For those of us subjected to and/or Allied with a Western, masculinist, militarist mindset it made no difference whether we were watching from cockpits, tankpits, smart-missiles and command control centers on the battlefront, or restaurants, health-clubs, living-rooms, bedrooms and bars on the homefront, the Persian Gulf War took place in electronically generated space. Not surprisingly, this transformation in the locational space of war spawned a strong reaction and led to a tonnage of reporting in the press and the academy about the nature of warfare in a "postmodern" era. As one Time reporter, representative of so many others, put it:
Whatever else it accomplished, the outbreak of Operation Desert Storm struck onlookers as a surpassing marvel: a tiptoeing whirlwind, bloodless belligerency. The enormous firepower loosed in air raids on Iraq caused, according to early reports, only a smattering of civilian deaths. If that seemed strange, the sense of unreality was heightened by the release of videotapes taken by U.S. Stealth fighters over Baghdad. Images of laser-guided bombs sailing slap on target into a ventilation shaft, followed by the building's soundless obliteration, produced the feel of combat found in a Nintendo game (January 28, 1991:24).
For many, Operation Desert Shield -> Sword -> Storm represented "a new virtual--and consensual--reality: the first cyberwar, in the sense of a technologically generated, televisually linked, and strategically gamed form of violence... [its] truth... constructed out of and authorized by spectacular, videographic, cyberspatial simulations of war" (Der Derian 1992:175-91). This split between the "virtual" and the "actual," the "simulated" and the "real," was continually replayed and served to link many otherwise dissimilar reports together. The Gulf War as prime-time videowargame, where the "real" horror and trauma of war had been replaced by electronic screens of various sorts, was the de facto starting point for many cultural critics commenting on it (Baudrillard 1991a, 1991b, 1991c; Crispin-Miller 1994; Cumings 1992; Der Derian 1992; Kellner 1992; MacArthur 1992; Mellencamp 1992; Mowlana et al. 1992; Ronell 1992). The belief that we had somehow lost touch with the reality of war due to the nature of its technologized representation was, in the vast majority of cases, simply taken for granted. Such thinking led to numerous conceptual difficulties that resulted from holding the inorganic device responsible for effacing subjectivity, agency, affective engagement and effective response, due to a kind of technological evolutionism that seemed to move human subjects from center, to periphery, to entirely outside of decision-making loops.
My work takes a step back from this starting point in order to explore what it was about the Gulf War that generated a whole discourse about its being unreal, a war with a reality that masked its own status as reality, and to question the role technology played in shaping its discursive field. View it as a modest intervention into a popular and academic discourse that had an overwhelming tendency to claim the U.S.-led conflict in the Persian Gulf heralded the inauspicious beginning of a new era of high-tech combat which served only to remove us from the reality of war. We need to progress beyond reproducing intellectually and politically counterproductive dichotomies between the "simulated" versus "real" character of interactivity and communication in a post- or late-modern era, a dichotomy often conflated with a detachment of the machinic from the human, where all too frequently, as Donna Haraway points out, "it" becomes object to "our" subject (see Gordon 1992).
The working assumption was that because so much of the war was waged in electronic (i.e., "artificial") spaces, spaces that, for most theorists, cannot be inhabited, spaces that disembody instead of embody, real knowledge about activities in the Persian Gulf could never be known; instead, we were exposed to representations that signified only a lack or absence of reality. My argument is quite the contrary, that the information we received about the war and the knowledge that resulted from that information was as ontologically and experientially real as any knowledge can be, it just represented a reality of war that many cultural critics found aesthetically, morally and politically distasteful. Thus, the pleasurable, entertaining and game-like qualities of Operation Desert Storm were not the result of a lack of reality, but rather, those qualities were precisely the reality war had now become. What we need now perhaps more than ever before is to interrogate what gets to count as real...and what does not. What the Allied world watched, and through watching participated in, was war's latest version, its most recent upgrade, a variation on an old historic theme; the only thing radically new about this war was people's perception and encoding of it as unreal.
From most critics--technophobic, resistant to and anxious about what technology does to one's sense of place or non-place in the world--machines got a bad rap. This is a position that desperately needs to be challenged, for it posed a considerable problem for critics of war who were struggling to theorize political action counterproductive to the war effort. The realization that the war was entertaining, exciting, and in certain ways quite pleasurable and beautiful often led to all-out rejection of the devices believed to make it this way--the digital and analogic technology itself--as opposed to thinking about these technologies as extensions of human subjectivity and desire, a subjective desire that got pleasure out of killing and causing massive destruction in these newly enabled ways, and ones which, through the use of those self-same technologies, might have been channeled in different directions.
We need to retheorize what it means to be political in the contemporary cultural environment in order to explain why certain kinds of resistance--for example, trying to mimic a particular brand of Vietnam-era politics (where bodies were collectively organized and mobilized in effort to effect some social change) in the context of the Gulf--seemed to fail so miserably to those who were having conceptual difficulty in understanding what this war was, and were thus rendered ineffective at countering it on its own terms. To ask the war to be something else, something that it wasn't, proved an exercise in futility, and prevented strategic intervention in those technically mediated spaces where the war was really happening. Indeed, Vietnam is a good point of contrast to the Gulf, for it can be persuasively argued that once "the movement" started to deal with the Vietnam war "on its own terms"--using the media instead of being used by it (see Gitlin 1980)--intervention into and destabilization of the war-effort became, in many ways, far more potent.
Nearly seventy years ago, in order to illustrate the ontological and experiential impact of the social construction of reality, Dorothy and William Thomas wrote the following: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (1928:572). Seventy years later, with Operation Desert Storm providing the consummate backdrop, it becomes necessary to modify the Thomas' dictum in the following way: If people define situations as unreal, they are real in their consequences. This is perhaps the most ironic outcome of the position that so many critics of war took up; by assuming that the war was taking place in simulated, artificial, and unreal spaces, by refusing to engage it on its own terms, an apathetic and apolitical reality got left in war's wake.
The locational destabilization endemic to waging war through contemporary analogic and digital device meant that the space/place of war was never very clear. Where was the warzone? The desert sands of Kuwait and Iraq? The bunkers and storehouses along the borders of Saudi Arabia? The databanks and memory chips of computers and command control centers? The screens of the world's television sets and personal computers? Or as Avery Gordon asks, was it in the laundry-rooms, corporate boardrooms, AIDS crisis centers, and decaying urban sectors all across America? (1992:32-38) It was all of these, and more; the problem was trying to think in those terms. What counted as war in most people's minds was what took place on the deserts of the Middle East, all other trajectories of war that are the institutionalized outgrowths of living in a military political economy were seen as epiphenomenal to what war's "really" all about; I want to turn that assumption on its head and argue that the epiphenomena is what war's "really" all about. From this point of view, the Gulf war's not really over, but continues day-in and day-out, an evolution of an ongoing process that began thousands of years ago with the development of the tool, the city, the telegraph and the telephone, all part and parcel of the total war machine, what Paul Virilio (1983) has termed "Pure War."
Expanding the reality of war to include more than simply its death and destruction during that special case known as "war-time" allows us to more critically engage the forms of war that extend beyond intra- and inter-national conflict resolution. As Gordon (1994) argues, war is a workplace, a business, an information retrieval enterprise, a research and development field, a community of disciplined service for those within its total institutional orbit, a privileged site of social engineering and segregation, the representation of state/national power, and many other things that are routine, ongoing and take place outside of what we traditionally think of as war related activities. It is within the context of this larger framework that a more coherent explanation can be provided for why the representational realities of combat in the Gulf took the form they did.
The following chapters touch down in many different places in order to explore how the development, use, control and interpretation of various technological devices served to help code the war in the Persian Gulf as unreal. I am not arguing that the framing of the Gulf War as a simulated, staged, or hyperreal event was the only perceptual coding of it available. I do however want to assert that for those whose experiential awareness of war was channeled through the Western media it was the most readily accessible and sensible one, given the logics of its production, dissemination, and reception.
All of the chapters, in certain metaphorical ways, are about the technically afforded construction and epistemic interpretation of bodies, no-bodies, and/or anti-bodies at war. The story begins by taking a close look at contemporary bodies of knowledge, theoretical apparati, that assert technological advances have led to a movement away from some pristine body/soma in a state of nature, a body on the way to enlightenment, an ontologically grounded, organically "real" body distinctive from the manufactured inorganic artifact surrounding it, a body that can be violated, tainted, polluted, but ultimately reclaimed and purified, toward a new kind of hypermediated "no-body," an ungrounded and ungroundable absence bred from the dis- and re-placement of the human with the technological, an unreal or "simulated" body with little or no hope of salvation. The positioning of viewing subjects, on the battlefront as well as the homefront, that was believed to result from engaging the war in this disembodied way is the subject of chapter one: "The Killing Zone: Comparative mediation and progressive estrangement."
The second chapter follows in the trajectory of the first, but offers a variation on the theme. Before the killing began, mediated action and access to information enjoined during Operation Desert Storm was being benchmarked in relation to mediated action and access to information enjoyed during Vietnam. From the point of view of the Pentagon, the last thing America needed was an instant replay of disfigured and departed bodies paraded across the screens of the world's television sets. In an attempt to shield an Allied audience from the horror and trauma of a slightly different, yet far more visceral, sort of disembodiment, the government put in place some of the most rigid wartime information acts in the country's history. Thus, one kind of body was rendered invisible (the body of the deceased) through another kind of body's being bound and gagged (the body of the press). The consequences of this erasure, the way it turned the press' focus from reporting on war to reporting on reporting on war, and the hypervisibility it gave yet another kind of body--the technocratically controlled and technofetishized body of the device--serves as the focal point of chapter two: "Controlling the Press: How restricted access made it seem so surreal."
Chapter three: "Battle Scenes: From the center to the periphery of decision-making loops," is about the places, in this case the "Third-World" places that many soldiers were located in, where people were fighting and dying, where human materiel was being moved evermore quickly outside of decision-making loops, and where prosthetic devices were reconfiguring bodies in motion. It was through the eye of the machine in the eye of the Storm, being played out on the feminized, racialized and sexualized body of the Other, that the perceptual fields of war were foreshortened, allowing Allied forces to see further and faster than ever before while simultaneously remaining more distant from the scenes surveyed. This distance, part and parcel of a technologically enabled estrangement of the organic body of the soldier from the physical ground on which the war was waged, repeatedly reflected and refracted through mass mediated channels, was largely responsible for this war being seen, described, and understood by so many, as little more than a "prime-time videowargame."
The next chapters in the story turn from images of war on the battlefront to images of war on the homefront. Just as there was a theoretical apparatus in place for reading and rethinking the phenomenological displacement resulting from postmodern "bodies in motion" in the killing zone, there was a technological apparatus in place that allowed for a very particular kind of public display and critical reading of warfare in the living zone. Both chapter four: "Television Screens: Imag(in)ing war on the homefront," and chapter five: "Waging War on the Internet: Reproducing the status-quo in digital spaces," are about homebodies. In most media analysts' minds these were not really bodies in motion so much as bodies at rest, inert and unthinking, even unconscious bodies, bodies incapable of affectively or effectively engaging the information exposed to them via their televisions and computers, due to the specific ways they were positioned in relation to the device. It is this critical posturing of the media theorists, and their uncritical positioning of viewing subjects, that I complicate in these chapters in order to more closely examine how contemporary understandings and receptions of war were located more within a field of pleasure and entertainment than panic and dread when represented through these mass mediated channels.
Chapter six: "Marketing Schemes: Post-war packaging and patriotic affirmation," examines the body politic, a body marked by a faith in Science, reason, rationality and national allegiance, a body shaped by hundreds of years of enlightenment "progress," continually redefined through evolutionary transformations of technological artifact. There were a lot of powerful people with a vested interest in ensuring that the popular reading of war in the Gulf was a positive one. The legitimacy and authenticity of the American public's nationalist identity was predicated upon its merging with the commodity form (Berlant 1992:133), transmitting the sovereign goals of the "New World Order" to its devoted citizenry. The war's mass appeal was, to a considerable degree, the result of a successful mobilization of patriotic sentimentality, a nationalistic pride stemming from unswerving moral convictions and battles well fought, a pride that had been stripped during Vietnam--the war from which activities and outcomes in the Persian Gulf were continually referenced against. In conjunction with the technological apparati that laid the foundation for a very particular presentation of war, in this chapter I'm arguing that a psychological apparatus was methodically put into place, providing the foundation for a nostalgic reproduction and very particular reception of war as well. This war was marketed and this war was consumed, and the particular form this consumption took had a great deal to do with the consequent encoding and decoding of it as pleasurable and surreal.
The story ends (or perhaps begins, depending upon where you choose to start) with an exploration of how currently developing technologies promise to reposition human bodies in relation to the phenomenological, ontological, experiential awareness of untimely death and destruction. Chapter seven: "navigating THE cyberspaces of VIRtuAL WAR: Remythologizing the ontological status of electronic places," is about the continued and accelerated merging and refashioning of the organic with the inorganic, the human with the technological--a merging and refashioning constantly misrecognized as no longer real. It is about the movement from a representation of war on screens that started out small, low-resolution, black and white, soon became bigger, sharper, and far more colorful, to the promise of total envelopment within a virtual system, a kind of exteriorization of an interior self projected onto and into cybernetic spaces. It is about desiring bodies, infected bodies, viral bodies longing for rapid technological convergence, a convergence that promises an extension of the inner-self through the proliferation of the videographic screen. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is about reimag(in)ing our relationship to technological systems in order to rethink strategies of action in a world that requires a new kind of political actor, no longer the body/soma of the Platonic ideal, but a kind of anti-body, a body whose borders, as Avital Ronell has pointed out (1992:76), must be entirely rethought.
Throughout each of these chapters, the critiques I engage in should be read as more than simply negative assessment, they are about defining/demonstrating an alternative positions through exploring what and how other positions see. This project, because it is primarily positioned as a critique of the theorizing of war, will undoubtedly seem more descriptive than prescriptive, more about theory than praxis; but prescriptive it is, for engaging in critique is a political move, and provides a way to begin putting forth a different kind of seeing. Digitally and analogically accomplished distance--physical, emotional, psychic--should not, and can not, so readily be equated with perceptual and experiential untruth, for the distance it creates is but a distance form a particular kind of reality, one historically and culturally unique, and fails to engage the reality left in its place. As should become increasingly clear with your migration through these various parts to the story, the body is no longer required for the existence of a subject or subjectivity, and is, in many cases, an increasing liability. Now, more than ever before, electronic culture allows radical extensionality of anthropoid form and function. Time and relations of movement have succeeded place in constituting individuals whose subjectivity, or rather subjectivities, are defined, as Mark Poster points out (1990), in the circuitry of informational flows. The difficulty is in letting the body go. When the real, so often localized and evaluated in relation to the human somatic form, is epistemologically privileged in the construction of "truth" and knowledge, as it continually is, then it is far wiser to insist on the technically implemented construction of the Gulf War as a reality, a reality that must be dealt with seriously, instead of an unreality that should be condemned for taking us away from the real.
Virtually all of the critical academic literature exploring the relationship between technology, media, and war in the Persian Gulf has been produced and disseminated using conventional publishing techniques, severely restricting both form and content since only so much can be said and/or visually displayed with printed text and/or graphics on paper. Any media scholar attempting to reproduce a sight, a sound, a segment of video, or the intonation with which a word or phrase is spoken knows about such limitations, limitations that led me to produce this project using a computer generated, interactive multimedia format.
The project has been created on a Macintosh platform using HyperCard as the primary authoring tool; anyone engaging it has access to video, text, graphics, animation, and sound files. Data manipulation was done with a variety of software programs including Adobe Premiere and Photoshop (video and image editing), SoundEdit Pro (audio capture and arranging), Director and Morph (animation sequences), and TypeReader (text scanning and OCR). There is extensive hypertext linkage. See a reference that piques your interest? Simply point and click on designated "hot-spots" and the referenced materials get accessed in their entirety. There are literally thousands of pages of text at your disposal, for reading, printing, saving, and rearranging.
In addition to a vast database of electronically archived text are the seven chapters of originally authored materials briefly outlined above. Game-like elements have been incorporated in effort to provide a metacommentary on the game-like qualities of the war itself. More importantly, the computer, criticized by many for being one of the primary technologies enabling the Gulf War to take the form that it did, is, within the context of this study, being used to rework and reframe the massively mediated master narrative that was disseminated to the vast majority of the American public. What's at stake in war is a politics of vision as much as anything else. The mobilization of the war machine relied upon our placement behind and within the war's viewing screens. This project is an intervention into that political space, a space that is primarily where the war unfolded. As you sit and navigate your way through this document, your body is being strategically mobilized, called to arms if you will, in order to encourage a critical engagement with a prosthetic device--a device that can be as liberating as it can be oppressive. A kind of guerrilla media for a post-simian politics.