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Terrorvision (Part Two)

by Mark Dery

II. Terrorvision

I am the camera's eye. I am the machine which shows you the world as I alone see it. Starting from today, I am forever free of human immobility. I am in perpetual movement...I run before running soldiers---I throw myself down on my back---I rise up with the aeroplanes---I fall and I fly at one with the bodies falling or rising through the air.
- Dziga Vertov*

If I had to sum up current thinking on precision missiles and saturation weaponry in a single sentence, I'd put it like this: once you can see the target, you can expect to destroy it.
- W.J. Perry, a former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Defense*

What is perceived is already lost.
- Paul Virilio*

At the end of the twentieth century, nothing recedes like reality. Events are experienced at a far remove, mediated by communications technologies in which the assumed perspective is that of the snooperscope, the prying electronic eye. Our evenings are haunted by panoptic imagery: the flickering apparitions of call girls and politicians, captured in flagrante delicto by hidden cameras and shown on the six o'clock news; cowering crackheads, blinded by camera lights on the true crime show, Cops; the home videos of Rob Lowe, Robert Chambers, and other self-surveilled media-ocrities, endlessly replayed on tabloid TV.

As the French title of Foucault's book, Surveiller et punir, implies, the one-sided gaze is inherently aggressive, recalling the territorial challenger, the tracking predator. The fixed stare of target acquisition telegraphs violence, making the evil eye "one of the most uncanny and widespread forms of superstition," according to Freud.* In The Evil Eye: The Origins and Practices of Superstition, Louis Barron confirms Freud's assertion. "So extensive was this belief in earlier periods," he notes, "that every malady, all adversity, and almost anything undesirable in life was regarded as the inevitable result of the fatal glance of some person or animal. Belief in the evil eye is probably the oldest... of superstitions."* It is recorded in the New Testament---"From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts... an evil eye," writes the apostle in Mark 7:22---and Christ himself uses a maleficent glare to wither a fig tree in Matthew 21:19. Freud relates the age-old belief to "that principle in the mind which I have called 'the omnipotence of thoughts'...the old, animistic conception of the universe, which was characterized by... the narcissistic overestimation of subjective mental processes."* Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to Foucault: "Without any physical instrument other than architecture and geometry, [the Panopticon] acts directly on individuals; it gives 'power of mind over mind.'"*

The cyberoptic evil eye, conflating surveillance and punishment, has existed for some time in pop culture, in the cinematic cliche of the robotic gaze: the infra-red eyesight of the android gunslinger in Westworld; RoboCop's "Robovision," all hexadecimal codes and computer readouts; and the Terminator's blood-red "Termovision." Nothing remains but for the panoptical apparatus, disseminated throughout society, to be harnessed to an expeditious administrator of on-the-spot justice.

This Foucauldian nightmare is realized in the seeing-eye bomb. During the war in the Persian Gulf, smart bombs equipped with cameras offered a death's-eye view of Iraqi targets rushing toward the camera lens, then exploding into fireballs as the screen went black. Devices such as these marry death technology and the camera eye in a television that kills---Terrorvision, to borrow the title of a schlocky late night shocker.

"Terrorvision" aptly describes military technologies, in various stages of development, that unite perception and destruction, marking the intersection of the two vectors plotted by Paul Virilio in War and Cinema. For Virilio, military and cinematic technologies have slowly converged, throughout the twentieth century, in

"the target-acquisition techniques of the Blitzkrieg, the cinemachineguns of fighter aircraft, and above all the blinding Hiroshima flash which literally photographed the shadow cast by beings and things, so that every surface immediately became war's recording surface, its film. And from this would come directed-light weapons, the coherent light-beam of the laser."*

In unknowing support of Virilio's argument, the narrator of Space Age imagines satellites used "as orbiting gunsights against targets anywhere on earth." For even the most hawkish, the luster of space-based lasers capable of vaporizing terrestrial targets with Jovian thunderbolts has dimmed in light of seemingly insurmountable technical hurdles, not to mention a shrinking federal budget. But Space Age is partly funded, after all, by defense contractor McDonnell Douglas, so we are shown a device that focuses the power of a space shuttle engine in a ten-inch beam of light, and assured that while the development of such weapons has slowed, "for the military their purpose is not in doubt."

Another, simulation-based variation on Terrorvision is as practicable as the space-based laser of "Star Wars" myth is elusive. The U.S. Air Force, Navy and NASA have already experimented with helmets that act as wraparound computer screens, immersing the wearer in a photorealistic, 3-D map of the terrain actually beneath him; here and there, highlighted targets and flight plan information appear. Military sources imagine a future in which a fighter pilot fitted with such a headmounted display launches missiles with a coup d'oeil (literally, a "stroke of the eye").

Strapped into his smart cockpit, the pilot interacts with an onboard computer through voice commands: "Select," "zoom," "fire."* Targeting is accomplished through eye-tracking systems able to determine the focus of his gaze with pinpoint accuracy. The pilot flashes a (literally) piercing glance, and a point of light---a "target-rich environment" inhabited by inconsequential data bits, each one "the object of information, never a subject in communication"---blinks and is gone. In that moment, war and cinema, the warder in the Panopticon and the executioner at the guillotine, become one.

Further Reading

Note: Donner, French and Moran are listed in a catalogue published by Loompanics Unlimited (P.O. Box 1197, Port Townsend, WA 98368), a book distributor. Their publishers, unfortunately, are not.

Mike Davis, Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control/ The Ecology of Fear (Westfield, NJ: Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, 1992). See "The Neighbors are Watching," pps. 12-14.

Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Verso, 1990). See "The Panopticon Mall," pps. 240-244.

Manuel De Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (New York: Swerve Editions, 1991). See "Policing the Spectrum," pps. 179-217.
Frank J. Donner, The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America's Political Intelligence System.

Scott French, The Big Brother Game.

Mark Crispin Miller, Boxed In: The Culture of TV (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988). See "Big Brother is You,
Watching," pps. 309-331.

William B. Moran, Covert Surveillance and Electronic Penetration. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (New York: Verso, 1989).

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