The Political Sublime and the bin Laden discourse – A Regime of Image Production and Distribution as it takes place in the Contemporary Media

by Irvine Forgan

The rebranding of political activism from protest to either acts of criminality or terrorism has slipped into the contemporary discourse almost without notice. Bobby Sands who, with other comrades fasted to death for the sake of the distinction stated in Writings from Prison:

“I am a political prisoner. I am a political prisoner because I am a casualty of a perennial war that is being fought between the oppressed Irish people and an alien, oppressive, unwanted regime that refuses to withdraw from our land.”

At one stage the torture and murder of political activists in police custody was cause for outrage. Steve Biko’s murder in police custody is but one example. But in our time the torture and death, whether of terrorists so named or innocents and whether in custody or by drone is an image of ugliness that the state actively projects. This image production can be traced to the condition of the political sublime.

The notion of the sublime has its origins in the writings of the anonymous author Longinus, who was a Greek teacher of rhetoric and literary critic who lived somewhere between the First and Third Century AD. In his treatise On the Sublime Longinus broadly argued that the sublime is an overwhelming energy source of power and strength. Since the 18th century the notion of the sublime is often associated for us in the first place with its analysis by Immanuel Kant who in his Critique of Judgement used as examples of the sublime images of the Swiss mountains and sea tempests. For Kant the sublime may be terrifying and perilous or it may be something so complex that an inability to form a clear concept leads to an imbalance between thought and experience. As a result the self is made aware of indeterminacy. These perilous and traumatic catastrophes slacken off the grasp of reason, or at any rate they are incompatible with rational knowledge. At one and the same time both enrapturing as well as devastating it is not hard to detect in the sublime the presence of the death drive and to vicariously indulge our fantasies of immortality. Standing before a painting, confronted with the vista of raging oceans which cannot drown us or mountains from which we cannot plummet down because they are no more than pigment on canvas, we can know the pleasure of defeating death. Simultaneously we are able to live out a kind of virtual death by experiencing our destruction rather than its real destructible end. In this way the sublime is both self affirmative and self destructive.

But actually the notion of the sublime has its origin in the treatise by Edmund Burke. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful Burke uses as an example of the sublime the public beheadings and tortures common in the centuries before the enlightenment. Burke shows that, unlike Kant for whom sublime eruptions like the French Revolution could be admired as long as they were aestheticized and contemplated from a secure distance, when terror ceases to be second hand it quickly sheds its allure and is beyond aesthetic balm. Burke writes: “When danger and pain press too nearly they are incapable of giving any delight and are simply terrible.” For Edmund Burke the law itself is an image of sublimity, since it must blend terror and kindliness, coercion and consent. But it is not only when law and order breaks down that terror is unleashed – terror is also a built in possibility, a disaster waiting to happen. This is not the sublimity that both appals and seduces. Rather as Terry Eagleton argues in his study of terror, Holy Terror (2005) a process of desublimation pulls apart pity and fear so that the horrors of the tragic and the sublime invade everyday life.

Of course we should not forget that the Enlightenment itself was introduced by the public exposure of mass beheadings by guillotine in the centre of revolutionary Paris. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel writes of this exposure of mass beheadings by guillotine in the centre of revolutionary Paris that it created true equality among men because it made clear that no one can claim any more that his death has any higher meaning. This opens the way for nations to portray themselves as beautiful by depoliticizing the sublime. In recent times the public exposure of executions by necklace burning and stoning in revolutionary South Africa has given rise to this clarity of thought. A process such as that of the Peace and Reconciliation commission has acted precisely to portray the nation itself as beautiful by depoliticizing the sublimity of its violence.

But in the contemporary period we experience the repoliticization of the sublime where contemporary politics very often does not represent itself as beautiful—it represents itself as terrifying and ugly. Acts of terror produce ugly and repelling counter acts of openly acknowledged acts of torture, subterfuge, humiliation, spying, body searches and surveillance. This is a development in which terror is matched by terror. Jacques Derrida rightly identifies this condition as a necessity of the failures of the autoimmune system of the contemporary western state that needs to terrorize itself in order to feel secure (Borradori, 2003: pp.108-109). It is as though the political forces of the nations concerned increasingly produce this politicization of the sublime by competing for the strongest, most terrifying image.

The contrast between the political sublime image and conventional idealized representational imagery emerges from an image on the Bogside in Derry. One of these murals is an image of a ‘rioter’ facing an army tank. Painted in shades of grey and black it shows an army Saracen vehicle turning in towards a young man whose back is to the viewer. He holds a wire grid which he faces towards the Saracen vehicle and a stone hidden behind his back. The two front portals of the Saracen are blackened out presenting a threatening attack. The mural is scripted as follows:

This mural is called Saturday Matinee, the time when young people played the dangerous game of confronting the police and the army. As he prepares to throw a stone the boy protects himself with a shield of wire mesh. He faces a cloud of CS gas and the army Saracen armoured vehicle which is swerving round to face him. The turning vehicle gave the moment the tension it needed. Now the rioter looks for all the world like a matador facing a charging bull.

teenSaturday Matinee Mural

This script invests the mural with a number of conventional associations – the ‘matinee’ and the ‘game’ and ‘young people’. However, the symbolic or representational value of this mural and the empirical event upon which it is based and which it documents carry very different associations. The symbolism is a representation of acts shown on the following 1980s poster.

ResistPoster – Resist British Rule

The poster, which itself is a reproduced photograph shows an IRA fighter in camouflage and balaclava hurling a barrel of burning petrol at an approaching British army Saracen vehicle. This image and the writing ‘Resist British Rule’ convey a clear agitational message. Whereas the mural depicts the person of the Republican activist as a static figure involved in a game, the poster depicts an act of violent movement and contestation. The poster opens the surface of the conventional idealized image and reveals to us the terrifying reality we always suspected was there. We see that things are as bad as we expected, maybe worse. And precisely because of this we feel compelled to recognize this image as being true. It is hence iconophilic conveying an ideological message that probes British presence in the north of Ireland. It thus seeks to replace any pre-existing image of British presence with a new image and not merely challenge it. The mural on the other hand contains an inscribed narrative that opens itself to criticism – it is not terrible enough by itself. Nor does the mural convey a new ideological message. Rather its iconoclastic gesture is deployed as an art strategy that can only be sustained if the power of the medium itself is invested in it. The purpose of the mural can thus be seen to shift away from the political project (the mural fails to probe the persistence of British rule), to that of a cultural demand. But more significantly the poster unfolds the sublime, repelling, terrifying but alluring image which enables us to live out the experience without being involved in the danger ourselves. In a sense it is the enemy of the artist because it claims to be an image that is true and real – beyond any criticism of representation. Of course, the point Burke had originally tried to make is that a terrifying sublime image of violence is merely an image—an image of terror is also produced. Thus when the image of the political sublime is put into circulation it acquires the symbolic value of a representation of the political sublime and as with any other image, it is subject to criticism. This critique is not one that addresses its function as a medium of representation. Rather it is a critique of censorship, suppression, and those forces that invest the image with mediated values (the conservative values of the producing state for example) and of the symbolic and commercial competition that intrude for the strongest image. This kind of criticism does not indicate any lack of moral sense. Any moral consideration relates only to the empirical event that is documented by the image.

Contemporary media has problematized the question of art’s iconography even further. We need only switch on the television to witness nation states displaying images of its troops killing the enemy; bombs exploding, blood and death. The same can be said of videos representing beheadings and hangings and the famous photographs from Abu Ghraib and Baghdad. I recall seeing TV coverage of Sadam Hussein being hanged. This ugliness, which we always suspected was hidden below the surface of the conventional idealized image, is now shown to us as terrifying and ugly as we expected it to be. These images intrude on representational art and completely do away with the need for any critique of representation. The machinery of media coverage works almost automatically, in any event without individual artistic intervention. The function of art as a medium of representation and the role of the artist as mediator between reality and memory are here completely eliminated. Certain subversive performance practices, such as Viennese Actionism reveal similar aesthetic qualities to the iconography and style of these images, but these practices were aimed at undermining the beliefs dominating the artists own culture whereas the goal emerging in the media images is to undermine a different, other culture in an act of violence leaving the conservative values of the perpetrator’s own culture unquestioned. This iconophilic imagery therefore proclaims the return of the real as visual proof of the end of the critique of representation.

Jacques Derrida has reminded us that there is nothing purely modern in this relation between media and terror and that with radio and television what is called organized propaganda has already since World War I played an essential role in ‘declared’ war (Derrida in Borradori, 2003: p 109). The distinction between war and terrorism is thus problematic, which the September 11 attack on the twin towers in New York has compounded. The worldwide implications of the event in which different geopolitical shifts have joined in some way the anti-terrorist coalition and invested ‘September 11’, has enabled certain parties in presenting their adversaries not only as terrorists but as international terrorists to oppose them, it is claimed, not through counter terrorism but through war. But what would ‘September 11’ have been without television. Without insisting on full discussion here, it is fair to say without doubt that maximum coverage was in the common interest of both the perpetrators and those who wanted to declare war on terrorism. And in the case of the United States, as Derrida argues this coverage was to expose its vulnerability, to give the greatest possible coverage to the aggression against which it wishes to protect itself (Derrida in Borradori, 2003: p 108).

The regime of image production and distribution as it takes place in the contemporary media can be illustrated by reference to the ‘bin laden’ discourse. Invested in the discourse ‘bin Laden’ is a narrative that has associated the name ‘bin Laden’ at least by metonymy with the organization of the attack on the target United States if not as the central or ultimate target. And now narrativized images of his death are inscribed in this discourse—which I cite here as examples of censorship, suppression and the investment of power in the media image. The image of his shooting is precisely the media image that does away with representation – this emerges not from actually viewing the image but from its censored explanation. The explanation provided is that the image shows vivid bloody destruction of his body and head. This I will call the ‘Object Image but now–Absent Image’. These graphic proportions of the shooting, it is claimed could, if published, unleash an iconoclastic backlash of international anti American terrorist sentiment. This narrative therefore adds to the continuum of the ‘bin Laden’ discourse. At the same time this image is made easily recognizable with an explanatory text to the effect that DNA confirms bin Laden’s identity, which renders his death merely tautological. This image, which we consequently know to be true because it has been paid for by a real loss of life—a loss of life that is documented by that image, evokes a New Image. This New Image informs us that terrorist violence originates in the narrated identity represented by a ‘bin Laden’ (a name I am using as a synechdoche) which a necessary act of war destroys. The New Image is thus iconophilic of the conservative values of resistance which replaces those values of vulnerability that were garnered when the twin towers were blown up. On the other hand the Object Image but now–Absent Image does not exist except insofar as it is an element in the ‘bin Laden’ discourse.

At the same time Four Video Clips of bin Laden have been released which show a man made mute by the removal of the audio that once accompanied these videos, excised by those now attempting to define and control how he will be remembered; that is to say he is shown alive. In this way the ‘bin Laden’ discourse is carried forward into the future. Paradoxically by silencing his voice—making him mute—the viewer is compelled to contemplate what was behind the words. And that was a man. A man, whose life and death has been narrativized as one who ordered mass murder and who was killed, his body dumped at sea; but a human being all the same. As are all killers. This organized propaganda makes these conclusions possible because we are ready to recognize as true beyond any criticism of representation the images of terror and war as valid images of the political sublime that both the terrorist and the state terrorist create with their image production machines in which politics no longer represents itself as beautiful.



Borradori, Giovanna. Philosophy in a Time of Terror, Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press. 2003.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of the Sublime and Beautiful. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1958.
Eagleton Terry. Holy Terror. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005.
Hegel, Georg. Phenomenology of Spirit, transl. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1977.
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952 (1980 printing).
Sands, Bobby. Writings from Prison. Roberts Rienhart Publishers. 1997.


Posted on April 29, 2014, in British state repression (general), Culture, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Provos - then and now, Public events - Ireland, Repression and resistance in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Revolutionary figures, six counties. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Political Sublime and the bin Laden discourse – A Regime of Image Production and Distribution as it takes place in the Contemporary Media.

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