Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 7, No. 1, 1993
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Ian Angus

Battle culture

Review of: James Aulich (ed.), Framing the Falklands War: Nationhood, Culture and Identity (London: Open University Press, 1992), 150pp.

John Corner

With questions of nationalism and of cultural identity now at the top of the international research agenda in media and cultural studies, a position strongly reinforced by the radical shifts of entity and allegiance in Europe, Aulich's collection engages with themes of much more political resonance than he might have imagined when he planned it. His contributors are also able to make some provisional but useful comparisons between the distinctively British discourses of the war, which provides their principal topic and the broader, US dominated terms within which the Gulf conflict was reported and depicted.

The Gulf War is starting to be written about, sometimes a little too apocalyptically, as ushering in a wholly new kind of media coverage, inter-textually organised not only in relation to hi-tech, communication links and the relentlessly competitive performance of visual and aural immediacy which underpins their use, but also in relation to a presumed, consumerist desire for continuous updates, video-game modes of tele-involvement and the rendering of the war as a narratively satisfying story, albeit one a bit heavy on diplomatic sub-plots. The headier interpretations of this conjuncture pick up on its Baudrillardian moments: the hi-tech, shiny-surface fetishism generated around the weaponry; the 'simulacra' diplomacy of both sides; the psychic splitting of viewers into fascinated spectators/horrified participants, and the announcement that we have just had the first 'post-modern' war. As a classifying move, this is as unhelpfully indeterminate as the classification itself, but it certainly shows a proper sensitivity to the new and bizarre vectors of information which were brought into play.

By contrast, the Falklands/Malvinas conflict was a pre-modern, time-warp affair in its main diplomatic and military features, and quite frequently in its modes of reporting too. Hampered by a Ministry of Defence policy of almost unbelievable restriction and non-cooperation, a policy greatly aided by the quite extraordinary geography of the whole event, and by journalistic dependence on the logistical support of the military, it is not suprising that those journalists who actively sought to probe further than the official briefings found it difficult to do so. And what was the use of 'finding out' anything if there was no easy access to the transmission technology (crucially, satellite links) by which to make it public?

Aulich's book is distinctive and valuable in its emphasis on the visualisation of the war (both contemporary and subsequently), in newspaper photographs, films and paintings. The kind of cultural analysis which it offers, in broad outline the familiar project of the 'cultural reading' - analysing texts symptomatically for indicators of broader, non-textual circumstances and relationships - gains a novel and welcome edge through this connection with the concerns of a revised 'art history'. At its best, such an approach retains the traditional concern with descriptively rigorous inquiry into aesthetic organisation, 'affect' and value, whilst also seeing these as dynamically contingent on factors of production and consumption, rather than the latter consitituting some kind of inert backdrop - 'context'.

In the applications here, however, the speculative vulnerability of the 'reading' project remains, so that even where analyses are supported by quantitative detail, or by brief but scholarly accounts of specific production settings, it is rare to find extensive primary use being made of other than textual indicators. The social is got to by a route which still goes via a lengthy immersion in the 'deep text', as it were. Rarely is there much serious traffic coming in the opposite direction; just bits of confirmatory data. And since most, if not all, of the writers are concerned to emphasise the ideologically reactionary nature of the official discourses of the war from an analytic position placed at one point or other on the Left (some writers being more nervously post-Marxian in their terms than others), there is, at the end of many of the pieces, a fair amount of the familiar, self-satisfied, Cultural Studies' closure around a dutifully unsurprised, negative generalisation. At its worst, this sort of perpetual re-confirmation of the politically rather obvious (at least to the kind of readers the book can reasonably hope to attract), prompts a response along the lines 'All that analysis, just to say this!'

A related and even worse problem is the assumption throughout the book of an effectively coerced popular subjectivity. The ideological analyses of the texts are extrapolated straight through to conclusions about reader/audience consciousness. So, for instance, Paul Greengrass in his introduction can say:

This was a war as we knew it from our childhood comics - Captain Hurricane charging machine-gun posts single-handed. It was like a film. We know, because we saw it on the telly. And, of course, it was all over quickly. Most of all, we won.

The 'we' introduced here may just about be adequate, with the license of parody, to the implied reader of many popular newspaper accounts and some TV depictions, but as a characterisation of actual popular understanding, it is grossly condescending, unimaginative and silly - blocking off any more incisive exploration of the question. Just how many people of what kind (men, women, old and young) saw the war like an exciting film, and how did this relate to other framings that were available? Greengrass is not interested in asking. A travestied version of subjectivity (certainly not to be confused with his) is conjured up from texts and put to service as social critique. After several years of just the opposite silliness in Cultural Studies, the presumption that popular audiences are in a virtually permanent state of 'resistance', politically immune to 'bad messages', this is an odd flaw to come across. However, most of the pieces escape final typification by the tendency, even if it runs as a strand in many of them.

Aulich himself offers a clear and conceptually suggestive introduction, noting among other things the extent to which accounts of the Islands and Island life were 'domesticised' in terms reassuringly familiar to the British public (having awful weather undoubtedly helped here!). No decent Britisher, it was assumed, would leave to its fate a society in which rain, cups of tea, and Leeds' chances of getting into the First Division of the Football League played their part in the ordering of mundane life.

Aulich also comments, as do many of his contributors, on the question of realism and explicitness in depictions. We can know that war is vicious, bloody and horrifying (and it is my sense that most people do know this, despite the theory of an enforced, sanitised naivety held to by some writers here), but it is quite another matter to have this knowledge concretely presented to us via the screams of a paratrooper who has just had his leg blown off or the agonised and pleading face of an Argentine conscript who is being bayoneted to death in the stomach by one of 'our' marines. That no such footage is, of course, ever shown (the graphic depiction of burns injuries following the Bluff Cove air strike were just about as near to it as TV got), points to combined factors of practicality, 'taste' and military restriction. And, that it was the later dramatic fictions, with their realist re-constructions, which were able to stir up so much public reaction, points to the crucial intersection of 'explicitness' and experienced particularity with the psycho-dynamics of public knowledge and consent. This is a theme which the Gulf war raised afresh, and Aulich and many of his contributors develop it in a number of different generic directions (e.g. the polemical distortions of the cartoon, the narrativised and variously styled violence of feature films, the heroic-commemorative mode of 'regimental' paintings, the fractured, therapeutic artwork of soldiers suffering from stress syndrome) without quite engaging with it theoretically in the direct manner which I now feel it warrants.

Some of the pieces run the risk of turning themselves into catalogues, so briskly do they survey and classify the large range of particular forms (books, films, paintings, and news items) which they take as their topic. This 'survey' model, of some value as documentation, tends to act as a block to a more sustained analysis and a more secure and interactive connection with political and social factors. When these areas are allowed to develop, they often push the cultural reading in quite original directions (as in Tim Wilcox's account of the response of various fine artists to the conflict, or John Taylor's concise but convincing look at the modern iconography of heroism). This is closer to delivering the promise of what I termed earlier the 'revised art history' approach, re-figuring the terms and relations of 'text in context' study. On a more specific note, I think that given the spread of contributions, a piece on the often memorable but mostly static TV visualisations (including 'to-camera' accounts and the mise-en-sc√Čne of interviews), would have been a valuable, comparative addition.

In his introduction, Aulich quotes an Heideggerian proposition that "the spatial image...asserts an important power over history". His book documents this suggestively for a particular, politically pivotal, event. He also notes that the book's aim is to examine "some of the processes whereby the individual viewer unconsciously incorporates particular, external ideas of nationhood". This the book does not really begin to tackle and indeed, the use of 'unconsciously' here may suggest that the hypothesis itself is in some need of vigorous revision.

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