July 26, 2005

What Is To Be Done

New Name for 'War on Terror' Reflects Wider U.S. Campaign

Let's take this slow. Here's a good paragraph:

In recent speeches and news conferences, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the nation's senior military officer have spoken of "a global struggle against violent extremism" rather than "the global war on terror," which had been the catchphrase of choice. Administration officials say that phrase may have outlived its usefulness, because it focused attention solely, and incorrectly, on the military campaign.

Now at some level you have to admit it's superb that the Government concedes, openly and without averral, that the purpose of language is to make its citizens think certain things, rather than to express actual conditions or any such nonsense. Finally the postmodernists and politicians are on the same page. Didn't someone already say we live in the era of symbol management? What we have achieved, after prolonged effort, is the monotone of such management. There was once the domination of appearance, and the simultaneous dissimulation of that domination the promise that we were being shown things as they are. It formed a sort of vacant harmony, now derelict. We have arrived in the age of la la la.

The shifting language is one of the most public changes in the administration's strategy to battle Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and it tracks closely with Mr. Bush's recent speeches emphasizing freedom, democracy and the worldwide clash of ideas.

One might guffawingly note that this is a lame way to prosecute said goal or, more nuancedly, point out that this "shifting language," this image-manipulation, has a more nefarious goal than "to battle Al Quaeda and its affiliates"; it's relevant intention is to divert the glance of citizens to whom it is directed away from the current losing war in Iraq toward other matters.

But it is not finally sufficient to critique this sham, to speak of this particular phrase. It is the mode of language that must be refused. This is what George Lakoff has exactly wrong, and anyone else who believes that their side just needs to spin better. I think the Government is making this quite easy for us to understand: there will be no more debate here over whether or not to spin, to frame, to manage. No one will be expected to make an account, only to persuade.

"Seeing through" this one image is an irrelevance, ifs one agrees to the quest for a competing one, a marketable image that will win more people to your side. The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image, said a fellow once upon a time. This has been difficult to understand, certainly for me. But certain implications are clear: that if one pursues a strategy of images, for example, one has committed to a politics in which capital itself remains the unchallenged power. Those who fantasize about better and worse symbol management are simply teams of gravediggers in slightly distinguishable uniforms, with a vaguely different sense of for whom they are digging, and when the job is to be finished.

To rephrase this issue for those who prefer Gandhi and King to French theory: if one believes the pacifist creed that a violent regime will be the inevitable result of a violent revolution that truth will out, that the strategies of achieving change will condition the shape of the changed world one must believe equally that any new government achieved by spin will be a regime in which spin still reigns, in which the basic goal of communication is to cause people to believe things that serve particular interests. There is no freedom, no autonomy, and no broad community in that direction.

Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy, said in an interview that if the nation's efforts were limited to "protecting the homeland and attacking and disrupting terrorist networks, you're on a treadmill that is likely to get faster and faster with time." The key to "ultimately winning the war," he said, "is addressing the ideological part of the war that deals with how the terrorists recruit and indoctrinate new terrorists."

This, the last paragraph and particularly its last sentence, is odd in a dozen ways. As an immediate claim, it's non-sensical, since there are in fact material causes for how new warriors are recruited. For example, a non-ideological removal of all military from the Middle East and an end of US support to Israel in the UN would, I suspect, bring a fairly swift end to terrorist recruiting. But no, it must be a battle only of our indoctrination against theirs. Events and actions literally cannot be thought and that is the very purpose of spin, of symbol management. Doug Feith and George Lakoff finally share the same faith and purpose: to admit only the play of ideology. Material history itself is what must not be thought. Which is to say, not framing itself but a belief in framing is the most purely ideological belief imaginable.

But it is neither the ideology not material history of "the terrorists" that is at stake here; even Feith couldn't believe that the new language will have any persuasive force over the jihadists. It is, as the rest of the article concedes, a charm offensive directed at the American public. We are the ideological subjects here, and what's at stake is the general contract confirming that symbol management is the only game in town, to be played without hesitation or shame a contented agreement about how humans should relate to each other.

This is what Debord spoke of: not music videos, advertisements, or Potemkin D-Days. The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. When one agrees that this is the right, no, the only relation among people, that one should play along and get what one can, that what matters is who controls it...then one digs one's own grave, presumably after digging several others.

Posted by jane at July 26, 2005 08:22 AM | TrackBack