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On the first anniversary of his death, a reflection on Osama bin Laden, postmodern man

May 2, 2012

Osama bin Laden – Postmodern Man

by Greg Graham

From the media storm that followed the death of Osama bin Laden, my strongest memory is the video released by the Pentagon that showed him sitting in a small room wrapped in a blanket. The room is about ten feet wide by ten feet long and junky, with wires hanging in every direction, several of them plugged into a power strip lying carelessly at Bin Laden’s feet. He is watching himself on a 13 inch television, aiming a remote control at the screen to start and stop the recording.

For me, watching the video of Osama bin Laden watching the video of Osama bin Laden was stunning. I immediately thought of a book I read a couple of years earlier called Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. In the book, Thomas de Zengotita diagnoses the postmodern human condition. He says “we have been consigned to a new plane of being engendered by mediating representations of fabulous quality and inescapable ubiquity, a place where everything is addressed to us, everything is for us, and nothing is beyond us anymore.” In other words, the life we live is increasingly out of touch with reality. Much like Bradbury imagined in Fahrenheit 451, we have been lulled into a zombie-like existence, seduced by endless screens and sounds that fill almost every gap in our existence.

De Zengotita offers a continuum along which our experiences of reality can be placed. The farthest from reality he calls “overtly unreal realistic,” including movies like Inception and Avatar. Avatar is blatantly unreal, yet feels so real that thousands of people reported feeling depressed or even suicidal because they so longed to live on the idyllic planet Na’vi. Despondent fans unleashed countless posts on various forums, expressing their disgust with planet Earth and the human race. For example, 17-year-old Ivar Hill described his post-Avatar experience, “When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning.” Going even further, he said “I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.” That is a person who prefers unreality over reality, but he is simply an extreme example of a condition suffered by every member of modern society.

As we move along De Zengotita’s scale, there’s “staged observed real.” Reality TV shows like Jersey Shore and 16 and pregnant are kind of real, but there are TV cameras present and fame and fortune to be had. The makers of 16 and pregnant claim that their realistic portrayal of the difficulties inherent in teenage parenthood serves to encourage teens to think before getting pregnant, but according to Industry insiders, teen girls are so eager to be on the show that they are actually getting pregnant just to score an audition. That’s life imitating art taken to a new level.

There are several other stops along De Zengotita’s scale: “staged real” such as weddings and talk shows, and “edited real real” like documentaries and candid photographs.

At the top of the scale is “real real.” That’s the experience we’re all after – at least I’d like to think it’s what I’m after. However, according to de Zengotita, we live in a “world of effects,” and the possibility of “real real” is almost zero. He refers to “precious accidents” as the only way we’re likely to experience true authenticity. We’re all faking it, to one degree or another, except when accidents happen.

I don’t agree completely with de Zengotita’s view, but he got me thinking when I read his book, and his ideas came rushing to my mind as I watched the video of Osama Bin Laden watching the video of Osama Bin Laden.

You see, as much as I despised everything that bin Laden stood for, I was intrigued by the thought of him on horseback in the unforgiving terrain of the white mountains, hiding out in the Tora Bora caverns and evading the most sophisticated weapons and surveillance systems known to man. A similar story had occurred ten years earlier in the U.S., where Eric Rudolph evaded federal and state authorities by hiding out in the Appalachian mountains. Guilty of terroristic bombing of a number of abortion clinics, as well as the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, and responsible for at least two deaths, Rudolph nevertheless developed quite a cult following as the mountain man too cunning for the slick government officials to track down.

Both images have a very Jeremiah Johnsonish feel to them. Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m glad both of those thugs got caught, but the image is a compelling one, engrained in our cultural imagination. The fanatic rejecting the trappings of modern life, whether bin Laden, Rudolph, the Unabomber, Christopher McCandless, or Thoreau seems to embody authenticity. If no one else is really real, surely these guys are.

And so, seeing bin Laden laboring under the postmodern burden of image management was shocking. Surely he was exempt from such concerns. I mean, isn’t it hard to imagine bin Laden seeing pictures of himself on his wife’s Facebook page and saying “please delete that – I look so old”? Just seeing him point the remote control toward the TV seemed incongruous.

It’s one of those moments that occur with increasing regularity these days: James Frey is exposed as a liar, Jimmy Swaggart is caught soliciting prostitutes, Bear Grylles is discovered retiring to five star hotels at nightfall, and humanitarian Greg Mortenson turns out to be, at the very least, a serial exaggerator.

Surely somebody out there lives his or her life completely unselfconsciously. Surely somebody is the real deal. Surely authenticity is possible outside of accidental moments. In my search for the real thing, I know I can always turn to the very young and the very old. Though the age of image management seems to be getting younger and younger, small children still keep things bona fide with their bluntness, their ability to be “in the moment,” and their constant state of discovery. When my oldest son was four years old, a woman in the grocery store with thick, bright make-up smiled at him and said “hello there,” and he replied “hi clown.” My youngest son, around the same age, in the same grocery store, once whispered way too loud to my wife as they scooched over to let a rather large woman by “oh my gosh, mommy, that lady’s really FAT!” If you’re a parent, you’ve most likely had similar experiences.

Similarly, old folks oftentimes lose their inhibitions along with their strength, leading to some entertaining conversations. Just last Christmas, my 85 year old father started telling my teenage sons stories about WWII – particularly ports of call in exotic places at the end of the war. He told of stepping off his ship in Singapore and being met by Tai women offering certain favors for one dollar or the full treatment for two dollars. Trust me, I never heard that story when I was a kid. My son’s mouths were wide open. My mother stepped in and cut him off before he did irreparable harm to her precious grandchildren.

In between the very young and very old lie the rest of us, accepting or rejecting friend requests from people we don’t know or haven’t seen for years, tagging or untagging photos that make us look thin or fat, texting, tweeting, photo-shopping, googling our name, or our address, or our old girlfriend or boyfriend’s address, updating our status, upgrading our phones, blah, blah, blah.

And there is Bin Laden, sitting in his million dollar compound in his middle class neighborhood, aiming his remote control at the image of himself on the TV screen. Who would have thought the pre-modern warrior bin Laden would be added to the long list of postmodern pretenders? You can’t even trust the bad guys these days.


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One Comment
  1. Greg, I always appreciate your way of seeing things. I’m reading Walker Percy’s “Lost in the Cosmos” right now, wondering how he might comment on this piece. Surely something about the unknown self and semiotics gone awry would be appropriate. Thanks for the encouragment to be real. (And, yes, I am aware that other people may read this comment, and yes, I wonder what their image of me may be!)

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