Sunday, March 11, 2012

Stop #stopkony

Are you ready to party like it's 1999? Is it time for another wave of humanitarian militarism? All of the ingredients, it would seem, are present. We have an intensely mediatized campaign in which no one learns anything about the ostensible subject. The video from Invisible Children by the despicably narcissistic Jason Russell is supposedly about a conflict in Uganda, but it tells us not a thing about Uganda's politics, its rulers, the military who are hunting down the remnants of the Lords Resistance Army, Museveni or his US-backed invasion of the Congo (death toll from that war is close to 5m), or the Lord's Resistance Army. We have a US intervention. The hundred or so US advisors assisting the Ugandan army are supposedly there in part due to pressure from Russell and his organisation. We have an evil-doer about whom no one knows anything, aside from the fact that he's a Hitler or, worse, a Bin Laden. This approach, in which we learn only that Kony is a bad man, is justified with the repellently manipulative technique of having the film-maker's son stand in for the audience - Daddy 'explains' to his son that Kony steals away children and makes them shoot people, and the little treasure gurns "that's sad". We have the helpless victims, who articulate only their suffering, reduced to bare-forked creatures of the imperialist imagination, and firmly locked in the missionary position. We have the absurdity of hundreds of thousands of well-meaning but slightly silly people who have allowed themselves to be manipulated and bullied into supporting the combined forces of US imperialism and the Ugandan military in the name of human rights. We have, in all, a white man's burden for the Facebook generation.

I will not rehearse my own arguments. Those who haven't yet read Liberal Defence now have the opportunity to go and consult the record from five hundred years of liberal imperialism. Nor will I take it on myself to explain the history and social complexities of Uganda's insurgency. It would be superfluous in the context, since people are not even being mobilised on the basis of misinformation - this is ideologically very weak - but rather are being invited to share a sentiment which taps their natural solipsism (as well as, at a vulgar level, their desire to help people, to be altruistic). All that is necessary is to alert people to the fact that they are being manipulated by slime balls into supporting scumbags. And that information is slowly getting through. The criticisms are beginning to gradually penetrate the wall of great white hype. People are beginning to notice that Invisible Children supports war criminals and rapists, which is a rather squalid little blow to the afflatus generated by the Live 8-Geldof-Bono-style promo video. I have no doubt that this campaign will prove to be as futile and anti-climactic in its results as many previous unwanted efforts to Save Africa - one recalls the idiotic Save Darfur campaign. (About Sudan, though - ahem!).

Yet, the cultural significance of this could be far greater than the immediate range of its intended ambitions. I don't just mean this in the sense that this raises highly suggestive questions about the conditioning, the socialization, the immersion in mass/social media that makes people susceptible to this sort of offensive. (And in propaganda terms, it is a straightforward psychological assault which, like the latest US assault rifle being deployed in Afghanistan, combines sophistication at a technological level with crudity in its somatic effects.) Rather, the formulation repeatedly used in the promo video - "this is an experiment" - raises the possibility that the techniques here deployed will, insofar as they are successful, find their way into the repertoire of the Pentagon's propaganda department.

This is hardly the first campaign of its kind to use a combination of rock video imagery and soundscape with pseudo-populist interpellation (rock the power structure, make the dudes in Washington listen, stop at nothing). The imagery from the poster campaign is lifted straight from Obama 2008. Nor is it the first to strip-mine the iconography of social struggle (it's what Gandhi/MLK would have done). And it hardly breaks new ground with the social media fetishism. However, we are obviously at a pivotal stage in the development of new medias and their effective annexation by capitalist states in alliance with silicon monopoly capital. The re-deployment of MTV/Hollywood audiovisual tropes in combination with the depoliticised atrocity reportage style of the 1990s is merely a happenstance formula, one of the many ways in which a subject like this might be handled to the same overall end. What is important is the techniques allowing the manoeuvring of a notoriously ambiguous, 'lukewarm' medium like the Internet into a more coercively 'hot' form. According to McLuhan, media exist on a hot-cold continuum depending on the degree of participation from the audience that they require or permit in determining meaning. Movies are the paradigmatic instance of a 'hot' media, gratifying consumers with intense, attention-absorbing sensation. The relation of dominance and subordination between producer and audience is increased in direct proportion with the 'hotness' of the medium. It was never quite clear how ostensibly participatory, user-generated media would fit into this, much less the new forms of communications technologies such as he Blackberry messaging systems which gave police and politicians headaches during last Summer's riots. There has, of course, been a tremendous investment by firms and states in theorising their impact. I don't know, but I imagine that quite a few PhDs have been made from this sort of research. And I would suggest that some of the fruits of all these studies in domination have been very effectively brought together in a way that blends ersatz participatory, grassroots politics with straightforward psychological compulsion. They have learned how to use these tools well enough to give the Ugandan army the face of Mother Theresa, and that, one suspects, is what makes this a really seminal moment.