Neo-Ottomanism in the Age of Digital Media

Ahmet Ersoy

I. 2016

Musical.ly, a video application that emerged in the mid-2010s, made an epidemic impact among adolescent and preadolescent users. Recently devoured by the Beijing-based video sharing network Tik Tok, the app was able to amass more than sixty million users in its peak years. musical.ly was a video sharing site that allowed its users to record their personal video clips by lip-syncing to fifteen-second contemporary pop song segments. The special features offered by the app’s software, such as stylish filters or effective editing tools (like allowing low speed recording and real time playback sequences), made it a highly versatile technical medium, with a potential to spur creative experiments in choreography and video format. Yet, not unlike Microsoft’s innovative Artificial Intelligence program Tay, which turned into a hideous troll in its first day on twitter, spewing out racial slurs, musical.ly was informed and regulated by mainstream user demand. Within a short time, the content was collectively synchronized and locked into a distinctive aesthetic template, entailing rigid rules and established protocols that limited the boundaries of individual performance. It so happened that musical.ly users around the world settled on a limited number of moves corresponding to the mood and substance of the songs, devising a predetermined visual language, and thereby reducing the endless choreographic possibilities of the app to a fixed and homogenized set of routines. The voluntary restraint and regimentation in question involved not only facial expressions and body language but also camera movement and angles, since the video recording took place in the selfie mode. As such musical.ly, which could have provided a space for diverse and alternative forms of experience, involving subversive allusions or free improvisation, created a self-regulated and insipid world – a self-enclosed, lukewarm fantasy. For outside observers all amateur clips coming out of this app looked alike. This was when middle school teachers started complaining about kids drilling musical.ly moves all day long, with monotony and robotic precision, even when they had no access to their cellphones – what they witnessed was the subjugation of the body and the sensorium by the apparatus.

musical.ly, and its successor Tik Tok, are standard products of the new media ecosystem. What is central to the workings of this modern, visually-oriented regime is rapid and uninterrupted data flow. Such massive data output has the power to seep into the very texture of our lives, synchronizing the personal and social rhythms of our existence, and sustaining itself through reflexive, involuntary action. Contemporary technical media has the ability to rapidly condense and synopsize all content, gearing it up, in pulverized form, for massive dissemination, and turning it into a vital commodity, an indispensable prosthesis for the body and memory. The musical.ly application is only one among many examples of its kind, demonstrating how industrialized electronic media can overwhelm independent will, its corporate logic regulating and homogenizing our sensory engagement with the world.

Since the end of the nineteenth century various thinkers, from Nietzsche to Walter Benjamin, observed the profound impact of the modern Capitalist system on the human perceptual field, with its consumption-oriented machinery generating endless flow and mobility. Nietzsche, for instance, who had experienced radical novelties in technical media during his own lifetime, such as photography, the gramophone, and the typewriter, complained about the rise of a new era where distraction was the rule, where uninterrupted sensual stimulation (today we call this intensified data flow) left no room for personal contemplation (how many people today listen to mp3 recordings the way older generations savored and digested music from the long-plays, pivoted to their armchairs in full immersion?). Benjamin, on the other hand, saw how technological media in Nazi Germany, especially newly devised visual technologies, permeated the perceptual field, how they stimulated psychological conformism and collective stupor, acting as potent psychotropic weapons. My point here is that it is not possible to absolve ourselves of our sins simply by putting the blame on adolescent-friendly apps like musical.ly. Technologies of mass-synchronization and paralysis far more nefarious and effective than musical.ly have been holding sway in the adult world for a considerable period of time. Versions of instant reality have steadily been fine-tuned within the complex machinery of Capitalism, in order to catch us unawares, lure our senses with insidious strategies, and penetrate the depths of our souls.

Figure 1

II. 1933

Starting with 1933, the Nazi Party’s annual rallies in Nuremberg were engineered as dramatic spectacles for manufacturing awe in massive scale. With their flawless performative order, their imposing scale, and visually-charged technological exuberance, these events were envisioned by Hitler as vital tools for mesmerizing and stimulating the masses. When the immense stadium planned for the 1933 event remained unfinished by the time of the rally, Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer turned to the most immaterial of architectural elements for achieving the effect of monumentality: light. A hundred and fifty-two anti-aircraft projectors borrowed from the Luftwaffe were placed on top of the unfinished structure, and pointed directly to the sky. These were Flak searchlights, which adopted the most advanced optical technology of the time and were able to reach a range of ten to twelve kilometers. By the end of the demonstrations, as dusk settled over the crowd, the projectors were simultaneously turned on, and the open meeting ground turned into an enclosure with unnatural proportions. With vertical pillars of light puncturing the darkness, the participants of the rally found themselves inside a colossal structure extending thousands of meters into the sky. (Figure 1) The ensuing state of awe and mass ecstasy was so strong that the performance, named the “Cathedral of Light” (Lichtdom), became a standard feature of the subsequent Nazi rallies. Speer would regard this immaterial, illusionary space, manufactured merely by photons, as his most profound architectural achievement. The Flak projectors, therefore, were formidable weapons serving not only the Luftwaffe’s military goals, but also underwriting the Nazi regime’s new form of hegemonic visuality.

For Walter Benjamin, such mass-spectacles shaped around the Führer cult evidenced the hollowing out of politics, and the absolute aestheticization of the political field. He argued that fascism, in all its visual-audial effusiveness, had a “purely aesthetic” charge, through which it captivated and electrified the masses. Without changing property relations or providing basic rights to the crowds, it had the capacity to move them into a state of connectedness and vigilance. The final and inevitable product of this process of aestheticization, whereby politics is vacated of real content, is the state of war. The immersive, destructive energy of fascist choreography can only lead to war and to its shallow, offensive mindset, leaving no grounds for compromise or accommodation. What is discharged, amidst the numbing onslaught of rhetoric and the image, is a collective spasm, an induced state of full agitation and mobility. Here, incessant sensory stimulation, the steady adrenaline rush, is the key to maintaining emotional cohesion among the supporting crowd, and to perpetuate a state of hypervigilance. Benjamin describes how the entranced crowds watch the making of their own inevitable doom, as a spectacle unfolding in front of their eyes, with unabashed aesthetic delectation.

In a totalitarian setting, the front line and everyday life, war and media, technology and the body fuse into each other (as relished by artists like Marinetti). Industrialized visual media carries equal strategic value in the warfront as well as in daily life. The press, cinema, and other technological media, indexed to the machinery of propaganda, are locked onto the objectives of war. From the beginning of human history, visual and audial effects have been embedded at the very heart of war. As noted by Paul Virilio, war requires drama and performative skill, and works on the basis of macabre and extravagant spectacle. It involves many visual and audial tactics directly targeting the senses, from the bearing and brandishing of weapons to the fabrication of dreams and miracles, from special effects contrived to demoralize (blast bombs, the sirens of Stuka dive bombers) to mise-en-scènes with terrorizing effect (like September 11 attacks designed to turn instantly into visual icons). Especially in today’s wars, with many technical prostheses at play in the management of optical data (like aerial or satellite photography, drones, night scopes, or thermal binoculars), vision equals death; you die the moment you are detected visually. For Virilio vision is a powerful instrument of dominance, effective in the war front and, concomitantly, in ordinary life. The “active optics” of visual media captures the crowds in demonstrations, just as it locks onto military targets on the frontline. Generating constant, serialized stimuli (a constant onrush of images, supplemented by sound and text), its main objective is to bring forth a narcotic effect, a collective state of hypnosis. Perhaps the most revealing statement about the sheer power of image management, and its subjugation of the sensorium, was made by Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda for the Nazi regime. Commenting on the impact of the Cathedral of Light at Nuremberg, he confirmed that the mesmerized crowds in the rally grounds “obeyed a law they did not even know, but which they could recite in their dreams.”

Figure 2

III. 2016

In May 2016, Justice and Development Party’s chairman for Istanbul Selim Temurci announced that the festivities commemorating the 563rd anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans would be housed at the Yenikapı Square. The square, a gargantuan landfill recently annexed to the south shore of Istanbul’s historical peninsula, was the perfect location for an overly-ambitious event like the 2016 “conquest ceremony,” which, Temurci announced, would involve “a very large visual [performance], with light and laser, a very large theatrical work.” The highlight of the show was an audiovisual spectacle displayed on “the world’s largest three-dimensional stage,” modeled and scaled after the city’s Byzantine walls, using the latest 3D Projection Mapping technology. After witnessing the event, especially the extravagant digital effects, it was impossible not to bring to mind Goebbels’ insights on the technology of propaganda. (Figure 2) The entire scene resonated with the realities of Erdoğan’s New Turkey, where the ruling party and the state coalesce into each other under the supremacy of a single leader, where crowds are mobilized in the name of an ambiguous and volatile “mission,” and are endlessly immersed in a monolithic state of belligerence. The night of the ceremony, the square was overtaken by a collective vision and faith, contrived through pure aesthetics, jingoistic rhetoric, and the play of light and sound, all orchestrated by a leadership that has left behind any prospect for politics, negotiation and diplomacy. Under the impact of high-tech artifice, the fireworks, and loud harangue, combined, inevitably, by the fanfare of the Ottoman military band, the thousands were unconditionally unified in a single voice and feeling – a feat that harks back to the immersive, destructive spell of fascist choreography. (Figure 3) In the name of “conquest” (a term whose connotations are as ambiguous as those of the “mission”), the participants of the event celebrated all victories that have been (and are being) gained against enemies, external and internal. Complementing the astounding light and sound show on the stage was the performance of the Turkish Stars, the acrobatic team of the Turkish Air Force, and the parade of Turkish Army’s “Special Conquest Unit,” comprising 478 soldiers dressed in “authentic” Ottoman gear. The presence of the Turkish Army in the celebrations underscored the solidity of the country’s new coalition of power, and helped elicit the state of vigilance demanded from the crowd. (Figure 4)

Figure 3

A notable moment in the festivities was when two actors representing Bamsı Beyrek and Turgut Alp, comrades of Ertuğrul (father of Osman, the founder of the Ottoman state) took stage. The warlike figures were characters from the popular Turkish Radio and Television series Diriliş – Ertuğrul (Resurrection – Ertuğrul), a retake on the Ottoman creation myth along the officially endorsed conservative-Sunni norm. (Figure 5) Dressed in the axe-bearing medieval thug outfit prescribed by mainstream Hollywood norms, the heroes recited a poem, “The Conquest of Istanbul,” which was composed by Orhan Seyfi Orhon in 1953, on the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of the taking of the city. The convoluted anachronism of the moment was countervailed by the ardor conveyed by the poem:

The severed head of the Caesar of Rome on a lance,
The prized pearl of the Orient in the Turk’s hands!

The gruesome lines echoed in an alternative, uprooted space, where media industry coalesced with political authority, and fiction, video signal and reality blended together. This was a dematerialized environment mediating the audience’s sense of space and time, a setting saturated by a ceaseless transmission of digital image and sound, and transformed into a phantasmagoria of narcotic effect. As such, under the impact of advanced technological media, history, turned into mass commodity, was consumed en masse by a mentally unified public. In times when politics is fully “aestheticized” and hollowed of critical dialogue and deliberation, then the requisite form of historical experience becomes passive consent. As history is reduced to mere “showing,” the thrill of historical inquiry and exploration disappears. The crowds are expected to enjoy the full availability of history in the comfort of timeless, effortless exposure. What matters, at this point, is not vision but visualization.

Figure 4

The fact is, we, denizens of the Late Capitalist world, are quite accustomed to the spaceless and atemporal reality of collective hallucination. Dominated by a hyper-industrialized visual economy, modern urban spaces are factories of mass illusion, redundancy, and routinized stimulation. Our perception is constantly overwhelmed by the endless mobility and fluidity of dislocated objects and data. Our visceral, embodied relationship with the lived environment is severely impaired by the light- and speed-infused interface of technical media. This transformation debilitates the elementary skill of tactile engagement, and of facture, while impairing all forms of spatial acuity and topographic memory. And thereby the capacity for deliberation and contemplation, valued so highly by Nietzsche, is atrophied. Here, urban spaces are encountered merely as sites of consumption. The texture and outlook of the city is experienced through phantasmatic images: bridges lit up in flashing colors, historic monuments reduced to cutout surfaces under sharp LED lights, and cosmetic shopping malls designed by star architects (pertinently, one might note here that when the bulldozers entered the Gezi Park in 2013, the only document Istanbul Municipality could provide as a basis for the implementation of the new project was a two-dimensional computer rendering representing the proposed building’s exterior). One identifies with the city only through monotonous and conformist acts of consumption. What is bound to remain, eventually, from the constant leveling and erosion of urban texture is a wearisome, masculine, and overbearing architectural idiom, surrounded by the traces of a visual genocide in which the multiple, pluralized signs of visual memory and proclivity have been obliterated.

Figure 5

In a world inundated by techno-trash, and dominated by the rapid, endless circulation of data, there is no room left for lulls and intervals separating words, ideas, and images; pauses that allow time for nuance and reflection. The immersive, relentless flow of data, and the packaged reality it constantly renders available, fills up all potential empty spaces. Perhaps, as part of this process of perceptual homogenization, one might also consider the increasing standardization and rigidification of religious sentiments and practices in Turkey in the recent years. It is not surprising that more formalized, calculable, and instant renditions of religious activity are favored over those that value contemplation and individual feeling, those that recognize merit and beauty in the imperfections of human experience, like lapsus, contradiction or ambivalence. There is much more to say about industrialized perception, of course, and its technological mediation of time and memory. But there must be different ways of resistance. We can start by taking a pause, and think about ways of releasing ourselves from the endless duplication of the same, or, at least, from the uncompromising protocols of Tik Tok.

Translated from Turkish by Ahmet Ersoy

 


 


 


 

An earlier version of this article was published in Turkish with the title: “Yenikapı’da Temaşa ve Algıların Fethi,” in AltÜst, 20 (2016): 19-26.
 


 

2020-05-11T16:31:09+00:00