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The cinema dream of war, or the artists’ violence

| 21 April 2002
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Abstract: Too many theories address the dematerialization of war between states. I want to address the dematerialization of life pursued by the State in the name of society modeled on war. What role does cinema play in the effacement of society? We have come to be accustomed to the multiple disappearances that in cinema are the precondition of the experience of presence. Yet these disappearances find more than their mirror image in warfare’s production of absence. They become a site of the generalized production of amnesia in a civilization dominated by the logic of delivery systems and weapons. What Paul Virilio calls “Pure War” is at the heart of the meeting point of vision and violence. But unlike the armchair theorists of video wars, I want to reveal the inward colonization borne of this mobilization of vision: the historic correspondence between the cinema dream of war, the military dream of society, and the evolution of technology vis-à-vis the Universal State.

The dream of technology is to reconstruct human beings
from images!
— Paul Virilio

What they do is to create and imprint forms instinctively,
they are the most involuntary, unconscious artists there are:
— where they appear, soon something new arises, a structure
of domination that lives, in which parts and functions are
differentiated and co-related, in which there is absolutely no
room for anything which does not first acquire ‘meaning’ with
regard to the whole. They do not know what guilt, responsibility,
consideration are, these born organizers; they are ruled by that
terrible inner artist’s egoism which has a brazen countenance
and sees itself justified to all eternity by the ‘work’, like the
mother in her child. They are not the ones in whom ‘bad conscience’
grew; that is obvious – but it would not have grown without them,
this ugly growth would not be there if a huge amount of freedom
had not been driven from the world, or at least driven out of
sight and, at the same time, made latent by the pressure of
their hammer blows and artist’s violence.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Nothing is as cinematic as war, though war must never be cinematic — we are told. For the most part it must never be seen. Enlightenment was to bring us together, united by the web of commerce. But Clausewitz knew that the greatest representation of commerce in society was war. Moreover, war as commerce must by needs be represented. The great armies that swept across the continent as the German was writing were not simply for action, but were also for show.1

As far back as the Romans the visuality of death was something to be savored. The intimate relation between vision and violence is not, as we may have it, a modern phenomenon. Yet something occurred within the modern project, superceding the spectacle of ancient coliseum and modern formation alike. “Representation” was supposed to have replaced civil war, just as diplomacy was aimed to forestall interstate conflict. Modern political thought is grounded upon this substitution. The dream of citizenship and relative self-governance (“anarchy” in the realm of interstate politics), traded off against the renunciation of the strange love of killing. Social contract theory was born. But perhaps we have taken this too lightly. For representation is not, nor was it in intention, a matter only of elected officials. Rather it was from the beginning also a question of vision and conception. Not so much the uses of diplomacy to guarantee the cessation of hostilities, as the inscription into violence of a generalized order of signs. Less perhaps the disappearance of war as the engagement of a new war — the war of the image, or the geometrics of meaning. We stand now at a threshold, I believe, where this war has overtaken in cruelty direct war.

Points of entry

i) First point of entry: It is said that we fear what we do not sensually perceive. Let us note that the eye, at one time, was the most sensual of senses. Not always was it at the service of the martial gaze. At first thought the question of war and cinema would be one that addresses this alteration. How has it occurred that the eye became so close a cousin to the weapon? We are supposing a critical link between cinema and war in this way: fear mobilizes the eye. A thousand calculations done in a split-second. The sole object, to comprehend the source of fear in time and space (to chart its trajectory, the extent of its danger against its growth in time). Is it increasing or decreasing? Does it come nearer or retreat? These questions demand something different from sense perception. They demand a cinema of the eye vis-à-vis the object in view. The eye and the soul become a mirror and a screen for what assails them — charting it, comprehending it, all in a few moments. From being here, the soul and the eye go there. They are displaced, and in turn they displace, bringing what is there near. Anticipation as “forward thought” always involves bringing the event closer to hand. Telescoping it. Accelerating it. Soon this way of conceiving becomes the only way.2 The first thing we have to understand — in order to understand the relation of war to cinema — is the relation of the eye to the mobilization of the world. But mine is the question not only of the preconditions of cinema — which are what these are — but the denigration through cinematic practice of materiality (I am calling this the “cinema dream of war”). The key to an understanding of this is to comprehend the relation between not so much sight and mobility, as sight and speed. For it is speed that erases the real volume of the world, so much as it also allows for actual cinema as we usually think of it (the rapid motion of images creative of the illusion that is “film”).

ii) Continuance … : Might we start with the first eye, or even the first perception of the life of life? Might we start with the first forward thought, based not simply on the consciousness of life, but the projection upon the infinity of matter of the will to survive as an expression of the refusal of any other truth than the life of life? Might we start with the dream, or the human soul; so flooded with images and passions and visions and memories? Or the founding of the first political constitutions, establishing in advance the whited eye of the State as warrior and future judge? If time would allow I would think any understanding of the evolution of cinema would have to account for all of these things, and other things, including: a) the emergence of linear and geometrical perspective in the Italian Quattrocento, and there within of an abstracted conception of real space held not as a dream but a transferable “diagram”, employed by architects and painters alike to “propagate” forms, and reproduce “likes”; b) the seeing inside of the human body itself, allowing, again, for an abstraction of complex matter, and the general illumination (first in the eye, and then in the book) of the unseen or concealed; c) the very notion of “renaissance”, which is nothing if not a re-imagination — and thus reproduction — of an original state (in some sense, therefore, the counterfeiting, or dissimulation, of an original work, or works); d) the complex history of differing scopic regimes, from the ancient world where light emanated from the eye to touch or caress the object to the modern era where the natural eye is ever more supplanted by automated perception, where sight is no longer exclusively an organic affair. There may be an inherent relation between representation, or the genealogy of the image, and dematerialization, or the emptying of volume, either in fear (the eradication of space, and the forward leap of the eye), or in everyday commerce, with the abstraction from real form of the lines and the points that makes possible the cartography of synthetic forms.

iii) Second point of entry: The image economy is not something which only now impacts upon life; neither only now upon war. The man of war has always faced the task of simultaneously embellishing the image (especially the self-image of violence in potentia), as well as falsifying it (i.e., hiding). Akin to modern cinema where appearance is only possible on the basis of an immanent absence (the nth frame which allows for the next instance of movement), the military man must disappear in order to remain, but also appear more, in order to do more — to live as such. The latter is the principle of deterrence.3 … is exactly the belief that the soldier and the Prince desire to inculcate in the populace: it helps to keep them in order without coming to an actual trial of strength … “ Lewis Mumford, The City in History (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1961), p. 369.] The former is the principle, or practice, of camouflage. Likely these are not the only coincidences between sight and war. But there is no point in reinventing Paul Virilio’s wheel. What interests me is not so much these small correspondences, as something quite different from direct war. What interests me is the series that runs in the opposite direction in the dialectical relationship between cinema and war. Not so much the infiltration of war by the image, or the aesthetic economy of permanent war (deterrence), but rather the martial economy of the image, and the cinematic war waged permanently in civil society. All told, too many theories address the dematerialization of war by cinema. I want to address the dematerialization of life pursued by the State in societies modeled on war. “The cinema dream of war” is the name I shall give the relentless propagation of images as a practice of permanent war. All indications foretell this is an end that will never end. As Paul Virilio provocatively writes, “One day the day will come when the day will not come.” On that day, if “humans” still exist, what conclusions will be drawn as to the place that cinema took in the overcoming of the world?4

iv) Continuance … : A usual thesis of this kind goes this way: that modern societies are thoroughly cinematic. Cinema is a violent realm of images, competing, overlapping and “swarming” in ways that displace human agency. They gain an autonomy. Our lives are displaced by an increasing show that we practically cannot now see with our own eyes, but only with the aid of automated perception machines, or “vision machines” (high definition screens, velocity engines in PCs). The world of illusion to which we are subject, and in which we increasingly live, stands in front of us — as medium — preventing us from experiencing real life. Our consolation is cinema — both as site of leisure (the mall theatre), and generalized preference, as we live out in our heads fantasies we are shown but don’t experience. That finally, the purity of modern cinema is like sleep. While I have reached a time in life when I don’t and can’t disagree with this catastrophic vision, this is not exactly my argument. It is the universal war machine bleeding back through the constellation of images that interests me. War might be cinema, but we cannot forget that society is war, and if cinema is so central to our civilizations it is likely because it is a site of the reproduction of the techniques of war; dissimulations, disappearances, effacements, forgettings. In warfare we automate our perception and proliferate our received signals in order to endure. In society we find ourselves absent as images overtake the realities and standards to which over millennia human animals had become accustomed, and which, in large part, allowed for our self-image of ourselves. No longer trusting our own eyes produces in society the opposite of what it produces in war. In war it leads precarious survival. In society it leads to the radical dispossession of those things which allow for social relations (certainties, contemplation, moments of empathy and understanding, “the face”, as Levinas would have it, etc.). But the question we must ask is this: Is society conceivable outside war? Is madness conceivable outside society? Cinema may reinvent war (or become a distinct location of it, continued permanently outside hostilities). But is this necessarily a bad thing? Are there Nietzscheans enough amongst us to be wary of the “standards” and “measures” which slowly formed as society, and which may be obliterated by the propagation of images?

v) Third point of entry: I want to chart a relation between the propagation of the image in cinema and a politics of effacement in the unremarked, permanent warfare immanent in modern societies. I wish to address the place of cinema in the history of the military dream of society. We have accounts of the “kill box” of the Gulf War.5 How the digitalization of war between states transforms the otherwise difficult task of killing human beings.6 Few have undertaken to reveal the importance of the emergence of imagery itself to the political domain.7 Even less vis-à-vis the dispossession — so feared by Deleuze — of animal man from a relation to the world that materially means anything. Put directly, it is time we addressed the “instrumental conditioning of individuals” vis-à-vis the proliferation of the image and the dematerialization of life. Through the era of “disciplines” and the structuring of formal thought, to the inauguration through cinema of an industrial absence and “disappearance aesthetic,” we must understand the relation of sight to matter, and the proper place in modern history of both image and war. How can we understand war without understanding seeing? How can we understand seeing without understanding war? Can we understand the eye apart from the desire that informs it? Can we understand desire apart from the acquisitive reach of the eye?


It cannot be achieved here, in such a short space, to establish a full genealogy of the relation between war and image that in the terms of our argument is the ascendance to dominance of the State over material life. Two bodies of work appear. The history and understanding of vision, and the material histories of political communities and states. Historians like Lewis Mumford, Arnold Gehlan, Norbert Elias, and Michael Mann have written already the outlines of the latter. Theorists and historians like Ivan Illich, David Lindberg, Alain Besançon, and Gérard Simon are outlining the former. My interest is only in the general picture; a picture that can serve, I hope, as the basis of our discussion of war and cinema.

The core of my concern for this question is this: since the foundations of modernity a manifest project — it seems to me — has emerged for the shaping and concealment of the infinity of life, the complement of which has been the rise of the image. I would understand transformations of scopic regimes relative to this shaping, that ways of seeing must be seen as historical figures, and that it is the State that lies at the heart of this history. Let us listen, before examining this hypothesis, to the words of Kevin Robins;

What seems significant about our time is the growing power of the image, and the idea that new technologies may actually have inverted the primacy of reality over image. We seem to live in a world where images proliferate independently from meaning and from referents to the real world. Modern life appears to be increasingly a matter of iteration and negotiation with images and simulations which no longer serve to mediate reality.8

This core of “dematerialization” has to be explained. We can find many ways of beginning this discussion. Sociologically, we can explain dematerialization relative to social class composition, and the generalized anomie of modern cities. This is a route pursued most effectively, for instance, by sociologist, Georg Simmel.9 Economically, we can explain dematerialization relation to the machine process, and the alienation of the worker from the product with the rise of the commodity-form. This is the route opened by Marx and adapted much later by the likes of Jean Baudrillard, and even Guy Debord. Psychologically, we can explain dematerialization relative to the march of “rationalization”; the rise of expert systems and knowledge structures, modern bureaucracies in which abstract tables reign over real lives. This was the message of Max Weber. But politically, this question remains neglected. We don’t have an easy theory for political dematerialization. It takes us — we imagine — into a style of thought which is too conspiratorial, too untimely, and we usually prefer optimism to pessimism when it comes to the understanding of politics. I would like to countenance the other view; that dematerialization is objective policy. It is what the military state was born for; not, as is thought, external aggrandizement or bounty. This history of the military would not exactly be red. It would be grey. It would be looking inward, not outward. Taking inspiration and fearing from the architecture of military power, and the permanent expression, across and within society, of obedience and “discipline” — the word chosen for this history I would prefer, as established by historians Michel Foucault and Gerhard Oestreich, and a small circle of others — it is a history that would mark a warlike concern with politics.

Paul Virilio may serve as an initial point of reference. Here, though our forum today concerns war and cinema (he wrote a book of that title), it is his earlier work that is most important. Books like Bunker Archaeology, and Speed and Politics, where the French urbanist reveals the geometry of the Atlantic Wall, and the history of the “boarding of metabolic vehicles” (humans) respectively, are astonishingly profitable in gleaning one insight: the military machine is autonomous from politics. Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles also establishes a broader critical perspective within which his later work on military perception (War and Cinema and The Vision Machine), unfolds. We can state his central hypotheses directly: military knowledge is autonomous both from technology and politics, and certainly from society. It emerged, rather as Deleuze and Guattari argued in the astonishing Anti-Oedipus, as a terrible despotism, in their phrase “fully armed.” The history of the military is one of the ecological — and increasingly “dromological” ransacking of the world, one which has established such dynamical forces that for Virilio, militarism, not materialism, is the engine of history. Extending the age old maxim that war is the mother of all things, Virilio explores the progression through different strategic and tactical movements of an autonomous military class, almost stripped entirely of human value or concern. The culmination of his narrative is the twentieth century in which he himself was born. “Pure War” is the culmination of all war; the permanent war Virilio understands as expressed initially and perfectly in deterrence and nuclear terror, but even more radically — following Deleuze — in information circuits, digitalization, and “communications.”

The nature of pure war, for Virilio, is grounded on an evolutionary relation between warring and seeing. But this is not a simple matter of the importance of the eye in direct conflict. It also concerns the evolution of technology, and even rationality, as that practice whereby man establishes for himself a secure and ordered world. For Virilio, quite cruelly, this will to rationality does nothing but distance us from each other, from reason, and from being. He counts in this the experience of cinema, and in particular the loss of sight of proper perspective and place relative to the jumps and jerks in cinematic time, space, and the relativity of each. As he writes,

The techniques of rationality have ceaselessly distanced us from what we’ve taken as the advent of an objective world: the rapid tour, the accelerated transport of people, signs or things, reproduce — by aggravating them — the effects of picnolepsy, since they provoke a perpetually repeated hijacking of the subject from any spatial-temporal context.10

Film is now invested with an important social and economic function: “ … the deferred time of the cinematographic motor empties the present world of appearances, the ubiquity allows millions of spectators that haunt the auditoriums (consigned to film like trains are to travel) to forget their material plight.”[11] What Virilio calls, “a new prosthetic synergy in process” emerges as the eye melds with the military, and extends to encompass the whole of society. Initially, at least, society is conceived by Virilio as a sphere apart. The city, the agora, is a sacred meeting point of real bodies and people. But looming above is the military soul. This soul aims simply at a singular goal: the totalitarian regularization of existence, established through technical forms (cinema, delivery systems, transportation lines, fortifications), and ideological reassignment (perceptual training, confusion, automation, the production of obedience, knowledge, recognition, etc.). As modernity develops this military soul no longer aims only at the regularization of space; indeed, from the first, the control of space is meaningless outside the control of time. This is what mobilizes the war machine, and will lead to the infiltration — as the maximal weapon — of the body itself, both metabolic and social. Nothing is the result but effacement:

This new harmony that blends motor, eye and weapon. This alchemy of meaning, capable this time, in a single anamorphosis, of revealing an instability that precipitates every form toward its ruin, this instrumental collage that allows, minute by minute, day-after-day, the erosion of a building, a trench, a city or a countryside, under the combined effect of long-distance bombardments and the ubiquitous gaze of military leaders.11

As social history gives way to military history we find that the forms of society are effaced, or supplanted, by military forms. As strategy is established everywhere in social life — and across the entire plane of redesigned cities — one cinema is replaced for another; the cinema of actual life as one lived within cities is replaced for the cinema of light, depleted of bodies and real meaning as collisions no longer strictly occur. The accidental has been erased, or minimized, and with it the full vibrancy of life recedes. As Virilio describes, “ … the city is no longer a theatre (agora, forum) but the cinema of city lights … urbanism is in decline.”12 A “displacement” has occurred in the “fixity of life”, once grounded on the city.13 In the most radical way imaginable, the progression of the military machine, swarming up through the ages, will have totally supplanted human life and society, and laid over it the unshakeable grid of “logistics” and “science”, in such a way to have,

effectively fabricated a new society whose members would have become sleepers, living illusionary days and naturally very much at ease in a situation of total peace … 14

Virilio in his focus on “pure war” corrects one misunderstanding we have of war. Pure war becomes, by sleight of hand, the permanent production of peace: the permanent preparation for war which assures the balance of terror which in turn assures civil peace. Reversing our received understanding, the organization of military intelligence finds its ultimate expression in peace, the purest of weapons. War — as I will comment on below — depends on the equality of forces within society. But the colonization Virilio is concerned with has no room for equality at all; it is the radical, massive inequality that ensures, by way of ultimate weapons, pure war as peace. The military, in the last analysis, is a police affair.

The cinema-war-police series

Continuing the story, I would argue that to understand cinema we have to understand the emergence of the political form of the image on this series; a cinema-war-police series. Three aspects seem to me important: 1) the emergence, in the modern era, of omnivoyance as practice and ideal; 2) the emergence, in the modern era, of the experience of the self-image (conscience); 3) and the emergence of mediatization in general. Let us take these in turn.

1) Omnivoyance/generalized illumination. If we are to understand cinema — and its political role in society — we have to understand, I believe, the emergence within political practice of a general concern with image. A number of things can we said. I don’t have in mind, at this point, the finery of great armies of warriors. Nor the pomp and circumstance of kings. Rather what interests me is the emergence, over the modern era, of a generalized concern for “oversight”; for omnivoyance. This practice, in our modern context, is epitomized nowhere better than in the utopia and program of a diffuse group of theoreticians known to their time — the eighteenth century — as “police.” Let us review them briefly.

Exemplified in the writings of, among others, Seckendorff (Der Teutsche Fürsten-Staat, 1656), von Schröder (Fürstliche Schatz- und Rentenkammer, 1686), Dithmar (Einleitung in die oeconomische Policei- und Cameral-Wissenshaften, 1745), Darjes (Erste Gründe der Cameral-Wissenshaften, 1756), Justi (Staatwirthschaft, 1758), and Sonnenfels (Grundsätze der Policey, 1787), police was an idea that finds its home in the classical age of absolutism, and is, in my view, an unremarked wellspring of cinema. The aim of this body of thought was the formulation of a complete and total “technology of population” — known among contemporaries as “cameralistics “ — aiming to make individuals “useful” for the world in such a way that their development also fostered the strength of the state. This strength of the state was conceived on the one hand, as the material result of harnessing and channeling their energies (i.e., industry), and on the other, as the securitization of governance through workfare, “occupation” and the incentive to profit (enrichment). Productivity, diligence and happiness emerged as the objectives of the mode of government that dominated the classical age; simultaneously differentiated (in the classification and organization of bodies) and aggregated (in the policing of rhythms and processes of populations). Further characteristics can be listed of importance to our theme: 1) the police embraced everything. 2) Police includes everything — the existence of men, and the full range of their lives. This also meant dangers (disease, accidents, etc.). It is the basis of this oversight that would establish the logic of the social contract, and the permanent peace that would become, in the nineteenth century, “representative democracy.”

Perhaps the most remarkable formulation of the series between sight and police is that of von Berg, given at the beginning of the nineteenth century:

Policey is like a well-intentioned genius who carefully levels the way for those committed to his care; cleans the air that they breathe; secures the villages and holdings in which they dwell, and the streets along which they walk; protects the fields that they cultivate, secures their homes against fire and flood, and they themselves against illness, poverty, ignorance, superstition and immorality; who, even if he cannot prevent all accidents, seeks however to diminish and ease their consequences, and offers refuge in time of need to every pauper, casualty or person in need. Its watchful eye is ubiquitous; its helping hand is ever-ready, and we are invisibly surrounded by its unceasing care.15

This unremarked precursor to the particle accelerator, or light-enhancer, known as police, was crucial to the birth and the development of our world, and likely cinema as the scopic expression of ubiquitous vision. The practice was totalitarian, denoting an attention to all detail (be that the beauty, the order, the trading, the working, the communication, of a city, etc.). Summarized, police was not only the outline of a history forged bottom-up through diverse practices (a relationship to the guidance of conscience that would become the model of relations of social communication, a relationship to the knowledge of state capacities that would gather under the guise of ‘statistics’ diverse forms of registration, inspection and modification), but crucially a history which would be based not upon sovereign authorship, or law-based conceptions of power, but upon the formation of images, norms, perceptions, within an overarching strategic field defined by the great question of organizing materials and men. Nietzsche and Foucault would study such things, but the crucial point of importance is that images would penetrate the social plane and souls.

2) The movement to the self-image. Readers of Foucault will know that he outlined a similar argument in his famous analysis of the move from “spectacular” to reforming forms of punishment (in Surveiller et punir, published first in 1975). In The History of Sexuality, Foucault went further into nature of what for him had always been an emblematic concern: the positive formation of society through positive interventions of power. Analyzing the shift from sovereign societies (what he called ‘societies of blood’) to modern societies (what he called ‘societies of knowledge’), Foucault outlined the nature of what he called an ‘age of bio-power.’ “Governmentalization” would be the term he would later use to sum up the emergence, in the field of political vision, of two aspects: the first centered on the ‘body as a machine’ (an ‘anatomo-politics’ aimed to extort forces and optimize capabilities; the second centered on the ‘adjustment of the phenomena of population’ (a ‘bio-politics’ attentive to mortality, longevity, habitation, hygiene, contagion, marriage, procreation, diet and general health). With the demographic take off of the eighteenth century — in part a function of these new techniques of governing — new techniques became necessary for the maintenance of order.

Power responds. In the first instance, government widens its reach (its gaze); intervening in an ever greater number of spaces (psychology, pathology, sexuality, education, etc.), and locations (the asylum, the clinic, the prison, the school, the factory, the boulevard, the playground, etc.). On the other hand, government becomes integral: assumed within an individual code or structure of command (disposition, humor, temperament), and diffused throughout the social body as a whole (in law, in morality, customs, habits and social knowledge). As we move through modernity it is the latter which — with the saturation that goes with police — infiltrates everything, thereby constituting the subject in such a way that the former aspect (the spatialization of power), may recede, if in relative terms. The ground is being laid, in both thought and in practice, for the decentralization of governance as a whole, and the rise of the pure image as a means of regulation and constitution.

The emblematic event in this latter history, to Foucault’s mind, which crystallizes this negotiation overall (between repressive and liberatory forms of regulation and overcoding), bringing all the various elements together — the state’s concern for discipline and order vis-à-vis the population-wealth problem, the emergence of private domains of experience and activity (market society), as well as discourse and authorship (the emergence of the modern self) — is the birth of the modern prison. Though it must seem removed from any consideration of cinema, his analysis of the technology and emergence of the prison, and in particular his discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s scheme for the ideal penitentiary, is essential, in my view, to an understanding of the emergence of domains both of the modern self (the image of the self that will establish the general character of cinematic society), and privatized authority (by which I mean diffusions and devolutions of power which will underwrite the powerful dematerialization not only of standards, but of the political accountability of the State itself). Again, I must leave much detail aside, the salient points are: a) the Panopticon — Bentham’s ideal reformatory, and the lynchpin around which Foucault based his analysis of the emergence of modern power — is essentially an automatism. Once built the very architecture of the construction itself takes over , ensuring the circulation — or “feedback”, in nineteenth century metaphorical terms — of power relations. For those unfamiliar with Bentham’s plans, it is worth quoting at length Foucault’s own description:

at the periphery, an annular building; at the center, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, one the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy. By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions — to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide — it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.

‘The major effect,’ Foucault continues,

[is] to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.16

Its key technology being surveillance, the Panopticon was essentially that odd phenomenon of a decentralized centralization. In other words, its operation depended upon the constant feeling on behalf of the inmate of being observed. Thus the inmate is subjected not only to uncertainty (‘Where is the Master, Is he there, Is he watching?’), but a discourse with the self which brings forth the voice of conscience. All of this happens whether the guard is in the tower or not. In other words, power operates in the head of each inmate, but its consequence is a reinforcement of a centralized economy of domination.

b) The individual has his or her own space. He or she is the author of their own actions, but is set within a broader, regular, permanent geometry of registration and inspection. The cell is intended to be, for all intents and purposes, a stage, whereupon, each single day, the inmate performs the dual role of convict and governor. In both instances through penitence. c) Power is no longer exercised in a sovereign manner. Rather it is invested in a ‘certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement.’ It is deterritorialized. d) The point of the Panopticon was to release relations of power — ’unlock’ the disciplines — to have them operate in diffuse, multiple and polyvalent ways throughout the social body as well as the prison.17 Thus would be ensured — through the stringing together of all kinds of institutions (schools, factories, prisons, charity houses, barracks, hospitals, asylums, not forgetting families ) — the emergence of a space of self-organization and autobiographical authorship, whereby the individual, penetrated by power, acting upon the self , would become, in Nietzsche’s words, automatic, calculable, regular. 3) Surveillance in the prison replicates hunger in society, and henceforth would take over where hunger itself failed. At the threshold of modernity — via this great transformation in the arts of governing whereby the police state which discovered life becomes the liberal state which privatizes discipline — the effects of surveillance (the dispersal throughout society of individualizing forms of power) had become so apparent as to become transparent — in other words, open: the open landscape upon which the man of modern industrial civilization is found; remembering words, scratching around, picking up tools, directed now not by the king, but a path upon which he is drawn by the echo of his own voice.

3. The emergence of mediatization. Paul Virilio sums up what is most important about this passage between the classical age and the modern.

External repression, control over populations by external forces, is progressively superceded by a ‘mediatization’ of this repression, and finally by a very clear, very banal self-repression.18

Out of surveillance — and Foucault very much theorized this — a generalized mediatization of life emerges (remember that mediatization meant in its original form the stripping of “rights”; i.e., the overcoming of the social contract via intimate controls). In Virilio’s terms, we are set off upon journeys, perceptual as well as technical: “ … train, car, jet, telephone, television … our whole life passes by in the prosthesis of accelerated voyages, of which we are no longer conscious …”19 Panopticism gives the first form to a generalized mobilization of the image within the head of the political subject — specifically as a form of governance and correction. We will always be running after our self-image. ‘What happens is so far ahead of what we think, of our intentions, that we can never catch up with it, and never really know its true appearance.’20

Industrialized absence

That these two broad aspects — the dematerialization of life and the nature of the image as political space in the modern world — come together in complementary form is unsurprising, perhaps, but vital and radical nonetheless. Virilio, again, as been at the forefront of theorizing their complementarity. In the words of Virilio,

All of us are already civilian soldiers, without knowing it. And some of us know it. The great stroke of luck for the military class’s terrorism is that no one recognizes it. People don’t recognize the militarized part of their identity, of their consciousness.21

For Virilio, there is nothing “innocent” about cinema. Vision and visuality, in the post-cinematic — post dawning of cinema — age, are nothing but the remnants of a “dromological”, speed-crazy, ransacking of the world: the transformation of time and space by the organisms of military intelligence. As the enemy is brought closer, in order to be cancelled, the world is flattened. The eye of war produces effects of speed as the distant event, or the soul of the adversary, is brought forth, at rapid pace, for modification. One forestalls surprise by producing a mirror image of it; by enacting it (which is the tactical content of “intelligence” or knowledge), in one’s head before it can happen. “Cinema is the end in which the dominant philosophies and arts have come to confuse and lose themselves, a sort of primordial mixing of the human soul and the languages of the motor-soul.”22

But if speed will kill the authentic imagining (the encounter, the embrace, the experience of human presence, or, on the other hand, a difficult absence), it also kills and will kill authenticity in general. This is where Virilio’s work becomes most inspiring: the theorization of the link not only of the death of “presence” (and the rise of the abstract image) to the reduction of authenticity in human relations, but also the impact of the speed of sight (kinesthetics) to infinity, or God. Virilio is a catholic, like Ellul and McLuhan. His concern is not simply temporal, but concerns also the effacement of that ultimate relation; the relation of man to God, at 300,000 kilometers per second. Can the speed of light illuminate God, or does man find a limit in his ability to see progressively as he controls the production of artificial light; the indirect light which is not God’s, but rather simply the effect of speed (the artificial lamp that glows by way of electromagnetic current, or the night vision goggles that enhance, and in some ways accelerate, light). Driving freedom from sight, to recall Nietzsche’s phrase, might refer indeed precisely to this overcoming of “revelation” by forced, accelerated (kinematic) vision.

The artists’ violence, then, is not simply the ordering of bodies; it is also the production of forms, or representations, into which lives are inserted. We know that society is founded on war when we marvel as the World Trade Center towers explode and hit the ground. We know that society is built upon war when we see everywhere the glorification of women purely as vehicles; as wombs and not people, where the shape of the thighs says something about destiny, and the mirror becomes both a confidant and an enemy. We know that society is founded on war in every movement of pop videos; either the kind that try to escape to a perverse childhood (a kind of institutionalized paedophilia), or the other kind which is nothing but the visualization of pure violence anyway. We know that society is modeled on war when everywhere children are “schooled”, as philosopher Ivan Illich would say. We know that society is founded on war when health becomes a matter not of mutual care, but of insurance. We know that society is founded on war when the monotony of daily life is so unspeakable nobody speaks of it. We know that society is founded on war when television exaggerates everything, yet conveys the gravity or importance of nothing. We know that society is founded on war when real wars are as close as we get to feeling like we exist at all; if, that is, we cancel out the false image we have of existence which for the most part is nothing of the kind, but rather “consumption.” We know that society is founded on war when channels are devoted to fashion shows of scantily clad girls. We know that society is founded on war when the abstract image historically has come to dominate subjective perception, and when historically the image itself has been deemed useful only to the ever-increasing respect of its pure objectivity.

With the decentralization of image production, everyone has the capability of waging war; not only in the age of virtual meeting points (the chat room, IRC, multi-user telephone calls), but in the age of photoshop and the aesthetic distortion of truth. Britney Spears, who has never appeared naked in any mainstream magazine, appears all the time, flashing on one screen or another, called up from servers where she has been placed, unclothed, thanks to the imagination and technical wizardry of layers, masks, and cut and paste. For some the likes of this is a great liberation; a great leap forward from an age of censorship and hierarchy. Print media, TV media, even art and books are all the domain big business. The internet reinvents, it would seem the world of the penmen of the classical age; the individual essayist, waging individual war within or on society. But now there are a million, or more, and the proliferation of forms of war (“hits”) is limited only by the software package, or the number of crashes per hour, or solid state memory. Is this the end of centralized sovereignty? It seems to me not of that order. Understood correctly, this proliferation of warriors is nothing, in fact, but the decentralization — and thereby extension — of warfare throughout society.

Cine agora, or war of representation

Michel Foucault writes,

It may be that war as strategy is a continuation of politics. But it must not be forgotten that ‘politics’ has been conceived as a continuation, if not exactly and directly of war, at least of the military model as a fundamental means of preventing civil disorder. Politics, as a technique of internal peace and order, sought to implement the mechanism of the perfect army, of the disciplined mass, of the docile, useful troop, of the regiment in camp and in the field, on maneuvers and on exercises. In the great eighteenth-century states, the army guaranteed civil peace no doubt because it was a real force, an ever-threatening sword, but also because it was a technique and a body of knowledge that could project their schema over the social body. If there is a politics-war series that passes through strategy, there is an army-politics series that passes through tactics. It is strategy that makes it possible to understand warfare as a way of conducting politics between states; it is tactics that make it possible to understand the army as a principle for maintaining the absence of warfare in civil society. The classical age saw the birth of the great political and military strategy by which nations confronted each other’s economic and demographic forces; but it also saw the birth of meticulous military and political tactics by which the control of bodies and individual forces was exercised within states. The ‘militaire’ – the military institution, military science, the militaire himself, so different from what was formerly characterized by the term ‘homme de guerre’ – was specified, during this period, at the point of junction between war and the noise of battle on the one hand, and order and silence, subservient to peace, on the other. Historians of ideas usually attribute the dream of a perfect society to the philosophers and jurists of the eighteenth century; but there was also a military dream of society; its fundamental reference was not to the state of nature, but to the meticulously subordinated cogs of a machine, not to the primal social contract, but to indefinitely progressive forms of training, not to the general will but to automatic docility.23

There are always two models of war: direct intervention, and the permanent war of imagination. The latter is the space of “peace as the absence of civil war”, where the former is the fact of the absence of representation and the permanent war of “society.” The former is the war of the state against states, or against militias or rioters. The latter is the peace of stabilized servitude; the cessation of hostilities not enough in itself, as Gramsci was aware. “Hegemony” is the word that he gave traditional sovereignty; if we could break from the idea that sovereignty exists only through force. Neither, however, is contract or institution enough to ensure sovereignty; there must always have been the establishment of inequality (in the inequality of the vanquished, whether state, individual, or disquieted group or tribe). The two go together. The first war model is the permanent warring man. The second war model is the play of representations, as the permanent basis for human relations. War is not, therefore, subsumed. Rather it takes residence within representation; “ … not that of direct confrontation of forces — marked by blood, battles, and corpses — but rather a certain state of representations, which are played off against each other …”24 Let us remember that Machiavelli saw “mixed government” as simply a directed, or constitutionalized form of civil war; the binary logic of two warring parties, set against each other, but undertaking their battle in the realm of representation. This institutionalized conflict is the very mechanism — perhaps only mechanism — that produces peace, order, civilization and the grandeur of the state itself. But what kind of peace?

The irony in political theory is that it is not in Locke, in Mill, in Bentham that we find a concern for the absence of civil war. In these we find the reverse. The placing of civil war at the heart of all political life, now transformed into a struggle between representations, or between images and lives played out in the conscience, or in consciousness (as that between pleasure and pain, in Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy). If we want to find the model of society based on the absence of civil war we have to turn, counter-intuitively, to Machiavelli, to Hobbes, and the attempt that they made, through establishing the aristocratic ideal, to create a permanent inequality that would mean the cessation — in the rendering of a large part of the population in service — of hostilities. In opposing the realm of self-government, however, Hobbes and Machiavelli deny themselves the foundation upon which true sovereignty emerges; the uses of liberty to establish recognition in the mind of the vanquished of the sovereign status of the conqueror. Machiavelli and Hobbes lacked legitimacy, in the final analysis, though perhaps it is Hobbes who recognizes for the first time the necessary conditions for it. Legitimacy would be based on the war of representations, or of images and self-images; and most especially on the protective relation of the sustenance of life and the abrogation, by a conquering form, of the fear of death. On the one hand, sovereignty isn’t based upon benevolence as such as the placing of the individual within a play of representations, allowing for a certain disorder to be in command, and not stifled, or smothered. On the other, the pactum repraesentationis is that which will follow the choice of life over death; it is the result of the elimination of war, or its replacement by a model of representational war, based around sovereign right, consented to in kind, and located within the heart of the modern political theory of the state.

The question may not be one of the relation of vision to war so much as the intensification of this relation in the twentieth century. This may entail not even so much the uses of cinema by the war machine, as such, as the blending together of war and cinema in the inward transformation of human life in the age of images. As the external world of maneuvers and exercises made necessary an overcoming of territory (the rendering of the world proximate, and “in reserve”, by the apparatus of military logistics), so the inward effects of the meeting point of the war of representation and citizens in the city renders relative the standards and understandings we once shared. “We have lost our spatial reference points right here — not out there, but right here — and even our relations with others have entered this de-territorialized dimension.”25 War is waged on the citizen in direct proportion to the proliferation of images, just as the proliferation of images has become a key sector in the defense of society by the state. This war of images is not a direct war, but one borne of the loss of perspective, or more radically “proportion”, by a cinema-war-police series which always has existed, but which never has had access to so powerful a set of tools — nor the capital exploited with such precision from the poor in order to pay for these — perhaps, even, in the whole of history. The intensification of violence is of the intensification of this relation between vision and deterritorialization: of the passage of the cinema-war machine into our very heads, and the distorting effects on our even basically received notions (time, space, dimension), of the very location of our lives. Perhaps, then, there is no better question to pose that the nature of this cine agora, relative to the violence of vision, and the technical use of images by these two complimentary forces of police and the apparatus of war.

This paper was written for the 3rd Jeonju International Film Festival, South Korea, 26 April-04 May 2002 and subsequently published in Seo Dong-Jin (ed.), Cine-Agora (Seoul: JIFF, 2002).
  1. “To magnetize the masses, you must above all talk to their eyes.” Napoleon, quoted in Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991), p. 54.
  2. Doubtless in part it was in reaction to this cinematic that Nietzsche would formulate—in his attempt to escape the fortress mentality—the task of reorientation in this way: that learning to see, which he took to be prior to learning to think, or to speak, or to write, involved, “letting things come up” to the eye. Allowing things themselves to approach.  Then it would be a question not of conceiving but experiencing.
  3. Mumford describes, “To achieve the maximum appearance of order and power on parade, it is necessary to provide a body of soldiers either with an open square or a long unbroken avenue .. a moving regiment gives the impression that it would break through a solid wall … [which
  4. I’d like to make reference at this point to the astonishing work of Manuel De Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, which does not ask my question, but rather retells history from the future perspective of a robot historian, retracing the lines and the flows that allowed for its autonomy. Disturbing vision—but I would like to think it is not yet assured. Hence my question, which is more conservative.
  5. See Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War did not take place (Sydney: Power Publications, 1993).
  6. See James Der Derian, Virtuous War (Massachusetts: Westview, 2002).
  7. Two unpublished papers by Ivan Illich can serve as guides in this task of reconstructing the historical genealogy of regimes of sight, and the image in particular: See Ivan Illich, ‘The Scopic past and the ethics of the gaze’, and ‘Guarding the eye in the age of show’, available on request via [email protected]
  8. Kevin Robins, ‘The virtual unconscious in post-photography’, Science as Culture, Vol. 14, 1992, p. 104.
  9. “… through the rapidity and contradictoriness of their changes, more harmless impressions force such violent responses, tearing the nerves so brutally hither and thither that their last reserves of strength are spent; and if one remains in the same milieu they have no time to gather new strength. An incapacity thus emerges to react to new sensations with appropriate energy … The essence of the blasé attitude consists of a blunting of discrimination … the differing value of things appear to the blasé person in an evenly flat and gray tone; no one object deserves preference over any other.” Georg Simmel, in Kurt H. Wolff, The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1950), p. 414.
  10. Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, p. 101.
  11. Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, p. 55.
  12. Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, pp. 56-7.
  13. Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, p. 92.
  14. Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, p. 93.
  15. Cited in Keith Tribe, Strategies of Economic Order: German Economic Discourse, 1750-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 20-21.
  16. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Allen Lane, 1977), pp. 200-1.
  17. Remember, Bentham’s scheme was intended as a model for ‘any sort of establishment’ wherein persons are to be kept under inspection.
  18. Paul Virilio, in Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer, Pure War (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997), p. 145.
  19. Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, p. 61.
  20. Virilio, Virilio and Lotringer, Pure War, p. **.
  21. Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, p. 105.
  22. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, pp. 168-9.
  23. Michel Foucault, Difendere la società (Florence: Ponte alle Grazie, 1990), p. 69.
  24. Paul Virilio, ‘A century of hyper-violence’, Economy and Society, Vol. 25, No. 1, February 1996, p. 113.
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We negate and we must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm — Friedrich Nietzsche