Tag Archives: Eric Garner

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.


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.


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 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.

Are the Police Acting Like a Distributed Gestapo?

Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddy Grey, and now Sandra Bland, I’ve seen this movie over and over gain. The screenplay rarely changes. A young black man, or woman, gets into a confrontation with the police. He dies under suspicious circumstances. For the first few days, local newspaper reporters, who usually depend on the cops for leads to stories, just publish the police department’s press release. But it rarely stops there. Political activists investigate the incident. They publish what they learn in online journals and on social media and this in turn sparks protests, not only against the police, but against the local media, which all too often act like a stenographer for the local police.

The newspapers, no longer able to ignore the discontent, respond in two ways: They send their reporter back to write a more detailed report on the police killing. But they also “investigate” the victim, who we invariably learn was “no angel”, had a criminal record, marijuana in his system, or an all around “bad attitude.” Far right-wing media like Fox, Breitbart, and New York Post amplify the smears, and, along with the more mainstream, “liberal” newspapers, turn what should have been the trial of a police officer into a trial of a victim far too dead to defend himself. Sometimes a local district attorney will convene a grand jury. There’s almost never indictment. Liberals will call for a federal investigation. It almost never happens.

Surely this has to end?

But what if it doesn’t?

The growth of grassroots political organizations like Black Lives Matter, and the spotlight shown on both the police and the corporate media, are encouraging. But they are by no means guaranteed to succeed. History points to darker possibilities. The growth of revolutionary socialism after the First World War led to the birth of its mirror image: fascism. In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s provoked a ferocious backlash. George Wallace, the Republican “southern strategy,” the Boston bussing riots and the Tea Party. We’re still living with it today.

Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism treats fascism, not as a stable political system, but as a historical process. While the only perfectly realized fascist states in history have been Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, all “fascisms seek out in each national culture those themes that are best capable of mobilizing a mass movement of regeneration, unification, and purity directed against liberal individualism and constitutionalism and against Leftist class struggle.” A fascist movement unfolds in a cycle of five stages: (1) the creation of movements; (2) their rooting in the political system; (3) their seizure of power; (4) the exercise of power; (5) and, finally, the long duration, during which the fascist regime chooses either radicalization or entropy. A fascist leader trying to build a fascist nation will play on the nation’s “fears of decadence and decline; assertion of national and cultural identity; a threat by unassimilable foreigners to national identity and good social order; and the need for greater authority to deal with these problems.”

So let’s take three examples of fascist and potentially fascist leaders: Donald Trump, Francisco Franco, and Adolf Hitler. Donald Trump is clearly a would-be fascist leader of a movement still in stage one. While he’s a long-time racist who plays on white fears of national decline and resentment against blacks, and while he does have wide name recognition in the elite media, it’s unlikely that he will win the Republican nomination. What makes him appealing to the elites in the media — he’s a demagogue with no history as a traditional politician –- also makes him unappealing to the elites in the Republican Party, who would rather use him the way they used Sarah Palin. He will move the “Overton Window” to the right, but will be pushed aside for Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Marco Rubio.

Francisco Franco, by contrast, made it all the way through stage 3 almost to stage 4. But after he built a mass movement and took power with the support of the Spanish ruling class and the Catholic Church, he made no attempts to create a new revolutionary society on the model of Germany or Italy. On the contrary, he deftly evaded Hitler’s attempts to recruit him as an ally for the war against the Soviet Union, and would eventually rule as a traditional authoritarian, not a fascist. He made no attempts to replace the Catholic Church or to get rid of the king. Eventually, he demobilized the mass movement that he built in response to the Spanish republic and the Spanish Civil War.

Only Mussolini and Hitler went through all five stages, building a revolutionary “prerogative state” alongside the traditional “normative state,” plunging their countries into total war that would lead either to the conquest of Europe or to their own destruction. We all know what happened. Mussolini ended up dangling on a meat hook. Hitler shot himself inside the bunker. Franco and his Portuguese counterpart Salazar on the other hand ruled for decades, eventually becoming part of the “free world,” the coalition of capitalist governments the United States built up against the Soviet Union.

Even though Donald Trump has not yet successfully built up a fascist mass movement, he has something Hitler and Franco didn’t, a mass media based on 24/7 cable news and the Internet. Germany, Spain and Italy in the 1930s had well-developed civil societies, educated populations, and conservative family structures, a traditional culture in touch with history the United States in 2015 doesn’t. An Italian or German in 1930 could turn off the radio. Americans in 2015 always have their smart phones, or their computers. Few Americans have any space at all outside of the corporations and the mainstream media. Ironically, however, it also makes the charismatic fascist demagogue unnecessary.

The American ruling class can mobilize white fear and resentment without having to resort to a George Wallace or a Donald Trump, let alone a Hitler or a Mussolini. Let’s call it “distributed fascism.” While the traditional charismatic fascist demagogue needed storm troopers, mass spectacles, and a centralized “prerogative state” that would eventually displace the traditional “normative state” — The SS, for example, a militarized police force answerable only to the Nazi Party, would eventually replace the traditional German army and Prussian officer corps. — “distributed fascism” works in reverse.  The prerogative state doesn’t replace the normative state. The normative state evolves into the prerogative state. Most of us don’t notice since the prerogative state retains the outward appearance of the normative state. But the more movements from the left like Black Lives Matter protest police brutality and the remnants of Jim Crow and segregation, the more the mass media mobilizes right wing, racist fear and resentment behind “city police forces,” which are, in fact, no longer traditional police forces subject to the rule of law, but paramilitary class armies similar to Hitler’s brown shirts and Mussolini’s black shirts.

We probably won’t ever find out what really happened to Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old university administrator who was violently arrested this past July on a trumped up traffic offense then later found dead in her cell. Did she kill herself the way the police and mass media say she did? Did the arresting officer slam her head against her car and induce a concussion, which, left untreated, led to her death by traumatic brain injury? Was there really “marijuana in her system” at the time of the arrest? Or did the medical examiner plant it on her after the botched autopsy? We will probably never know. There is no institution in American society, not the local district attorney, not the media, not the federal government that will investigate and release the truth if the truth leads to the arresting officer going to jail. The mystery around Sandra Bland’s death isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. There is no process of accountability that will allows a “bad officer” to be brought to justice for murdering a black man or woman, not for Sandra Bland, not for Freddie Grey, not for Michael Brown, not for the clearly innocent Eric Garner, who was strangled on video in front of the entire country.

While the American ruling class may not be consciously fascist, they still seem to fear a revolutionary upsurge by the American people, and by black Americans in particular. Hitler had his Ernst Rohm and Heinrich Himmler, but the American ruling class doesn’t need storm troops with a centralized leadership, let alone a single fascist grandee. All they have to do is mobilize conservative, white resentment and fear of national decline behind the highly militarized, but decentralized network of big city police forces, the class armies they built up in the wake of 9/11. A more centralized command structure, in fact, is not only unnecessary. It’s not desired. The banks were able to crush Occupy Wall Street with a highly coordinated attack, even while arguing they had nothing to do with it, that it was just about city cops dealing with a public nuisance. The intermittent murders of black men and women by the police, in turn, don’t have to be planned, just allowed to happen. The police become, in effect, a distributed Gestapo, a rallying point behind which conservative whites, already heavily armed, can reaffirm their loyalty to the capitalist state, even while denying it. They hate the federal government. They support their local sheriff.

In his classic book The Age of Reform, the great historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out that it was decentralization that prevented the United States from going fascist like Italy or Germany. Sadly it seems the decentralized nature of the 24/7 mass media may bring us fascism after all. Whether or not we notice it will depend on our ability to think critically. I doubt Sandra Bland died with any illusions about what the United States has become.