The Spectacle Has Come Home to Roost

Fact and fiction in the not so new age of terror

The bomb attacks on July 7, the attempted attacks on July 21 and the killing of an innocent Brazilian man the following day have left Britain reeling. With three suspected suicide bombers still on the run, British society stays on high alert. In this situation we need to pause to reflect. Once more the relationship between fact and fiction, between so called reality and the reality created by media is turned on its head.

When I heard of the shooting of a man on the tube, I found this extremely discomforting. Early reports on websites of traditional media such as the Guardian and the BBC suggested that the man had come from a house under surveillance, that he had acted suspiciously, that he had worn a bulky jacket and that wires had been seen standing out from his back - all of which later turned out to be untrue.

What can we conclude from this? First, never run on the platform. Secondly, it seems like society has turned into a non-stop, live-simulated, reality-fiction game with sometimes deadly consequences. The operation was 'intelligence led', according to media reports. That means someone, somewhere high up in the command chain must have had access to some information which gave him reason to think that Menendez, or somebody like him, was an immedeate danger who could only be stopped with 7 (seven) bullets to the head and one to the shoulder. Even though the actual shooting was carried out by an officer on the street, it was triggered by some piece of data on somebodies desk in the command centre. Armed officers are only allowed to 'shoot-to.kill' if they are authorized to do so by a very senior person.

The action on the street was covered by a media frenzy where the coverage sometimes seems ahead of events, where the media not only report a reality but actually stimulate it, as was highlighted by Lady Di's untimely early 'death by media'. Philosophers such as Guy Debord, Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard have reflected on this state of events in a highly mediated world.

Guy Debord suggested in The Society of the Spectacle that politics - the meeting of opinions and articles in public space - have been replaced by the spectacle, by a fabricated reality which is designed to pull the wool over people's eyes and keep them fixated on events which are unreal. The 'spectacle' for him was more than just the media, it included all events on a 'world stage', a world which has become a stage. It looks like Debord's spectacle has come home to roost with 21st century terrorism.

As many commentators have pointed out, terrorism needs the oxygen of publicity in order to be effective. The terrorist act itself, the killing of civilians, is less important for them than the fact that it gets reported almost instantly around the world. As horrible as it is, the killing sends a 'message', to the western world, and to their supporters and sympathizers.

The 'war on terror' conducted as a war over minds has its precedent in the first Gulf War 1990/1991 which was waged as much on the screen as on the battle field. But, as philosopher Paul Virilio noted, instead of turning into a live television war, we actually got only very selected pictures from the Pentagon video pool: the video game-like shots from the tip of a cruise missile approaching a bunker; and quite meaningless shots of American soldiers waiting around in tents in the desert. With media coverage so heavily distorted, we learned to distrust the media: the screen becomes a smoke-screen. (Article about Virilio's Book Desert Screen)

In another interview Virilio claims that “any relationship to art is also a relationship to death”. Consequently, any relationship to death would also be one with art? Unfortunately Mr.Virilio was unavailable to comment. He goes on to claim that in the age of virtual reality the whole world becomes the object of art. His philosopher collegue Jean Baudrillard went even further to say that Gulf War I has not really happened. I am not sure what exactly he means by that and you might not be either, but Wikipedia has summarized it quite well.

According to Baudrillard's logic then 9/11 also has not really happened, although the whole world has seen it more or less live on tv. Well, according to Baudrillard it has not happened because it was on tv. In times like this, do we need a plea for the recovery of the real?

While the Gulf War and even 9/11 happened quite far away, now 'terror' has come much closer to home. Even though Virilio and Baudrillard may be right in a certain sense, fear, quite real and ugly, is breathing its foul smell into our necks. The guy next to you on the bus could be the next bomber. The police man at the station could go trigger happy because he gets some information through his ear piece. A climate of fear is created, especially by certain right wing tabloid media. Highly unlikely things happen. A kebap shop in North London is raided, man and women in their pyjamas are being led away, one of them looking like 'a blonde chinese woman' according to an eye-witness. Those fundamentalists have pretty sophisticated ways of disguising themselves, but this is not really funny.

The same eye-witness goes on to say that some of the people arrested have worked for them for years and that they all had seemed to be 'quite normal'. This reminds us simultaneously of the 'hunt for reds' (i.e. communists) in 1950s America or of Men in Black. The aliens/communists/terrorists are among us. They look normal but in the defining moment they will show their ugly alien/terrorist/communist face. It is probably what shocked many people most that the first wave of suspected suicide bombers were British born second generation. Or maybe they had not even planned to commit suicide attacks and were tricked into doing it by some terrorist puppet master. This is where the soul searching for British society should begin, but there are few signs that it has started in any serious way.

Meanwhile, the media are still on the bandwaggon. Some of the tabloids are scapegoating all asylum seekers and appear to demand immedeate deportation. Other sections of the media appeal for moderation. Tony Blair still thinks it has nothing to do with Iraq. Whatever is said by whom, there is definitely always an agenda behind it.

Since Virilio's and Baudrillard's analysis the reality of media - and with it reality itself - has changed again. We still have quite powerful mass media broadcasting their signalls from high above. When news get through by word of mouth, everybody turns to the BBC or Sky News or a radio station to find out what is going on. At the same time we now got mobile phones and the net. We can receive instant news without mediation by media, through friends, through email, SMS. Ordinary people become producers of news.

The BBC, the Guardian and other media have quickly opened channels after July 7th, where people could post eye-witness reports and mobile phone images. Actually, some of the best images that went around the world were taken by 'amateurs' with their handheld devices. But how real are those images and reports? Are they more real than the official statements by the police commissioners, because they are unfiltered by any political agenda? It was remarkable when the BBC on July 7th was sticking to the official death toll of 2 (two) people when it had become obvious to anyone who followed the events that it must have been significantly worse.

But, when the eye-witness reports and images are circulated around the world, don't they become as de-contextualized as the mass media reports? It is remarkable that on July 21st mass media opened the gates for pictures and live reports sent by the public almost instantly and in a by now familiar routine. First hand reports by citizens have now become an element of the standard media menue.

Media designers have a specific responsibility in this multi-layered world. As we are supposedly more capable than ordinary people to understand this complex world of old and new media now converging on the net, it is our task to resist a simplified and naive picture which pitches 'reality' against 'fiction'. The simulation of reality, the fetishization of fiction and the fictionalization of facts are also realities. Or, as Bruno Latour might put it, albeit in another context, we are now dealing with 'factishes'. There is no philosophical line of demarcation anymore between that which is real, or a hard fact, and that which is manufactured, a fetish. At best we can say there are intersecting narrations of real and fictional events. We have developed a tendency to see everything through the lense of media, even when we don't use media. Yet death and injuries and all the other consequences such as a climate of fear and suspicion are as real as it can get. Is there anything that we, as new media designers and artists, can do about this in this strange new world? I would hope to get some answers to this question in the forum.

User login

Mazine Partners