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. yes, yes, and yes. I had a different response to your story about the applauding the soldiers on the flight. Not that U.S. society over valorizes their service but their ‘sacrifice.’ Soldiers, supposedly, put their bodies on the line for the rest of us to enjoy our American way of life. Except that, just as no one applauds the contributions of NGO workers, educators, etc., no one recognizes all the other bodies put on the line through poverty, displacement, demanding (and demeaning) labor, and violence that also make American middle class lives possible.

    And maybe this is also part of all the anxieties about the wrong kind of affect that you are pointing out. We are told that our bodies are on the line, we are the targets of a vague, international threat. And yet all the mechanisms of violence that we are told will protect us are not spectacular in a cinematic sense, but bureacratic and programmed. And we’re not sure what to do with that gap. We can no longer recognize vulnerability and danger when we see or feel it (or don’t see and feel it). We know something is wrong with the image that is sold back to us, but our affective thermometer has been so messed with that we can’t tell what’s what any more.

  2. Strong’s essay, Sosa’s comment. Two powerful pieces that touch me deeply. How should I respond? As an anthropologist? As a former member of SDS,an anti-Vietnam War activist and draft evader in the most legal and privileged manner, a student deferment,just like Bill Clinton? The father of a daughter who chose to go to the US Naval Academy, flew helicopters during two deployments to the Middle East after 9/11 and married a Marine? Both thoughts and feelings are mixed?

    Like Strong, I live outside the United States (33 years in Japan) and share with many of my neighbors a sense that there is something irrational, even insane, about US behavior these days. But the anthropologist in me sees that as problematic. My discipline is, if nothing else, devoted to making non-judgmental sense of what may seem at first utterly alien. Just last night, moreover, I listened to the podcast of a GDAT debate at Manchester University where the proposition on the table was that, I paraphrase, “Neoliberalism has become a God word, an almighty nostrum that now functions a barrier to anthropological understanding.” I wonder if the same thing isn’t true of “militarism.” To speak it and shudder or express moral outrage…is that all we can say?

    I turn to Jay’s comment. Two important points seem to me to be in need of further discussion. Why applaud the sacrifice of soldiers, but not the sacrifices of the poor or those who work for NGOs? And what is the source of the lack of affect that both Strong and Sosa point to in the film?

    To answer the first of these questions, I try to understand the categories implicit in it. I recall that at least as far back as the ancient Greek polis, military service was both the privilege and obligation of citizenship, a distinction that separated the citizen-soldiers who stood together in the phalanx from women and slaves. This distinction survived into the Middle Ages in the difference between knight and serf and became the rationale for universal (male) conscription following the French Revolution. Thanks to my daughter, I am aware that military feminists fought long and hard for the recent decision to allow women to perform combat roles instead of being segregated as second-class citizens.

    But this purely categorical understanding is still too thin for an anthropologist interested in symbols who has also worked in advertising. I have to ask, how are soldiers distinguished from other categories. The obvious answer is uniforms (hair and posture may also be relevant). I observe that our American “heroes” include besides soldiers, firemen, police, doctors and nurses; but we don’t see the others on planes in the uniforms that distinguish them. And, of course, the poor are not likely to be passengers on airplanes. Soldiers on planes are easy to identify and cabin crew can be trained to salute them. The other categories? No. But why salute them at all? This brings us to affect.

    That Americans as a people suffered an enormous trauma on 9/11 has become a cliche. But why? Three thousand people died, but that is only a tenth of those who die in the USA each year from automobile accidents or gunshot wounds. The “trauma” was not in the fact of death itself. It was, contrary to what Jay says, a demonstration that, far from being a vague and distant threat (we had already lived with that throughout the Cold Wad),our enemies were real and capable of doing something no enemy had done since the British in the War of 1812, inflict death and damage on US soil. Our innocence, our arrogance, our sense of who we are was challenged in a dramatically visible and concrete manner.

    What,then, of the response to which we assign the label “militarism”? In one important sense there is nothing new here. At least since US mobilization for World War II, we have been living in a country dominated by what Dwight Eisenhower warned us against, the military-industrial complex, ever since. We are living, moreover, with a military response to Vietnam and a response to that response. And here we can name names. “The Powell doctrine,” named after its author, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell, says that the US military should never be used again in any situation in which it has a clear objective and deploys overwhelming force. The adoption of this doctrine beyond the military,in other police and security forces around the world, is the proximate cause of the massed,masked and armored fire power we now see confronting demonstrators around the world. The alternative is the doctrine most clearly articulated in recent times by Donald Rumsfeld (though its origins go back to John F. Kennedy’s infatuation with Green Berets) and embodied in the SEALs and other Special Operations Commands. Here clear objective and overwhelming force are, it is said, as surgically precise as is humanly and technologically possible. Thus, for example,Osama bin Laden’s wives were frightened–they are not dead. And as ugly and immoral as special ops can be, there is no denying that the casualty figures are orders of magnitude lower than they were at Gettysburg, the Somme, or Stalingrad. Icy calculation suggests that if you are going to have a military at all, this one is better than previous alternatives.

    That, however, brings us to the lack of affect issue. In, for example, Frederic Jameson suggests in Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) that lack of affect is characteristic of our times, schizophrenic numbness being a necessary response to the information explosion and endless stream of horrors we encounter (safely on the other side of the glass) of our computer and TV screens. There is, however, an obvious precedent in the cold, instrumental rationality ascribed to the perfect economic actor, the impersonality of the bureaucrat, and the depersonalization of the enemy “other” by soldiers throughout history.

    As run on as these remarks are, they only scratch at the loosest threads of the hairball we allude to when we deplore militarism. But if “militarism” is only an excuse to rage or sigh and turn away….

  3. Re previous message

    Errata: (1) No question mark at the end of the first paragraph. (2) The description of the Powel doctrine, “the US military should never be used again in any situation in which it has a clear objective and deploys overwhelming force” should be changed to “the US military should never be used again in any situation in which it does not have a clear objective and deploy overwhelming force.”

  4. @John: Curious, why did your daughter choose the Naval Academy and not West Point or the Army Academy?

  5. 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.

    Surely you didn’t just risk raining the wrath of a million Whedonites down upon you! You are a braver man than I, sir.

    I personally wouldn’t give ZDT credit for arguing for much of anything apart from a big take at the till. But then again, I did fall asleep during my viewing.

  6. @DWP

    Why the Naval Academy? If you ask the daughter she will say that she wanted to be an astronaut and most astronauts are former Navy pilots. There is also circumstantial evidence to continue. In terms of family tradition one grandfather was in the Army Air Force in WWII. An engineer, he helped to develop the first flight simulators. Later, he worked on sonar buoys for the Navy. The other grandfather (my dad) served in the Navy then spent his working career as first a machinist and then a quality control inspector at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock, where many Navy ships are built. While in college, I worked at the shipyard as a machinist helper third class during summer vacations. There are also local factors to consider. The daughter grew up in Yokohohama. Our nearest big US military base is the US Navy base at Yokosuka, about half hour away by train. While at international school she played sports (track, field hockey, soccer) against teams for the DoD schools there. Having grown up in Japan may also be a factor. In terms of recent Japanese history, the Navy was the senior and more prestigious service.

    There is also the larger question, why choose a military academy when your parents are willing and able to pay for a good civilian school, you have been accepted at Georgetown and Duke and are wait-listed at Yale? Here I have always thought there were three things going on. First, is something she shares with her parents who were also smart ass kids who wanted to please their parents but not do what they were expecting them to do. Second is an identity issue. A girl who had gone to Japanese kindergarten and Japanese elementary school through third grade, before switching to international school, she is truly bilingual and bicultural. She’s always felt half-Japanese and to this day continues to dream in Japanese. But she’s 5’9″ and blonde. She could never BE Japanese. Going to Annapolis was a way of asserting her Americanness. It was, however, ironically the most Japanese possible way to do so. When I asked her why Annapolis and not Duke, she replied, “If I go to Annapolis I will know who I am. If I go to Duke, I will be one of thousands of people who don’t know who they are.” She later remarked to her mother while talking about her Japanese elementary school, that it was much like the academy, a place where she had a clear position as a member of a certain class and section, there was morning formation, you physical education. At the Academy she was Midshipman Kathryn McCreery, Company 32, Class of 98, she had uniforms, ranks, rituals, songs, the whole nine yards. But, I also note, she was never at all robotic. Like many Japanese she prefers to see herself as a free spirit operating in a world with a known structure. One of her classmates told me that she was the freest spirit he ever met at the academy.

    I do run on.

  7. On 9/11 I had recently arrived to the U.S. to begin graduate work at the University of Chicago as a foreign student from Colombia and, quite surprisingly, some of my fellow graduate students started asking me questions such as “Why did they attack us?” in the discussions we had after the event. I was, suffice it to say, a bit nonplussed by the question. Growing up in Latin America one is quite aware of two basic political facts about the U.S. related to ZDT, U.S. power, and the “Why?” of 9/11.

    The first fact is that the U.S. is perceived as an Empire that can and will do whatever is within its power to protect its interests and advance its foreign policy. It is quite obvious to most everyone that if you step on Uncle Sam’s toes, he will definitely slap you around without showing any moral qualms about it. And it will do so through a number of means and methods, ranging from “bug-like SEALS” to full fledged invasions and CIA sponsored coups, or what have you. In one discussion I remember well, John Kelly argued that the U.S. was not an empire, that it’s political structure was not empire-like, and its aspirations were not “imperial”. My riposte at that time was, “Well, standing on the outside it sure as hell feels like an empire every now and then.” The U.S. government has meddled in other people’s affairs all over the globe for over a century now and will very probably continue to do so as long as it can. Hence, ZDT doesn’t really denote anything exceptional to me in its “moral affectlessness” or “willingness to kill by a liberal”. It is, from my perspective, “a business as usual” film. In one class with Rolph-Trouillot at the time, we asked: What type of subjects did the U.S. State try to create from its population? We ended up arguing that an enormous amount of energy was spent creating patriots who were willing to “die for their country”, regardless of where or why you were being asked to die. Adding a bit to what John McCreery points out, it is quite odd that U.S. citizens are regularly asked to go out and die in all sorts of remote places far away from the “homeland” and no one seems to think that this is abnormal, except the rest of the world of course. It is quite beyond us why U.S. soldiers feel they are playing some sort of “heroic” role in all this. Which leads me to fact number 2.

    Regarding 9/11, what I answered to my friends in the Anthro department was, “What did you expect?, actually, you had it coming, it was simply a matter of time, you are only experiencing what other countries have felt when they see your Marines on their streets.” Meddling in other people’s affairs has consequences, but since the U.S. had not been attacked in almost 200 years, the whole thing freaked you guys out. You only get attacked in the movies, and of course you always win against the asteroids, and the aliens, and the giant robots, and the Russians (Red Dawn I) , and the North Koreans (Red Dawn II), and so on and so forth, all the time feeling safe and cozy in your white picket fence enclosed reality. So you went into full blown “Homeland Security” paranoia, hysteria, and insanity when it happened for real. You see, the fact is that most everyone that has been on the receiving end of U.S. policy has at one point or another wanted to take you down a peg or two. Osama bin Laden just so happened to have the exact same type of “moral affectlessness” that the U.S. government has deployed time and time again.

  8. “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.”

    I get the impression you only watch a character when they’re speaking. Up to the moment she says those words and after she’s undergoing a process of acclimation.

    And your writing itself is perverse: cold, formal, ironic and brittle. Your first references one after the other are to your “favorite critic of US power” and your “favorite drama queen”. The moral leveling is just delicious.
    “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young.”
    These days we all tend towards the Jacobean.
    If that’s what Mazzarella is saying, he’s a bit late.

    A very good critic on the film

    On torture itself: Everyone who’s said that it never works has a reason to want that to be true, or to want the public to think that. Greenwald is stuck believing CIA denials. He was in favor of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. By his own testimony he was apolitical for most of his life, and started out trusting GW Bush. Now he’s like a reformed drunk. If you think torture or the threat of torture never works google Magnus Gäfgen. For recent US history google the School of the Americas. I guess this was news to Greenwald in 2004. It probably wasn’t news to most of you.

    I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s stupid to spend tillions fighting Al Qaeda, a few hundred people, when we back Saudi Arabia. And we’re backing Al Qaeda in Syria now.

    I oppose torture. It might have had something to do with Bin Laden’s killing.

    I won’t read anything John McCreery.

  9. @Santiago

    Very much to the point. When, however, you write,

    It is quite beyond us why U.S. soldiers feel they are playing some sort of “heroic” role in all this. Which leads me to fact number 2.>/i>

    I find myself thinking that is is an orcs and elves sort of thing. To the elves an orc can never be a hero. To the orcs an elf can only be a villain. Whatever the tribe, only our guys get to be heroes.

    I remember, tangentially, a remark attributed to an Army or Marine Corps drill sergeant (I forget which): “We don’t want any heroes here. Your job is not to die for your country. Your job is to make the other guy die for his.”

  10. Thanks for these comments, I appreciate folks taking the time to say something, even if it’s that I am perverse, cold and brittle. (I haven’t blogged in ages, so it’s a little scary to pop one’s head in here.) Santiago, I agree that the film doesn’t necessarily represent anything exceptional, except insofar as it contrasts with the maudlin entertainments that so often dwell on US military power as cartoonish-but-cool. What I wished to note was that there is a kind of reading of the film’s symbolism that reveals something like a counter-narrative to the way it is being presented as propaganda for the CIA or for US power, and that this is made possible by focusing on the way ‘perspectives’ are framed/filmed. The very title refers to the darkest point of night, and I couldn’t help but think that this performs two functions: it is more ‘sexy’-military-speak and ‘authenticating’, and it also refers to the moral night of a country deformed by its pursuit of its enemies, ‘dead or alive.’ I don’t think Bigelow is stupid.

    I would add two things about Maya. She arrives at the scene of torture already ‘acclimatised’. First, her very early decision to remain unhooded during the torture interrogation she is observing illustrates two things: (a) she understands that the person being tortured has no future and (b) she is putatively fearless. The rest of Maya’s character development is focussed on the routine aspects of her job, as I noted. Second, her ‘anaesthetic’ mask is lifted only in a few spots: there is one moment where she becomes quite angry with her boss as I remember, but again, to me this plays within the ‘procedural’/’doin’ my job’ kind of frame (she’s like ‘the Closer’). And then there is the final scene of the film, where she sheds a solitary tear. *Why* she is crying in this moment I think is open for interpretation. Who/what is she crying for? I couldn’t tell. But it is *striking* in its contrast to the numbness or the inability to register disgust or loss that shapes the rest of the film, and so therefore I think highlights the symbolism of affect in relation to what we have seen previously.

    Again addressing Santiago, we can contrast Jay’s remark with his in thinking about what kind of US subjects the state creates. My sense is that this idea of a broadly (‘democratically’?) distributed sacrifice is not something that characterises the scene of subjection: to the contrary, *most* folks know that it is *someone else* who is going to be sent off on their behalf. Perhaps the ideology works so that the division of the population of those who are saved, and those who might die (in war), is concealed: and perhaps this then is the function of the everyday (humdrum) recruitment of people’s applause to military. Those guys are ‘heroes,’ we applaud them: as for providing them with healthcare or jobs, we can’t think about that. Secondly, what kinds of meaning allow people to feel entitled or in need of these quasi-imperial (I personally find John Kelly’s arguments regarding the specific *form* of US power quite convincing and I am glad you brought them up, but I am willing to be corrected) misadventures in far-flung corners of the earth? In fact, as Masco shows us, and it’s not un-ironic, US populations have been trained into feeling constantly threatened (as you note): they have actually lived within the time-frame of a possibly-already-launched nuclear war since the 1940s. Again, in my post I was picking up on the contrast of a public world seemingly brimming with affects (nervousness, anxiety, joy, pride, worry) and this other ‘dark’ world of anaesthetic or else simply robotic/drone-like execution of ‘duty.’

  11. @John and Strong.

    Of course, that is the whole point of military training (at least in the infantry as I experienced it): to take the hero out of you and make you into just another cog in the war machine, one that hopefully won’t get itself killed in the first firefight and will cause some damage to the Other. Nevertheless, there seems to be a generalized perception that what the U.S. does through its military might is heroic. That is, regardless of the reality of being a soldier and the training involved. Part of it I guess goes back to philosophical discussions of the past 700 years or so about Just vs. Unjust wars. No one really wants to be on the Unjust side (Orcs are nasty brutish creatures who eat manflesh), so quite a bit of discourse-making, politicking and philosophizing takes place regarding the justification behind the torture, the wars, and the killing. Making it into a heroic task is to some extent, part of what you have to do as a politician. Perhaps that is what is so unsettling about ZDT to the U.S. public and Senator Dianne Feinstein. To some extent there is something very cinema verité about ZDT in a “tell it like it is” sort of way and of course there can be no closure, no classic narrative arc, no happy ending for anyone. Perhaps Maya’s tear reflects the pointlessness of it all. It throws the “heroic veil” aside and shows you the dark, messy, amoral reality of war. It’s a bit like Reservoir Dogs and its first screenings, where the realism of it all hits home and people walk out of the theater unable to watch it.

  12. @Santiago

    The notion that the soldier is a cog in the machine is an obsolete image. The roots of modern military training can be traced to the WWII German blitzkrieg, where the organization theory called management by objective was born. The Germans ran rings around the French because units down to the level of squads and platoons were given objectives and expected to find their own ways to achieve them—not simply execute moves prescribed by their superiors.

  13. @ John,

    I am of course overgeneralizing for the sake of argument, and it depends on the army you are talking about. Many armed forces the world over still want unthinking drones in their rank and file to be used as cannon fodder when needed. What I meant is what you pointed at with your daughter’s position within a relatively clearly defined structure. Cog in the structural sense, as in having functions, duties, a part to play, rather than in the unthinking mechanistic sense. As an individual within the structure of the armed forces you are not expected to “be a hero”, outside and for the general U.S. public you are perceived to be one and portrayed as one in the media in general.

    I would warrant to say that ZDT matches Paul Greengrass’s “The Green Zone” in its efforts at “regaining our (U.S.) moral authority” in the words of Matt Damon by pointing out the moral and political complexities of this particular conflict and provoking U.S. anxieties as to the “What the hell are we doing out there…what have we done…” type of questions. I think that it was these types of questions that led to films like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, or Full Metal Jacket that gave voice to U.S. anguish about its role in world affairs, the moral consequences of those actions, and the trauma it generated in those who participated in that particular conflict.

  14. @Santiago

    We agree on most of what has been said here. But I still don’t like that “cog.” I am a bit obsessive about metaphors and how well they do or don’t fit the case. That goes with the turf of working in advertising and constantly having to worry about how well a particular image communicates the message that we want to convey. A Google search brought me to the following definition:

    *Cog: One of a series of teeth on the rim of a wheel, for transmitting or receiving motion by fitting between the teeth of another wheel.

    A cog is a simple machine, a device for transmitting force. It is definitely not an agent, whose response is unpredictable without knowing how the agent processes the information available to it and decides how to behave. Cogs are not at liberty to decide what to do. Soldiers, however, are agents. They receive orders and deciding to follow them or not may be a life or death matter, but the choice is always there. Thus, for example, “I was only following orders” (the Nuremberg defense) is not an acceptable excuse for committing a war crime.

    Your redefinition of cog: ” Cog in the structural sense, as in having functions, duties, a part to play, rather than in the unthinking mechanistic sense” is plausible but it also has the unfortunate effect of removing the soldier’s perceptions and feelings from consideration when trying to understand why he or she acts in what seems to be an affectless manner. The lack of affect becomes a given instead of something to be explained.

    Suppose, for example, we started instead with the priorities that constitute a modern military ethic: mission, unit, self. The mission is number one, and the soldier committed to the mission should put away all other considerations. The unit is number two. So far as he or she can without compromising the mission, the soldier should protect the other members of the unit. Self is last. Personal safety should not be neglected, but allowing concern for personal safety to compromise the mission or override the imperative to protect the other members of the unit is profoundly wrong. It may even constitute a crime: cowardice in the face of the enemy or outright treason.

    Why should this matter? This discussion has turned on in part on how we interpret the behavior of Maya and the SEALs. Strong writes,

    “She arrives at the scene of torture already ‘acclimatised’. First, her very early decision to remain unhooded during the torture interrogation she is observing illustrates two things: (a) she understands that the person being tortured has no future and (b) she is putatively fearless.”

    This interpretation could be perfectly accurate. Not having seen the movie, I have no explicit evidence to the contrary to offer. It could also be, however, that she is playing a role, displaying no concern with anything but the success of her mission (No. 1 in her hierarchy of values) and appearing fearless because that is part of her job. She could still be deeply disturbed by what is happening but hiding her true feelings like the good soldier she is. And to me, writing off her apparent lack of affect as due to her being a “cog” is inconsistent with the urgency of her motives as described in other reviews I have read. I would need to know more about the context before judging which interpretation is correct.

    But, as I said above, I am a bit obsessive about questions like this.

  15. Thanks John and Santiago for the additional analysis of the metaphors we use to discuss these things. John writes, re: Maya: “She could still be deeply disturbed by what is happening but hiding her true feelings like the good soldier she is.” Yes, I think it’s possible to read Maya this way, though I’m more inclined to go with my interpretation. More than once, as I recall (I’m going from the memory of one viewing here), she’s referred to as a ‘killer’ by her colleagues. And the script does not foreground any misgivings she may have about the role she is performing: it highlights the opposite in fact I think. Again to return to that tear at the end: is that tear a final sign of remorse, of guilt (what have I done?)? I wondered that. I also wondered if she was crying because her job was over, after a decade.

    Anyway, let me return to my original post in relation to affect. The reason I referred to the posthuman, as well as to critiques of certain strand of thinking about affect, is that it relates to what John is analyzing here. There is a whole strand of current thinking regarding affects that suggest that they are non-intentional, material, biological responses: basically in-born and outside the realm of meaning, representation, and intention. Key citations here are: Darwin, Sylvan Tomkins, Paul Ekman, Eve Sedgwick, and others; and in a slightly different genealogy you have Deleuze, Massumi, Hard & Negri, and a whole cohort of social scientists and humanists jumping on the affect bandwagon (This is sometimes part of the ‘posthuman’/ontological/materialist turn in theory). These are the types of analysis that Ruth Leys, and I believe, Mazzerrella, have been critiquing in their recent work.

    Anyway, so when I was referring to the posthuman symbolism of this film, and specifically its representation of ‘insectoid’ aspects of what ‘national security’ has become, I was: (a) being rather free in interpreting the imagery of the film that struck me and (b) asking what the film is showing back to us about human being today under the ‘war on terror.’ The metaphor of the insect seems right in terms of highlighting the replacement of a certain type of intentional framework for understanding affects (one which would be guided by John’s hierarchy of values) with a non-intentionalist (cog-like, buglike, command-and-control) framework for the role affects (or their absence) play in the conduct of a war on terror (a war on affect itself, perhaps). Are we free citizens living in a democracy, in the light, above ground? Or are we all becoming drone-like, serving the hive? I was analyzing the imagery of perspective, and the symbolism of military equipment and weaponry, as they unfold in the film: these ‘reveal’ its meaning. Maybe I’m suggesting the analysis of the film as myth in the sense meant by Roland Barthes (in Mythologies).

    There is in fact a huge amount of work (ethnographic and otherwise) now on soldiering, some of which has been discussed here at SM previously. Perhaps we should have a look at that. It would be especially appropriate since so much of the discourse of ‘the soldier’ has also been brought under the sign of ‘trauma,’ which puts it into the discursive orbit of the ‘affective.’

    Anyway, I appreciate this discussion and the opportunity to sound out ideas with great interlocutors.

  16. I have a comment in the spam filter I guess, or that may not make it for some other reason, but the film describes behavior that has been described by most of the positive reviews as near pathological. There’s your lack of affect. It describes the effect on players in a real World of Warcraft, not the fantasies popularized by MIT’s future of “Entertainment”. Films like novels may have lead characters. They are not necessarily heroes. The people who made ZD30 are no more or less embedded in American culture than the authors of this blog.

    Someone else might want to write something on the film as a riposte to Jared Diamond, and Drad DeLong

  17. (1) From the Huffington Post article I linked to above, which I do think is relevant to the theorizing on affect being done:
    “He also discusses taking the shooter to a screening of the Oscar-nominated film “Zero Dark Thirty.” Bronstein said that the bin Laden shooter left the movie with some minor gripes about how things were portrayed. Among his complaints: the tactics were “old-fashioned,” the raid was depicted to be longer than it actually was, and the SEALs are shown yelling orders during the action, something they could never do.
    “He said, ‘We can’t do that. If you’re yelling when you’re going through this house or any territory, people are going to know where you are, they’re going to know where to aim,'” Bronstein said. “There’s a signal, I guess, where they tap their helmets if they want to breach.”
    Of his own involvement in the raid, Bronstein said the shooter expressed feeling like he had either done the “best thing” in his life or the “worst thing,” since the action has left his family members fearing for their lives.”

    (2) John, thank you for answering my question about your daughter. How she feels about her relationship to being Japanese is similar and yet also the inverse of how I feel about and my experience of being American and human: an awareness that what does not look like what others fundamentally imagine and understands the category to be, and it certainly affected my decision to go to that school in New Haven you mentioned above. But as with your daughter and her blonde hair in Japan, it matters not (education, location of upbringing) since so many judgments hinge on the (tyranny) of the visual, and the mental images (and discourses) associated therewith. All of which certainly is also about affect-feeling-emotion and embodied experience(s). Most interesting that your daughter dreams in Japanese, all the while being perceived as ‘all-American’.

    (3) I sometimes do not know what to make of discussions of ‘the posthuman’, especially in relation to affect (which in discussions by people like Massumi is understood as different than feeling and emotion though discussed in relation to both), given the pained sensations such discussions produce in my body for the ways in which they always seem to evacuate race and seem to be theorized through the embodied experiences of white subjects-bodies-scholars.

    Discussions of ‘the posthuman’ are always corporeally discomfiting and odd to me given my awareness of the extent to which some of us still have to be daily preoccupied with just being considered and seen as ‘human’ (and is this not much of what is at the heart of critiques of Jared Diamond, including on this site, and questions of whether, in effect even if not in intention, he traffics in ‘savagery porn’, especially with comments he makes like on the Daily Show about how people he writes about in PNG would react to seeing a can opener?). this struggle to be seen as human at all is certainly part of how I understand ZDT, globally: including the long Hollywood/cinematic history of depicting crazy, evil, irrationally-violent Muslims and Arabs (thinking here of the documentary Reel Bad Arabs), and the long Hollywood tradition of focusing on stories about and told from the perspective of those seen as ‘all-American’. (After all, if we’re being truly intellectually honest, Kathryn Bigelow’s success as a female director really can’t be entirely uncoupled from her being a *white* woman (and the former spouse of James Cameron, a fact made all the more likely, especially given the ages and backgrounds of Bigelow and Cameron, from her being white), nor can Jessica Chastain’s success in getting plum acting roles only be attributed to her first-rate acting skills: both have ‘the right look’, especially for making Hollywood movies).

    I could not read Strong’s original post above without thinking about how much of the lack of affect in ZDT, and in both producing soldiers in general as soldiers and in producing some human beings as unsympathetic-and-not-worth-caring-about Racial Others, is about processes, practices, and discourses of dehumanization that are deeply and fundamentally racialized. It is one more way in which ZDT, for whatever breaks with convention it may represent (such as in terms of the gender of the director and tough-as-nails Maya character), is also more more of the same.

    Certain people keep asserting that ZDT is not propoganda, cannot be used as. I guess it depends to which end one is referring: because as a (re)presentation of whiteness (as ‘all-American” and the de facto normative (and human) perspective), it works pretty well, especially for its ‘lack of affect’. And this very much gives me chills and leaves the proverbial knot in my stomach. An affective response? Or just a feeling, an emotional one?

  18. @ DWP From my side of things and given Colombia’s 50 year old conflict where all manner of atrocities have been committed, dehumanization isn’t necessarily racialized when the killing starts. Our conflict isn’t racial, or ethnic, or religious, and yet victims are systematically stripped of human attributes in general. Whomever is doing the killing, be he or she black, white, mestizo or what have you, dehumanizes the victim as part of a process wherein affect is suspended. In a paper published a while ago in Public Culture, Maria Victoria Uribe argues that this happens by “animalizing” the victim.

  19. I do recommend Steve Coll’s piece on the film from the NYRB (which was my first hyper-link in the post I wrote) for thinking about how the film might mislead people about specific things it ostensibly ‘reports’ on (e.g., the role that torture played in getting useful intelligence leading to OBL). This goes to the question of the status of ZDT as propaganda or not (and see also in this regard Naomi Wolf’s Guardian piece, which I also linked to).

    Also, I’m not unaware of the specific ‘technical’ meaning of the term ‘affect’ that Massumi & Co appear to advocate. There is enormous confusion around this term/concept in the human sciences now, especially since the term itself (‘affect’) has become fashionable (I am a devotee of the study of academic fashions). I personally recommend Ruth Leys’s careful analysis of this turn to ‘affect’ (it’s the most thorough, and the most convincingly critical; see especially her stuff in Critical Inquiry), and I also recommend Papoulias & Callard’s piece, ‘Biology’s Gift,’ in this connection. (John Leavitt’s old AE piece on feeling/emotion in linguistic anthropology is brilliant; in fact, all the contemporary discussion and debate about affect have been previously rehearsed in psych anthro and elsewhere: all of them.)

    I think the question of race in ZDT, and more broadly within the question of the putative ‘posthuman,’ is important and @DWP’s comment is helpful to me in thinking about it.

  20. @ Strong As you point out, the Steve Coll and Naomi Wolf pieces are really good at pointing out what makes ZDT morally repulsive, and, if it was meant to be some sort of propaganda statement, relatively innefective from their point of view. As I pointed out in some of my own comments, I would side with them on this front. I also find @DWP’s remarks about the question of race in ZDT and the posthuman discussion, especially in the context of the U.S., very helpful. I was simply pointing out that, as John commented, dehumanization by way of classification comes in many forms. In our case via animalization, something that is no less troubling and morally revolting than racialization.

  21. Coll’s arguments in context
    —But the truly scandalous and shocking response to the Wikileaks documents has been that of other journalists, who make the Obama Administration sound like the ACLU. In a recent article in The New Yorker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Steve Coll sniffed that “the archives that WikiLeaks has published are much less significant than the Pentagon Papers were in their day” while depicting Assange as a “self-aggrandizing control-freak” whose website “lacks an ethical culture that is consonant with the ideals of free media.” Channeling Richard Nixon, Coll labeled Wikileaks’ activities – formerly known as journalism – by his newly preferred terms of “vandalism” and “First Amendment-inspired subversion.”—

    A discussion of the film led by former Bush speechwriter Thiessen with ex CIA chief Michael Hayden, with ex head of CIA Clandestine Services Jose Rodriguez and CIA lawyer John Rizzo. officials who headed the programs in question.
    They all like the movie, with caveats. They also like enhanced interrogation, read: torture. They quibble over terms.

    Arguments over whether torture led to any useful information (left un-respolved in the movie) end up side-stepping larger questions. If you thought torture worked would you approve?
    Again, look up Magnus Gäfgen.

    I opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I oppose the last 10 years of American foreign policy pretty much in its entirety.

    Those who propagandize for US foreign policy are upset about the movie. Those who’ve carried it out are less so. The film describes a mindset with apparent honesty. I think that portrait is damning, not of the people but of what produced them.

    I linked to this before but I’ll quote it. Zero Dark 30 in context

    J. Hoberman

    “Like Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln was anticipated as a movie that would naturally reflect well on the current president and, indeed, on the eve of the Zero Dark Thirty opening and at the behest of senate majority leader Harry Reid, Spielberg hosted a special screening for a bipartisan senate audience. Zero Dark Thirty was repudiated, Lincoln embraced. The Oscar wars heated up. The Hollywood Reporter found that “negative talk is escalating”, along with whispering campaigns: Zero Dark Thirty justifies torture, Lincoln distorts history. Perhaps so. Still, by putting an essentially positive spin on a bloody tragedy, Lincoln provides a history lesson with a happy ending. Zero Dark Thirty, whose chances at winning best picture seem to be nil, is the exact reverse – a success story with intimations of monumental failure. (Meanwhile, Argo – a movie in which movie magic is put to heroic use – emerged from its Golden Globes victory as an exciting feelgood, industry-flattering Oscar alternative.)

    Whereas Obama and his commanders followed the mission to kill Bin Laden in real time, Zero Dark Thirty presents Maya as its author and sole witness. She is the first to get the good news, the only American to greet the returning Seals, the person who unzips the body-bag and IDs the corpse. Maya is so important that she flies home alone in the empty bay of a cargo plane. Once again, she is blank and then, raison d’etre extinguished, she cries.

    Is Maya, like Ishmael, the lone survivor left clinging to the flotsam of the Pequod? Is she condemned, like Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers, to “wander forever between the winds”? What did it cost the girl (or Obama) or America to kill Bin Laden? Zero Dark Thirty slakes a thirst for vengeance and leaves an aftertaste of gall.”

  22. Well, that final link about Ishamel (one of those famous ‘crippled’ characters who corporeally manifests his moral degeneracy–see Mitchell & Snyder 2000) sort of segue-ways into my own thoughts about this ongoing conversation (if not the film, since I haven’t seen it, though I would be curious to know if disability appears in this film and what it ends to stand for—does Maya manifest some sort of ongoing ‘condition’?).

    The disquieting issue for me, I guess given my own interests, is this link between, on one the hand, a certain ‘sexy’ technology aspect tied to so-called posthumanism, soldiers as cogs in machines (and the general mixing of humans and artefacts), military-industrial complexes, and, on the other hand, talk about pathology, lacking human attributes, ‘repulsive’, dehumanization.

    In other words, a concern with the disabled body as one that is both ‘fascinating’ (theoretically, scientifically) and ‘abhorrent’ (physically, morally). Add in technology, artificial limbs as the prototype, and you get what’s been called The Prosthetic Impulse*. The “epic status” given to prosthesis specifically as a way of theorising humans relations to technology, especially in a lot of contemporary discourse, maybe out of touch with what it can really do. (I must concede, though, that no one mentions prosthesis here, at least that I noticed). I think its worth thinking about the kind of ‘work’ (double meaning) that gets done here by certain kinds of bodies and by certain kinds of relations to things and machines. I guess this is all the more relevant to war and militarism, given so many amputees.

    In this sense I think the conflict over interpretation between Strong and John is quite interesting. At great risk of caricature, the post-humanism in Strong is in line, I think, with this prosthetic impulse, that turn in post-structuralist towards rethinking of human and machine frequently, though again I admit Strong does not do this as such, with an appropriation of disabled people’s relations to prosthesis (more or less explicitly) but without recourse to their experience, while John’s seems quite in line with that classic Enlightenment model of the individual, independent, self-determined, self-conscious, rational decision-making, ‘whole’ (which I guess DWP is often at pains to critique as a privileged position of rather few). I’m kind of thinking there must be other alternatives between these two. Or a different way of asking the questions. But I don’t have any (re)solution, which I guess is suggested by the general unsatisfactoriness of the my entire post.

    Mitchell, D. T. & S. L. Snyder 2000. Narrative prosthesis: Disability and the dependencies of discourse. Ann Arbor: Univ of Michigan Press.
    M. Smith & J. Morra (eds) 2006. The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  23. A classic, enlightenment, rational-choice individualist? That’s interesting. This morning I wrote the following on OAC. The question is from Abraham Heineman.

    How do people live theory, ideas, practice, society at once?

    1. in a manner shot through with ambiguity, conflict and contradiction (see Hegel, Marx, Freud, Bourdieu, Max Gluckman, Victor Turner)

    2. mostly through habit, disposition, and spur-of-the-moment calculation—rigorous commitment to theory and to practicing what is preached is relatively rare (just look around you)

    Given 1 and 2, any theory that posits agency must address the issue of how agents with different starting positions, resources and heuristics negotiate and persuade (or fail to persuade) each other how to proceed.

    Admittedly the conclusion uses rational-choice type language borrowed from mathematical modeling, but the premises….

  24. P.S. When it comes to thinking about prosthesis, the science-fiction writers are way ahead of the anthropologists. I’m thinking of Bruce Sterling’s mechanists (who favor cyborg-type enhancements) and shapers (who prefer biological engineering), William Gibson’s Molly Millions, Neal Asher’s grid-linked Cormac and jain-technology-infected villains. Lots more out there.

  25. Is that so? Or is it that:

    “‘the prosthetic’ has taken on a life of its own. Following closely on the heels of the appeal of the cyborg in the late 1980s and 1990s…in large part by the success of Donna Harraway’s 1985 essay…as well as by developments in the cultural studies of science and technology, science fiction cinema and literature, transplant technology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, postmodern warfare and so on–the ‘prosthetic’ has similarly begun to assume an epic status that is out of proportion with its abilities to fulfill our ambitions for it. Often it is conjured up as an instance of ‘metaphorical opportunism,’ a phrase used by David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder in the introduction to their their edited collection The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability to characterize the ways in which thinks like Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virillo but also N. Katherine Hayles, Avital Ronell, and Haraway herself ‘deploy disabled bodies as proof of our fascination with ‘cyborglike’ prosthetic enhancement’. But this portrayal is by no means restricted to just the prosthetically enhanced ‘disabled body’. In fact, so dominant has the trope of prosthesis become that Sarah S. Jain has dubbed our obsession with its capabilities ‘the prosthetic imagination’. For Jain, this is no more or less than a marker of our cultural condition’s desire to disavow the fact of prosthesis and instead indulge in flights of fantasy to utilize the prosthesis as “a tempting theoretical gadget with which to examine the porous places of bodies and tools’.”

    Anyway, the important points that I am drawing about the enlightenment subject are not the rational choice bit, but the independent and whole bit. Perhaps I am misreading you, but it seems that, whether ‘conflicted’ or not, even ‘influenced’, the agents (as you describe them above re: soldiers) are still independent agents and they are still whole agents. If this is not what you are suggesting, which is entirely plausible, I’d be interested in the details.

  26. A few things

    1. It is scholarly affectation to see concern with prosthesis originating with Donna Harroway in 1985. Fairer to say that Harroway called scholars’ attention to prosthesis as a topic for academic discussion. Consider, for example, the following item from Wikipedia.

    The Six Million Dollar Man is an American television series about a former astronaut with bionic implants working for the OSI[n 1] government office. The series is based on the novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin, and during pre-production, that was its proposed title.[2] Following three television movies aired in 1973, The Six Million Dollar Man aired on the ABC network as a regular series for five seasons from 1974 to 1978. The title role of Steve Austin was played by Lee Majors, who subsequently became a pop culture icon of the 1970s. A spin-off of the show was produced, The Bionic Woman, as well as several television movies featuring both eponymous characters.

    Also, if academic priority is the issue, one mustn’t forget Gregory Bateson’s discussion of the blind man and his cane, which I found published in Steps to an Ecology of Mind , which was published in 1972, just a year before The Six Million Dollar Man was first aired.

    2. Wrong Jain. In Neil Asher’s science fiction “jain technology” is some exceedingly creepy alien stuff that gives those infected by it super powers until it takes them over (reprising a classic demonic possession theme in SF form).

    3. I take your point about independent and whole. From a personal, philosophical perspective I incline to a rather dark and conflicted version of the Buddhist idea that the self is a collection of “heaps,” stuff thrown together and constantly changing, so that the relationship of today’s self to yesterday’s is historical but not essential. I am, however, also serious about my allusion to mathematical modeling. At the current state of the art, agents are usually equipped with a few basic heuristics and some limited learning capability. While some degree of autonomy is required to talk about agents at all (as opposed, for example, to cogs), the attempt to model smarter and more complex agents results in combinatorial blow-up. The number of possibilities multiplies exponentially and the computers crash.

  27. The Jain bit is the name of a person, only coincidentally the same as the SF example you used. Also coincidentally, she talks about Bateson and the cane as another example of the “prosthetic imagination.” Clearly prosthesis existed before 1985. Captain Ahab had a peg-leg (for some reason I was implying that Ishamel was the disabled character, but anyway). I’m not quite sure I understand what you said about Haraway, since you say that concern existed before her with prosthesis, but she drew scholarly attention to it. So I guess you mean that some people were concerned in some non-scholarly way with prosthesis before then? That must surely be true, if only because it seems like a truism.

    Jain, S. S. 1999. The Prosthetic Imagination: Enabling and Disabling the Prosthesis Trope. Science, Technology, & Human Values 24, 31–54.

  28. Basically, I’m just sending you up a bit. This conversation does remind me, however, of how often scholars in particular disciplines speak as if the only conversation that mattered is the currently fashionable one in their particular corner of the academic marketplace, ignoring the larger and longer conversations that precede and will likely endure beyond it.

    I must admit that at this moment I am channeling a bit of Nassim Nicholas Taleb from his new book Antifragile. He says that when he is asked what students should read, he recommends ignoring all the latest books. If people are still talking about them twenty or fifty years from now there may be something of enduring valuable in them. In the meantime, we have the classics, which have been around for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years, and will likely still be around hundreds or thousands of years in the future, having already stood the test of time.

    Reverting, however, to Strong’s original topic and the dehumanizing we see in Star Wars imperial stormtroopers as well as the SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty, by one of life’s odd coincidences I have just seen a cultural/rhetorical move in the opposite direction. For a number of odd reasons I recently described on Facebook, my wife and I have been watching the Chinese New Year programming on CCTV (China’s equivalent of the BBC or Japan’s NHK). Night before last we saw a program sponsored by the Gong An Bu (Public Security Agency). It was truly mind-expanding to see what must have been at least a hundred dancers in riot-police gear doing a production number that would have done Los Vegas proud, with lots of tumbling and other gymnastics, big beaming smiles, up tempo music, and how-great-it-is-to-serve-the-people lyrics.

  29. Fair enough. But my feeling of this converaation is a bit like one of those conversations in the pub where some guy is like”hey how can you ever know what a person in another culture is thinking?? You anthros never stopped to think about THAT I bet!”

  30. Not at all. It is more like a conversation in which one party is dropping names with only the barest indication of why the thoughts of the persons in question are worth paying attention to. That annoys me.

    I am perfectly willing to believe that Jain, for example, has important things to say. You haven’t told us why you think so. All we know is that she has a bug in her brain about prostheses and prostheses seem to be a big deal these days. I can believe that,too. Lots of injured soldiers coming home, lots of civilian casualties who also need help. Performance-enhancing drugs for students as well as athletes are all over the news these days. And personally, I am pretty excited about the possibility of having a super-duper powered exoskeleton to let me leap tall buildings when I am eighty. But it’s a big world out here outside the crumbling ivory towers. Why should we listen to her or the other anthropologists you mention instead of all the other folks who write about the same subject? Given what you’ve said so far, I am damned if I know.

    Please note: I raise these issues from the position of someone who is always eager to learn something new but has absolutely no skin in the game of building or breaking academic careers.

  31. Very quickly as I run to lecture, Maniaku makes interesting connections, even if they are ostensibly about a film s/he hasn’t seen, and about an interpretation s/he admits I wasn’t making. In any case, lest I’m misunderstood, and please remember I’m rushing here (but the tone of conversation got a little bit contentious there for a second, so I want to jump in): *I’m* not actually agreeing with some of the theory I point to (in particular those folks with the materialist/’posthuman’/ontological take on affect, that’s why I was referring to Mazz and Leys). Those accounts are not how I would theorize the subject. Instead, what I am suggesting is that the film *makes an argument* about human being under the ‘war on terror’, and in particular the ‘moral affect’ of such human being, that parallels or rhymes with certain movements in critical theory. It’s that argument, and how it is symbolized or visualized, that I wanted to think about. This isn’t the prosthetic (and Maniaku rightly notes, while nevertheless bringing it up, that I didn’t use that term); from the perspective of ‘the war criminals’ perhaps it is rather ‘optimization.’ This isn’t degeneration: it’s more effective command and ‘control’ (cf. Deleuze’s postscript {sorry John}).

    If Maniaku wants to think about the prosthetic in recent film, actually, Battleship would be one to watch (if you can stand it, it’s just really bad, Rihanna notwithstanding). As I recall, one of the main characters is a post-Iraq-war vet, a double amputee, and his prosthetics are featured in the film.

  32. Strong, thanks for stepping in. I was both becoming a little too strident and slipping off topic. Glad to be brought back on course. I am intrigued by your proposal that the film *makes an argument*. It has certainly been taken that way by critics, and the filmmakers have responded to the criticism that takes this line. How does one tell the difference between a film that makes an argument and a film that elicits arguments from critics? Are these the same thing?

  33. I was just sent a link to a fascinating piece by Joe Masco, Beatrice Jauregui, David Zerlin, Zoe Wool, Caren Kaplan, Paul Lawrie and Ken MacLeish on preciseley the topics we have all been discussing. The piece is Soldier Exposures and techical publics and can be found here: It discusses the complexity of trauma, prosthetics, affect and its absence, race, and dehumanization in very interesting ways.

  34. Bea Jauregui is currently working on a film, American Communion, that juxtaposes narratives from Vietnam and Iraq vets about their experience. Though the film is still unfinished, the scenes section complements her ideas on vulnerability and lasting trauma to bodies and minds. There is a particular scene when a vet says something like “the taking of human life, they tell you to let it go…but you can’t, you can never let it go” that highlights that tension between what the army teaches you to do, and how in the aftermath of the events you are forced to deal with what you’ve done and what you’ve lost that is particularly touching.

  35. Strong, thanks for this very interesting post. I haven’t seen ZD30 yet, but as someone who studies military violence, I appreciated B&B’s Hurt Locker for the way that it foregrounded feeling with such intensity while highlighting the ways that that feeling is modulated through swagger, awkwardness, aggression, but also flatness and ambivalence, which are not necessarily the absence of feeling. In a way, that film does some of what affect theory also aims for, that is, providing a way to imagine feeling as being not completely separate from intention and interpretation, but not perfectly reducible to them either. I don’t think this has to mean disappearing down some vitalist rabbit-hole. The de-linking and interplay that some theories of affect allow for (including Massumi, Sedgwick, and others) are tremendously provocative for thinking about institutions and especially organized systems of violence, where affect is not some accidental surplus, but a crucial ingredient, even if it is complex and ambivalent all the while. As Mazzarella puts it, modern rational systems are “only effective because they are affective.” Didier Fassin makes a similar argument regarding the sentiments that surround humanitarian suffering, which depend on the transmutation of affect into a form of moral value that then takes the place of politics. Such frames also lend themselves to talking about exactly the sort of corporeal discomfiture the DWP mentions above.

    I wrote a longer version of this that got disappeared, but I also think that Strong’s mention of “optimization” is spot-on. While conventional critiques of military institutions tend to treat them as ideological, rigid, and oppressive (not to say that they aren’t often all these things as well), militaries are also supremely technocratic, and they approach all situations as problems that have technical solutions. But such solutions are never free of moral and political context—and here we could think of US military racial integration, or the more recent move to allow women in combat MOSs, both of which can be understood as responses to personnel demands, even as they are debated in ideological terms, or the genealogy of PTSD diagnosis, which codifies moral ideas about suffering and the appropriate response to it in a scientifically-framed medical diagnosis. Both within and beyond the military, this posture inspires fantasies and anxieties about different kinds of solutions, whether it’s soldiers worrying about whether their body armor is adequate, or fictional Bourne-style warriors with engineered diminished empathy, or whatever narrative of necessity, capability and moral hazard one reads in ZDK.

    Let me second the mentions of Bea Juaregui’s and Zoë Wool’s excellent work. Anyone interested in affect and military violence should check them both out, and might also find my new book of interest:

  36. @Strong:
    Thank you for your feedback and the suggestions for further reading.

    Your comments on animalization are interesting, especially when read against Ken’s comments about institutions organized through violence, which I think is how race–as a political technology–should be understood. In particular I want to foreground this section of Ken’s comment:
    “The de-linking and interplay that some theories of affect allow for (including Massumi, Sedgwick, and others) are tremendously provocative for thinking about institutions and especially organized systems of violence, where affect is not some accidental surplus, but a crucial ingredient, even if it is complex and ambivalent all the while.”

    The animalization you write of taking place in Colombia in relation to war actually happens all the time, especially in the US, in relation to racialization, and especially in relation to pseudo-scientific racial hierarchies which justified slavery in the Americas by asserting that Negroes/Black Africans were (and still are) subhuman animals more closely related to gorillas and chimpanzees than to white Europeans, with other races being placed between these two poles. So animalization is not simply about creating enemies during ‘war’, at least not in narrow militaristic (and paramilitaric) campaigns. It is also the logic of the everyday ‘wars’ of racial violence, including the daily forms of structural and institutionalized violence involved in racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies.

    I think Kerim’s recent post on profiling in the US and India precisely addresses why I am ‘often at pains to critique privilege’ of an assumed normative Enlightment subject, especially in relation to white supremacy and patriarchy. What you wrote about assuming the relationship of ‘disabled’ people to machines, without having their experience, is spot-on. And this troubling appropriation happens all the time, though not just in relation to disability. It is very easy to theorize subalterns positionalities one never has to physically/structurally inhabit. Because, yes, that’s privilege. So as I said in response to Kerim’s profiling post, I am always fascinated by what people do and don’t choose to comment on, especially when it happens to coincide with to-be-expected patterns of privilege and structural inequality which one doesn’t really need to see, feel, think, hear, or care about when one is only theorizing from privilege and outside of embodied experience.

  37. Thanks Ken for commenting and for pointing us toward what looks to be a very interesting book. I do admit to fearing the ‘vitalist rabbit hole’ even if I sometimes find myself entranced (affected?) by this form of theory.

  38. I’ve just noticed two links that brought me back to this post. First, for affect aficionados, Cultural Anthropology is running a month-long series of posts on affect, linked in part to a panel at the AAA on methodology and affect studies.

    Secondly, while a few commenters seem to have equated my emphasis on the symbolism of the ‘insect’ with ‘the animal,’ and opposing these to ‘the human,’ that is a misreading of what I was suggesting. When I wrote insect, I meant insect. (Those familiar with Darwin’s work on emotions in humans and animals will know why this is relevant.) Anyway, here comes a story in Salon about the future development of drones that will specifically mimic bugs: “Lethal” and “unobtrusive” micro-drones are being developed by the Air force to mimic the behavior of bugs.

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