Libya: the confiscated image

The last century started with the discussion about The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1). In the first decades of the 20th century, cinema was seen as the new big epistemological change infecting the human representation of the world and the human thought. New technologies like social media and internet are of similar importance nowadays.

” The image plays a bigger role than ever in forming public opinion and therefore its political translation. This is particularly clear in the way the most shocking conflicts of our time were dealt with: Bosnia and the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. They are all equally absurd; firstly because of their disastrous consequences and secondly because of their hermetic situation. ”

They undoubtedly contribute to model the thought of the 21st century. We are in fact at a time of “electronic mutability”(2) . Traditional media such as television and cinema are facing new challenges and a transitional period towards a new era.

The image plays a bigger role than ever in forming public opinion and therefore its political translation. This is particularly clear in the way the most shocking conflicts of our time were dealt with: Bosnia and the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. They are all equally absurd; firstly because of their disastrous consequences and secondly because of their hermetic situation. With these cases, humanity faces new kinds of conflicts which determine the geopolitical “disorder” and the world’s power game we are now living with. They also constitute a challenge for a new way of thinking. Historians and philosophers will need to develop new concepts and tools of analysis.

We are shifting from a time of “reproduction” of reality to a time of “virtual manipulation” of the world. The two processes are actually based on the confrontation between the real and the concrete on one side, and the symbolic and the virtual on the other side. However, the relationship has been turned upside down. A reproduction presupposes an earlier real state of the world which we represent symbolically. In the new episteme, mankind is becoming increasingly logo centric and believes deeply that the world is what we represent and it does not exist outside of the image we make.

The latter has gained so much power that it has become the principal reference of the vision of the world while it was only an accessory copy in its representation. The danger is that it doesn’t matter then whether it is fake, malicious, or a purely misleading fabrication. Inventing the world sounds nice when it is about entertainment. But when it concerns the destiny of millions of people, when it is about changes which are going to determine the life and death of a large part of our world for the coming decades, things need to be considered differently and very carefully.

The Libyan situation is the most recent of these conflicts and it is representative of not only the way image can be perverted, but also of the way it can be used to make reality change based on a phantasm, or quite simply, on the basis of a lie. The untruthfulness of images used to hide the cruel reality of an unjust war, has been widely known since World War II, the colonial oppression, Vietnam and so on, all the way through to the war in Iraq (3).

What happened in Libya was one more example of an unethical use of images. It is unlike the Balkan conflict which was a war between different populations coming out of a federal system. The Libyan situation was completely different because it was an internal popular uprising against a ruler/dictator. That is why the international consensus was easily reached in the first instance, but not in the second.
Let us not focus on the political aspect in its narrow sense. The Libyan “conflict” is a revealing case of our new relationship with the world.

We looked at the events through two prisms and at two different moments. Television was the first lens, with media reports. Cinema came later with more and other complex layers. On the one hand we were informed so rapidly that we saw the events almost live on a streaming, reproducing the effect of the war in Iraq and even the impact of 9/11. On the other hand we have some kind of interpretation of the events. After the anonymous informer and the pretention of objectivity as the middle class citizen could see on the eight o’clock news whilst sitting peacefully on his couch, a more personal interpretation of events followed in the few films that appeared weeks and/or months after the hostilities had ended.

Two films about Libya have featured in film festivals: The Oath of Tobruk  (France, 2012) by Bernard-Henry Lévy and Libya Hurra (Libya Free, Austria, 2012) by Fritz Ofner. The two documentaries retell the course of events chronologically and spatially as in a diary: from the beginning of the uprising in Benghazi (Eastern Libya) until the fall of Gaddafi in Tripoli (Western Libya). Both of them follow the actions of the rebels step by step (Benghazi, Ajdabya, Misrata and Tripoli). Television stations did the same by sending out their reporters, who were meant only to inform the viewers about what was happening. The two films stem from the desire to tell a personal story. However, the story told by Bernard-Henry Lévy in The Oath of Tobruk is so personal that the Libyans themselves end up marginalised in his film, while they remain the centre of the story in Ofner’s Libya Hurra.(4)

In fact the Libyan situation is viewed from three angles. Each of them is a medium or a way of looking at the world. The first is non-innocent media reporting of events. The second is a Machiavellian and partisan manipulation of facts and images for the benefit of certain parties. The third one is a distant anthropological observation of fascinating human behaviour and phenomenon. All of them prove how important and above all, how dangerous and harmful the manipulation of images can be.

During the uprising, televisions followed the events day by day, hour by hour. The world was informed and updated regularly about the operations on the ground. Journalists were always shown close enough to the front for us to see the lights of the Libyan cities and the rebels shooting, no matter what the reason or the target was. They appeared to be saying: “Here I am and this is what I want you to see and to know”. Most of the time journalists report from a place where the background depicts cities, places, streets where there is some action. “I saw this for you” every reporter seems to be saying. In fact, it also says: “this is what you want to see”. Television offers the viewer the thrill and excitement he is looking for. As he sits in his peaceful home, he is emotionally relocated to a world of adventure without any concrete risk. The scenes of people shooting are like videogames. Television seems to be saying: “I saw for you, what you wish you could have seen yourself. I took the risk for you and in your place”.

There is quite the same kind of tutorship of the consciousness of the viewer in the film by Bernard-Henry Lévy. The tone is so demagogic that the film turns into propaganda for the international intervention in Libya, not to mention a ridiculous show of self and moral striptease. In a more perverse way it is properly and arrogantly a celebration of himself, just  as it was in the two previous films by this same man, about his tours in Bosnia(5)  (1994) and Afghanistan (2002). His new “film” doesn’t only say: “this is how I want you to look at the events and this is the opinion I want you to have on it”. The film expressly seeks to convert the audience to its way of thinking, in the same way the director wanted to involve his country in the three conflicts. He is not even able to admit that not one of these interventions helped to improve the situation. In fact it was the opposite: each time you could argue it contributed worsen the situation.

This time it goes even further. It is more about: “Look at me doing good for you. I am helping the Libyans to be free by helping them get rid of a dictator who poses a threat to them and to you and the world, as well”. Everything revolves around how Lévy made the international intervention in Libya possible and right on time. We not only see him making phone calls to the former French president, holding press conferences and organising meetings between rebels and high placed people in France, but also visiting the front and joining the rebels and organising their military reinforcement.

The philosopher rather depicts himself as a warrior, like the kind we see in certain war films about WWII or Vietnam. We see him all throughout the entire film and there is almost not one single shot in which he does not appear. He is almost the only person speak, both on and off screen. The others interject sporadically to complement his storytelling. He also presents his deeds as a part of his personal and his own family’s history, using archives and personal memories.

The apparent idea that philosophy should change the world is appealing as far as the concept of Truth is concerned. As a relative and nuanced idea, it coincides with the concept of the Good. However, nothing is less disputable in philosophy than the Truth. The international intervention in Libya, as a matter of fact, is not at all a matter of consensus from a philosophical point of view, nor from the viewpoint of international law and its result is even more arguable. The debate between Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy  (6)(two real and respectable philosophers) during the events, shows how complex the case is and how, once again, we should not trust appearances.

Yet Mr. Lévy appears much too sure of what he thinks and does. He is not a real philosopher in as far as he does not realise that he cannot make a film, thus a work of art, without doubting that there is truth in art and much less in philosophy. And this is true whether we are in the frame of “mechanical reproduction” or in that of “electronic mutability”.

What about the role virtuality plays in our lives these days and the influence it has on our thoughts? Either Mr. Lévy doesn’t have a clue about it, or he is not ignorant but uses it to suit his purpose. It would not have been a problem if it was only about his narcissism and search for personal glory. But when it is about serving a personal agenda by misleading public opinion the film raises more than one question.

And this indeed calls into question the pretention of goodness that Bernard-Henry Lévy tries to emphasize in his so-called film. He builds all his argumentation on the idea that he was the one who pushed politicians like Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron to act in Libya in the name of a philosophical idea of the Good and how this coincides with the what he thinks the role of the philosopher should be. But the whole system can be overturned and he would merely be someone who had the mission to manipulate the international audience by showing that the intervention was a necessity. In the end, the moral idea is not the reason behind the political act, it is the justification after the fact. Lévy was no more than a pawn in a political machination to which he contributed as an ethical and philosophical “faire-valoir”. In the end,  the more he puts himself to the forefront the more his reasoning looses honesty and credibility.

Fritz Ofner’s approach in his documentary Libya Hurra is completely different. The title literally means “Free Libya”. While Bernard-Henry Lévy focuses, from the beginning, on the plan he had with the rebels and puts himself to the foreground of the scene, Ofner chooses to stay off screen and let the people and reality do the talking. That is how we learn more from him than from the media, according to French critic Olivier Barlet (7). The purpose of the Austrian filmmaker is not to inform the public, nor to impose a vision of the events on the viewer. Journalist and ethnographer, he wants to investigate and analyse a situation with a curious attitude. He went to Libya with a real desire to understand what was going on and to find out if it helps to understand the behaviour of human beings in an extraordinary situation of a society demanding change.

The motto of the film is: “This is what I could see and this is what was going on”. At no single moment do we see the filmmaker or hear him talking or even conducting an interview. The film makes people and things appear in front of us. There is great humility for the reality without any preconceived ideas or statements. People talk to the camera as if they are talking to the viewer without any mediation by the filmmaker himself, not even his point of view. The filmmaker is mentally quite absent.  The story is not told in voice-over, there is no comment and no analysis. He only lets the reality come to the viewer. When things are being told, the filmmaker lets the people do it and he remains in the background, off-screen. That is how we learn how the rebels improvise and make their weapons themselves, how they organise their daily lives. We see them with their everyday gestures and postures: sleeping, eating, discussing. They say what they think and how they feel. They talk about how they have suddenly turned into warriors, while only a few weeks ago, or even days ago, they were students, teachers, functionaries etc. It is a very pure illustration of the idea that “the World is what happens” as Ludwig Wittgenstein (8) would have said.

From a political point of view, Ofner is right on the opposite end of the way the facts are described in the media reports and manipulated by Bernard-Henry Lévy. The latter was obsessed by the idea that the foreign intervention was necessary and he put all his energy into making it possible or to presenting it to be that way. The former wanted to capture the “collective mood” and the energy that the locals developed in order to survive and to fight and perhaps in the end, they didn’t need the international intervention. One of the filmmakers has a transcendental view on things; the other has an endogenous approach of the reality. For the one, locals are inhibited by their condition of being an oppressed people  facing a very strong and merciless enemy, and therefore need to be protected; for the other these people show a fantastic energy of creation and self-defence, using what is affordable in their world, they deserve to be celebrated. Ofner doesn’t consider the rebels as toys which are manipulated by a very intelligent hero coming from a sophisticated world. His main goal is to analyse the process of uprising as a mental and physical change, translating the will of freedom into action.

There is nevertheless a common point to all these images of the Libyan conflict; they are all exogenous to the people concerned. Whether it is about selling an emotion for television, or selling a lie and a self image for Bernard-Henry Lévy or even an intellectually honest reflection on how men react in a situation of survival for Fritz Ofner, the point of view is always an external one. There is a preconceived idea that the Libyans in their state of being subaltern, are not able to represent themselves. Therefore, they can/must be represented only by others. Hence they are reduced to an entertaining show or a manipulated force or, for the best, an object of anthropological study. As long as they are not able to represent themselves, they will always be an object of representation; never a subject able to say: “Here I am and this is how I want to be seen by others”. If the Arab spring is going to make an important change it will be in this area, “self-representation”.

[1] Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, ed. and tr. Hannah Arendt, Fontana, London, 1968.

[2] Ziarek, Krzysztof,“The Work of Art in the Age of its Electronic Mutability.” Walter Benjamin and Art. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. New York: Continuum, 2005.

[3] The photos used by Colin Powell, the former US secretary for foreign affairs, to justify the American intervention in Iraq.

[4] The film is in fact directed by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Marc Roussel with Gilles Hertzog as co-scriptwriter.

[5] He also made a film about it. Bosnia, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Ferrari, France, 1994.

[6] Jean-Luc Nancy, “What the Arab people signify to us” in Liberation 28 March 2011/ Alain Badiou: “An open letter from Alain Badiou to Jean-Luc Nancy”.

[7] http://www.africultures.com/php/index.php?nav=article&no=10923.

[8] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, ed. by D. F. Pears (Routledge) 1981.

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