March 8-10 2002, University of California Santa Barbara
Film Studies and History, UC/Irvine
(all rights reserved)[Abstract]
In the globally networked world, strange, unexpected and sometimes amusing events occur. I shall analyze one such happening with the purpose of understanding how the global communication system affects national cultures. It is my hypothesis that the current state of globalization, of which the Internet is a major component, imposes a new and heightened level of interaction between cultures. This interactivity changes each culture in many ways, one of which I highlight: the degree of autonomy of each culture is significantly reduced as a consequence of the global information network. On the one hand, all attempts to sustain such autonomy tend to become retrograde and dangerous. Local beliefs, values, and practices can no longer be held as absolute or as exclusive, at the expense of others. On the other hand, a new opportunity arises for a practical definition and articulation of global, human or better posthuman culture. In short, henceforth, the local is relative and the global may become universal. This universal, unlike earlier attempts to define it or impose it, will be differential, will consist of a heterogeneity of glocal fragments.
Although there are significant economic and demographic components of the new level of global interactivity, I address the issue of the flow of cultural objects within cyberspace. New media contribute greatly to the quantity and quality of the planetary transmission of cultural objects. Cultural objects – texts, sounds and images – posted to the Internet exist in a digital domain that is everywhere at once. These objects are disembedded from their point of origin or production, entering immediately into a space that has no particular territorial inscription. As a result, the Internet constitutes distributed culture, a heteroglossia that is commensurate with the earth. Cultural objects in new media are thus disjunct from their society. They are intelligible only through the medium in which they subsist. Cultural objects in cyberspace elicit a new hermeneutic, one that underscores the agency of the media, rendering defunct figures of the subject from all societies in which it persists and persisted in a position separate from objects.
For the Internet enables planetary transmissions of cultural objects (text, images and sound) to cross cultural boundaries with little “noise.” Communications now transpire with digital accuracy. The dream of the communications engineer is realized as information flows without interference from any point on the earth to any other point or points. Cybernetic theory is fulfilled: both machines and the human body act on the environment through “the accurate reproduction” of information or signals, in an endless feedback loop that adjusts for changes and unexpected events. (Wiener) And yet, as Derrida argues in Postcard things are not so simple. (Derrida) All the bits and bytes are there alright but the message does not always come across or get decoded. Misunderstandings abound in our new global culture, sometimes in quite pointed ways. This article is about one such miscommunication. It concerns a perfect transmission of an image half way around the globe that somehow went awry. Indeed one may argue that the global network, with its instantaneous, exact communications, produces systematically the effect of misrecognition as information objects are transported across cultural boundaries. Global communications, one might say, signifies transcultural confusion. At the same, the network creates conditions of intercultural exchange that render politically noxious any culture which cannot decode the messages of others, which insists that only its transmissions have meaning or are significant. As never before, we must begin to interpret culture as a multiple cacophonies of inscribed meanings as each cultural object moves between cultural differences. Let us look at one instance of the issue that I have in mind.
The second week of October 2001 was eventful with the onset of U.S. and British bombing in Afghanistan. Like many Americans I listened intently to reports of the war and to analyses by informed commentators and academics. On Friday of that week, a few days after the start of the bombing, I heard, on a National Public Radio broadcast, one expert on Middle Eastern cultures explain to the interviewer and audience that among the many aspects of American society that antagonize Islamic fundamentalists the worst is American popular culture. Even more than American support for Israel or the American led embargo of Iraq, the enemy, in the eyes of these Muslims, is, of all things, American popular culture. With some surprise, I filed this bit of knowledge somewhere in my brain’s database and continued my ride home.
Much could be said about American popular culture in the age of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call “the Empire.” (Hardt and Negri) Here I need only note that a peculiarity of many Americans is the emotional fixation they often develop for figures in popular culture, not simply for acknowledged celebrities but for all manner of objects: clothing, food, animated figures, music, television shows, and so forth. Americans obsess about selected aspects of popular culture. One such American is Dino Ignacio who had an extraordinary dislike for Bert, a muppet on public television’s longstanding children’s show, Sesame Street. For Mr. Ignacio, Bert was evil. To satisfy his obsession, Ignacio created a Web page entitled “Bert is Evil.” Here with the aid of a Web browser one finds Ignacio’s “evidence” of the muppet’s alleged misdeeds. Among this evidence is a series of images that Ignacio thinks prove the point: Bert is pictured with Hitler, with the KKK, with Osama bin Laden, [see Figure 1] and with a long list of other evil-doers.
. Figure 1: Bert & Osama from Evil Bert Web Page
Bert’s crimes are thus detailed with fastidious and unrelenting hostile energy. Perhaps Ignacio has too much time on his hands but in any case his Web design is characteristic of the commitment of many Americans to their peculiar, fetishistic attachments to popular culture figures. An understanding of this aspect of popular culture in the United States is essential to appreciate what follows.
On Sunday, October 14th, a friend emailed me with an urgent message to look at the New York Times for an incredible story about a protest in Bangladesh on October 8th against American bombing in Afghanistan. The story he referred to by Amy Harmon, one of my favorite journalists writing on new media, included a picture of the protestors in Bangladesh carrying a poster of bin Laden that was an attractive collage composed of several images of him along with a tiny picture of Bert the Sesame Street muppet sitting on his left shoulder and staring smugly. [Figure 2]
Figure 2: Image from NY Times Article
Another photograph that I found on the Web indicates more clearly the face of
evil Bert. [see Figure 3]
Figure 3: Bert is Highlighted
Bert is in the highlighted circle, grimacing at the viewer more fiercely than Osama. How was it possible for Bert to get into the scene in Bangladesh? Amy Harmon could not explain the inclusion of Bert in the poster but there he was for all the world, and especially protesting Islamic militants, to see. Perhaps he truly was evil, living up to Ignacio’s image of him, siding with the Al Qaeda terrorists.
I was fascinated by Harmon’s story and the accompanying photograph. Out of curiosity I searched the Web for more information about Bert’s remarkable presence in Bangladesh. A simple image search for “evil Bert” in Google yielded the following photographs [see Figures 4-7] that confirm the one reproduced in the New York Times’ article. They are also significant to understand more of the story.
Figure 4: Photo from Protest in Bangladesh
Figure 5: Another Photograph
Figure 6: A Longer Shot Showing English Banner
Figure 7: Poster Indicates Evil Bert Image in Collage
This last photograph [see Figure 7] yields the best information about how evil Bert managed to appear in the poster. It shows that the image of Bert in the poster is taken from Ignacio’s web page. The image on the Evil Bert page has simply been set into a collage of images of Bin Laden. There are eight images of Bin Laden in the poster, including one from the Evil Bert page. In fact the image of Bin Laden that Ignacio combined with one of Bert is the same one that is positioned centrally in the poster.
When I began to relate the story of Bert’s appearance in a pro-Taliban demonstration to colleagues and students at UCI, I encountered another strange twist: about half the people to whom I showed the New York Times story and photo concluded that it indicated a sophisticated knowledge of American pop culture by the Bangladesh militants. They appropriated, as cultural studies scholars would say, the nasty image of Bert and shoved it into the face of Westerners as if to say, if you think Osama is evil, we’ll take evil Bert on our side and use him against you. Another 25% of my respondents simply did not believe the photo at all. In the age of digital images, they surmised the photo was doctored: someone in the West had added the figure of Bert to the photo that appeared in the New York Times. Evil Bert, they concluded, never appeared in the protest in Bangladesh. The rest of my respondents accepted the image at face value and were utterly at sea to explain it.
I next went online again to pursue the discussion. I found a flurry of comments about the photo. Some Scandinavian newspapers were convinced it was a hoax. Others assumed the protesters in Bangladesh, unlike their Taliban compatriots, watched American television and were avid Sesame Street fans. The photo produced a variety of misunderstandings by Westerners of Bangladesh culture. The Babel-like confusion of cultural tongues only heightened with the transmission of more and more information from across the globe.
Meanwhile Mr. Ignacio must not be left out of the picture, so to speak. For he also became a victim of information overload. His reaction to the New York Times story was guilt. He very quickly took down the Evil Bert Web page and posted in its place an apology. He concluded that somehow his Web page abetted terrorism. On his “apology” Web site he stated his remorse, admitting that “reality” had intruded into his fantasy. In his words, “…this has gotten too close to reality…” (Ignacio) Suddenly his obsession with Bert decathected and left him, shorn of his libidinal outlets, staring fixedly at his own super-ego induced guilt. With a global audience presumably shocked and angered at his Web design, Ignacio now suffered from the burst bubble of his fetish.
But that was not the end of his woes. The Internet does not forget so easily the “crimes” of its producers. What Ignacio wanted to hide would not disappear. For other Web authors, admiring his work, created mirror sites. Indeed at least nine of them were up and running at one point shortly after October 14th, all displaying boldly the full variety of Evil Bert’s deeds and photographic evidence for them, including the controversial image of Bert with Osama bin Laden. The emergence of the mirror sites complicates the cultural confusion, subverting the power of authors to control their work in yet another manner. Not only did the anti-American militants of Bangladesh unknowingly and without authorization appropriate Evil Bert, but other Americans, admiring the handicraft of Ignacio, perpetuated his work for their own ends.
For their part, the producers of Sesame Street were also not amused by the perfect transmission of the image of Bert. They are quoted in a CNN report with the following response to the event: “Sesame Street has always stood for mutual respect and understanding. We’re outraged that our characters would be used in this unfortunate and distasteful manner. This is not humorous.”(CNN)
How did the image get on that poster in Bangladesh? The answer is simpler in one sense and more complex in another than the views and imaginings of my respondents, as I reported above. A journalist discovered finally who made the poster, telephoned the company, and unraveled at least part of the mystery. A local graphics company in Bangladesh was hired by the militants to produce a poster for the demonstration. It had to be done quickly because the protest was planned for the day after the bombing commenced in Afghanistan. In these circumstances, the company did what anyone today would do. They went on the Web, did an image search for Osama bin Laden, and presto, downloaded a number of them, including, we must note, the image from the Evil Bert Web page. They also put out a request to friends who emailed images to them as attachments. The representative of the graphics company admitted outright that the employees did not notice Bert when they put together several images of bin Laden for the poster. Here, incredible as it might seem to some, is the report on the Urban Legends Web page: “Mostafa Kamal, the production manager of Azad Products, the Dhaka shop that made the posters, told the AP he had gotten the images off the Internet. `We did not give the pictures a second look or realize what they signified until you pointed it out to us,’ he said.”(Mikkelson and Mikkelson) It was as simple as that: the transmission of Bert’s image went completely unnoticed in the culture of Bangladesh. Invisibly to the militants of Bangladesh, Bert snuck into the poster where he was indeed noticed by Western journalists covering the story of the protest.
It could be that the poster company representative lied to the Western journalist, perhaps not wanting to take responsibility for the inclusion of Bert in the poster. Perhaps the company representative did not have accurate information about the image of Bert. Perhaps the company intentionally put Bert in the poster as a joke or as an ironic comment either to the West or to the protesters. Even if any of these possibilities were true, the fact remains that the protestors themselves appear not to have noticed the image of Bert and are certainly not likely to recognize his image from the Sesame Street program. The photos of the demonstration indeed show some banners in English. Even the notorious photo in the New York Times has a caption with bin Laden’s name in Roman alphabet. At least some of the demonstrators were aware of Western media coverage of the event and were interested in getting a message to the West about who they supported and what they wanted to happen.
Nonetheless the circuit of transmission was closed. We may conclude that in all likelihood the protestors in Bangladesh did not see the image of Bert. From Ignacio’s anti-cult Web site to the anti-American pop culture protest half way around the world, and back again to the West in the medium of print journalism, evil Bert’s digital bytes circumnavigated the globe in a series of misrecognitions, perfect transmissions, confusions, blends of politics and culture that surely speaks much of our current global culture.
The conditions of global cultural transmissions in the case of Bert Laden initiate many changes in communications practices in all societies. The Internet imposes everywhere new challenges and offers new opportunities. The political consequences of the response to the Internet are serious indeed. Just as the mixing of peoples within a nation renders especially noxious parochial ethnic and racial attitudes, so the mixing of cultural objects in the Internet compels each culture to acknowledge the validity, if not the moral value, of such objects that may be alien and other. With Bert Laden, the stakes are especially high in the context of the war between Al Qaeda and the American led coalition.
Mass communications scholars tell us that the failure of recognition of Bert by the Bangladesh protesters is a case of “aberrant decoding.” (Fiske and Hartley, p. 81) They failed to interpret correctly the image of Bert and Osama. This omission was however highly motivated. The protesters cherished a pre-existing hostility toward American popular culture, even though they inadvertently displayed one of its minor icons in their demonstration. Their hostility to U.S. popular culture, like that of other fundamentalist Islamic groups, derives from a wish to maintain the autochthony of their own beliefs and values. They wish to insulate themselves against American popular culture, viewing it as a potent threat to their own way of life perhaps in part because of its popularity with other Muslims or Middle Easterners. Yet exactly this effort at insulation proved impossible in the instance at hand.
In another example of parochial attitudes, a highly respected Middle Eastern journalist, Ali Asadullah, reported in an Islamic online newspaper about the problem with American and in this case Western culture. In an article entitled “Spice Girls: Exactly the Reason Why Bin Laden Hates the West,”(Asadullah) Asadullah reported that a former Spice Girl, Geri Haliwell, on October 6th, one day before the bombing began in Afghanistan, entertained British Troops in Oman. For this respected Muslim journalist, that was all the proof needed to explain, and indeed to justify, disdain by some of Islamic faith for U.S. and British society. “…the core causes for terrorist rage and aggression against the United States,” he wrote, was “the Spice Girls,” not “hatred of freedom, liberty and democracy…” Muslims, he continued, “want their cultures, traditions and religious and societal standards to be respected.”
I argue this is exactly the logic that no longer works. With globally networked digital communications, one must be especially careful in taking as an offence the legitimate cultural practices of another even if they are on one’s soil. I will not make any invidious comparisons of the practices of the Taliban with regard to women to those of the British, but you can imagine easily where my sentiments lie given my cultural context. Because cultural objects circulate everywhere, there is no longer any local soil on the earth. Moral outrage directed at the cultural practices of others, especially toward those that do no physical harm, today becomes particularly obnoxious. Journalists and intellectuals such as Asadullah, with his smug air of moral repugnance at Western popular culture, do much harm in justifying the sentiments from which arose the hideous murders of September 11th.
What is more, the luxury of such a moral claim, inspired in this and many other cases not by any means limited to the world of Islam, is often grounded in versions of monotheism. It may be that in the present context the collective human intelligence embodied in the Internet is set in a deep cultural opposition to parochialism in general and to versions of monotheism in particular that refuse the condition of cultural pluralism. The one and only God will have to make way for many one and only Gods. If that is the case, then the Bert Laden incident is more than an amusing series of cross-cultural confusions but an allegory of changes in contemporary culture, conditions rife with profound political implications.
The main interest of my intervention is not, however, to renew a theological critique. Rather my purpose is to raise the questions of the general role of media in culture and the particular role of new media. Transmission may now, in the digital domain, be both noiseless and incoherent. Interpretive practices must accordingly recalibrate themselves to the conditions of planetary culture. Research about any cultural object in cyberspace entails an infinite series of interpretive acts. Translation is now a central dimension of any cultural study. Texts, images, and sounds now travel at the speed of electrons and may be altered at any point along their course. They are as fluid as water and simultaneously present everywhere. They mock the presuppositions of all previous hermeneutics and the subject positions associated with them. They require a discipline of study unlike any that has subsisted in academic institutions. From this vantage point, Evil Burt, the emblem I have selected to designate cyber-culture, is indeed a trouble-maker.
Asadullah, Ali. Spice Girls: Exactly the Reason Why Bin Laden Hates the West. October 9, 2001 2001. Available: http://www.islamonline.net/English/ArtCulture/2001/10/article4.shtml. December 10 2001.
CNN. 'Muppet' Producers Miffed over Bert-Bin Laden Image. October 11, 2001 2001. Available: http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/10/11/muppets.bindladen/. December 10 2001.
Derrida, Jacques. The Post Card : From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Fiske, John, and John Hartley. Reading Television. London: Methuen, 1978.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Ignacio, Dino. Good Bye Bert. 2001. Available: http://www.fractalcow.com/bert/bert.htm. December 10 2001.
Mikkelson, Barbara, and David Mikkelson. Bert Is Evil! October 12, 2001 2001. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Available: http://www.snopes.com/rumors/bert.htm. December 10 2001.
Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. New York: Doubleday, 1950.
 Ignacio, according to one report, denied he included this image on his page, claiming it appeared only on mirror sites. See the discussion at http:/www.fractalcow.com.
 See the Web page of Nikke Lindqvist at Nikke Lindqvist, Mystery Solved?, November 22, 2001 2001, Nikke Lindqvist, Available: http://www.lindqvist.com/art.php?incl=brt.php&lang=eng, December 10 2001.http://www.lindqvist.com/art.php?incl=bert.php&lang=eng for comprehensive documents relating to the incident.
 For those still skeptical about the incident, a similar event might be helpful. A reporter for the BBC in Kabul submitted a story about documents found in a Taliban redoubt left behind by retreating al-Qaeda forces. This document, also downloaded from the Internet, purported and to the reporter’s chagrin outlined instructions for making a thermonuclear device. It turns out however that the instructions were a hoax from a humor newsletter entitled Annals of Improbable Research, humor that was lost not only on the Taliban and al-Qaeda but also on the BBC reporter. See http://www.dailyrotten.com/archive/159929.html.
Daily Rotten, Taliban Thwarted by Irreproducible Result, November 16, 2001. Available: http://www.dailyrotten.com/archive/159929.html, December 10 2001.