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Vision Culture

ISIS propaganda and gangsta rap videos

James Franco as Alien, gangsta and gangsta rapper, from Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012) miguelvaca/flickr, CC BY-SA

There is a muscular, tattooed man holding a machine gun. He is in front of an expensive sports car, with gold chains around his neck and what looks like a Rolex on his wrist. The man is standing proudly in front of the camera.

On the same social media site, there is an image of several women in front of the same car; possession of the women, perhaps, leads to possession of the car which, apparently, leads to unbridled wealth.

What was it that Tony Montana, aka Scarface, said, back in 1983?

In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.

The brawny fellow in this image seems to have listened to Montana’s words – though accumulation of these assets (money, power, women) does not necessarily occur in this order.

These images, as one might have suspected, function as recruitment propaganda for ISIS. (They are accessible through simple Google searches.)

Now I switch over to YouTube, and watch some gangsta rap videos – perhaps, for example, Young Jeezy’s appearance on Smack DVD volume 9. I am presented with strong, muscular, tattooed men, who are singing about money, guns, and women, in video clips replete with images of aforesaid trifecta.

Indeed, brought to the surface in myriad gangsta rap videos are the core elements that undergird the ethos of American possessive individualism: accumulation through consumerism, greed, and exploitation.

It is possible to abstract from comparison of (some) gangsta rap videos and (some) ISIS propaganda images a similar vision of the contemporary “hero,” Gordon Geckos, Scarfaces, and ISIS warriors alike (for a convincing discussion of the “hero” of our age check out Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s recent book, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide – 2015).

The contemporary hero, apparently, is defined through his rabidly masculinist impulses towards the domination and control of spaces and people, the consumption of as much as possible, and the display of his success through the spectacle of his spoils.

There are, however, despite the similar ideological underpinnings of these cultural artefacts, a couple of notable differences.

The face of the hero of the ISIS poster is whited out, as though emitting a burst of light towards the viewer. This has a genuinely uncanny effect – and, though (obviously) done for security reasons, weakens the poster’s effect as propaganda.

As philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas showed, the face is the centre of human affective attention, the one element of human physiognomy that demands sympathy from an interlocutor or observer. Replacing the ISIS warrior’s face with a burst of light creates an uncomfortable anonymity, reminiscent of some of the images of early 20th-century anatomy research.

The other noticeable difference involves the sexualisation of the female figures. In the music videos (as in most versions of contemporary popular culture) women are sexualised according to their presence of flesh and the erotic charge of this flesh. In the ISIS recruitment image, the women are in burqas, their sexuality implied through its open repression.

Even so, the ISIS hero’s facelessness reminds me of Mark Seltzer’s analysis of contemporary US culture in Serial Killers: Death and Life in American Wound Culture (1998).

Seltzer discusses contemporary public space as defined through the psychopathology of “wound culture,” with the serial killer simply the most exaggerated version of modern man living under turbocapitalism.

The serial killer embodies the pathology of the modern age, of a subjectivity that overidentifies with the modern crowd, and compensates for this facelessness through acts of extreme (identity-defining) violence. This violent assertion of identity – as a panacea to facelessness in the modern age – defines, as Seltzer points out, contemporary celebrity culture at large.

Hyperconsumerism, commodity accumulation, misogyny and an overarching atmosphere of competitive violence - all of these elements, so definitive of contemporary neoliberal affects and structures, are simply restated in ISIS images and gangsta rap videos alike.

Not to give gangsta rap a bad name – a moralising tendency wonderfully lampooned in Ice Cube’s Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It. These qualities are, after all, celebrated in all kinds of popular cultural artefacts (two films of 2013 immediately come to mind: Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain).

Furthermore, it should be acknowledged that these elements of the popular culture of the “West” – a vision culture in which appearance reigns supreme – are the source of the ISIS propaganda’s appeal, rather than some kind of pseudo-Orientalist desire for heroic death.

ISIS ideology should thus not be envisioned in stark opposition to Western ideologies of consumerism and exploitation, but simply as another variant of them.

Joseph Conrad showed more than 100 years ago that one doesn’t need to go down the Congo to locate the “heart of darkness” – that darkness spreads and fills the spaces between “ordinary” people, and the gaps between people and their subjectivities. Hannah Arendt, similarly, discussed the “banality of evil” in her take on the infamous Eichmann trial in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963).

So instead of looking at irreparable rifts – rifts that are often widened in political discourse as justification for greater military domination – let’s ask, what does it mean to be human in a globalised consumer society?

Greed, social division, fierce and violent competition, and needless waste seem to be the definitive factors. ISIS ranks highly in these categories – as do the rest of us.

Hope arises when we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see.

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