transform them. This is a logical consequence of Hammond’s stated intention to describe “realities” rather than to theorise technologies, and his contention that the loss of politics rather than the rise of the machines is what characterises postmodern war and postmodernity in general. The result is that large swathes of the book read like International Relations, adding scholarly detail to the discussions of conflicts but perhaps deterring those attracted to the book in the first place by its title.
This book may not be of interest to media theorists who follow Marshall McLuhan’s advice that “the medium is the message/massage”, and so who are more concerned with how media transform (or “massage”) content than with what journalists have to say about conflicts in various newspapers or news broadcasts (this being Hammond’s approach here). Postmodernists may struggle to find anything to grapple with since there is no real engagement with postmodernism, other than its “sound-bite” definition. Hammond’s presentation of Baudrillard’s thought, though sympathetic, seems to lack the vitality of Baudrillard’s work; though such sober exposition is merited, it loses what Sylvere Lotringer calls the “extrapolationist” quality of texts such as The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, which is to say, through its distillation it loses its immediacy and – why not? – its sense of dangerous fun or “stupid gamble” (Baudrillard 1995: 28). Still, Hammond’s text is a well researched and cogently argued analysis of war in the post-political aftermath of 1989.
Jean Baudrillard (1995). The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Indiana University Press.
Jean-François Lyotard (2004). The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Oxford: Polity.