Image Invasion

Published in Cold War Cold World.


The benign propaganda fed to me as a child in the early 80s by my anti-nuclear-campaigning parents was a perfect introduction to nihilism. I’m not sure of the intended effect of encouraging a child otherwise diligently shielded from violent images (especially the then newly-imported American TV shows) to watch films such as Threads, The Day After, and When the Wind Blows—visions of pre-nuclear terror and post-nuclear devastation which supplemented the ominous warnings of the Xeroxed pamphlets often scattered about the house, both anti-nuclear campaign tracts and helpful state advisories on the appropriate action to be taken in the event of a nuclear attack. Its actual effect was to focus my imagination on those precious minutes after the warning was sounded, an ultimate holiday during which all rule and law would be null and void, the conventions and strictures of society would crumble, nothing would matter any more, and everything would be permitted: schoolmates who taunted me every day could be dispatched with the sharpest kitchen knife, the sweet shop could be raided with impunity, we could set huge fires to burn down school and home alike…and so much more, as quickly as possible, while the siren wailed, in those precious minutes before the bomb dropped.

‘Now the Inner Refuge’… pages from Protect and Survive pamphlet, UK government, 1980.

The absoluteness of the threat relativized everything; and when environmental crisis began to loom in the 90s, with increasingly cataclysmic scenarios mooted, I suspect I was not the only 70s baby for whom the sentiments of doom and visions of a devastated planet were familiar and comfortingly bleak.

Threads (BBC, 1984)

The Cold War, that nebulous awareness of the great power poised for attack elsewhere, unknown and alien, and its threatened punctual incursion into reality—the Bomb—heralded transcendent objects. Yet these gargantuan abstractions immanently infused everyday life with dread…and surreptitious nihilistic thrills. And they did so through cultural forms that triggered, fast-forwarded, and dramatized the latent threat into transformed images of the everyday world—X-rays penetrating the surface of normality to set aglow the skeletal lineaments of its immanent, and imminent, ruin. The more compellingly the virtuality was imaged, the more its psychic effects had already taken hold.

This miscarried domestic propaganda perpetrated on me by my leftist anti-American parents mirrored earlier efforts ‘on the other side’, as it were, to mobilise Americans against the communist threat.

Publicity still (a devastated New York) for Invasion USA (American Pictures Corp., 1952).

The Alfred E. Green movie Invasion USA (1952), with its promise to ‘scare the pants off you’, on one level serves as a straightforward piece of ideological programming—revealing the horror of a full-scale invasion (by an unnamed but obviously Soviet army) so as to remind the American populace of their responsibilities as citizens. At the same time it is a piece of entertainment in which we get to thrill to the spectacle of destruction and chaos. Let’s take a look at some of the overwhelmingly visual promises the trailer makes to its audience:

An electrifying look into the enemy’s plan of conquest!
See New York Disappear!
See Seattle Blasted!
See San Francisco in flames!
See paratroops take over the capital!

In addition to these promises of spectacular satisfaction, though, Invasion USA exhibits a reflexive awareness of cinema’s ideological functioning as a form of collective dream or hypnosis, and as inception.

Poster for Invasion USA, 1952.

A cross-section of American society meet in a New York bar, all full of gripes and grumbles about their lives, and more interested in the next beer than in the vagaries of international politics. They pay lip service to the good fight against the evils of communism, but for them the threat is far away, and they don’t appreciate its being used as an alibi by the government to make additional demands on them: price controls, commandeering of factories for military production, high taxes—each of them has a complaint.

A mysterious customer who has been listening in on their conversation, Mr Ohman (he is lugubrious, he has a strange accent, and, worst of all, he is reading a book; he describes himself gnomically as a ‘forecaster’) berates them for wanting it both ways: they want to be defended from the communist threat, but they also want to retain their easy lifestyles and to maximize their individual liberty and freedom from government predations; they expect the protection of the nation, but they are unwilling to go out of their way to help the state.

Dan O’Herlihy as the mysterious Mr. Ohman.

Ohman goes on to issue a sardonic warning to them about their complacency:

Mr. Ohman: Yes, I’m against [war]. I think America wants new leadership […]
I suggest a wizard, like Merlin, who could kill his enemies by wishing them dead. That’s the way we’d like to beat communism now. The manufacturer wants more war orders, and lower taxes. Labor wants more consumable products, and a 30-hour week. The college boy wants a stronger army, and a deferment for himself. The businessman wants a stronger Air Force, and a new Cadillac. The housewife wants security, and a new dishwasher. Everyone wants a stronger America, and we all want the same man to pay for it. George. Let George do it.
Tractor Manufacturer: I disagree with you—I don’t want to let George do it!
Mr. Ohman: Then you must be the exception?
Tractor Manufacturer: No—I’m George!
Mr. Ohman: A very good joke, but a war is not won with jokes. To win a war, a nation must concentrate.

Distracting the assembled audience from Ohman’s cryptic hectoring, the TV news now begins to report the breaching of US borders by an unknown air force. As the scale of the invasion rapidly escalates and US power bases are destroyed one by one, transfixed by increasingly horrendous dispatches, the bar-room acquaintances are galvanized into action; they separate and return to their respective lives finally determined to do their bit for the now all-too-real struggle against the red terror—but one by one their efforts founder: it is too late.

As Carla Sanford (Peggie Castle) plummets to her doom, the nightmare scenario is revealed to be the product of Ohman’s collective hypnosis.

The culmination of the action comes when the dame of the piece, assaulted by one of the boorish, drunken foreign troopers who have now entered the city, jumps from a high window to her death…. But in a final revelation, the whole catastrophic scenario is revealed to have been a collective hallucination, its accelerated collage of violent images receding back into the cognac glass that Mr. Ohman had been hypnotically swirling before them. Now he is gone, and they stand shell-shocked at the visions they have shared.

And truly, the trance has been an awakening—the hypnotism of the image conjured onto the TV screen by Ohman’s sorcery had been necessary in order for them to appreciate that the apparently distant threat of communism was in fact already effectively in their midst, that the war was already here.

The movie ends with the cast springing into action, determined to avoid the fictional scenario they have witnessed, to do all they can for the quotidian fight for freedom before the nightmare becomes reality—ironically, they finally realise that, in order to stave off communism, they must to put aside their individual interests and align themselves with state imperatives.

Footage of ‘enemy’ paratroops, in Invasion USA.

Invasion USA is thus a movie that thematises its own ideological function, using the small screen of the TV as a diegetic deputy for its own enterprise of image-hypnosis. But what is additionally interesting here is that all of its unprecedentedly graphic violent images of the enemy war machine in action, the entirety of the dramatic destruction of the US, was pasted together from real footage of US forces in action: that is, in order to bring the latent peril spectacularly to life, the filmmakers drew on the media made available to them by the state. At one point, when this thrifty technique threatens to become overly conspicuous to the audience, the screenwriter even introduces the conceit that the invading army, now closing in on the White House and the Pentagon, have clothed themselves in American uniforms as a deceptive tactical measure—a plan that, in one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, is thwarted by an attentive American guard as one of the invading troops attempts to pass undetected:

–– Halt, who goes there?
–– Company B, von hundred eighty-sird Infantry.
–– 183rd, that’s an Illinois outfit, ain’t it?
–– Yezz…. Yezz, Zhicago Illinois.
–– D’you ever go see the Cubs play?
–– Cubs… [confused] … a cub iz a young enimal, a bear.
[Blast-out ensues]

The dissimulation, of course, is in fact in the other direction: it is the reality of the violence of the US war machine that is got up in Soviet drag in order to dramatize, in heated images, the unknowable and imageless coldness of the alien threat.

Immanent Cold War dread feeds, and feeds on, its virtual cinematic culmination, its simulated irruption into reality through the image: the transcendent unknown is projected into speculative scenarios by cobbling together resources drawn from the domestic imaginary, the relation to the outside assembled from the image-banks available on the inside.


Today, the inhuman machine that looms over us, in certain respects taking up the vacated place of Cold War menace, produces its own cinema—or rather, various forms of machinema: from drone footage to awe-inspiring data visualisations to cognitively intractable image overload (even the tumblr sublime can provoke dread). Whether it concerns distant threats or intimate psychic pathologies, the sense of immanent threat here is both more diffuse and more ubiquitous: What to do with these images, which are not just seductive calls to the imaginary but also signs, icons, signals, false news, memes, machinic triggers, the asignifiant semiotic arsenal of an immanentized war? And what are they doing with us? Not images of apocalypse but an image-apocalypse.

Often these images are re-presented pointedly to us in contemporary art in order that they might be deliberately contemplated rather than passively processed. In this register, which attempts at once to strip them of their machinic function and to concentrate our minds on it, they are rendered hypnotic in a new way; ripped out of the Google search gallery and cooled by the ice-white of real gallery walls, they become images once again, and are rendered newly unfamiliar—perhaps in the hope that spending slow time in their company will galvanize us against the immanent threat, shake us out of our zapping complacency. Even when, instead, artworks instead attempt to plug directly into the accelerated circuits of the contemporary image-world, decanting an indigestible torrent of imagery into the gallery, the intention is still, invariably, in framing them in this unfamiliar context, to cool it. The aim is to frame and evaluate the threat, whether by forcing the images back into an indexical mode in order to counteract the uncontrollable sliding of unmoored images flush to the neural substrate (this is still an image of something that matters) or by presenting their unmanageable multiplicity as such (something that matters is happening with the image). Indeed, many artists, whether in person or in their works or both, if not elevating themselves to the level of a saviour Merlin, affect the prognosticatory tone of a Mr. Ohman, glancing up lugubriously from his cognac and his weighty reading matter to offer his services: it is already happening, everywhere, to all of you…but you will need me to show you—I will use the trickery, the hypnosis of images to help you see the truth…. But this time, rather than whipping up an ersatz spectacle of destruction, what we supposedly need is for images to be arrested in order for their meaning to be patiently assessed and extracted. To win the war against images, with images, a nation must concentrate.

What image of knowledge and of the object of knowledge does this imply? Images are always specific, and for an image (even one that is already a multiplicity) to stand for a transcendent unknown diffused immanently into generalized dread requires the complicity of the viewer. You are only seeing one piece of the puzzle, extracted from its functional role in a neuro-machinic network; its mode of presentation solicits you to conjure up the sublime horror of the whole; but you have to agree to be edified in this way—and indeed, despite its air of discursive overcomplication, to enter into the context of contemporary art is largely to submit to this simple synechdochic mesmeric protocol.

Today the stock footage continually churned out by the machine itself—of which we ourselves are effectively servomotors—is too easily passed off, from inside the gallery, as the image of an alien invasion, and thrilled at (with due gravitas) as such; but it doesn’t seem like we have come so far from the clunky conceits of Invasion USA; which is all the more problematic given that the machine that threatens us today is not just contingently, but intrinsically unimageable, making such a mode of indirect and collusive representation increasingly obsolete.

This is how art proposes itself as the practice of making images that image the yet-to-be-known, the knowledge-bomb that has not yet exploded but whose immanent latency must be crystallised into a galvanising proposition.

Ohman’s hot images reveal the truth of the all too easily ignored latent threat—the alien monster—by rendering it through found images as a violent fiction of assault. Today the cooling of images seeks to reveal the truth of the all too easily ignored Cold World that lies behind the apparent (social, sexual, informational, futural, memetic) hotness of the image apocalypse: that unknown agent that coldly manipulates the fevered participatory creation of a constantly evolving image culture, delegating its operations to the steely prowl of algorithms and the calculative capture of attention—an equally alien, equally cold creature. But ultimately this is about encountering ourselves as machine parts, as programmable neurobots as passively obedient to the black box of the digital media machine as the communist populace depicted in Cold War cautionary tales are to the commandments of their red masters.

In Invasion USA the hot shock of violent hypnotic images leverages citizens out of their own complacency about, and complicity in, an individualism that has gone too far—calling citizens to subordinate themselves to the state in order to hold communism at bay. In the cooling of machinematic or algorithmically distributed images in contemporary art, a dual purpose is served: art at once wants to reinstate the referential power of the image and its delivery of meaning: disconnected from its cybernetic circuits, this is, after all, an image of something, and in the context of art its indexical relation can be recemented; but at the same time, it wants this to constitute a revelation of our everyday alienation and complacency: to mesmerise us so as to offer us another chance once we walk out of the gallery door; to persuade us, before it’s too late, that the immanent apocalypse today is an extinction of the human and of the human ability to engage properly or meaningfully with images. Not an extinction in the heat of the nuclear blast or in the slow death of radiation sickness, but an extinction from within, as human and social interaction itself is decanted into a system of control and circulation that machines individuality and alienates the subject. If this threat is something like a transcendent (non-)object, though, it is one that is already inside: we are face to face with what Kant called the transcendental subject: the thing that thinks for me but to which ‘I’ have no experiential access, a thing which today is formatted by and plugged into cybernetic systems of control.

One might therefore wonder about this effort to use hypnosis to bring us back to ourselves, to awaken us from our complacency in order that we might take up civil arms against the immanent threat: for rather than unveiling the real of the image, as it claims, it simply presents us with a hypnotic collage that offers the thrill of the real, itself a media artefact and a form of benign manipulation, innocently unselfconscious about its own ideological and indeed economic function, and liable to fail or misfire in its ethical mission to use a privileged mode of vision to save the children of the Cold World from the image enemy.

An electrifying look into the enemy’s plan of conquest!
See subjectivity disappear!
See agency and identity blasted!
See liberalism in flames!
See algorithms take over the capital!