Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan


A 12-part LRC series, featuring text and iPhone Hipstamatic photography by Rita Leistner   –   FEB 16, 2012


Through the windows of an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle The Camera is an extension of the eye; a prosthetic device of the beholder

In The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan writes: “The main obstacle to a clear understanding of the effects of the new media is our deeply embedded habit of regarding all phenomena from a fixed point of view” (p. 68).

A senior officer, visiting the Musa Qala base for the first time, looked out over the landscape and the busy Friday market beyond the fortified walls of the base, where merchants and traders gathered, having arrived on foot or on donkey carts. “It’s amazing to think of how little these people have accomplished in thousands of years compared to what America has accomplished in just a few hundred,” he mused. I reminded him that “Americans” actually came from a continent that was forged through its connections to the rest of the world, eliciting from him a barely audible grunt. What was remarkable about this statement—by a very senior member of the American military—is how he didn’t look at things in context.

I took these photographs through the windows of armoured vehicles. It was the closest thing to “surveillance” photography I’ve ever done: The people I was photographing could not see me. Armoured vehicles prevent you from being killed, but they also prevent you from being seen. Because I was strapped in by a seatbelt with my back to the window, I couldn’t turn all the way around, and I held the iPhone over my shoulder, flat up against the window for the picture. Because the iPhone processor took about 20 seconds between shots, the images I got were mostly luck. The only real editing I did was to wait to take pictures until we passed through a village where there would likely be people before I pressed the shutter-button icon.

The thick, dirty panes of bulletproof glass obscured the photos so that what was beyond the window was murky. The first image I looked at on my iPhone elicited in me a feeling that, in McLuhan’s terms, would be attributed to the resonating intervals of meaning that are the result of recognizing an unfixed perspective of an artifact. In these painterly images, I felt I’d captured something of the complex, inaccessible relationship between the Marines and the Afghans.

 War & Peace in the Global Village

“[New technologies are] self-amputations of our own being.”
(Marshall McLuhan, War and Peace in the Global Village, p. 5)

Photographing through the window of an armoured vehicle dismembers the camera (which is already a self-amputation) from the photographer. The subject out the window is not looking back at a photographer (another human being) carrying a machine, but at the machine directly. The gaze is not therefore at us, but at an idea of us as embodied by machinery, in this case an armoured vehicle.

The passersby couldn’t see I was taking their pictures, but because they know the military is there keeping watch on things, they knew they were being watched.

From the point of view of people on the outside,
there is no difference between the armoured vehicle
and the personnel on the inside of the armoured vehicle

There is a metaphoric, or poetic, relationship between the outside and the inside. Each is to the other both figure and ground, foreground and background, in a resonating relationship: I am looking at you looking at me looking at you. It is symbolic of how one side never sees the other side except as a kind of stereotype: on the one side you have American military personnel wrapped inside armoured vehicles, and on the other side you have figures of Afghans resolving into view against a desert landscape. No language is exchanged between the two. Even if the Marines dismount, anything they say is filtered through an interpreter, or else there are small gestures, like handing out candies or buying a chicken. You can tell that both sides want to communicate with each other. But there are too many obstacles between them. It is just too hard.

Works Cited

  • Marshall McLuhan with Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1967.
  • Marshall McLuhan with Quentin Fiore. War and Peace in the Global Village. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 1968.   http://tinyurl.com/85c5s44

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