Moral affect, ‘the war on terror,’ and the posthuman symbolism of Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty begins with a statement that it is “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” And then the screen goes black; you hear voices from the World Trade Center only.  The theatre is pitch black for minutes.  There is no vision.

I went to see Zero Dark Thirty on Saturday. I’ve tried to avoid reading any of the controversy until having an opportunity to see the film (it opened later in Ireland than in the States), though it’s hard when my favorite critic of US power (Greenwald) has made what I am sure are compelling arguments against the film; and my favorite drama queen (Andrew Sullivan) has also been writing about it a lot; I have tried to avoid them both on ‘ZDT’, and so now I have to go back and read a month’s worth of material. Anyway, the film absolutely does position torture as effective in gaining intelligence that led to Osama Bin Laden, which is not a truthful claim despite the film’s opening sentence, and therefore it appears to carry forward the ideology of the ‘war on terror’ as promulgated by Cheney and Co.  So the central historical claim of the film appears to be false.  Still, according to Andrew O’Hehir at Salon, “Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, who does not think ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is pro-torture, has made the especially apt observation that it’s a story about war crimes told from the perspective of the criminals.”

The question that hovers over the film is:  what does the ‘perspective’ of the war criminals look like?  What does it see?  Being a film, what does ZDT show about the war on terror as a ‘way of seeing’?  I don’t think the film is triumphalist or a representation of the heroic (pace Naomi Wolf’s over the top take down of the director). While not being an ideological condemnation of the prosecution of the ‘war on terror,’ it seems to me that it does portray the inhumanity, and figuratively the non-humanity, of those prosecuting it through the symbolism of affect (or its absence) it deploys.  The symbol is ultimately a kind of killer (affectless) insect.  This is what US ‘national security’ has become.

First in the torture and base sexual humiliation itself, which requires an absence of moral affect.  The most startling point in the film is when a man being tortured appeals to Maya, a CIA agent watching his torture, for help.  She states matter of factly:  “You can help yourself by being truthful” and walks away.  It’s the only thing she ever says to him.  Whether this masks some actual feeling on her part is unclear.  She doesn’t seem repulsed by torture in Bigelow’s characterization.  She merely seems tired.  Yet Maya is the protagonist of the film and the film makes a lot of hay out of the lack-of-progress daily updates she marked on the office window of her CIA ‘boss’ with a Sharpie.  Maya is in ZDT a person with a job.  She has a crummy Dell-like desktop and dusty keyboard.  And so the viewer, at least this viewer, couldn’t help but be sympathetic to her as someone with a job:  the viewer becomes complicit in this sense.  It’s a procedural.  If the film represents the perspective of war criminals, the experience of the viewer of the film implicates us in the (sorry for this) ‘banality’ of a non-legal regime:  Maya simply watches those interrogation scenes (torture) on DVDs, sifting through them like they are file folders.

The theme of a lack of moral affect continues in the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and the symbolism of how it’s filmed.  Those who carry it out are affectless and insectoid.  They literally have multiple-(pitch black inhuman reflective circular)-‘eyes’, in a metaphorical figure of the insect:  their night-vision goggles (worn at the darkest point of the night, ‘zero dark thirty’).  And again we, the viewers, see the assassination from this ‘insectoid’ perspective: the raid is filmed in ghostly/monochrome night-vision green.  There is occasional color photography interspersed with the night-vision perspective, and the color shots emphasize the screaming and fear of the children in the Osama Bin Laden compound, in effect their humanity; when talking to the children, the SEALS pull up the goggles, then they put them back down again, and kill.

The guns the SEALS use have green laser targeting, antenna-like.  And it’s the image of the multiple insect eyes of the night vision goggles, and what they see (a monochrome affectless world), that to my mind complements the symbolism of ‘national security’ in the prosecution of the drone war: drones are figuratively insect robots.  In fact, the film also includes a representation of drone strikes and of the black and white radar-like imagery we’ve come to associate too easily with ‘drone vision’. This is what US power is now: prosecuted by buzzing (they are known for this ‘droning’ sound) robots, connected to remote black sites (nests?).

Joseph Masco, an anthropologist of US militarism and national security, visited my University in January and gave a talk on digital surveillance under the US regime of the war on terror.  One of Masco’s points in his recent work has been that while logics of national security are shifting from deterrence to ‘preparedness’ and therefore pre-emption (and see also Andrew Lakoff on this subject), the apocalyptic affect of the Cold War continues to structure contemporary US militarism.  Emphasis on preparedness discursively establishes “synchronous stress on a global scale” he said in his talk:  operating on the very nervous system of the very bodies of individual subjects (think of airport scanners and the modes of shameful exposure requested).  This is the structure of historical movement from the War Department (wars are finite) to the Defense Department (‘defense’ is permanent), once again, squared.  The Department of Homeland Security represents a further conceptual shift:  as the project of national security now becomes part of everyday practices and affects (there were always survivalists in the US; the war on terror makes folks in the US all survivalists {‘terror alerts,’ remember the run on duct tape after 9/11?}.  And that word ‘homeland’ is significant; remember how weird it felt at first.  ‘Homeland’?

Masco structures The Nuclear Borderlands around the concept of the nuclear uncanny, the unhomely, the strange yet familiar presence of the nuclear secret in US society as institutionalized at Los Alamos.  As he concludes the book, he shows how though the logic of the war on terror has changed the way national security is ‘officially’ imagined through ‘pre-emption’, the affect of that war reproduces the apocalyptic imagination of the cold war (page 334):

Many Americans, for example, were gripped by an experience of the nuclear uncanny following the September 11 terrorist strikes, intuitively understanding the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, through a national notion of violence developed during the Cold War nuclear standoff.  One of the most powerful effects of the bomb, I believe, has been to nationalize a sense of apocalyptic violence in the United States, unifying the nation through images of its own end.  The cultural effects of the Cold War nuclear standoff–the decades of life situated within thirty-minute temporal frame of a nuclear war that may have always already started–has produced a new kind of psychic intimacy with mass violence.  The sheer number of times Americans have experienced the destruction of New York City in Hollywood films (e.g., in When Worlds Collide [1951], Fail Safe [1963] {and a series of others including} Independence Day [1996], Deep Impact [1998], Armageddon [1988]), in civil defense scenarios (from the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, and 2000s), and in the US political discourse set the psychosocial stage for the attacks on the World Trade Center, blurring how citizens interpreted the event by making them so strangely familiar.  Amy Kaplan (2003) has argued that the scripting of the World Trade Center site in New York as ‘ground zero’ reveals a series of repressed discourses about US militarism and nuclear nationalism.  Tracing the etymology of ‘ground zero’ from its first appearance in 1946, as the site of a nuclear explosion, to its more general usage today as a place where things simply ‘start over, she asks why the ‘ground zero’ reference in New York is discursively tied not to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where civilians were also targeted, but to the Japanese military attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor…

Perhaps the luridly joyful response of many in the US public to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden (remember that President Obama had originally said there ‘was a fire fight’; for what it’s worth, ZDT corrects this misimpression; and remember the incredible emotional intensity of Hilary Clinton’s face in that most public photograph) was a kind of inversion of this apocalyptic affect.  But ZDT presents a contrast:  not the public world of a ‘perfectly paranoid system’ seeding insecurity (and indeed ‘terror’) everywhere and all the time, but a secret, dark, black (site) world whose apparent moral affectlessness (enforced nonresponse to the grotesque) is its only ‘affect,’ the putative principle of its effectiveness.  This is not the giddy absurdity of Doctor Strangelove.  The guy who kills Osama Bin Laden dispatches him with a couple ‘pops’ (they aren’t big loud Hollywood gun shots), and the script calls attention to the matter of factness of this act:  one of the others on the raid team notices it, saying something like, ‘Dude, do you know who you just killed?‘  The shooter basically ignores him.

If modes of US public imagination of its own apocalypse at the hands of the other have become more and more ‘alien’ (even simply cosmic, as shown in Masco’s list of films about the destruction of New York City), ZDT also shows the alien-ness of the US’s system prosecuting this war on ‘terror.‘  It replaces the procedural job of Maya with the nightvision of the Navy Seals.  And in ZDT, the long ‘hunt’ for Osama is reduced to a room with a handful of people, a cell.  This is a job, not an ideology.  The workings of affect here reminded me of the brilliant critique by Masco’s colleague William Mazzarella of the ‘posthuman’ (post-representational) aspect of the turn to affect in contemporary theory.  It further reminded me of the way Ruth Leys links the operative psychology underlying both contemporary torture (with its heavy focus on ‘shame’) and contemporary critiques of hegemonic ‘shame’ in relation to abjected identities.  Leys critiques the move away from intention and meaning in the contemporary understanding of affects.

Perhaps the film shows to an American public that associates the killing of Osama Bin Laden with triumph the fundamental immorality (or the putative amorality) of the acts that led to it.  Two images stayed with me from the film:  those multi-eyed cyborg/insect goggles, and the line Maya speaks with no affect.  Maybe Bigelow makes the stealth helicopters ‘sexy,’ military technology porn of a kind.  Or maybe this is a further symbol:  they hover, circling, with a silent putter, unseen, mosquito-like.

So one could argue that the film reflects a certain kind of ruthless (morally bankrupt) militarism of US culture back to itself.  However, and this is the part that is complex: to me the US is so militarized it doesn’t even notice how fundamentally strange this is anymore, at least not in ways that have any consequence it seems to me. For me, it was disturbing when on a Delta flight in the States in December, the flight attendants had the plane passengers give a round of applause for the US soldiers on board, who were flying in uniform. Here was a ritual of everyday (humdrum: a passenger flight, coach class) acquiescence to the (global) militarism of US society. I honestly thought: there may be doctors on this flight. Or high school teachers. Or NGO workers. Do they not also deserve applause?

Finally, I should admit to having a very strong emotional reaction to the (yes) assassination of Osama Bin Laden.  For me, it became the wrong kind of action (a CIA led assassination, again) once it was revealed that there really was no ‘fire fight’ as President Obama had dissembled in his press conference after the event.  Yet it was initially at the moment of that press conference that I was somehow proud of the President:  he did not use the phrase ‘war on terror,’ he said ‘war on Al Qaeda.’  This seemed to me at the time important in at least trying to move, in the most visible way possible, the nation away from the absurd “war on terror” construct (and whether Obama in practice is doing so is a very real question: see Guantanamo and much else; and notice that George W. Bush refused to join Obama at Ground Zero on the 10th anniversary of 9/11).

Still, there were political repercussions to this within the bizarro world of US right-left politics.  The fact that it was specifically the guy who himself had literally been painted by the paranoid fringes (if Fox News is fringe) as a terrorist-sympathiser was important in undermining the absurd war-and-fear-mongering of the neocons:  the neocons couldn’t in the end do what the liberal did.  A liberal can care about his country — he can be willing to kill for it, rightly or wrongly.  That disturbs the backwards and incredibly destructive neocon worldview.

At his second inauguration, Obama said we have to end perpetual war.  But we have a long way to go.  This perpetual war footing has actually been happening since 1945 (with the occasion of the only use of atomic weapons ever in war by the United States) — over a quarter of our history has been lived as a kind of perpetual war.  Read Joseph Masco’s brilliant ethnography of Los Alamos in the context of US culture, one of the most important works on US power today.

And yes, maybe we aren’t even moving away from perpetual war (but cf. Hagel).  I’ve been living on the edges of Europe now since 2006 (Finland, Ireland).  I’d like to think that living outside the US for nearly 7 years has rendered somewhat strange (and familiar, so uncanny) for me that place I love.  And it hits me at unexpected times.  Plane flights.  ‘Battleship: the Movie,’ total throw-away shlock, reimagines alien invasion in the mood of World War II (‘Greatest Generation’) military-craft:  not the drone here, but the destroyer and its cannon.  This was a kitsch advertisement for the US fighting the inscrutable other (an other that emerges out of Hawaii’s (where Obama was born) ocean waters, like the alien craft in Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” come out of US soil (terrorist-cell like, not out of the sky).  Even Joss Whedon’s Avengers was a paean to the old-fashioned aircraft carrier.  For me, these boring films are much more disturbing in the end in the way they already nostalgically celebrate militarism as entertainment than is the complex symbolism of a lack of moral perspective in the prosecuting of the War on Terror that I think ZDT argues for.


51 thoughts on “Moral affect, ‘the war on terror,’ and the posthuman symbolism of Zero Dark Thirty

  1. A bit of ethnography from my book on Japanese consumers.Note the imagery.


    To describe the Baby Boomer Juniors, Hakuhodo’s arch rival Dentsu coined the label the ‘dolphin generation’ (iruka sedai). These young Japanese were, they said, highly sensitive to what is going on around them, tended to travel in packs, and were slippery and hard for marketers to get hold of. To describe Japan’s children today, HILL researchers use the image of the water skipper depicted in Figure 6.4. The marine mammal swimming in seas of information is replaced by an insect skittering here and there on the surface of the pools where it is found. To this reader, the implications are disturbing. The image is less human, more asocial, more alien. Members of this new generation of Japanese consumers seem wary but also vulnerable. How will they survive, I wonder, when storms break around them or monsters rise from the deep?

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