Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Jihad and American news media

Like the two bloggers before me, I was particularly struck by Keenan’s assertion that, rather than following or recording an event, the camera actually creates it. In the case of the clips he showed us, not only is the destruction of a humvee specifically staged for the camera (as Christina points out)—the camera actually legitimizes and substantiates such isolated acts of terror by assuming an audience of likeminded viewers and linking those viewers through internet spectatorship and the mediation of the forum. In this sense, then, the camera is Jihad: it creates the battle (staged terror attacks), the army (the network of spectators), and the reason for fighting (a unified front against the enemy depicted).

I can’t help but agree with Keenan that this appropriation of what was supposed to be democratic technology, the hand-held camera and the internet, is the most disturbing aspect of the Jihadist movement. Jihadist media destroy the all-important myth of the digital as Enlightenment—technological autonomy=individual freedom=universal access to knowledge—which has framed discourse about the internet for the past 20-plus years (think the MCI commercial, distributed networks, the “digital divide,” etc). This notion eerily echoes Keenan’s commentary about the indifference to media coverage of Bosnia: “What is lost in Bosnia is nothing less than the Enlightenment, and with it the discovery of the public sphere as the site where knowledge and action are articulated.” Where the American public sphere has failed in its inability to support images with ideology (in order to produce action), the Jihadist public sphere has succeeded. The “ideal public sphere,” as Keenan called it in his lecture, actually functions against the principles of Enlightenment.

One thing I wish Keenan had addressed (and wish I could have stayed to ask him about) is the relationship between amateur footage, that of both Islamic terrorists and American soldiers, and the mainstream news media. The “CNN effect” that Keenan addresses in “Live From…” and “Publicity and Indifference” seems obsolete in the Iraq War—yes, there are embedded journalists, but CNN and other news networks just aren’t showing the images of this war, at least not the nitty-gritty, everyday images that documentary filmmakers, youtubing soldiers, and terrorist groups show. We could attribute this mainstream (visual) silence to the political ambiguities of the war: this isn’t a case of trying to arouse humanitarian sentiment, as Somalia and Sarajevo arguably were, and the moral and political grounds of our engagement in Iraq are intensely controversial. We could say that the images of the war are too disturbing for a middle class American audience, but since when has that been a problem? Those arguments seem a little too easy, and I’m not quite cynical enough about the media yet to argue that they are just bending to the powers that be by not showing the public what’s going on. After all, that notion assumes that images would necessarily inspire us to act; and we have already seen that this assumption no longer holds up. Furthermore, in what seems like a total reversal of the way authority is typically structured through images, the news networks now rely on video produced by terrorists (messages from leaders, hostage video) for their most salacious content—their biggest stories. If this is a “war of perceptions,” a war of images, the armies of Jihad are holding the cameras and in control. This seems like a total shift in the landscape of news media and image-production and dissemination, and I wonder what it means for our ability to engage in and shape public discourse. If the camera is now Jihad, can we envision an enlightened public sphere?

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