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The Fog of War, Rediva

Fog of War12010-07-25 at 9.24.54 PM

The release of the “Afghan War Diaries” has been meet with expressions of outrage from both those who oppose the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan as well as the administration that must now lay claim to the war as its own, but truth to tell, very little has thus far been revealed that we didn’t already know … or at least could have reasonably surmised from the available evidence.

Although it began in the shadow of our occupation in Iraq, our presence in Afghanistan now marks the single longest military expedition in US history—bar none: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam … you name it.  Is it a surprise, in this context, that hundreds (if not thousands) of civilians have been killed or wounded under the sign of “collateral damage”?  Or that “friendly fire” has taken the lives of both US troops and its allies?  Or that there are special black-ops units that operate under “dubious circumstances” with “capture/kill” lists? Or that the microchip technology that was supposed to provide us with a “bloodless victory” has turned out to be less effective than we imagined?  Or that drone missions being executed by private contractors sitting safely before computer monitors in remote locations like Nevada are actually putting troops in the field at greater rather than lesser danger when they fail and have to be retrieved before the enemy finds them? Or that the Afghani military is underpaid and unreliable?  Or—revelation of revelations—the US military has misled the public regarding the sophistication of the weaponry being employed against us by the Taliban, such as the use of heat seeking missiles to bring down helicopters?  Or that Pakistan is not a trustworthy ally?  And on and on and on.

The fact of the matter is that we have been shown evidence of virtually every one of these concerns over the past, long, ten years and we have chosen not to see them.  Or perhaps the problem is that the reports of such incidents have been fragmented and piecemeal, and thus easily mitigated as “accidents” animated by human or technological error (take your choice), or rationalized as the “necessary and tragic” cost of a war fought to preserve our freedom.  Like the soldier in the photograph above, caught in the rotor wash of a MEDEVAC helicopter and thus incapable of seeing the landscape that is directly in front of him, perhaps we have been caught in the swirl of government and mass media reports—too often indistinguishable from one another—to the point of not seeing (or trusting) what is directly before our eyes:  a failed war that daily costs us ever more in dollars and human lives with no end or reversal of fortune in sight.

Eventually, of course, the dust will settle.  Perhaps this process has begun with the collation of this information in the Afghan War Diaries.  It now remains for us to actually see beyond the fog of war …  and to act appropriately.

Photo Credit:  Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Sight Gag: In the Name of Proper Deficit Spending

Credit: Clay Jones, Free Lance-Star

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

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Conference Paper Call: The Image


December 2-3, 2010

University of California, Los Angeles

The conference is a cross-disciplinary forum bringing together researchers, teachers and practitioners from areas of interest including: architecture, art, cognitive science, communications, computer science, cultural studies, design, education, film studies, history, linguistics, management, marketing, media studies, museum studies, philosophy, photography, psychology, religious studies, semiotics, and more.

You may submit a proposal to the Conference Review Committee for an In-Person Presentation, or a Virtual paper at the Image Conference. If your conference proposal is accepted you may submit a written paper to The International Journal of the Image. All proposals, presentations and papers must be in English.

The deadline for the current round in the call for papers is August 5, 2010.  Additional information is here.

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Sustainable Catastrophes

Let’s start with the obvious: who can name the movie?

Deepwater Horizon rig aflame

It’s a trick question, of course.  This fabulous sci-fi machine looming monstrously out of smoke and flame isn’t from a movie set. It’s the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in its death throes on April 22, 2010, two days after the explosion that started one of the worst environmental disasters in US history.  Life seems to be following art as this tragedy mimes an image and mood easily conjured out of popular culture, and not for the first time–recall how many people remarked that the planes exploding into the World Trade Center seemed to be a film rather than an actual historical event in real time.

Nor has this uncanny experience happened for the last time.  And the story that accompanied this photograph in the New York Times is one reason why we will continue to experience large-scale disasters.  To see why, we can begin by noting that photo had two captions: One was the small credit off to one side that said “Catastrophe” and then provided the literal details of what, where, and when.  The other was the large headline running the length of the huge photo filling the space above the fold: “Taking Lessons From What Went Wrong.”  Catastrophes, it turns out, have silver linings, as they are a spur to technological progress.  The rest of the article embroiders this idea, while also contrasting”engineers”–who agree such lessons are inevitable and valuable–against “environmentalists”–who apparently are not engineers and argue for discarding risky technologies rather than allowing them to “evolve.”  Unfortunately, “The history of technology suggests that such an end is unlikely.  Devices fall out of favor, but seldom if ever get abolished by design.”  With science, nature, and history on the side of the engineers, and a subtle association of environmentalism with the creationism and intelligent design movements, this one is a no brainer.

I could write a book about this article, as it is a line-by-line case study in ideological rationalization.  That’s not feasible at the moment, so let’s just back up a bit and then take another look at the photograph.  The article is, of course, absolutely right: that is exactly how engineering works, and well it should.  But we knew that, right?  The problem is that the Times is advocating that the society do exactly what the engineers are not going to do: “‘You don’t want to let a good crisis go to waste.'”  If the lesson to be learned is that technology is always getting safer, then the crisis has been wasted.  If all of the corporate and regulatory decisions that created the disaster–decisions that were made by neither engineers nor environmentalists–are hidden behind a screen of merely technical adaptation, the crisis will have been wasted.   And that is exactly what the Times is promoting.

Ironically, the story ends by quoting yet another expert, who intones, “‘It’s like our personal lives, . . . Failure can force us to make hard decisions.”  And that is exactly how it is not like our personal lives, as all the hard decisions are being ducked.  And so we might as well go to the movies.

The turn to fantasy, however, need not be an exercise in escapism.  One might ask, is there anything in the photograph that reveals some of the truth being denied in print?   The photo is not obviously radical, and it certainly also can contribute to enchantment, not least the blurring of fact and fiction that was part of the Times’ narrative.  But there are some clues: the behemoth rises up as if the embodiment of the technological imperative, an imperative that is is fully realizing itself as a gigantic, autonomous machine.  That embodiment is tragic, however: the machine is embattled with demons of its own making and dying a hero’s death.  Technocratic civilization rises up above its creators, only to crash amidst the flaming oil and gas that was its lifeblood.  To crash and burn, but boldly, gloriously, a last monument to its own epic grandeur.

That’s the movie, anyway.  Reality is less dramatic, but to the same end.  Were we to learn from the picture, the ultimate catastrophe might be averted.  Unfortunately, the narrative will dominate.  And it will dominate despite assuring us both that “‘it can’t happen again'” and that additional disasters are “inevitable,” that “investigatory findings will eventually improve the art of drilling for oil in deep waters,” and, well, “at least until the next unexpected tragedy.”

Thus, by putting text and image together, the truth is revealed.  Between the technological development that will in fact result from the disaster, and the artistry of the Times and many other propagandists spinning it down the memory hole, the opportunity for genuine societal adaptation will be lost.

The modern prophet Walter Benjamin once defined the critical moment as that point where the status quo threatens to be preserved.  In the same passage he also said what it was to have missed the opportunity: that was the definition of catastrophe.

Photograph credit: no credit was provided at the Times.  The Benjamin citation is from The Arcades Project (Harvard/Belknap,1999), N10,2, p. 474.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


How Do You Picture an Economic Problem?; or Why a Penny Saved is Not Always A Penny Earned

Ghost Town.wwln-1-articleLarge

When I came across this photograph in the NYT yesterday I was stopped in my tracks. The story that it anchored concerned “the way we live now” in an era of debt, but all I could think was that this is a picture of the late modern ghost town.  A shopping mall without shoppers … or for that matter, without shops or shopkeepers.  Instead of sage brush and weeds we have rubberized plants, and while the store fronts are not boarded up it is a fair bet that the building has been locked down to keep vandals and scavengers away, but the scene nevertheless evokes the eerie, spectral presence of the now absent, bustling commerce that once filled these halls.

In the days following 9/11 we were told that it was our civic duty to consume in order to keep the economy on its feet; the now prolonged recession makes even this limited civic responsibility impossible for many to honor; and for others, well, as the Times reporter notes, “it just [feels] better to owe less money,” and so rather than to spend many citizen-consumers have resorted to saving, or paying down their debt.  It is hard to blame individuals for the same strategy being exercised by banks who severely limit the money they are willing to loan in a “risky” economy or corporations who refuse to invest or hire—or for that matter, the strategy being counseled by Republicans who think that the solution to our economic woes is to limit spending (including on such items as extended unemployment insurance) while extending the Bush tax cuts.  But nevertheless, the effect of such thrift on the economic recovery is palpable.

The question is, how do you give presence to an economic problem, particularly when it is animated, at least in part, by a psychology of risk?  The photograph above does a pretty good job as it visualizes the problem (or at least the effect) in chicken-and-eggs terms:  what comes first the shoppers or the shops?  What the picture makes most clear is not the old saw that a “penny saved is a penny earned,” but rather its counter, that one needs to recognize what is entailed by being “penny wise and pound foolish.” The members of Congress in particular should pay heed.

Photo Credit:  Brian Urich/New York Times.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Sight Gag: House of Cards

Credit: Jack Ohman

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.


An Economic Model of Greed (Or, the Legacy of Gordon Gekko)


Before Deepwater Horizon there was Thunder Horse, a fifteen story oil platform that cost over $1 billion dollars to construct and was characterized as a marvel of modern technology.  According to then Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, “It is amazing that so large a structure … will have such a tiny environmental footprint, leaving almost no trace of itself in either the sea or the sky.” The photograph above shows it pitching in the seas of the Gulf of Mexico following Hurricane Dennis in 2005 before it had become fully operational. The efficient cause of its near sinking was not the storm however, but the improper installation of a check valve that “caused water to flood into, rather than out of, the rig when it heated during the hurricane.”  A simple enough mistake, perhaps, until we learn that the platform was hastily rushed into production “to demonstrate to shareholders that the project was on time and on schedule.”  And it was later discovered that the shoddy welding of underwater manifold pipes could have led to a catastrophe that would have made the current disaster seem small in comparison.

But there is more, for in the same year a BP refinery in Texas City, TX exploded, killing fifteen and injuring nearly 200 more.  And again, the cause was “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of BP.”  The next year BP was responsible for the leaking of 267,000 gallons of oil on Alaska’s North Shore. And yet, once again, the accident was foreseeable and avoidable.  In total BP ended up paying over $300 million dollars in fines.  No small amount until you compare it against their net profit for 2007 of $20.84 billion dollars (admittedly, a sharp decline from the previous year but more than enough to absorb the fines and still leave enough to pay investors a substantial dividend, aka, “the cost of doing business”).

There are two points to be made. The first and more obvious point concerns what the photograph above (and others like it from the Texas City explosion and the leak in Alaska) actually shows.  The evidence of the impending disaster of Deepwater Horizon was literally before our eyes at least as early as 2005, but we chose not to see it.  After all, progress entails bold risk, and where would we be without oil.  It is just the most recent iteration of modernity’s gamble, the wager that the long-term dangers of a technology intensive society will be ultimately avoided by continual progress.  Sure, safety is important, but … And as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, as we dole out fines that amount to little more than a slap on the wrist.

The second point is less obvious precisely because it is harder to visualize, and it is all the more important because of that fact:  the economic model that is driving such decision making is not guided by anything even approximating the rationality of free markets or the law of supply and demand, but by the same culture of greed that has driven the world economy to its knees in recent times.  As one British economist put it, BP was run like “a financial company, rotating managers into new jobs with tough profit targets and then moving them before they had to deal with the consequences.  The troubled Texas City refinery, for example, had five managers in six years.”  Without putting too fine of an edge to it, we’ve learned in recent times that that is no way to run the financial sector, let alone an oil conglomerate.

In the end, the photograph of the listing Thunder Horse Platform might be a proper visual rebuttal to Gordon Gekko’s now famous declaration, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

Photo Credit: NYT.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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Mythic Visions in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is not only a difficult military mission, it’s also a hard war to report on as well.  And for the same reason: you have a modern army trying to subdue guerrilla fighters in a desolate land for no clear political purpose.  The deployment of heavily equipped troops provides continual demonstration of enormous organizational and technological power, but with no identifiable enemies, territorial objectives, or sound strategic rationale the sense of things seems to drain away into the vast, almost lunar terrain.  In these conditions, some photographers have managed to tap into mythic visions.

Afghan patrol, Gurkhas

This photograph of troops on patrol was captioned to report that they are soldiers of the Royal Gurkha Rifles and Afghan National Police on patrol in Helmand province.  That information tells you very little, however, and not enough to understand either the image or the war.  Instead of reporting anything of note, the image evokes the mythic theme that war is eternal, and like other forms of eternity, a place where something elemental about moral life is revealed.

The patrol is moving out, two by two, across featureless terrain into some unseen, unknown future.  One figure is stopped for a moment, and the profile allows us to see the burden he carries.  Although he is equipped with a radio, he seems caught in silence, as are the others, their thoughts to themselves while everything else is reduced to being silhouettes.  We don’t know where they are going, but in the myth it doesn’t matter.  The long grey line continues forever, and they are simply carrying the load for their brief time.  They walk through history into the unknown, as good soldiers always do and always will, ennobled by their simple devotion to duty.

Like I said, it’s a myth.  I won’t deny it entirely, but I will note that it can expand into full sentimentality because there is so little in its way, and because mythic significance becomes especially appealing when no other, more pragmatic rationale is available.  Whatever the photographer’s intention, something deep has been evoked by this image.  What could be a parable of military activity without purpose  evokes instead a sense that war is, if not an end in itself, something close to that.

Myths are used to make sense of large forces that exceed understanding.  Mythic allusions may be particularly available in images of Afghanistan because there is a deep need to make sense of something that is becoming increasingly senseless.  It has dawned on me that I now have several posts that identify various mythic projections infiltrating the optical unconscious: how the war is a form of extreme sport, or Afghanistan a new frontier.  In each case, media culture digs into its storehouse to put up images that imply some otherworldly yet familiar narrative.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the image above does double duty in this regard, as it also could be a scene from a sci-fi movie where the heroes head out from their craft to explore a dry, unforgiving planet.  And so you can imagine my reaction when I saw this photograph:

Afghan night, stars

This photo of the night sky over Camp Hansen in Helmand province is a stunning image of the firmament, so much so that I can feel the pull to go there and see the heavens so close, bright, vast, and deep.  But I see something else as well: another mythic vision, this time from science fiction.  Camp Hansen could be perched on some distant planet, a small outpost of humanity now flung across the stars.   Across the stars, but still at war.

Photographs by Bay Ismoyo/AFP-Getty Images and Hyunsoo Leo Kim/AP/The Virginian-Pilot, thanks to The Big Picture.