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A new letter from the Director of the Centre for International Security Studies

14 August, 2013

Professor James Der Derian, Director of the Centre for International Security Studies, reflects on the importance of media as an essential component of war studies in this new Director's Letter.

At the tail end of a trip that took me from Sydney to Boston to Washington to New York and now back to Sydney, I considered a more apposite name for communiqués written over vast stretches of water. ‘Trans-Pacific Transmission’? Too Kraftwerk. ‘Trans-Oceanic Missive?’. Too dangerously ‘Lost’. My search for a better title was prompted by a new-found appreciation for the distances one must traverse to reach Australia (the monitor says we have now traveled 10,860 kilometres), the time mysteriously lost and then re-gained as one passes through the meridians, and most rewardingly the hours of isolation to reflect, write, and watch a few trashy Hollywood films.

Whether or not the oceanic distances provide Australia a postcolonial exceptionalism from the game of nations is an ongoing debate. The new maritime policy presented by Australian Defense Chief General Hurley suggests a move in this direction (see Director’s Letter #2).  But with the twist of fiber optics -  as well as with the panoptic of satellite systems (with Australians footing the $927 million bill for the recent launch of the sixth of the Wideband Global Satellites) – time is speeding up and distance is collapsing through interlocking military, intelligence, and civilian networks. 

As a lifelong enthusiast and early adapter of technology (starting with the Heathkit radio put together as a kid), I am not inclined to Luddite sentiments for a golden era that somehow disappeared with the advent of new forms of connectivity that supersede in speed and bandwidth all earlier ones. On this trip, however, I was struck by how local cultures respond differently to networked connectivity. From our arrival in Sydney, my wife and I had noticed how people in the city (for the most part) read, talk, or just eat in the restaurants and cafes. The difference hit home during my stops to DC and NYC, where I saw so many faces bowed before or illuminated by the screens holy light.

War Photography Exhibition

These reflections on space and time were amplified by two remarkable photographic exhibitions on war that I visited while in DC and NYC. The first, ‘Photography and the American Civil War’ at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, featured over 200 images.  Some were iconic, taken by Barnard, Gardner and Brady’s field team of photographers; many were private, purchased by soldiers and families taking advantage of cheaper costs and keen to preserve a facsimile of life in the face of death. The second, ‘War Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, showing at the Corcoran Gallery Art in DC, collects the best of war photography from 1846-2012. However, the show is arranged not by chronology but the natural progression of war, from strategy and conscription to training and preparation to battle and aftermath throughout the age of photography.  Technology and time frame the narrative of the images. Requiring a 3-7 second exposure to fix an image, Civil War photographs are frozen in time and often more apt to convey a mood of melancholy than of violence, even the especially poignant ones taken in the field hospital of egregious wounds and amputated limbs in a heap, awaiting disposal. In contrast to the sepia tones and static scenes of the Civil War, high-speed shutters and color film capture the chaos and terror of the moment, of a shell-burst, a bullet kicking up dirt in front of a Marine, a body falling (pushed?) from a helicopter. 


These are important exhibitions. Each image was worth a thousand words of security discourse. They help remind us that as the reproduction of war through sound, video and advanced computer graphic achieves new levels of verisimilitude that the most authentic representation of war is not necessarily the most truthful one. Civil war photographers rearranged dead bodies to produce a more powerful vignette of the battlefield. Images of war, from the Greek vase to Adobe Photoshop, have been stylized or manipulated in the name of patriotism, security, and yes, art. 

All good reasons to combine media studies with war studies – and for CISS to initiate ‘Infosecurity’ as one of its four research programs.   Set up to investigate the global impact of interconnectivity, the Infosecurity program focuses on ‘quantum effects’, the new precariousness of world politics produced by media-magnified conditions of complexity, volatility, and uncertainty. Which is why we are especially pleased to have Nik Gowing, with over three decades of experience in international security as the main presenter for BBC World News, kick-off our CISS Speaker Series.  His talk is titled 'Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: Who Controls Shifting Information Power in Crises?' Come join is for what is sure to be an illuminating and provocative presentation. For further details, visit the event page here

James Der Derian, Michael Hintze Chair of International Security Studies



Contact:Raelene Loong
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