Authentic Images: the Modernist Event in the Internet Age

There is much talk today about the American government potentially releasing an image of Osama Bin Laden; this is, of course, a response to the rhetoric of doubt surrounding the entire event. Is he really dead? We need pictures to know for certain.

In response to such questions we find an unending loop of talking heads and scrolling information updates. This culture of 24-hours news isn’t new and indeed has strong ties to the very event that initially motivated America’s hunt for Bin Laden.

On September 11, 2001, news channels broadcasted images of the events almost instantaneously, and in most cases caught live images of the second plane hitting Tower 1. As film theorist Mary Ann Doane argues in her essay “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” television news “organizes itself around the event” in an attempt to consistently stress the “”˜newness’ of its own discourse.” Images were broadcast live, played and re-played, and endlessly discussed and analyzed. This process ties the event to the televisual medium at a fundamental level. As Doane writes,

There is often a certain slippage between the notion that television covers important events in order to validate itself as a medium and the idea that because an event is covered by television – because it is, in effect, deemed televisual – it is important. This is the significance of the media event, where the referent becomes indissociable from the medium.

Television allows for what Doane calls the “global experience of catastrophe” – a catastrophe which is “subject-less.” Images of such events have no clear temporal sequence. There is no clear beginning, middle, or end, only an episodic series of occurrences, mediated through their constant televisual reproduction.

The 24-hour news cycle and its constant stream of discussion, analysis, and repetition represents an attempt to understand what is impossible to understand. The events of September 11, 2001, are an example of what historian and cultural theorist Hayden White terms the “Modernist Event.”  These are events belonging inherently to the 20th century, whose “nature, scope, and implications”¦ no prior age could have imagined.” White notes that these events “cannot be simply forgotten and put out of mind, but neither can they be adequately remembered.”

Image: Screengrab of the front page of at 3:45 p.m., May 3

Documentary film theorist Bill Nichols translates White’s concept to the realm of filmic representation, discussing what he calls the “Terrorist Event.” Here, he argues that viewing and reviewing disaster imagery indicates an attempt to make sense of the events. However, as both White and Nichols argue, these events cannot be contextualized in the same way that a traditional event could. White notes that modernist events “bear little similarity to what earlier historians conventionally took as their objects of study and do not, therefore, lend themselves to understanding by the commonsensical techniques utilized in conventional historical inquiry.” The “partiality and fragmentation” of the modernist event presents a challenge to the “overvaluation of wholeness and coherence.”

Such a search for the coherence and wholeness of a narrative historical event is clear amongst the obsessive analysis of the minutiae of Sunday’s events. What happened? In what order? Where did they land? How many were killed? And of course, the most important question: How did they identify him?

The vocal cries to release images of Bin Laden’s body are yet another element of this search. Grasping for wholeness and coherence, we need an image to establish a sense of continuity and authenticity, to mark a distinct conclusion to an “event” which ultimately has none.

There are reports today that such images will be released, a step that will add more fuel the active news cycle. Yet these images will also take another path, one different from images of the World Trade Center attacks I began by discussing. Images of Bin Laden’s body will hit the Internet running faster than the televisual medium could ever approach. Beyond “conventional” online news sources such as CNN and The New York Times, they will also undoubtedly be posted to Twitter, uploaded as profile pictures on Facebook, and meme-ified on Tumblr.

Can such methods of distribution be read as yet another attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible? To be certain, a comparison cannot be drawn between the events nearly a decade ago and those of Sunday night. The latter is surrounded by a discourse of celebration and relief. Yet, the impulse towards constant discussion, analysis, and repetition remains. Perhaps we must then look towards a continuation of White and Nichols’ concepts in the current media landscape, a sort of “Internet Event.”

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