Wednesday, April 29, 2009

how would you like to be kidnapped at Bagram airbase?

When the British Home Secretary tries to claim as expenses pornographic films that her husband has watched, this is something people censure less because of the tawdriness of this particular episode, than the way in which it encapsulates the rotten complacency of the governing class.

Suppose they did a cartoon satirising this episode, showing the Home Secretary's husband watching a porn film shot in Abu Ghraib. On the one hand this would serve to underline the complacency of our governors, since complacency is complacency whether it concerns big or small things. And it would underline the personal responsibility of those who complacently or otherwise consented to such abuses. On the other hand the cartoon might tend to reduce the status of the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib to that of a stock situation, brought up for laughs.

I wanted to talk about some things from our culture. If I discuss this civilisation's "permanent collection" of images this does not necessarily mean granting them an exaggerated importance, or that the discussion concerns these images only.

I suggested that some of the impetus for Jarry's famous poster comes from the political sociology of modern life. The figures he has carefully drawn represent stylised bureaucrats. People recognise that there's something unreal about government bureaucrats. I've worked in these places and it's sometimes inevitable. People sit behind the counter. They have the job of humanising the blows struck by the great engine of bureaucracy at the public, and sometimes vice versa. Call centres have a similar function. I've worked in these too.

So, a situation presents in itself in real life in which people relate to each other immediately and mediately at the same time, or successively. One relation displaces the other, in an unsettling way, at least until the experience becomes commonplace. This is how people relate to the police or the people phoning from the call centre. This is pictured in Jarry's poster by a kind of double take. An excessive image stands in the place in which a more prosaic image is suggested.

I related this invention rather vaguely to the universal historicist cause: capitalism. This might be correct, even for a year as late as 1896, because the idea of capitalism as a decentred system, to be observed more or less indifferently, has to supplant the older popular idea of capitalism as legalised social warfare against the popular classes.

This might also go some way to explaining the strange situation of Manet, who, in the wintry sunshine of 1863, paints pictures in a similar vein and whose followers seem to have borrowed from him hardly anything at all.

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