Virtual Geography: Living with Global Media Events

Virtual Geography: Living with Global Media Events

by McKenzie Wark


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253208941
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 11/22/1994
Series: Arts and Politics of the Everyday Series
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

McKENZIE WARK lectures in the Masters program in International Communications at Macquarie University. He co-edited flesh and Leftwright, and his essays on communication and culture have appeared in Cultural Studies, New Formations, New Statesman, Arena, Art & Text and Impulse. He is a columnist on cultural studies and higher education for The Australian newspaper and a regular broadcaster on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio National.

Read an Excerpt

Virtual Geography

Living with Global Media Events

By McKenzie Wark

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1994 McKenzie Wark
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-36349-7




Dateline: Baghdad, Thursday, 23 August 1990. Iraqi television shows President Saddam Hussein sitting in a television studio surrounded by fifteen British citizens. These people, now hostages, were residents of Iraq and Kuwait when Iraq invaded its Gulf neighbor. Saddam Hussein appears in a suit and tie with a little white handkerchief neatly folded in his left breast pocket. The Iraqis allow the foreigners to talk to their families while the rest of the world looks on. They listen as Saddam explains that the Western media have misrepresented the situation. "In the past few days," he says, "I have come across articles published in the Western papers urging President Bush to strike Iraq and actually use force against Iraq despite your presence here." Responding to a mother s worries about her child's education, Saddam offers to send "experts from the ministry of education." Putting his hand gently on the head of seven-year-old Stuart Lockwood, he remarks, "When he and his friends, and all those present here, have played their role in preventing war, then you will all be heroes of peace."

While the broadcast appeared on Iraqi television, the program seemed entirely aimed at a Western audience. Western media picked it up quickly and broadcast it around the world the next day. It drew instant and predictable official and media responses. British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd called it the "most sickening thing I have seen for some time." Rupert Murdoch's English tabloid press dubbed Saddam Hussein the "Butcher of Baghdad." The American State Department called this event "shameful theatricals." A "repulsive charade," said the British Foreign Office.

More than moral outrage at the hostage-taking fueled this response. Two rather more elusive factors emerged in this extraordinary attempt at direct political communication along the media vector between widely differing cultural sites. One was that Saddam Hussein confounded our most cherished beliefs about the genres of television and the kinds of stories they legitimately tell us. Looking like a cross between Bob Hope and Geraldo Rivera, Saddam appeared to Western viewers as a demented talk-show host, in gross breach of the etiquette even of "reality television," where only crooks, pimps, prostitutes, and unscrupulous used-car salesmen may be treated to raw acts of intimate verbal violence on camera. Or perhaps the format of the program looked uncomfortably close to Oprah Winfrey on a bad day, talking about bondage or child abuse.

This offense to contemporary American sensibilities was compounded by another, much older and deeper one. Saddam Hussein unwittingly presented us with a repetition of an ancient and fearful superstition about Arabs, and what Slovenian psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek calls the threat to our sense of national enjoyment. "We always impute to the 'other' an excessive enjoyment; s/he wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our way of life) and/or has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment."

The "fundamentalists," the only adherents of Islam one ever hears about, fall into the first category. The Iranian revolution, that otherwise unintelligible blow to the forward march of "modernization," was the fault of the fundamentalists, who not only stole the pleasures of the modern consumer way of life from the Iranians, but threaten us, too, with hostage-takings and other high-profile media events. That sacred libation of our everyday enjoyment was at stake here: oil.

Until now, Saddam Hussein had in this scheme of things been "our" Arab, a "moderate," not an "extremist." As such he could be accommodated. When Saddam complained to the then American ambassador, April Glaspie, about a report on Voice of America radio critical of human-rights abuses in Iraq, the ambassador informed him that its author had been sacked from the State Department. "Moderate" means, in other words, that the official story will moderate the worst abuses of tyrants who are compliant allies, so long as they remain as such.

When the Western television news and the front pages of the newspapers carried the close-up of Saddam Hussein's hand stroking the Lockwood boy's head, he changed character in the "Orientalist" vision the West has of the Middle East. Orientalism is a legacy of the colonial days, a collection of stories in which, as Edward Said says, it was axiomatic that the "attributes of being Oriental overrode any countervailing instance."

Saddam Hussein touching Lockwood forced Western viewers to place the gesture in a frame of cultural reference. He did not appear to be a Muslim "fundamentalist," a denier of pleasure. In the absence of any other cultural memory of images of the Middle East, the focus on the gesture of touching encouraged the viewer to read it in terms of the other legacy of Orientalist story.

His hand on that boy's head connects not the prohibition on enjoyment enjoined by the cartoon fundamentalists of journalistic cliché, but its opposite. From Wilde's Salome and Flaubert's Saiambo, to Burroughs's interzone of Tangiers and Trocchi's Carnal Days in the sultry sun, there is another string of stories of excessive enjoyment, of "harems, princesses, princes, slaves, veils, dancing girls and boys." Not least of which, the mythic story of the Arab pederast, which turned up most recently in the film Gallipoli. A scene contrasts "our" Australian soldier-boys buying prostitutes ("normal enjoyment") with the hint of Arabs buggering little boys (excess). This is the flip side of the story about the puritan fundamentalism of Islam: the Arab "whose libidinal energy drives him to paroxysms of overstimulation."

When Saddam Hussein opened a vector of communication to the West, he obviously did not have these Orientalist fantasies and fears in mind. They are only absurd Western fantasies, after all. According to Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal, Iraqi television frequently pictured Saddam kissing babies during the war. "This had succeeded in Iraqi terms, and officials thought they could make it work internationally, but they were wrong." Akbar Ahmed, a Moslem scholar at Cambridge, likewise reads the image in terms of how he thinks the dictator's own people would respond. "In his culture an elder, or figure of authority, often displays affection to children by patting the child or tousling the hair. It is socially approved and appreciated." Even a dictator must practice the political arts of affect. He must tap the common font of feeling with actions and images which cultivate popular acquiescence to his rule. Only at home he gets feedback on how his message goes over from the secret police. In the international arena, there is no such closed loop to confirm and confine meanings.

The trouble starts when one opens a vector between cultures which are not usually in communication with each other and taps the affective responses of peoples one knows only through other images, transmitted along other media vectors. The audience has to decide whether to read the image in terms of "our" frame of reference, or in the frame of what we know about the other. What we know about the other of the Middle East is mostly fantasy: images of our unspoken fears and desires, projected onto a few scraps of landscape and decor, costume and legend collected by long-dead travelers of the imagination.

The problem compounds when an Arab dictator speaks to those Western populations brought up on Orientalist understandings of the Middle East of Western manufacture. As Edward Said says, "The entire premise was colonial: that a small Third World dictatorship, nurtured and supported by the West, did not have the right to challenge America, which was white and superior." It is not just that the other place is a refuge for our lost desires and fears. Built into the spatial mapping is an assumption of the marginality of the Middle East, a zone which, in our presumption, is beyond the bounds of the only moral and reasonable law — "ours." This presumption is not as frankly spoken today as it was in the old world's colonial heyday. The vector creates enough contact between places to create a sort of narrative prudence. Underneath, the assumptions are much the same.

One can, and must, critique such vile cultural presumptions, which is what Edward Said does. One must critique the distortions perpetrated by the American media and the damage this does to American democracy, as Douglas Kellner does. One must speak the truth about the imperial designs of the American state and their effects, as Noam Chomsky does. One must use theory as Avital Ronell does, to explore the perverse logic by which America needs to create a theater of operations, in which it attempts to localize and cauterize foreign bodies, unknown pleasures, addictive creeds. I trust those tasks are in numerically few but trustworthy hands. All around what Paul Gilroy once called the "overdeveloped" world there are people working tirelessly and painstakingly, in the wake of the event, to put the vast slew of flotsam thrown up by it into the sort of perspective the more reflective time of critical writing provides.

What is lacking, particularly in the voluminous reflections on the Gulf war coming out in the United States, is a writing about the kind of global media trajectories capable of producing such an event. Sure, there are criticisms of the American media coverage of the war. That is not what I mean. The criticisms, even good ones, are part of the same matrix of relations that produced the spectacle of the Gulf war in the first place. Many of the things conveyed in what George Gerbner calls the media's "instant history" of the war were distortions or outright lies. Quite a few people know that now. How do we know? Through other media. Slower and more considered media, like articles in the highbrow monthlies, or earnest, truthful hour-length documentaries, but media all the same. Both the dangers and our ability to do anything about them tie into our everyday experience of the vector. It is that experience that this book is about.

Through the Looking Glass

I'm lying in bed with my lover and the cat, watching TV, when this hostage thing spews out of the TV at me. By a strange accident of geography, the NBC morning news program is shown in Sydney, Australia, around midnight. So here we are, a cozy domestic scene, lapping up the sweet with the bland, suddenly invaded by hostages and threats and urgency and Bryant Gumbel. Neither of us is really watching the set at the time. It just happens to be on, a boring interzone of banal happenings, vectoring into our private space. I think it is the word "hostage" that trips me into actually paying attention. I watch with an unwilling fascination, trying not to let myself submit to this distasteful but canny image. That's when I see something curious: the medium close-up where Saddam Hussein touches that boy. A dictator caresses his hostage in our bedroom. The report gives the impression that the hostage show-and-tell talk show was a long one, but it's those few seconds of the dictator and the boy that made it into the vision mix. The tape is many generations old, blurred and pixelated, but so too is the Orientalist story it revives from the dead. Curiouser and curiouser. At the next commercial break, I pull on an old track suit and head out the bedroom door. "Where are you going?" my lover asks. "To work," I say. "To work."

So here I am, making coffee with the radio on in the middle of the night. Eating a big feed of avocados from the tree in the back yard. Warming up the computer. Setting the video recorder rolling. Opening some new files. I put on some music, something minimalist and basic. The radio and the TV are too distractedly fascinating. A line from a song leaps into the interzone to comment, "Radio birdman, up above. Beautiful baby, feed my love...." I need loud music to drown out the silence of the war.

I turn on the heater in the study — it gets cold in Sydney in August. I could smell trouble. I could sense an event coming on. Months later, I could close the door to this study, with its mountains of old newspapers, videotapes, photocopies with coffee-cup rings all over them. By then, this private zone of disorder would look like a pathetic tribute to the carnage in Baghdad. This little room would become a monument made out of trashed information, jerry built concepts, and emergency rations of toxic espresso and vodka, neat. By then I would realize that I had been writing about this fucking gulf since 1987. I have been diving into each and every looking-glass war on television since then.

On that cold August night in 1990, there was already a strange familiarity about it all. With the unfolding of the hostage crisis, the Gulf war as an event can be said to begin. It is a difficult thing deciding the start and end of a media event. It is even more difficult still distinguishing the features of events that are purely media effect from those that might come to have more lasting significance in quite other forms of discourse — in history, in diplomacy, in political struggles, in popular memory.

The processes through which popular memory records these events in everyday life may not be the least important level at which they have effects. How do you remember the Gulf war, or the fall of the Berlin Wall? So much information about so many occurrences, all streaming into our waking life and our dreams, as if from a world beyond. So much of the memory resources we all rely upon to think and act are encoded elsewhere, in the languages and institutional bunkers of the media's archives. It is no small matter, then, to learn how to use these strange memories that exist, inexplicably, outside our heads.

Memories have progressively become thinglike; objectified in electronic archives, invisible traces on magnetic tape, alongside the more familiar storage forms of books and papers. Michel de Certeau suggests that we need to rediscover an art of memory, but where? Memory resides within the electronic archive, within the space of the media vector. The vector lobs instant images like Saddam touching Lockwood into our living rooms, tossing potential memories our way. We have to find ways of using the media record of power strategies like these. We have to use that record as a tool, as a resource for inventing the tactical moves necessary to outwit the cunning of mediated power. The media spectacle, particularly the quixotic events that seem now to happen with increasing frequency, might form the raw material for such an art of memory. After the Gulf war, this much is obvious.

The most characteristic feature of events is that they expose us to our own ignorance of the world. Events, willy-nilly, thrust unexpected sense upon us from a new viewpoint. Faced with an event like the Gulf war, one can say, with Montaigne, "I am free to give myself up to doubt and uncertainty, and to my predominant quality which is ignorance." Of course, after the event disappears, it may seem to all make sense again. The hole ripped through the narrative fabrics and media swaddling will be gently patched up again. That is why it is important to recall exactly how it felt when Saddam Hussein appeared on TV with his "guests." One should be cautious, however, about attempts to construct scientific sense out of either the text that passes along the vector, or the responses of the audiences that the vector composes.

French semiotician Roland Barthes pointed to something in this respect: "From a musical game heard on FM and which seemed 'stupid' to him, he realises this: stupidity is a hard and indivisible kernel, a primitive: no way of decomposing it scientifically (if a scientific analysis of TV were possible, TV would entirely collapse)." Rather than attempt to penetrate to the kernel of the media event, I treat it here as a primitive, an ineluctable core. One could attempt to exhaust the Gulf war as an event with analysis, but the resulting analysis, like most which approach their objects with the suspicion that the truth lies hidden in them somewhere, will be interminable. Perhaps theory needs to find a pace and a style that allows it to accompany the event, but without pretending to master it.

Satellite Feed

Where do events come from? Do they fall from the sky? Yes they do. From the radio birdman, up above, from the comsat angels in orbit overhead, or thrown from a truck onto the ground in front of your local newsstand. Critical journalism scholar Ben Bagdikian points out that these vectors whence we get the information to form an ongoing map of the world and its events become increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer corporate hands. These corporate owners are increasingly integrating diverse media holdings to more profitably coordinate print and audiovisual flows. Over the last decade, the number of companies controlling the vast bulk of American newsprint shrank from twenty to eleven. Which is bad enough, but in Australia, the major press owners are basically three. An American citizen, Rupert Murdoch, controls 70 percent of Australian newsprint. No matter how many channels we can get, our main news feed comes from few hands indeed.


Excerpted from Virtual Geography by McKenzie Wark. Copyright © 1994 McKenzie Wark. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Site #1
Victory Arch, Baghdad: terminal sights...terminal sites
1. vector
2. event

Site #2
The Berlin Wall: from roots to aerials
3. wall
4. site

Tiananmen Square, Beijing: seeds of fire
5. intersection
6. lines

7. noise
8. crash!


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