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Eyes Put a Spell on You

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve been bemused at my own confusion regarding the logo for the Discovery Channel’s Ted Koppel-hosted 9/11 program “The Price of Security”. Every time I saw the logo on the subway or on TV my first thought was “do those eyes belong to Koppel?” Each time I would assure myself that no, it didn’t make sense to put him in there, and I would move on to whatever next image was being beamed to me. This quick and easy interpretive moment was short-circuited this Sunday as I leafed through the first section of the New York Times and noticed two full-page ads not far from each other: one was the ad for the ABC controversial mini-series “The Path to 9/11″(A8) and it bears a striking resemblance to the other, for “The Price of Security” (A18).

This repetition made me slow down and tease out some possible significance (I still don’t think they’re Koppel’s peepers). How did they get to be virtually identical (eyes peering through a crack in a US Flag object)? Did ABC and Discovery (who do not share the same owners) use the same marketing campaign? One need not lapse into an explicitly conspiratorial explanation, a scoffing dismissal of staff laziness, a simple coincidence theory, or a Jungian analysis of synchronicity and collective unconscious to ask: “what’s going on in these images?” The following analysis may seem excessive in its speculation, but given this remarkable repetition in the world of security imagery, excess is precisely what is needed. The flood of imagery over the last few days begs for immediate attention.

An Alchemical Tale of “Two” Logos.

Who are these shadowy subjects? In each ad the eyes belong to a hidden identity. In the Koppel ad, they seem to belong to a generic white man, one whose graying, well-groomed sideburns indicate some kind of State agent. The ABC ad is more ambiguous-do those piercing brown eyes and rough fingernails belong to a terrorist menace or to a law enforcement agent? For now, let’s assume the latter (the expression in the eyes is almost identical), but I’ll return to the former possibility at the end of the analysis.

Let’s begin with the US Flag, which seems to be a background but is in actuality a broad foreground. We can see the significance of this expansive foreground with a simple substitution. Instead of the Stars and Stripes, what if a checkered keffiyeh surrounded the eyes? We would be led to identify the figure as a Palestinian, even Muslim, threat. What if it were less idiosyncratic, say an all-black background? We could still find our Islamic fundamentalist if we so chose, now in the female form of the niqab. But we could also expand this public secret figure to include Subcomandante Marcos, a generic Black Bloc participant, even a Ninja warrior. But somehow the US Flag does not signify in this way-it disappears into the horizon even more than the blackest night does. Here is the first mystery of the logo: how does something so blatant disappear so easily?

We are left with the eyes. Locked into an almost hypnotic gaze, we wonder: who is this mysterious generic white man, and why is he looking at us? In the Discovery ad, he is peering through venetian blinds. Is he peering into someone’s home? This is how we would typically imagine surveillance operating, with all of the attending anxieties over violations of freedom and privacy. But given that these are blinds, it makes more visual sense to say he is peering out from the inside. Is this a stakeout? Maybe. More likely a “safe house”, and not only in the technical sense of an official law enforcement sanctuary (in which the eyes would belong to a guard).

Rather, it is the mundane safe house. Perhaps a new Homeland Security motto is in order: “every house a safe house!” The figure thus does not present a threat to us-he protects us from threats. Instead of being a source of anxiety, the eyes belong to someone who is going to secure us. Here we face the second mystery: the transmutation of a violator into a shield.

Also, we need to point out the obvious (in fact, because it is hidden in plain sight). The figure is hiding behind the flag. One could extend this to say he is wrapping himself in the flag, but there’s no need to go this far in our reading: it is enough to note that the figure is not protecting the Stars and Stripes. One need not be a nationalist to appreciate the significance here. This shadowy state agent stands between the safe house inhabitants and the flag; he is a mediator. And in ABC’s case, this job may require tearing the flag itself. But this interpretation is haunted by its double: as viewers of this ad we are positioned outside of this safe house (looking into the eyes of the mediator). We are the threat. We are on the other side of the flag, which now stands between us and the shadowy protector. Putting these two readings together we can stake a claim on the third mystery: we are in two places at the same time. We need to be protected from ourselves.

Now we can briefly return to the alternate interpretation of the ABC ad’s eyeballs, and insert the terrorist figure behind red white and blue curtain number one. This opens a new can of worms, if not a Pandora’s box. While I leave the intricacies of this puzzle to other players (much more rewarding than Sudoku, I find), I will end with an opening gambit. Interpreting ABC’s figure as a terrorist at first blush highlights the difference from Discovery’s counterterrorist agent. This black/white contrast is not as stark as it appears. The legacy of counterinsurgency colors our reading here, where now we see an image of mimicry, where one has to know and become a guerrilla to fight them.

Somewhere in these mysteries, in the solve et coagula, in the hall of mirrors embedded in the pages of the NYT, we can begin to understand how the simplest pedestrian images display the public secret processes defining politics and ourselves today. More importantly, knowing what we’re up against allows us to sharpen our conceptual tools into weapons.

JACK BRATICH is assistant professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. The current issue of the journal Cultural Studies (a special issue devoted to Homeland Security) contains an article by him titled, “Public Secrecy and Popular Security: A Strategic Analysis.” In his spare time, he is an amateur cultural cryptologist. He can be reached at jbratich@rci.rutgers.edu

 

 

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