Monday, May 6, 2013
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 nowthatsfuckedup.com. 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.
Monday, April 8, 2013
Sunday's New York Times shared the news that police have changed their recommendations on how citizens should respond when faced with an "active shooter" invading our place of institutional confinement (office or school) with a video game arsenal's worth of automatic weapons. Apparently acknowledging the likelihood that the shooter will have completed his mass murder by the time the police arrive, the advice is no longer to stay passive and call 911, but to take action.
[Video" "Run. Hide. Fight. Surviving an active shooter event," Ready Houston (2012)]
The article links to "Run. Hide. Fight."—a simultaneously horrific and self-parodic video from READY Houston, the regional interagency group using Department of Homeland Security funds to figure out new ways to train you to survive the many threats they from which they are largely incapable of protecting you.
"It may feel like another day at the office," opens the grim narrator, as a big dude with shaved head, wraparound shades, black T-shirt, tactical pants, overstuffed black backpack, and an expressionless face shambles down the sidewalk in front of the glass and steel high rises. "But occasionally, life feels more like an action movie than reality."
Cut to a shot of rows of cubicle dividers, one of which is decorated with a crossed pair of American flags.
"The authorities are working hard to protect you and your family," the narrator assures you unconvincingly, as the ominous music builds up over a long pause showing people going about their productive, collegial and menial office tasks. "But sometimes, bad people do bad things."
The camera follows the shooter as he steps through the glass door marked with the no firearms sign (a very Texan touch), steps into the office lobby, and begins his attack. It's some pretty intense stuff, especially for a government education film.
The video proceeds with its hierarchy of responses designed to help you survive threats that the authorities implicitly admitted they won't be able to protect you from, because by the time the SWAT team arrives it will be all, or mostly, over.
First, try to get the hell out of there, with an emphasis on self-reliance: "Encourage others to leave with you. But don't let others slow you down with indecision." And (even though you are at the office where they have you working late to try to make your mortgage and credit card payments) they remind you to "remember what's important: you, not your stuff."
If you can't run, then try to hide. Copy the woman who pushes the photocopier to block the door, turns out the lights in the room, and silences her cell phone (just like you would do at the beginning of an action movie).
Finally, when your fortification fails, like the group who used the spindly table instead of the vending machines to block the lunchroom door, your government encourages you to do things it never otherwise asks you to do (unless it is sending you off to kill people in other countries):
"As a last resort, if your life is at risk, whether you are acting alone, or working together as a group: fight. Act with aggression. Improvise weapons. Disarm him, and commit to taking the shooter down. No matter what."
What does it tell you about the health of society that the State is now training you to take violent action on your own initiative, as the only way to protect yourself when you are trapped inside the institutional structure of your office or school (structures designed to control our primitive instincts for violence)? What a dismal Hobbesian juncture. We have an epidemic of alienated individuals showing up at office, school or mall with over-the-counter arsenals unleashed on peers objectified through the dehumanized point of view of a first-person shooter. Our institutional authorities express complete bafflement at the causes of this epidemic, unable to confront the dark truths it surely reveals about the existential condition of the American self. They can't identify and address the causes, they can't cut off the means of destruction, and they can't stop the horrific incidents until they are over. So they tell us our only way to survive will be to disable the governors they have programmed into us with years of civil socialization inside schools and offices, and rely on our primate instincts of fight or flight.
We've come a long way from "Duck and Cover," the 1951 Federal Civil Defense Administration film that taught us how to use our school desks as shields from nuclear weapons.
[Video: "Duck and Cover," Federal Civil Defense Administration (1951)]
The change is evidenced in the etymological evolution from "Civil Defense" to "Homeland Security" over the course of fifty years of government-sanctioned fears. The Civil Defense authorities optimistically told you even a piece of newspaper could shield you somewhat from the effects of an atomic blast. The Homeland Security authorities tell you you are on your own against a threat they can't explain, and you better get ready to act in your own defense, turning whatever office supplies you can find nearby into primitive weapons. Fifty years ago, our "authorities" warned us about the risk of doomsday bombs being launched at us from the other side of the planet, but assured us with fantasies of cozy catastrophe survival. Today, they tell us the risk is our own dark natures, which even the highly evolved institutional control systems of our bureaucratic offices and prison architecture schools can no longer keep out.
Today, we make smart-ass bro jokes about the threat of nuclear attack by that weird kid on the other side of the planet, evading our real fear: the weird kid down the street.
Is it too heretical to examine these themes through the laboratory prism of speculative counterfactuals? It's a treacherous path for the Authorities to train us to defend ourselves from our cubicles. What if we start using those techniques to defend ourselves against the Authorities? What if the previously docile employees in the corporate headquarters of a generic Houston petrochemical conglomerate featured in "Run-Hide-Fight," trained to snap out of their programming and act instinctively in their own primitive interests to defeat the active shooter, awaken to the realization that they have the means of their own liberation? No wonder the last few minutes of the video are focused on cooperating with the paramilitary law enforcement squads when they finally show up.
"Improvise weapons." That sounds more like advice for Syrian rebels than Houston office clerks. What if the real threat to the security of the "Homeland" were the people losing patience with the Authorities, and seeking a more participatory and authentically democratic society that doesn't rely on social pyramids, institutional Panopticons, and systems of white collar serfdom? It's not hard to imagine a sequel to Run-Hide-Fight, in which some of the employees take over the office, one floor at a time.
[Pics: Images from the 2006 series "Business Reply Envelope" by Packard Jennings, conceived as an instruction manual for office workers to overthrow their office hierarchy and replace it with a tribal culture in which the work space is used for homesteading, hunting and growing crops.]
More plausibly, what if we acted on our own initiative to try to honestly examine the deep social sickness behind the active shooter epidemic, and address the causes at their roots, instead of with an Aeron chair over the head?
And how worried should we be about the revelation that the Department of Homeland Security is now focused on protecting us from us?
[Video: Actual Emergency Broadcast Systems activation during the 1992 L.A. riots.]
Extra credit: Texas State University's ALERRT (Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training), home of the "Forging Warriors" law enforcement training program for active shooter first responders, and a pretty scary research report on active shooter events from 2000 to 2010.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Courtesy of the underground network of trans-Pacific ateliers harvesting souvenirs from the dark intersections of banal pop culture and apocalyptic Zeitgeist, last night's spam brings the perfect gift for that special friend celebrating the 10th anniversary of the decapitation strike that started the Iraq War: the zombie Osama action figure.
The ZOMBEE TOY 1/6 Ozombie Walking Dead Terrorist Infected action figure comes complete with jungle camo field coat, custom AK-47 with three banana clips, weathered leather boots, and a 1/6 scale copy of Time Magazine with a picture of W. on the front and an ad for Jack Bauer's CTU on the back.
Plus, a miniature coffin with "Solid Diecast Metal Anchor Weights & Hooks" perfect for burial at sea in the Indian Ocean or the bathtub of your favorite GWOT-savvy seven-year old.
The ideal playmate for that Elite Force Aviator President George W. Bush action figure that's been gathering dust on your shelf, G.I. Joe-compatible zombie Osama even has his own promotional video.
Zombie Dick Cheney with replica general counsel's memo on enhanced interrogation techniques and functioning die-cast metal cyborg heart has not yet been released. That will be coming out at Christmas with the Saddam, Uday and Qusay boxed set with Spiderhole Command Center.
But they do have Hitler's Brain.
Handmade with pride in USA.
Sunday, March 10, 2013
What would George W. F. Hegel make of the puppy paintings of George W. Bush?
After the hack of a few weeks back, the weekend's news revealed an interview with the lady who got tapped to come to an undisclosed secure location and teach W how to more properly participate in our surreal age by slowly releasing images directly from the infantile, wounded segments of his brain.
These images arrive almost exactly a decade since U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad and found the chainmail bikini fantasy art of Rowena Morrill and others decorating the bachelor pads of Saddam Hussein.
Is it too much to imagine a reality in which a platoon of Force Recon Marines dig their way through the post-Shock and Awe rubble into the underground bunker and find Saddam's love nest decorated with nude shower self-portraits of W.?
Saddam, of course, wrote genre novels.
[Pic: Cover of Zabibah and the King, an 8th century romance novel by Saddam Hussein.]
Perhaps, with the hour that disappeared overnight, we lost an alternate time stream in which W., Hitler, Saddam, and other world historical figures who wreaked substantial havoc on the planet in the past century lived out their lives as artists rather than rulers. The threads of the sweater holding together your reality pull much more easily than you think. That's why Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un are laughing at you.
Do we have the courage to really examine how our popular culture shapes the frequently defective personalities of the people who govern our world? How much distance is there, really, between the outsider Magritte shower stall self-examinations of W., and the clown paintings of John Wayne Gacy?
[Pic: Georg W. F. Hegel watching how things are playing out at the nexus of art, culture, geopolitics and personality, 300 years later.]
[Extra credit: Some premonitions from 2003.]
Friday, March 1, 2013
Monday, April 30, 1973
Resignation day. We finished up our resignation statements this morning, I had a meeting with Bull, Parker, Larry, and Kehrli to impress upon them the need to carry on the ongoing system just as it is until a new system was worked out and ready to put into place, and urged that they not fall into the trap of any sort of internal struggle for position. And explained the importance of their holding everything tightly together during the interim period while the P would be in very tough emotional and physical shape, and so on.
Ehrlichman and I then met with the senior staff. Shultz couldn't be there because he was testifying on the Hill, but we had Ash, and Kissinger, Timmons, and Ken Cole, and told them what our decision was, and made something of the same points. John was very emotional in that session, broke down or was on the verge of it at least, several times. Everybody, I think, was genuinely shocked, and I think we successfully impressed on them also the need to deal very carefully with this interim period.
I made a number of phone calls, talked to Billy Graham. He seemed to feel it was the right thing to do, said that he didn't believe that in government he had met two finer men than Ehrlichman and me, and that we have his full support—he feels we've been caught in a web of evil that will ultimately be defeated. He has great affection and love for me as a man, that I should count him as a friend, and that what I'm doing is going to help the P.
— H.R. Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House (1994)
The above is the beginning of the final entry in H.R. "Bob" Haldeman's diaries of his years as Nixon's Chief of Staff, a tattered paperback copy of which I acquired recently while exploring the ruins of New Orleans. The resignation Haldeman refers to is his own—Nixon's would not come until a year later.
Perhaps I can blame the fact that I have been reading excerpts from Haldeman's diary for the Nixon flashback I had yesterday, as I glimpsed the images of the papal helicopter lifting off to deliver the Pope Emeritus to his Italian San Clemente.
I love interregnums. They represent the possibility of a world without kings. The idea of individual leaders seems deeply programmed into human culture, and there are few human socio-political institutions that don't rely on one, even if it is sometimes more titular that real. Whether it's the pope, or the President, or the CEO, when the Chief leaves without an immediate successor, and life goes on without any material difference, one can almost imagine a world in which our silverback programming could be hacked to remix our way toward a system based on something more harmonious than primate competition for power and dominion.
Interregnums induced by enigmatic resignations employed as a tactic to evade the transparency of justice are all the more interesting. Ritual exile can be a successful alternative to exposure of what really happens inside the institutions where the greatest repositories of human power are stored. You'll never know what these guys were really talking about. The past gets buried under the cathode ray snowfall of interregnum, and the need to keep the trains running.
Monday, January 28, 2013
In the 2009 cyberpunk film Sleep Dealer, the U.S.-Mexico border is guarded by a machine comprised of (i) a surveillance camera, (ii) a machine gun and (iii) a robot voice interrogator, the apparent purpose of which is to keep Americans from leaving the country. Today's news reveals what appear to be plans to implement this dystopian vision—except that the real robots will be flying robots, and they won't ask questions.
"Senators Offer a Bipartisan Blueprint for Immigration"alerts The New York Times on the top of the front/landing page, coding the proposal as good news you should reflexively support. "Border Security First, Paving Way to Path to Citizenship," reads the sub-head, above the pictures of leading Democrats and Republicans sharing the podium. Keep reading. Better yet, dig into the talking points.
Short version: The border will be secured by armed flying robots. If you sneak past them, we will let you stay as a guest worker.
Some highlights from the Orwellian Senatorial PDF:
"To fulfill the basic governmental function of securing our borders, we will continue the increased efforts of the Border Patrol by providing them with the latest technology, infrastructure, and personnel needed to prevent, detect, and apprehend every unauthorized entrant.
"Additionally, our legislation will increase the number of unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance equipment, improve radio interoperability and increase the number of agents at and between ports of entry. The purpose is to substantially lower the number of successful illegal border crossings while continuing to facilitate commerce.
"Once the enforcement measures have been completed, individuals with probationary legal status will be required to go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants, pass an additional background check, pay taxes, learn English and civics, demonstrate a history of work in the United States, and current employment, among other requirements, in order to earn the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residency. Those individuals who successfully complete these requirements can eventually earn a green card."
[Pic: Section of the border wall in Arizona that is designed to move with the shifting sands.]
The proposal is indeed a wonderful example of our two-party system in action. Republicans get to perform new oratorical science fictions about the omniscient super force-field robot border wall. Democrats get to imagine a new underclass subservient to citizen (union) labor and so dependent on the state that each member actually has to register on the official ledger.
You saw the part about how the guest workers will have to pay taxes while they are taking the classes where they learn the Pledge of Allegiance and waiting for their background check to be completed, but won't be eligible for any government benefits? I bet the lines are already forming.
Never mind the fact that net migration trends have reversed in recent years. Or that by mid-century, our aging population and declining birth rates will probably have us paying bounties for fresh young labor to come over and man the life support maquiladoras for the Baby Boomers that never die. If you were as nutty as Alex Jones, you might think that's exactly the plan: America as labor camp for the last rich white guys to live like posthuman sultans, looking out the window at the endless green fairways behind the fence, lit up at night by the fracking flareoffs. That's the sound of Chuck Schumer giving John McCain the high five that you just heard.
[Pic: Migrant workers operate distant factory robots from an infomaquila in Tijuana—still from Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer.]
A while back, I was kidnapped by the Tijuana Liberation Front, and they made me read this message for the hostage video, which was played back to the lanes of cars lined up to cross at San Ysidro. I tried to synthesize some of my thoughts on the border as mental and physical space, some of which are, I like to think, useful context for reading today's news:
The next generation of border fortifications will be invisible and essentially imaginary—an American exercise in state-sponsored science fiction very similar to Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” space-based defense against Soviet nuclear missiles, which did not have to be real to break the financial back of the Soviets trying to match it. The border wall does not actually need to work to fulfill its purpose.
In her 2010 book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, UC-Berkeley Professor Wendy Brown makes a compelling case that the real purpose of the global boom in border fortifications is to restore the idea of the sovereign state in a world where the nation-state is diminishing in relevance and coherency. In Brown’s view, the U.S. border wall primarily exists to reinforce in the minds of American citizens the idea that the border—and the Nation—really exists...
The border wall draws the line from the map in “real” space, but as HSARPA’s call for ideas shows, it does very little to make that line “real.” ...To the extent the next generation border security systems will work, it will not be because they actually function as physical barriers. It will be because people believe in them as a representation of the idea of the country they define. Government-designed surveillance and interdiction networks, operated by the inheritors of Dr. Strangelove’s war room, only work in Hollywood reality as an accepted narrative of government power that reinforces the identity of the citizen living in a protective Panopticon.
You can read the whole thing over at the New York Review of Science Fiction.
Better yet, go browse around inside the the curious website of HSARPA—the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, and get a vision of a future you might not have imagined.
And don't forget the gate code.