Communication Institute for Online Scholarship
Communication Institute for Online
Scholarship Continous online service and innovation
since 1986
Site index
 
ComAbstracts Visual Communication Concept Explorer Tables of Contents Electronic Journal of Communication ComVista

Purity and Gangrene: A Meditation on the Discourse of Bombs
EJC logo
The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication
***** MARTINOT ************* EJC/REC Vol. 2, No. 1, 1991 ***


PURITY AND GANGRENE:  A MEDITATION ON THE DISCOURSE OF BOMBS


Steve Martinot
University of California, Santa Cruz


        Abstract.  This essay explores the cultural
     structures that made the bombing of Iraq permissible,
     and the ways in which those structures were revealed in
     the media texts that presented and explained that
     bombing.  Three levels of contradiction in the military
     politics of the bombing are noted, which bring
     questions of censorship and media complicity into
     focus.  What is revealed is a discursive structure of
     derogation that substituted itself for information
     about Iraq and the reality of the bombing.  This
     created a political situation in which information
     functioned hermetically, self-referentially, and was
     itself, as explanation, generative (and justificatory)
     of the unjustifiable level of violence it pretended to
     explain.  By analyzing aspects of the metaphor
     structures used in the text of the bombing, an approach
     is made to a commonly encountered thought structure of
     self-referential explanation, empowering and
     permitting this level of violence.  All of this is
     understood in terms of an articulatory structure of
     purity and pollution, making reference to Mary Douglas'
     book, Purity and Danger.  Within this structure,
     thought, information, and existential political
     realities about the bombing can be seen to have become
     over-riding threats.


     For 6 weeks in early 1991, Iraq was bombed by the US.
For those in the US, this could only be, first and foremost,
a media event that was (with rare exceptions) strangely
devoid of political debate -- and also devoid of the war
stories that would have fueled it, since there was no
"front."  Indeed, the media managed to render themselves the
war story, the media event.  This was accomplished by
insulating, disguising, and distancing the (already distant)
bombing, displacing it through the amplification of marginal
details (e.g., Tel Aviv scenes, missile technologies, and
families-of-servicemen interviews), and masking it through
consent to censorship.

     The bombing of Iraq remained an ellipsis, a background
to military reportage which often had the aura of
promotional hype at a global military trade fair.  Yet the
bombing evinced a ferocity unparalleled in modern times.  In
spite of the censorship, it should have become obvious,
because of the number of sorties routinely reported per day,
the tonnage of ordnance dropped, the arbitrary nature of
many targets, the fact of carpet bombing, and the US
government's repudiation of all diplomatic possibilities,
that something was wrong.  And strangely, the effect was
that vocal opposition became numb, a yellow ribbon ("support
our troops") movement emerged that shut off debate, and many
supporters of the bombing welcomed the censorship, some even
calling for more.  One could say that censorship, media
promotion, and resigned silence are not the usual
configuration of concomitants to extreme events --
especially not in light of the massive protests that
initially opposed the bombing; but there was also something
very familiar about this configuration, as if the village
fool or court jester had stepped out in a wholly
conventional suit of new clothes.

     When the anomalous appears familiar, it suggests that
some fundamental structure, central to the way a society
thinks, is unfolding before us.  What this structure might
be is the focus of this paper.  The question I want to ask
is not only what made support for this bombing possible, but
what made it permissible, what gave it even anomalous
ethical propriety.  The bombing, and its text of
explanation, reveals a thought structure in US culture (a
structure that self-referentially precedes and inverts
ethical thinking in terms of an assumed sense of purity)
that is central to what US culture often finds moral, or
permissible, as well as to the way it talks to itself.
Certain central motifs in the journalistic and presidential
text of this bombing seemed to escape what might have been
comfortingly contradictory, and became more disquieting with
a secret sense of technical evil, or destiny.  In this
context, I examine (1) the name "Saddam Hussein"; (2) the
slogan that it was "our" "job" to stop Hussein; and (3) what
it might signify (discursively, rather than politically)
that he remained in power after the proclamation of victory.

The Problem

     There are at least three levels of nested
contradictions.  The first, at the extant political level,
is between the US's stated intentions and its military
practice.  The second is between that first contradiction
and the political arbitrariness of US policy, its absence of
principle, endlessly and emptily explained in the
bombing/text of Iraq (which, as a text, was entitled "The
Gulf War").[1] And the third is between that second
contradiction and a noisy endorsement of it that clamored
for greater silence.  This last one contains the question of
the bombing's permissibility for this society.

     Let us look at each of these.  We do not have to
specify exactly how many people died, though it is likely in
the hundreds of thousands.[2] We knew from the beginning
that the US was carpet bombing Iraq, to an extent that, over
the 6 weeks, could not fail to decimate Iraq's culture and
social infrastructure.  Major cities and towns were
destroyed.  It has since been revealed that, when ground
operations started, Iraqi soldiers in trenches were simply
bulldozed, buried alive, apparently including many who
sought to surrender.[3] A machine was unleashed on a people
*with whom the US had "no conflict") that has condemned that
people to famine, disease, and to extended physical, social,
and emotional dislocation.

     The political contradictions are obvious.  If Hussein,
whose name bore the brunt of US government reproaches, had
offended the world, why was the populace, which does not
make military policy, to pay?  If Hussein was a brutal
dictator, as his constant vilification suggested, not only
are those held in his thrall not helped by being killed, but
he is actually strengthened by their decimation.  One cannot
become a liberatory force through mass murder.  There is no
way to tone down this notion.  This was obvious during the
bombing; yet its supporters, by the very existence of their
support, signified that it "had to be done."

     Second, it is not simply a question of Saddam Hussein.
His regime was a run-of-the-mill dictatorship; in many other
contexts (Guatemala, or Honduras, for instance), his regime
would have been proclaimed a bastion of freedom and
democracy.  And, as with Latin American caudillos, the US
could have dealt diplomatically with Hussein, having
previously armed and supported him against Iran, and as an
important element in a Middle East balance of power.[4]
Similarly, Kuwaiti sovereignty could not have been the
issue.  The US has often ignored or negated national
sovereignty, as in Guatemala, Grenada, or Panama; Israel,
moreover, remains undisturbed for having occupied Gaza and
the West Bank.  And certainly no principle has been
suggested for preferring one dictator (the Kuwaiti emir)
over another (Hussein) in Kuwait.

     Thus, US retaliation for Kuwait must have been founded
on different grounds, which have remained unrevealed by the
government.  What has been revealed is that Kuwait had
promulgated policies inimical to Iraqi interests.[5] For the
US officially to tell Iraq that it had no stake in how Iraq
settled its differences with Kuwait (given a certain level
of economic complicity in Kuwait's policies), and then to
launch this ferocious attack, could be interpreted as a
massive "sting" operation against Iraq.  If so, the thought
that the US had to "stop Hussein" becomes unintelligible,
appearing both arbitrary, and a conceit.  Yet an enormous
popular enthusiasm was generated, seemingly by means of
precisely this unintelligibility.  If the first
contradiction makes the bombing appear criminal,[6] the
second leaves us no way of articulating what has happened.

     The third contradiction is between the conceptual
silence represented by the second contradiction, and the
popular support for the bombing.  The conceptual silence was
enhanced by a real silence: this consisted both of an
imposed official censorship, and an unofficial blackout of
oppositional news.  For the mainstream media and the
nation's political leadership not to resist censorship is
tantamount to accepting autocratic rule.  Again, the "yellow
ribbon" support movement that developed at times called for
more censorship of the news than was already in effect.[7]
Of course, what got (and gets) silenced is precisely what
needed (and needs) to be discussed politically.  In
particular, the political questions of whose oil, whose
land, whose blood, and whose interests were being arrogated,
remained undebated in the public/media sphere once the
bombing commenced.  The implication is that support for the
bombing embraced the absence of sense or rationale; it
posited a residence in silence for itself as both a
condition of support and as a granting of permissibility.
This aspect of the situation raises the central question of
this analysis.  What, in our socio-cultural-political
thinking, made this possible?

     There are standard terms, such as patriotism,
nationalism, political apathy, racism, or militarism, that
have traditionally been used to explain such situations, and
they were used by the left and the right to explain
different rationales or responses to the bombing; but this
time they were inadequate.  If such terms are used by
humanists to explain the inhuman or the politically criminal
(or by patriots or racists to name a higher good for
themselves than humanism or humane order), we still have to
explain why it is that these terms constitute "traditional
explanations."  As explanations, they name political
positions in this society, rather than group identities
within a tradition (as, for instance, Chicano nationalism,
or the racism of white opposition to it).  As traditions,
they are what generate issues, rather than manifest
political positions within them.  It is their appearance in
the bombing/text of Iraq that requires explanation.  I will
suggest certain aspects of this as I proceed.

     On three levels -- censorship, unintelligibility, and
residence in silence -- information was rejected.  Two
questions present themselves.  The first is, what did
constitute political information (the substance of debate
that quelled debate) in this situation?  And second, what
does it mean that information was actively rejected?  What
was the threat involved?

     To address these questions, let us shift attention to
the metaphor structure used by the government, and --
importantly -- hence by the media.  For one thing, the
strikes against Iraq were called "surgical."  And in the
hiatus between surgical naming and the actuality of carpet
bombing, it was the name that stuck (through use).  It is
the nature of the media that their terms become the language
of event, and thus of actuality.  We see this in the faddish
idioms and tones of voice that are adopted from TV programs,
and sweep the country.  And though much of media imagery
concerned machinery and technology, its mode of presentation
often employed medical metaphors.  It was in this vein that
President Bush proclaimed the end of the Vietnam syndrome as
if it were a disease from which the nation needed to
recover.

     We can extend the form of this sort of metaphor to
other aspects of the situation.  Surgical or not, the
operation was anti-septic.  Pilots bombed from miles high,
encountering less than token resistance.  The infantry
walked into Iraq and Kuwait and merely bulldozed, burned, or
dynamited the trenches and bunkers full of the military dead
(and living).  In a sense, almost no one got their hands
dirty.

     Popular response accorded with our medical ideology.
That is, it was crisis oriented, coming into existence as
vocal movements in response to the bombing as accomplished
fact (though opposition to the movement of troops to Saudi
Arabia had already been building when the bombing started),
as our medicine reacts to crisis rather than engage in
preventive practices.  Neither the peace movement nor the
war supporters really participated politically.  If the
opposition was ignored, or blacked out, the bombing's
supporters relinquished their autonomy from the very
beginning -- they were presented with a fait accompli, whose
unfolding did not involve them (I will return to this
point).  Thus, neither movement got its hands dirty either.
Both sides called for morally rescuing the society they live
in, as a kind of cleansing operation.  "No blood for oil"
was a moral injunction; "stop Hussein" was a call to a
crusade.[8]

The Text of the Bombing

     What constituted information in this context?  For one
thing, in the absence of reports on the extremely
complicated and multiply complicitous situation that
surrounded the attack on Iraqi forces, the name "Saddam
Hussein" itself became information.  It is not simply that
he was demonized, or vilified; the exorbitant and recurrent
use of the name transformed it into a symbol, at once
metonymic and self- referential.  Each mention of the name
"Saddam Hussein" by Bush, by other government leaders, or by
the media, became another instance of horror, autarchy,
aggression, or megalomania, essentially without necessity
for particulars, or details, or participation by a real
person.  Concreteness was not required; the name's mention
became sufficient to signify that an event had occurred, and
the evil essence of that event went without saying.

     What was not recounted found narrative enough in the
name.  Thus, each use of the name "Saddam Hussein" became
the production of an entire text.  And as mentions
accumulated, the event was left unrecounted, because there
was no need to say it, and transformed itself into the event
of repeating the name itself, by anybody.  The crimes of
"Saddam Hussein" multiplied through reiteration of the name
whose mention constituted those crimes.  The name made
reference to itself, as its meaning, and that meaning
contained essentially the event of making reference to the
name.  The actuality of Hussein's thought or comportment
became irrelevant, since the name was no longer his.  In
this sense, the invasion of Kuwait came to be seen through
the name, and thus not seen at all, rather than the name
(let alone the head of the Iraqi state) seen through the
invasion.

     There is an underlying structure here that is more than
the collapse of information into a name.  As a mode of self-
referentiality, it is a substitution of the name for
reference which becomes generative of information without
being informative.  The content of the information is
contained in the use of the name, in the fact of its very
presentation.  If that information is designed to explain a
situation, it leaves the situation unexplained, while
maintaining its character, or form, as explanatory.  It
becomes the means whereby the event it explains is known,
though that knowledge is at once cause and effect,
generation and situation generated.  Such self- referential
and self-generative explanations are not speech acts,
because they constitute a discursive structure rather than
an utterance.  They are not self-fulfilling prophecies
because they have an immediacy, rather than a prior
existence, to the situation explained.  And yet they leave
the situation unexplained, while self-referentially
pretending to make sense.

     This discursive structure is familiar; it is the
structure of the derogatory term.  A derogatory term is
nothing but a name that does not refer to the other, but
becomes, in its self- referentiality, a marker for a
totality of information about the other.  It cannot be given
a meaning other than its use, while in its use, it presents
itself as explaining the other.  For example, to make
derogatory racial reference to someone is to enact an event
whose only meaning is given by the use of the derogatory
term; the meaning of the term comes into being only by being
used in perpetrating such an event.  It is circular and
hermetic.  Racism and sexism not only rely on derogatory
terms, they are structurally constituted in an analogous
manner from beginning to end.  In the case of racism, the
arbitrary use of a continuous biological character spectrum
to differentiate discontinuous and hierarchical human groups
transforms that spectrum itself into the explanation of the
system of domination it is used to create.  The explanation
of what is noticed (skin color, for instance), which is what
was invented to be noticed, is all that exists to create
something to notice in the first place.

     In a similar way, the name "Saddam Hussein" became a
derogatory term.  It ceased to mean the person, and came to
represent the Iraqi nation.  No longer an individual, yet
the central figure of myriad narratives (un)told through
mere mention of the name, "Saddam Hussein" became Iraq, and
the people known as Iraqis became digits in the enumeration
of incidents reported without detail through repeated
mention of the name.  To bomb them, meaning to bomb it (the
name), was only to undo, to erase the reiterated name.  This
is what US-led coalition forces did in decimating the Iraqi
population.  If the name had already erased the Iraqi
people, the Iraqi people became the means of erasing the
name by being themselves expunged -- Iraqi individuals
literalized, in their obliterated persons, the uncountable
informations named in the uncounted uses of the name "Saddam
Hussein."

     When children died on the streets of Basra under B-52
bombing runs, they already didn't exist.  Each and every
Iraqi was a military target because they transliterated the
name which contained the "collateral" information
"commander-in-chief."  When the ceasefire order was given,
the name "Saddam Hussein" seemed to stop appearing in the
media, and there was nothing further to remove.  The
(carpet) bombing was surgical because the tumor, tissue, or
organ to be removed was engendered as such by the decision
itself to bomb.  The cessation (of mention) constituted the
end of the surgery.  And this became what it meant to "stop
Hussein."

     "Stopping Hussein" thus no longer meant halting the
actions of a government the US had earlier aided and abetted
(against Iran), but instead it meant turning off the
presentation of what was done by his name.  "Stopping
Hussein," as a campaign, was successful as soon as the media
and government decided to stop mentioning the name.  And
that is why it remarkably remains so often unquestioned,
after such a ferocious attack, that he continues in power.
In this sense, if the goal was to stop Hussein, he had to be
left alive, and in power, to be stopped.  After the bombing,
with the name no longer information, it became again a name,
and was given back to the man -- but not until after it had
been used to produce a certain activity whose ethics would
have been unexplainable without it.  We might add that it is
in this context that Peter Arnett, on CNN, was labeled a
traitor by some supporters of the bombing; by interviewing
the head of Iraq during the bombing, he erased the
information constructed for the name by returning the name
to the individual whose name it was.

     But in the bombing/text of Iraq, we are well beyond the
level of the derogatory term.  What we confront is a
situation or event (or confluence of events) in a political
landscape for which the political explanation functions as
inherent to the event, generating it in the process of
explaining it.  It is a simulacrum, a representation (as
explanation) of a process whose presentation (what is
represented) is that explanation itself.  This is
self-referential on two levels: first, that the event is
internal to the text that describes it and refers to it, and
exists for the sake of that reference; and second, that the
text, by engendering its referent, becomes its own referent
by means of the event.  The event becomes only a
socio-political manifestation of that textual reference to
itself.  It is a politics structured in the form of the
derogatory term.

     This structure was not simply specific to the
bombing/text of Iraq; it is, in fact, almost surprisingly
common.  For some examples:

  (1) The Arms Race occurs because new weaponry on one side
      (e.g., the A-bomb) requires the other to match it
      (which the USSR did), which in turn is interpreted by
      the first side as a threat, rationalizing further
      development of new weaponry.

  (2) A similar pattern characterized US relations with
      Nicaragua; armed attacks, covert actions, and economic
      blockades led the Nicaraguans to purchase weapons from
      the Soviet Union for their defense, which the US
      sought to use as an excuse for an invasion.
      Self-defense is made derogatory.

  (3) If the US economy has been basically converted to
      military production (50% of all US production is now
      related to the military -- a form of one-crop economy
      -- and a factor in the transformation of the US from a
      creditor to a debtor nation), it is the military, and
      its dominating industrial base, that has driven this
      situation, using itself as its explanation.

  (4) In general, the opinion polls reduce issues to purely
      formal notions (support, agreement, satisfaction,
      etc.), removing people with real ideas from the scene
      of politics by rendering them abstract formal groups,
      and then substituting this media activity for them.
      The polls thus cancel group political opinion by
      creating opinion that belongs to non-existent (because
      abstract) groups.  They represent by engendering what
      they claim to represent, and they bring about
      political disrepresentation by having already been a
      disrepresentation.  If the polls address a passive
      mass of opinion, by pretending that the passive mass
      of opinion is active, while presenting it as only a
      mass of opinion, they render it more passive than
      ever.  In effect, they produce a cancellation of the
      political by explaining themselves as already an
      expression of the political.

     What is exemplified here is more than
self-justification; its core is the way self-referentiality
becomes generative.  But in addition, there is a motif of
destruction, whether of life, of selfhood (racism), or of
political representation; what it both reveals and (for
most) hides is the pretense that realms of social
destruction have a justification at all, or rationales other
than themselves.[9]

     One term that tropes this involuted inversion,
representing as a positivity what has no substance (still
within the medical metaphor), is the term "gangrene."  We
might name the structure which functions interior to the
bombing/text of Iraq: socio- gangrene.  Gangrene itself is
the mass death of cells or tissue in a living organism,
brought on by isolation of an area from blood supply;
cellular death both generates and is produced by the spread
of the situation known as (i.e., named) gangrene.  That is,
cellular death both engenders, and represents, a situation
of cellular death.  As a structure of political discourse,
socio-gangrene reveals a similar hermeticism, self-
referentiality, and circularity.  Where the context is a
form of internal isolation (such as military secrecy,
executive discretion, white racist self-righteousness), then
the condition of socio-gangrene could be said to constitute
a kind of death of language (a process already noted in many
quarters as the euphemization of political discourse).[10]

     In this respect, another aspect of opinion polls should
be noted.  Prior to the bombing, these polls claimed that a
slight majority opposed a military solution to the Gulf
crisis, and favored sanctions and diplomacy (while assuming,
nevertheless, the right to intervene).  The government
evidently ignored them.  In so doing, it transformed the
polls from what might represent opinion to the government,
to something which represented opinion to the people
themselves.  The polls now function to inform us who we are
(rather than tell the government).  But they thus foist on
us an often unrecognizable portrait, a reconstructed and
abstracted identity.  There is always an element of angst,
which reflects this displacement of identity, accompanying
the reading of poll results.  In such a situation, though
the polls empty information of its content, they present
themselves as information that empties identity of its
being; one rejects them as information in order to preserve
identity, and trades identity at the same time for poll
results one finds self-affirming, or that are to one's
taste.  Those who supported the war, rather than be
represented by the government, were disrepresented by the
polls, and became the political representation of the
government instead.  And yellow ribbons and the flag came to
symbolize this inverted representation.  In this inversion,
a cancellation of politics, an emptying of identity, the
polls function as an extant form of gangrene.

The Desire Not To Know

     If this sense of angst provides a psychological insight
into a primordial level of rejection of information,
however, it does not distinguish between supporters and
opponents of the bombing.  The latter clamored against
censorship and the blackout of their movement; the former in
general embraced it.  Where does the desire not to know come
from?  For those supporters who hailed the technological
destruction inflicted on Iraq, one might ask why they would
want it kept a secret, unless they knew that general
awareness of the carnage would only generate opposition.  In
such a case, we confront abstract evil itself, wearing a
human face.  They admit they have no intelligible argument
or rationale to give others about this self-referential
destruction, but see no other place to inhabit than this
gangrenous one.

     On the other hand, for those supporters who knew
intuitively what the consequences of this bombing were, and
only sought to hide this (as an unfaceable horror) from
themselves, we would ask: what were they really supporting?
To an extent, a discourse of nationalism, or a reverence for
the president as the avatar of a sacred space of power, or
racism, could be conscripted to name what they were
supporting.  But then, of what is it that these discourses
provide an articulation?

     Let us turn the picture around, and ask not what is
affirmed by censorship, but what is denied by its absence.
A rejection of information bespeaks a certain fear.  Not
fear for one's life or health, or standard of living, but
fear of a certain contamination.  What would be sullied, or
corrupted, by the information rejected?  How is one to be
contaminated by information?

     When a woman is raped, many men want to know the
details so that the spectral space between prurience and
outrage can be filled to the brim.  Such information is not
feared.  When a child is killed in traffic, the range of
those who want to know is greatly extended, so the space of
caution can be replenished.  These plenitudes, for good or
ill, are valued.  Information always fills a space with
something.  If it threatens or pollutes when it fills a
space, it is the very nature of that space -- and not simply
of the information itself -- that we must understand.

     Let us look at the fact of carpet bombing (confirmed by
the Pentagon from the first day of operations against
Iraq).[11] To understand carpet bombing as an
anti-population tactic is to recognize that carpet bombing
cannot be discussed in surgical terms; to understand it as
anti-population disrupts the curative idea.  On the other
hand, to call it surgical does not change its blanketing
nature.  Regardless of whether one feels joy or horror at
it, at its name or its nature, it is the name which
functions descriptively.  The call for more censorship is
not a call to further suppress reports of the bombing's
effects on Basra, for instance, but to stop calling it
carpet bombing altogether -- or to generally resist naming
napalm as a deployed weapon at all.  To name these weapons
is to disrupt the ability to reside within the medical
metaphor.

     In other words, to call the operation surgical, to
relate the event in this way to medicine, becomes a moment
in a particular informing of the event.  To relate it to
curing, to healing and health, renders it a purifying
gesture, a generosity toward the world.  In early February,
a Norwegian legislator nominated Bush for a Nobel Peace
Prize, to show his appreciation or gratitude.  The
destruction of countless Iraqis becomes the mode of
purifying the name "Saddam Hussein," of cleansing it of the
instances of crime and violation it functioned both to
narrate and to become -- each Iraqi killed was a cleansing
of the polluting event committed each time the name "Saddam
Hussein" had been uttered.  If there is a catharsis
associated with this, it is incidental.  What is central is
that we are nurses, carefully cleaning a wound in the world.
We cannot be nurses if carpet bombing and napalm cannot be,
in some sense, surgical.

     Thus, the implication of criminality (mass murder,
e.g., as a violation of the Geneva Accords of 1948 against
bombing civilian populations), as a switch to a juridical
discourse, invokes wholly different information: the
commandments, the severity of judges, the sacredness of
life, the sorrow of injured or orphaned children, the hunger
of those whose lives, food, and friends, have burned; there
are victims who must be avenged.  In the medical model,
where one loses a life only because one doesn't know enough,
each death is a failure of a good intention.  Each success,
like the return of Kuwait to the emir, is a restoration of
life.  If something happens that looks like death, it is a
mistake.  To name differently is to inform differently.  The
juridical model calls the hospital uniform in question.  The
assumption that there is a uniform, a lab coat perhaps, is
corrupted -- even if that lab coat is olive drab, or jungle
camouflage.

     If assumption is what is corrupted by information, then
assumption in some sense constitutes purity.  Purity
attaches to the metaphor structure which informs, in the
sense of purveying, information.  To preserve that purity is
to substitute the metaphor structure for the information it
purveys, the coding of significations for the significations
coded.  In essence, that substitution is a purification
procedure.  The purification of assumption produces a purity
that is already self-referential, i.e., assumed.  The space
that information threatens to corrupt is a space engaged in
self-purification, a space that denies its own plenitude --
with a denial that marks the absence of rationale.  In such
a space, information pollutes by merely denying that denial,
countermanding that absence, countermanding a decision not
to know.

     In its hermeticism, this becomes a space one must
reside in, because it informs the world as excluded.  It is
like the puritans who arrived in the New World, and found
virgin territory, meaning there was "no one else there."  In
assuming residence, which meant excluding those others who
had previously named and informed the world, the puritans
substituted a residence in assumption for that world,
rendering what informed it absent.  Residence in assumption
is a form of conceptually assuming residence.  It means to
occupy a conceptual territory, to fortify it against changes
of name, to call it "home" perhaps, to render it "virgin"
territory by assuming it.  It is that for which assumption
is purified.  To assume residence is to reside in those
assumptions and to shun the corruption of information.
Herein lies the power of the derogatory term; it
hermetically assumes itself as information, and thrusts all
information away, to a distant elsewhere, in the name of
residence in that assumption.

Purity and Thought

     Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger,[12]
relates the concepts of purity and pollution in a way that
is relevant here.  Douglas examines a broad spectrum of
anthropological studies of tribal and archaic religions.
She attempts to show how "rituals of purity and impurity
create unity in experience" (p. 13).  That is, purity and
corruption constitute a mythos that names the boundary
between order and chaos, power and lawlessness.

     Power and danger configure themselves with respect to
this boundary in terms of center and margin.  Douglas argues
that, "Danger lies in transition states," those states that
constitute boundaries (p. 116).  To be at the margin, then,
in transition, implies that one is dangerous, disordered,
outlaw.  And a return to the center from the margin brings a
certain power with it, like a rite of passage.  "To have
been in the margin is to have been in contact with danger,
to have been at the source of power" (p. 117).  For the
center, this is the relevance, the indispensability, of the
lawless or the disordered; it is the only way that living in
law, or order, or as residence in assumption, can itself
know what it is.

     This is perhaps part of the reason for the tenacity of
racism.  The Other has always been used as the "exotic,"
which provides the conventional with its self-recognition,
its identity, its imagined solidity.  Furthermore, a
recurrent dimension of racist violence is that rationalized
by the notion of retaliation; it is a retaliation against
the racialized precisely for their marginality, for the
power consigned to them by a marginalization concocted for
them by racism.  When the Puritans landed in New England,
only racism permitted them to continue to survive as
Puritans, as a chosen people returned to an "empty" Eden.
Without racism as their circle of fortification, they would
have had to enter their new environment as free humans,
representing themselves rather than have that world
represent them.  Their assumption of residence was already a
boundary, a fortification constructed of others -- producing
and re-produced by otherness.

     Thus, the hermetic and self-referential structure of
the bombing/text of Iraq has a long tradition; this is
perhaps what accounts for its familiarity.  In other words,
to empty the bombing/text of Iraq of data concerning its
actuality becomes an essential ingredient in identity
preservation, which would be an essential aspect of its
"patriotism."  This was something the media and the
government learned from the Pentagon Papers and Watergate
affairs.  The political form this lesson took was the
emergence of a "teflon" presidency -- that is, a presidency
that is iconized, and that becomes its own rationalization
as a symbol (with respect to both Congress and the people)
-- an element of political gangrene.  There were a multitude
of forms of death contained in the way the first bomb
dropped on Baghdad halted all debate in Congress.

     Douglas goes on: "Pollution is a particular class of
danger" (p. 118).  Still within the realm of sources of
power, she argues, it is what conditions authority, and
renders authority purifying.  But this is not a simple case
of supplementarity.  Authority may be constituted by
"explicit spiritual power," but it stands over against a
disorder, a constitution of dangerous roles that consist of
"disapproved powers."  In her words:

     The contrast between form and surrounding non-form
     accounts for the distribution of symbolic and
     psychic powers: external symbolism upholds the
     explicit social structure and internal, unformed
     psychic powers threaten it from the non-structure
     (p. 120).

That is, pollution, and the danger of pollution, produce a
complex inversion between the inside and the outside.  The
internal (psychic) threatens from elsewhere (from the non-
structure), and it threatens the powers of the center, the
social structure, which rules through external symbolism.
Internal psychic power, thought itself, is thrust beyond the
perimeter, as hypermarginal, polluting, disruptive of
residence in assumption.  And external social structure, as
symbolic power, is made central, sanctified, fortified
against threat.[13] It is thought, as psychic power, that
stands outside social structure, outside the space of
residence.  If residence in assumption is pure, it is
thought itself that is corrupt.

     This sheds a different light on the rejection of
information.  It is not a rejection out of fear of
confronting what one knows will be horrible, or even more
metaphysically, "the horror" in this particular "heart of
darkness."  It is because thought itself is a threat, a
pollutant, an eviction.  In effect, one "supports the
President," "supports the troops," and avoids discussing
anti-war ideas a priori, as a way of living a space that
keeps pollution at bay.  One "supports the President"
because, as the ritualistic, it preserves identity, and thus
social purity.  If anything indicates that the media have
grasped this, it is in the calm studied tones, and the
emptied formal presentations of even highly controversial
issues or extreme events.[14]

Conclusion

     The obligation to defend purity, to defeat the
incursions of pollution, has a far reaching dichotomizing
and anti-intellectual effect.  Formal logic has a certain
purity because, in formal logic, thought is rule governed,
instituted within an assumed space.  Thought that is not
deductive, thought that is informational, informed, in
formation at its own creative or perceptual hands, becomes
corrupting, a pollution.  But this notion that thought is by
nature corrupt and corrupting within a residence in
assumption, raises a host of issues along this line of
dichotomization.

     Some of the issues which follow from the above
argument, each of which could be formulated as a question,
might be the following.  To have the government represent
one, even in its committing acts such as the massacre of
Iraqis, enables one to be pure through that representation.
The discursivity of its documentation, the fact of the
constitution and the laws, becomes self-explanation, an
antiseptic entity, free from the noisomeness of
participation, and thus from acting on judgment.  One can
think the government mistaken, and be pure in that error
precisely by the act of supporting it.  And this would imply
that it is not apathy that characterizes political quietism,
but a residence in a certain ritualism that excludes
thought.  In other words, institutions are pure because they
are formal; people as individuals are corrupt because they
think and bleed, require dialogue and live lives at variance
with one's assumptions about them.

     In this sense of purity, this rejection of pollution,
as a form of residence in assumption that exiles information
and thought, one lives oneself as a moment in a form of
gangrene.  And to the extent to which we do not disorder our
world, and to which we agree to live in this purity of
assumption, we are gangrenous.


                           Notes

[1]  For a general overview of the commentaries and
     discourses on the bombing, see Micah Sifry & Chris Cerf
     (eds.), The Gulf War Reader (New York: Random House,
     1991).

[2]  The Jordanian Press Agency, and the Red Crescent (the
     Moslem counterpart to the Red Cross), have both
     estimated that at least 125,000 civilians were killed.
     Greenpeace put the figure at 50,000.  The US has
     estimated 150,000 Iraqi troops were killed.  UNICEF,
     WHO, and the Red Cross all issued reports in April and
     May, 1991, warning that the lives of millions of
     Iraqis, mostly children, were in immediate jeopardy
     from famine, epidemic, and collapse of the social
     infrastructure.

[3]  See SF Chronicle for the week of Sept. 15, 1991.  Many
     of these facts have been brought out by the hearings
     conducted by Ramsey Clark, preparatory to calling for a
     War Crimes Tribunal.

[4]  See an article by Ahmad Chalabi, a London banker, in
     the Wall Street Journal, April 8, 1991.

[5]  Kuwait lowered its oil prices, undercutting Iraq on the
     oil market.  It was in a position to do so because it
     received the greater part of its revenue from
     industrial investment of petrodollars in other parts of
     the world, rather than from direct oil sales.  Kuwait
     was also Iraq's main creditor, having financed a major
     part of Iraq's war debt (against Iran).  Yet Kuwait
     demanded immediate payment, rather than wait until Iraq
     could become solvent.  Iraq interpreted these decisions
     as acts of economic aggression.  Finally, Kuwait was
     drilling into Iraq's Ramaillah oil fields, using
     diagonal drilling methods under the border, and
     employing an American company that had developed the
     technique.  When Kuwait refused to negotiate these
     questions, and Iraq felt pushed to the wall, it went to
     the US; the US let it be known, on three separate
     occasions, that it would stand aside, whatever decision
     Iraq made concerning these matters.  See, in
     particular, Peter Dale Scott, SF Chronicle, 1/2/91, p.
     C1; Charley Reese, Gulfwatch, Feb. 4, 1991, from The
     Suncoast News, Sunbelt Publications, New Port Richey,
     Fla. 34652; Jonathan Shewchuk, "Why Iraq Invaded
     Kuwait," The Student Union newspaper, Carnegie Mellon
     University, Feb. 14, 1991; Craig B. Hulot, "The White
     Paper," and "Hussein, Oil, cpi, S&L, and the drug war,"
     KC Associates, Seattle, Wash. 98133.  April Glaspie's
     interview with Hussein is reprinted in The Gulf War
     Reader.

     Note: Much of the information on the bombing was
     collected by student and faculty groups, private
     individuals, and the alternate press, but received
     virtually no attention or dissemination by the media.
     The main means of dissemination was via e-mail
     networks.  Contact PeaceNet for access to their library
     on documentation pertaining to the bombing; also,
     Greenpeace, and Gulfwatch.

[6]  According to the Geneva Convention of 1948, the use of
     napalm, the bombing of civilian facilities (cities,
     sewage treatment plants, water purification plants,
     roads, etc.), and the destruction of surrendering
     troops, or troops retreating according to agreement,
     constitute war crimes.

[7]  This is a phenomenon that remained relatively
     undocumented in the "responsible" major newspapers,
     though it received coverage in some local media.  For
     those who were active in the movements, and attempted
     to engage in dialogue over the issues of this bombing,
     it was a commonly encountered sentiment.  The blackout
     of anti-war movement news is also something only those
     active in those movements would encounter, and which
     all felt very deeply.  Again, it is something which
     was, by its very nature, almost completely undocumented
     in the major media.  See references in note 5.

[8]  If this highlighting of the medical metaphor invokes in
     the reader a connection to Robert Jay Lifton's book,
     "The Nazi Doctors," I will let that association stand
     in the background, though I will do nothing with it in
     my discussion.

[9]  It might be proper to state that the ethical assumption
     of this essay is that the destruction of cultures is
     wrong, as is murder, and thus mass murder.  Those who
     do not share these assumptions (and there are all too
     many of them) may not be able to follow the reasoning
     in this essay.

[10] See, for instance, Felix Greene, The Enemy, chapter 6.
     The e-mail networks carried several lists that decoded
     the terminologies of the bombing/text of Iraq.

[11] In fact, after the bombing, the Pentagon admitted that
     only about 7% of its bombs had been guided, or
     targetable.  So much for surgical bombing.

[12] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Penguin,
     1970).

[13] This is similar to what Nietzsche describes, in
     "Twilight of the Idols," as the role given reason in
     ancient Greece, and which Socrates embodied (in
     Nietzsche's critique): a defense against nature and
     humanness.

[14] This is an aspect of TV that was so well satirized in
     the movie RoboCop (directed by Verhoeven).  And I
     remember hearing a radio announcer, in San Francisco, 2
     hours after the earthquake of Oct. 19, 1989, say
     calmly: "The smoke you see rising across the bay in
     Oakland is from cars burning under the collapsed
     Cypress structure of the Nimitz Freeway" -- as if it
     were part of a travelogue.

------------------------------------------------------------
                  Copyright 1991
Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.