Geert Lovink on Fri, 1 Aug 1997 16:53:49 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> interview with Tom Keenan

Note: Hallo from Workspace. At this moment the group 'Deep Europe' is
here. Besides this, we concentrate on the newsgroups which are already
operational at Please join us there.
This is also an experiment for a (possible) new interface for the nettime
community. From then on we will have many parallel newsgroups, not just
this one channel of the mailing list. The ultimate aim will be to serve
our critics, the poor ecologists that suffer so much from the info
overload disease. In the future they will no longer feel the pain of
deleting valuable documents. They can surf through the newsgroups and feel
free and healthy!

- Geert


Media Wars and the Humanitarian (non-)Interventions
An Interview with Tom Keenan
By Geert Lovink
July 12, 1997

At Hybrid Workspace, Documenta X, Kassel

"Thomas W. Keenan teaches at the Institute for English Literature and Media
Theory at Princeton University. He has translated the works of philosophers
such as Derrida and Foucault and is the author of significant articles on
deconstruction and postmodernism. He has expressed his views on current
topics such as AIDS, armed conflicts, urbanism, new technologies,
multiculturalism in the age of globalization, etc. He contributed to the
catalogue of an
exhibition at the Fundacio Antoni Tapies in Barcelona with an article on
the future of the museum as an institution. His most recent work, Fables of
Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics (1997),
has a decidedly political orientation. Keenan is presently writing a book
on humanitarianism and the role of the mass media, based on the media
coverage of United States military intervention in Somalia, Rwanda, and

(official documenta info)

Tom Keenan was one of the organizers of the 'Data Conflicts' conference on
(new) media and politics in Eastern Europe which took place in Potsdam in
December 1996. Tom's 100 days lecture "Publicity and Indifference: Live
Sarajevo" is available on real video. He's promised to send the text of the
lecture to nettime:

Geert Lovink: At this moment the bandwidth campaign is going on here. What
is your view of this claim?

Tom Keenan: It is a good idea to stress the topic of the politics of
cyberspace. Not merely the ritual formulations about the need for universal
access, which has become a slogan in the United States. Not just 'We Want
More Bandwidth' but 'Bandwidth' as such. Last night, Saskia Sassen spoke
about electronic space and the formation of new claims. She talked about a
host of new political actors, both of the corporate multinational type and
the local disadvantaged groups. But I was troubled by her notion of
presence, which I understood as the public space, the city, as a space of
presence into which actors enter and present themselves. But the idea of
'self-presentation' brings up all the questions of the Self, identity and
essence. 'Because I am who I am, I make this demand for articulation,
expression, access... bandwidth.' After 30 years of philosophical
criticism, the fabled deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence, maybe
we have developed new ways of [defining] what a claim is. For me 'We Want'
means: precisely because I don't have and take for granted something that
is mine as a naturally given posession. Because it is not here now, I want
it. That is a claim without any ground or basis in the present. It is a
projection, a desire, articulated in relation to something absent. It does
not mean that I just want it for me. It would be an achivement, an
attainment, a conquest to get bandwidth. It will be the object of political
struggle. It will be a creation, not something which was already yours, but
which you just did not have yet. It will cause trouble, it will invent
something, distrupt; it will fabricate something new.

GL: What will be the topic of your 100 days lecture?

TK: Tonight I will be talking about the role of the television news media
in the conflict in Bosnia. We now understand that fighting takes place not
just on the street, between bunkers, with artillery, but with the
'artillery of the press'. The media as weapon. I am trying to understand
two conflicting interpretations of the role of media in contemporary
warfare. One school bases its claim on the Gulf War and the conflict in
Somalia. People understand this as the causal power of images. If I show
something on television, then something is bound to happen. Sarajevo seem
to present the counter to that argument. The more things were shown on
television, the less anything happpened. There was this notion that
television induced a narcosis, a stupor or voyeurism, which deprived us of
the capacity for action, rather than spurring us. An example would be
Snipers Alley in Sarajevo where several cameras and reporters of the
international news media  waited for people who were certain to be shot if
they walked across this street in daylight. Both the camera team and the UN
was in the same voyeuristic position as we were. There is a generalized
pleasure in viewing. A strange kind of intervention. One has a sense here
of an omnipresence of media as entertainment, even for the so-called

GL: The War in Bosnia did not have a mobilizing effect. People could not
identify themselves with any one of the parties. They all seemed victims
and guilty at the same time. There was a similarity between the 'passive'
behaviour of the television viewers and the incapability of France, the UK
and the UN to stop this war.

TK: There is a direct analogy between the semi-distanced position that
defines that of the news media. That is part of a 'journalistic' ideology
and self-understanding to not get too involved. Certainly in Bosnia
journalists played with this. A lot of them became less than detached. A
feeling of involvement emerged, but structurally, the position of the media
remained analogous to a military force that intervenes on humanitarian
grounds, claiming strict neutrality among all the parties. We treat this
one the same as that one, which is exactly the structure of the camera
which looks at all potential
subjects with a leveling force. It does not distinguish between the images
that it presents.
We need to refine the notion of passivity. There is no such thing as
passivity or inaction. The arrival of the cameras, like the arrival of
thousands of soldiers, hundreds of NGOs, relief agencies, Red Crosses. All
of those interventions transformed the situation on the ground and on the
screen. In the same way as the presence of the camera induces certain
events. There is a magnetic appeal there for things to happen. Likewise,
the passivity of the humanitarian, inadvertently, leads to a transformation
of the situation.

GL: Still, we have to face the fact there was no large anti-war movement as
there was in the days of Vietnam.

TK: The outcry did not occur. What energy there was, was immediately
rechanneled into a humanitarian response. Rather than saying, 'We need to
intervene, we need to stop the genocide', we said, 'Poor, suffering people
need food, help, shelter, tents. There was an opportunity, a vehicle of
expression, but it inadvertently become a pro-war movement. It began
prolonging the war by stabilizing certain zones of conflict, by rewarding
the clearing of populations on ethnic grounds. By financing and feeding,
the humantarian efforts rendered unnecessary a military and political
intervention and offered an alibi.

GL: The situation in Bosnia is contained now, but a lot of the issues are
still open, not only the media question. New facts are being brought up, as
in the case of Srebrenica, where the Dutch battalion 'witnessed' the
slaughter of thousands of civilians. Or the topic of the rising power of
NGOs and their involvement in those conflicts.

TM: It is interesting that this very weekend we see once again the return
of the international news media to Bosnia in the days following the arrest
of one indicted criminal and the killing of another. The purest indicator
being the return to Sarajevo of Christiane Amanpour of CNN. There is the
story that in the Central Operations Room of the Pentagon there is a map,
with little pushpins, to keep constant track of Christiane Amanpour. As a
military event, the location of this reporter is considered an item of
national security.
NGOs represent a very radical step: the notion that international politics
can be conducted by non-state actors. Foreign relations are no longer the
province only of states, diplomats, militaries or of transnational
corporations. Other parties can cross borders in an organized way and
intervene. The risk that brings with it is the ideology of humanitarian
neutrality or non-partisanship. When they intervene they always take sides
which gives the most to the dominant regional force, the bad actor. One has
to compromise with the dominant power. What is astonishing is their
profound immunity from critique. If there is a contemporary sacred cow, it
is humanitarianism. The only ground, at least in the United States, for
criticizing a humanitarian agency is that it wastes money. For every dollar
we gave to save the children, 50% of it went to pay staff. In fact, many
organisations are too effective. Their effectivity consists in handing over
relief goods to the parties that are by and large responsible for causing
the shortage of food and medicine. And in the willfull blindness for the
non-intervention intervention strategy. That is where a critique would have
to begin. To their credit, there are maybe one or two brave human rights
organisations. I would mention African Rights in London, which published in
November 1994 an important and still underrecognized white paper called
'Humanitarianism Unbound', which tries to understand the lack of
accountability of NGOs in crises like Bosnia or Rwanda. There is an
increasing state-like behaviour of non-state actors.

One of the places to organize this kind of critique would be around the
notion of 'independant media'. We are in a conceptual bind right now. We
have inherited the notion from the campaigns against communist
dictatorships where the state was seen as absorbing or preventing the
creation of any public sphere or civil society. Western or transnational
agencies invented the notion of independance in relation to the state,
which was seen as a totalizing force. Independent media became simply
anti-state press agencies. Now the number of actors in the former communist
states has multiplied in a way which is hard to calculate. UN, EC or Soros
have a very hard time understanding what independant might mean in relation
to a state which is no longer simply totalitarian.
In Rwanda, which was not a communist state but a one party state for a long
time, independant media were created and fostered after the 1991 agreement
between the warring parties. Roughly 90% of the money went to incalculable
extreme political movements, mostly radio, run by the most militantly
fundamentalist (Hutu) militia. Year after year, there were reports back to
the Untited Nations about the success of the independant media project.
Many voices were represented, etc. And it was precisely those media that
fostered, and in some cases even organized genocide in Rwanda.

(edited by David Hudson)
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