Understanding the Gulf War : hyperactivity, postmodernity, spectacle : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Sociology at Massey University

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In attempting to understand the Persian Gulf War of 1991, various descriptive labels have been employed by commentators - the "postmodern war", the "cyberwar", a war of "hyperreality", and a media "spectacle". Such terms are signals of the high degree to which it was felt that this war was somehow indicative of the new age that late modern society in general has entered. This thesis explores and questions such readings of the Gulf War, and the general social thinking which motivates them. I introduce the thesis with a chapter in which I aim to clarify just what is meant by the terms used to describe these "new times": postmodernity, the society of the spectacle, hyperreality. From these formulations I want to extract and investigate particular aspects in my next four chapters as they relate to the Gulf War. These themes are: illusion and reality; history and fiction; secrecy; and resistance. In the Gulf War we seemed to have experienced a blurring of the illusion-reality distinction. In this immensely mediated war, expert speculation, computer and video simulations, and movie-like narratives seemed to become more tangible than, and certainly blurred the impact of, the realities taking place on the ground. My argument on this thematic issue is that while the media-creation of the war is fascinating and important, we are in no way justified in shelving distinctions between illusion and reality, as some postmodernists are inclined to do. On the contrary, critical sociologists must remain committed to "exposing" the illusions - projected by the media and the Coalition leaders - that surrounded the foundations on which the war was legitimised and the conduct of the war itself. Related to this question is the blurring of the history-fiction divide by some theorists of postmodernity. In attacking the "grand narratives" of modernity and in placing a one-sided emphasis on the textuality of history, postmodernist theorists are, I maintain, left without a defence against the history of the victors. Against these accounts and the collapse of historicity in postmodern culture, I reassert the importance of sociological and historical truth, the historicity of the text, and the inescapable need for totalising, structural theory. Guy Debord's emphasis on secrecy in his latter theoretical work on the society of the spectacle is particularly relevant to the case of the Gulf War. In the Gulf War we find an attempt, through profound military secrecy, to reorganise the perception of war on the basis of political expediency. The resulting continuous stream of disinformation released left the events shrouded in mystery. Meanwhile, the spectacle of terrorism worked to legitimise intervention and mobilise support from an increasingly marginalised population. Finally, I consider the question of resistance. For some, the advancing colonization of all spheres of life by the commodity leaves no "outside" from which to mount opposition in late capitalist society. The smothering of anti-war protest by quasi-fascistic euphoria testifies to the impotence of strategies of hyperconformity and the limited progressiveness of mass culture. At the same time, the wavering and even capitulation of numerous leftist intellectuals reflected the waning of utopian vision - an eclipse frequently encapsulated in such shorthand phrases as the "crisis of Marxism" and "the end of history". I relate the muteness of opposition both to the manipulation entailed by the "society of spectacle" and to the doldrums the left is in at present. The implication of my presentation at this point, and the overall thrust of the thesis is that rather than the hopeful liberalism or ironic cosmopolitanism recommended by postmodernism, only a reconstitution of the revolutionary utopian vision can do justice to the intellectual and political challenges posed by such phenomena as the Gulf War and its re-presentations within Western culture.
Persian Gulf War 1991, Mass media war, Press coverage, Journalists, Propaganda