“An aging man crouched before a TV -- a junkie TV, I might add -- in a darkened room. Not exactly how most people picture the man who called for global jihad.” --CNN
Over the course of the last week, there has been much discussion of the Bin Laden videos released by the Pentagon, footage seized during the Navy Seal raid in Abbottabad. The most damning video captured during the course of the raid — or, thus we have been assured by media pundits — is that of a seated and stooped Bin Laden, cloaked in an aging blanket, his right hand clutching a remote control as he views images of himself on satellite television. To take the mainstream media and blogosphere at its word is to believe in the self-evidence of this footage. We have been instructed to understand it as an emasculating image — particularly evident in Bin Laden’s decrepit body and graying beard (the latter much remarked upon), and his inglorious confinement. All this, the media assured, conclusively betrays Bin Laden self-styled mythic stature.
In part, the presumed self-evidence of the footage is attributable to its form – this being a video steeped in the familiar YouTube aesthetics of amateur production which we have all learned to read; indeed, some media outlets referred to it as a “home movie.” Yet self-evidence also depends on the video’s co-star: the television (indeed, the first minutes of footage focus solely on the TV screen, featuring a menu of channels and Bin Laden’s incriminating choice, Al Jazeera). If we believe the mainstream media, the video’s ability to “demystify the Bin Laden legend” rests in no small measure with the television itself. Consider the media’s depiction of this damning scene: “The video shows bin Laden sitting alone in a drab, run-down room in front of an old TV connected by a bundle of bare cables to a satellite receiver.” Or, from Tom Fuentes, former assistant director of the FBI on CNN: “An aging man crouched before a TV -- a junkie TV, I might add -- in a darkened room. Not exactly how most people picture the man who called for global jihad." And: “So it`s a sort of a different image that some of this followers were being used to….There was nothing ostentatious about this video of Bin Laden. It wasn`t like he was looking at a flat screen…” (this from CNN’s ‘counter-terrorism expert’).
This was not just any television. Bin Laden’s was an “old, small television” connected by unruly cables. His was a “junkie” television – a term that also characterized the media’s frequent depiction of his viewing practices, with their emphasis on his “channel surfing” and “intense” gaze at the screen. These accounts assure us that Bin Laden was no mere consumer of television; he was also consumed by it, captive to the primitive screen and his own image. The Pentagon’s release of the other Bin Laden videos was guided by the same damning story of technological primitivism. As the press reported: “[t]he rehearsal videos include apparent problems with lighting and what officials said was a missed cue." No mythic terrorist this. Not with this TV; not with these lighting failures.
In the age of digital interactivity, and particularly in the midst of the social-media fed revolutions in the Middle East (the Palestinian mass protests marking Nakba day being the most recent among them), we are supposed to read Bin Laden’s TV as a figure of his impotence, his stasis, his decline. Implicitly positioned in sharp contrast to new media and the agency it affords its user, the television is portrayed as the flaccid technology par excellence, a figure of his demise no less than his graying beard. In his room filled with unruly wires, rather than wireless devices, with a remote control that stands in for the hand-held devices to which he has no access, Bin Laden is a passive consumer of media, denied the agentive role of media producer. What few media pundits saw fit to recall last week was Bin Laden’s history where technology was concerned – a history that runs counter to this portrait of technological impotence. Steve Coll, writing recently in The New Yorker (16 May, 2011) noted his legacy as an astute practitioner of
In some sense, the story of Bin Laden’s TV extends the narrative espoused by many pundits about social media’s role in the Arab spring (what some have dubbed ‘Revolution 2.0’) – a narrative that myopically credited digital technologies and interactive platforms for the mass mobilization we have witnessed in the region over the course of the last few months (and the critiques of this account are now well known). Today, we are hearing the inverse: that the absence of such technologies in Abbottobad is both sign and perhaps cause of Bin Laden’s impotence. Both stories are invested in what some scholars, among them Raymond Williams, have called ‘technological determinism’ – the notion that “technology determines history.” The story told about the Arab spring elided multiple histories – including histories of popular politics and social movements in the Middle East that long preceded the digital age and laid the groundwork for the revolutions in question. In parallel fashion, the story told about Bin Laden makes no room for consideration of the provenance of the video – that is, its conditions of production by Bin Laden’s people, the political calculus behind it, and the broader video archive of which it may be a part. Instead, it is treated as a body of seemingly transparent images, lacking an author – as if part of a surveillance video made by the US government.
Regardless of its provenance, the future of this video and the scene it portrays is not in doubt. As commentators have noted in relative jest, the script to the Hollywood version is surely already under contract. Indeed, its closing frames have already been anticipated: “If the mission to neutralize Osama bin Laden were a blockbuster movie, the screen would have almost certainly faded to black as soon as the accused terrorist`s death was announced.
No doubt, the credits would roll to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and then the big “The End” would appear." Be sure to view it on your flat screen TV.