- The Production of Outrage:The Iraq War and the Radical Documentary Tradition
Now we are engaged in two image wars. And we may not think that there are two of them because they are inextricable. The first conflict is the one seen in what is seen (and thought to be stored) in still and moving images. We speak of images of explosions, armored vehicles, and Baghdad streets as "caught" by digital video cameras. This is the imaged conflict, a conflict which in one historical moment might have been understood as "images of" war, images of inhumanity and deprivation. Images of? Forty years ago, critical theory began to insist on moving images as representations, and in the following decades academics have talked about the ideological standing-in function of the image while ordinary people talked about violence on the screen. Now both mindsets seem hopelessly off the mark. Today we must talk about the infinitude of moving images on, around, through, under, and over the U.S. engagement in Iraq. This is the Iraq war imaged everywhere on every media outlet, and always available in all formats and by means of every conceivable device. It is, as we know, a most infuriatingly stupid and wasteful war and I would like nothing more than to rage against it for the next several pages, but that is not my topic.
The two image wars, or the inextricable conflicts that define our time, are not, however, equally available. The one war, that one thought to have been "caught," (thought to now exist in imaged form), is available everywhere to be seen; the other war, the one over the imaged war, is not exactly viewable. It is not on view because it is the war about how we view—how we see what we see as well as what we make of the images that we see and what they make of us. It is a question of the conditions of everyday engagement that make the imaged war accessible or inaccessible, available or unavailable; that determine dissemination [End Page 36] or distribution. It is about digital delivery systems that are themselves systems of delivery. It is these systems, as they carry these war images, that are undergoing something cataclysmic. The systems question taken up by both media historians and corporate media industries sometimes goes by the name of convergence.1 Here, I want to put on hold the contemporary question of convergence, the sometimes scary collapse of everything into the digital (which may or may not be the right question), in order to return to a longer history of critical discourse about the image and images in relation to the real historical events they reference, which still has relevance. These are events with which, in the radical documentary film tradition, filmmakers have been passionately engaged.
To some degree, it is the same old image war, this war against images. There is the public distrust that has to be re-educated, a distrust earlier educated by a suspicious academic elite, suffering perhaps from what Martin Jay identified as "iconophobia."2 I put more stress, however, on the high- over low-culture hierarchy here. Think of the high modernist conception of the image as too given, too lazily over-dependent on the world.3 Somewhere in the mélange of common sense, this image-as-excessive notion meets mindlessness, barbarism and chaos. Think, for instance, of the way people speak of being bombarded by images. The terminology itself is a dead giveaway. It is so often said that we are "bombarded with images" and much less often bombarded with or assaulted by words. Why? Words belong to a long tradition of letters and literacy still defined against the image that so easily reaches the letterless, so-called "illiterate." One might think that the realization of the new ubiquity of moving image devices would make image suspicion (really "image bashing") obsolete. But we are still in transition, living the paradox. Thus, in the technologically uneven and asymmetrical moment, images are both distrusted and declared harbingers of a brave new world of instantaneity and supra-intelligence.4
A telling example of the war against images...