Sunday, September 7, 2008


How Myth and Reality Coincide in the Snuff and Ransom Videos of Terrorists

“The profundity and sublime majesty of the suppressed mythology can be appreciated best by way of two apparently unrelated clocks, one, the ultimate clock of outer space, and the other of inner space – respectively, the astronomical precession of the equinoxes and the physiological beat of the human heart… “
– Joseph Campbell

On December 30th 2006, security guards, government ministers and an executioner took their places on a darkened stage in Baghdad. When the lights go up the audience sees a small room like a black-box theater. At the center of the stage is a raised podium: the gallows. And there atop the trap door stands the main character, an international villain who was about to be turned into a martyr: Saddam Hussein. The witnesses maintain their places in the tableau, toeing the dusty chalk ‘X’s marking their spots on the stage floor. But these are not silent witnesses and this is only a one-act play, an autonomous scene in an apocalyptic epic watched by the whole world.
Saddam offers up prayers as camera flashes flicker.
Guards: Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!
Hussein smiles. A camera flashes.
Saddam: Is this how you show your bravery as men?
Witness 1: Straight to hell
Saddam: Is this the bravery of Arabs?
Witness 2: Please, I am begging you not to, the man is being executed.
Guard: Long live Mohammed Baqir Sadr!
The jeering continues. The trapdoor is dropped. Hussein hangs under the sign of Capricorn. The witnesses approach the dying body, Saddam’s face is upturned, tip of his tongue visible, eyes deep and black in the dim light shining through the threshold of the trapdoor. Witnesses and guards dance around the corpse.
Almost a year after the execution of Saddam Hussein the jawal video that had been leaked onto the PAN networks around the Middle East and onto the web has been reappropriated variously by Gulfies as farce (a way of backhanding Shi’ite Muslims) and as elegy (set to the valorizing poem Seif al Arab). It has become a sort of canvas or void file which creator/spectators use to invent their own Saddam mythology.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, George W. Bush experiences the Middle East as “a phantom territory between the West and its others.” A dark, more difficult underground level of his video game (Bush is rumored to play with his Sega before afternoon naps) with more bungling ‘baddies’ and a much greater treasure at it’s completion.

And in many ways, as argued by Avital Ronnel, “Saddam Hussein was a prop, it is also the case that this concept functionally suited George W. Bush who in order mythically to fill himself out, needed a mythic structure of return and second chance.” Essentially, George W. Bush got a ‘do-over’ with the Iraq War. He pressed the Start button and didn’t have to return to the first level of his father’s game.

The jawal footage of the death of Saddam Hussein is as real to him as a pixilated video game monster. But the “uncanny president of the near end of the millennium” would never have been born had the following one-act play not occurred (and been caught on amateur film) in 1944. George Bush Senior’s rescue-at-sea was recorded and eventually uploaded into the same ‘haptic’ cyberspace where Saddam’s death-at-gallows exists. This indicates a leveling of the planes, including the difference between the re-gift of life and the toll of death in virtual reality. In many ways the mimed (the footage is silent) play of the Bush rescue is the exact opposite of the Saddam hanging.

Curtain Up

Three men mill around the deck of a submarine.
It looks like surfacing head of a sperm whale.
Three thousand miles of ocean all around.
A tiny lifeboat bobs up to the side of the Finback and a man is pulled onto the vessel.

He wobbles along with weak sea legs.
Men in white navy shirts swarm and help him along.
George Bush Senior glances up at the camera,
trying to retrieve something from his chest pocket.


But Avital Ronnel stipulates that Bush, like Saddam, died on camera back in 1944. She argues poetically that the future came anyway but it happened to a dead man:

“An unconscious pilot would awaken; he’d learn that he was alive, rescued. The future would happen. But George Bush was in a sense destined to remain unconscious. When he awoke, for a brief spell, back then, he cried, he was delirious. He wanted his friends. He was young. He was hysterical. No matter what they did, George Bush would never learn that he was alive after that day.”

The jawal is the primary telecommunicational focus of George W. Bush’s war (mobiles are used as clandestine tracking devices, as locked storage units and as bomb detonators), the telephone of George Bush Sr. is highlighted as the disconnected line that started the first Gulf War. “It was reconnected with 9/11 infact the lines were flooded with calls, video threats and beheadings and posturings. This was going to be a war of teletopologies, presence at a distance, a war which could have been averted, according to the one version, by a telephone call. Saddam Hussein said he would have transferred the locus of power to the Other, provided the Other wasn’t going to be a spectacular other, a mere counterpart and double. No, Saddam had to hear himself speak through the locus of the Other if he was to cooperate, or at least feign cooperation with the community of nations. This is precisely what a telephone call accomplishes: it allows transference to take place in a manner that would supersede a stand off between two egological entities or two continuous subjects; in sum, it programs another algorithm of encounter.” Indeed, the jawal, evolutionary continuation of the telephone has reprogrammed the algorithm encounter between two ‘egological entities’ and made it first an encounter between the event and the spectator and then an encounter between ‘haptic’ space and reality.

Ignoring the fact that George Bush Sr. is still breathing while Saddam’s cadaver has disappeared under the earth (or for all we know propped up in some mad General’s offices) it is important to understand that death (and life) on the camera is virtual and that there has been a refusal of death. The video plays of Saddam’s hanging and George’s rescue are enclosed in the uncanny theater of ‘haptic’ space. But when those theater walls fall away (as discussed, it has crumbled in the Gulf) we are left with a spectacle that is lived by the viewer willingly or not.

Doha based channel Al-Jazeera is infamous for broadcasting the bloody stumps of Iraqi children on the evening news and showing threatening ransom videos of the regions’ kidnapped. This saturation and infiltration of the horrific and snuff-like videos and coverage of war in the Middle East is simply a confirmation of its unreality, and displacement caused by history’s wounds remaining fresh and open like the gaping time-warp still waiting to close in on itself. Baudrillard was right, the Gulf War didn’t occur…and neither is this one. Now in our ever-more terrible present we are transported onto that plane of shock, where we do not register reality on screen as reality at all. So we live there, in that grainy space of fantasy where, “instead of avidly looking for signs of the past, we come to a point where we avidly stare at signs of the present,” unmoved, we are then catapulted through time to the end.

1 comment:

Stephen Gutknecht said...

Your use of the quote "Bush is a haunted man, and the Middle East remains a phantom territory between the West and its others."

This type of "us vs. them" attitude toward outsiders, and the idea of a "territory between" is somewhat known in European literature and educations.

Joseph Campbell actually discovered a similar description of non-Christians in European tradition. This phantom territory, Campbell described as a "Suburbs of Eden" which is a very New York / American way of looking at things. ( For art on that, the well known Rush song "Subdivisions" within Suburbs comes to mind - saying "Fringes" - and you may really enjoy the song of how things are so divided, misfit so alone - that's the theme of much of your work? ).

I view George Bush as a man who feels threatened by authentic hippy peer to peer values, and feels castrated by the kind of poets who wrote Grail stories. You could argue that Bush behaved too much like a King, and did not behave with proper American Reason - and did not earn his position through Reason.

Campbell, 1986:


The Grail becomes the -- what can we call it? -- that which is attained and realized by people who have lived their own lives. The Grail represents the fulfillment of the highest spiritual potentialities of the human consciousness.

The Grail King, for example, was a lovely young man, but he had not earned the position of Grail King. He rode forth from his castle with the war cry "Amor!" Well, that's proper for youth, but it doesn't belong to the guardianship of the Grail. And as he's riding forth, a Muslim, a pagan knight, comes out of the woods. They both level their lances at each other, and they drive at each other. The lance of the Grail King kills the pagan, but the pagan's lance castrates the Grail King.

What that means is that the [middle ages] Christian separation of matter and spirit, of the dynamism of life and the realm of the spirit, of natural grace and supernatural grace, has really castrated nature. And the European mind, the European life, has been, as it were, emasculated by this separation. The true spirituality, which would have come from the union of matter and spirit, has been killed. And then what did the pagan represent? He was a person from the suburbs of Eden. He was regarded as a nature man, and on the head of his lance was written the word "Grail." That is to say, nature intends the Grail. Spiritual life is the bouquet, the perfume, the flowering and fulfillment of a human life, not a supernatural virtue imposed upon it.

And so the impulses of nature are what give authenticity to life, not the rules coming from a supernatural authority -- that's the sense of the Grail.