Terror and Media

Miklós Peternák

„The Devil, Probably”
(To the aesthetics of terror)


Shortly after the multiplication of the horrendous recordings, first of all mute (they would have been unbearable with the sound of the explosion), stirring up even archetypal depths (the Tower of Babel, the Apocalypse of St John, tarot card No. XVI, etc.), and the dust torrent of the news competition-inflation, a picture appeared on the Internet, in which the shape of the devil seemed to emerge from the deadly clouds of fire and smoke surging from the two towers. The accidental graphic designer may also have thought about Robert Bresson's film from 1977, quoted in the title, which is a chronicle of irrational destruction.

Images envisioned in clouds and accidental shapes have a tradition going back to the very distant past; examples of this could be mentioned from the antique ecphrasis to the Renaissance artist legends, from the story of Frenhofer, the painter to the Rorschach test. But why does this fiendish grin appear on the walls of our room built from network communication interfaces? What kind of imagination conducts the eyes to see the vision of this post-Faust masque?

We had better do as the phrase goes, and not talk of the devil. We should not transfer things that - maybe there is still some hope - can be quite safely handled with the tools of ethics and/or aesthetics into the world of topics of metaphysics and especially not to the world of pseudo-sacramentality. In respect of the former, the judgement is clear and evident: the terrible crime cries for punishment. However, after the first astonishment, the appearance of art here is worth analysing more thoroughly, as in a case when the world and the individual persons have such a trivial shock, and everybody - maybe with good reason - talks about the beginning of a new era, it needs to be explained, even if we agree that ethics and aesthetics are the same thing.

The statement of the old and maybe ill composer spread in a less sensational form, but as a similarly shocking circular letter, in which he linked the qualities of beauty and horror that are difficult to reconcile, identifying terror as a work of art: in this field there are fewer historical examples, although Nero and some of his followers may well as be mentioned here. We are haunted by the vision of the era (and here it is not just a simple figure of speech) to which Walter Benjamin reflects when he writes about the fascist prettifying of politics in his study often referred to. In recent days it seems as if the media were bringing the prettifying of terror and introducing it in our rooms, in our everyday lives through the channel that unavoidably makes us see everything, under the pretext of providing authentic information, rearranging the iconography of our brains.

It is obvious that the only place where the picture could not be seen was the place where the pictures were made: when the towers of the WTC collapsed, the possibility of television broadcasting also collapsed in the given area: this moment of mourning shows that the world has not yet sunk to the hopeless level of metafiction, it is still operable at its present apocalypse-maximum. No one was given the chance, thank God, to look out the window and be able to compare the pictures broadcast on television to what they could actually see.

„The terrorist attacks against New York and Washington were inspired by fiction”, said Virilio, who does not have a television, and does not want to watch television any more, he was informed about the attacks on the telephone, and he has lived to see what he wrote become reality. I was also informed about the attacks on the telephone, although I was not called, and I have not got a television, but a few hours later I was staring at the picture sequences broadcast on the screen again and again, as something that you have got to memorise visually, like the hypnotised victim of a snake, with helpless, panic-stricken attention. The skyscrapers were beautiful, and the slaughtering bang of the aeroplanes dashing against them is a frantic fiction, a perception bordering on the unbelievable.

Now I am happy I have never even accidentally thought about this possibility, or even writing anything similar down. Poor Virilio, poor architecture. Unlike those computer game programmers who have been selling the virtual prefiguration of this event for a long time as a simulation, and now they have withdrawn it, unlike the authors of „fictions” who have not withdrawn their creations, but probably will do in the near future, unlike the film producers, the masters of special effects who may be seriously considering whether they want to continue working with this genre, like Wim Wenders says he is.


The pictures do not show the catastrophe, the pictures authenticate the fiction: what we imagine, what is close to become real, what we see becoming real, scraping off the scale off fiction, we can put back in its own place with hard work. Obviously it is not the cameras" fault. But it is hard to believe, and it is maddening that the occurrence of this horror is imagined without the process of mapping.

What is the responsibility of those who watch the pictures?

Have I just been attacked, in this synchronised, present-state, or am I the accomplice of the attacker, when I am watching it all? Is the horror brought into my home a part of the attack, or complicity spreads like a mental virus through this new type of entertainment (reality show)?

I remember December 1989, the Romanian television revolution, when the routine of the media similarly disturbed, but the heroes of this were real people, as actors of the living picture scenes performing the provincial and anachronistic version of the 19th century heroic historical tableaux, and the similarly horrible end, murdering the tyrant, which we had known from archetypes and could be predicted, was prepared by the classical dramaturgy of the dénouement.

The picture in power. This is what Vilém Flusser was talking about at the end of his lecture he gave in Budapest: we do not have any experience about it, we are lacking in ideological ammunition.

We have gained experience, after ten years.

Now the heroes have disappeared and they are emerging from the spiritual-image-world. (illustration).

I would not like to be a viewer of a long total (visible and non-visible) war which makes me: a soldier. Warrior whose assigned task-minimum, whether he wants to or not, is to at least serve as a guard in front of a monitor.

You can't escape from the global war: it's present in your room, in the closed radio on the desk, in the voice of the commentator seeping over from your neighbour's television, in the questions of the little girl on the trolley bus who is looking at the grownup's newspaper. As Le Clezio wrote decades ago, just to refer to a little-quoted novelist: there's a war on. Nothing's happening. Anything can happen.

Do we really want to live like this?

Don't lament: there is that part of the world who could have been there in the tower. I, the writer of these lines, my colleagues, acquaintances and friends who even from very close have told me they experienced at the scene, who read or could read these lines - and there are those who could not have been there. From whom no one gets e-mails. Both groups are small partial groups of the group seen as terrorists, against whom the freedom military action has been declared.

But those who could have been there are not only potential victims, but partial accomplices also. No, not at all in the concrete act, but in that the world has become like this -primarily they, we have an influence on this. Let's call this, perhaps, globalisation, common responsibility, and in this lies the moral, the single acceptable step forward is to act so that the world is not as it is now, as we experience it.

It would be a great mistake on the basis of the above to endow any sort of positive meaning to the terror. It's not a result to state again and clearly the truth of love. These conclusions are not new and have not been said once, or sayable and writeable. As the time draws close for us, we are just as increasingly frequently forced to acknowledge this. Anyway it's impossible to lay 100% of the blame on the „real” criminals. At the minimum the „attacked” world should take a few thousandths of it.

The victims, their families, friends are innocent, while the aforementioned other part of our global world, who were not able to be there at the scene, are not innocent: ignorant. The victims are the heroes who look back from death, into which they have been exposed from the background by the indefensible attacking landscape-world, the souvenir of tourism, the disguised memento mori.

After the attack I saw the 49th Venice Biennial, the most topical theme of which in the shadow of the events was on the platform of humanity , seeing on the basis of this creating in thought, showing the world. The presentation was credible: it shows that art does not stand on the platform of terror, and this today can be seen muck more clearly than at the opening several months ago. Art has already attacked the Taliban aesthetics, again with „reasons”, the aesthetic appearance of the attacked towers" external and internal appearance is the profile of this attack, it has nothing to do with the artistic beauty. Whoever desires this „beauty” from the artist should remember the unforgettable series of pictures of September 11. And add to it that pictorial world that they represent, those that died in the tower are now symbolic, a common message from the border of the other world and the world of spectacle:

I received this picture by e-mail while writing the present text from the United States with the following comment:

„Subject: Tragic Picture
If this picture doesn't grab you, nothing will. The fellow in the picture and the person taking the picture are among the missing at the WTC, but the camera survived. No trick photo of the first plane at 8:45, 9-11-01.”

Let's add: this picture and its inseparable comment is the most exposing of the status of the pictorial world. This is not a trick, the text authenticates the reality, and we know, it not that, but we don't see it. What we see, although the elements of the event are together, does not betray anything of the happening. ^back

6. October 2001.