Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

War, Cinema, and Moral Anxiety (1)

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

War, Cinema, and Moral Anxiety (1)

Article excerpt

In modern war, one individual can cause the destruction of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. He can do so by pushing a button; he may not feel the emotional impact of what he is doing, since he does not see, does not know the people that he kills; it is almost as if his act of pushing the button and their death had no real connection. The same man would probably be incapable of even slapping, not to speak of killing, a helpless person. In the latter case, the concrete situation arouses in him a conscience reaction common to all normal men; in the former there is no such reaction, because the act and his object are alienated from the doer, his act is not his any more, but has, so to speak, a life and responsibility of its own.

--Erich Fromm, The Sane Society

And yet it is moral anxiety that provides the only substance the moral self could ever have.... This uncertainty with no exit is precisely the foundation of morality. One recognizes morality by its gnawing sense of unfulfllledness, by its endemic dissatisfaction with itself.--Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics

One of the most interesting developments in critical social theory has been a concern with what is best described as a "sociology of morality." Zygmunt Bauman has written prolifically on the techniques used for producing moral indifference, arguing, in Modernity and the Holocaust, that far from being an act of primitive barbarity, the violence of the Holocaust was a product of modern forms of "efficient" organization. From Bauman's perspective, the production line of death was an outcome of the instrumental rationality that modern forms of bureaucracy make possible. It was necessary, he suggests, for the organizers of the Holocaust to find ways to distance those carrying out the violence from the victims--to structure the events so that there was no room for "eruptions" of moral responsibility: It was necessary to distance the participants from the "face" of the victim, constructing them as "objects" of control, manipulation, and extermination. The violence was reduced to a series of tasks where responsibility was floated among the individuals that took part. (2) A similar point has been made by Paul Virilio in his writings on war and technology, where he argues that the ethical issue we need to address is the "derealization of military engagement." (3) Similarly, James Der Derian has argued that virtual war is designed to distance not only the pilots and strategists from the reality of death that they are orchestrating, but also to distance the citizenry back home from the suffering that is being carried out under the banner of virtuous war: "Post Vietnam, the U.S. has made many digital advances; public announcements of enemy body counts is not one of them." (4)

The point being made by Bauman, Virilio, and Der Derian is not that in the face of proximity to suffering, humans will necessarily respond with acts of moral responsibility. Der Derian suggests that we also need to consider the role of trauma in warfare: We may have proximity, but we may still remain distanced from the acts we witness (or take part in). (5) Bauman argues that even in recent situations that are constructed as acts of primitive "ethnic" and "face-to-face" barbarity (with Bosnia as an example), there is a dependence on modern forms of organization (propaganda; organization through the use of mobile phones). It is not the case that barbarism on a large scale erupts from a postmodern "state of nature," from the edges of globalization. (6) What is being asserted here is that distancing populations and participants from the consequences of violence makes it easier to make people indifferent; it has a narcotic effect--what Bauman describes in terms of a "moral sleeping pill."

Virilio and Der Derian have both written on the relationship between cinema and war, with Derian specifically tracing the emergence of MIME-NET (the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network), a network of power that works to legitimate developments in military technology and broader foreign-policy objectives. …

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