Nettime — Der Derian — Moore or less morality

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Moore or less morality
Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 911 has broken US box-office records during its opening week. But rolling back the tide of imperial politics will require more than simply piquing moral sensibilities,
writes James Der Derian*
US foreign policy has always been a struggle between morality and power, and when politics escalates into war the first casualty is — as California Senator Hiram Johnson famously remarked in 1917 — the truth. With the casualty list growing every day in the war against terror, the opening of Michael Moore’s documentary, Fahrenheit 911, has assumed huge importance in this homegrown struggle between morality, truth and power.
Promoted in the film trailer as the “true story that will make your temperature rise”, duly attacked by Bill O’Reilly as “Leni Riefenstahl Third Reich propaganda”, and challenged by the right-wing group Citizens United as a violation of federal election laws, Fahrenheit 911, all about the news, has become the news. The polarised reaction, I believe, comes from Moore’s uncanny ability to evince powerful moral and emotional responses from images. Like the Rodney King video (or the sequel with Stanley Miller), the looped shot of the twin towers falling, Bin Laden’s home movies, the Abu Ghraib digital snapshots and the Richard Berg snuff film, Fahrenheit 911 plays to a thoroughly modern sensibility — politicians can, and often do, lie but images cannot. Guilt by association with images replaces argumentation by evidence.
Numerous print reports of earlier instances of dissembling, self-deception and outright lies by the US government, from claims about Iraqi ties to Al-Qaeda to the presence of weapons of mass destruction and the likelihood of a swift post-war transition to peace and democracy, surface, sink and bubble-up from a variety of newsholes. But the image seizes our attention. Why?
“In the photograph,” writes Roland Barthes, “the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.” What the word can only represent, the picture supposedly proves. The traditional print media have been slow to understand how the Internet, with its real-time transmission and global circulation of images, has force-multiplied this effect and transformed the political game.
But when the age of terror fully confronts the age of Adobe photoshop, one begins to wonder just how profound and lasting these effects truly are. The King video incited plenty of righteous anger, but notably failed to indict the perpetrators. Regardless of photographs and videos to the contrary, a French nonfiction bestseller arguing that 9/11 was fabricated found a credulous audience. The Abu Ghraib images of simulated sex, dominatrix bondage and mock KKK-lynching shocked us but have yet to cause any heads to roll (or at least not any adorned with stars).
As we are exposed to loop-images of prisoner abuse, Islamicist hip-hop videos and, most recently, Moore’s splice-and-dicing of the war against terror, at some point (a point rapidly shrinking in duration) between the initial shock produced by the images (are they just too unbelievable?) and the “banalisation” of evil through replication (have they become too familiar?), political realities begin to disappear with a flick of the channel and the click of the mouse. After the serial buzz of the fast edit comes the crash, then the search for greater visual and moral stimulation.
How long can it be before photographic immanence loses its power of authenticity and we stop believing what we see? How long before the significance of the image itself is called into question? How many times can the truth take a beating before the American public just stops believing anything it hears, reads and sees? Not soon enough?
It may well be that the newspaper ads promoting Fahrenheit 911 — Moore and Bush frolicking hand-in-hand in front of the White House, with “Controversy…What Controversy?” underneath — contain a hidden answer to these questions. Bush and Moore have tapped into a great insecurity in which the search for authenticity becomes inseparable from the desire for moral superiority. In their projection of exclusive truths, they each have found their mirror other.
In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche exhorts us in our search for meaning to eschew easy moral judgements in favour of more arduous semiotic investigations. “Morality is merely ‘sign’ language, merely symptomology,” he writes, “one must know what it is about to derive profit from it.”
So what is it about? Here’s a historical clue: semiotics emerged in the 16th century in the arts of war and medicine. It referred to new methods of military manoeuvre based on visual signals, as well as new medical techniques for identifying pathological symptoms. From day one signs had the power to kill as well as cure. In the 21st century we need to develop a new semiotics for the war against terror. Otherwise we will continue treating its most morbid symptoms as morality plays rather than creating a remedy for the all-too-real disease of imperial politics.
* The writer directs the InfoTechWarPeace Project at Brown University and produced the documentary After 911 .