Thou God Seest Me: Some Gathered Thoughts for A Short Film About War.
“You see the imagery, you know what’s going on, you see what you’re looking at. It’s very easy when something like that is happening to project yourself there and feel a part of the battle. Like I said, your heart starts racing a little bit.” – CNN interview with US-based predator drone aircraft pilot on flying air strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan from a control room in the Nevada desert.
“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” – Legendary command attributed to William Prescott at the Battle of Bunker Hill, American Revolutionary War
A Short Film About War by Thomson & Craighead is the second installment in what will be a series of three “desktop documentaries.” The first work in the series, Flat Earth establishes the context; a series of web based films constructed exclusively from media gathered from the Internet. A vast world is made smaller, more manageable, through the impossible eye that carries viewers in and out of the earths orbit to reveal the seemingly individual voices of bloggers as lines in an elaborately staged narrative. The idea that subjectivity belongs to oneself, that I am the subject of my own will, gives way to an unfolding map of interconnectedness, subjectivity externalized, an opening, and a chance at conceptualizing shared existence on a platform used mostly for performing private moments.
But something is awry here. There is free speech, and a presumption that someone’s listening, and yet there is no possibility of reciprocal communication. The global positions of the speakers are precisely pinpointed for us, but they seem lost to each other and lost to anything but an abstract notion of an audience. Unidirectionality is largely built into the technologies of traditional cinema and broadcast media, and criticism concerning the political implications of this self-imposed constraint are well circulated. Yet these conventions seem ripe for criticism when carried over to the context of the web where the structural/political limits of broadcast media are easily transcended and happily so by many. Perhaps, the fact that net cinema attempts to have an “audience” at all is worth looking at, simply for the political implications of (re)establishing the relationships of authority and passivity that are the hallmarks of cinema and broadcast media. All this seems particularly striking in A Short Film About War where alienated speech seems to deny the speakers and their (invisible) audience a view of our possible political and economic relationships in what could be called the fourth world war. There are connections without contacts, calls without responses. The network is revealed only to the privileged audience who is carried by the universal eye, soaring and yet mired in sublimity.
“We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” – The Death of Author, Roland Barthes
Once reviled by media institutions for the threat they offered to the authority kept by traditional broadcast media, the voices of bloggers, now assimilated, are framed (or haloed) as high voices in a hierarchy of sight – they’re assumed to be out there and on the ground, closer to whatever it is we wish to know intimately with the click of a mouse. In large part the celebration of blogging is a celebration of supposed individualism, the story of the man or woman who refuses to work within established boundaries of institutions, one who, with equal parts objective reporting and personal confessional somehow “gets it” and lures us in with the status that “getting it” and “going it alone” promises. But what are we to make of the war stories featured in A Short Film About War; a few selected from possible millions, but seemingly without reference to one another? How are we to contextualize these narrative fragments and find them meaningful as a group? For that, it seems that we’ve been given some rather heavy-handed help from a higher place.
A (holy)ghost of sorts lurks above this mushy swamp of lonely calls to the great search engine in the sky – keyword – “war,” and it’s not long before He speaks as the singular master narrator – as if to top off the long mythic journey of humanity from the wheel to the neutron bomb to the Internet in which this moment, as every other, plays its indelible part in a preordained techno-history. Here the stage is set, where a story of any particular war, and the development of any particular technology begins to smother under the weight of a narrative of mythic proportions as we zoom in and out of orbit and are treated to an image of the world as it might look to one who floats above it rather than live on it. And although this divine voice, who speaks in simulated orbit over a simulated planet seems to be a push-over, a cardboard cutout, a canned voice on the set of a made-for-tv Genesis remake – like most gods, he has a lot to say, but you listen most for what’s not said.
“From yon blue heaven the eyes of the glorified look down on us; there the children of God are sitting on their starry thrones, observing whether we manfully uphold the banner around which they fought; they behold our valour, or they detect our cowardice; and they are intent to witness our valiant deeds of noble daring, or our ignominious retreat in the day of battle.” – Omniscience . A Sermon Delivered by REV. C. H. Spurgeon, June 15, 1856 At Exeter Hall, Strand
Let us pray to the absolute speed of electromagnetic waves that simultaneously composes the three attributes of perfection and tyranny: urgency, omnipotence and omnipresence. How is democracy possible when this is the vantage point from which we’re (re)constructing the world? These days, communication is described primarily as a technological operation, and technology is often conceptualized as an evolutionary process somehow outside of the messy realm of human desire – a self-guiding force. This framework for understanding communication in techno-evolutionary terms (rather than cultural ones) seems to be upheld in A Short Film About War, where communication seems to be understood as the power of technology and progress to facilitate unfettered individual expression (even in the worst of circumstances). However frightening, seen from this vantage point, it is quite easy to view our current global predicament as the natural material outcome of a universal “man’s” ongoing dreams, ending in the deconstruction of the finite view of the human(ist) eye and the construction of the disembodied all-seeing post-human(ist) eye. We’re all just reporters of inevitable events. Not a whole lot of back-and-forth chat is needed.
“Thou God seest me.” – Genesis 16:13
In a way, the orbital perspective seems reminiscent of Pre-Renaissance European perspective – the work of Hieronymus Bosch comes to mind – where viewers are given a representation of God’s perspective – impossibly large landscapes, multiple time zones existing simultaneously, everything equally in focus. Of course, the feudal era of Europe wasn’t dubbed the “Dark Ages” for nothing; lacking widespread concepts of personal possession seeing for oneself was about as equally strange a concept to most as taking for oneself. It would take capitalism and the “Enlightenment” to finally convince people to think otherwise – though massive brutalities persisted through it all. It’s worth noting that during the “Middle Ages,” people assumed that they were on earth to act as stewards of God’s creation and to carry out this mission within a very particular and brutal hierarchy of power. Wholesale ownership and destruction of God’s creation was unthinkable and undoable, except by God himself. The damage of Christian feudal life was on a human scale not a planetary one. But what are we to make of the divine perspective we’ve fashioned for ourselves in today’s world, with today’s technologies? How is it that we can simultaneously embrace the post-human perspective even while caring about preserving humanity? Perhaps we’re all going (post)medieval – each one of us gods-of-sorts behind our computer screens receiving reports straight from our angels in orbit? Is the era of God 2.0 upon us?
…but wait, this whole thing is a fabricated view – not even a whole thing at all but a fragmented thing framed in a series of constructions posing as inevitabilities and divine rights. It is a fictional vantage point (like all) that we’re being asked to see and speak from, but regrettably one that often works to convince its subjects – us – of our simultaneous power as spectator consumers and outright political worthlessness. It has been said that to remain a docile and happy subject of rule one must (mis)recognize one’s subjectivity as one’s own. The master narrative provides that – given that the user/subject is provided with an impressive enough spectacle to call his or her own. Who is freer (in individualist terms) than one who can virtually see / possess everything? I am a god in front of my screen, but one who’s both omnipotent and impotent. With a click I become master of my destiny, but my destiny is not my own.