‘Disparage the Press?’
‘Even so; some gloomy souls affirming that it is proving with that great invention as with brandy or eau-de-vie, which, upon its first discovery, was believed by the doctors to be, as its French name implies, a panacea—a notion which experience, it may be thought, has not truly verified.’
‘You surprise me, Frank. Are there really those who so decry the press? Tell me more. Their reasons.’
‘Reasons they have none. Affirmations they have many; among other things that, while under dynastic despotisms, the press is to the people little but an improvisatore, under popular ones it is too apt to be their Jack Cade. In fine, these people regard the press in the light of a Colt’s revolver, pledged to no cause but his in whose chance hands it may be; deeming the one an improvement upon the pen, much akin to what the other is upon the pistol; involving along with the multiplication of the barrel, no consecration of the aim. ’ (Melville 197)
1That one should look to Melville for an epigraph affording some insight into (or summation of) one’s article, and find this most perfect pronouncement, is evidence enough that Donald Barthelme and Michal Rovner belong to a long legacy of writers and artists not easily taken in or conned; artists most resolutely shifting the perspective and shedding light on one nation’s dependence on confidence that is often misplaced, and on a sense of destiny — especially at times of war — that may not be manifest to all, as well as on media coverage that is often biased, when it is not censored.
2One question Barthelme raises, among others, is: What (the hell) happened to satire? And is satire even possible in this absurd day and age? — a central question which Philip Roth’s 1961 essay “Writing American Fiction” brought to the fore and Black Humorists foregrounded, as wryly highlighted here by Charles Baxter:
The same day that a friend called with the news that Donald Barthelme had died, a freight train derailed outside Freeland, Michigan. Among the cars that went off the tracks were several chemical tankers, some of which spilled and caught fire. […] Upon being asked what some of the hazards to neighbors and on-lookers were: near the fire, a company representative, interviewed on Michigan Public Radio, said, “Well, there’s been some physical reactions, yes, certainly; especially in the area of nausea, vomiting-type thing. (Baxter 713)
3Those familiar with Barthelme’s “special kingdom,” as Baxter calls it, will be reminded (as Baxter was), of “Report,” a story first published in 1968, and will “[re]consider, for instance, the area of real-time online computer-controlled wish evaporation” (“Report” 88), one of the countless marvels listed in this story, which was first published in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts and opens thusly: “Our group is against the war. But the war goes on” (86).
4In being lectured on what the engineers he is visiting have come up with, which is “functioning like crazy” (89), the narrator, not unlike some war correspondents during the First Gulf War, has difficulty reconciling himself with the notion that “function is the cry” (89) or the Vietnam-era dictum that “stopping is losing” (88):
I spoke to him then about the war. I said the same things people always say when they speak against the war. I said that the war was wrong. I said that large countries should not burn down small countries. I said that the government had made a series of errors. I said that these errors once small and forgivable were now immense and unforgivable. I said that the government was attempting to conceal its original errors under layers of new errors. I said that the government was sick with error, giddy with it (87).
5In retaliation, he is exposed to a list of what atrocities the engineers might unleash, should they lose patience: “thousands upon thousands of self-powered crawling-along-the-ground lengths of titanium wire,” “new improved pufferfish toxin which precipitates an identity crisis,” “two million maggots in their rice within twenty-four hours,” “hypodermic darts capable of piebalding the enemy’s pigmentation” to name but a revealing few. Although napalm is never mentioned, the surface playfulness that spells absurdity gives way to terse dialogue that spells horror:
“The point is that the whole structure of enemy life is within our power to rend, vitiate, devour, and crush. But that’s not the interesting thing.”
“You recount these possibilities with uncommon relish.”
“Yes, I realize that there is too much relish here. But you must realize that these capabilities represent in and of themselves highly technical and complex and interesting problems and hurdles on which our boys have expanded many thousands of hours of hard work and brilliance. And that the effects are often grossly exaggerated by irresponsible victims. And that the whole thing represents a fantastic series of triumphs for the multi-disciplined problem-solving team” (89-90).
6As Lois Gordon observed, “Report” is “a bitter attack on our progressive technological society in which war functions like a computerized process, […] written many years before Three Mile Island” (93-94) — not to mention Desert Storm. Gordon characterizes Barthelme’s humor in this piece as “searing.”
7The war hawk’s emphatic discourse, like his weaponry, is an attempt to hammer his vision into the narrator’s head: “the voice is disembodied, oracular, in full assurance of its authority, and unembarrassed that it is speaking nonsense” to borrow Guy Davenport’s characterization of the voice in Flaubert’s dictionary of idiocies (Davenport 70). The dialogue at the outset is conducted very much like a parley between two tribes, the “software guys” and the “hardware guys,” with somewhat unusual offerings: “Have some of this chicken à la Isambard Kingdom Brunel the Great Ingineer” (“Report,” 87). The conflation of styles, epochs, jargons, and lingos is Barthelme’s chief ploy and his forte: “We will open our hearts and heads to you, Software Man, because we want to be understood and loved by the great lay public, and have our marvels appreciated by that public, for which we daily unsung produce tons of new marvels each more life-enhancing than the last” (87). The Virgilian impetus is added to the mix, together with the populist politicking, with just enough sentiment to ensure that the sentence will fall flat and that the phrase “great lay public” will reveal the speaker’s condescension, with just enough emphasis on tons, with just the right placement of the antiphrastic “life-enhancing,” that the irony be final. David Porush remarked that “Report” stands out as one of a few stories, if not the only one in his corpus, in which Barthelme responds transparently and politically to a current event.” (Porush 87). Literary technique and its delights are drafted by “a seasoned guerilla-fighter in the war on dominant meanings in culture and their oppressive effects” (Egbert 75), in the war on war in general, on the technology that produces weapons of destruction, on “problem-solving” technocrats that relish the possibilities, unmindful of the “irresponsible” victims. The current event is never mentioned.
8Barthelme, like Vonnegut and Burroughs, “participat[es] in a widespread feeling that what is fed into consciousness in America is waste,” as Tony Tanner would have it:
Consciousness, consciousness conditioned by society that is (and what is the alternative?), is a litter basket, an ash heap, a wasteland, a cesspool. The metaphors may vary with the virulence of the disgust and nausea, but they are all from the same landscape. [...] That seems to be the feeling. So we find a literature aimed at producing a post-literature silence (silence after long speech is one order of the day), books which will somehow unbook the atmosphere, forms which will decontaminate psychic and perhaps social spaces.(92-93)
9Tanner calls this decontaminating “Operation Unjunk.” “Report,” it may be argued, unreports reports:
I took United’s 5:44 from Cleveland arriving at Newark at 7:19. New Jersey is bright pink at that hour. Living things move about the surface of New Jersey at that hour molesting each other only in traditional ways. I made my report to the group. I stressed the friendliness of the engineers. I said, It’s all right. I said, We have a moral sense. I said. We’re not going to do it. They didn’t believe me. (90)
10“What might possibly surprise America?” Bruce Jay Friedman asked in his 1965 “Foreword” to Black Humor (22). Looking back in 1992, he stated that it was just as difficult to “out-satirize the news”: “if anything has changed, it’s the transistorized speed at which the outrageous becomes humdrum.” (Friedman 1993: 25)
11In the 1991 series entitled Decoy, Israeli artist Michal Rovner (whose fame in America came with the Whitney Biennal Exhibition of 2000, and in France, with a 2005 exhibition at the Jeu de Paume) made Polaroid images from television coverage of the First Gulf War. Rovner then rephotographed the Polaroids, enlarged them, and added color in the darkroom. In The Space Between, a mid-career retrospective of Rovner’s work, Sylvia Wolf states that Rovner “selected hues based on her emotional response to the subject. A picture of a soldier raising his arms in surrender is drained of color, while another of a V-shaped formation of soldiers is an acid, computer-screen green.” (35)
12Before examining those pictures, I would like readers to once again immerse themselves in the nothingness that broadcast journalism exposed us to at great length during the First Gulf War, when not actually creating panic out of that same nothingness. I am going to reference a piece of news reporting – the Gulf War with the sound on, as it were – which affords some insight into the predicament that journalists found themselves in, while covering that war – a moment that constitutes a momentary lapse of unreason, as we shall see. Other imagery will be alluded to, with the sound off, as we experience Rovner’s photographs. Both serve to remind us that this war was a war “conducted largely out of the camera’s view.” (Schmitt 1996).
13What follows is a transcript of a panel on NBC’s News Today, January 30, 1991:
Jamie Gangel: It certainly is a new kind of TV journalism. If Vietnam brought war into people’s living rooms, then this war is being brought to them live. And some of the most dramatic footage has been of reporters themselves. But while compelling, how complete a picture are viewers getting from this TV journalism, this live, instant war.
Tom Rosenstiel, LA Times TV critic: It is seductive, it is terrific television, it is gripping, you cannot stop watching, but it’s not clear that it means anything.
Jamie Gangel: Drawbacks include mistakes made in the rush to be first. And speculation because so little is known. Don’t know because few reporters have even seen the battlefield. Most American reporters have been thrown out of Iraq. Those left are strictly censored. On the Allied side, there are also tight restrictions. Most answers from the US brass are explanations of why they can’t answer a question.
And unlike Vietnam where reporters travelled on their own, in the Gulf journalists are escorted their coverage is pooled and what they see is carefully orchestrated by the Pentagon. Thus far they’ve seen very little. Nevertheless this has become the instant war.
Behind the scenes producers and crews are on 24 hour alert. And the ability and competition to go live is reinventing TV journalism moment by moment.
Jamie Gangel: There’s no question those pictures are a very dramatic part of the story but the frustration, Bryant, is that it’s just a small part. Some things we can bring viewers instantly, but the major part of this war, like the massive bombing, most viewers probably won’t see for weeks.
Bryant Gumbel: And Jamie probably equally distressing is that according to polls 90% of the people really don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that the government is censoring the images they’re getting.
Jamie Gangel: That’s true, there’s a great sense, of course, of wanting to preserve the security of people over there, but are we giving an exaggerated sense of what’s going on by what we can’t show?
14What this transcript does not convey, perhaps, are the examples shown on screen: the antics of journalists losing all perspective and sensationalizing their report by presenting it with gas masks on (Charles Jaco, CNN), pointing to snipers off-camera (Arthur Kent, NBC), and so forth.
15It is my belief that this footage sheds retroactive light on Barthelme’s work, which cannot be understood unless we bear in mind the kind of TV dreck that was broadcast, as early as the 1950s and 1960s, and that forms the backdrop to many a Barthelme story. The severed heads or masks, the parodic bemoaning, crowd noises, murmuring, and yawning in “Brain Damage,” for instance, serve, I would argue, as replicas of the talking heads on TV; NBC provides countless examples of the drivel and theatricality that the war generated in self-aggrandizing — is this a sniper which I see before me? — newsmen. Barthelme, himself, briefly served during the Korean War. The section in the posthumously published 1970 story “Brain Damage” — which begins with “I worked for newspapers. I worked for newspapers at a time when I was not competent to do so. I reported inaccurately...” (138) — does somewhat reflect on Barthelme’s stint as war correspondent and copy writer for the Houston Post; and it comes as no surprise that the story alludes to Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and In Our Time.
16The Gulf War started off with an air campaign and the bombing of anti-aircraft defenses, (and later, of infrastructures), producing coverage that relied heavily on maps, aerial photography and infra-red scoping to enable night vision. When troops were later deployed, thermal imaging technology used in US tanks produced images whose focus was soft, which had no contours, and were bathed in a distinct greenish glow. Throughout the conflict, press conferences were held by the military giving daily updates on US progress, often showing Department of Defense videos to support their presentation, and always focusing on the precision of the targeting, the effectiveness of the bombing and the technology that made a swift victory possible. Photographers shared the plight of TV journalists: “Few photographs came out of the Gulf War that were not sanctioned by the allied governments, and none pictured the drama of battle as seen, for example, in Robert Capa’s photographs of the 1944 Omaha Beach invasion or of a Huynh Cong (Nick) Ut’s image of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam. More than any previous military conflict, photographers were tightly restricted in their access to battle areas and conflict” (Wolf 36).
- 1 See “The Vietnam Syndrome,” The Boston Globe, March 21, 1991 and E. J. Dionne Jr., “‘Kicking the V (...)
17This footage to which we were exposed at great length by television is largely responsible for the impression that this war was just some sort of elaborate video game. A picture of a Gameboy which was outwardly seriously damaged in barracks in the Gulf (and yet continued to work) stands on display at the Nintendo World Store in New York to convey the perception of The Gulf War as Technology Triumphant, a perception which sanitizes war — so much so that George Bush Sr. told a group of state legislators in March 1991: “By God we’ve kicked Vietnam Syndrome, once and for all.”1
18According to Rovner, “news footage, the raw stuff you see on television, is bad. It’s there every night, people watch it, but it hardly has any effect because it always has a similar intensity. People adjust accordingly. They develop a filter, a shield. Sometimes, though when you amplify the voltage, or reduce the voltage you get the viewer’s attention” (Wolf 163). Rovner suggests in a conversation with Leon Golub that Golub’s strategy, not unlike Barthelme’s in “Brain Damage,” is to amplify the voltage, while hers is an attempt to reduce it or shift it so as to pull people into her zone. What Rovner gives is not the fireworks but the afterglow, the sense that is lost in TV footage, the sense of human existence, and its frailty. In her own words: “I am fascinated by how breakable it is, and how thin the line is between good or bad, being and not being (157).”
19The light in her pictures is, typically, diffused, softened, and contrast is reduced. What’s more, the enlargement makes for graininess. There is a frontality to the first three decoys in the series which form a sequence of sorts, as the soldiers close in on their target, although no context is here specified (Rovner went so far as to rework and include some of those pictures in another series on China). The background and the subject are of the same color, the same density. “A decoy is a visual temptation,” Rovner explains, “It is a camouflage, it is a trap used to draw someone into danger.” She knew, Sylvia Wolf writes, “that the images of Iraqi troops on American television had been sanitized for general consumption and were already several layers removed from reality. [...] To Rovner’s eye the Gulf War represented a general state of threat more than a topical event” (Wolf 35). Like many viewers “she felt dislocated by how sterile the high-tech weaponry and the highly controlled reporting made the war seem” (Wolf 34).
20In her pictures, human shapes become ciphers, lines of soldiers marching in the desert look like chromosomes. Far from being didactic, her work remains referential only if we consider that her process of abstraction somehow restores reality by dropping the details, the specific locations, the context. Her pictures are “both less and more” in that “seeing less, we imagine more” (Wolf 68). What Rovner gives us is not a reworking of the frenzy or drama, of the spectacular, but a deliberately low-key, low-voltage, and yet high-fi rephotographing of CNN footage. How exactly she processed the footage matters less than the palette which is her own abstract take on thermal imaging: gray for the soldiers, greenish for Target, sky-blue for Map, bright red for the plates depicting mushroom-like clouds and fumes that recall Hiroshima.
21Barthelme questions the uses of satire at a time when reality outdoes anything the satirist may come up with: just think of the brain damage generated when troops were ordered to blow up an ammunition depot near Khamisiyah, thus causing 99,000 at the lowest estimate to be exposed to sarin and cyclo-sarin, brain damage indeed (Urbina 2007). Barthelme gives us dreck with the sound on, a view from the garbage dump, or rather the first garbage dump of a series, so immersed are we in the trash phenomenon. Michal Rovner questions photography’s ability to convey not the shock, but the meaning of what we see. Both have an astute sense of what we as viewers and readers are accustomed to, and therefore have become blind to. “The truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind—” Dickinson stated. Barthelme’s and Rovner’s slants, their takes on reality, however different, are “an undogmatic alternative to authoritative pronouncements.” (Hutcheon 51). They are efforts to distance themselves from the grand manner, to revisit the fragmentation and yet restore some sense of sequence, to make a dent in the shield that we have developed watching the small screen, a dent in the linguistic shield, in the satirist’s or the artist’s own moral shield — his or her stance —, and in the thickness of decayed jargon or imagery. Literary technique and darkroom manipulations offer an alternative to TV coverage extolling weaponry while covering up, so to speak, the damage; an alternative to propaganda that sanitizes the damage and numbs the brain; an alternative to writing or art that sentimentalizes loss. May we not enlist precision in “learn[ing] how to eliminate hostility from the hearts of others” (“Brain Damage” 133) is both artists’ implied interrogation.