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From Abu Ghraib to Werribee (it's not that far)

By Stephen Smith
Created 02/11/2006 - 07:42

Stephen Smith is a regular Webdiarist [0]. His last piece was 9/11 – fear on film [0].

By Stephen Smith

"This is a soft fascism, like the consumer landscape. No goose-stepping, no jackboots, but the same emotions and the same aggression." - J G Ballard – "Kingdom Come"

‘The DVD that disgusted a city’ was one of the news headlines in the shocking case of a DVD [1] produced and sold in Melbourne’s outer west by the self-styled "teenage kings of Werribee". What at first looked like a Jackass-style prank posted on YouTube, police are now investigating as sexual assault involving up to 12 youths. Sadly, amid the media storm, the trauma goes beyond that of the victim. Students from one of the district schools named by the media have had passers-by spit at them in the street. This degree of public hate contains an irony we shall examine.

For it appears that the public’s consumption of news media about the whole incident is part of a cycle of action and reaction. Here, it is the ‘bent’ turn of consumerism that is precisely the problem. For what lies on the other side of easy blame is a desensitisation to violence in our midst.

After all, the most compelling aspect of the DVD is that its makers see it as a commercial product – a consumer item.

In a sense the ‘Werribee 12’ have become independent of the mass media. With their cameras they are the new media; and they produce and distribute their own content. Although they are backyard media producers, what we see in their product is very much a reflection of the perverse direction of consumer culture. It has an obsession with violence, and in particular, ritual humiliation. While the technology is new, the values on display are not.

Bullying and abuse are a part of the dark side of the Aussie mateship myth. Here, it includes a dose of humiliation as part of its ritual. What has changed is that digital and mobile phone cameras allow the sharing of images beyond the initial group involved. On YouTube the three video clips by the Werribee teens were uploaded more than three months ago and had accrued more than 9,000 viewings. With access to the site’s endless stream of content, we can only wonder how the YouTube audience can distinguish fake from fear in the reactions exhibited by the ‘subject’ (victim).

This dilemma has also been seen in another much publicised clip that turned up on YouTube. In it, Australian soldiers in Iraq pointed a pistol at the head of a fellow soldier dressed in Arab headdress. John Howard said that the soldiers needed to "let off a bit of steam". Writing in The Australian, Greg Sheridan was even more tolerant of what he saw as a natural part of Australian ritual. "It’s not surprising that, like any group of spirited young men, they get up to some silliness", he said. "Just spend some time around any football club, or a Year 12 on muck up day."

The problem with such excuses is how web users perceive these gonzo style clips. In viewing clips by the Werribee 12 or the Aussie Diggers in Iraq, the context is unknown; and it may not be so clear as to where play acting or skylarking end and abuse or assault begin. Clips from the Werribee DVD had existed on YouTube for months and as one posting on The Age web forum commented:

"It's just another digital piece of information that will make its way through the huge world wide web to the point that the initial crime is devoid of a human reference."

Images become their own justification and consumption of them requires no context. We no longer allow ourselves to reflect upon what images might depict. Instead, the media transfers violence into images that we consume with no other thought but how such desire might be next gratified. To this extent, a critic in the UK, Paul Taylor [2], has observed:

"Everything becomes a potential image for the voyeuristic gaze and less and less is ruled out on grounds of taste or any other consideration."

With this aspect of culture in mind, let us return to the offending DVD.

First of all, what the camera seeks is to capture shots as ‘souvenirs’ of the event. They choose their victims so that fear or humiliation captured on film becomes a trophy for the group and its admirers; and it is a way of instilling respect (or fear) among their peers.

The world, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, is a global village. The vile acts portrayed on the DVD and its souvenir element is reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib photos. Yet this is not a direct comparison - we do not suggest a simple 'copy cat' style. What links them is the way in which the media has desensitised the torture at Abu Ghraib, and further, how commercialisation became part of normalising it.

In consuming these Abu Ghraib photos, as they first appeared, does this imply consent for what has taken place? We are revolted more by the images themselves rather than by what they depict.

As we now realise, the Abu Ghraib photos created a dilemma for how we consume news content. A moral threshold is crossed. The horror of what we see is normalised by the way in which later associations take place to transform the images into a consumer product. In the case of Abu Ghraib, one such transfer took place in the glossy pages of Vogue Italia [3]. (Discussion of the images in the photo shoot also occurs here [4].) Once absorbed into consumerism, this association also invites us to change our moral outlook. In her response to Italian Vogue, Joanna Bourke makes this comment in The Guardian [5]:

"The most disturbing thing about these photographs, however, is that they have taken their inspiration from the torture photographs taken in Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq. The visual titillation of suffering, dogs primed to attack people, and women who inflict pain - these have become some of the most common images of the war on terror. In these fashion photographs, we see how those images of torture have been translated into consumer products. Torture has not only become normalised, it has been integrated into one of the most glamorous forms of consumer culture - high fashion."

The group known as the Werribee 12 may not stand at the top end glamour of consumer culture. But at $5 a pop their DVD is just another mindless item for their mates to consume. Just as at Abu Ghraib - where US soldier Lynndie England was only the most direct perpetrator - we need to look further up the ‘chain of command’ in the case of this DVD from suburbia. We need to realise how violence has become part of consumerism. It seems that such measured doses of violence are now an inescapable part of our culture. In this respect we must face the possibility that consumerism has become what amounts to ‘soft fascism’. In this state we now enter a society that craves the image but at the cost of a loss of care and responsibility for the type of reality being represented.

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