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Heroes – and the aesthetics of militarized Britain

November 27, 2010 4 comments


I happened to catch a glimpse of the recent X-factor contestants Heroes-group performance apparently in tribute of the UK Armed Forces – a performance now also available as a Christmas single which helps the charity of those injured in service for the country. While embedded in good intentions, it sent the shivers down my spine when I saw the performance, the aesthetics of glory in white meeting the troops in combat wear – and I am now talking about aesthetics in a similar manner as Benjamin and Kracauer when analyzing mass culture of their age. The grandiose, the over-the-top versioning of the slightly more alternative David Bowie song, now with family relations, brothers and sisters but perceived through the army colours and a primary social bond created by the military service turned in my eyes and ears into a quasi-fascist performance of celebration of blood and soil, of sacrifice, and a militarization of the public culture as well (a continuation of the town marches to remember those who did not return). As said, while embedded in good intentions it’s nature of spectacle works much beyond the particular function of supporting those wounded; it fits in perfectly with the wider militarization of the public sphere of the UK evidenced in the events of past weeks.

During the student resistance marches and demonstrations – public spectacles of a different sort – a range of incidents involving police violence from kettling techniques against school kids to use of violence and horses charged into crowds as well as earlier reports about the use of unmanned drones (similar as used in battlefields eg. in Afghanistan) demonstrate the inherent link neoliberal governmentality has with violence. As a regime, neoliberal use of power is very much linked to “soft power” which for example in the current atmosphere of cuts has been demonstrated by the conceptual power of suddenly turning arts, humanities and social sciences into private investments (through the withdrawal of all teaching grants to those subjects) instead of public goods grounding democracy, critical society and those values which on paper all parties are in support of. Yet, through the effective, violent and cruel policing techniques a very different kind of Britain is emerging – one of sci-fi dimensions where kids are according to reports now emerging being beaten and indeed governed through such dubious, torture-like methods like kettling (hours without food, in freezing cold, without toilet), surveilled by drones, and student protests is being tackled with measures usually reserved for, well, slightly more dangerous people. The affective reactions that the cuts are starting to raise are being managed with further affective measures – as so well described by Laurie Penny in her New Statesman report from the inside of the kettle of 24th November:

“This is the most important part of a kettle, when it’s gone on for too long and you’re cold and frightened and just want to go home. Trap people in the open with no water or toilets or space to sit down and it takes a shockingly short time to reduce ordinary kids to a state of primitive physical need. This is savage enough when it’s done on a warm summer day to people who thought to bring blankets, food and first aid. It’s unspeakably cruel when it’s done on the coldest night of the year, in sub-zero temperatures, to minors, some of whom don’t even have a jumper.”

In other reports, there are also questions raised about what triggered the use of kettling. Apparently the official line is that some people attacked a police van, whereas it seems that the van was already abandoned and potentially even not in use. (See this speculation as well.)

The aesthetics of sacrifice and military power intertwined into aesthetics of sacrifice and glorifying blood was a key part of the earlier political sphere of 20th century Europe. Now, with neoliberalism, we are seeing as scary patterns rise their head as well and an increasing number of good cultural theory is picking up on this link between war and aesthetics – again, aesthetics understood in the broad sense of creation of perceptions concerning social relations. The conceptual arsenal mobilized during the election effectively tried to capture –as neoliberalism has done – various “good” terms such as freedom, responsibility and, of course, Big Society, which now, as someone I believe on Twitter during the first demonstrations on 10th of November expressed it is turning against itself: this is what happens when the big society turn up at once (apologies for not being able to make a proper reference to whoever tweeted that phrase). Indeed, hopefully these events are able to spark something of a different kind of a perception of the possibility of social relations for students, school kids etc. And hopefully something less cheesy as the militarized X-Factor version.

Categories: student protests, war

War, scarcity and other playful things of life

January 21, 2010 Leave a comment


Fun Inc. by Tom Chatfield was not as interesting as I hoped it is going to be. For most parts, it was telling what I already knew; that games are not played only by teenaged boys in their cellars, alone, with a blood-craving look in their eyes. No, instead they are social, reach various social layers, teach us a variety of skills from emotional to intellectual, and that also the army and the education institutions are interested in them. Fair enough, perhaps we still need such books to spread out the fact that games are not just games, but constitute a key feature of contemporary digital culture. Its not only “games” as objects or products but a whole set of patterns of behavior, gestures, affects and emotions that constitute a wider field of “gamelike” elements of which digital culture consists of. Hence, such seeming oxymorons as serious games (games used for learning or other “serious” activities like politics) are taking over. Or then casual games, used to fill in that 3 minutes you have of your personal time. I am still yet to see that perfect post-fordist analysis of the management of time and a care for the self in the context of casual gaming.

To be fair, Chatfield included some nice sections. His chapter on Second Lives pointed out the weird patterns of labour of social media platforms — from goldfarming to such original interventions as Jeff Crouse and Stephanie Rothenberg’s Invisible Thread’s project that staged a virtual sweatshop on Second Life.

Thinking about gaming cultures, I was reminded of (quasi-)Zizekian ideas concerning how people want their own slavery and such social media and game platforms are good examples of such. They are both able to articulate the real world cultures of scarcity, but at time same time showing how it seems impossible to even think/desire outside such modes of capitalist scarcity. Chatfield mentions one early virtual world The Palace (1995) that was supposed to introduce a world without real life limitations. As Chatfield writes, people were not however ready for such radical ideas, “People, it turned out, were extremely attached to scarcity. They liked it so much, in fact, that not only did they prefer virtual worlds in which there were strict limits on available resources over ones in which you would simply have anything you wanted; they were actually prepared to pay money to spend time in these scarce worlds.” (173) In Zizekian terms, even if such a world without limitations was somehow possible there, people did not find the needed cognitive and affective attitudes of how to cope with that. What to do with that lack of scarcity? In terms of how it articulates the artificial scarcity continuously maintained by neoliberalism, such virtual worlds become really interesting.

Finally, again from one of the better chapters, this one on the one on war, Chatfield seems to write suddenly like Friedrich Kittler. Hence, I could not resist quoting him in length (Chatfield that is):

“In this respect, it’s clear that being well prepared for modern warfare shares many elements with good preparation for modern life: you need to be able to live and breathe certain kinds of software and hardware. Most of your actions are mediated by complex machines, while your sphere of power and information extends well beyond the personal space you occupy. You are a networked individual, using multiple tools, often deluged with information and options.” (192-193)

Having just yesterday finally seen Gamer, something that Steven Shaviro has been going on about (and for a good reason), this description seems apt and accurate idea of some of the techno-affective links between gaming cultures and war; what Shaviro brings in his wonderful analysis of Gamer is of course neoliberalism. I cannot but warmly recommend his text on the topic.