A Vine--a six second looped video--shows the moment of a bombing on a crowded street, recorded off of a television screen. What does it mean?
It must mean something, because we're talking about it. We're watching it, again and again. This is something that is important to think about, because the way we watch things affects the way that we think about things. Whitney Boesel wrote about the Vine, and what she thinks it means:
Yes, the fact that someone shot a vine of this news broadcast probably got that explosion footage in front of more people, and in front of more people more quickly, than the television broadcast and subsequent YouTube (etc) videos would have alone. But in shooting a vine 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. Vine being what it is, this visual short story also does its own work to rapidly become the image of these events that its viewers have seen the greatest number of times (no broadcast network sensationalism required). One might argue that this self-repeating aspect makes Vine a powerful tool for reporting, but just because Vine can be used this way doesn't mean it should be used this way. And Vine definitely shouldn't be used this way without careful reflection about what it means to put six violent seconds on infinite (and infinitely circulative) self-repeat.
Nathan Jurgenson, in talking about her essay on Twitter, used the term "disaster-porn", for this sort of viral sharing, though in conversation with Boesel he backs off the phrase a bit, because he was of "different minds about it". Indeed, it is a complex and loaded term. But I think it is quite useful, because it opens a door for figuring out what video like this means, in all the ways that it is not like porn.
There is something scopophilic here, something of mimetic obsession. But we do not watch porn in this way. Porn Vines, though a necessary artifact of exploration that were fated to happen with the creation of a new technology, have not spread. Perhaps it is the censorship of the service that has clamped down on their occurrence. But porn GIFs, while also an unpreventable thing that exists, are hardly the main means of consumption of pornography. Porn is better suited to an different medium than an uncontrollable, short, looping video.
Porn finds its medium in video, specifically the "pause", the "fast forward", the "rewind". Pornography is a cinema of control--in which fantasies are made impersonal, general, unspecific, cataloged to be watched on demand, at the control of the consumer. Pornography finds its expression in genres: the "School-Girl", the "MILF", and others that I don't need to go into here. As I've written about previously, by making sexual fantasy into a genre, porn allows it to be commodified, and it controls the desire in priced and sold (and stolen) in video feeds, downloads, site accesses, and DVDs:
The vast quantities and ranges of school-girl fetish porn does not say anything about particular partners or bedrooms. Pornography is a commodified discourse, the production of which is described in terms of cultural-level "market forces" that describe the needs of culture in general. An individual may enjoy certain portrayals of the commodity more than others, but this is never a fetish produced for that individual. It is for the abstraction of many individuals in pursuit of profit. It is indicative of a sexual regime in society–the sexual archetype of the School-Girl, which can be said to "always" look, act, and inscribe sexual meaning in an archetypical way. The School-Girl is not a "who", it is a "what": it is a characterization recognized by symbolic indicators. Individuals may use the School-Girl archetype to enhance, inspire, or inscribe their own school-girl fetish, but any instance of roleplay activity will be a separate act, not reducible to the abstract archetype.
We use "porn" as a stand-in for various scopophilic expressions, even if they don't work by similarly controlling the flow of image. Sometimes they do--the commonly used phrase "ruin-porn" is a commodified discourse of falling down and abandoned buildings, which are used to typify a certain sentiment of societal collapse, and profit from it. Certain uses of the phrase "food-porn" also might qualify--streams of images and video that show delicious food, removed from context of recipe or review, commodify the look of food and sell it, a certain return of investment via pageviews in exchange for "noms".
And "Disaster-porn" may yet be a thing. In Boesel's piece, she makes mention of:
...the iconic 9/11 footage of the second plane hitting the second tower, and how that footage was played over and over again in the days that followed September 11, 2001, and how that footage still gets played over and over again now....
There is a certain sense in which footage of a disaster like this is commodified, presented to viewers for the purposes of gratifying their sense of control. It can be pulled out of its context, made into an object of circulation, like a collector's coin sold via television infomercials. There are the "Hero's Reels", replayed on national holidays and in suspect musical artist's performances, that pull images of war and disaster out of their historic context and use them in bolstering the currency of patriotism. This is terrorism as an object, something that you can own, mount on your wall, use as needed for a variety of purposes. But that is not what is happening in this Vine, I don't think.
There is something very raw about the sort of gaze going on in this Vine. The gaze, the human act of perceiving through vision, is separate from the technological medium. We are constantly gazing, but we are not constantly watching any particular medium. We gaze upon each other as sexual beings, prior to the act of commodifying that by creating porn that will satisfy the generalized population's desire. And we gaze upon the violence that happens in this world, prior to the act of making it into some sort of political banner. Whether it is commodified or not, our instinct to look at ourselves and others remains. As humans, we are captivated by the sight of ourselves in distress, especially at our own hands. And we cannot escape this captivation.
And this is good. It is a shame that we are not so captivated by Vines of the bombings that happen in other countries, that we do not meditate upon those images with a similar gravity. A image which did captivate us, which I remember very well, is the image of Lt. Pike of the UC Davis police, pepper spraying peaceful students at point-blank range in November of 2011. This image was replayed, repeated, looped, copied, overlaid, and embedded. It is foolish to compare the two, but I would say that while the Vine of Boylston Street only shows the moment of the first blast and none of the injured, the pepper spray images show the ongoing suffering of the victims and the audacity of the perpetrator committing his act, which is, judged on in and of itself, is a terrible thing. That this image circulated, in all its forms, allowed others to understand the horribleness of this act of violence. We focus on the image of a man spraying a crouching, sitting person in the face with chemical weapons. We stop thinking about the protest, about the police, about the school, and think only about what this moment might mean.
The Vine of Boylston Street does remove the moment of the blast from the surrounding context. It presents a very isolated, reductive view, as Boesel notes. But with this single loop, it also presents a purer image. It separates it from the endless twaddle of the television commentators, that feel the need to continue to pronounce words over the hours that we wait for further news. It separates it from the commentary of our friends on the same social media service from whence this video loop came, also filling the need to express their complicated emotions. It separates it from the endless hours of the day's events, and allows us to think about and reflect upon this one moment, the moment that cannot be taken back or regretted, that instantaneous, unstoppable moment in history when this thing happened. As we watch it repeat, we think not about what will happen tomorrow, the day before, or what is happening anywhere else, but only about this moment, trying to see what it is, thinking about what it means.
During the Occupy movement I worked on a website detailing the protest events, and also much of the violence suffered by activists at the hands of the police. After one particular bad day, I sat in the media van hunched over my computer, after some twelve similar hours of watching video clips submitted by citizen journalists in the streets. I was watching one clip over and over: as a man had been dragged down on the curb of the sidewalk, his girlfriend ran to him screaming, to see if he was okay. An officer came up behind her, grabbed her by the hair, and dragged her away as she screamed in pain. The video was shaky, in poor light, and grainy. I must have watched this six-second segment upwards of thirty times, desperately trying to see a name or a badge number on the officer's chest, so that we could use the video as evidence to clear the protesters of their charges. Finally, I had to stop. I couldn't get any name or number. But I noticed that my heart was pounding. I was sick to my stomach. I felt like I couldn't swallow. All I could hear in my head was the echoing sound of the woman's plaintive cry, as the officer punched her boyfriend, more a sigh that a scream, it sounded small, quieter than the grunt of the man delivering the blow: "no!" I wasn't watching media of police brutality. In that moment, in those repetitions, I was watching simple brutality, itself.
I'm glad that I watched those videos, despite how awful it was. Not just for the work that I did on the website, but because after watching that footage, this is something that I will never forget. This memory is something I can now reconnect with all the other context that I know. But that singular meditation on a moment has psychological power. I won't forget what the police did to people, whose only crime was jaywalking with political intent. And I won't forget the videos of Boylston Street either. When we watch that image, we aren't looking for badge numbers, but we are noticing other things, and recording them in memory. We see how the people reacted, running towards the blast, rather than away. We see the runner who fell down from the blast, and we are concerned for his welfare (the New York Times reported that he was fine and even finished the race; an update we probably wouldn't have gotten unless we had all seen him through the looped video and wondered about what happened to him). We see the suddenness of the noise and the smoke. We are now familiarized with what such a terrible thing as a bombing looks like, in a place we would never expect, in a time in which we were not expecting. We are educating ourselves about the world. We are digging into the splendor and the tragedy of what our humanity means, in everything expression from the mercy of a stranger tying a tourniquet, to the cruelty of a stranger filling a can with explosives and ball bearings. We are watching simply humanity, itself.
When Vine first came out as a medium, I knew it was only a matter of time until it had its Zapruder Moment. The Zapruder film was an 8mm home movie of JFK in Dallas, which ended up, through chance, being the most complete film of JFK's assassination. It's been called the one of the most studied pieces of film in history. I imagined that someone filming a quick, six-second Vine would accidentally capture something horrible, in which case that short piece of film would be as equally studied as Zapruder's 8mm film. But what makes this Vine similar to Zapruder's film is not that it managed to accidentally capture something historical, as it was recorded after the fact from a TV screen. But what it did was allow this short clip to be watched, analyzed, and meditated on, in the same way that the 8mm film was in subsequent investigations of the assassination. The medium of Vine easily allowed it to be viewed as if frame by frame, over and over, allowing the eye to focus on every line and pixel of light on the screen. And the eye was not controlled by the Time-Life Company or the Warren Commission, as it was in the case of the Zapruder film. The eye was all of us: anyone that stumbled into it on social media. The Zapruder Moment for Vine was not in its awkward means of video capture, but in its shareability, and its awkward, bare-bones repetition.
And yes, it is terrible. We wish we didn't have to see this sort of thing. We wish there was no reason that such a Vine had to exist. We wonder about why someone would choose to upload this clip of video. But the reason is that someone was going to. This is something that we all were going to see, even though we don't like seeing it. Technology enables it, removing control from the corporations and government inquests, and puts this control in the hands of whatever "the internet" really is. It removes control, and at least for now leaves it unporngraphic, uncontrolled. We surrender our gaze to this clip, and let it roll continuous. Simple, if not in any way pure. The clip's "virality", in the words of Jurgenson, is what makes it inevitable. This is a very human image, and humans were going to need to see it. Suggesting that human might not have utilized their most scopophilic tools in order to view and share this video is as futile as suggesting that humans might not talk about Boylston Street. We talk about our collective trauma, in order to process it, to understand it. We write about it. We work-through it with words. And now, we also work-through with video. We work-through with Vine.
Someone will likely, in the days ahead, make this clip into what is disaster-porn. Someone will use this video in a commodified form, removed from context in order to sell their political campaign, charity, memorabilia, war, or the video itself. It seems just as inevitable that someone will use this image poorly, as that we will meditate on it correctly. This is not the sort of thing that we can prevent, though we can shun it as what it is. What we can do is continue our meditation. We have the power of the gaze, both for good and for bad. There is a responsibility to using this gaze. It is our responsibility to continue thinking, while we look. I think this is what this video means. This task is not a light one, but it is what we are best at, as thinking, looking humans.