Thursday, April 13, 2006

Lost Highway and Mechanized Warfare

David Lynch's Lost Highway is an allegory about the horrors of modern mechanized warfare. While it is tempting to read Lynch's sanitized world of ritualized action and wooden speech as representing a defense mechanism against a world of physical brutality, sexual violence, and sublimated subconscious impulses, Slavoj Zizek in The End of Psychology argues that exactly the opposite is true.

In modern warfare, soldiers may or may not be aware of whether, how, or when they've killed an enemy. Zizek argues that, therefore, soldiers must construct fantasies about killing opposing soldiers in face-to-face situations as a defense mechanism against the knowledge that technology shields them from any sort of verifiable account of what acts they’ve committed in battle. Censored images of brutality in the news therefore make war more horrible, as do fictionalized depictions of bloody battles, because both cases deny the psychological reality of modern armed conflict. Such a denial is especially harmful in mass media because it collapses the boundaries between the private suffering of individual soldiers and the public awareness of what suffering takes place. David Lynch’s film mirrors this conflation by deliberately confusing alternate narratives: experienced reality is often less convincing than constructed reality.

I find Zizek’s argument quite appropriate, particularly because it agrees with intuitive accounts of why a given individual’s expectations may motivate an individual to act contrary to “objective” accounts of reality (because reality constructed from a set of expectations can be extremely convincing). Zizek also provides an account of why efficient mechanized warfare as a political endeavor is inherently immoral (I personally believe we’d get into far fewer wars if we fought like the Viking Berserkers, who ate large quantities of psychedelic mushrooms and tore opposing warriors apart with their bare hands), and provides prescriptive actions for public servants and the owners of media outlets who are responsible for shaping public opinion about armed conflict. Zizek’s account moreover describes why control of media is important in modern authoritarian states: as more people get more information about the world from mass media, the control of mass media becomes an increasingly useful tool for manipulating the constructed realities of large numbers of people.

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