The idea that images have the power to function as agents in political conflicts has, especially since 9/11, become fairly entrenched in discussions of contemporary media culture, notably in the work of scholars such as W.J.T. Mitchell, Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. In Cloning Terror Mitchell describes what he calls the image war thus: "it has been waged against images (thus acts of iconoclasm or image destruction have been critical to it); and it has been fought by means of images deployed to shock the enemy, images meant to appall and demoralize, images designed to replicate themselves endlessly and to infect the collective imaginary of global populations."

We invited a range of scholars to consider the following question: What is the lasting significance of this notion of image wars – politically, epistemologically, aesthetically?

New contributions will be posted regularly over the next weeks at www.nomadikon.net.

Asbjørn Grønstad and Øyvind Vågnes, editors

#13, July 23, 2012
W. J. T. Mitchell

I am deeply grateful to Nomadikon, and its editors, Øyvind Vågnes and Asbjørn Grønstad, for organizing this online discussion of the concept of “image war” as elaborated in my recent book, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9-11 to the Present.  The contributors have taken this concept (for which I can claim little originality since it is probably as old as the ancient human practice known as warfare) in a variety of fascinating and unforeseen directions.  Indeed, to me it is a sure sign that an idea “has legs,” as they say in advertising, that others can “run off” with it, and even “run away” with it into territories that one could never anticipate, and that may even run counter to one’s own sense of the proper limits of an idea. 

And in fact this might be the place to make clear my own sense of limits, by insisting that the notion of image war, of a war of images, is itself an image, a metaphor, and perhaps a metapicture—that is, a second-order picture of the way that pictures operate.   A war of images is not literally a war.  Images do not go into battle and kill each other; human beings do. [1] Images do not plan invasions, massacre populations, and shatter bodies.  That requires people.  Images are more like animals than humans, in this respect.  Animals fight and kill each other, but the mass mobilization of violence known as war seems a uniquely human institution, unless we anthropomorphize the natural behavior of certain species such as warrior ants, or the learned behavior of the war horse, image of the heroic cavalry of pre-modern warfare.  Images are “agents” of war in the sense that a “secret agent” works for a foreign power, or an “agency” is an instrument of a state.  Images are thus like machines, extensions and agents of human powers.  Which is to say that they can go out of control, go “rogue,” and be turned against their creators.   If images are agents, then, perhaps they should be thought of as double agents, capable of switching sides, capable of being “flipped” by acts of clever detournement, appropriation, and seizure for purposes quite antithetical to the intentions of their creators.   (Think here of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” photo op; or the trophy photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison).    My attribution of agency and affect and desire to images, as Max Liljefors notes, “runs the risk” of “mystifying pictures,” but I don’t think we can track the volatile lives of images without running this risk.   We cannot, in my view, utterly destroy the mystification of images, their tendency to take on the status of totems, fetishes, and idols.  In fact, the fantasy of a sovereign iconoclastic power, one that would annihilate falsely mystified images once and for all simply winds up mimicking the idolatry that it seeks to displace.

The opposite risk is named by Jill Casid, who questions whether my “faith in rationality” and invocation of the divide between religion and the secular is adequate to the affective complexity of the image.  She has a point.  I probably sound a bit too much like a simple-minded positivist when I urge a “cold and clinical” attitude toward image-war, and identify my position with the “reality-based community” rather than the “faith-based community” that turned the War on Terror into a holy war and a crusade.  But I would ask her to ponder a bit more closely the third way I have tried to sketch between the mystified and the de-mystified image, one that is grounded in Nietzsche’s strategy of “sounding the idols” (not smashing them) by “philosophizing with a hammer,” or (even better) with a tuning fork.  This third way is not, I hope, “founded on faith in rationality,” nor does it rely on a simple opposition between the sacred and the secular.  On this latter distinction, I would refer the reader to my essay, “Secular Divination:  Edward Said’s Humanism,” which tries to walk the tightrope between these opposing temptations. [2] Casid is right to sense, however, that if I am forced into a corner, compelled to run to one end of the tightrope, it will be toward secular rationality.  For me, the magnetic attraction of the image is not in its religious form (I had quite enough of that in my Roman Catholic upbringing), but in its irreducible tendency to produce intimations of the sacred, a phenomenon quite distinct from religion in my view.

So let me also concede what a number of commentators have noted, that the notion of image war is in no way to be understood as a substitute for thinking about real war, war in the literal sense. [3] At the same time, I would argue that no war, however brutal, grimy, and physically dense, can be understood in its tactical and strategic dimensions, let alone its political, social, and emotional motives, without some consideration of images and imagination.  The boundary between real and imaginary, literal and figurative war, in fact, is just as important a consideration in the understanding of war as the borders between nation-states.  And the crossing of those borders, their blurring by the “fog of war” (and the fog of images and language as well) is one of the most important themes for critical reflection, especially in a time dominated by a “war on terror” that recognizes no borders or limits of any kind. 

And this might be the place to note the difference between two distinct master-images in my argument, the “war of images” on the one hand and the “war on terror” on the other.  The war of images is, for me, not a specifically historical formulation, but a naming of what Joanna Zylinska calls “the ontology of images.”  This is partly a matter of Zylinska’s provocative notion of images “at war with themselves . . . within a dynamic media ecology,” and Iain Chambers’ fascnating observations on images and temporality.  But it also involves a claim to historical and anthropological universality, a claim that every war is a war of images.   I would challenge the skeptic to name one single war in human history that has not centrally involved images and imagination.  Every war I know of, from the Biblical wars over the Holy Land to the Trojan Horse, to the colonial adventures of the Athenian empire in the Peloppenesian Wars, has been a “war of images”—wars fought over images, with images, by means of images, in which everything from the casus belli to propaganda to victory to defeat was signaled by images and the “creative destruction” of images.   9-11 was just such an act of iconoclasm, in which the destruction of the iconic World Trade Center was simultaneously the production of a new image designed to demoralize the U.S. and lure it into invading and occupying Arab countries. [4]

So I think there is no chance, as Robert Hariman would like to think, that the war of images “is on its way to being a museum piece.”  On the contrary, it is certain to be with us, in my view, as long as human beings make war—or make images. [5] But the war on terror, by contrast, is a definite historical construction.  I hope Hariman is right to the extent that we could make the war on terror a museum piece, and consign it to the dustbin of history, something the Obama administration attempted to do in retiring the phrase from its policy statements. [6] It is, in fact, the specific master image or metapicture of the Bush era, the post 9-11 period.  This is clear from the moment one notices that the phrase is a metaphor, similar to previous figurative “wars” (on drugs, tuberculosis, poverty, etc.) but one which contains a crucial difference, namely that it was deliberately and consciously made literal and actual by the Bush administration.  It is as if Lyndon Johnson carried out his War on Poverty by bombing poor neighborhoods.  The phrase, insofar as it declares a war on an emotion (terror) or a tactic (terrorism) makes about as much sense as a war on anxiety or neurosis.  The fantasmatic and figurative character of the phrase, however, did not prevent it from being operationalized by the Bush administration. [7] The process of literalizing the metaphor of a war on terror illustrates precisely the distinction between image war and the real thing:  the phrase “war on terror” is merely a rhetorical ploy;  the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are the real deal.  No need to forget that distinction.  But without the rhetorical phrase, without the metaphor of the war on terror, the motivations, pretexts, and strategic, epistemological framing of those real invasions ceases to exist.  The “mere metaphor” of a war on terror “had legs”; it mobilized a generation of gullible and idealistic young Americans to volunteer for wars that were unwinnable and waged under false pretenses. 

I have said little so far about the question of technology in the war of images, but some of the most important contributions to this forum have focused on this crucial matter.  The War on Terror is not distinct from previous image wars only because of its peculiar way of literalizing a metaphor, but because it has been actualized by a radically new repertoire of spectacle and surveillance technologies.   To be clear, war is always a question of spectacle, from “shows of force” (the dazzling shield of Achilles; the blitzkrieg;  “shock and awe”; mobilization through propaganda; image cults of the Leader) and of surveillance (espionage; the commanding of high ground and observation posts; the understanding of terrain; the accurate calculation of enemy strengths and weakness).   But in the contemporary mediasphere the whole meaning of spectacle and surveillance is being re-fashioned, as the comments by Kari Anden-Papadopoulos, Chris Hables Gray, Suhail Malik, and Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen make clear.  Gray puts it most succinctly:  “Digital information has profoundly altered the role of image in war, and image as war, but has not changed that war is always about image.”  I have learned a great deal from these interventions, which are especially interesting in their emphasis on the way the new social media have provided channels of disruption and democratic resistance to the centralizing of image production and control of media around state and corporate power.  The detournement of image war--the exposure of the illusions of victory, of just war, of a demonized enemy and a heroized war machine, of the winning of “hearts and minds”—has without question been facilitated by the social media, and the emergence (as Hariman notes) of newer, more aggressive forms of documentary imagery.  Still, it is important to remember that the social media are not intrinsically democratic or emancipatory, but are vulnerable to cooptation, corruption, and appropriation by all sorts of actors.  Beware Facebook!  The friend of my friend (as Wendy Chun recently put it) may well be my enemy, surveilling my network and setting traps for it.  Like all media, the social media are simply the new ecosystem, the new battlefield, in which the wars of images will be fought.

A final thought on technology.  The emphasis of these reflections has been on the so-called “digital revolution.”  But I would argue that this only captures half of the technical dynamic of media ecology in our time.  The other half is the analog revolution made possible by information sciences.  This, after all, is the experiential payoff of digitization:  new forms of dense, sensuous sights, sounds and bodies, some of them compelling illusions and spectacles, others possessing highly accurate simulations of real situations.  Another way to put this is to stress that the cybernetic revolution has made possible a biotechnical revolution that produces new forms of life, and of “pseudo life forms.” [8] To put it in the form of reductive icons:  drones and clones.  Is there not an uncanny rightness in the rhyme?  The drone is the mechanical agent of an operator, extending the senses and the force of arms.  The clone is the living copy of a living organism, the twin or double of a donor.   The drone is the metonymic operator of contemporary technology, an extension of the hand and eye.  The clone is the metaphoric operator, the figure of similitude and mimesis.  Together they define the horizon of what Foucault called biopower in our time, a slowly evolving historical stratum of technical innovation that unfolds right alongside the contingencies and accidents (including the horrible luck of a George W. Bush presidency) that made a war on terror conceivable.  Small wonder that the Bush administration, which was so adept at framing politics as a war of images, conducted a two-front campaign, the first directed at cloning, the second at terror.  

[1] There is a wonderful print by Hogarth, however, that depicts invading troops of generic Italian paintings (mostly religious subjects) marching off ships to attack the humble realism of native English paintings.  This is the closest example I can think of to a literal war of images, and of course it is just a fantasy that appears in a picture.
[2] See Edward Said: Continuing the Conversation, ed. Homi Bhabha and W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 99-108.
[3] Toby Miller seems to think that there is some sort of choice to be made between the war of images and the real thing:  “the wider context to these issues is not imagery.  It is the place of the United States in geopolitics.”   But as should be evident, the “place of the United States” is at least in part an imaginary one:  is the U.S. to be seen as the policeman of the world, the City on a Hill, the noble experiment in democracy, or the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (Martin Luther King)?   The “place” of the U.S. is one of contending imaginative constructions; it is not to be found outside of imagery.  Miller also confuses matters by assuming that images are exclusively visual.  I hope it is clear that verbal imagery, the realm of metaphor and figuration, are equally important to my argument, not to mention sound images, as I tried to show with an analysis of the sound of the most potent names of our time:  Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Barack Hussein Obama.  To say these names in rapid succession is one way of “thinking with the ears” about the acoustic imagery of Obama’s election to the presidency.
[4] We must not forget that this is not merely an interpretation of the meaning of 9-11, but an expression of the explicitly declared intentions of Osama bin Laden.  See Richard Clarke’s account of al Qaeda’s strategic thinking in his Against All Enemies (New York: Free Press, 2004), and my analysis in Cloning Terror, 65-6, of  “Uncle Osama,” the recruiting poster parody of Uncle Sam.  One wonders, in this regard, what Jim Elkins (cited by Jill  Bennett) was thinking when he dismissed the relevance of visual culture studies to 9-11.
[5] The phrase “war of images” is, contra Hariman, not really comparable to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” an image that has a specific historical reference to the conflict between “the West” and “Islam.”  “War of Images” is the general, theoretical concept;  “Clash of Civilizations” (like “War on Terror”) is a specific version of the war of images.
[6] One could argue, of course, that the Obama administration has simply retired the phrase while maintaining the same strategic posture.  “Overseas Contingency Operations” is the Newspeak name of the war on terror, and at a tactical level, it has turned away from invasion and occupation to supposedly “surgical” measures such as drone attacks.  These new tactics are, as several of the commenters note, a distinct phase in the technical side of the contemporary image war.
[7] If one Googles the words “war on terror is no metaphor,” one will come to a host of debates from the Bush era, and (most notably) the title of the prestigious Arrow Lectures at Stanford, in which Columbia political scientist Phillip Bobbit argued that the literalizing and operationalizing of this figure is the crucial strategic framework for the 21st century.
[8] For further discussion of the double revolution in the technosciences of information and life, see my essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Production,” in What Do Pictures Want?

#12, July 16, 2012
Suhail Malik
Image – Non-image – War

As of mid-2011 the US had Special Operations covert missions underway in about 75 countries, concentrated mainly in the region from the Middle-East to Central and South-East Asia, but also to be found from the Philippines to Poland. This number looked likely to increase to about 120 countries by the end of the year  – over 60 percent of the world’s countries and double the number at the end of the George W. Bush Presidency. [1] Mostly unseen, or exposed only with publicity-friendly ‘successes’ (such as the killing of Osama Bin Laden) or calamities (the accidents or counterstrikes killing their forces, or their capture by the often weaker enemy), here is a warfare undertaken primarily without images. At least, without public images: as in all warfare images are of course primary in these military mobilizations but are here organized not towards the demonstration of strength (which assumes a public space of manifestation) but through the secrecy and invisibility of their interventions, facilitating a militarily and politically durable state of quasi-war.

The intensification of this tendency over the past ten years, and especially during the Obama presidency [2], is paradoxically not at all an diminution of image(s) in war but the enhancement of war through its image-organization (meaning here the technically produced and distributed image constituting a visual-material network or culture). Two examples suffice to illustrate how Special Operations (SO) forces rely upon images in a spectrum and mobilization extended beyond the human eye’s own proprioceptive capacities:

i) Stealth weapon technologies with ‘extremely low, all-aspect, multi-spectral signatures’ [3] increase surprise and shock as tactical advantages. Their material construction is determined not only by aerodynamic requirements or those of audio-visually unanticipated attack but moreover by obscuring technically constituted detection and image production technologies surpassing the range of optical visibility. Strategic determinations aside, stealth weaponry supposes that combat is organized in terms of trans-visual image-speed capture, relay and processing circuits; a determination of battle assumed in SO strikes.

ii) Drone or UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) weaponry mobilized in conjunction with satellite imaging notoriously enable its human control – where it still exists – to be removed from the strike or surveillance area. Incorporating the time of image analysis and prediction of an attack’s impact damage – its ‘bugsplat’ – before its implementation, involving over 180 people in oversight, execution and assessment per drone mission, remotely engaged (in, say, Nevada) with ground troops (in, say, Waziristan) for hours prior to a strike itself [3], co-ordinated through the drone’s targeting technologies in consort with ground-based information and high resolution satellite tracking images, drone strikes are premised upon the massive recording, production and construction of a ‘battlespace’ through its remotely captured image. Battlespace is partial description: it is an emblematically networked image-constituted warfare whose remote operation unilateralizes the existential threat of the conflict.

These image-predicated technologies reorganize the spatiotemporal dynamics of the war encounter (destruction-killing, capture, evasion) and, concomitantly, its juridical coherence (what is territorial integrity here? public accountability?). Such a reconstitution of battlespace is of course undertaken in the name of counterterrorism and its asymmetry: state powers no longer face a ‘frontal’ enemy with a defined border in global terrorist networks (accepting for the sake of brevity a complex and contentious term) but a distributed, mobile and molecularised target whose operational structures must remain cloaked. Counterterrorism operations conducted by SO forces duplicate the operational tactics of terrorism, notably the long surveillance of targets and then striking under cover. But whereas terrorism depends upon its final visibility to mark its successes, which are propagandistic as much as they are militaristic (the media-friendly and, better, world-distributed image), the strategic and tactical interests of SO depends for the most part upon its non-image.

If, then, there is now a war of images in the putatively public dimension of global media coverage, SO no less conduct a war against (public) images while complete relying upon the production and mobilization of full spectrum images; an image advantage that allows state power to exit from the visibility – and so accountability – of its actions while its dispersed enemy seeks to enter just that domain. Here, on the side of the (US) state, is an image-laden and -generative quasi-war against images, a war of un-images.

[1] Nick Turse, “The US military's secret military,” Al Jazeera, 8 August, 2011 [http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/08/20118485414768821.html]; Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe, “US ‘secret war’ expands globally as Special Operations forces take larger role,’ Washington Post, June 4 2010 [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/03/AR2010060304965.html]. All referenced websites accessed August 2011.
[2] Turse, op.cit.; De Young and Jaffe, op.cit.
[3] http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fighter_aircraft.
[4] Walter Pincus, “Are drones a technological tipping point in warfare?,” Washington Post, 25  April 2011 [http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/are-predator-drones-a-technological-tipping-point-in-warfare/2011/04/19/AFmC6PdE_story.html].

This piece was originally published in Ekfrase: Nordic Journal of Visual Culture in the autumn of 2011.

Suhail Malik is Reader in Critical Studies, Department of Art, Goldsmiths, London.

#11, July 8, 2012
Robert Hariman
Getting Past the War of Images

I would like to think that the “war of images” is well on its way to becoming a museum piece.  Like the “clash of civilizations” and the “war on terror,” it was an attempt to make sense of an inchoate moment within a period of political turmoil, technological change, and cultural unease.  Unlike the other terms, it was at least ambivalent ideologically, capable of being used both by and in opposition to state power.  And when used capably, the ambiguity between the literal and metaphoric registers of this “war” could become a resource for critical reflection about both US propaganda and the public culture it tried to control.  Even so, the war metaphor re-inscribes what it would contest: the discourse of the national security state. 

As images become both ends and means, weapons and targets, causes and effects, they replicate the comprehensive mobilization of modern warfare.  Other assumptions lock into place as well: images now operate in the state of exception defining international relations, where power can be a law onto itself; actors pursue fixed purposes and strategic objectives with an instrumental mentality capable of turning anything to its use; spectators, like civilians, are caught in the middle, watching and suffering actions they are largely powerless to stop.  And while intellectuals are worrying about the political spectacle, other forms of domination can be extended the old fashioned way—with money and guns.

That said, the idea of a war of images does capture some important intuitions about both war and communication today.  Warfare is not (if it ever was) limited to the clash of armies, and victory is achieved not on the battlefield alone but rather in the virtual worlds of politics, society, and culture.  Hearts and minds have to be won, both abroad and at home, and so the military is concerned with managing perceptions, often through adroit use of the most advanced communication technologies.

The war of images has the most to say about contemporary image culture—its general features and deepest anxieties.  At the least, it recognizes that images are powerful instruments of persuasion, and that they are deployed as such on all sides.  The metaphor goes beyond instrumentality, however: as images are arrayed against and engaged with each other, they become more than just copies of reality.  They function as social entities capable of acting on their own behalf.  Much like us, you might say.  But, as W.J.T. Mitchell points out, also like a clone, capable of replicating endlessly. [1] Thus, the war of images captures the sense that civilization is driven by processes of reproduction that can operate autonomously, excessively, and past the point where human means no longer serve human ends. 

Thus, it seems that images no longer document the world so much as they displace it.  Meaning is anchored not in reality but in other signs, which in turn serve everything from primal antagonisms to mindless reproduction.  This culture includes a corresponding slippage from logical inference to analogy: in the image world, things are always potentially like something else.  The hooded man from Abu Ghraib is like Christ, and a Klansman, and the Statue of Liberty, and an iPhone silhouette, and a fraternity hazing, and a penitent pilgrim, and a fighter plane, and . . . .  The metaphoric extension of an image is potentially unbounded while directed contingently by what discourses are around it for the moment.  In the war of images, meaning can be continually contested as it becomes increasingly unstable.

At this point one is not far from wishing for a sovereign to end this war of all against all, and then for Plato to lead us out of the cave into rational enlightenment.  In fact, those myths have been in place from the start.  We also may have already succumbed to an Orwellian inversion of seeing war as peace and peace as war.  The conditions I’ve described are not new and not a state of exception, but rather the ordinary lot of human consciousness as it is bound up with the use of language and other sign systems.  The implicit alternative of an image world not capable of multiple meanings, intentional use, public dissemination, and contested interpretation would be a tyranny.  Like the “war on terror,” the war of images asks us to fear too much, and to not pay attention where it really is needed.

The “war” isn’t likely to go away, but certainly one could ask whether there are better ways to develop its intuitions.   Let me briefly suggest two lines of inquiry.  First, the war metaphor needs to be discarded on behalf of other accounts of how images influence public culture.  One alternative is Ariela Azoulay’s concept of “the civil contract of photography,” a form of non-territorial citizenship that is activated within the photographic encounter and across the archive. [2] More generally, understanding photography as a public art allows examination of the many ways that images provide resources for continual negotiation of the social imaginary defining liberal-democratic societies. [3]

Second, rather than assume a war, one should consider how photojournalism is exposing the nature and scope of violence today.  State terrorism, endless insurgency, imperial occupation, outright anarchy, and the global arms trade are all part of a devil’s brew that is polluting wide swaths of the planet.  The “war of images” is too limited an idea to reveal the face of violence today.  “Images of war” would be equally inadequate.  Cloning, however, might be one of the mechanisms by which violence spreads, or at least might provide a better analogy than previous comparisons between visual technologies and violence for understanding the war meme today.  In any case, important questions remain regarding what Mitchell has called “the visual production of the social,” not least with regard to the reproduction of violence in the 21st century. [4] And because the answer to the problem of violence will depend in part on understanding images, one needs to ask, again and again, what is already being shown but not yet seen?

[1] W.J.T. Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
[2] Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008).
[3] Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
[4] W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?  The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 343, 351-352.

Robert Hariman is a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.  He is co-author with John Louis Lucaites of No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Chicago, 2007) and nocaptionneeded.com, a blog on photojournalism, politics, and culture.

#10, June 30, 2012
Toby Miller
Imperial Wars

The importance of images to war has been evident for centuries. International conflict has been depicted in painting for a very long time and propaganda has used imagery distinctively and systematically since the First World War at least. Ideas about the centrality of spectacle to popular mobilization can be found in Plutarch, while its importance for everyday life, politics, and violence is clear to textual critics from the work of Guy Debord, Paul Virilio, and Jean Baudrillard.

But it would be wrong to focus too much on imagery. Radio has been central to propaganda and militarism since it began. Consider Radio Martí, the World Service, Radio Free Europe, and the Nazi and Soviet media. Sound matters. Radio was crucial to the killings in Rwanda during the 1990s. The most important war of today in terms of lives lost is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it has a lot to do with sound—specifically, coltan mining undertaken to power telephones around the world. The coltan enriches militias as well as enticing consumers.

And words matter themselves—written arguments made for war resonate in parliaments, civil-society groups, the military, universities, and the media.

In addition, I doubt the announcement of new eras in grandiose terms, especially when undertaken at the time by those living at the geopolitical core.

The wider context to these issues is not imagery. It is the place of the United States in geopolitics. US imperialism poses many complexities for its opponents, analysts, and fellow travelers. Image-making is a small part of that. The matters we need to grasp are as follows.

US imperialism has involved invasion and seizure (the Philippines and Cuba); temporary occupation and permanent militarization (Japan); ideological imperialism (the Monroe doctrine and Theodore Roosevelt); febrile anti-Marxism (“All the Way with LBJ” and “Win One for the Gipper”); and ideological anti-imperialism (Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Obama).

Yanqui imperialism differs from the classic 19th-century model exemplified by the UK. It’s much harder to gain independence from the US than it was from Britain, because US imperialism is indirect and mediated as well as direct and intense. This produces fewer dramatic moments of resistive nation building than the painful but well-defined struggles towards sovereignty that threw off conventional colonial yokes across the twentieth century.

The difference arose because Yanqui imperialism began at a more fully developed stage of industrial capitalism and led into the post-industrial age as Washington sought to break colonialism down and gain access to labor and consumption on a global scale. This coincided with a Cold War that favored imperial proxies over possessions, due to both prevailing ideology and the desire to avoid direct nuclear conflict with an apparent equal. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the markets that had been undermined by classic imperialism in 1914 were re-established as rhetorical tropes, confirming the drive towards a looser model of domination.

The country that advertises itself as the world’s greatest promise of modernity has been dedicated to translating its national legacy of clearance, genocide, enslavement, and democracy—a modernity built, as each successful one has been, on brutality—into a foreign and economic policy with similar effects and, at times, methods. But it has principally done so through military, commercial, and ideological power rather than colonialism. Spain’s conquista de América, Portugal’s missão civilizadora, and France’s mission civilisatrice saw these nations occupy conquered peoples then exemplify approved conduct up close; Gringos invade if necessary, then instruct from afar. The methods of instruction involve a whole armature of culture, including images but equally sounds and words; and they are subordinated to military and business objectives.

I also doubt claims made for a massive watershed in war and imagery in the absence of empirical observation of the number of relevant images, the way they are spoken of, and how they are received. Without content analysis and audience study, this is largely an art-historical argument that relies on the institutional authority of criticism.

Instead of that, we need an interdisciplinary research program to examine the mixture of sound, image, verbiage, production, and reception that constitutes the media of war in the light of imperialism. Focusing on textual analysis in the conventional way—with grand claims that are equally conventional—is not enough, even though the vibrant and insightful imagination of a justly distinguished humanist is driving us in that direction.

Toby Miller is Distinguished Professor of Media & Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Miller is the author and editor of over 30 volumes, and has published essays in well over 100 journals and books. His current research covers the success of Hollywood overseas, the links between culture and citizenship, and electronic waste.

#9, June 25, 2012
Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen
The Spectacle of State Terror and Fear
With the terrorist attack on World Trade Center, Pentagon and the White House in 2001 it was again made poignantly clear that images and politics are closely connected. The image of the second plane gliding into the second tower of the World Trade Center stamped itself on everybody’s memory – with brutal precision outdoing all attempts to visualise American supremacy and omnipotence. The images of the event were historical and showed that they have a certain power or can function as a declaration of war. As Retort argues in Afflicted Powers (2005), Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attack was a carefully planned attempt to ruin the image of the Unites States as the invincible superpower and the attack was carried out with the intent to circulate the spectacle of American defeat. It was a hit and the American spectators were shocked watching the event live on their screens. In a desperate attempt to undo or exorcise 9/11 the United States declared the so-called war on terror that has been a series of attempts to react to the image attack. War with and on images has been the order of the day since 2001. Images of the former president Bush declaring the mission accomplished, videos of captured Westerns being decapitated, and images of a dethroned dictator being executed have replaced each other in an intense and accelerated tempo that does not leave any room for reflection. The images have piled up and threatened to choke all thoughts destroying the last remains of what used to be a genuine political public sphere.

Images have always been important elements in political battles and have played a central role in attempts to secure an already established rule or make possible a new order: from representations of ancient emperors to portraits of the kings of absolutism. Throughout history rulers have been conscious of the power in bombarding the population with images and representations.

In the 20th century it was probably the fascist regimes of the 1930’s that pioneered the use of images and representations in the staging of political events. The image was important in several respects for German Fascism from monumental manifestations to bulky art works and the notion of an Aryan Weltanschaung which was to be made present for the masses here and now. The German cultural critic Walter Benjamin characterised this as an aestheticization of politics, where the national-socialist regime used modern techniques of reproduction to turn the Fuehrer into an auratic icon and transform the mass into an object for aesthetic shaping and cleansing. This fusion of aesthetics, mass culture and politics seemed to pull the carpet under Benjamin’s historical philosophical utopia about a profane mass culture made possible by the arrival of new techniques of reproduction and a new aesthetic sensibility. Inspired by the contemporary avant-garde, Benjamin explored how it was possible to engage with advanced technology in a non-destructive, sensory-reflective, and collective way. The avant-garde’s use of the new technologies of film and radio could according to Benjamin potentially undo the alienation inflicted on the human sensorium in the defence against the technologically induced shock brought on by modernisation. Artists, intellectuals and counter-hegemonic forces had to operate in the new image space that the advent of new technologies had created. But confronted with Fascism the moment seemed to have passed for Benjamin’s modernist utopian aspiration.

More than half a century later the situation seems to have become even worse. Today we are confronted with challenges that seem to have rendered Benjamin’s speculations obsolete. Image-based fundamentalisms have set the pace since 9/11. Terrorist attacks and bombing campaigns orchestrated by the state have replaced each other in a continual battle without winners. The effect of this development has been the production of a culture of fear where any discussion is short circuited with a reference to the virtual threats of terror, whether in the guise of state terror or transnational terror groups. A new political demonology has taken shape reusing older images of conflict and representations of enemies. The war on terror was characterised by the absence of a definable enemy. Therefore it was necessary constantly to produce images of a recognisable opponent: dark skin, beard and veil have been the features of this figure. The formlessness of terrorism causes a transformation in the functioning of the capitalist state, whose object is now the threat. A threat that has to be visualised and reproduced on an everyday basis. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were the most obvious examples of the new security and war paradigm promoted by an American government desperately trying to preserve American interests confronted with the accelerated movements of globalization in which former bonds of social solidarity are being dissolved.

It has become increasingly evident that “the war on terror” actually constitutes an attempt to implement a wider pre-emptive anti-rebellion regime aimed at handling a number of threats like terrorism, internal disorder, or climate changes while securing the wealth of a narrowly defined capitalist power. The idea behind this anti-rebellion system is of course that it is possible to direct the catastrophes to come and let others suffer. But as the crises escalate – the food crisis, the financial crisis, the climate crisis – this idea about a secure interior and a smashed exterior appears ever more uncertain and demands further security measures.

In that situation it has of course been very difficult to produce visible resistance, to create effective counter-images able to disrupt the already established public sphere. The politics of fear has been overwhelmingly efficient when it comes to disabling possible antagonistic forces. In the blizzard of expressions produced by media spectacle and government narratives the struggle to find adequate and incisive forms of response to events and formulate alternative visions has been a difficult one. The images from Abu Ghraib and the videos made visible by WikiLeaks of killings in Iraq have to some extent been able to expose the brutal workings of state terrorism but until the rising protest movement in North Africa and the Middle East manifested itself no positive critical perspective was available. The revolutionary wave moving through the region presents a possibility of superseding the postcolonial model, but the pre-emptive anti-rebellion regime has been test driven for some time now and will not give in without a fight, in the form both of an image war and of more material and primordial expressions of power exertion.

Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen is Associate Professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen. He has published books and articles on the avant-garde, contemporary art, modern political philosophy and the revolutionary tradition. Latest publications: “On the Turn to Liberal State Racism in Denmark”, e-flux journal, no. 22, 2011, “Scattered (Western Marxist Style) Remarks on Contemporary Art, its Contradictions and Difficulties”, Third Text, no. 109, 2011, and Expect Anything Fear Nothing: The Situationist Movement in Scandinavia and Elsewhere (ed. with Jakob Jakobsen) Autonomedia & Nebula, 2011.


#8, June 18, 2012
Jill Casid
The Imperative Mood

The war on terror, according to W. J. T. Mitchell’s Cloning Terror, is to be opposed with a “war on error.” [1] This “war on error” or counter-practice of iconology is to intervene in the image wars by taking seriously the active shaping force—even the “life”—of imaging and affect. The primary structures of feeling that characterize this age of images at war, veer, according to Mitchell, between the induction of terror and of panic with the implicit imperatives to be afraid and, thus, to either freeze like a deer in the headlights or run. In defense of the resistant adoption of a tone that might seem comparatively “cold and clinical” (xvii), Mitchell instructs us to respond to such “powerful feelings” with a neo-Nietzschean “sounding of the idols” (xviii) that takes the form of “timely, calm, and intelligent action” (6). That is, while “investigating” the ways in which affect and the “religious imagination” shape our reality, Mitchell’s Cloning Terror prescribes an antidote of critical method that situates itself as part of the “reality-based” as opposed to the “faith-based” community (xvii) and, thus, one that takes affect as an object rather than a viable tactic for practice.

In responding to this blog’s burning question of the lasting significance of W. J. T. Mitchell’s notion of image wars (politically, epistemologically, aesthetically), I question methods founded on faith in rationality and on a faith vs. secularism divide that denies both the ways in which secularism developed historically out of the specific religious practices on which it still depends and the ongoing violence done in its name. [2] Instead, I advocate for the importance of working with the powers of affect, including and perhaps especially the powerful feelings incited by but also in the emphatic itself. [3] Consider, for example, the title of the recent “Now! Visual Culture” conference (New York University, 2012) organized by Nicholas Mirzoeff. [4] “Now! Visual Culture” is not just a matter of practice; it is the animating “pow,” the punctuating “bang” (as the exclamation point began to be called in the 60s) of affect as creative social and political force. What is visual culture now? To respond to the lightning bolt cue of the exclamation point (once also known as the screamer, gasper or startler), visual culture now, I would ask us to critically consider, is, more than anything, practice, yes, but not just any form of creative, political, affective and aesthetic labor. “Now! Visual Culture” is the exclamation of practice in the imperative mood. From the Tahrir Square chants of “Silmiyya” or something like “peaceful, safe, secure” to the resonant calls of “Occupy” repeated and amplified human mic-style, the imperative mood is everywhere and it is catching. In a “now!” moment marked by profound precarity and shaken by economic, social, and environmental crises, what can this imperative mood do, why and how does this imperative mood matter? While the war on terror and “images at war” issue their own sets of imperatives, how might we move off from the marching orders we are given and toward counter-practices that engage the powers of imaging and affect?

The prevailing rules of grammar teach us that the imperative mood is not a verb tense but any syntactical construction that commands, requests, exhorts. Building on Jacques Rancière’s “Ten Theses on Politics,” the lessons of critical visuality studies and its focus on the power optics of the street tell us that the commanding operations of the police take the form of such breaking and dispersing imperatives as: “Move on, there’s nothing to see here.” [5] And, as Nicholas Mirzoeff crucially shows us, seizing the right to look can also answer back by insisting that we know there is. [6] The imperative is without specific address in that its force comes through its hailings of us all.  Modes of expression without specified subjects, the imperative—as in “Workers of the world, unite!”—electrifies the powers of address to materialize subjects into being through its demand for collectivizing action. But the imperative mood, I want to insist, is not just a special case of language or a restricted subset of speech acts.  Indeed, I urge us to think again not just with the lessons in intellectual emancipation of Rancière’s “ignorant schoolmaster,” but also the figure of the schoolmistress deployed in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s “Postulates of Linguistics” in A Thousand Plateaus. [7] The schoolmistress shows us that instruction in the rules of grammar is also always a performance of the extent to which all speech acts in the educational machine are orders. But the schoolmistress does not just reveal the rules of grammar governing the classroom. She exercises the power politics of that grammar, showing us the fundamental pervasiveness of the imperative, that is, the extent to which what Deleuze and Guattari call the “order-word” is the elementary unit of all language.

If all language is made not just to be believed but to be obeyed, how can we – can we? -- maintain or draw out the revolutionary power of the order-word to counter the death sentence of State power? Deleuze and Guattari answer in their own imperative: “One should bring forth the order-word of the order-word. In the order-word, life must answer the answer of death, not by fleeing, but by making flight act and create.” [8]

This schoolmistress who always wears a tie to lecture and teach is pretty invested in Deleuze and Guattari’s lines of flight and words of passage.  I want to believe in the animating counter-point and counter-praxis of words and objects that displace, relocate, transform the master’s tools (the tie, the barking and marching orders of language) and so bring forth queer potentialities on the other side of majoritarian orders.  Given my own investments in de Certeau’s tactics of dislocation—of a place without proper place —  I have found myself profoundly challenged, even confounded, by the pervasive migration of the imperative: “Occupy!” [9] At the Clark conference I co-convened with Aruna D’Souza this fall on practices for an exploded art history in the wake of the global turn, it was impossible not to be caught up in and by the infectious call to “Occupy Art History” even as I also could not let go of the lingering and gnawing sense of it being an absurdity to occupy what is my departmental home and my occupation in Art History— despite my intellectual and creative proclivities for the trans and postdisciplinary and my employment status as what is called an interdisciplinary cluster hire (brought in to build a program in visual studies). [10]

In turning over this question of the transdisciplinary tactics in which I have been so long invested and the absurdity of occupying my occupation, I was reminded that there is something importantly bare and vitally exuberant about risking counter-imperative absurdity.  Indeed, absurdity may be the counter-imperative mood.  The example that comes to mind here (fig. 1) is a poster made by the graduate student teaching assistants in Art History at Madison in the context of the “Wisconsin Uprising” (the largest pro-labor mass mobilization in modern U.S. history which took place in Madison, Wisconsin in 2011). As part of the teaching assistants’ union’s march on and encampment in the Wisconsin State Capitol building, the poster’s declaration staked their position against the bill that, among other devastating acts, took away the right to collective bargaining. [11] A version of this sign was posted on Flickr with the caption, “Of course, there aren’t that many of them and they don’t seem exactly that motivated.” [12] Whether such instances of the minor counter-imperative mood galvanize the multitudes or not, whether they move many of what Judith Butler would call “bodies in alliance,” or just carry along a few with their affective energies, I find its absurdity inspiring. [13] Its gesture of apparent dissonance or incongruity, of matter out of place, acts on the battle-lines over the fate of the public university and insists on demonstrating and mobilizing the Art History classroom as the public but also intimately political site I’d like to insist it has always also been. “Art Historians Against the Bill” is just one instance of the counter-imperative that calls on us to care in response to a State system that tells us that education and health care are luxuries and that we are too expensive for our lives. [14]

To occupy art history is for me to never let go of the promise with which I began practicing in and against my training as an art historian, namely that commands such as never forget could be answered with burning questions and imperative counter-genealogies of the present, that the ruins of the official past could be re-occupied for a queer and different future. To occupy art history is for me to think with contemporary performance and across a range of persistent uses of analogue media as exercises in the shaping social and political force of affect, exercises in the imperative mood with capacities to engage the “as if” work of the subjunctive through material objects as vectors for bringing the “as if” of alternative queer worlds into the everyday of the here and now and across the many locations in which we practice from the dependencies and intimacies of the classroom to the many (and often overlapping) places in which we do the affective and risky aesthetic labor of making lives. That is, I want to use my conclusion to gesture to three improbable and perhaps rather perverse tactics for practice in the imperative mood that do their shaping affective labor through the performance of melancholic attachments to what one might call dead media (16 and 35 mm analogue film, dark-room photography, the live musical), attachments to the ruined and abandoned production sites of modernity from the factory to the shop to the home, attachments to seemingly outmoded tools and furnishings such as the bottle of dark-room chemicals, the mantel clock, and  the parlor chair to press against the temporality of the now and to point to the extent to which this now is enacted in and haunted—or we might say pre-occupied—by the ghosts and specters of not just failures and the forgotten but also those promises that their recycling rehabitation may yet reactivate.

1.    Castle. In velvety black and white shot on 16 and then 35 mm film, Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia’s I am Micro (screening now as part of the Guggenheim’s Being Singular Plural exhibition) takes us slowly and attentively through the abandoned detritus of an optical equipment factory in Kolkata, India (fig. 2). [15] As the camera lingers over the discarded lenses, shells of cameras, and old bottles, a voice-over interview with independent film director and screenwriter Kamal Swaroop laments the failure of his generation with the imperative, “To get into art, one must be castled” (fig. 3). Conjuring the castles of the studio system and its promises to make aspirations come true, the insistence on thinking the material conditions that would support and sustain a viable independent filmmaking practice works to project our longings and also imaginings of alternative castles not just in the air but also on the very ground of the ruins of the now defunct industrial factory.

2.    Domesticate. Domesticate radically and for freedom. While the clock may be the device of industrial regimentation and subjection, the mantel clock (fig. 4) appears magically in the 2011 film Albert Nobbs as the central fantasy vehicle by which the orphaned central character (born a woman and living and working as a male waiter in a late 19th-century Dublin hotel) can project the material, affective, and psychic supports for sustained and sustaining life as the man he wants to continue to be, enabling Nobbs to carve—in vivid, scintillating, even erotic detail—an opening, a warm parlor literally out of a little tobacco shop within the confines of global capitalism. [16] In this vivid fantasy scene the clock does not tell time, but is the highly cathected and desired object that rather makes a space in time. And its stop-time and anachronism seem a vitally important reminder, at this moment, of alternative and marvelously perverse genealogies for imagining the supports for queer forms of companionate freedom beyond gay marriage.

3.    Furnish. Furnish the props for all the many actual and imaginable bonds of care, of friendship, community, and collectivity beyond the couple form privileged by marriage. February House (which premiered at the Public Theatre in April 2012) restages an experiment in communal art and life forged out of a brownstone in Brooklyn by editor George Davis—who lures in Carson McCullers, Erika Mann, W.H. Auden and his lover Chester Kallman, Benjamin Britten and his lover Peter Pears, and Gypsy Rose Lee. [17] This musical’s reenactment of possibility begins with the flourish of furnishing, with nothing more than a recycled Queen Anne chair (fig. 5) that takes center stage, inviting us to imagine taking a seat and being held in the material realization of what we are told are the friviolous, unrealizable fantasies of other kinds of organizations of affective and creative life.
Rather than disavow the affective resonances, the beliefs, and the yearnings that stir our practices in the field of images at war, these are just a few of the queer world-making acts beyond the terms of cloning terror that gesture toward a counter-practice of visual culture in the imperative mood of melancholic longing, the poignant absurdity of never let go that engages the power of affect to project alternative futures out of the haunted and pre-occupied present.  ‘Bread and roses’ was the banner of the January 1912 textile workers’ strike (fig. 6).

On the 100-year anniversary of the strike, let us call into vibrant being a renewed version of the both/and—radical freedom of feeling, thought, practice and relational possibility but also the structural material and aesthetic supports for their flourishing and flowering! Exclamation point! Bang.

[1] W. J. T. Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[2] On these points, I am indebted to the extensive work by Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini on the violence but also possibilities of secularisms as rethought and practiced in new relations to religion. See, in particular, in addition to their co-edited anthology Secularisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008),  Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, “Bodies-Politics: Christian Secularism and the Gendering of U.S. Policy,” forthcoming in Gendering the Divide, ed. Linell Cady and Tracy Fessenden (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) and Janet R. Jakobsen, “Is Secularism Less Violent than Religion?” in Interventions: Activists and Academics Respond to Violence, ed. Elizabeth A. Castelli and Janet R. Jakobsen (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2004), 53-67. I am grateful to Ann Pellegrini for conversation during the course of writing this essay.

[3] For the important elaboration of secularism as not the opposite of strong feelings but its own state of feeling, see Ann Pellegrini, “Feeling Secular,” Women and Performance 19.2 (July 2009): 305-18.

[4] See http://www.visualculturenow.org/

[5] Jacques Rancière, “Dix thèses sur la politique,” Aux bords de politique (Paris: La Fabrique, 1998), 217. See the elaboration of Rancière’s Thesis #8 into the program for a critical visuality studies and a political praxis  in Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[6] Mirzoeff, 1-2.

[7] Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1987; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991). Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “November 20, 1923—Postulates of Linguistics,” in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (1980; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 75-110.

[8] Deleuze and Guattari, 110.

[9] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (1980; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

[10] On the conference “In the Wake of the ‘Global Turn’: Propositions for an ‘Exploded’ Art History without Borders” at the Clark Art Institute, November 4-5, 2011, see http://www.clarkart.edu/research/content.cfm?ID=378

[11] For first-hand accounts, see It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest, eds.  Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle (New York: Verso, 2012).

[12] See http://www.flickr.com/photos/schweitn/5459826089/in/set-72157625965829449, posted February 19, 2011.

[13] Judith Butler, “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” “#occupy and assemble∞,” transversal, european institute for progressive cultural politics, September 2011, http://eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en.

[14] Lauren Berlant, “Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness,” Supervalent Thought, November 2011, http://supervalentthought.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/berlant-aaa-2011final.pdf. Berlant presented a version of these remarks on the austerity state at the Public Feelings Salon (Barnard College, April 12, 2011). For my own elaboration of an alternative ethics and politics of care, see Jill Casid, “Handle with Care,” forthcoming in the TDR special issue on “precarity.”

[15] For discussion of the production of the film itself, see the exhibition catalogue Being Singular Plural with essays by Erika Balsom, Kaushik Bhaumik, Martta Heikkilä, and Sandhini Poddar (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2012).

[16] Albert Nobbs, directed by Rodgrio Garcia, screenplay by Gabriella Prekop, John Banville, and Glenn Close, Chrysalis Films, 113 min. The film is based on a treatment by Istvan Szabo and a short story by George Moore.

[17] February House, music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane, book by Seth Bockley. The premiere production at the Public Theater in NYC (in association with the Long Wharf Theatre) in April-June 2012 was directed by Davis McCallum and featured Stanley Bahorek, Ken Barnett, Ken Clark, Julian Fleisher, Stephanie Hayes, Josh Lamon, Erik Lochtefeld, Kacie Sheik, A.J. Shively, and Kristen Sieh. The musical is based on the research for Sherill Tippins’s historical memoir February House: W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Jane and Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America (New York: Scribner, 2005).

Jill H. Casid is Professor of Visual Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she founded and directed the Center for Visual Cultures. A historian, theorist, and practicing artist, her contributions to the transdisciplinary field of visual studies include Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization and her forthcoming book Shadows of Enlightenment—both with the University of Minnesota Press. She is currently at work on several new book projects: “The Volatile Image: Other Histories of Photography,” “Forms-of-Life: Bioethics and Aesthetics,” and, with Aruna D’Souza, “The Exploded Global: Art History's New Terrains” for the Clark Series at Yale University Press.

#7, June 11, 2012:

Chris Hables Gray
Image War in the Age of Digital (Re)Production

Digital information has profoundly altered the role of image in war, and image as war, but has not changed that war is always about image. War is the forceful imposition of your image of reality onto someone else. Or else. As Elaine Scarry reveals in The Body in Pain, war and torture are about The Making and Unmaking of the World. War originated as a ritual, to balance the power of women (who bleed but do not die; who die so babies live), to honor male sacrifice (Blood Rites), and to maximize procreation (heroes get laid)—all image. But humans became civilized and war instrumentalist; as charisma declined force-of-fire became the new God of War.

From sticks and stones to bullets and bombs, weapons are tools for promulgating cosmology (“what is yours is now mine” or “what I believe you must believe” or both) and killing the unsubmissive. To win by manipulating perception was the highest art. Ancient war became modern war, has become postmodern war, circling back to ritual war. Image is again more important than weapons in the struggle for image dominance, Foucault’s regimes of truth.

Ten years past 911, wars are covert (terror), guerilla (small, low intensity), civil or revolutionary. All over images in the “hearts and minds of the people.” In Vietnam, now Afghanistan, ideas beat the weapons of empires. Empires now struggle through proxies, propaganda, hacking and economic espionage. Cool war. And at the site of most political violence, where governments attack their people? We saw, starting in 1989 when the façade cracked, the Soviet Empire was just an image. It became unbelievable. We saw in the collapse of state communism in Yugoslavia ikons of ethnic purity at war with cosmopolitanism. We saw in the victories of socialist parties in Latin America the triumph of the social democratic brand over the Made-in-the-USA new improved neo-liberal product that had replaced the semi-fascist models. And we see in the protests, revolts, civil wars and revolutions from Morocco to Burma that the very image of democracy can triumph over fear and force.

It spreads in old ways and new. Most importantly, people tell each other stories. They read, in books about ancient Islamic democratic institutions and in comics of Martin Luther King. They read, in brave newspaper columns by the novelist Al-Aswany, that “Democracy is the answer.” They listen to songs of protest that are 100 years old and others that are made up now, in revolution. They watch. They watch the police in the streets and the corruption in the government. They watch Al-Jazeera. They watch YouTube. The write on walls. They write on Facebook. They send emails. They post blogs. They tweet.

Most importantly, they go into the street. They confront the police. They bring down the dictator and the Pharaoh. Or they die by the thousands trying. The Kingdom and the Caliphate, the Empire and the State of Emergency, the free market and the communist party, are all images. Yes, they have rules and soldiers, but the real power is the belief, the shared illusion that these institutions are somehow necessary, if not always beneficial. It is their image.

You and I evolved to believe. The power to make up models and to craft stories, dynamic images, in order to manipulate the world is only useful if you believe. Rationality plays some role, but most of the power of image is older than reason. We grope, almost blind, for a more reasonable world. Not because there is so little to see, but because there is so much. The profitable high definition surround sound lies of the powerful, the emotions of our friends, the ebb and flow of our culture, often digitized, saturate us.

The democratization of images is crucial. Through exposure, embodied (cosmopolitan) and digital, we develop immunities to many images, to the drone and the suicide bomber. Other images we breed, and interbreed the hybrids more. We incorporate them into our mental ecologies, cultural analgamations as our bodies are biological symbionts and cyborg organisms. We make art, technologies, stories, business, children, love, hope and revolution. As humans always have.

Ritual war was much more deadly than modern war. Early postmodern war, (Cold) was less deadly and late (Terror), is less deadly still. One nuclear weapon would ruin that statistic but it is worth noticing.  We evolve through culture, where images lives. We need to be more artists than consumers. More democracy is possible, it is necessary, it is worth dying for. Imagine that.

#6, May 29, 2012:

Marita Sturken

The concept of an image war is, in many ways, a post-9/11 concept. It denotes the idea that since 2001 we have entered into a unique moment of history in relation to the visual, in which the image is a crucial factor in the wars and conflicts of global politics. That is, this is an era in which such a concept has resonance and seems to affirm a broader structure of feeling of the times, to use Raymond Williams’s term.   Thus, this is certainly a concept that we should want to examine for the ways in which it operates as a discourse – not only as a discourse of 9/11 exceptionalism and of the uniqueness of the post-9/11 period, but also as a concept that affirms the field of the visual as one in which meaning is derived from that which one sees. 

As several theorists of the visual and visuality have noted, we are more likely to truly understand the functioning of power by examining the shifting distinctions between that which is seen/understood and that which is not.  This concept of the seen/not-seen is derived largely from the work of Jacques Rancière and his notion of the “distribution of the sensible,” which refers to the way in which power relations, enacted through sense perception, designate that which is visible (and heard/understood) and that which cannot be seen.  Politics thus creates a distribution or division (a “partage”) not so much between those with power and those without, but between that which can be seen/understood and that which can’t, that which is rendered noise. [1]

This framework is helpful in seeing how the concept of an image war is not particularly useful toward an understanding of the function of empire in relation to visual economies.  In the contemporary state of American Empire the deployment of power derives precisely from that which is absented, erased, un-visual—that which, in Rancière’s terms cannot be seen and is rendered noise.

There are two kinds of erasure at work in the post 9/11 context.  One is modern, practically old-fashioned, in its simple censorship and hiding from view.  These modern techniques of empire acknowledge that the image and the visual is meaningful and politically powerful.  Here we can include the effective erasure of particular kinds of images through military censorship (such as a ban on photos of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base in the U.S. and the embedding and monitoring of journalists) and the erasure of whole realms of conflict through secret and hidden warfare.  To this we can add the existence of hidden prisons, commonly known as “black sites,” run by the United States in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, invisible counterpoints to the hyper-visual Guantánamo.  And, the drone wars, the most prevalent form of warfare now in operation of the project of American Empire, are effectively nonvisual.  Images produced from drones are highly secret, and almost never released publicly.  The drones function as powerful weapons because of their invisibility – they terrorize because of the realization by certain anti-U.S. groups that they can always possibly be there (the release of Bin Laden’s letters recently confirms the degree to which activities of Al Qaeda were structured in relation to possible drones) and because they are often rogue, killing large numbers of civilians. 

The second erasure is precisely the kind of erasure that Rancière denotes.  The project of American Empire effectively cannot be seen as such by the American public, it is rendered un-visible, unintelligible, noise. The costs of American Empire must be denied; empire needs to be shadowed by a culture of comfort and innocence in order to be fully palatable to the American public, and the sacrifices of Empire must be erased. [2]  For the American public, the project of American Empire largely does not exist (unlike the engagement of the national publics in the history of European empires); hence it must be transformed into something else – defensive wars of national security, benevolent nation-building, revenge, etc.  So, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq effectively have been erased from public discourse, the wars’ casualties and individual sacrifices in the U.S., which are considerable, and the devastation of these wars on the Iraqis (over 100,000 of whom have died) and deaths of Afghan civilians (estimated in the tens of thousands) are effectively un-visible.  The staggering financial impact of these wars on the decimated US economy has been erased (the war in Iraq, now officially over though four U.S. bases and 4,000 soldiers remain, is estimated to have cost the U.S. government 1 trillion dollars).  They cannot be seen, and are rendered un-visible within the distribution of the sensible, as elements of the project of American Empire that cannot be acknowledged.  Thus, the financial, human, and political costs of these imperial wars cannot be acknowledged in order for the project of American Empire to exist.  We may apply significant meaning to the images from Abu Graib, for instance, but they are in a certain sense a screen for how American Empire is actually functioning. 

We need to pay attention to this screening out.  The contemporary image economy is often characterized as one of networks and viral digital circulation (indeed, this is a key aspect of Mitchell’s book Cloning Terror).  Yet, this can allow us to feel that this viral mode of distribution is one that has shaken dominant power relations when it may be a means through which empire is reaffirmed.  As we aim to make sense of the role played by images in contemporary global conflict, we must remain attentive to that which cannot be seen, that which is rendered noise, and the practices of counter-visuality that aim to bring it forward. 

[1] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2004), 13.  See also Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), Introduction. 

[2] David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, revised edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, [1992] 1998), 3.  See also Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). 

Marita Sturken is Professor and Chair of the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. She is the author most recently of Tourists of History:  Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero.

#5, May 21, 2012:

Max Liljefors
Notes on ‘Image Wars’
The day I write this, the trial begins in Copenhagen against four Swedish citizens, allegedly born in North African countries, and accused of having conspired to launch a terror attack against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The reason is claimed to be the infamous twelve caricature drawings of the Prophet Muhammad that Jyllands-Posten published in 2005, and which triggered violent demonstrations, diplomatic controversies, burnings of Scandinavian embassies, boycott actions, etc., in the Islamic world and elsewhere. To date, approximately forty people have been killed in those protests.

The caricatures, along with the 9/11 images, the Abu Ghraib photos, the footage of the 2003 Shock-and-Awe bombings of Baghdad, etc., testify to the assertion that wars are nowadays to a large extent fought over and through images — against, in defense of, and by means of pictures. However, notwithstanding the support provided daily by the media, of the idea of ‘image wars’, the idea seems to me to have certain limitations. Let me mention three.

1. As always, there is the question of what escapes visualization, what flies below the radar. Are all wars fought in equal exposure to cameras? It seems to me that most examples of ‘image wars’ belong to specific conflicts between certain interests in the Western world and certain parties in the Islamic world. If we stare too intensely into their mesmerizing pictures, may we not blind ourselves to conflicts of less extravagant appearance, that transpire in the shadows? Even in the most ‘visual’ of wars, visibility is far from omnipresent. Only a fraction of the hundreds of Abu Ghraib photos known to the US government, circulated in public, and the majority of critical commentary has focused only on three, which have acquired ‘iconic’ status.

2. The notion of ‘image’ itself tends to be accompanied by anthropomorphic figures, like ‘vision’, ‘gaze’, and ‘beholder’. But today's technologies of war often produce visibilities that do not correspond to these anthropomorphisms. The next generation of unmanned drone aircrafts will allegedly be equipped with 1.8 GB cameras, capable of monitoring sixty-five independent targets simultaneously, from an altitude of 20.000 feet. Their vast data sets will be transmitted to computers running so-called ‘swarm-recognition’ algorithms for visual analysis. On the ground, biometric technologies, currently implemented in border control systems globally, map diminutive physiological patterns of the targeted person’s fingertips, retina, etc., and match them against existing records in large databases (comparison with 70 million records is said to take approximately 10 minutes). Here visibility is produced by and distributed through advanced electronic systems, which include components of ‘the visual’ such as optical detection, pattern recognition, etc., but which nevertheless do not produce anything like a singular ‘image’ for the directed ‘gaze’ of a human ‘beholder’, in the traditional sense. Rather they render these anthropomorphisms obsolete.

3. It seems to me that Mitchell’s suggestion that we should think about images as ‘things that have desires’, captures an essential aspect of our relation to images, and yet borders to — or at least runs the risk of being misinterpreted into — a mystifying of pictures. Yes, pictures move us and compel us, offer us spectatorial positions, seem to demand to be ‘read’ by us, and urge us to take action. But from there to ascribe real agency and intent to them is a conceptual — or affective — leap that make them seem more literally in need of our support, or threatening to us… After all, Mitchell's invitation does not summon the power of pictures, but our power — or compulsion — to imagine things about them, and we should stay vigilant about the power of our imaginations over us.

Thank you to Nina Kurdve and Lila Lee, MA students, and Adam Brenthel, PhD student, for their input to these reflections.

Max Liljefors is Professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University. He is the director of the research projects Critique and Crisis: Art after 1945 and Anatomy in the Expanded Field.


#4, May 13, 2012:

Jill Bennett

In late 2001 James Elkins raised the possibility that visual culture may not have much to say about the momentous event of 9/11—an event ‘so overwhelmingly visual’ that it might well have rendered the discipline indispensible. [1] The ‘image wars’ had broken out in a way that was spectacularly obvious; symbols were no longer obscure agents in need of specialist interpretation but hypervisible and transparent to all. With nothing mystifying to decode, visual theory in its familiar semiotic form was superfluous.  Far from delivering content to a discipline dependent on visual data, the ‘image wars’ revealed the limits of an area defined by the exercise of a single sense or a class of objects.

Studies of post-9/11 mediascapes notwithstanding, the profound impact of the image wars has been to cajole visual theory away from disciplinary purity into more complex transdisciplinary territory. Elkins observed that fundamental aspects of 9/11 visual culture—namely its emotional dimensions—lay beyond the immediate purview of visual studies. He was right to caution against wandering into new territory equipped only with tired disciplinary assumptions and methods. The scope of aesthetic inquiry has indeed broadened—and, as a consequence, the sharpest ‘visual’ analysis is developing a more subtle account of the forces that animate images; in other words, of the principles and connections beyond the visual that give images life.

W. J. T. Mitchell sets up the possibility for the study of this lifeworld in the rhetorical move that anthropomorphizes the “picture” by imbuing it with its own figurative affect. [2] “Like living organisms”, he suggests, images “have desires”. But such desires do not arise purely from the images they inhabit, the ‘image wars’ themselves being a figure for a set of affective relations. The importance of this move lies, then, in making relationality the field of investigation, since the conflagration of images that characterizes the “War on Terror” requires an understanding of the relations that turn images into symbols of pride, anxiety and vengeance. Mitchell characterizes the imagery of the World Trade Center and its attack as exemplifying “the sensuous spectrum of image anxiety of our time” but it has been on the radical edges of media theory that the notion of a process aesthetics has been most fully developed, along with accounts of the fluidity of affect and its mobilization in the politics of fear. As Brian Massumi demonstrates with a further level of personification, the colour spectrum designed to calibrate the threat of terror “spoke”; it told us when to feel fear. [3] No mere symbol or representation, it was the instrument by which anxiety was inculcated and regulated.

Images in this sense are not simply the cultural expression of collective emotion but are coopted into circuits of affect; used, incorporated and entrained. Affect-at-large attaches itself to images. Such is the premise of a style of documentary inquiry that has emerged in response to the politics of fear (think of Adam Curtis’s Power of Nightmares on the neo-con project, or Mike Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, an attempt to trace the source of a fear that finds effigies in popular culture). The autonomy of affect is now itself a subject of inquiry, but rather than deferring to the cognate field of affect studies, visual culture needs to claim back the notion of aesthetic perception as one encapsulating an inquiry into the senses and emotion.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank ask “whether anyone may fully grasp the nature of any object when that object has not been perceived, wished for, missed and thought about in love and hate, in excitement and apathy, in distress and joy.” [4] This methodological observation has particular purchase in relation to the imagery of 9/11—not so much the mementos and memorials for which we already possess a ritual context and understanding, but the new aesthetics of affect: the circuits that render affect visible and transmissible, the vectors of fear and anxiety, as well as of affective resistance that surface in websites such as <wearenotafraid.com>, in the major art exhibitions that trace global relationships and their local and subjective manifestations, and in the documentary turn that makes tangible the politics of emotion and its passage through images. The domain of visual culture is no longer at issue. Any branch of cultural studies operates in an open, expansive field. If there is something for visual specialists to hang onto it is the knowledge that images operate in distinctive ways as they range across this open field and interact with other modes of practice. It is the question of how images interact that now occupies aesthetic theory. [5]

[1] James Elkins, Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, London and New York:
Routledge, 2003, 81.

[2] W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of
, Chicago: The University of Chicago press, 2004.

[3] Brian Massumi, ‘Fear (The Spectrum Said)’, Positions 13: 1, 2005.

[4] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, eds., Shame and its Sisters: A Silvan
Tomkins Reader
, Durham, N. C: Duke University Press, 1995, 55.

[5] Jill Bennett, Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affects and Art After 9/11, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.

Jill Bennett is Professor at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, in Sydney. Her most recent publication is Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affects and Art After 9/11, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.

#3, May 8, 2012:

Iain Chambers
I propose to step back a little from the seemingly implacable imagery of the Twin Towers in flames in order to consider the question of image wars in a wider context. This might both help to displace the West’s obsession with its own apocalypse and open up a further, critical interval. After all, what happened in New York in September 2001, as opposed to what subsequently occurred in Baghdad or in Afghanistan, is on a completely different scale; at least in terms of the statistics of the casualties and destruction. That, of course, is the point. While the incursion over the skies of New York City is considered the image of the opening decade of the 21st century, other images of war, destruction, refugees and migrants, involving hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people in the very same period, are given altogether less significance, and are sharply separated from the semantics of the New York imagery. In the asymmetrical relations of power – who defines the image, where, when and how? – the subjecting forces of images are themselves subjected to a precise political economy of visibility and attention.

So, to step back and shift the gaze from the stricken Occidental metropolis to other sites and images, would allow us to consider once again the arguments rehearsed almost forty years ago by Edward Said. In Covering Islam, the Palestinian critic draws our attention to the media ambiguities of ‘covering’. Images are selected, captioned and arranged both in order to concentrate explanation while simultaneously dissipating and defusing other possible understandings of the media event. Representation is always accompanied by repression. This is to suggest that the image is not so much an individual visual object as an epistemological instance. It serves not only to support and illustrate an argument or perspective, but rather to extend and render affective certain modalities of understanding as opposed to others: exploiting the eye in order to subject the body and its senses to a particular regime of truth.

If, as W.J.T. Mitchell argues, we recognise images as ‘living organisms’ that harbour desires, we perhaps need also to register their polyvalent, even anarchic, potential. Images are certainly framed in more senses than one. Their immediate cultural, historical and social anchorage never exhausts their potential. Apart from the obvious multiplicities of reading and receiving the images of 9/11, the images themselves sustain an altogether more extensive economy of meaning. The French critic Georges Didi-Huberman, drawing explicitly on Walter Benjamin’s insistence on the detonation of explosive material that lies in the already having-been of the image, insists on the ‘exuberant tempos’ of the image that explode out of the past as unruly figures of time. Images resist the rigidity of the disciplines (art history, semiology, historiography, political science) that supposedly explain them. ‘Before the image we find ourselves before time’, writes Didi-Huberman (Georges Didi-Huberman, Devant le tempo. Histoire de l’art et anachronisme des images, Paris: Éditions de Minuet, 2000). What is sustained in the image irrupts in the present as an overdetermined complexity that decomposes our own time and configurations: ‘The image has more memory and more of a future than the person who is contemplating it.’ If the image is temporarily confined in the interpretation, and temporalized in a particular history and genealogy, it simultaneously unleashes the dynamics of an involuntary memory – a ‘movement-image’ as Deleuze called it – that is neither frozen nor fixed, and which goes on to interrogate historicity itself. In this critical discontinuity with the present and its sequential codification of the past (‘history’), the rigid instrumentality and control of ‘critical distance’ is eroded: what the image proposes is the perilously proximate, critical instance of a ‘montage of heterogeneous temporalities.’ If images are most obviously polyvalent they also carry and contain multiple histories. Well beyond the threshold of historical illustration and social witnessing, images propose both another accounting of time and operate a cut on the temporality that presumes to organise and direct their semantic orientation.  

In this sense, the altogether more mundane image of a migrant – African and illegal – picked up off a sinking boat in the Mediterranean, actually throws a far more acute light into both the archive and present day configuration of the Occident than transitory terror in the hi-jacked skies of lower Manhattan. Contrary to the hegemonic order of sense and sensibility, such an image lacerates the world, our world, time and modernity with other temporalities and other worlds. As though a wound that cannot be healed, the image wars here evoked, is most precisely about our war on the rest of the planet. The images that we seek to contain exceed their unilateral location in the semantics of our world. They literally explode to shower light on a multiple modernity that is never simply ours to define and imagine.

Iain Chambers is Professor of Cultural and Postcolonial Studies at the Oriental University in Naples. Among his many publications is Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).


#2, May 3, 2012:

Kari Andén-Papadopoulos
The notion of ’image wars’ has no doubt acquired new urgency in the context of today’s global media landscape as visual images and photo ops play an ever more constitutive role in the conduct (and critique) of geopolitics. Over the past 100 years, ’perception management’ has become a central preoccupation of states at war, with civil and military leaders employing increasingly sophisticated tactics to shape the visual experience of domestic and international publics. Today, in the context of a post-9/11 global information order, the categories of warfare and visual mediation have become so closely intertwined and interdependent as to be inseparable. Whether contemporary conflicts are defined as ’simulacra’ (Baudrillard 1995), ’information warfare’ (MacDonald 2007; Tumber and Webster 2006), ’image wars’ (Kennedy 2008, Mitchell 2011), ’virtuous war’ (Der Derian 2009), or ’spectacle’(Debord 1994 [1967]; Kellner 2005), scholars from diverse disciplines agree that the virtual battlefield of images and information and the ’realities’ of geopolitical intervention are in part constituted in and through each other. Visual media are perceived to not only report and represent modern conflicts, but indeed to be capable of enacting and performing them as well (Campbell 2007; Cottle 2006). Hence, the issue of visual images’ power to affect the legitimacy, nature and conduct of contemporary warfare figures increasingly prominently in recent scholarly accounts of the complex synergy between media and conflict (e.g Michalski and Gow 2007).

On the one hand, there is growing concern that the close links within the media-military-entertainment complex has lead to the further aestheticization of war, serving to rationalize international aggression and imperialist violence as necessary, moral, and even civilizing. Beginning in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the American ’militainment machine’ has certainly done a fine job producing recent wars as entertaining media spectacles, effectively translating state violence into an object of pleasurable consumption (Stahl 2010). At the heart of the new military strategy that results from the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is the technical capability and ethical imperative to wage war from a distance, with no or minimal casualties to US forces. The new ’network centric’ information warfare differs significantly from past forms in the proliferation of superior satellite, weapons-guiding and communication technology, including the many new unmanned systems such as remotely piloted drones and robots on the ground (i.e the PackBot, Talon, and SWORDS) used not only for bomb disposal but also for street patrols, reconnaissance, sniping, checkpoint security, and guarding security posts (Singer 2009). The revolution in robotics certainly forces us to reconsider what all these stunning new technologies will mean for the next generation of war – for how it is fought and visualized - and the public’s connection to it.

For many commentators, one of the most troubling features of the virtualization of warfare is its perceived tendency to erode ethical awareness of war’s human costs. While the sanitization of war’s visual record has been a routine component of modern conflict, today’s convergence of technologies through which war is simulated, fought and represented appears to have disembodied armed conflict to the extreme.  Witnessed by its combatants and (Western) spectators alike through weapons-view footage in real-time, the new techno-war threatens to produce a further disconnect between those who watch distant violence as spectacle and those experiencing close-up the horrors a high-tech military machine can effect.

At the same time, the rapid rise of new technologies, synchronous with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has produced a global information sphere in which images and information have become ever more difficult control. Digital imagery that has not been created or distributed by mainstream media has exploded onto this global scene, putting (dead or badly injured) bodies back into the documentation of warfare that military and media elites are struggling to contain. This visual ’blowback’ includes not only the violent photo opportunities staged by insurgent groups in and beyond Iraq, but the imagery produced by civilians in the warzone and by serving US soldiers. Indeed, the personal photos and videos of individual soldiers have become the most expansive, and controversial, source of war imagery (Andén-Papadopoulos 2009a, 2009b; Christensen 2008; Kennedy 2009). Their productions include the messy, visceral, chaotic, mundane, emotional, and even depraved aspects of warfare normally beyond the gaze of the media and of their audiences. While the frames of established media and military elites remain powerful controls on perception of contemporary geopolitics, there can be no doubt that the dreaded televisual spectacle is disrupted, confined or otherwise democratically punctuated by social media. The proliferation of alternative war imagery documenting the tangible effects of violence might not in itself subvert the understandings of international relations or facilitate revolutionary challenges to entrenched powers. But the circuits of the web are not only providing a platform for the reproduction and global circulation of ’amateur’ imagery. The perhaps most significant aspect of the transformation of visual culture within digital contexts is the extended possibilities it provides for debating images both by those who produce them and those who view them (cf. Corner 2010). Digital platforms like YouTube have radically democratized practices of image appropriation and re-seeing, and have worked to extend the exchange of viewers’ critical discourse around the problematic and contested meanings of conflict imagery. 

Management of the field of vision is about much more than control of images per se. To a significant extent it is about control of frameworks of understanding. In this regard, the novel, expanded scope for the exercise of criticism and scepticism provided by digital media is certainly going to become more and more important in mediating public understanding and response to the war of images in the 21th century.

Andén-Papadopoulos, Kari 2009. ‘Body Horror on the Internet: US soldiers recording the war in Iraq and Afghanistan’. Media, Culture & Society 31(6): 921-38..

Andén-Papadopoulos, Kari 2009. ‘US soldiers imaging the Iraq war on YouTube’.
Popular Communication: International journal of media and culture, 7 (1) pp. 17- 27.

Baudrillard, Jean 1995. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Sydney: Power Publications.

Campbell David 2007. ’Geopolitics and Visuality: Sighting the Darfur Conflict’. Political Geography 26: 357-82.

Corner, John 2010. ‘”Critical social optics” and the transformations of audio-visual culture’, in Relocating Television. Television in the Digital Context, edited by Jostein Gripsrud, London: Routledge.

Cristenssen, Christian 2008. ’Uploading Dissent. YouTube and the US occupation of Iraq’. Media, War & Conflict 1(2): 155-75.

Debord, Guy 1994 (1967). The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone.

Der Derian, James 2009. Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial Media-Entertainment Network, Second edition. New York and London: Routledge.

Kellner, Douglas 2005. Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy: Terrorism, War and Election Battles. Boulder and London: Paradigm.

Kennedy Liam 2008. ’Securing Vision: Photography and US Foreign Policy’. Media, Culture & Society 30 (3): 279-94.

Kennedy Liam 2009. ’Soldier photography: visualising the war in Iraq’. Review of International Studies 35: 817-33.

Macdonald Scot 2007. Propaganda and Information Warfare in the Twenty-first Century: Altered Images and Deception Operations. New York: Routledge.

Mitchell, W. J. T. 2011. Cloning Terror. The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. Chicago & London: Chicago University Press.

Michalski Milena and Gow, James 2007. War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing Contemporary Conflict. London and New York: Routledge.

Singer P. W. 2009. Wired for War. The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century. New York: The Penguin Press.

Tumber, Howard and Webster, Frank 2006. Journalists Under Fire: Information War and Journalistic Practices. London: Sage.


Kari Andén-Papadopoulos is Professor at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication (JMK) at Stockholm University. Among her most recent publications is Amateur Images and Global News (Intellect 2011), with Mervi Pantti.


#1, April 27, 2012:

Joanna Zylinska
Life in the battlefield of vision

Joanna Zylinska, If It Reads It Bleeds (2010), video

W. J. T. Mitchell’s proposition to understand the contemporary landscape of visual culture in terms of a “war of images” goes beyond the metaphorical understanding of a sensory clash and conceptual overload generated by the incessant proliferation of images in contemporary media culture. With this concept, Mitchell foregrounds the actual, material violence that images and the varying responses to them can provoke. Yet it is primarily on the level of representation that he sees such a war as being fought. Indeed, it is the iconic aspect of photographs and freeze frames such as the collapsing Twin Towers on 9/11 that is the primary impetus for pictorial warfare. In this context, a “war of images” presents itself as an effect of particular media showing us things, and of our reactions to these things.

However, I would like to suggest we can understand images as being at war with themselves on a deeper, ontological - and not just causal - level. It is a war fought within a dynamic media ecology for images to be images, to carve themselves out of the flow of mediation (data streams, pulsations of electricity, information exchanges between various human and non-human receivers, etc.) and freeze, to be not just spatially enframed but first of all temporally stabilised. The set of processes involved in their becoming images lends itself to such a military formulation because the latter effectively conveys the inevitable conflict involved in the emergence of our shared yet conflicted field of vision, and of the things to see in that field. We could go so far as to say that warfare functions as a structuring logic through which images come to be. For me, “a war of images” is therefore the underpinning condition of the emergence and existence of all images.

One might perhaps query the implicit violence on the part of visual culture theorists in trying to understand image making in such agonistic terms. However, agonism is actually an enabling concept because, to paraphrase political philosopher Chantal Mouffe, it involves the staging of a conflict not between enemies but rather between adversaries who share a symbolic space as well as a desire to organise that space in a different way. Pace Mouffe, the adversaries in such a “war of images” do not have to be exclusively human. Images frequently emerge from the flow of mediation without our conscious human intervention: think about the production of stop-motion imagery by CCTV, speed cameras or space satellites. Also, contrary to a Clausewitz-type warfare, with a clearly defined enemy and a desirable strategy to implement in order to achieve some set objectives, in a “war of images” operational strategies and enemy posts are distributed in a horizontal and “capillary” manner.

Although they are not primary instigators of, participants in, or even an audience for such a “war of images”, human agents do play a unique role in it, a role which can be described in terms of “temporary conflict resolution”, a responsible management of iconic violence. We know from Levinas and Derrida that violence is constitutive of any process of decision-making, of differentiating between standpoints and positions, but the state of violence is not yet tantamount to war. Instead, warfare can be described as a political enactment of the philosophical condition of violence. In this light, the opposite of a “war of images” is not some kind of “iconic peace”, but rather the control, minimisation and regulation of violence in the production and circulation of images. It is a responsible way of managing a conflict of, and over, images by humans -- even if many of these images are not produced by us, for our benefit or suffering.

Such a war of images therefore has an explicit ethical significance. It foregrounds a conflict over what has the right to become an image, over who this right is granted by and to whom, over, more broadly, what can and should be seen, and, last but not least, over how it should be seen. Ethical responsibility here lies in what Sarah Kember and I have described in our forthcoming book, Life After New Media, as “making a cut” to the flow of mediation. The process of cutting reality with cameras and other image-making and framing devices takes on and reveals the agential cut which is involved in transforming matter into images. In this way, image making produces life forms, rather than merely recording them. In opposition to “live TV” - which, with its looped repetitions of “media events” such as global conflicts and disasters, deadens both the force of images and the ethical and political sensibilities of their viewers - responsible image making entails making “good cuts” to the flow of mediation. It is a way of capturing lifeness in the midst of the visual (battle)field, of making life where death hovers, against and in spite of it.


Clausewitz, C. von (1873) On War. London: N. Trübner.

Derrida, J. (1978) “Violence and Metaphysics” in Writing and Difference. London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Kember, S. and J. Zylinska (2012) Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (forthcoming).

Levinas, E. (1969) Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Mitchell, W.J.T. (2011) Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mouffe, C. (2000) The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.


Joanna Zylinska is a Reader in New Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. Among her many publications is Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process, with Sarah Kember, forthcoming in from the MIT Press later this year.