Parallel Gallery
and Journal

Learning to Live in the System Gary J. Krug

The Aesthetic Gaze

1. After World War II, the popular imagination of war and how it must look had radically altered. Photographs, films and newsreels, as well as the personal experiences of millions of people provided a rich array of images and ideas which had to be integrated into on-going cultural narratives. Out of this basis of images and myth, each filmic attempt to interrogate and explore a future world becomes also an interrogation of the prevailing aesthetic perception of the present and a glance back at the past, as if to see that it is still there. Among the variety of literary and artistic productions that emerged after the 1945, negative utopias appeared which attempted to explore the new world, searching for the markers of otherness and difference, attempting to identify the things that had changed. In Orwell's 1984 Winston Smith is trying to establish that the past could ever have been different from the standardized, reworked history which he daily helps to construct and which he struggles to inhabit. He questions a burned-out wreck of a human being who dimly remembers the existence of capitalists, of another world. The old man says:

"That was before the war, of course."
"Which war was that?" said Winston.
"It's all wars", said the old man vaguely.

(Orwell, p. 74)
2. "It's all wars." Smith was not only trying to regain a sense of the past. Primarily, he was after a sense of the present, for if the living memory of a human being differs from the extrinsic, centralized representation of the books and papers, then a consciousness divorced from the dominant social structurings of meaning is at least possible. The old man's statement reveals that the essence of modern life, epitomized in modern warfare, is the radical fixation of the social reality, a fascination with and conflation of the perception of time and space. Constant war produces a relatively stable state of signification in which simplistic constructions of social meaning divorced from personal history or experience create patterns in configurations amenable to the continued conduct of the war. Constant war tends toward the characteristics defined by Virilio (1983, 1984, 1986) as characteristic of "pure war": miniaturization, routinization, the constant emphasis on speed and motion, the reduction of multidimensional thought to the vectors of delivery and reconnaissance.

3. The new reality after the war was a peace which was not peace and a war which was not war but which still clung to many of the cultural, psychological and ideological demands of war. In wars, the reality of the individual is sacrificed to the view of the military and of the leadership. In this manner, a military point of view entered into the world view of common people in an unprecedented and on-going way during the war. This point of view remained in the U.S. after the major armed conflicts ended, fostered by Pearl Harbor fears, a 'gee whiz' understanding of technology and the intense, self-examination represented by McCarthyism and narcissistic consumerism. This military point of view, what Virilio (1988) calls the military glacis, (the military slope) was linked to the technologies of movement, perception and information. The new world view created an aesthetics which expressed the characteristics of technology as they displaced various aspects of life.

The Military Gaze Enters the Human Space

4. As early as Chaplin's Modern Times, the portrayal of the technical domain demonstrated that the human life was necessarily excluded from it and suggested that within the technical domain only a dissolution of the personal was possible. The exclusive logic of the system creates a world which people cannot inhabit. Thus, it is the characteristic of technology to organize social structures around its own needs and tendencies which do not co-exist easily with the merely human. However, Chaplin's character could still resist. His primary motivation for staying within the system was his need for a job, and it is apparent from the subsequent action that he is not ideologically motivated to have that job. However, every job which he gets excludes, almost systematically, the desires and needs which human beings feel. His desires are simple and proletarian: to smoke, to dream, to eat, to love. Yet the boss finds him, electronically, smoking in the washroom. His noon meal is transformed into a demonstration of a feeding machine. Both he and the young woman, the gamine, are often in trouble with the police for activities over which they have no control. At every point, their desires, even their simple attempt to fulfill their basic needs are thwarted. The concluding scene, in which both walk down the road into the sunset, demonstrates that they yet have the choice to leave the social; a personal private space still exists, one not yet incorporated into the technological realm. Of course, this could only occur prior to the second world war.

5. One primary function of Capital is the management of desire and its channeling into expressions appropriate to the maintenance of the technologized world and its social systems. Yet many commentators overlook the peculiar fact that the main expression of late capitalist (or post-industrial) management is militaristic, and this military society, through a variety of devices, naturalized itself as the correct, necessary and patriotic presentation of the world to which people must adjust. With the introduction of the technologized military system, ideology comes to the service of technique and creates motivations, justifications and allegiances necessitating the dominance of the military-technical point of view. This is revealed in film and literature with the creation of particular story types, thematics, such as nuclear war, which have in turn their own aesthetic. This aesthetic arose out of the newly combined discourses of the military, science and the nation, and the subject positions which it created brought people to adopt the military viewpoint as their own.

6. To gaze through the military viewpoint is to accept an aesthetic which is organized around 'realism,' and verisimilitude. This is not surprising as the prevailing tendency of the military glacis is concerned with revealing what was hidden so that it may be either controlled or destroyed. Such abstractions as exist in the computer enhanced radar image that forms the icon of military sight are formed around this telos of annihilation through bringing the target into the purvue of the system. The representation always has a precise referent, a signified which must be described within the telos of the system and that moment as friend or foe, target or not-target, etc. Further, this representation should ideally occur in 'real time.' Military representation thus pursues the asymptote of getting to the real, 'locking on' to it, seeing it completely. Conversely, deception, or 'stealth' techniques assume a new importance.

7. Additionally, the narratives which emerged from this aesthetic elaborated new myths around the central contradictions which its existence brought into being: the classical liberal myth of rational, autonomous human beings versus the inarguable reality of the system. Dominant forms surface which reveal this aesthetic. In films organized around a view which originates in and which pursues the military vision of the world, we see the world as described and envisioned by experts situated within positions of technical systems thought. This is true regardless of how one feels about the product of that thought. To portray nuclear war in a 'realistic' way is to describe it in accordance with the pronouncements of the experts. An understanding rooted outside of the expert system cannot grasp the constructions from within it without accepting certain premises. It comes as no surprise that films which valorize the military-technical point of view adopt aesthetics rooted in that mode of perception; however, even films which would create resistance to the military telos are often constructed around that point of view as well. Many ostensibly oppositional films trace the intrusion of the technological into life from the human side, ie. as a disruption of life rather than the continuation of the technological. In either case, human life is rewritten in terms of the technological. Once stabilized as the normal aesthetic mode, this dominant point of view excludes alternatives. We no longer have the choice to represent things as we would.

Techno-War Aesthetics and the Problem of Realism

8. The human cannot inhabit this space transformed by technique and only rarely even survives within it. To describe nuclear war in the descriptions of the experts is to supplant imagination with technicistic rationality. All human concerns and reality are completely lost in the overwhelming actuality of the nuclear. One looks over the technicist's glacis, even in opposition. Accepting the dominant point of view is not a function of the focus of the drama but rather a function of the aesthetic of technique. Within the military-technical orientation I differentiate two major aesthetic strategies for treating nuclear war which I call the 'techno-war' and the 'abjection' strategies. Other strategies exist as well, such as a deliberate play with nuclear discourses, which I am calling here the 'postmodernist strategy'. It is important to note that few films restrict themselves solely to one strategy, but rather borrow from diverse constellations of discourse and film languages. A simile might be drawn from music.

9. These strategies may be thought of as the tonal centers of films, the dominant keys in which the films are written. They may in some passages digress into other keys, but always these are bound back to the original key and exist in relationship to it. In both of these groups of films, the self exists in a world painted by technicist thought, and within that space, meaningful opposition is impossible.

10. The 'techno-war' strategy most clearly creates the subjectivity of the dominant point of view. Films that use this technique (eg. Fail-Safe, The Bedford Incident) write the narrative of the bomb into the on-going thematic and narrative forms constituted by the new representations of the military after World War II. They treat the origin or functioning of the nuclear weapons system, and consequentially, they are studies into how we may represent the causes of nuclear war. In such nuclear war films organized around an aesthetic grounded in the military point of view, we see a technologically produced apocalypse which arises from a clear cause: the creation of a system that has unexpected or uncontrollable effects. Human life is of little consequence. Although it may serve dramatic ends, the primary activity of human life and human relationships in these films wherever the technological system gains ascendancy is to dissolve. The threat of this constitutes the dramatic tension propelling the story in films such as War Games and Fail-Safe. As human life diminishes in consequence proportional to the importance of the system, problems are presented as technical problems remedied only by resorting to experts or by tinkering with the system. When technical solutions are exhausted or when they fail, people die or at the very least, human society falls into chaos. In such settings there can be no pressing, existential human problems. These films suggest that failure to control the technological results in the destruction of the human world.

11. If one is watching a film which investigates the origins of nuclear war, such as Fail-Safe, she expects to see the struggle of human beings to regain control of a technological system which threatens to run away from their command. As such films address the 'reality' of the nuclear problem, they tend toward being constructed in the mode of 'expressive realism' and hence, they strive through a variety of devices to suggest that the story they tell is mimetic (See Belsey 1980, pp. 7-14). These films lead us to expect to see through the eyes of the power elite, usually the military. These films strive to convince the film reader of the accuracy of their images and narratives, and the films' believability hinges on their convergence or divergence with our understanding of what that point of view is as we have learned it from other images. We are encouraged to accept these films' stories on the basis of their fidelity to other images and films which the film reader has previously experienced.

Abjection and Horror

12. For the insight which guides my interpretation of this grouping, I am relying on the linkages elaborated by Julia Kristeva (1982) and Barbara Creed (1993) between horror, the feminine and Otherness. Films using the abjection strategies of representation (eg On the Beach, Threads, Five) are often ostensibly anti-war films which reach toward the reader via empathy with the characters and their situation. Women are often the narrative center of the films, and consequently the issues of the films center around the body and its unmaking (Scarry 1982). These films tend to rely on a nostalgia for what is lost in nuclear war to generate concern and interest. Select aspects of ordinary, taken-for-granted life are simulated, borrowed from melodrama and tragedy. They make no attempt to treat directly the language of the nuclear experts, nor do they examine the cause of the war except as background to give depth and naturalness to the occurrence of the war.

13. However, their constructions of the effects of nuclear war necessarily embrace the technicist vision of blast damage, radiation sickness, electromagnetic pulse damages, etc. Similarly, the segments of these films which treat the causes of the war must rely on expectations of the events leading to the war which are already part of the myth about how wars begin. Often, this is a conflict in the Middle East or Germany which escalates out of control. Once the war begins, though, the expectations for its origins and effects do not arise from ordinary experience but instead trickle down from the prognostications and scenarios of the experts.

14. In films whose primary theme is the experience of nuclear war and, hence, the necessity of avoiding nuclear war, such as Threads, or Testament, one's experience with similar films and books leads her to expect 'realistic' representations of the characters' struggles to live meaningfully as they resist death. In films which seek to valorize the nuclear system, eg Bombers B-52 and Strategic Air Command, we come to expect to see men in blue uniforms and the women who love them. In each case, the continuity of the film and its believability hinge on the coherence of all the filmic elements. Rousing martial music, perfectly appropriate in Strategic Air Command, would be dreadfully out of place in Threads. We expect the president in Fail-Safe to act presidential. We expect nuclear weapons themselves to be shown in threatening aspects, featuring low angle shots accompanied by haunting music. The deliberate violation or exaggeration of our interpretive expectations leads either to 'camp' or to irony, as in Dr. Strangelove.

15. Thus, much of the process of signification hangs onto the already constructed expectations which the evening news, documentaries and other films have put into the readers' consciousness. This constitutes the aesthetic strategy which is in turn bound to the organizing gaze of military technicism, to what C. Wright Mills (1956, p. 222) called 'military metaphysics'. The familiar world of nuclear weapons and their effects leaks over from the experts into the perception of the social and the social in turn provides the confirmation for the validity of the military-technical point of view. Examining the use and structure of military language, Peter Moss observes that:

"[certain] general cultural structures are becoming synonymous with the military or the defence cast of mind. Furthermore, as military and culture move closer together in language, so does the generalized national perception, which is itself partly controlled by that language". (Moss 1985, pp. 62-3)

16. This mutual reflexivity occurs on the levels of symbolic abstractions about nation and the military, but it appears as well in the simple perception of these general cultural structures and the possibilities of life within them. A genuine resistance in the form of meaningful alternatives requires the formulation of an aesthetic strategy outside of the military-technicist gaze. It requires, in short, a rejection of 'realism.'

Postmodernist Alternatives

17. In order to escape the constraints of the modernist aesthetic, ie. the military aesthetic, films must operate outside of 'conventional' thinking about nuclear war, its causes, consequences and effects. They must avoid using the apocalypse as a device to shock viewers. This is attempted in those films that owe much of their technique and visual structuring to the postmodern moment and its emphasis on pastiche and parody (eg A Boy and His Dog, Mad Max). They pry hieroglyphs out of the piles of cultural debris and collage them together, creating bizarre worlds which are vaguely recognizable yet beyond remembering. In these films the war has already occurred, the transformative event has occurred and life goes on. Although set in the post-war world, their foci are more on the present world, the world which they reconstruct from its pieces.

18. The 'postmodern' strategy is not the only way in which films can step out of the technicistic point of view, though. Other films (eg Hiroshima, mon amour and The Sacrifice) accomplish this as well through their rejection of established views of technical realism. They organize their filmic practices around problems framed aesthetically rather than around ostensible social criticism. They are in no sense films of social criticism but rather films which engage human problems of meaning and life. Neither do they treat nuclear war as reality; it functions solely as a metaphor into which the viewer may enter, pursuing those thoughts and connections which seem to arise on their own.

19. All of these aesthetic practices are linked to subjective positions, and the power of a preferred or socially prevalant way of seeing influences to some degree the extent to which one aesthetic convention is chosen over another to achieve a particular end. This point of view, though, is not absolute nor complete in its hegemony. Spaces exist in the language where choices may be made on grounds not dictated by the demands of the military, big business, government, etc. Further, these conventions may be deliberately inverted, altered and selectively re-written in order to achieve aims which inform, discredit or subvert the dominant position. This re-writing occurs at both the level of the film-maker and at the level of the film reader.

20. Neither do ideological and aesthetic positions remain fixed over time. Although, by and large, the aesthetics of films treating nuclear weapons are fairly stable through time, this reflects the stability of the old antagonism upon which this discourse draws for its basic story stock. We see the tensions between 'culture' and 'nature,' the individual and society, technology and the pastoral ideal revived in film after film. However, our readings of these tensions alter over time, informed partly by the newer selves that we bring to the stories and that were created in part by newer versions of these stories. What was a serious statement in the language and milieu of one time may become hilarious camp in another. Films such as Red Nightmare, produced in all seriousness in the 1950's McCarthy hysteria, appear now as absurd studies in paranoia and propaganda. Similarly with nuclear war films. Many of the informative and propagandistic short features of the early fifties appear again, looking very dated, in the video anthology, The Atomic Cafe. Precisely this transformation of the original meaning of the film makes the use of pastiche and parody possible and effective.

21. Some themes reoccur with amazing regularity reflecting the continuing presence of the cultural beliefs which drive them, especially gender differences, as well as the relative unimportance of the family when compared to the system. The diligence and dedication found in the military people in Above and Beyond returns in later films such as Fail-Safe. Where in Above and Beyond Tibbets must sacrifice his marital happiness for his mission, so Colonel Casio in Fail-Safe must abandon his domestic problem of a drunken father.

22. Aesthetic positions do not develop in a strict chronological sequence, and early films exploring the nuclear world (eg Hiroshima, mon amour) may reflect aesthetic strategies vastly different from their contemporaries. Rather, the strategy used in each film depends on the ideological positioning of the film within other discourses and the orientation of that film via the practice of 'realism' toward the seeming actuality of the nuclear system. If the film is expressly concentrating on the problem of meaning and the dissolution of life, the narrative tends to be oppositional to the ideology of rationalistic, modern existence, even if the film itself employs techniques arising from the narrative forms of that ideology. Good intentions are not enough; films must employ an aesthetic sensibility capable of acting outside of the real as it has been constituted in dominant forms. More, they must avoid literalizing the nuclear threat. This truly oppositional or 'subversive' approach is achieved only rarely for reasons which the two following examples explore.

Dr Gary Krug lectures in Adelaide and writes on a variety of subjects...