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War as Spectacle

Foreign Policy by Batman

by JOANNE KNIGHT

The drums of war have faded into the distance and once more the people can breathe a collective sigh of relief or disappointment. Every few weeks the media ramps up war hysteria against one of the gallery of international villains. It’s like a game show: spin the wheel, which rogue regime is the Administration debating action against this week? Last week it was Egypt; this week it’s… Syria!

Over the past 12 months the government has deliberated bombing North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Why does no one seem to notice this revolving door of similar enemies? It looks cartoonish: the constant distraction of the populace in a television-show-like procession of this gallery of goons. Do we owe this approach to foreign policy to TV cop shows where we have a new villain every week or to comic strips where the same villains reappear time and again: the Joker, the Penguin, Mr. Freeze? Better call the Bat Cave!

This approach to foreign policy draws its immediate history from September 11. In 2002, in his State of the Union address, George W. Bush expanded his policy on the War on Terror, aiming to punish sponsors of terrorism, as well as terrorists themselves. He coined the phrase “an axis of evil,” naming North Korea, Iran and Iraq as its member states. At the time, some were surprised because the states had little in common and posed different dangers. Over the past 11 years we have seen the fallout of this policy with the country seemingly unable to turn away from the shooting gallery with the same characters popping up.

Analogies with popular culture are apt. The media forms a field which frames all political events for people. In the 1960s, Guy Debord developed the idea of the “the society of the spectacle.” The spectacle was not a collection of images but a “social relation among people, mediated by images”. Debord described the total subjugation of the individual by the commodity. According to the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things” reaches its absolute fulfilment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as tangible.

Post 9/11, Henry Giroux drew the links between consumer culture and terrorist spectacle. Meaning in consumerist society occurs through the accumulation of and identification with consumer objects and, in the case of the spectacle, through images. Giroux argued that the spectacle of terrorism asserts its power through a massive return to ‘the real’ through hyperviolence. “The spectacle of terrorism undercuts the primacy of consumerism by adding to it.”

Images generate desire whether it be for the latest consumer item or for a perfect safety, protected by a strong, militarized state. Raw displays of brutality by States or terrorists must have wide distribution through the media to have the desired impact. Giroux’s ‘citizen soldier’ protects his freedom, which remains constructed as the freedom to choose whichever consumer item he desires. This is ultimately the reconfiguration of the consumerist desire in a new direction. Fear and retribution become commodified images to be consumed and security is sold to us in the same way as breakfast cereal.

The Bush Doctrine has evolved into the Obama Doctrine but the presentation of politics and international relations in the media seems to follow themes similar to 11 year ago. Like any ongoing sitcom or soap opera, the axis of evil has broadened to include a larger cast of characters. North Korea and Iran retain their status and appear as regulars on the show. Iraq has been subdued into a violent mess by the intervention of the US so they do not appear on the play bill very often and usually only as a cripple to be ridiculed. Libya was included for a short run. Now Syria is auditioning and seems likely to acquire an ongoing role.

As we sit at our computer and television screens mesmerized by the passing spectacle of revolving enemies, government shut down, and racist crimes, spectacular power robs us of our capacity to act. However, as we can see by the current debacle in Congress, spectacular power captures the rulers as well as the ruled. Congress seems caught in the media frames of drama and conflict, providing a good show for the audience, rather than acting in rational and considered ways in the public interest of the whole country. By blaming one side or the other, we enter into the drama not as citizens with a stake but as audience and barrackers consigned to the sidelines.

Joanne Knight can be reached at: jofknight@yahoo.com.au.