Samuel Weber

Being Prepared

TWA Flight 800

The following is the text of a talk delivered on July 19, 1996, at a roundtable discussion at the Beyond Baroque bookstore and cultural center in Venice, California, sponsored by the journal Suitcase.

The media's response to the midair explosion of TWA Flight 800 which cost the lives of 230 passengers and crew, tells us something about the world in which we live -- or rather, in which we survive. Is it only my personal and idiosyncratic feeling that life today is increasingly lived in terms of survival? And that the fascination with "survivalism" which emerged in the last three decades, far from being a mere fringe phenomenon, has come to announce an essential turning point in contemporary life?

To be sure, for someone who, like myself, has in the past often taken TWA's flight 800 from NY to Paris, this catastrophe is anything but anonymous. It is not simply another case of mass death, transformed into a lurid spectacle by American television in its merciless struggle to augment its "ratings". Rather, there is something both haunting and reminiscent in the unforgettable image of debris and fuel burning on the surface of the ocean, off the Long Island coast, which served as visual bait and emblematic introduction to the horrifying "news" flashed across the screens two nights ago. The spectacular image in which horror and beauty converge recalled that other sparkling show of televised fireworks some six years ago, which was CNN's view of the bombing of Baghdad and which for many of us, even today, has become a screen-memory masking the atrocities of the Gulf War. And for those whose memories go back a bit further, and who are not averse to moving from images to words (and back again) -- for this time no cameras were on hand to record the spectacle -- there was what all witnesses agree was a hauntingly beautiful light-show over Tchernobyl.

Of course, the very mention of Tchernobyl underscores the phantasmatic role of the media. Without the media as protective intermediary, certain spectacles can be fatal. By contrast, for the viewers of the bombing of Baghdad and now, of the fiery remains at Moriches, security and survival seem inseparably linked to the media, and more specifically, to the separation it introduces in the visual experience of catastrophe. The power and fascination of tele-vision seems inseparable from its ability to bring the worst near while yet keeping it apart, distant, removed.

In this ability, however, television -- despite the novelty of its technological basis -- nevertheless contributes to perpetuating a long-established tradition. Modern subjectivity -- and subjectivity, it can be argued, constitutes the essence of Western modernity -- (modern subjectivity) constitutes itself above all in and through the gesture of separation: separation from the weight of tradition, from the past, from the fixity of social classes and of regional boundaries. In this respect, separation presents itself as an essential constituent of freedom. But at the same time, it is also inseparable from anguish and from guilt. For separation means not just freeing oneself from bondage, from the burden of the past -- it also can mean denying the obligation of relations, dependencies, indebtedness. If the goal of separation is that of absolute independence and self-sufficiency, it can easily turn into its shadow-side, that of isolation. And since even under the best of circumstances, separation involves a more or less violent process in which bonds are broken, claims are denied, obligations rejected, the distance, difference and distinction that results and that marks the position of the modern subject is constantly haunted by guilt and fear of retribution.

It is thus a structural situation that renders the birth of Rousseau more than a simply individual, biographical event. After beginning his Confessions by announcing its subject to be one "made unlike anyone in the whole world ... maybe no better but at least different," Rousseau notes that this distinctive personage "was born, a poor and sickly child, and cost my mother her life." The death of the other, here: of the mother, appears as the condition of the birth of the (masculine) Self, of the modern subject.

If there is much historical evidence, both practical and theoretical, to link the "birth of the subject" to the "death of the other" -- thus endowing the empirically contingent birth of Rousseau with a more general, allegorical significance -- then this suggests in turn that the constitutive "separation" of the subject should also be understood in its etymological implications. To "se-parate" is not just to take one's distances from something or someone else: it is also, and perhaps above all, to prepare oneself, to separare. But prepare oneself for what? Precisely, perhaps, to sur-vive as a self-contained subject. And this, in turn, means surviving the fear of death that is, perhaps, the birthright of the modern individual.

From this point of view, the more or less secret condition of all "identity politics," would be the desire to inflict death upon the other, upon an-other, like oneself and yet separate, kept at a distance, held at bay.

It is to this desire that the televisual reporting of catastrophes, such as that of TWA's Flight 800 appeals. And it does so by encouraging its viewers to identify themselves as belonging to that nebulous group defined through its role as television audience. Since time is at a premium tonight (almost like tv-time itself...), I will conclude by mentioning just two of the strategies at work in identity-politics as practiced by the televisual media.

First, and above all, the television reporting of the catastrophe imposes itself by a process that can be described as an "aestheticization of the event". The death of the other is separated, isolated, compartmentalized at the very moment that the boundaries of the compartments -- the body of the plane -- is blown asunder. The explosive event is thus both inverted and reflected in what might be described as the image of the image. Again and again -- and the iterable quality here, as with the repeated transmission of the beating of Rodney King, takes on a "life" of its own -- (again and again) we are shown the luminous configuration of points of light burning on the shadowy surface of the fuel-drenched ocean off the Long Island coast. We literally have here an image of an image: no identifiable objects, not yet at least, but only the fragmented condition of such identification, points and surfaces of light themselves making possible their own visibility. The shape configured out of light and shadow is irregular, vaguely monstrous in its reminiscence of the mutilation of all bodies -- human, things, machines -- through the enormous force of the explosion. Suggestive, too, of the powerful forces that continually menace the integrity of every separate subject, tied to the notion of a distinct and self-contained shape.

The "event" is thus aestheticized: which is to say, what is movement and force is localized and given shape, made recognizable and identifiable, albeit in its very deformation. Death is thus "attached" to an Other, and thus brought before our eyes, ostensibly removed from our Selves. We are, after all, in the end mere viewers. Or are we?

And it is precisely in response to this gnawing question that a second factor in the media strategy emerges, one which follows almost immediately upon the shock and fascination provoked by the initial aestheticization of the event. As soon as the death of the other has been localized visually as an aesthetic event, an effort develops to "grasp" that event: that is, to identify its causes and thereby to turn it from shock and fascination into an object of knowledge. Once again we are reminded of something that all of us, and perhaps academics perhaps most of all, are all too prone to forget: the fact that the desire to know is neither innocent nor spontaneous. It is reactive, responding to a trauma, to guilt and to fear. References in the Press to Thornton Wilder's Bridge of San Luis Rey -- the American literary and cinematic version of Heidegger's discussion of Being-to-Death -- indicate that what is at stake in this desire is the effort to give death a meaning, and thus, to get it under control. The prudence of most political figures, from President Clinton on down, in this particular case at least, contrasts sharply with the need of the networks to sell their reporting through sensationalism, whether founded or not. What is founded, however, and what sells, is everything that plays to the desire to identify a single, simple cause, and thus to establish a measure of control, however symbolic, over the uncontrollable. Most satisfying of all, for many, would be to discover that cause to have the form of a human subject: to find a who to which responsibility could be attached, and who could therefore be brought to "justice". In this case, too, the "other" is reduced to the mirror-image of the individual subject, to a version of the "same" and of the Self.

One final remark: at the same time that the search goes on to discover the causes of the crash of Flight 800, another very different debate is nearing its conclusion: the so- called "reform" of the "welfare" system. This is anything but an aesthetic event: it is reported on television by C-Span in the least dramatic form possible. No heroic subjects here, only discourses. This impending law, that the President has indicated he may be ready to sign, seems to arouse little passion and even less discussion among the "general" that is televisual "public", although it will arguably be responsible for the lives and deaths of many more than 230 persons. But it is hard to see, hard to focus upon. And therefore the eyes that today are still focused upon Moriches will soon turn to Atlanta, while the legislative debates in Washington continue, with unforeseeable and unseen consequences.

Los Angeles, July 19, 1996

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