I have been watching harrowing reports from Guantanamo detention camp on the late night news. They shine lights in the eyes of those unjustly interned there – the camp has been open for five years – they play loud music at all hours (see Eroica), they interrogate and interrogate, forcing narrative (this is not just storytelling, though I glossed it as such for effect) and force-feeding those who protest their rights; and we now hear more and more and cannot avoid recognizing that the guards do much worse, much worse… beatings, broken ribs, degrading and sadistic tortures, deaths…and we have known this for too long…
While the inmates in their cages in the camp might be in danger of slipping from our memory, yet they are the brutal truth of our world today. Television has to do more than this to wake us up – I see it as the real Big Brother house, this is the Palace of Dreams, this is the Home of the Brave. This is where we really live, but do not see.
The way in which we manage to accept and excuse continued detention without charge or trial, deaths in custody, atrocity and crime, makes me think we need to rewrite our books and change our thinking. How to do this? Perhaps a shot of philosophy – what if we were to think of the scene on screen as a possible contemporary parable which is displacing or radicalizing the old cave scenario in Plato. Guantanamo might be our new founding myth – an indictment of the way we think, and a guide to how we might rework our ways so that it is not truth and the sun we seek, but justice and redress.
I hope then that it is not too strange to take up the metaphor of the fire-screen in Plato’s cave and rework it as a spark for Guantanamo. There could be many associations with the screen and the flame and this seems as good as any a place to start. In an overdetermined and well known passage, Plato presents us with a primordial cave in which we are offered the image of shadows flickering on a wall. Those watching the shadows – which flicker because they are caused by a fire in the cave – are incredulous when an early release tells them of a greater light, of the sun shining outside the cave, which reveals greater truths. As the story goes, the proto-television shadow wall retains its viewers, who after all are chained to the scene and cannot look away.
That this Plato-routine is mere storytelling is well known – and so it is with a great number of other scenes of media screen and fire. Television hardly moves us. Yet fire, as we know, is both creative and destructive. It is endlessly fascinating (more than television) – ‘hard to light, it is difficult to put out’ – a malevolent spirit (Bachelard 1938/1987:64). A symptomatic examination of flames on the screen might remind us that this is a political place – think of grainy images of the Reichstag fire, of the Hindenburg zeppelin crash, of the burning monk during the Vietnam war, and of late night reruns of Cinema Paradiso. Nevertheless, Plato’s cave establishes the precedent with those shadows on the wall – television, fire and political narrative are inexorably linked from the start – and so I also want to invoke a mythic register as perhaps more than as metaphor, or as heuristic device. I have in mind myth as it might have been narrated in a ‘reverie’ of those gathered around a camp-fire not unlike the one in the cave or as told to the interrogators. There are any number of televisual and cinematic moments that might provide a kind of archive to enable this – I invite readers to come up with their own greatest moments in flames, but let us always remember the storytellers of Guantanamo that we barely hear. The long questionings, the beatings, the torture, the loss of life – though not yet all dead, the dying…
To cite television news reportage as a burning issue under a register of fire is a kind of contrivance no doubt, but a necessary one, and it allows us to rethink storytelling as politics, and so television as ideological social origin myth. The only trouble is that this extravagant metaphorics could lead almost anywhere, and if we free associate television with fire, light, luminosity and insight we might merely meditate upon knowledge and vision, the daylight (let there be light…), the lantern (Zarathustra…) and the lamp (Aladdin…). Stories are not enough here. As if enlightenment were an unproblematic advance (as an alternative to detention camps and god-bothering leaderships on crusade, it surely is… but), fire is also a weapon (literally as fire-power, and also as firewater). So burn your TV. And burn down the camps. Though it destroys, fire may also cleanse. It is divine avenging spirit and productive furnace of hell, with Lucifer it is both the fall and purgatory. May Day though is the celebration of both Beltane and workers’ power; fire produces both steam and ash; energy and residue. It is made by friction or a spark; a smouldering beginning or a sudden crash of lightning; the image of god, spirit, cherubim; yet also hocus pocus, and obscurantist smoke and fug; fiery, inflamed, incandescent, excited; related both to flagrant and flamboyant. Why then is it that so often television does not at all encourage that ‘reverie’ that Bachelard identified in fire (this is also discussed in Moore 2000:130 Savage Theory). Late night TV is especially evocative of the narcoleptic camp-fire – flickering shadows the only light lulling us towards unconsciousness. The embers of the late late show shine with a soporific glow and contemplation need not be profound. We need that torture light smack in the eyes.
I hope old Plato will turn in his cave (and perhaps see the sun). The inmates of Guantanamo do not have sets in their cages, but they are the screen on which our social conscience is shown, and it is found wanting.
For all those in detention everywhere, and for Kadhr, Bisher, Hicks, El Hadj Boudella, the Bosnian Six, Abbasi, Sharif, Shah and all the others.