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Uneasy Lies the Head

Last October I was standing in my kitchen, waiting for espresso to trickle from the spout of our imposing machine. I kept glancing out of the window, anxious that one of the military helicopters which often overfly the estate was, at that very moment, hovering above. Surveillance is in the air after all, at least figuratively. But there was nothing, no movement whatsoever, save a red kite ‘turning and turning in the widening gyre’. It seemed an apt, apocalyptic image, but as for the bird itself, I dismissed it. Kites aren’t even real birds of prey, but scavengers that survive on road-kill, picking at the corpses of precipitous pheasant and hesitant deer.

 

Temporarily satisfied that I was unobserved, I made my way up through the house to my attic office. But once I reached it my anxiety resurfaced, and I closed the blinds on the dormers before sitting down at the desk. For a moment, distracted, I fiddled with the fabric fraying on the arms of my swivel chair; then, after downing the coffee in a scalding gulp, I prepared to go through the portal that leads to all that is illegal, illicit, and – notwithstanding pop-up text info-panels – bizarrely ineffable. The laptop came alive with an optimistic jingle totally at odds with my real intentions. My hands were unsteady as I held them poised above the keyboard. The espresso and my own adrenaline made common cause, and I felt myself torn between fight and flight. And still the conversation from the night before turned over and over in my mind, as I havered. What was it Yeats said, about the moral failure of his times? ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’ But which was I? One of the vacillating best or the fanatical worst?

 

‘Is it legal?’ my wife had asked.

 

I had shrugged. Until she had put that thought into my mind, I hadn’t even considered something so technical as legality. I flattered myself that my issues went deeper.

 

‘Do you really need to watch them?’ she went on. ‘Haven’t you already seen enough of that stuff in films?’

 

I was taken aback, momentarily, to those video nasties I had watched at a friend’s house in my early teens. Exploding heads in Cronenberg’s Scanners, somersaulting heads in Donner’s The Omen, and heads with legs in Carpenter’s The Thing all played out in front of our astonished eyes. ‘It’s not the same in films,’ I said. ‘I need to see it for real.’

 

All that was behind me now as I opened Google Chrome and, as a precaution, activated the Incognito window that one of my students had told me about. All the elegance of Chrome was stripped away and a bare desert of a page appeared as if in admonishment, punctuated only by a series of warnings and disclaimers. Like those guides they pay for in films to take foolhardy freebooters to tombs they shouldn’t defile, Google seemed to be saying, ‘I will show you how to get there, but when you get there you’re on your own.’ I paid no heed, typing in a string of abstract characters that, by some miraculous algorithm, would give me in return the digital contraband I was in pursuit of.

 

 

Something Old, Something New

 

On 9 August 2014, a video was uploaded online purporting to show the beheading of American journalist James Foley. Since his capture in 2012, Foley had been held hostage by the group Islamic State. In September, a second video was uploaded showing the murder of Steven Sotloff, another American journalist. The same month saw the posting of the video of the first Briton to be murdered by the group, aid worker David Haines. The beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning was filmed and released online at the beginning of October.

 

The public response was as predictable as it was justified; a collective disgust at practices felt to be beyond the pale – of our ethics, of our values, of our very modernity. We were shocked not just by the beheadings themselves but the weaponising of social media: Facebook and Instagram were now the Semtex and the Armalites de nos jours. We appeared to have entered into a new era of the image, where actual snuff movies could be blithely ‘shared’, along with photos of our pets in fancy dress and videos of our kids falling asleep in weird places. At the same time, there was something immemorial about the videos. It was this wedding of pristine digitisation and brutal decollation that cut us to the quick. Now we knew how the Tudors would roll if they were on Facebook, how Jacobins would troll if Twitter was to hand.

 

For a while things went quiet, and when Jihadism returned it chose a new backdrop, not the desert but the boulevards of Paris; a different weapon, not a serrated knife but the dependable Kalashnikov; and, perhaps most significantly, a different media. When the staff of Charlie Hebdo were gunned down for printing satirical cartoons of Mohammed, the issues raised were classic, classically French, classically Western. This was something we all understood: the power of satire, the freedom of speech.

 

Everyone everywhere thought they knew exactly what to say about old-fashioned cartoons published by demodé means, awakening the perennial theme of the enlightened societies that we take ourselves to be. In contrast to the travails of politicians when describing the beheadings – was ‘medieval’ historically inaccurate, is ‘barbaric’ a little bit racist? – all those talking Hebdo-heads were eloquence itself. We were at home with our outrage, almost comfortable. However, with unerring rhythm, just after the marching feet of our self-certainty that Nous Sommes Charlie came to a halt, the next video was released.

 

Haruna Yukawa was by all accounts a troubled man, drawn from Japan to Syria by misfortune and, it would appear, misguided ambitions. He was taken hostage alongside his friend Kenji Goto, a respected Japanese war reporter. Video evidence of Yukawa’s beheading was posted on 24 January 2015, after the Japanese government failed to post the ransom set at $200 million. The Hebdoistes were wrong-footed by this escalation, and the clarity of the issues became ill-defined once again. We were back with the fertile juxtaposition of the evanescence of digital imagery and the wet horror of the severed head, reminded yet again that Jihad has repeatedly been able to outflank the West in two of its most ardent pursuits: cinema and violence.

 

Jihad has opened up an entirely new theatre of war. It has focused on performances featuring close-fighting, meaty public spectacle, and crude mortifications of the body. And when ISIS hacked into the US military central command’s social media accounts the message was clear: in the war on terror, in the key killing-fields of barbarity and broadcast at least, we can’t hold a candle to Jihadi John and his ilk. They just get it and we don’t. The formula is as simple as any Hollywood blockbuster. Take the latest in image technology and wed it to the most ancient, deeply-felt human fears and let the internet do the rest.

 

Don’t worry, I am not going to brain you with my thoughts on ‘the net’ or collar you with a hastily cobbled together history of terrorism. I have neither the expertise nor the chutzpah for that. But I do have a ‘particular set of skills’ when it comes to one specific terror: the horror that surrounds the act of removing the head from the gangly, mobile plinth that evolved to support it. Yes, I am that rare animal, for whom in general there is not much call: a decapitation expert.

 

When I began my studies fifteen years or so ago, there was only one piece published that theorised decapitation, Hélène Cixous’ ‘Decapitation or Castration?’ (1981). More recently, the field – still sparse – has been expanded by the publication of Julia Kristeva’s full-length study The Severed Head (2011). Given the ISIS atrocities, all this is set to change: decapitation studies look ready to enjoy something of a moment. Kristeva’s analysis of the Medusa myth is as good a place to start as any. In the Greek legend, Perseus kills Medusa, whose hair is made up of writhing snakes and whose gaze turns living things to stone. Then he cuts off her head. Usually, as in Cellini’s famous sculpture, Perseus closes by holding the Medusa head aloft by the snake-hair for all to see. Cixous and Kristeva both stress the relation between beheading and castration, with the Medusa working as the entry level pass into the symbolism of the head. In their work as in mine, decapitation was, irretrievably, a study in sexuality. My first piece tackled the Salomé cult in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century: phallic women featured large as I unpicked the specifics of the complex interplay between the head, male power, and the fear of the female Other.

 

When we speak of Salome today we don’t mean the historical figure, who isn’t even named in the biblical sources. Rather, we are responding to Gustave Flaubert’s outrageous 1877 short story, ‘Herodias’, which sows the seeds of the highly eroticised re-dissemination of the story for the modern age. At the end of her dance for Herod’s birthday, Salome is allowed to ask for anything she desires. Turning to Iokanaan, the original Biblical name for John, Flaubert’s Salome ‘lisping slightly pronounced these words with a childlike expression: “I want you to give me on a dish the head…” She had forgotten the name, but then went on with a smile, “Iokanaan’s head!”’ The lisping, the cataphoric inversion, forgetting the name – the damn name of John the Baptist – and then that smile… This twerking Lolita is the cause of all the fuss that was to follow and, unwittingly, I took her lead.

 

Hot on the heels of Flaubert, the French artist Gustave Moreau’s ‘Apparition’ pretty much sums up the basic tenets of the decadent cult. He paints a strongly sexualised Salome-object, caught in mid-dance with an arm outstretched in the kind of extension that makes Darcey Bussell purr. The decollated head of John the Baptist floats above, caught in profile, a twisted icon, hieratic, collared in sharp light. Beneath the Byzantine impassiveness, vertebrae peep and viscera leak from the neck. John holds Salome in his reproachful gaze, as if to say, ‘Put that phallus down, little girl, before you hurt someone.’ Oscar Wilde takes up the Salome-bashing baton with relish in his rather tedious play Salome, the inspiration for the infamous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ in Richard Strauss’ 1905 opera, said by some to be the origin of modern striptease. Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem ‘Herodiade’ lingers on the lobes, not least because it includes a soliloquy spoken by the decollated head as it flies from the blade. These were my sources: salacious, sexual and at times rather silly.

 

For all its many flaws, my essay was the first sustained consideration of the representation of decapitation ever printed. So when, back in the early autumn of last year, people began, almost in panic, to ask what could we say about these images, why did they affect us so strongly, what was so special about them, I sat there almost smug. But over time my self-satisfaction gave way to something more akin to guilt. During the whole process, one upload following another, I had never once contemplated actually watching the decapitations. I didn’t need to, I had reasoned – what could be gained from seeing the actuality? Why watch them now when such things had never attracted me in the past? Could they be any more disturbing than the art of Moreau, or the stylised language of late Flaubert? Watching the clips wouldn’t change my thinking, and there was a risk, I felt, that my capacity to frame such outrages intellectually would be morally compromised. There is nothing worse for a theorist than to have to abandon the beautiful architecture of abstract reasoning because of the powerful, yet ultimately still constructed, dictates of affect. However hard-headed we are, our hearts can still be softened by the siren call of sentiment. I wanted to avoid those rocky shores as far as I could.

 

When the second beheading was reported, and screened as well, I asked myself rationally why I would need to see the second when it was just the same as the first, notwithstanding the fact that I hadn’t actually seen that one. Then the third was released, then a fourth. Ineluctably, as the weeks passed, I fell under the thrall of another kind of call: the call of the real. The arguments which had always stood me in good stead before began to falter. At the end of October I gave in and watched the clips.

 

 

We Big-brained Weaklings of the African Plains

 

I am a lecturer and, as far as I’m concerned, if you can’t stand up in front of a hundred or so strangers and hold forth on your convictions for an hour or so armed only with Powerpoint and a few well-worn witticisms, then those convictions are not worth very much. However outlandish the concept, I have always prided myself on being able to sell it to the room – but even I haven’t tried the topic of decapitation yet. Cannibalism yes, but then that’s very much last season’s bill of fare. All the same, I have a pretty good idea of how it will pan out when in the coming autumn term I will be lecturing – and I’m sure I won’t be the only one – on the significance of representation, terror and decapitation. This is how I imagine it will go.

 

The hall is almost full and a natural lull in the conversation tells me it is time to begin. Decapitation 101, Week 1: We big-brained weaklings of the African plains.

 

‘The most significant anthropological cut in the history of film remains,’ I will declare, reigning in my first slide, building the tension, ‘Kubrick’s remove from a flying bone to a falling space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey.’

 

I kill the lights. There is a gasp. They weren’t expecting that. Roll VT. They calm, soothed by the familiarity of flickering light in the dark. I let the clip run for a minute or so, then bring the lights back up and plough on.

 

‘It is not your usual cut, by any means, but something called a match cut. A match cut jumps from one thing to another unrelated thing, suggesting continuity by some form of visual similarity. It is the most poetic of all filmic techniques. It is also the most ideological. It wants to convince you. A straight cut simply moves from one scene to another and gets the audience to fill in the gaps of what happened in between, to usher the story on a bit. A straight cut you can trust. It shows you something happening, and then something else just after. But a match cut, I’m not so sure about. It has intentions on you. The jump from bone to spaceship finds Kubrick, for example, very much in professorial mode. “Listen”, it shouts, “I want to tell you something!”’

 

I cue up the next clip but I don’t stop talking, never stop talking, not till you have got them, and I don’t think we’re there yet.

 

‘At the beginning of October last year, the first episode of Brian Cox’s series The Human Universe was aired, and I realised it was little more than an extemporisation on Kubrick’s idea. “From Apeman to Spaceman” finds Professor Cox somewhere in the Great Rift Valley. In front of him are lined-up various skulls. Cox picks them up in turn, his eyes agleam. He names them, dates them, it’s all very interesting. Then he starts to detail the cubic capacity of each skull. The first is 400ccs, about the same as a tall latte. The next, homo erectus, is double that, and so on until we reach the final skull. This one is 200,000 years old and has a capacity of 1500ccs, which, Cox points out, “is close to my brain size.”

 

‘The point Cox is making has something to do with a correlation between rapid expansion in the cubic capacity of skulls and a set of extreme atmospheric changes made acute by the particular geology of the Rift Valley. All I can focus on is this particular detail of the cubic capacity of the brain cavity. It relegates the role of the skull to little more than a container for stuff, soft raw matter, a litre and a half of mostly fat. I realise that for humans, the head, and most particularly the brain, that grey matter, is all that matters, all that makes us matter – if indeed we matter at all.

 

‘Up until the dramatic transformation of the human around 10,000 years ago when we settled the land to farm, we were insignificant foraging beasts. About 70,000 years ago, humans were a marginal species, with little impact on the world at large. Their capacity to eat meat had fuelled the expansion of a large brain, but the souping up of the brain meant refuelling was a constant problem. Our brains are using about 20% of all our energy at any one time. Even when we’re watching Downton Abbey.’

 

A guffaw here, I note with relief. I wasn’t sure if students watched Downton.

 

‘In evolutionary terms, this is unsustainable. Not least because, back in the day, we humans were nothing more than the bottom-feeders of the Savannah. Mostly too weak to bring down our own prey, we scraped an existence scavenging scraps from long-abandoned kills.’

 

I show an image of hyenas crunching a kill, then another of zombies munching a head. The students cry out in mock disgust.

 

‘When Brian Cox fumbles with a lump of obsidian on the plains of Ethiopia, trying to fashion a spearhead, he focuses on the need for language, social organisation, and the passing on of knowledge that was necessary for our ancestors to create these engineering masterpieces a quarter of a million years ago. Actually, evidence shows that these spears hefted by our ancestral weaklings were pretty useless to the hunt. More likely, sharp implements were used to gouge the marrow out of the reeking bone-piles left by elegant apex predators. Even worse, they were used to crack open the skulls of our nearest neighbours, the Neanderthals, who were forced into extinction because we were the more hungry.

 

‘The fact is that our existence is meaninglessly material. Our presence on this planet is entirely due to the accidents of physics and the vicissitudes of environment. As a species, we would be cosmically, totally insignificant if it were not for one thing: our really big brain, the most complex thing in the entire universe – so we are told. Yet in the end, physiologically, the brain is just a smoothie of fat requiring an immense amount of energy, and capable of providing a great burst of energy if you are clever enough to find a way to smash open a skull with something heavy and hard. For all its complexity, in the end, by far the largest part of the history of our brain has been that of an unsustainable resource drain that has resulted in one species turning on its neighbours and destroying them. Sound familiar?

 

‘And this is where it starts, our reverence for the head, with the brain on the plain.’

 

Jihadi John knows this. Perhaps not consciously, for example evolution is very not-Sharia, but at the deeper level, influencing his strategy and feeding his image-worlds. I imagine him in an alternate universe taking Eng. Lit. at Brunel rather than Comp. Science at Westminster. He always sits at the back of the theatre taking notes fervently. There is so much here that he can use.

 

 

Hunting the Head

 

Mercifully, you don’t just sit down, tap ‘Decapitation Videos’ into Google, and start watching. On the day I tried I was first distracted by a clip disputing the videos’ veracity and locating them as part of a wider conspiracy theory involving the CIA. Next, I found a series of sites that showed the American news not showing the videos, along with detailed descriptions of what they had just not shown. Finally, I honed in on something promising, clicked play and watched the whole of the Foley video. On the same site I found the Haines video as well and watched that. I couldn’t find the Sotloff – sources say it was pretty effectively suppressed by the various social media platforms – and I didn’t try to find the Henning clip. I had seen enough. I was tired of trawling through seedy URLs with names like ‘BestGore’ for something I didn’t think should be there in the first place. I felt I had done my duty as a thinker by confronting my own fears as to what my reaction would be if I actually saw someone beheaded, and sated that deep drive that accepts the invitation of Klimov’s harrowing masterpiece ‘Come and See’ (with its unflinching depiction of an entire Belorussian village burnt alive in a church). I closed the Incognito Window and returned to the world of the legitimate, altered, but not in the ways I had expected.

 

*

 

‘In the case of the bone-spaceship mash-up’, I continue, back on Kubrick’s match-cut, ‘I don’t think we have quite exhausted its full import. Kubrick’s work dramatises a major shift in the history of our species from the material to the symbolic, from the plains to the flame-flickering caves, from victual to ritual.

 

‘These days we still love our brains, but no longer as a main course. And before we came to love them on their own terms, we adored them as a central component of one of the most powerful symbolic remnants of our common ancient past, the head. Somewhere along the way, sapiens stopped using skulls as handy Tupperware for a brain-boosting snack, and started instead to worship them. This shift from the material to the symbolic is surely what Kubrick is getting at as he transforms filmmaking from merely showing to deeply saying. This same journey from the material to the symbolic is what allows skulls to become works of art, and Homo sapiens to become recognisably human. When we just relied on heads as diet supplements, we were still held by the chains of our evolutionary microfascism, as Deleuze would call it. Eating heads didn’t ‘mean’ anything, in that whatever we do out of instinct in order to survive has no meaning beyond what it is. However, in the very moment that we took heads, removed them from bodies and displayed them, putting them on a plinth or marking them in some way, we became symbolic beings. Symbolic beings are special because they have transcended their genes, moved beyond the brute dictates of their appetites and indulged in that act that makes them recognisably human: they did something unnecessary. It is, after all, what we do not need to do in order to be the human animal that we are, that defines us as more than the human animals that we are.

 

‘The oldest human skull found in Europe dates from around 300,000 years ago. Sapiens had left the Rift Valley and were on the move, looking to exploit new resources to feed their brain-habits. This is about the same period as the first spearheads were fashioned. The skull found is not a work of art, but it has been ‘worked’, the flesh stripped clean, the back caved in. We don’t know if this working was a ritual or prep before a meal. Around 35,000 years ago skulls were made into drinking vessels and appear to have been displayed on slabs.

 

‘About 10,000 years ago, when the human comes into its pomp, domesticating cattle, contracting new diseases and intractable metabolic problems, skulls are collected and stained red. Pretty soon after that they are augmented using plaster and adorned with things. They have become aesthetic objects. Using a skull for some other purpose is simply practical, but doing something to a skull that is ostensibly useless is in some way suggesting that a skull can be made, once more, to speak. Skull-art these days after Damien Hirst and Alexander McQueen may already be old hat, but it coincides, pretty much, with the most interesting thing in the universe emerging from the most complicated thing in the universe: our post-evolved cultures of meaning.’

 

All the time I am flashing up images of skulls, skull after skull, setting up the next joke, an unexpected close-up of a kitten’s head, resting on a pillow, followed swiftly by the skull of a cat.

 

‘Skull worship cannot be separated from headhunting and, more widely, cannibalism. There is ample evidence that many cultures consumed parts of their enemies’ bodies after battle, to absorb their power. In The Severed Head Julia Kristeva argues that these acts of decapitation were no longer for the purposes of sustenance but ritual. ‘It is human intimacy that is established through these barbaric practices, an intimacy that blends the fear of the other… with the desire for identification, continuance, and power over one’s kind.’ Something very important has changed here. The simple biological need for humans to feed their brain, with the implication being they would eat anything that gave them a fat-flush, including carrion, their neighbours, even, at times, each other, is now usurped by cannibalistic decapitation as a means of feeding a society’s sense of self. We have stopped lopping off heads to make something happen, and have started removing them to produce meanings. When we started to worship the skull, our human society stopped being simply social, like that of Gelada Baboons. It became cultural, and it is this cultural component of the human that meant at the end of the last great Ice Age we Sapiens had survived, and all our competitors had not. Not because we killed and feasted on them, nor because we were the better hunters, but because we had made the single most important discovery in the history of the universe. Human beings had invented complex, communal forms of meaning: language. Naturally, the head was at the heart of this development.’

 

John nods resolutely at the back of the lecture theatre. ‘You take the head,’ he writes, ‘and you create the tribe.’ I see him smiling. At least someone is listening, I think. I wrap up.

 

‘Okay everyone, that’s enough for now. Next week, symbolism and the decollation of John the Baptist.’

 

‘Great lecture,’ Emwazi says as he leaves.

 

‘Thanks, Mohammed,’ I reply. ‘I look forward to your essay.’

 

 

Capital Punishment: A Public Safety Measure

 

Of all the forms of capital punishment, decapitation has remained popular throughout the ages with oppressive states of all kinds, as a means of performing their absolute power. The term ‘capital punishment’ originates in the Latin term capitalis, or pertaining to the head. For millennia, decapitation has been a common form of state violence, heads displayed on spikes along highways or atop battlements, the natural conclusion to a drawn-out public spectacle of torture. Beheading was often reserved for those in positions of power, and has a natural alliance with regicide. The humiliation rained down on common criminals was seen as politically threatening if applied to noble enemies or even, from time to time, royals themselves. So instead we neatly took their well-coiffed heads.

 

Yet if beheading has been a special form of execution, it is also a favoured means of mass killing, as the recently reported decapitations of seventy soldiers in Idlib show. Its efficiency lends it to genocide. The Nazis used it for a while, until their ambitious outstripped it; during the French Revolution, the idea of the democratisation of death was allied to the scientific development of the guillotine. Death by decapitation was now a fit death for all citizens, not just kings and lords. In both cases, decapitation is not seen as taking another human life. Robespierre summed up the trial of Louis XVI with the words: ‘You have no sentence whatever to decide for or against a man, but a public safety measure to take.’ There is, in other words, some consonance between the taking of the head, the formation of a state and the removal of one’s basic humanity. Beheading, it would appear, has a heightened deathpower. The victim is not just killed, they are ontologically annulled.

 

In trying to address the sudden resurgence of beheading as political violence, commentators have stressed that the use of decapitation by Islamic State is typical of a new ‘state’ trying to assert its authority. Naturally, the shadow of the French Revolution looms large over this idea. It has also been said that the videos are more intended to rally supporters of Islamic State than to strike fear into the hearts of its enemies. This would certainly be in accord with the ritualistic power of headhunting for many ancient societies. When the brain feeds the tribe, the tribe just gets by, but when the head symbolises the human, the sustaining power of the image becomes fecund enough to allow us not simply to feed but also, due to symbols, to dream. And what dreams we have had.

 

Thanks to the Bible’s natural interest in state-founding acts of decapitation – Goliath, Holofernes and John the Baptist, to name the most capital examples – Western art has never lacked for subjects when it comes to the spectacle of depicting decollation. From the Renaissance all the way up to late nineteenth century symbolism, we have a steady stream of decapitation art, and I have studied it all. Yet carefully composed canvases hanging on the salon wall are of an entirely different order to the visual immediacy and ubiquity of cheap digitised images. Paradoxically, at the very point that we have the means to both capture and communicate actual acts of beheading, it remains the power of what we don’t see in the videos that is their real significance.

 

 

Our Not Seeing It Is The Strongest Of PROOFS

 

The films I have seen online show the same four scenes. The hostage, dressed in orange overalls, reads out a prepared speech outlining the culpability of his leaders for what is about to follow. Then a figure dressed in black expresses his ideology: in many aspects, troublingly, not that much at odds with my own. This figure subsequently attempts to cut the throat of the victim with a knife. At this point the screen goes dark and the camera cuts to a headless corpse shown lying chest down with what appears to be the head of the victim placed on its back. And that is it. The actual beheading is a sleight of hand, a trompe l’oeil.

 

I am confused as to why an organisation like Islamic State would shy away from simply showing the beheadings, if they did take place. Even more perplexing is why it was widely accepted that these much reported-on clips did show graphic scenes of decapitation. Let me make it clear once more: they don’t. What they show are two men, one of whom looks like he is trying to cut the throat of the other. Then a straight cut. Then a headless corpse. A straight cut, as simple as that, from one scene to another, suggesting the basic illusion of cause and effect on which all cinema depends. I play the videos over a few times. They hold no fear or even fascination for me now. Then I sit at my desk for a long time, feeling a mixture of relief and an unpleasant sense of betrayal.

 

The point, as I came to see it, is this: it is my digital right to see all there is that can be seen, in an instant, whenever I demand it. My electronic imperialism has been thwarted and I don’t like it. ISIS have enticed me into the peepshow, then left me alone in the tent in the dark feeling, frankly, foolish. Is this, I wonder, Jihadi John’s last laugh? In a world called the West, where everything is reduced to the visually obvious, the readily available – pornography, shopping and gossip – is it that not showing the decapitations mocks us more effectively than any actual image ISIS could have released?

 

It is clear that ISIS appreciate the allure of the restricted view, the occult text, the lonely splinter cell, the veil. This is Jihad, after all, a religious war, and religions know all about the effect of the unseen. The worship of something that doesn’t exist after all. I think of the governess in James’s Turn of the Screw: ‘Our not seeing it is the strongest of proofs.’ Then again, she was mad. She saw things that were not there.

 

 

You’re In The Army Now

 

Judith Butler says that those who use cameras during wartime become agents of that war. Our mass participation in visual culture ‘recruits’ us into the war. When we view images of violence online, we may be passive receivers, but we also become participants in that violence. Pushing a button to launch a rocket and watching its effects on a screen is not the same as pushing a button and watching someone be killed on a screen, but they belong to the same order of things when we are at war. And we are always at war with someone. My point is that you don’t even need the match cut here. A straight cut will suffice. And a simple straight cut was all it took to convince us that videos of hostages having their heads cut off existed online when they did not.

 

What harm did that do? What degree of complicity did we succumb to? If we were interpellated by an ideology, ask yourself, whose ideology? For make no mistake, each time that these videos were viewed, shared, described, even deleted, an act of war took place. The question is not whether you are a soldier – you are a soldier – but whose side you are on. In the old days, on the open plains, you knew which your tribe was, and just to make sure, you’d cut off the heads of your enemies and maybe taste a piece. These days, these horrible days, when we sit alone in our device-caves and watch our shadowy screens, we no longer know where to aim the cut, nor indeed how much or how little to consume.

 

But ISIS knows and Jihadi John knows. Their judgement is exquisite. Just the right combination of our prehistoric awe at the very head that makes us so human, so special, so lethal, and our contemporary enthrallment at the altar of technology is enough. The jump from headhunting on the plains to watching filth in our homes is a mere 100,000 years or so. We are more than happy to match together the two loose ends of that cut, and fill in the gaps ourselves with our collective faux-horror.

 

As I write this, the news comes in that a video not showing Kenji Goto’s beheading has been released online. Now I really have no need to see it. Indeed, my not seeing it is in some small way my act of resistance. Anyway, I have my answers now. Could I have got here in any other way, I wonder? Would I have got here if, say, the videos I saw were real? All I can say is that to comprehend the significance of this deceptive cut, the material cut of the head and the symbolic cut of the eye, I had to head down ancient and confounding passageways. Consider this my match cut, if you will, because sometimes you need to look away to be able to see what is right there in front of your eyes. Or, in this case, what is not. After all, there is no such thing as a ‘straight’ cut, and that is what the match cut can teach us. Whether you see one thing in terms of another, or see one thing and think you see another, the effect is the same. You pressed the button, you chose to watch, and the war goes on with your consent, without your even realising it. Thanks for sharing.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Philosophy at Brunel University, West London.  He is the author of In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde, On Mourning: Theories of Loss in Modern Literature, The Literary Agamben: Adventures on Logopoiesis, Agamben and Indifference: A Critical Overview (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2014) and a forthcoming two-volume study of Alain Badiou’s Being and Event project.  He is currently writing a book on innovations in violence as a tool for the distribution of power at the global and local levels.

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Art

November 2012

Pending performance: Cally Spooner’s live production

Isabella Maidment

Art

November 2012

It’s 1957 and the press release still isn’t written[1] An actress dressed in black overalls stands on a theatrically...

fiction

March 2011

In the Field

Jesse Loncraine

fiction

March 2011

There were flickers of red in the water, a tint the colour of blood. He stood in the river,...

Interview

July 2013

Interview with Paul Muldoon

Alice Whitwham

Interview

July 2013

A major figure in English-language poetry for decades, Paul Muldoon has enjoyed one of the most successful careers of...