image: University of Chicago Magazine - logo

link to: featureslink to: class news, books, deathslink to: chicago journal, college reportlink to: investigationslink to: editor's notes, letters, chicagophile, course work
link to: back issueslink to: contact forms, address updateslink to: staff info, ad rates, subscriptions


  Photography by
  Dan Dry


  FEATURES
  > > Wealth of notions
  > >
The remains of the day
  > > A new Chicago seven
  > >
Beyond the bomb
  > >
The life and tomes


 


The remains of the day
>>The War of Images

Images are not just representations but weapons of war. The fearsome head of Medusa that adorned the shield of the warrior goddess Athena was designed to paralyze the enemy. Achilles's shield was forged by Hephaistos with all manner of imagery to dazzle and overawe his opponents. The image of a wooden horse was offered as a treacherous gift to the Trojans, and the Roman legions were led into battle by a standard bearing the image of the eagle. Even the image-shy Israelites fashioned a golden calf to "go before" them as their idol and symbol of national unity as they prepared to enter the Promised Land and conquer its inhabitants.

PHOTO:  The Remains of the Day

Modern warfare is no different, and insofar as its strategies are augmented by mass media, the war of images has become even more important than in ancient times. The massive show of force designed to intimidate the enemy is just as important as the actual destruction of armies. The battle of propaganda images designed to mobilize patriotism and war fever, and to demonize the enemy, has become a staple feature of modern war. Photography, cinema, and television-the very media technologies that create and circulate spectacular images of war-were first developed, as French critic Paul Virilio has shown, in conjunction with the media technologies of actual warfare: radar, sonar, surveillance photography, rapid-fire weapons, smart bombs, electronic battlefields. All these technologies have converged in the modern world in what has been called the "military-entertainment complex." Video games, flight trainers, and the Internet have created a world equipped to project a simultaneously experienced global ensemble of images. It has also created a world remarkably vulnerable to the use of terrorizing images. These are images that produce a feeling of nameless, invisible dread, as if to look on them were already to be infected by them.

Certainly the suicide bombing of the World Trade Center produced just such an image. And it should be clear that the whole point was to produce an image, a spectacular show of the way the two great symbols of modernity-the skyscraper and the airplane-could be turned against each other, fused in an explosive image of power and vulnerability. I know this is a cold-blooded way of talking about it, but we must recognize this act for what it was: a deliberately fabricated spectacle, targeting the world's dominant financial and military institutions. The 5,000 souls that went up in fire and ashes were simply collateral damage from the terrorists' point of view. I'm sure the terrorists bore those people no personal ill will. They just had a job to do (though it's unlikely that all of them knew what it was). We must be equally cold-blooded if we are going to understand the new kind of war we are in.

What is the new war of images? It combines all the high-tech capacity for mass destruction with an infinite variety of tempting and vulnerable targets and provides a mediasphere (TV, newspapers, radio) to circulate images of every trauma throughout the global nervous system. Real events are promptly rendered imaginary, fantasmatic; rumors abound. The pinpoint attack on the World Trade Center produced an unparalleled spectacle of destruction that will be engraved in the collective consciousness for generations to come. The economic aftershocks, the use of the postal system for bioterrorism, the effect on key industries like the airlines and insurance, gave the event a continuing ripple effect, even as its initial impact built on resonances with a host of "precessionary" images, especially in Hollywood disaster films. The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen got into great trouble for calling September 11 "Lucifer's greatest work of art." Stockhausen said this too soon, when people were still reeling from the trauma and unable to reflect on the truth of the observation. Who ever thought that art could only be used for good ends? The arts of evil and of war are both alive and well, and we have now seen a new wrinkle: the suicide artist as techno-terrorist, capable of blending invisibly into civil society and using all the technical resources of the modern world against it. How will we deal with this new threat?

As I write in early November, the U.S. is conducting a traditional war of images. It has already personalized and demonized the Luciferian artist, Osama bin Laden, rendering him as an enigmatic archdemon to most Americans, while elevating him to heroic status among Islamic fundamentalists. (Recently bin Laden's words-his speeches and faxes-have been censored in the U.S. press, so he becomes almost purely iconic, a silent figure of Evil.) At the same time, a considerable show of force has been mustered, and thousands of tons of bombs have been dropped on one of the poorest, most desolate countries in the world. The military significance of the bombing is highly dubious. Local observers seem to think it is having little effect, except to mobilize the country in support of the Taliban dictatorship, and create thousands of refugees. But the effect on the home front has been the main target-to show the American people that we are serious about this, and we will wage war as long as it takes to smoke out the Evil Doers. Judging by the polls, this strategy is a popular one, but its popularity could rapidly fade as winter approaches and the futility of the whole exercise becomes apparent. That is the trouble with a war of images. You had better pick the right one in relation to your real capabilities, or you will wind up looking foolish. Even a "success" (such as killing bin Laden) could wind up being a failure at the level of image-war, since it would only make him a martyr, even more powerful as a dead icon than as a live enemy.

The other traditional strategy (or perhaps it should be called a reflex) of the U.S. war of images is the unfurling of the flag. This is probably a good thing in that it gives people a way to give collective, social meaning to a trauma, to express solidarity with those who died on September 11, who were no more or less "innocent" than the rest of us. From another point of view (the terrorists'), the mustering of the flag must seem a bit pathetic. The replaying of World War II images of patriotic dedication and sacrifice is obsolete and actually plays into the hands of the enemy. It's as if the attacks had tied a tin can to the tail of a very large and aggressive dog who is now spinning in circles chasing its own tail, trying to get at imaginary enemies and threats that continually outrun it. When there is no determinate enemy, when "terror" is the enemy, mobilizing national energies and passions is as much part of the illness as it is part of the cure. Think of the alarmist warnings about attacks on bridges, or the unspecified "alerts" which are merely another form of ineffectual image-warfare, an attempt to show that our government is on the job and forestall blame if and when something does happen. None of these warnings did anything to make us safer-quite the contrary. Nor did they (so far as we know) prevent anything from happening.

The deeper trauma mediated by the flag is its immediate appropriation by the state and the ruling political party in the U.S. The flag becomes a rallying point for the silencing of dissent and criticism in the name of national unity. Its status as a sacred icon will no doubt come out of mothballs very soon, and a constitutional amendment will be passed declaring it a crime to burn or desecrate the flag. It's not clear how many other legislative actions (more tax cuts, bailouts for corporations, infringements on civil liberties) will be railroaded through on flag-draped freight cars. But the flag will certainly be used as a veil to shield our eyes from the reality of our situation-not just the devastation in Afghanistan but the entire history of U.S. foreign policy and our refusal to learn from mistakes.

We should be imagining a different scenario, mobilizing a different arsenal of images to fight the invisible enemy. Imagine, for instance, Osama bin Laden not as Satanic Icon, but as a real person, on trial with his associates before a court bearing the authority and the images of all the national flags represented in the United Nations-a special tribunal on international terrorism, charged with policing and controlling this threat on behalf of the entire world. Islamic law would be strongly represented in the imagery of this trial. It would send a message to the entire world that when we say "we mean business" the "we" is not only the U.S. and its allies, but all of us-the human race, insofar as it is capable of imagining a global political order. "World government" is an image that has been generally dismissed as utopian. Maybe it's time to bring it back-along with a global crusade to end poverty, racism, sexism, and war-in the name of the survival of the human species.


W. J. T. Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelley distinguished service professor of English and art. Editor of the journal Critical Inquiry, Mitchell is known for his work on the relations of visual and verbal representations in the context of social and political issues and is the author of, among other works, Picture Theory (Chicago, 1994) and The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon (Chicago, 1998).


Ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain:
Just War versus Holy War

Iconologist W. J. T. Mitchell:
The War of Images

Philosopher Jonathan Lear:
"Why do they hate us so much?"

link to: top of the page 


  DECEMBER 2001

  > > Volume 94, Number 2


  CLASS NOTES
  > > Class News

  > > Books
  > > Deaths

  CAMPUS NEWS
  > > Chicago Journal

  > > College Report

  RESEARCH
  > > Investigations


  DEPARTMENTS
  > > Editor's Notes

  > > From the President
  > > Letters
  > > Chicagophile

  ARCHIVES
  CONTACT
  ABOUT THE MAGAZINE
  SEARCH/SITE MAP

  ALUMNI GATEWAY
  ALUMNI DIRECTORY
  THE UNIVERSITY

uchicago ©2001 The University of Chicago Magazine 1313 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637
phone: 773/702-2163 fax: 773/702-2166 uchicago-magazine@uchicago.edu