Postmodern Uncertainty: Revisiting Coppola's The Conversation in the Wake of September 11th.

Adriane Allan

Would you take a bullet for George Bush? According to a recent Fox News Poll, 57% of respondents would willingly die to protect the President from an assassin. An LA Times Poll shows that overall, 83% of Americans say they support the war, 86% approve of the president and 49% "trust the government to do what is right", most or all of the time. In keeping with this post Sept 11th nationalistic mood, a recent survey, reported on by New York Times, shows that 30% of those surveyed want their "newscasters to take a pro-American stance during their reports." A new surge of religion also appears to be on the rise, with a recent Gallup poll reporting that religious fervor is up higher than it has been since 1965. Meanwhile, voices of dissent seem strangely quiet even as extreme anti-terrorist measures in the Patriot Act, such as detaining suspects without charges and wiretapping lawyer/client conversations, threaten our civil rights. Robert Scheer, in his LA Times editorial, "Democracy is Dying Liberal by Liberal", laments, "With the exception of a few stalwarts, such as the ACLU, we have witnessed the sorry spectacle of most civil libertarians remaining silent or actively supporting the most sweeping and ill-considered assault on civil liberties since the roundup of Japanese American during World War II." Similarly, in his editorial, "Patriotism Demands Questioning Authority", Gitlin complains, "Amid free discussion, arguments only improve...But during the current emergency, a stampede of unthinking censure is muffling the debate we need to have in order to fight the smartest possible campaign against our enemies." He then reveals, that in a reference to Bill Maher's unpopular questioning of the word "cowards" to describe the terrorists, Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, warned that "American's should watch what they say."

These examples suggest, that in the wake of September 11th, many people prefer rallying around comforting political or religious cultural myths, to participating in the kind of healthy discourse necessary for a thriving democracy. Postmodern views, influential in academia and the art world, arguably inhabit the opposite end of the critical thinking spectrum from belief in myths. As a generality, these ideologies challenge our cultural assumptions by undermining their claim to rest upon transcendent certainties, such as the moral categories of 'good' and 'evil' or the ontological categories of 'real' and 'false'. At their most extreme, these compelling yet disorienting views call into question our ability to ultimately access an "objective reality". Has a postmodern sensibility radiated out of academia? If so, how might these ideas influence the way some people perceive and react to information concerning September 11th? Does postmodern ideology give people sophisticated critical thinking tools which encourage active participation in political discourse? Or conversely, do some of the more extreme postmodern theories engender cynicism and withdrawal from the socio/political process because they lead people to despair ever accessing any trustworthy picture of reality upon which to base their opinions? As one article on this subject explains, for those who criticize postmodernism, the notion of "Postmodern Politics" is "perhaps an oxymoron."

The movement that the term postmodernism broadly refers to, includes theories from various disciplinary perspectives, which all beg multiple interpretations. The socio/political effects of these ideas on individuals are most likely as varied as the published opinions which interpret, critique or defend them. Postmodern theories, even at their most skeptical, provide provocative choices. We can choose to accept, reject or bracket them. While many of these theories raise disturbing epistemological doubts, they also attempt to help us at least sketch the edges of the 'truth", by subverting the traditional beliefs we privilege and allowing "Other" ideas to penetrate our discourse. Perhaps these theories can or cannot ultimately help broaden our discourse. Many postmodern thinkers (especially the post-structuralists) admit to unavoidably contradicting themselves, even as they explore contradictions in the 'texts' they interpret (and for many of them, the term 'text' includes everything perceivable). If we choose to privilege postmodernists' most skeptical contentions about our ability to "know", however, then at worst, they cannot take away from us an objectivity that we never enjoyed in the first place. Far more dangerous to our socio/political process are those measures which do take away our choices and thus exacerbate whatever uncertainty already lies inherent in the human condition. These measures, gaining momentum in the post September 11th atmosphere, include governmental or corporate driven policies which interfere with the public's access to information, privacy and intellectual freedom.

Revisiting Francis Ford Copolla's, 1974 film, The Conversation, reveals a surprisingly timely exploration of many of the above issues. In this film, Cold War style, high-tech surveillance functions as a metaphor for the quest to determine an ultimately elusive reality, in the context of an oppressive national mood which bears striking resemblance to today's post September 11th atmosphere.

In the Wake of September 11th is the Influence of Postmodernism Alive ?

Bayles, in her article, "Closing the Curtain on Perverse Modernism," hopes that the answer to the above question is no. She finds the postmodern tendency to read current events as "texts" particularly disturbing and considers the viewpoint of the postmodernist, Badrillard with some disgust. She explains:

According to certain critical theories, which are on life support in American universities, the masses are so overdosed on TV and movies that they can no longer tell the difference between the screen and real life. At the extreme, you have the sociologist Jean Baudrillard's stale conceit of "hyperreality," a Matrix-like dream world in which reality has been replaced by media "simulacra." ...anyone who has watched a disaster film cannot help but note--
and then discount--the eerie parallel between the way such films look on screen and the way the World Trade Center conflagration looked on TV. To anyone who was in lower Manhattan. . .the comparison pales into insignificance. Surely even a French theorist can understand that.

She goes on to decry the insensitivity of Gabler (a theorist, influenced by Baudrillard) who, "says that for us "the collapse of the towers" was "only the opening sequence. Knowing the formula, we also knew what would come next."

Have the events of Sept.11th finally shocked people into knowing what is real, as Bayles would hope? In his article, "A public Flooded with Images from Friend and Foe Alike", one journalist comments on the confusion people feel, because by flipping around to international broadcasts about the war, "the audience is now in the position of juggling multiple viewpoints, like the reader of a novel with several unreliable narrators."

Yet another journalist however, feels that not only has this postmodern tendency to read events as "narratives" significantly permeated into the public consciousness, but that this tendency can help people process difficult situations, while enlarging their understanding of opposing viewpoints. Smith, in her article, "Not the Same Old Story," observes,

In these tale-telling times, the crisis ignited on Sept.11 has been called a clash of narratives between the stories that terrorists use and those Westerners believe. And literary debates about whether a story describes what is real or determines what is reality have gained a new relevance.

She quotes Costello, a co-founder of a Center for Narrative Studies as saying, "Before, it was always, 'That's only a story, give me the facts.' Now more people are realizing that stories have real effects that have got to be looked at more seriously." The article continues with the noted postmodern linguist Stanely Fish's explanation that this way of seeing events stems out of several postmodern theories from multiple disciplines making a similar point - that "Our sense of fact and of shape of events, always follows from an unarticulated set of assumptions." He gives Thomas G. Kuhn, Richard Rorty and Michel Foucault as examples of such theorists. The article explains that, since the 1960's, viewing events as stories has rippled out of academia and taken hold in the professions where it helps clients gain better understanding of medicine, law and psychology. In answer to the charge that this view simply validates people's belief in their highly subjective, self-serving interpretations, Fish points out, "people cannot lose an objectivity they never had in the first place." He feels that postmodernist analysis of opposing narratives in fact helps to invalidate myopic viewpoints. The article supports Fish's statement with Costello's, contention that the terrorists' closed perspective led them want "to annihilate the Other", but that, "it is vital to take seriously an opponent's story. ..unless we have the terrorist's story out of which they're acting, then we ...haven't done our homework, that would help us combat them. If you only go with one story, there's a danger of editing out too much of the other reality that's part of the picture."

Finally, Stanley Fish gives a compelling defense of postmodernism, asserting its continuing relevance in the wake of Sept. 11th, in his New York Times editorial, "Condemnation Without Absolutes." In this article, he describes a reporter calling to ask if he thinks, the events of Sept.11th mean the "end of postmodern relativism." Fish reflects, "It seemed bizarre that events so serious would be linked causally with a rarefied form of academic talk. But in the days that followed, a growing number of commentators played various variations on the same theme: that the ideas foisted upon us by postmodern intellectuals have weakened the country's resolve," by denying " the possibility of describing matters of fact objectively, they leave us with no firm basis for either condemning the terrorist attacks or fighting back." He counters this objection by pointing out that one can still reach an understanding of events, "without grasping for the empty rhetoric of universal absolutes to which all subscribe but which all define differently." He asserts that relying on such universals might, in fact, prove dangerous, saying, "If we reduce the enemy to "evil", we conjure up a shape-shifting demon, a wild-card moral anarchist beyond our comprehension and therefore beyond the reach of any counter strategies." Fish poignantly concludes with the thought that if "relativism" means "putting yourself in your adversary's shoes", in order to better understand a situation, "then relativism will not and should not end, because it is simply another name for serious thought."

The above arguments back and forth, echo much of the pre Sept.11th debate about the societal implications of Postmodernism. Sardar for example, in a 1991 article, poses the insightful criticism that postmodernism might not be the liberating force it claims for non-Western cultures because "its insistence on blurring the distinction between image and reality, and its absolute moral relativity," might simply constitute "a new form of cultural assimilation."

In defense of postmodernism, not only from contentions such Sardar's, but also from objections that it leads to nihilism and amorality, Ager, in his article, "Derrida for Sociology?" argues, "Far from being nihilist, Derrida wants to reveal the hidden assumptions of systems in order to open public dialogue about them; far from refusing values, Derrida wants more talk of values, albeit talk rendered humble and dialogical by the acknowledgment that no text or argument can achieve "foundation."

Foucault similarly defends his views by saying, "All my books. . .are, if you will, little tool kits. If people wish to open them and make use of this certain phrase, idea, or analysis, as one would use a screwdriver or a wrench in order to short-circuit, disqualify, or break the systems of power, possibly including even those from which my books are conceived...well, so much the better."

Analyzing Specific Postmodern Views in Terms of a Spectrum

Breaking the amorphous term "postmodern" down into some of its salient concepts, one can conceivably place these concepts on a spectrum which moves from certainty to uncertainty. The following chart will attempt to explore how some specific postmodern styles of analysis as well as traditional views, might produce various interpretations of information about Sept 11th. (Please see the attached chart, which accompanies the following description).

Moving from left to right and from certainty to uncertainty, the four perspectives this chart will explore are: Myths (belief in privileged cultural views and absolutes); Empiricism (reliance on the scientific method); Moderate Postmodernsim (including Semiotics, Structuralism and Cultural Relativity); and Extreme Postmodernism (including Poststrucuralism, Deconstruction and views which question our access to objective reality).

The analysis begins on the level of the word and uses the example "terrorist" (which I know we talked about a lot in class already). In the Myth category, someone might consider a terrorist in terms of moral absolutes and say it is an "evildoer', 'The Devil', or an 'Infidel' (more recently Fox News, reporters called them "Dirt Bags" and "Terrorist Goons") . In the Empirical category, a psychologist might analyze the behavior of a terrorist and say it means a 'deviant', or come up with some DSM category. Moving to the Moderate Postmodern area, someone like Foucault would say that the psychology terms just mentioned have evolved out of the biased discourse of the dominant culture (a point he proposes in his book Power and Knowledge). From a cultural relativity point of view someone might then analyze the implications of how other cultures see the same people that we view as 'terrorists', as "freedom fighters", "reformers" or even, as Nelson Mandela recently remarked on a CNN interview in which he remembered people once calling him a terrorist, "heads of state."

On the far right of the spectrum, in the area of Extreme Postmodernism, if someone privileges Derrida's concepts of differance and dissemination, the word "terrorist" ultimately disintegrates into meaninglessness. Derrida's term, differance, combines the french words for 'deferment' and 'difference' and describes his view that each word, as the structuralist Saussure contended, obtains it's meaning by it's opposition to all other words which it is not. Derrida then takes this thought further than Saussure does and posits that in this way, the word only suggests an endless string of negations and, "since language is simply an incessant play of differance, there are no grounds for attributing a determinate meaning, or even a finite set of alternative meanings, to any utterance that we speak, write, or interpret." En route to declaring the word meaningless, a deconstructionist would play with the various alternative meanings the word disseminates amongst in order to discover new understanding about what such a word evokes. A deconstructionist for example might play with multiple contradictory meanings, of a phrase like "terroist cell", as we did in class, finding that it contradictorily suggests a cell as a separate entity as well as something connected to other parts. It evokes a film "cell", a prison "cell" or a biological "cell" which is alive. (A deconstructionist would know about the etymology of words to make this type of analysis more sophisticated than I can).

The next row of the chart, explores the concept of history using the example of CNN's title for it's war coverage, "America's New War." One might consider the people in the first category of, Myths, as ahistorical, if they ingest sound bytes from TV or rely on the point and click immediacy the Internet without researching historical contexts for the information they view. If they privilege our media and CNN's reputation, they would not bother to question that it is a new war if CNN says it is. In the category of Moderate Postmodernism, people might analyze the implications of this title as a framing device. From a standpoint of cultural relativity, they might consider the ways in which other countries would not see this conflict as entirely new, but as one stemming out of past conflicts and complex international relations. They would explore the historical context of the events.

We can consider people in the Extreme Postmodernism area, as ahistorical again, if they share the phenomenologists' view, that we can only can access the past, even our memories, through the subjective filters of the present. From this point of view, each moment our consciousness considers the war, it is new. (Phenomenologist writer and film director Robbe Grillet, for example, explains that for his bizarre film, Last Year in Marienbad, cinema provides a perfect vehicle to express his views on how we process time because, "on the screen verbs are always in the present its nature, what we see on the screen is in the act of happening.")

The documentary, "Beneath the Veil" provides the next example for the chart to interpret. In this powerful CNN documentary, Saira Shah, a film maker of Afghanistani descent, goes into Afghanistan and films the suffering of the people. She films the Taliban beating women for not wearing burkas and shows tortures and executions. People in the first category, who believe Myths, might consider documentaries, unlike fiction, to simply be real. In the Moderate Postmodern area, someone who studies the semiotics of Saussure, might consider this documentary as a complex field of signs and signifiers. They would analyze the way linguistic and visual symbols contribute to the documentary's meaning. They would consider how the form determines the content. The haunting music and icons such as burkas and football stadiums convey meanings beyond what they literally represent, which we culturally understand and recognize along with what we know to be the structure of a typical documentary.

In the Extreme Postmodern area, a deconstructionist like Derrida would find a conflicting plurality of Western cultural codes and styles which create a site of conflicts and cause it to deconstruct. He might say that the film consists of conflicting western narrative conventions such as: the objective voice of documentary style; the narrative style of a travel fantasy; the archetypal search for the lost father (the film maker was returning to her father's native Afghanistan and trying to imagine what his life there had been like): as well as the romance hero story (she almost saves three little girls and creates fiction like suspense by suggesting this possibility then resolves it tragically in a CNN sequel to this documentary). This type of deconstructive analysis would not necessarily lead one to disregard the documentary, but could conceivably help one view it analytically rather than passively. On this subject of documentaries, a postmodern activist book, The Electronic Disturbance, contends: "Film is not now, nor has it ever been the technology of truth. It lies at a speed of 24 frames a second. It's value is not as a recorder of history, but simply as a means of communication, a means by which meaning is generated." (Since this paper is posted on the Web, I want to clarify that "Beneath the Veil" is "real" enough for my personal purposes, and I support the film maker's struggle to free the women of Afghanistan).

The 4th row analyzes how people might interpret coverage of the war campaign. People who believe myths would believe that we have freedom of the press and this footage is real. People in the Moderate Postmodern area, might wonder what footage we are not seeing and try to determine the plausibility of any conflicting versions from international sources about which targets were hit. In the Extreme Postmodern area, someone like Baudrillard would contend that the televised war campaign consists of 'simulacra' (prolific mediated images detached from their historical context) contributing to a media constructed spectacle. In his book, The Gulf War Did not Take Place, book reviewer Dixon says that Baudrillard argues, "the Persian Gulf War was a carefully scripted media event, the outcome of which was predestined from its inception ....designed to be televised in real time, as it be relayed carefully sanitized into millions of homes, as sort of awful balltetic exercise with its own codes and ritualized spectacles." Dixon reflects back on her memories of the Gulf War coverage and the way "Nick at Night" reported it in the form of banners running along the bottom of the screen so as not to interrupt episodes of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." With this memory in mind, Dixon cynically agrees with the spirit of Baudrillard's comments. Someone of like philosophy would no doubt find validation for this type of criticism in the recent LA Times article about programming surrounding the war in Afghanistan. In his article, "You Gotta Admire TV's Commitment to Meaninglessness", Lopez comments ironically on how the world has allegedly changed since Sept.11th. He explains that the fifth story of the night on KCAL 9 10:00 news, finally reported on the war (the first story was about Britney Spears). This story was about "Operation Playmate" and interviewed playmates about their very important mission to entertain our troops. For anyone like Baurillard, other recent reports that Geraldo Rivera has taken a camera crew with him to Afghanistan to hunt for Osama Bin Laden, would do little to change this view that the media constructs hyper reality.

The second to last row of the chart considers the interpretation of what an author is, using this paper on Sept 11th and postmodernism as an example. People in the first two categories, of Myth and Empiricism, would not hesitate to believe that I exist. People who value the scientific method, however, might find this paper more compelling if I actually conducted some field research on a representative sample of people to see, if or how, postmodern concepts influence their views (I think I would have been beat up!).

In the Moderate Postmodern area, phenomenologists would feel that the author and reader exist together. For them, reading is a "co-creative" process, in which, "the author's intentional acts are recorded in a text, and so make it possible for a reader to re-experience the work in his own consciousness." There exist some recognizable objective elements among, many "places of indeterminacy." French structuralist , Culler also feels reading is "co creative" because, despite some subjectivity, "literary conventions, codes and rules which have been tacitly assimilated by competent readers, serve to structure their reading experience..."

Moving to Extreme Postmodernism one might find the "auteur theory" of Barthes. In this theory, the author does not exist (he titles one of his essays on this subject - "The Death of An Author"). For Barthes, the author is somewhat of a fictitious construct for two reasons: a) the author's view and style are products of his cultural influences; and b) once the text is published, it is open to the extreme subjectivity of the reader. Looking at my paper, someone like Barthes might point out that my views are the product of influences like the UCLA Eng. Dept which is not exactly the optimist club (as the reader will see in my interpretation of The Conversation) and that learned institutionalized styles, such as the use of reductive thesis statements, create the message of the paper, not simply an author. Finally, an Extreme Postmodernist such as Derrida might also point out that my paper deconstructs around central aporias (contradictions). One such aporia occurs because the thesis of this paper, that postmodernism does not threaten democracy because ideas provide choices, is later contradicted by remarks about Neil Postman. The author finds his ideas dangerous and implies this by bringing up The Third Reich in relation to them.

Finally, the last row of the chart looks at the very general example of "any article about Sept 11th", to make the point that for Moderate Postmoderns such as Saussure, writting is a more mediated, less trustworthy form of expression than speaking, while for Derrida, both writing and speaking are equally mediated representations, equally subject to differance. Derrida's uses the term "logocentric" to describe the attitude of Western Civilization which unnecessarily privileges speaking over writing.

One can also use deconstruction in the way Foucault envisions, as a "tool kit", to "break the systems of power" of Osama Bin Laden. Deconstructionist Nelson Goodman details seven forms of distortion deconstructionists look for in communications. These include: a) Composition and Decomposition; b) Weighting; c)Ordering; d)Deletion and Supplementation and e)Deformation.(Ways of Worldmaking. Cambridge: Hacket Pub., 1978, p7-16).One could no doubt easily find all seven of these distortions in Osama Bin Laden's manipulative propaganda. Osama displays weighting for example by his continual references to the goodness of Allah in between sadistic comments on the World Trade Center Victims. He also shows what someone like Derrida would call a conflict of styles and contradictions between his meaning and his form. His pious and meditative demeanor contradict the bloothirsty urgings of his rhetoric while his invoking of ancient teachings clashes anachronistically with his use of modern technology to convey his message or carry out his plans. This example shows why it might be important for deconstructionists to discuss the relativity of "values" without granting those values a determinate foundation. In this way postmodern critical thinking skills can help people avoid political manipulation.

Some Conclusions about the Spectrum:

People at the far left end of the spectrum, who rely on a sense of certainty, might be afraid to move towards the middle area of 'deep analysis' because they fear this move will ultimately take them to the far right end where they will lose their morality or sense of grounding in the "real world". Popular culture provides some evidence for this contention : The popular sociologist Neil Postman for example, in his book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, decries postmodernism for taking away our guiding narratives which might give us an uplifting sense of purpose. He envisions a better day filled with less confusion when people on the news will give us "wisdom" by interpreting information for us. He states, "Journalists may think it's not their job to offer the wisdom. I say, Why not? Who can say where their responsibilities as journalists end?" He confesses that he wanted to name one of his chapters, "Diderot not Derrida" to protest the concept of moral relativity, but eschewed the cutsey alliteration. He does not simply fear the effects of postmodernists such as Derrida, but that he also dislikes the thought provoking ideas of 19th century modernists such as Freud, who questioned prevalent narratives such as religion. Thus Postman's book enjoins us to go all the way back to the 18th century, a time less threatening to a belief system he prefers for us. He claims that this scenario would not lead to the type of "guiding narrative" that guided the Third Reich by explaining that we could have a narrative which nonetheless allows questions. Clearly however, Freud and Derrida's questions would be --out of the question. Postman would not happily concede that this aporia (among others) causes his book to deconstruct!

We also see society's fear of losing absolutes played out in popular culture, perhaps most recently in the movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Portrayals of film villains often reflect our societal fears and anxieties. The climax of the new Harry Potter film, expresses a fear of the consequences of losing our moral anchors. Voldemort tells Harry, "There is no Good or Evil, Harry, only power and those who can take it!" Not to be fooled by this red-eyed "ubermensch" with fangs, whose "will to power" compels him to exist as a half-formed phantom, Harry does the right thing by resisting Voldemort's Nietzchean influence and saves the day. Are Voldemort's assertions the kind that we should fear, especially now in our time of national crisis? One might reflect, that in history, the Nazis rationalized their power by appropriating a distorted version of Nietzsche's views, but mainly influenced the public by resorting to the very type of moral absolutes Nietzsche discarded. The Nazis framed the Jews as 'Evil' and the Germans as 'Good.'

Another thought about the spectrum, is that while the far left side and the far right side both appear "ahistorical", the right side at least might be aware of what history it questions, while the extreme left end simply prefers to remain unaware of this history.

Does any of this make a difference in terms of how these ideas affect political participation? Common sense might dictate that the highly analytic middle of the spectrum appears to be the optimal area for political engagement, yet looking at the lives of some of the respective theorists, shows that this contention proves hard to test. Did various postmodernist's views' lead them to socio/political apathy? A few examples show the range of answers to this question: Nietzsche who embraced notions of extreme subjectivity, withdrew from public debate and action. Who can say what this means in Nietzsche's case since he literally went insane? Then one might consider someone like Emerson, who declined for a long time to participate in the abolition movement, not because he didn't think slavery was terrible, but because he was not sure it was appropriate for him to attend to anything outside his own consciousness. (He later changed his mind and gave "An Address on the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies.") As a 19th century writer, with quasi- mystical and religious views, Emerson obviously does not, strictly speaking, qualify as a postmodernist. Still, one can appropriately consider him in this context, because his ideas, share a lot in common with postmodern theories which explore the extreme relativity of our perceptions. In contrast to the last two examples, Heidegger who influenced many postmoderns was a Nazi, so unfortunately he was not politically inert. Finally, the views of some of the most extreme postmodernists, the deconstructionists, Baudriallard, Derrida and Foucault, did not prevent them from actively supporting political and social causes they found worthy. Baudrillard was involved with the Situationists, a leftist French group of political activists. Derrida championed women's rights and the Anti-Apartheid movement. He also took up the cause of oppressed Algerians in France. Foucault meanwhile, worked towards the goal of prison reform.

Repressive Conditions Which do Threaten Democracy

As stated above, policy measures which interfere with the public's intellectual freedom pose far more danger to democracy than postmodern ideas, which seem to have an unpredictable and individual impact on people. Some recent examples of government measures which hamper society's access to information include: a) withdrawing of "sensitive" information off the Web (which might also reveal environmental violations); b) rewriting of rules which allow historians access to presidential archive material; c) asking libraries to destroy information including CD ROMS; and d) withholding information on detainees. Recent examples government measures which compromise society's privacy rights include: a) allowing wire tapping of lawyer/client conversations; b) spying on email and Internet use; c) requiring colleges and universities to yield private student records; and most recently, d) spying on targeted religious groups. Corporate driven policies which interfere with intellectual freedom include media decisions not to show international footage on news broadcasts and radio stations removing seemingly unpatriotic songs from radio play lists.

How does this type of atmosphere affect society? The societal effect of a surveillance laden culture, in which people feel spied upon but cannot but cannot trust their information, deeply concerns James der Derian. He notes, in a 1990 article on postmodernism and international relations, "One policy implication of the new surveillance regime is that the superpowers have created a cybernetic system that displays the classic symptoms of advanced paranoia: hyper-vigilance, intense distrust, rigid and judgmental thought processes, and the projection of one's own repressed beliefs and hostile impulses onto another." He goes on to cite a study conducted by Stanford University in which, "subjects were unknowingly subjected (through hypnosis) to a partial hearing loss; when placed in social situations they assumed that people were whispering about them and soon displayed symptoms of paranoia." The deeply disturbing socio/political effects of this type of paranoia constitute a major theme in Coppola's masterpiece, The Conversation. (I heard that! I heard you say finally!)

The Conversation:

Surveillance, Privacy, Paranoia and Alienation

Harry Caul, the protagonist of The Conversation, exists within a Nixon Era culture of cold war style surveillance and attacks on privacy. Revisiting this film, sounds a warning bell as we rapidly recreate this same type of cultural atmosphere, especially in the wake of Sept. 11th. The film shows how the distorting effects of this oppressive culture produce a sense of alienation, paranoia and spiritual bankruptcy. The film conveys this message both through the plot and dialog as well as through stylistic cinematic elements which reinforce these themes.

Harry Caul, a free lance surveillance expert, revered as "eminent in his field," lives a paranoid lifestyle in fear of others spying on him. Multiple locks and a shrill alarm guard the door to his sterile utilitarian apartment which he describes as having, "nothing personal" in it. The locks symbolize not only his paranoia, but also his "locked up" psyche which makes him incapable of sustaining meaningful human interaction. His refusal to share any personal information with anyone costs him his girlfriend and even his assistant.

The camera reinforces this mood of extreme alienation through innumerable scenes shot through gates, bars and vertical lines suggesting prison. Harry frequently appears in shots inside isolated cubicles, including elevators, phone booths and a confessional booth with a heavy screen separating him from a priest we can neither see nor hear. At other times, the camera catches him behind other "separators" including a thick blue plastic curtain in his work space. Even his costuming suggests separation. We often see him in a plastic raincoat which encases him. This raincoat may relate to his last name "Caul" which means, the amniotic sheath around a newborn. The cinematography not only emphasizes his alienation, but also his passivity, especially in one scene in which he lies passively on a cot during a sexual encounter with a prostitute who reassures him, "you're not supposed to feel anything." In this scene, as he lies on the cot, shadows from chain link fencing in his work space play across his face and the audio tape connects him with an earlier image of an unconscious forgotten transient on a park bench. An cold feeling of isolation comes from an icy blue color which dominates many scenes, emanating from lights, set walls and especially surveillance screens.

Not only does Harry's lifestyle alienate him, but it leads him into amorality and spiritual crisis. We discover that he formerly worked for the Attorney General's office where his specialized eavesdropping skills endangered an entire family which was gruesomely assassinated. As he awakens to a sense of responsibility for his actions, he seeks guidance in religion, but as the dark confessional scene suggests, he only finds more loneliness.

Coppola's camera technique cleverly implicates the audience's own passivity, broadening what is wrong with Harry to a comment one what is wrong with us. The camera at times does not follow Harry when he moves out of the frame. This static camera gives the viewers a "fly-on-the-wall" feeling as though we are looking at through a peephole. As we watch Harry spy on others, we engage in voyeurism ourselves by passively watching the characters in this film.

Although the idea of government conspiracy is chilling in this story, so is the more mundane, yet equally insidious corporate driven surveillance. We see how the commodification of the whole surveillance culture perverts human interactions. At a tacky, depressing surveillance convention, we learn that the number two surveillance expert next to Harry, prides himself as being the man who had told Chrysler that Cadillac planned to drop the fins. One booth at this convention boasts a large banner which reads, "Silent Knight" ironically symbolizing that surveillance products have replaced spirituality. Harry disdains these commercial products and prides himself on his homemade eavesdropping inventions --a distorted attempt to assert creativity and individuality in this soul numbing climate. During one of the only times he begins to trust someone in the film, he is caught on tape by a surveillance pen which someone at this convention plants on him as a fun eavesdropping practical joke.

This commodification of spy culture seems chillingly current. As we surf the Web these days, frequent pop-up advertisements attempt to entice us with gadgets to spy on others or avoid being spied on ourselves. One intrusive advertisement for a wireless surveillance video camera announces, "Security & Fun: All in One!! - New pan 'n' Tilt option allows you to scan larger areas!" The accompanying image shows the camera focusing in on a blond in a black swimsuit below the window. (Please see the attached print-outs from ads which pop up on my browser!). These advertisements appeared before Sept. 11th. In light of recent tragic events, is our society showing a more sensitive, less commercial attitude about surveillance, which so many feel is necessary for national interests? In a recent post Sept 11th piece, the LA Times reports, "The world of I-could-tell-you-but-then-I'd-have-to-kill-you" is experiencing a surge in popularity. The CIA is now getting five times the number of applicants....and the government is asking all citizens to be on the lookout for terrorists." The article continues by describing six new products we can buy to satisfy our voyeuristic urges- all for under $100.00. One of these is a spy pen named the "Digi Pen". The article reveals this to be, "A long, slender USB camera that easily fits into a pocket protector. The USB function allows the user to download images into a computer. ..Gives the owner constant access to a camera so suspicious people can be secretly photographed." Now in the wake of Sept.11th, we can all be the Harry Caul's of the Information Age!

Postmodern Elements: Self Reflexivity, Surrealism and the Indeterminate Nature of Reality

In addition to exposing the distorting effects of this surveillance culture, and the lack of social responsibility it engenders, the film also probes beyond social commentary and explores disturbing universal ontological and epistemological troubles in the human condition. Underneath the intrigue that Harry discovers, lurks more ambiguity and uncertainty.

The film begins with a mime in the establishing footage who follows and imitates various characters, until we meet our protagonist Harry. The suggestion by the mime, that art imitates life which imitates art (and perhaps references Antonioni's film, Blow Up, where mimes playing tennis without a ball, construct reality) prepares us for a blur between what is real and what is not.

As the plot progresses and Harry attempts to confirm his suspicions, he plays his audio surveillance tape over and over again but cannot determine what is really happening no matter how many times he listens. This repetition, suggestive of Nietzsche's theory of "eternal recurrance", disrupts our sense of objective linear time. Add to that an even more postmodern twist -the tape is different every time!

His inability to hear the truth in his tapes eventually becomes as poignant as it started out being contemptible, as he futilely attempts to take responsibility for preventing the impending crime he suspects. Neither his senses, nor his technology, nor even his dreams can take him to the 'truth'. "Truth" especially cannot be found in the sea of representational images which surround him - a point suggested especially by one scene in which his eyes light upon a painting of an Italian Villa as he tries to determine what is happening next door. This stagnant painting reveals nothing nor do the scrambled TV images he sees upon waking up after the murder. His plight evokes our universal predicament of uncertainty. In the wake of Sept 11th, a moving example of people trying to recreate a sense of reality through audio tapes was recently reported an LA Times article, "Voices that Carry Beyond the Towers", which describes a collage of sound made for the survivors of Sept 11th victims to hear. It consists of "aural artifacts" such as voice mail machines and taped business meetings. Will these "aural artifacts" bring people closer to what their loved ones experienced that day? How many times will they replay this 'collage" in their grief?

The "fly on the wall" camera technique mentioned earlier also reinforces the universality of Harry's uncertainty. Because the static camera does not follow Harry when he moves in and out of the frame, the audience also does not see all that is occurring in the film - just as Harry can never discover all that is happening. There is no third person narrator here to fill in the information gaps for us. Furthermore, the fact that Harry is a detective who cannot solve the crime in time, defeats our expectations for the noir genre the film references, making us question if we can trust the formulas we depend on to interpret art and in a larger sense the world. Even after we discover who murdered whom, we can only surmise the motives and guess whether the lovers where right, that the Director would in fact kill them if he got the chance.

The murder of the Robert Duval character creates a heavy reference to auteur theory - we know no name for this character other than "The Director." In a film where every frame counts this cannot possibly be a coincidence. This character turns out to not be what we think. The icons that we might depend upon to know who he is, the dog with a spiked collar, or the cold marble CEO office, deceive us as much as Harry's sound track deceives him. (Thus, in this film, tose signs which a structuralist feels would lend some objectivity to "competent reasders'" interpretations, lie to us).This "Director", on another level represents the director of our film, but this character is not actually in control and 'directing" the events as we thought. He is, like us and Harry, trying to find out what is going on in time and a victim of uncertainty. Once he is murdered, he leaves us in more epistemological chaos.

Having a character who symbolizes the controlling creative force within the microcosm of the film die, evokes larger implications and brings into question the existence another creative controlling force - God. The "Director's" death suggests that we are now truly alone in the universe. This postmodern religious doubt links to Harry's apostasy -- a major theme. Harry rages into a paranoid chaotic frenzy after "The Director" is murdered. In the process, Harry smashes the Virgin Mary icon in his apartment because he fears it is bugged. He symbolically breaks his faith in religion and technology in this one action. Religion at this point has deteriorated into yet one more thing he cannot trust.

Finally, Harry dismantles the room, stripping it to shreds, so he can destroy any hidden surveillance devices. He feels he can depend on nothing. Whereas the film begins with a playful mime, it ends with a set hauntingly like the one in Samuel Beckett's Endgame. Earlier, Harry would play his saxophone along with a live recording. The recording included the audience clapping, allowing Harry one more mediated experience replacing human contact. Having smashed his record player though, an amazing thing happens. He improvises along with the non-diagetic music! The line between art and reality have finally melted. Sad as his song is, in this human postmodern predicament of uncertainty and loneliness, the one thing he still has is his saxophone and his ability to express himself artistically. The film closes with the postmodern aesthetic of Art as a Transcendent -not pretentiously or triumphantly, but with resignation and sadness.

Conclusion and an Afterthought

As information professionals, we can help people explore "truth" or "knowledge" as fully as possible by advocating intellectual freedom and providing unfettered access to information while protecting privacy. We can do this in our daily work, or through our affiliations with organizations such as the ALA. We can actively perform an important educational function, by teaching people media literacy skills so that they can chose modes of analysis (postmodern or not) which help them discover new ways of interpreting information. We can help them to not simply ingest 'simulacra' passively. At the same time, librarians are not magicians and we will never overcome the ultimate epistemological uncertainty in the human condition.

Looking over the chart this paper presents, one might notice that the categories it investigates look a little like library indexing search fields (well, 'word', 'text' and 'author' do. Some of the abstractions like 'time' do not, although I was tempted to cheat and try to make this 'date'). It might be fun to create a new movie featuring a librarian, which pays homage to The Conversation, just as The Conversation in turn paid homage to Blow Up. We would then have a photographer, a surveillance expert and an information specialist as film protagonists who attempt to unveil the truth lurking within various representational forms. This new film's protagonist would attempt to determine an ultimately indeterminate reality while hampered by oppressive post Sept 11th measures and restrictive policies governing the digital environment (and since the protagonist would be a librarian, a happy ending might be nice). Unfortunately though, a film which references Blow Up and The Conversation would also need mimes. This paper deconstructed long ago (along with my grade) so here ends my essay/project/script/text/site of conflicts!


  1. Dana Blanton, "Fox New/Opinion Dynamics Poll: More than Half of Americans Would Die
    to Protect Bush," Fox News.Com, Friday, 16, November, 2001, p.1.
    <,2933,38937,00.html> accessed November, 28, 2001.
  2. Ronald Brownstein "Americans Unified in Support for Bush, War," Los Angeles Times, Thursday, 15, November, 2001, A1.
  3. Jim Rutenberg, "Fox Portrays a War of Good and Evil, and Many Applaud," New York Times On the Web, 3, December, 2001, p.1 <> accessed December, 3, 2001.
  4. In Brief, "Post-Attacks Poll Finds Boost in Religious Fervor," Los Angeles Times, 13, October, 2001, B19.
  5. Robert, Scheer, "Liberty is Dying Liberal by Liberal," Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, 20, November, 2001, B13.
  6. Todd Gitlin, "Patriotism Demands Questioning Authority," Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 11, November, 2001, M6.
  7. Leslie Paul Thiele, "The Agony of Politics: The Nietzschean Roots of Foucault's Thought," American Political Science Review, 84, 3 (Sept. 1990), p.908.
  8. Martha Bayles, "Closing the Door on 'Perverse Modernism'," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 26, October, 2001 <>.
  9. Ibid., p2
  10. Caryn James, "A Public Flooded With Images From Friend and Foe Alike," New York Times on the Web, 10, October, 2001, p.1. <>
  11. Lynn Smith, "Not the Same Old Story: The Theory of Storytelling has Moved Well Beyond Literature and Into Medicine, Law and Even World Affairs," Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 11, November, 2001, E1.
  12. Ibid., E3.
  13. Stanley Fish, "Condemnation Without Absolutes," New York Times on the Web, 15, October, 2001, p.1-3. <> accessed October 27,2001.
  14. Ziauddin, Sardar, "Total Recall: Aliens, 'Others' and Amnesia in Postmodernist Thought," Futures 23, n2 (March,1991): 189.
  15. Ben Agger, "Derrida for Sociology? A Comment on Fuchs and Ward," American Sociological Review, 59, 4 (Aug. 1994), p.503.
  16. Le Monde, 21 February 1975, in "The Agony of Politics: the Nietzschean Roots of Foucault's Thought," by Leslie Paul Thiele. p.917.
  17. im Ruttenberg, "Fox Portrays a War of Good and Evil, and Many Applaud," p.1.
  18. M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th edition, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, p.39.
  19. Beverle Houston and Marsh Kinder, "Subject and Object in Last Year in Marienbad and the Exterminating Angel: a Mutual Creation," in Self and Cinema. Pleasantville, New York: Redgrave Pub Co., 1980, p.243.
  20. Critical art Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance, Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1974, p.40.
  21. Wheeler, Winston Dixon, "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place," Film Quarterly 50, n4 (Summer, 1997): 54. Book Review of The Gulf War Did Not Take Place by Jean Baudrillard.
  22. Steve Lopez, "You Gotta Admire TV's Commitment to Meaninglessness," Los Angeles Times, 26, November, 2001, B1.
  23. Geraldo's mission to Afghanistan is mentioned in, "Fox Portrays a War of Good and Evil, and Many Applaud," by Jim Rutenberg.
  24. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, p.150.
  25. Ibid., p.150.
  26. Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future, New York: Random House, 1999, p.98.
  27. Amy E. Earhart, "Representative Men, Slave Revolt, and Emerson's "Conversion" to Abolitionism," ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly) 13, 4 (Dec 1999) 287.
  28. Information on Heidegger, Baudrillard, Derrida and Foucault can be checked through XREFER online encyclopedias, <>.
  29. Sabin Russell, "Web Sites Pull Information in Interest of National Security Fear of Giving Useful Data to Terrorists," San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, 5 October, 2001 <> accessed October 10, 2001.

Richard Reeves, "Writing History to Executive Order," The New York Times, 16, November, 2001 <> accessed November 16, 2001.

Eric Lichtblau, "Rising Fears That What We Do Know Can Hurt Us: Data: Terrorist Fears Blocking Information," Los Angeles Times, 18, November, 2001, A1.

Amy Goldstein and Dan Eggen, "U.S. to stop Issuing Detention Tallies: Justice Dept. To Share Number in Federal Custody, INS Arrests" Washington Post, Friday, 9, November, 2001, A16.

  1. George Lardner Jr., "U.S. Will Monitor Calls to Lawyers: Rule on Detainees Called 'Terrifying'," Washington Post, Friday, 9, November, 2001, A1.

David G. Savage and Edmund Sanders, "Proposed Wiretap Changes Under Review," Los Angeles Times, 21, September, 2001 <> accessed Sept. 9, 2001.

Hebel, Sara, "Bush Antiterrorist Proposals Raise Concerns About Students' Privacy Rights," The Chronicle of Higher Education, Monday, 24, September, 2001 <> accessed Sept. 24, 2001.

David Johnston and Don Van Natta Jr., "Ashcroft Seeking to Free F>B>I to Spy on Groups," The New York Times, 1, December, 2001. n.p.

  1. James der Derian, "The (S)pace of International Relations: Simulation, Surveillance, and Speed," International Studies Quarterly, 34 3 (Sept. 1990) p.305.
  2. Anti Citation! After looking up Caul in the dictionary and wondering if I was over interpreting, I found this same point made in: Gary W. Russel, "Tuning in to the Conversation: Twenty-five Years Later," Journal of Popular Culture 3 22 (autumn, 1999): p.127. (I am a little possessive of my interpretation of The Conversation).
  3. Jim Shea, "Effective Gadgets to Play the Spy Game," Los Angeles Times, 29, November, 2001, E6.
  4. Lynell George, "Voices That Carry Beyond the Towers: 'Sonic Memorial' will preserve the Trade Centers' Aural Images," Los Angeles Times, Monday, 26, November, 2001, E1.


Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms 4th edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,

Critical Art Ensemble. The Electronic Disturbance. New York: Autonomedia, 1994.

Caputo, John D. Deconstruction in a Nutshell : A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.

Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Kolakowski, Leszek. Hursserl and the Search for Certitude. New Haven: Yale University Press,

Lauer, J. Quentin. The Triumph of Subjectivity: An Introduction to Transcendental Phenomenology. New York: Fordham University Press, 1958.

Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Schacht, Richard. Making Sense of Nietzsche: Reflections Timely and Untimely. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Tanner, Michael. Nietzsche. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.


Sept. 11th Information Myths (privileged cultural beliefs) Empiricism (the scientific method) Moderate Postmodernism Extreme Postmodernism
Fundamentalist belief in cultural teachings and in absolutes Belief in facts proven scientifically Takes into account cultural and linguistic complexity of information

Deep Analysis

We cannot access objective reality


Word: e.g. "Terrorist"


The Devil


Psychology Terms:


homicidal impulses


Foucault would say that psychology terms evolved out of the bias of the dominant culture.

Cultural Relativity:

Others may perceive them as "freedom fighters"

"reformers" or even "heads of state"

The word ultimately disseminates into meaninglessness through Derrida's concept of "differance". Opposing conflicts emerge- for there to be "terrorists" there must be "civilians", but which word means someone who financially aides terror as a form of participating in it?


CNN: "America's New War" heading


Belief in sound bytes from TV or Internet. If CNN calls it a new war, it's a new war.

n/a Historical

Analysis of this title as a framing device. This conflict is not entirely new. It can also be seen as a continuation of past conflicts.

Cultural Relativity: Other nations might not perceive it as new.


Subjective view of time


We only have access to the past, even our memories, through the filter of the present moment. Anything one experiences is in this sense "new", so it is indeed America's New War each moment it is in our consciousness.


e.g. "Beneath the Veil"

Our culture privileges this form as real - Documentaries are not fiction they are true. The technologies of photography and film have given us the ability to create far truer representations than the old days when we relied on written descriptions and paintings. Semiotics: Many recognizable conventions help us to understand the meaning. This meaning is conveyed not only though the immediacy of the narrator's voice, but through various signifiers such as the music and icons, including close ups of the burka or football stadiums. All representations are false - a product employing a realistic style is not "real" .

Derrida- this "text"/ documentary shows a confusion of Western cultural codes and styles - it is at once employing documentary, autobiography, adventure and romance conventions and therefore deconstructs.

News Coverage of the War

e.g. CNN footage of targets

We have freedom of the press in this country. It's real. The planes are not at a scientifically possible angle - it's a hoax (or the opposite) Who is controlling this "text". What pictures are not being shown which are also important. Budrillard's concept of "simulacra"- This is a media constructed event. The Gulf War did not really happen and neither did this. The media creates a "hyper reality" suitable for mass consumption. Soon Geraldo Rivera will create more simulacra to add to this non-event.

e.g. of this paper on Postmodernism and Sept. 11th

This author is a library student - what does this have to do with shelving books? This author is not a scientist and did not conduct sound research methodology on a representative sample of the public to discover if postmodernism has affected their political participation.

Of course the author exists and finger prints on the pages can prove who it is.

Phenomenology and Structuralism

Reading is a co- creative process: the author and the reader exist together. Both have subjective filters, but there are recognizable structures in the language which create some objectivity in the interpretations which ensue.

Barthes - Auteur Theory-

The author is a fictitious construct. The author's view is the product of her culture (the Eng.dept at UCLA is not exactly the optimist club). Preferred styles and structures created the meaning, not the author: e.g. use of reductive thesis statements and the like. Once the paper is read, it is open to the extreme subjectivity of the reader anyway.

Derrida- this paper deconstructions around several aporias. (e.g her comments on Postman)



An LA Times Article about Sept.11th

This article appears in a well respected main stream newspaper and is not an editorial. Newspapers like the LA Times have thorough fact checkers. It is real. Saussure - a written article is a more mediated, less real, expression of the author's thoughts than a speech would be.

Analysis - how do the style and structure contribute to the meaning. Are there any subtexts or agendas.

Derrida's concept that Western Civiliazation is "logocentric". Writing is actually no less immediate than speaking. Both writing and speaking are problematic and subject to differance and dissemination.