Media and Militarism

Confronted with the televised spectacle of Operation Desert Storm during the American war in Iraq in the early 1990s, Hal Foster described experiencing “a thrill of technomastery.” For the art historian, footage drawn from cameras mounted on missiles and new semi-autonomous devices such as “smart bombs” gave the viewer a “super machine vision” which reconfigured the relationship between spectating and participating in the war. Implying that one could now speak of a modernist and a postmodernist fascist imagination, Foster argued that the new interactions between media and military technologies served to affirm a subjecthood “defined against cultural otherness both within and without.”

This panel asks how we might assess the mass mediation of militarism from within our current digital condition. Whilst drone warfare and techniques of remote death may have continued on the path Foster described, another trajectory has bent towards invisibility and the internet of things, where technological devices are not opposed to the organic environment but seamlessly integrated with it. This panel welcomed papers which address the intertwining of contemporary display culture and military spectacle from a range of critical perspectives, theoretical frameworks, and methodological approaches, especially those that foreground questions of gender and race.

Session Convenor: 

Ivan Knapp 


Kimberly Schreiber, University College London 

Tabloid Visuality, Paranoid Publics 

This paper considers the remaking of the visual rhetoric of policing in American public discourse during the 1970s. It queries how and why the police were able to regain their legitimacy in the aftermath of the civil rights movement and in the face of the highly critical photographic record of policing that emerged alongside it. By bringing together an alternative photographic archive of the New York City Police Department, this paper illuminates the ideological mechanisms and photographic languages through which the NYPD were remade in the public imaginary from an apparatus of state violence into an institution of state benevolence. This paper teases out the affective register that came to organise relations to the public sphere and to rationalise its policing on behalf of an increasingly paranoid set of white, middle-class urban citizens. In doing so, this paper counters prevailing understandings of this period as a moment in which the public sphere is steadily and progressively eroded. By foregrounding questions of mediation, it argues that antagonistic relations to the public sphere serve to counterintuitively organise and constitute publics in their own right. 

Helen Lewandowski, Courtauld Institute of Art 

Insta-history and the War in Afghanistan 

In 2013, reflecting on how photojournalism might ‘survive’ in the twenty first century, Fred Ritchin points to projects which portray ‘soldiers and the battlefront…as if in a family album, rather than as distanced and outsized’. To achieve this, photojournalists David Guttenfelder, Teru Kuwayama, and Damon Winter experimented with highly filtered iPhone photography while embedded with US Marine and Army battalions in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. Before military spectacle on Instagram went mainstream, these photographers used pre-packaged digital darkroom effects from iPhone applications ShakeItPhoto and Hipstamatic. They produced overtly stylised digital ‘snaps’ resembling washed-out Polaroids to document the daily life of the troops. In each photographer’s case, the jarring aesthetic of these images was intended to break through the American public’s apathy towards ongoing military conflict abroad with a relatable medium. 

Removed from the novelty of the technology, these 2010 ‘snapshots’ could seem now as anachronistic kitsch, emphasising Frederic Jameson’s postmodernist historicity gone-wild. The retro-mania ascribed to the use of pre-made filtering on Instagram historicises the present and elevates the mundane, but it also risks creating a distance between the contemporary conflicts or subjects driving the subject and the method in which these images are made. The present moment, historicised, expresses the desire for an instant past, an iconic past hewn from everyday life and shared. The authority of photojournalists’ touted ‘first draft of history’ and the aura of iconic moments representing a historicised past are disrupted by a medium which aspires to create iconic moments of the past—instantly. 

John R. Blakinger, University of Arkansas 

Culture War Machines 

In recent years, accelerating digital networks have fuelled a new form of global warfare: the culture war. Staged online, fought through proxy battles on Instagram and Twitter, this mediated conflict has profound impacts. Dangerously fast information circulation has destroyed our visual attention, unstable conceptions of truth have destabilized our notions of reality, and a constant barrage of internet outrage has created immense turmoil. The arts are now experienced within this new media system, as a digital contest of images.   

This paper examines the media technology of today’s culture war. It considers culture war not as analogy or metaphor but as a literal collision between the visual arts and military doctrine. How do artists, activists, and arts institutions wield digital technologies as weapons? How do their approaches draw directly from the strategies and tactics of traditional warfare? This paper focuses on specific conflicts over arts patronage, indigenous representation, museum funding, climate crisis, and the legacy of monuments, but positions all of these disputes in terms of the military-industrial-aesthetic complex that defines the art world and the iconoclastic violence, guerrilla tactics, and counterinsurgency techniques used by artists and activists alike. Drawing from sources like Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and the US Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual, as well as foundational concepts in military doctrine like the theory of the small war, it documents and demonstrates how social media has become culture war weapon. It reveals today’s avant-garde as a literally militaristic cultural formation. 

Dawna Schuld, Texas A&M University 

Augmenting Reality, Rationalising Subjects 

This paper examines the ethics of ‘immersive’ experience as framed and mediated by digital technologies in the field of augmented reality (AR). I argue that, through a long process of rationalisation that accelerated with the Cold War, imaging technology did not alter experience so much as it displaced an embodied—and presumably unreliable—sense of reality via coordinating augmentations. Such rationalisation necessitates synchronicity and neutralises self-reflection—an effective, if dehumanising, strategy in a military context. But heightened use of AR in the entertainment industry—which increasingly includes museums—has also prompted the production of ‘immersive’ experiences for users and/or visitors that sublimate a personal, analogue (unmediated) sense of reality when encountering artworks and historical artifacts. Rather than reify the subjective logic of AR, artists Janet Cardiff and George-Bures Miller destabilise it by accommodating real-time incidentals in their interactive walks. Cardiff’s binaurally recorded voice seems to occupy the head of the listener/walker, but (un-augmented) reality interpolates, introducing fissures in the narrative. Similarly, the art collective Forensic Architecture, seeking ‘memory-justice’ for the former tortured inmates of Saydnaya Prison in Syria, eschew an excess of immersive tactics and instead present a fluid visualisation that constantly switches narratives. These partial reconstructions do not augment a singular shared memory as much as they complement and contradict one other. In each instance, the very instability of the remembered reality shown is what makes it believable as evidence, whereas rationalisation assumes that personal memories are unreliable and therefore imposes reconciliation on those who cannot provide it.  

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