Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

Tyrannical Loops: The Inappropriateness of Instant Replay in the Wake of Destruction

Whitney Erin Boesel, a Boston resident and sociology grad student, has written a blog post about Vine footage taken during the Boston Marathon bombings. The six second loop of film in question captures the moment of the first bomb's explosion; that instant in which the atmosphere at this well-attended, annual public event was shattered.

Boesel comments: "In shooting a [V]ine of the explosion footage, the person who did so created an easily sharable short story of this afternoon's events that reduces the tragedy of a violent act down to a bright orange flash."

The tyranny of the loop, its fixity and, indeed, inanity - so discordant in loudly dominating our perceived reality of events - is what troubles Boesel here. Back in January, I considered this very quality of looped media in a short history of artefacts from the zoetrope to the animated gif. Loops of all kinds and on all subjects were, I argued, on some level disturbing because of their, "narrative dissonance, this psychotic imagery which implicitly begs to be halted or somehow set free."

What happens when looped media is applied to an event like the Boston bombings? How does the use of such media shape our response?

Boesel makes the obvious connection between the Vine upload and news media coverage of 9/11, which was incessant in its broadcast of footage showing the crash of United Airlines jets into the World Trade Centre Twin Towers. This very coverage has already been questioned on many levels - not least by an artist whose somewhat controversial work recreated those broadcasts in the form of a zoetrope:

The artist in question, Scott Blake, also produced a "9/11 flipbook" as a means of making a similar statement. His point, as he put it in a press release, was to suggest that this endless repetition of the moment of destruction enabled perpetuation of that destruction, not simply its documentation. "My primary goal with the 9/11 Flipbook," Blake commented, "is to remind everyone how the mainstream media broadcast the violent attacks over and over. The way I see it, the news did exactly what the terrorists wanted them to do."

This, and Boesel's discomfort over the widely shared Vine film capturing the moment of the first bomb's explosion, correlate with the very problem defined by Jean Baudrillard in his essay "The Violence of the Image": "The image [...] is violent because what happens there is the murder of the Real." He adds, "Particularly in the case of all professional or press-images which testify of real events. In making reality, even the most violent, emerge to the visible, it makes the real substance disappear."

This evaporation or dissipation of substance, we might say of narrative, context and fact, is exactly that which Boesel and others have reacted against in criticising the use of Vine and its endless loop to document that terrible, bloody moment in Boston yesterday afternoon.

Douglas Rushkoff's latest book Present Shock, picking up a thread from the Baudrillard tapestry, agrees with Baudrillard that this problem is endemic. He points out, for example, the well-known fact that in the 1990s and 2000s, TV writers responded to dwindling and apathetic audiences by eradicating narrative complexity from storylines and prioritising the spectacle-punctuated format of "reality" television.

While I disagree with the speculative conclusions Rushkoff extrapolates from this point, it is worth noting that in recent years the debate over the appropriateness of looped media in the wake of tragedy has intensified.

"frequent early exposure to 9/11-related television predicted posttraumatic stress symptoms two to three years later"

Last year, the journal Psychological Science published new research on the impact of "repeated exposure to media images of traumatic events" as potentially directly harmful to mental and physical health. The research, by Dr Roxanne Cohen Silver of the University of California, found that consumption of news about events like 9/11 and the Iraq war directly correlated with a rise in incidence of acute stress among test subjects.

"Furthermore," a Psychological Science press release highlighting the research stated, "the effects of trauma-related media exposure lasted over time - frequent early exposure to 9/11-related television predicted posttraumatic stress symptoms and physical health problems two to three years later."

For many years the news media, at least in Britain and America, have adhered to principled guidelines about the dissemination of graphic imagery. With social media, however, embargos on violent and disturbing images have effectively fallen away.

When US basketball player Kevin Ware's shocking injury during the Louisville-Duke game last month was broadcast on live television, subsequent news reports on most networks chose not to replay the footage. But of course, because of their initial wide availability, images of the incident were easily accessible online and many, hearing about the gruesomeness of the compound fracture to the tibia and femur in Ware's right leg, sought these pictures out. If you wanted to see the moment of Saddam Hussein's execution in 2006, which was cut from television broadcasts of the "event", the same method of retrieving it online was open to you.

As the moment of the spectacle, the explosion, the gunshot, the knife entering flesh, becomes available, its transition from censorship to virulent image (in Baurdrillard's terms) seems instant. There is no middle-ground. The looped, six-second footage of an explosion in Boston becomes totalising and yet represents the implosion of everything that happened yesterday down to a single shareable token. It encapsulates the reductionism practised and perfected by news media and it allows the tyranny of the loop to suggest trauma which is, in fact, unending.

Other psychological research on the effects of particular kinds of news coverage have picked up the idea that the consequences are not merely ontological. Behavioural change expert Joseph Grenny published an article in Psychology Today last year which was entitled, "The Media Is an Accomplice in School Shootings". And a significant study in 2001 found that threats of school violence in Pennsylvania rose significantly in the wake of media coverage of the Columbine massacre. Loops, specifically, were not singled out for discussion, but their presence in the 24-hour news cycle is implicit.

Might we collectively develop a theory that the loop is anything but a phenomenon "confined" to media? The suggestion, indeed, is that its tyranny is not purely destructive of concepts, but also of those who see it (whether they suffer post-traumatic stress as a result or experience violence in other ways - either by committing it towards themselves or to others). Violent/virulent footage, when played on repeat, loops outwardly, into the future, in order to perpetuate violence of (several) new kinds. This perpetuation is the (in)direct result of having been traumatised through the very act of witnessing trauma.

While acknowledging that representation of violence in movies and video games is extraordinarily difficult to link to violent acts in society, perhaps there really is something demonic about the loop, specifically, in the context of reportage. With each incessantly recurring cycle, the loop's decipherable meaning seems to dminish while its terrible power seems to grow.


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