« Michael Warner, " | Main | The Empire Strikes Back - French version »

More thoughts on "Watching Babylon"

Just a few thoughts I jotted down. Could be something, or maybe nothing.

Thoughts on Mirzeoff’s argument

The SUV and Superstore encourages the act of moving along—in the car, we are constantly moving, and in the Superstore, we are encouraged to get in, get the lowest prices and get out, assembling the products bought there at home. We are moving along—constantly circulating. This is an important movement for Mirzeoff. Once inside the home, we are encouraged to look but keep moving because we no longer feel safe in our homes owing to the permeability of the screen. We know something is going on over there, but we don’t know what it is for we are inclined to constantly “keep moving?

Perhaps the initial movement associated with vernacular watching can be found in the space of the SUV and Superstore. What’s important for Mirzeoff is the next step regarding how we no longer feel safe within our own homes. Rather than focus on what we see before the screen regarding the war, we turn away, because the view makes us anxious about how insecure we really are.

Comments

Sorry, Monica, that I'm not directly addressing your question right now, but I just wanted to chime in more on the discussion of this book.

As perhaps came through in class, I wasn't much of a fan of Watching Babylon. One reason for this was the sense that his move was always, without methodological explanation, to go from particular observations to drawing general conclusions about the workings of thought, subjectivity or visuality in contemporary society.

A major example of this was the big conclusion that we are now in an era of an "empire of camps," which rejects productive power and instead concerns itself with repressing and confining certain bodies deemed ultimately unusable as productive forces. He drew this conclusion from looking at the practices in Guantanomo Bay and other detention institutions. While I agree that his concept of camps may be a very good description of the rationale behind the workings of these institutions and certainly there are important questions about what historical, political, etc contexts made possible the conditions in which such camps could come into existence, he seemed to immediately assume that these detention centers were institutions that epitomized a new logic of governing. He at suggests this logic extends pervasively in all sorts of contemporary governing practices, and he very explicitly offers Iraq as site where the empire of camps logic is revealed.

Now, what's happening with US presence in Iraq at this moment may fit with the empire of camps style of governing, but the neoconservative plans for Iraq just before the war suggest a very different logic of governing. In aspirations of some of the most influential war architects, the invasion of Iraq was to lead to the creation of an exemplary mid-eastern state that would spread infectious democracy across the region. Far from believing that the people of this region were ultimately incapable of cooperating with US ideology, they staked their policy on the belief that its subjects who could undergo a transformation through productive rather than repressive power. The neocon's thought all the mid-east needed was a nudge with some heavy bombing and the region would actively become a compliant US subsidiary, celebrating the US’s gift of democracy with dancing in the street. Far from seeing the global situation as one where the “clash of civilizations? had to be fought to the death of one side, it seems neocon planning was more based on that thought that (the now-anti-neocon) Fukuyama’s “end of history? was near. The relic difference of mid-eastern culture would soon give way to late-capitalist modernity, according to the war planners. Their prediction of what would happen in Iraq may have turned out to be incredibly wrong, and they’ve fallen back on martial law type measures to try to control the situation. Still I don’t think Mirzoeff’s theory can account for the kind of logic that actually lead to the Iraq war.

In response to Tony's posting, particularly the last sentence, I felt it important to think of this text for how it explained the inaction on the part of the citizens to protest and question the war. When we think of viewing practices as they relate to the theory he uses to explain how we proceed through the world, whether it's in the suburbs, SUVs, or on our computers on the surfing the internet, then I think the claims he makes do make sense. I don't think he's trying to build a case for the logic that lead to the case for war in Iraq.

Seems I'm all about suburbia these days, what with my City in Film class, John Archer's material culture class, and, unexpectedly, Ron's class. It's got my head spinning.

Here's my attempt to articulate something I think is going on in Mirzoeff's argument: most of the time in chapter one was devoted to the "hyperhouse." He crafteed his argument be starting with the function of picture windows within this space. Originally, they were viewed as protection, watching over the neighborhood and protecting the residents inside. Amityville Horror and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are essential for the next step in his argument. For, he says that the eyes have now become the electronic media within in our homes, and he rattled of a number of examples. Anyway, these are now the eyes of the home, and they are looking at the residents within. Thus, the media now assumes the role of the police, telling us there is nothing to look at, and we abide by these rules because we "feel" as if we're being watched. I think that the invisible camps may even exist within our own homes, but this may be taking it a bit too far. Any thoughts? Is this different from what we said in class or a repeat?

I think there are a number of different things going on in that last chapter, both to do with visual subjectivity at large and specific claims about state policy/rationalization. Part of the ambiguity might derive from making the Panoptican one of his central metaphors, for the panoptican can be used to talk about the visual subjectivity of being watched (we are all prisoners in the panopticon) or watching (we are all guards looking after one another). Or the panopticon can figure a state-created institution with a state-authorized viewing authority.

For sure, Mirzoeff seems to be saying that due to a particular visual subjectivity populations in the US and perhaps elsewhere around the world have opted out of paying attention to camp detainees. Yet it seems to require a constant state presence to keep people averting their eyes from these sites, thus the haunting figure of the police saying “there is nothing to see, move on.?

I thought his “empire of camps? metaphor/theory was supposed to be a revised version of Foucault’s “society of control? thesis. So perhaps he assumes power operations are dispersed at many different levels, but he also makes some statements that clearly figure the “empire of camps? as a philosophy that is now guiding ruling elites. In fact, at times he even makes it sound like the “empire of camps? is just another way of representing an explicit and consciously-chosen state doctrine. For instance, he says, “Global capital has abandoned any belief in the reforming character of incarceration in favor of a simple and profitable strategy of pre-emptive mass detention . . .With the ascendancy of this faction in George W. Bush’s administration, the detain-and-deport carceral philosophy has become a key tool in the clash of civilizations and vice versa? (p130).

For me, I found his claims about how the empire of camps mentality was informing policy-makers decisions to be more clearly stated than how this affects changes in visual subjectivity (I know those claims were there, but I had a hard time seeing them come together coherently).

Again, I think it's essential that we see the media in the role of the police officer saying, "there's nothing to see, move on." We're being surveilled in our own homes. This seems to replace Foucault's theory of social control, because now we're being watched, or we think we're being watched, based on the surveillance that permeats both public and private space these days. Because of this, we did, as a nation, or at least those who represent us, agree to the Patriot Act, a national policy that contributes to the "invisible camps" and "social control" you speak of.

I think there was a lot going on in this text, and I had to work hard on Chapter 1 (read it twice). Might be worth another read, because I think he's on to something.

To me, Mirzoeff’s arguments are poorly articulated. However, I think he’s on to something too.

Vernacular watching is meant to describe the mode of perception specific to the current systems of production and distribution of images. Here, Mirzoeff seems most indebted to Benjamin and his concept of distraction. The vernacular glance sideways constitutes a moment of visual subjectivity (and perhaps even agency) because it involves looking at that which shouldn’t be looked at if we continue to follow orders and keep circulating. I don’t think we can conflate vernacular watching (the form of watching/mode of perception specific to the contemporary context) and the sideways glance (a particular moment/experience of looking). The former is the condition of possibility of the latter. Mirzoeff does indeed conflate the two, and I find it problematic and confusing.

All Mirzoeff’s claims hinge on a different understanding of the power and function of interpellation in the current context. Images of the war (and orders of the police) are no longer interested in constituting the interiority of subjects. Interpellation does not involve hailing an individual and the constitution of a “free? subject—“good? or “bad.? Rather, following Ranciere, interpellation is interested in keeping traffic moving in such a way that facilitates the accumulation and “free? flow/ circulation of capital. I want to link this up to his discussion of the banality of images and the power of images as weapons to do psychic harm. When reading this, I thought of a recent experience watching Triumph of the Will: the spectator is addressed not as a subject to be persuaded, but as always already persuaded and docile, as traffic that must move to the beat of a specific drum…. Perhaps the images of the war do not have the production of particular (ideological) subjects as their implicit, unconscious aim, but rather the total negation of the subject and its power to respond. I do think this is a different visual economy than Foucault’s in Discipline and Punish. The state’s power these days is less premised on the production of good subjects and more on the total control of bodies across empire: from suburbanites who need to keep circulating in particular ways so that capital flows to refugees and migrant workers who must be detained and immobilized to prevent disruption. In other words, the production of the subjects’ interiors is secondary to the exercise of brute force. I think it would be interesting to think about governmentality and hegemonic struggle in the context described by Mirzoeff.

For Mirzoeff, I think (visual) agency is something like a double refusal: a refusal to be interpellated as just traffic as well as a refusal to be the police (hence, all the talk about anarchism). While I think Mirzoeff’s arguments are limited, I do think there is something interesting there, resonating….How does agency/subjectivity (as the transformation of the space of circulation) emerge if we are always interpellated as traffic? How do we resist images and forces that don’t even acknowledge our subjectivity?

First off, I am just amazed by the conversation going on here--way to go bloggers! And my apologies for not directly relating my response to the many ideas here--I plan to go back, but I too am struck by the camps and saw that at work in Gilory's book as well--perhaps by reading them side by side we can better appreciate or problematize Mirzoeff's conception.

For Gilroy, there are lots of cultural objects (chants, stories, etc.) that are in an effort to maintain or construct a post-colonial national "identity" [he hates that word], but that the "melancholia" of it all is that there is a need to retain the colonial identity as part. Hence needed to hide difference, inability to deal with race, etc. head on as part. This is a huge oversimplification, of course, but I guess he contends that there are social conditions which make the "camp" mentality necessarily if not the actual practice of it given these new global relations, and a loss of the previous "nation-state". Different lens, similar concept that might make more sense for some than what Mirzoeff is trying to put forth.

First, some fun with visual experience. As I was typing this blog post, there was a catchy song on the TV—which made me put a full gaze on the TV (away from the computer) to see a Jaguar commercial. Very artly done with changing images, etc. But I was somewhat struck with how much I liked the song and the visual sort of ruined it. Hmmm…maybe we get into sound discussions over the visual? But that is a whole other ball of wax that I don’t want to proceed with.
Anyway, in order to respond to the conversation at large here and maybe employ some “critical? rhetoric by focusing judgment on the ‘technology? or how we come to know, I have made a text from some of what you have all said below that I will attempt to frame my response around.
Tony: As perhaps came through in class, I wasn't much of a fan of Watching Babylon. One reason for this was the sense that his move was always, without methodological explanation, to go from particular observations to drawing general conclusions about the workings of thought, subjectivity or visuality in contemporary society.
Monica: When we think of viewing practices as they relate to the theory he uses to explain how we proceed through the world, whether it's in the suburbs, SUVs, or on our computers on the surfing the internet, then I think the claims he makes do make sense. I don't think he's trying to build a case for the logic that lead to the case for war in Iraq.

Julie: The vernacular glance sideways constitutes a moment of visual subjectivity (and perhaps even agency) because it involves looking at that which shouldn’t be looked at if we continue to follow orders and keep circulating. I don’t think we can conflate vernacular watching (the form of watching/mode of perception specific to the contemporary context) and the sideways glance (a particular moment/experience of looking). How does agency/subjectivity (as the transformation of the space of circulation) emerge if we are always interpellated as traffic? How do we resist images and forces that don’t even acknowledge our subjectivity?

Amy’s response: In talking with lots of folks in class, there was some frustration at Mirzoeff’s inability to build a linear argument or as Tony’s post shows, he was unable to come to or support the arguments that we could all sense were there. Is this really a problem? Or only a problem because we are trained in this discipline to expect and what well constructed, linear arguments? Similarly, does this theory have to apply to the current war (perhaps since he is trying to make that tie for his own reasons) or can we just take the argument in the abstract as an “experience? as the visual really would be? So similarly to Monica, I agree that he is making some comment on social practices with watching tied to actual structures (suburbs) that are present that help to shape our viewing. This is the “space? that we have found ourselves contained in, and Mirzoeff is trying to provide the reflection in case we want to find our way out. Vernacular watching or looking at what we shouldn’t (as Julie points out) helps to get us out of that space. Although, I would say that we need to try not to be passive-aggressive with passing glances, but rather look straight on at all things dirty, nasty, marginal or that are hidden by the administration [By the way, I am teaching porn issues in my free speech course—it is just where my head is at]. So off of Julie’s last question, we need to push the idea that even though we are interpellated as traffic, we can also reconstitute ourselves or not respond to the interpellation. I think an idea that I am pulling from Mirzoeff then it the power of the visual and our own agency through our looking ability and technologies that allow us to get out of our SUV and ride “guest worker? style in the back of someone’s pickup.

And if I haven’t offended the reader yet with all my analogies, here is one last thought to push us forward to resist images. Songster John Mayer has a song called 3x5 which essentially talks about seeing the world unconfined to being behind a camera or limited to the constraints of a 3x5 photograph (I can’t believe I am blogging about Mayer here). So my thought (Mirzoeff’s point I think as well) is that we have these visual technologies (SUV, TV’s in workout room, etc.) and these have all contributed to us being “traffic?. So as John says, “no more 3x5’s?. In other words, in our criticism, let’s make visible those technologies that contribute to our visual culture and the “movement? we can have in order to see (a la Shome). Perhaps this is what Mirzeoff pushes us to do if not give us his own concrete argument about how things are in Iraq today.