Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cormac Deane: The Embedded Screen and the State of Exception: Counterterrorist Narratives and the War on Terror

(I came across this essay as I was researching into the process and effects of "framing" knowledge for my students who are wrestling with ideological positions [their own and their sources] in their history projects. This was a pleasant surprise in that it demonstrates how "form" is just as important as [and complementary of] content. The essay also engages Slavoj Zizek's conception of the performative clustering effect of ideological keywords, Giorgio Agamben's analysis of the concept of the "state of exception," and how power is asserted and expressed through rhetorical-paradigms. This is a initial insight that should be explored...)

The Embedded Screen and the State of Exception: Counterterrorist Narratives and the War on Terror
by Cormac Deane
Refractory (Melbourne University, Australia)

Abstract: The embedded screen is a key feature of contemporary film and television texts featuring ‘terrorism’. Recurring chronotopes in these narratives, such as the control room and television news programmes, present us with frames within frames that have two complementary functions. First, embedded frames enact circular modes of logic, such as tautology and autology, which are crucial in the creation of a coherent notion of ‘terrorism’. Second, embedded frames are the screen-manifestation of the legal concept of the state of exception, which must be invoked so that the forces of law and order can take extraordinary measures in the face of a ‘terrorist’ threat. The rhetoric of interiority/exteriority that is enunciated by the frame within a frame reflects and constitutes sovereignty’s reliance on the notion of the state of exception in order to establish and consolidate itself. Just as, following Giorgio Agamben and others, the state of exception is at the heart of the power of the state, so is the embedded frame at the heart of the depiction of power in contemporary narratives. This analysis is based primarily on the television series 24 and on films based on novels by Tom Clancy.

This article proposes a political reading of certain aesthetic tendencies in contemporary action thrillers about “terrorism”. In particular, I examine the embedded screen, where the frame of one screen is enclosed within the frame of an outer screen. This is a prominent device in highly technologized thriller narratives concerning the pursuit of “terrorists” by counterterrorist agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Patriot Games (Phillip Noyce, 1992) or the Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) in the television series 24 (Fox Network 2001-). I propose that the rhetorical effect of the embedded screen as it appears in these narratives is to establish a political norm, thereby sanctioning certain political acts. It does this by indicating that, in contrast to the full screen, an embedded zone exists in a state of exception. This embedded screen offers us a manifestation, therefore, of the political situation where sovereignty or political authority is established and consolidated in the act of declaring a state of exception (also known, depending on the jurisdiction and circumstances, as martial law, state of emergency, state of siege, etc.). The description of certain types of violence (such as “terrorism”) as deserving special treatment by the forces of law and order is familiar both in the real world (as in the contemporary “War on Terror”) and in screen narratives concerning “terrorism”. In the following, several political science concepts are introduced in some detail before the film/television analysis proper, which attempts to show how these concepts are manifested in Patriot Games, 24 and other narratives.


At its simplest, “embeddedness” is the appearance of one image inside the frame of another. There does not necessarily have to be a similarity between the two images for us to use the term, though it is often the case that there is a resemblance of type, proportion or dimension. Where there is a distinct similarity between the two images in question, we usually speak of mise en abyme, which refers originally to an element of a heraldic device which is itself a facsimile of the entire device in which it is embedded. When applied in non-heraldic contexts such as painting (e.g. Velázquez’ Las Meninas) or film, the peculiar power of this type of embeddedness is realised by extrapolating its logic on either an increasing or a decreasing scale, or on both scales simultaneously. For example, if an image contains itself in miniature, then the smaller version must also contain that image, which in turn must also contain the image, and so on – a process of extrapolation that can have dizzying consequences (abyme means “abyss”). The same effect is achieved if a given image is regarded as already being part of a greater whole, which can be perceived only by zooming out, so to speak.

In 24 , there are multiple instances of screens embedded in the screen that we are watching. The key characteristic of 24 is simultaneity; the countdown of the clock of each episode is supposed to correspond with the passage of time as experienced by the viewer. Several narrative strands run simultaneously throughout each episode, but the links between the various plot lines are not achieved by standard parallel editing, such as that developed in The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915), where the audience is presented with alternating scenes from separate fields of action, such as the chasing posse and the pursued man. Rather, 24 accentuates the simultaneity effect by tiling the screen with two or more of the various fields of action that are currently in play. The tiling effect is reminiscent of the manipulation of windows on a computer screen-desktop and is therefore in keeping with the highly-technologized aesthetic of the show; in this way the television screen suggests that it may be more than the one-way medium it is conventionally taken to be, intimating instead the interactive possibilities of computers and of digital television.[1]

I suggest that in relation to scenes such as that illustrated below, the term “embeddedness” is more useful than the commonly used phrase “split-screen” because it describes both how the screen has been split and how any given image can also contain further framed screens within itself (as is the case at top left). Regarding all of the various frames in this image as instances of embeddedness emphasises the fact that what we usually regard simply as split-screen is in fact the emplacement of multiple frames inside the main frame of the primary screen. This emphasis draws attention more effectively, in my opinion, to the fact that the establishment of any frame both sets the ground for an act of enunciation to be made and is itself an enunciation. The importance of this will become more apparent later when we examine the political theory that argues that power establishes itself through acts of decisive enunciation.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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