Saturday, February 9, 2013

Really Torn Up About It: ZERO DARK THIRTY, Torture and Terrorist Realism

     There is something impressive about streamlining -sanding off all edges, trimming away the frills, greasing the gears, vacuuming the hoses, overhauling the engine, getting rid of any governors; there is something sublime about a concrete machine that has been so stripped down as to become almost identical to its blueprint.   It's like a perfectly tailored suit.  It's like West Coast minimalism.  That's what Zero Dark Thirty feels like.  To anyone familiar with the post 9/11 cultural landscape of 24, Homeland, Syriana and, in a different corner, Hostel, Saw and Funny Games, Kathryn Bigelow's film should fit like comfortable thumbscrews.  The film is precisely what you might anticipate; it's singular achievement is being absolutely predictable, like a mathematical equation -a division problem whose answer is always the sovereignty of the U.S. imperial subject and whose remainder is always an Arab corpse.

     In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, Slavoj Žižek bluntly condemns ZDT, claiming that the film "normalizes torture" by contextualizing repeated scenes of brutality within a narrative arc of unquestionable political expediency.  Noting how the CIA "interrogators" in the film seem almost entirely psychologically and emotionally unscathed by their "necessary" and thus routine acts of torment, Žižek concludes,

This is normalisation at its purest and most efficient – there is a little unease, more about the hurt sensitivity than about ethics, but the job has to be done. This awareness of the torturer's hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: the psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty. This is why Zero Dark Thirty is much worse than 24, where at least Jack Bauer breaks down at the series finale.

     In a sense, Žižek is right to suggest that depictions of the torturer's "hurt feelings" function as a curtain of maudlin humanism concealing the fundamentally fascist logic of the War on Terror as if torture is somehow justified when the torturer feels sufficiently torn up over it. Žižek's argument falters, however, insofar as his notion of "normalization" doesn't fully account for how these moments of emotional affect relate to the political aesthetic of ZDT.

      Throughout the film, there is more than "a little unease" surrounding torture.  The last shot of the film is a close-up of our main character's face:  asked "where she's going to go" now that she's accomplished her mission, Maya, the CIA operative who has engaged in all manner of torture in her obsessive search for Osama bin Laden, gazes into the camera as tears stream down her face.  That this final image of the film is one of pure affect, that we follow Maya through a process of emotional hardening as she becomes accustomed to the brutality of Bagram and GITMO, that the camera lingers on these scenes of abject torture as if to insinuate that these graphic performances are anything but banal -these elements of the film should signal that "normalizing" is perhaps too simplistic of a term for what is taking place in ZDT.  Instead, and paradoxically, the "normalization" of torture only takes place through the paradoxical presentation of torture as abnormal, as exceptional or spectacular.  I am not just splitting hairs here.  Not accounting for this other dimension of ZDT allows Žižek to make the bizarre and completely contradictory assertion that the television show 24 is somehow much "better" than ZDT presumably because Jack Bauer seems a bit more torn up about it than does Maya.  Is not Žižek's preference for 24 based upon the exact liberal politics of "hurt sensitivity" that he has just (correctly) condemned in ZDT?  In preferring Bauer's (more "extreme"?) breakdown to Maya's breakdown, is Žižek not being seduced by the very liberalism he otherwise critiques?      

     This notion that a performance of affect - i.e. Jack Bauer's emotional breakdown and Maya's weeping - somehow rescues us from ethical bankruptcy is a central facet of what I am calling terrorist realism -of which ZDT and 24 are the blueprints.  Terrorist realism consists of a few key aesthetic equations:  truth equals data; technological systems equal political necessity; surveillance equals bodily violence; and finally bodily violence equals identification.  Along with these rather cold calculations, the other defining feature of this aesthetic is, ironically, a melancholic subject who often weeps, shudders, breaks down, and bemoans his/her complicity with this world of stark equations.  Thus, terrorist realism sutures together two contradictory perspectives on torture: the notion of torture as "normalized" or necessary and the notion of torture as horrifically abnormal and traumatizing.  For terrorist realism, torture is both normal and abnormal, both a necessary, if unpleasant, reality of contemporary globalization and a horrific and anomalous exception.  

     Not at all coincidentally, these two contradictory aspects of terrorist realism reflect the two somewhat divergent, but ultimately consistent, policies of the U.S. presidential administrations that have carried out the U.S.'s imperial policy of torture.  Whilst the Bush Administration expressed the blunt necessity and normalization of torture epitomized by Dick Cheney's matter-of-fact statements regarding "dark sides," the Obama administration gives a sorrowful, affected face to these policies even as it perpetuates them.  (Notice how everyone in the White House is crying now?  Obama, Clinton, Kerry?  Emoting is all the rage.)  The same atrocities that the Bush Administration perpetrated with psychotic banality find their melancholic repetition in the Obama Administration. 

    This subtle difference between the Bush and Obama years - stoic necessity vs. melancholic perpetuation - is important to ZDT.  Indeed, this historical shift in affective tone between administrations divides the first and second parts of the film into two respective moods.   The first quarter of the film establishes the overarching aesthetic framework of terrorist realism.  It is clear from the outset that this will be a film about watching brutality through an integrated system of media technology.  We are barred from seeing the 9/11 attacks, allowed only to hear an actual 9/11 call, and then we are confronted with a series of vignettes in which Maya watches various scenes of torture.  Either she physically occupies the interrogation room itself or she subjects herself to hours of video-taped torture footage via television monitors.  Witnessing violence is thus foregrounded as a theme, and, as Zizek notes, Maya goes through a process of "training" here, moving from being upset by what she witnesses in the torture room to gradually becoming so accustomed to the violence that, at one point, she orders a detainee to be struck.  There is an aesthetic logic at work in these scenes:  torture produces footage or mediated discourse, and this discourse produces data which, in this logic, is synonymous with truth.  Thus, in order to get at the truth, "footage" must be produced and witnessed.  That is to say, the consumption of this footage becomes synonymous with the brutal production of the footage itself in a rigid system of hypermediated suffering.  This equation of witnessing footage and enacting brutality is evidenced by the two competing obsessions of ZDT:  along with scenes of torture, the other phenomenon upon which ZDT dwells is media technology.  The camera pans across huge systems of phone wires, lingers on television screens, redoubles night-vision goggles and so on, as if to evoke an complex matrix of agonized human flesh and communications technologies.

     The "necessity" and normalization of torture in ZDT, then, refers not so much to the nationalistic narrative of protecting American lives at all costs - though that narrative is certainly there - but rather to this specter of a totalized system of meat and media technologies in which Maya is swept up regardless of how she "feels" about it, and indeed this aura of technological necessity pervades the very pacing of the film which rushes the viewer through time and space with only the briefest conspiratorial indication of the plot's intricacies.  Thus, in a profoundly insidious way, the nationalistic narrative of torture's expediency gets translated into a sort of a media-techological determinism.  At the outer-most frame of the metafiction, American imperialism takes on the "normalized," systemic inevitability of Hollywood cinematic editing.

     Alongside this necessity and inevitability, however, ZDT develops a sense of melancholy that becomes more prominent in the second half of the film and certainly in the final shot.  As we move into the Obama years, terrorism and torture begin to impact Maya directly.  A bomb explodes in a restaurant where her friend and her are eating, her car is shot at, and her friend is killed in in a suicide bombing.  In response, Maya's character begins to emote.  She becomes "obsessed" with her mission, traumatized by the loss of her co-workers, and beleaguered by watching hours of torture footage.  The Obama years then take on a character of bodily and psychological vulnerability.  Characters - at least the white American ones - begin to have emotions and emotional attachments.  And again, this sentimentality is punctuated by the final closeup of Maya's crying face.  In these sequences, torture is recast as a horrific labor, an aberration that Maya must endure, an arduous process of consuming and producing awful footage that, by the end of the film, seems to have left her abandoned, alone in a cargo plane with nowhere to go.

     In combining these seemingly contradictory versions of torture - as "normalized necessity" and as "anomalous trauma" - the terrorist realism of ZDT (which is also the general aesthetic of contemporary American imperialism, or globalization, or whatever you would like to call our moment) produces an equation of the melancholic subject in which, again, non-white corporeality is figured as a brutalized remainder.  In this equation, liberal selfhood is proven through viewing scenes of suffering and having the "appropriate" emotional response to this footage.  In this way, by lingering on Maya's emotional responses to the brutality she witnesses, ZDT stages something like a melodrama of the Western self, a self that supposedly must subject itself to the perils of spectacular brutality, at risk of becoming "hardened" into a fascist automaton. 

     Following Ian Baucom, we can write this paradigm of the self-as-witness through a series of equations.  According to the aesthetic logic of terrorist realism, the self asserts its existence by maintaining its consistency in the face of mediated atrocity.  That is, the self becomes enriched and fortified by imagining him/herself in the place of the suffering body he/she is witnessing:

S+I = S'
As Baucom points out, however, there is an inherent paradox in this equation (which is at the heart of the liberal subject and it's formulation through Victorian sentimentalism).  While subjecting oneself to a sympathetic identification with a suffering body, i.e. imagining oneself in the place of the agonized body (S+I), purports to establish the unique humanity of the self and humanism in general (=S'), what it ultimately produces is a generalized spectator -an utterly generic consumer of spectacle.  Thus, S+I=S' translates into Žižek's famous equation for the barred subject of late capitalism.

S+I = $

In the movement from S' to $, the point here is not that the torturer/subject becomes just another cold calculated fascist automaton.  Rather, the point is that the very subject who appears "torn up about it all," the very subject who weeps and breaks down and otherwise bemoans his/her complicity in the horrors of the torture room is precisely the generic subject of Western imperialism.  These performances of being "outraged" or "scandalized" or "traumatized" by torture footage are themselves part of terrorist realism insofar as they maintain the illusion of autonomous liberal selfhood (S').  And, conversely, those examples of the cold, calculated automaton - in ZDT, Maya's partner in the opening torture scenes who seems completely disaffected by the brutality - function as monstrous aberrations who, again, confirm the normality of the autonomous liberal selfhood; these unfeeling robots are what the liberal self might become if he/she "goes too far."  

      In summary, then, as much as terrorist realism dwells upon those bodies incarcerated and tormented before the perpetual gaze of surveillance technologies, it ultimately foregrounds the "imperiled" selfhood of the torturer and the one who must witness torture -the difference between these two positions of torturer and witness, in the final analysis, being negligible.

     But what of these torn up bodies who suffer before the media technologies of terrorist realism?  Whither the torn up corporeality that remains "detained" in countless CIA "black sites" across the globe?  What of the torn up corpses that only appear as pixelated blips on remote weapons monitors?  If terrorist realism ultimately foregrounds the melodrama of a liberal self, these bodies who fall under the mediated gaze of this self still have a role to play.  Indeed, we must ask after these bodies in order to properly understand terrorist realism as, first and foremost, a political aesthetic of race.  At the conclusion of ZDT, after bin Laden has apparently been assassinated and his body taken to a Navy SEAL base, the camera pans over computer monitors, videotapes and other media technology confiscated from his hideout, and finally the camera comes to rest on the faceless corpse which Maya will then gaze upon and identify.  This key sequence crystalizes a racial duality that had been developing throughout the film.  It is not enough to say that the tortured bodies of the film are Arab, and the torturers/witnesses are white.  Rather, the process of hypermediated brutalization that takes place in ZDT and that takes place in GITMO and other such sites, reproduces this distinction where whiteness equates with the imperiled witnessing/torturing subject and Arabness equates with a hypervisible tortured body.  As if to underscore this equation, the final sequence of ZDT aligns a generic "Arab" corpse with a long table of media technologies.  It is as though the Arab body becomes just another confiscated media device upon which the (white) Western subject can gaze.   

     To account for this process of racialization, then, we should revise the above equations of subjectivization.  What we are dealing with here is a division problem.  If the liberal self is established through a process of imaginary witness (S+I=S' or S+I =$), then we must reformulate this mediated witnessing as a division problem whose remainder, again, is a racialized corporeality.

S/I = $ r ¢
(subject divided by imaginary witnessing equals barred subject with the remainder of a racialized corpse)

For the abundance of footage of tortured, mutilated and murder Arab bodies produced by the War on Terror, the underlying aesthetic of this war ironically "dematerializes" these bodies, literally collapsing the distinction between the material body itself and the mediated image of this body.  Not surprisingly, ZDT ends with the identification of an Arab body as "bin Laden," but then neglects to depict the final fate of this body (and indeed the fate of this body remains a subject of speculation).  This is because, at least for the aesthetic of terrorist realism, the material body - the remainder - no longer matters; it needn't be accounted for or buried.  It can be discarded into a sort of existential void; tossed into the sea or incinerated.  Or, as with the corporeal remains supposedly belonging to the 9/11 hijackers, these bodies can persist in a sort of refrigerated limbo, as a perpetual "evidence."  This corporeality only becomes visible for the gaze of the liberal subject.

     It is this voided corporeal remainder, this body rendered hypervisible yet, paradoxically, invisible, that delineates the globalized racism of the War on Terror.  This war, and its underlying aesthetic of terrorist realism, has made this racialized flesh both absolutely compliant to the white Western gaze yet also completely inapparent.  As with ZDT where the body of bin Laden is both absolutely visible for Maya's gaze yet, finally, removed from the screen to be replaced by her weeping face.

     As the blueprint for terrorist realism, then, ZDT participates in a necromancy of globalization.  In keeping with political aesthetic of the War on Terror, the film refuses to bury the Arab bodies it puts on display; it refuses to acknowledge any existence of these bodies outside of their tortured status as potential evidence; it, thereby, refuses to allow these bodies a proper death but instead suspends them in a perpetual state of spectacular and anonymous dying, where their torture never stops producing data in the form of media images.  That is to say, the film doesn't merely "support" or "champion" the U.S.'s global agenda.  The film carries out this agenda; it is itself an act of imperialism.                 




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