Woolwich’s bloody spectacle

This is a translation of a piece by John Brown, originally published on his blog 23rd May 2013.

Woolwich’s bloody spectacle

Michel Foucault teaches us in his 1970s lectures that we need to distinguish between two forms of rule over populations: discipline and control. Discipline seeks to normalise individuals in a way that their conduct becomes foreseeable and ‘normal’. It achieves this through devices such as the prison, the school, the army barracks or the Fordist factory, all of these based in the same device or scheme of power theorised by Jeremy Bentham and whose genealogy was investigated by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: the panopticon. The panopticon is a device that allows a person situated in an area at the centre of a closed space with no obstacles to vision can observe, ideally without being seen, every person enclosed in that space, so that, by knowing that they are always potentially being monitored, the individuals enclosed in that space ‘spontaneously’ adjust their behaviours to the norm. Many prisons follow this schema.

Control ignores this individualised normalisation and wholly manages the behaviour of populations  by determining, not at an atomic level but a molar level, the acceptable limits of this behaviour without recourse to any prior norm or value. A society of control thereby permits, for example, certain levels of violence and criminality, including them in a utilitarian calculus that compares pros and cons of the various behaviours and establishes their acceptable levels of danger or risk. Thus corruption can become a criminal practice that is perfectly acceptable in so far as it lubricates market transactions, and certain levels of violence can also be tolerated in terms of their utility to a highly profitable security and control industry (Rigouste).

The society of control is also a society of the spectacle in so far as it shows, almost exhaustively, the peaceful or violent everyday through perfected observation media. These media, however, do not have a disciplinary end point as with Bentham’s panopticon in which every individual interned in an enclosed space (a factory, prison, school etc.) knew they were potentially under surveillance and adjusted their behaviour out of this fear. Today, surveillance is total: CCTV cameras are present on every corner in our streets and frequently even in homes, but the observed space is an open space, and, above all, as mentioned previously, there is no norm established a priori that is sought to be imposed on behaviours. Every horizon, every moral compass, to use the everyday phrase, has been lost. It is no longer a matter, as in the disciplinary regime, of preventing ‘abnormal’ events from taking place, but of these events being made known publicly through sight, as a spectacle, and that they can be the object of a constant comparative evaluation without any prior unit of measurement or value. Thus violence itself changes in meaning and becomes an act whose actors know is destined to be seen. In addition the surveillance functions that were a State monopoly in the disciplinary regime have now been privatised through the profusion of private cameras that range from security cameras in homes and businesses to the portable cameras that nearly every model of mobile phone now incorporates.

This brings us to a new characteristic of the society of control: what Alain Brossat calls its immunitary character. Violence in the society of control is a violence of spectacle, seen at a distance even by those who carry it out. Today, everyone is an actor and everyone is a movie camera: we are in the age of the Man with a Movie Camera as in the film by Djiga Vertov. In this way, nothing affects us directly: reality is lived in the register of fiction, as something filmed or filmable. As a consequence, pain, even when it exists, is cancelled out, turned into a mere image of pain. The image immunises us against pain. The image is able to represent the absent thing as present, and also represents the present thing as absent, as a painless nothing.

A large part of present image and practice of war, in the era of the image and the drone, can only be understood from this perspective that is at once spectacular and immunitary. Hitler ordered that the genocide of the Jews of Europe be carried out in gas chambers to prevent the ‘moral suffering’ of the Nazi soldiers obliged to shoot children, women, old people and other unarmed civilians in the back of the head. Considering that an excessive ‘heroism’ was demanded of them in directly carrying out tasks of extermination, the Führer freed them from this burden through the instrument of industrial, anonymous and sterile death that is the gas chamber. At that momment, immunisation against the pain of the crime was obtained by hiding its images, denying its existence. Denialism is always already included in National Socialism’s policy of genocide. This ceases to occur with the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: we had images of the bombs, of the nuclear mushroom clouds and its consequences from the very start. One of the mission pilots, Eatherly, was on the verge of madness after ‘seeing’ what they had done. Even though he did not have contact with the murdered population, he could not bear his awareness of the magnitude of the carnage. It was hence necessary to separate, as far as possible, human beings from the act of bringing death, to immunise them against death through erecting barriers. These barriers would be the image and the automation of killing machines. The camera and the drone, often united in the same apparatus, synthesise this ‘human’ war that Hitler dreamed of. The widespread use of drones in the Afghanistan/Pakistan war are enabling the realisation of a dream of a conflict without casualties for whoever enjoys technical supremacy and heavy civilian casualties for whoever does not.

Yesterday’s shocking crime in London, in which a young Briton from a Nigerian background used a machete to kill a British soldier in the broad daylight of the street, is a good illustration of the functioning of a spectacular and immunitary society of control. Firstly, the images of the crime circulate on the web as an object of curiosity, since dozens of people were witness to the killing, and, rather than running over to help the victim or running to safety, they remained nearby, filming it. As if they had nothing to fear, since reality rendered an image is as inoffensive as that of a film, even it it is a ‘snuff movie’. The protagonist himself, having committed the crime walked off calmly amid passers by whilst being filmed, to explain serenely, with a bloodied machete and a knife in his hands that were also covered in blood, the motives for his action. It is likely the young man is an ‘improvised terrorist’ who decided to make himself famous through this act, and he achieved it. His objective was to denounce via the action what was happening every day in numerous Muslim countries occupied and intervened in by Western ‘humanitarian’ powers, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He did achieve fame, but he did not in reality achieve the latter, since in communications media there was merely a denunciation of his ‘barbarism’, quickly associated with political Islam by media whose immediate reflex is to banalise the image of the enemy, so as to better hide the context for this act.

In this way, what was sought as a bloody and cruel attempt to resort to propaganda of the deed was turned into a new argument in favour of anti-terrorism, racism and Islamophobia. What remained was the image of the barbarian engaged in the barbaric killing of one of ‘our boys’ and a new pretext for Muslim communities to be the object of xenophobic and racist attacks in Europe and Muslim countries. The image -as always happens in the society of the spectacle-, remained entirely disconnected from its context and the motives of the author of the crime. Thus, it was possible to attribute to him, and one could continue attributing to ‘his kind’ the monopoly on barbarism, whilst a British government that has been occupying Afghanistan for years and liquidating tens of thousands of people through bombardments with missiles and drones can allow itself to assume the monopoly of ‘humanity’. Whoever speaks of ‘barbarism’ expels the other from humanity for being essentially violent and inhuman, and assumes for himself the exclusive representation of what is human. The logic of pacifist humanism that speaks in the name of humanity and condemns violence “wherever it comes from” thereby coincides with that of racism and fundamentalism. Might racism be but the projection of our own violence and barbarism, of our own death drive, onto the ‘barbaric’ other?

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