Propaganda Non Grata
A few months ago, my best friend and I were returning to New York from a short, beautiful, and much-needed vacation. On the train ride back from Newark Liberty International airport, in the delirium of trying to preserve the last moments of our trip, I was filming her, us, and our surroundings. The above image is a screengrab from a moment in the video where I am perplexed by a flyer hung up in the train car – the video silently hovers on this image for a few seconds, and then I am heard saying in casual defeat, “I don’t understand, but okay.”
It was only later that it dawned on me that this flyer, paid for (in fine print) by the Department of Homeland Security, was the Port Authority of NY and NJ’s latest iteration of “if you see something, say something” — the ad had meant to position Officer Greg Elkin and Jason as equally responsible and equally effective agents in the (implied) “fight against terrorism”.
In what world is a heavily-armed Port Authority Police officer equivalent to a Jason? I haven’t thought about this ad in a long time – but it came back to me when I encountered Foucault’s writing on tabulae of organization – the frameworks within which the ordering of “words and things” is made possible. What tabula, what framework is it that has made possible the absurd juxtaposition of a practically-military personnel and an average-Jason civilian? What mechanisms are at work that make this image and the comparison it contains assumed to be instantly legible to the public?
History attests to the fact that the uniting power of paranoia is not to be made light of. Creating a public atmosphere of suspicion is as easy as disseminating this image. By depicting an agent of the police state alongside a presumably “standard” civilian (a middle-aged white man), the Port Authority implicates its audience (who?) in the surveillance of other civilians. This fear-thy-neighbor atmosphere is what makes possible the proposed equivalence of guns-and-gear-and-government-salary Greg Elkin and eyes-and-ears-and-cell-phone Jason. And if the conditions, or the context, by which this juxtaposition is made legible didn’t exist, one would, in viewing this image, have to imagine – to extrapolate – a context into existence, in order to understand what the Port Authority is trying to communicate. Through this act of imaginative effort, the context necessarily becomes real.
It took me time to understand the ad because I am not its primary audience. I am foreign to the tactics the state employs in mobilizing (and normalizing) fearful sentiment, since I am more aligned with those being watched than those doing the watching. It seems quite amazing that this kind of commonplace propaganda, created through a simple act of pairing, is able to exist for the most part unquestioned. But:
“… startling though their propinquity may be, it is nevertheless warranted by that and, by that in, by that on whose solidity provides proof of the possibility of juxtaposition.”
In today’s world of perverse juxtapositions, we are living inside this solid and, this in, this on. If we are to stay vigilant of something, it’s of that fact.
Foucault, Michel. “Preface”, in The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences. Rutledge, 2002, p. xvii