Are we media Cannibals?

When I left Tunisia on the 18th of December 2010, I had no idea that something very special had commenced. Only later I understood that the 18th of December was the day after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the act of desperation that, unexpectedly, marked the beginning of two bloody years in an entire region. The following days I watched the news like everybody else in Amsterdam and the world. The violent images of demonstrators in the streets of my city of origin and of people wounded or killed were a daily confrontation with feelings of powerlessness in front of all the violence I was watching and to which I would have been physically exposed if I hadn’t left. The more I was informed about events, the more I realized that if I hadn’t, I would have been there on the streets. And the stronger the feeling of helplessness became.

Later I faced two variations of this same feeling. The first was when I went back to Tunis and again to Amsterdam. This “to and fro” between these two cities was psychologically a switch of lenses, of perspectives of looking at things. One time I was IN ; the other I was OUT. One time I was in the real world; the other I was in its representation. One time in the original; the other in the copy, the mediated version. One time I was the Tunisian, confronted to the violence; the other the Amsterdamois watching the images of violence and facing all kinds of feelings of pity, horror, solidarity, sympathy, compassion etc. What D.G. Leahy calls “This love or non-indifference prior to all conscious differentiation, this possibility of being for-one-another is the responsibility of the self to do for the Other”(1) . Because of this double alterity, I was continuously thinking of the role of television and media in the relationship to the Other.

´ All what we see on TV is a media production, even though it is presented as a real fact. Once we believe it, we feel artificially concern with the other, and we seek feelings of comfort. ´

The second variation was when I was confronted with images of violence in other countries such as Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Then I my only view was the external. Like millions of people in the world everyday I was hunting after new images of what these people were living through. However, I am not sure to what degree I was affected by their  suffering, rather than that of the others, and neither can I say if I was more affected than other Europeans; I ask myself the same questions when it comes to the Israeli attacks on Gaza or when a Hamas bomb explodes in a bus in Tel Aviv.

We are trapped by stupid and perverse media and by their way of overbidding through images of Palestinian kids cremated by a ton of sophisticated phosphorus bombs in Gaza or Israeli kids thrown out of a school bus in a bombing attack, committed in reaction to the killing of some Palestinian activist par an Israeli drone.

I guess we all, in general, are motivated by the same will and hope: that it stops. Unfortunately the only thing we do is to have us informed, in the futile conviction that that helps. “Help”, what a word! Whom does it help? Does it help the young Syrian going out on the streets every day knowing that there is a big chance that he of she will not come back that evening? Does it help to create political and social change, claimed by millions because they have lived for decades under the heavy weight of systematic violence? Does it help young Palestinians and Israelis to overcome their daily fear of getting trapped by an attack from one side or the other? Or does it help me feeling less helpless or even less guilty because I am going on with my daily life of comfort and peace in a nice city like Amsterdam? Is it possible to suffer through the  media in place of those who are really suffering? That would either mean that we are all reproductions of Jesus (which we are not anyway) suffering for those who suffer, or that we are unhealthy people showing the symptoms of what Levinas, when dealing with the pluralism of subjectivity, calls “madness” as the only way to bear the unbearable. It was with this mindset, with this idea that being informed about a massacre doesn’t stop it, that I was confronted on a daily basis – worse, it contributes to its taking place. In the end you get the feeling that the media need these kind of events to entertain the public.

Any action that is taken to end a genocide looks like a noble enterprise in the name of fundamental human rights. However, an enterprise like that of NATO in Libya is very problematic. Apparently the action was undertaken to prevent the massacre Gaddafi was about to commit in Benghazi. That was why global public opinion, when it was informed  was naively in favour of it. And it did stop the dictator. But a lot of questions remain unanswered. Was preventing a massacre the real reason behind the decision to intervene? Was the bloodbath of Benghazi prevented, and did it in any way help the Libyan people getting the change they were dreaming of? Was it worth it to stop a genocide – and to steal the revolution of the people? And to what extent are we, news consumers, responsible for what happened because we were informed?  Did we contribute to the saving of lives, or did we just make the lives of millions of people worse?

The war in Iraq was also engaged to liberate a people from a dictator who committed massacres and genocides. Apart from the fact that it is not obvious that the war solved any problems in Iraq of in any other country, do images of violence after a war hurt any less than those before it? Whatever our feelings or ideas when we watch the news, we are thrown back into our consciousness and our helplessness. We simple mortals know that we cannot change anything.

But at the same time we cannot stop watching and looking for more. The more sensational images are, the more interesting for us to see. Somehow images of suffering and death provide a feeling of safety, if not satisfaction. Every time we watch images of violence, we are secured that it doesn’t happen to us. And the more violent they are, the more intense our satisfaction. In the end, are war reporters not scavengers and are we all not cannibals? Violent images of carrions are our daily bread. Every day we enjoy our lives, knowing that it is not us who dies. We live, and however indecent, we in a certain sense enjoy watching others die.

At a certain point it becomes entertainment more than anything else. Is there any difference between fantasy and real violence? How far is our state of mind when we are watching the eight o’clock news removed from that when we are watching a war movie, a horror film or when we are playing a video game? Many films and games are based on real violence and war, and our lives are not very far from our escapisms.  We are immersed in a world that is increasingly virtualized where boundaries of all kinds disappear. Images, and television in particular, play a very important role, and pile up without any distinction: massacres, commercials, soccer matches, science-fiction, weather forecasts, etc. We forget very often that “The spectacle which inverts the real is in fact produced”(2)  and hence that, in our representation of the World, the difference between actual and fictional images hardly exist anymore, and that as Guy Debord used to say “The truth is a moment of the lie”(3) . All what we see on TV is a media production, even though it is presented as a real fact. Once we believe it, we feel artificially concern with the other, and we seek feelings of comfort.

We identify with those who suffer (and whom we see in the news stories) and we wish we could stop the suffering, not only them but also, and perhaps mainly, for ourselves. We reproduce the Passion of Christ every day and we entertain the feeling of guilt of all believers. The less the other suffers, the less we are confronted by images of suffering and the less we thus suffer ourselves. But paradoxically we deeply want the show to go on. And we are so addicted to what the TV news provides – as we are addicted to the religious faith – that we cannot stop looking for it. Indeed there is a kind of religious posture and feeling in the ritual of watching the news, a feeling created by television and offering new promises every day. This my be a translation of the archaic concept of “catharsis” as commented on by Jacques Gonnet: “Most of the time, catharsis is said to have two functions. Purgation and purification. Purgation makes it easier to adapt to the environment, to the reality of living in a community.

Purification points to a journey, to an interrogation about the meaning of life, featuring for instance, rites, meditative silences, prayers, singing… In the case of the suffering of others, we could interpret it as an attempt to assume control over the emotions. Theatre becomes then an excuse for an attempt at self-knowledge, but with safeguards and no danger: I know that what I see is not real”(4) . “Not real” is to be taken here as not happening to me but to someone else. It is not real because at the end of the show we are put back to the egoistic satisfaction of our instinct of survival. We are all survivors of the media.

I think that this goes further than this Aristotelian definition. Man needs this fascinating moment when the Same and the Other are mingled in one totality of existence. Today I identify with someone I did not know yesterday, and tomorrow with someone I do not know yet. We are continuously unsettled in our illusion of identity which has no meaning in the Gutenberg Galaxy (5) , in which the world is a Global Village, with a mindset in which the relationship between I and the Other is founded on the double process of trans-substantiation and alter-substantiation. “The Other in the Same is an alteration of essence”(6) , not a melting of identities in others. This doesn’t mean that the Other is annihilated like television does: by reproducing the need of suffering as purgation of the Self, television puts the subject in a process of alienation.

This route to the Other is tricky. It contains a path of return to the Self, and therefore reduces the proximity of the Other to a simple illusion, just like the obsession of believers to reach the same elevation as Jesus or any other holy figure of suffering in any religion. Television does not keep the distance to this different Other intact which is a condition of real empathy; on the contrary, it channels everything back to the viewer and turns him in a schizophrenic and alienated subject. This means ultimately the complete negation of any otherness.

The moral responsibility for the Other on the name of an idea of goodness doesn’t mean interiorizing the Other within an alienated Same whereby the media plays a central role. All military interventions in our time (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and others) where engaged in the name of the mediatised ideas of the Same and Unique good world of democracy, freedom et cetera. The world is pluralistic and diverse. And when we fail to consider this pluralism and we think that universalism means annihilation of differences, our relations to the Other will remain insane because it remains based on the reciprocal exclusion. We must resist this infamous media hypnosis and make the “language of the image a stimulus for reflection”, as Umberto Eco wrote in The Screen Education Reader(7): Cinema, Television, Culture .  In other words: there is a new necessity to keep being human and stop deluding ourselves that we are gods, because we are simply not. We need more than ever: “… to learn about the media in order to prevent being their toy, to learn the images and the sounds just like we learn to read and write in order to once again make conscience available, so that the rush of urgency is not a whirlwind in an unstructured world ”.

1-  Leahy D.G., The Originality of Levinas: Pre-Originally Categorizing the Ego, New York
2- Guy Debord, The Society of the spectacle, 1967
3-  Ibid.

4-  In “The Information That Hurts Us”, in Violence in Televised News.
5-  Marshall MacLuhan, Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man, University of Toronto Press, 1962.
6-  Leahy D.G., The Originality of Levinas: Pre-Originally Categorizing the Ego, New York University
Jacques Gonnet, Ibid.

7,   The Screen Education Reader: Cinema, Television, Culture, edited by Manuel Alvarado, Edward Buscombe, Columbia University Press, 1993.

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