The Political Economy of Snuff Films

The Baffler published an article on the relationship between various US news channels and Islamic State. Particularly interesting was their discussion of the decision by Fox to publish a beheading video in full to their website. An excerpt:

Fox plays ISIS propaganda with the same intention that ISIS brings to its production: to make Americans feel frightened of and threatened by an organization that actually poses no threat to American freedom or security. Exaggerating the power and reach of ISIS is in the immediate best interests of both the savage terrorist organization and the cynical, right-wing media outlet. The fiction that ISIS—a band of fanatics currently engaged in protracted battles and occupations half a world away from the United States—poses an existential threat to the best-armed nation in the history of the world both burnishes the group’s credentials with would-be jihadis and gives weight to Fox’s critique of a Democratic president as soft on terror. (In an earlier era, with a Republican in the White House, Fox’s on-air news personalities routinely blasted the Arab-language cable outlet Al Jazeera for playing Al Qaeda propaganda videos.)

The important thing here is the recognition of a political economy in snuff films, a term that is almost never used to describe these death videos. The concept of the snuff film has been traditionally tied to the never substantiated claims, largely pushed by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, that films of the rape and murder of women were being produced as pornography for commercial purposes. But if we defactionalize the concept of the snuff film, we find claims in books like The Hateful and the Obscene that snuff films don’t exist rather ludicrous; to find one from before MacKinnon/Dworkin or L.W. Sumner’s text responding to them, one simply has to go back to the day “America lost its innocence”-the Kennedy assassination and the corresponding snuff film, the first one produced and distributed in the climate of centralized mass media reproduction-the Zapruder Film. The sexualizing of the death video in the concept of “the snuff film” then merely constitutes another distorted manifestation of the US’s puritanical mores-the mortal sin, the real horror involved is that someone might be jerking off to them.

The Zapruder film does have a sexual component. As Bill Hicks joked about watching it: “I didn’t notice. I was too busy staring at Jackie’s ass.” The Zapruder film has been commercialized and replicated to a ubiquity that no porn film ever dreamed of.

A CANON OF COMMERCIALLY REPRODUCED AND REDISTRIBUTED SNUFF FILMS

I tried to compile a full canon of videos of people actually dying that were reproduced frequently for commercial purposes. Because television news in the US is a privatized industry, this is a very long list. I’m sure it’s nowhere near complete. I’m not providing links to any of these videos, but for the morbidly curious, well, I trust you all know how to use the google by now.

In rough chronological order:

  • 1937 Hindenburg Disaster Footage
  • 1963 Zapruder Film of the Kennedy Assassination
  • 1963 Thich Quang Duc Self-Immolation Protest Film
  • 1968 Vietnam “Bullet in the Head” Execution Film
  • 1985 News Footage of the MOVE Headquarters Bombing
  • 1986 R. Budd Dwyer Suicide Footage
  • 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake News Footage
  • 1999 Columbine Massacre Cafeteria Surveillance Camera Footage (interestingly largely distributed as a bootleg)
  • 2001 WTC Attack Video
  • 2002 Daniel Pearl Death Video
  • 2006 Saddam Hussein Execution Video
  • 2007 Wikileaks Collateral Murder Video
  • 2011-present Eric Garner and related Police murder videos
  • 2013-present, ISIS Beheading videos

As we get past 2006 the production of death videos becomes so voluminous as to make this list a long exercise in redundancy if we’re analyzing them from the lens they exist as contextually produced pieces of political propaganda launched from various directions. It should also be pointed out that with the mass production of consumer grade cameras in phones etc. and increasingly easy access to distribution points for videos the landscape of political propaganda has shifted dramatically.

This shift has been from the accidental production then appropriation of these videos toward the purposeful production of them with the intent of distribution. They no longer represent the shock of mortal discontinuity; they present themselves as distinct subcanons; their continued production and volume is meant to establish the normality of their content. They no longer mythologize their dead bodies but attempt to frame them as the hyperreal everyperson give or take some broad gerrymandering.

THE REPRODUCTIVE INERTIA OF THE IMAGE, DEATH FROM ABOVE, DEATH FROM BELOW

Don Delillo, in his novel White Noise, famously gives us the unremarkable barn that people visit to photograph because so many people have already visited it and photographed it. Neil Postman in Technopoly lays out the thought experiment of a series of technological advances in highway design, each of which lowers fatality rates but only after a temporary one year spike in them. Of course, the rate at which the advances come accelerates to where they occur more than once a year and they end up with just a permanent spike in traffic fatalities.

It’s important to recognize these are both descriptions of the same phenomena viewed from different vantage points.

To this conversation I add the recent national conversation over putting body cameras on police officers. This is, ostensibly, a solution to the problem of the lack of police accountability.

But is it? This “solution”, despite the fact that ubiquitous video of police brutality in every imaginable context does not seem to be especially effective in court or in reining in the behavior of offending officers. The obvious question stemming from this, a question I refuse to endorse or reject for the moment, is: Are these proposed body cameras on some level the hollow shared cultural clamor for more death videos? A chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs. And so on.

What is the appeal of the death video of the present? We can problematically but functionally enough define two ways that death videos reach the consumer-by their own volition, or from a top-down externality.

The former would be presented in the seeking out of death videos both in the consciously political sense of bearing witness a la the many police murder videos, but also in the long tradition of underground bootleg films like Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death, etc. The Columbine surveillance tape is especially interesting because it crosses over between the two impulses-I remember when I was younger and seeking out bootleg copies of unavailable films seeing it come up frequently in tape traders’ lists.

The latter is of course the Baffler article’s example at the top-Fox News purposely releasing ISIS videos to pursue their shared aims.

THE MEMORY OF THE DEAD AS NARRATIVE REAL ESTATE

The spectral video image of the dead body is especially desirable as a memetic repetition because the dead body and its image are traumatic to behold. They create mental resistance and abstract themselves. The dead person’s image to the person who knew them is the reminder of their absence and an invitation to ponder what may have been. The memory of the dead person elevated to a folkloric archetype is a rorschach blot, a thing to be fought over as a chunk of real estate in the larger cultural battle over “narrative”. I can’t say with certainty what view is most prevalent as a reading of the Eric Garner and related videos. What I can say is that I’ve encountered equally vigorous reactions from both the people reading it as an archetypical document of the authoritarian racism of the state and as a sign of the “entitlement” of the disadvantaged and as affirmation of the unquestionable rightness of the police.

Insofar as the creation and sharing of these videos is a tactic towards an end, their eventual surface interpretations can’t be taken for granted as pointing people in either direction cleanly. This is as true for the one sought from the bottom or beamed down from the top. They exist in an inter-lapping set of discourses and can, as Stan pointed out in his most recent post on distributed fascism, lead to unexpected results.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Buy his first book on OWS here.

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2 comments

  1. […] out my previous two pieces relating to this subject here and […]

  2. […] ubiquity of snuff films in the United States since 9-11 was symptomatic of a crisis of cultural capital. For 50+ years […]

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