Preliminary notes on the images of an ongoing war
It bears repeating: in order to see an image, one has to start off by watching it.
As expected, the invasion of Ukraine has reactivated Manichaeism, which had up to now sought refuge in the rhetorical battles waged on Facebook. This isn’t good news for those of us who are stubborn enough to search for the grays in any black-and-white confrontation. What’s certain is that one’s refusal, in this case, to adopt the full package of “correct” convictions doesn’t imply that they’re relativizing the fault of the Russian aggression against a courageous people, but to observe, from the shelter of a critical distance, how each of the camps is trying to impose their own truths, while completely opaque to the opposite perspective. One example culled from the so many micro-forcings that were committed in the last few weeks upon public opinion, which is called to fully adhere to one of the two versions of reality that are placed upon the table, allows one to better understand the relentlessness coming in from both sides. Let us pick it from an area that is familiar to us: that of cinema. And let it be that of Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa—who is probably the country’s most influential contemporary filmmaker —, who has lately been caught up in all sorts of conflicts with the members of the continent’s various film committees. Initially, Loznitsa accused the European Film Academy of not taking a firm stance against the war. The Academy then went on to quite democratically infringe all Russian filmmakers, with no exception. Then, Loznitsa said that this action was an exaggeration—what about those who were persecuted by the Kremlin? — and presented his resignation from the Academy. The true plot twist only arrived a few days ago, when the Ukrainian Film Academy announced that it was kicking him out of his ranks and encouraged everyone to boycott him. Point in case: his films had been included in the program of a Russian film festival organized in the French city of Nantes, and whose title was a tad too internationalist: From Lviv to the Urals.
Here, we can see, as if through a small cranny, an image of what the future may hold, once this absurd conflict has reached its end. A future in which decisive nuance is dragged through the mud by caricaturesque psychoses, mobilized in the name of edifices that ask one to present his membership card, like in communist times. (The ridiculous diatribe of—all people! — a self-appointed intellectual that preoccupies himself with the study of images, who was burning to see the novels of Checkov and the reels of Tarkovsky set alight on the pyre of unwavering certainties, is symptomatic of this totalitarian raid in the search of those who still hesitate.)
Loznitsa’s embarrassment in front of a continent that is both too lethargic and too fired up at the same time is one of the images of this war. I’m thinking of image, going down the tracks of philosopher Jacques Rancière, not as an exclusive object of the visible – “there are images that fully reside in words”, he said-, but as a connection between visible and speakable. On a recent visit to Berlin—the war had just broken out—I could witness, sheltered by time itself, how the remnants of these binary conceptions look like when they can be seen crammed between two streets, one inhabited glass towers, the other by plattenbau buildings, that still bear the same names. Berlin is the city in which super-impression—this technical procedure which, in olden times, was the glory of cinema—still maintains the entirety of its relevance and shows us, in a strange simultaneous dilation and compression of time, which it unspools both in front of and behind us, the ruin of bombardments, the dual logic of war, the idea of living while gazing upon capital-H History from the window. In what may be the most famous novel dedicated to the Fall of the Berlin Wall—The Wall Jumper, already published in 1984 —, Peter Schneider managed to describe the era’s televisual production in just a few lines, one that once more envelops us in its timely resonance. In times of conflict, the truth on television becomes tiny, and must pass along akin to a thread in the needle:
In the evening the television newscaster reports a UN resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as interference in the internal affairs of the country. On the screen, columns of Russian tanks roll through Afghanistan’s capital city. The newscaster says that such footage hasn’t been shown in the Eastern media for weeks.
Shortly afterward I switch channels. Again there is a newscaster sitting in front of a map of the world and delivering the news. He is wearing the same tie and the same sports jacket; he has the same receding hairline and speaks the same language as the newscaster on the other channel. He cites a Pravda article condemning the UN resolution as interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. The footage is of American and Chinese weapons captured from Afghan soldiers. The newscaster notes that these pictures are not being shown in the Western media.
For a split second, as I turn the television off, I see the shadow of his West channel counterpart; then the screen goes gray.
I’ve already used the word “shelter” twice. The analysis of war images—any such conflict is, amongst others, also an extraordinary event of the image—is always necessary. And this analysis must operate minutely, without any sort of superiority that a potentially “unworthy” audiovisual material might inspire, in order to create a pause, a fragile sort of silence that those who are involved in the fight, willingly or unwillingly, can no longer access.
Let us first take note of how the current conflict has revived the classical opposition between “those who hold the microphones and the scepters” and the “extras, that is, the people of a leash” (Nicole Brenez), the mass that is maneuvered in the case of a conflict that, as always, does not belong to them. Because every flux of images, however abundant, operates choices in between what is shown and what is hidden, and even if the general tendency, today, seems to strive for a rising visibility of all things, few ideas seem harder to contest than the idea that the war in Ukraine was, first and foremost, one of two political leaders—and only afterward, about anything else. We thus witnessed the clash, through intermediary screens, between a wanton dictator and an actor of cheap comedies—and if the latter was, in the end, the recipient of the public’s enthusiastic sympathy, that has less to do with this political personality than it has to do with his media avatar.
Because, beyond the realities on the field, another battle—one with a predictable ending—was focused precisely on the rapport between the leaders of these two nations and the audiovisual medium. Putin’s failure is tellingly indicative of his failure to adapt to the new rigors of the image. Clad in a suit and tie, revving up the engines of his Soviet-era tanks and trucks for another run, Putin seems to have descended from the aplomb of the olden war films, with its masses of extras and the immoral sort of pathos that didn’t manage to fool anyone even back in those times. It’s more than enough to look at the video of the speech he held on the 5th of March, when he is sitting at a table together with a few women and is making ample gestures. The trick would have worked—it was a reasonable effort, given the conditions —, if it hadn’t been for this too-lively hand of his that kept on colliding with the microphone, a sign that the president, incapable of populating his loneliness other than by using artifice, employed a series of special effects that one would expect of the proto-films of magician Georges Méliès.
On the other side, Zelensky belongs to his generation for which the green screen and the national epic are no longer capable of eliciting even a tender sense of nostalgia. Zelensky is much more comfortable on TikTok than he is in the Parliament. Aware that all possible images have already been seen, he’s willing to use any device in the name of an impoverished art, cobbled together from everything that is at his disposal. The more modest his mise-en-scène is—the corner of a room, a “portrait”-mode video —, the more powerful his creative gesture. Or, in other words, Putin is operating with a counterfeit depth of images, while Zelensky’s have no depth whatsoever. While Putin spends ample amounts of time preparing his next televised address, in Mikhalkovian fashion, the Ukrainian has already posted an umpteenth amount of live videos. In fact, the latter is successfully participating in the creation of a new type of modern leader, riding the coattails of Foucault’s famous classification. It’s not the unapparent type of leader that was sought-after in the wake of the Second World War, nor the grumpy career politician (from Khruschev to Pompidou) that followed; it’s not even the charismatic chief of state that re-sexualized power (JFK or Giscard). But a showman that is capable of spinning heads with his ubiquitous presence, offering the illusion that there is nothing fundamental that differentiates him from the people. Which is the source of this entire collage composed of the khaki outfit that he must wear in these circumstances (worth comparing with the exclusive puffer jacket touted by Putin at his fascist stadium rally), of the decontracted facial expressions, of the discourse that hits all the sensible chords. Emmanuel Macron, himself in the race for the French presidency, seems to have taken notes, and has even called upon his loyal photographer to immortalize the scene: clad in a black hoodie, sporting a three-day-beard and deep circles underneath his eyes. The all-around regress is clear: the less we have to see in these images, the more we have to decode.
On the 10th of March, an alert rippled through several countries: unidentified flying objects had entered their national airspace without asking for permission, during a fateful night. Only in the morning did the story seem to come together: a soviet-era drone had surveyed the entire area, eventually crashing down in Croatia. In regard to this incident, the Romanian Ministry of National Defense raised the ire of the country by declaring the following: “The evolution of this aerial object for a very short time in the national airspace, its heightened speed, its low flight altitude, associated with harsh terrain and the meteorological conditions observed at the time, did not allow for the utilization of other procedural measures towards identifying said aerial object while in flight.”
Let us not be hasty: what particularly bothered the people was not the technological precarity of Romanian defense systems. What bothered them is the apparently involuntary fashion—this is a drone, after all! — in which this small-sized aircraft, in its nimble and unnoticed flight through the nighttime sky, managed to realign a handful of countries and to face them with their non-western pasts. Ending its flight in a Zagreb square—the last Catholic stronghold at the edge of the fearsome Balkans —, the drone, through its internationalist gesture, revived countless dark memories. A novel testament to the fact that Eastern-European countries are, more or less unwillingly, caught up in the murky affairs of the Europeans, and the Romanians, a Latin people, are no exception—although they almost were: according to the same Ministry of National Defense, “the aircraft entered Romania’s airspace, coming in from Ukraine, at approximately 23:23 and left the national airspace at approximately 23:26, heading towards Hungary”.
I keep on recalling the montage that opens a fabulous film from the nineties, the Hungarian Bolse vita (Ibolya Fekete, 1995). There, we see, in a frenzied succession, stereotypical archival footage of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, of endless lines at the border, of people shaving their beards while cramped up in their old Ladas, followed by the fratricidal battles in Yugoslavia and the political turmoil that beset the entire ex-communist space. This drone has not yet been claimed by anyone—it belongs to us all, a meager open-air museum piece —, bore the memory of these agonizing years.
In this “aerial object”, we can see more than just a symbol, we can also see a symptom: that of the transition towards war weapons that imply an increasingly slim, increasingly distanced human presence. In an extraordinary paper titled Théorie du drone, philosopher Grégoire Chamayou wraps up and then unpacks the dangerous aims of this invention, drawing a break conclusion as to the transformations of war, from a battle waged in the name of the archaic jus in bello, into a condemnation to unilateral death issued by the stronger combatant, and, more generally, into a complete annihilation of any reciprocal rapports. In Ukraine, however, it has been proven that drones—like the terrible Turkish Bayraktars, cheap and efficient—are also capable of monopolizing the military situation in favor of the aggressed party. These “flying handy-cams, capable of producing high-resolution footage, armed with rockets”, as they’ve been described, have nothing “humanitarian” about them—as the Americans posited, encouraging the “drone-ification” of war for the sake of protecting its own military men, now simple gamers sitting in front of the screen —, but it’s precisely this disproportionate violence, through which the death of an adversary is suddenly uncoupled from the possibility of one’s own death, has turned overnight into a desirable means for smaller countries, as well. The cowardly war is fought against with its very own weapons, updated for the 21st century.
In the first days of the conflict, when the battlefronts had not yet been drawn up clearly, an amateur video went viral. In the footage, we see a cyclist wearing proper equipment, training on the streets of Kyiv, completely unbothered by the new dramatic reality of the situation. The video clip ended on a phenomenal sequence, which concentrated in itself the tragicomic absurdity (emphasis on tragic) of war: we see how the cyclist approaches two TABs parked sideways onto the empty street, then abruptly turning around after one of the (Ukrainian) soldiers who was manning the vehicle aimed their gun at him. The video preoccupies me not because of the moral that it evokes, more efficient than any sort of personal development advice—a sort of discipline or love for sports that manages to transcend even in the darkest of times. It preoccupies me because, in the end, it references one of the deciding horizons of this war, one working in the shadows, and that is international sports.
In 2008, cinema theoretician Patrice Blouin wrote a magnificent essay on the “cinephile semiology” of the Beijing Olympics. As a preamble of sorts, he wrote the following: “We are told that we already know what we’re about to see and that, in the end, we won’t see anything at all. What we will see, of course, is China’s assumed status as a global superpower that contests the United States’ historic leadership and, as such, in a larger sense, we will see the shifting of the world’s center from the Occident to the Orient. What we won’t see, and is, in fact, essential, is the obscure reversal of this power-grab, which transforms the apparent stage of the Games into a true enterprise of mystification.” In 2022, the Games were held once more in Beijing, but this time, in the winter. And there’s little doubt that Putin waited for the event to come to a close (on the 19th of February), thus cushioning his partner, Xi Jinping, in the name of this great sports festivity which was half-empty due to sanitary measures, for him to unleash the invasion of Ukraine (24th of February). But another timing seems much more important to me: where Blouin noticed, at the 2008 Olympics, the last festive stand of the televisual era, the 2022 era marks the wintertime ascent of TikTok clips. With regard to the ages of imagery, Putin—a television commander—has started to lag.
The wish was to trivialize sports—and that’s probably the appropriate thing to do in such tragic times. But they forget that sport was the only thing that kept Putin in his place, and not just due to geopolitical strategies. A recent analysis talked about the Putinist regime as a “sportocracy”—and the testimony to this lies not only in the massive sums that the Russian Federation has invested into organizing all sorts of competitions, from Olympics to the World Football Cup Championship but also in Putin’s favorite image exercise, that of a manly man engaged in a confrontation with nature itself (see the frozen water in which he so voluptuously submerges himself) or with the man that is facing him (his passion for Judo well-known). Accompanied by a violent heteronormative discourse, these communication blitzes are more than just simple images, they are visuals, in the sense coined by Serge Daney: a means to verify the proper functioning of a technical device—or of a leader that is organizing his own mise-en-scène
In the front-facing camp, sports has mobilized surprisingly quickly, breaking away from its perennial leitmotif of apolitical stances in order to take a pro-Ukrainian stand, to the same degree to which footballers like Andriy Yarmolenko and Ruslan Malinovski electrified an entire nation with their goals. In closing, I’d like to stick to the area football—to be more precise, with the players of “Poli Iași”, who also decided to show their solidarity by sending a message with the help of their t-shirts. Unfortunately, seeing as they failed to enter the arena in the proper order, the message was no longer an anti-war one, but rather, it turned into a purely dadaist text: “RAW POTS”. As a sign of resistance on the part of politics against a handful of sportsmen lost in the quagmire of a pitiful game, played on empty stadiums, which are touching to behold in their forced adhesion to the day’s hot topics.