Monday, May 6, 2013

Postcards from the Zeitgeist

In the decade just passed that we keep trying to forget, while the Iraq war was at its peak, an enterprising sleazeball from Florida stumbled his way into a perfect media platform for the spirit of that age. Chris Wilson of Orlando started a website at the domain The original business model was amateur porn-swap. The novelty came when he gave access to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan by allowing them to crowdsource new material for the site in lieu of payment (since most of the soldiers had difficulties making card payments from their overseas posts). Instead of skanky pictures of deshabillé girlfriends, the soldiers mostly contributed warporn—gruesome pictures of maimed and mangled bodies in the warzone. Creating thereby an indigenous 21st century atrocity exhibition, in which fluorescent scenes of domestic alienation and exploitation cohabited with their geopolitical shock and awe dipoles.

As soon as the national authorities got wind of this virally expanding open wound of the national psyche, they shut it down. Images of the byproducts of American daisy cutters and door-to-door terrorist hunts are strictly verboten. The County Sheriff went after Wilson on 301 counts of obscenity, and redirected his site to their own. Much of the content can still be found at various network archives, and there have been a number of fascinating critical studies of the episode, including excellent work by Italian writer Gianluigi Ricuperati.

This morning I was surprised to see, a decade later, that the next generation of warporn has found a more mainstream home. The New York Times is now curating an online compilation of intense graphic videos from the Syrian battlezone. They includes scenes of soldiers being blown up on a rooftop after signaling their surrender, child victims of an airstrike, digs through the rubble for survivors, burning bodies, executed families, burning houses, civilians scattering under gunfire, and the above video of a captured soldier (purportedly a rebel captured by government troops) being dragged behind a car through the streets of Aleppo. You used to have to troll the darknet to find this kind of material, and you still won't find video documentation of the byproducts of GWOT 2.0 on any American corporate media site, but it's an interesting development to see the Grey Lady (d)evolve into a portal for videos from the apocalyptic present posted by adrenaline-amped DIY rebels from their blood-spattered smartphones.

It makes sense. Contemporary war correspondents trying to figure out how to be the 21st century Robert Capa naturally gravitate to the romance of this material. Times correspondent C.J. Chivers maintains an excellent blog detailing the garage-built armaments of the Syrian rebels, and the Atlantic ran a photo essay on the same subject a few weeks back. The NYT video library reveals the incipient future of the life-risking war correspondent as something more like an analog to the drone pilot—documenting the apocalyptic freedom fighter variation of the maker meme from the comfort of a home office in Williamsburg.

At the same time, the establishment media struggles to get its head around the dark side of the gun control debate, and its not-so-subtextual "blood of tyrants" charge with the idea of the right of revolt. In those days after Patriots Day and before the Slip Away II, you could hear the angst about the possibility that the perpetrators of the Boston bombings were domestic rather than jihadi. Can we imagine a reality in which something like what's going on in Syria happened inside these borders? Anderson Cooper embedded with federal troops putting down the rebellion in New Orleans? Probably not. That's a copper wire no one wants to touch. The footage would drive a lot of traffic, but there'd be nothing left to buy. We can't even approach that territory close enough to make a good Hollywood movie about an invasion of America—unless it's by extraterrestrials. But when you watch the below clip of a White House takeover from current theatrical release Olympus has Fallen out of its narrative context, you have to wonder whether all these threads are trying to converge, in some unexplored part of our collective consciousness.

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