Surrealpolitik: Zoology, Magic, and Surrealism in the War on Terror

Author: Michael Taussig

Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Quick Summary

Amazing article about deception and surreality in the war on terror, focusing on how camouflage in the animal kingdom is mirrored in politics and war, used both to blend and to dazzle, creating deception in plain sight and putting truth into the realm of the aesthetic.


There are 6 quotes currently associated with this book.

I take Sun Tzu's wise words regarding war on pretty much the same level as a fortune cookie, but when it comes to the war on terror, then Sun Tzu here catches my breath. For it seems that the art of deception in this particular war is organic and built in to what is by necessity a war of error, a deliberate and compulsive lying, tied up with the fact that in the name of defending the people, which is to say democracy, the war is now against the people. We the public have become the enemy, and that is how I read Sun Tau on the art of war today.

Yet would it were that simple because the power of the art of deceit does not -- I repeat not -- necessarily weaken with exposure. Sometimes the very opposite occurs; sometimes deceit seems to thrive on exposure, as in the conjuring tricks of shamanism and in the conjuring now exercised on a global scale by the world's only superpower. This global conjuring rests on a sea change in the way truth and language work in what Carl Schmitt called "the exception," meaning the state of emergency. The curious thing is despite the tremendous concentration of power such a state of emergency implies, which should allow the leaders to tell the truth without fear of the consequences, the opposite is more likely to occur. (page S100)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion]
[I]n our time, since 9/11, the anxieties of the regime seem quite able to accommodate revelation of deceit. To date the war on terror traces a curve from the phoney allegation of weapons of mass destruction to the surprising admission in late 2006 of "extraordinary rendition" and hence of torture by the president of the United States. This pattern of lying and admission, or of lying followed by a breezy dismissal of one's "mistake," plus a raft of neologisms sufficient to keep William Safire busy for another lifetime, is to my mind a marked feature of this new war. I am especially moved to remark on how easily admissions of deceit are made by the White House, as when the president did a comic routine for the Radio and Television Association Dinner in 2004 in Washington, during which slides of him looking under Oval Office furniture for weapons of mass destruction were shown.

Now admittedly this was one of those occasions that anthropologists like to call rites of reversal, like carnival, in which for a brief period of time the king is the butt of scandalous humor. Nevertheless, something has changed. It is difficult to imagine Nixon joking about Watergate or Clinton about Monica Lewinsky. Meanwhile the Republican-dominated Congress decriminalized violations of the U.S. War Crimes Act as well as the Geneva conventions and retroactively absolved U.S. officials, including the president, of culpability under their provisions. We are living, in other words, in a new regime of truth in which a peekaboo pattern -- now you see it, now you don't -- is intimately associated with torture itself. And isn't torture itself a ritual of reversal? (page S100-S101)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Terror]
I believe that the complex of attraction and repulsion in the violence [of torture] displayed is so well defended against the frontal attack of reason and sympathy that, perchance, a "poetic" or imagefull response is in order -- the glancing blow, with the left hand, the hand of improvisation, as Walter Benjamin would say. We could just as well inquire, What do these images want? [the photographs from Abu Ghraib] (page S101)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Terror]
[C]amouflage is a word trying desperately to live up to its name, scattering fairy dust in your eyes, blinding you in two different ways. One is camouflage through blending to the point of concealment, as with mimicry; the other is to dazzle, by which I mean to distort and to misdirect attention as with cubist-style painting. Misdirection is what conjurors and pickpockets purportedly do, and this is why camouflage is sometimes said to belong to the same universe as magic and pulling off the perfect crime, a point not lost on the British War Office, which, in 1940, established its Camouflage Centre wit a team including a magician, a surrealist painter, and a famous zoologist. Although these two principles, blending and dazzling, seem opposed, they very often combine in nature, which includes warfare and politics. This apparent contradiction is worth thinking about as it goes, I believe, to the heart of life. (page S107)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real]
It is because they both hide and stand out and it is because they both attract and repulse that Gray Fox and his friends are deployed. More than this, they attract because they repulse just as they stand out because they are secret. In this sense they represent an advance on the fascination of the abomination. (page S112)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion]
The day seems long past when a sorcerer could use art to confuse and destroy the enemy. Even when Brecht evokes the "house of Tar" to take on the Third Reich, we take it as mere metaphor. Poet at work, we say.

But what if this distinction between art and war is fatuous, that all along the science of war has been a misnomer, just like the distinction between metaphor and reality? How else to explain the frisson we feel when we come across an ancient Chinese manual of war such as that of Sun Tau, reeking of the magic of antiquity and Orientalism, and nod our heads in respect? For one of the strangest things about war whether ancient or postmodern is that as a pumped-out, puffed-up "science," it reeks of craft and witchcraft, accident and chance, as much as planning. Indeed the more "scientific" or "technological" it appears, the more arcane and mysterious, also. Guerrilla warfare makes this doubly so. Clausewitz is known on account of his equation of politics with war, but is not politics merely the tip of a submerged continent of power whose outlines we dimly discern and whose uncanny force we feel?

To combine a magician, a surrealist painter, and a zoologist, as in the British War Office, is pretty much the mind-set that any of us interested in brushing history against the grain might espouse. So how might one out-camouflage their camouflage? That was John Heartfield's strategy with photomontage in Berlin around the tie Brecht wrote his poem about the anxieties of the regime. Heartfelt was a pioneer in the art of photomontage, cutting up images, rearranging the parts, and adding some new ones and a caption so as to reverse the message or expose its hidden meanings. This would be to counteract the macabre artistry of "love beads," [note: on soldiers] themselves a sardonic transgression of transgression. It is also what Delouse and Guattari ["Treatise on Nomadology: The War Machine" from A Thousand Plateaus] were getting at with their labored notion of the war machine, a machine they saw as the anarchic special ops built into any army, yet antithetical to it....

Camouflaged soldiers bring into being a most curious amalgam of the allegedly utilitarian and the unacknowledged exotic. Blending with the animal world and the love of imitation therein, together with the aesthetic pleasure of theatrical disguise, the coloration we call camouflage illustrates how narrow is the view of the practical, workaday world if it does not admit that the most practical is also the most aesthetic when transplanted from the field to the battlefield.

To date the field of aesthetics has paid scant attention to its affinity with the animal and with war, just as it has fought shy of magic and conjuring. So-called primitive societies knew better. To open this doorway, as with the war machine, or with Tom Mitchell's pointed question, "What do pictures want?" is to recast the division between the aesthetic and the practical, a first step to understanding how truth now functions in the Terror of the war against terror. (page S116)
Tags: [Politics & Art, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Rationality, Dada]