“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

iraq and the world of the fait-divers

LI often wonders about a particular form of the defense of the Iraq war that we come across in comments threads, and that seems pretty common the margins of conservative political talk. The defense goes like this: Iraq is mostly peaceful, and the violence there is no greater than violence in a major U.S. metropolis. The metropolis chosen is, of course, always predominantly black. Here’s an example from last week’s news:

During an interview Monday with WILS-AM in Lansing, Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, said the returning troops he has talked with "indicate to me that 80 to 85 percent, in a conservative fashion, of (Iraq) is reasonably under control, at least as well as Detroit or Chicago or any of our other big cities. That's an encouraging sign."
Program host Jack Ebling remarked, "I've never heard Iraq compared to Detroit before."

Walberg responded: "Well, in fact, in many places it's as safe and cared for as Detroit or Harvey, Illinois, or some other places that have trouble with armed violence that takes place on occasion."

Detroit and Chicago had higher rates of murder, assault, robbery, burglary and car theft than the nation as a whole in 2005, according to FBI statistics. Harvey is an economically depressed suburb of Chicago with about 30,000 residents — about 80 percent of whom are black, the same proportion as in Detroit.”

Walberg was born in Chicago, grew up on the city's south side and is an ordained minister. He is in his first term in the U.S. House, serving a district that includes Branch, Eaton, Hillsdale, Jackson and Lenawee counties, and parts of Calhoun and Washtenaw counties.

The district in south central Michigan is 90.1 percent white and 5.7 percent black, with other races and mixed-race persons comprising the remainder, according to 2000 U.S. Census data.

Walberg spokesman Matt Lahr said in a statement that the congressman "frequently shares sentiments expressed to him by the soldiers and veterans he meets at Walter Reed Hospital or the (Veterans Affairs) hospital in Battle Creek.
"These soldiers have expressed optimism to the congressman about the safety and security of the majority of Iraq. There are still major challenges in Iraq, especially in the Anbar province and Sadr City," said Lahr, who declined to respond to the comments from the Detroit mayor's office.”

LI gets impatient with this sort of thing, since it is so obviously bogus. To take a simple example ... No. Countering an argument like this, as I was about to do, is pointless. It is the non-argumentive character of the argument that is the whole point. The thread is so obviously pointless that one begins to wonder about the long term mental effects of fallout, and whether they weren’t a lot more severe than we were ever told.

But here’s a thought. Maybe the answer is given by an old essay of Roland Barthes. Instead of the isotopes in the milk solution, that is.

Perhaps this comparison, which seems to willfully isolate the speaker from the reality of war in any sense, is the result of conditioning. After all, the Walbergs out there grew up turning on the news at ten and watching a fifteen minutes of murder stories, mostly, with the rest of the time devoted to sports and weather. In other words, they grew up in the world of the faits-divers.

Which gets us to Roland Barthes’ essay on the fait-divers. In order to explain the structure of the fait-divers, Barthes makes an initial move that I am not entirely happy with – but that does work towards the point he is making. He compares the story of a murder to the story of a political assassination. I am not entirely happy with that comparison, because I think it inscribes a certain class hierarchy, in terms of what is and what is not serious, into a supposedly neutral distinction between narrative types. On the other hand, it does seem to work – and it does explain the isolating effect given by the comparison of Iraq to Detroit. The effect is two-fold: it both points at the isolation of the speaker and it tries to enforce a certain isolation, a certain political passivity, on the hearer.

But let’s not jump the gun here. Here’s Barthes:

The difference appears as soon as we compare our two murders. In the first (the assassination) the event (the murder) necessarily refers to an extensive situation outside itself, previous to and around it: “politics”; such news cannot be understood immediately, it can be defined only in relation to a knowledge external to the event, which is political knowledge, however confused; in short, a murder esacpes the fait-divers whenever it is exogenous, proceeding from an already known world; we might then say that it has no sufficient structure of its own, for it is never anything but the manifest term of an implicit structure which pre-exists it: there is no political news without duration, for politics is a transtemrpoaral category; this is true, moreover, of all news proceeding from a named horizon, from an anterior time: it can never constitute faits-divers; in terms of literature, such items are fragments of novels, insofar as every novel is itself an extensive knowledge of which nay event occurring within it is nothing but a simple variable.

Thus an assassination is always, by definition, partial information; the fait-divers, on the contrary, is total news, or more precisely, immanent; it contains all its knowledge in itself; no need to know anything about the world in order to consume a fait-divers; it refers formally to nothing but itself; of course its content is not alien to the world: disasters, murders, rapes, accidents, thefts, all this refers to man, to his history, his alienation, his hallucinations, his dreams, his fears: an ideology and psychoanaysis of the fait-divers are possible, but they would concern a world of which knowledge is never anything but intellectual, analytical, elaborated at second-hand by the person who speaks of the fait-divers, not by the person who consumes it; on the level of reading, everything is given within the fait-divers; its circumstances, its causes, its past, its outcome; without duration and without context, it constitutes an immediate, total being which refers, fformally at least, to nothing implicit; in this it is related to the short story and the tale, and no longer to the novel. It is its immanence which defines the fait-divers.1

… whatever its content’s density, astonishment, horror, or poverty, the fait-divers begins only where the news divides and thereby involves the certainty of a relation; the brevity of the utterance or the importance of the information, elsewhere a guarantee of unity, can never efface the articulated character of the fait-divers: five million dead in Peru? The hoorr is total, the sentence is simple; yet the notable, here, is already the relation between the dead and a number. Granted, a structure is always articulated; but here the articulation is internal to the immediate narrative, whereas in political news, for example, it is transferred outside the discourse to an implicit context.

1. Certain faits-divers are developed over several days; this does not violate their constitutive immanence, for they still imply an extremely short memory.

I’ll have more to say on this in my next post

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