Friday, April 20, 2007

Guns and Cameras

Guns and cameras are both media of communication, as McLuhan makes clear in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man where he includes chapters on the photograph, motion picture, television, and weapons--both guns and cameras are extensions of the human body, guns extending the fist and fingernail in their offensive capacities, cameras extending the eyes in their voyeuristic capacities. Both guns and cameras are means by which we mediate between ourselves and elements of our environment, they go between us our environment, and in doing so keep the environment as a distance from ourselves. Guns and cameras are both methods by which people communicate, sending messages to their target, and to bystanders alike--that is why we have phrases like, "the shot heard around the world" after all. Guns and cameras are both weapons, both used to attack and cause harm (e.g., the paparazzi, the private detective stalking the adulterer), both used to control and imprison--that is why we talk about cameras using words like shoot, snapshot, load (the film), capture (the subject, the moment), etc.--this is a deep metaphor that reveals an often-unconscious understanding of the link between the two technologies.

We can therefore understand that the video and stills prepared by the Virginia Tech killer, and sent to NBC, was an assault by other means, another violent act prepared and perpetrated by a mass murderer. The intent, clearly, was not only to justify his actions, but to incite more violence by others. The model that he was imitating was not so much fiction films, as some commentators have suggested, but the video recordings made by suicide bombers coming out of the Arab world, for the most part.

The decision by NBC to air the video is more than just a bad decision, an abdication of journalistic responsibility in the rush to secure higher ratings. Brian Williams and his staff are arguably accessories to the crime of murder, perhaps, accessories to the crime of incitement to violence, for certain, and if not in a technically legal sense, than at least in a moral sense. This is not a First Amendment issue, the Bill of Rights does not protect against criminal behavior, otherwise all crimes could be defended in court as a form of self-expression protected as free speech.

The First and Second Amendments to the Constitution of the United States are seldom discussed together, as they seem to refer to entirely different realms of activity. But from a media ecological standpoint, they are both about media, about the right to use media in any way we see fit, about the right to extend ourselves in time and space, the right to shield ourselves from anything in our environment, the right to create new environments in our own image. And these are important rights, basic human rights, but rights that have to have certain limits.

Fire Brian Williams!

If shock jock Don Imus was fired for using the language of rap stars to make crude jokes, then Brian Williams should be dumped as well for airing the killer's video in a planned and deliberate manner--the care with which the evening news broadcast is put together certainly parallels the detailed preparation of the killer prior to launching his attack.

Aiding and abetting the Virginia Tech mass murder is shameful conduct and, I will reiterate, is effectively criminal conduct. You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the killer's name, and this is deliberate. In antiquity, the norm was to blot out the name of a villain, to refrain from uttering the name or writing it down, and to drown out the name when it is uttered (as is done with the villain Hamen during the reading of the Megillah aka Book of Esther on Purim) and to erase or blot it out wherever it was written (as the Egyptian polytheists did with the name of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten after his death, because they viewed the iconoclastic proto-monotheist as having committed sacrilige). There is wisdom in this approach, which acknowledges that symbols, including names, are media, and that they are weapons. There is a certain sanity in watching your language, in thinking before you speak, in a reflective orientation towards communication. There is a certain insanity in handing over our most powerful mass medium, television, to a mass murderer.

This isn't about censorship, it's about sacrality. We by and large still recall that it is important to show restraint in a sanctuary and a cemetery. Whether we believe or not, we still by and large show respect and watch what we say when we are speaking to a member of the clergy. Out of respect, we take care not to offend and to express sympathy and give consolation when speaking to those who have recently lost a loved one, whether through violence or natural causes.

To give up on any sense of limits is, in effect, to commit slow suicide as a society and a civilization. We are, metaphorically and in reality, shooting ourselves to death.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Subject: Re: [MEA] Fwd: Guns and Cameras
Date: April 21, 2007 8:44:04 AM EDT (CA)

Lance et al.

I agree with Lance that the showing of the video was inappropriate. The excuse offered by NBC was that it was newsworthy and the public had a right to know. This purported aim of NBC could have been achieved by reporting about the video explaining that the VT villain was a deeply disturbed individual as evidenced by the material that was send to them without actually showing this obscene material and allowing the VT villain to propagate his antisocial meme. TV in general is a medium that transmits the violence meme in its attempt to be sensational and garner a larger audience for its advertisers. Because of the need to protect freedom of expression the way to deal with this problem is through making the captains of media aware of their responsibilities to society and hopefully they will self-censor. Freedom of speech has its limits (you cannot shout fire in a crowded theater) but just as importantly it has its responsibilities. The airwaves belong to the public and they should not be used to assault that public. Part of the problem is that the news is presented more as a way of attracting advertisers than providing a public service. It is not a coincidence that the pharmaceutical companies are by and large the ones who advertise the most on news shows. They offer palliatives to the suffering that the news shows offer to their audiences. The problems Lance has raised is deserving of some thoughtful research. I hope we can squeeze in a panel discussion at the Media Ecology Association meeting in Mexico City of the issues raised by Lance's blog.

Bob Logan