When a community is threatened in its image of itself by rivals or neighbours, it goes to war. Any technology that weakens a conventional identity image, creates a response of panic and rage which we call ‘war’. Heinrich Hertz, the inventor of radio, put the matter very briefly: “The consequence of the image will be the image of the consequences.” (McLuhan 1987, p. 387)
This paper makes an argument for the productive and potentially subversive political power of what McLuhan called “cool media.” In the age of High Definition and broadband Internet, such an assertion might strike contemporary readers as out of date; but there is no necessary correlation between high technology and “hot media.” Extending McLuhan’s understanding of “cool” for the networked age, I argue that we must take account of cool networks, cool content, and the user’s cool relations with them—relations that are highly participatory, and that blur the distinction between active producer and passive consumer. At the heart of my argument lies the claim that cool media hold an almost salutary power to threaten the high-tech biopolitical order of things, and consequently, cool media are potentially the most threatening to the image of conventional identity—an identity that today is disorientated and in transition, producing as much as consuming the panic and rage known as “war.”
Cool media, I argue, have the uncanny—perhaps even magical—power to convey panic and rage, to expose rather dramatically the loss of identity, and to tie this loss to the reciprocal and reversible relations that characterise the instantaneity of global communication media. McLuhan’s distinction between “hot” and “cool” is deceptively straightforward. “A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in ‘high definition’” (McLuhan 1964, p. 22). In other words, “hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience” (ibid., p. 23). Written in the 1960s, McLuhan’s examples of hot and cool media tend to strike contemporary readers as highly unintuitive. For McLuhan, television in the 1960s was a quintessentially “cool” medium, a “depth experience,” since early television images were low-resolution: “The mosaic form of the TV image demands participation and involvement in depth of the whole being, as does the sense of touch” (McLuhan 1964, p. 354). The “whole being” suggests a synaesthetic experience, one that involves multiple senses simultaneously, blending them, even reversing them. Today, our HDTVs are high-resolution, a frenzy of hot visual surfaces, rather than cool depths; HDTV does not involve the whole being, but extends primarily the sense of vision while de-emphasising the other senses. Nevertheless, in what follows I demonstrate how McLuhan’s understanding of cool media is freshly relevant today, in an age saturated by the hotness of high definition, broadband telecommunications, and ubiquitous social networking, such as Facebook and Twitter. While McLuhan’s understanding of “cool” content still holds, I argue that we must extend his insight to take account of the eminently cool networks of (re)production and our place within them.
The epigraph above, cited by McLuhan as Hertz’s Law, is formulated as a rhetorical scheme known as an anastrophe, a figure of speech where the words are inverted for emphasis, to disrupt or to extend meaning in novel ways. This is a “media trope” (Murray 2009) par excellence, a figurative extension that demonstrates the inherent reversibility of all media, here inverting the “image” and the “consequences” to trouble their causal relation, to suspend any certainty over which term is consequent, which antecedent. Readers of McLuhan will hear in this rhetoric his critical call to understand and to read media as the reversible relation between “figure” and “ground” (see Gibson 2008). If the “consequences” of an image include demonstrable effects and affects, it is no less true that these constitute at the same time and in their own right an “imaginary” field, an environment that in no small way (pre)conditions the meaning and the force of the “consequences.” Image and consequence, figure and ground, stand in the same reciprocal relation as medium and message, because “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan 1964, p. 8) and “because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (ibid., p. 9). Thus, any technology—any media environment—that exposes the precariousness of “imaginary” identity by exposing the reversibility and inescapable dependence of the image on its “consequences” is bound to be met with escalating violence. It matters little whether these technologies are warheads or websites. Hence the dark atavistic face of the global village: the rise of tribalism and the loss of individual autonomy, agency, and rationality as political and cultural identity are tied to collective and shared images that effectively shape and control the scale and form of human association and action. As McLuhan wryly remarks, “Village people aren’t that much in love with each other. The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations” (McLuhan 2003, p. 265). The “consequence” is violence: “a highly traumatic process … a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence—violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial” (McLuhan 1995, p. 249).
The following cartoon image, by McLuhan’s account, constitutes a cool medium. Its “content” is cool because it is low-resolution, it lacks detail, and its meaning relies on the participation of the viewer to “fill in” or “complete” what is missing. But as I suggest below, what makes this image “cool” is not just its “content.” We must also consider the cool and highly participatory circuits of production and consumption, the networked (pre)conditions of its meaningful (re)production, which at once blur the boundaries between “image” and “consequences,” implicating the audience in ways that threaten to disrupt the image of their own identity and to call into question the multiple techniques—“private or corporate, social or commercial”—in which they are responsible for what they “see.”
This image is part of a series of cartoons, titled “Sketches of My Nightmare,” that emerged from the American concentration camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It was published in the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom and in Convergence Magazine from Toronto, Canada, as well as in a Swedish national newspaper. It was circulated widely over the Internet. The political prisoner (“enemy combatant”) named Sami al-Hajj drew these cartoons. An al-Jazeera cameraman, in November 2001 Sami al-Hajj was detained by Pakistani Intelligence and handed over to U.S. forces while he was covering the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Al-Hajj was imprisoned for over 6 years in Camp Delta at Guantánamo Bay. He was subsequently released without charge. The cartoons in question were sketched during his 465-day hunger strike during which time he was force-fed by the medical staff at Camp Delta. “Scream For Freedom” depicts the inhumane treatment of al-Hajj and other hunger striking prisoners who were twice daily strapped into what they call a “torture chair” and “fed”—if that is the right word—through a 110cm tube forcibly inserted into one nostril so that liquid food could be administered. Each prisoner remained shackled to the chair for up to two hours so that he could be force-fed again if he vomits.
What you see above, however, is not the original cartoon as sketched by al-Hajj. The U.S. Army banned Sami al-Hajj’s original cartoons, presumably because they were deemed to pose a threat to national security—and likely considering the incendiary effects of the Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed published by Jyllands-Posten in late 2005. The reproductions of al-Hajj’s sketches were drawn by the British cartoonist Lewis Peake, and based solely on verbal descriptions by al-Hajj’s lawyer. So these particular cartoons are interpretive reproductions. In a straightforward sense, they depict the routine medical treatment of Guantánamo prisoners engaged in a hunger strike, including force-feeding. What we learn through further images is that this force-feeding is not motivated by the prisoner’s health, but rather, by the state’s desire to keep the prisoner alive—at least nominally, technically, biopolitically. The state must ensure that if al-Hajj dies, his death is not politicised or politicisable. His life and death must be thoroughly medicalised, abstract, reduced to the barest form of life, to biological life.
The images in Figure 2 are titled “The Inflatable Man.” The prisoner in the upper image is starving and emaciated, a skeleton, already dead. In the second image, after the prisoner is force-fed, he becomes fat. Al-Hajj and other prisoners have explained that the medical staff are interested only in a prisoner’s weight, since this number is the sole political measure of a prisoner’s life and health. Al-Hajj has said: “All they care about is the prisoner’s weight. Are you sick? Are you in pain? Who cares? It is all about the number on the scale. At the top of the drawing there is a skeleton again, but this time without hands or feet. The top of the head, the cranium, even the eyes are gone. Our lives depend on the doctors, but we get nothing from them. So we’re going mad” (Reprieve 2009). Al-Hajj also reports that the staff often misrepresent a prisoner’s weight, by including shackles and sometimes pushing down on the scale.
I focus on these cartoons because they constitute “cool media” far beyond their mere “content.” Certainly, they tell a story of national security, of imprisonment, of the ways that life and death are regulated, and how the body is treated medically, and legally, in a state of war, or a state of emergency. The history of these images also tells the intricate story of global mass media, how images are caught up in the circuits of global capital and high-tech telecommunications networks, how they feature in newspapers as media content to be consumed, and how they become contested sites of freedom of expression, used to criticise (or condone) national policies and security measures. We immediately read in them the need to question the ethics of torture and the inhumane treatment of prisoners, as well as the geopolitical relationships that enable places like Guantánamo to exist. On yet another level, the cartoons pose a question of violence and agency: who is responsible for this violence, who are the gatekeepers of life and death, and in whose name are these acts committed? We get no answers when we stare into the faceless medics depicted in the cartoons. Thus, on a deeper level, we might ask how the cartoons allegorise not just the corporeal conditions of life and death in our mediatised and biopolitical context—the image of particular consequences—, but also how our own relation to these images forms the ontological and in some sense temporal (pre)conditions of their message—the consequences of the image.
Not only must we attend to the production of violence, but also to questions of production and agency at the level of the image itself. While the content of the images tells a story (many stories, to be sure), more interesting for me is the cool form of the images—as productive texts that call for a rhetorical reading within an ethical register. A rhetorical approach is the occasion to reorient our understanding of new digital media, globalisation, and the production of global identities across multiple domains. The cartoons are a privileged site of analysis precisely because they have been mediated and remediated, circulated and recirculated. It is not so much what these images say, it is not so much their purported content; rather, it is how they say it that is significant. Because they are low-tech and incomplete, we cannot passively consume them; the user “completes” or “fills in” the content, but in so doing, the images engage the user reflexively, holding open the possibility that this magical act of “completion” or “filling in” is itself brought to light. The story of the complex and fragmentary production and circulation of these texts stands as a rhetorical figure for our own involvement in them, since we in turn (re)produce their meaning and participate in their circuits of exchange, and through this engagement we in turn are invited to situate ourselves in the social and biopolitical networks that constitute the (pre)conditions of the production and reproduction of them. These images do not merely depict a living death: they enact it. They rely on us to animate or vivify them, to add “flesh” to the lifeless forms. And they demand that we acknowledge our own finitude by pointing to the limits of our sovereign authority, as interpreters and citizens, to induct us into the lives—and deaths—of others. We, too, are responsible, in fragmentary and indirect ways, for the conditions that make possible the production and reproduction, the circulation and recirculation, of these images; we, each of us, are circuits in the communicative and political networks without which Guantánamo would not exist, without which these images would not and could not have been produced and reproduced. On their own these images are nothing, lifeless, banal.
The images constitute “cool media,” then, not just because the cool “content” is remediated in a simple sense, namely, as “the representation of one medium in another” (Bolter & Grusin 1999, p. 45), in this case a sketch remediated in a newspaper or on a computer screen. Technically, these sketches are not remediated as such: they are severed forever from the originals, from the hand and from the mortifying experience of Sami al-Hajj. Here, rather, I point instead to what I would call “remediality,” a phenomenon to be understood quite apart from the details of particular contents and their re-presentation, quite apart from the kinds of material details that form the elements, the working parts, of our communication systems. I am suggesting that the network itself constitutes a rhetorical figure—an interpretive ground with consequential effects and affects, what by now must be understood as the general (pre)condition for networked subjectivities—subjects, each of us, imagined as interconnected nodes, switches, resistors, or through a host of other feeble metaphors by which we struggle to define the advent of new subjects of distributed agency, intelligence, and responsibility (also metaphors, these).
“Subjectivity” is the wrong word here. “Subjectivity” is an artefact of the binary logic that characterised the literate mentality, as McLuhan would say. “Subject” at once conjures an “object” over and against which it must be understood. We are no longer “subjects” in this sense. “Objectivity” is impossible. This loss of subjective identity is clearly theorised by McLuhan, who connects subjectivity to the effects of media innovations throughout history. According to him, in the history of Western culture there have been three major epochs created by revolutionary innovations in communication media. The first was the Literate Revolution that occurred between the seventh and fourth centuries BCE following the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet by the ancient Greeks, which catapulted their culture out of oral patterns of speech and thought to make way for the dominance of literate modes of communication. The second was the Gutenberg Revolution that came in the wake of the invention of the moveable type printing press in the mid-fifteenth century. Gutenberg’s innovation accelerated the processes of change associated with literacy, and firmly established “subjectivity” according to a literate mentality—predominantly visual, logical, and linear. This arose in tandem with new kinds of social organisations, educational institutions, and cultural expressions; and “individuals” began to be held accountable for their “private” actions (McLuhan 1964, p. 39). The third was the Electric Revolution that began with the invention of the telegraph in 1844 and continues to this day, progressing through the advent of radio, film, the telephone, and the computer. In the Electric Age, the focus on the individual shifts to the group or “tribe,” and responsibility undergoes a reversal in which the individual is now “privately” responsible for group action. Each revolution—each epochal shift—involved discontinuity, dichotomy, and antagonism between two radically different media systems and cultures, with extreme clashes along the frontier between the “two worlds.” McLuhan referred to these frontiers as a “break boundaries,” zones of “merging,” “tension,” and “interplay.” The on-going Electric Revolution is the most dramatic: “The greatest of all reversals occurred with electricity, that ended sequence by making things instant” (McLuhan 1964, p. 12).
McLuhan’s Electric Revolution resonates powerfully with the nineteenth-century paradigm shift that Foucault has discussed, as the West shifted from a political power organized around sovereignty toward a power understood as “biopolitical.” McLuhan and Foucault offer largely complementary theories; each account fulfils the other. The political dimensions of power and discourse, as understood by Foucault, are only intimated by McLuhan, while McLuhan’s understanding of media helps to fill in lacunae in Foucault’s analysis, since the rise of biopolitics is scarcely conceivable without an understanding of contemporaneous revolutionary advances in media technologies and telecommunications. For Foucault, biopolitical forms of governance began to supplant sovereign and disciplinary styles of political power, just as McLuhan’s Electric Revolution was getting underway, displacing literate modes of communication. Foucault describes disciplinary power as “individualizing” subjects through the exercise of social organisations, educational institutions, and cultural expressions linked to discourses of power/knowledge—through institutions such as the prison, the school, and the hospital. In McLuhan’s terms, we might say that Foucault’s disciplinary power is aligned with individualistic patterns typified by the literate mentality, with forms of communication and knowledge that rely on linear and logical processes, focussing on the private individual conceived as a subjective interiority (McLuhan notes the rise of the novel as a technique for “privatisation” and individualism). In many respects, Foucauldian discipline is an extension of sovereignty, emanating from a centralised power typically dominated by the sense of vision, much as Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon operates: “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault 1977, p. 201). In more general terms, Foucault writes, “discipline tries to rule a multiplicity of men to the extent that their multiplicity can and must be dissolved into individual bodies that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and, if need be, punished” (Foucault 2003, p. 242).
In the mid-nineteenth century, biopolitics and electric communication and media technologies arise together in response to the same basic need: “It is as though power, which used to have sovereignty as its modality or organizing schema, found itself unable to govern the economic and political body of a society that was undergoing both a demographic explosion and industrialization” (ibid., p. 249). Because disciplinary power was centred on the individual body, it became increasingly impracticable as a form of social governance. More wide-ranging techniques were called for, and new electric technologies were enlisted in the service of biopolitical governance; but reciprocally, these technologies also informed biopolitical techniques, including “the corporation, with its impersonal empire over many lives” (McLuhan 1964, p. 23). Biopolitics and the Electric Revolution must be thought together.
The break boundary marks an epochal shift and a stunning transformation in power’s relation to—and eventually over—life itself. While the slogan of sovereign power was the power “to take life or let live”—i.e., the sovereign’s political right to revoke the life of a subject or to let him live—, the formula of biopolitical power is “to make live and let die” (Foucault 2003, p. 241). The focus shifts dramatically: it no longer concerns the sovereign’s imperial hold on the individual body, but rather, a decentralised and polymorphic power that regulates the mass, the population, man-as-species, the “race.” The sovereign’s prerogative to kill or let live gradually is replaced by the diffuse political power to make live—that is, to bestow life, to foster it, to protect it, by regulating human reproduction, fertility, productivity, public health and hygiene, accidents, medicine, and the like. In sum, biopolitics does not treat individual bodies; bodies are “massified,” bodies are “regularised,” and “bodies are replaced by general biological processes” (ibid., p. 249). Together with electric technologies and nascent communication networks, a system of biopolitical techniques emerged: “The mechanisms introduced by biopolitics include forecasts, statistical estimates and overall measures…. regulatory mechanisms must be established to establish an equilibrium, maintain an average, establish a sort of homeostasis, and compensate for variations within this general population and its aleatory field. In a word, security mechanisms had to be installed around the random element inherent in a population of living beings to as to optimize a state of life…. maximize and extract forces” (ibid., p. 246). So while we find disciplinary techniques (such as surveillance and force-feeding) deployed in places like Guantánamo, these prisoners are not “individualised” but rather are “massified,” treated as interchangeable members of a dangerous population, a security risk to be managed and regulated in the name of life. Al-Hajj’s skeletons bring this to the fore, turning a post-sovereign gaze back on the viewer, whose life—and the “life” of his or her own population—is “preserved” by the torture these images depict. Thus, the cool images expose the tortured logic of biopolitics: not only are these acts committed in the name of the lives of those who view them, but the viewer, as a node in the network, is also responsible for the meaningful (re)production of the images, (re)producing that name in intimate proximity with the tortured gaze, image and consequence.
In this regard, the global electric telecommunication network, as theorised by McLuhan, is the perfect image of biopolitics: it is a diffuse tribal system without individuals, a system in which nobody “acts” as such, and nobody is “acted upon.” The network itself is cool as ice; not only do networked “subjectivities” fill in the content, they are the content, and the network it is nothing without the pluripotent participation—the endless intersection—of one and all. In its effects, its “consequences,” it operates of its own accord, mindlessly—almost magically. Old binaries are destabilised, if not obsolesced: subject and object, active and passive, antecedent and consequent. In this sense all media are biopolitical, they are the lifeblood—the flesh—of the new tribe. Sequential temporality does not make sense in the network age. As McLuhan quips: “Instead of asking which came first, the chicken or the egg, it suddenly seemed that a chicken was an egg’s idea for getting more eggs” (McLuhan 1964, p. 12).
In this context, Sami al-Hajj’s images offer a trenchant critique of our mediatised and biopolitical culture—a culture ostensibly committed to the preservation and sanctity of “life.” The prison camp is the extreme face of biopolitics, a place where the boundary between life and death is defined and regulated, where those who do “not cherish life,” as G.W. Bush’s Attorney General said (Hersh 2005, p. 5), are sent to die a living death. The images bear directly on biopolitical power conceived as the power “to make live and let die.” They demonstrate that the death of one population has become a necessary part, a consequence—a (pre)condition—of the life of another. At the same time, however, death becomes hidden, it is covered up and disavowed. The official biopolitical story is that nobody dies, and certainly nobody is killed, at least not directly, not in any way that we can see; these crimes are outsourced to penal colonies like Guantánamo, through “extraordinary rendition” to Bagram Air Base and Abu Ghraib Prison, obfuscated by State bureaucracy, and covered up by one media spectacle after another. Making live and letting die: These deaths are never “caused” as such; officially, they are merely “allowed” to happen, passive events. They are dismissed as collateral damage or merely “neutralising” a security threat in the War on Terror. Those who die are figured as a biological threat, and so their death is “justified” in the name of “life.” As Foucault writes, in the biopolitical age “war is about two things: it is not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary, but of destroying the enemy race, of destroying that of biological threat that those people over there represent to our race” (ibid., p. 257). For me, al-Hajj’s images seem to speak on behalf of the dead. They threaten to expose the demonic face of our biopolitics, to disrupt its logic, and to lay bare the abstract death at the heart of biopolitical life. They speak to our wilful ignorance, our connected complicity, and demand that justice be served not just for the living but for those who have died—who have been murdered—in the holy name of life.
I have claimed that the “coolness” of these cartoon images holds an almost magical political power. This is an effect of the kinds of integrated subjects we now are, situated within and distributed across biopolitical media networks. To the literate mentality—the modern, sovereign individual—this will seem “irrational,” to be sure. In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag opens with a similar problematic. She refers to Virginia Woolf’s (highly literate) discussion of Ernst Friedrich’s popular book, Krieg dem Kriege—War Against War, which was published in multiple editions and translated into many languages throughout the 1920s. The book includes reproductions of numerous gruesome, high-resolution photographs of mutilated soldiers, casualties of the First World War. It was intended as a kind of hot media “shock therapy,” the images meant to wage “war against war,” to end war for all time. It was a European bestseller. Why, Sontag seems to ask, did images such as these fail to prevent the atrocities of the Second World War? Was the public already desensitised to media representations of pain and suffering? And if these detailed photographs, culled from German military and medical archives, were unable to halt the rising tide of violence, how, we must ask, could simple low-resolution cartoons have any effect at all?
One year later, Sontag’s New York Times Magazine article, “Regarding the Torture of Others” (2004), offers something by way of an answer. This essay followed the wide distribution of photographs of torture—and state-sanctioned murder repackaged as “prisoner abuse”—emerging from Abu Ghraib Prison in American-occupied Iraq. Speaking of the Abu Ghraib photographs, she boldly declared, “the photographs are us!” Sontag refused to allow the Bush Administration to dismiss these events—and the photographs of them—as an isolated occurrence committed by “a few bad apples,” as President Bush himself phrased it. Sontag points instead to the wider culture, a culture, she writes, in which such events are “systematic,” “authorised,” and “condoned.” “The photographs are us”: Sontag’s strategically glib, almost childlike, phrase seeks to shake Americans from their complacent individualism. For me, her article gestures toward a different kind of politics, and a different kind of ethics: she points to a responsibility that extends beyond the immediate sphere of my own individual influence, beyond the contours and limits of my own discrete body. We are responsible not just for the actions of these soldiers, she suggests, and not just for the widespread transmission of these images through the Internet and on TV. More than this, we are responsible for the very (pre)conditions that enabled these actions to take place, and so we must claim these images, in some sense, as our own. It is a cultural responsibility. We are “honour bound” not to “defend freedom” in the narrow and narcissistic sense in which “freedom” privileges the sovereign, autonomous individual—and individual life—above all else. Rather, we are responsible, we are “honour bound,” in a wider sense.
It is no coincidence that the Abu Ghraib image that is burned into our collective consciousness is the image of the hooded figure standing on a box, electric wires extending from under the hood. We remember this photograph from amongst hundreds of others—faces of the dead, gloating U.S. soldiers, prisoners who have been forced to cover their bodies with their own excrement—because the hooded figure is “cool.” It involves us deeply; it is synaesthetic; it is participatory. Identity withdraws from the image: the withdrawal is a “consequence” of the (pre)conditions of the image’s production and reproduction, but also the image of these “consequences,” and the image of the “consequences” of our own threatened identity—for the identity in crisis is surely our own, as we cling on one hand to the tattered remnants of a sovereign Western gaze, while on the other we arrive abruptly at the limits of our sovereign interpretation and our own bodily integrity as a measure, an irreducible point of reference, because the violence of the acts, and the unending violence of their reproduction, is, quite literally, senseless, bodiless. The hooded figure shares more with al-Hajj’s cartoons than it does with photographs whose contents are “hot.” While photographs, Sontag tells us, seem to enjoy an element of objectivity because they are “a record of the real,” and while photographs are said bear witness “to the real—since a person had been there to take them” (Sontag 2003, p. 26), the cartoon caricatures are evacuated of photographic objectivity. They do not bear the trace of the real; they close that gap—they are a real trace, these hands, this body. If the cartoons bear witness, they do so in a quasi-magical way, since we are cut off from their origin and swept up into the circuits of their production and reproduction. They have no singular point of view. So if they bear witness, this too is produced by us, and we must bear witness reflexively, and to a system of which we ourselves are a part. When we coolly transmit and retransmit these images, we have no control over the ways their meaning will be “completed” or “filled in”; we have no way to ensure the authority of our own authorial intentions, which haunt the network. Nevertheless, we are responsible for our involvement, for the radical, unplanned for, and unintentional effects and affects of our actions—not quite as responsible “individuals” or autonomous “subjects,” but as part of the life of the network, a form-of-life, in which multiple readings are bound to circulate.
I have focused on al-Hajj’s images mindful that I myself participate here in their production and reproduction, mindful (or simply hopeful) that I have inducted my reader into unanticipated circuits of responsibility, contributing to other sets of interpretations. I am tempted to say that the hooded—or veiled—figure serves as one of the key media tropes of our day, from Abu Ghraib to the iconic photographs of hooded prisoners at Guantánamo. To be clear, I am not advancing a normative claim about the use of cool media. I remain stubbornly agnostic in this regard. My gesture is Foucauldian: I am offering an “analytics” of power relations in the age of mediatised biopolitics. I join contemporary affect theorists who claim that the gulf between “thinking” and “feeling” represents a false binary—but it is nonetheless a very real one, an effect of living on the break boundary, between the literate mentality that characterises “thought” and the new tribalism that seems to celebrate depth of “feeling.” It is too simple, perhaps, to suggest that these terms must be refashioned.
To offer a final example by way of conclusion, I turn to a brief reflection on Neda, the 26-year-old Iranian woman who was shot and killed in the streets of Tehran on 20 June 2009. In her essay discussing the viral mediatisation of the grainy video footage of Neda’s death, Nima Naghibi questions the liberatory rhetoric surrounding the political uses and benefits of social media technologies. Naghibi asks: “But what does it mean to celebrate a medium that makes us feel faster than we think? What are the implications of participating in a medium that encourages us to place emotion before carefully considered thought?” (Naghibi, forthcoming 2011). Naghibi is mindful not to reinscribe a false binary between thought and feeling, but her questions are haunting. How did “Neda” attain iconic status? What are the biopolitical and networked (pre)conditions that allowed for the “unscrupulous appropriation of her name and her identity” (ibid.), as so many did through Twitter feeds, on their Facebook pages, and across countless blogs and websites, where images of Neda circulated and recirculated in (and often as) someone else’s name? The well-known grainy video images of this young woman’s death constitute cool media not simply because they are low-resolution. Significantly, they depict a veiled young woman, a cool image, a withdrawing identity—one is tempted to say “private”—that soon became very “hot,” as she was literally unveiled across media networks. Naghibi speculates that the world “really claimed Neda only after the famous unveiled photograph of her, along with those of her on vacation in Turkey with her boyfriend, began to circulate. Before that, when the graphic and violent video of her death was broadcast, people reacted in horror and with compassion towards the sight of a young woman gunned down in the street” (ibid.). I would suggest that the cool, veiled image held for a moment a greater power to disturb, to suspend the certainly of our sovereign gaze, to throw the viewer’s identity into crisis, and somehow to force the viewer to account for the biopolitical and mediatising circuits of which she or he forms an integral part. The hot, unveiled image, on the other hand, went viral, but it failed to disturb—rather, the recognisably “Western” and “democratic” and “liberated” face of the unveiled Neda proved to be an easy site of sovereign (neo-colonial) identification, shoring up what we already think we know about “freedom” and “oppression,” “democracy” and “barbarism,” “us” and “them.” Indeed, it is this “flattening” of Neda’s name and identity that Naghibi interrogates, and I believe she is right to suggest the term “narcissism.” McLuhan might have described this media event as “Narcissus narcosis” (see McLuhan 1964, pp. 41-47; 1995, p. 237), which is especially dangerous with hot media. “Narcissus narcosis” is narcissistic because we fall in love with our own image, and it is narcotising or numbing because we fail to see that these media and these images are simply extensions of ourselves. We must not forget that the myth of Narcissus is a story of death, even suicide.
I hope that this paper has demonstrated a renewed political relevance for cool media in a biopolitical media environment that is otherwise too hot to handle. My approach has been diagnostic, rather than prescriptive, and in this respect stands alongside McLuhan and Foucault, master diagnosticians. The problem remains, however, and it is one that seems insurmountable at this historical juncture. It is a problem that McLuhan understood, early in the opening pages of Understanding Media, and throughout his career: “Electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree” (McLuhan 1964, p. 5). How, then, to make sense of human responsibility in an age of convergence, when biopolitical and media networks together usher in unprecedented ethical challenges? Literate, sovereign forms of responsibility are obsolete: law, democracy, geopolitics, education—all rely on epistemological paradigms that are firmly rooted in a literate mentality defined by the principles of abstract—even atomistic—individualism, autonomy, and rationality (see Murray and Gibson 2011). This form of subjectivity is in crisis, as we navigate the break boundary of the Electric Age, the “Age of Anxiety” (ibid.). A new anatomy of criticism is called for, one that understands and critiques the effects of mediatised biopolitics while resisting the urge to “return” to the sovereignty of modern subjectivity with its regimes of truth. Cool media, I have argued, invite us to reconsider the ethics of the image. And cool media call us to account for the anatomy of biopolitical life, to understand surfacing images through the depths of their consequences, and to open new forms of ethical relation—forms-of-life, I hope, that will be more commensurable with emergent subjectivities that are scarred, still, by mortal finitude, even as they extend almost infinitely.
Images reproduced with the kind permission of the illustrator, Lewis Peake, http://www.illustration-art.co.uk/. The author acknowledges the generous support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada / Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines du Canada. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at Carleton University’s Department of English and at the Arts & Letters Club of Toronto.
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