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Note on War and the Italian Director Antonioni


The language of war is an exercise in pacification. What is pacified is the mind, one's sense of reality. "Collateral damage" is more than a phrase that cloaks the slaughter of civilians.  It is an example of self-help raised to the highest level: why be held back by reality when, by allowing your thinking powers to get killed by friendly fire, you can diminish your stress and improve your chances in life, pursuing your goals without  any longer being distracted by the inconvenience of having to wrestle with society's rights and wrongs.  

The memory of SP4 Brown's right leg, lost long ago along the Mekong, is similarly pacified. We either recall a leg that symbolizes the sacrifices that good people make for their country or we recall a leg that proves war's insanity. In either case the actual leg is lost not just physically but also historically: buried within a meaning we have imposed on it.  The actual leg, the one that is a doorway into an aging vet's complex, volatile, haunted view of history is lost.

 Modern war is more than military conflict between opposing forces. It is also about the conflict between what is actually happening and what we can bear to hear about what is actually happening. Thus, the phrase "information overload." Facts, once seen as potentially liberating us from illusion, morph during modern war into something to be resisted or – and this is the same thing – to be endlessly debated. In either instance the facts are pacified through the act of subordinating them to our need either to escape them or control them. In this way their radical potential, i.e., to destabilize smugness and prod realism, is crushed.

The war against facts is all-consuming and inevitably leads to psychological exhaustion. Things blur. To remain "sane," we plunge into a self-serving, paradoxical dualism, fanatically believing in the other side's fanaticism, terroristically killing in order to fight terror, aggressively out-aggressing the other's aggressions. To work, propaganda no longer has to convince us that it is 100 percent true but only that it's impossible to tell what is true. Consequently, a staged event (e.g., the toppling of an enemy leader's statue in a foreign country) that is passed off as a spontaneous expression of the defeated's love for us is successful even if it is later exposed for what it is, a misleading image. Similarly, in spite of the fact that it is later established that in Panama in 1989 El Chorrillo's streets were littered with dead civilians during the U.S.'s "perfect" invasion of that country, the U.S. public remains passive because the revelation of government dishonesty, far from igniting anger, raises doubts about the possibility of ever identifying the truth of any event or thing Meanwhile, during conflict the power elite triumphs over the powerless on all sides of the confrontation, thereby guaranteeing that at war's end they (the powerless) have even less than when they began: these natural resources stolen, these sons and daughters dead, these meanings obliterated. WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Kosovo, the Sudan, Kashmir, Eritrea. Don't expect a reprieve.

All of this is related to another type of war, one that precedes all others: the war between the seen and what is actually there. This is the war that, if it subdues us, guarantees that we become mental corpses long before other wars physically destroy us or our loved ones.

We're perpetually poised between unknowns. From the middle eastern prayer room that we can't see accurately because we don't understand Islam, to the western room we sit in which we also can't see accurately because its taken-for-grantedness obscures the fullness of its immediacy, we're surrounded by the not-yet-grasped or the once-known-but-now-forgotten.

 In between the not understood and the supposedly understood lies the site of challenge. The challenge is about selecting what to be. The future of authority – of the government, of tradition, of the mind – and its power to destroy our spirit will be determined by our choices in relation to the fact that what we believe we know is often an illusion connected to the truth  that the accepted ways of  knowing are in actuality an absence of knowing. How we respond to this decides our fate.

During the making of one of his films, Michael Antonioni told an actor to “look at the phone as if it is a strange object.” (Gianfranco Mingozzi's documentary, Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials, Film Board of Canada, 1966)

In giving this instruction, Antonioni was trying to produce an image that would jar an audience into alertness by restoring the power of unfamiliarity to everyday life. This effort was central to Antonioni's style and, as a result, moments of “strange seeing” were an integral part of his films. As one critic wrote about Antonioni's direction, it makes us “miss what we expect to see and see what we expect to miss.” (Hamish Ford's “Antonioni's L'avventura and Deleuze's Time-Image” in Senses of Cinema: An Online Film Journal, Issue 28, Sept-Oct 2003)

In pursuing such cinematic goals, Antonioni created a filmmaking manner that, as a record of the seen, included techniques of capturing the visible that forced the viewer to re-see it, that is, to strain beyond conditioned seeing toward fresh seeing, which is a form of unburial since it disinters what the powers that be and habit repress.

Relating to the world in this way is the foundation of dissent in that it undermines our (i.e., the mass audience's) sense of security in what we know. More importantly, it undermines the powers that be. It does this by subverting their relationship to the mass audience, whom they rely upon to reinforce, through our identity as the collective acceptor of the dominant ways of knowing, those ways. By stripping the known of its familiarity and thereby forcing us to re-view the known, a step is taken in restoring both the mass audience's thinking powers and its identity as more than merely a technology-created mass.

Unfortunately, how far such steps finally take us remains unclear.

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