Uncertainty: Revisiting Coppola's The Conversation in the Wake of September
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
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,"
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 tense...by 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 unfolded...to 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
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
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
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!)
Surveillance, Privacy, Paranoia
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
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
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!
- 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.
accessed November, 28, 2001.
- Ronald Brownstein "Americans
Unified in Support for Bush, War," Los Angeles Times, Thursday,
15, November, 2001, A1.
- Jim Rutenberg, "Fox Portrays
a War of Good and Evil, and Many Applaud," New York Times On the
Web, 3, December, 2001, p.1 <http://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/03/business>
accessed December, 3, 2001.
- In Brief, "Post-Attacks
Poll Finds Boost in Religious Fervor," Los Angeles Times, 13, October,
- Robert, Scheer, "Liberty
is Dying Liberal by Liberal," Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, 20, November,
- Todd Gitlin, "Patriotism
Demands Questioning Authority," Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 11,
November, 2001, M6.
- Leslie Paul Thiele, "The
Agony of Politics: The Nietzschean Roots of Foucault's Thought,"
American Political Science Review, 84, 3 (Sept. 1990), p.908.
- Martha Bayles, "Closing
the Door on 'Perverse Modernism'," The Chronicle of Higher Education,
26, October, 2001 <http://chronicle.com/weekly/v48/i09/09b014.htm>.
- Ibid., p2
- Caryn James, "A Public
Flooded With Images From Friend and Foe Alike," New York Times
on the Web, 10, October, 2001, p.1. <http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/10/arts/television>
- 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.
- Ibid., E3.
- Stanley Fish, "Condemnation
Without Absolutes," New York Times on the Web, 15, October, 2001,
accessed October 27,2001.
- Ziauddin, Sardar, "Total
Recall: Aliens, 'Others' and Amnesia in Postmodernist Thought,"
Futures 23, n2 (March,1991): 189.
- Ben Agger, "Derrida for
Sociology? A Comment on Fuchs and Ward," American Sociological
Review, 59, 4 (Aug. 1994), p.503.
- Le Monde, 21 February 1975,
in "The Agony of Politics: the Nietzschean Roots of Foucault's
Thought," by Leslie Paul Thiele. p.917.
- im Ruttenberg, "Fox Portrays
a War of Good and Evil, and Many Applaud," p.1.
- M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of
Literary Terms, 4th edition, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981,
- 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.
- Critical art Ensemble, The
Electronic Disturbance, Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1974, p.40.
- 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.
- Steve Lopez, "You Gotta
Admire TV's Commitment to Meaninglessness," Los Angeles Times,
26, November, 2001, B1.
- Geraldo's mission to Afghanistan
is mentioned in, "Fox Portrays a War of Good and Evil, and Many
Applaud," by Jim Rutenberg.
- H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary
- Ibid., p.150.
- Neil Postman, Building a Bridge
to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future, New York:
Random House, 1999, p.98.
- Amy E. Earhart, "Representative
Men, Slave Revolt, and Emerson's "Conversion" to Abolitionism,"
ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly) 13, 4 (Dec 1999) 287.
- Information on Heidegger,
Baudrillard, Derrida and Foucault can be checked through XREFER online
- Sabin Russell, "Web Sites
Pull Information in Interest of National Security Fear of Giving Useful
Data to Terrorists," San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, 5 October,
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,
- 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 <http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-092101wiretap.story>
accessed Sept. 9, 2001.
Hebel, Sara, "Bush Antiterrorist
Proposals Raise Concerns About Students' Privacy Rights," The Chronicle
of Higher Education, Monday, 24, September, 2001 <http://chronicle.com/free/2001/09/2001092403n.htm>
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.
- James der Derian, "The
(S)pace of International Relations: Simulation, Surveillance, and Speed,"
International Studies Quarterly, 34 3 (Sept. 1990) p.305.
- 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).
- Jim Shea, "Effective
Gadgets to Play the Spy Game," Los Angeles Times, 29, November,
- Lynell George, "Voices
That Carry Beyond the Towers: 'Sonic Memorial' will preserve the Trade
Centers' Aural Images," Los Angeles Times, Monday, 26, November,
BIBLIOGRAPHY (of books)
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
Schacht, Richard. Making Sense
of Nietzsche: Reflections Timely and Untimely. Chicago: University of
Tanner, Michael. Nietzsche. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
belief in cultural
teachings and in
||Belief in facts
||Takes into account
|We cannot access
|Foucault would say
terms evolved out
of the bias of the
perceive them as
even "heads of
emerge- for there
to be "terrorists"
there must be
which word means
terror as a form of
participating in it?|
Belief in sound
bytes from TV or
Internet. If CNN
calls it a new war,
it's a new war.
Analysis of this
title as a framing
conflict is not
entirely new. It can
also be seen as a
might not perceive
it as new.
Subjective view of
We only have
access to the past,
the filter of the
experiences is in
this sense "new",
so it is indeed
War each moment
it is in our
e.g. "Beneath the
privileges this form
as real -
not fiction they are
of photography and
film have given us
the ability to create
than the old days
when we relied on
us to understand
the meaning. This
conveyed not only
immediacy of the
but through various
signifiers such as
the music and
close ups of the
burka or football
are false - a
a realistic style is
not "real" .
shows a confusion
of Western cultural
codes and styles - it
is at once
|News Coverage of
e.g. CNN footage
|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
||Who is controlling
this "text". What
pictures are not
being shown which
are also important.
is a media
The Gulf War did
not really happen
and neither did
this. The media
creates a "hyper
reality" suitable for
Rivera will create
more simulacra to
add to this non-event. |
e.g. of this paper
and Sept. 11th
|This author is a
library student -
what does this have
to do with shelving
||This author is not a
scientist and did
not conduct sound
methodology on a
sample of the
public to discover
has affected their
Of course the
author exists and
finger prints on the
pages can prove
who it is.
Reading is a co-
the author and the
together. Both have
but there are
structures in the
objectivity in the
|Barthes - Auteur
The author is a
The author's view
is the product of
her culture (the
Eng.dept at UCLA
is not exactly the
meaning, not the
author: e.g. use of
statements and the
like. Once the
paper is read, it is
open to the
subjectivity of the
Derrida- this paper
aporias. (e.g her
An LA Times
|This article appears
in a well respected
newspaper and is
not an editorial.
the LA Times have
checkers. It is real.
||Saussure - a
written article is a
expression of the
than a speech
Analysis - how do
the style and
to the meaning.
Are there any
Writing is actually
no less immediate
Both writing and