Monday, January 10, 2011

Targeting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

We've been hearing a lot about how Palin's political machinery is responsible, in some way, for the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords and the murder of 9 people on Jan. 8, 2011. The idea is that conservatives have consistently used a rhetoric of "targeting" -- a visual and linguistic rhetoric -- when speaking about defeating Giffords and others in the elections. Others have responded -- I believe it was an article in the New York Times -- that liberals frequently use this same rhetoric to talk about defeating conservatives. The point then is that the rhetoric of targeting is not simply a partisan phenomenon, but rather marks contemporary rhetoric in general, especially since 9/11.

This is argued in Samuel Weber's 2005 book Targets of Opportunity: On the Militarization of Thinking (you can read it on Google). Part of his point is that targeting is not "originally" a military phenomenon, but rather has to do with a more general attempt to respond to a singular event by focusing on it and extracting it from its context so that the event can be localized and hence controlled. Targeting therefore always assumes that it is possible to control the uncontrollable, simply by placing it in real or metaphorical cross hairs. It is in fact the very essence of what it means to act as an autonomous subject and, one might add, as a political subject. As if to say: I, the sole agent of my actions, will execute this precise act in a controlled manner, in order to produce a controlled effect. And to a certain extent, that's exactly what targeting does. Weber: "Targeting thus constitutes the condition of all execution, the execution of acts no less than that of judgments and sentences, such as the death-penalty. Every such execution, as targeting, is potentially and tendentially lethal, for by taking aim at its object, it isolates that object from its relation to its surroundings, removing everything that might distract its aim from the place it seeks to secure: that is, to occupy and to appropriate" (105).

The problem, of course, is that targeting rarely hits only that which one believes one is targeting. Collateral damage always takes place, that is, things are damaged that only happened to be sitting nearby, collaterally. And this means, in turn, that targeting rarely targets in a way that is fully controllable by an autonomous and fully intentional agent or executor. If collateral damage can happen, if it is always a risk, then this means that collateral damage is not simply accidental but rather remains as an essential part of any act of targeting: to target, to isolate an object from its surroundings, is always potentially to hit a non-target (something surrounding the target, something collateral).

And this is perhaps the generalized phenomenon that we've been witnessing in the last few days, perhaps the last few years: an attempt to control politics through targeting, which inevitably leads to collateral damage, what Sheriff Clarence Dupnik called "consequences." Palin et. al. targeted Giffords politically, but this act of targeting went beyond their intentions and ended up hitting her physically. The "lone gunman" Loughner targeted Giffords physically, but ended up hitting others as well. This is not an accident; this is what happens when people are targeted.

This problem of targeting also gets to the question of whether this act can be called "political." On the one hand, we can (and should) be indignant about the fact that the American media assumes that the assassination of a politician in Pakistan is clearly political (even though the assailant is clearly deranged) while the media here routinely denies the political nature of the same type of act that takes place in the United States of America. On the other hand, the problem of targeting shows us that this act has always been political, since this attempted assassination is infected by (though not necessarily produced by) the political targeting that was happening in "mere" rhetoric.

I therefore put "lone gunman" in quotes, because Loughner was not alone when he targeted Giffords. While it was certainly only his eye that was focusing on the U.S. Representative in that moment, the cross hairs had already been placed there by others, and will be placed there by others in the future as this case gets told and retold in the media and in the courts. At this point, to focus on the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords is to target Giffords, and the question now becomes an ethical one as well as a political one: what does it mean to target Giffords now, after she has been the target of so many others?

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Jenn said...

The idea of "targeting" is an interesting way of verbalizing the violent potential of rhetoric. But it's hardly a new phenomenon. One need only read Thucydides or Cicero, for example, to find the use of "targeting" rhetoric--that is, rhetoric aimed at a certain party or parties with the intent of targeting them for exclusion, displacement, execution. Or, cf. Aeschylus Agamemnon, when Agamemnon returns home and says something like "We must determine which parts of the body [that is, the political body] are diseased and cut them out." I take issue with some attempts to locate in modern rhetoric a *more* violent potential than its ancient counterparts. Isn't the problem rather located in the following aspects of the shooting of Giffords: a.) that we Western humans today consider ourselves to be modern and enlightened humanists or post-humanists who wouldn't act in such a primitive fashion, either to "target" for injury or to injure in that way; and b.) that such rhetorical "targeting" and its effects is spread more widely and immediately via the media? As such, for the media to "target" a political victim who has already been "targeted" simply "means" that one can be "targeted" more than once. In other words, you draw out the violent rhetorical potential of the media's continued dissemination of the story with your final question. But, to follow your own argument, that ultimate "targeting" by the media doesn't "mean" anything different than the initial rhetorical "targeting." And, yes, I suppose that puts a rather sinister frame around the media's supposed concern with following Giffords as she (hopefully) recovers. The trick is, I suppose, to see the media as yet another potentially violent rhetorician--and therefore no longer literally "media" at all. Okay, so, yes, then it starts to get interesting...