Zero Defects

When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you become weary of media frenzies which seem to summon a response from you, but when you think about how you might respond, you hold back because you don’t accept the terms and conditions for entry to the orgy. And anyway, even if you did accept the terms and conditions, how would you make an arresting entry? Answers on a postcard.

The Ground Zero Mosque is one such frenzy. If you’re plugged into the same sources of news and comment as me, you may feel the same urge to not just sit there, but to utter something. So let me talk about what might be behind the urge.

See the way I just said ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ there? Without feeling the need for further explanation, and you knew exactly what I was talking about? How does that work?

The first condition: what does ‘Ground Zero’ mean? ‘Ground Zero”s origin is as a term of military slang, used to describe the point of explosion of a bomb, one developed by atomic scientists who had been working to develop a weapons of mass destruction to be deployed by the State: in this case, and in this form, the United States of America.

It was used to refer to the point of explosion of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which immediately slaughtered hundreds of thousands of human beings.

That it is military slang is worth dwelling on. Military slang is a special type of slang.

Referring most likely to slang outside the military realm, Pierre Bourdieu sees slang, used by dominated groups, as in part the product of ‘a will to distinguish oneself vis-a-vis ordinary forms of expression’. He sees its use as ‘at the very least, directed as much against the ‘ordinary’ dominated individuals who submit to them, as against dominant individuals or, a fortiori, against domination as such’.

But in the explicitly hierarchical structure of a military organization, military slang -at least the sort of military slang of which ‘ground zero’ is an example- serves a different function. Used in a culture of pure obedience, it transcends hierarchy, and its function is to engender an esprit de corps, and to distinguish the members of that corps from other groups: the civilian population it is supposed to serve, the foreign population it is supposed to control, or the enemy it is supposed to kill.

So with the use of Ground Zero as the name for the site of the destruction of the World Trade Centre, and of the deaths of the thousands who worked there, military slang is universalised, and we talk about the world as though we saw it through a bombsight.

The effects? First, the effacement of any other ‘ground zero’ event. Neither preceding events of vast destruction, such as those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor subsequent events, such as those of Fallujah, can be located at a ‘ground zero’. The destruction of American lives, and of American buildings, is irrevocably elevated in importance above that of other lives and other buildings elsewhere.

Second, through its widespread usage, ‘Ground Zero’ introduces an explicitly martial character to the way in which people talk about the World Trade Centre site, it is the site of an act of war: when you say ‘Ground Zero’, you’re referring to an act of war against our side.

Third, it creates an starting point for a controlling narrative. In the years after September 11th 2001, it was common to hear people foregrounding the destruction of the twin towers in terms such as the ‘clear blue September morning’: in the story told, it all happened out of the blue. Whatever Osama Bin Laden had been up to before, whatever the United States government had been up to before: all this no longer matters, since, with Ground Zero, there is no before.

In sum, the use of ‘Ground Zero’ assumes the following: the events of September 11 2001 were worse than anything else, what happens to Americans is more important than what happens to anyone else, we are all at war, all part of the military effort, and we have always been at war since that fateful day, before which we remember very little.

I was planning on going on to talk about the effects of tethering together ‘Ground Zero’ and ‘Mosque’, as in ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ or ‘A Mosque at Ground Zero’, but I don’t have much time to do this in any detail. But let me point one thing out.

One of the criticisms levelled at ‘Islam’, which is to say, the image of Islam manufactured in the West, is that it, by contrast with Christianity, has not been the subject of a reformation. This criticism is, I think, preposterous, and is often advanced by people who have no difficulty in seeing the Saudis armed to the teeth for reasons of state. But it is a criticism. So I would like to apply the standards of that criticism to the country where the separation of Church and State is habitually exalted: the United States of America.

The head of state for that country recently declared that “Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.” Many people with a penchant for cheering on America’s bombing campaigns and imperial adventures overseas do so based on America’s supposed embodiment of secular enlightenment values, in contrast to the barbarous spaces of the East and the South. And yet here you had its supposedly liberal, judicious President, a skilled rhetorician, saying that ‘Ground Zero’ is a holy place. Because hallowed means holy. As in ‘hallowed be thy name’. And if the head of state declares a particular site to be holy -are those who wish to venerate it, by maintaining it unblemished by other sacralised competitors, not simply defending the rituals of the state religion? For all the denunciations of the assembled protestors’ obvious bigotry and racism, they’re not the ones doing the bombing the Muslims of Afghanistan and Pakistan: they’re just the ones cheering it on.

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2 Responses to “Zero Defects”


  1. 1 Longman Oz August 28, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    The other (admittedly obvious) thing that strikes me about military jargon is that it depersonalises matters. However, the notion that it is also a form of exclusive code also seems right.

    On a tangential point, I remember that we once were able to study a pretty radical book by Irish school standards called something like “70:30 – Ireland (Still) In an Unequal World”. One of the tables that I remember in it were the media expressions used to describe the Iraqis during the first Gulf war and the equivalent ones used to describe the Allies. Apart from the obvious propaganda element to such terms, seeing the words in such a distilled format really brought home how much military jargon has permeated into the popular discourse. A “normalisation process”, if you will.

    Re your last paragraph, have you any general thoughts / written in the past on modern myth creation and its consequences? Be it political or corporate? I only ask, as it seems right up your street…

    • 2 Hugh Green August 30, 2010 at 5:53 am

      Well there is also that: it tends to reduce complex situations to easily manageable objects for control and domination, and that means steering clear of concepts that involve living, breathing people.

      As for modern myth creation, I’ll have to give that some thought – don’t think I’ve written anything about it before, but it sounds like a good idea for a future post.


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