“There is a kind of exquisite pain reserved for watching narratives whose endings you already know.” (Kevin Charles Redmon, The Atlantic, April 6, 2010)
Today I woke up to the the foreseeable, the predicatable, the inevitable. This sight of things we’ve seen before. Soldiers behaving badly, armies and governments trying to sweep it under the carpet, their dirty laundry being discovered and flashed for all to see. And shocking as it is, it probably in the end comes as little surprise to most, this latest missive of misdemeanours. Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom.
But still a scene like this one can cut through the mental morass of our saturated media mindsets, drag us out of our slumbers and hold our attention for more than just the usual few frames. For at least a moment… the fog lifts. As we watch the grainy black & white footage and listen to the laconic tone of the voices over the mechanical hiss and beeps of the radio, there is the sense of being held captive to one of those sustained instances of pure experience. Those particular moments, whether magical or awful, where everything takes on a kind of unreal realness. At such times we are drawn into the very fabric of the event playing out before us, focused by the burning intensity of the experience. This force concentrates the mind at the same time that it also imparts an expansiveness to our sense of being. We take on something like what Borges described as “the swarming sensation,” becoming, “for an unknown period of time, an abstract perceiver of the world.” As the helicopter circles its subjects, we feel the very axis of the earth rotating beneath us. The disembodied personnel play out the scene for our ghostly presences, each of us sitting in that cockpit with our fingers waiting to pull the trigger. And then the shots fire out, bringing us all down with the shocking impact of their piercing clarity. And after that, eventually, we scatter. The fog descends.
Or at least that’s what I felt. The whole thing took on a particular “exquisite pain” for me because I had touched on the possibility of something very like this scenario in a lecture six months ago. In this talk on new media theory (dealing specifically with Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s idea of “remediation”), there was one particular slide that I cobbled together and threw in at the very last minute. The slide, titled ‘Warring Mediums,’ was a simple juxtaposition of three videos and can be seen here. The first video featured a brief collection of news and battle footage from the first Gulf War. The second was a longer clip from Generation Kill, a television drama set against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In it we witness an impromptu skirmish in which American soldiers see and carry out a battle almost entirely through their night vision sights. The final video was a sample of the ‘Death From Above’ section in the videogame Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. In this part of the game the player assumes the role of an aircraft gunner, charged with clearing a small village of its enemy defenses. The entire scene is played through a black & white aerial perspective very similar to the one we see in the WikiLeaks video, featuring an eerily simlilar soundtrack of monotone radio correspondence, punctuated occasionally by the selfsame celebratory rounds of verbal fist-bumps. Of course this theoretical imagining was no novel concept. Many others have made similar such comparisons (and I should here give a hat tip to Paul Caplan, a teacher of mine who last year showed us Generation Kill clips in the context of social media’s participation in the battleground of the news discourse, as well as a look at a project of getting the Royal Air Force to allow soldiers to create their own uncensored video diaries on a YouTube channel for the service). But in this case, it was the way in which the azimuth of the classroom’s projections lined up so directly with its real world target that made it all hit home in such a powerful way.
Before continuing, I want to emphasize that even if it were entirely fabricated, there is a quiet core of contemporary relevance to the video that needs little additional comment. If you haven’t already, watch it.
Beyond this essential quality of the video, what also drew me to put fingers to keyboard was the way in which the clip gave as clear as any an indication as to just what it is a student of humanties and new media brings to issues such as this. Why after all should one really bother with the kind of anaylsis we dabble in? This question has a particular prescience at the moment for the department of humanities and digital media that I am doing some assistant teaching for. We are a tiny little wing in our university. We face the same questions and demands that many others in the field of humanties face. We are not applied enough in our efforts. We do not necessarily want to simply steer our students towards specific jobs which they can apply for upon completion of the Bachelor’s degree. Often times it can feel as if we are being cast as archetypal relics of an age of the ivory academic tower and its fancy free Don/Donna Quixotes. Even the surface sheen of our ‘new media’ bent is apparently not enough to make up for the supposed folly of our outmoded endeavours.
But today I see a video leak of a presentation we already gave. I listen as the leak’s spokesman tells the world that, “It seems like they are playing videogames with people’s lives.” I watch the talking heads on the networks debate the issue as a stream of electronic jingles and hypermediated info graphics helicopter around them. During all of this, I am reminded of the documentary Control Room and the death of Al Jazeera journalist Tarek Ayyoub (see 8:35 in here, continues here). And in a similar quest for open dialogue, I hear Blackfive’s critique of the heavy framing that WikiLeaks uses in their overall presentation of the video (perhaps it is worth the site considering this argument if it wants to further encourage people from every corner, creed, and stripe to approach them with future material). In these extensions of thought, aided by the mechanical extensions of a computer connected to the internet, I even spend a moment seeking out videos on aerial wolf hunting. Cobbled together this may well appear at first sight, but this is no scatter-gun approach.
While a great many others were applying their concentrated intellectual efforts and technical mastery to creating all of the kinds of technologies and other systems that we see at play in a case like this, we, whose rules of engagement may appear more slant to some, were also there, exiled to a far corner of the room so that our apparently obtuse musings would not distract or upset the others. But of course you don’t have to look very hard to see that this kind of wide ranging and creative associative thinking is not just a mode of cognition limited to fields like the humanities. It is practised everywhere on the web today. The swarming sensation, what others might call “ambient awareness”,” is, at least partly, what the web and so many other aspects of contemporary experience are all about. If this is still coming across as an abstract conception, it is not something that is very difficult to convey to anyone immersed to even a small degree in something like online social networking.
And none of this is new. A phrase like “the fog of war,” coined by Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz two centuries back, is all about just this kind of situational awareness and the attempt to see through the “exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance” of things by having as good an understanding as possible of the overall picture. As the Wikipedia entry on the phrase points out, countless war game simulators recreate (“remediate”) a fog of war effect as a core mechanic in their gameplay. Or take another related term with militaristic connotations, the German Fingerspitzengefühl (“finger tip feeling”). To parse from the Wikipedia root again: “Even though there is no physical connection between the commander and his troops, other than conduits for discursive information such as radio signals, it is as if he had his own sensitive presence in each spot.” This is Facebook long before Facebook existed, and the commanders of today’s battles would make for useful contributors to contemporary discussions in humanties and new media on a key topic like that of ambient awareness. Similarly, almost all technologies have certain militaristic origins, and clearly a student with a background in something like humanities and digital media is ideally placed to plot out two-way studies on links such as these (as Kittler, Virilio and others already have). And just as those in the military could be very useful contributors to the discussion, so too could they themselves benefit and bolster their own perceptiveness through parallel fields of study such as media and technology studies on top of the history courses common to their studies.
The fact of the matter is that many of us involved in digital humanities do not only reflect on such matters for reflection’s sake. We do so because of a sense of the deep relevance in this kind of wide-ranging approach. Armed as we are with our particular set of skills, we attempt to analyse historical and contemporary events from a prism that can be so much more than just an abstract collection of disparate intellectual rays. If you find any merit in this article then know that it was built from a sturdy platform of literature (Borges), culture (war coverage, history, The Beatles, Johnny Cash), and digital media (wiki sites, social media, video games, blogging). One popular graphics platform for today’s video games is named the Unreal Engine. For us these matters are very real, but we also respect the intuitive and incisive qualities of the unreal. And we don’t just reflect. Given half the chance, we can even, on occasion, synthesize all of these various inputs into something like accurate, or more importantly, useful forecasts as to where we might be headed for in our combined endeavours. Give us our seat at the table so that we might also collaborate in tackling or avoiding altogether these predictable narratives whose painful, entirely unexquisite realities none of us want to be imagining.