ENCODE Panel Manufacturing Monsters
Fiction and Facts in Narratives of Political Conflict
University of Agder
March 8-11, 2018

The papers combined in the present panel investigate the social construction of ‘monsters’ in and through a variety of media and genres.

‘Monsters’ emerge in our collective imaginaries and memories in different forms and functions, but a shared characteristic seems to be their monolithically evil nature that commonly disallows for contact through other than directly violent means. Branding someone or something as monstrous often implies that the respective entity can, and indeed often should, be fought under the application of all means available to assure the survival of a fragile self in inherently hostile environments. As a result, categorizing an opponent as a ‘monster’ is a precondition for the justification of war and other violent conduct. As such, the social construction, or mediated manufacture, of ‘monsters’ in and through cultural expressions matters for issues of politics and practice.

The present panel interrogates the formal means through which Hollywood films, television news and documentaries, and computer games invite for perceptions of particular opponents as monstrous, thereby implicitly facilitating a politics of violence and exclusion. These formal analyses are then combined with attention to the socio-economic and political contexts of production and reception through which the functions and effects of formal meaning potentials are channelled and predisposed. Drawing upon the frameworks of Astrid Erll, Noam Chomsky, and Edward S. Herman, the panel combines close readings of specific cultural expressions with critical attentiveness to the contextual frames that inevitably colour possible readings and predispose possible socio-political implications of cultural expressions.

Paper 1:

A Tale of Two Versions: I Am Legend and the Politics of Cultural Production
Holger Pötzsch, UiT The Arctic University of Norway

The paper compares and contrasts the officially released version of Lawrence’s 2006 Hollywood movie I Am Legend with the director’s cut, and brings the findings into dialogue with Richard Matheson’s 1954-novel with the same title upon which the film is based.

I argue that the officially released version of Lawrence’s film rearticulates Matheson’s novel in religiously conservative and politically reactionary terms as a struggle of a good male military protagonist against incomprehensibly evil subhuman adversaries. At the cost of considerable narrative inconsistencies, the officially released version reframes main protagonist Neville as tragic hero sacrificing himself for the sake of saving a woman and child, and indeed the whole of humanity, against a monstrous and threatening other. In contrast, the director’s cut opens a liminal zone of contact and negotiation in the film on which the formerly confined other can reassert its humanity and, indeed, ethical superiority, thus fundamentally undermining received notions of the military-male Hollywood hero. Realigning the core narrative of the film to the one of Matheson’s novel, the director’s cut as such reverses generic structures of sympathy of mainstream Hollywood film and opens for deep and troubling questions about the consequences of othering and exclusion.

Putting Matheson’s novel and Lawrence’s director’s cut into dialogue, the paper then identifies parallels between the cold war political paranoia of the McCarthy era in the US and the contemporary sensitivities of the GWoT. On this background, the release of the official version of I Am Legend is interpreted as a deliberate nod towards a hegemonic political discourse that frames most oppositional political articulations as out of bounds. In this context, controversial narratives that break established genre conventions are reframed as a significant hazard for economic pay-offs of large scale investments in cultural products.

Holger Pötzsch, PhD, is associate professor in Media and Documentation Studies at UiT. His research focuses on memory, war films, war games, and the socio-political implications of digital network technologies.

Paper 2:

Tales of Tirpitz: Manufacturing History in the Documentary The Battle for Hitler’s Supership
Juliane Bockwoldt, UiT The Arctic University of Norway

My paper deals with the relationship between factual and fictional elements in the documentary The Battle for Hitler’s Supership (Quinn 2005). The subject of the documentary is the story of the German battleship Tirpitz that the British RAF sunk in Norway in 1944. The paper focuses on the presentation of eyewitnesses in the documentary and analyses how their presentation might contribute to manufacturing a monster—the Tirpitz, or the beast, as Churchill called the ship.

To examine the factual and fictional elements of the documentary, I will analyze different aspects. The arrangement and staging of the scenes with the eyewitnesses is remarkable regarding their similarity to fictional movies and their distance to neutral interview situations. Light, setting, and even clothes are selected carefully and used in an atmospheric and narratively engaging manner. The music and sound effects support and strengthen the atmosphere and help to create the main narrative of the documentary with the Tirpitz and the Nazi German Empire as the monster that has to be fought. In addition, text plays an important role in the eyewitnesses’ scenes. The spoken text by the interviewees is minimal in many scenes and the effective content of their speech seems to be rather uninformative. The purpose of the represented talk could be a different one than adding crucial information, but might serve to create empathy between the eyewitness and the spectator. The last element that is of importance in this analysis is the spoken text by the narrator of the documentary Piers Gibbon. His status as known and acknowledged narrator in numerous British documentaries and TV shows, his tone and highlighting in the spoken text and the content of his speech are essential regarding the creation of the narrative and in terms of pulling the audience into it.

The genre of documentary is perceived as a medium that is based on, in this case historical, facts. The aim of this talk is to highlight and to analyze the inherent fictionality of The Battle for Hitler’s Supership.

Juliane Bockwoldt, MA, is PhD candidate in Media and Documentation Studies at UiT. Her research focuses on memory cultures in connection to the presentation of the German battleship Tirpitz with particular focus on documentaries and museum exhibitions.

Paper 3:

Tales of Omran: Media at War, Manufacturing Monsters and ‘Their’ Victims
Christian Beyer, independent researcher, Tromsø

In the conference description, we read: “Since public awareness of violence, terror, and war to a considerable extent is informed and shaped by media images, the image as such is a recurring topic in narratives of political conflict.” Throughout this paper, we will have a closer look at a distinct media image from the late Battle of Aleppo: the one of Omran Daqneesh.

What is the story of Omran Daqneesh? Many of us may still remember Omran as the ‘Boy from Aleppo’, sitting on an orange ambulance-car seat with a bloodied face. Initially published by the Aleppo Media Centre in August 2016, images of him appeared worldwide and gained a large media attention. Yet, can we as mass-media spectators distinguish facts from fiction when examining his medial appearance from 2016 alone?

Throughout the Syrian conflict, grand narratives appeared within the ‘regime-change’ faction of media commentators and scholars alike, ranging from (i) “A ‘tyrant’ (‘regime’) killing ‘its own people’” via (ii) “A Sunni–Shia clash” to triangular puzzle-solving analyses such as (iii) “‘The regime’ versus ‘moderate rebels’ versus ‘Jihadists’”.

In the wake of so-called ‘Arab Spring’ readings, these narratives were widely echoed and supported by manifold ‘experts’ within ‘Arab’ (mainly Qatari- or Saudi-based) and ‘Western’ (mainly US- or UK-based) news channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya or ‘newspapers of record’ such as The New York Times and The Guardian—predominantly in states that later became part of the “Friends of Syria Group” or “London 11”.

In these contexts, Omran’s image quickly arose as a personified representation of the ‘cruelties of the regime’; being branded as one of “Assad’s ‘barrel bomb’ victims”. Especially in the late stages of the Battle of Aleppo (July 2012–December 2016), whose outcome was described as the “Fall of Aleppo” by some and the “Liberation of Aleppo” by others, manifold children images were used as visual ‘weapons of mass distraction’.

Drawing on Herman/Chomsky’s notions of ‘worthy victims’ versus ‘unworthy victims’ (1988), we will try to rudimentary sketch the complex ‘Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network’ (Der Derian 2001) surrounding the establishment of ‘Omran, the Boy from Aleppo’ as a ‘global icon’ of collective memory.

In our case that means that we will have to have a look at the multi-medial interplay of entities such as the three global news agencies Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters; the A–B–C of international 24-hour English-language news Al Jazeera English (Qatar), BBC World News (UK), CNN International (US) and its major narrative competitors RT (Russia), PRESSTV (Iran), teleSUR English (Venezuela); diverse Arab-speaking channels such as Al Arabiya (Dubai/Saudi Arabia), Al Mayadeen (Lebanon) or Syria TV (Syria); ‘regime-change’ support groups such as the White Helmets, Bellingcat or The Syria Campaign; the work of influential NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or Médecins Sans Frontières and their ‘local’ sources such as the Aleppo Media Centre or Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

We will further read the story of Omran in conjunction with other non-fictional characters such as Bana al-Abed (born 2009; ‘the Twitter Girl from Aleppo’) or purely fictional phenomena such as Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari (the imaginary blogger of ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’).

Our goal will be to draw a more complex picture of what it means to speak about ‘perpetrators’ and ‘victims’ alike, with a clear focus on the possibilities and impossibilities of undoubtedly distinguishing between facts and fictions. Therefore, notions of ‘multi-sided exploitation’ and an inherent ever-lasting ‘ambiguity of knowledge’ will be of great importance.

Christian Beyer, MPhil, is an independent researcher in Iranian Jewish Studies. His research further focuses on mass media representations of the ongoing armed conflicts in Syria and Libya.

Paper 4:

Playing As and Against Cold War Monsters: Manufacturing Evil in Metal Gear Solid V
Emil Hammar, The Arctic University of Norway

This paper investigates how monsters are produced via the software systems of digital games and how players appropriate monstered meaning-making for their own use. Using the specific case of the Japanese-developed military simulation game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (MGSV) targeted at Western consumers, I investigate how the ontology of digital games as software objects contributes to a procedural monsterization and othering of over-exploited colonial countries like Afghanistan, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo formerly known as Zaire. In the game, depictions of the early 1980’s Cold War and its proxy colonial wars in the Middle East and Africa are combined with a configurable game rule system focused on invading, killing, and dominating these virtual spaces. Via the game’s means of memory-making, I argue, MGSV manufactures a simulated evil rarely seen in similar postcolonial pluri-medial networks.

Analyzing MGSV as a text brings about the implicit ways in which digital games allow for certain colonial imaginations to be played out and enacted by different players. I argue that the intersection between cultural memory related to the Cold War, postcolonialism, military power fantasy, and the political-economic conditions of digital games development are present in the case of MGSV. In turn, this intersection makes explicit the power dynamics contained in globalized mass culture and how digital games as part of this mass culture allow consumers to play the past.

In the same manner, I also complicate this explication via the ways that players activate, negotiate, and potentially subvert the meaning potentials of MGSV. Using online testimonies and publicly available articles of players making sense of the monsters in MGSV, I point to how the digital game as software allow for players to act out as their own monsters based on their own context.

Emil Hammar, MA, is PhD candidate in Media and Documentation Studies at UiT Tromsø. His research project focuses on the intersection between digital games, memory, hegemony, and race.

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