Perhaps it is too pessimistic, or at the very least too soon, to say that the release of these images failed to produce anything that might be described as justice. However historic they’ve come to be perceived and however much outrage they’ve managed to provoke, the conditions that produce such violence have largely remained intact.
As an episode in the still unfolding saga of today’s technological security apparatus, a moment in a continuum that includes a converted room in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy and the insidiousness of XKEYSCORE, “Collateral Murder” is doubtlessly important. Even if, as Glenn Greenwald puts it, the event itself was “anything but rare,” it nevertheless offered a window into the mechanics of twenty-first century warfare. Of course, for all of the callousness toward human life that it portrays, including the mockery of the fatally wounded Saeed Chmagh, one of two Reuters employees killed in the attack, few labeled this incident a war crime. Permissions were granted; chain of command was followed. If we are to be appalled it is not because what we witnessed is exceptional but because it is, as Greenwald put it, “standard operating procedure."
Likewise, while tragedies such as the murder of Eric Garner only seem to have multiplied in the past year, it can at least be said that a greater number of Americans acknowledge these deaths as structural in nature. Their very visibility, the fact that so many have been captured on video by bystanders, dash-cams, and CCTV, has made it difficult to claim otherwise. There are, of course, the backlash rhetorics of “All” and “Cops,” but the mainstreaming of Black Lives Matter, a movement whose potential has yet to be exhausted, should be seen as a step in the right direction. The assertion bound up in the movement’s name illustrates that what ought to be obvious isn’t. The lie this gives to a certain foundational notion of equality, and the suggestion it makes about the privilege of those who insist it remains in place, is not insignificant.
What also characterizes these images, aside from a theme of state violence, is something like the other side of surveillance. Without venturing into techno-utopian hyperbole, the fact remains that conscientious persons with means at their disposal made these images available. And while Chelsea Manning and Ramsey Orta both suffered for their actions, others may be willing to take such risks, given existing capacities to record and circulate. Maybe there is still hope in the figure of the whistle-blower. The truth, or at least some glimpse of it, will be revealed, as cellphone footage and data dumps make their way onto the Internet.
Still, let us be clear. Chelsea Manning is in prison and may remain there for a sentence of thirty-five years. Last December a grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict the officer chiefly responsible for Eric Garner’s death, even though the medical examiner lists that death as a homicide in the autopsy report. Each video may be a record of unjustified killing, a sequence of images that fill us with outrage and revulsion, but their revelation does not promise comeuppance. The aporia between law and justice is clear. But, as it has already been indicated, being obvious is no guarantee of change.
But maybe something can be learned from this breakdown in the assumed efficacy of exposure. For this failure may not be an issue of legibility so much as one of genre. For many, the horror in these images is clear; it is not simply that ideology precludes perception (though, of course, not every apologist defending these and related incidences is so consciously cynical). Rather, the narrative ascribed to the exposure of corruption – the story we tell about what happens when malfeasance is made public, and thus the story we depend upon to give us not just a sense of hope but one of leverage and recourse – is part and parcel of a series of narratives presently under duress.
The name that the theorist Lauren Berlant gives to this crisis is the waning of genre. “Genres,” Berlant maintains, “provide an affective expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or art. From this perspective, the trust that certain milestones can be achieved through the right amount of effort is structurally and functionally identical to our investment in, say, the familiar trajectories of the romance or mystery plot. Genre here is the name for how we organize expectation. In the context of contemporary capitalism, though, wherein inequality is extreme and economic mobility is all but chimerical, the “fantasies” underlying these expected futures, like “upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and lively, durable intimacy,” are under immense stress. To presume that life can still advance along certain pathways risks what Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” “a relationship of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility." The cruelty, in this case, pertains to the lingering nature of the attachment, to its embeddedness in one’s sense of self. “[W]hatever the content of the attachment is,” Berlant writes, “the continuity of its form provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep living on and look forward to being in the world.
Is it cruel optimism, then, to hope that, today, justice should follow the revelation of war crimes, police brutality, or even, for instance, the hyper-Orwellian extent of state surveillance? Are we caught up in an attachment to an old world that is no longer with us? Are we suffering because we cannot let it go? Do we even know how to endure the greater cruelty of what the world has purportedly become?
Or, alternatively, should we even describe events such as the ones I have highlighted as symptomatic of changes that have also undermined an – albeit unevenly – experienced way of life afforded by social democracy? Has it not been the case that state violence against people of color and atrocities committed overseas have been consistent features of American life, regardless of the rise of neoliberalism? When it comes to justice, is there a more sober realism to be found in the longue dureé of modernity than in what may only be the pessimism of more recent developments?
Sketching a brief history of the conspiracy thriller, that category of popular culture animated by the very act of exposure, American literature scholar Jeffrey J. Williams does see a certain decrease in its effectiveness over the years. The 1970s serves as its high water mark. Pointing to cinema in particular, he writes, “[t]hey are generally moral fictions, expressing outrage and disappointment at the corruption of democratic politics, without relinquishing a faith in the ultimate good of the liberal welfare state.” But as time moves on and said state is dismantled, anger largely gives way to acquiescence. “Instead of conspiracies underneath the surface of society,” he writes, “the machinations of the powerful are no longer hidden, nor expected to be.” Such fictions, he argues, “depict a world shorn of rudimentary ideology: we know the rich rule, so we adjust accordingly.” In his criticism of recent conspiracy films, the cultural theorist Eric Cazdyn goes a step further. He writes:
"Is not the conspiracy today that there is no conspiracy, but a system that works precisely as it is intended to work? This is why conspiracy films today do not quite work, at least not those concerned with the ‘boardroom conspiracies’ of greedy CEOs. Mapping the system is a banal task; the map, we might say, is already published and explicit, so that we are left with the question, ‘Given what is permissible and in plain sight, what would CEOs need to conspire about?"
Cazdyn’s question is interesting. But what is critical here is the sense, redoubled in Williams’s “world shorn of […] ideology,” that the system, and by extension its violence, is plain to see. Conspiracy fails not because it is, as Fredric Jameson once put it, “the degraded figure of the total logic of capital,” but because it presupposes a certain movement from occlusion to clarity that is no longer necessary. Everything is apparently “published and explicit”; “we know the rich rule, so we adjust.” Here, then, is a genre definitely on the wane. What follows is not cruel optimism, though, just a depressing brand of survivalism, a capitulation to what appears to be the unbudgeable.
Of course, we must ask, does corruption really stand so naked before us? Or, rather, do we all understand that what we’re seeing is not corruption but either the system acting “as it is intended” or as it gives rise to its contradictions? Are we all suddenly Marxists in our worldview and nihilists in our politics? Is there really no need for a theory of ideology? Is capitalist realism not a failure of imagination but, perversely, a sober sort of materialism, given the current power of working people and the resources of the 1%?
To be clear, my response to each of these questions is no. I do not wish to suggest that the popular reaction to “Collateral Murder” or the death of Eric Garner (or the tragic deaths of so many others like him) can in any way be described as cynical or defeatist. Sincere and logical anger captured the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore. And many still strive to support, if not free, Chelsea Manning, and draw attention to the crimes her heroism revealed.
But I will say that there is a tendency within the critique of neoliberalism to assume that the inherent violence of capitalism is now more apparent. Neoliberalism, from this vantage point, is closer to capitalism’s true face. It is capitalism on its way to being freed from the obstructions of the welfare state; and while this implies suffering for working people, there is assumed to be a kind of value in revealing the system for what it is. And yet, this also means that past conceptions of the good life are denigrated. That is, certain expectations for how one’s life should proceed are understood to have been only temporary, the product of a productivity boom after WWII that could never be sustained. For if it is true, as the economist Wolfgang Streeck claims, that “capitalism’s shotgun marriage with democracy since 1945 is breaking up,” then we should not be too nostalgic for that earlier arrangement. That earlier arrangement, from this perspective, merely gets in the way of understanding the truth of our economic situation. Now, today, under the neoliberal sun, we may lead more precarious lives, but we rid ourselves of earlier complaints regarding greed and the disappearance of what always was a contingent way of life. And by implication, we are not shocked when the courts offer no recourse and the public barely blinks at the killing of strangers in their name.
Except, of course, many of us are shocked and we have blinked. And we have stared. And we have watched minutes upon minutes of footage with revulsion and anger. And while we may hold on to a kind of hope that is cruel to us, a hope that in truth bears little connection to what the world can offer, I hazard to venture we may be better off for it. This is not to say that we should avoid the origins of our expectations or that we should ignore when circumstances have made them untenable. My sense is that this breakdown in the efficacy of exposure cannot be separated from today’s inequality. And so, rather than framing faith in “genre” as a holdover to be avoided, perhaps we may orient anger differently, combining dissatisfaction with unmet expectations with a critique of the political economy that explains how this occurred. Perhaps in this – though not only this – we may find a kind of justice.
Wikileaks has obtained and decrypted a previously unreleased video footage from a US Apache helicopter in 2007. The material shows Reuters journalist Namir Noor-Eldeen, driver Saeed Chmagh, and several others as the Apache shoots and kills them in a public square in Eastern Baghdad. They are apparently assumed to be insurgents. After the initial shooting, an unarmed group of adults and children in a minivan arrives on the scene and attempts to transport the wounded. They are fired upon as well. The official statement on this incident initially listed all adults as insurgents and claimed the US military did not know how the deaths occurred. Wikileaks released this video with transcripts and a package of supporting documents on April 5th 2010 on http://collateralmurder.com.
Eric Garner, a 43 year-old father of four, was killed in July 17th, 2014. In a widely viewed video recorded by a bystander, he was choked to death by police who arrested him for selling lose cigarettes.