Wednesday, December 22, 2010

9/11, Images, & the Information Age

W. J. T. Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010)

War, as Mitchell notes, can be viewed in real time, from just about any vantage via social media: "The shaping of perceptions of history does not have to wait for historians or poets, but is immediately represented in audio-visual-textual images transmitted globally" (p. xii). In a clever bit of analysis, Mitchell teases how the meaning of the images associated with 9/11 by relating their interpretation to the highly politicized debates about the cloning of life preceding the terrorists' attacks. Cloning assumes many levels of meaning, from just plain copying to that of image making, especially since both the arguments about cloning and the terrorist attacks used images in very similar ways. Mitchell notes that the Bush administration was fortunate to have the terrorist events since it ended what was probably an endless debate about the bioethics of cloning before that debate had really settled in. Still, there is an inherent fear of images, that is, that they might come to life.

Mitchell examines what he calls the "memory archive" of the war, the essential and seemingly " unforgettable" or iconic images of 9/11 that have shaped our understanding of the war on terror (a term not now used by the Obama administration). The study of or interest in iconic images is nothing new, having emerged certainly with the birth of photography and even farther back with paintings. But there is something different now because of our networked information technologies. "Images migrate around the planet at blinding speed; they become much more difficult to quarantine or censor; and they are subject to more rapid mutation than ever before" (pp. 73-74). Not surprisingly, then, Mitchell focuses on the images of the Twin Towers and the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture (this example having been transformed into an "archive" of leaked images and other images commenting on or playing with the photographs). Mitchell suggests that what makes the Abu Ghraib archive "new and different" is that the "central collection of documents is virtual (a body of digital images accompanied by metadata automatically encoded in their files)' and that the archive itself -- its location, structure, and retrieval system -- is also virtual. The digital character of the images has had momentous consequences for their circulation, of course, giving them their notoriously viral character, resisting all attempts at quarantine and containment" (p. 123). From my vantage, we can understand the present "war" as much more of an Information Age phenomenon, even as we realize that images shaped our sense of earlier conflicts such as the Civil War, the World Wars, and Vietnam. War and memory is something different today: "The emergence of social media such as YouTube and Twitter has turned every citizen into a potential journalist, every innocent bystander into a potential witness whose testimony can be uploaded to the global nervous system" (p. 130). It is why Mitchell plays with the nature of bioethical debates about cloning, the latter representing a "deep copy, a perfect transcript at both the digital and analog levels, visible embodiment and molecular structure coordinated" (p. 164).

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