We thought perhaps that we had seen everything on television you could possibly see. The Vietnam War. Famine in Africa. The images that return from history, of the Nazi concentration camps and the atom bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Airplane hijacks. The dismantling of the Berlin Wall. 9/11. The litany is substantial, and has expanded with the spread of consumer video and mobile phone cameras and what is loosely called citizen journalism. My recollection is that this term was taken up in the mainstream media in the UK after the London bombings of 7/7, and the emergence of mobile phone images from inside the blown-up tube trains. Before consumer video and phone cameras, historical moments caught in moving images were rare, apart from war and one or two remarkable exceptions, like Mr Zapruder’s footage of the assassination of JFK. But over the last few years, terrorist attacks and state terrorism of various kinds in various places have been caught in photographs and video, rapidly posted up on YouTube and repeated on television, which retains its mass media supremacy. Lately, natural disasters—which sometimes turn out so bad because of human error—have figured strongly. Hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis.
Yet now come more images we could never have imagined. First, Tahrir Square, completely unforeseen, has produced a new icon of popular rebellion and the strength of peaceful civil disobedience. In the moment that these images are seen—hard on the heels of the Tunisian uprising—history itself shifts gear. An image has appeared crystalising what people yearn for all over the world, after a century of the most unspeakable violence. Whatever the outcome, something fundamental has changed, the contemporary world dances to a new rhythm.
Then comes the Japanese earthquake and its giant tsunami, and being Japan, there are mobile phones and cameras on the scene which record such scenes as have never been recorded before and only seen in the imaginary special effects of the dystopian prophecies of the disaster movie. Like the planes flying into the Twin Towers, the real thing is utterly different. Like the Zapruder footage, the framing is unstudied and uncertain, the camera shakes, often mightily (which is hardly surprising), the light is what it is. Here are the surging irresistible waters, which not only toss cars and trucks around but sweep boats inland, crush them beneath bridges, leave them strewn high and dry when the waters recede. Survivors racing up stairways ahead of the rising water below them. Someone clinging to a tree, a man clutching his children perched on the roof of a truck atop a mound of debris. Acres and acres of detritus where once stood neat rows of houses. We don’t see bodies. The Japanese Government has ordered that the news cameras don’t show bodies being recovered, and the rescuers dig them out behind carefully placed screens. Nevertheless, these pictures produce much more than a frisson, but a shuddering in the distant observer almost like an aftershock.
We watch a symbolic discourse which metamosphoses in front of our eyes. First come images of buildings shaking, people rushing into the streets. Then there’s the sheer scale of the destruction. Quckly videos appear not only of the devasatation but of the tsunami itself, the sea invading valleys and plains in front of the lenses of the witnesses. In one shot, the water washes over the car from which the video is taken; in this case we know the ending—because otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing this—but it goes on for such an unbelevably long time that the mirror neurons in your brain go into overdrive. It takes a few days before we learn of the huge loss of life (less than Haiti for reasons rehearsed by the pundits, but the numbers are numbing nonetheless). Meanwhile, bit by bit, satellite images of the damaged nuclear power stations enter the picture. While nuclear meltdown threatens, we learn of the breakdown of the supply lines of electricity, food, fuel—in short, daily life suddenly becomes impossible. The shelves of the supermarkets are empty. Gas stations attract queues of cars stretching a mile or more.
What has emerged is a new vision of human vulnerability. Not just the irresistible force of flooding water, which is hardly a new discovery, but the fate of the most advanced social formations—no society could be better prepared, organised and equipped with the latest technology, and still Japan wasn’t prepared—in the face of the loss, for whatever reason, of the means of its everyday reproduction. A new nightmare image for the collective unconscious. But I’d prefer to dream of Tahrir Square.