Academic journal article New Formations

Spectacular Conflicts, Naked Empires, and the Colonization of Social Life

Academic journal article New Formations

Spectacular Conflicts, Naked Empires, and the Colonization of Social Life

Article excerpt

Ramaswami Harindranath

Retort (Iain Boal, TJ. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts) Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in the New Age, Verso, London, 2005, pp211; £9.99 paperback.

Susan Willis, Portents of the Real: A Primer for Post-9/11 America, Verso, London, 2005, ppl46; £15.99 hardback.

Samir Amin, The Liberal Virus: Permanent War and the Americanization of the World. Pluto Press, London, 2004, ppl28; £9.99 paperback.

In April 2007 global television news channels carried images of a dozen young British men and a woman captured by Iran in allegedly Iranian waters. What did Iran stand to gain in parading on television the hapless British sailors? What did Ahmadinejad seek to achieve in his subsequent declaration - on television - that the captured sailors were being released as an Easter 'gift to Britain'? While the question of whether or not the sailors had transgressed international maritime boundaries may never be determined with any certainty, what is perhaps even more significant is the ostentation of the display of the young sailors on Iranian television, and a subsequent counter-display after their release on British television. The capture itself seemed incidental to the jostling for position in terms of spectacle. seemingly dissatisfied with the infliction of manifold destruction, the contagion of conflict has taken on another dimension, that of imagery. In the context of instantaneous global communication and satellite broadcasting, images have assumed a specific currency. As Retort note, 'outright defeat in the war of appearance is something that no present-day hegemon can tolerate' (pi4). Later on in the book they declare: 'the present madness is singular: the dimension of spectacle has never before interfered so palpably, so insistently, with the business of keeping one's satrapies in order' (p37).

If, as Roger Scruton and others have argued, 9/11 was a watershed event, a global historical moment, what does the event signify, what changes did it inaugurate, and what forces did it unleash?1 There has been a raft of academic research and publications on post-September 11 global culture. A few have examined how the immediacy of television and new technologies of communication have contributed to the dissemination of images of terrorism in real time, and the social and political consequences of this.2 In Portents of the Real: a Primer for Post-9/11 America Susan Willis, informed by cultural studies, provides a complex commentary on the political ramifications of'the culture of pathological worry' and the state-sanctioned 'narrative of good vs evil'. Studies with a broader remit have sought to examine the media images as 'spectacle', characteristic of the post-Fordist age. A recent example of this is Retort's Afflicted Powers, which revives Marx's notion of primitive accumulation and combines it with Guy Debord's theories on spectacle to analyse post-9/11 global politics and Empire. Samir Amin's argument in The Liberal Virus is an extension of his abiding concern with the economic and political domination of developing world, in this instance the pernicious influence of American style politics and the urgent need for the revival of real democracy as a force for change. The three books share a common concern with the current state of affairs in global politics, although they differ in their emphasis and their focus. All three have as their central concern the contemporary manifestations of American power, both within the country and globally.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag alludes to the paradoxical status of representations in contemporary media-rich societies: 'something becomes real - to those who are elsewhere, following it as "news" - by being photographed. But a catastrophe that is experienced will often seem eerily like its representation. The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was described as "unreal", "surreal", "like a movie", in many of the accounts of those who escaped from the towers or watched from nearby'. …

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