Design by Raegan Kelly
This project is concerned with critical reading strategies and their importance for understanding evolving modes of visualization and evolving modes of war.
Using methods from Cultural Studies, I offer some tools for decoding the material we've gathered for you to see. Cultural Studies calls into question the taken-for-granted nature of things in order to map how power and knowledge come together, or rather how power-knowledge materializes in thoughts, ideas, images, identities, products, and relations. As a field, Cultural Studies promotes critical reflection upon the production of meaning, assuming cultures to be constituted through dynamics of difference, rather than being homogenous or static entities. Culture is a contested terrain, to paraphrase Stuart Hall. Conflicts over meaning involve social subjects -- individual people and other agents of social relations (such as universities, religious congregations, corporations, militaries, families, etc.) -- and changing (sometimes volatile) systems of signification. These conflicts may be more visible in the context of crisis. In the case of the mediated space you are about to enter in Killer Entertainments, the crisis is that of increasingly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan waged on what are now generally regarded as either insufficient, discrepant, or downright false pretenses. What I have tried to do here is to show how the visual codes pertaining to these wars are in the grain of other popular entertainments that may indeed serve to make the violence of war something that we have already incorporated into daily life and bodily practice, but of whose many effects we remain disturbingly unaware.
Culture Studies uses critical reading practices to locate texts in contexts. This is accomplished by paying attention to three main dimensions of cultural production: the textual (or formal) properties of a given cultural product, the political economy that affords its production, and the product's reception by its consumers. Textual analysis examines how an image is framed, lit, organized, displayed, or placed in relation to other images. It focuses on what the image or text actually displays, i.e. its content. It allows for polysemic readings -- different or multiple interpretations of an image or text.
An analysis of its political economy takes stock of what it costs to make a product, that is, the values that enabled the production of the product. This dimension of analysis may look at "culture industries" (television, films, music, gaming). It notices where money is invested, and who is in charge of spending and making it. It pays attention to market-building and techniques for selling cultural products. It analyzes the development of technology -- its cost, intended purpose, its marketing (e.g. cable TV, satellite dishes, cameras, computers, wireless devices, etc.). It pays attention to how economic power links up to formal political power, for example, in instances of censorship, regulation, and the official circulation of certain cultural products such as movies, TV shows, computer games, advertisements, and recorded music. It asks who and what kinds of cultural products are marginalized as a result of who controls the money (i.e. how "underground," "independent" or "alternative" media are produced).
An analysis of audience reception takes into consideration how consumers of a product or system make sense of what they are consuming and may, in turn, subvert the intended uses of what they receive, wittingly or unwittingly. As Cultural Studies has it, viewers and consumers are part of the system of cultural production, not passive receivers or mere end points of a unidirectional trajectory. Therefore, audience reception analysis looks at the ways that specific cultural products are developed to appeal to certain audiences -- i.e. how they construct certain audiences rather than merely discover already constituted groups of people. This approach also reveals how mass media are geared toward dominant or "mainstream" audiences -- i.e. how mass media transform ideological assertions into cultural assumptions. And it reveals how corporate-controlled media often work to marginalize certain individuals and audiences. It also reveals how certain audiences actively resist or creatively appropriate cultural products against the intentions of their designers. Specific audiences may "read against the grain" of a text, producing a variety of readings that differ from the intentions of those who originally conceived and sold the product.
These three analytical dimensions of Cultural Studies methodology are embedded in the technique I use for decoding the video clips that you are about to encounter. Raegan Kelly's design invites viewers to interact with my decoding techniques in relation to specific clips. Raegan and I invite you to consider these decodings critically and to compare them with your own situated perspectives on what you are seeing, hearing, feeling, and thinking about this material. There is much more that could be said about what you are going to encounter. We offer a modest but critical window into what is very likely to be an expanding world of performative images of violent conflict in what one commentator has referred to as "the first YouTube war."
Before we go further, though, I want to say a few words about the material we've collected, and to let you in on some of the decisions Raegan and I made about how to organize the piece. The main logic that governs the textual interventions I wrote for this piece is captured in a broad question: "What would viewers benefit from knowing in order to make sense of what they are watching?"
So first, we sought to contextualize the clips at various levels. We found that most of the video clips of combat that are uploaded to popular video-sharing sites are radically decontextualized. We learn very little about where they occurred, when they occurred, who is taking the footage, who is fighting, and why they are fighting. Some videos offer information that is either not very specific or inaccurate. Only a few are date- and time-stamped at the beginning of the clip, as in the B-roll material collected by the U.S. Army Mobile Public Affairs Detachment units. Some are posted months and even years after the event occurred, and therefore can be mistaken for occurring on the date they were posted, not when they were shot.
These decontextualizing moves, while perhaps not intentional, are linked to a process of obfuscation or mystification, whereby the spectacle dominates the field of knowledge and the histories and differing rationalities of the warring groups are submerged into obscurity. The operation of military occupation sets the stage for Manichean logics to become materialized in image-making and image-circulation -- if a video clip offers no information about the historical or political context in which its action takes place, the likelihood of simplistic racist and xenophobic logics organizing the viewing practice increases. I have attempted to offer various kinds of contextualizing information about the videos in order to interrupt a mystification process that is at the heart of warfare waged on the basis of a particular kind of xenophobic logic. You will find various kinds of information to contextualize a particular video by clicking on the red and brown buttons that appear as the clip rolls. Some elements of context recur when they are relevant to more than one video or segment.
Most of the clips selected for inclusion here are raw footage -- that is footage that is not heavily edited and is without a voice-over narration or musical soundtrack. The exception are clips produced by the Islamic Army of Iraq. All of the clips we've included are readily available on the internet for streaming or downloading. We chose them in order to provide a range of kinds of clips so that you may see footage taken from the cockpit of an aerial vehicle, or from a helmet-mounted camera, or from a camera mounted on an SUV's dashboard or a tank's turret. Many of the clips are taken with hand-held portable video cameras of consumer quality. Some of the clips are classified as "B roll" by military videographers who work as embedded reporters following the activities of units to which they are assigned. They are officially authorized clips but, as you can see, they are not necessarily organized into finished pieces. A lot of the footage is taken by amateurs who are learning as they go.
We have chosen also to include a number of clips produced by groups opposed to the U.S. occupation in Iraq, including the Islamic Army of Iraq and an unnamed Shi'a resistance group. These are included so that viewers can compare the formal properties and content elements to those in clips made by U.S. soldiers. I use the function of onscreen commentary to point out stylistic distinctions and their relationship to specific geopolitical factors in the region. In some instances, I point out similarities between "Jihad" clips and those produced by U.S. soldiers. This allows viewers to see a kind of cross-fire between sequences produced by combatants in various positions in the war.
A substantial number of the clips were taken by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who happened to have cameras and wanted to capture images of their experiences to send home to friends and family. These are technically unofficial materials that are distributed on commercial video-sharing websites. They are subject to restrictions according to Pentagon policy governing the appropriate use of the internet and other outlets when it comes to posting material about the war. In essence the policy makes commanding officers responsible for monitoring the blogging, chatting, and video-sharing activities of those under their command. The "Loose Lips Sink Ships" doctrine is a primary guide here: written, spoken, or photographed material that discloses the location and goals of operations still under way or that divulges strategic information that could endanger an operation or the soldiers involves is forbidden from being posted. Those who violate the policy are subject to punishment. But monitoring is done on a local level and commanding officers tend to rely on an honor system to keep restricted material out of circulation. That means a lot of images are available for all to see on the internet, including a substantial amount of grisly and disturbing material.
Much of the video footage that is posted to the internet is of operations that are already completed or whose date and location remain unspecified. It seems that much of the footage from the first few years of the war in Iraq was posted when troops came back to the U.S. Now, however, it is not unusual to find footage posted to places like militaryvideos.com, liveleak.com, and YouTube.com that is date-marked just a few days before it appears. This has partly to do with how easy it has become to upload video clips onto these sites -- something that wasn't as easy back in 2003 when band-width was hard to come by and few people knew about video-sharing sites. But it also may indicate that the people in the U.S. military, whether they are commanding officers or ground troops, recognize that a growing sector of the public is interested in watching war footage and seeking other sources of news about the war beyond mainstream news outlets, which are either accused of being overly pessimistic about the war, as conservative critics claim, or pandering to the ideological agenda of the Bush administration, as many on the left believe.
It is evident that the portable video camera is part of the arsenal of war. Images of combat are used by all sides in the conflict strategically to document operations, to prove the effectiveness of particular violent techniques, to inspire adherents to one's cause, and to mock or intimidate one's opponents. They are part of larger psychological and affective dimensions of this kind of war which is perhaps more photographed than any conflict which has preceded it and whose avenues of documentation crisscross with those of entertainment, religious observation, and transnational identity formation occurring within but also far from the actual site of bloody conflict. When so many have cameras and so many have viewing screens, the "B roll" of the war is radically dispersed and becomes an integral instrument in the waging of war.
We decided not to include examples of a large group of clips produced by U.S. troops and their supporters that follow a basic formula resembling music videos. There are hundreds of these on the internet, available from many of the sites I list below. Many are slideshow compilations set to a single song or a musical soundtrack -- usually "emo rock" anthems or thrash metal tunes with angry lyrics. I encourage viewers to take a look at some of these, and have provided links to a few of them at the end of this introduction. I hesitate to characterize them en masse because there are many stylistic variations among them. But they do share a common appeal to affect, though the resulting outcome of that appeal may vary from viewer to viewer. Based on the commentary section that appears below the viewing screen on which they appear, many are cheered for their patriotic prowess and powerful projection of U.S. military might. Some are credited by viewers as especially sensitive and meaningful, when they show the daily interactions of troops with one another or with Iraqi people who seem to welcome them. Others are technofetishistic, with speeded up images of jets flying through the air and dropping bombs or tanks traveling through villages and shooting off mortars into ruined buildings. It is common to see a photo of a G.I. smiling and showing off a rocket inscribed with phrases such as "die, raghead, die!" interjected between sequences of exploding bombs and frantic fire fights. In many ways, these amateur edited multi-media texts have much in common with videos compiled and posted by the Islamic Army in Iraq or other groups associated with the "electronic mujihadeen" that use music and scriptural text captions to enhance the affective or emotional appeal of the piece. I regard these edited video clips as no less or more meaningful (and no more or less "real") than the minimally edited footage that I have focused my analysis on in this piece. Their meanings must be decoded, sometimes using different kinds of tools than those applied to the minimally edited footage. What I wanted to do is to draw attention to the temporality and the affect signified without heavy editing involved. This seemed to me a greater challenge partly because the texts' instabilities and contingencies were more apparent than might be evident in footage subjected to processes of heavy editing. The insecurity of the footage -- its instability -- indicates something about the bodies of the endangered participants in the scenes being captured. Even when bodies do not appear -- and this is true in many of the clips we've chosen -- there is a vulnerability that is palpable, whose meaning is subject to analysis and decoding.
Authoring, co-authoring, re-authoring, appropriating. Video editing and sharing software have brought these functions together in ways that are manifestly evident in the universe of combat footage. It is not uncommon to find combat clips that are edited and provided with a musical soundtrack, or to find an opponent's video clips that are appropriated and re-scripted into the ideological framework of the re-authored production. For example, I found a clip that appropriates footage originally taken by an anti-occupation group and confiscated after the group's members were killed. For the first half of the nearly six minute tape, we see the typical footage produced by insurgents documenting the planning of operations to detonate vehicles through IEDs, etc. About two-thirds of the way through, a caption reading "this is what happens if you fuck with us" appears, followed by a series of still photographs of dead men, bloody body parts, bombed out cars, and captured weapons caches. It ends abruptly with a caption reading, "if you want some come get some bitches." At the time I am writing this, the clip is available at http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=60fd7b9937.
Another famous example is the use of photographs, once censored by the Pentagon, of rows of flag-wrapped caskets containing bodies of U.S. troops, loaded into C-130 aircraft returning to the military morgue in Dover, Delaware. It is not uncommon to find these images, taken by Americans working for the U.S. government in Iraq, in videos produced by anti-occupation groups from Iraq and the region. They are often deployed to address a potentially sympathetic audience of Americans who are angry with the Bush administration's denials about the real costs of war.
The video clips are a kind of ephemera. They may appear one minute, be cut into various pieces, re-authored, circulated, and then even disappear. I'm faced with a dilemma posed to ethnographers working in field sites: it is impossible to conduct the same interviews again or to have identical field observations happen in different moments. But, moreover, with the cut and mix re-authoring availed by new digital technologies, the clips take on a palimpsestic quality, as you will experience in their moments of freezing, fading, and repeating. Each shifted iteration -- uploading, downloading, uploading again, streaming, etc. -- offers a a trace of a kind of re-authoring, only the author may be not a person but is likely to be a ghost or erratic code in the machine.
One can easily predict that the kinds of footage included in this piece will become quotidian, if they haven't already for some of you who are reading this. But this project was undertaken at the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between representation, media technologies, and violent conflict. I started it just as video sharing social networking sites were beginning to attract what have grown to be millions of viewers, many of whom are producers of media images themselves, though mostly having amateur skills levels. The advent of affordable video cameras, desk top editing software, high speed digital transmission vectors, and fascination with the homemade spectacle are elements that converge and take material form in the clips we've gathered. Since the phenomenon of making, uploading, and circulating images in such a mass dimension is a new development, my commentary may seem elementary and simplistic in a few years or even a few months, once we have all grown accustomed to being around this kind of material in a daily way. I shudder to think how I may be getting things dead wrong in my readings of this material, just as some early commentators on photography and cinema seem to have been way off track in retrospect. But this emergent social matrix that brings together cameras, computers, bodies, weapons, sentiments, and ideas seems worthy of reflection, even if it is tentative and not yet very sophisticated.
Who makes these clips and who watches them? From what I have been able to discern, based on thousands of hours of surveying internet video-sharing sites, watching hundreds of video clips, and reading all that is available on videography and the current wars, it appears that most of the uploaded material is produced by men and, though this is harder to verify, most of it is watched by other men. This seems to hold for video clips taken by U.S. forces and for clips gathered by groups opposed to U.S. occupation. Though more women than ever are enlisted among the U.S. ranks, they don't seem to be taking video footage or at least uploading any of it to video-sharing sites. A few women who are trained as specialists in military public affairs receive official credit for their videography on B-roll of operations, but it seems mostly to be men and mostly white men who are uploading combat videos to the internet. In fact, women are almost never featured in the clips. They seldom appear in the clips posted by Jihad-identified groups, but occasionally they are shown assembling IEDs, as you will see in one of the clips we've included here.
What does this indicate? Simply put, it reflects the gender demographics of the U.S. military and of the anti-occupation groups, which are overwhelmingly comprised of men. But it may also indicate something about the relationship of gender to technology, especially videography, editing, uploading, and surfing the internet. It's not unheard of but it is rare to find video clips narrated by or featuring African American or Latino soldiers -- male or female -- even though there are significant percentages of these groups in the military. The ranks of the trained and amateur videographers vary, but mostly they seem to be enlisted men (not officers) gathering footage of combat in order to document operations or to have a kind of war journal in which they record their experiences of war to send home or to have as souvenirs to remember the time later. This situation may change with time but for now it is an interesting symptom to consider, especially since posting video clips to the internet is one way of offering a perspective on the war. It will be interesting to see if women soldiers or soldiers of color or immigrant soldiers trading military duty for citizenship start to upload their own videos to the internet. And if they do, it will be interesting to see if their footage draws on different codes of signification, different kinds of soundtrack and music, different framing techniques, and different perspectives on war.
Here is a list of some of the video sharing websites which post U.S. military or anti-occupation videos:
http://www.dvidshub.net (Digital video and Imagery Distribution System)
For an interesting documentary film on the subject, see MTV Iraq Uploaded: The War Network TV Won't Show You, Shot By Soldiers and Posted Online, July 2006, discussed at http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1536780/20060720/index.jhtml and featured in excerpts at http://www.ifilm.com
Here are a few examples of music-video style productions using photography or video clips from combat. There are hundreds more of these on the internet:
Die, Terrorist, Die (posted August 2002), available at http://music-videos.grouchymedia.com/2002/08/die-terrorists-die.html
I am the Infantry, available at http://shock.military.com/Shock/videos.do?displayContent=98527
Divine Intervention (posted May 2004), available at http://music-videos.grouchymedia.com/2004/05/divine-intervention.html
Shootout at H5 (posted August 10, 2006), available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqox2KTAtGo - note this uses footage from a clip entitled Fire fight in ad Duluiyah, placing credits and a soundtrack over it, with Nicholas Boutin acknowledged as Cameraman 1.